Scars & Souvenirs

thirty-five

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There is no response from Patrick over the next few days, though Max receives seven friend requests on Facebook - Zayn, Liam, Harry, Louis, her parents. Even one from Niall. He’d been quiet over dinner that night, lost in his own thoughts. She was preparing to ask him if something was wrong when his question tumbled from his mouth:

“Why didn’t you tell me you’d signed up for Facebook?”

She stared at her plate for a long minute then sighed. “Because I only did it to see the profiles when I was looking for her.”

“But you’d added Nikki.”

“I know.”

“Why not me?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I didn’t think to because, well, we basically live together.”

He seemed to accept her response, since he didn’t continue the conversation, and they’d finished the meal in silence. He hasn’t brought it up again, and Max is thankful for that. He didn’t argue with her saying they live together. She wonders why it’s so unsettling, even two days later.

Nikki texts her late on Thursday evening, in the middle of a Stranger Things marathon. The message is a demand for her presence the following night, along with Niall, for dinner and a bonfire. A mimicry of Thanksgiving, though hopefully without the panic attack. The memories that haunted Max that night.

Max doesn’t reply to the text. Instead, she focuses on the solid line of warmth against her and the steady cadence of Niall’s breathing. She wants to kiss him again, needs the confirmation that he still wants her like this. So she reaches for the remote, pausing the show, and sits up. His fingers drift along her spine as he asks if she’s okay.

“I want to kiss you.”

It’s abrupt, graceless, but it’s honest. He blinks owlishly for a moment then nods quickly. “I am completely on board with this plan.”

“But… what if - what if I can’t go further than that?”

“Max, I am giving you my word,” he murmurs as he laces their fingers together. “You are allowed to stop whenever you want, and I won’t get upset. It’s fully your choice. I will respect it.”

She blows out a shaky breath, staring at his hand around hers, and leans toward him. He lets her come to him; the first brush of their lips is soft, tentative, reassuring. Niall lies still as she shifts closer. He is keeping his promise, and that gives Max more confidence in what she’s doing. In the trust she’s placed in him.

Kissing Gabriel never filled her with such relief or a heat that comes from within. His mouth had done nothing but terrify her, leaving bruises and indents of his teeth in her skin. Taking everything she had no matter how hard she fought. Niall, though… Niall takes only what she will give with a tenderness that ricochets in her chest, spiralling throughout her entire being and promising the world.

His hand settles on her lower back, the other coming up to bury in her hair, and Max squeezes her eyelids closed at the jagged pieces of her heart sighing in relief. He’s holding her immobile against his chest, but it feels like a danger and more like a port of safety. Her fingers curl into the fabric of his shirt, and she tastes the chocolate-covered peppermints they’d eaten after dinner.

His eyes don’t open immediately after she pulls away, as if he’s afraid to come back to earth and find this is all a dream. His breath slips from his still-parted lips, then Niall is staring up at her with pupils blown wide, black overtaking the blue. Max exhales unsteadily and nods to herself. She can do this whenever she wants. He said she could. She wants to do it as often as possible.

Kissing him is a heaven she will always believe in.

Max stifles a sigh as Nikki and Liam tumble through the back door the following night. Glass clinks in their arms on their trek to the circle of chairs, though the conversations never break. Liam passes the beers out to everyone - everyone but Max. He’s remembered she doesn’t drink.

Won’t drink.

Can’t drink.

Niall laughs at something Harry has said, drops his bottle cap into the bucket between his chair and Louis’s. Max focuses on the blinding orange-yellow flames that flicker toward the sky. The black-navy is dotted with stars, slivers of gauzy clouds along the horizon. If she watches her friends drinking, there will be no peace tonight. Knowing is different than seeing.

She presses the toe of her sneaker into the dirt and draws in a steadying breath. Logs crumble to ash, shift as their foundation is burned away. Stuttering hisses mingle with the crickets singing, quieter than the laughter and voices amongst the humans gathered around the fire. It should be a comfort to be surrounded by her friends.

“You okay?”

Roughened voice on beer-soaked breath. Nothing like Gabriel but too similar. Max ignores the way her breath hitches in her throat and nods. Niall leans closer - so close, too close, and Max makes the mistake of meeting his gaze. The glow of the fire paints his eyes golden, highlights every curve and plane of his face. His frown is deeper for the shadows; he places his hand gently on her knee, nearly kissing her cheek with how near he is.

“Max, what’s wrong?”

She shakes her head and glances at their friends. No one is watching. “I’m fine.”

“Honest?”

“I’m fine, Niall. Now please, just… drop it.”

“Max- ”

“Hey, Max, wanna help me for a minute?” Liam smiles when she jerks out of the conversation with Niall, his gaze that holds her captive. “I’d do it myself, but we need a lot more than I can carry on my own.”

Max nods shakily and stumbles to her feet. Even though he’s upset with her, Niall doesn’t let her fall. His hand is gentle yet firm as he steadies her. The heat of the bonfire is incomparable to the warmth blooming beneath her skin. He is always so considerate. Giving without reservation. Caring and kind, no matter how he feels toward her. She murmurs a quick thanks then hurries to follow Liam into the house.

He digs through cupboard after cupboard while she leans against the wall, staring down at her sneakers as she tries to centre herself. Regain her bearings. She knows that Niall meant no harm by asking for honesty; he wasn’t aiming to frustrate her. She just doesn’t know how to tell him the truth.

More than that, she wishes he would have accepted her answer at face-value, trust that she would never keep herself in a situation too uncomfortable. That she would put her own comfort before her love for another. She made that mistake once. It won’t happen again.

She learnt that lesson too well.

Liam pushes four bags of enormous Jet-Puffed marshmallows into her arms along with a small basket full of chocolate bars. Max blinks back to the present, snorting in amusement when he gathers up five boxes of graham cracks and grabs four metal skewers off the hooks in the wall. Her shoes scuff against the tile as she leads him back to the door. Before they step outside, he murmurs her name.

“I know I’m not Niall, and I don’t know what you’ve gone through. But I’m here if you ever need to talk.”

Max sighs, stares down at the jumbo pillows of sugar and gelatin. “I just… I don’t like being around people who are drinking a lot, and well, I don’t like being scared of people I care about.”

“We can - ”

“No. I don’t want you lot to change your behaviour or stop having fun just because of me.”

“I mean, we can still have fun without drinking, but if you’re sure.” Liam nods sharply before giving her a soft smile, so achingly full of understanding. “You should talk to Niall about it, though. He just, he wants you to be happy.”

Max uses her foot to nudge the screen door open, leaving without responding to Liam. Beyond the fact that saying something would ruin the overall mood of the evening, she has no idea what she could even say. Anything she could attempt to voice would make these people think she doesn’t trust them.

That she doesn’t trust Niall.

She does. She trusts them far more than she expected to when she moved into the flat almost a year ago. So she resolves herself to keeping her misplaced fears locked inside and hoping for the best. That’s all her friends are - the absolute best, better than she ever thought possible.

She doesn’t know what she did to deserve them, and she refuses to question it any longer. They will leave her eventually - everyone always does, once she’s proved herself to be more hassle than she’s worth - but she’ll hold onto this as long as they will let her.

She does apologise to Niall, though, her voice hushed under the crackling of flames and laughter. He smiles and reaches toward her. Max goes willingly into his side, rests her head on his shoulder, as he holds her close with an arm over her shoulder. His beer is nowhere to be found. She sighs and pokes the back of his hand.

“You can drink,” she murmurs. “I promise it’s fine.”

“I don’t wanna make you feel uncomfortable.”

“Niall? Just drink like you want to. I’ll be okay.”

To her surprise, he turns his head to press his lips to her forehead. In front of everyone, as if they aren’t there or he doesn’t care about their opinions. As if it’s the one thing he wants to do and nobody else matters in this second. She lets out a blissful sigh at the gentle pressure, wishing it could always be this easy with him. The kiss eases the vestiges of darkness that cling to her soul. This is Niall. He will never hurt her.

Nikki is watching them closely when Max stares across the bonfire. Her friend’s hazel eyes glimmer with something more than firelight, and she raises her beer in a silent toast. Max can’t fight her smile, doesn’t want to, even as she shakes her head. She never knew it could feel so effortless to love someone - multiple someones - like this. Drawing on her courage, Max kisses Niall’s cheek and savours the stubble that prickles against her lips.

He ducks his head to hide his grin, but no one says a word of it. Max settles back in her chair as the others start regaling her with stories, tales from the beginning of their friendships. Harry tells her about the trivia team they’d tried to form at the pub, only to fail spectacularly when they realised that the other teams were infinitely better. So they drank away their ninth-place misery and kept coming back every weekend, though never to participate in the trivia challenges again.

The fire has nearly burnt itself out by the time Zayn starts yawning. Liam had made multiple trips back inside for more beers, eventually bringing out bottles of whisky and rum. Her discomfort never reemerged no matter how much the others drank, and Max is thankful for that. They may be drunk, but they’re still the same sweet people who helped her at her lowest. How could she ever think they were worthy of her fears?

Nikki slurs her words as she divides the group up - Liam and Zayn to a room, she and Louis to another, and Harry is delegated to the couch. Thankfully, someone has thought ahead: On the living room floor is a pile of thick quilts, pillows, and an air mattress already inflated. Max heads to the bathroom to change into her pyjamas, leaving the room right as Harry yanks his shirt over his head.

Once she has dressed in a pair of sweats and Niall’s shirt, Max pulls open the door and squeaks. Niall smiles sheepishly, holding up two toothbrushes. She stares at the green and purple in his hand, struggling to recognise the sensation that settles in her chest. He wiggles hers toward her, and she rolls her eyes as she takes it from him.

“I thought ahead.”

“Yes, you did. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Now scoot.”

Max moves to the side, giving him enough space to stand at the sink next to her. They brush their teeth in silence, though he is much closer than necessary. She doesn’t mind; the warm line of his arm against hers is comforting. The scent of the bonfire clings to his shirt, smoke and earth combining with the natural smell of him. Max draws stability from the reality.

She follows him out to the living room and giggles when she sees Harry is already asleep, sprawled on the couch. His legs dangle off the edge, kicking slightly every few seconds. Niall rolls his eyes, makes a weaving path through the living room, and hefts his friend’s legs back onto the couch. Unfortunately, the effort is in vain. Harry lets out a deafening snore as his leg slips over the edge once more.

Max spreads the quilts over the air mattress and tosses two pillows on one end. Niall waits until she’s laid down before turning off the light and joining her. His arm immediately drapes over her waist, pulls her in closer. She links her fingers with his and sighs heavily. He shifts so that his face is buried in the crook of her neck, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. The dark presses in, but there is no fear here.

“Ciara was my best friend,” he whispers under the backdrop of snoring. “I told you that. She was so witty and clever and - and funny. We did everything together. We were inseparable. We protected each other and relied on each other. For everything.”

Max shifts under his arm; now that she’s getting an explanation, she isn’t so sure she wants it. “You don’t have to tell me anything.”

“When her parents were fighting, she ran away to my house. My family became hers, and hers became mine. Where one of us was, the other could be found. You asked if I loved her.”

“Niall…”

“I did. I think there’s a small part of me that still does, even after what she did. It’s never been the whole, y’know, romantic ‘I wanna marry you and spend the rest of my life with you’ kinda love, but it was love. She was important to me. Like you are.”

His breath puffs against her collarbone, but Max can’t feel it under the panic flaring to life in her mind. A hollowness fills her chest, confusion a tangible thing. She never expected an answer from him. Not about this. He made it clear that Ciara is a forbidden topic, and she has tried so hard to not ask any more questions. To accept that she will never know.

Now here he is, saying more than she ever expected. Niall sighs, cuddling closer, and his fingers press into her side. His words are slurred with sleep and alcohol when he whispers the one thing she wishes he would never say:

“I could fall in love with you, Max.”

His snores join Harry’s a moment later, but Max is wide awake. Niall has gone and changed everything with his drunken confession. She can take his anger, his pity, his soft touch and endless patience. But she can’t handle this. Him speaking those words aloud has flipped the world upside-down, and Max will never find her footing again.

She carefully peels herself out from under his arm, grabs her phone, and tiptoes to the front door. His words echo in her mind. Her hands tremble as she finds a seat on the two-seater porch swing. Throat tightening, she finds the number in her contacts and presses the call button. It’s late, probably too late for a phone call, but Max needs this.

“Makenzie? Honey, isn’t it almost four there? Is everything okay?”

The concern in Katherine’s voice causes Max to burst into tears. Her words shrivel up in the wake of everything surging through her. Katherine immediately tries consoling her, but there is nothing her mother can say that will change the way Max feels right now.

“What happened, baby?”

“He - he said he could fall in love with me,” hiccups Max, fingers clenching tightly around her phone. “And… he can’t love me. Not after what Gabriel put me through. I’m not good enough for him. But, Mom, I think I love him, and I don’t know if I want to.”

“We don’t get that choice, honey. We love who we love, even if it frightens us to our core. For what it’s worth, I think he’s been so good for you. You’re safe because of him, and he’s shown you what love is supposed to be.”

“He doesn’t need me messing up his life,” Max says through numb lips as she stares out over the dark yard. Night presses in from every direction, crickets and owls singing in the black. It would be serene if she wasn’t a mess.

Katherine scoffs lightly, but her voice is steady when she says, “I think the fact he cares about you affects his life more than he lets on. I’m sure he has his own baggage that he’s bringing to the table, but he sounds like an amazing guy who treats you the way you deserve to be treated.”

“How do I stop being so scared?”

“Oh, sweetheart. If I knew the answer, I’d tell you in a heartbeat.” Her mother laughs the laugh Max has always known - soft, sweet, beautiful beyond words. “I was scared your daddy would leave me for years after we started dating, but that fear just… went away. He didn’t do anything special. All it took was him loving me and staying by my side even during our worst fights.”

“What if Niall leaves me because I’m not what he wanted?”

“If that happens, we’ll get through it together.” Katherine pauses. “Your father and I were talking. Would you be okay with us coming to visit soon?”

Max freezes; even her tears seem to turn to stone on her cheeks. Some small part of her expected this, knew the request was coming, but the lack of faith in herself begged for it not to. She ran to keep herself safe. She succeeded. Now, she is struggling to find who she is in this new world, and she is sure it isn’t who her parents knew before.

“I can’t promise I’m who I used to be.”

“Makenzie Alaine, we don’t expect you to be the same wide-eyed teenager you were before you married Gabriel. We know you’ve been through a lot. You’ve changed. Honey, you could have sprouted horns and a puppy tail, and we will love you and want you in our lives just the same. We only ever wanted you to be safe and happy.”

“I am. It terrifies me, but Niall… he makes sure of it. I mean, so do his friends who I guess are my friends, too. And Dolly, my landlady.”

“But mostly Niall?” Katherine asks with a sly, knowing lilt to her voice, one that Max ignores while she picks at the hem of her T-shirt.

“Mommy? I miss you guys.”

“We miss you, too, Kenzie. We never stopped missing you. Why don’t you try going to sleep now?”

Max promises to try - it’s the most she can do - and ends the call once ‘I love you’s are exchanged. But even after the conversation and the reassurances, her mind is still racing. Still tumbling in free-fall from everything that’s happened tonight. It is all too much to comprehend right now.

Underneath the uncertainty and worries, however, is the peace that Niall has always brought. Even isolating herself had never made her doubt that he truly cared, that he was always going to be there if she only let him in. Now that she has, Max knows she can never go back.

Niall is still sleeping by the time she finally goes back inside. Max smiles to herself, a tremulous twist of her lips, and kisses his cheek before curling up beside him. After a moment, she reaches over to pull his arm over her. It’s home, the one thing she has needed for so long. She is tired of running from it. Maybe it’s time to stop running.

Maybe, just maybe, it won’t be so horrible to let him love her and to love him in return.