Scars & Souvenirs

twenty-nine

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To her surprise, Max is left alone over the next week. She goes to the support group on Friday, as she has done for the last two weeks, but beyond that, there is no in-person socialisation. Niall doesn’t knock on her door. Nikki doesn’t call or text again.

Max is completely and truly on her own.

She forces herself into a routine: After waking from nightmares by seven, Max brews coffee then settles down in front of her laptop to edit. Her lunch hour is spent listening to Dashboard Confessional’s discography. She even emails Hank - her apology and promise to pay the hospital bill are evidently appreciated but unnecessary.

I put you on my insurance for a reason, Makenzie. Having something to hold over your head isn’t it. Just take care of yourself, kid.

The silence becomes too much to bear late Monday afternoon, so she decides to call her parents. She can do that now. Max wants to avoid talking about herself, about Niall and Nikki and the others. Pain still wraps itself around her heart like a blanket, and even thinking of her friends - especially Niall - only rips the wound open further. Katherine, unfortunately, won’t follow the script that Max so carefully planned.

“It’s quiet there. Your friend still at work?”

Max’s chest tightens, and she clears her throat quietly. “I don’t know. I, um, I moved back into my own flat.”

“Did you two get into a fight?” Her mother gasps. “Tell me he didn’t kick you out.”

“No, Niall didn’t kick me out, and we didn’t get into a fight. It was my choice. I just felt it was time to live on my own again.”

Her mother pauses; Max can almost hear her thoughts fitting into place. “Kenz, is everything okay? You sound…sad.”

“I’m scared,” Max admits after a pregnant pause. Her voice wobbles and cracks, but her mom doesn’t interrupt. “I think I could love him, and I’m terrified of that. Look at what happened the last time I loved someone. I… I don’t trust myself anymore, Mom.”

Katherine is quiet for a long minute. Max imagines the expression on her mother’s face - thin lips pressed tightly together, the deep peachy-pink of her lipstick making them look even smaller in her narrow face, and her brows furrowed over green eyes darkened with concern. When she speaks again, her voice is soft. So achingly familiar. Max remembers hearing that exact tone when she was ill as a child.

“Honey, you can’t let yourself think that way. Gabriel turned out the way he did, yes, but not everybody will hurt you like he did.”

“I’m not saying Niall will.”

“Then why not give him a chance, baby? This is going to sound awful, I know, but hear me out. If, and I mean if, if it comes to the worst, you have your dad and me to help you through. You can always come home. Okay?”

“Yeah. Okay. Thanks, Mom.”

“Promise me, Kenzie. Promise that you’ll have more faith in yourself. Trust that you can make the right choices. And…” Katherine sighs. “Consider letting Niall in. He could be good for you.”

Max promises but knows she won’t follow through. Her mother is intelligent. One of the smartest people Max knows, really. And she understands a wide variety of topics. This, though, isn’t one of them. Katherine has no intimate knowledge of distrusting not only everyone you meet but yourself, too.

She is incredibly lucky for that.

_____________________


Max stretches her arms over her head, relief flooding into the strained muscles of her back as her spine realigns itself, joints pop back into place. Not having an actual table to use for work has been its own version of Hell, but she hasn’t quite gathered up the courage to leave the flat. There is too high of a risk of running into Niall. Seeing him will only chip away at her willpower.

She can’t run back to him.

She won’t run back to him.

Her screen lights up with a notification. Your package has been delivered. Max rolls her eyes even as she clambers stiffly to her feet. She’s been waiting nearly a week for this parcel - each delivery has been pushed back for a myriad of reasons, and she loathes that.

The laptop she’s had for three years has finally decided to stop holding a charge. It has made doing her job almost impossible, even more than not having a table to work at. Now, though, her new computer is here, and she can finally edit while not connected to the wall by a cable. Small mercies and all that.

Her knees crack with the first couple of steps she takes toward the door. Groaning, she stops to stretch again, wincing when the muscles in her thighs burn as she touches her toes. Maybe she should start working on the couch instead of the floor.

Gabriel is gone. Max knows this. Still she has to fight her instincts to hide as she pads to the entry-hall. To stay away from the door and windows. As it is, she reminds herself that living in terror is a thing of the past. She is safe.

Time stands still, the world stops spinning, when she pulls the door open. Instead of the box she expects to see on the floor, she sees impeccable white Vans under fitted grey slacks. Max follows the lines of his body, past the box in his hands and the black button-down stretched across broad shoulders, until she meets Niall’s eyes. The blue is muted, full of something that frightens Max.

He has her parcel. She can’t shut the door in his face, not when he’s holding the package she’s been waiting for. Her hand twitches on the handle anyway. After a moment, she drops her gaze to the floor and steps back. He breezes past her, and she closes the door, leans her forehead against the cold wood.

“You’ve been avoiding us.”

Blowing out a breath, she turns to face him. “’Us’?”

“Yes. Us. Nikki, Harry, Louis, Liam, Zayn… Me. None of us have heard from you since last week, and I know you’ve been home. These walls aren’t particularly thick. It wasn’t hard to come to the conclusion you’ve been avoiding us on purpose.” He shoves his hands into the pockets of his slacks, rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet. “The only question is what that purpose is.”

Max crosses her arms over her chest, shoulders automatically curling forward. Protection she doesn’t need but relies on still. Her mouth opens and closes. She wants to deny that she has been avoiding them - it may be true, but hearing the words reminds her of how pathetic she is. She will never be good enough for these people.

When she finally finds the courage to speak, she surprises even herself: “I don’t even trust myself anymore. And I…I can’t keep doing this.”

Niall’s head snaps back, blue eyes widening, but he doesn’t interrupt. He merely nods for her to continue as he shifts his weight between his feet. Max exhales sharply and cards a hand through her hair. Her thoughts, sensing the opportunity to be voiced, race and twist through her mind. They fight to be the first from her mouth.

“I can’t keep doing this,” she whispers, waving a hand between the two of them. “I can’t act like I’m fine and let myself keep getting close to you lot. I certainly can’t keep relying on you to try to fix me.”

Niall frowns, spluttering, “What? I’m not trying to fix you. That - that doesn’t even make sense.”

“I’m not saying you are!” Max groans, covers her face with her hands. “I’m saying that I’m trying not to let myself expect you two. I should be fixing myself, not leaning so heavily on you for everything. I should be rebuilding myself. Not you.”

“Where the fuck is this coming from, Makenzie? Did I give you the impression that this is how I felt? Because if I did, I’m sorry for that, because it isn’t true.”

“No, you didn’t. But goddamn it, Niall, I need to stop using you.”

“You’re not!”

Max snorts, even as her hands start trembling, her entire body quaking. The confusion on his face breaks her heart. She hates herself for doing this to him. It’s necessary. It’s what is right. She can’t not do it simply to make herself comfortable. A lie by omission is still a lie.

“Yes, Niall, I am. God, you don’t even get it, do you?” Her voice cracks, but the expression on his face is far more broken.

She’ll never be able to fix this. For once, the voice in her head is quiet. It doesn’t tell her to shut up. Every part of her knows that Niall will never forgive her for this, no matter how hard she tries to atone. Her throat clenches, her fingers tighten around the hem of her shirt and tug until the collar digs into the back of her neck.

“I’m using you, Niall. To make myself forget everything I’ve gone through. I’m using you to mend the parts of me that Gabriel broke. I’m using you to have some semblance of-of control over my life, and it isn’t right. It’s not fair to you. You might be using me, too, but what I’ve done, what I’m doing, is far worse than anything you could ever do.”

“What are you talking about?” Niall asks; his voice cuts through the air, sharp as a razor and slicing through her willpower.

This conversation is veering into dangerous territories. Max knows that if she finds out who and what to him Ciara is, she will cave. She will continue stealing comfort and security from him. She will keep hurting him without his knowledge until it’s too late. Then they’ll both be broken more for it. She hates who she is, but there won’t be a day that she could forgive herself if she lets it happen.

“Nothing. Just… please go. I said go!” she repeats louder when he tries to protest, nearly collapsing to her knees.

He stares at her for a long minute then scoffs. Max closes her eyes as he pushes past her to the door. The squeak of the hinges sends a chill down her spine, and she bites down on her lower lip hard enough to draw blood. Her heart stutters in her chest; if life was a cartoon, it would have jumped from her ribs to chase after Niall as he leaves.

But this isn’t a cartoon. This is real life - her life - and she needs to remember that.

“Did you ever think that maybe I don’t mind?”

The door slams shut, echoes in the silence left behind after his question, and she winces at the brokenness in his voice. She’s not stood up for herself like that in so long, but she can’t find the pride beneath the agony. The heartbreak. The shattering of her existence as she manages to do the one thing Gabriel never quite succeeded in doing.

She has taken the fractured pieces of her and stomped them to dust, all in the name of not being hurt further. Max has officially lost who she is, who she ever will be, and she’s severed the last connection she had to a sense of normalcy, of love.

The chain clatters as she tries and tries to set it into its frame. She can’t get it to stay, her hands shake too much for that, so she lets it hang and twists the lock instead. It will have to be enough for now. She can’t waste more time safeguarding herself from a danger that no longer exists in her world.

Besides, the only one who poses a risk to her is herself, and she has just done the worst thing she could fathom.

Settling in front of the box Niall brought in, Max struggles to control her breathing. The fight against the tears is a losing one, so she doesn’t bother with trying. The storm rages in her soul, her heart desperate to take back what she’s done, but the voice in her head tells her did the right thing.

They were all the greatest, brightest things in her new life - especially Niall - and she knew she had to let them go. So she did.

You didn’t deserve him anyway.

It isn’t quite as reassuring as she would have hoped. It’s the only thing she can cling to now.