Scars & Souvenirs

thirty-eight

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Max wakes before Niall the next morning and rolls over to watch him. He’s sprawled on his back, one hand tucked behind his head and the other splayed across his belly. His face is turned away from her, but she doesn’t mind.

Shame spirals through her as she runs her fingertip along the dips of his collarbone, up his throat, and around the curve of his jaw. Tears burning in her eyes, she lets herself feel like a fool for wanting - needing - to touch him. To make sure this isn’t a vivid dream that could be torn away from her at any second.

Waves of longing, belonging, crash over her, and they remind her that this is what it’s like to be human. This is what it means to be cared for and loved so fiercely. This is everything she has dreamed of since she was a young child. The fairy-tale love her parents have, even though her life is anything but a fairy tale.

She will never be the fair princess or the heroine who saves the world. But she can save herself. She has saved herself. Gabriel may have done his damnedest to break her, but she is repairing the damage. She is fixing the shattered parts of who she is. And she isn’t alone.

She presses a gentle kiss to his bare shoulder, breathes in the scent of his sleep-warm skin, then carefully climbs out of bed. He sleeps on, and Max watches him for a moment before turning away to grab clothes from her drawer. She leaves the light on through a rushed shower and doesn’t think twice about using his body wash, his shampoo. Being enveloped by the scent that clings to his skin is almost as comforting as being held in his arms.

And no one needs to know it feels like freedom to watch the lather slip over the scars to drop to the floor, to watch the suds disappear down the drain with the weight of her confessions last night.

The world is barely stirring as she makes her way down the street, early-morning sunlight on her skin and a salty breeze blowing through her hair. Her cheeks ache with the smile she can’t stop, one that could only come from being with Niall. She hadn’t lied to her mother: She is absolutely terrified that she is relying on him so much, that she loves him to the point that she fears she will never survive if things go wrong. But Max is so damn tired of being scared. Of being alone.

The barista behind the counter blinks for a moment, but then he’s smiling back at Max as he asks for her order. She deliberates then decides on a mixture of pastries, an iced coffee with caramel, and an iced vanilla latte. He walks away with a bounce in his step, and Max wonders if she put it there. If her good mood has helped elevate his.

They don’t make conversation while he works, but then he passes over a box and the two coffees in a drink-carrier, still grinning. His upper canine is slightly crooked, a smattering of freckles dotting his cheeks. She wonders what he sees when he looks at her.

“Have a great day, ma’am. Hope to see you again.”

“Thanks. You, too.”

Niall is stretched out on the couch when Max manages to wrestle her way through the door and into the kitchen. He wiggles until he can sit up, watching her with narrowed eyes. She beams and sets the box on the counter, but her smile falters when she catches sight of his face.

“Is everything okay?”

“You weren’t here when I woke up.”

You didn’t have permission to leave. The accusation is there in his voice. She shakes her head, tells herself that’s nonsense. Niall would never say that. He would never claim she needed his permission. She knows this. Still, her throat tightens and her hands begin to shake.

“I, uh, I went to get breakfast. And coffee. Sorry, I should’ve woken you, I know, but I wanted to surprise you, and-”

“Take a breath, love,” he says as he stands. She shrinks in on herself the closer he comes, but then he’s cupping her jaw with his hands and kissing her. “I’m not mad. I was worried. Even went across the hall to see if you’d gone there after our talk last night.”

“No. I just... I wanted to make you breakfast, but I’m horrible at cooking. So I went to the cafe on the corner.”

“Thank you.”

Another kiss, and he pulls her close. Max rests her head against his shoulder and exhales slowly. Tension seeps from her muscles at the warmth and comfort he provides. He sniffs once, twice.

“Did you use my body wash?”

“And your shampoo,” she whispers, closing her eyes in preparation for his reaction.

“I like it.”

I love you.

The next three weeks pass in a routine: Max kisses Niall goodbye every morning before he heads off to work, and she settles in at the table with a cup of coffee, ready to edit and call her parents. When Niall comes home, they cook dinner together or order delivery. They clean up as a team, and the evenings are spent grading assignments while random shows play on the television.

It is pleasant, filled with love and security. It is almost enough to distract her from what is coming.

Max sits on the couch in her own flat, staring at the safe. Niall sits by her with his hand on her knee, and she tries to draw strength from his touch. Her heart pounds a tattoo beneath her ribs, her palms clammy and skin crawling. Eventually, she knows she can’t put it off any longer: She crosses the living room and crouches next to the safe. Niall’s gaze is heavy on her shoulders as she twists the dial. 08-08-92. The date that started her parents’ marriage.

“Do you want me to stay with you?”

Does she? On one hand, facing the letters she’s written over the years alone is a daunting prospect. But Niall reading her thoughts and fears - and wishes for death - is frightening. She couldn’t bear if he thinks she’s weak for what she’s written. She closes her eyes against the folder, bulging at the edges, then nods. His judgement is less terrifying than remembering every bit of hopelessness she’s felt.

Niall moves to sit next to her on the floor and hands her a pen. He hadn’t questioned why she wanted to do this; all he’d done when she mentioned wanting to number the letters was grab a pen, a stapler, and the package of wafer cookies. A reward for getting through. She writes a digit in the upper right corner and sets it aside. Once there’s a stack of twenty, he staples the pile together and slides it into the folder. He moves quickly, as if to reassure her that he isn’t reading something so personal.

The consideration is so sweet, so unnecessary. If he asked, she would let him. She would bare her soul for him.

They stay awake until the early hours putting the letters in order, until none remain out of the folder. Max stares down at the file and breathes out a sigh of relief. It’s done. She can rest easy tonight knowing this is done. Tomorrow will bring the harder part.

‘Tomorrow’ comes too soon. Max stands in the middle of the bedroom with her hands clenched in her hair, unable to breathe. To make a choice. How could this be happening? Why did she say ‘yes’? She should have refused and pretended the question was never asked.

She hadn’t, and now she is left in the midst of a panic attack.

Niall steps into the room, scrubbing a hand over his eyes, and the sleepy fog disappears as he cocks his head. His gaze flits between Max and the pile of clothes on the bed. She hadn’t been able to decide which outfit to wear, which has lead to this. He lets out a slow breath before crossing the room. She drops her hands to her sides when he pulls her in against his chest.

“What can I help with?”

“Turn back time so I never told my mom she and my dad could come.”

“Darling, you’ve been looking forward to this for years. I know it’s scary after so long apart, but they’re so happy to see you again.” He frowns and cards his fingers through her hair. “Let’s focus on getting dressed. We’ll get through the rest as it comes.”

“I… I don’t know what to wear.”

Niall doesn’t seem upset at her inability to choose, or her need for validation in this moment, nor does he laugh. Instead, he skims over the options on the bed and grabs a pair of navy leggings dotted with a rainbow of cartoon frogs. He passes them over then moves toward the closet.

Max swallows past the lump in her throat when he hands her a knitted sweater, the same sweater he wore at the Christmas dinner that she ruined. Thick and soft as butter, it is one she’s never tried wearing before. It’s too nice, too expensive-looking. It’s his, solely his, and she hadn’t wanted to ruin it. Yet here Niall is handing it to her freely.

“Get dressed, sweetheart, and I’ll see you in the living room.”

“Niall?” She meets his eye and smiles, timid though it is. “Thank you.”

“Anytime.”

She changes quickly once the door is shut, lets out a blissful smile as she tugs the sweater over her head. It settles on her frame in waves; it’s too large for her, she has too narrow shoulders, and the sleeves hang past her hands. But it’s exactly what she needed: To feel less obtrusive, take up as little space as possible in the world and hide away.

Sniffing at the aroma of laundry detergent and body wash in the fabric, Max drops her pyjamas into the hamper and makes her way out to the living room. There are only two hours before the flight lands. One hundred and twenty-six minutes until she sees her parents again for the first time in two years. She knows she isn’t ready for this, but she also knows she never will be.

Niall’s fingers wrap around her wrist, and Max stares at the counter she’s been scrubbing - again - for the last ten minutes. “Love, I think it’s clean enough.”

Forty-four minutes.

“I’m going to ask Dolly if she can pick your parents up from the airport.”

Max is shaking her head before he finishes speaking. “No, don’t.”

“You’re about to have another panic attack, Makenzie. She won’t mind if it means you’re okay.”

She knows she won’t win this argument. He’s stubborn. He will never back down if he thinks he is right. He wants the best for her.

So she lets him call Dolly, explain the situation in a quiet voice with his arm holding Max to his chest. She trembles as he speaks, as Dolly’s immediate response comes through the speaker. Max has never had a landlord care this much.

Niall lets her pace as they wait. Another hour, and Katherine and Martin will get their first look at how pathetic their daughter has become. Max tries to sit, but it’s a futile attempt. Each time she sits down, she is back on her feet within minutes. Niall doesn’t order her to relax. He doesn’t interrupt her back-and-forth across the living room.

He doesn’t speak except to reassure her things will be fine. Her parents will love her, they’ll be thrilled to see her again, and Max can make it through.

The door opens, and she halts abruptly. She nearly trips over her feet as she stares down the short hallway where Dolly stands. The landlady - friend - smiles gently then steps out of the way. Martin sets their suitcase to the side and straightens. Katherine appears at his side. Dolly closes the door, most likely disappearing to her own flat.

Max’s breath hitches in her throat. Her heart races even faster than it has been. She can’t drag in enough oxygen. Katherine’s lips quiver, eyes filling with tears, and Max launches herself toward her parents.

Niall stays off to the side as Max hugs her parents as tightly as possible. She wants to never let go again. To never lose them once more. She sobs into her father’s shoulder, in the middle of an awkward three-way embrace. Panic recedes, replaced with a tentative hope. Maybe they can still love the broken woman she’s become.

Katherine pulls back first, and she pushes Max’s hair from her face. “Oh, honey, we’ve missed you so much. And hey, no horns or puppy tail.”

“It’s so good to see you again,” Max whispers before letting out a shaky laugh. “I can’t believe you’re here.”

Martin kisses her forehead and sniffs. Max steps away so they can fully enter the flat. Her mother frowns when she sees Niall sitting on the couch, and Max laces her fingers with her parents’ hands.

“Mom, Dad, this is Niall. Niall, these are my parents. Martin and Katherine Bauer.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you. Max has told me a lot about you.”

“Thank you for keeping our daughter safe,” Martin says, shaking Niall’s hand.

“It was for selfish reasons, I assure you.”

Niall’s quip breaks the tension; Katherine reaches out for him, hugging him while Max looks on. As terrifying as it is to have her parents here, she knows she isn’t alone. Niall is here by her side through it all.

His phone rings before he can say anything else, and he scoops it off the coffee-table to glance at the screen. Excusing himself, he heads to the bedroom to talk to whoever has called. Max watches him go then turns to her parents. Katherine exchanges a look with her husband.

“Honey, do you want us to get a hotel room? We’ll do whatever we can to make you comfortable.”

“No, no, please. It’s okay. You can stay in my flat.”

“But what about you?” asks her father, and Max fidgets before telling him she will sleep in Niall’s bed as she normally does. Martin frowns. “You two dating?”

Max shrugs uncertainly. How could she possibly answer this when she and Niall have never defined the relationship between them? “Maybe? I’m not entirely sure. He’s, uh, he’s letting me set the pace.”

A door creaks open, then Niall re-enters the living room. Max tilts her head at the expression on his face. His grimace turns to a soft smile, and he stops at her side.

“Nik found out about your parents being here. She all but demanded we come out for a barbecue.”

“Of course she did,” she mutters, laughing. “Um, are you two okay with that?”

Katherine grins and nods. “Of course. We’d love to meet your friends.”

“They’re weird, just warning you.”

Niall grabs the suitcase, crosses the landing, and sets the luggage in the entryway of Max’s flat. Once that’s done, she locks the door and follows him down the stairs. Her parents trail behind closely. She draws comfort from her favourite people being so near.

Niall asks about Ann Arbor as he drives, and her parents spare no detail. They talk about their jobs - Katherine at the bank, her father in real estate - and their neighbourhood. Their friends, their hobbies. Even stories of Max’s childhood. Niall casts a look at Max from the corner of his eye, reaches across the centre console for her hand. She squeezes his fingers and settles back in her seat.

She is happy. Ecstatic, even through the fear. But she can’t help wondering when this will end. When her mom and dad will figure out that this attempt at a reunion is a waste of time. She doubts she would be able to handle that. She can’t lose them again.

Harry is the first one to notice the quartet walking through the front door. He keeps his distance, as if not to overwhelm Max or her parents, but greets them with a cheerfulness only he can do so naturally. Max waits until they are all in the living room before introducing Martin and Katherine to her friends. She catches sight of the expression on her mother’s face - proud, teary-eyed yet beaming. She wonders what it means, but she doesn’t ask.

Thankfully, the evening is spent in a bubble of peace. Her parents get along splendidly with her friends, and Nikki and Liam have outdone themselves with the meal. Max’s worries disappear, vanish in the face of everything going smoothly. Harry and Louis keep Martin laughing, and Katherine blushes when Zayn compliments her - “I can see where Max gets her beauty.”

It’s a lie. Max looks more like her father, but far be it from her to speak up.

When they get back to the flat, Max asks Niall to give them a moment. He nods, understanding in his eyes, and kisses her cheek. He tells her he will be here when she’s done, and her heart swells with the softness of the moment. She ignores her parents close by, presses her palm to his cheek, and whispers a thank you before kissing his lips.

She is in love with him, she knows that now. She only hopes he can hear the message in the kiss.

She leads her parents to her flat, and Katherine stops her with a hand on her arm. Max swallows down the urge to jerk away. Her mother smiles softly while her dad carries their suitcase to the bedroom.

“He’s amazing, honey.”

“He really is.”

“He seems to know you pretty well. I couldn’t help but notice that he was incredibly in tune to you.” Katherine leads her daughter to the couch, blowing out a breath as she sits. “He made sure you were comfortable, but he also gave you space without you needing to ask. Not many men are that observant.”

“I love him, Mom.”

“I know, and you couldn’t have found a better man to love.”

Max hesitates for a moment - is this the right time? “So I have something I want to show you.”

Her dad enters the living room right as Max finishes opening the safe. He joins Katherine on the couch, and Max hands him the file folder. He frowns down at it, index finger picking at the edge, then meets Max’s eye with a brow raised. She wraps her arms over her stomach but doesn’t hunch in on herself. She is stronger than this.

“I . . . I wanted you to know that I never, ever stopped thinking about you two. I wanted so desperately to reach out to you, but I knew I couldn’t. Not without risking your safety. So I, um, I wrote these instead. You don’t have to read them if you don’t want to. I certainly don’t ever wanna read them again. I just thought maybe it could give you insight as to how I spent the last few years.”

“We never stopped thinking about you, either, Makenzie.”

“I’ll leave you alone so you can r-read them or get settled in for bed. Whatever is fine. Uh, I’ll be right across the hall if you need me.”

“Okay, sweetheart.” Katherine rises to her feet and reaches for Max; she goes willingly into her mother’s arms, holding on tight and gasping in a breath as her mother clings just as much. “I love you so much, Mack. I’m so thankful you’re okay.”

Max forces a smile as she steps back. She embraces her father then turns toward the entryway. She closes the door on their quiet voices, her chest tightening when she realises she can’t come back from this. They’ll read the letters and see evidence of her weakest moments. And everything will be ruined.