Scars & Souvenirs

thirty-two

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Niall stays by her side as they drink their tea in silence, both lost in their own thoughts. Max finally has some peace from the shame and self-loathing when she sits beside him on the couch; there is no space between their bodies, and the warmth is home.

He stays by her side even as she works, though it must be boring for him. She has no television for him to watch. She doesn’t have books that he can read. He stays, anyway.

He suggests they go back to his flat for dinner, since he assumes - rightly - that Max hasn’t gone shopping in far too long. She grimaces, admitting that the only thing she has in her cupboards is the box of instant noodles. And her microwave died a brutal, unexpected death. He chuckles softly, wraps an arm around her shoulders, and leads her across the landing.

He cooks, she cleans. It’s easy, comforting, to know they can still work together even after she cut away from him so messily. It’s everything she has wanted and needed since he first gave her a taste of what love could be.

She waits on a beanbag chair while he showers and reenters the living room in a pair of sweats and a T-shirt. His hair lies flat on his head, droplets sliding down his skin to be absorbed by the cotton of his shirt. Something stirs in her belly at the sight, though it makes no sense.

It certainly isn’t the first time she has seen him like this, fresh from a shower and comfortable. It is, however, the first time since she realised, and accepted, that she may love him whether she deserves him or not.

And maybe that makes all the difference in the world.

He surprises her by handing the shirt she wore while living with him. The one that eased the severity of her nightmares, the one that smells so much like him. She sets it aside and steps into his space, hugging him as tightly as she dares.

He clings just as hard, fingertips bruising promises into her skin, and max lets the too-much pain reassure her that he will never hurt her. Not the way Gabriel did for so long. Niall’s touch lingers long after she enters the bathroom. Not even the hot water of the shower can wash it away.

It’s different now, the thought of spending time with him. He knows her ugliest parts, and instead of running, he’s told her of his own.

Niall is already under the blankets by the time Max enters the bedroom. She pauses in the doorway, dirty laundry bundled to her chest, then he smiles so gently at her that she moves on instinct. Dropping the clothes into the basket, she crosses the room to climb onto the mattress on her side.

Her side.

She wonders when the distinction happened, but it no longer matters. Niall is here. He’s forgiven her, and he’s allowed her back into his life.

He turns off the bedside lamp then settles against the pillows with a heavy sigh. She waits until he’s still before scooting closer. His heart beats steadily under her palm, the rise and fall of his chest assuring her that he’s real. So real and here with her. She couldn’t imagine something, or someone, so perfect in the imperfection, the shared broken pieces.

She falls asleep to the cadence of his breathing and his fingers running lightly along her arm.

Opera Man is home by the time Max opens her eyes the next morning, but even the high arias can’t annoy her right now. Niall’s legs are entwined with hers, his chest against her back as he holds her, and his breath ghosts across the nape of her neck. She swallows down the tendril of fear, the discomfort of being so near another person, and laces her fingers with his.

“That man is a nuisance,” he grumbles suddenly, and Max lets out an elegant snort. “I’m serious. He’s done this for the entire four years I’ve lived here.”

“Let him enjoy his music, you grump.”

“I do. I’ve not said anything to him yet, have I?”

Max buries her face into the pillow to smother her giggles, breaking into breathless laughter when Niall groans and flexes his fingers against her side. He presses a kiss to her shoulder then pulls away. She rolls over to watch him stretch; her gaze skims along the lines of his body, the taut muscle that has helped him keep her safe for months. He relaxes abruptly before throwing an arm over his eyes as he yawns widely.

“Can I ask you something?” she whispers, and he peers at her from under the bend of his elbow, nodding. “Have you heard anything about her?”

“Ciara? No. Not since her neighbour told me she’d overdosed at the party.”

Max stares at him, unable to process what he’s saying. “She - ?”

“According to him, she lived. That’s all I know.”

“And the baby?”

“She was adopted out immediately after she was born. To one of their friends, I think.”

He sighs and lets his arm fall to the bed. There is a darkness in his eyes that should scare Max, but she’s filled with the need to rid him of it. Before she can say more, he pushes himself out of bed and pads to the collage on the wall. She can see the shaking of his fingers as he unpins the pink bow from the board. Max sits up as he returns to the bed, passing it over to her.

“Ciara’s mom sent this a few years after they moved. It’s all I’ve ever had of my daughter. I don’t even know her name. Ciara only called her ‘the baby’.”

“I hate that this happened to you,” she says as her fingers stroke the bow, the curves and dips of the satin. Her gaze darts to his face when he scoffs.

“It is what it is. I mean, Ciara and I made the decision together that we were too young to raise a kid. It’s not her fault I changed my mind.”

“But it is her fault that she never gave you a chance.”

His eyes move from her hands to her face, an unspoken plea written in the downward curve of his lips, the shadows in his eyes. “I don’t wanna talk about this anymore.”

Max presses her lips together into a thin line, stemming her protest, and nods. Of course he doesn’t. She exhales slowly then holds the bow out toward him. He takes it with gentle fingers, moves to pin it in the centre of the collage once more. Her teeth worry at her lower lip as she watches him.

“One last question, then I’ll leave it alone forever.”

Niall glances at her, and his lips twitch slightly. “I figured you’d have a lot of ‘em. I’m surprised you’re willing to let it go so soon. Go ahead.”

“Did you love Ciara?”

The amusement vanishes from his eyes; his face closes off, an unreadable mask, and he turns back to the wall of photos. Her stomach churns. She regrets asking. No answer is worse than him admitting he loved the girl from his childhood. Max isn’t sure how she could ever compete with someone who has been such a looming presence in Niall’s life, someone who affects him so immensely to this day.

He heaves a sigh, body slumping, then makes his way to the door. He stops in the doorway and stretches a hand toward Max. She doesn’t think - she just climbs to her feet and crosses the room until she’s at his side. His fingers are gentle, steady, when they interlace with hers.

A rough edge in Max’s chest smooths out. Uncertainty struggles to the surface, but being here, next to him as they walk hand-in-hand to the living room, it feels like the place she’s fought so hard to belong.

The hours spent together are easy. They’re comfortable. They are whiled away curled up together on the couch as the television plays. No conversation is needed. Everything that needs to be said has already been said, and anything more would be too much.

So Max just stays pressed against Niall’s side, her arm draped over his waist and her head on his chest, as Lucifer annoys Detective Decker on the television. Real life awaits them: She has editing to do, and he has to plan for lessons.

Neither of them leave the bubble they’ve created.

She’s meant to go back to hers on Sunday night. He may have forgiven her. They may have taken this step towards…whatever it is that’s between them, but that doesn’t mean she should leap off the cliff without looking first. She needs to keep a steady head and concentrate on rebuilding the parts of her that were torn apart.

But then she finds herself staring at Niall as he laughs at something Trix does on-screen, and there is no hesitation. Max pushes herself up onto one elbow and, when his head turns toward her, she leans forward to kiss him. A soft, barely-there brush of her lips on his. He grins at her as she pulls back, reaching up to push her hair from her face.

“What was that for?” he whispers.

“I wanted to.” She chews on her lower lip. What if she’s done the wrong thing? But no, he’s still smiling at her, the edges soft and sweet and so encouraging. “Is that okay?”

He huffs out a laugh and pulls her further into his arms, holds her to his chest. “It’s more than okay, love. Kiss me whenever you want.”

Max closes her eyes as they begin to burn, and his heartbeat pounds steadily beneath her ear. It’s almost enough to dispel the doubts. The fears of needing - loving - him this much when all she knows of love is dangerous, cruel.

His fingers card through the ends of her hair, and she exhales slowly. He’s shown that love isn’t a game of cat-and-mouse or a tool for twisted punishment. He’s shown that the love he wants to give is kind, soft and fierce, understanding and patient.

If he keeps holding her like this, she might just start believing she’s worthy of it.