Scars & Souvenirs

thirty-six

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It takes a long minute for Max to figure out what dragged her from the pleasant lack of nightmares. She blinks slowly once, twice, and Niall’s still-sleeping face swims into focus. He doesn’t stir even as metal clatters against metal. Max touches his jaw with gentle fingertips, lets herself think of the love she has for him, then clambers off the air mattress.

Liam freezes when she shuffles into the kitchen, flashing her a sheepish grin. “Sorry, did I wake you?”

“I think so.” She pauses and frowns at the multitude of bowls on the counter. “What are you doing?”

“I’ve learnt it’s best to have food ready for this lot after a night of drinking, so… here I am.”

She glances at the microwave, the green numbers reading 10:19. “I slept.”

“That a surprise?”

“A bit, yeah.” Sighing, she moves to lean against the counter and crosses her arms over her chest. “I don’t really sleep much. Even sharing a bed with Niall doesn’t keep the nightmares away.”

Liam chuckles as her cheeks burn, the admission too heavy and full of implication. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem surprised. “Yeah, everyone has cuddled with Niall at least once or twice. He craves physical affection.”

“Because of Ciara?”

Liam’s face goes through a series of expressions: surprise, puzzlement, a flicker of anger. Then it slams shut. Max can almost see the locks shifting into place behind his eyes. Of course he wouldn’t want to visit this topic; it’s too much for Niall, so his friends would keep the conversation as far from her as possible.

He nods succinctly and turns away to stir something in the large blue bowl, and the whisk scrapes loudly on the plastic.

“Can I help?” Max asks, a peace offering and apology wrapped in one.

Liam grins, pushing a pink bowl toward her. Max takes the spatula he offers and steps around him to turn on the burner. They work in silence together; she cooks scrambled eggs and toasts enough bread to feed an army of ducks, while he fries bacon and flips pancakes with an expert hand. It’s almost as easy as cooking with Niall, only with less conversation.

“So is everything okay?” he asks as he slides a platter of bacon onto the dining table. “Between you and Niall, I mean. After the argument.”

Max stares through the archway at Niall, sleeping, reaching for her empty side of the mattress. Smiling, she turns back to Liam. “Yeah, I think we’re good.”

Louis is the last one to stumble to the table, long after the others have sat down to eat. No one speaks much, but Max doesn’t mind. She’s been witness to many hangovers in her life. This experience is different only in that she isn’t punished for their decision to drink far too much. Nonetheless, the quiet is familiar. She loathed the quiet with Gabriel.

Nikki groans as she flops onto the couch, curling up under the quilt Harry used during the night. “I’m not doing a damn thing today.”

“You never do,” Louis mumbles as he sprawls across the air mattress, and Nikki throws a pillow at him.

“I’d say you’re wrong, but you’re not. Come sit with me, Zee.”

Max giggles but does as ordered, and Nikki wiggles until her head is in Max’s lap. Memories bloom vivid in her mind; Max cards her fingers through the ends of Nikki’s hair, gently untangling the knots that have formed. Nikki sighs and settles in further. Katherine used to do this whenever Max was ill as a child, and it always made Max feel better. Or maybe it was just the proximity to someone who loved her and kept her safe.

Her phone vibrates on the floor where she left it after the call to her mother. Niall grabs the device and clambers to his feet to hand it over. A slight hesitation, then he’s kissing her cheek, lingering for a second that stretches for eternity. Max bites down on her bottom lip as he pulls away. Her reaction by the fire must have told him this is okay, that he’s allowed to show affection in front of their friends.

That she gives permission for this display of ‘you’re mine, and I am yours’.

Izzy Flynn (12:03): Hi, Max. You’re Niall’s “or something”, right? If not, please ignore this message. I must have gotten the wrong person.

Max’s breath hitches in her throat. The only person who knows her response to Patrick’s question is Patrick himself, and he had promised to ring Ciara. Did he tell her? She scratches lightly at Nikki’s scalp, murmuring she needs to use the toilet, and escapes to the bathroom as soon as Nikki sits up.

Locking the door behind her, Max perches on the edge of the bathtub and stares at the message. Izzy is still online, the green dot mocking Max the longer she goes without responding. She hesitantly accepts the message request. Three dots appear at the bottom of the screen then disappear.

Max Bauer (12:05): Hi. Yes, I’m Niall’s “or something”. Is this Ciara?

Izzy Flynn (12:05): Yeah. I heard you wanted to talk to me.

Max Bauer (12:06): Sort of? I mostly wanted to find out what happened to you. For Niall. He’s been worried about you since you and your family moved.

Izzy Flynn (12:06): I should’ve known he would still care about me… Idiot never knew when to give up.
Izzy Flynn (12:06): Have you told him anything?

Max Bauer (12:07): He found out I was messaging your cousin and that I was looking for you, but other than that, no. I didn’t even tell him Patrick was going to reach out to you. I didn’t want to give him hope if it wasn’t going to pan out.

Izzy Flynn (12:07): That’s nice of you. Why?

Max Bauer (12:08): I’m going to be honest here. I know what it’s like to run from your past. To be afraid every second that someone is gonna find you and drag you back to the Hell you left behind.
Max Bauer (12:09): I couldn’t do that to someone else even if I don’t know them personally. Even after they’ve hurt someone I deeply care about.

Izzy Flynn (12:10): Look, Max. I’m not sure if I can talk to him yet. You have to understand that I’ve worked so damn hard over the years to overcome who I was. I fucked up a lot of my life and I don’t want everything to go to shit after the progress I’ve made.

Max Bauer (12:11): Trust me, I understand better than you think. I can keep this conversation a secret from him for as long as you need me to.

Izzy Flynn (12:!2): I’m glad he has you. You seem like you’re good for him.
Izzy Flynn (12:12): I’ve gotta go but is it okay if I talk to you again?

Max Bauer (12:12): Absolutely. Any time.

Ciara reads the message but doesn’t reply. After a moment, the dot goes grey, and Max blows out a breath. The conversation went better than expected, so why does she feel so guilty? Because you’re keeping something important from the man you love. Right. That definitely contributes to the black cloud raising its ugly head in her soul.

She knows she should delete the thread, remove evidence of Ciara’s existence. She can’t, though. Something stops her from doing it. Max sighs and locks her phone. All she can do now is hope Niall won’t accidentally stumble on the messages and get angry with her for not telling him.

“You have a habit of falling into the toilet, don’t you?” Nikki asks once Max rejoins the group.

“Yes, Nik, that’s exactly it. You’ve figured me out.”

Niall catches her eyes as she sits down on the couch, cocking his head to the side with a frown tugging at his lips. Max shakes her head and focuses on the soft strands of Nikki’s hair between her fingers. If she looks at Niall again, Max will tell him the truth and break her promise to Ciara in the process. She owes Ciara nothing, but still, she can’t do it.

Not even five minutes after Zayn turns the television on, Louis and Harry are handing out controllers while Liam presses the power button to the video game console. Zayn rolls his eyes, throwing the remote aside, and grabs the fourth controller. Niall moves to sit beside Max; his arm wraps around her shoulder, and he tugs her closer.

“Gonna explain what that was about?”

“Later,” she promises with a pointed look at Nikki.

The sun is beginning to set by the time Max and Niall make their way to the car. After buckling the seatbelt, she toes off her sneakers and plants her feet into the seat, her knees to her chest as he drives them home. He hasn’t asked again about her disappearing act, and she hasn’t told him. Her mind keeps getting caught on the same question: Should she risk him hoping for something that might not happen, or should she risk him being upset for her not being honest?

Both options have undesirable outcomes. If Ciara decides she can’t ever talk to him again, he will be even more hurt by it. But if he finds out Max talked to Ciara, that she knew more than she let on, it could bring him to the conclusion that walking away is the better choice. Self-preservation that saves him from future heartbreak.

His pain is a difficult potential, but hers is selfishly worse. Losing him, his safety and his love… It would ruin her.

Max leans against the wall outside his flat and stares at the wall across the landing. “Patrick said he’d talk to Ciara.”

The key scrapes against the lock before the keyring falls to the floor with a clatter. Niall doesn’t bother crouching down to grab them. He’s immobile, frozen in the wake of her announcement. She glances at him, but he is looking straight ahead.

“So she’s still alive.”

In for a penny. “Yeah, he said she’s doing well. That’s, uh, that’s all I know.” The lie is bitter on her tongue.

“Thank you.”

Max scoops the keys off the floor, gently nudging him out of the way so she can fit the key into the lock. Niall follows her inside as if he is a zombie, mindless motions when he takes off his sneakers and ambles to the couch. She locks the door and pushes their sneakers toward the wall before crossing the room to sit next to him.

“Are you okay?”

He shrugs, brows raising and mouth working though no sound comes out. Finally, he manages, “I’ve spent so long not knowing. It’s a lot to process.”

“Okay. I get that. Do you need anything?”

“No, I… I think I’ll be okay. I’m gonna go shower, though.”

Max likes to think she’s smart enough to read between the lines. That she can figure out Niall is going to use the shower as a way of wrapping his mind around the situation with Ciara. The kiss to her cheek is halfhearted, and she reaches for his hand when he stands. He blinks owlishly down at her. Slowly, the daze clears from his eyes.

“I’m here for you.”

“I know, love. And I can’t thank you enough for that.”

He sits once more, leaning over, and Max meets him in the middle. His lips are dry, slightly chapped, but perfect anyway. She cups his cheek with one hand even as her lips part beneath his. Someone groans—him, her, both of them, she isn’t sure. All she knows is the burning of her blood in her veins, the hazy fog that settles on her mind as she pulls him closer. Her fingers slip to his hair, curl lightly around the strands.

It’s everything she should have had years ago.

He pulls back after a minute, chasing one last kiss before rising to his feet. Max watches him go and touches her lips once he’s disappeared from view. The taps squeak, water gurgles in the pipes. Still she’s enthralled by the kiss.

Max knows it’s stupid and pointless, comparing what she has with Niall to Gabriel. Her ex-husband would never be more than an endless nightmare, even if she had done everything right. Even if he had succeeded in making her his perfect plaything who existed solely for his pleasure. But back in the beginning, before he showed his true colours, it was never like this.

Never mutual. Never meant for both to share. It was always him, him, him, and Max just had to suffer through.

She certainly never deepened a kiss with him. Some small part of her knew, she thinks, that he was never truly her Prince Charming. He was never meant to whisk her off her feet and carry her to a far-away land where they lived happily ever after. He was a facsimile of the saviours in all the fairy tales. But much like the wicked witches, his greediness got the best of him. His evil nature burned away the goodness he projected until all that remained was his rotten core.

Running was meant to keep her safe, protected from Gabriel’s wrath. Max never thought running to Santa Barbara would bring the man she was meant to love, the one who is patient and kind and willing to show her what it was to be loved. Truly loved.