Scars & Souvenirs

thirty-four

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Max stares at the door in front of her. It’s been nearly three hours since Niall stormed out, since she put a crack in the relationship that she can never take back. She spent that time curled up in the bathtub with the lights off and unable to breathe. Her blood had buzzed in her veins, creating a tingling in her skin that wouldn’t leave no matter how many breathing exercises she tried. All she could think about was the devastating loss, and it was all her fault.

She should never have tried to find Ciara.

Now, exhausted from the panic attack but not willing to lose Niall without a fight, she stands on the landing outside his door. Her entire body trembles as she knocks lightly, quiet rapping of her knuckles against wood. Niall never comes to the door. He doesn’t call out a ‘Come in’ as he’s done to his friends so many times, and he doesn’t appear before her to make her feel better.

It’s her turn now. She has to comfort him. Give him the support she swept from under his feet.

“My door’s always open.” His words echo in her ears. November seems a world away, though only four months have passed. So much has happened between then and now. Max is the same yet different. Never before would she have dared to open someone’s door like this, step into their home without explicit permission. But here she is in the entryway and closing the door behind her.

She tiptoes through the dark and breathes a sigh of relief that Niall hasn’t rearranged the furniture. Stubbing her toes as she walks isn’t something she could handle right now. Not when she’s fighting the urge to run. Max comes to a stop outside his bedroom. Doubt questions her decisions and tries to convince her to walk away, leave this alone. She has done enough damage, and the smartest choice would be to let Niall forget about her.

She can’t.

He has left the curtains open, silver-orange slanting across his back from the moon and streetlights, as he lies on his belly on the bed. He keeps his head turned toward the window; his arms pillow his forehead, muscles etched into marble with tension. The T-shirt he wears is stretched tight across his shoulders.

Max counts his breaths. Too fast, too shallow, too angry. She swallows the bile in her throat and pushes the door open more fully. He twitches as the hinges creak, but she continues walking. He doesn’t relax even as Max climbs onto the bed next to him.

Resting her head on his shoulder, she runs her forefinger along his spine, watches the tension gradually bleeding from his body. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to help you like you’ve helped me. You said you were scared to find out what happened to her, so I thought I could do it for you. Tell you when you I knew something.”

“What if Patrick had told you she was dead?” he snaps, back stiffening once more under her touch, and Max closes her eyes at the pain in his voice. No anger.

“I would’ve found a way of breaking the news to you and been here for you.”

The sound of their breathing is all she can hear for a few minutes. Her finger never stops its up-and-down slide on his spine, the cotton of his shirt tickling her skin. She wants to beg for his forgiveness. She wants to fall to her knees and plead for mercy. She wants him to love her as he has. She doesn’t speak.

Niall lets out a shuddering breath, his voice crackling and quiet when he asks, “Is she?”

“I don’t know. I was trying to convince him to give me information when you saw the messages. Niall, I - I never meant to hurt you or betray you. This was… it was for you.”

“Fuck, Max.” He sighs, going abruptly lax, and she turns her face into his shoulder to hide her tears. “I’m so sorry. I just - ”

“Let’s just go to sleep. We can talk about it in the morning.” Max lifts up onto her elbow when he continues trying to apologise; she covers his mouth with her hand. His smile, fleeting as it is, flickers against her palm. “Sleep, Niall. Please.”

He rolls over carefully, slowly, and Max’s hand slips to his hair. Without thinking, she cards her fingers through the strands, soft and thick on her skin. Niall wraps his arm around her waist, and Max goes willingly.

She curls into his side and exhales shakily even as she presses her fingertips into his chest. Feels his heartbeat, the one that’s steady as he is, soothing in its reliability. Everything about him is solid, familiar, and home.

She whispers an order for him to sleep. He whispers back an apology. The world is right again. Max can breathe.

Morning comes too quickly. The alarm drags Max from the fitful sleep she’d endured during the night; nightmare after nightmare had come, each one revolving around Niall - him leaving, him never forgiving her, him falling in love with Ciara again. Yawning, she stretches out the kinks in her muscles and giggles when Niall entwines his legs with hers.

“Think I can get by with calling in a substitute?” he mumbles as he presses his forehead against the back of her neck.

“No, you can’t. You have to get out of this warm, comfy bed and go to work.”

“That sounds horrible. Bad idea. I refuse. I’m staying here.”

His arm flops over her side, tugging her even closer into the curl of his body, and he wraps his leg around her shins to keep her in place. Max can’t stop smiling at his antics, though being pinned would normally incite a panic attack. It would have felt too much like dangerous control. With him, there is no fear. Only comfort.

She pats his hand before growing serious. Her sigh signals a shift, one that Niall picks up on easily. He kisses her shoulder and releases her. She rolls over to face him, and her thoughts stutter to a standstill when she gets her first glimpse of his face. Even with bleary eyes and pink-red lines on his cheek from the pillowcase, he’s the most gorgeous man she has ever seen.

He’s too beautiful for her.

“I’m sorry for getting involved,” she says after a moment, frowning as his eyes darken and his mouth opens. “No, please. Just listen, okay? You were right. I shouldn’t have stuck my nose in your business. You could’ve done it at any time in the last ten years, but you didn’t. So I shouldn’t have done it.”

He sighs and cups a warm hand around her jaw, stroking her cheek with his thumb. “Max, I’m not mad. I mean, I was last night. And I still am a little, but not really, if that makes sense. I was just taken by surprise. Patrick Murray is a name I haven’t heard since I was fifteen, and I never thought I would again.”

“So you’re okay that I did it?”

“I will be. Eventually. I only wish you would’ve talked to me about it first.”

Max understands that. She wishes she had, too. Maybe she could have avoided his anger last night. Maybe she never would have reached out to Ciara’s cousin in a misguided attempt to lessen Niall’s hurt. But what can she say? It’s too late to take it back, to undo it, and she’s already apologised profusely. Any further apologies might only irritate him.

She pokes the tip of his nose and giggles as he goes cross-eyed. “Go to work, Mister Teacher Man.”

He groans, loud and altogether exaggerated, but rolls toward the edge of the bed. Max gasps, bolts upright, when he falls off the mattress and lands on the floor with a thunk. She whispers his name, once then again. Suddenly, his hand appears in the air, and he waves wildly.

“I’m okay, don’t worry. Just wounded pride that you’ve seen me so uncool.”

Max snorts, shoves back the blankets, and pushes to her feet. “I’ve seen you with ink all over your face. I think this is less ‘uncool’ than that.”

Niall hasn’t moved by the time she rounds the bed to stare down at him. He sighs and pushes a hand through his sleep-mussed hair. Finally, he meets her gaze, and Max feels all amusement draining away. A plug pulled from a tub and water whirlpooling down the drain.

“If Patrick tells you she…”

His voice trails off, but Max knows what he isn’t saying. What he’s unable to put into words. Fear fills his eyes, sets his face into a mask of uncertainty. She crouches down next to him, running a finger over the arch of his brow.

“I swear you will be the first to know, and I’ll be right there through it all.”

Niall clambers to his feet a moment later, and Max wonders how she could have made that promise. She wants to - God, does she want to stay by his side, no matter what comes - but she is a mess herself. She doesn’t struggle for reprieve from anxiety nearly as often, and she can speak more freely now.

But she is still healing. Still recovering. He needs someone more stable, someone who can give him everything without reservation.

She desperately wishes she could be that someone.

Max embraces Niall on the landing then watches him head down the stairs. He stops at the door, looks back over his shoulder. The smile on his face, given right before he steps out into the bright morning, is something Max would kill to keep. By the time she steps into her flat, Patrick has messaged her ten times overnight. She drops onto the couch and picks at the dry skin of her lips as she reads the messages, each one angrier than the last.

Patrick Murray (22:06): Look, you’re wasting my time. If you don’t actually want to know about her, then just tell me so we can both move about our lives.

Max Bauer (07:21): Sorry, but I had other things to deal with. I DO want to know about Ciara, though, so whatever information you can give would be great.

The banner at the top of the message thread says Patrick hasn’t signed into his account since midnight, so Max has no hopes of hearing back from him for a while. So she sets her phone aside, brings up the latest manuscript, and gets to work. Her search for Ciara means that she's let her job fall to the wayside. Hank hasn't brought it up, but Max knows it is only a matter of time before he does - or before he fires her.

A buzzing noise jerks Max from her tunnel-vision, and she blinks rapidly before glancing at the time. It’s been four hours of editing and waiting. Grabbing her phone off the coffee-table, she climbs to her feet and stretches her arms over her head until her spine lets out a series of pops. The tension disappears, flooding her body with a dizzying relief, and she sighs as she makes her way to the kitchen.

Once the coffeemaker is filled and brewing, she unlocks her phone to read the message. Patrick tells her that Ciara is alive and well - thriving, even. She legally changed her name shortly after her parents moved the family from Mullingar, and she’s been doing well ever since she went to rehab. Her life has finally gotten back on track.

Max Bauer (11:51): I’m glad to hear she’s doing well. Can I tell Niall?

Patrick Murray (11:56): If you want, I guess. Just tell him not to try to find her. I’ll talk to her and see what she wants to do. If she wants to talk to you, can she message you on here?

Max Bauer (11:58): Absolutely. Any time.

Patrick Murray (12:03): Niall turn out to be a good guy?

Max Bauer (12:07): Yes. He’s honestly the greatest man I’ve ever met, besides my father. Really. I can’t put into words how torn up he’s been since she moved.

Patrick Murray (12:08): Then why the Hell hasn’t he reached out to any of us at any point??? You’d think a man as great as you say he is would at least try

Max Bauer (12:09): I think he thought you lot hated him. Besides, after Ciara and her family moved, did any of you reach out to HIM to see how he was doing?
Max Bauer (12:09): Plus, he’s terrified that something bad has happened to her. I don’t think he knows what he would have done if he heard she died or something.

Patrick Murray (12:11): Okay. I’ll ring Ciara later today.

Max Bauer (12:11): Thank you so much. Seriously, I know you have your reasons for being apprehensive, but this truly means a lot to Niall and me.

Patrick Murray (12:13): You his girlfriend or something?

Max chews on her lower lip and stares at the latest message. It’s such a simple question, one that would rarely make anyone else falter. She’s reminded of the fact that she doesn’t know what she is to Niall. She cuddles with him. They spend hours together. They have even kissed a couple of times. But the relationship is still far too undefined. Any answer she gives won’t be completely truthful.

Max Bauer (12:25): Or something, I guess.

Patrick sends back a thumbs-up, then the green dot beside his name goes grey. Max sets her phone aside and rummages through the cupboard for a mug. The entire conversation has left a bitter taste in her mouth. He hadn’t denied that his family hates Niall, hadn’t even attempted to acknowledge how horribly Niall was affected by Ciara. He said he would ring Ciara, though. That has to be enough of a win.

Max quickly types out a message to Nikki to let her friend know of the developments regarding Operation: Find Ciara, no matter how disappointing they are. Then she carries her coffee into the living room and pushes open the window. Cool wind rushes past her as she carefully climbs out onto the fire escape; breathing in the salt-tinged air, she wonders what kind of change that Ciara is going to bring, whether it will sever the relationship that Max has with Niall.
♠ ♠ ♠
happy early christmas! may your holidays be as
beautiful and bright as you are!