Scars & Souvenirs

twenty-five

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The evening is spent watching mindless television - for Niall, anyway. Max can’t focus. Her thoughts revolve too wildly around the suspicions, the theory, the absurd idea that Niall could possibly be working toward more than a friendship with her. It’s laughable, really. He has witnessed her at her absolute lowest. He has seen how broken she really is.

Niall is smart, so he will definitely have figured out she is too much effort with no guarantee.

But it also the only conclusion her mind can find logic in.

Niall goes to bed first, yawning widely even as he hesitates by the couch. As if waiting for her. Max forces a smile and promises to come to bed soon, she wants to check her emails first. If he knows she’s lying, he doesn’t mention it. He merely nods with a quirk of his lips, and Max listens to his footsteps disappearing down the hallway, a door closing.

She releases a slow breath, slumping in her seat. He can’t have feelings for her. None that are real, anyway. He knows very little about her. If he was aware of what is in her past, how she willingly participated in a relationship with Gabriel and let the abuse happen, Niall would hate her. He’d find her abhorrent. The kindness he’s given to her would disappear, and Max would be alone like she deserves.

The nightmares come frequently tonight. Max wakes each time, coated in icy sweat and fighting tears. Niall sleeps on, unaffected. Peaceful. And though she wants nothing more than for him to soothe her back to sleep, Max lets him be.

He needs his rest, and she has no right to keep demanding things of him. It isn’t fair. His patience has a limit. She’s terrified of reaching it. She will not allow herself to push that far.

By the time his alarm goes off at six-thirty, Max has spent most of the night awake. She closes her eyes as Niall groans; his foot nudges her calf when he stretches, and he curses quietly, stilling instantly behind her. After a moment, he moves again.

His lips are warm against her shoulder, then he’s gone and taking the calm with him. She waits until the bathroom door shuts behind him, to breathe out shakily and roll onto her back. The ceiling offers no answers, no solutions to the impossible situation.

Max only hopes that Nikki can help.

She manages to avoid any human contact once Niall leaves for work. She can hear the eldest Dubenich kid on the landings, knocking on doors to sell cookies, but Emma doesn’t knock on Niall’s door. Dolly passes by around eight, scolding Sugar with a laugh in her voice.

Nine-fifteen brings the man from upstairs. Max has never met him, but she’s learnt his routine by now: He leaves at midnight, comes home shortly after nine, and stays cooped up in his flat for the rest of the time. He’s the one who listens to opera too loudly.

Nikki is already sat at a table when Max finally steps through the door to the little cafe at eleven. Max had allowed her friend to pick the place, considering it was Nikki’s lunch hour being commandeered. Max smiles politely at the man behind the till then makes her way through the groups of tables, shoes scuffing against dark purple tiles.

An enormous mural catches her attention as she walks - the sunset over a mountain range, black silhouettes of trees and forest animals, and a lone star peeking from the swirls of navy and orange up at the top. Serenity drips from each brush stroke.

Nikki grins tiredly as Max sits in a chair across the table, waving off Max’s concern. “I’m okay, I promise. Stayed up too late last night grading papers.” Yawning, Nikki sets aside the menu in her hands. “I was kinda surprised that you asked to have lunch with me.”

“I’m sorry. I haven’t really been a friend, have I?”

Nikki snorts. “Dude, I teach fourth grade. Any adult presence in my life is welcome, even if it’s sporadic.”

“I think Niall has feelings for me,” Max blurts out, wincing at the abrupt change in topic - the pure selfishness she is showing, instead of truly apologising for the lack of communication with a woman she considers a close friend.

“Okay, I… I wasn’t expecting that. Why do you think he has feelings for you?”

Max stumbles over her words, stuttering and losing her train of thought, as she explains how she reached this conclusion. All the behaviours she can’t simply justify with Niall being an amazing man.

“And I don’t think I’m ready for anything right now, so if he does, I’m just going to disappoint him. How do I tell him that after everything he’s done for me?”

“Oh, honey, there is absolutely nothing to worry about.” Nikki shrugs, sips at her water, and Max watches a bead of condensation slide down the clear blue glass. “I’ll be honest. I’m ninety-nine percent sure he would love to be more than friends with you, but…

“Okay, you know that myth about pit bulls, how when they bite, their jaws lock up, and they won’t release? That’s pretty much who Niall is. When he feels, he feels deeply, and it takes the force of a nuclear bomb for him to lose those feelings. But he’s also the most patient man I’ve ever known, which is why he’s a great teacher.”

“I don’t want him to have ideas of a relationship forming, though. Not when I’m like this,” she pleads, gesturing vaguely toward herself.

The conversation is put on pause as the waitress comes by. Nikki orders a salad, but Max shakes her head. How could she possibly eat right now? Her stomach is threatening to jump from her body and join the circus with its acrobatic routine. Food will only go to waste. Once the waitress is gone, Nikki scrutinises Max closely, her hazel eyes more probing than an X-ray. Her lips twitch.

“Because I am an amazing friend, and because it looks like you’re about to shake out of your skin from anxiety at even the thought of Niall having feelings for you, I’ll talk to him for you. As much as I can, anyway.”

“I- No, Nikki, you don’t have to.”

Nikki snorts and kicks Max’s shin lightly. “Shut up, Zee. I know I don’t, but I wanna. You’ve had a shit hand dealt to you, and if I can make things easier, then I will. You both deserve to be happy, and I think you could make each other happy. Plus, you two are too cute already.”

Max blows out a breath, shifting awkwardly in her seat. Nikki’s offer isn’t what Max was after when she asked to meet for lunch, but she can’t deny that it makes the conundrum easier to handle.

She runs her finger along the side of her glass, letting water droplets pool on her fingertip, and turns the conversation toward Nikki. Her friend slumps and immediately launches into a complaint about a few of her students — “rotten little gremlins who learnt the worst lessons from their rotten parents.”

Thankfully, it is effortless to allow Nikki’s voice to drown out her own fears. The nervousness that looms ever larger in the back of her mind. Max can breathe again. She listens as Nikki talks about the first time she met Louis, how she and Niall became friends, Liam becoming the “dad” of the group though he isn’t much older than the rest of them.

It’s pleasant conversation, and Max’s heart clenches at the fact that it’s taken to long to have this kind of chat - one that isn’t about her pain and the scars, that isn’t about Niall.

The clock hits four, and Max paces around the living room. Niall won’t be home for at least another half-hour, but she can no longer sit still. Has Nikki spoken with him yet? Is he going to avoid coming home, to the flat that Max has all but taken over with her presence?

Blood settles on her tongue, and Max winces when she realises she’s chewed open the inside of her cheek. The coffee she drank after returning from the cafe was a bad choice, her stomach churning the longer she wears a path in the carpet.

It’s nearly six when a key scrapes in the lock. Max lets out a soft squeak before dropping to sit on the couch. She dreads to know what Niall might say if he catches her pacing - she has no answers to the questions she imagines asking.

Her hands lifts of its own, her nail slipping between her teeth. A coping mechanism she hasn’t succumbed to in so long, but she needs the familiarity now.

The door swings open, and Niall steps inside. Framed by the dingy white walls of the landing, he seems larger than life, cleaner and realer than anything else. Max stares at him. He stares back, watching her closely. She needs to hear his voice. She needs him to say something, anything, even if it’s just an order to get out of his home.

His smile is a breath of fresh air. Relief.

“Can I hug you?”

Max blinks. She drops her hand to her lap. “Uh, what?”

“I want to hug you, but only if you’re okay with it.”

Max blinks again. Her mind has gone blank, the confusion too much to comprehend so her thoughts vanish. Eventually, she manages to nod. He drops his bag to the floor, closes the door behind him, and crosses the room to stand before her. It should be terrifying, him towering over her, but she feels nothing of the panic that has become a personality trait.

Niall moves slowly, telegraphing his movements, and Max melts into his arms. He lifts her to her feet and holds her securely against his chest. The fears of the day are gone now, disappearing with the security and comfort. Gabriel, everything she has endured… it all seems so far away right now.

“I don’t expect anything from you,” he murmurs quietly, his hand rubbing gentle circles into her back. “You’ve been through Hell and back, and I refuse to add to it by making demands of you.”

She pulls away, though her entire being screams to stay where she is. His brows furrow as his gaze flickers over her face. Max sighs and sits on the couch, curling her knees under her. Once Niall is beside her, so close that she can feel his warmth, she pushes her hair out of her face and stares at the floor.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay with a relationship. I, uh, I spent years in an awful, abusive marriage. The last thirty months have been full of dealing with the aftermath of what he did to me. I, I don’t want you to feel obligated to wait for me or have hopes that something that might happen in the future if it isn’t a certainty.”

Niall laughs, shaking his head, and links his fingers with hers. “The only things I’m certain about in life are that I’m gonna live while I can. I’m gonna leave this world eventually, probably while doing something stupid, and you, Makenzie, are one helluva woman.”

After a moment, he leans over to kiss her cheek then stands. She watches him move toward his bag, digging his phone out from the bottom, and he meets her eye across the room. The upturn to his lips is gentle, sweet, reassuring.

Max ducks her head and wonders where they go from here. She doesn’t even know where she wants it to go, whether it is a smart idea to even consider getting involved on a grander scale with Niall.

He heads down the hall, calling over his shoulder that he’s ordered pizza, and she settles further into the couch. The discussion went better than she anticipated, but still, she worries that it isn’t quite over. That Niall is going to have questions, wants details. That he is going to realise it’s far too much to ask of him to deal with her issues.

That she will wake up one day to find that he no longer cares for her.

A knocks sounds at the door. Max frowns - there is no way the food is here already. Glancing toward the hall, she pushes to her feet and crosses the room on silent footsteps to peer through the peephole.

No one stands on the other side of the door, so she pulls it open just far enough to see Dolly disappearing into her own flat. Max peels the folded sheet of paper from the door, staring down at her name written on the front.

Inside is an address, tomorrow’s date, and a time. Underneath that, Dolly has written We can go together if you’re ready.