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Lost In the Thrill Of It All

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When Niall first sees Zayn, the breath leaves her lungs like she’s been punched in the gut. Her knuckles turn white, fingers clenched against the edge of the table and she almost upends her coffee. Her friends stop their chatter for a moment, turning to Niall with worried little quirks of their eyebrows. Niall smiles and says, "It's nothing," and continues to daze out of their conversation like she'd been doing for the last thirty minutes anyway. Her eyes are immediately drawn back to the girl leaning over the counter of the cafe, handing flyers to the barista.

She's just - she's the best thing Niall's ever seen in her life. It's not just the fact that she's gorgeous, all smooth, long tanned legs ending at her roller skates and soft curves but there’s something about her. She’s magnetic, undeniably drawing Niall – she just wants to know her (which might be the cheesiest thing Niall’s ever thought in her life).

She spins around on her skates so that her short skirt flies up in a neat circle, revealing her knickers and the tattoos right at the junction where each thigh meets the curve of her arse. It’s entirely too fast for Niall to make out what it is. Niall drags her gaze up, over the swell of her breasts and the sharp lines of her collarbone. When her eyes finally flick up to her face, she finds Zayn looking at her, raising an eyebrow. Niall blushes furiously at having been caught staring, looking down to rail her fingers through the sugary mess she’d made on the table five minutes ago from sheer boredom. She looks up again and Zayn still has her gaze trained on her. Zayn then smiles at her, slow and filthy - promising even and god it sends a jolt right through Niall. Niall wants to push her up against the counter and run her fingers throw her hair, palm against the buzzed side and smear her lipstick over the both of them. She wants to trace the patterns of her upper-arm sleeve with the pad of her thumb and follow it up with her tongue, she wants.

Before Niall can figure out how to talk to her or get her to stay so Niall can gawk some more, Zayn's skating out of the cafe, spinning once more at the doorway to wave to the barista. Niall's body's moving before she realises, pushing back her chair with a loud screech. She’s making for the counter, ignoring her friends questions as to where she’s going. Niall stands where Zayn was spinning a moment ago, staring down at the flyers with burning curiosity.

Niall can feel the barista’s unrelenting gaze focused on the side of her face and she fights the wave of self-consciousness with gritted teeth. It’s just, she’s wearing a sweater and jeans, her hair thrown up in a messy bun and she looks nothing like the girls on the flyer, nothing like Zayn with the sharp, clean lines of her winged eyeliner and painted red lips.

"Did you want to order something else, darling?"" the barista says, throwing his towel over one shoulder and settling in front of her. He bends over to maintain eye-contact, leaning his elbows on the counter.

"Uh, no, I was just looking at the flyers," Niall says, glancing up at him through the wisps of hair that's escaped her bun.

His face splits into a grin, dimpling his cheeks and making him look younger all of a sudden. "She has that affect on people, Zayn does," he says, shaking his head a little.

Niall tucks that piece of information away (her name is Zayn) and tries not to blush - she couldn't have been that obvious.

"Hi, I'm Harry," he says and offers her a hand, almost apologetic for making her blush so hard from that one sentence. "You should take one of the flyers. They're having a demonstration in a couple of days, it's fun and all,” he says.

Niall grabs his offered hand, gripping firmly and shaking even though his broad palm threatens to envelop hers completely. She raises an eyebrow at him, mostly out of curiosity and mostly because she wants to know if he’s Zayn’s boyfriend or whatever - because she will fight him.

"You come in here a lot," Harry asks before she can ask. He’s still grinning, that infuriating smile, not unkind but like he knows something she doesn’t. He continues, “You don't look like you're enjoying yourself with them.” He jerks his head to the side, motioning to the corner where her she’d been sitting. A stray curl bounces out of his beanie and Niall feels an overwhelming urge to push it back in.

Instead, Niall concentrates on trying to come up with a hot rush of irritation or at least some kind of defensive urge for her friends but comes up dry. It’s not like Niall’s a terrible person, dead inside and all that but – it’s just so completely true. Everything’s immensely dull and Niall feels like she’s disappearing a little bit more every day since she’s moved from Ireland. She goes to her small school, sits with the same people, talk about the same things over and over again until she wants to smash her head against the wall. It could be worse, Niall gets on well with pretty much anyone after all, but it’s just hard to try and muddle through all these expectations of who she’s supposed when it’s being piled on her from all directions. Honestly, the first time she’d downed a pint in front of Ashley, she’d almost had a heart attack.

Niall doesn’t reach over the counter and tug at Harry’s curls but just tilts her head to the side and says with a shit-eating grin, "You can’t be that good at your job if you're spending your shift watching my soul slide out of my arse."

Harry lets out a loud laugh, turning a couple of heads in the small café. The manager looks up from the magazine he’s flicking through and when he sees it’s just Harry, he rolls his eyes and continues.

Harry rests a finger over his mouth and makes a mock-contemplative face at Niall, narrowing his bright green eyes at her. “They’d definitely like you,” he says. “Speaking of, you haven't even introduced yourself. That'd be considered rude in some social circles."

Niall doesn’t ask who Harry’s referring to because she’s going to pretend it’s Zayn, thanks, but her heart’s already starting to beat a little faster at the thought of her like a total dickwad.

"Alright, you posh twat, keep your hat on," Niall says, her smile growing on her face. It's almost too easy to talk to Harry, like Niall's finally slipping back into her own skin after leaving Ireland. "Niall," she says and tugs one of the flyers away from the pile. She shrugs to herself as if saying fuck it and pulls at his stray curl before letting it bounce back. It’s immensely satisfying.

Harry laughs again and says, "Call me if you need a ride into town for the demonstration." He pulls out a sharpie from the cup of pens next to the counter and reaches for Niall's hand. He pushes Niall's sleeve up and connects the four freckles together as if he can't help himself before scribbling his number into the stark paleness of her wrists.

"Depends if you're planning to abduct me, peel the skin off my breathing body and then drop me behind some woods." Niall says, narrowing her eyes at him. She pulls her arm back but doesn't roll down her sleeve in case his number would smudge.

"Hey, Nick, reassure Niall I'm not going to peel the skin off her breathing body and drop her behind some woods," Harry says, twisting around to call out to the manager.

"He's not going to peel your skin off your breathing body and drop you behind the woods," Nick says as he's asked and adds, "He's more likely to grate the skin off your breathing body, pet."

Niall more or less does that weird cackle laugh her mother seems to hate and says, "Fine, I'll think about it."

She waves to Harry who only winks at her, resting his chin on his knuckles, elbows propped against the counter. Niall turns around, smiling to herself as she walks back to her friends. She digs her nails into that feeling blooming in her stomach, that maybe it’ll all be fine, as she settles back into her seat. Niall determinedly ignores the way they’re all staring expectantly at her and dips her finger in the sugar again.

"Well?" Edward asks her, widening his eyes at her comically.

"Well what?" Niall asks, taking a sip of her now-cold coffee.

"How do you know Harry Styles?" Cathy asks, clutching at Niall's wrists with her perfectly manicured fingernails.

Niall can't help the dimple that forms between her brows, irritated all over again. It's like they didn't see Zayn of all people. "I don't," she says and shrugs. She chances a glance back at Harry who wriggles his fingers in her direction, that knowing smirk on his face.

Her friends erupt into giggles and Niall closes her eyes and sits back, thinks of Zayn's lipstick smudged all around her mouth and the insides of her thighs instead.

~

Niall can't get Zayn out of her head and it's getting ridiculous, it really is, she'd barely seen her for five minutes. They haven't even talked, it’s reaching a level of pathetic Niall hadn’t known existed. Zayn doesn't even know that Niall exists. Niall is literally knocked out of her thoughts when Dave bumps into her in the hallway, his glasses falling off the bridge of his nose. Niall makes a mad grab for it and manages to catch it between her pinky and ring-finger. She hands it back to him with a polite smile, adjusting her beanie to stay on top of the mess that she couldn’t be bothered to deal with today.

"S-sorry about that, Niall," he says and he towers over Niall (well everyone towers over Niall, she’s barely five feet tall) but the way he's standing always makes it seem like he's shrinking down in front of her eyes. His broad shoulders are up around his ears and so Niall reaches up and punches him in the arm, standing on her tippy toes to try and get him to ease up.

"S'all good, mate," she says, giving him a nod. She makes a vague motion with her arms which she hopes is reassuring, her hands still shove deep into her oversized jacket. Niall pauses for a moment, waiting for him to say something and when he doesn’t, side-steps him to continue her walk down the hallway.

It doesn’t take long before he’s jogging to catch up to her, hands clutching at the straps of his backpack like it’s a lifeline. She turns her head to the side, eye-brow raised in question. He blushes all across his cheekbones, ducking his head.

"Um, so, I was just wondering if you were doing anything - if you wanted to go out with me on Saturday?" he asks, he continues to shift his backpack uneasily, glancing between the floor, Niall’s face, the ceiling, to his friends and back again. He pushes his glasses up his nose, blue eyes looking all lit up and hopeful.

Niall stops again in the middle of the hallway, not bothered with the fact she’s probably being an inconsiderate asshole with the way everyone has to walk around them. She screws her mouth to the side, the picture perfect example of confused. She doesn’t understand Dave to be honest; he’s nice enough, average, sensible with feathery brown hair and a boyish smile. But that’s pretty much it, he’s nice.

“Uh, I’m sorry, I’m going to this thing this week,” she says, looking down at her boots, rolling her ankle and pointing her toes inwards to waste time. She looks up again and regrets it immediately because he looks all crestfallen. Guilt pricks her conscience and suddenly she feels obligated to explain. She doesn’t even think before she says, “It’s a roller derby demonstration.” Niall pauses again, biting down on her bottom lip because the way he keeps looking down at his toes makes her want to reach out and hug him.

“Maybe next time!” is all she says, smiling brightly at him to try and make up for it. She makes her escape easily, dodging in between the crowds of people with no difficulty and disappearing from view.

Niall barely arrives on time to her history class and falls into her usual seat, dropping her bag heavily to the ground. Cathy slides into the seat next to her and Niall salutes her in greeting. She makes a little frowny confused face, looking at Niall as if she’s a strange creature.

“Hi,” Niall says instead and refuses the urge to put her head down on the desk. She needs to make it through half the lesson at least before she gives up.

Thinking about it, the decision’s pretty much been made up for her – she’s going to the roller derby demonstration on Saturday.

~

Niall texts Harry her address, feeling like she should be more apprehensive of strange men who work in coffee houses but Harry only replies with a picture of his fourth nipple and she thinks it might be alright. Niall pulls on a baggy sweater and grabs an extra jacket, her messy hair spilling over her bulky scarf. She reassures herself she’s probably not going to be seeing Zayn anyway and even if she was, there’s nothing else she could wear and it’s just silly to worry over it. She’s usually not this self-conscious about anything and she does not enjoy it one bit.

“And where are you off to?” her mum asks.

Niall stops short, her hand already on the door handle. She doesn’t turn around for a moment, just listening to the sound of the knife hitting the cutting board in regular intervals and thinking she should have thought about this before she tried leaving.

Inspired, Niall spins around on her heel and says, “I’m going to Cathy’s to study for the history exam, remember?”

“No I do not remember,” she says, turning to Niall with a raised eyebrow.

“I told you,” Niall insist, pushing a stray lock of her behind her ear and praying Harry doesn’t start honking. “I’m going to study, what else will I be doing in this godforsaken town?”

“Watch how you talk to your mother, Nialler,” her dad says, walking in from the living room with a newspaper tucked under his arm. He reaches out a hand and pats her on the head, almost knocking her beanie off her head.

“Okay, sorry, sorry. Can I go now? We’ve got a lot of content to cover today,” Niall lies through her teeth, fingers already pulling at the handle again.

Her mum looks at her for another moment and there must’ve been something reassuring in Niall’s expression because she just gives her a curt nod of approval.

“Thanks, ma,” Niall says and reaches over to kiss her dad goodbye.

She slams the door behind her in a hurry, hissing through her teeth at the lecture she’s probably going to get from that. Niall fixes her beanie and scans the road for a sign of Harry, he’d texted her saying he was in front of her house but she can’t seem to find him anywhere. She finally spots his curly head behind the steering wheel a little bit down the street and forces her legs to walk and not run. Harry doesn’t need to know how excited she is, the fucker’s only going to tease.

“You want to go for a ride, little girl? I have candy.” Harry asks, reaching over to push the door open.

Niall snorts, throwing her bag under her seat and climbing in. Harry hands her a strawberry chuppa chups anyway and pulls away from the sidewalk.

They drive in comfortable silence for a few minutes before Niall reaches over, pulling at the collar of Harry’s shirt. To his credit, he doesn’t even flinch when Niall looks down his shirt.

“That’s a freckle you bloody liar,” Niall says, settling back in her seat and shaking her head in disappointment.

“Tell me why it squirts milk, then!” Harry says indignantly and Niall thinks he’s just about the strangest boy she’s ever met.

“How do you know – how did you get introduced to roller derby?” Niall asks after a while, pushing her dirty boots onto the dashboard. She pops the lollipop out of her mouth, closing one eye to hold it up to the stop sign, feigning nonchalance.

“You mean how do I know Zayn?” Harry asks, glancing side-ways at her through his curls.

“Uh, maybe?” Niall says, popping the chuppa chups back into her mouth and resolutely looking out the window, a smile already curling at the corners of her mouth.

“You are such a precious baby lamb when you blush,” Harry says and reaches out with one hand to poke her cheek.

She bats his hand away, laughing around her lollipop. Niall mumbles a, “Shut the fuck up, Styles,” grabbing onto the edge of her seat when they swerve dangerously. Harry puts both his hands back on the steering wheel immediately, pulling a face as if that roundabout just appeared out of nowhere.

“To answer your question, the love of my life is the captain of Zayn’s team but I’ve known Zayn since we were in high school,” Harry says, car back under control.

“Is it Zayn?” Niall asks because she likes Harry, she really does, but again she will fight him over this.

“She’s a bit young for me,” Harry says, flashing a sharp grin at her.

“How old are you even, saggy old man?” Niall asks curiously. It’s started raining and honestly Niall doesn’t think Harry’s driving can handle that.

“Twenty-one,” he says and fumbles with the heater at a red light. “Zayn’s nineteen. Anything else you wanted to know about Zayn you’re going to pretend to get to know me for?” he asks and when Niall turns her head, he’s got that shit-eating grin on his face and she rolls her eyes, smile already tugging at her mouth. She can’t help it - it’s the fucking Harry Styles Charm her friends have been babbling on about for the whole week now.

“What do you know about roller derby?” she asks, watching the rain roll down the glass of the window.

By the time they pull up into the parking space, Harry’s explained the basics of the game and Niall’s learnt that Harry has a tendency to use his hands unnecessarily to sketch out what he’s saying. This means they only almost die twice. Niall finds it in her heart to forgive him when he holds his jacket over both their heads as they run into the rink, Niall’s boots splashing the rain on to Harry’s unfortunate shoe choice.

They get inside the roller rink and Harry ends up clutching at the back of her jacket as Niall elbows people out of the way. She’s surprisingly apt at shoving people that are twice her size and they manage to get adequate seats, close enough to see the action without much trouble.

The lights are off and there are a lot of people who’s come to see the demonstration, crammed elbow to elbow and it’s loud as fuck. Niall tamps down on the panic rising in her stomach because she doesn’t do crowds but the way Harry’s elbows keep knocking into her shoulders is comforting.

She stands on her tippy toe, trying to get closer to Harry’s ears to be heard.

“Who’s got your dick hard?” Niall shouts cupping her hands to be heard. She surges closer to Harry and hopes he doesn’t mind.

“You’ll see,” Harry says and as if on cue, a mic is slowly being dropped into the middle of the roller rink.

“I’m your host Uncle Ben and tonight I only have one question for you: are you ready to part-aaaaay?” a voice booms out in the crowds and Niall snorts loudly, groaning with most of the crowd.

The spotlight fixes on the man with the microphone, donned in a glittery pink suit. He makes a vague motion with his hands as if saying alright alright and continues. “Welcome to skate night at the Oak Flats Roller Skating Rink,” a voice booms out to the crowds. “Let me hear you make some fucking noise for the first team, it’s the Mascara Massacre!”

Niall claps along with everyone else until Harry bends down to say, “She’s the one.”

“Number 34, captain of the Mascara Massacre: C, Flackline!” Uncle Ben says as a lady with a nose piercing and the nicest legs Niall’s has ever seen in her life goes skating past.

She takes a second to appreciate this fully before turning back to Harry with raised eyebrows. Harry’s waving enthusiastically at her and grins widely when she winks at him, barely tilting her finger in his direction.

“She looks nice,” Niall shouts and Harry nods distractedly, his eyes still tracking her across the rink.

“Number 69, Atomic Sass!” Uncle Ben introduces and Louis comes whizzing past, jumping up easily to spin in the air. She lands and throws her hands up, waving like she’s the fucking queen.

“Number 8, Punky Bruiser!” Uncle Ben says and Niall clutches at the beam in front of her, straining forward to catch a glimpse of Zayn.

If she’d thought she looked great before, it’s nothing to how she looks now. She’s in her uniform, the collar buttoned up to her throat, her sleeves bare. The colours of her tattoos contrast starkly with the blue of the material and Niall wants to touch. Her skirt’s short enough that Niall can finally make out the tattoos at the back of her thighs (it’s not like she’s been thinking about them all week), two pink bows outlined in black and Niall feels all weak in the knees. There’s a gap between the waistline of her skirt and the end of her top and Niall can see another tattoo peeking out and she’d never wanted to map out something so much in her life.

She comes round the bend with ease, her legs all graceful lines. She’s got that smile on her face and it’s not an easy feat to have every single person’s eyes tracking her every movement. She pushes two fingers between her red lips, smirking as the crowd goes wild then pulls them back out again slowly, tucking her index finger down so she’s flipping them off instead.

Niall, understandably, misses out on the rest of the team and only jerks back to attention when Uncle Ben takes a deep shuddering breath and continues, “The Mascara Massacre have not won a championship in three years, ladies and gentleman, let’s see if they’ll have better luck this year!”

She doesn’t feel so sick anymore, forgetting the screaming crowd to focus on Zayn. Niall cups her hand around her mouth again and cheers as loudly as she can, standing on her tippy toes and leaning over the beam until Harry pulls her back with a laugh. Niall watches as they all sit down on the bench, eyes irrevocably drawn to Zayn. To her surprise, Zayn’s looking right at her and when their eyes meet, she tilts her head to the side, smiling crookedly at Niall’s enthusiasm. But then Louis leans over Zayn’s lap in an attempt to bite a man and their eye-contact is broken.

“That’s the coach, Liam, also Louis’ personal teeth sharpener,” Harry says, shaking his head fondly at them. Louis must have succeeded because Niall hears Liam’s undignified yelp from across the roller rink, followed by Louis’ satisfied cackle.

“Aaaand now, introducing the undefeated Drop Dead Derby Dolls. Make some noise for last season’s champs! The Drop Dead Derby Dolls are led by the hard line captain Mortal Cyn!” Uncle Ben says and continues to introduce the rest of the team.

Niall doesn’t cheer this time as loud this time, already feeling obligatory loyalty to the under dogs. And also Zayn.

“Okay, let’s play some fucking roller derby!” Uncle Ben shouts out, waving his arm in the air to the cheer of the hundreds of people in the roller rink.

Niall watches in rapt attention, barely hearing Uncle Ben’s commentary or the shouts of the crowd. The whistle blows and the girls start skating around the rink. Niall is barely understanding anything but keeping an eye out on the jammers like Harry had told her to. Louis’ the one wearing the helmet with the yellow star emblazoned on it but Niall’s eyes keep sliding back to Zayn and the curve of her arse like it’s second nature. Zayn smashes her shoulder into the opposing team, sending them falling on their knees and Niall needs a moment to clutch at Harry’s arm.

“Holy fucking shit,” Niall says, still clutching at Harry’s arm when it’s over. The crowd moves them towards the exits, out into the car park but Niall’s still glassy eyed and short of breath.

“I told you you’d like it,” Harry says, shaking his head at her.

“Holy fucking shit,” Niall repeats, digging her blunt nails into his arm for emphasis.

Harry just grins smugly and leads her to the stall where the team’s selling merchandise and signing autographs. Niall lets go of Harry’s arm, walking up towards Liam like she’s not even aware of what her body is doing at the moment.

“Hi! What can I get for you, sweetheart,” Liam asks, stooping down and resting his palms flat against the table.

“I don’t think you understand – this is the best thing I’ve seen in my life,” Niall says, gaping a little.

There are five stalls set up in the car park for the five different teams in the league. Mascara Massacre appears to have the smallest gathering; Niall has no idea why because they were the team that had the most magnetic energy out of all of them.

Liam laughs like she’s the cutest thing he’s ever seen and Niall can’t even bring herself to get upset about how her size seems to determine everything.

“You should definitely try out. We have try outs in two weeks, Thursday at five,” Liam says, straightening up.

She opens her mouth and closes it again stupidly. “I don’t know anything, the last time I tried skating was in fifth grade at a disco and I smashed my head against a wall and had a mild concussion,” Niall says, shoving her hands in her pocket and twisting the chuppa chups wrapper around her fingers.

Liam laughs again, his whole face scrunching up and Niall really wants to pinch his cheek and maybe croon at him, no matter how much older he is.

“Trust me, when some of these girls started out, they didn’t know anything either. Give it a go,” Liam says and it feels like she’s getting an inspirational speech from Barack Obama with the way he’s smiling at her.

Whaaaaaatcha doing?” Louis says, appearing out of nowhere and throwing her arms around Liam’s neck. Liam bends backwards a little because Louis seems intent on resting all her weight on his back and no matter how strong he is, Louis’ got all her gear on.

Louis gasps as if she’s just seen Niall standing there.

“Are you thinking of joining Mascara Massacre?” Louis asks, letting go of Liam and turning her attention to Niall.

“Uh, maybe? I don’t even have skates but I,” Niall starts, taking a step back because she’s got a manic gleam in her eye.

“We need fresh meat, god you’d be perfect,” Louis says and she’s almost climbing over the table, knee propped up against the edge. She almost goes careening when her skates start slipping but Liam catches her around the waist with one arm, not even looking up from where he’s writing down his name and number.

“Just in case,” he says and hands her the slip of paper.

“Oi, Zayn! Somebody wants to join Mascara Massacre, somebody wants to join,” Louis says, twisting around in Liam’s arm to shout down the car park. She hangs all over Liam like an octopus with no excuse, keeping his arm firmly around her waist.

Niall’s almost gets whiplash when she turns her head towards the general area Louis had been shouting at. Zayn’s leaning against a pole with the sign sagging sadly behind her. There’s a tall, tattooed guy with stretched ears leaning over, whispering into her ear as she glances up at him through her dark eyelashes in disinterest. She has a lollipop pressed against the inside of her mouth and it just makes Niall think of obscene things – fucking Harry and his penchant for distributing candy.

She drags a hand up over the man’s stomach, her nails catching on his shirt and pulling slightly. When her hand comes to rest against his sternum, she rolls her eyes and pushes him off with surprising strength. She doesn’t even look back as she glides off, skirt whirling around her.

“You’re the one who’s been staring at me,” Zayn says, coming to a stop in front of Niall, a bit too close for comfort.

Niall’s eyes are at level with her collarbones and she gulps, flicking her eyes up and wishing Zayn wasn’t on her skates so she could pretend to be a semi-decent human being and look her in the eyes.

“Takes one to know one,” Niall says simply, blue eyes flashing up at her.

Zayn pulls at her lollipop slowly and lets it pop out. She drops the act immediately though, cheeky grin unfurling and it’s like the whole mysterious demeanour drops and wow Niall just wants to put her mouth on her.

“I’m Zayn, but you already know that, don’t you?” Zayn asks, starting to move again. She circles around Niall slowly and Niall tries to haul in the smile that’s breaking out over her face because it feels like some kind of success, to have Zayn’s undivided attention.

“A bit full of yourself, aren’t you?” Niall says not unkindly, rolling her eyes. Zayn laughs and her smile must be the most attractive thing about her, the way her eyes transform into happy moon crescents and erases the harshness of her beauty. “I’m Niall,” Niall says and Zayn’s standing in front of her again, having finished her lap around Niall.

“You guys flirt really weird,” Louis says, regarding the both of them with amusement as if she doesn’t bite Liam in regular intervals.

“No they don’t, leave’em alone,” Liam hushes, smiling at them both like a proud parent.

“Who aren’t we leaving alone?” Harry asks, appearing out of nowhere with his cheeks flushed and his lips bruised and slick.

“Your flies undone,” Zayn says and when he looks down, pushes her palm against his nose.

“Funny, real funny,” Harry says, grabbing at Zayn’s wrists and trying to reach her ribs to tickle her.

Zayn shrieks in a decidedly undignified manner and tries to snag Harry in the crotch. She succeeds and skates over to Niall again, throwing herself against her back in a spontaneous outburst of affection. She wraps her arms around Niall’s neck and Niall can feel Zayn pressed all up against her back and she takes back everything bad she’s ever said about Harry.

“You’re going to hide behind peanut, that’s really brave of you,” Harry says.

It turns into a weird wrestling game because Niall will not abide with anybody calling her a peanut and then Louis joins in because apparently it’s her favourite job in the world to make sure Harry’s uncomfortable as possible at all times.

“Oh my god, you smell like sex,” Niall says, wrinkling her nose and pushing at his hands.

Louis only high-fives him and sidles a glance towards Liam like she’s disappointed or something.

“As much as I’d love to hear the details of what probably happened behind a bush,” Liam says and shakes his head to show that no, that’s completely the opposite of what he wants. “I know you have an essay due tomorrow that you haven’t even started yet so, shoo, off you go,” Liam says.

“Wow, thanks mum,” Harry says, trying to shove his hand in Niall’s face. Niall finds out she loves him a little bit more because Zayn’s trying to defend her and that means more pressing up against Zayn. She likes that a lot.

“Oh shit, we should get going though,” Niall says, catching Zayn’s wrist to stare at her watch.

“Okay, fine,” Harry says, throwing his hand up in defeat. He’s still smiling that blissed out smile ever since he’d reappeared and Niall’s only a little bit jealous he’s getting some with hot older ladies while she definitely isn't.

“Try-outs are in two weeks!” Louis calls out after her.

“See ya,” Niall says, still holding onto Zayn’s wrist.

Zayn raises an eyebrow and slides her wrist out of her grip, twining their fingers together for a moment before letting go with a small smile. “Yeah, okay,” she says and pops her lollipop back into her mouth.

When Harry and Louis’ weird good-bye ritual is done and over, Niall trails after Harry towards his car, biting down on her bottom lip to try and keep the grin in check.

“That was fun, right?” Harry says, getting in the car and stretching out his arms, almost knocking Niall in the head.

“Yeah, I think I’m gonna try out,” Niall says biting down on her smile, tightening the seatbelt before buckling down.

~

Niall goes to their local café with her friends like she does every Wednesday afternoon and sits in the same corner as per usual. She reasons she has nothing better to do at home alone either and quickly squashes the idea of studying when her guilty conscience prods at it. Still, she ends up ditching her friends after the first twenty minutes to go talk to Harry. Niall pretends that wasn’t the plan all along and saunters over to the counter, leaning her elbows against the surface so Harry have to clean around her.

“Morning, peanut,” Harry says, nodding at Niall with a shit-eating grin. Niall reaches over the counter to punch him in the arm and Harry winces.

“Don’t call me that,” Niall says, rolling her eyes.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Harry says, bending over to retrieve something. Niall distantly hears Cathy gasp in the background but promptly forgets about it when Harry hands her a pair of old skates. “Liam told me to give them to you. They’re like from when he was in Year 6 or something.”

Niall snorts, smiling down at the worn green skates with the Buzz Light Year designs on the sides. She runs her fingers over the wheels and says, “Tell him I said thanks.”

This means she won’t have to lie to her mum about an excursion to gather enough money to buy some new skates. They’re worn and scratched but it’s better than nothing and Niall feels disgustingly affectionate and grateful. She looks down at her feet and back to the roller skates, not sure what she should be feeling at the fact Liam’s skates from sixth grade would probably fit her perfectly.

“Will do,” Harry says, twisting his towel and waiting for Nick to walk past. He smacks him in the arse and giggles when he yelps. He braces his arm on the counter and tries to jump over to Niall’s side, trying to escape from Nick’s clutches.

Niall only rolls her eyes and places her hands on his shoulders, keeping him from jumping over so Nick can get his revenge. He shoves a handful of ice down the back of Harry’s pants and Niall let’s go of him, clutching a the counter so she doesn’t fall over from laughing so hard. She’s wiping at the corners of her eyes with the sleeve of her sweater when somebody coughs pointedly behind her.

“Hey, we’re going to go see if the new skirts have come in at Stella’s, you coming?” Ashley asks, her lips pressed in a thin hard line.

Niall looks back at Harry, hopping around with his hand down his trousers and back to them. “Nah, I’m good.”

~

Niall declines the offer from a couple of people in her Biology class to go study in the library after school and heads straight home. She pulls out the Toy Story skates, wearing two pairs of socks before bounding downstairs and out onto the streets. She sits on the curb, pulling them on as well as the old bike helmet she’d found under the stairs.

“I’ve got this,” Niall says mostly to herself, getting up on shaky legs. She knows how to skate, she just has to remember – it’s got to be riding bikes and shit, right?

She falls four times, skinning her elbows and thankfully saving herself from banging up her knees with the matching Toy Story kneepads Harry had found in the back of the café. It takes another hour before she’s skating around the neighbourhood comfortably enough, starting to gain some speed.

“Careful, dear!” Mrs Rose calls out from her front lawn, a pair of garden shears in her hand. “You’re going to break your little bones on those things,” she says, shaking her head with a tsk.

Niall doesn’t give in to the urge to do anything else but wave at her.

~

“Hey, Niall!” Dave says, stopping her dead in the hallway.

Niall pulls out an ear-bud, the tinny sound of some indie band Harry had recommended bleeding out to fill the silence. “How’s it going?” she asks politely, pulling up an easy smile and twirling the earphone absent-mindedly.

“It’s going – it’s good,” he says. He doesn’t waste any more time, shoving one hand deep into the pocket of his jean and peering at Niall side-ways. “So, you doing anything this week?” he asks, tension buzzing off him in waves.

Niall was planning to spend her Saturday skating around the park, maybe stop off at Harry’s workplace so she could show him how fast she’d got. She looks up at his hopeful face and says instead, “Nah, got nothing planned. Why?”

A smile breaks over his face and he looks instantly transformed, less jittery and nervous. “Did you want to go see a movie or something? They’re replaying movies at the old cinema,” he says, flushing brilliantly.

“Uh, alright,” Niall says, nodding. Her teachers back in Ireland always said she played too nice. Still, she doesn’t want to be an asshole and lead him on or anything like that, that’s not fair, so she adds, “We’re going as mates, right?”

“Um, sure?” he asks, frowning slightly.

Niall’s already late for English so she just pats him on the shoulder and walks off briskly, her mind already back on how to skate backwards and not possibly break her tailbone in four places.

~

“You look nice,” is the first thing Dave says to Niall, unnecessarily walking her from the door of her house to his car.

She looks down at her clothes, picking at a spaghetti stain on her shirt and raises an eyebrow at him. “Do I?” she asks, getting in the car. She reaches for the car door and almost loses a finger when he closes it for her.

“Yeah, really nice,” he says and Niall doesn’t argue, just sits back in her seat and waits out the five minutes it takes to go to the old cinema.

“I w-was thinking we could maybe watch the Notebook?” Dave asks, scratching at the back of his neck.

Niall shrugs amiably and says, “Okay,” because who doesn’t like the Notebook, right?

“Niall!” a familiar voice shouts out from the distance, “Over here, Horan!”

Niall twists around and sees Liam and two children, two buckets of popcorn in his hand.

“Hey,” Niall says, a smile already spreading on her face. She rushes forward towards where they’re standing and says, “Thanks for the skates! They fit perfectly.”

“Oh god, I’m sorry about those. I just remember you said you didn’t have any and your feet looked tiny,” Liam says and one of the kids looks down at Niall’s feet and gasps.

“They’re not that tiny,” Niall grumbles, poking the girl in the cheek.

“I bet mine are bigger,” she says, straightening up.

“Nice try, buddy but we’re not playing that game,” Niall says. “Uh, are these lovely specimens yours?” Niall says, stooping down to wave at the little boy. He’s gripping at Liam’s pinky with a shy smile, trying to hide behind his legs.

“No no, Rebecca’s – um, number 16 – she’s got a hot date so I said I’d look after her kids for the night,” Liam says, wriggling his pinky, smiling fondly down at them. “This is Lillie,” he says and she does a little curtsey, offering her hand to Niall with a “How do you do?” Niall accepts her hand and kisses her little knuckles. “And this is Karl,” Liam says and Karl bobs his head out from behind Liam, mostly still trying to hide himself.

“Hi, I’m Liam,” Liam says and Niall’s about to tell him thanks, she knows that, but he’s looking over her head. “And you are Niall’s boyfriend?” he asks, offering a hand to Dave.

“Uh, um, what, I don’t – I, uh, hope,” Dave says, his mouth falling open and shut ridiculously. He gets his shit together and shakes Liam’s hand with a tiny shake of his head, choking at the back of his throat.

“Yeah, no, his name’s Dave and he’s not my boyfriend,” Niall says with a laugh, winking at Karl who blushes on queue.

“Well, you can be my boyfriend, if you like,” Lillie says, batting her eyelashes at Dave.

“I thought I was your boyfriend,” Zayn says, coming up behind them with the tickets in her hand.

Niall spins around and almost smashes into Dave. She tries to make it out like she hadn’t just almost broken her nose on Dave’s sternum but Zayn’s already grinning at her. It makes her stomach twist and suddenly Niall’s wishing she’d washed her hair or done something about it anyway. It’s only because Zayn looks great as always, a raggedy band t-shirt over a tight black skirt. The collar of her shirt is shot to shit and slips over one shoulder and Niall wants to nose her way down her collarbone and bite at the curve of her shoulder.

“You can’t be my boyfriend, Zayn, because you’re a girl,” Lillie says, rolling her eyes.

“You’re the one missing out,” Zayn says and hands out the tickets.

“C’mon Karl, you’ll be my boyfriend, right?” Zayn asks, holding out her hand.

Karl edges out from behind Liam and grabs hold of her hand, grinning up at her like she’d invented macaroni and cheese. “Of course!” he says and Zayn bends over to shuck him on the chin gently.

She straightens up and says with a teasing smile, “Are you guys on a date?”

“Ye-,” Dave says at the same time Niall says a firm, “No.”

“You wanna come watch Ice Age with us then?” Zayn asks, swinging the hand clasped with Karl’s.

“Yeah, definitely,” Niall says and ignores the look Liam’s shooting her. She doesn’t take her gaze off Zayn, reaches backwards blindly to shove money at Dave. “Can you get the tickets?” she asks and doesn’t see if Dave’s gone to get them or not.

“That’s really nice of you guys, to let them take you to the movies,” Niall says to Karl and Lillie. He blinks up at her for a moment, huge brown eyes framed in thick lashes. He beams at her, pink gums and missing teeth, and grabs her hand too.

Lillie crosses her arm over her sparkly t-shirt and says, “When’s Dave coming back?”

“C’mon, everyone into the theatre, we’re going to miss the beginning,” Liam says and Niall wants to point out that she can see his Captain America boxers peeking out and he’s got Louis’ teeth prints perfectly printed where his shirt slips over his collarbone. He has no claim to be acting like the mature one here.

Karl drags both Niall and Zayn into the theatre. Niall smiles at Zayn in the sudden darkness of the theatre, anticipation curling down her spine. Karl sits himself in between the both of them with a satisfied grin, fisting his hands in his t-shirt in excitement.

“I like your shirt,” Niall says honestly, she mostly likes the swell of Zayn's breasts against the soft cotton but Niall can keep herself in check thank you very much.

“Thanks, it’s from Harry’s old band, from when we went to school together,” she says, throwing her legs up on the seats in front of her. She pulls the arm rest up so Karl has room to cuddle up to her. He does so immediately, fitting himself right into her arms and Niall’s not going to be jealous of a seven year old – she’s not.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Niall says, snorting. “Did they only play in underground clubs that even the people who were already inside didn’t know existed?”

Zayn laughs loudly and somebody shushes her behind them. They both swivel around to see who it is and Zayn only rolls her eyes when she makes eye-contact with Liam and Lillie. It’s only then Niall remembers that Dave exists and she strains her eyes in the dark to try and see if he made it back okay. She feels vaguely guilty but he stumbles down the aisle at that exact moment and Zayn moves her legs so he can get through. She’s not feeling all that guilty anymore, watching as Zayn’s legs stretch out again onto the seats in front.

“Pretty much,” Zayn says, snapping Niall out of her thoughts. “Wasn’t too bad, though, our Harry,” she says.

Niall nods, running her tongue over her braces, another habit she’d acquired that her mum hates. Karl only looks at her curiously before detaching himself from Zayn to get a better look. He pulls up Niall’s arm rest as well until it’s shoved all the way up and grabs her hand. When Niall glances at Zayn in question, she finds her looking down at her mouth, her eyes hooded in the dark and the words get lost in her suddenly dry thought.

“C’mon, there’s a scary part and you’re gonna get scared if you don’t sit with us,” Karl says, tugging at Niall’s hand. Niall obliges, scooting over so Karl can be sandwiched between the both of them, drawing his bony little knees up to his chin.

Niall’s close enough to reach out and touch Zayn if she’d wanted to. She doesn’t though, keeps her hand curled around Karl’s, the other balled up in her jacket. Niall looks to Dave instead as the movie starts, shoving her bag in the space between them. There are signs specifically telling her to be careful of thieves, she’s just keeping her valuables closer.

Halfway through the movie Zayn yawns obnoxiously, stretching her arms in the air in a particularly feline manner. When she drops her arms again, she throws one over the seat, over Karl’s head and rests her hand at the nape of Niall’s neck. Niall almost jumps in surprise and when she turns her head to see what Zayn’s playing at, Zayn’s just got a pleased little smile on her face, her focus on the movie.

Niall doesn’t mention it, just settles back into the seat and leans back into the touch and shivers when Zayn rubs her thumb along the skin behind her ear.

“Are you cold?” Karl asks, squeezing her hand in worry.

“Nah, I’m fine,” she says and glares at Zayn when she snickers. She can’t hold it for too long and she’s smiling to herself again, forcing her eyes back to the screen.

~

By the time the movie finishes, Karl’s fast asleep between the both of them and Niall’s this close to climbing on top of Zayn. She only helps Zayn gather Karl up in her arms and walk out the cinema. Liam offers to take Karl off Zayn while Lillie goes to the toilet but she refuses, keeping her arms tight around him. Niall wonders why the universe is so unfair and why god seems to have spent a bucketload more time on Zayn than anyone else on the planet.

“Hey, so, I’m going to bring the car around,” Dave says, pulling his car keys out of his pocket.

“Oh,” Niall says, chewing on her bottom lip. She doesn’t really want to say go home just yet but there’s no point in hanging around, they’ve got to get the kids home anyway. “Alright,” she says and flashes him a small smile.

“He seems nice,” Zayn says and at least she has the decency to wait until he’s out of earshot, amusement evident in her tone.

“Ugh, shut up,” Niall says, rolling her eyes. Zayn only laughs quietly, trying to muffle it into the fabric of Karl’s jumper.

“What’s the story behind that one anyway?” she asks, shuffling closer so she can be heard over the sound of people leaving the cinema, pitching her voice low as to not wake up Karl.

“There is no story,” Niall says, reaching out to trail a finger across her half-sleeve tattoos before she can chicken out. “Aren’t you cold?” she asks, blinking at her innocently.

“It’s fine, I’ve got Karl to keep me warm,” Zayn says and kisses the top of his head.

Niall feels like she’s been stabbed in the chest so she figures there’s nothing else to do but shrug off her oversized jacket and drapes it over Zayn’s shoulders. It’s better than doing anything else she might regret. She smooths the jacket over the line of her back and smiles in reply when Zayn raises an eyebrow at her.

“You’re gonna catch a cold like that, number 8,” Niall says, tutting.

“Thanks for your concern, Horan,” she says dryly but she’s smiling, wide enough she’s got a dimple in her right cheek.

A car draws up towards them and honks twice. Niall turns around and sees Dave waving at her, motioning for her to get in the car. She sighs out loud and when she looks up, she can’t help smiling again at the look on Zayn’s face.

“I’ll see you on Thursday, yeah?” Niall asks, already starting to shiver in her stained shirt.

“Better be practising, I’ve already got a derby name picked out for you and everything,” Zayn says. She steps forward so they’re a lot closer than before and leans in.

Zayn stoops down, still taller even without her skates and Niall’s hearts beating a mile in her chest. She knows her cheeks have started their unfortunate flushing but she doesn’t feel so cold anymore, the heat radiating off her face and from Zayn’s proximity. Karl’s still in her arms, providing a barrier between them but Zayn still kisses her softly on the cheek.

“See ya,” she says, pulling back with a smirk.

Niall salutes her as she walks backwards towards her car, concentrating all her efforts on not melting into a puddle because she can be better than this, she can function like a normal human being around Zayn. And maybe, just maybe saying it enough times will make it true. She fumbles with the door handle and climbs in, throwing her bag down under her feet.

“So the movie was -,” Dave starts, pulling away from the sidewalk.

“Shhh, gimme a minute, Dave, please,” Niall says, staring straight forward into the darkened roads, her pulse still pounding in her ear from that minimum contact.

She is so screwed.

~

On Wednesday afternoon, Niall trails after her friends to the café again and as usual places her order last. Harry takes everybody else’s money but Niall’s, handing them their drinks. Niall motions for her friends to go sit down and rests her elbows against the counter, fingers still clutching the notes.

“What’s all this then?” she asks, raising an eyebrow at Harry.

Harry makes her usual coffee and slams down the largest cup in store, filled to the brim with whipped cream. “I’m sorry,” he says, pulling a face.

Niall takes a cautious sip of her coffee. It doesn’t taste any different so she’s not really sure what he’s on about. She sticks her tongue out to lick at the whipped cream, her head tilted to the side. She’s not one to turn down free food but there must be something wrong.

“What did you do then?” she asks, crossing her toes that it has nothing to do with Zayn.

“I can’t give you a ride tomorrow because I have to go to my sister’s ballet recital thing,” he says, attempting to speak faster. His speech only sounds normal since he speaks so slowly in the first place.

Niall blinks at him for a moment, swiping the cup of whipped cream off the counter so he won’t be able to take it back. “Oh, okay. I’ll just take the bus,” she says, confused because he really doesn’t owe her anything.

“We’re cool?” he asks, his face falling into confusion as well.

“Of course,” Niall says, rolling her eyes. “Can’t expect you to drive me up there every time I have to go to practise,” she says, reaching up to flick his nose.

“Getting cocky, are we?” he asks, swatting her hand away. “Well, you’ve got a moustache Ms. Big Shot,” he says, dipping his finger in her whipped cream and wiping it across the bridge of her nose.

~

Niall tells her mother she’s going to the library to prep for her exams with her study group after school, hauling down her biology textbook down with her and everything to make it seem more authentic. She’s makes it out of there barely, Liam’s old roller skates stuffed safely out of sight in her bag. Niall successfully catches the bus to the roller rink, only suffering mild discomfort next to a heavily sweating man, his chest hair matted with the stuff.

There are fewer girls than Niall had anticipated but she feels awfully small compared to most of them. She throws her shoulders back anyway and walks into the rink. They’re about two dozen of them and they’re all sat in the middle of the roller rink, Liam standing over them with a clipboard in his hand. He has a whistle dangling from his neck and he greets them with a friendly smile.

“Welcome to try outs for Mascara Massacre! I hope you all have fun today and remember, just try your best, that’s all we’re asking for,” he says, beaming at all of them.

A couple of girls snicker at his enthusiasm until Caroline skates up behind him in her uniform, her hands on her hips. “Now shut the fuck up and listen, we have three spots open so give it your all on the rink today, alright?” she says, flicking her hair over her shoulder.

“Okay for those of you who don’t know anything about the sport, there are four blockers and two jammers from each team on the track, jammers ten feet behind the blockers,” Liam says and the Mascara Massacre girls skate towards the rink, lining up at their marks.

Niall catches sight of Zayn but she doesn’t look her way, concentrating on her stance. Louis, on the other hand, grabs Niall’s attention by jumping in her skates and almost knocking over her teammate. She sticks her tongue out at Niall, her tongue piercing glinting in the light, before turning back to teammates and getting into position, ten feet behind the blockers. She adjusts her helmet, smoothing her palms over the star before pulling a face at the opposing team’s jammer.

“Okay, so, I’m going to blow the whistle and the pack’s going to take off,” Liam explains. He blows his whistle and immediately they’re push off, skating around the rink with a loud clatter of noise. “The second whistle means the jammers can follow,” he says and blows his whistle again.

“You’re whistle gets me wet!” Louis shouts out as she skates past Liam, laughing with her head thrown back. She gets overtaken by the other team’s jammer almost immediately and Liam shakes his head at her.

“As you can see Louis is failing spectacularly in doing, the jammer’s supposed to break through the pack and complete the second round around the track. A point is awarded when the jammer passes each player on the opposing team. Whichever team has the most points, wins!” Liam says, pausing for a moment to let them see the girls demonstrate. “Pretty simple, right? Now get your skates on, we’re gonna see how well you do in the rink.”

Niall falls too many times, the impact sending jolts of pain through her body even though she’s wearing knee and elbow pads. She’d been practising on the roads and pavements around her house - she’s just not used to skating on the raised rink. Niall gets the hang of it sooner or later though, going round and round the rink while Liam sits on the beam with a timer.

Niall picks herself up off the floor again, groaning because her tailbone wasn’t made to do this shit. She pushes her hair out of her eyes and takes off, ignoring the pain to try and skate faster than she did on the round before. She thinks she’s getting faster with each round but she can’t be sure, all she can be sure is Zayn’s gaze burning holes in her helmet and she so desperately wants to get it right.

After a gruelling hour of this, Niall changes from her shorts back into her baggier ones, rolling up the waistband a couple of times and pulling an old t-shirt over her bra. She’s lagging behind everyone else, having spent five minutes trying to unbuckle her kneepads while her fingers refused to cooperate. However, she can’t find it in herself to whine when the door to the changing room slams open and Liam walks in with a wide grin, swinging his clipboard back and forth in excitement.

“You alright? Did you have fun?” he asks, sitting down on the bench in front of her.

“Yeah, it was good,” Niall says, smiling at him honestly. She’s tired to the bones and when she gets home she’s going to sleep for about thirty hours but it’s true, she hasn’t had this much fun in a long time.

“Well, congratulations are in order. You made the team!” Liam says, grinning up at her.

“Are you serious?” she asks, the various aches and pains fading for a glorious moment. “I made the team?” she asks again, getting a hand in her messy hair in disbelief.

“Great job, Niall, you’re a Mascara Massacre,” Liam says, standing up again. He ruffles her hair and walks out, leaving Niall to smile stupidly at nothing.

She wobbles out into the car park slowly, still smiling widely and determinedly not thinking of the walk to the bus stop.

~

“Oi, number 22!” Zayn calls out, leaning against her car, her legs crossed at the ankles.

Zayn watches as Niall looks around the car park, pointing to herself in confusion when she realises Zayn’s talking to her. Zayn can’t help the grin that’s already spreading on her face at this point.

She rolls her eyes to counter-act this reaction to Niall and says, “Yeah, you, Uncle Slam,” instead. Zayn pats the roof of her shitbox fondly and asks, “Need a ride?”

Zayn knows Niall didn’t get a ride from Harry today and isn’t completely sure if someone else is picking her up today but hey, it’s worth a shot. Zayn’s not going to let her go home by herself on the bus though, not when she’s so tired she looks like she’s going to drop dead on the sidewalk.

“If it’s not troubling you,” Niall says, walking towards her car. She’s got a hand up, shielding her eyes from the setting sun and the rays paint her rose pink and gold, her blue eyes bright in contrast.

“Wouldn’t have asked if it was,” Zayn says and grips the door handle so she doesn’t start pushing the wisps of blonde hair out of Niall’s face. She opens the door graciously and motions for Niall to get in. Niall climbs in the car, leaning over to push her bag underneath her seat and Zayn takes a moment to appreciate the view before shutting the door behind her.

When Zayn gets in the car, Niall’s got her legs stretched up on the dashboard, one knee bent so her shorts ride up to reveal her milky thighs and the triangle of freckles high up on her leg. Niall takes a deep shuddering breath and exhales slowly, turning her head to watch Zayn.

“I’ve gotta give it to you, you were pretty good out there,” Zayn says, slamming her own door shut. When she turns back to Niall, she’s smiling at her softly, blue eyes all fond and tired.

Zayn reaches over to buckle her seatbelt for her, getting closer than she really needs to be to hear the rhythm of Niall’s breathing falter. Niall still looks utterly tired though, sagging into the seat, her head resting limp.

“Thanks,” Niall says with a small yawn and Zayn figures she means for both the compliment and the seatbelt.

“You’re gonna need new skates though, you can’t wear Buzz Lightyear forever,” Zayn says, turning the key in the ignition a couple of times and willing her car to start. There’s a 1 in 5 chance it will actually work but thankfully the car starts immediately. Zayn pulls away from the curb, praying she can get Niall home before her car inevitably fails her.

“You’re a way better driver than Harry,” Niall says, her voice going all soft.

“That’s not much of a compliment,” Zayn says, snorting. She sneaks another glance at Niall from under her eyelashes.

“How’d you get into roller derby anyway? How’d you meet them all?” Niall asks as they pull up to a red stop sign. Zayn turns her head to look at her properly and she’s blinking sleepily at her, a hand balled in her t-shirt.

Zayn’s not usually the type to talk a whole lot about herself, she never was, but the way Niall’s curled up slightly in her passenger seat makes her want to take care of her. An overwhelming sense of protectiveness shoots through her and she wonders if this is normal for anyone who sets eyes on Niall, if it’s to be expected. It’s not only because she looks so small and tired right now, she just wants to lay her out in the backseat of her car and curl around her, run her fingers through her hair until she falls asleep. Since she can’t really do that right now, what with the driving and all, Zayn settles for pitching her voice low and starts talking.

“I met Liam first,” she says, reaching out with a hand to curl her hand at the nape of Niall’s neck like she did last time. Niall doesn’t hesitate in leaning into her touch, making a pleased nose in the back of her throat. “His parents fostered me for a little while before – yeah, they were good people and kept in touch afterwards,” she says, dipping her finger tips under the collar of Niall’s shirt.

Niall makes a sleepy sound of encouragement and when Zayn glances down at her again, she’s struggling to keep her eyes open.

“Harry and I met at school when I was staying with Liam. He bummed a cigarette off me even though he was three years older than me and choked through half of it,” Zayn says with a laugh and Niall snorts quietly, murmuring something Zayn can’t catch.

“Liam was always athletic, boxing and track and all sorts of shit actually,” Zayn says, determined to keep her eyes on the road. “And I went to see a roller derby game with Harry because he wouldn’t shut up about Caroline and that’s where I met Louis.”

When Zayn’s resolve breaks and she turns her head to stare at Niall, she’s fast asleep, her head resting on her shoulder. It doesn’t look comfortable but she looks at complete ease, her knees tucked up against her chin. Zayn smiles at her and snaps a photo of her on her shitty little phone and tells herself it’s for blackmail purposes, of course. She turns the radio on low and texts Harry for directions to her house instead of waking her up.

~

“Niall,” Zayn says, cupping her jaw gently. “We’re here, wake up, darlin’,” Zayn says, trailing her finger across the line of her jaw and tapping her chin gently.

Niall’s eyes flutter open, blinking sleepily up at Zayn. Zayn’s just looks at her for a moment before she leans forward and presses a kiss to the bow of her lip. She pulls back after a while and Niall follows her immediately, reaching out to place her hand at the back of her skull and pull her closer.

“Bye,” Zayn breathes out against her spit-slicked lips, making Niall shiver.

She doesn’t pull away though, just reaches blindly with her hand in the backseat and grabs Niall’s jacket from Saturday’s movie night.

“Thanks,” she says and hands it to Niall with a crooked smile and it’s so achingly intimate and secretive it makes Niall’s pulse race and her blood feels so hot.

“Keep it,” Niall says, unbuckling her seat belt. She passes her jacket back to Zayn and takes the opportunity to steal another kiss.

Niall pulls away and Zayn’s laughs, reaching out to rub her thumb against her lips. “You’ve got lipstick everywhere,” she says.

“So do you,” Niall says with a grin, biting at the pad of her thumb.

“Do you want me to pick you up for practise?” Zayn says, tracing Niall’s smile with her thumb.

Niall nods and finally opens the door to the car, retreating from Zayn’s touch.

“I’ll see you, yeah?” she asks, sounding way too hopeful even in her own ears.

“Definitely,” Zayn says and licks her bottom lip promisingly.

Niall scrubs at her mouth with the back of her hand before she goes inside her house but she can’t really do much for the grin stretching her swollen mouth.

~

"I’m getting tutored,” Niall says, blocking her mother’s way to the laundry room. “It’s not like I’m going out to smoke crack and push old people down the stairs,” Niall says, holding her arms out, palms splayed out against the doorway.

“Move,” her mum says, raising her eyebrows pointedly. Niall groans and does so, flattening herself against the wall.

“It’s three days a week and it’s with Dave and Cathy – you trust them, don’t you?” Niall says, coming dangerously close to whining.

Her mum ignores her, separating the whites from colours. She tuts as she finds a tissue in one of Niall’s shorts and throws it in the bin, muttering about how that could have devastated their laundry and Niall rolls her eyes. Niall can’t help the noise of frustration escaping from the back of her throat, her fingers gripping at the doorway.

“I never said you couldn’t do that,” her mum says, finally turning to her. “You get these little ideas into your head, like I’m going to go against everything you say,” she says, shaking her head.

“What? Really?” Niall asks, letting go of the doorway to grin at her mum.

“Yes, why wouldn’t I want the best for you?” she asks, putting a hand on her hip in a very mum-like manner. “Now go away, I’ve got to finish doing your laundry,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“Thanks mum,” Niall shouts behind her shoulder, running out of the laundry room and almost smashing her shin on the stairs.

She grabs her roller skates from underneath her bed and stuffs it in her bag, zipping it up with a mighty tug. Now that she’s got her mum sorted, all she has to do is actually improve so she doesn’t break her face during a game.

~

What Niall finds out in the next couple of weeks is that she apparently bruises like a fucking peach. There are massive bruises along her arse from falling down and along her ribs from the game, blood mottled under pale skin, various shades of purple and smudged at the edges. She’s fascinated by them, can’t help pressing her finger down against when she’s alone in her room because Zayn’s taken to touching them whenever she can.

It’s not like Niall can really mind the bruises when Zayn parks her car half-way to her house and Niall falls into the backseat, pulling her down with her. She trails her finger tips against the tender flesh, not pressing down yet, just stroking the pad of her thumb against it in wonder. It tingles and it’s maddening, makes her head spin so Niall kisses her instead, bucks into the touch and hisses through her teeth when pain and heat shoots through her body.

“You’re getting better at derby,” Zayn mumbles against her neck, sliding down the collar of her jumper so she can bite down against the bone.

She follows it with a hot slick slide of her mouth, her hand trailing up the inside of Niall’s thigh and under her skirt. Zayn does it again, pulling back with hooded eyes to see the bruises she gets to leave on Niall’s skin and runs her thumb against the edge of her knickers, the crease where her thigh meets hip with a maddening smile curling at her lips.

“Mmhm, that’s great, let’s get back to,” Niall says, pinned against the seat from Zayn’s weight. She tries wriggling free, to get Zayn’s hand to move but Zayn barely ghosts her thumb against her clit, over the cotton and shifts forward to kiss her silent.

“Zayn,” Niall gasps against her mouth, threading her fingers through Zayn’s hair and squeezing the nape of her neck in desperation.

Zayn finally moves her goddamn fucking fingers, doesn’t bother pulling her knickers down, just pushes at them until she can slide two fingers in easily. She pulls back and Niall loosens her grip on her neck, trying to keep her eyes open because she needs to see the way Zayn’s just looking at her. She tries to tell Zayn to get the fuck on with it but only succeeds in making these embarrassing, needy noises in the back of her throat, her face burning.

“Fuck, you’re gorgeous,” Zayn says, pressing up against her again to whisper it into her ear. She bites playfully at her ear as if that’s going to dispel the heavy tension from her words, pulling the flesh between her lips. Niall knows she’s going to find lipstick stains behind her ear and on her collar and in the most unlikely places she doesn’t remember Zayn being near and she gasps again, clutching at Zayn’s waist.

After a moment, Niall catches her breath again and she laughs brilliantly – because she’s not, she’s really not and hearing the words come out of Zayn’s mouth is ridiculous.Zayn’s gorgeous, so much Niall can’t stand it sometimes. She slides her hand down until she can tug at the hem of Zayn’s shirt. She pulls it up impatiently over her breasts, rucking it up under her armpits, too far gone to try and pull it over her head, not with the way Zayn’s curling her fingers now.

“I got you,” Zayn says and she kisses Niall again, twisting her fingers the same time she pushes her tongue into Niall’s ready mouth.

Afterwards, Zayn pulls out from the under the trees with her swollen lips wrapped around a cigarette, lazily slumped in her seat. Niall sighs, her feet propped up on the dashboard and turns to smile slowly at Zayn, Zayn ignores her but she’s smiling too, trying to keep it contained between puffs of smoke.

Niall digs out a sketchbook from underneath the take-out wrappers littered throughout the car and flips it open. She glances up at Zayn, her mouth falling open and Zayn looks tense, both hands on the steering wheel but she doesn’t tell Niall to stop. She flicks through the pages, can imagine Zayn sitting down and pressing thick lines into the paper.

She presses her finger tips to the sketches, a full-on grin overtaking her face when she gets to the page in the middle. There’s a cartoon version of the derby team and she spots herself immediately. She’s drawn in pencil, not inked in just yet. She’s wearing their uniform, her hair in two messy braids with a lollipop in her hand, her eyes downcast and skin freckled.

“You’re really good,” Niall says in awe, turning the page over to see various designs for tattoos.

“You’re too sweet,” Zayn says and doesn’t glance over, her voice soft and fond.

~

“Remember: don’t be scared to get in a good hit, okay?” Liam says, hitting her helmet with a knuckle. “They’re going to take advantage of your size out on the rink so you’ve got to get them where it hurts, use your height to your advantage,” Liam pauses, the seriousness fading away to be replaced with that encouraging smile. “You’ve been doing pretty well,” he adds.

Niall beams at him but still doesn’t warn him as Louis comes flying at him from behind. She’s in her practise clothes and she hasn’t showered yet but she jumps on Liam without shame, wrapping her legs around his waist so he has no choice but to piggy back her.

“Pretty well? She’s doing fucking great,” Louis says, reaching down with her hand to pinch his nipple. Niall’s learnt to accept this is just how they worked. “We might actually have a chance this year,” she says, ignoring Liam’s squawk because he should know better by now.

Louis falls off Liam’s back and Niall pretends not to notice how his hands slide against her palm slowly before letting go. She just scrunches up her nose because she knows what else is coming by now. Louis lands a noisy kiss to her nose and turns around, running off to make trouble with Zayn, acting like she’s 12 and not 23. She turns around to smirk at them and Liam quickly averts his gaze as if he hadn’t been staring at her retreating figure. Niall wants to pat him on the head a little bit.

Niall had asked Zayn what the deal was with them one afternoon, both of them slumped against Zayn’s car because it wouldn’t start and it was too hot to wait cooped up inside. She always wondered why Louis was constantly all over Liam, groping him in public and climbing all over him like a rabid monkey and the way Liam spent half his time smiling fondly at her when she wasn’t paying attention and how he couldn’t cope, not like he did with the rest of the girls, when Louis got hurt. Zayn had dislocated her shoulder once during practise and Liam had just popped it back into place, though Niall doesn’t know who she was more impressed with in that scenario. (It’s Zayn, if the way Niall pushed her up against the lockers in the changing rooms was any indication).

Zayn didn’t answer for a moment, shaking her head with a tilt of her mouth. She takes another drag from her cigarette, wincing when she runs her tongue over her dry lips, over the fresh cut from a stray elbow.

“It’s just Liam and Lou, they’ve been stupidly in love with each other for as long as I can remember. Everyone seems to know but them,” she says, blowing out a thin stream of smoke through pursed lips. She shrugs and so Niall just accepts that and moves on.

She’s not wearing lipstick today because of the cut but her lips are swollen and pink anyway and Niall wants to kiss her more than ever. She shuffles closer, wrapping an arm around her waist, even though they’re already pretty much glued against each other. When she gets home, she knows she’s going to be able to faintly smell the cigarette smoke and Zayn when she pushes the collar of her shirt over her nose and it makes her chest feel all sunken inside. Niall rests her chin on Zayn’s shoulder, nosing at her jaw line and breathing in the full force of it while she can.

Zayn glances at Niall side-ways, looking through her eye-lashes. “Why? Are you interested in one of them?” she asks, turning her head slightly to rest her cheek against Niall’s forehead.

Really? While my hand’s this close to your tit?” Niall says, sliding her palm over her ribs and up.

Zayn laughs and flicks her cigarette away, not even watching where it lands. She turns her body to press Niall against her car, cupping her cheeks and pressing a kiss against her smile.

“Fair enough,” she says and Niall had just hummed in agreement and got immensely distracted to think about Liam and Louis for a while. Well, until Harry pulled up honking, cheering wildly.

Caroline catches Niall’s arm in the doorway of the changing rooms and tells her they’re going out for drinks after. She smacks Niall’s arse as she passes by and Niall can see why Harry likes her so much. She doesn’t make her feel like a kid playing at being grown-ups. Niall sends her mum a quick text, telling her not to wait up because Ashley’s computer’s acting up and they need more time to do their project and follows the team out of the rink.

When they’re all gathered at the pub, the team presents her with a box wrapped in newspaper. There’s a massive red bow stuck on top and Louis waves her hand around in flourish.

“We all chipped in,” Rebecca says, pushing it towards Niall.

“I wrapped it and the bow’s from my own personal collection,” Louis says, tapping the box excitedly. Niall doesn’t question why Louis has a bow collection and tentatively runs her finger tips against uneven edges of the newspaper.

“Go on then, open it,” Zayn says and Niall doesn’t waste any more time, setting the bow aside to rip into it.

“Holy fuck,” she says, looking into the contents of the box with wide eyes. A pair of shiny black skates rest inside the tissue paper, white wheels contrasting starkly. “Thank you so fucking much, you guys,” she says after a heavy pause.

The team erupts into cheers and starts thumping Niall wherever they can reach. Niall laughs when Liam sticks the bow on her head, her eyes meeting Zayn’s from across the table.

“How’s it going, peanut?” Harry asks her later, already a couple of drinks ahead of her. He wriggles his eyebrows and when Niall refuses to respond makes makes an exaggerated motion with his hands towards the bar.

“Oh, shut up,” Niall says, taking a sip of her pint. She can’t help how her eyes trail to Zayn leaning over the counter, ignoring the bartender’s attempts at conversation as he makes her drink. Zayn seems to have some kind of radar to know when Niall’s staring (which gets really annoying because Niall still blushes when she gets caught) and the corner of her mouth quirks up.

“Is lil Nialler in luuuuuuuuurve,” Harry says, pushing his face at her until Niall starts laughing, trying to keep her pint from spilling all over the place.

“You are the worse. Go salivate over Caroline’s legs over there, thanks,” Niall says and downs the rest of her pint.

Harry giggles and drapes himself over her back, resting his chin on top of her head. “You’re blushing, you cutie patootie,” he says, almost choking Niall with his arms thrown carelessly around her neck.

Niall reaches back to hit him in the balls but he twists away, almost taking Niall down with the way he stumbles.

“Oi, get off,” Zayn says, grabbing Harry’s ear with her thumb and index finger and pulling.

“Ow, ow, ow,” Harry whines, letting go of Niall and pouting ridiculously. “God, you’re possessive. The sex must be fantastic,” he says and this time Niall does get him in the balls.

Niall ignores his indignant howling because Zayn grabs her hand with a slowly smile curling at her ruby red lips. They end up in a corner for most of the night, Zayn’s hand wrapping around Niall’s thighs to pull her impossibly closer, blood buzzing under her skin.

~

The sunlight paints the insides of her eyelids red and suddenly Niall’s too aware of the insistent pounding in her head. She doesn’t want to move actually but someone’s holding her hand so she cracks an eye open. Her chest warms immediately at the sight of Zayn, curled away from her on the rug. She attempts to look around the place slowly, keeping her head glued to the ground, and spots Louis and Harry cuddled up on the couch. Her heart swells an inordinate amount at the sight of them all, safe and comfortable. She considers closing her eyes again but there’s something nagging at the back of her brain, refusing to let her go back to sleep.

“Good morning, darling,” Liam says, handing her a fresh cup of tea. “Are you dead or alive? Blink twice if you’re dead,” he says, leaning over her on the floor.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Niall says with a frown, unable to get her head off the floor.

“Am I dead?” Louis asks and Liam turns around with that fond smile that Niall’s all too familiar with by now. Louis’s hand flies out blindly for Liam, her eyes still shut when she says, “Are you an angel? Angels aren’t supposed to have arms like that.”

Niall gets up gingerly, taking a sip of her tea awkwardly with her right hand, her left still tangled with Zayn’s.

“Is this your apartment?” Niall asks Liam, squinting around the place. It’s nice and cosy with mismatched quilts and pictures all over the wall. She spots a picture of Liam and Zayn from a couple of years ago, Zayn wearing less tattoos and a guarded smile.

“I share with Louis and Harry,” Liam says, not turning away from Louis. Louis’ keeps her eyes shut, her hand wrapped around Liam’s biceps with Harry snuffling into her neck. Niall wishes she’d open her fucking eyes to see how Liam’s staring at her right now because there’s no denying that.

“It’s nice,” she says after a pause. Her eyes travel over the cream wallpaper to the clock on the wall and she almost drops her tea in shock. “Holy fucking shit!” Niall says, putting her tea down on the coffee table and scrambling up.

“Shh, shhhh, be quiet,” Harry says, burrowing himself deeper into the couch.

“What’s wrong?” Zayn asks groggily, waking up when Niall lets go of her hand to start gathering her stuff up.

“I stayed out all night – my mum’s going to kill me. I have to go home now,” Niall says, shoving her jacket into her bag and throwing the strap over her shoulders.

“I’ll drive you,” Zayn says, sitting up with a wince. She groans as she opens her eyes, shielding them against the sun. “Christ, what time is it?”

“Eight,” Niall says, dropping down onto her knees again to kneel in front of Zayn.

“You’re a monster,” Harry whimpers, Niall ignores him in favour of sliding her palm against Zayn’s jaw.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll take the bus. Just drink a lot of water and I’ll see you at the game on Saturday,” Niall says, already scrambling up.

Zayn catches her wrists and pulls her back down. “Are you sure?” she asks, frowning slightly.

“Yeah, it’s fine,” Niall says and smiles, kisses her swollen lips chastely.

“Bye,” Zayn says, pressing a kiss to Niall’s wrist as she pulls away.

Niall refuses Liam’s offer to drive her back home because she remembers him using “a very important exam” not to drink the night before. She quickly says her goodbyes and claps her hands over Harry’s ears just to be a dick. She races out of the door and hops down the stairs on one foot, trying to shove the other in her shoe.

She runs to the bus stop, fighting the urge to just empty the contents of her stomach all over the sidewalk the whole time. It feels alright, though, it feels good. Niall rests her head against the coolness of the windows, her hand tracing the outline of the box containing her skates through her bag.

The door to her house creaks when she opens it slowly, wincing all the while. The coast seems to be clear, the clock only reading 8.45am and Niall knows she has exactly fifteen minutes before her mum wakes up and starts cleaning the house, like every Saturday morning. Niall climbs the stairs, holding her breath until she slips into her room. She shuts it behind her, unsuccessfully trying to muffle the little click and strips out of her clothes as quickly as she can. Still, she takes a moment to stand in front of the mirror and press her finger into the teeth mark at the junction where her shoulder meets her neck and remember exactly how that happened.

Niall throws herself under the covers, closing her eyes just in time for her mother opening the door. Niall pretends she was in bed the whole night, explaining Ashley dropped her off a little later than usual because she’d fallen asleep at her house. She’s stuck doing the dishes for two weeks but all in all, it’s not that bad.

~

It’s hard to focus on school and homework, something so mundane and trivial as that, when she has Zayn’s mark burning bright on her collarbones and yesterday’s bruises on her skin. Niall at least has to try though and so she spends her lunch in the library, trying to get some of her homework done. She’s by herself but she doesn’t mind, it’s honestly better than sitting through forty minutes of Sandy’s parents renovation plans.

It’s still only an attempt because Niall gets caught up thinking of how Zayn gets so completely focused during practise but as soon as it’s over, tries to shove the ice-packs from Liam’s first aid kit down Louis’ pants. How she scrunches up her nose when she’s really amused and there always happens to be ink on her fingers, even after she showers. She doesn’t tell Niall she’s scared of the dark but once the lights go off in the rink and suddenly Zayn’s pushing her hand under Niall’s shirt, pressing her nose against the knob of her spine peeking out with a shaky breath and Niall thinks okay.

“Niall, hey, Niall!” Dave says and Niall’s head snaps up, reluctantly pulled out of her thoughts. She glances over to the entrance of the library to see Dave and Cathy striding towards her deserted table. They get an insistent “SHH!” from the librarian but Cathy placates her immediately with a polite smile and pulls up a chair at Niall’s table.

“Hey guys, what’s up?” Niall says, biting down on the end of her pen and gazing at them expectantly. She doesn’t actually get tutored in the library with them after school, they’re just her handy excuse to attend practise sessions and fuck in the backseat of a shitty car.

“Oh please, Niall, don’t play dumb,” Cathy says, putting her bag down and crossing her arms. She leans forward on her elbows and raises her eyebrows meaningfully.

“What Cathy’s trying to say,” Dave says in a softer voice, as if he’s trying to do some damage control or make sure Niall keeps her cool. It irritates her in ways she can’t pinpoint and she narrows her eyes when Dave and Cathy share a look. “Is that you haven’t really been hanging out with us a lot the past couple of weeks,” he continues, reaching out across the table.

“Uh, yeah, sorry about that?” Niall says, making an apologetic face, pulling her hands down to her lap before he can touch her. She doesn’t want to actively hurt someone else’s feelings but it wasn’t like she was doing it on purpose, she’s just been busy. She doesn’t know what else to say though, so she just shrugs, a mini upheave of her shoulders, and pulls her bottom lip through her teeth.

“Yeah, well, we just wanted to tell you we still care about you,” Cathy says, reaching forward on the desk and catching elbow. She pulls her arm onto the table so she can clutch at one of her hand and looks into her eyes imploringly. “We just wanted you to know: you can tell us anything.”

“Anything,” Dave repeats, nodding along.

“O..kay?” Niall says, becoming more confused with every passing second. She feels vaguely uncomfortable so she pulls her hand out of her grip and stands up, “I need to find a book.”

To her dismay, they follow her into the shelves, identical expressions on their faces, like they know something about Niall she doesn’t. It’s almost like they pity her and that’s never settled well with Niall, it makes the hardness spread from her belly until her fists quivering with the need to punch something.

“You’ve been spending a lot of time with that Harry bloke,” Dave says, his eyes glued to the lovebite Zayn had left along her neck.

Niall turns around instead of tugging her shirt up over it, irritation making her defiant. She still goes to the café every Wednesday, sitting up on the counter and talking to Harry about anything really when he doesn’t have to tend to customers. She doesn’t answer them, just reaches up to grab the book she needs for her reference list. It’s high up and heavy, so much Niall has to stand on her tippy-toes to try and reach it.

She turns around in a hurry when Cathy gasps. Cathy yanks her shirt up, over the bruise covering most of her left lower back. After practise, they compare bruises in the changing room and Niall’s is nothing compared to the other girls. Rebecca always wins the best bruise competition. Still, Niall tugs her shirt back down, almost dropping her book in the process.

“Has he been doing that to you?” Dave practically growls. His hands are clenched by his side and he’s towering over her, eyebrows drawn down in anger.

Niall does drop her book this time, a humourless smile gracing her face like it always does when she’s about to get into a fight. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she asks in a low voice before and takes a step forward, narrowing her eyes dangerously at him. They both take a step back, flattening themselves against the shelves because they’ve never seen her mad before, she doesn’t get mad a lot and she’s only tiny, little Nialler, after all, incapable of hurting a fly.

She’s gritting her teeth so hard her jaw aches when she spits out, “You don’t know anything about anything, okay? Mind your own. fucking. business.” She stabs Dave hard in the chest with her index finger to empathise her point.

Niall turns to Cathy, eyes flashing dangerously and says, “Don’t touch me again without my permission.”

She stomps back to her desk, sweeping up all her books, dropping her pens everywhere. She doesn’t bother to pick them up though, marching out of the library with rage still making blood pound in her ear.

~

Niall doesn’t stop walking until she’s past the gates of her school and out onto the street. She drops all her books onto the sidewalk and sits down heavily, not realising she’s biting down on her bottom lip until she tastes the metallic tang of blood. She lets it go, taking a deep breath to try and calm down but heat is still simmering under her skin and she wants to march right back in there and break his fucking nose.

“Hey hey hey, what’s wrong?” Zayn says, crouching down in front of Niall.

Niall looks up so fast she almost smashes her head against Zayn’s chin, mouth dropping in shock. She didn’t know she had the ability to conjure up people through sheer will power.

“What are you doing here?” Niall asks and her hands are still shaking slightly but her heartbeat’s starting to calm down.

“I didn’t know what time you finished,” Zayn says and tacks on, “I was bored,” quickly even though she’s not really fooling anyone.

“What’s the matter?” she says, holding Niall’s wrists in her own hands. She smooths the pad of her thumb against the inside of her wrists and Niall’s hands manage to stop trembling, Zayn’s presence washing over her in calming waves.

“It’s nothing,” Niall says and musters up a bright smile that stops feeling forced every second Zayn’s here in front of her. “Let’s get out of here,” she says instead and pulls one wrist out of Zayn’s grip. She pushes her books into her bag with one hand, clutching at Zayn’s fingers with the other so she won’t do anything stupid.

“Bunking off school, Nialler? I think I’m a bad influence, what will your parents say?” Zayn says, smirking, following Niall’s lead. Niall only laughs, shoving at her shoulder.

Zayn doesn’t fall on her arse, just grabs onto Niall and kisses her, swiping her tongue gently against her split lip. She pulls back, looking into Niall’s eyes and says softly, “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Niall says and pulls her up by the hand, rolling her eyes because it’s better than addressing what the fuck is going on in her stomach right now. She squeezes Zayn’s hand and lets go, trailing over Zayn’s familiar car and getting in the passenger seat.

She pulls her knees up to her chin as soon as she gets in, resting her cheek against the knobbly bone and breathing slowly.

“Where are we going?” Niall asks as Zayn starts the car, swearing enthusiastically when it works on the first go.

“You’ll see,” Zayn says cryptically, raising a dark eyebrow and Niall snorts because the whole mysterious act stopped working on her ages ago.

~

It’s not long before they pull up in front of a tattoo parlour with a ‘Fuck off, we’re closed!’ sign hanging on the dirty yellow door. Niall shoots a questioning look at Zayn who just gets out of the car and keys the door open easily. She has to shove with her shoulder to get the door to creak open but once they get inside, it’s clean and the smell of antiseptic lingers in the air. She looks around at the chairs in the waiting room area, at the magazines and tattoo designs covering the desks and connects the dots.

“Is this where you work, then?” Niall asks, walking over towards the tiny receptionist desk and swiping her finger across it absentmindedly.

“Yep,” she says, grabbing Niall’s hand and pulls her into the adjacent room.

It’s small, with a massive leather chair taking up most of the room and a metal table against the wall. There are tattoo designs hanging all over the walls and Niall recognises a couple from Zayn’s sketchbook.

“Do you bring all the girls here?” Niall asks, hopping onto the seat and swinging her legs around. She clutches at the leather of the seat and looks at Zayn expectantly.

Zayn doesn’t bother closing the door behind her, just strides forward and gets on Niall immediately. She fits perfectly between Niall’s legs and with a smile she says, “Nope.”

“Do you tattoo a lot of people?” Niall asks, jealous that anyone else gets to have Zayn’s undivided attention for hours at a time. Niall slides her hand over her left arm to make up for it, tracing the patterns over the tattoos of her sleeve with blunt nails.

“Nah,” Zayn says, eyes fluttering shut so her ridiculous eyelashes sweep against her cheekbones. “Too young, they don’t trust me – well, unless they’re trying to get into my pants,” Zayn says, her mouth falling into a lopsided smile.

“What do you do?” Niall says, wrapping her legs around Zayn’s waist and pulling her in so she stumbles forward, thighs bumping against the edge of the seat.

“Pierce little girl’s ears,” Zayn says, nipping at her earlobe, “and sell shitty weed to fifteen year olds.”

“Sounds like my dream job,” Niall says and the conversation ends there when Zayn pushes her back flat against the seat and climbs on top of her.

Zayn doesn’t waste any time, taking Niall’s jeans and pants off at the same time, holding her ankle in her hand to sweep her thumb against the bone jutting out. She slides her hand down her calf and presses a kiss to the inside of her knee, sliding her mouth down and fitting her shoulders between her legs.

“Your skin’s so pale,” Zayn says against the inside of her thigh, nipping at the sensitive skin, the slide of teeth making Niall buck her hips up.

“And freckled,” Niall pants out and Zayn hums against her skin, so close. Zayn takes pity on her and throws one leg over her shoulder, pressing her other thigh down against the seat and buries her face in her cunt.

~

“I wish they wouldn’t fade,” Zayn mumbles against her neck, darting her tongue out against Niall’s neck.

“Maybe you should mark me permanently, then,” Niall says sleepily, wrapping her arm around Zayn’s shoulder and clumsily petting her hair, her eyes slipping closed.

~

Niall’s not too disappointed that there’s no-one to invite to her first game because she can’t imagine anyone else cheering in the crowds than the people she’s surrounded with at the moment. Zayn’s strapping on her skates with deft fingers, pulling them on with practised ease and pulls away with a bite to her knee. Niall can’t even do anything about it because Louis’ currently sitting on top of her, trying not to poke Niall in the eye with the eyeliner.

“I don’t,” Niall tries to protest but Louis only wriggles and clamps her hand over her mouth, refusing to hear any of it.

When Louis’ done, she climbs off Niall, pushing the cap back onto her eyeliner with a satisfied smile. Niall doesn’t have a chance to look in the mirror but if the way Zayn’s looking at her is any indication, she probably doesn’t look like she’s fallen down a flight of stairs. She has to look away from Louis and Zayn because Louis’ too smug and Zayn’s stare is making her skin feel flushed.

“Great start to the season,” Liam says in the changing rooms afterwards, insisting they huddle around in a circle. “I just want you guys to know, I’ll be proud of you whatever happens out there, alright?” he asks and everyone groans, throwing dirty socks at his head.

“Okay, let’s go out there and kick some fucking arse!” Caroline says, slamming her hip into Liam’s and skating past him.

They all cheer and follow Caroline out of the door, Liam shaking his head fondly at them all. Niall’s throat’s closing up a bit and even if she’s glad she’s not in the swelling crowd, it still makes her limbs tingle at the thought of all those people watching. Louis pinches her arse on the way out and Liam rubs her helmet for good luck and she feels a bit better.

Mascara Massacre skate out onto the rink and the cheer is practically deafening. At the same time it makes adrenaline rush through her body until her ears pounding; can barely hear the crowd anymore through the ringing. She sits down next to Liam and the rest of her teammates, throwing her arms in the air to get the crowd riled up for the players on the rink.

Zayn winks at her, already in position and Niall whoops louder, pumping her fist in the air. The whistle blows and the game starts with Niall clutching at Liam’s shoulder.

They don’t end up winning the game but it doesn’t mean they’re out of the championship just yet. Niall gets to play in the second half and she finds it all so fucking addicting, it makes her bones thrum and it feels like her ribcage is expanding, filling up. She falls hard once, straight out of the rink when someone from the opposing team smashes into her as she’s trying to get past the pack. She gets up again and doesn’t stop, skates back into the rink and relishes in the screams of the crowd.

It’s not the end of their run at the championship, they have another game in a week's time and if they win that, they’ll be able to go through. Niall doesn’t know what the chances are for getting through but she’s not about to give up yet, she’s always been an optimist.

Liam repeats this to them as they gather in the changing room again, trying to be positive by telling them they came second (“Out of two fucking teams, Liam, Jesus,” Rebecca says). Niall kisses Zayn hard afterwards, still buzzing from the lights and the screams, her muscles pulling in a delicious ache, and Zayn kisses her back, slip-sliding on her skates to get closer.

Niall feels stupid thinking it but this is the most she’s ever felt alive.

~

“Peanut!” is all the warning Niall gets before Harry lands on her back. Niall almost goes skidding away on her roller skates, grabbing at Harry’s arm until he’s able to right her again, leaning his chin against her helmet. He wraps his arms around her face and refuses to let go, landing a smacking kiss to the star placed on the side of her helmet.

“You’re gonna break my spine, asshole,” Niall says, trying to elbow his absurdly long torso in an attempt to free herself. When that doesn’t work, she opens her mouth and attempts to scrape her braces against his arm, clattering her teeth together.

“Off my jammer, Styles,” Liam says, striding into the changing room to rescue Niall because the rest of the team are too used to Harry hanging around before games and pointedly not helping her. “She can’t start if you snap her in two – you shouldn’t even be here,” Liam says in mock disapproval, swiping at Harry with his clipboard.

Harry lets go of Niall, making her stumble forward from the sudden loss. He makes a face at Liam and squishes Niall’s cheeks together. She tries to punch him but he dodges easily and runs off to go play with Louis instead.

“I’m starting?” Niall asks in disbelief, blue eyes wide and unblinking as she stares up at Liam.

It’s usually Louis who starts, she’s the more experienced jammer and even if she does start pulling out the cheats every now and then (she tends to get a bit violent, to absolutely nobody’s surprise) she’s really fucking good. Niall glances around the changing rooms, at the various teammates getting ready to go out onto the rink and turns back to Liam with a little dip between her eyebrows. She’s nowhere as good as Louis and she’s thinking maybe they’ve had a fight or something but Louis skates over with a huge grin on her face.

“You’ve got,” Liam says, lifting his thumb up to wipe at the smudge of lipstick that must’ve transferred when she was tackling Zayn. He doesn’t drop his hand but he stops himself from running his thumb along her mouth, just for a moment before Louis leans forward and bites his thumb instead.

“You’ve earned it, 22,” Louis says and pulls Niall into a hug, petting her helmet as if she was a child. “Your papa and I are ever so proud,” she says, leaning her head back against Liam’s shoulder.

Niall laughs into the crook of Louis’ neck and pulls back to say, “Are you sure? I mean – thanks, I’m not going to fuck it up.”

They actually win this time, just barely, but they manage it and that means the championship and before Niall knows what she’s doing, she’s skating towards Zayn. Zayn’s laughing when she turns to Niall, opening her arms immediately and Niall just jumps on her, wraps her legs around her waist and smacking a kiss to the cropped hair at her temple in front of the cheering crowd.

Niall’s aware the rest of her team are whooping around her but she’s only focused on Zayn, her eyes creased up from the huge smile on her face, her nose wrinkled ever so slightly. Zayn manages to hold them both up, a hand placed firmly on Niall’s arse and the other tucked under her thigh, before they go tumbling down onto the hard surface of the rink.

They’re both still giggling into each other; still high off the adrenaline and the fact they won to feel the various aches and pains in their bones. Niall feels her heart catch in her throat from the sheer joy on Zayn’s face and there really seems not much else to do but lean forward and kiss her. Their helmets knock against each other and they’re both still giggling at each other but it’s like the crowd and the hardness of the rink against tender skin fades away until it’s just the two of them.

“Celebration at Caroline’s!” Louis says with a huge grin on her face even as she almost stumbles over the both of them.

~

Liam drives Niall home at 3am, still high off their victory and nothing much else. Louis’ sitting in the passenger seat, her legs crossed underneath her and talking quietly with Liam. Niall’s a bit preoccupied to figure out the details, pressed up against the backseat. Zayn’s dangerously close to just being on top of Niall at this point and it’s really easy to ignore Liam’s complaints about his upholstery with Zayn’s tongue in her mouth.

“Thanks, Liam,” Niall says when they pull up to her house. Zayn’s already stumbled out of the car, holding the door open for Niall. She quickly reaches over to kiss Liam on the cheek and says, “You’re a saint and a patron and a little bit of a pope,” She’s also little bit drunk from the after party.

“Hey!” Louis says and when Niall glances at her, she grins sloppily and says, “Where’s mine?”

Niall rolls her eyes, reaching over to kiss her as well and yelping when Zayn slaps her on the arse, telling her to hurry up. Niall finally manages to get out of the car after a brief struggle with a seatbelt tangling around her ankle. Zayn immediately closes the door after her and leans the both of them up against the car. Zayn hugs her, tipsy and increasingly affectionate, pulling back to kiss her forehead. She rubs her palm against Niall’s mouth, trying to do something about the redness.

“Love you,” Niall meant to say good bye, she wears she meant to say good bye but instead she’s mouthing those words into the lines of her palm.

Niall pulls away from Zayn, almost tripping over the curb of the sidewalk because she’s really late and she knows even in her inebriated state that she’s needs to sneak in if she doesn’t want her parents to shit a brick. Niall turns around when she gets to the door, waving in the darkness towards their general direction. She can still see Zayn’s outline up against the car, her expression indeterminable from the distance.

The door creaks open a bit too loudly when Niall remembers how to get her key in properly. She pulls a face, hoping her parents hadn’t heard that in their sleep, and wincing again when Liam’s car starts loudly again. She closes the door behind her and turns around on her tippy toes, lifting a foot to start climbing the stairs. She freezes, catching sight of her parents in her peripheral vision. They’re sitting at the kitchen table, their phones in front of them, arms crossed with matching expressions on their faces.

“Shit,” she says and drops her foot.

“Do you know what time it is, young lady?” her mum asks her, standing up. She slams her hand down onto the table and Niall jumps, wincing at the headache already starting to build behind her eyes.

“Um, a bit late for you guys to be up?” Niall asks, scrunching up her nose.

“This is not a laughing matter, Niall Horan,” her mum says.

Niall has no choice but to walk towards the kitchen, suddenly too-aware of her sore, swollen lips and flushed cheeks, her hair tangled to shit.

“Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stay out for so long,” Niall tries again, palming a hand down her shirt in an attempt to smooth out the wrinkles.

“That doesn’t even begin to cover it,” her mum says and takes a deep breath as if she’s going to explode. Niall shoots her dad a desperate look but he’s lips are thin and he’s shaking his head in disappointment. He’s not going to be on her side for this one.

“You lied to us, we called up Dave and Ashley and none of them said they’d seen you for hours – we almost called the police but Dave said something about a game? Then you come home at 4am, reeking of alcohol and in this state, you had us worried sick – you didn’t even call.”

Niall groans because now there’s a steady pounding in her head and her mum always turns shrill when she’s giving a lecture. Niall rubs at her eyes, feeling exhausted and drained. She just wants to go to bed and deal with this some other time.

“Don’t you groan at me,” her mum snaps and takes another step forward. “All we’ve done for you, ever since we’ve moved from Ireland you’ve been acting like – look at me when I’m talking to you,” she says, her voice lowering dangerously.

Niall jerks her gaze away from her boots and up to her mum again, fighting the urge to roll her eyes. “What have you done for me, exactly, since we’ve moved from my home in total disregard to what I wanted?” Niall asks, refusing to take a step back from the way her mum’s towering over her. They’re the same height but her mum’s always had the talent of making 6’2 waiters cower and apologise for being rude with a single look.

“Niall, what you’re mum-,” her dad starts.

“No,” Niall says, shaking her head, “No. You’re the one who made us move and now that I’m finally happy – that’s it, isn’t it? You don’t want me to be happy.”

“That’s ridiculous, of course we want you to be happy,” her dad says, exasperated.

Niall clenches her fingers into fists and spits out, “Funny way of showing it.”

“You just stumbled home at 4am after consuming alcohol with who knows what scum of the earth, you will not talk to your dad like that,” her mum says, her voice rising back to shrillness. “And what is this about roller derby? You should be focusing on your studies - you don’t have time to go gallivanting around on toys.”

“Okay, wow, if you’re going to be a fucking dildo about this, I’m going to bed,” Niall says, throwing her hands up in the air. She steps away from her mum, backing away until the back of her feet hits the stairs.

“Niall Horan, you come back here right now – you do not call your mother a fucking dildo!” her dad shouts out after her but Niall ignores him in favour of slamming her door shut.

~

When Niall wakes up again, the sun’s streaming through her window against her face and she spares a moment to let the feeling of sickness wash over her. It’s not until she manages to sit up blearily in her bed that the events of last night hit her like a fucking freight truck. Niall doesn’t spare another moment to think about what she’s doing, just pulls out one of her larger bags from under the bed and starts stuffing her clothes in it. She packs her skates on top of it all and zips it up, throwing on a hoodie over yesterday’s clothes.

Niall sneaks out of the house and it’s easy with her mum at the shops and her dad out in the shed like he always is when he gets upset. Niall runs her fingers through her hair, stopping immediately when they get stuck and she has to painfully tug them out. She stops wasting time, walking briskly towards the bus stop and pulls out her phone. She scrolls through the list of contacts until she gets right to the bottom, her thumb hovering over Zayn’s name.

“Hello?” Niall says into her phone, tightening her grip on her bag strap, the heavy load is bumping against the bruises on the side of her leg.

“Hey, just – wait a sec,” Zayn says and there’s distant noise in the background and breathless laughter before she’s back. “What’s up?” she asks and even through the shitty tinny speakers of Niall’s phone, she sounds distracted.

“I ran – I need a place to stay,” Niall says and there’s a pause, music pumping in the background. “I mean, I could ask Louis if you can’t but I just,” Niall pauses again, swallowing heavily because she doesn’t know how she was expecting this phone call to go. The doubt niggling at the back of her head wasn’t there, wasn’t even a possibility before she’d actually called Zayn.

“No, no, no. You can crash at mine,” Zayn says. “I can’t pick you up right now,” she says and there’s a brief scuffle as someone else tries to take her phone. “I’ll get you from the bus station,” she says and waits for Niall to get a pen out to write down her address and the bus number.

Niall leans her head against the window of the bus, her head still aching from the fight and last night. She’s exhausted and feels all muddled inside, like the wires are criss-crossing all wrong. By the time she gets off at the bus stop Zayn had specified, it’s only just starting to get dark. Still, there’s no sign of anybody so Niall takes a seat at the worn bench, scooting away from the pool of vomit on the other end. She ends up waiting for thirty minutes, her bag tucked under the bench, before she gets a call from Zayn.

“Oh, shit, I completely forgot. I’ll be there in ten minutes,” she says and hangs up.

Niall draws her knees up to her chin, pushing her face into the crook of her elbows and waits.

“Hey, sorry,” Zayn says, taking a drag from her cigarette when Niall looks up.

“It’s fine,” Niall says, shrugging. She gets up, her joints aching from last night’s game and the lack of sleep.

Niall doesn’t think about it, just blindly reaches for Zayn but she has her cigarette in her mouth again, cheeks hollowing as she breathes in. Zayn blows the smoke out the side of her mouth, leaning over Niall for her bag. She stops for a moment, looks down at the confused tilt of Niall’s mouth for a millisecond before dropping a quick kiss to her cheek.

The silence fills up the air around them until it’s muggy and unbearable all the way up to her apartment block. Niall’s too tired to figure out what it is, if this is just one of Zayn’s moods or something that she should be worried about. The apartment block is a lot shittier than Liam’s place but it’s not like Niall fucking minds. She just knocks their elbows together and gets Zayn to finally look up from the ground and give her a small smile.

“So you live by yourself?” Niall asks, climbing the stairs behind Zayn.

“Uh, no, I live with Tate,” she says, “he’s like that creepy cousin who gives you fucked up weed and tries to grope you once in a while.” She shrugs as if that’s the most natural thing in the world and kicks open a door that Niall didn’t even see, the colours blending into the dirty wall.

“Home sweet home,” Zayn mutters, dropping Niall’s bag to the ground. The whole place smells like pot and a bit like rotten milk but she sees Zayn’s skates on the couch and a pair of her cut offs flung over the fan. It doesn’t look like it’s been used for a long time. There’s a bearded man sleeping behind the couch, curled protectively around a box of biscuits, moaning every once in a while.

“Is that Tate?” Niall asks, picks up her bag, clutching the strap of her bag with both hands. She doesn’t really want to leave her stuff in the living room area, something Zayn obviously has no problems with.

Niall takes a moment to look around furtively, taking in the mouldy ceilings and cracked walls with barely a raised eyebrow. There’s a crude drawing of a girl with massive tits and underneath it signed me if I had money, xoxo Louis.

“Nah, I don’t know who that is,” Zayn says, again, as if that’s the most normal thing in her life and steps over him to get to her bedroom. Niall follows him, toeing at the guy’s back to make sure he’s not dying or something. She jumps out of his reach when he makes a grab for her and hurriedly follows Zayn into her room.

Niall stops in the doorway because there’s somebody else in Zayn’s bed (well, it’s more of a mattress on the floor covered in mismatched sheets) and just happens to be half-naked and kind of gorgeous. The girl clambers up into a sitting position, her t-shirt riding down over her exposed stomach, not enough to cover her underwear. She’s wearing a huge, sleepy smile and not much else.

“Morning, Z,” she says and stretches, her shirt climbing up over her stomach again.

“It’s afternoon, Franks,” Zayn says, shaking her head.

Niall drops her bag against the corner of the room and says, “Hi, I’m Niall.”

“Good afternoon, Niall, how do you do?” she asks, getting up on wobbly legs. She reaches over and kisses Niall lightly on the mouth and says, “It’s nice to meet you, I’m Frankie.”

Niall just blinks, looking between Frankie and Zayn with a slight eye-brow raise.

“Leave her alone,” Zayn says to Frankie, rolling her eyes. She grabs her keys off the drawer and stuffs it into her pocket, reaching for Frankie’s wrist with her other hand. “I need to go to work, I’ll give you a lift home,” she says, turning to Frankie.

Frankie pouts at her but let’s go of Niall easily enough. She rummages around until she finds a pair of shorts tucked in between the mattress and the wall and wriggles into them. She tilts her fingers at Niall in farewell and skips out of the room, scratching idly at the small of her back.

“I’ll see you when I get home, okay?” Zayn says and waves at her.

Niall finds herself just nodding, watching the both of them leave with a sick feeling in her stomach. It’s weird, how her stomach’s sinking and churning on itself at the same time, as if desperate to escape her body in any way possible. Niall shuts the door behind Zayn and kicks off her shoes, falling into Zayn’s bed with a sigh. It smells like Zayn and a bit like the stranger too but Niall’s too tired to sort out everything that’s going on in her head right now.

In the middle of the night, Niall’s vaguely aware of Zayn dropping into bed behind her, smelling like body wash and shampoo. It curls around Niall warmly, enough for her to twist into Zayn, tangling them together before she drops off again.

~

The sheets are cold to the touch and there’s only the lingering scent of oranges when Niall wakes up in the morning. She rubs at her eyes, throwing on a pair of trackpants she digs out of her bag and looking around blearily as if she’s going to make Zayn appear through sheer will. Niall finally manages to wake up enough to stumble out of her room, catching her toe against the doorway and cursing.

She catches sight of Zayn immediately in the tiny living room, sitting cross-legged on the floor in nothing but her knickers and a tank top, eating cereal out of the box.

“Morning,” Niall says, her voice raspy from lack of use. It’s cold in the apartment and Niall wants to go back to bed, preferably with Zayn to tuck her cold toes under.

“Hey,” Zayn says, her eyes glued to the cartoon on the shitty, flickering tv. She doesn’t look up to add, “We’ve got no milk.”

“I’m off, you girls behave,” a tattooed man says, fixing his snapback in the mirror hung over the mess of shoes near the door. He smiles at Niall good-naturedly, waving a hand in her direction.

“Oh, that’s Tate,” Zayn says and reaches up to kiss him goodbye on the cheek.

“That’s weird,” Niall says as soon as the door shuts, raising an eyebrow. She walks over to where Zayn is sitting but only sits on the mangy old sofa, tucking her legs up because Zayn’s still not looking at her and she doesn’t know why.

“What is? Tate? He’s always like that, you get used to it,” Zayn says, shrugging. She’s watching the cartoon like it’s the one most important thing in the world and Niall feels itchy under her skin, wants to peel back the layers and have it set out carefully in front of her so she can figure it out.

“No, the whole living situation,” Niall says, tugging her t-shirt over her knees. She doesn’t get it; surely Zayn could be living with Liam or something.

Zayn doesn’t reply, just shrugs and hums in a non-committed manner. Niall knows what it’s like when Zayn gets into one of her moods or just shuts off sometimes but this isn’t that, Niall can tell the difference in the set of Zayn’s spine and the way she’s gripping at her spoon, her toes curled against the threadbare rug.

“Who was that girl last night?” Niall asks, resting her cheek against her knees, her heart beating painfully hard in her chest.

“Frankie. I introduced you guys, didn’t I?” Zayn asks. She gets up off the ground, her back still turned to Niall and stretches.

“Not really. Does she stay over often?” Niall asks, can’t help herself and watches as Zayn walks off into the adjoining kitchen.

“Not really your business, is it?” Zayn asks, her voice drifting in over the squeaking cartoon.

Niall frowns, stilling on the sofa with her fingernails digging into her own arms. She wants to stay in the living room, holding onto the belief whatever this is will go away if she doesn’t move. She has to follow her though, has to pad over after her into the kitchen.

“Uh, I think it is,” Niall says, fighting to keep it from rising into a question.

Zayn’s bent over, her head stuck in the fridge in search of something edible. She stays like that for a while, looking for food that clearly isn’t there. She finally turns around, shutting the fridge behind her with a mouldy apple in her hand. Her face is carefully blank, like the expression she wears in bars and after games, surrounded by people admiring her legs and cheekbones.

“I don’t go over to your house and start asking questions,” Zayn says and her tone isn’t harsh, just frighteningly empty. “Look, it’s not like we’re girlfriends, we’re just fucking on a semi-regular basis,” Zayn says, and she says the word like they’re twelve year olds and playing house, her lips curling around the word.

It feels like a kick to the throat. Niall doesn’t say anything for a moment, chewing on her bottom lip until she can taste blood and the sting jolts through her, the pieces starting to fall together. She doesn’t know what took so long, honestly, Niall can be really fucking stupid sometimes.

“Oh,” Niall says, tilting her head to the side, the scramble in her brain making it difficult for her to say anything else. “I, we aren’t – yeah, you know what? I’m sorry, Zayn, I’m so fucking sorry,” Niall finally spits out, bile starting to rise in her throat. Her nails are digging into her palms and she so desperately wants to shout, anything to get that terrible look off Zayn’s face. Zayn doesn’t say anything, just looks down at the ground with the same expression etched onto her features.

“Of course we weren’t,” Niall repeats, desperate to hold onto the anger and not the ugly thing trying to claw out of her throat. “So, what? You’ve been fucking every person to come into your apartment the whole time you were fucking me in the backseat of your car?” Niall asks and god, it all makes sense. Zayn could have anyone in the world,anyone with a snap of her fingers and Niall is so fucking stupid. What was she thinking - to think this was all just for her?

Zayn doesn’t reply, just averts her gaze to stare at the dirty dishes in the sink, her arms crossed.

It was a mistake, all of this, and Niall can’t go home and tackle her dad until she feels better or go back from this now. She’s either going to vomit, her empty stomach curdling at the thought, or she’s going to start crying like a fucking idiot and she’s made a big of a fool out of herself in front of Zayn for a lifetime. She just needs to get out of here immediately.

“Why’d you even let me stay?” Niall snaps and she hates that she’s doing this, she doesn’t like fights or confrontation and the last few days have been nothing but full of it.

Niall doesn’t wait for a reply, just spins on her heels and walks back to Zayn’s room. She throws a jumper over her shirt, not even bothering with a bra before grabbing her bag.

Zayn’s still standing over the counter, her hands braced behind her. She’s looking down at her toes, her hair falling over her face so Niall can’t see her expression anymore. It kind of feels like someone’s reached a hand inside her stomach and started twisting and another voice is niggling at Niall, the one that says it’s not Zayn’s fault – they hadn’t promised each other anything, after all.

Niall can’t really deal with that right now so she slams the door shut behind her and almost falls down the stairs, tears already welling up in her eyes. Niall scrubs at her face angrily and walks in a random direction. She keeps walking until she gets blisters on her bare feet and the sun’s high in the sky.

Niall doesn’t know where she is, sees a street sign but it doesn’t help jog her memory from the bus ride. She finally collapses on the sidewalk, stretching her sore legs out after her and sagging against her bag in exhaustion. The sun’s starting to set and Niall’s not going home, she doesn’t know where she’s going. She only knows she can’t just spend the night on the streets.

Niall calls Harry and when he pulls up next to her twenty minutes later, she climbs into the backseat of his car without another word and falls asleep.

~

Niall wakes up for a moment when Harry carries her out of the car. She tries to tell him she’s perfectly capable of walking, thanks, but he just shushes her and shuts the door to his car with his foot. After that, it’s easy to curl up against his chest and fall back asleep, even if Harry jostles her endlessly climbing the stairs to his apartment.

The second time she wakes up, Niall feels a flash of panic pass through her when she sees how dark it is outside. Her blunt nails scrape against the material of the couch, scrambling madly for her phone. It’s tucked into the waistband of her pants, and when she pulls it free and her eyes focus on the glaring digits she feels less like she’s been sucked into a vacuum of time. Niall looks around the familiar apartment, confused as to why all the lights are on if it’s 1am.

It’s only when she gets off the sofa, rubbing at her eyes with the heel of her hand, and the blanket falls to the ground, she realises somebody must’ve thrown that over her while she slept. She yawns into her hand, sleep bleeding out from her in tiny increments. Her head still hurts like a bitch and when she bends over to retrieve the blanket, the world spins. She stills for a moment, gritting her teeth and willing the pounding in her head to recede.

“Feeling better?” Louis asks when Niall makes it into the kitchen, clutching the blanket around as if it was going to keep everything else but the warmth out.

“Not really,” Niall says and takes a seat across Louis, squinting at the bright fluorescent lights.

Louis looks different, all soft and blurred around the edges now that she’s not under the spotlight. She’s only wearing one of the shirts Niall’s seen Liam wear to practise, the excess material falling off the bony lines of her shoulders and draping over her hips. She’s looks at home. But her eyes are still as blue and her smile shines as bright, just quieter and it almost feels like a privilege to see her like this.

“Where’s everyone else?” Niall asks, pulling her knees up to dig her chin against the bruised skin.

“Liam’s working and Harry had a previous engagement,” Louis says and wriggles her eyebrows. “He’s getting his dick sucked because Caroline booty-called him,” Louis deadpans after a pause.

Niall snorts and says, “Yeah, cheers, I figured.”

“He was going to stay till you woke up but I told him I didn’t think you would until morning,” Louis says and Niall glances down, doesn’t know how she got to deserve these people in her life.

“Okay,” she says because otherwise she might just word vomit all over Louis. “What does Liam do?” she asks, embarrassed she’d never asked before.

“He’s a paramedic,” Louis says, a soft smile lingering on her face.

Niall has no trouble imaging Liam as a paramedic, riding around town during the night to patch up drunken idiots outside of clubs and help old people who’ve fallen over (or whatever the fuck else paramedics do). It must be why he’s always so good with injuries on the rink. When Niall glances up again from her toes, Louis’ still got that look on her face, the one that only appears when it’s got something to do with Liam. She feels an overwhelming urge to ask why they aren’t fucking already but bites her tongue. She doesn’t want to trigger the Talk.

She doesn’t want to talk about Zayn because they were all Zayn's friends first, they knew her longer, loved her longer and she hates the thought of anyone having to taking sides. She feels idiotic enough as it is without making this a Big Deal. She doesn’t think Zayn would make them choose anyway.

“So you’ve run away from home, huh?” Louis asks and it startles Niall out of her thoughts. She’s just glad they’re not talking about why Harry had to pick her up in the middle of nowhere without even her shoes on, her face red from exertion and anger.

“Don’t – you make it sound so stupid,” Niall groans, feeling every bit her age and wishing the floor would swallow her up.

Louis laughs, leaning over the table to trace the burn marks on the wood. “Yeah, well, we’ve all been there, done that,” she says, the most serious Niall’s ever seen her.

“I just can’t with them anymore, they don’t under-,” Niall puts her head down on her knees because she can’t seem to say anything without it sounding like fifty different kinds of cliché. “Okay, they’re just like suffocating me,” Niall says, gritting her teeth and lifting her head again.

“I’m not the best person to maybe give you advice about this because my parents have been dead since I was five,” Louis says, smiling reassuringly at her, “but I thought it’d be better to get in there before Liam lectured you into going back.”

And, well, that’s great. Niall feels horrible because she hadn’t known that either and it hits her, how much she really doesn’t know about these people who seem to love her for reasons she can’t figure out.

“Hey, it’s my parents that are dead, don’t look so glum,” Louis says, wrapping her knuckle against the table. Niall meets her eyes to apologise or something but Louis continues to smile at her, eyes crinkling in the corners.

“Whatever they do or say it’s because they love you, right? You can’t really stay mad at them for wanting to protect you from the Big Bad Wolves,” Louis says, reaching over to grab Niall’s hand. She pulls a face and says, “Ugh, wow, this isn’t Eat Pray fucking Love. What I’m trying to say is: you know if they’re being cunts for the sake of it or because they’re looking out for you.”

Niall drops her legs to the ground, the pads of her feet meeting the cold tiles with a slap. She falls forward onto the table with a loud groan, resting her head in her arms and squeezing Louis’ hand. She makes a frustrated noise in the back of her throat because she knows Louis’ right and it’s not fair, when did Louis become so fucking sensible.

“You’re killing me,” Niall tells her honestly and Louis just sticks a wet pinky into her ear.

Niall splutters, letting go of her hand to rub at her ear with vigour, pulling a face. Louis just shrugs as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to give swirlies after Important Conversations and pushes her chair back to get up.

“You can stay as long as you need,” she says and opens the fridge. She pulls out a tub of ice-cream, the expensive shit, and raises an eyebrow. “I say we destroy this, have a Firefly marathon and pointedly not talk about your Zayn problems.”

“I say get the fucking spoons,” Niall says, grabbing the tub out of her hand and running back to the living room.

~

Niall falls asleep to Louis’ periodical groping, ice-cream smeared around her mouth and the spoon still stuck in her mouth. Niall jerks awake when Louis, who she’d been using as a very bony pillow, gets up from the sofa in a hurry. Niall barely has time to take in the stream of sunlight flowing in from the windows and attempt to figure out the time before her gaze is inexplicably drawn to Louis throwing herself at Liam.

It’s not like the usual tackles but completely different and it makes Niall keep quiet, pretend to be sleeping so they can have the moment to themselves. Niall peers over the edge of the blanket, slumped against the sofa with her legs curled uncomfortably underneath her.

Louis jumps up to wrap her arm around his neck, her feet dangling off the floor. Liam seems taken back for a moment but he reacts soon enough, wrapping his arm around her waist to keep her up. He buries his face into her hair, stroking a broad palm down her spine over the cotton of his own t-shirt. They stay like that for a little while, quiet and heavy, until Louis finally pulls back to stand on his boots on her tippy toes. She reaches out to cup Liam’s jaw in one hand, brushing her thumb against the bruise forming against his cheekbone.

Niall can’t see Louis face but Liam’s murmuring, “S’fine, it’s nothing. You know the story, drunken idiot hyped up on adrenalin from a fight when I was trying to clean up a cut.”

Louis doesn’t say anything, just runs her other palm down his jaw and the side of his neck, petting the collar of his shirt as if to reassure herself he’s really here and safe. “You’re okay?” she asks quietly, so quietly Niall can barely hear her in the stunning quiet.

Liam nods and shoots her a smile, soft and intimate and Niall squeezes her eyes shut again. She doesn’t know if this is a usual occurrence or a defining moment but all the same it makes her want to cry a little. She doesn’t fall asleep for ages, can’t get Liam’s smile out of her head and misses Zayn too much and feels stupid for doing so. It makes her angry too, keeping her from sleep until she finally does dozes off again, fingers curled into fists.

~

Louis must have said something to Liam because when Niall wanders into the kitchen in the morning, blindly following the smell of bacon, he only hands her a sandwich and a glass of orange juice. He pets her hair as if he can’t help himself and Niall tries to swat him away, barely able to keep her eyes open as it is.

“I made that, by the way, you ungrateful swine,” Harry says, sniffing indignantly.

Niall squints up at him, still only half-awake. “I bow at your feet, majestic Harold of Styles,” she mumbles and takes a bite of her sandwich. It’s pretty good but it’d be a whole lot better if Harry wasn’t naked.

“Could you – fucking hell. Mate, I don’t need to see that shit in the morning,” Niall says, suddenly wide awake. She squeezes her eyes shut and drops her sandwich back onto her plate. She dry-heaves to show just how much this is not okay, she doesn’t need anyone’s cock and balls so close to her food, thanks.

Niall hears Liam throwing something at Harry’s head before he reaches over to cover her eyes with his free hand. He waits until Harry’s decent before pulling his hand away, shaking his head when Niall digs into her sandwich again. No reason to waste a good bacon sandwich, traumatic early-morning flashings or not.

“I forget about him,” Liam says as if he’s too used to Harry being naked to realise when he’s cooking starkers in the kitchen.

Harry scratches at his bare stomach, pulling at his boxers as if they’re causing him discomfort. He hands Liam a sandwich, making a face.

“I’ve got to get to class - try not to call Louis because she’s working all day and she’s gonna get fired from the record shop if she bunks off one more time. Call me if you need anything, okay?” Liam says, stuffing the sandwich in his mouth and grabbing his coat. “Don’t let Harry influence you in any way whatsoever,” Liam says, shutting the door behind him.

Harry slides into the seat in front of her with that all too familiar grin and says, “It’s just you and me, peanut.”

~

He drags her out to the park under the pretence of practising for the championship. He wraps his long fingers around her wrist, his thumb resting over the nail of his index finger as if she’s going to run away. Niall thinks about playing dead for a second but she has a feeling Harry would only throw her over his shoulder and not let her down. She grabs a football instead and they both forget her skates.

To be honest, she’d rather stay inside and eat everything in their fridge and drink all of that nice beer Louis buys to get Liam drunk once in a while but she finds she doesn’t mind as much once they’re out in the sunshine. Niall stretches, pulling her arms over her head and dropping the football at her feet. She yawns, squinting at the sun and wondering why her moping privileges had been taken away.

“You’re so tiny,” Harry giggles, darting forward to grab her beanie and shove it onto his mess of curls. Niall scowls, attempting to get it back but he’s holds her out of reach with his stupidly longer arms, leaving her scraggly, matted hair out in the open for any random birds to nest in.

“Fucking twat,” Niall says with no real bite. She waits until he’s sufficiently distracted by a runner with a great rack (really, A+) before jumping onto his back and pulling it off his head.

She doesn’t let go, wrapping her legs around his waist while pushing the beanie onto her head again. Niall hugs her arms around his neck, spluttering momentarily at the curls being pushed into her mouth and says, “Giddy-up, Nips, it’ll look less weird if we follow her this way.”

“I like the way you think, oh minuscule one,” Harry says, tucking his hands around the back of her knees and starting off down the path.

They don’t get very far before they’re distracted by a brightly coloured ice-cream truck, children lining up. Niall spends a lot of time resisting the urge to push her way to the front and Harry spends a lot of time pretending he can’t see her in the sea of children.

Harry graciously buys her an ice-cream cone to make up for it, a glorious syrupy, nutty, chocolate covered deity. Niall’s only finding it in herself to forgive him, mouth watering already when he pushes it into her face as she goes to take a bite and runs away like the big fat coward he is.

“There’s no reason to waste good ice-cream!” Niall yells, chasing after him around the park. She wipes at the stickiness on her face, trying to lick it off at the same time because there really is no good reason.

And at this point, Niall’s kind of caught on to the fact Harry’s brought her to the park for the day to cheer her up, like a restless puppy or something. She doesn’t mind, it seems to be working.

When Niall finally catches him, out of breathe and legs aching, she tries to tackle him and only ends up koala-bear hugging him because he only happens to be almost a foot taller than her and a whole lot stronger. She tugs at his curls insistently, trying to get him to keel over.

“TIIIIIMBER!” Harry says and finally falls backwards, Niall still clinging onto him.

“You’re an arsehole,” Niall says breathlessly, laying down on the grass and feeling the ache resonate down her left side.

“Aw, I love you too, Nialler,” he says and reaches over to give her a purple nurple.

She rolls out of his reach, palming her own tits defensively. Niall kicks him in the side, barking out a laugh in triumph when he winces and clutches at his ribs. They settle down again, exhausted from running around on their little day out, watching all the parents start packing up to go home. Harry waves at a little girl who shrieks with laughter and goes running off to her mum. The Fucking Harry Styles Charm works for all ages apparently. Niall rolls her eyes at him.

“Aren’t you gonna ask me then?” Niall asks, leaning her head against his shoulder, feeling the prickly grass at the back of her neck.

“About Zayn?” he asks, extra slowly. He rests his cheek against her head and promptly turns the other way, choking, “When’s the last time you washed your hair?”

Niall shrugs and grins, the uneasiness starting to dissipate a little. “And no, about Caroline’s sweet arse – what do you think?” she asks, elbowing his side.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asks.

“No,” Niall says immediately, looking down at the collar of her shirt instead. Still, she can feel Harry’s expectant gaze focused on the side of her face. She scrunches up her face and says, “Yes, okay, I do want to talk about it.”

She’s sick of feeling miserable and mopey. Niall’s not used to being so hung up on something, she more or less learned to live with moving from Ireland, dealt with the fact she was starting at a new school during her final year. But then she’s never met someone like Zayn before.

Harry doesn’t say anything, just elbows her back and waits.

“I don’t know. I’m a fucking idiot,” Niall pauses, wrapping her arm around her waist. “I’m kind of in love with her,” Niall says and shrugs again as if it’d make the feeling, like she’s pulling out her teeth one by one with the way the syllables die on her tongue, go away.

“And let me guess, you told her?” Harry asks, freeing his arm from between them to pull her closer.

“It slipped out,” Niall says, her stomach knotting up like it always does when she thinks back to it. She distinctly remembers not being able to make out her face but it keeps changing every time she remembers. Discomfort. Anger. Disgust. Horror. “And she doesn’t feel the same way, it’s not her fault, I get that. She could’ve told me though, the whole time she was just -,” Niall cuts herself off, biting down on her bottom lip.

Harry rests his hand at the top of her head, messing up the way her beanie sits on her head. He leaves it there and Niall sighs, leaning up into it.

“I’m just angry because doesn’t want me,” Niall says finally, the words rushing out before she can stop herself.

She can feel her face start to heat up and she’s glad it’s rapidly darkening around them. She wipes at her face with the back of her hand hastily, curling away from Harry. Niall already feels embarrassed for so many reasons - she’s not going to add crying in front of Harry on top of it all.

He follows her as she pulls away, curling around her and tucking his knees underneath hers. He rests his chin against the top of her head like he usually does, wrapping his other arm around her. Niall blinks rapidly, grateful at least she’s not facing him because that’d just make it worse and she’d probably start sobbing like she was five again.

“Zayn is,” Harry says slowly so Niall can feel his jaw moving. “She’s one of the bravest people I know,” he says, tightening his grip on her, “but she’s not indestructible. She gets scared too.”

He leans down and presses a kiss against her beanie. They stay like that for a little while before the mosquitoes come out and Niall can mutter, “Do you spoon all the girls on top of probable dog piss, Styles?”

~

Once they get back to the flat, Niall scratching idly at the mosquito bite on her ankle, they’re met with the sight of Louis painting Liam’s nails. She’s got her toes tucked underneath his thigh, huddled close with his hand in her lap. He’s not even looking at her, letting her do whatever to his left hand while he scribbles down notes from a textbook, leaning over the coffee table with a look of intense concentration on his face.

“Huh?” Niall says, settling on the sofa next to Louis, almost upsetting the little bottle of aqua blue nail polish resting between her knees.

“I can’t decide which colour I want,” Louis says, her tongue poking out in concentration.

“Does he know you’re doing that?” Niall asks, amused and a little bit sickened by their level of domesticity.

“Yeah,” Louis says distractedly, screwing the cap back on and grabbing the pastel purple Liam hands her.

“Hold up, I can’t do it like this, the angle’s all wrong,” Louis says and hands Niall the glass bottle. She scrambles into Liam’s lap, sitting with her legs splayed on the sofa so Liam has room to look over her shoulder and continue his work. She rests his hand carefully on her knee again and starts painting his pinky nail.

Liam, to his credit, just keeps writing, resting his chin on Louis shoulder when he needs to reach down to flick the page.

Niall hands her back the bottle of nail polish and gets up, taking her beanie off and ruffling at her hair. She joins Harry in the kitchen and pretends to dry-heave into the sink, not offering to help because he’ll only slap her hands away anyway. Harry just shakes his head, peeking into the living room before going back to the meatballs.

“What’s it like living with Brangelina?” Niall grumbles, pulling out her phone and unlocking it with a tap. A sad beep’s all the warning she gets before her phone turns off, battery drained. She shrugs and shoves it back into her pocket, pretends she wasn’t checking for Zayn’s texts.

“Does that make me Suri?” Harry asks, not turning around.

“That’s Tom Cruise’s devil spawn you dickwad,” Niall says, chortling, sitting down at the table. She rests her head against the table, her cheek smushed against the wood, and exhales slowly.

~

Liam finds Zayn out the back of the tattoo parlour, sitting on the dirty sidewalk during her cigarette break. She only glances up at him briefly and goes back to smoking, wrapping her ruby red lips around the butt and leaving bright stains when she pulls off. She taps the length of the cigarette with her index finger, gaze fixated on the ash falling to the ground, her eyes lowered in practised disinterest.

“Read the signs: employers only, uni boy,” Zayn says, scratching the soles of her shoes against the concrete.

“Yeah, I’m just dropping off my resume,” Liam says with a huff of laughter, settling down next to her.

Zayn only faces him, blowing a stream of smoke into his face to be an asshole. He doesn’t even blink, just stares at her until she has to look away. Zayn rests her elbows on her knees, staring straight ahead, determined to ignore him. She can do this all day - or at least until Liam has to go back to school.

“You haven’t been to practise,” Liam prods and Zayn doesn’t respond. It’s not like this is news to Zayn, she’s the one that’s been driving past the roller rink.

She can’t even look at Liam anymore because he’s good and kind and that’s no reason to hate someone. It still makes something harden in her stomach, makes her fingers itch with the urge to break something because she can’t stand the neat hair and the button down shirts and the university course work deadlines. It’s not his fault but Zayn’s rage has always been irrational.

And when the worse of it subsides, all Zayn’s left is the exhaustion and all-consuming guilt because it’s Liam. He’s basically her brother and he deserves everything that he has - his family and his work and his education. There’s a reason Zayn doesn’t.

“I know what you’re doing, Zayn Malik, you don’t fool me,” Liam says, his voice firm. He’s looking at her again and Zayn can envision his eyes without looking up, warm and gentle and knowing.

Zayn drops her head, looking down at her bruised knees instead of at Liam but it’s useless. Liam’s persistent and he’s good at Zayn, always has been, ever since she’d try to steal a kitchen knife and keep it under her pillow. He’d look at her with his face all crinkled, confused but didn’t tell his parents, just told her she could borrow his Buzz Light Year if she was scared of the monsters, he was a big boy now, he didn’t need it.

Zayn’s aware that she has the ability to be cruel, can spit out all the things to drive him away, mention Louis and the fucked up little dance they’ve got going and hit him where it hurts. She doesn’t, though, she won’t because he’s not going to let her go. He’d promised and Zayn doesn’t keep people to their promises on principle but Liam hasn’t let her down yet.

I don’t know what I’m doing,” Zayn finally says, her voice sounding far away to her own ears. The cigarette falls to the ground from between her slack fingers, her resolve staring to crumble around her.

“Tell me what I’m doing?” she asks, trying to keep her voice from breaking by clenching and unclenching her fingers around her bruised knees, her shoulders hunching forward.

“Oh, Zayn,” is all Liam says and his arms are around her in a second, pulling her close and pressing a kiss to her temple. It’s familiar and comforting and he doesn’t let go until her shoulders stop shaking against him. Zayn thinks she’s hurting Liam with the way her nails are digging frantically into his shoulder blades, something like fear lodging in her throat in the way she hates. Liam just smoothes a hand down her back, his hand getting tangled in her hair and lets her.

She doesn’t cry, she knew better as a child and she knows even better now.

“I didn’t think she’d,” Zayn stops, feeling like her ribs are shrinking around her, she can barely breathe. “She wasn’t supposed to.”

“Forget about that for a moment,” Liam says, pulling back to wipe at her dry cheeks with his thumb. “You’re allowed to be happy, Zayn, why won’t you let yourself be happy?” he asks and doesn’t let go of her face, cups her face up so she won’t turn away. Zayn grips at his hands and shuts her eyes, tries to block it out.

“You know why,” Zayn says after a while, keeping her eyes downcast and her voice low. “She won’t love me anymore,” Zayn says, she’s going to find out sooner or later, when she realises how awful and ugly it can get. She doesn’t want Niall to hate her.

“How do you know that? You don’t,” Liam says as patiently as always, his hands are still clasped strong against her jaw, shaking her slightly from the strength of his conviction. “You have to try, sweetheart, you have to give it a go,” he says and when Zayn opens her eyes, he’s looking down at her, the most upset she’s ever seen him, apart from the time she’d had to go.

“Oi, Malik! Smoke break’s over, it’s been like twenty fucking minutes,” a voice calls out from inside the tattoo parlour, shouting to be heard over the music.

“I’ve got to go,” Zayn says and pulls Liam’s hands away from her face. She holds them in her own, squeezing tightly for a moment before bringing them up to press her lips to his knuckles. She closes her eyes again, breathing out against the sturdy bones before letting go.

She gets to her feet, dusting at her skirt as an excuse to get her shit together. Zayn reaches down and pulls Liam up when she sees he’s still sitting there, a helpless look on his face that’s making her feel worse. He uses the momentum, stumbling up to pull her into another hug and gathering her to him like he needs the comfort more than she does. He pulls back and he’s got a smile fixed into place and Zayn doesn’t like it, doesn’t know which one’s worse.

“I’ve got twelve year olds to pierce and their daddies to gawk at my tits,” Zayn says, slapping her hand over his face so he’ll stop. He pulls her hand away and his smile’s a lot more genuine, pulling at the corners of his mouth and squinting his eyes half-closed.

“I’ll see you, yeah?” he asks and Zayn nods, can’t get her throat to loosen up to make a sound of agreement. She watches him walk out of the tattoo parlour from the reception desk area and tilts her fingers in his direction when he waves.

~

Niall’s made her mind up to go back home before she’d even realised it. They all assure her that she can stay for as long as she wants, there’s no rush for her to leave, but Niall knows what she has to do. Louis looks weirdly proud of her and since Niall hasn’t stuck her tongue in Liam’s ear as a dare, it’s disconcerting. Louis and Harry drop her back home and both give her smacking kisses on any part of her face they can reach.

“Thanks for - for everything,” Niall says from the backseat, wiping at her face. She opens the door and pushes her bag out with her feet, her fingers gripping at the seats in front of her. “I’m sorry I fucked things up for Zayn,” she says and Louis turns to her with an annoyed expression on her face.

“Shut up, Niall,” she says, frowning, “you didn’t do anything wrong.” Niall just ducks her head, nodding along because it’s easier than to explain, yes, it is.

“Do you want us to stay here unless you’re parents don’t let you back in?” Harry asks, twisting around to look at Niall.

“Why would you even say that?” Louis asks, punching Harry in the arm. Harry just shrugs, the corners of his mouth turning downwards.

“Nah, they wouldn’t,” Niall says and lets Louis reach back and grab her face. Niall waits patiently as she leans over to blow a raspberry on her face before letting go.

“See you at the championship game?” Louis asks hopefully.

“Fingers crossed,” Niall says and scrambles out of the car, shutting it behind her.

She takes a deep breath, watching the setting sun bleeding into the sky for a moment to gather her thoughts. Squaring her shoulders, Niall she grabs her bag and starts walking towards her house. She vaguely hears Harry’s car start and pull away but she’s concentrating on getting one foot in front of the other and doesn’t turn around. When she reaches the door, she twists the door handle carefully and it’s like a weight lifts off her shoulders when she finds it unlocked.

Niall enters her house, dropping her bag at the foot of the stairs. She shuts the door as quietly as she can behind her and turns around, her throat dry. Her parents must have been on the lookout because they’re standing in front of her, flushed as if they’d come racing from the kitchen at the sound of the door opening.

“Hello,” Niall says and attempts an awkward little wave.

They continue to stare at her as if they can’t quite believe what they’re seeing. The spell’s broken when her dad steps forward, rushing at Niall and crushing her to his chest. He’s bending down, almost snapping Niall’s spine in two from the force of it all. Niall just squeezes back as tight as she can because she’s really grateful for her parents and it’s not every day a teenager thinks that.

“Next time you run away, Niall Horan, you call, do you hear me?” he asks muffled into her hair, his voice thick. He clears his throat but doesn’t let her go for another moment.

“I’m sorry, da,” Niall says, she can’t breathe but it’s a good kind of asphyxiation.

Her dad pulls back, wiping at his eyes with the back of his hand hastily and clearing his throat roughly again. He pretends he did no such thing and walks back into the living room.

“Ma, look, I’m so sorry, I don’t,” Niall squeaks in surprise when her mum lunges forward and pulls her into a hug as well. She just hadn’t been expecting it, the way her mum grips her tightly, her fisted hands shaking against the nape of her neck.

“We can talk later. Are you alright?” she asks, her voice coarse and Niall swallows heavily, trying to keep herself from turning into a blubbering mess because this isn’t how she’d envisioned this to go at all.

“Yeah, ma, I’m fine,” Niall says, her voice betraying the huge lump in her throat. Her mum unclenches her hand and smoothes it down her hair, breathing out shakily.

“Come, we need to talk,” her mum says, pulling away. She pieces herself together in front of Niall’s eyes until she’s the ruthless, fast-talking mother she’s always known snapping into place. She raises an eyebrow and leads the way to the living room.

~

Niall lies in her own bed at night, revelling in the comfort of sleeping in her own room with familiar sounds of the house settling. She doesn’t want to fall asleep just yet. Niall clears her throat, sore from hours of talking and takes another deep breath, finds it easier now that her noise has unblocked from the earlier crying session. She couldn’t help it, watching her dad cry always makes Niall chew at the inside of her cheeks and cry along.

She’s surrounded by the well-known smell of their detergent and it reminds her of Ireland too, something that hasn’t changed since their move. She sinks down into the mattress, relaxing as if her bones were turning to liquid.

Niall feels like a weight has been lifted off her chest, there’s still the awful hollowness that’s somehow painful all at the same time, but it’s better than before. They’d talked it out, apologised and there was some blubbering on everyone’s part and then Niall felt like shit and apologised some more.

“I’m sorry for saying you were dildos,” Niall had said, looking down at her hands because she couldn’t look at her dad anymore. Her dad had actually giggled at that, reaching out to ruffle her hair like he always did.

They’d reached a compromise – if Niall kept her grades up and continued to do study for her exams she could attend practises and play roller derby. It was better than anything Niall could’ve hoped for and she fully understood that she wasn’t to push these new set boundaries and break their trust again. She’d promised she would get home on time and always call if for some reason she couldn’t.

“What you did, lying and sneaking around, that was wrong,” her mum said, shaking her head tightly as Niall opened her mouth, “but, but, we’ve come to the realisation maybe we haven’t regarded your opinions as a young woman, as an equal member of this household, as well as we could.”

When they’d finished and started going their separate ways, her dad had pulled Niall into another bone crushing hug and mumbled in her ear, “Do you love him, Nialler?”

Niall had only paused for a moment, shutting her eyes, her heart trying to beat out of her chest as she said, “No, I don’t, da. I love her.”

Her dad had only kissed her on the forehead and said, “You do it well, then, Horan’s don’t half-arse things.”

Niall didn’t explain to him that wasn’t the case, it was Niall she couldn’t love, and had only reached up to press another kiss to his unshaven cheek before climbing the stairs.

She finally falls asleep, ignoring the way her bed doesn’t seem that welcoming anymore but abnormally cold.

~

Zayn doesn’t go to the next practise session either even though they have their championship coming up. She doesn’t call Liam back for days at a time just because there’s this awful thing clawing inside her and it won’t go away no matter what she does and she doesn’t know what else to do. She wants to carve it out so she’ll be left empty, it’ll be better that way, but she only just goes back to sleep and wakes up five minutes before she’s supposed to be at work.

During her shift, she gets a text from Louis: taking nialler 2 the hosp rn, and Zayn stares at the screen for a moment, eyes wide and fingers numb and frozen. It feels like she’s been body-slammed on the rink, how her chest tightens till she can’t breathe and she feels cold, her hands refusing to cooperate when she tries to pull out her keys from Niall’s jacket.

She runs out of the tattoo parlour, tripping on the chairs in the waiting area and banging her knee against the doorway. Zayn ignores it, doesn’t even feel the pain, and ignores the fact she’s got another three hours of her shift to go. She jams her key in her car and yanks at the door handle, throwing herself inside and realising she’s panicking. The all-too familiar sensation of hands at her throat comes tearing out of the woodworks with sharp nails and teeth and she tries to stop it, gripping the steering wheel before she does something stupid.

“Fuck,” she gasps out, taking another deep breath, practically choking on it. She slams her fist against the steering wheel because they won’t work and she needs to get to the hospital.

Zayn grabs her phone again, re-reading the text. She dials Louis’ number quickly; her thumb flying over the keypad and just as the line clicks on, her phone makes a pathetic attempt at vibrating before it shuts off. Zayn swears again, angrier this time, and throws her phone in the backseat.

She’s finally able to start her car, thanking whatever deities that it started in the first place and swings her car onto the road recklessly. Zayn doesn’t know which hospital they’re at but she can guess it’s the one Liam works at. It’s the only one in their near vicinity anyway.

Zayn lights a cigarette with shaky fingers at a red light, frantic in the way she needs the smoke in her lungs. She’s on the fifth one by the time she’s in sight of the hospital, her dress littered with ash and burn marks. She doesn’t bother parking in the lines, flicking her cigarette out of her window. She stumbles out, not in any state to at least try and brush her clothes clean.

Zayn doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do, where she’s supposed to go from here. She didn’t know what she was expecting except her brain wouldn’t shut the fuck up the whole way to the hospital. Images of Niall with blood dripping down the side of her face, eyes glassy and skin torn makes Zayn want to vomit. Now that she’s here, she doesn’t want to step foot into the hospital. She wants to turn around and run.

Still, Zayn squares her shoulder and takes a step forward.

In the end, she doesn’t have to go inside because Niall, Louis and Harry burst out of the main entrance in mid-conversation, laughter still lingering in the air. Louis spots her immediately and opens her mouth, glancing side-ways at Niall. She didn’t tell Niall she’d texted Zayn and it kind of hits Zayn low in the guts, rings up to her throat and leaves a bad taste in her mouth.

“What happened?” Zayn asks, forgetting them for a moment to focus on Niall. Her body’s curled around her wrist, cradled in her arms and Zayn won’t breathe easy until Niall tells her to.

“Sprained my wrist,” Niall says and lifts the bandaged arm up, attempting to wriggle her fingers in a wave before giving up with a wince.

Zayn stops, has to close her eyes because Niall’s okay, she’s completely fine and she’s going to kill Louis.

“We’re going to go over there,” Louis says immediately, knowing Zayn well enough to get out of the way. She grabs Harry around the neck, pulling him down so his face is stuck in her armpit and dragging him across the car park.

“Are you alright?” Zayn asks, just to make sure. She doesn’t step forward, reach towards Niall and examine her wrist like she wants to because she’s not allowed.

“Yeah, s’nothing. I don’t know if I can play for the championship though,” Niall says, shuffling around as if she can’t keep still if she’d tried. “What are you doing here?” she asks, looking up at Zayn through the wisps of hair that never manage to stay in her ponytail.

“Louis texted me, she said -,” Zayn takes another huge gulping breath, “I thought, god fucking damn, I thought you were seriously hurt,” and she sounds angry, even to her own ears and she didn’t expect that.

“I’m sorry?” Niall asks in confusion, defensive in the way she cradles her arm again.

“No, shit, Niall,” Zayn says, waving her hand around before dropping it to her side in defeat. She’s got her other hand curled in Niall’s jacket, the one that stopped smelling like Niall and more and more like smoke. She looks up at Niall and she’s okay, she’s fine – Zayn inhales shakily and presses her lips together, holding it in.

“I’m sorry, I fucked up,” Zayn says on the exhale. She smiles at Niall, she’s good at that, and pushes both her hands into Niall’s jacket. Her nails are digging into her palms but it doesn’t help to distract her.

Niall just stares at her with huge blue eyes, clear and patient. She doesn’t seem angry anymore but that’s because it’s Niall and she’s shining and brilliant and she doesn’t keep grudges. It makes Zayn hurt deep inside her bones, how good Niall is so she turns away after a while, the first to walk away as usual.

“Yeah, you fucked up,” Niall says and Zayn stops in her tracks, wants to hear it. Needs Niall to tell her how much of a colossal fuck up she managed to be in the space of such a short time, it’ll be easier she tells herself. She doesn’t expect Niall to say, “Aren’t you even going to try and fix it? Am – am I not even worth that to you? I don’t care you were fucking Frankie or,”

Zayn turns around, she doesn’t mean to but her body’s moving on its own accord, striding forward towards Niall, like she’s being pulled into her by a greater force.

“I didn’t – nothing happened, I,” Zayn says, suddenly desperate for Niall to know this. She can’t stand the thought of Niall thinking she isn’t wanted, in what universe wouldn’t Zayn want Niall? She can’t get the words out, it’s too much and she can’t convey it in a way that would make sense - that needs to make sense to Niall. She never meant to hurt Niall but then she’d never meant to fall in love with her either.

“Zayn, c'mon, please. I don't need you to protect me from yourself,” Niall says quietly, looking up at her through her eyelashes. She tugs at the front of her dress, trying to get Zayn’s eyes to focus on her, leaning in.

And she’s so tired of being scared; she just wants Niall in the end.

"C'mon," Niall says and presses closer, tilts her face up.

Zayn closes the last inch between them, closing her eyes and kissing Niall like she wanted to from the first time she’d seen her. Her hands fly up to cup Niall’s face, pulling her in. Niall complies all too easily, sighing like the heaviness is being erased from Zayn’s touch. Niall’s hands at the front of her dress skims across her waist, pressing against the small of her back to draw them flush together.

They pull back just enough to look at each other and Zayn darts forward, presses another kiss to the bow of her pink lips and strokes her thumb across her freckled cheeks.

“Okay,” she whispers against her lips and Niall smiles at her like she understands everything Zayn can’t say right now and Zayn wants it imprinted into her skin, her smile. She kisses the curve of her lips, which is the next best thing she can do, and Niall hums happily, her hands under her jacket and keeping her close.

Later, they lie in Niall’s bed, just leaning into each other. Zayn trails her fingers over the lines of Niall’s palm, tracing over the jutting bone of her wrist over the bandage and up the sensitive skin inside her elbow. Niall squirms, her head resting on Zayn’s shoulder. Zayn presses a grin to the top of her head and slides her hand down slowly and twines their fingers together.

“Why do you have a poster of a pizza on the ceiling?” Zayn asks and she can feel Niall’s smile spreading against her collarbone, the shape of her mouth familiar and beloved.

“Because,” is all she says and Zayn just rolls her eyes, fits them together better until they’re touching from head to toe, Niall tucked into her side.

“Do you want to sleep over?” Niall asks innocently, her eyelashes fluttering against Zayn’s pulse point.

“Are you going to make me sleep on top of the covers to protect your virtue?” Zayn asks and Niall wriggles up, her weight warm and reassuring on top of her.

“No,” she says simply, the corner of her mouth tilting up. She stares at her with big, guileless blue eyes and squeezes her hand.

“Stop doing that,” Zayn groans and Niall’s grin turns wicked and she gets her thigh wedged between Zayn’s, leaning up on her elbows.

Zayn doesn’t say I love you but she paints them across her sternum and down along the sensitive skin of her ribs. She tangles her hand in Niall’s hair and chants her name like a prayer and Niall kisses her way back up her body and she gets it.

~

The rush of adrenaline makes her light-headed, the screams of the crowd deafening even under her heavy pulse. She’s vaguely aware her hands shaking, one bandaged tightly by Liam, against her kneepads but she can’t stop smiling, her lips straining against her teeth because this is amazing. Her heart feels like it’s going to beat out of her chest, to the beat of the pounding footsteps in the crowd.

“Hey,” Zayn says, curling her pinky around Niall’s. She shakes it slightly to get her attention and the way Niall’s breathe stops catches doesn’t have anything to do with nerves.

She wants to reach forward and mess up that perfectly applied red lipstick again, kiss it away until they’re both panting and pinked up but she doesn’t, just tightens her grip on Zayn’s finger in response. Zayn looks at her for a moment and as if she can’t help herself, brings her other hand up to hold her chin and presses her lips against her cheekbone. When she pulls away, she has a satisfied look on the face, brushing her thumb lightly underneath the bright red stain.

“That’s better,” she says and Niall just laughs, letting go of her hand.

Niall moves into position, ten feet behind the pack, nodding amiably at the opposing team’s jammer. She’s starting for the championship and her dad’s in the crowd somewhere and she has Zayn imprinted on her skin.

Niall grins, turning her head to the bench where the rest of her teammates are sitting, cheering with the crowd. She can barely hear Louis saying, “Fuck it,” before jumping up.

She skates towards Liam, her shoulders set in purpose. Liam turns around just in time to see her coming for him and opens his arms in question, always ready for Louis. Louis doesn’t bother explaining though, from what Niall can see, she just grabs his face and kisses him. He has to bend down from the force of it, her arms around his neck.

They break apart and Niall can’t hear what they’re saying but Louis’ smiling up at him like they’re not in the middle of a earsplitting crowd, like he’s the only one who exists in the room and Liam’s kissing her again, softer this time. It doesn’t last too long since Louis determinedly jumps on him, wrapping her legs around his waist and linking her skates together behind him. He obliges and gets his hands under her arse, holding her up like always. They’re both laughing against each other, noses bumping and chests heaving and Niall takes a moment to straighten up and cheer as loud as she can.

Niall glances back to her teammates, all of them hollering as well, making inappropriate gestures that Liam and Louis both seem oblivious too. She looks through the line-up of people until her eyes land on Zayn. Zayn’s already looking at her, eyes soft under the sharp lines of her winged eye-liner.

The whistle blows and Niall feels weightless when she takes off.