My eyes widened involuntarily. I opened my mouth but no words came out. His presence surprised me - I wasn’t one for surprises.
“Samm,” he spoke first. His expression was a mix of relief and irritation.
Irritation wasn’t good, especially when coming from Niall.
“Erm - Niall,” I said, taking a subconscious step back into the house. I moved my hand behind the door. “What are you doing here?”
I saw the corners of his mouth twitch down. “You seem edgy.”
He didn’t answer my question, but I didn’t feel like pressing further in his seemingly annoyed state. But he was right - after my wrist, the talk with my mum, and now this… I was shaken up - edgy. And when he made a subtle move forward, both the memory and emotional stress of our embrace came back to me.
I took a hasty step back. Flashes of the worst side of Niall appeared in my mind - all of the bruises that’d accumulated, the tears, the cuts, the scars, the scramble for control. All of the things that hadn’t been a problem in the past week had seemed so small until now. As his eyebrows furrowed in confusion and frustration I took another step back, glancing down and allowing my eye to catch on the nearly faded bruises on my right arm in the shape of fingertips - Niall’s.
“Are you okay?” Niall asked, taking a step toward me.
My eyes widened and I drew in a breath. “I - I’m fine,” I stuttered. Almost out of instinct, my body shifted more behind the door, putting a material object between myself and the boy who’d been my tormenter for the longest time. Funny, almost, how one little facial expression had enticed so much anxiety out of me. Maybe it wasn’t just because of Niall that I was this stressed.
“You don’t seem like it,” Niall raised his eyebrow. Lightly, his hand rested against the wood of the door as he stepped through the doorframe.
I tried to take a subtle deep breath as my heart began to race. I was too afraid of getting hurt for the second time today. I was too afraid of Niall right now. But the memory of Niall controlling his anger suddenly appeared fresh in my mind, and I found purchase to allow my breathing, at least, to stay steady. He’d gotten better in these past few days. I just had to keep reminding myself that - and at the same time remind myself that he was unpredictable.
“Samm?” he asked, wringing his hands. “Are you sure you’re fine?”
Something in his tone threw me off. It sounded like… Concern? Empathy? Whatever it was, it was so entirely genuine that I gave him a small smile.
“I am,” I said quietly. My heart started to slow down to its normal pace. “I’m fine.” And then I said something on a courteous impulse. “Would you like some tea?”
Niall smiled. “Sure.”
“Can I ask why you weren’t there today?” Niall asked from the counter as I poured a bit of tea into a glass for both of us.
I bit my tongue. Was a strained wrist enough reason to miss a whole day of classes? Maybe it would’ve been better just to tell him I hadn’t felt well this morning. But would he believe that when he saw the gauze around my arm? Or had he already seen it anyway? I could probably take the bandage off. But then again, my wrist might be bruised or swollen by now.
I simply shrugged, my back facing him. “I didn’t feel well,” I told him.
He cleared his throat and I winced. “Sorry to hear that.” I nearly let out a sigh of relief when there was no mention of my wrist. But why in the world was I so worried about it? A strained wrist wasn’t something to freak out about. Especially when Niall probably didn’t even care in the first place. Even so, I felt as if there was something to worry about with it. But why?
I sighed and picked up his glass, then walked over to him at the counter. And when I set it down in front of him, I barely had time to react before I felt his strong hand around my bandaged wrist.
Oh. That’s why.
I let out an odd noise, something that sounded much like a strangled cat. Though I’d taken pain medication, the pressure wrapped around the central part of my wrist sent a stab of pain up my arm - I swore I felt the pain tingle in my teeth.
I ripped my arm away from his grasp, backing away and clutching my injured wrist. My teeth ground together, trying to hold back the pained tears that suddenly sprang to my eyes. It had probably swelled a bit, along with being sore. Nonetheless, it hurt.
“Oh my God,” I breathed, caressing my arm as I walked out of the kitchen. I rubbed my eyes as I attempted to control my reaction, not having the awareness to care as Niall whispered profanities and followed after me in my pursuit of the living room.
I shuffled to the middle of the room and crouched down, resting on my haunches while I let my forehead fall to my knees. Breathing deeply, I stayed in my position until the throbbing in my wrist was bearable. I stayed in this position a while longer though, mostly cursing myself for letting Niall in in the first place — letting him into my head. But I finally looked up, finding Niall sitting in front of me.
His legs were crossed, shins exposed by the khaki shorts he wore. His torso was covered by a blue polo. Niall’s hands wrung nervously and his eyes were concerned, giving me the impression that the pain inflicted was unintentional — that was a first.
I sniffed back the tears I hadn’t let fall, rubbing my left eye and blowing out a long breath before shifting to the same fashion as Niall. Carefully, I rested my right wrist against my upper thigh, almost subconsciously away from Niall. He winced as he saw my actions, though I didn’t know why. Wasn’t he used to inflicting pain upon me?
“I’m sorry,” he said. His tone was flat. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
I furrowed my eyebrows, glancing down at my wrist. The gauze was still in place, covering from up around my thumb to down below the injury. Did it not seem to him that I was injured? No, I was sure the gauze gave it away. Despite my urge to be terribly sarcastic with him, I knew that would probably anger him.
“Then why did you?” I asked instead. It was a harmless question, but I saw his jaw tense anyway. I didn’t react - he’d been able to control his anger the past two times I’d set him off. It was a chance I was taking, but I was tired of being anxious every time I felt Niall was growing angry. Once he saw this, I thought I caught an odd emotion crossing his face — shame. I had no reaction to this either. I was tired and I’d had a bad day.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, quieter this time. “I wasn’t thinking. I just wanted an explanation, and I didn’t know you were hurt that badly.”
I clucked my tongue. “Well, now you know.” I was silent for a long time. After a few minutes of just staring blankly at each other, Niall huffed and rubbed his face with his hands.
“This wasn’t what I came over here to do,” he mumbled, then pulled his knees to his chest.
My eyebrows furrowed. “What did you come here for?”
He sighed. “I… Well… I think we got off on the wrong foot.”
I blinked. Twice. “Wh—What?” I was so taken aback by his statement that my brain nearly shut down. I’d gone through a lot today and it seemed like the more that piled on, the more distant I got.
Niall smiled wryly. “We didn’t start out right, Samm.”
My chest tightened at the way he let my name ring out from his mouth. The ends of my fingers started to tingle, and I felt an unconventional blush creep across my cheeks. Beside him making the understatement of a life time, I was outright stunned to hear him talk this way. How could any person change this much in not even a week? The transition was unsettling, and I grew wearier of him.
“No,” I said quietly. “No, we didn’t.”
I averted my eyes, staring at something to my far left. In my peripherals I saw Niall look down and rub his blonde head while he let out a long breath. “I think we need to start over. Completely.”
My head whipped back around to him, eyes wide. What did he mean? What was starting over supposed to help with? Did he think that it would allow me to forget the past - be any less afraid… no, cautious... around him? I couldn’t just turn around and erase the scars that littered the space right below my chest. No, the bruises wouldn’t go away that easily. Neither would the memories, or even the lingering anger still inside of him. Or would starting over do that for him?
“I-” I began, but Niall interrupted with a rushed explanation.
“-I know what I’ve done is wrong. I know that with all that’s in me. I just want you to let me prove myself to you. There are a lot of things about me that you don’t know, and a lot of things that I don’t know about you. Changing something isn’t going to fix it. Getting rid of all the thoughts of this will.”
My left arm was brought up to my face, rubbing my tired eyes. My chest tightened at every word, stunned at the sudden and complete change in Niall. How was this even possible?
“Please hear me out,” he said, voice desperate. “I need you to have an open mind. I want to forget all of what’s happened - the tutoring, the project, everything. We can start over.”
I bit my lip. I had no idea why, but it felt like a wave of butterflies flew through my stomach and chest, scattering my thoughts. Part of me wanted to take Niall’s offer and give him a chance to apologize; but the other part of me wanted to forget Niall altogether, to not see his intimidating face again.
“I — I don’t — I don’t know,” I stuttered, rubbing my forehead. “I don’t think I ca—”
“—Please.” I looked up to meet his eyes, finding them completely filled with guilt and remorse. Something within me swayed more toward his offer, wanting to stop the emotional trouble caused within him. “Please, let me make this up. In a setting other than our homes or at some dumb party.”
My mind flashed back to Keaton’s party, where that girl had jumped on Niall before he could even blink. For some reason this angered me and it was all I could do not to shout, ‘Yes!’, and just be done with it. But caution had long since become one of my survival antics in spite of Niall. There wasn’t usually a moment around Niall that I didn’t have some kind of guarded attitude.
“What did you have in mind?” I asked, cursing myself seconds later. This wasn’t a good idea. It never had been.
I saw the corners of Niall’s mouth tip up. “I was thinking something like the park. The one downtown? It’s quiet, and the breeze feels nice.”
I rubbed my eyes again.
“What are you planning for us to do?” I asked, still shocked that he had asked.
“Talk,” he said quietly. “Just talk. I wanted to go somewhere that school or friends don’t matter.”
I closed my eyes as I brushed a stray piece of hair behind my ear. Was it a good idea to do this? Even after I’d been sure that Niall was different now, he’d shown that even a small thing could irritate him; he’d shown that he’d hurt me - whether intentional or not - if he wanted to know something I wasn’t telling him. Was it smart to go with him, to open up again like I had the night before? His face told me that he was sincere, but our history told me that his mood could change almost instantaneously. Was I willing to take the risk after I’d been given a choice? I could avoid him whenever possible, or I could take this chance to try to understand him. Either one was unsettling for some reason, but the former looked less inviting. Was I really about to willingly subject myself to more possible tormenting?
Instead of listening to my common sense, my mouth grew a mind of its own.
“Okay,” I said quietly.
This was the second time in the past three days that I’d allowed myself to spend extra time with Niall. Maybe I was so used to succumbing to him that it felt wrong to deny him.
The smile on his face both sent a warmth through my chest and made me want to cringe. “Tomorrow then?” he asked. I nodded. “Thank you,” he breathed.
I didn’t know if I wanted to thank myself or gouge my eyes out. So I said a simple, “Okay,” and settled for that.