At age five, Niall doesn’t understand that he isn’t supposed to answer the unasked questions. That the how do I read this word? or where did the green marker go? at school should be ignored unless he can hear it with his ears. His mum is strict in the house, reminding him at supper to let them keep their thoughts to themselves, and he doesn’t know, precisely, what that means, only that he is to be quiet.
His first year of primary school is difficult, lonely, but he doesn’t piece together why until over the summer when one of the older boys on his block pushes him down onto the sidewalk and tells him to stop making up rubbish, no one hears thoughts. By the beginning of the next year he’s learned to laugh instead of answer, to cover up the things that he hears, to be normal.
He pretends that it has gone away, and he is, mostly, believed.
“They won’t be choosing me,” Niall says, softly, to one of the other boys – Harry, he’s called. They’re all backstage, waiting to be called out, waiting to be called up, have their named read out as solo competitors. Niall already knows that it isn’t for him. He won’t cry here, not now, but he can feel the tightness in the corners of his eyes, the stone in his throat he has to carefully swallow around. He’ll cry later.
“You can’t know that,” Harry says, both arms wrapped around his knees, beanie pulled low over his hair. One of his feet is twitching.
“I can,” Niall says, and shakes his head. “They’re not certain about you, though.” He looks over at Harry, his shaggy hair, his open face. He heard this boy sing. He can’t imagine that they’ll let him go home. “I think you’ll make it.”
“Thanks, mate.” Harry’s grin is bashful, and Niall knows the moment that they make up their minds, but he doesn’t say anything.
Niall’s almost managed to drift off when he hears the twin sounds of the door hinges creaking and Louis’s jumbled thoughts sneaking in through the doorway. They’ve been at Harry’s stepdad’s bungalow for almost a week, and Niall already loves the boys – loves them – but he hasn’t been in an enclosed space with four other people for this long before. He’s having trouble figuring out where they end and he begins and he doesn’t care as much as he should.
Louis lands on his bed with a soft thump and the squeal of protesting mattress springs. Mostly they’ve all been camping out together, two to the couches, three to the bedrooms, but tonight Niall’s headache has sent him to bed early, and they haven’t disturbed him until now, though he hasn’t been able to sleep.
“Hey, Irish,” Louis whispers, one hand coming down warm on the back of Niall’s neck. “How’re you feeling?”
Niall’s facedown on the bed, and he turns his head to the side so that he can stare into Louis’s face, too close to see much more than huge eyes and the curve of his grin. His breath is warm, and minty. Louis is worried, but he won’t show it. His questions are all disguised as idle chatter, his comfort given freely and physically because that’s the way he knows how, but he worries. Niall listens to the enjambment of his thoughts, all pressed up against one another, and has to huff out a laugh. His head is throbbing, but he can only hope that he’ll get used to it, because he doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
“Could do with a cuddle,” Niall says, and Louis laughs – a delighted, surprised sound – and nestles in closer, pushing his face alongside Niall’s, warm hand sliding down Niall’s spine to the stripe of skin across his back where his shirt has rucked up. He throws one leg over Niall’s, tugging them together until there is no space between them. Louis doesn’t know how little space there actually is, but Niall can’t tell him yet.
Liam hands Niall an aspirin before he can even ask for it. Liam has a water bottle in his other hand and he holds it out, eyebrows raised. He’s still sweaty from the show, which was marvelous in the way that they always are – wave after wave of unadulterated want, and Niall the only one who can feed off of it. He’s so tired he’s shaking, and Liam is looking him up and down, now, with that sensible, no-nonsense face. It’s not exactly the truth, but it’s close enough to be a comfort.
“We’ll have to get you a banana,” Liam says, mouth tilted down on the side – his thinking face. He’s wondering if Niall should see a doctor, or if there’s something they should be doing about how tired he gets when the shows end. Niall pops his pill and downs his water. Zayn and Harry are already tinkering on their mobiles, Harry still thinking about the girl who brought them coffee at their last interview and slipped him her mobile number. Zayn is watching Liam and Niall out of the corner of his eye, because he’s noticed the way that Niall is after shows, but he’s not sure what he could do that Liam can’t. Louis called first shower, and he takes the longest, but he always gets there first, anyway.
“I’m fine, I promise,” Niall says. “Just my metabolism, yeah? Why I’m always hungry.” He’s not even lying. He’s pretty sure he’s so hungry all the time because his brain is using up so much energy listening in to other people’s thoughts. Drains the body.
“Still,” Liam says, and slings a sweaty arm around his shoulders. It’s too hot, but Niall doesn’t pull away. “We should get you a banana.”
His first weekend home is more like an overnight trip – two nights and one whole day, actually, but it’s the one day that matters. It’s the first that he’s been away from the boys for more than twenty-four hours in months, and it’s bizarre. He still shares a bedroom with his brother, and his mum cooks a huge dinner and has all of their friends over, so his head isn’t empty, but the thoughts are less familiar. Less comforting. He’s not alone, here, except in the ways that he is.
He doesn’t have much time to think about it until after everyone has gone to bed, and he’s staring at the ceiling. He feels bereft, like something vital has been carved out of him, and he realizes that he hasn’t noticed how much he relies on them because they are always there. It’s pathetic.
But when he pulls out his mobile, he has a message from Harry that says, miss u lads loads, and responses from each of them in the affirmative.
its so quiet wout you mates… good night miss you xx, he sends back, and tries to let that be enough.
He doesn’t know what makes this one worse, but the screams of the girls, the press of people all around him as they head into the HMV for the signing, is almost too much to handle and Niall can’t help cringing. He’s used to the wanting, the knowledge all of these girls have that they’ll never get exactly what they’re hoping for, but the expectations hit him like a wall – the maybe he’ll hug me I wonder if Harry I wonder and let me take a picture maybe Louis will Molly said that they – each fluttering hope and desire pushing up into him until he wants to hide. He’s breathing too quickly, and he can feel how hot his face is, how fast his heart is beating.
He jolts, holding in a gasp, when a hand falls heavily against his neck, and then Harry is pressed up against him, chin hooked over his shoulder, fingertips pressed to his ribs.
“Calm down,” Harry says, voice deep and quiet and soothing in Niall’s ear. “We’re not going to let them maul you, promise.”
Niall laughs, a little too weakly. “They certainly want to.”
“Yeah, but we’re big and tough and we’ll protect you.” Harry’s laughter is pressed against Niall’s jaw, and they’re still moving through the crowd, but Harry isn’t the only one who’s noticed. Zayn is reaching back and wrapping a hand around his wrist, dragging him forward and closing the gap between them, lower lip caught between his teeth. They’ve all noticed, each of them, and Louis makes a face over his shoulder, and Liam is a calming presence behind, and he’s never felt luckier.
“My heroes,” he says, and smiles.
When he tells them, finally, in the studio for their second album, he hears one deafening moment of confusion, a split second of realization, and then Zayn gets up and calmly walks out of the room. It’s hard to get a read on him, on just Zayn, while the other three are staring at him, eyes wide with wonder but no disbelief, and Niall watches them for ten, fifteen seconds before he stands up with a quick, “Sorry, mates,” and follows Zayn out of the lounge and into the hallway.
Zayn hasn’t made it very far – he’s less than twelve steps from the doorway, sitting on the tiled floor with his knees pulled up to his chest, his back pressed against the wall. Anyone in the studio could walk by them, but Niall doesn’t care, because he can feel Zayn’s hurt and anger like a pulse through his body, and he can’t stand it. It’s making him sweat, making his head pound to have Zayn so close and so undeniably betrayed. Niall sits next to him, as near as he can get without touching. It feels wrong to purposefully not touch Zayn, but he knows better than to try it right now.
“You’re cross with me,” he says, because Zayn is, Zayn is thinking over every one of their interactions and wondering how he didn’t see it, when he was looking so hard. Zayn has always found it the hardest to trust, and Niall knew this, but he hadn’t – he’d waited so long because he’d known there would be fallout.
“I’m not – okay, I am, a bit.” Zayn’s voice is steady, but Niall can hear the effort that takes him.
“I deserve it, I know, I just – got scared. I haven’t told anyone before. What if I – what if I frightened you?” Niall mimics Zayn, pulling his knees up to his chest, and tucking his chin over his kneecaps.
Zayn stays silent for a long moment, the kind that would make Niall nervous if he didn’t know exactly what Zayn is thinking. Zayn can’t figure out what to say, because to him, somehow, the idea of being frightened of Niall is ridiculous. Even now, with what Niall has just told them. “That’s not – we could never be scared of you, Niall, but – how’re we supposed to help you if you don’t let us?” Zayn asks, instead. “How can we protect you?” He pauses, and Niall can see the way the thought dawns on him, just as easily as he can hear it. It’s like a sunrise, a revelation, and Niall turns his head to look at Zayn’s face, his cheek pressed to his kneecap. “It’s not just the crowds, is it? It’s their thoughts, yeah? All the girls?”
“Sometimes,” Niall says. “It’s not always so bad.”
“You’re a bloody idiot,” Zayn says, jaw tense and voice firm. Niall doesn’t know what to do with the combination of fierce protectiveness and affection and residual anger and hurt that are bubbling up through Zayn, so he keeps quiet. “We’d never be frightened of you. Not ever, yeah? But no more secrets.”
Niall nods, unable to really form words, and Zayn leans over, pushing their shoulders together. He’s still angry, but it’s already tempered, and Niall’s chest loosens, a little, letting him breathe in deeply. He props his head on Zayn’s shoulder and says, “I’m sorry, mate, really.”
“Yeah,” Zayn says, “I get it. It’s okay.”
“Just ask,” Niall says, rolling his eyes. “I can hear you thinking it.”
They’re back in Harry’s stepdad’s bungalow, third year running, and it’s something like a tradition now. They’ve piled all the pillows, blankets, and couch cushions into the middle of the floor and they’re all puppy-piled in it, Liam’s head tucked against Niall’s stomach, Niall propped up on Harry’s shoulder. Harry has one leg thrown over Niall’s, and Louis and Zayn are spooning by their feet.
“If you can hear me why do I have to say it out loud?” Harry asks, and Niall isn’t sure how Harry knew that Niall was talking to him, specifically, except that maybe he’d noticed how loudly he was thinking the question to himself.
“If you’re trying to spare yourself some kind of embarrassment, you must know it won’t work,” Liam says, “because if Niall answered a question without context we’d make him tell us what it was.”
“And everyone knows that Niall is susceptible to our charms,” Louis chimes in. Niall looks down and catches the bright smile on his face. Their warm pleasure and relaxation are humming underneath his skin, and he feels like he hasn’t any muscles at all.
“I am entirely susceptible to your charms, it’s true.” Niall can’t help his grin.
“So spit it out, Harold,” Zayn says, and laughs. He’s picking at the hem of Louis’s t-shirt sleeve, both eyebrows raised.
“Can you hear us wanking, then?” Harry asks, and he’s not, actually, embarrassed. Niall doesn’t have to look over to know that he’s got his cheekiest grin on.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with my mind-reading abilities,” Niall says, trying to keep his expression arch and cool and not nearly making it. “I think it’s got more to do with your volume control problems, mate.”
“Hey!” Harry is attempting scandalized but not putting much effort into it. He breaks down into hard, rich laughter that Niall can feel in his chest, vibrations from how closely they’re pushed together.
“I could if I wanted to, though,” Niall says, after a moment to let Harry calm himself. “But I violate your privacy enough as it is.”
There’s a short pause while they mull that over, though none of them seem particularly surprised or uncomfortable. The opposite, actually.
“You don’t, really,” Liam says. “Because we’d have to mind.”
Niall brushes the hair off of Liam’s forehead in lieu of thanking him, since he knows they’d just protest it. They always do.
“You only say that because I’m not listening to you wank,” he says, instead, and smiles when they laugh. He’s warm and comfortable enough to sleep, and he can’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be.