Scars & Souvenirs

thirty-seven

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A knock breaks through the quiet, and Max frowns as she stands. Niall is still in the shower. She’s alone to face whoever has dared to disturb the peace. Swallowing the fear (Gabriel isn’t here Gabriel will never be here again), she pads toward the door to look through the peephole. Frizzy grey hair in a loose bun, a familiar round face softened by a smile. Max undoes the locks and pulls open the door.

Dolly reaches out for her immediately, tugging Max into a hug that steals her breath away. “Oh, doll, Sugar and I miss you so much. She was just beside herself without you last night at the group meeting. Can I borrow you for a moment?”

“Uh, sure. Let me tell Niall, then I’ll be over.”

Dolly beams and shuffles away, slippers swishing across the tile. Max shakes her head as she closes the door. She was planning on spending the evening curling up with Niall on the couch, maybe kissing him again. Instead, those plans are derailed. She can’t be angry at it, though; Dolly has become an amazing ally, a wonderful friend, and spending time with her isn’t a chore at all.

Max comes to a stop outside the bathroom. She raps her knuckles against the door, but Niall doesn’t answer. He most likely can’t hear her knock over the water thundering against the bottom of the tub. Her heart leaps into her throat when she realises she has to open the door. Dragging in a breath, she sticks her head through the gap and calls his name.

“What the- ” His fingers clench the curtain, pulling it back enough to see Max’s face, and he frowns. Shampoo suds hide the brown of his hair and drip down his cheek in a slow streak. It takes all of her willpower to not let her gaze stray from his face. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I, um, I just wanted to let you know I’m going to Dolly’s for a minute. Evidently, she missed me.”

“Oh. Okay. Have fun, tell her I said hi.”

“I will.”

The worry doesn’t leave his eyes even as he nods. Max forces a smile then turns on her heel, pulling the door closed behind her. She hesitates in the hallway, shakes her head to clear it of the thoughts - all revolving around Niall - and heads toward the entryway. Not bothering with putting on her shoes, she steps out of the flat and exhales sharply.

Dolly lets her in almost immediately, mouth already going a mile a minute as she tells Max everything she missed in the support group last night. Evidently, Beck has decided to become an EMT; her reasoning is there needs to be more people on the frontline who understand the nuances of abuse, to recognise the symptoms of violence perpetrated by a partner and the lies being told. Max is proud of Beck and makes a mental note to tell the other woman at the next meeting.

Finally, Dolly stops chattering on and pins Max with a stare that seems to penetrate her soul. “I see you and Niall are fine again.”

“We are, yeah.” Max shrugs as Dolly bustles toward the kitchen. “It’s weird. Like, we’ve been back and forth, and I keep wondering when we’ll stop being like this.”

“Everything’s good, though, right?”

Sugar bounces up on her back legs, desperately trying to lick Max’s cheeks; Max giggles, leaning down, and scrunches up her face when the Rottweiler’s tongue slides across her brow. “Yep. Oddly enough, it is. Therapy is going great, and, well, um, my parents want to come to see me.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful! I’m sure they’ve missed you dearly, hun.”

Max pads across the purple rug toward the kitchen. Her feet sink into the plush fibres, thick against her soles even through her socks. Dolly sits at the small dining table, a pair of bright blue-framed glasses perched on her nose, and she rifles through a stack of papers. Max takes a seat across from her landlady and asks what Dolly is up to.

“Writing to my daughter. She lives all the way in Pennsylvania now, so we try to write letters at least once a week.” Dolly sighs and sets the paper down, staring at Max over the top of her glasses. “I dunno if I’ve told you lately, but I’m proud of you.”

Max tilts her head, tries to maintain eye contact, but her gaze falls to the tabletop after a moment. A void opens in her belly, churning and sucking away any stability she might have had. “Why?”

“Because you’ve done so well! You’re doing everything you can to heal, and a lot of people would find it too hard and give up until they were ready to try again. Just… remember things can get dark again.”

“I know. I know it can. I’m prepared for it, I think.” Max scratches a nail against the thigh of her leggings, letting the motion soothe away the lingering discomfort of Dolly’s pride. “I’m just not so scared of it any more. Even the nightmares and flashbacks are coming less often. I mean, they still happen, but not as much.”

Dolly’s knowing smile says too much, and she shakes her head with a chuckle. “Yeah, I’ve heard love will do that to ya.”

Max huffs out a laugh and pushes to her feet, announcing she’d better get back to Niall before he thinks she’s run away. She has some things to discuss with him, she says while crouching to pet Sugar. The dog melts further against the tile, back leg kicking, when Max scratches at a particularly itching spot. Thanking Dolly for the chat, Max embraces the older woman, ignores Dolly’s hesitation before she returns the hug.

Of course she would be surprised. Max hasn’t ever initiated physical contact. She’s accepted it when offered, but never before has she been the one starting it.

Niall is out of the shower by the time Max steps back through the door. She hears him mumbling to himself and follows the sound to the kitchen. A sense of belonging fills her as she stares at him. The stretch of his T-shirt over his shoulders and back; the tightening in his biceps as he moves things around in the refrigerator; the curl of his hair, nearly black with wet, against the nape of his neck.

How could she ever have thought him as less than ‘home’?

Max moves to his side, hauling herself to sit on the countertop, and watches him for a long minute. A notepad sits on the counter next to her, his loopy handwriting scrawling across the page: bananas, chicken, okra, green beans, apple, roast, asparagus. She hesitates then picks up the pen, adds cookies ‘n’ creme ice cream to the list.

“My parents want to come visit.”

“Holy shit, Max!” Niall stumbles backwards a few steps, rubbing the back of his head where he’s smacked it against the fridge lining. “When did you get here?”

“Right after you added asparagus to the shopping list. Sorry, I thought you’d heard me come in.”

“Not at all, or I would’ve said something. So your parents want to visit?”

“Yeah, Mom asked me last night if they could. Or, well, I guess it was this morning.”

Niall nods slowly and closes the fridge door. “That doesn’t surprise me. I suppose I’m mostly surprised they waited this long to ask.”

“She said she wanted to make sure I was okay with the idea.”

“And are you?”

She sighs, giving a jerky shrug. She has wanted to see her parents since the day she left Ann Arbor, but so much has happened, has changed her completely, that she knows she isn’t the daughter they said goodbye to. Katherine said she expected it and doesn’t mind. Max fears her mother won’t accept the extent of the change.

Max picks at a hangnail along the edge of her right index finger, wincing when it rips free. Blood oozes to the surface. Ripping off a sheet of paper towel, she wipes away the blood and swings her feet as she thinks of how to answer.

“I… don’t know. I want to see them so bad, but I’m jumpy as Hell over everything still. The smallest sound, and I’m out of my skin. I’m just… Niall, I’m terrified they’re going to be disappointed in who I’ve become because of him.”

Niall smiles a soft smile, one that eases the edges of panic in her soul. He carefully steps into her space, slowly enough that she could stop him if she wanted to - she doesn’t want to, so she lets him approach - and his hands cup her cheeks.

His palms are cool against her skin, leftovers from being inside the fridge, or maybe it’s that her cheeks are too warm from the mortification of her admission. There’s something in his blue eyes that Max can’t read. It’s peaceful, though.

“Makenzie, you are an amazing, strong woman. You’ve been through Hell, and you made it to the other side. Sure, you have wounds that may never fully heal. But darling, don’t ever think that anyone who loves you would be anything less than proud of you. You did what you needed to do to protect yourself, and we get to love this new you no matter what.”

Max’s chin wobbles, tears burning behind her eyes, and she reaches up to wrap her fingers around his wrists. He cocks his head even as she leans forward to press her lips to his. The kiss is soft, gentle, nothing earth-shattering, but it rocks her to the core anyway. He doesn’t push for more, lets her set the pace, and it is all Max can focus on.

How he reacts to the kiss. How generous and kind he is, always has been. In some faraway part of her mind, a memory loops - shouting, broken glass cradled in bloody palms, the suffocation of her fear as she ran to the safety isolation provided. That night is ages past. The present, the warmth of his mouth beneath hers, the tenderness in his touch… it’s all that matters now.

The list goes ignored. The shopping goes undone. Max and Niall spend the evening curled together on the couch, trading tentative kisses and watching reruns of The Office in turns. When she starts yawning and her eyes grow heavy, he nudges her toward the bedroom and refuses to accept her protests. She sticks her tongue out at him before disappearing into the bathroom to take a quick shower.

She leaves the light on this time.

Her head hits the pillow, and all traces of sleepiness flee from her mind. Her thoughts run rampant now that there is nothing to distract her. Niall was most likely correct. Her parents love her, they always have, and maybe they will accept that Max is a broken woman now. She closes her eyes, but all she sees is disgust on her parents’ faces. Disappointment that she wasn’t strong enough. That she stayed with Gabriel for so long and allowed the abuse. That she let herself become something so weak and pathetic.

“What’s wrong?”

Max squeaks at the unexpected voice; she thought Niall was already asleep. She buries her face into the pillow and lets the fabric catch the tears she didn’t know slipped free. His hand rests on her back, gentle pressure that mutes the fears a fraction. The warmth seeps through her cotton of her tank-top, and she blows out a breath and admits that she’s still worried.

“It’ll be okay, love. I’ll be by your side the entire time. If you want me to be, I mean.”

“If you leave me, I will be very, very upset,” she whispers, letting out a watery laugh. “I guess I’ll just have to have faith.”

“Good idea.” He pauses, and Max shivers as his fingertip slides across her bare shoulders. “Can I ask what happened?”

She doesn’t have to guess what he means - the scars are exposed now, something she’s not let happen since the afternoon Nikki helped her change clothes. She sniffles, rolls over onto her back, and stares at the ceiling. Niall stays quiet, finger following along the scars that mar her skin, and she lists off each ‘crime’ she committed that warranted punishment.

The thin pink ring around her throat when she shaved off her hair without his permission; with her hair gone, he couldn’t drag her around the house.

The four dots on the back of her hands from the fork when she used too much salt or not enough salt when cooking dinner.

The divot below her ribs where he threw her against the counter because she was struggling with insomnia.

The line cutting across her hairline, given when she cursed aloud after burning her fingers on a hot baking sheet because he’d thrown the oven mitts in the bin.

Asking him to repeat himself and doing what he said. Singing, stuttering when under stress, when he drank the last beer. Not wearing makeup, wearing makeup at his demands. Being unable to get the blood stains out of the carpet. Saying ‘no’ to sex, crying at the agony.

She did so much wrong in Gabriel’s eyes, and he made sure to discipline her the way he deemed necessary.

Niall continues running a finger over each silver-pink line that crisscrosses her skin long after she falls silent. His hand trembles, but his touch remains achingly gentle. Max watches him push himself up onto one elbow, brows furrowing when he moves away. But then his lips brush against the nearest scar, light as butterfly wings. He does this over and over. Every imperfection to her skin given by her ex-husband is kissed in succession until he is leaning over her.

“I want to kill him for you,” he whispers. “You didn’t deserve any of that. You deserve the world, and as long as I’m around, I will never let anything happen to you.”

He seals his promise with a kiss to her lips. Max’s head swims, emotions and vows swirling until there is no tangible end to either of them. She knows without a doubt that she is lost. She is his. No matter happens, Niall will always have her heart, her soul. She gave herself once, but this time, it is less like shattering apart and more like slotting into place. A puzzle piece that has found its home.

When he finally pulls away, Max reaches up and brushes the dampness from his cheeks. He smiles tremulously and drops to lie back down beside her. Her fingers immediately seek out his, tangling together and gripping tight to the steadiness of him. A question looms in the back of her mind - one that must be asked if she wants to fully drown in everything Niall offers.

“I, uh, I have to ask.” She closes her eyes when he hums low in his throat. “Do you only care about me because of Ciara?”

He sighs and presses his lips to her hair. “It… it started out that way, but after a while, I realised it wasn’t about her anymore. It wasn’t me trying to make up for not being there when she needed me most.”

“Then what is it?”

“Don’t you know, silly girl? It’s me proving to you just how amazing you are, how much goodness you deserve. How much I need you.”

“I could fall in love with you, too.”

Her whisper brings him up short. She risks turning her head, seeing whatever his reaction is. The glow from the streetlights catches on his eyes, bright even in the dim lighting. He’s grinning at her, and it’s real and beautiful. She swallows thickly and rolls over to face him. He cradles her cheek, thumb stroking along her bottom lip, and leans closer to kiss her forehead.