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Counting the Days

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Seven-hundred and thirty-three days. Just over two years. That’s how long it’s been since One Direction split up.

That’s how long it’s been since Niall saw the four boys he’d always said were like brothers to him.

Seven-hundred and thirty-three days later and he can still remember it as if it was happening that very moment. He can remember the majority vote the others came to. He can remember the fact he was the only one crying. He can remember that Louis was the first to walk out the door and that he, Niall, didn’t leave until hours after the others had gone. He can remember sitting there, too stunned to really process it, too broken to stop crying and too far gone to calm himself down.

The issues had started long before that but Niall had always turned a blind eye. No matter what, he’d never expected them to split up. He thought they’d fade into obscurity and go their separate ways when they really felt done and even then, they’d still hang out together. He’d never expected it to be like this – abandoned and alone for over two years.

It all starts when Harry and Louis broke up.

This wasn’t just another spat, another silly argument that made them fall out for a day before they reaffirmed their undying love for one another and stayed peaceful for another couple of weeks at a time. No, this was the biggest argument between two people Niall had ever witnessed.

He’s in a room down the hall and he can still hear them screaming at each other, about how Harry is too emotionally invested in Grimmy’s love life and how Louis had been frequenting strip clubs just to get back at him. The secrets come spilling out and with every new fact revealed, Niall’s heart breaks a little bit more. They’d both cheated – Louis out of insecurity, Harry because of drinks and general bad decisions. Harry hated the fact that Louis was smoking more often than not. Louis hated the fact that Harry had stayed at Grimmy’s more than he’d stayed at his. Eventually Niall just can’t take it anymore and he totally flees the hotel. When he comes back three hours later, Liam tells him that Louis had flown home and Harry had gone out to get drunk. When Liam confesses that he thought the band might split up over it, Niall argues that it’s just not possible and decides to keep that mindset for the duration.

Two weeks later, Louis still hasn’t come back. The band has to announce that he was taking a rest break while the rest of them continue with the tour. Harry doesn’t speak to any of them anymore either; every night after they got off stage, he has a bottle of vodka in his hands and is already making his way down to the clubs. For the first couple of nights, Niall had tried to go with him but after Harry had shouted at him and told him to fuck off, he’d learned his lesson and not tried again. Harry never even apologized.

It takes Louis another month and a half to come back to the band but Niall never sees him speak to Harry ever again. They don’t even look at each other, they stand on different sides of the stage and one of them is always missing from press conferences. The whole world knows by now, of course, but it had gone too far for even management to control anymore.

It’s three weeks after Louis comes back that Zayn tells the others that he and Perrie are going to try and start a family. They all celebrate, of course – except Harry who is never present whenever somebody wants to speak to them as a whole – but Niall can’t shake the feeling that it isn’t going to end well for the band. Could Zayn feasibly go on tour if he was a new father? That wasn’t fair to ask of him and even though Niall knows it was selfish of him to think it, he can’t help but wish Zayn would wait another couple of years. They’re still young, couldn’t they enjoy their careers first before thinking about family? He never tells Zayn that, obviously, but when he confides in Liam, the other boy gives him a stern look, tells him he was being selfish and that was when Niall stopped confiding in Liam.

Barely a month later, Zayn tells them all (except Harry) that Perrie’s pregnant. Harry doesn’t find out until they tweet it and that’s when he kicks off again, accusing them all of siding with Louis, even though he had been the one to avoid the group. Niall knows he shouldn’t but he can’t help but feel guilty. He knows the group is falling apart around him but he tells himself that it’s just a phase, they’ll be stronger than ever soon and right now, he needs to be the one holding them together.

He tries, he really does.

When Perrie starts showing almost five months in, Liam very publically states in just about every interview they do that he wants to find a nice girl and settle down to start a family just like Zayn is. Niall smiles and nods but inside, it’s killing him. Zayn’s about to start a family, Liam’s looking for a girl to start a family with, Louis has some new boy he’s constantly texting and Harry’s never around anyway – Niall can’t help but notice he’s the only one that actually seems to care about their career anymore.

It doesn’t take Liam long to find his dream girl, about two weeks after his first declaration of wanting to find his future wife. They move fast, too fast for Niall to realize what’s actually happening and four months after they meet, Liam’s already talking about proposing. Zayn eggs him on, Louis offers some non-committal responses as he’s too busy texting his new boy and of course, Harry isn’t there. Harry’s off getting high with his new friends but by now, Niall’s stopped noticing that Harry isn’t there. It had been at least six months since Harry had stopped talking to any of them. Niall’s almost forgotten what it felt like to hug the boy who was supposed to be his best friend, to tell him his deepest darkest thoughts and secrets.

Harry wants nothing to do with him anymore and when he outright told Niall that just before their third-to-last show of the tour, Niall can’t help but cry throughout half the show. He’d already known it, of course, but it hurt more than he could believe to hear it said aloud. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the boys tease him about his tears on stage. Harry brings it up first, of course, because he’s gone from being Niall’s best friend to a completely selfish asshole but then Zayn and Liam join in with the teasing, joking that it’s because he’s single. They have the nerve to call him a virgin and even though it’s not true, Niall knows it’s going to be the next big rumour to go around their fanbase. Louis’ the only one not joining in but Niall knows why – his boy is in the front row and Louis’ too distracted to either join in the teasing or come to his defence. Niall just laughs it off and manages to stop crying until the end of the show.

The minutes the screens go down, he runs off sobbing. Nobody comes to find him.

Liam proposes to his girlfriend on-stage on the final show of the tour. She says yes obviously and Niall decides that he hates them both. They’ve known each other a grand total of five months and they’re already engaged. He thinks it’s got to be some kind of record but he remembers what happened the last time he confided in any of the boys so he just keeps his mouth shut, puts on a fake smile and claps along with the rest of the boys and the roaring crowds.

Perrie goes into labor that very same night and Niall doesn’t see Zayn for several weeks. He gets a call to tell him that the baby’s a boy and how proud Zayn is and all the stuff that Niall really doesn’t care about because he’s starting to realize that the end is running straight for all of them and he just doesn’t want it.

He doesn’t see Liam either because he’s off with his fiancée, lapping up the attention they get from the media for their ‘whirlwind romance’. Niall can’t help but groan every time he hears them call it that. He’s not even convinced it’s a real romance as much as it is Liam clutching desperately at straws. He loves Liam, he does, but he just can’t believe that Liam’s in love with this girl. Then again, Liam had made it quite clear that his opinion on relationships wasn’t wanted so Niall leaves them to it and doesn’t try to talk to Liam.

The day after their last show, Louis and his boyfriend fly off to Australia to really get started on their relationship now he’s not tied down by a tour he clearly doesn’t want to be on. Louis hangs around long enough to tell Niall, Liam and Zayn that it’s getting serious between them but that’s all he says. Louis doesn’t call once and after he doesn’t return Niall’s first three calls, Niall decides to stop trying.

He’s started to actively avoid Harry after being teased on stage for crying but it’s not like he has to make that much of an effort considering Harry never spends any time with any of them. He’d turned to the final show of the tour half an hour late, missing the first six songs and causing Twitter to fire up with rumours they were splitting up. Niall sent out a half-hearted tweet to say that they weren’t and didn’t bring it up with any of the other boys. He’s not even sure they still communicate with fans anymore considering they barely communicate with each other.

The first time they see each other again is two months after the tour ended. Management had called them in for a crisis meeting – they wanted the boys to talk out their issues and get back into the studio to work on the next record. Niall knows going into the meeting that it’s not going to end the way he and management want it to but he holds onto hope anyway, just because no matter what had happened, these boys were his family and family didn’t turn their backs on each other, did they?

Perrie’s sat in the next room with her son, along with Liam’s fiancée, Louis’ boyfriend and some mystery guy Niall presumes is with Harry. Niall doesn’t bring anyone with him, he doesn’t have anyone other than the boys but the longer he waits for the boys to arrive, the more he thinks that he doesn’t even have them anymore.

It takes exactly twenty-six minutes until they decide to vote on the future of the band. Those twenty-six minutes had been tense, to say the least. Niall’s surprised that Harry even turned up but he spends the entire thing insulting Louis and his new boyfriend, leaving Niall to predict that World War Three is about to kick off at any moment. Zayn’s constantly running over to the window so he can check on Perrie and his baby. Liam’s making faces through the glass to his fiancée and Niall wants to be sick. He just sits there, silent for twenty-five minutes before he can’t help himself any more, he just has to say something.

“We’re still a band, right?”

In retrospect, Niall hates himself for saying that. He doesn’t get a straight response. He gets uneasy looks from everyone and then Zayn mumbles something about being a father and Liam mumbles about planning a wedding and Louis mumbles about buying a house in Australia and Harry says nothing at all. No, Harry just laughs at him.

It’s Liam that suggests the vote. Liam’s always been the sensible one – Daddy Direction, Niall recalls. The nickname hurts to think about now because Liam seems so far away from that boy, the boy who had made sure to look out for them when they were all being idiots. Niall feels almost betrayed, like Daddy Direction had walked away and left them with an imitation of Liam, an imitation that was obsessed with rushing into a marriage just so he had something to talk to Zayn about.

Within ten seconds, they know the fate of the band.

It’s all over.

Niall’s lower lip trembles. Within seconds, he’s crying. Sobbing, even.

Louis lets out a small sigh. He looks at Liam, then at Zayn and finally at Niall. “Thanks lads,” he mumbles and then he practically runs from the room. Niall catches Harry’s expression and he’s shocked to see just how pale Harry looks. It’s been a whole year since Harry and Louis broke up and Niall had honestly thought that Harry was over it. Then again, it wasn’t like he’d spoken to Harry properly for twelve months so what would he know?

Zayn leaves next. He can hear his son crying in the next room and after shaking all of their hands, he excuses himself with a small, “It’s been fun. Keep it real, guys.” All Niall can think when Zayn heads for the door is “No, don’t go. Don’t leave, we’re not done yet. We haven’t finished!” He can’t say it aloud though; he’s too busy sobbing to form any kind of words. He could barely even shake Zayn’s hand.

Harry doesn’t even say goodbye. He just walks out and leaves. Even though Niall had decided almost two months ago that he hated him, it still kills him to see his former best friend walk out without as much as a look.

He feels Liam’s arms around his shoulders, pulling him in for a hug. He sobs into Liam’s chest, too busy crying to listen to what the boy’s whispering in his ear. He only catches the last few words: “…can’t keep her waiting.” With a final pat on the back, Daddy Direction stands up, walks out and leaves Niall totally alone with the crushing realization that his life is over.

****

Seven-hundred and thirty-three days later, he still hasn’t spoken to any of them.

Liam’s wedding is three months later. Niall’s taken by surprise, he never received an invite and it wasn’t until he saw the wedding photos on the cover of some trashy magazine that he realizes it had even happened. He flicks through and sees Zayn standing right next to Liam as his Best Man. Louis and Harry aren’t present either and that warms Niall’s heart for all of a minute before he remembers that Liam didn’t want him at his wedding and he’s crushed all over again.

Louis goes completely invisible. He’s never in any magazines – Niall makes a habit of flicking through every one he can find for news on the other boys – and Niall’s best guess was that he really did buy that house in Australia with his boyfriend. His number’s disconnected and Niall feels too betrayed to try any harder to find him.

Harry is the total opposite. Every other day he’s on the front cover of every magazine in the UK for some scandal or other. Niall had already told himself that he hated Harry but it takes about six months for him to decide that he never wants to see Harry’s face again. He’s sick of it, sick of seeing the trainwreck Harry’s become but worst of all, he’s sick of the guilty feeling he gets whenever he sees a picture of Harry high as a kite and stumbling out of a strip club. He’s sick of thinking that maybe if he’d tried harder to be there for Harry, he could have saved the boy from his downward spiral. Niall gets an app to block the name Harry Styles from his internet browser but that doesn’t stop Harry from appearing on the front of every magazine Niall happens to see. He can’t escape the guilt and he thinks he never will.

Niall estimates that it’s been a good four months since a member of the public recognized him. Two years ago and he couldn’t go five minutes without being stopped for an autograph and a picture. Now he’s gone four whole months and he can’t help but feel worse than a has-been. He’s a nobody, totally invisible. Even the people in his hometown ignore him. It hurts but nothing since the band ended has really hurt as much as losing his four brothers.

Josh Devine ends up in his hometown one weekend during the second year and the minute Niall hears his familiar voice, he bounds over to greet his old friend. He’d been close to the drummer, especially after he’d lost Harry’s friendship and Liam’s trust, but there was something different about Josh now. His smiles never meet his eyes and he only speaks to Niall for ten minutes before going back to his friends. He invites Niall over, introduces him to them and then proceeds to ignore him for the rest of the night. Niall slips away not long later, grabs some beer on the trip home and then gets so blindingly drunk that he passes out on his doorstep.

It’s day seven-hundred and five that Niall decides to try and get back on his feet as a musician. The two year anniversary is coming up and he needs something to distract him. He doesn’t want a repeat of the previous anniversary, he can’t have a repeat. He’d ended up dangling over the edge of a bridge, drunk and high enough to make Harry proud and had spent a good hour convincing himself that nobody would miss him when a guy had grabbed him and pulled him back from the edge. Niall’s just thankful he’s not famous anymore because he’s pretty sure that would have made the front page and he would have been forced into rehab or something. He doesn’t want anybody to think he’s copying Harry, after all.

On day seven-hundred and six, he picks up his guitar for the first time in two years. He can feel his fingers desperate to play the first chords that come to mind. He knows the song they want to play, he can remember every lyric and his heart breaks all over again. He decides not to play anything he already knows so he writes something new instead. It’s a dumb song, possibly the worst thing he’s ever written. It’s about eating because Niall’s determined not to write a sad song about the boys, he won’t let himself get that low. The song’s worse than dumb actually, it’s fucking stupid and he knows it but he plays it long into the night anyway. When he finally falls asleep, it’s with a sense of achievement that he hasn’t felt in a long time.

Two weeks later and he’s written seven new songs, each one about as mundane as the one before. He writes about the endless rain in Ireland but he refuses to compare it to his own misery. He writes about going on a walk in the countryside and how peaceful it is. He writes about a cute girl he’d seen in a coffee shop a few days back but didn’t speak to because she was reading a magazine article about Zayn and Perrie’s second child. He doesn’t mention that in the song of course, he covers it up with a lie about how shy he is around girls. Maybe that’s not a lie, either. It’s not like he’s dated anyone in a long time.

The ninth knew song he writes is about Harry and there’s no way he can deny it. He writes about their third-to-last show on tour and how he couldn’t stop crying. He writes about how Harry never said goodbye. He writes about how he feels like he failed Harry. After finishing the last verse, Niall puts his pen down and cries for three hours straight. He doesn’t properly play the song until four days later when he’s finally brave enough to face the lyrics again.

His first solo gig is on the two-year anniversary of the breakup. He songs his song about eating, he sings about the rain and the countryside walks, about the girl in the coffee shop and even the song about Harry. He was going to stop there but he can’t. His fingers won’t leave the guitar and before he knows what he’s doing, he’s playing those familiar chords he hasn’t played in over two years now and the first line is spilling out of his mouth as nothing more than a choked sob:

“Your hand fits in mine like it’s made just for me.”

By the third line, Niall hears the first person singing along. It’s the first time all night anybody’s actually paid him any attention and his heart suddenly jumps a bit. His voice shakes, his fingers almost miss the strings but he holds it together. By time he reaches the chorus, he knows that almost everybody in the pub is looking at him. They’ve finally realized who he is. Some of the girls are singing along, even one or two of the guys. For the first time in two years, Niall feels like he’s himself again, like he’s Niall Horan and not just the shell.

He reaches the end of the song and it’s the first and only time the crowd applaud. He nods, smiles and thanks the girls who come to congratulate him and then packs his stuff away. He’s halfway home when he breaks down, dropping his guitar case onto the pavement and falling against the wall. The tears are coating his cheeks and his vision gets blurry. The song won’t leave him alone, it’s going round his head and won’t stop. He can hear the other boys singing too and that just makes it worse because he’d never expected to sing it alone, he’d never wanted to.

He doesn’t know how long he stays there but soon he’s physically shaking from the tears and the biting cold and he really doesn’t want to die of hypothermia, having the last song he’d ever played be a One Direction song so he pulls himself together, gets up and walks home.

He plays gigs for the next three days straight, moving from town to town every day. It almost feels like a tour, only this time people don’t know who he is until he plays the last song which is always Little Things. Every night he tells him that he won’t play it and he keeps that in mind until he finishes his last planned song and before he knows it, he’s already started and he can’t stop. Every night there’s a group of people who recognize him thanks to that last song and a greater number who don’t even care who he is, they just want him to shut up already.

On day seven-hundred and thirty-four, he stays at home. He writes another song, this time it’s about Josh because even though Josh abandoned him, it hurts less to think about him than it does to think about Louis or Zayn or Liam. He plays the song a couple of times, tweaks it a bit – and before he knows it, he’s started playing another song from memory: “Shut the door, turn the light off…” He gets as far as the second line before he stops. He remembers the lyrics to Moments too clearly and the more he thinks about them, the more bittersweet they become. He ends up crying again and it takes a good half an hour until he pulls it together again. He puts the guitar aside for the rest of the day and instead eats his way through two tubs of chocolate ice cream, only to throw it all up a few short hours later. It’s a total waste of an evening but Niall doesn’t care because he’s too busy emptying his stomach to think about his lost brothers and that makes a nice change.

He goes back on his mini-tour for the next thirty days, playing a total of twenty-five shows. He’s proud of himself because even though nobody recognizes him or even claps for a good third of the shows, he feels like he’s actually achieved something. He doesn’t perform Little Things for the first six shows. In four of them, nobody at all recognizes him. In the other two, he meets a couple of old One Direction fangirls. The minute they ask about the other boys, Niall just shuts down and walks out. He ends up singing his new song about Josh instead and then by time the seventh show rolls around, Little Things is back. On the eleventh show he gets out the first verse of Moments before he stops, abruptly packs up and walks away from the pub as quickly as he can.

He’s in Dublin for the weekend, just about to finish his pub tour when he hears that Ed Sheeran’s doing a show in the city that night. Ed’s an old friend but Niall hasn’t kept in contact and he’s not sure that Ed will even care about seeing him again. Niall persuades himself to buy a ticket to the show but he ends up not going. He freezes up by the door when he hears the song they’re playing over the PA – it’s Little Things and the whole crowd is singing the words. Of course they are, Ed wrote the song and suddenly Niall can’t take it anymore, he just turns and runs. He’s pretty sure some of the girls at the concert recognize him, some might even yell after him but he just ignores them, running until he literally can’t run anymore, falling down to the ground and scuffing up his knees in the process. Once again, he’s given a perfect distraction from the constant pain in his heart and this time it’s literal pain.

That threatens to become the start of something but after Niall cuts his wrists once, he knows it’s not for him and he never does it again. It’s a distraction, sure, but it doesn’t help and it’s too pointless to keep doing it. He just takes out his frustration in songwriting. A song about self-harm is added to his collection. Niall performs it on the last night of his pub tour and that’s when he gets his first complaint for offending somebody with depression. It ends up starting a fight and Niall leaves with a black eye, feeling like the worst human being alive. He tears up the lyric sheet the moment he gets home and vows to forget the words he’d spent hours writing earlier that day.

He doesn’t touch his guitar for another couple of months. He doesn’t do much of anything for a couple of months, really, just the mundane stuff he’s ended up singing about – eating, walking in the countryside and not talking to any cute girl he sees.

He’s in Belfast when he hears the name Liam Payne for the first time in a long while. His whole world shuts off when the name rings around his head and before he knows what he’s doing, he gets the hell out of there. He’d stopped following his friends’ lives a while ago now. Harry’s stopped appearing on the covers of magazines and Niall continually tells himself to stop wondering whether it means the world finally got bored of Harry, he’s cleaned up his act or he’s dead. He prays that it’s not the last one.

It is day eight-hundred when Niall next picks up his guitar. He realizes that he’s been counting the days and he just knows that there’s a song in that. The song comes slowly at first but the moment he gets in his stride, it’s done within minutes. He pours everything he has into the sing – the hurt he felt when Liam first scolded him for being selfish, the loathing feeling he’d felt when Zayn announced he was going to be a father, the shame he’d felt when Harry started a rumour that he still a virgin, the confusion he’d felt about Louis’ disappearance and even the sensation of being given a black eye just because he’d dared to sing about self-harm. When the song’s finished, he can’t work out if it’s the very best thing he’s ever written or the very worst. He plays it once for himself, then again and then for a third time. Then he lets himself play the songs about Josh and Harry and then he finally gets all the way through Moments. He stops himself from crying, knocks back a shot of vodka and tries Little Things. When he finishes, he feels like he’s jumped over a hurdle he’s been tripping over for years now. He feels like he’s finally starting to move on.

On day eight-hundred and five, he plays his first live show in a while. He doesn’t sing his new song about counting the days but he does start with Little Things, sing every new song he’s written after the split and end with Moments without even shedding a single tear. An old One Direction fangirl even asks for a photo with him and he feels like he’s almost famous again, the way she looks at him. Then of course, the words Liam Payne leave her lips and Niall gets out of there as fast as possible.

Then, on day eight-hundred and seven, he has the craziest idea he’s had in a long time. Since the band broke up, he’s only ever played for himself in his living room or in small pubs for crowds who aren’t interested. He hasn’t played for anyone who actually wants to see him in a long time and that’s when he decides to use some of his leftover money from his days with the band to rent out a theatre for the night and perform a show for all the fangirls he knows are still out there, who still know his name and want to see him. There aren’t many but there are enough and he decides to go for it.

The show takes place on day eight-hundred and thirty-four. It’s not sold out but there are at least a hundred people there, mostly girls in their mid-twenties with their boyfriends or husbands in tow. Some even have kids with them and Niall’s heart twitches every time he sees a child in the audience because all he can think about is the fact that somewhere in the world, Zayn Malik has at least two children and Niall only met one of them briefly two years ago.

He plays every song he can. He starts with Little Things and he doesn’t realize it’s a bad idea until everybody’s singing along and he can’t help but tear up. It takes him a few minutes to recover until he’s singing his song about the rain and the crowd are laughing along. It’s a weird feeling, to say the least. He’s always known that some of the songs he’s written have a sense of humor because he’d done everything he could to stop them from becoming serious but he’s never had a crowd really listen to him before like this and when they laugh about his lyrics about looking like a wet cat or like he’s fallen face-first into a puddle, he can’t help but grin. They laugh harder at his song about eating as he lists off all the different types of burgers he’s ever eaten. It’s still the dumbest thing he’s ever written but the laughter of the crowd convinces him that maybe it’s more endearing than totally stupid.

He sings about the girl in the coffee shop and about Josh. He hears somebody ask who the song’s about from the second row but he just ignores them and sings his song about Harry. He sheds another tear as he moves into Moments and everybody’s singing again. He attempts Over Again but fucks up the chords because he had decided not to practice and just lets the crowd sing it acapella while he silently weeps into his hands. After wiping away his tears, he plays some of the stuff he’s written since day eight-hundred. It’s not as silly as his earlier stuff but it’s still not too serious. The crowd seem to like it, they cheer after each song and it’s a weird experience because Niall is so used to being totally ignored by the crowds in all of his pub shows.

He reaches his last song and he sings about all the days that have passed since the band broke up. He sees a girl in the front row crying and that sets him off. He has to stop after the second chorus and it takes a good minute for him to sort himself out, to get to a point where he can finish off the song. By time he does, he feels like a great weight has been lifted off his chest but he can’t stop himself from crying. He wipes at his eyes as he takes his bow, the crowd applauding in a way that takes Niall all the way back to the early days of the band, to the small crowds they’d played to when they’d first started.

That’s when he first sees somebody walking towards the stage and the people in the crowd turning to look at the approaching figure. He figures it’s a fangirl trying to get a picture with him because it’s hard to see anything with the stage lights shining on his face but he’s too confused to tell her that it isn’t the right time. It’s still weird for Niall to think that anybody would actually want a picture with him; he’s spent so long telling himself he’s a nobody.

It’s not until the person’s right in front of the stage that Niall realizes he was wrong, it wasn’t a fangirl at all. It was a male, a very familiar male in his twenties with a full brown beard and a pair of deep brown eyes that reminded him distinctly of a puppy.

It takes Niall about fifteen seconds to realizing that after eight-hundred and thirty-four days, he’s been reunited with Liam Payne.

****

Niall’s too shocked to stop Liam as the other boy climbs up onto the stage. If Niall was still famous, maybe he’d have a bodyguard who would grab Liam and throw him away but he’s not so no bodyguard comes to his rescue. Instead, Niall just stands there, his cheeks still sopping wet and his brain working at a hundred miles an hour trying to understand why Liam’s at his show and why he’s getting up on stage with him.

He feels the hand on his shoulder pulling him into a hug but Niall’s not really feeling anything at all. He’s too shocked to really take in what’s going on, too numb to listen to the words Liam is whispering in his ear and Niall gets a sudden flashback to the last time he saw the other boy, when Liam had whispered something to him and he’d been too busy sobbing about the band breaking up to pay any attention. It’s a cruel flashback and his heart feels like it’s just had a spear right through it but he can’t do anything about it. He doesn’t know what he would do if he could, anyway.

The crowd are going crazy, Niall can even see a girl in the front row crying and that’s when he realizes that he’s crying again too. He spends half of his life crying now so he isn’t even sure why he’s shocked by it. Liam’s not crying though, he’s grinning like he’s the happiest man on the planet, giving his shoulder a comforting squeeze and turning to wave at the crowd.

“You were great, buddy,” Liam says as Niall’s senses slowly start to come back to him. He looks at the new arrival again and it’s the first time he’s really looked. Half of Liam’s face is covered by a scruffy, untamed beard. His hair’s grown out, it’s shaggy like Harry’s had always been. There are bags under his eyes like he hasn’t slept in years and suddenly Niall hates him again because Liam has no right to have sleepless nights anymore. He had agreed to end the band, he’d been happy to and Niall was the one whose life was ruined. Maybe it’s selfish but Niall thinks he alone deserves the right to be unhappy.

He knows everybody’s staring at him now so he just smiles at the crowd and moves with Liam for another bow. The curtain starts to fall and the minute they’re out of sight, he quickly pulls out of Liam’s grip. “Woah, what’s up, Nialler? It’s just me, it’s Liam!” the other boy says, his cheery tone betraying his sullen appearance, “I mean, I know the beard’s new, but…” He trails off, grinning again and that’s when Niall loses it.

He punches Liam in the face.

It’s not a hard punch, mind, because Niall’s not particularly strong. He’s lost a lot of weight since his time in the band and he can’t help but notice that Liam has too. They both look so different and yet it’s undeniably them, it’s Niall and Liam together for the first time in over two years.

“Ye shouldn’t have come,” Niall spits, his eyes fiery as he glares at the other boy. Liam’s still recovering from the punch, shock written all across his marked face. “Ye should have left me alone, just like ye all agreed to do.” Niall knows it’s a low blow but he doesn’t care, he’s angry and for a good reason. He was prepared never to see any of the boys again, in fact he’d been hoping that he never would but now Liam’s here and that’s totally ruined everything.

“I’m sorry, Niall, I just…” Liam starts, breaking off with a sigh as he removes the hand from his cheek to reveal a small red mark already forming. Niall’s hand still stings from the punch but it feels good to see the redness of Liam’s face, to know that the anger he’s felt towards the other boys for the past couple of years finally has an out.

“I heard about your show and I was in the area,” Liam explains but Niall isn’t sure he believes him. Why would Liam be in the area? Doesn’t he have his fancy new life with his gold digging wife and probably a couple of fat toddlers? “I just wanted to see you,” Liam continues and he’s giving Niall those puppy eyes he’d always found hard to resist. That was two years ago though and now the puppy eyes have lost all effect on him. He just stands there, a stony expression on his face as he folds his arms. He puts up a barrier because he refuses to accept anything Liam says. He’s spent so long trying to become his own man and he’s not going to let Liam ruin that all for him.

“Well ye’ve seen me, now ye can go,” he all but hisses as he turns around and starts to pack his guitar away. Liam says nothing, he just watches him pack and Niall doesn’t look back at him because he knows the puppy eyes are still there in full force and that expression makes him want to rage even more than he already is. “I’m not joking, Liam. Yer not welcome here!” he starts to say but before he knows it, he’s yelling it. Liam flinches and takes a step back but that’s not enough. Niall doesn’t just want him to go, he wants him to have never been here but it’s too late for that now.

“I’m sorry,” is all Liam says as he starts to back away. Niall’s happy to see him go for all of about three seconds but then his barrier breaks down and he realizes that this is his chance to change the ending to their story. It’s still going to be an ending, it has to be, but he wants to do it on his terms. After all, he’s never had the opportunity before – the ending had been given to him by the other four boys whether he liked it or not.

“Wait.”

Liam does. He looks at Niall, open like never before and that’s when Niall sees the bright shine of tears in the other boy’s eyes. “Why are ye in Ireland?” he asks, his lips curling into a frown as he buries his hands into his pockets. He’s doing everything to keep himself calm, to stop himself from yelling or punching Liam again. He’s still angry but he’s curious too because he never thought any of the boys would come back to his turf again.

Liam hesitates for a few second, his eyes glancing towards the ground and Niall’s curiosity only rises. The other boy raises his hand and that’s when Niall notices it – the wedding ring isn’t there. Suddenly the sleepless eyes and the messy beard start to make sense. Niall doesn’t feel bad for him though, not at all. He’d never liked the girl, he’d even blamed her for convincing Liam to end the band so instead of comforting his former friend, Niall just laughs at him. “About fuckin’ time.”

It’s not the response Liam was expecting, clearly. The sad, puppy look drops and it’s replaced by confusion and genuine hurt. “What, ye expected me t’ be sad about that?” Niall asks and he feels almost smug about it even if he knows he shouldn’t, “Tough shit, Payne. I don’t care.”

Liam opens his mouth to respond but all that comes out is a choked sob. A moment later and he’s crying for real, so utterly broken that Niall starts having flashbacks to when Harry had made him cry before a show using almost exactly the same words. He starts to feel sick with himself and as Liam covers his face, Niall reaches out to pull him into a hug. He doesn’t know why he does it but it feels good to have somebody in his arms. It’s been a long time since he last hugged somebody who wasn’t his mother. It’s been even longer since he last hugged one of his former bandmates.

Of all five boys, Liam probably cried the least and he pulls himself together in record time. He’s certainly better at it than Niall who cries so much he could probably make an ocean with his tears and can never pull himself together quickly. “Can we just talk?” Liam asks him, looking deep into his eyes and Niall doesn’t know how to say no. He wants to say no, he wants to scream that it’s only fair after Liam abandoned him but he doesn’t.

Instead, he nods his head slightly and says softly, “My place isn’t far.”

They don’t say anything during the taxi journey back to Niall’s house and the blond Irishman is thankful for that. It gives him time to think, time to prepare himself for the hurt that will no doubt enter his home the same time Liam does. He promises himself that he won’t forgive Liam and that no matter what Liam offers him, he won’t leave Ireland. He promises himself that if Liam tries to make him talk to the other boys, he won’t. Niall makes so many promises to himself during that journey that by the time he’s unlocking his front door, he doesn’t remember what half of them were.

Five minutes later and they’re sat in the living room, nursing a hot cup of coffee in their hands with the dim lamp lights barely illuminating the both of them. Niall doesn’t actually drink his coffee, he’s too busy staring at Liam and wondering how badly the boy’s appearance in his home will fuck the rest of his life up.

“She left me,” Liam says finally as he stares into the coffee rather than at Niall. The blond boy’s kind of glad because he hates looking into Liam’s eyes, he hates that they’re able to make him feel sorry for the other boy. “Found herself a new boyband member and called me a has-been,” Liam continues. Niall can’t help but snort because it’s the cold, hard truth. He’d accepted it back on day three-hundred and forty-nine but it’s obvious from Liam’s face that he hasn’t quite reached that moment, even though they’re well past the eight-hundred days mark.

“Why Ireland?” Niall asks for the second time that night and this time Liam gives him an actual answer. “Far enough away from her but familiar enough to… to feel…” Liam tries to respond before he trails off into silence. The tears are back. Niall knows why it’s familiar to Liam and it’s because of him. Whenever they band had been in Ireland, he’d insisted in showing them all around. It only makes him wonder if Liam had purposely run to him but he doesn’t want to ask because he doesn’t want to find out that he’s right. He still doesn’t want Liam to be there because it complicates everything, it threatens everything he’s set up for himself and Niall’s confidence is so unstable at the best of times that he’s not even sure if he can put himself back together one more time.

They fall into silence for a good ten minutes. Niall doesn’t want to talk, he wants Liam to leave but he doesn’t even say that, he just lets his former friend sit there and look sadder than Niall can ever remember seeing him.

“I’m not going t’ forgive ye,” Niall says finally, meeting Liam’s eyes and not backing down. It’s the one thing he’s certain of right now and he needs Liam to hear it. He doesn’t want the boy thinking he’s going to cave in and accept any apology he throws his way.

It’s eight-hundred and thirty-four days late for an apology and maybe Liam’s forgotten how long it’s been but Niall hasn’t. He can’t stop counting the days.

Liam just nods in response but Niall isn’t sure the other boy totally believes him. Niall had always been the pushover of the group, the weak link and he knew it too but he’s different now. Even with all the crying and the struggle to sing certain dumb sad songs, he’s tougher. He won’t be a pushover or let himself get thrown around again.

“I am sorry though,” Liam says and Niall can hear in his voice that he actually means it but he just acts like he didn’t hear anything at all. Setting his mug of coffee down, he avoids the other boy’s eye as he mumbles, “I need to sleep. There’s a guest room down the hall, you can crash here tonight if you want.”

Before Liam can even say anything in response, Niall flees the room.

He doesn’t get any sleep, of course. He’s too busy thinking about the other man in his house and what this could mean for his future. He’s only been in bed for fifty minutes, tossing and turning, when he’s hit with the urge to write. His guitar is all the way downstairs too and he’d have to walk past Liam to get to it so he decides against it. Instead, he just writes the song and hums the tune to himself, taking note of the chords he plans to play whenever he’s sure the other boy is asleep and he can grab his guitar.

He finally lets himself write about Liam, of course, and he finds that he’s got a lot more to write about than he realized. He recalls how Liam was the first person to predict the band’s break-up after Louis and Harry had split up for good and how Liam had called him selfish but hating Zayn’s desire to start a family. He writes those moments into the song, mixes them with the shock of seeing him at the show and the confusion he’s felt since then. The song itself is a total mess and Niall’s not sure that it’s good enough to be heard by any human ears but he still sneaks out after another hour and grabs his guitar.

He heads into his garden and sits on the small bench at the very back, staring up at the moon as he strums the chords he’s written down and tries to work this total mess of brutally honest lyrics into a song he can perform the next time he does a show. For once in his post-band life, he knows what he wants to do with his future – he wants to do another show. He wants a Liam-free show, a show where he can prove to the world and more importantly, himself, that One Direction isn’t going to haunt him forever. That he can move on and he will.

Liam doesn’t appear in the garden until the moon’s started to sink into the horizon and be replaced by the pink light of morning. He watches Niall for a while and the Irishman knows he’s there but he doesn’t acknowledge him or even look up for several long minutes. He continues to play his new song, carefully sculpted into something he’s halfway happy with but he sings the lyrics quieter than ever. Liam’s not his friend anymore but he still doesn’t want the other boy to hear him singing about what has become of their friendship.

“I liked your new stuff, by the way,” Liam says as he walks down the garden towards him. Niall finally looks up and nods a thanks but says nothing. “You wrote a song about Harry, didn’t you?” Liam asks and Niall nods again. He doesn’t really feel like talking today but he knows that he’ll have to eventually. Liam looks from the guitar to the pad next to him and then asks another question: “Did you write about me?” For a moment, Niall freezes up. He doesn’t want to admit that he has, but then he reminds himself that he owes Liam nothing and nods for a third time.

A part of him expected Liam to get annoyed with him and accuse him of betraying his trust – as much bullshit as that would be because they both knew who had betrayed whose trust here – but instead the other boy just laughs and sits down on the grass in front of him. Niall doesn’t know what he expects from Liam but it’s definitely not the words that follow:

“Play it for me.”

Niall just freezes up. Is Liam really asking him this? He’s not sure he can wear his heart on his sleeve so openly after spending so long trying to put it back together but he knows that Liam won’t let it drop until he hears the song because Liam’s stubborn like that and that was just one of the many reasons Niall used to love him like a brother. He lets out a small sigh and starts to play the song. Liam just sits there, listens and when it’s over, he applauds. He doesn’t look upset or angry, he looks calm and it leaves Niall feeling a little unsettled.

“You’ve always been a good writer,” Liam says and Niall can’t help but smile at the compliment. He’s angry at Liam but he’s not a complete dick, he knows when to take a compliment and if it’s about his songwriting ability, he’s definitely going to take it. He’d spent so long being told by management that his songs weren’t good enough for the band’s albums that any compliments he received were completely lapped up, something that hasn’t changed over time. “Can you play Little Things?” Liam asks, a hopeful expression on his face, “It’s been a while since I sung anything and when I heard you last night… Would you mind?”

Niall doesn’t give him a reply, he just starts playing. By now, he knows the song too well. He could probably play it in his sleep and all the hurt he’d felt when he first played it on day three-hundred and seventy has gone. He feels totally disconnected from the song and he’s glad because at least he can play it without crying. He can’t say the same thing for Over Again as he’d proven the night before at his show and he’s not even thought about what their classic songs would do to him but at least Little Things is a start.

Liam doesn’t start singing straight away. He lets Niall start the song and it’s only a couple of lines in when he finally joins, harmonizing perfectly with the Irishman’s voice. Niall had almost forgotten just how well Liam could harmonize with anyone and just seconds after truly believing that Little Things wouldn’t hurt him anymore, hearing Liam sing it with him just tears open old wounds Niall had thought he’d sown firmly shut. He can feel Liam watching him while he plays and that doesn’t help either because the other person Niall likes playing one-on-one for is his mother, not former bandmates that he hates.

He lets Liam finish the song on his own and tells himself that he doesn’t miss the feeling of someone singing with him. He certainly doesn’t miss Liam singing with him… does he?

****

Liam stays for the next four days. They don’t talk that much, they mostly just sit in silence or sing together. Liam asks for him to play More Than This first off but after Niall declines, he decides to stick with cover songs. Niall’s grateful because at least he doesn’t have the emotional attachment to cover songs that he does to their songs. Cover songs don’t remind him of the time his microphone was turned off while they were on stage or the time Liam had to miss his grandfather’s funeral because they were on tour and they especially don’t remind him of the fact that One Direction’s last year together ended up starting a depression that Niall hasn’t been able to escape since.

On day eight-hundred and thirty seven, they finally bring up the other boys. Well, Liam does. He’s the one to ask if Niall’s heard from Louis and he doesn’t drop the question either, even after he sees how uncomfortable Niall looks. “I thought he was going to Australia?” Niall muses, sparing a quick glance up at Liam, who just shrugs back in return. It’s a confusing response but if Liam doesn’t know where Louis is then Niall decides that he shouldn’t have to care. It’s not like Louis’ just shutting him out after all, apparently he’s shut Liam out too and that means Zayn probably isn’t in the loop either.

Niall suddenly remembers that Zayn was the only one of them invited to Liam’s wedding and he starts hating the both of them all over again. He’s jealous, of course he is, because it was Liam’s wedding and back then, he’d still thought Liam was his brother. Hell, it had barely been a hundred days since the split and it was like Liam had totally forgotten him. Niall wants to yell at Liam for it but it’s such an ancient issue that he feels like it would be too childish to bring up. Instead, he chooses to ask about Zayn. “You still speaking to Malik?” he asks, his eyes watching Liam closely. The other boy shifts in his seat, clears his throat and then says, “No, not for a while now.” He doesn’t expand any further on it and Niall’s not sure he wants an explanation.

Niall doesn’t know why he doesn’t ask Liam to leave. Instead, every night he offers up the guest room to his old friend – calling him a former friend starts to feel a little tiresome – and Liam doesn’t complain.

On day eight-hundred and forty, Niall discovers that Liam is a liar. It’s as he walks down the stairs to get an early morning snack that he hears Liam. He’s on his phone, talking to someone and Niall only has to hear the first couple of words to guess who it is. “No, I said we weren’t talking anymore. Ye-yeah, I know I shouldn’t have lied. I couldn’t help it, okay? It’s Niall, he’s… you know what he’s like.” Hearing his old nickname makes Niall flinch. He’s still on the stairs, just listening in as Liam’s phone call with Zayn continues barely a couple of feet away. “I don’t know when I’ll convince him, Zayn. I like it here and Niall--”

He stops talking then, but only because Niall had stepped out from behind the wall straight into his line of sight. Niall can’t stop himself from shaking and all the anger towards Liam he’d found himself suppressing over the past couple of days just starts bubbling up again. “Get the fuck outta my house!” he roars, the urge to punch Liam again rising inside of him. He’s never been good with liars, but when it’s one of his supposed brothers lying to him, he can deal with it even less. “Yer a fuckin’ liar!” he continues as he reaches out and snatches the phone out of Liam’s hand. The brunet’s too shocked to stop him and the fact that Niall can hear Zayn’s concerned voice on the other end of the call just makes him angrier.

He hangs the call up just so he doesn’t hear Zayn anymore and then he throws the phone down at Liam’s feet. He’s pretty sure he hears the screen crack but he doesn’t care, he’s actually pretty damn glad. “Please just let me--” Liam starts but he’s cut off by Niall letting out an angry growl. He takes a step forward and it’s all the warning Liam needs before he’s snatching his phone up and running out of the house.

Niall doesn’t even watch him go, he just turns his back and tries to stop himself from crying. He doesn’t want to be sad about this, he doesn’t want to be weak because once again, Liam Payne has betrayed him, and Niall’s not prepared to admit that he’d just started to think that maybe things with Liam could work out for the better.

Liam doesn’t leave completely though. He’s only gone for a few hours before he’s knocking on the front door but Niall doesn’t answer. Why should I? he asks himself and he stands by that. He doesn’t want to hear more excuses or any more lies. The simple truth was that Liam had lied and said he wasn’t speaking to Zayn when he actually was. Niall didn’t care what they’d been speaking about, he just cared about the fact he’d finally let someone in and they’d lied to him. They’d taken him to be a fool. Niall had spent so long being the fool, he just wanted to move on already.

The knocks stop after half an hour and Niall presumes that Liam’s finally given up and left him alone. He spends the rest of the day angrily strumming on his guitar and that only leads to him snapping a string. His search for a replacement in the house ends up in failure so he decides to head down to his local music store but the moment the door opens, he realizes that Liam is still sat in his doorway, looking up at him with those puppy eyes that never seem to quit.

“I really need to explain,” he says and Niall knows that tone of voice, he knows that Liam’s sorry and that he may even have a good reason for lying but he doesn’t care. He’s beyond angry and beyond disappointed. He just wants Liam to leave and he doesn’t understand why the boy won’t go. “I lied because we… I knew you wouldn’t want all of us here at once,” Liam continued and Niall’s heart drops for the second time that day.

“All of us?” Niall repeats, his voice shaking as he asks, “Did ye lie about Louis too?”

Liam’s silence tells him yes. “What about Harry?” A nod. Niall breaks down into a fit of swears, his whole world starting to turn upside down on him and a thousand different thoughts racing through his head at once:

They left me until last.

The band are back together.

They don’t want me there.

It was all just a break, you can go back now.

In the end, he just settles for crying. Liam pulls him into a hug and Niall’s too confused to fight him off. He cries into Liam’s shoulder and unlike the last time they were in this situation, Liam’s actually whispering comforting words into his ear instead of insisting that he has to go be with his fiancée. He lets Liam lead him inside and sit him down. He lets Liam talk, slowly explaining just what the hell is going on. Niall’s not sure he’s taking everything in and he’s sure it’s all a dream so he says nothing.

Liam’s marriage really did break down and then Harry had arrived on his doorstep after two years of not seeing him and insisted that he take him on a night out. That was when it had started and it wasn’t long until they were meeting up with Zayn too. Louis had joined them at a later date and admit that he’d broken up with his boyfriend and moved back from Australia just a few months after the band had split.

When Liam finishes his story, the only thing Niall can think of is a single question that he really doesn’t want to ask. He can’t stop himself though and before he knows it, the question has left his lips: “When did you guys meet up?”

“A couple of months ago now.” The way Liam says it makes it sound casual, like it has no real important but it means everything to Niall. It tells him everything he needs to know. Without saying anything he stands up, grabs his guitar case and walks out. He’s just thankful that Liam doesn’t try and follow him.

He heads to the nearest pub and it’s lucky he has a good friendship with the owner because he all but demands to play a set. There isn’t much of a crowd but Niall doesn’t care, he needs to rant and music’s the only way he knows how. The man doesn’t complain so Niall quickly gets to work setting himself up. Back in the days of the band he had a crew doing this all for him but he actually likes doing it himself.

The moment he’s ready to go, broken string and all, he immediately starts with the song he wrote about Liam. He knows just how angry his voice sounds and that’s the point because he’s beyond angry. It’s not just aimed at Liam though, it’s at all four boys who had left him out for months now and that’s why he immediately follows it up with an angry Muse song. Most of the songs he plays are covers because he’s angry and he hasn’t written anything angry in a long time. Even his song about Harry is sad and self-blaming and that’s the last thing Niall is right now. He doesn’t blame himself, he was the victim in this whole mess and for once, he’s letting himself really hate the other boys for what they’d done to him. For what they’d put him through for the last two years.

He definitely doesn’t play any One Direction songs. He doesn’t think he ever will again.

It’s only when his rough and raw set finishes that he spots Liam tucked away at the back of the pub. The worst part is, he’s not alone. Niall recognizes the man with him because he hasn’t changed it all, unlike Liam who’s now got a full beard and Niall himself who’s scarily thin and pale all the time. No, Zayn Malik looks as fresh and mysterious as he’s ever done. A few years older and maybe even a little more confident but there are no remarkable changes that make Niall pause and think.

He knows that there’s no way he can get out of the pub without them apprehending him but he tries anyway. He packs up his stuff as quickly as he can and he heads straight for the door. They at least let him get outside before they’re following him. He’s going to make a scene and he knows it but that’s why he wants to get as far away from the pub as possible. He just keeps walking away as fast as he can, guitar case tucked under his arm and his head down. He’s not crying though, he’s too angry to cry for once and he’s happy about it.

“Niall!” It’s Zayn that calls out to him, the first time Niall’s heard his voice in over two years. He doesn’t let himself dwell on that fact, he just keeps walking and hopes they’ll give up the chase. It’s a fruitless hope though and he knows it because they won’t give up. They’ve come all the way out to Ireland just to rub it in his face how much fun they’ve been having without him and they’re not going to give up just because he’s walking away.

“Niall, please!” It’s Liam this time but Niall ignores him again. He doesn’t want to speak to either of them but neither of them gets it. They follow him all the way home, calling out for him and trying to explain but Niall blocks out their words by humming to himself.

When he stops to unlock his door, he knows they’re stood right behind him and he just can’t take it anymore. “Leave me the fuck alone!” he yells and he knows that everybody on his street has just heard it too. Both boys flinch and Niall’s a little pleased to see that both of them look alarmed and maybe even scared. Liam backs away first but it isn’t until he pulls on Zayn’s jacket that the other male follows him away. Niall waits until they’ve disappeared into the distance before escaping inside and immediately locking the door behind him.

He cries himself to sleep that night, reminding himself that it’s been eight-hundred and forty days and the band is back together, they just don’t want him in it.

****

It’s midday when Niall first hears a knock on his door. He ignores it, of course, because he knows who it is and he’s in no mood to speak to either Liam or Zayn. He makes a pact to stay in all day – buying a new string for his guitar can wait, he doesn’t want to risk finding one of the boy’s outside his door because for all he knows, Louis and Harry are in Ireland too and seeing them can only make it so much worse. The knocks stop after a minute or so and Niall can hear Liam’s voice trying to talk to him through the door so he just turns on some Mumford & Sons and blasts it as loud as he possibly can. He’s probably going to have hearing difficulties for the rest of his life but at least he doesn’t have to hear Liam pleading with him to open the door and talk to him.

That afternoon, he writes three songs. All of them are angry rants, of course, but he only feels mildly better after putting his pen down. They’re the most explicit songs he’s ever written and he knows he can never perform them in front of anyone but they’re just for him and he feels better for writing them.

The next set of knocks comes around dinner time and from his seat in the living room, Niall can see out of the window to who’s at the door. It’s Zayn, not Liam, this time and Niall isn’t sure if he’s glad or not. He’s still angry about Liam lying but at the same time, Zayn was the first person to want to leave the band and Niall’s still not forgiven him for that. A part of Niall tells him that he needs to get over a two year grudge but he can’t, he just can’t. Every time he sees one of them, he feels betrayed and without any purpose anymore.

He opens the door with the sole purpose to tell Zayn to leave him alone. Instead, he just stands there in total silence and waits for Zayn to speak first.

“Missed you,” is all that Zayn grunts and two things flare up inside Niall – joy that Zayn had actually missed him and then anger because if Zayn had missed him then why the fuck hadn’t he tried to keep in contact? Sure, Niall hadn’t made any efforts but he wasn’t one of the people who’d split the group up so he didn’t think that it was his place. They already knew he wanted them in his life but apparently none of them had wanted him in theirs. It hurt but over time, he’d come to accept it only now everything had changed and he didn’t know what to think anymore.

“Coulda fooled me,” Niall shoots back, deciding to supress the joy and focus on the anger instead. Wasn’t that his whole post-band life in a nutshell, though? So little joy but so much anger at anyone and everyone. He knew it was destroying him but he couldn’t help it, he was just so angry at all of them and there was no way to switch it off anymore. “I don’t care what any of ye want,” he continues, surprising himself by managing to stay cool and frosty, “Ye made your point two years ago – ye don’t want me around. Stick t’ it, okay?”

With that, Niall goes to close the door but Zayn’s hand shoots out and stops him. Niall just glares but he doesn’t push it. He doesn’t know why he’s not insisting Zayn leaves but he just stays silent and waits for the other boy. It’s ridiculous, Niall doesn’t know what the hell he’s thinking anymore and he just wishes he did because maybe he’d be able to make some sense of something. “That was two years ago, Nialler. We’ve all changed,” Zayn says sympathetically as his eyes meet the Irishman’s, “We just wanna sit down and chat. It’ll be like old times, yeah?”

Zayn means well and Niall knows it but that doesn’t mean Niall’s prepared to play nice. He hasn’t played nice with Liam and he’s not prepared to make any exceptions. “Old times? So you’ll be texting Perrie nonstop, Liam will be licking yer backside, Harry won’t even be around and Louis’ eyein’ up any guy with a pulse. Think I’ll pass, thanks,” Niall snaps, his Irish accent never thicker. He can tell that his outburst takes Zayn by surprised and he’s glad because he wants to be taken seriously. Nobody had ever really taken him seriously, he was always the cute one who was overlooked but Niall knows he’s not that boy anymore. He’s the kind of guy who stands up for himself, even against guys he’d always considered to be his brothers.

What Zayn does next takes him by surprise though. The Bradford boy removes his hand from Niall’s door, takes a step back and nods.

“Okay then.”

Niall just blinks – is this some sort of trick? Where’s the relentless pursuing he’s come to expect from his old friends? Liam had never let it drop this easy and it unsettles Niall. “I’ll try another time. Sorry for bugging you, mate,” Zayn adds before he turns and walks away. Niall watches him go, blinking a couple of times in confusion. What the fuck was that?

****

Niall’s left in peace for the next two days and he can’t decide if he’s happy about it or just really unsettled. He’s come to expect the endless knocking on his door and every hour that passes without it, he goes from being happy about another of peace to panicking that he’s missed his chance and the boys have totally moved on without him. He pulls himself together and stops him from thinking that though because that’s only going to make him think other weak thoughts and then he’ll end up crawling back to them, looking more pathetic than ever. He refuses to let himself get that low so instead he distracts himself by watching old cartoons and ordering in pizza. It’s a lazy couple of days but he loves it.

On day eight-hundred and forty-four, the next person to knock at his door isn’t Zayn or even Liam – it’s Louis. The moment Niall sees him from the window, he freezes up because it hadn’t really sunk in that Louis could actually be in the country and not over the other side of the world like Niall is used to him being. He doesn’t even hesitate, he heads for the door and opens it up. He isn’t sure why it’s easier for him to open the door to Louis than it is to open it for Liam or Zayn – maybe because they’d both been obsessed with their girlfriends pre-split and even if Louis had been dating someone, he wasn’t obnoxious about it – but the moment he meets Louis’ eyes and sees his old, almost cheeky smile, Niall knows that it’s impossible to stay mad at Louis forever. It’s still to be determined with the other boys but Louis… Louis has always been a bit different. He was Niall’s big brother, the one he looked up to most even if Louis was probably the biggest troublemaker and seeing him totally disappear had broken Niall’s heart.

Louis reaches out to give him a hug and Niall’s both too stunned and too reluctant to do anything so he lets the older boy’s arms wrap around him. After a long, awkward moment, he responds before he quickly pulls away. “Lookin’ good, Nialler!” Louis says, as charming as ever. Niall looks at him properly and he can’t help but think the same is true in return. Before the band had broken up, Louis had been looking particularly ill – pale, thin and he just wasn’t happy. Now though, he looks great. Healthy, even, and Niall just grins because he’s happy to see that Louis is himself again and not just a poor imitation of his friend.

Niall returns the compliment and invites Louis inside even though he knows that he’s going back on his words. Louis’ said all of three words to him and he feels ready to accept him but Liam and Zayn had tried for so long and Niall had completely shut them out. Then again, Niall had never really felt betrayed by Louis like he did with the other three and maybe that’s why he offers to make Louis a cup of tea and tells him to sit down on the couch while he fusses around in the kitchen. When Niall finally returns with two mugs, Louis just smiles widely and Niall feels like he’s nineteen again, just hanging out with one of his best friends.

“Nice place you’ve got for yourself here,” Louis muses aloud as he raises the mug to his lips and takes a sip, “Still make a mean cuppa too.” He grins and it’s infectious because Niall is grinning right back at him, even if he knows he shouldn’t be. “What about your place? How’s Australia?” Niall asks and he knows immediately from Louis’ sudden shift in expression that Australia isn’t exactly on the cards anymore. Louis takes another sip from the mug before he places it down on the coffee table and sits up a little straighter, his face suddenly a lot more serious.

“Left after six months or something. Things didn’t exactly work out,” he explains vaguely and waves it off, even though Niall’s got a good feeling from the look in his eyes that it really isn’t nothing, “Been holed up on my own in a small cottage back home ever since.” Niall can’t help but see a bit of himself in Louis’ current situation, holed up on his own, but considering Louis’ here right now, at least he’d had some kind of contact with the other boys before Niall had.

“When did the others catch up t’ ye?” Niall asks, genuinely curious because he wants to know how long he’s been left out for. Maybe there’s a reason they waited so long to talk to him but right now he’s too annoyed about it to really consider any of their reasons or excuses.

Louis picks up his mug again and just shrugs before suggesting an estimated answer, “About a month ago, maybe?” Niall nods and there’s another question on the tip of his tongue but he holds himself back because he knows he can’t ask it. If he’s going to ask anyone, he can’t ask Louis – but as always, the older boy’s able to read him like it’s the easiest thing in the world and a small smirk begins to play on Louis’ lips. “Me and Harry are fine. We’re friends, but…” Louis starts, trailing off into his thoughts for a few moments before he shakes himself and finishes, “We’re friends. That’s what counts, right?” Niall just nods because he’s honestly glad Louis and Harry are friends again. The idea of them being at each other’s throats still after such a long time makes him sad and he’s glad it’s just that – an idea. For once in life, the reality is much better than the alternative.

“So what do you guys actually want?” Niall asks, suddenly willing to hear it. Maybe it’s because it’s coming from Louis and not Zayn or Liam but even then, he’d been curious about why they’d even showed up on his doorstep after so long. Louis looks focused again now they’ve moved on from discussion of Harry and he fixes Niall with a smile that the Irishman doesn’t quite return. He’s comfortable around Louis and he’s willing to hear him out but that doesn’t mean he’s going to agree to whatever they want. “Zayn said it was just to hang out ‘like old times’.”

Louis raises his eyebrows, shrugs slightly and says, “He’s right, really.” It doesn’t fill Niall with much hope. “We were like brothers,” Louis starts and Niall stays silent on just how much he agrees with that choice word, “We wanna be like that again. We had something special, even without any of the music. It’s been too long and well, I for one don’t want to never speak to any of you guys again. You’re my family.” He smiles sadly and busies himself drinking from the mug again, leaving Niall to his thoughts. What Louis has just said has been everything he’s been dreaming about for over two years now but now that they’re actually offering it to him, he’s not sure he wants to accept.

That’s what it comes down to, really – he’s not sure what he wants anymore. He was just starting to get something going for himself and now that’s been complicated by four boys who seem determined to re-enter his life. Is that all Niall wants though? Does he really want to be playing pub shows to people who consider him a has-been for the rest of his life? Louis hasn’t said it aloud but there’s a clear underlying message to his proposal about the band hanging out again. Maybe the music wasn’t everything for them but it was definitely something and considering how eager Liam had been to sing with him again, Niall’s pretty comfortable betting that at some point, the band want to sing together again.

Why can’t he bring himself to be happy about that?

Louis only stays for about an hour and the rest of their discussion is small talk. Niall tells him about the places in Ireland he’s been touring lately. Louis tells him about the reasons he hated Australia. It’s nice and relaxing but Niall can’t shake the question from the back of his mind now it’s firmly lodged there. Why doesn’t he want to sing with the boys anymore?

It’s when Louis says that he should leave soon that he suddenly gets serious again. Niall doesn’t notice it until he hears the other boy saying those fateful words: “I’m sorry, mate. What happened to the band – what we did to you – was shitty. We should have stuck it out.” Niall meets his eye but doesn’t say anything. He takes in everything about Louis – his words, his honest expression, the fact he looks so much better now and something inside Niall clicks.

“It’s okay,” Niall replies and he actually means it, surprising even himself, “Yer better for it. I’m happy for ye, man.” His eyes are wet and Louis pulls him into a hug that they don’t pull out of for several long minutes. Niall knows that all those walls he put up are starting to break down but right now, he doesn’t care. He’s found something to actually be happy about and he’s going to hold onto that for a while.

****

Niall expects Harry to turn up the next day but it’s not him, it’s Louis again and this time he’s got Zayn with him. Zayn’s got a nervous look on his face and Niall feels awkward too because while he’s happy to see Louis again, he’s still not sure about Zayn. He doesn’t want to turn his back on Louis though so he invites him in and makes them both mugs of coffee just so his claim to being Ireland’s Best Host isn’t totally falsified.

Louis does most of the talking but that hasn’t changed at all. He was always the one talking and the others were usually only ever responding to him. Niall can feel Zayn’s eyes on him but he doesn’t glance the other boy’s way and instead gets way more invested in Louis’ crazy story about Australia than he would usually be.

When Zayn clears his throat, Niall finally looks at him. “When’s your next show?” Zayn asks him and the Irishman freezes up for a moment. He hasn’t got another show planned yet so he just shrugs and uses that as his answer. Louis gives him an uncomfortable glance but says nothing and Niall guesses that it’s because he’s scared to lose Niall’s friendship so early on in their reunion. “I liked your new stuff,” Zayn tries again and Niall finds himself smiling at the compliment, the same way he had when Liam had said the exact same thing to him.

“Thanks,” he says finally as he shifts uncomfortably in his seat. He knows what Zayn’s doing, he knows that he’s just trying to soften him up and earn his forgiveness the way Liam and Louis both had been. It had worked with Louis because Niall had never actually felt all that betrayed by Louis and even though Niall’s always known that his anger at Zayn’s desire to start a family is childish, he’s still angry over it because maybe if Zayn hadn’t been so eager to start a family than maybe Liam wouldn’t have run off on a girl hunt (that was ultimately doomed) and maybe they’d both have voted to keep the band intact like he had.

Louis leads the discussion again and neither Niall nor Zayn say much for the next hour or so. It prays on Niall’s mind though because he knows that unlike Harry, Zayn had never purposely hurt him. He’d only been trying to live his life and could Niall really hate him for that? “How’re the kids?” he asks finally and Zayn perks up a little, his eyes filling with a kind of joy that Niall hasn’t seen from anyone in a long time. He certainly hasn’t seen it in his own eyes – he hasn’t had much to be happy about these last couple of years.

“They’re great! Little devils, really,” Zayn admits, the grin on his face echoing into his words. It’s infectious and a small smile pulls on Niall’s lips too, even if he hates himself for it. “They’re already singing out song,” Zayn continues and Niall’s smile immediately falters. Our songs. Niall hasn’t considered them our songs for a long time, they’ve always been One Direction’s songs and he hasn’t considered himself a member of One Direction for a long time.

Louis is the first to notice that Niall’s not with them anymore which is why he very loudly changes the subject, asking if Niall’s banged many Irish chicks lately. Niall doesn’t respond, he just watches Zayn play with his wedding ring, suddenly quiet again. “How’s Perrie?” Niall asks, totally ignoring Louis’ question. He hears the other boy take in a breath but he ignores it because all he can do is watch Zayn and how awkward he looks now.

“We’re… we’re on a break,” Zayn admits and for the first time in a while, Niall actually feels a little bad for him. He doesn’t push the question but Zayn elaborates anyway, “She’s still touring and I’m always at home with the kids… It’s just kinda tough, you know? Then there are all those rumours and--” He breaks off and starts to laugh coldly to himself. Niall decides not to ask what the rumours are because he’s made a very deliberate point not to keep up with the lives of any of his bandmates and has no idea what possible rumours about Perrie could be going around. “We’ll be fine though, we’ll sort it out,” Zayn says quietly as he stares at the ring, now in his palm. Louis pats him on the back and Niall feels like a dick for even bringing it up now.

They sit in silence for a few minute before Louis makes a lot of noise proclaiming, “It’s getting late, we don’t wanna be in your hair all night!” He jumps up and pulls Zayn with him, surprising Niall a little. He doesn't know why but the thought of them leaving actually makes him feel a little-

He doesn’t know what he’s feeling but he knows that he doesn’t desperately want them to leave. That’s an improvement, right?

As Niall gets up, he’s immediately met by Zayn who pulls him into a hug and doesn’t let go for a while. “’m sorry, Nialler,” Zayn whispers into his ear and Niall believes him, the same way he’d believed Louis. “I’m sorry too,” he whispers back and when Zayn buries his face into Niall’s neck, he’s got a good feeling that the other boy may be crying. That only sets him off too and his eyes start to water. When they pull away, both boys quickly wipe their eyes and Louis is there, laughing at them and calling them both pansies. Niall’s pretty sure that he’s got a tear in his eye too so Niall will forgive him for that one.

****

Zayn’s comment about Niall’s next show has the Irishman thinking and within a few hours, he’s called a pub in the middle of town and booked a show slot there for the next Friday night coming. He fully intends to invite the other boys but that’s when he realizes the problem – he doesn’t actually have any numbers for any of them so his contact with them is totally limited to whenever one of them knocks on his door. Nobody calls in on the next day and for once, Niall’s actually annoyed that they’re not knocking on his door every hour like they had been doing.

It’s Liam that appears the next day and Niall doesn’t even hesitate before he opens the door and ushers the other boy inside. Liam’s a little confused by his eagerness to allow him in considering their last conversation but Niall doesn’t even let them small talk first, he leads with his big news: “I’ve a show tomorrow night and I want you guys there.” Liam blinks and then he nods, a smile quickly spreading across his face. Niall grins right back at him because maybe things are going right after all.

Liam apologizes profusely for just about everything in the discussion that follows and Niall finds himself saying sorry for being a dick over the past week or so, even if he’s not sure he should even be apologizing. He feels better for saying it though so he doesn’t mind too much. They hug it out and Liam’s even surprised when Niall asks for his number, just so he’s not entirely out of the loop again. He makes Liam promise to text him when the others have all agreed to come and then waves him off at the door, feeling pretty confident that this next show is going to be his best.

****

There’s only one boy that Niall hasn’t seen yet and on the morning of his next show, it’s starting to bug him. Once upon a time, Harry had been his closest friend in the band but then he’d gone and started drinking and doing god knows what and had left Niall totally in the dirt. He’d made Niall cry and he hadn’t ever said sorry. Niall wonders why Harry hasn’t been to see him yet – he doesn’t even know if Harry’s even actually in Ireland.

Well, he knows the answer to that one when there’s a knock on his door about midday when he’s sorting out his setlist for the night and it’s Harry standing there, fidgeting nervously and looking like he hasn’t had much sleep in a while. He looks a hell of a lot better than the drunk and drugged up Harry Niall can last remember seeing and that’s why he immediately reaches out and pulls his former best friend into a hug.

Harry’s practically shaking as he sits down on the couch and Niall’s nervous too because out of all of the other boys, Harry was the one who’d hurt Niall the most during that final year. He was the one who Niall had really felt betrayed him but now he’s here and he looks so much like the ‘old Harry’, the Harry before all of his troubles with Louis that all the bad thoughts are pushed to the back of Niall’s mind because he’s just so happy to see him again.

“So…” Niall says because yeah, it’s really awkward between them. He doesn’t know how to start them off and apparently Harry doesn’t either because he’s wringing his hands and the nerves are written all over his body. Niall’s actually a little touched that Harry’s nervous a selfish part of him is glad about it too.

“I’m so fuckin’ sorry,” Harry gasps and Niall can see the tears in his eyes and the fact the other boy is practically shaking. He reaches out and puts a hand on Harry’s knee for comfort but he lets Harry continue without interrupting. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you, I shouldn’t have made you cry, I’m such a dick,” he continued to sob and the moment the tears start to fall from his eyes, Niall can’t help but pull him into a tight hug. This is where Harry’s always belonged, curled into Niall’s side and the blond lets himself forget any of their issues because Harry’s sad and Niall’s immediate reaction is to try and cheer him up.

Niall shushes Harry as he continues to cry, rubs small circles into his back and silences the part of him that’s glad Harry is crying about everything he’d done to him. The part of Niall had led him to hating Zayn for his family ambitions and it had ruined his ability to trust Liam and Niall’s decided that he really doesn’t like that side of Niall because it’s not who he wants to be at all.

“It’s okay, mate, it’s okay,” he whispers into Harry’s ear and after a while, the curly-haired boy starts to pull himself together. His cheeks are wet with tears and Niall doesn’t hesitate to reach out and wipe them dry because that’s just what he does with Harry – it’s what he always used to do, after all.

He gets Harry some biscuits and a drink to try and calm him down and they sit in silence for a good ten minutes before either one of them even dares to talk again. “I was so fucked up,” Harry admits aloud and Niall glances up, surprised at the self-loathing tone in Harry’s voice. He sounds like he really hates himself and Niall feels strangely guilty for it, even if he knows it’s not his fault. “I shoulda pulled myself together sooner, apologized to Lou... I’m the reason the band split up,” he continues and Niall just watches him sadly, his hand sneaking back onto Harry’s shoulder, “I get real low, Ni. Got high every night, fucked more people than I’m proud of, rehab three times.” He looks miserable for it too and Niall leans in closer, hoping that his warmth will provide some comfort for Harry.

“What changed?” Niall asks in a quiet voice, worried that he’s going too far by prying for answers. Harry doesn’t look angry though, he just lets out a small sigh and admits the truth:

“I almost died.”

The words sting more than Niall expected and he pulls back sharply, his eyes going wide in horror because he hadn’t ever considered that Harry would go that far. Harry’s not looking at him and that only scares him more. “Took too much, collapsed outside a club. If Nick hadn’t been there…” he explains, letting his sentence hang because Niall really doesn’t need it spelling out. He knows what would have happened if Grimmy hadn’t been there and fuck, he’s real glad that he was because now that he’s really thinking about it, Niall’s not sure a world without Harry could ever contain any happiness for him again.

“Stayed with Taylor for a bit,” Harry continues and Niall gets another shock because he’d never thought that Harry and Taylor would ever see eye-to-eye again, “You know what she’s like, all about the straight and narrow. She got me goin’ cold turkey. Worked, too.” Niall makes a silent thanks to Taylor Swift because while he’s still mad at her for hurting Harry and so publically too, he’s maybe able to consider forgiving her if she’s really helped Harry get back on track.

Niall hesitates for a moment but he know he has to ask because he’s just so goddamn curious: “And Louis?”

Harry doesn’t react for a few moments but then there’s a small smile on his lips and it looks almost hopeful. “We’re talking and that’s something, right?” Harry asks and Niall just grins back because if Harry and Louis really are talking after all – and he hadn’t doubted Louis when he’d told him, he just wanted to see if Harry was really invested in it – then there really isn’t any reason that Niall can’t get over his grief with any of them, is there?

Harry only stays and talks for about half an hour before he excuses himself because “You’ve got a show to do!” and “I’m distracting you, sorry!” Niall tells him multiple times that he likes having Harry there and he doesn’t have to leave but the other boy is having none of it. He assures Niall that he’ll see him at the show that night and then he’s out the door like a flash. Niall raises an eyebrow when he sees the car waiting for him because Louis is driving and nobody else is in the car. Niall’s not an idiot, he knows what’s going on and he’s over the moon because really, it’s all he’s wanted. He wants his boys to be happy and if it’s with each other, it’s only better. It wasn’t like he’d ever doubted that Harry and Louis belonged together anyway.

There’s still a fair few hours until he has to leave for the gig and Niall spends a good half an hour eating three bowls of cereal (it’s a thing he likes doing, no judgement) before it hits him:

A single word that he knows he needs to write about.

Then it’s a line, then a verse and then a chorus. It’s only twenty minutes before he’s got a whole song and he’s clambering for his guitar, working out chords as fast as he possibly can. Throughout the entire process, there’s only one thing he can think – this is the best song he’s ever written and he knows exactly who he wants to share it with.

****

Niall checks Twitter for the first time in a long while when he’s getting a cab down to the pub. He doesn’t tweet or anything, he just looks at his recent mentions. After the band had broken up, there were less and less mentions over time but all of his sudden, his feed has blown up. It takes him a while but then he realizes why – Louis has tweeted and he’s mentioned all of them in it with a single word message: “Ireland.” By time his cab reaches the pub, Niall’s grinning like an idiot.

It’s still pretty early in the night and there are only a couple of regular local customers in the pub when he enters. None of the other boys are there but Niall doesn’t mind because he knows they’re coming, Liam’s text him several times and the others have to because apparently his number’s been spread out. Niall’s absolutely buzzing, he hasn’t felt this hyped for a long time and he loves it. This isn’t the biggest show of his whole life by any means, it’s not even the biggest show of his post-band life but somehow, he feels like this is the most important.

Louis and Harry arrive first and they skip over while Niall’s setting up his equipment on the stage. He can only grin at them because apparently neither of them has realized just how damn much they look like a couple again and it makes him happy because they’re so obviously getting back together, even if they don’t know it yet.

Liam and Zayn arrive next but they have someone in tow – Josh. Niall blinks when he sees the drummer, genuinely surprised to see him but his old friend just gives him a thumbs up when they all head over to the booth Louis and Harry have settled down at. Niall doesn’t head over, not yet, because he’s too busy drinking a beer to try and calm his nerves. He’s actually pretty damn nervous now because even if it sounded good in his head, he’s never performed solo in front of all the boys and they’re the most important crowd he’s ever going to perform too.

Niall’s just finished his beer when Paul, their old tour manager, saunters in looking as serious as ever but the minute they make eye contact, Paul’s lips spread into a grin and he nods his hello. Niall’s too surprised to react because what the hell is Paul doing there? Josh’s appearance had been enough of a surprise but Paul too? What other surprises are about to walk through that door?

The surprises end up being Niall’s entire family which only doubles his nerves, the rest of their old touring band and finally, when he’s just stepping up to the mic, the familiar ginger-hair of Ed appears and he’s got a slim blonde girl on his arm. No, he’s got Taylor Swift on his arm and all Niall can think is ‘why the hell is Taylor Swift at my show?’ There’s no time to really ponder that question because the crowd are all looking at him very expectantly and he knows that he has to start. It’s not like he’s being forced to though because even despite all the nerves and the fact that basically everybody he’s ever known is in the room, he really wants to be there and he wants to perform for them.

He’d spent a lot of the afternoon considering what songs to sing and it was way more pressure than he’d expected it to be. He ends up starting off with his song about eating because even after all this time, he still thinks it’s funny in a really dumb way and the crowd laugh exactly the way he wants them to. He sings about the girl in the coffee shop and the song about walking in the countryside but he cuts that one short because there’s nothing funny or sweet about it, it’s actually kind of a dull song and he was only doing it because he thought the first verse had some clever lyrics in it.

He skips the songs about Harry, Josh and Liam because now they’re right in front of him and he’s resolved his issues with two out of three of them (even though he’s now pretty sure he’ll make up with Josh too) and instead decides to sing a couple of covers – an Ed Sheeran song (“Lego House”) and a Taylor Swift song (“Begin Again”). They’re both rough because he hadn’t prepared for them, he’d done them on the spur of the moment after seeing them in the crowd but neither of them seems angry with his attempts to butcher their songs. In fact, both of them look delighted and Niall just grins back at them before he breaks into “Little Things” and everybody in the pub is singing along. It probably helps that practically everybody in the crowd was either a One Direction fan or a member of the band at one point or other because the fact they’re singing the words back to Niall makes the blond boy tear up a little. He can see the other boys singing along too and that’s when he just knows.

Everything’s going to be okay.

The rest of the set practically flies by. Ed smirks as he plays “Moments” too and whispers something into Taylor’s ear and then Liam yells across the pub, telling him to play the song he wrote about him. Niall freezes up but everybody looks excited by the idea so Niall plays it, perhaps more reluctantly than he means to be. There’s a polite pause at the end of the song and Liam gives him a salute to show he appreciates it. Niall smiles back and watches in interest when Zayn picks up his phone and slips out. He decides not to get concerned about it though and sings a couple more songs before he’s at the final song of his set:

“You’re insecure, don’t know what for…”

Niall’s not sure he’s ever heard a crowd cheer so loudly in such a small place before but he loves it. Everybody sings along with him and Niall breaks off halfway through the chorus to laugh at Zayn as the boy walks back into the pub and reacts in surprise at the moshpit that’s basically started right in front of the stage with all of his old band-mates dancing around like idiots while Taylor stands timidly at the side, holding onto Ed for dear life. When the song finishes, there’s another round of applause and Harry’s pulling him down off the stage into his arms.

For the next twenty minutes, Niall greets and thanks every single person in the pub and he feels like he’s on some kind of indescribable high. His mum hugs him and tells him how proud she is, Ed makes a joke about butchering three songs he wrote, Taylor very sweetly tells him that she thinks that her song sounds better in his Irish accent and then Josh screams “Nosh forever!” before planting a kiss on his lips. The entire pub erupts in cheers and even if it’s only a joking, friendly kiss Niall thinks it’s something he’s going to remember for a long time.

It takes a while but he finally shuffles into the booth where Harry, Louis, Zayn and Liam are all waiting for him. They’re all smiling and for a good minute or two, nobody says anything. Louis is the first to break down into laughter and they all join in, unable to shake the feeling that’s joined them all together. Liam’s the one to break the silence, thanking Niall for playing his request and then the boys are bombarding him with questions, asking if he wrote about any of them. Niall promises to play Harry the song he wrote about him another time and then Louis gets in a strop because he feels left out. It’s just like old times, really.

Zayn apologizes for leaving halfway through the set and whispers in Niall’s ear that Perrie wants to try and work things out with him. Niall claps him on the back and gives him a hug because if he’s happy and Louis and Harry are happy then Zayn deserves to be happy too. So does Liam but that’s a whole other story and Niall promises himself that he’ll do anything to make sure Liam’s as happy as the rest of them are, even in his shitty situation.

After they all share a drink and the conversation about Niall’s new songs continues, he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out the lyric sheet he’d been scribbling on earlier in the day. He places it in the middle of the table and opens it out so they can all see. A smile plays on his lips as he watches their confusion and he can’t hold it back any longer, he just has to say something. “I want you guys to sing it with me. It’s a new One Direction song,” he says proudly, his smile turning into an outright grin as Liam lets out a whistle, Louis immediately snatches up the lyrics and Zayn nods his head approvingly.

“You’ve given me a solo? I’m in,” Louis says quickly and Niall finds himself laughing at the other boy’s joke because Louis’ self-absorbed sense of humour has always been one of his favourite things. He catches Harry looking at Louis before the curly-haired boy agrees that he’s in too, causing Niall to shoot them both a look. Harry frowns but Niall can see the way his hand twitches as if it’s just begging to hold Louis’ hand. Honestly, Niall thinks it’s the cutest thing ever.

“Bloody hell mate,” Liam is saying, looking over the lyrics with a dopey grin on his face, “If this doesn’t get to Number One then I’m gonna eat my shoe.” Niall just laughs and gives Liam a wink before he says, “I’ll hold you to that.”

Liam passes the lyric sheet along to Zayn. He glances over it for all of ten seconds before he shakes his head. Everybody takes in a breath and Niall feels his heart drop so far down it’s basically in the centre of the Earth but then Zayn is grinning and saying, “I think I’d prefer to sing that song about the burgers, to be honest. That could be a great comeback single.” The boys practically wet themselves, it’s so funny. Niall punches Zayn in the shoulder for good measure though because he’s pretty sure he almost had a heart attack there. Ed, Taylor, Josh and the others join their table again with drinks aplenty and the news spreads like wildfire – One Direction are back together! It’s like the impossible has happened and life’s starting all over again.

As everybody in the pub very loudly and merrily toasts to the One Direction reunion, Niall has his biggest realization of the night:

He doesn’t know how many days it’s been since the split anymore.

He’s finally stopped counting.