Niall/Zayn, secondary Harry/Louis
tv-14 for language, eventual R
chapter one, 2,686 | boxing AU
Thanks a tonne to msmoocow for being a helpful and encouraging figure outside of the 1D world to help this fic along! xo
"Bit rough around the edges, like you, Zayn."
The building itself was unremarkable. The outside was painted a fading grey, the chipping red paint indicating the large structure’s original use as a furniture warehouse lining the top edges, and the doors were small and the almost nonexistent parking lot was appropriated for the record store next door. Inside, however, was a whole different story. The smell of sweat-soaked plastic, damp cloth and just-about-rusting metal mingled in the air, hanging stagnant with the determined grunts, idle chatter, barked instructions and heavy clanging echoing through the sectioned-off gym. The sets of equipment wrapped around the outside edges of the large room were dining places, only calling more attention to the truly grand centerpiece of the fitness center: the well-kept, almost gleaming from over-maintenance, boxing ring.
Some of the younger patrons eyed it longingly as they used other machines, lifting dumbbells and scowling as the gym skylight shone like a museum spotlight upon the mat and ropes. In perfect condition, the ring was reserved for only the crème de la crème de la crème de la crème, those proficient enough in skill and agility to honestly and modestly prove superior to the regular Toms allowed to use the rest of the gym at their own leisure. The gym manager and owner, S.C., was very stringent about just who was blessed enough to step on the practically brand-new vinyl stretched across the wood. He kept a tight list, and that list was invite-only, like the VIP section of a club where even the scantily-clad women can’t get in free.
Out of all his professionally successful boxers, Liam Payne was by far S.C.’s favourite, the young gun he’d trained from the moment he saw him knock a tear into the seam of a brand-new punching bag at the tender age of sixteen. S.C. had a knack for picking up the scraps nobody believed in and seeing the potential, carving a keen eye and firm muscle into more than a few wound-up teenagers. Payne had had his fair share of fights and ended up with three welterweight championship belts in a row and one of the smartest ring girls as a wife after his first loss in three years. (When asked why she waited before saying yes to his multitudes of proposals, Danielle stated blankly, “I didn’t want him to think that just because he wasn’t on top of the boxing world, that he wasn’t the top of mine.”)
Now Liam was one of the youngest retired professional boxers ever to return to the boxing world as a trainer at 26, working exclusively for S.C. and his protégés. “Semi-crouch, then, yep, quick, upright stance and half uppercut, jab, full crou- no, it’s a half uppercut, then jab, full-”
Liam’s current work in progress was one young Zayn Malik, a twenty-two-year-old spitfire who was becoming increasingly frustrated with his lack of progress on the combination, as his feet just wouldn’t move fast enough to work back to avoid a straight coming right at him. Standing at the bag, Zayn couldn’t stop landing punches, arms moving faster than the tube on a good day, snapping into the equipment with accuracy and force. When it came to footwork and dodging, well, that was an entirely different story, wasn’t it?
Zayn hadn’t always wanted to box. If he had, he probably wouldn’t have been so quick to pick up a rough smoking habit; as it was, he expressed a desire to quit and, in the meantime, was trying to limit himself to only a few a day at most. Nobody was surprised, however, to find out all his little quirks uncharacteristic of boxers, as Zayn had always been kind of a rule breaker. It was what attracted him to the bag and the unconventional gym in the first place. No one could blame him- or stop him, for that matter. Not that they wanted to. It was a general consensus that he looked pretty good in a workout top.
Dark eyes deep-set, brow resolute, and jaw firmly locked in place, Zayn quickly mouthed the combination twice through to himself, head bobbing at the first syllable of each move. He took a deep breath and nodded curtly at Liam. “Let’s go.”
A worn but resolute glove flew at Zayn the second he slipped into a semi-crouch, following through into nothing but thin air as he ducked to the left, straightening into an upright stance and stepping forward with a digging left ‘hookercut’ in one swift move. Zayn’s own glove slammed into Liam’s bare torso with a thud, his right arm immediately jabbing forward to land another punch, this time into the gut, before pulling back and falling into a full crouch. His eyes flicking over Liam, Zayn shifted his weight back and forth between his feet to maintain momentum in case Liam decided to surprise-counter, as he was wont to do when Zayn correctly performed a combination.
He did, of course; Liam was nothing if not predictable in that regard. He took a firm swing at Zayn’s right side, which was countered with a left cross, which, in turn, failed to land. That was not suffered gladly, and Liam landed two quick jabs into Zayn’s shoulder before pulling off a glove with his teeth and reaching for a towel. “Good go, mate. Knew it would only take a bit for you to get it.”
Half-smiling and pulling off his own gloves, Zayn opened his mouth and poured water from his bottle in, tossing his head to and fro to try and shake off what little sweat collected in his hair (which he kept longer than was probably regulation, but few people bothered him with the details). “This is fucking hard, Li.”
“You’re kidding. And here I was thinking it’s easier than even basic geography,” chimed a simpering figure approaching the ring. He pushed his hair back and stepped through the ropes – whereupon S.C. called out from his office, “Use the stairs, Tomlinson, we’ve been over this!” – and winked at Zayn, who scowled and glared at the shorter man. It wasn’t Zayn’s fault he wasn’t the cleverest bulb in the box. And the constant blows to the head, despite the padding, probably didn’t help, either.
Hoisting himself onto the corner post of the ring, Louis Tomlinson smirked at Liam, who, leaping to Zayn’s defence, asserted, “Come off it, mate, he just got the hang of a tough-as combination.”
Louis Tomlinson, for all of his attitude and all the shit he gave the other members of the gym, was one of the most experienced boxing referees in the county. When he was eighteen and Liam was twenty, he had tried his hand at boxing himself, but had failed absolutely miserably. (“What the fuck, Li?” he had yelled in annoyance. “You said this was easy!” Liam had only laughed, “For me, it is! Sorry, mate!”)
He had given up that brief fantasy almost immediately, settling instead to watch Liam do his thing in the ring nearly every day. Louis began trailing along the outsides of the gym, running on the treadmill or using the elliptical machines or stationary bikes, all while keeping a steady eye on the boxing ring and its adjacent training area. He read up extensively on the rules, regulations, and history of boxing and became omnipresent at all S.C.-operated events. Not just that; in addition, Louis made it a mission to attend any event even vaguely related to boxing in any of the adjacent four towns, pushing S.C. to finally just give up and let him referee one of the junior matches. Louis’ seemingly endless enthusiasm in the ring – and his persuasive pout when he didn’t get his way – launched him right up the boxing ladder, and by age twenty-four, he was one of the most famous (or infamous) referees in the region, known not only for his objectivity and fairness in the ring, but his rapier wit and jaunty, judgmental comments outside it.
“Well, then, good go, Zayn,” Louis offered honestly, leaning forward to pat him on the shoulder. “You’ve got a few matches left and they’re coming up soon, so that’s all set and well.”
Zayn raised an eyebrow, his half-smile at the compliment shifting into a slight frown at the new information. “How far off? I really need to get more work in before I take on too many more challengers. And where’re they at?”
Louis jumped down from the post, landing lightly on his feet outside the ring. He dashed into S.C.’s office, wherein a brief, muffled argument seemed to take place, and flew back out again, a black binder in hand. This binder held the match tour dates for all the up-and-coming fighters for the next year. Louis ducked back through the ropes and sat down next to Liam on the vinyl ring floor. His tongue quickly darted out to moisten his thumb to easily page through it; Louis then began flicking through the pages before reaching the spread that detailed Zayn’s previous scores, his weight class and base stats, and his match dates.
“Any time now would be nice,” Zayn prodded, taking a few steps closer to the pair.
Sighing deeply, Louis unhurriedly looked up at the young boxer, extending a lazy, saccharine-sweet smile before leaning his head down and reading out a selection of the dates. “Well, Mr Fussy, you’ve got two matches here in two weeks, one against that easy beat you took down just the other month, and then one against some lad all the way out from the boonies in Mullingar. Dunno why he’s taking a tour down here, but hey, experience’s experience. You can take a look at his stats probably tonight, eh, Liam?”
“Wait. You said Mullingar? You talking about that Horan kid? Yeah, I’ve heard of him,” Liam nodded slowly, biting his lip in thought. “Twenty-one, I think. Bit rough around the edges, like you, Zayn, but an overall strong fighter. It’ll be a good go-round, especially if he’s coming down all this way just for a fight.”
Stretching his arms behind his head, Zayn gave Liam a lopsided grin. “Then a fight is just what he’ll get.”
“C’mon, Horan, get’cher shit together!” growled a Scottish accent, the high lilt of the female voice muffled by the clenched jaw surrounding it. “Yer takin’ on that Malik lad from Bradford in Wembley, so you better stop messin’ around and beat this punk already.”
A barking laugh escaped, not even barred by the jawful of mouthguard taking up the space in Niall Horan’s mouth. “Duhn’t ya w’ry,” he grinned at his trainer, flashing the red molded plastic at her. “Th’s kid’ll be ‘n the ground ‘n no t’m.” He tapped his headgear firmly onto his head in reassurance and stood, knocking his gloves together in preparation for the next round.
“And it’s Horan back up first, starting off the second go-round with an even match against Byrne. Both fighters are exchanging hits, nothing really clean landing; Horan’s doing a good job of slipping inside the punches, and now it’s Byrne who’s holding, he didn’t just throw the punch… there’s the bell to end it! One point ahead! I didn’t think it would be that good a lead but Horan shoved out ahead, and, hey, a win is a win!”
Niall never made a big deal about wins or losses at the end of a match. His love for boxing grew out of his admiration for Olympic-level Irish fighters, watching them, wide-eyed and boyishly excited from when he was little through the days he thought, hell, maybe I could be that lad one day. Boxing wasn’t about victories, or smashing the other guy to a heaving mess, or tallying up more W’s in his stats column. Half the time, he’d invite his opponents out for a pint or three after a fight, regardless of who won or who got more hits in.
Scrutinising him as he worked in the ring, however, one would assume he had an evil twin he got to box for him. Aggressive, determined, and with no trace of the childlike curiosity that normally lit up his eyes, Niall in the ring was a different man. Despite his many years in the ring he’d not thought of a single strategic possibility other than ‘hit or be hit, fuck or be fucked.’ Exact wording aside, his moves were mature, chiefly those that required ducking and dodging. Niall seemed to be an expert at knowing what the other man was going to do a split second before it happened. He wasn’t precise, or particularly endowed with brilliant technique, but not a single spectator could deny that he was one of the most exciting boxers to watch in the present decade.
The easygoing way he had about him, though, drew people to him, whether they knew he was an up-and-coming athletic talent or not. He had friends in all sorts of places, but at the end of the day, he’d unwrap his hands, coiling the dirty, sweat-soaked bandages into tight bundles, and return to the dim but well-furnished and well-loved flat he shared with one of his best mates, a fellow athlete two years his junior.
More often than not, a salad bowl colourfully decorated with the final dredges of three different types of sugary breakfast cereal would greet him at the side table next to the worn leather couch when Niall finally sprang through the door at odd hours of the night. Owl-eyed Harry would gaze at him blearily, the muted lights from the television flickering over his face in a rainbow matching the sad, milk-soggy leftovers from his “meal.”
“Niall, do y’know what time it is?” coughed out Harry, pulling his bedroom comforter around his shoulders. He looked like a fluffy volcano with a tangled mess of curly hair as the magma just peeking out from its striped mouth.
Shrugging and dropping his boxing gear onto the floor next to the landing, Niall took a moment to reflect upon the question before frowning and offering, “Not nearly late enough to merit you being up waiting. You could have come, you know.”
Harry snorted. “Surprised you didn’t. No girls begging for the d tonight, mate? Bad go. Even off a win you can’t pull.” Considering this, he snorted again, his sleep deprivation rapidly transforming it into a cackle.
Niall rolled his eyes and laughed in response, “You, Haz, need to go to bed now. How long have you even been up? Dude, we’re touring back to London in two days, and if we’re successful, we’ll be getting out of this place and living in London.”
Nodding indistinctly, Harry dragged himself off the sofa and into the bedroom, Niall grabbing the clicker and shutting off the blurry sound of infomercials before trotting in behind him.
Known for his late-night training regimen, Harry Styles was the ultimate upstart fighter. The irony that he was a “stylist” fighter was not lost on Niall or on the athletic media, but who could really be surprised? Limbs as long as Harry had were meant for classic out-fighting. He typically didn’t want to crunch into his opponents, generally fighting with faster, longer range punches and gradually wearing his challengers down.
It was odd but somehow made perfect sense that Harry fought how he lived: always seeking to maintain distance between himself and his opponent, never allowing himself to bring his too-open eyes around to his competitors. In the ring, he didn’t want to get knocked out. In the bar or the club, he didn’t want to get attached. Not that he didn’t like people; on the contrary. He loved them, being surrounded by them, being the life of the party. Harry was a people-pleaser. That was likely how he and Niall got on so well.
Searching Harry’s large, tired eyes, Niall pulled his tank top off and kicked off his Supras, clambering into bed and sighing. “Why do you do this to yourself, Harry? You’re always worse for wear when you work out late.”
Harry’s shrug burrowed him further into his comforter-burrito, murmuring softly, “It’s just easier that way.”
( part two )