Chapter Two

Liam bent over, his hands gripping his knees as he tried to catch his breath. He glanced up at Louis, who was running up and down the field without a problem.

“Get back in there Payne!” Simon shouts at him from the sidelines.

Liam sighed, picking up the pace as he started running yet again.

His cleats felt like they were digging into the grass far too much, and he knew it was because he had a bit too much fun the night before. After going out for dinner he, along with the rest of the team had opted to go out for pints to preemptively celebrate the tournament.

And because he didn’t usually drink, Liam definitely felt the affects of just a couple pints. Especially since the other lads appeared to be unaffected.

He was breathing heavily and he was thankful that that their warm-up drills seemed relatively easy. Simon was already annoyed with him enough as it was, he didn’t need to be falling even more behind when the rest of the team were working to the best of their ability.

“Move it, Payne!” He heard Simon shout. “You’re falling behind the others. Keep up.”

Louis ran past Liam with a cheeky grin on his face that annoyed Liam to his very core. “One too many pints last night?” he laughed as he flew by.

Liam threw his head back, the sweat running down his neck.

He absolutely hated this, and he swore to himself he would never allow Louis to talk him into pints ever, ever again. It slightly annoyed him to see Louis so easily sweeping around the pitch. When Liam was younger, running had been his sport of choice. He’d even had aspirations of being an Olympic runner, until he had been advised to go into football instead.

“Your kick is far stronger than your speed,” his coach had told him. “You can run, but your talent would be better used on the pitch.”

Obviously, his coach had been right because his career in Football took off exponentially. Still, he couldn’t help feeling slightly jealous seeing Louis’ ease at running. That had been his original dream, after all.

Besides, if they wanted to have any hope of doing well in this tournament, much less winning it he needed to completely stay on top of himself. It sort of irritated him how lightheartedly Louis was taking this whole thing. It irritated him even more that Louis was doing just fine in their training despite his flighty attitude.

Liam took a deep breath – a cross between the need to sigh at his thoughts and because his chest was in so much pain on account of all the running and the dehydration.

Louis had told him the night before he really needed to lighten up. Liam wondered if that was true, because all the lightening up he did the night before certainly wasn’t helping him now. He breathed heavily again, his chest heaving. He glanced over at Simon – he was just standing there watching them with his arms crossed over his chest as usual. Liam groaned to himself. Weren’t they done ye-

A sharp noise pierced his eardrums at that thought. It should have been painful, but it was music to Liam’s ears at that point. Simon was blowing the whistle; they were done.

For today at least.

“Good work today, lads,” Simon said, nodding at them as they walked off the field towards him. He glanced at Liam and sighed. “You’ve got to step up your game, Payne. This isn’t like you.”

Liam nodded. He knew Simon was right and he was thankful he didn’t get more of a lecture. Surely Simon knew it was just because he’d been out the night before. Because that was the thing about Simon – he had a hard exterior, but Liam knew he was soft underneath.

It was exactly the type of coaching style that got him criticized during the 2012 Euro tournament, but Liam hadn’t seen a problem with it. It wasn’t Simon’s coaching that had lost them that tournament, after all.

No, they simply just hadn’t been ready. They’d barely even qualified for it. And they’d played as such. It had been Liam’s first ever international tournament and it had come with all the excitement that came along with the first one of those. He’d been in awe of the other teams, been filled with excitement and joy and complete assurance that they were going to win it.

He was wrong, of course. But Liam had just seen it as an opportunity to work harder.

Here in Brazil, the novelty had worn off a bit. Now this was just another tournament, just another field, just another opportunity to show the world what England was all about. It was just another slew of games he had to play after coming off a regular season.

He downed half of his water bottle in one go, taking a large breath of air when he was done. Slinging his bag over his shoulder, he followed the rest of the team off the pitch to go back to their hotel for the evening.

He glanced upwards – as they were leaving, another team was entering.

Liam recognized them right away as the Republic of Ireland. He smiled a bit to himself. Now here was a team who very clearly reminded him of how he’d been just two years prior. It was chock full of relatively new players to international matches.

He and the rest of his team nodded their heads as a greeting as the two teamed walked past each other. He knew of a few people on the team, of course. Some of them played for Premier League teams he’s played against, and a couple others he’d seen during the Euro tournament.

But for the most part, he realised, the team was relatively new faces.

One in particular caught his eye as he walked past. His hair was highlighted with blonde and his blue eyes brightened up as he looked at Liam and Louis. Liam only offered him a slight smile in return, but damn if that boy wasn’t one of the most beautiful Liam had seen in a long, long time.

“Loads of new ones on that team,” Louis commented once they’ve gone past them.

Liam nodded, glancing back at them. He opted not to say anything about the boy on the team he’d taken notice of – whoever it was. Nothing was going to come of it, and Louis would probably just rib him about it for the rest of the tournament.

“Poor lads, probably thinking they’re going to win it all,” Louis laughed slightly.

He supposed Louis was right. They didn’t need to worry much about Ireland – statistically they hadn’t usually performed well. If things went well for Ireland, it was possible they’d be matched up against them later in the tournament. But Liam didn’t think it was likely – they’d be hard pressed to make it out of group play if past tournaments were any indication.

Then again, England was also unlikely to make it out of group play if they didn’t step up their game.

“Probably,” Liam muttered. He wasn’t really in the mood to slag on another team with Louis at the moment. Not when he felt like such shit. And certainly not when he glanced back again to try and catch another glimpse of the cute blonde.

Louis raised his eyebrow. “What’s wrong with you?”

Liam shrugged. “Just tired out. Pints,” he said, giving Louis the eye.

Louis just laughed even though he probably really shouldn’t have. “Right, well,” he said, slinging his arm around Liam. “The only way your body will be able to handle pints is if you drink more of them.”

Liam looked over at him, unamused by his cheeky grin. “Maybe after the tournament.”

Louis laughed again. “I’ll hold you to that.”

 

***

Niall pursed his lips together and furrowed his eyebrows as he wrapped a tensor bandage around his right knee. He’d injured it years ago but lately with all of the activity he’d been doing it had started to act up again.

“You sure you’re going to be okay on that?” Sean asked, coming up beside him and nodding at his knee.

Niall shrugged. He wasn’t actually sure – it had been bugging him off and on for the whole season. But he’d been checked out before leaving for Brazil and given the go-ahead. “Doctor said it’s fine, so it’s fine,” he said, fastening the bandage. “Hey, did you see who was coming off the pitch when we walked on?” Niall asked, glancing up at Sean and changing the subject completely.

Sean nodded. “England,” he confirmed.

“England,” Niall said with much more adoration. “They have so many good players on their team – I can’t believe we’re going to be playing on the same pitch as Tommo and Payne.”

Sean had to laugh at that. Niall, for all intents and purposes, had always been a fanboy. He was a fanboy about everything he liked, it seemed. He’d even gone so far as to drag Sean to a Justin Bieber concert when he’d finally done a concert in Dublin. “Chelsea came in third in the league,” Sean reminded him with a wink. “They’re no United.”

Niall rolled his eyes. He might have been a fanboy, but he was also a fanboy with strong opinions and loyalty. Sure, United was a huge team with worldwide recognition, and were he handed to the opportunity to play for them, Niall would have been a fool to pass it up. But as far as which team to cheer for in the EPL?

“Chelsea’s always been my team,” he said with a nod. “And no one, no one, can run like Payne. He’s lighter than air – I wish I could run as fast as him. And,” he paused to whistle a little bit. “He’s really hot. When he shaved his head last year, he kind of looked like Becks. If Becks had better tattoos.”

Sean just laughed. Niall was quite literally on an equal playing field with these guys, and he still managed to idolize them. He supposed that’s what was so special about his friend – he just fancied himself a regular guy who happened to play Football for a living.

“Two minutes, lads,” Walshy said, nodding at Niall and Sean. The two of them just nodded back at him and returned to their conversation as they waited for the rest of the team to get ready.

“You know England’s actually at the same hotel as we are,” Sean said with a slight wink as he looked down at Niall.

Niall looked up at him, eyes wide. “Yeah,” he shrugged, trying to play it cool. “But it’s not like I can walk up to them and ask for an autograph.”

Sean laughed because of course Niall couldn’t do that. “No, but maybe you could talk to them.”

Niall shrugged, feeling slightly shy. He knew that it was a little weird how much he idolized Tommo and Payne, given that he was also a professional now. But they played for Chelsea, and that was something Niall really couldn’t get past. It was hard for him to not put them on a pedestal since he’d been doing that for players from that team since he was five years old.

“Maybe,” Niall mused, looking out on the pitch and taking a sip of his water bottle.

Walshy blew the whistle, signalling that their two minutes were up and that it was time for them to start the training for the day. Niall stretched, grinning to himself as he and the rest of their team started doing laps around the pitch. He pushed himself just a little harder than normal, because if Payne was going to be running around the pitch as competition for his team, then he’d be better be in the best shape he could be to possibly play against him.

A surge of excitement and adrenaline pulsed through his body as his feet hit the grass. Even though they were here (training in Maracana Stadium of all places) it all still seemed so surreal.

 

***

After a long day of training the first thing that Niall and Sean wanted to do was eat. To be fair the first thing that Niall usually wanted to do is eat, no matter the circumstances. All the training just happened to give him an excuse.

The hotel restaurant was nothing less than posh, as to be expected in a place that was providing accommodations for some of the world’s most adored athletes.

The first thing that Niall spotted when he and Sean stepped into the restaurant wasn’t the waiter walking around with food on their plates. It wasn’t the large display over by the wine rack. It certainly wasn’t the light piano music playing in the background.

No, it was the two boys from Chelsea sitting a few tables deep into the restaurant who immediately caught his attention.

He grabbed Sean’s arm like a teenage girl would upon sighting Justin Bieber. “Cullen,” he choked out, “Look.”

Sean followed Niall’s gaze only to land upon the same table his friend was gaping at. He rolled his eyes. “Really, Horan?”

Niall just widened his eyes. He knew he was being ridiculous – but he also didn’t care. Because Tomlinson and Payne were sitting in the very same restaurant that they were about to –

“Hey,” Niall called after Sean as his friend broke away from his grasp and walked towards the table of Niall’s affection.

“Right, hi,” Sean said, not really caring that the two of them were in the middle of a conversation. He glanced back, making sure that Niall was behind him. He was. Of course he was. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, after all! “I’m Sean Cullen and this is my friend, er, teammate, Niall Horan, and he really wanted to come over and say hi to you, but he’s a little shy so…”

Niall glared at Sean. What a stupid way to be described in front of his idols!

However, Louis just laughed. “Well, Niall, is it?”

Niall nodded, amazed that this was actually happening.

“You’re not over here to try to get winning tips from us, are you?” Louis asked with a wink.

Sean, as always, was one step ahead of him. Niall likely would have been as well, but he was far too starstruck to be witty. At that moment, just breathing was an accomplishment for him. “We don’t need them, when was the last time England won the cup anyway? 1966? Neither of you look old enough to have any sort of winning knowledge,” he shrugged with a grin.

Niall’s eyes couldn’t have gotten any wider.

But instead of losing his mind, Louis just laughed and hit the table. “Right, okay, and when was the last time your team won it?”

Sean shrugged because Republic of Ireland hadn’t ever won the cup.

Liam just shook his head at the banter between the two boys. He tried not to stare too much at the boy who was evidently called Niall Horan. The very same boy who had caught his attention when they’d crossed paths on the pitch earlier that day. The dim lights of the restaurant did little to highlight how adorable Liam thought he was – especially with the look of pure excitement that he was was trying to hide on his face. Still, Liam found himself having to concentrate very hard to on his water glass.

The last thing he wanted to do was creep the boy out. Especially since he was apparently a fan of his. That in itself was a little weird for Liam – but at least it had gotten the boy over and talking to him.

Well, it had gotten him over to their table at least. Niall had yet to say a word.

“Why don’t you sit and have supper with us?” Louis said, kicking out one of the two extra chairs at his and Liam’s table. “We’re on a lovely diet of grilled chicken and vegetables. We could even have a pint or two,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows in Liam’s direction.

Liam rolled his eyes, but quickly offered a friendly smile as Niall sat down next to him.

Niall smiled back. His palms were sweaty and he wasn’t even sure that this was real life. He had to continually remind himself that Tomlinson and Payne were just people. People who were here to play in they very same tournament as he was.

They were equal, and this was completely fine, he told himself as he began to feel a little more at ease.

“I’m up for a pint,” Niall said with a grin.

“Of course,” Louis laughed, grinning at Liam and wiggling his eyebrows again. “You Irish always are.”

Niall and Sean glanced at each other.

“Oh, don’t look so surprised. First of all, Niall is a deliciously Irish name. Second, he’s wearing a clover necklace,” he pointed at Niall, “And third, ya both sound like ya stepped straight outta Dublin,” Louis said with a grin and a lousy Irish accent.

“My name’s Irish,” Liam countered, shrugging his shoulders.

Louis took a sip of his water as the waiter approached their table. “Not as Irish as his. Pints?”

Niall nodded his head enthusiastically, while Sean just offered an agreeable shrug.

“Right,” Louis said, glancing up at the waiter. “A round of… Ambev? It’s good.”

The others seemed to be fine with this, so Louis nodded and off the waiter went to retrieve their pints.

“So, you obviously know we play for Chelsea, and you two obviously play for clubs over in Ireland.”

“Yeah,” Niall said, feeling less shy as the seconds went on. He figured he might as well make the most of this dinner while they were sitting there. “We both play for Shamrock Rovers.”

Louis shrugged, obviously he’d never heard of them. Liam, on the other hand, leaned into the table a little. “Shamrock Rovers? That’s a pretty high ranking club, isn’t it?”

Niall made eye contact with Liam, and he felt his heart beat a little bit faster. Because Louis might have been his football idol, but Liam was just so damn pretty. And here he was paying attention to him. And he’d actually heard of his football club.

“Yeah,” Sean said when Niall was unable to find his voice once again. “League of Ireland champions in 2013.”

Liam and Louis just nodded their heads as the waiter returned with their drinks. “And what happened last season, then?” Louis asked with a smirk.

Liam rolled his eyes at how pompous Louis was being. He was always like that, sure, but he never missed a moment to make himself feel even more of a bigshot than he already was.

Sean shrugged. “Same thing that happened to you lads in the 2012 Euro, I reckon.”

Louis just leaned back and laughed as Sean and Niall proceeded to order food. “Cheers,” he said, raising his glass. “Even though I’ll remind you that we made it further into the Euro than you lot.”

“Right,” Sean replied as their four pint glasses met in the centre of the table. “That’s just because Horan and I weren’t there.”

Louis laughed yet again. As he and Sean continued their banter, Liam and Niall made a moment of eye contact. They both raised their eyebrows in a shared exasperation at how silly their teammates and friends were being.

“So,” Liam said, ignoring Louis and Sean and focusing his attention on Niall. Niall, who had yet to say very many words. Niall, whose blue eyes lit up every time he grinned.

He wanted to see more of it.

Niall kept his eyes fixated on Liam as he waited for him to continue. Sean and Louis became background noise at this point, as did the mumblings of the rest of the dining room. His heart pounded in his chest because this was Liam Payne and if nothing else, even if he could get over the fact that this was one of his idols, he was pretty. So very, very, pretty.

“You’re from Ireland, then?” Liam asked.

Niall couldn’t help but laugh. He wasn’t sure why – maybe it was because of nerves, or maybe it was because the question was so obviously clumsy that he felt a bit more at ease.

“Yeah,” Niall nodded his head. “And you’re not.”

“No,” Liam shrugged, because he knew he hadn’t been overly clever or witty. So much for winning this boy over with his charm. Not that he was confident he had any of that to begin with. He glanced over at Louis and Sean, who were still deep in their conversation. “How’d you get started in footer, then?”

Niall shrugged. He couldn’t think of a time when he wasn’t interested in Football, really. He figured it probably started when he was five years old and his father took him to a Chelsea game.

Of course there was no way he was going to tell Liam that.

“Just always loved it, my Dad loved it too and it was something we had in common. Played ever since I was small,” he said, the smile creeping up on his face again as he remembered. “Played enough that I got drafted into the league when I was sixteen.”

Liam nodded, finding himself intrigued by Niall’s simple life story. He was sure it was far more interesting than Niall was letting on.

“What about you?” Niall asked, finishing the last of his pint (meanwhile, Liam’s was still nearly full.) “How’d you end up here, drinking pints with me?” He glanced at Liam’s glass. “Or lookin’ at pints while I’m drinkin’ ’em,” he corrected himself.

Liam just laughed. “Well,” he said in his prim and proper London accent. “I had actually wanted to be a runner.”

“No,” Niall said in disbelief, leaning in a bit closer to Liam. “But you’re such a great player!” he nearly exclaimed, but calmed himself down as soon as he realized he was becoming a bit too fanboyish.

Liam felt himself blush slightly. “Yeah, thanks. I suppose my running coach though so too, because he suggested I switch to football.”

“He was obviously right,” Niall said with a nod. He glanced around for the waiter, both interested in the whereabouts of his food, as well as ordering another pint.

Liam just smiled. “Thanks.”

Niall shifted a bit. Usually he was a million words a minute, but now he found himself rethinking every word. The last thing he wanted to do was irritate Liam, and he knew had a tendency to babble on and on about nonsense.

Then again, sitting there quietly wasn’t helping him out either.

“Is it always like this?” he finally asked, after what felt like far too long of an awkward silence.

“Like what?”

“This,” Niall said, glancing around. He knew he probably wasn’t conveying himself correctly. He talked a lot, that was true, but he was never one to be articulate. “The excitement and adrenaline and the rush you get when the tournament’s about to begin.”

Liam shrugged. Of course he was excited, and playing in the World Cup wasn’t exactly the norm – this was his first time too. But he’d been at the Euro two years prior, and the novelty had worn off a little bit.

He looked at Niall, wondering how he was going to explain that to this boy. Niall had a fire in his eyes that he was sure he’d never even come close to having when it came to Football. He loved it – of course he loved it. He wouldn’t be doing it if he didn’t love it.

But Niall?

It was clear that he didn’t just love it. That this was his whole life – his entire world seemed to revolve around the sport, as was evidenced by his sheer determination to be drafted to a club at just sixteen coupled by his obvious adoration for players from the English Premier League.

Liam nodded, because whether it was that way for him or not didn’t matter. One look at Niall told him that it would always be this way for him. “Yeah,” he smiled. “It is.”

Niall grinned, flashing off a set of perfectly straight teeth as though he was almost proud of them. Hearing that come from someone who he felt had gone so far in his career and was so well known put him nearly over the moon. The only thing that could have made it better was their food showing up.

Which it did, moments later.

“Yeah buddy,” Niall said, grabbing his fork and digging in, but not before ordering another pint.

“My God,” Louis said, glancing down at Niall’s plate and then at his own. “There’s nothing of you. How are you going to eat all that?”

“What?” Niall asked, his face merely stuffed. The only thing that could distract him from sitting at the table with two of his idols was a plate of chicken and a double order of spicy chips.

“Yeah,” Sean said, rolling his eyes. “He can eat and eat and eat and never gain a pound. It never slows him down. I don’t know where he puts it.”

Niall just shrugged as he continued to eat. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t a problem. He loved to eat and it didn’t hurt his career at all, so why should it be?

“Well, lucky for him then,” Louis said, eating slowly.

By the time his pint arrived, Niall was nearly done his food. Because not only could he eat a lot, he could also eat fast.

The others will still munching away at theirs, of course. Even Liam, who couldn’t help but watch as Niall finished off the rest of his food and then downed half of his second pint in one go.

Normally this sort of behaviour would have irritated him, and he couldn’t figure out what it was about Niall that made him find everything he did attractive. Perhaps it was the combination of him being so attractive and giddy that did it.

Liam didn’t really know. All he knew was that he was absolutely fascinated by him.

Niall looked up from his plate and caught Liam’s eyes. His mind raced as to why Liam was watching him. Was he acting like a complete fool by eating so fast and drinking so much? No, that couldn’t be it, because Liam wasn’t really looking at him in disgust. He was just looking at him. A lot.

It made Niall a strange combination of shy and energized. His idol taking interest in him was one of the most exciting things to happen that day, and he’d just been on the pitch at Maracana Stadium, for Christ’s sake.

“That was delicious,” Louis said, leaning back in his chair after finishing his plate. “Probably not as good as whatever you had, but still pretty tasty.” He stood up and wiped his hands on his cloth napkin. “I’m going to go to the bar for a pint. Come with me, Payne.”

Liam game him a look, but Louis just nodded his head, so his sighed and followed him over to the bar.

“What?” he asked with annoyance.

“That blonde one has been making eyes at you all night,” Louis said leaning on the bar as he waited for someone to come tend to him.

Liam glanced back at the table, where Niall was delightfully taking another sip of his drink. “No he hasn’t.”

“Yes he has,” Louis nodded. “And you’ve been making eyes at him too. You should go for it. Remember what I told you about getting laid?” he laughed.

Liam rolled his eyes, but inwardly his heart sped up. “I don’t think so, he’s just a fan, remember? That’s all you’re seeing.”

Louis ordered his pint and glanced back over at the table. “Right, well he’s definitely not making those eyes at me. He wants you. Your dick is practically already in his mouth.”

“I’m not going to -”

“Whatever,” Louis said, grabbing his pint off the bar and handing some money to the bartender. “All I’m saying is that he’d do it, and you obviously need it.”

Liam watched for a moment as Louis sauntered back over to their table, downing his pint the moment he sat down. He shook his head as he followed him, knowing his friend had only wanted to get him alone so he could make a couple of rude comments and possibly show up Niall on his pint drinking skills.

“Right,” Sean said, looking at the three of them. “I’m actually quite knackered, so I think I’ll be off to bed.” He glanced down at Niall.

“Uh,” Niall said. He wasn’t tired at all, and he certainly didn’t want to leave. Not when he was still trying to figure out how Liam was looking at him and what it all meant – if it even meant anything. “No, I think I’ll stay here. Maybe have another pint.”

Sean nodded and handed Niall a couple of bills to cover his share of the meal.

“Actually,” Louis said, standing up and making a show of stretching his arms out. “I’m tired too. You two have a lovely evening,” he said, opening his wallet and throwing some money down on the table as he followed Sean out of the restaurant.

Liam and Niall glanced at each other as their friends left.

“Pint?” Niall asked, because it seemed like the thing to do. Even though Liam still had a couple sips left in his cup.

“Sure,” Liam said, because what else was he going to say? Even though Louis had completely set them up, he really did want to stay and chat with Niall. “Why not?”

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