Scars & Souvenirs

forty-five [pt I]

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It shouldn’t be like this, he knows it, but the heady fog takes over his brain. His body craves this more than he can understand. It wasn’t long ago that he was learning how to touch himself, how to make his world spin and his heart race as he muffled his cries with a hope his da didn’t hear. Or his brother.

God forbid Greg ever hear. He would never let Niall live it down, though he’s certain Greg has done much the same.

But the touches have never felt this exhilarating. So wrong yet so right. He can’t stop kissing Ciara, over and over as he runs his hand up her belly until his fingers brush against the soft cloth of her bra. As his other hand slips along her bare waist.

Her drunken giggles melt against his lips, and Niall yanks his head back to catch his breath.

“Fuck, Ciara, you’re beautiful.”

“And you, Niall James, are utterly tit-faced.”

“Am not,” he protests, though the slur to his words give him away. He can feel the burning in his cheeks, the heat that consumes him inside out. Alcohol, or maybe the thrill of what he knows is about to happen.

He swallows down her laughs and kisses her again. And again. And again.

“Touch me.”

Ciara guides his hand. Niall groans at first touch. He knows he isn’t going to last if he keeps touching her like this. Instead of stopping, he keeps touching her the way she demands. If only to watch the way her eyes roll into the back of her head.

He should worry about the fact she knows what to do. He should worry when she only moans.

He should worry.

But Niall is too far gone in the Guinness on his tongue and the warmth and heat as he pushes into her. Any doubts he might have had vanish when his hips settle in place. He squeezes his eyes closed and thinks of anything other than how amazing she feels.

She claps a hand over her mouth to stifle the noises, to muffle each whimper so no one else overhears. Her ma and da would kill her if they caught her like this. They would kill Niall if they saw the way he was sucking at her throat with her legs around his waist.

She tightens her hold, pulls him deeper, and he loses his balance. Alcohol and his first taste of intimacy sends his head spinning. His hips move of their own accord. He presses his face in the curve of his neck. He wants to stretch this moment into eternity.

It’s over far more quickly than he wants. He pants into her skin for a moment before rolling off of her, collapsing against the mess of blankets next to her. She pouts, swatting at his chest.

“If that’s what it’s like with you, I don’t think I wanna do it again.”

He should worry.

“I can keep goin’,” he mumbles. “Just gotta give me a second.”

Ciara’s sigh is drenched in frustration. He should worry. “No, it’s fine. Trust me, ‘kay?”

“I always will.”

He should worry.

She rolls her eyes and tells him where to go. Niall follows her orders as well as he can. Giddy excitement affects his dexterity, and her fingers tangle in his hair. Tug harshly at the strands.

He should worry.

He listens to her cues, does whatever she commands him to. She finds it good enough, evidently. Her thighs tremble around his head.

He should worry.

“Oi, stop it. Too much, you arse.”

He pulls away from her and wipes his lips on the duvet as she sits up. “How’d you even know how to do that?”

He should worry.

“Porn, ya eejit. Blessed porn. Now hand me the bottle.”

He does, swallowing a mouthful of whisky before passing it over. Ciara doesn’t mind she’s still so naked, her entire body on display before him as she drinks the whisky like water. She continues drinking while he pulls on her legs to bring her closer. All she does is curse at him for causing her to spill the liquor. He grins cockily and pushes at her shoulders until she sprawls beneath him.

She doesn’t say anything, fingers clenched around the neck of the bottle. The sounds aren’t the same.

He should worry.

______________________


“What are we gonna do?”

Niall shrugs helplessly, sat on her bed where only two weeks ago he’d tasted love for the first time. “I-I don’t know.”

“Well, aren’t you supposed to be the one who always has a plan?”

“I didn’t plan on this!” he protests. It’s unfair that she is pinning this on him.

He should worry.

“You think I did, feckin’ eejit?” Ciara scowls down at her feet. “I didn’t think it would happen.”

He runs his fingers through his hair. His heart in his throat - or stomach. At this point, he isn’t sure. All he knows is he might vomit all over the dingy carpet. “We were pissed. We weren’t thinking.”

“Not exactly birth control, Niall. Obviously, since it didn’t prevent this.”

“What do you wanna do?”

She stands abruptly, throwing the test into the bottom of her bin, and shoves a bunch of papers over the top. The test is hidden away, but still Niall can see the two lines. When she turns around, she looks her fourteen years, scared and uncertain. Niall knows how she feels - they are both far too young for this responsibility.

Her face clears without warning. The panic fades away to be replaced with nothingness. He should worry.

“My ma and da will kill me if I try to get rid of it.”

His heart breaks at how little emotion there is in her voice. There is nothing in her expression. He suggests adopting it out. She only shrugs and agrees with a flat voice. She doesn’t look at him even when he says her name.

“I wanna be alone, Niall. Go.”

So he does. He lingers in the doorway for a moment, but she doesn’t meet his eye. Pressing a soft kiss to her cheek and leaves. Their worlds have turned upside because of a stupid, drunken decision. He wants only to be here for her. They made the mistake together. They should be together through this.

He should worry.

The only worry on his mind is what they are going to do. His parents will be upset. They certainly won’t be thrilled about being grandparents so soon in their son’s life, but they will make sure Niall and Ciara and the baby are taken care of. Niall is terrified.

What the Hell did I do?

______________________


Niall tells his parents. He gets a job at a shop that doesn’t mind breaking the law. He struggles to keep up with schoolwork, his job, and visiting Ciara. Two, three, four months fly by. He is there for all of it, as much as he can be. He may have agreed to letting someone else raise the baby, but he can’t just abandon his best friend of twelve years.

The day before his fifteenth birthday, Ciara is scheduled to have her first scan. His parents come with him. His ma is excited to see her grandchild, even though she knows she will never hold the baby. His da is stoic as ever. Niall knows what that means.

Ciara glances up when Niall steps into the waiting lobby. Her eyes cut to her parents, and she ducks her head. He thinks it’s fear. He should worry. She refuses to acknowledge him as her father rises to his feet. The man’s sheer size causes Niall to stumble backwards, into his father’s chest.

“You need to leave.”

Niall gapes. Words don’t come. His mother takes charge, steps around her son to confront Ciara’s father straight-on.

“He has every right to be here, Murray. That’s his babe, too.”

“Not speaking t’ya, Maura, am I? You, boy, you’ve done enough damage.”

“I-” Niall seeks out Ciara, pleading silently for her to help. To say something. She doesn’t.

So he turns on his heel and struggles to put one foot in front of another. Cillian stands in the archway, blocks Niall’s view of Ciara. His mother rests her hand on Niall’s shoulder, but he can’t find comfort in her touch. His heart is on the floor of the lobby, placed there at Ciara’s feet. He waits until they’re in the car to let loose his tears.

______________________


The house party is in full swing by the time Niall arrives. People he once considered mates, the one who abandoned him when the news of Ciara’s pregnancy got out, stare at him as he pushes through the crowd to get to the liquor. He knows what they’re all thinking. He’s heard the rumours.

That Niall kid impregnated innocent Ciara then walked away to live his life. He refused to take responsibility. He destroyed her life for his own selfishness.

If they only knew.

If they knew he’d had no choice. He had wanted to be there for everything - every appointment, every craving, the birth. All of it. He wants the chance to say goodbye to the child he helped create. He wants the chance to change his mind.

But Ciara’s parents took those chances away from him. Niall has dealt with the whispers, the gossip, the judgement, on his own. Even his parents haven’t been spared the criticism. Too often his da has come home from work with his ears echoing with scathing remarks about his horrid, detestable son.

Niall has to wrestle with the unknown for the rest of his life, and he can’t change that.

He will never see a photograph. He will never know the name or date of birth. He has to live without finding out if the baby looks more like him or Ciara.

Will the child have his eyes? Her nose with the cute little upturn at the end? Her full lips and his dark hair?

He wants to know.

The crowd parts, leaving plenty of room for him to walk through. No one tries to speak to him. Niall prefers it.

He hates them for believing he is cruel enough to force Ciara to handle this alone.

He hates her parents for refusing him the chance to be there for her.

He hates himself for not trying harder.

He hates himself for not telling her he has changed his mind.

He hates Ciara for not fighting on his behalf.

She’s here. Her belly is slightly more round, face softer. But here she is, not even hiding herself from view as she sways to the beat. It’s too early.

He should worry.

It isn’t judgement on everyone’s faces. It’s pity.

Ciara grins sloppily at him as he approaches. Once he’s close enough, she throws her arms around his neck and kisses him. Her lips taste like whisky. A drop of blood discolours the skin beneath her nose. He should worry.

“Nialler! I’m so glad you came!”

“Wha- where’s the baby?”

“I dunno,” she says as if she’s speaking of something as trivial as the weather or Gallagher’s latest farming mishap. “Stopped being my problem two months ago, didn’t it?”

“What?”

Ciara rolls her eyes and grabs his hand. Her grip is too loose, but it sends sparks up his spine. His brain recalls that night spent with her. He struggles to remain unaffected; he can’t hide the way his body remembers the way she’d felt.

“If you wanna talk, at least dance with me. Don’t be a bore.”

He does, shifting awkwardly to the thumping rhythm of the music. It seems to pacify her: She holds her arms over her head and twists her body. Her movements are just as sensual, an attractiveness that a fifteen-year-old should never possess. He should have worried. There’s something in her lopsided smile and glazed-over eyes that tells him Ciara isn’t sober.

He pleads her name.

“The baby’s fine. Born early. I was in hospital for a couple weeks. Thanks for caring about me, you arse.” She frowns. “Dunno why you care. The girl was never ours, remember? We agreed to give it to a new family.”

“I-I have a daughter?”

He can’t breathe. He can’t pretend he gives a damn about the music or alcohol or even the stares from the others. All he can focus on is this bombshell. He has a daughter he will never meet.

“Why didn’t you tell me? I could’ve changed my mind!”

She moves closer, moves her body against his. “Too late now, love. It’s got parents who can actually take care of it. So c’mon, lighten up. We can have fun together.”

“I can’t believe you’d be this cruel. I expected this from your parents, not you.”

“I told ’em to keep you away,” she says nonchalantly.

Niall sees red, black spots floating in his vision. His mind goes blank. His stomach lurches, dropping to the floor, and the shock keeps him immobile. Ciara takes advantage of that; her lips brush across his cheek.

“I knew if you were around, you’d wanna keep it. I couldn’t live with that mistake. Please, Niall, stop talking about it. Let’s just go. Connor has a room around here somewhere where we can be alone.”

“You didn’t have to be there.” His voice wobbles, the world spinning in wild arcs around him. Someone’s stuck him with a knife. That has to be the reason for the pain. “I could’ve raised her without you. My ma and da would have helped. She never would’ve known your name.”

Ciara shoves him away, and the music abruptly cuts off. “I don’t know why you care so much. I just saved us both from ruining our lives. You’re welcome, you selfish prick.”

Niall trembles with rage and pain and betrayal. He’s the selfish one? He tried so hard to be responsible, be there for her, though he’s only a teenager. He had his whole life ahead of him until the night they didn’t think things through. He was willing to change his future for his child.

People stare at the pair, but he can’t care. Not when he has to focus so hard on not punching someone.

“This isn’t you.” And God, why is he begging so hard to believe that? He’s known her since they were two. He never saw this coming.

He should have worried.

“This is who I’ve always been, Niall. You just thought better of me.”

“Fuck you.”

The words echo in the silence. Niall chokes on his breath. His eyes burn as he stares at the girl he knew for the last thirteen years. Ciara only blinks slowly, unaffected by his anger. Then her face lights up as she glances over his shoulder. He turns to see a small group heading their way - two girls roughly their age, and a man no younger than twenty. Niall steps to the side as the trio pass by.

Ciara giggles and reaches for the man’s hand, tugging him along into the bedroom. Niall’s hands clench into fists at his side. Someone whispers, the music starts up again. He hates himself for looking, for seeing what’s become of the girl he lost his virginity to. The one who birthed his daughter.

She’s laughing. More alive than he’s seen her since they found out she was pregnant. She nips at one of the girl’s hip before leaning over a trail of powder along the girl’s belly. When Ciara lifts up again, the cocaine is gone, and she rubs at her nose and licks away the residue. The man rests on his knees behind Ciara, his hands skimming along her body. Niall swallows down the bile when the man hikes Ciara’s too-short dress up.

Smirking at Niall’s obvious disgust, the man waves jauntily and pulls on Ciara’s shoulders until she’s between the girl’s thighs. Niall turns away before he can watch the man, too old for Ciara, start fucking her.

Niall drops his cup to the floor. Daniel doesn’t say a word about the whisky that splashes on his shoe. Vomit climbs in Niall’s throat as he sprints away from the house, away from what Ciara has changed into. The heartbreak she has caused him. Away from any chance at knowing his daughter.

______________________


Hope lives in his chest, and Niall repeats to himself the list of achievements he’s accomplished over the last year. They aren’t much - not really. Only good marks in school and a decent amount of savings. A steady job. Maybe it will change their minds about him. Maybe they will realise he’s done a lot of growing up since Ciara was pregnant. Maybe they will help him find his daughter.

He wants to find his daughter.

He wants to raise her.

The house is empty. He knocks and rings the bell and knocks again. There is no response. The garden is overgrown. Curtains hang limp in the windows. Dust coats the glass. Niall stumbles back a step then hurries to peek through. The furniture remains, but no movement comes from inside. No one’s home. He gasps against the pain.

“They left a month ago, laddie.”

He turns to see the neighbour rocking on his porch. “What?”

“They left after their kid was found half-dead at a party. Surprised you hadn’t heard. “ The man continues speaking, as if he’s waited his entire life to spread gossip. “It was awful. Lucky someone had the mind to call emergency before leaving her there, or she woulda died from the overdose. Y’alright?”

Niall grits his teeth. Doesn’t bother responding. Instead, he turns his back to the door and takes off running. He has no clue what he is running toward, but anything has to be better than this. Any connection he might have ever had has been severed.

All because he didn’t try to save Ciara from herself.

He hates himself for that.

______________________


He finishes school. He graduates from university. He scours the internet for a job as far from Ireland as possible. Santa Barbara should be far enough.

His ma doesn’t want him to leave. His da claps a hand to his shoulder and wishes Niall luck. Greg says Niall will be back within six months. Niall sets out to prove his brother wrong.

His parents help pay for a motel room until he can find a flat. Fate must shine on him for once, because he’s on his way to one building when he passes an older woman walking her Rottweiler along the street. Her flyaway hair and loose-fitting tracksuit speaks volumes about her personality - she must not care what others think of her. She peers at him with grey-blue eyes and whistles sharply. Her dog stops, sits at her feet.

“You just move here, sweetheart?”

He nods.

“Well, I got a few units available.”

She could be a serial killer.

“No worries if you don’t trust me. I wouldn’t trust me.” The wink she gives him is meant to break the discomfort. It works. Marginally.

“I have some flats to look at first.”

It’s as much a promise as he can give. She grins in response then tells him she’s on the second floor if he wants to stop by later.

Rent is too much. He knew it would be, but it still takes him by surprise that the cost of living is damn near impossible to afford. He tells the management company of the “luxury apartments” he will think about it. The woman nods as if she expected it. She probably did, considering the $1450 a month - not including utilities.

Niall finds himself knocking on the door to 2B only an hour later. The dog barks, a booming sounds that has him stepping back quickly. The roughened voice tells ‘Sugar’ to be quiet, then she opens the door. Her eyes scrunch up with her smile.

She shows him the flat beside hers. Peach walls and hardwood that meets carpet. The window leads to a fire escape, and the kitchen has an archway and a bar ledge. He immediately agrees when she says he’ll only have to pay $900 a month and utilities are bundled in the cost.

“Oh! I’m Dolly, by the way. Forgot to introduce myself earlier, didn’t I? What can I say, my brain goes about as quick as my mouth does. Where ya from, doll?”

He blinks owlishly at the steady stream of words. “Ireland.”

“Ah, lovely place! I went there once on a school trip. Got into so much trouble, they sent me right back home on the fourth day. Had too much Guinness in my blood to behave.”

For a potential serial killer, Dolly is warm and open. She talks too much, but Niall finds he doesn’t mind it. He’d be happy to have someone like her murder him.

He moves in that day.

______________________


Finding the classroom is an adventure in itself. Niall manages to find room 116 after twenty minutes of wandering and steps inside. Desks are aligned in groups of four, blank name tags taped to the top edge of each. A hook hangs on the far wall, waiting for students to use them. Blank walls and ugly tile floors. A large desk and a stool. It isn’t much. Niall hadn’t expected otherwise.

The door swings open, and he looks up to see a woman carrying an enormous box in her arms. She stumbles to a stop, her load nearly tumbling from her grip. Niall rushes across the room to keep the box steady.

“You’re in my room,” she says, brows drawing together and a scowl tugging at her lips.

“No, this is mine.”

“No, I’m supposed to be in room one-eighteen. You are supposed to be in a different one.”

“Yes. Room one-sixteen. This one.”

Still frowning, the woman backs from the room to read the placard on the door. Her cheeks flush a brilliant red, but she’s gone before Niall can say a word. He stares after her, smiling despite himself. He hasn’t seen that fiery determination to prove she’s right since—

His smile vanishes. She is a forbidden topic. He shoves the memories into the back of his mind. She’s best left forgotten, in the past. She is nothing to him now.

He doesn’t believe himself. He will always yearn for her. The girl she used to be.

“Whoa, dude. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to piss you off.”

Niall looks up so quickly, his neck cricks. Wincing, he shuffles his feet. “You-you didn’t. Just... thinking.”

“Well, whatever it is, stow it. I need to ask you something.”

“You literally just invalidated my feelings over something you don’t know a thing about. Now you want to ask me something?”

She grimaces and pushes her honey-gold hair from her face. “Yeah, that was rude. Sorry. Again. People are hard.”

“What do you want?”

“Can you help me set up my room?”

Niall wants to say no. He has his own decorating to do before the year begins, and she reminds him too much of the girl who broke him. But he follows the hazel-eyed woman out of room 116 and into 118. They work together to get the name tags filled out, posters and behaviour charts pinned up, and supplies organised.

Thankfully, she returns the favour. His room is finished within the hour, and she turns to him with a wide smile.

“Thanks and you’re welcome.”

He grins even though he doesn’t want to. She thrusts her hand out and introduces herself as Nikki Lawrence, the ‘only best friend you’re gonna need’. He doubts that. The last best friend he had destroyed his life. He’s learnt that best friends aren’t worth the hassle, and they’re certainly not forever.

He tells Nikki his name anyway. Cocking her head, she stares at him. He resists the urge to squirm under the scrutiny. He wonders if she can see the shattered remains of his heart beneath his ribs. Nikki smiles, and his breath hitches when she speaks.

“I’m gonna figure you out, Horan. Just you watch.”

______________________


November brings with it a chill in the air and the rebirth of the anger that has festered in his chest for ten years. Nikki invites Niall to her holiday dinner at the end of the month, but he declines. He knows he isn’t in the right mindset. He would just ruin their good time.

He bites back the broken heart and the rage that fights to escape. He ignores it in favour of being the kind of teacher he wanted in school. The best friend he possibly can to Nikki, though she is more invested in the friendship than he is. She tries so hard, but he has nothing to give her.

Dolly corners Niall one afternoon as he drags himself up the stairs. He can’t escape the sadness that resides in her eyes, and he doesn’t want to. She beckons him into her flat. He follows and sets his bag inside the door. Sugar snuffles at his hands then trots away when he has no treats to give her.

“You’ve been drinking a lot.”

“I’m Irish. It’s what we do.”

The joke falls flat - he hasn’t felt humour in so long. Dolly points him to the couch and moves to the kitchen. The angels on her wall stare down at him as if he is encroaching on their domain, as if his anger and pain darken the room. For carved ceramic pieces, the angels are awfully judgemental.

As he drinks the tea Dolly passes to him, he finds himself relaxing. There’s a sharp bite of whisky to the tea. He drinks more.

The words bubble out of him without permission, but he is so tired of being alone. Of bearing the weight of the truth on his own shoulders. Dolly doesn’t bat an eyelash as he admits to his past, the way he couldn’t save Ciara from herself. The child he wanted but will never know. She reaches over, patting his hand.

“I’m sorry you went through that, baby. You didn’t deserve it. Did you ever know her name?”

“No,” he gasps as he covers his face. He can’t breathe. This is too much, too hard. He wishes he’d never spoken. “We agreed to give her up, but I changed my mind.”

“That’s okay. You’re allowed to do that.”

When he looks at Dolly, her face is blurry, fuzzy through the tears he hadn’t realised formed. “Why couldn’t she give me that chance?”

“What name do you wanna give the baby?” she asks instead of answering his question. He should have known better than to expect an answer. No one can answer that except for Ciara, and she doesn’t exist anymore.

“What?”

Dolly sighs and sips at her tea. “Honey, you need closure. Thinking of your daughter as just ‘the baby’ rips open that wound, and it reminds you that she isn’t yours to raise. Doesn’t it? So name her. Give her something you can cling to.”

He doesn’t know what to say. What name to choose. She smiles as if she knows what he’s thinking. There’s a sadness to the edges. She sets her mug aside and blows out a breath as she settles in to watch CSI. She doesn’t look at him again.

“For what it’s worth, I’ve always been partial to the name ‘Ava’.”

‘Ava’ has a nice ring to it. ‘Ava’ it is.

______________________


Nikki breezes into Niall’s flat as if she lives here. She might as well. She is over often enough. Louis at least has the decorum to apologise even as he follows his girlfriend into the living room. Nikki scoffs while she sets the bags on the coffee-table, says Niall doesn’t mind.

He doesn’t.

It’s been three years since Nikki stormed into his life and argued with him over whose room he was in. True to her word, she has been the best friend he’s had since he was fifteen. He still hasn’t told her the truth. It’s a secret only he and Dolly keep.

Harry and Liam come next. Zayn is the last to arrive. Niall has never been more thankful for people in his life.

The evening passes with nothing but mindless TV shows and Chinese takeaway. He stares around at his new friends - Harry from the failed trivia attempt, and Liam having tagged along with Louis. Niall still can’t remember how Zayn became a part of the group.

Nikki still says she’ll figure him out. He knows she never will.