Scars & Souvenirs

forty-four

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This was what I needed. I’m going home.

Max grins down at the words, slams her journal shut, and rushes to pack. The pain in her chest, the tension that has crowded her bones, the gaping void where her heart used to be… They are all gone.

Time is a funny thing. When one doesn’t want an event to come, the seconds melt away until all that’s left is to face the dreaded thing. When one wants something to happen - when they yearn so desperately for the thing that will make them the happiest - time crawls.

And Max wants this to happen so badly, she can almost taste it.

She grips the steering wheel tighter, tight enough it creaks, and stares out at the road ahead. Traffic has picked up since she left at eight. Cars zoom past, scenery flying by, but all she can think about is going home. Going back to the love she found in Niall and hoping it is still there. Hoping he still needs her as much as she needs him.

God, does she need him. Her bones ache with her need, her want.

His car isn’t in front of the building when Max parks in her space three hours later. Glancing at the clock tells her she has roughly another hour before he gets home. She shuts off the engine then steps out into the brilliant sunshine. Without the air-con, her skins heats up rapidly. Max breathes in the familiar air, relishing the lack of homesickness, then sits on the bonnet of her Accord to wait for him.

Wait for his arms and his tenderness.

Niall finally pulls into his spot, and Max gulps in the face of her fears. She has worried that he found someone else, that he wouldn’t be happy to see her again. Billy’s words echo in her ears: You gotta clean it up. The old man was right: Niall is well worth the effort of trying. Of atoning for the hurt she’s caused since he met her. The memories aren’t what defines her future.

She is.

He comes to a stop a few feet away. She sees the way his fingers tighten around the strap of his bag, the tension that overtakes the exhaustion. His spine straightens, and she slides off the bonnet. Her heart thunders beneath her ribs. It’s now or never, and ‘never’ isn’t an option. He doesn’t speak even as she flashes an awkward smile.

“Hi.”

Her voice acts as a catalyst. Niall drops his bag on the pavement, disregarding the papers that threaten to spill out over the concrete. Four long strides, then he’s in front of her. Max inhales sharply when his hands cup her cheeks. His lips cover hers, and he kisses her like their lives depend on it. On the contact, on the connection, on the reassurance - the promise - that she is truly in front of him. She wraps her arms around his waist and falls further into him. When he pulls back, her grin is real.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispers as she raises her hands, brushes her thumbs under his eyes to catch his tears. “I just… I needed to get some clarity.”

“Don’t apologise, love. Please don’t. Fuck, you’re here.”

“I am. I wish I could’ve explained better before I left.”

“You said what needed to be said. You needed time and space to think. I understood. I understand. I’m not angry, Max, I promise.” He kisses her again, soft and hesitant, but his hands are so strong on her jaw.

“Good. Or else me coming home would be very, very, very awkward.”

“You’re back?” he asks against her lips. “For good?”

“Yeah. I’m-I’m home, Niall. You’re my home.”

Niall tugs her in for a bone-crushing hug, and Max cherishes the way his heart races in his chest. She clings to him just as tightly and wonders why she ever thought she could live without him. He’s been everything to her for so long. He has been her hero and her first great love. Her first real love. He has her heart in his hands, and that could never change. She could run the world over, put as much distance between them as possible, and still he would be the magnet that draws her home.

He scoops his bag up, draping the strap off his shoulder, and reaches for her hand. She follows him inside, up the stairs, and to the flat they’ve shared for five months. Even when she went back to hers, it was never her home. Not when Niall has been the one who has loved her enough for the both of them.

Max hesitates outside the door, staring across the landing at the 2B. “I’ll be right in. There’s someone else I gotta apologise to.”

He nods, pressing his lips to her sun-warmed skin, and heads inside while she makes her way to Dolly’s door. The door swings open within seconds of the knock. Max’s chest tightens at the flat expression on the landlady’s face. She swallows thickly and draws in a breath. It does nothing to steady her or offer courage.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. Dolly doesn’t blink. “I, I was freaking out because of what happened with Niall, and I laid all my misplaced anger onto you. I was angry with myself, with what Gabriel has done to me. I punished you. It wasn’t right. You certainly didn’t deserve it. And I’m sorry for disappearing like I did. I should have talked to you about what was going on, but instead, I left a note telling you I wasn’t coming back. Then I was gone. I’m so fucking sorry, Dolly.”

The disinterest on Dolly’s face melts, and she opens her arms. Max steps into the warmth her friend - the stand-in mother of almost a year. The tears come without permission. Max makes no move to stop them, to stifle them before they can slide down her cheeks. She closes her eyes and tightens her hold on Dolly.

“ I was so worried about you, baby.”

“I’m so sorry,” Max sobs, and Dolly sniffles.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. Niall told me you’d left him a note, too. Said you had something to work out for yourself.”

Max struggles to breathe through the death-grip Dolly has on her, but then she’s asking so quietly, her voice shakes, “Can you forgive me?”

“Of course I do. I’ve been where you are. I understand what you’re going through. But I’m still so angry you went and gave an old woman a heart attack for two weeks.” Dolly pulls back and smiles, brushing away the dampness on Max’s cheeks. “Now go be with your man. We can talk more over tea tomorrow.”

“Tea fixes everything.”

Dolly beams and pats Max’s hand. “Tea fixes everything.”

Niall is nearly vibrating as he stands just inside the door, and Max shakes her head with a soft smile. He loops his arm around her shoulder, guiding her further into the flat. She doesn’t lock the door behind them. She leans into his side as he tells her he’s ordered pizza.

“I’m too happy you’re home to bother cooking.”

“I’m happy, too.” She sighs, a blissful exhalation that holds the weight of her heartbreak and losses, love given and battles won. “Thank you. I was-I was afraid you’d not want me anymore.”

“Darling, I’m always going to want you in my life. I love you.”

I love you. She murmurs it back, kisses him with a gentleness that she’d forgotten she holds. He nuzzles his nose into her hair, and she grins when he asks if she wants to tell him about her trip. She does. She wants him to know everything that happened.

So she tells him about soaking up the sun in the grass atop the cliffs. Watching the waves roll in and back out to sea. Meeting new people and not feeling like they were a danger to avoid. She talks about Billy, how he opened her eyes, then pauses. He frowns at the hesitation, and she runs her fingertip over the smooth curve of his nails.

“I, um, I tried some wine while I was there.”

“You did?”

The shock in his voice would hurt if it wasn’t such a monumental event. She knows it. He knows she swore never to drink, and she’s done the complete opposite. He holds her more tightly as she admits that the wine was good, though she will most likely never be an avid drinker. Not like their friends are. Not like he is.

“I feel like-like things got less scary while I was there. I mean, I’m still kinda scared, because I’m always going to have the scars he left me. I will always have that survival instinct in the back of my mind screaming that I need to run and hide from everything. And sometimes… it’s going to get the best of me, no matter how hard I try to prevent it. Niall, I need to know how you feel about this.”

Niall stays quiet for a long minute, his hand running lightly along her arm. Max knows he is taking his time to think - really think - about what she’s said. To consider his thoughts and convey them as honestly as possible. She still fears he is trying to find a way to let her down easily, that he’s realised it’s too much to be with her. Finally, he lets out a slow exhale and nudges her face up so he can look in her eyes.

“I told you I wanted whatever you will give me. I know it’ll be hard sometimes for you and for me. But I want you. Scars and all, you’re my home, too. Max, I want us.”

“I could fall in love with you,” she says softly, just to see that gentle smile.

His eyes light up, and Max accepts the kiss. Her lips part beneath his - just as someone knocks on the door. He groans and pulls away. Before he can stand, Max wraps her hand around the back of his neck. He comes with no reluctance, no hesitance. She pushes forward against him until she can straddle his lap. She knows she isn’t ready for more than this, but she needs to feel the solid line of his body against hers. The promise that he is here, he will always be here, and his love is forever.

The knock sounds again, and Max buries her face into Niall’s neck. “Oops.”

He huffs out a laugh and waits until she’s clambered off of him to stand. She watches him head toward the door, the strength in his body that has brought her safety and pleasure. The steady hands that have worshipped her and held her through the worst - nightmares, pain, tears, fears. He has loved her through it all, and he has given her more than she ever dreamt of having. His heart. His unconditional love. A home that will always be here to welcome her back.

Max grins and makes her way to the kitchen for napkins. She has just settled into a seat at the dining table when he dances through the archway. A tune only he can hear, whatever it is makes him happy. His eyes meet hers. Her breath stutters in her chest.

Yeah, I’m home.
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i know, i know. i just updated. but i was too impatient to wait. so enjoy. oh, and the next chapter will be from niall's perspective. <3