Scars & Souvenirs

thirty-one

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The flat beyond is quiet, no television or singing to disturb the eerie silence. No sign of life, and that feels wrong somehow. Max blows out a breath and raises a shaky hand. The paper wobbles in her grip, the edges crinkling between her fingers.

Her thumb presses the tape to the wood, “Niall” written in tidy letters on the outside of the folded sheet of paper. As soon as the note sticks to the door, she turns and hurries across the hall. He won’t be home for another hour, but she doesn’t want to risk being caught.

She can’t stop checking the time. It’s torturous, repeatedly reminding herself of how few minutes she has left before she forced to follow through, but she has no control over the needling compulsion of counting the seconds. Her attention strays from the latest project, a memoir written by a second-generation immigrant, and she eventually pushes her laptop away with a heavy sigh. Work can wait.

Her breath hitches at the timid knock, so quiet yet so damningly loud. She isn’t ready. This was her idea, but she isn’t ready. There is no time to doubt the decision: It’s six-thirty on the dot, and Niall is home.

She’s left her door unlocked, and he takes advantage of it, opening the door after a moment and stepping inside. She steals a glance at him while he toes off his shoes and drops his bag to the floor. His shoulders are slumped forward, body radiating exhaustion - and defeat.

He looks as wrecked as she feels.

He sits on the sofa without a word, and a paper drops to the floor next to her. Did you mean it? She hoped he would understand what she meant, and the simple ‘yes’ written below her question tells her he did. Max draws in a steadying breath that rattles in the air. Best to get this over with. One fell swoop, like ripping off a bandage.

“I got scared.” Her voice crackles with disuse and nerves, so she coughs quietly, tries again. “The last time I trust someone, he broke me. He destroyed every part of me he could find and forced me into his sick, twisted idea of who I should be. I’ve spent years running from him, so trusting anyone else? It’s - it’s hard, Niall.

“I told you I couldn’t trust myself. Why should I? I mean, I trusted that I knew what I was getting into, that I could handle what he was doing to me.” Clearing her throat does nothing to ease the tightness; her eyes burn as tears slip down her cheeks. “I know you aren’t him. I know that as well as I know the sky is blue. But… I also know you have the potential to break me more than he ever did.”

“What do you mean?”

And god, his voice is so soft, not demanding a damn thing of her but pleading for the truth. For some way to understand what she’s saying. Max hesitates then forces herself to face him straight-on. His gaze tracks over her face, and she can hardly breathe at the tenderness. She has to make him understand.

“With you? There, there’s hope for something better. There’s hope that I’m not completely screwed up. It terrifies me that I could deserve that, and it terrifies me to want that. That I could have it, if that’s what you want, too.”

Niall nods slowly, reaching for her, but there’s no contact. His hand falls back to his lap, and his fingers twitch minutely. Her vision swims at the action - or lack thereof. He leans forward to rest his elbows on his knees, stares down at his feet. Max shifts closer if only to feel the warmth of him so close, if he won’t give her the luxury of his touch. He lets out a long, slow breath and meets her eye.

“I’m trying to understand. I can’t imagine the extent of what he’s done to you, but I see the aftermath. I see how badly he’s mistreated you. I said it before, though. I don’t want anything you don’t want to give me, Makenzie. If there’s even the slightest doubt in your mind, if it feels like I’m coaxing you into a relationship, then it isn’t worth it. I just want you in my life however you will be. No expectations, no pressure.”

When he doesn’t say more, Max swallows past the lump in her throat. She doesn’t know how to respond. He has done nothing but be patient and giving and kind - further proof that he is better than she could ever truly deserve. She’s hurt him to save herself. She can never repay him for all that he’s given to her. Trying to speak right now can only damage this bubble of tentative peace around them. So she says nothing at all, just turns back to her laptop.

“We were fourteen,” he says suddenly, and Max startles even though his voice is quiet. “She was… she was my best friend since I was two. We were dumb kids. We’d steal a bottle of whisky and go sit out on the roof, drinking until the sun came up. Then it happened.”

She wants to tell him to shut up. She needs him to stop telling her this. If he tells her he isn’t perfect, it will shatter the illusion that he is. She needs that from him, as selfish as it. The solidity of his presence. How can she have any hope if he isn’t who she thinks?

“She’s who I lost my virginity to. It was - it was just something to do, y’know? A decision made while we were drunk. And shouldn’t your ‘first taste of love’ be with someone you care about and trust? We were dumb fucking kids, Max, you have to believe me.”

“Niall - ” Please stop. Don’t say another word. I’m begging.

“I, uh, I have a daughter because of her.”

What?” she breathes; she is frozen, staring blankly at her laptop screen while the world falls around her. Her head swims, the sound of her heart shattering in her ears.

He scoffs, feet shifting next to her. “The first time I have sex, and she gets pregnant.”

He laughs, the sound manic and frightening. As if a dam has broken, he keeps going; his words collapse over each other as he recounts how badly he wanted to be there for the pregnancy, but her parents wouldn’t let him. She wouldn’t let him. About being kicked out of the doctor’s office at the twenty-week scan. About seeing her at a house party eleven weeks later, their daughter already adopted out.

Max has never wanted to hurt someone like this. Never before has her rage been directed so fiercely, so acutely, toward another human who hasn’t harmed her first.

But her blood is burning in her veins, boiling as she listens to him talk about how Ciara had been so wrapped up in her own selfish lifestyle, she didn’t care that she was breaking Niall’s heart.

How he watched her do a line of cocaine off another girl’s body before having sex with a stranger in front of Niall, simply because the stranger had more blow.

How his entire world was turned upside down, and Ciara just didn’t give a damn.

How he knows he should have done more, but he was too angry, too betrayed.

Max aches to hold him, to comfort him and hide him from the horrors of reality, if only for a minute - just as he’s done for her so many times. But how can she? She is far too unsteady for herself. She could never possibly be a port of stability for someone else.

“I tried going to her parents to, I dunno, I guess get them to change their minds and tell me about my daughter.” His voice wavers; she closes her eyes as he sniffles. “They were gone. Ciara, her parents, her sisters. All they left behind were memories of the girl who’d been my best friend and the mother of a child I’ll never know.”

“Niall…”

“I keep asking if there was anything I could have done. Should I have told her parents about our drinking? Should I have gone to them the night of the party? Could I have prevented all of this? Fuck, Max, I don’t even know if she’s alive. I want to know, but I’m fucking terrified.”

Max moves without thinking: She clambers up onto the couch next to him, ignoring the voice screaming in her head that she will break him further. Her arms wrap around his shoulders, and it seems to be the only permission he needs. He falls into her hold with no hesitation. She cries with him, his face buried against her shoulder while her tears find a home in his dark hair. They hold each other with bruising force as they fall apart together.

“Niall, I’m so sorry,” she chokes out, pushing against her fears to press her lips to the crown of his head. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

She loses track of time, how long they cling to one another, but she lets the storm blow itself out as she holds him as tightly as he’s ever held her. The words won’t come, but she hadn’t expected them to. Words have never been easy for her, and this isn’t a hurt she can soothe with gentle voice and loving words. This is a hurt born of broken heart, long before she ever entered his life.

So she keeps him held to her, smooths a hand down his back as his shoulders shake, and drops a kiss to his hair with another apology. Eventually, the position she’s in becomes too uncomfortable to ignore any longer. She squeezes her eyes closed, tightening her hold on him, then lets him go. Niall sniffs as she pulls away, and a weight settles solidly in her chest at the sight of his face.

The devastation.

The anger simmering just below the surface.

The small glimmer of relief at having let out a monumental truth.

Slowly, Max raises a hand, fingertips brushing the dampness from his cheek with a gentleness she never knew she possessed. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t,” he whispers as he shakes his head.

“Niall - ”

“There’s nothing to apologise for, Max. I promise. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Niall, listen to me.” She cups his cheek with her hand, tilts his head so she can meet his gaze. Her voice shakes as she whispers, “I’m sorry for everything you have gone through. I’m sorry for hurting you the way I did when we argued. I’m sorry for shutting you out when you’ve been so damn good to me. I’m sorry that I couldn’t be there for you before, and I want to be here for you now.”

The dark clouds in his eyes abate, and she inhales unsteadily when his lips curve into a slight smile. He nods, swallowing thickly, and his murmur of forgiveness softens the jagged edges in her chest. She runs her thumb carefully under his eye to catch a stray tear that falls, then rests her forehead against his and reaches for his hands.

Breaths mingle between them, more intimate than anything Max has ever known. Simple, easy, a shared loneliness and heartache. She closes her eyes against the yearning in her chest and wonders if he feels the same.

After a moment, she clambers awkwardly to her feet and heads toward the kitchen. It isn’t much, but tea might help to relax them. To ease the pain of reliving tortured pasts.

“I, er, I’ll get out of your hair now.”

The mug nearly slips from her grip at Niall’s quiet voice behind her. She turns, frowning, and watches as he rubs the back of his neck. The fact that he avoids making eye contact with her scares her. She sets the mug next to its partner on the countertop then crosses her arms over her chest.

“Why?”

“You… you’ve made it obvious that you’re not comfortable around people right now, and I - I get that. I do. I just don’t want to make it harder on you.”

Her breath lodges painfully in her throat, and her eyes sting with more tears. Of course he wants to reassure her. After everything she’s put him through, he still wants her to feel safe and at ease in her own space. But the safety, the peace, he wants her to have won’t come when she’s alone. She’s learnt that quite well. It’s unfamiliar. It’s uncomfortable. It’s terrifying.

But she needs him.

Without speaking, she pads across the room. Niall’s jaw tightens when she comes to a stop in front of him. He doesn’t prevent her from snaking her arms around his waist. From resting her head against his chest.

From whispering, “Please don’t leave me.”

He doesn’t stop any of this.

And he doesn’t leave her.