It turned out that the timing of One Direction’s hiatus couldn’t have been better, in the end. Zayn and the others never did find out if it was by design, or whether it was simply a well-timed coincidence, but it didn’t change the fact that, only a couple months into their time off, Liam came to the boys wearing a cheek-splitting grin to announce that Danielle was pregnant.
Zayn had always known that, one day, Liam would be a great father. He loved those close to him so purely; even when he was quietly berating you for doing something particularly dick-ish, you could never doubt the love he felt for you. He was also the best guilt-tripper Zayn knew, including his mum; Liam was the only one who had convinced him, more than once, to quit with the smoking, to finally give up sometime around the writing of their third album – he still refused to think of it as their final one – and who would sit there with him for hours, playing cards, or just gripping Zayn’s hands between his own, hiding their shaking.
And when Anastasia was born, and he saw his best friend holding his daughter in his arms, Zayn thought he’d possibly never seen anything so natural. Zayn had just arrived, a nurse pointing him in the right direction for the maternity ward, and he almost walked straight past, aiming for the nurse’s station to find out what room they were in, when he glimpsed Liam through the window. It wasn’t Danielle’s room, it was the one where they kept a whole bunch of the babies together – Zayn didn’t know what that was called. And Liam had such a glowing joy about him as he stared at this sleeping baby’s face; something warm swelled in Zayn, lighting up his own face before he could think.
Since then, Zayn had been away a lot. He had signed onto a one-record deal as a solo artist, just for the interim of the band’s break, while they were still figuring out what they were going to do. It was the scariest thing Zayn had ever done, and not quite the most exciting. He loved the freedom of singing his own songs, his own style; the lack of diplomacy which is required when you have to split solos between five friends, but no longer needed when it’s just you. He loved the knowledge that it was him the fans were there to see – although, a part of his mind niggled that they wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for One Direction. And he loved the band that supported him; they were a great bunch of guys and he’d fallen in well with them the past couple years. But it wasn’t the same. He knew it wouldn’t be, but he also didn’t think he would feel their absence quite so keenly, like missing limbs. He was always grateful whenever he could get back home to see them, more so than he ever did when it was only his family he was returning to; grateful for the irregular phone calls and Skype sessions which they tried to coordinate around mismatched time zones.
Zayn made the effort to see his friends as much as possible when he was home, both individually and as a group. But he rarely saw Liam’s family. Danielle and Zayn had never been close - Zayn didn’t have a problem with her or anything; she was married to his best mate, he thought she was quite nice, must be for Liam to love her so much – and Danielle often opted to stay home with the baby, sending the lads out to be noisy elsewhere. So other than the photos which Liam displayed proudly whenever Zayn remembered to ask, and the odd time when Zayn would pop round by himself to see Liam – usually when Danielle was out shopping – Zayn didn’t see much of Liam’s daughter. Definitely didn’t spend enough time with her for the toddler to remember him very well.
So Zayn didn’t take it to heart when the little girl’s face dropped in disappointment on seeing Zayn; instead turning in her father’s lap to grizzle quietly against Liam’s chest. Zayn watched his friend take a deep breath while he rubbed Anastasia’s back, trying to inject some enthusiasm into his voice. “No, look! See? It’s Uncle Zayn! He’s come all the way over from New Zealand on a huge plane to come see you, he has. You’d better say hi to him.”
Zayn stepped closer to the sofa, crouching slightly to peer under the mop of curls in an attempt to catch her eye.
“Hey there, Ana! Do you remember me? I bet you don’t; last time I saw you, you were tiny! I bet your bunny there was just about as big as you were then,” referring to the slightly grubby stuffed toy she held clutched in one small fist.
He got a small grin for that. Zayn counted it as a win; especially when he looked up to find the tiniest of smiles perking up the corners of Liam’s mouth as well.
The next day, Zayn met the other lads for lunch. He’d urged Liam to come with him, just to get out of the house, but excuses were made; he had to make phone calls, funeral arrangements, Ana had had an unsettled night, his Mum was coming back the next day and he needed to double check when she would be arriving.
Liam’s mum had driven to see him almost faster than Zayn thought humanly possible when she was first told of Danielle’s death. But the world doesn’t stop just because yours has, and so Liam had to let her leave again, the morning Zayn had arrived, so that she could organise work, Liam’s father, his sisters; even the simplest of necessities such as clothes, forgotten in her need to get to her shell-shocked son.
And while Zayn doubted that Karen would need much coordination with Liam in order to get back here the day before the funeral, he let Liam have his excuses.
They met in a cafe, not far from Liam’s house. It wasn’t too busy when they arrived, after the main lunchtime rush, and the usual patrons and staff were used to the sight of them – while the hype of One Direction had more or less died off, they weren’t exactly off the radar, and with the news of Liam’s bereavement, Zayn knew there would be an increase in the lowly type of pap who wanted to capture their pain.
It was also roughly equidistant to Louis and Harry’s home. After so much time spent as a five-person unit, they had all needed their time and space to themselves, but they also couldn’t bring themselves to be too far from each other. They were only the next suburb over from Liam’s and, while Zayn and Niall both had apartments closer to the city centre, they still tended to revert to their old habit of crashing at whoever’s place they were at, or was most convenient.
Zayn was the last to arrive, after a failed last-ditch attempt to drag Liam along with him. Niall leapt up to wrap him in a warm embrace, which Zayn sank into with grateful familiarity. The carefree grin which usually graced the Irishman’s face had been sobered slightly, but there was still genuine warmth in his expression, pleasure at their reunion after four months of minimal contact.
Niall had been busy in recent years. He had mostly chilled along with the rest of them for that first year or so, delighting fans with a guest-judge spot on X-Factor, and writing some light and catchy songs when the whim took him. But, as time went on, and there was no sign of a 1D return, Niall began to move in a slightly different direction. With encouragement and a couple well-placed shoulder taps from Simon, Niall had been working his way up in the production side of the music he loved. And he was doing a good job; Zayn couldn’t stop listening to the new record from one of Niall’s newest bands, Off Road, during his down time in the final leg of his tour. He was considering talking to him about them opening Zayn’s next trip to Europe; they seemed like good guys from what he could tell, and something in their easygoing nature reminded Zayn of their producer. Maybe that was what attracted Zayn to them.
Zayn gave a tight grin back as he pulled away from Niall, gaze settling on the tangled limbs occupying the other side of the booth, picking at each others’ plates.
Harry and Lou hadn’t changed much; they were still the soppy, loved-up twats Zayn groaned at, while secretly jealous of the easy dedication each had for the other. Harry had finally stopped growing; he now stood at almost a full head taller than Louis. He still retained his round cheeks and head of curls though – he could never bring himself to shear them off since Lou pouted whenever he brought it up – and so he looked much younger than his 23 years. Louis had changed least of all, only a slight shortening and flattening of his hair, and an ever so slightly less manic glint in his eyes differentiating between photos of him from now and 5 years past; besides the occasional attempt at facial hair, which always had Zayn and Niall doubled up in laughter as they mocked him and Harry sat petting the prickly fuzz fondly.
He was clean shaven at that moment, in preparation for a new role, Zayn discovered later on; Louis had come into his own, breaking into the West End slowly but surely. He started with small parts, previous credentials not exactly doing a whole lot to support his cause (although they’d finally learnt to laugh at that nightmare which had been iCarly), but soon proved himself. An older audience began to appreciate his performances, and his next role was to be a supporting, but major, one.
Harry stood next to him as an ever-supportive anchor. For a long time, that was enough for him too; Harry always had, when it came down to it, enjoyed the quiet moments, out of the direct spotlight. But, just after the New Year was welcomed in, Harry finally got back into his second-biggest love – singing. He went about it quietly, refusing to sign onto a label immediately, refusing to let almost anyone know really, for a start. The hype had died down, and Harry liked it that way; liked the relative anonymity compared to being the Harry Styles of One Direction. He formed another band, The Game, with a few musicians he had met in various places around London, and began playing small gigs in bars, the occasional show. They were just this side of indie, a bit obscure, vague and mellow lyrics which screamed Harry at his core. He didn’t do it for the money or the fame anymore, would have been happy with that life forever, Zayn was sure, but even keeping low-key wouldn’t work forever, not when they were genuinely great, and definitely not when the lead singer was Harry. The Game were getting more and more hits all over YouTube, HD phone videos of their performances becoming increasingly common. Harry had revealed to Zayn about a month ago that they were in talks about recording an album next year sometime.
First, though, Harry and Louis had something much bigger to finalise, and celebrate. After over four years together, Larry Stylinson was getting hitched in just over a month, a mid-autumn wedding.
Or they were. Before all this.
Zayn wasn’t sure where this left things.
But despite the sombre circumstances of their reunion, the four men were able to find at least some pleasure, comfort, in their friends’ presence, if only for a couple hours. They discussed everything and nothing, much the same as they had always been, although often looking at the empty seat where their missing limb would usually be; they still thought like that, even after all this time. When they were together, they were still the five lads who were thrown together to become one entity, something no-one else could ever quite understand.
And when one of them was hurting, they all were.
It was a car accident.
Almost unbelievably clichéd. Something so common that it never could happen to you, the ones you love.
Until it does.
It was wet, dark, slippery. It was late.
It was a speeding driver, just the wrong side of the alcohol limit, slipping across the centre line.
It was Danielle’s small BMW skidding, sliding, spinning.
It was an impact between the flickering lamp post and the driver’s door, crumpling.
It was Harry banging down Liam’s door because the police couldn’t get a hold of Liam and all the boys were listed on Dani’s phone as emergency contacts (except Zayn, but surely that was because he was so often away).
It was denial.
It was Liam identifying the body, still slightly warm under his touch, surely sleeping.
It was blood congealing under her body, surely not sleeping.
It was Louis and Harry and Niall waiting outside, watching through the window, repeating the story later for Zayn who wasn’t there.
It was guilt.
It was a hundred other moments that Liam kept in silence, that Zayn didn’t know how to ask, didn’t know if he wanted to ask.
It was Liam keeping Anastasia no more than a room away at any time, unable to let her out of hearing distance; out of sight only when necessary.
It was Zayn walking in on Liam crying softly into one of Danielle’s oversized jumpers, fabric pressed to his nose, as if he can just retain her scent then maybe it would be her, not Zayn, in the doorway.
It was Liam falling into sleep in Zayn’s arms, creases finally smoothing from his forehead.
It was Liam’s not quite silent, sleepy whisper.