It’s Niall’s ability to anticipate where his opponent is going to go with the ball that got him into the first team in the first place. So when he sees Stoke’s #18 checking back to receive a pass from his defense, Niall goes for the intercept, twists his body a little to keep from clattering right through the back of the Stoke player, because he likes a good hard tackle as much as the next defender, but he’s not a dirty player, never has been, and he sees the ball, feels a burst of satisfaction because he’s going to get there first, he knows it, and then—
A snap, almost like someone clapping loudly next to his ear. His knee wrenches.
He has the briefest moment of clarity, this agonizing realization that something is terribly wrong. And then the pain hits, like a semi slamming headlong right into his chest. It’s centered in his knee, white hot and unrelenting, but his body reacts too, every nerve ending firing in panic and distress, and the nausea comes next. He’s on the ground, even though he doesn’t remember falling, and he’s going to either throw up or cry, so he decides on crying, presses both hands hard to his face, wails into his palms.
Voices fill the air around him, and then someone’s grabbing his forearm, prying it away from his face, and he realizes he’s shaking.
“Niall. Shit. Shit.” Zayn. He sounds worried. “You need to roll on your back, Ni. Come on, easy, I’ve got you.” Niall obeys, feels one of Zayn’s hands on his shoulder, the other on his chest.
“Okay, okay. Try and calm down okay?” Zayn’s saying, his voice close.
The trainers arrive then, calm and professional, knowledgeable hands replacing Zayn’s. They start asking him questions, and Niall tries to answer them, knows his voice is breaking repeatedly but can’t even really bring himself to care. The pain is coming in waves now, bearable for two, three seconds, then teeth-grindingly bad for another five. The shock is wearing off though, and realization is setting in, and when he pulls the collar of his jersey up to cover a shameful cascade of tears, he knows it’s not just the pain that’s making him cry.
They take him to the hospital, do X-rays and an MRI, and when the doctor comes in to the room where they’ve hooked Niall up to a morphine drip and immobilized his right leg in a compression cast, Niall takes one look at her face and knows.
“I’m done, aren’t I?” he asks. His voice sounds hollow, even to his own ears, and it’s not just because of the morphine. She looks sympathetic, pained even.
“I’m sorry,” she says, professional but kind, “The MRI shows a complete rupture of the ACL, severe tearing of the MCL, and substantial tearing of the lateral meniscus. Even with surgery, if you went back to playing, you would likely be setting yourself up to spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair.”
Niall looks down at his knee. Wants to yell, scream, cry. Wants to bargain. Wants that play back.
“Okay,” he says, not looking up.
The doctor is tactfully quiet for a moment.
“The club wants to schedule your surgery as soon as possible,” she says eventually, “They asked to get you in this Wednesday, but I wanted to check with you before I schedule you in.”
Niall just nods. Doesn’t really trust his voice.
“I’m. I’m sorry this happened to you,” the doctor says, and she sounds like she really means it, “I wish I could have brought you better news.”
And then she’s gone, and Niall’s alone again.
The club sends a car and a driver to pick him up and take him home. The driver is sympathetic, but professional, and doesn’t try to engage him in small talk on the 25 minute drive back to Niall’s house. He offers to help when they arrive, but Niall waves him off, struggles up the front walk with his crutches and his casted leg.
He gets all the way up to the front door before he realizes his keys are still back at the stadium in the dressing room, and the spare one is around back, hidden in one of the boxes out in the garage.
“Fuck,” he says, dropping his head down. He glances over his shoulder to where the driver is still idling in front of the house, clearly waiting for Niall to get inside safely before he drives off. Niall sighs. The absolute last thing he wants to do right now—for a variety of reasons--is go back to the stadium, but getting out to the garage and digging through boxes definitely isn’t happening right now either.
Just as he starts to maneuver himself around on his crutches for the oh-so-fun trip back down the front walk, he hears the click of a lock being undone, and then his front door is swinging open.
“Oh,” Niall says, “Uhm. Hi?”
Zayn quirks a half-smile at him, then leans past him and waves at the driver. Niall hears the car pull away, and then Zayn is holding the front door all the way open for him, gesturing him inside. Niall obeys, clumsily, almost trips over the threshold, and Zayn steadies him with both hands on his shoulders before closing the door behind him.
“Here. Let me get your jacket,” Zayn says, tugging at the collar of Niall’s windbreaker. It’s the one from the club, the red and white strip they always dreamt about wearing when they were growing up, and Niall sheds the jacket, watches Zayn, wearing his own windbreaker with his #5 embroidered on the front, start to head for the front closet to hang it up.
“Don’t,” he says, without really meaning to. Zayn pauses, glances over his shoulder at him. Niall bites the inside of his cheek. Wills himself to say it without crying. Wills himself to be an adult about this.
“I’m not. It’s over. I’m not going to be playing anymore,” he says haltingly.
The way Zayn’s face falls almost breaks Niall’s fragile grip on self-control.
“They’re. You’re certain?” Zayn asks. Niall nods, a little jerkily, and then Zayn is closing the distance between them, wrapping his arms around Niall’s shoulders. He doesn’t say he’s sorry, doesn’t try to act like it’s okay, just digs his chin into Niall’s shoulder and rubs a hand over his back. When he pulls back, Niall’s vision is a little blurry.
“Go. Sit,” Zayn orders, sniffing a little and walking away towards the kitchen, “I picked up your pain meds from the physios. Liam gave me like the third degree before he let me take them, but I guess that’s what the club pays him to do.”
Zayn spends the next three days before Niall’s surgery at his house, only leaving for training in the mornings, and once on Monday night to shoot an Adidas ad. It’s not really Zayn’s thing, the whole promoting gig, but it’s part of the club’s broader PR strategy, and Zayn’s nothing if not dedicated to the club.
He comes back from the shoot bitching about having to wear make-up, brings Niall a peppermint mocha from Starbucks and sprawls out on the sofa next to him to watch re-runs of The Sopranos until 3 AM.
Niall smiles, even laughs a couple times.
But it wears at him, the knowledge that this can’t last. He’s not a footballer anymore, and Zayn is, and this is where their paths diverge, this is where they go their separate ways, once and for all.
The fact of the matter is, it’s kind of miraculous that they even made it this far together. When they were in the U14s, just starting to learn the finer technical points of this game they both love, Zayn snapped his ankle on a rain-soaked, mud-sodden pitch at a tournament in Glasgow. His parents didn’t want him to come back. He did so anyways. Set the scoring record when they were U16s. Broke into the reserves when he was 17. Broke into the first team when he was 18. Niall almost got cut from the U18s, and didn’t make the reserves until he was 21.
He’s been in the first team now for 2 years. Less than half the time Zayn’s been up, scoring wonder goals past some of the best defenders in the world.
And now his career’s over. Done with. Finished.
He wonders, maybe, if he just took Zayn for granted all these years, their friendship, the fact that they somehow always ended up together, even when life seemed intent on separating them.
He wonders if maybe this is punishment for doing so.
The surgery’s in the morning. Zayn has training, but he gives Niall a hug before he goes out to meet the car the club’s sent.
“I’ll be here when you get back,” he promises. Niall nods. He doesn’t let himself wish that Zayn could come with him, or at least be there when he wakes up. He needs to get used to being on his own now.
The car ride to the hospital is short, maybe 15 minutes. He gets checked in, takes the elevator up to the 8th floor. Liam is there, along with one of the other club physios. Niall’s vaguely surprised, because it’s not like they have any interest in this, do they? Not like he’s one of their players anymore. They wish him luck, though, tell him they’ll be here when he wakes up, and he supposes that’s of some comfort. At least he won’t be alone.
He goes through the pre-surgery preparations mostly on auto-pilot. Barely notices the stick of the needle in his elbow that announces the first surge of anesthetic into his blood stream. The anesthesiologist tells him to count backwards from 10.
He gets to 5.
He feels light. Buoyant. Content.
It’s warm around him. Soft.
He takes a deep breath. A shadow of discomfort flits into his awareness, but it’s gone as quickly as it came.
He opens his eyes.
The first things he sees are pale blue walls, and a low bed with clean white sheets on it.
Another pang of discomfort, stronger this time. He closes his eyes, dozes for awhile. Remembers why he’s here.
Opens his eyes again. Focuses in on the figure slouched in a hard plastic chair next to him.
For some reason, Niall’s first coherent thought is why is Zayn still single, he’s gorgeous when he’s wide awake and he’s stunning when he’s asleep. Then he closes his eyes again, and his next thought is, fucking general anesthesia.
He doesn’t know how much longer he dozes off for, but when he wakes up again, Zayn is awake too, reading a paperback book. He’s still in his training clothes, and Niall realizes he must have come straight here after training.
His stomach squeezes a little, but it’s not because of the post-anesthesia nausea.
Zayn looks over then, sees he’s awake. Smiles.
“Hey,” he says, closing his book and setting it on his lap, “How’re you feeling?”
Niall is quiet for a second or two, trying to gauge his own body. It’s a process he’s gotten used to over the years, because he always knew that a minor twinge in his calf, or a slight tightness in his hamstring could be a precursor to something much more serious. His knee hurts, more so with each passing minute, but that’s not exactly unexpected.
“Alright,” he replies. His throat feels dry and scratchy, and he coughs a little. “Why’re you here?”
“Thought you’d like a friendly face around when you woke up,” Zayn replies, “I didn’t realize you were going under until Styles told me during training. Thought it was going to just be the arthroscopic thing. Told Liam he was a terrible person for not telling me when I got here.”
Niall blinks, his brain not working quite as fast as he’d like it to.
“Wait, so you skipped out of training early?” he asks.
“Only by like, 15 minutes. Gaffer didn’t mind,” Zayn replies matter of factly.
Niall’s stomach does that weird squeezing thing again.
Zayn takes him home. It’s mid-afternoon, and Niall’s tired, but his knee is starting to throb and even once he’s settled on the sofa with his leg propped up and an ice pack on it, he can’t quite relax enough to doze off. Zayn brings him some more painkillers and seats himself on the floor by the sofa, watches Niall take the pills with a furrow in his brow.
“TV?” he asks after a few seconds. Niall shakes his head a little.
“Tea?” Zayn asks, setting his chin on the sofa cushion and blinking owlishly at Niall. He looks young and almost painfully endearing, and Niall is reaching out before he can stop himself. His fingertips skate over Zayn’s cheek.
Zayn flinches away.
Niall sighs. Because of course. He can’t even have this. He’s already down, so life just wants to kick him a little while he’s here.
Zayn pushes himself to his feet. He looks like he wants to say something, but Niall’s pretty sure he can’t deal with whatever it is right now.
“I’m tired,” he mutters, turning away, curling into the sofa. He closes his eyes. Hears Zayn’s footsteps moving away from him, then the opening and closing of the front door.
Tells himself the heat behind his eyelids is just because his knee hurts so badly.
A week passes. Niall avoids his phone and email as much as possible, only answers the messages and mails that are from family and close friends, or that have to do with terminating his contract at the club. He hobbles around his house as best he can, eats mostly microwave dinners and take-out, catches himself feeling guilty at times, before he reminds himself that he’s not a footballer anymore so he doesn’t have to be quite as careful about his diet. His mom offers to come over from Mullingar to take care of him, but he puts her off, tells her he’s doing fine, he’s an adult, he can take care of himself, thanks.
The truth is, he knows she’d take one look at him and know he’s crumbling to pieces.
The club asks him to write up a statement for the website. He bites back a bitter retort and tells himself it’s for the fans, the people who support this club with their heart and soul, the people who’ve stood behind him as practically a home-grown player because he came up through the youth academy and never left.
He makes it short, simple. Thanks the fans, the club, his teammates for their support. Doesn’t—can’t—put into words how much he’ll miss it. How it’s eating him up inside, that he’ll never get to pull on that jersey again, or step out on that pitch again, or score another goal, or make another game-saving tackle.
After he sends it off to the club’s PR department, he hobbles out of his bedroom and into the kitchen, opens the fridge and stares forlornly at the mostly empty shelves. He’s never been one for using a grocery delivery service—it always seemed incredibly self-important and that brand of conspicuous consumption that he always told himself he would avoid—but he thinks he might have to give in.
He’s got the phone number of a nearby grocery off the web and his phone in hand, half the number dialed, when there’s a knock on his front door. He has to retrieve his crutches and maneuver them under his armpits, and he’s halfway to the door when whoever’s on the other side of the door knocks again.
“Just a second!” he calls out, vaguely annoyed. He makes it to the door a few seconds later, manages to drop one crutch as he fumbles with the lock, and he swears in irritation.
“Fucking—it’s open!” he calls, bending down to try and retrieve his crutch. In the process he manages to drop the other one, and he’s halfway through another muttered obscenity when he straightens up and sees who’s on the other side of the now-open door.
“Uhm.” Zayn’s arms are full with two paper bags from Tesco, and there’s a third plastic bag hanging off the wrist of his right hand. He looks at once hesitant and determined.
“I thought. I figured you needed groceries,” he says, not stepping over the threshold, “I know you were running low when I. When I.”
He stops, pulls his lower lip between his teeth.
“You were drugged up on painkillers and like. I didn’t know where your mind was and I didn’t want you to think I was like. Taking advantage. Of the situation. Or you.”
Niall swallows empty, because he’s worked so hard this past week to not think about Zayn, to not think about the fact that he was losing him too. Had lost him. And now.
“I wouldn’t have.” He reaches for the door to steady himself, fallen crutches momentarily forgotten. “I wouldn’t have felt like you were doing that.”
Zayn licks his lips, shuffles his feet a little.
“I just. Didn’t want to fuck it up. Not with you.” He looks up again. “I guess…I guess I ended up doing that anyways though, huh?”
Niall shakes his head a little, then shrugs.
“Maybe,” he admits, “But. I mean. You brought me groceries so.” He waits a beat, then offers a small smile. Zayn relaxes noticeably, half-smiles back. Niall hops back a little, so Zayn can come in, reaches down for his crutches as Zayn moves past him, heading for the kitchen.
“Go sit down,” Zayn orders over the sound of bags rustling, “I have a whole friggin’ week’s worth of mother hen-ing to make up for.”
Niall groans, tries to make it sound exasperated, but the truth is, he feels the best he has since his injury.
“Here. Budge up.”
Niall takes the proffered cup of tea from Zayn’s hand, shifts over on the sofa so Zayn can slide in next to him with his own cup of tea. The TV is on low in the background, and the only light on in the room is the lamp by the window, and everything’s comfortable and warm and calm, and the disappointment is still heavy on Niall’s shoulders, but it’s not as crushing, as all-encompassing as it has been.
“How’s it feeling?” Zayn asks, gesturing towards Niall’s knee where it’s propped up on a pile of pillows.
“Alright,” Niall responds, “But. Not like it’s.”
He stops. Zayn leans into him a little, nudges him with an elbow.
“Not like it’s…?” he prompts. Niall shrugs a little.
“Not like it’s important,” he clarifies, “I’m not. It’s not like I’m gonna play again.”
Zayn is quiet for a second.
“I know football’s really important to you,” he says eventually, “But it’s not you. I mean. There’s a lot more to you, Ni. Football is. I know how much it means to you. But.”
He looks down at his hands. Takes a deep breath.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is. Is that. I’ll love you, no matter what. And. Like. I know that’s a lot to put on you, now. But it’s the truth. And I really want it to be enough. Even if you lose football.”
For a few seconds, Niall kind of forgets how to breathe. Zayn is patient, quiet next to him.
“If you. What if the club finds out?” Niall asks. Zayn looks over at him, steady and calm.
“I’d fight them on whether who I wanted to be with was any of their business,” he says matter of factly, “But, you know. I’d give it up if. I mean, if I had to choose.”
Niall’s not one for clichés, but he thinks his heart might beat right out of his chest.
“I’m. This is totally unfair to you,” Zayn says, shifting away a little bit, “Like, I guess I’m being really selfish about this but. I wanted to tell you the truth.”
Niall waits for the right words to come to him, but they don’t. And then Zayn is getting up, moving away from him with a quiet apology, and just. No. He reaches out, snags Zayn’s wrist, tugs him back down, and then they’re kissing, a little uneven, a little awkward, but Niall thinks he’d be happy if he could do this every day for the rest of his life.
When he eases back, Zayn looks almost dazed, and maybe a little relieved, and Niall feels light, unburdened.
“Hey,” he says softly.
“Hey,” Zayn replies, eyes a little wide.
Niall’s still holding onto Zayn’s wrist. He strokes his thumb over sensitive skin on the inside of his forearm, relishes the newness, the quiet intimacy of it.
“I think.” He reaches his other hand up to touch Zayn’s face, ghost his fingers over his cheek, and this time Zayn doesn’t pull away. “I think that if. If I’m enough for you. Then, I mean. You’ve always been enough. More than enough. For me.”
Three Years Later
Niall gets seats down in the main stand for the derby. The club offers to get him a box for every match, and sometimes he takes them up on it, but most of the time he declines. He prefers the atmosphere of being in amongst the fans, and the occasional recognition he gets isn’t as bad as he used to think it might be.
The match goes 0-0 until the 88th minute, when Zayn takes a long ball from Tomlinson down off his chest, turns his defender and breaks for goal. Niall’s on his feet, along with everyone else, the roar building a deafening crescendo. Zayn takes it right at the keeper, jinks left, fakes right, goes left for real, and curls the ball into the net with the outside of his right foot.
Someone grabs Niall in a celebratory hug, pounds his back until Niall is sure he’s going to have bruises. He gets released and turns back to the pitch just in time to see Zayn run to the bottom of the main stand and kiss the inside of his wrist. When the media ask, he tells them it’s a tattoo of a football, and kissing it is a testament to his love of the game.
He doesn’t tell them that, inked into the topmost panel of that football, are the initials, “NJH.”