Scars & Souvenirs

thirty-three

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Thomas blinks a few times, clearly taken aback by Max’s first words since she stepped into the room twenty minutes ago. She fidgets with the slinky in her hand, stretches it out and lets it snap back into shape, while he gathers his wits about him. Finally, he gives a quiet cough.

“Could you repeat that?”

Max shrugs and stares at her feet, moving the slinky faster between her hands. “I kissed Niall last night, and I… I liked it. I felt safe. Like everything was going to be okay.”

“And how do you feel now?”

“About what?”

Thomas stifles a smile. “We’ll start with the kiss.”

“It wasn’t much of a kiss,” she admits and shrinks down into the couch at the awkward truthfulness. “But it was nice. He didn’t demand more.”

“What about how safe he made you feel? I mean, you said you’ve always relied on yourself for your safety, and now Niall’s in the picture bringing you the safety you provided on your own.”

This question requires more thought, because Thomas is right. Max learnt not to rely on others for protection, but she’s thrown all the rules away for Niall. She allowed him to burrow under her skin, to become important in her life. She laid everything out for him, and her heart is becoming his, piece by piece. What Gabriel wasn’t, Niall has become. Has been and will be.

Chewing on her bottom lip, she drags her gaze from her shoes to the ocean on the wall. Thomas watches her, unassuming, not pressuring for a response. Her mind races and thoughts scramble over each other. She glances at him then quickly away.

“It’s fucking terrifying. I mean, it isn’t what I expected when I moved to Santa Barbara, y’know? But, um, he trusted me with a secret of his own, and I know from experience how hard that can be.” Sighing, Max presses the toe of her sneaker into the thin carpet. “It makes me feel like we’re on even footing now, kinda. I guess that’s the way to say it.”

“What are you thinking now?” Thomas asks when she doesn’t say more.

“I want to do something for him, but I’m not sure how he’d react.”

He waves a hand, so Max explains what she wants to do. It has the potential to break everything between her and Niall. He’s trusted her. He’s been there for her through everything. If she follows through, she says, she runs the risk of going too far and not being able to come back.

The heating system is on, circulating and filling the room with too much hot air. A thin layer of sweat clings to Max’s skin beneath her sweater - or maybe it’s the panic in her heart that’s overheating her. Now that she’s spoken of her plans, it seems too dangerous. Too much possibility of never keeping what she’s found because she’s broken it. Picking up the pieces of her life again, when it isn’t caused by Gabriel, is a daunting prospect, and she would rather not be forced into the position.

“What am I supposed to do?” she asks; her voice is so tiny, so pleading.

Thomas blows out a breath and pushes his glasses further up his nose. “I can’t tell you what to do, Max, you know that. Besides, you are my client, not Niall. I couldn’t begin to imagine how he would react to something like this. But if you won’t go to him directly, I suggest you reach out to his friends and see what they think.”

“I guess that’s good enough.”

“Gee, thanks. I like my advice being ‘good enough, I guess’.”

Max rolls her eyes, shaking her head. Thomas is too much like her father for her to ever find fear with him. He listens without judgement, and he lets her find her footing while quietly encouraging her. It’s reminiscent of the support she had growing up with Martin. She only hates that she’s gone so long without her father, and she isn’t certain she will ever have the same relationship with him as she used to.

“So we have about five more minutes. Is there anything in particular you want to talk about?”

She sighs and picks at the skin on her lower lip. She’s already said what she wanted to talk about - the kiss and the safety she’s found in Niall. Her plans were a surprise even to her, but Thomas can’t help any more with that. He gave her advice. It’s up to her now whether she takes action.

To: Nikki
<
I want to find Ciara

Nikki doesn’t reply, so Max drops her phone onto the passenger seat and and stares up at the clinic. Thomas had been entirely unhelpful in the decision-making process, but at least his suggestion was something Max can absolutely do. And who better to ask than Nikki, considering how close she is to both Max and Niall.

Putting the car in gear, she points the wheels in the direction of the nearest market. She needs food - and to distract herself from the doubt.

Max has just finished putting away the groceries when her phone vibrates across the countertop, Nikki’s face on the screen. Max blows out a breath and taps the icon to accept the call. Someone screeches on the other end, and Max winces as Nikki scolds them quietly, shooing them away.

“Okay, hi, you there?”

“Yep. Kids being unruly?”

Nikki groans. “You have no idea, dude. They’re the worst. Thank fu-gosh they’re going to lunch now. Anyway. I figured I’d call because your text… It surprised me. A lot.”

“In a bad way?” Max leans against the counter, tucking her phone between her shoulder and cheek, and crosses her arms over her chest. She frowns when Nikki doesn’t answer immediately. “You think I shouldn’t do it.”

“I think that it’s very dangerous territory. Max, you gotta understand something. It took Niall almost a year to mention her to us, and he was too drunk to even sit down properly. She broke his heart in ways we don’t know and will never find out.”

I know how much she hurt him. Max grimaces at the smug tone of her inner voice. It isn’t a competition. “I just - I want to help me. He helped me, he’s still helping me. I want to pay him back for that.”

“You realise it could kill him, depending on what you find out, right? Are you sure you want to open that door?”

“Yes.”

Nikki hums quietly, then she sighs, breath crackling down the line. “Then I suppose I can’t stop you. Just… if you find out she’s died, please tell me first so we can figure out how to tell Niall. I gotta go, but I’ll text you what I know of Ciara.”

“Thanks, Nik. I really appreciate you.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m amazing.”

Max drags in an unsteady breath when Nikki hangs up without saying anything more. It isn’t like her to not say goodbye, her voice rising up a key as she draws out the ‘i' sound. Maybe she’s busy with work. Right. That has to be it. Otherwise, Max might lose a good friend for her stubbornness.

_____________________________


Niall frowns, pushing her hair from her face; the television continues playing, but the movie no longer holds his attention. “I think we should turn in early tonight.”

“Why?” Max murmurs as she presses her cheek more firmly against his chest. “’M fine.”

“You’ve yawned five times in the last two minutes.”

She snorts and finally peels open one eye. “You counted? Weirdo. Okay, so maybe I’m a bit tired.”

“Oh, love. Nightmares come back?”

The soft tone, the concern, it’s all too much. Max nearly confesses to her plans. It was easier the first two days to hide her exhaustion, but five nights of staying awake long after he fell asleep has taken its toll on her. She’d even gone against her better judgement and created a Facebook account to aid in her search. Armed with as much information as Nikki could remember from Niall’s drunken ramblings, Max had sat in his bed while he snored quietly, scrolling through countless profiles, desperate to find anything that could point her in the right direction.

Hopefully, she will have an answer by tomorrow.

Once Niall has left for work the next morning, Max gathers up her phone and laptop, crossing the landing to her own flat. She’s done this all week; it feels too much like betrayal, like she’s actively seeking out a way of breaking her bond with Niall, to sit on his couch and search for the woman who hurt him so badly all those years ago. Thankfully, Dolly hasn’t noticed that Max hides away in her flat during the day.

Ciara, born in Ireland in 1993. That’s all Max knows. It certainly isn’t much, and it definitely isn’t enough to go on. Though Nikki knew where in Ireland Niall was born, she hadn’t remembered Ciara’s last name except that it started with an ‘m’. Niall never said what Ciara looked like.

Deciding to use a different tactic, Max searches for Niall’s profile (after sending a friend request to Nikki) and scrolls through his page. Maura Horan posted on his wall back in September, wishing him a happy birthday. She looks like him. Max clicks on Maura’s name and sighs in relief when she sees that Maura only has forty-three friends.

“Old people really need to learn about privacy settings,” Max mumbles as she scrolls through the very public page.

Twenty-five minutes later, she sends a message and waits. And waits. And waits.

Patrick Murray (17:31): Don’t know a Ciara. Sorry.

Max Bauer (17:32): Oh. I thought you did, since you posted a photo of you and Ciara as kids on Emily Murray’s wall.

Patrick Murry (17:40): Why are you snooping on my aunt’s page? You aren’t a friend of hers.

Max Bauer (17:40): Because I’m looking for information on Ciara, and I found you. So… I was hoping you could help me.
Max Bauer (17:41): Niall has been worried about her since he was 15, and I want to help him.

Patrick Murray (17:47): Fuck him
Patrick Murray (17:47): He was a bad influence on Ciara. She threw her whole figure away because of him
Patrick Murray (17:47): Future
Patrick Murray (17:47): He didn’t give a shit about my cousin back then so why should I do ANYTHING to make him feel better?

Max Bauer (17:48): Niall didn’t know anything about Ciara. Nothing. He says he tried going to her house, but they’d already moved. Nobody told him anything. He’s been scared to death that something has happened to her and he would never have known.

Patrick doesn’t respond, though the message ticks to read. Max drops her phone on the coffee-table and groans aloud. She expected some resistance, but this is just absurd. It makes her wonder what exactly Ciara and her parents told the family, if her cousin can so easily speak ill of Niall like that.

Sighing, she pushes herself to her feet, stretches out her back, and heads toward the bathroom. She’s had to pee for almost forty minutes now; the conversation with Patrick distracted her, though now the need is making itself known.

As she washes her hands, she wonders whether Ciara’s cousin has responded - and what he might be saying. All she knows is she really, really hopes she gets some answers. Niall deserves to know. He deserves to have that sense of stability after all he has gone through. Especially since he’s given so much to Max to help her heal.

“Oh. Hi. I didn’t hear you come in.”

Niall scowls down at the phone in his hand. Her phone. Oh, no. When he finally looks up at her, fury lives in his eyes, no longer warm and open but colder than she’s ever seen them. She stumbles back a step, hand reaching for the wall to keep herself upright.

“What did you do.”

It isn’t a question. She knows it isn’t, but the venom in his voice demands an answer. Her voice trembles as she says, “I was trying to find Ciara. F-for you.”

“I didn’t ask you to do that.”

“Well, no,” Max starts, “but - ”

“But fucking what, Max? What? You took it upon yourself to do something that doesn’t involve you!”

“Niall - ”

Max cowers in the face of his rage, fingernails scratching against the wall as she clenches her hand into a fist to stop the shaking, and fear clutches at her heart. He shakes his head with a derisive scoff, tosses her phone onto the couch, and storms out of the flat. The slam of the door echoes, the sound screaming that Max has well and truly messed up.