So Long


Claire sighs and re-reads the email she’s been working on for twenty minutes. It’s hard, she thinks, to tell someone fuck off in a polite manner without severing the connection between the company and her boss. But really? Demanding more and more rescheduling because the dude can’t even show up to the first planned meeting on time? It’s ridiculous. Deciding the message is fine the way it is, she presses the send button, crosses off another thing on her to-do list, and scrubs a hand over her face.

It’s been a week since the night he called her to his house and she found him drunk, angry, and inexplicably hurt. They’ve not spoken of the incident at all, and Claire feels like they really should have before now. She isn’t going to bring it up, though; she knows that if she were in his shoes and someone tried to talk about her being drunk enough that she forgets being taken care of by her employee… she would probably never get over that mortification. She sighs and thumbs out a text to Deirdre, telling her she needs “SIL Time”.

Claire jumps, bites back a squeak, when the sound of someone hammering on the front door echoes through the quiet house. Niall doesn’t come downstairs, which means he hasn’t heard the knocking, so she climbs to her feet and heads toward the entryway with a racing heart. She barely gets the door pulled open before she’s got an armful of toddler, and someone is speeding past her; if this were a cartoon, she’d be spinning in place from the way he’s rushed by her.

“Have to piss, love, I’ll be right back!”

“My duties don’t include babysitting!” she calls after the figure who’s barrelled past her, but all she gets in response is the slamming of the bathroom door.

She blinks owlishly down at the child, and he stares up at her with wide eyes. His fingers come up to shove into his mouth. Claire can’t help but smile at how startled he looks at suddenly being shoved into the arms of a stranger. With a soft sigh, she carries him around the living room, stopping when he points to various things. She keeps her grip gentle as he reaches out to touch the poster on the wall. He pouts but doesn’t fuss, so Claire is going to count it as a victory - Paul would have thrown an enormous fit about being prevented from putting his hands on whatever caught his attention.

“Please don’t let - oh. You’re not.”

Claire turns to see Niall standing on the bottom step, his finger scratching at his eyebrow. “I do know how to handle kids, you know.”


“It’s okay,” she assures him, shrugging. “So, uh, do I get a raise? I mean, new duties means new pay rate, right?”

He barks out a laugh and holds out his hands, but the kid tightens his hold on the shoulder of Claire’s blouse, shaking his head. Niall’s head cocks to the side, opens his mouth to speak. The reappearance of the toddler’s father interrupts whatever he’s about to say, though, so Niall merely smiles. Claire blinks back to reality after a second, sucks her lower lip between her teeth, and turns away, scolding herself for getting distracted - again - by her boss.

“Ah, sorry ’bout that.”

“No worries, I guess, though I feel it prudent to inform you I charge a grand per hour of babysitting.”

The man’s crystal-blue eyes widen, and Claire has to bite down on the inside of her cheek to not burst out into laughter. She passes the child over and heads back to the kitchen; she can hear Niall explaining that she’s only joking, she isn’t going to make him pay fifty dollars for three minutes of watching Freddie. Once she’s sat in the chair at the table, she logs into the email account on the laptop and scrolls through the dozens of new emails that have come in within the last few minutes. This is her least favourite part of the job: Having to sift through so many messages, a majority of which are spam and come in massive waves, and prioritise which are most important. Most of the senders think they’re more deserving of attention than the others, which is just ridiculous.

“You look irritated,” Niall comments as he passes through the kitchen to the deck outside.

Claire blows out a breath sharply, muttering, “Yeah, well, impatient assholes exist, don’t they.”

“Oh, Lou, this is Claire. Claire, Louis. You’ve met his son Freddie already.”

Claire waves vaguely in Louis’s direction. She’d feel more guilty about the lack of attention she’s showing, but another email has just come in. And this one is actually important. She flips through the pages of her planner even as she clicks on the icon for the electronic scheduler. Niall still occasionally questions her about the use of two different calendars for the same thing when he sees her using both; it works, though. She double-checks the date requested then glances up, catching her boss’s eye. He cocks his head to the side.

She raises her voice a bit so he can hear her over the distance. “Uh, Modest! wants you to come in start of next week sometime, said they have something they wanna discuss about the album. Tuesday work for you?”

“You have my schedule.”

“Didn’t know if you had plans that I wasn’t aware of, sheesh. Okay, confirmation for Tuesday sent, getting the flight booked now.”

Once that’s done, she leans back in her chair and sighs, stretching out her muscles. Her skin itches with the weight of someone’s gaze, but when she looks away from the laptop’s screen, Louis and Niall are deep in conversation while Freddie plays with toys by their feet. She pushes herself to stand, crosses the room to stand in the doorway.

“Hey, anybody want a drink?”

“Come, sit, join us.”

Claire gives Louis a small smile and shakes her head. “No, thanks. Got a few things I need to do today. You guys enjoy whatever you’re doing. Drinks?”

“I’ll take some water, if you don’t mind.”

“Would I ask if I minded?”

Louis laughs softly, shrugs, and Claire heads back into the kitchen to fill two glasses with ice water. She hands them off then goes back to the table. Though she tries to focus on making sure the calendars are up to date and the number of unread emails is low, she finds her attention continuously dragged back to the men sitting outside. She has to admit that Louis is attractive enough, but her gaze keeps landing on her boss.

Thankfully, it has gotten easier to pretend there aren’t any feelings that fight to make themselves known, so Claire hasn’t had to worry about making herself into a fool. Her nights are too short, with lying awake until the wee hours of the morning and letting her mind wander while her roommates play video games in the living room then having to wake up at six every morning. Weekends, on the other hand, have been excruciatingly long. Having nothing to do and too much time to think makes the days drag on.

A hand slips between the tabletop and her forehead, and she stops banging her head downward. Niall’s other hand rubs at her shoulders comfortingly. Claire turns her head enough to look at him from the corner of her eyes, and the amusement on his face makes her stick her tongue out at him. She sighs, tells him about the interview that the journalist just has to have done tomorrow. He frowns.

“Are you okay?”

“Tired, but yeah, I’m fine.”

“You’ve looked… exhausted since the day Louis and Freddie were here.”

“I’m okay, Niall. I promise.”

Niall doesn’t look convinced, but he lets the subject drop anyway. Instead, he pulls his hands back toward himself then sits in the chair next to her. His face grows serious as he settles into his seat, asks her what she thinks him going into the studio will require of her. She isn’t quite sure, and she tells him so. He nods in response. Claire is unsurprised when he informs her that she will have to sign a non-disclosure agreement before she can go into the building - she fully expected it. There’s an expression on his face that she isn’t used to seeing, and she cocks her head.

“Are you worried that I’m going to blab about the songs you make?”

His mouth drops open, then he lets out a sheepish chuckle and shrugs. “A little bit. It’s always a worry for a musician.”

“Well, don’t fret. I don’t even like your music, so I think you’re safe,” she says, raising a brow as he scoffs. “What?”

“Yeah, I don’t believe that at all.”

“Why’s that?”

Niall doesn’t respond, reaching for his phone and tapping at the screen. Claire stares at him, her brows drawing together when he sits back in his chair, still without word. A soft buzzing sounds, then the chorus of Too Much to Ask fills the air. Her jaw drops, and she fumbles for her personal phone, declining the call. Niall grins smugly at her.

“That wasn’t your song. Not at all.”

“Right. Absolutely not.”

Claire swats at his arm, laughing nonetheless. She isn’t sure when he got her personal phone number - he’s always called or texted the work phone - but she doesn’t question it. Niall turns his gaze from the darkened backyard; she tries to read whatever his eyes are saying, but she has no clue where to even start. His mouth twitches, lips quirking, and he taps his knuckles against the tabletop.

“It’s getting late. You should head home.”

She frowns and glances at the screen of her phone. She hadn’t realised so much time has gone by and it’s now half nine. Nodding, she packs away the laptop and work phone into the messenger bag and rises to her feet. Niall walks with her to the front door; he stands there even after she’s closed the gate behind her, and she bites down on her lower lip before waving goodnight. His hand lifts into the air then drops back to his side. The door closes on the light from inside the house, and Claire slowly drives away.

Claire lines up the shot, pressing the button, and takes another three photos just to be sure she got a good picture. Niall doesn’t look away from what he’s doing, but she knew he wouldn’t before she even took the photo. Since they arrived in the studio this morning, he has been lost in his own world, only looking to her when he needs something. She’s honestly sick of refilling his water bottle, but it’s part of her job duties, so she forces down the complaints.

It’s fun, really, to watch him do his job. Claire has done basically nothing except sitting off to the side, staying out of everyone’s way; she’s even been allowed to text her brother and Deirdre, but she hasn’t sent very many. She doesn’t want to make Niall or his crew worry about whether or not she is spilling details about the recordings. The desire to reassure him means she doesn’t even mind that someone looks over her shoulder and reads the messages before she sends them off; they pretend they aren’t, but she isn’t going to mention it.

Niall warned her this morning before they left the house that being in the studio means longer days than usual, so she should prepare for not seeing her bedroom nearly as often as before. She can’t find anything wrong with that statement, to be honest. Being away from her roommates can only be a good thing. Matt on his own is great - she’s always had a decent friendship with him, even way back when they ran in different social circles in high school - but whenever Duke, Flop, or Chuck, or all three, are added to the mix, Claire repeatedly asks herself why she’s still putting up with their behaviours.

She settles into the chair and ignores when her phone vibrates again. Niall is back in the recording booth, working through the next song, and his voice is captivating enough that she doesn’t give a damn what her brother has said.

“I really appreciate this,” says Louis as he hands her the diaper bag. “I cannot thank you enough.”

Claire shrugs, smiles down at Freddie before meeting Louis’s eyes. “No worries. It’s not like I had much on my schedule for today anyway. Niall’s got himself locked upstairs since he’s taking a break from recording, so all I have to do is make sure he isn’t, y’know, starving or dehydrated or being bothered by phone calls. Freddie here will be a wonderful distraction.”

“Well, thank you. This is for you.”

“What the Hell is this?”

Louis rolls his eyes. “It’s money, love.”


“You’re babysitting my son. The least I can do is pay you for it.”

“Dude!” She laughs and pushes the money back to Louis. “I was joking when I said I charged. Unless you’re my brother. Then it’s triple my rates. But nah, it’s okay. Freddie is a wonderful kid from what I’ve seen of him so far, so I’m happy to do this without any payment. Now go or you’ll be late to your interview.”

Niall comes down the stairs an hour and a half later, laptop tucked under his arm. His frustrated expression fades when he sees the child playing in the centre of the living room; Freddie grins up at Niall and slams two cars together. Claire decides that she’s had enough of staring at the email inbox and sits down on the floor next to the kid. She picks up a bright red Matchbox car and moves it along the floor. Her skin burns with the feeling of being watched as she plays with Freddie and replies to emails and text messages with one hand, but every time she looks up, Niall is sat on the sofa with his earbuds firmly in place, focused intently on his computer. She suppresses a shiver and forces herself to concentrate on entertaining Freddie.