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"There you are. Are you angry smoking again?" Louis says, flopping down on the tattered couch next to Zayn. The party is still raging from inside, the noise and light of it pouring in an avalanche out onto the porch as the front door swings closed behind Louis. Even out here the Beastie Boys are playing loud enough to rattle the bottles on the tables and the windows in their panes.

"Where else would I be?" Zayn says by way of greeting, shoving over to give Louis some room. Zayn slouches down low on the sofa so he can put his feet up on the rotten railing that encloses the porch, heavy boots with their laces undone, Louis joining him up there with his Vans. The last of Zayn's cigarette is burning out so he plucks the one he perpetually keeps tucked over his ear and presses it against the burning ember, chaining his new smoke after his old, dropping the used butt into an empty beer can.

"Or sad smoking, I can never tell," Louis says. He already seems pretty drunk even though it's only just seven o'clock in the evening, but that's how it is with Louis and his legendary pregaming, always the first to get fall down drunk because he considers it his personal responsibility as president of their fraternity. "Is this still about Harry?"

"Nah," Zayn says, taking his time to examine the coal at the end of his cigarette, blowing on it until it glows orange. Louis gives him a penetrating stare that Zayn refuses to acknowledge. "It's not a big deal anymore. Whatever."

Louis laughs, snatches the cigarette from Zayn and takes a pull, handing it back. "Zayn, that was like a month ago. I even asked you before I invited him. You said you were fine with him being here. You said you were still friends."

Zayn blows smoke out from his nostrils, like a cartoon dragon. "We are friends. Still friends. And it was for the best, like. I knew what I was getting into with him. We both knew."

"So make peace, dude. I don't like moody Zayn." Louis stretches out and rests his head on Zayn's thigh, his clothes smelling strongly of sour pink candy, those loud cocktails he's been pounding back with the sugar still on his breath. "I'm missing my wingman, man. Wingman man. Man man."

Zayn gives Louis a gentle smack on his cheek. "It's not that simple."

"What's not simple?" Louis asks, and then his mouth opens a little, a soft ah of understanding that irritates Zayn. "Do you still like him?"

"No, Louis, fuck," Zayn says wearily, almost unheard under the heavy beating of the music inside. "It's not that simple, either. The break up was fine. Is fine, it's just. I don't know."

"Summer loving, yeah?" Louis asks, drunk and loud and trying to sympathize, a love that comes with little pinches on Zayn's arm and fingers that lace with his own for a squeeze.

"Yeah, exactly," Zayn says.

"Had you a blast?"

"We're not turning this into fucking Grease, Louis," Zayn growls.

Louis sighs, head pillowed on Zayn's thigh, looking up at him with his sea-green eyes glinting. "So, you knew what you were getting into. Just some fun over the holidays. That's what you told me over the phone, right?"

"Exactly," Zayn agrees.

"You've got rules. No dating, keep it casual."

"Right."

"And now you feel like shit."

Zayn slaps Louis' cheek again, not so gently, and Louis laughs. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

"I'd never enjoy your misery," Louis says, but he's still having a hard time wiping the smile from his lips. "But you do look so cute when you get like this –" he pinches Zayn's cheek until Zayn jerks away, slapping his hands down, " – okay, no, serious. Serious face, serious conversation. I'm here for you."

"Fuck," Zayn says, weary, brushing a hand through Louis' hair.

But Louis does actually stop smiling, a quirk in his lips like sympathy, and when he touches Zayn's cheek it's not to hit, his fingertips trace the line of his jaw instead, sliding down to rest on his shoulder. The music is loud, the laughter coming from inside brilliant and inviting and tugging at the corner of Louis' attention, but he stays. He stays for Zayn. Louis sighs out, patting Zayn's red Henley in the spot over his heart. "I know you don't like being alone, man."

Zayn groans and throws his head back against the cushions of the couch, staring up at the ceiling of the porch, the peeling white paint and Rorschach blots of water stains. The couch is one of the old fraternity hand-me-downs they inherited from the 50s, brown and orange plaid, and it was Louis' idea to keep it out on the front porch. It smells of mildew and the arms are pock-marked where people have stubbed out their cigarettes, polyester melted into hard black circles. It fits right in with their sagging, dirty house with its lawn full of blow-up pool toys and broken kids games. It makes the house a home, Zayn's scrappy upstart brotherhood in a world full of manicured lawns and charity drives. Normally Zayn is proud of it, sarcastically defensive of his little bunch of misfits and lost boys and their broken-down manor of a tree house, but right now he just wants to go and smoke a pack of cigarettes in peace, suck rum from a flask without having to crush everyone's good time.

"Louis, go, it's fine," Zayn says, puffing on his cigarette. "We can talk about it later."

"Come on," Louis says, reaching up to poke the tip of Zayn's nose. "Come have some shots with me. Get a little drunk, talk to Harry and clear the air, man. You'll feel better."

If it was anyone else, Zayn would tell them to fuck off, but it's Louis. They rushed together, they secured their spots doing penis puppetry together, they rose up in the ranks together, they won the first and only intramural sports tournament for the frat in forty years, and now they lead it together like Batman and Robin (even though they argue about who is who, sometimes.) When Louis tells Zayn to get up and do something it's usually for the best, Louis always somehow knowing Zayn better than Zayn knows himself. Zayn has long since given up on trying to resist Louis. "Yeah, all right, fine, fine."

"That's my baby," Louis says, taking the cigarette from Zayn again to take a puff. "We'll get some shots in you and I won't even make you talk to Harry. It'll be fun."

"I don't actually hate him, it's impossible to hate Harry," Zayn says as Louis rolls off of his lap, taking his offered hand and hoisting himself off the couch. "He's still such a good fucking guy, you know? I can't even hate him. I don't even fucking get to do that."

"I know," Louis says, throwing an arm around Zayn's shoulder and walking with him back into the house. When the door opens the music booms so much louder, echoing in Zayn's chest like it's trapped in there, and the smell of yeasty spilled beer and wet marshy weed hits Zayn like a wave. "Oh, I know," Louis says as he drags Zayn in, following a trail of crumpled red solo cups like breadcrumbs. "You poor sucker."

*

The party is in full swing as Zayn wanders through the wreckage with Louis, the two of them making their way to the massive game of beer pong going on at the back of the house.

Zayn might not be in the mood but he's still damn proud of how good a party he throws, loves how, as social chair, he has single-handedly made them the party house of Greek row. Louis has always been proud of Zayn for that, hooking an arm around his shoulder and introducing him as the guy to anyone who would listen. There are a few kegs strung up with tinsel and ornaments and a Taj Mahal of empties is being set up one by one on the coffee table, bottles of liquor passed around in circles while everyone takes a swig. Louis is very strict about those house rules, going full-on pinko commie about sharing booze: a royal decree that everyone who steps foot in this house is a beloved comrade and will drink equally.

A bunch of guys in the front hall are trying to figure out how to piss when they've got forties duct taped to their hands. There's a Lord of the Rings movie playing in the living room, and a complicated drinking game has blossomed around it. In the kitchen there are about a dozen people playing Kings with two packs of cards. The music pounds like a jackhammer and girls are dancing together in the hallways, making out with some of Zayn's frat brothers, spilling sparkling wine from the bottles they hold above their heads. The floor is sticky, there's a new hole punched into the wall, and as Louis takes Zayn's hand and drags him through the fray Zayn has a hard time not smiling.

Louis high fives absolutely everyone as they go. Zayn does his duty and meets every drunken high five offered him, but he's mostly just trying to keep Louis walking in a straight line. As they make the rounds it's hard not to notice how many frosh are here, Zayn barely recognizing any of them. They all look so small and young, giddy and smashed and yelling about how drunk they are, that novelty pride that they're so cool because they get to drink now. Zayn gets a pang in his chest remembering that first rush party with Louis, no older than these kids, falling down on top of each other and laughing so hard they puked.

When Louis and Zayn walk by, the frosh all stare and grin at them like minor celebrities, it's hard not to be proud of the reputations they've managed to make in three short years when Louis keeps grinning at him. Kings of ruin, princes with their twinned smirks, living legends known for dusk to dawn to dusk ragers and the ability to drink almost anyone under the table, a mythology that involves a lot of tequila and nudity and police officers. It's something he and Louis built, starting from the first time they won a boat race up to Louis' election as president of the frat for his senior year. It's hard not to feel a bit better, get some swagger in his walk when everyone keeps looking at them like they marched straight down from Olympus, Dionysus with a bottle of Jack Daniels.

The heart of the party is around the ping pong table at the very back of the house, where wide French doors swing open onto their scruffy back garden. It's the beer pong room, that's all it's ever been called as far as Zayn knows, a history passed down through the years. The games are known by almost everyone at the school, even to some of the profs, the cathedral where endless pyramids of beer and shots of rum are lined up and downed one by one on the altar of an old green ping pong table.

One whole wall of the room is taken up as a scoreboard, years of tournaments written with sharpie, best teams and players ranked through the months with winning averages and time sheets and accuracy records kept like baseball statistics. Zayn has been hovering at third place for about a year now, but he's still nowhere near as good as Niall, who is currently mopping the floor with a brother from another frat, only one cup down while he's trying to snipe the dude's last beer. Next to him, Harry cheers wildly.

"Okay, there he is," Louis says, slapping Zayn's ass. "Go say hi. If you avoid him you'll just make everything fucking awkward for everyone and you know how much I hate having awkward in my house, Zayn."

"It really isn't necessary," Zayn says roughly. "I'm fine."

"Come on, Niall is right there. It'll be great."

"Zayn!" Harry yells, spotting them from across the room. "Hey, man."

"Shit," Zayn says under his breath.

"Go," Louis says again, pushing at the small of Zayn's back. "Do yourself a favor, yeah?"

The crowd parts like the Red Sea as Zayn walks through. He anxiously touches behind his ear, feeling for the cigarette he always keeps there, a totem Zayn treats like a lucky charm. Niall is dressed in an old stretched tank-top, scooped down to his sternum, acid washed jeans and black sunglasses, and he juggles a white ping pong ball between his hands as he plans his next shot. Zayn silently thanks God that he's there, Niall exactly the kind of guy Zayn wants to be around right now; sincerely wonderful, always offering a hug or a joint when needed, laughing at all of Zayn's jokes if they're funny or not. A brother who has always had Zayn's back, the boy who can make even the weirdest situations funny and fond. And this is going to be fucking weird.

And then there's Harry. Dressed like Steven Tyler – a hundred different scarves, a headband keeping his curls in check, a loose tunic shirt, twisted twine and seashell necklaces – he's sitting on the edge of the ping pong table and cheering Niall on as he just misses his next throw. Despite himself, a rush of affection for Harry runs through Zayn. He remembers the last time they talked, Harry saying how senior year wasn't the greatest time to be in a relationship, Zayn agreeing, kissing on the deal that it was all for the best, fun while it lasted, but it doesn't make seeing Harry any easier. Zayn remembers everything too well for it to be anything but fucking lonesome.

Niall steadies his hand and makes his next throw and – yeah, there's a reason he's the best – sinks his opponents last beer, even while Harry is chatting away about his picks for karaoke night, the student play he wants to be in.

"Hey," Niall says, his smile brightening when he sees Zayn. "Come for a game, man?"

"Nah, you're all right," Zayn says. "Just came to say hi."

"It's a sick party, man. Like always," Niall says, a knowing grin that says he knows what Zayn's going through, that he's right here for him. Niall looks around the table quickly and tosses the ball to next guy in line, stepping away from the game of beer pong still undefeated. "I've got a blunt if you want in. Harry?"

"Sure," Harry says, jumping away from the ping pong table, all of his necklaces ringing like cymbals and chimes.

"Yeah, cool," Zayn says, and even though he knows it's a dumb fucking idea he follows Niall and Harry through the open doors and out into the backyard.

The bonfire is still blazing high, the crackle of it throwing off these wild sparks into the air, the odd snap of wet wood shooting embers against the shins of the people sitting around it. They sit in a line of three on the edge of the rotten wooden deck, their bodies lit up in the orange glow of the fire. Half shadow and trembling light, Zayn can see Niall and Harry's glinting wet mouths, the sharp focus of Niall's eyes as he takes off his sunglasses and lights up the blunt. The September air is still warm and it smells like the home Zayn missed over the summer: cut grass, spilled beer, woodsmoke, fifteen different types of cologne, that particular and inexplicable sweet cherry smell that sorority girls have, rust and rot and a falling down old frat house. It's a comfort.

"So," Zayn says, breaking the silence awkwardly. "You guys went golfing today, eh?"

"Yeah," Niall says, blowing on the coal of the blunt, making sure it catches. "That's cool with you, right?"

"Why wouldn't it be?" Zayn says. Niall offers the blunt to Zayn, giving him the first hit, and Zayn knows how important a gesture that is for Niall, as good as cutting fingers to be blood brothers, spitting in your palm to seal a friendship. It means a lot, and Zayn feels this little tug in his stomach as he takes the blunt from Niall and pulls a long drag from it. "We're still friends, right?"

"You really don't mind?" Harry asks. "I – I was wondering. If I'm making this awkward. If maybe I should – should I go?"

"Nah," Zayn says. "You can hang out here, it's cool with me." He takes another hit from the blunt, pinching it between thumb and forefinger and passing it along. Harry takes the joint from him next and takes a long hit, long enough that Niall actually pats him on the back proudly. It's all kinds of fucked up, but Zayn can't help feeling all raw and hot seeing Harry suck on the joint, too easy to remember how good Harry was, how eager he was to suck Zayn off, how noisy he was when he got fucked. It's not the first time Zayn wonders if he fucked up about this because he knows he's going to miss that boy, that body, that warm and inviting way that Harry has. Zayn really doesn't want to seem broken up about it though, he doesn't want to make it seem like it was more than it was, and even though there's an ache he doesn't want to make Harry feel uncomfortable. "Seriously, I don't mind, Harry. Come over whenever you want. Everyone here really likes you, you know."

"Good," Niall says, like that seals it. "You guys cool?"

Zayn nods. "We had our thing, eh?"

"Exactly," Harry says calmly. "It was fun, right?" Harry waits to look at Zayn, smiling at him. "We had fun."

Zayn nods in agreement but doesn't say anything.

"Summer loving?" Niall asks.

"Yeah," Harry says, smiling slowly as he catches on.

"Had you a blast?"

"Niall, no," Zayn says, can't help but have a laugh. "I just went through this with Louis."

Harry snickers, pressing the back of his hand against his mouth. "I always really loved this place."

"Good, we're all square then," Niall says, putting an arm around both Zayn and Harry's shoulders. "And Harry, I can help you find a dude if you want," Niall says cheerfully, rubbing Harry's back with his free hand. "I liked them gay bars you took me to. Great tunes, man." Niall laughs, his raucous good-natured laugh, the laugh that makes everyone love him instantly. It's amazing how even in this situation, even as uncomfortable as it probably should be, Niall just can just play it easy and make everyone around him feel better for his own goodness. The ache in Zayn's gut loosens, and when he takes the joint back from Harry and their fingers brush, it stings a little less.

"Thanks, Nialler," Harry says, resting his cheek on Niall's shoulder.

"I'm gonna smoke this whole thing if you don't stop me," Zayn says.

Niall and Harry both laugh together, almost in harmony, and Niall takes the blunt off of Zayn.

"You're a really good guy, Zayn. I mean that." Harry bows his head slightly then, like he's tipping a hat he's not wearing. "You really are."

"You too, dude," Zayn says, getting up, wavering a little on the spot. He can never tell how truly fucked up he is until he stands up. He's very fucked up. "Friends, Harry?"

"Friends," Harry says, taking Zayn's offered hand and shaking it. Warm hands, bigger than Zayn's, a memory of the last time they touched, lingering on the back of Zayn's neck when they hugged goodbye.

"You going already?" Niall asks.

Zayn nods. He feels a bit better but he's still too near to Harry, too stoned, too close to saying something wounded and needy. A clean break, he hears Louis saying in his head, clear the air. "Yeah, sorry, I told Louis I'd help out inside."

"All right," Harry says slowly, a hopeful little stoned smile. "Thanks for – saying hi. I missed you, Zany."

The nickname. Zayn almost folds right then, but he manages a smile in return. "I'll see you around."

When Zayn stumbles back into the house, he's incredibly glad Louis forced him to plan the party because suddenly there's nothing Zayn wants more than a dozen shots of Jager and a warm body, to get fucked up with a stranger and burn the night like a bridge behind him. After wandering through the crowds he finally finds Louis in the kitchen, lying on the counter with his shirt pulled up over his head while a pledge pours vodka into his bellybutton, girls lining up to take a shot.

"Hey, Louis," Zayn shouts over the music.

Louis turns his head to look at Zayn, and after a moment of looking Zayn over (no doubt his eyes are blood-shot from the weed, and his grin is wolfish and hungry, the bomb finally armed), he grins hugely and shouts: "You ready to get fucked up?"

"Yeah, man," Zayn says.

"Fucking sick," Louis shouts as he points at the liquor in his belly button. "Zayn gets first go. Come 'ere, man."

*

The world is just beginning to swim, all the lights glowing, pulsing like stars almost, and Zayn is four shots deep into that feeling of immortality. He doesn't even stumble as he walks out onto the porch, a certain half-drunk swagger in his step as he knocks one cigarette out of the package and tucks it between his lips, putting another behind his ear. He has no idea how to feel anymore, he's too hot, too turned on by an ex-boyfriend too sweet to hate, both too drunk and not drunk enough, wanting the night to go on forever and wanting to just curl up in his bed and smoke cigarettes until he falls asleep. It's only when he gets to the railing and pulls his lighter out of his back pocket does he realize he's not alone out here.

"Can you tell I'm drunk?" he asks the stranger without looking, flaring up the cigarette and taking a deep breath of it, blowing it out.

"Oh, uh," the guy says, a shock in his voice like he wasn't expecting to speak. "No?"

"Damn right," Zayn says, taking another puff. "You want one?" he asks, gesturing to the cigarette.

"Oh, no, thanks."

It's only then that Zayn turns to look at this kid, this kid with a voice that reminds Zayn of Mormon missionaries and purity rings. Cocking his hip and standing tall, Zayn gives him the once over. He's young, must be a frosh, and he's wearing an incredibly loud blue and yellow plaid shirt that he's got tucked into his neatly belted khaki pants. A mess of curly hair, lit up from above like a halo, a nest of spun gold. He's got a boyish half-smile like he's not sure if he should be smiling, and an absolutely suckable lower lip, red like he's been eating a popsicle. Under the shadow of those curls Zayn can just see his wide eyes, a little stunned, like he's frozen under Zayn's glance. A tight little body too, tanned skin like coffee with a lot of milk, covered up with a shirt buttoned to the very top (cuffs too), and long pants. He's the perfect height too, just a couple of inches shorter than Zayn, enough that Zayn can tip his chin up to grab a kiss. He's definitely pretty enough, the kind of pretty you know is going to grow up handsome, the kind of pretty Zayn wants to ruin a little bit. That old saying about God and doors and windows springs suddenly to mind, a boy definitely good looking enough to satisfy Zayn right now. Serendipity, really.

"Yeah," Zayn says, raising an eyebrow. "I bet you don't smoke."

"Sorry?" the dude asks.

"No offense, but you don't seem like the type," Zayn says, giving a one-shouldered shrug. The kid seems so flustered by Zayn, totally taken aback, a sudden panicky look in his eye like he's getting overwhelmed by something.

"I mean, okay, I'll – I'll take one," he says, his voice almost betraying a wobble like he's trying his best to keep his cool, a kid trying to get into a club with a fake ID.

"Do you smoke?" Zayn asks.

"Not – really."

"Then you don't need one, man," Zayn says, laughing. "It's not a test."

The kid's cheeks burn when Zayn laughs, and he almost smiles, a puzzled little look like he's not sure why Zayn is laughing but he knows he likes it. It's incredibly endearing, and Zayn might be drunk but he knows when someone is into him, and the way this boy keeps looking at him – amazed, overwhelmed, nervously smiling when he thinks he's done something right – is exactly the kind of thing Zayn needs right now. He's got the vodka in his blood, sparkling smoke in his head, and the last thing he needs to finally clear Harry out his brain tonight is a good screw with a cute boy. It's all coming up fucking roses.

"I've never even tried before," the boy says, shyly, like he's revealing a shameful secret.

"Ah, you've got four years of college to give it a try, no need to start now," Zayn says, taking a conspicuous drag from his cigarette. He's got a catch on the line, and it's time to reel it in. Judging by how completely blown out this kid is already, his smile eager to please, all self-conscious about how he stands in proximity to Zayn, it probably won't take much. "Is this fucking Rumplestiltskin or something? Do I have to guess your name?"

"Liam," he says, taking a very formal step towards Zayn and offering his hand.

Zayn laughs and takes it, shaking Liam's hand with a tight grip, using it to pull him in a bit closer. Zayn smirks around his cigarette, smoke slipping from between his lips. "Zayn. You a frosh?"

"Uh," Liam pauses, still obviously flustered standing this close to Zayn. "Yeah. Uh. Yeah."

"Did you rush?" Zayn asks.

Liam's eyes dart back and forth, like he's looking over Zayn's shoulders for a hint, the right thing to say. "Yeah?"

"Fuck off," Zayn says with a laugh. "You don't even know what I'm talking about, do you?"

Liam shakes his head, his cheeks blazing red again. "I'm just from around here. My friend brought me here."

"Townie?"

"Yeah," Liam breathes out like he's relieved he has the right answer for once.

"Community college?"

"Uh, yeah," Liam says again quickly.

"That's cool," Zayn says. "Don't let people talk shit about that to you, eh?" He watches as Liam glows at that, the look in his eyes softening, his shy little smile. Zayn takes the chance, curls a finger up under Liam's chin and gently lifts until they're looking at each other eye to eye. "I can kick the shit out of anyone that does, if you want," Zayn says, watching as Liam's face blooms into a grin, achingly sweet, dimples in his cheeks and that swell of a bottom lip, candy-pink.

Liam swallows hard and he never breaks the gaze, his eyes wide and lost as he looks up at Zayn. "You smell really good," Liam manages to say in a rush. "Oh, God, I'm – oh, that's – that's a weird thing to say isn't it –"

"It's Gucci," Zayn says, taking his half-smoked cigarette and stamping it under foot. When Zayn quickly licks his lips Liam looks amazed, shocked almost like he can't believe where he is or what's going on. Zayn loves the nerves in this kid, the fragility of him, Liam all anxious and young like he's only now realizing how close they are together, feeling the press of Zayn's knee like a spark of heat. Zayn doesn't push in, he lets Liam do the rest of the work now, letting him find a place that's comfortable. Zayn might be aching to ruin this kid's bright and clean shine, he might be buzzing on too much liquor, but there's a sweetness to Liam he kind of wants to watch unfold.

"Really?" Liam says, obviously happy that Zayn isn't laughing at his stumbles, growing a bit more confident with each second that he's close. "It smells really nice." Liam's eyes dart away, and then back, bright and shining when he looks up at Zayn. "I like it."

Zayn raises his eyebrows, almost laughs. It's not the worst flirting Zayn has ever seen, it's just so innocent, so stupid and young and the kind of things Zayn remembers going through when he was a freshman, stumbling his way into sex on accidental charm alone. It's not even just about hooking up with someone anymore, Zayn is actually kind of hooked on the way Liam is, so caught up in that earnestness and the big beating heart on his sleeve. Liam is missing all the posturing and bullshit that most guys put up when they're trying to seem too cool to care, he just seems to love out loud. It's the easiest pick-up Zayn has ever done, one sly smile enough to make Liam blush and avert his eyes coyly. "You wanna make this interesting?" Zayn murmurs, whisper-close to Liam.

"Oh," Liam says, chewing on his bottom lip. "Is that, uh – do you mean, like – you and me?"

"Yeah," Zayn says casually, off-hand, liking how aloof he can seem because Liam is eating it all up, grinning every time Zayn so much as looks at him. He doesn't even need to try. "Only if you want to, man."

The shock on Liam's face breaks quickly into a grin, a short and giddy little nod, a hiccup in his throat like he can't quite believe it. "Okay. Uh. Yeah. Wow."

The moment lasts for just a second, Zayn so close to Liam he could kiss him, could taste what that lower lip promises. He feels all of Liam's nervous energy like glowing heat from his body, and Zayn watches as Liam licks his lips quickly, and – the front door slams open and a handful of very drunk jocks from the neighboring frat stumble out into their private night. Liam jumps away from Zayn like he's been caught doing something he shouldn't, his cheeks ruddy and his chest rising and falling incredibly quickly, hands twitching anxiously like he doesn't know what to do with them. Zayn would laugh and bring him back close but a few of the guys spot them and yell, raising hands to high five, dragging Zayn in for a bodily hug and telling him how great the party is. Zayn takes all the required high fives, thanks them, tells them about the jell-o shots still setting in the fridge and that they should help themselves. Liam watches the whole time, and out of the corner of his eye he can see as Liam starts to piece together that Zayn is kind of important, or at least well-known, that look of awe growing by the second.

"Let's get out of here," Zayn says quietly, leaning over the whisper in Liam's ear while the drunk dudes fumble around their pockets for their cigarettes and lighter.

"Where?" Liam whispers, almost silent under the heavy beat of the music and the roaring laughter of the other dudes.

"Follow me."

*

Liam is still breathing heavily when Zayn nudges him into the laundry room, closing the door behind him. The noise of the party is dulled finally, just the thump of a bass beat almost as loud as Liam's heart must be going. It smells like dude in here, dirty clothes and stale cologne and lemony detergent, but it's the only place Zayn can think of going right now, too buzzed to think of anywhere else. Liam backs up until he's pressed against one of the tumble dryers, smiling up at Zayn as he steps closer into Liam's space.

"So," Zayn says, hands in his back pockets, not touching Liam until Liam initiates, wanting to see how
much he wants it. "Here we are."

"Can you lock the door?" Liam asks, his smile almost playful now even as his whole body clenches, the nerves in him unbelievable. It's not the first time Zayn wonders if the kid is a virgin, but then again Liam is so game for it, so obviously happy under Zayn's attention that he's having a hard time figuring him out. Zayn has never seen anyone so shy but so fucking turned on at the same time, yet Liam somehow walks that line, his shaking hands hovering like he wants to undo Zayn's belt but still too nervous to make the move.

"Not really," Zayn says. Instead he takes a folding metal chair and shoves it under the doorknob, giving it a good shake to make sure it sticks. "Good enough?"

"Yeah," Liam says, breathing like he just ran a marathon. "Zayn?"

"Yeah?"

"Can I kiss you?" Liam asks, all of him sincere.

Zayn laughs. He can't help himself, half-drunk and just marvelling at Liam. It's the worst hook-up of his life, all stops and starts without any subtlety or sarcasm, no chase to Liam at all, and Zayn loves it so much. He loves knowing how much Liam likes him, he loves knowing how easy it is to make Liam happy. There's no game here, it's just fun and stupid and it makes Zayn smile despite himself. It's like being in high school again, where a Bacardi breezer is enough to make you feel like you're in love.

Liam looks at Zayn curiously, like he's not sure what was so funny, troubling his lower lip between his teeth. "C-can I?"

"Who are you?"

"I'm Liam," he says uncertainly, like Zayn might have forgotten his name.

"Take your shirt off, Liam," Zayn says, still laughing a little, pressing in a bit closer to him.

"Oh, uh, yeah, I should, shouldn't I?" Liam nods and goes to the buttons of his plaid shirt, trembling fingers trying to pry them apart. He fumbles with them so Zayn covers Liam's hands with his own, helping him undo each other with steady fingers. Under Liam's plaid shirt is a crisp white undershirt, because of course Liam is the kind of person who wears undershirts. Liam pulls it off and his curly hair bounces as he tugs it loose. Liam shakes his hair with a jerk of his head, fingers combing it away from his face, a nervous smile in the shadow of his mop of hair like he's waiting for Zayn's opinion.

"Yeah, you'll do nicely," Zayn says, getting up close to Liam, sliding his hands around his hips. Liam's got a slight build but there's a sturdiness there and definition along his pale stomach, solid like a bantamweight boxer. His skin is warm where Zayn touches him, around the dimpled small of his back, tugging him closer. "You can kiss me if you want, Liam."

Liam breaks out into a full grin then as he settles his hands on the hem of Zayn's red Henley, fingers gripping at his belt. When he leans up and presses his mouth to Zayn's all questions of if he's a virgin leave because Liam is fucking hungry for it. Zayn expected some kind of sweet peck on the lips, he thought he'd have to teach Liam a thing or two about closeted hook-ups at a party, but Liam is all over him. He kisses Zayn open-mouthed, quick tongue pressing against Zayn's lips, parting them, a flash of teeth. Liam slides his hands up Zayn's sides and shoulders until he's holding onto Zayn's neck, clinging to him and drawing him down for more.

Surprised at first, Zayn makes a noise in his throat and he can feel Liam smile against his mouth, obviously proud of that. Liam smells good, he smells of a crisp, clean cologne that Zayn didn't pick up at first, and he tastes sweet like coca cola. All the patronising loftiness Zayn felt before just leaves him because he loses himself to Liam, to the wet of his mouth and the quick work of his tongue and the sharpness of his teeth as they bite down on Zayn's lip and tug a little.

"Fuck," Zayn manages to say, the both of them pulling away for just a second, noses brushing and their foreheads pressed together.

"I really like this," Liam whispers and it's too sincere for Zayn to even laugh at. Zayn just claims Liam's mouth again, feeling the fullness of his bottom lip. Zayn is constantly amazed at how Liam can be all of these things at once, blushing and stammering and at the same time totally into this, eager and shirtless and pressing his hips up against Zayn's, almost grinding against him.

Zayn gets his hands under Liam's ass and hoists him up onto the dryer. Liam gives a boyish little moan, a flash of shock that he covers with a grin as he wraps his arms around Zayn again, kissing into him roughly. This side of Liam is completely unexpected and it makes Zayn so fucking hot, being wanted by someone like this. Liam keeps smiling between kisses and, fuck, yes, this is exactly what Zayn needs right now.

Zayn gets a hand in Liam's hair, soft and curly and the kind he really wants to grab, tugging him, easing him down. Zayn pulls at it a bit, drawing Liam's head back so Zayn can kiss his throat, finding the rapid beat at his pulsepoint and sucking on his skin, marking his place in dull reds and purples. Liam makes this noise, husky and needy, a moan of want that makes Zayn's head swim. Zayn nips at Liam's Adam's apple next and gets the same noise, a noise that echoes down through Zayn from top to bottom, a shiver as he realizes just how fucking badly Liam wants this.

Liam's hands grab at Zayn's shirt, tugging it up. Zayn moves apart just long enough for Liam to hop down off the dryer, his fists bunched up in the cotton of Zayn's shirt and pulling it off. Zayn grins as they both tangle with it, caught around Zayn's neck. When Liam finally frees Zayn from the Henley he goes right for back for his lips again, meeting his mouth like every fucking second they spend not kissing is wasted.

Zayn isn't even really thinking about anything other than Liam when he gets a hand in his hair again, tugging him down a little. He doesn't expect anything, he just does it in the heat of the moment, never really imagining anything other than making out with Liam until their lips are sore and soft, but Liam takes the cue and sinks immediately to his knees, no convincing needed.

"Holy fuck," Zayn says, looking down at him. "Shit, Liam."

"Can you – can you keep your – hands in my hair, it feels – it feels really good," Liam says. His mouth is red and raw from the rough of Zayn's stubble, that beautiful lower lip full and pink.

"You sure?" Zayn asks.

Liam gives a quick and sweet smile as an answer and his hands go to Zayn's belt, unbuckling it with the same trembling fingers that undid his shirt. Zayn has hooked up with a lot of guys before but none of them has been so openly eager. Liam is so obviously into this that Zayn is already hard just watching him, getting off on Liam's hunger alone. Doing as he was asked, Zayn puts a hand on Liam's hair and takes a gentle fistful of it, guiding him even though it seems like Liam doesn't need much help with that. Liam unzips Zayn's fly and pulls his jeans open to a billow of red silk boxers.

Watching Liam work is almost enough to get Zayn off on its own. Liam's eyelashes are low, a boyish fan of them dark against his pale skin, freckles standing out like ink splattered from a paintbrush. He nuzzles against Zayn's cock, mouthing against it through Zayn's boxers, and the feel of that pressure against the head of his dick is incredible. Liam does that again, dragging his mouth along the length of Zayn's clothed cock, spit making the silk damp, his lips catching obscenely against the cloth.

"Fuck," Zayn groans, hand going tighter in Liam's curls. Liam obviously takes that as a sign of encouragement, and he lifts the elastic of his boxers over Zayn's cock. Without so much of a pause he goes down on Zayn right away, pink mouth wrapping around Zayn's cock as he sucks him off. Zayn almost stumbles, his thighs going suddenly weak, but he keeps a hold on Liam and just groans out, blind to everything but the boy bobbing up and down on his dick, his mess of curls and his dark lashes and that gorgeous mouth on his cock.

Liam moans a little while he blows Zayn and for the third, fifth, tenth time Zayn realizes how much Liam is getting off on this. Liam is so eager, so obedient under Zayn's hand, palming his own obviously hard cock through his pants as he flicks his tongue around the head of Zayn's cock. Liam is electrically responsive, reacting instantly to the noises Zayn makes, finding the things that get Zayn to swear out loud and doing them over and over again. The wet sound Liam's mouth makes as he pulls off of Zayn's cock is filthy, his lips spit-slick, and he keeps giving these low and throaty moans as he goes down on Zayn again.

"Fuck, Liam," Zayn says. "I'm so – fuck, so close."

Zayn expects Liam to pull off, to jerk Zayn until he comes, but knowing that Zayn's about to come just seems to make Liam work harder. His rhythm gets faster, working Zayn to that razor's edge, each time he goes down on Zayn getting deeper and fuller. Zayn wants to watch Liam do it but he can't, he has to squeeze his eyes shut as he feels the flood of heat in the pit of his stomach glow hotter until he can't take it. And Liam keeps going, like he wants Zayn to come so bad, he wants to be the one to do it.

Stars splash against the backs of Zayn's eyelids, his thighs trembling, and he comes fucking hard. Liam pulls off at the last second and Zayn shoots over Liam's bare chest, against his throat, each pulse taking more and more out of him, making Zayn's head reel. The afterglow is like fucking floating, totally out of his head with liquor and Liam, and Zayn just stands there wavering on the spot with his eyes closed, feeling the fire run through him.

When he opens his eyes, Liam is still on his knees, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Holy fuck," Zayn says, his voice rough and almost broken. "That was amazing?"

"Yeah?" Liam asks, his cheeks flooding red.

"Jesus," Zayn says, finally letting go of Liam's hair. He doesn't get it, doesn't get any of it, how this kid is somehow both shy and fucking filthy, how that soft smile was just around Zayn's cock, how – shirtless and roughed up, mouth all red and wet, hair messed up from being pulled and pupils dilated black and wild – Liam manages to look genuinely sweet, stuttering and grinning when Zayn smiles down at him. "Who the fuck are you?" Zayn says again.

"I'm Liam," he says, his smile deepening.

"C'mere," Zayn says, grabbing his hand and helping him back up to standing. He kisses Liam, a slow and lingering kiss this time, kisses him until Liam relaxes against him, easing up for the first time since they met like he's a bit more confident in knowing how Zayn feels about him. "Wanna go get drunk, dude?"

Liam grins, each time like he's still amazed that he's here, amazed that Zayn is giving him the time of day. "I, uh. I don't drink actually."

"Oh, man," Zayn says, nipping at Liam's mouth, hand strong around his naked back, pulling him in tighter. "I think we can work something out."

"You – you want me to stay?" Liam asks, sounding genuinely surprised.

"Come on, we'll get you a beer to start," Zayn says. It goes against Zayn's better judgment but there's just a quality about Liam that makes him want to do this again, to find out things about him. There's something about Liam that sticks in Zayn's mind like a good song, and he wants to unfold all of Liam's stiff edges like origami, trying to figure him out.

"Okay," Liam says, swallowing hard and nodding. Nervously, he reaches out for Zayn's hand, fingers brushing against his palm. Zayn gives one breathy chuckle. Christ, he must be drunk, he must be fucked up on whatever it is that Liam does that's so damn endearing that it makes his heart hurt, because he laces his fingers with Liam and kisses him again, a kiss as stupidly fucking sweet as he thinks Liam probably deserves. "That's – yeah, that sound really. Yeah." Liam keeps blushing, a redness that never leaves him, flooding down from his cheeks to the top of his chest. "I'd like that. We should probably – get back to the. To the party, right?"

"Shirts," Zayn says, sliding a hand down the front of Liam's bare chest, fingers against the wet of his own come. "But you better clean up first. Grab a towel or something."

Liam laughs, and bites down on his lower lip. "Oh, wow, right. Right. Shirts first."

"By the way, you were really good, man," Zayn says, hand against Liam's throat, rubbing his thumb against the soft curls at the back of his neck. Yeah, there are rules about these kinds of things, vague policies Zayn has about hook-ups and one night stands that he's had since freshman year but for some reason he really can't help breaking a few of them. Zayn just really likes seeing Liam grin like that, and it might be the liquor going to his head but he likes knowing that he can make that happen with just a word. Really, he's fucked up, and he's happy in the afterglow at least for a few minutes, and he's got a boy who looks at him like that, so what if he breaks a few cardinal rules?

"I was?" Liam asks, his eyes widening, his blush burning hotter. He cleans himself off with a towel Zayn hands him, tossing it back into a pile of dirty laundry in the corner of the room.

"Really good," Zayn says, bending down and picking Liam's shirt from off the ground, handing it back to him. Ah, fuck it, he's drunk, what's one more rule to break. "How about you crash here tonight?"

Liam blinks quickly, a flutter of dark lashes as he flicks his curly hair away from his face again. "I'd - I'd really like that." He takes the shirt from Zayn carefully, like it's a gift. "Kinda smells like you now," he says, looking up at Zayn.

"So does my bed," Zayn says, smirking in that way that he knows will make Liam trip over his own words.

"Oh. Oh."

"Let's get you that beer," Zayn says, and, fuck, does he every love the crinkles by Liam's eyes when he gives that happy little laugh.

*

Fuck. Fuck the blinding white light, and fuck mornings, and fuck hangovers, and fuck waking up. Zayn struggles against the daylight, burying his face down into his pillows, the feeling of his closed eyelids like sandpaper and his mouth almost painfully dry. And fuck Louis too, for all of his terrible ideas about joining the party and moving on, pouring the next shot and the next one too.

Moving makes Zayn feel like he's scraping his brain across a gravel road. The only thing he can think about is the pulsing hammer beat of his hangover and a throat raw from too many cigarettes, everything about last night pushed far away. He thinks about sleeping until the afternoon, and he thinks about wanting a glass of water so bad but not wanting to get up, he thinks about nothing until he twists in his sheets and feels a warm body beside him.

Zayn winks open an eye and sees a boy lying beside him, still fast asleep. Liam, right, of course. Zayn puts the pieces back together slowly: Niall and Harry, the blur of meeting Liam, the cocky stupid things Zayn said and thought and did with Liam (too fucked up, too high on the hurt), the drag of his lower lip as they kissed, Liam's smile when Zayn laughed at his jokes, a quick and dirty blowjob, throwing an arm around Liam's shoulder as he paraded him around the party, another four shots, stumbling up the stairs but holding Liam's hand the whole way there. Zayn closes his eyes again, and he wants to groan but it hurts too much.

The hangover is bad enough that Zayn can't fall back asleep, so he buries himself deeper in his blankets and watches Liam, wondering just how fucking drunk he had to be to let Liam stay the night in his bed. Liam's sleeping on his stomach with his head turned away from Zayn, and his curls have gotten messier in the night, wild and springy like a sleep-mussed halo. He's naked and his sheet is draped just below his hips, skin paler there than the rest of him, and Zayn can imagine running a hand down from the small of his back over the soft curve of his ass.

Zayn doesn't remember a hell of a lot from last night, definitely not what they talked about, but despite all of that he still finds this stubbornly soft spot in his heart for Liam, a burn in his chest he can't explain. Even though it was just meant to be a sloppy, stupid hook-up Zayn is strangely relieved to still see Liam right now. It's one of the only things from last night that stays with Zayn; wanting Liam, an automatic response, a smile Zayn can't control when he looks at him. A patch of dark hair in Liam's armpits, pale skin marked with freckles like spilled pepper, the slats of his ribs like a ladder. Zayn isn't even sure what it is about Liam that he likes but he still feels completely drawn to him, even now when Zayn would rather be buried at sea if it meant getting rid of this headache.

Finally, craving a cigarette and an aspirin, Zayn crawls out of bed carefully. He gets dressed quickly in a pair of loose boxer shorts he finds on the ground and leaves Liam to wake up alone. He knows it's a shitty thing to do, but Zayn is too messed up to care.

The living room is filled with sleeping people, all of them in various states of undress, the only noise coming from the television playing a DVD menu screen on a loop. A boy Zayn doesn't recognize is awake and gathering up his jeans and shirt in a pile as he tip-toes out of a tangled mess of bodies. He spots Zayn at the top of the stairs and they watch each other warily for a second, a quick conspiratorial nod – we didn't see each other, this didn't happen, these aren't the droids you're looking for – as they go their separate ways. The floor is sticky with spilled liquor and naked dudes snoring next to buckets rank with puke. There are a couple more holes in the walls than Zayn remembers, the screen from the front door is leaning up against the fridge, and a carton of ice cream has melted into a perfectly round ivory pool in the middle of the bathroom floor. It's not unusual to wake up to this, but Zayn really does hate Saturday mornings.

Zayn picks his way past the bodies and into the kitchen. His coffee-maker – hidden at the back of the pantry – is untouched, and he plugs it in and starts to brew himself a cup of black. His hangover gives Zayn an immunity – he's too fucked to care that there's broken glass in the sink, too fucked to care that he's standing almost naked in the kitchen, too fucked to care that Liam's still asleep upstairs, too fucked to care about anything but the thudding in his head like the footsteps of a dinosaur.

The smell of the coffee fills the house by the time Zayn has brewed himself a full pot. He pours out two cups of coffee, lights a cigarette, and waits.

"No smoking inside," Louis says as he stumbles into the kitchen dressed in the same clothes he was wearing last night. It's the one thing Louis can't resist, the one thing that will pull him out of the deepest reaches of his hangover: a cup of Zayn's strong-as-fuck sludge in a mug. Louis is usually a tea drinker, but never in the face of a hangover. "You know the, uh, the – fuck, the rules. There are rules, I think."

Zayn slides the mug over to Louis. "The whole house smells like puke anyway, like."

"Yeah, well," Louis says, taking the mug gratefully and taking a long pull. Out of his pocket he produces two extra strength aspirin, and he hands one over to Zayn. They both swallow them in unison. "Good night, man?"

Zayn groans, crossing one leg over the other as he cocks his hip and leans against the edge of the kitchen counter. "Why do I listen to you." It's not a question.

Louis laughs, and he reaches a hand out, fingers wriggling. Zayn hands him the cigarette and doesn't call Louis a hypocrite when he takes a couple of drags and hands it back. "You got some, didn't you?" Louis asks.

"Shit," Zayn says. "Did I tell you last night?"

"No, but you dragged him around here after. You wouldn't let go of him, you had your arm around him for hours, man." Louis squints, taking another long drink from his mug. "You know, I honestly can't remember anything about him. William something? No, Liam, was it?"

"Yeah. You were wasted," Zayn says, breathing out a sigh. Zayn can easily straight up lie to anyone except for Louis, so he's glad he doesn't need to explain himself now.

"So were you," Louis says, but the edge of his smirk is kind.

"Did Harry see him?" Zayn can't help but ask.

Louis snickers against the rim of his mug. "Of course you wanna know that." Louis thinks for a second, raising his eyebrows. "Maybe. Probably not. I think he left the party early."

"Of course," Zayn mumbles.

"You sorted that out, right?" Louis asks.

Zayn nods. "It's cool. I got drunk, got a blowjob, it's water under the bridge. Niall helped. He loves Harry, he understood."

"I honestly think Niall could get away with murder," Louis says thoughtfully. "He'd give you those puppy dog eyes and you'd be like, aw, hell man, let me help you dig that grave."

Zayn laughs, a little too loud because it makes his head ache, and Louis winces too. They sip their coffee in silence then, passing the cigarette back and forth exactly the way they used to do before class in the morning when they were freshmen, waiting for an eight o'clock class, a timeslot they both swore they'd never sign up for again.

"Zayn?" It's Liam's voice, tentative, coming from somewhere upstairs.

Zayn sucks in his bottom lip, tries to avoid looking at Louis but he can see his eyebrows raise in question before he starts laughing again.

"He's still here?" Louis asks. "Holy shit, dude. Don't you have rules or something?"

"Shut up," Zayn says, shoving Louis roughly in the arm. "I was really drunk. Be nice to him."

"Be nice to him?" Louis says, almost gasping.

Zayn can hear Liam walk down the stairs, the careful shuffling footsteps of socked feet. When he pokes his head into the kitchen he's fully dressed, just like he was last night but with a few more wrinkles in his clothes. Liam gives Zayn an uncertain smile, offering it to Louis too. "I'm, uh. I think maybe I should. I'm gonna – I'm going to go now." He fidgets a little, even worse now that he's being watched by both of them. All of the confidence Zayn remembers building in Liam last night is gone, like he's just that kid standing on the porch again, stumbling over his words. "Nice, uh, it was nice. Meeting you."

It's so easy. Zayn could just give him a little wave and mumble a goodbye and it would be over just like that. Another messy hook-up with a guy he never has to see again, a night gratefully spent getting out of his own head and then sweeping away all the dirt that came with it under the rug, pretending like it never happened. He wouldn't have to remember it after today, it would just be another vodka memory, blurred and kind of happy and kind of sad. Zayn can feel the wild thunderstorm crackle of the hangover in his head, and he can feel Louis' bemused mocking smile, and he can feel the words see you later, man on his lips. Liam isn't smiling anymore, but there's still a soft angle to his lips, and his curly hair is still wild and he still buttons his shirt to the top of his throat and Zayn still feels drawn to him like a meteor crashing down to earth. Zayn raises his hand with a sigh and takes a deep breath. "Want to stay for some coffee, dude?"

"Oh," Liam says, his whole face changing: rounded pink lips, raised brows, wide-eyed. And then a little smile, just a sliver of one. "I don't –"

" – drink coffee," Zayn finishes for him, sighing.

"No," Liam says, blushing and smiling, that one smile Zayn wanted to see again, the one where he's all pleased and eager under Zayn's attention. "Sorry." He says it like he's made an awful mistake.

"We've got some beer left," Louis says, and Liam might not be able to detect it but Zayn can hear the sarcasm thick in his words.

"Oh, no, just water," Liam says. "I – I am kind of hungry, though."

"I don't want to drive to McDonalds," Louis moans, his shoulders slumping.

"I can cook," Liam says, trying to make it sound off-hand even though he blushes furiously when Zayn smiles at him.

"You can cook?" Louis says. "Shit, man, you can stay."

"Well, I can cook eggs," Liam says.

"Do we have eggs?" Louis asks, turning to look at Zayn, cocking his head to the side like he's obviously loving this.

"Yes, we have eggs," Zayn says, shooting Louis a deadly glance. Ignoring Louis very deliberately, Zayn fumbles around in the shelves and finds a frying pan missing its handle, a pat of butter in the freezer, and four eggs in a crumpled up carton in the fridge. "You don't have to cook," Zayn says as he digs out the ingredients, shrugging as Liam puts the pan on the stove. "We've got Cheerios or some shit."

"I don't mind," Liam says, his whole mood lifted with the same irritatingly sober glow of teetotallers taking care of drunk friends. Somehow Zayn likes it on Liam though, how happy he seems to be doing this for them like he's going out of his way just to make Zayn smile. "My mom was really big on teaching all of us to cook, thought we needed, you know, basic life skills. Since I was a kid she had me cook alongside her, I know lots of stuff. I'm not bad at cooking, I always liked it."

"Yeah, Zayn," Louis says, blinking slowly at Liam's outburst while pouring himself another mug of coffee. "He doesn't mind, man."

"That's cool," Zayn says. "My daadi always tried to teach me but it never caught."

"Who?" Liam asks, blinking quickly.

Zayn smirks, headache throbbing when he does. "My grandmother, sorry."

"Oh, cool," Liam says. "What language is that?"

"Urdu, my dad's Pakistani," Zayn says.

"Well, look at you two," Louis says slowly.

There's something about the naivety of Liam, how easily he could be manipulated that makes Zayn feel almost protective, wanting to punch Louis every time he says something sarcastic to Liam. Maybe some of that is the guilt, Zayn still kind of regretting how easily he led Liam on last night, moving too fast just to get what he wanted. It was a rebound and Zayn isn't ashamed of wanting it but Liam just seems like someone who deserves more than that. More than a drunk frat dude telling him what he wanted to hear just to get off.

That feeling alone is alienating to Zayn because usually the best part of hooking up with someone is going over it in awful detail with Louis the next day. It's all part of that same warmth Zayn half-remembers from last night when he made Liam's lips red with his stubble, and even though he doesn't remember a lot of what happened it still feels like they somehow laid claim to each other, marking these places as their own. That's the thing that Zayn carries with him, how in the stumbling, broken evening Zayn ended up getting a bruise on his heart, purple-black and stinging whenever he thinks too closely about how much Liam seems to genuinely like him. It's more than just a vanity thing, it gets Zayn right down deep in the guts, this aching feeling of being liked so much and finding some of his self-worth buried in Liam's smile. And, really, that feeling of wanting to walk up behind Liam while he's at the stove to kiss his neck and thank him for cooking is way, way more irritating than anything Louis could ever come up with.

"So did you rush here?" Louis asks as the butter in Liam's pan begins to sizzle.

"No, not really," Liam says.

"So, you're just a fresher, then?" Louis pushes, still with that edge that bothers Zayn for some reason.

"No, not here," Liam says, whisking the eggs with a fork, his answers clipped. Zayn honestly can't remember quite what Liam said he did the other night, a hazy memory of doing something with music. Louis seems to catch on to something Liam says though, and he won't let go.

"Oh?" Louis asks.

"He's a townie," Zayn says. "You live around here, right?"

"Yeah," Liam says.

"I see," Louis says mildly.

"I go to the community college," Liam says, pushing the eggs around in the pan with a spatula.

"Oh, right," Louis says, his tone as arch as his eyebrow. He looks to Zayn like he's waiting to be filled in. "Of course. Sure."

Zayn narrows his eyes and stares Louis down until he stops talking, not sure why he's grilling Liam this much. Zayn turns his attention back to Liam, trying not to smile as he watches him stir the eggs around the pan with his tongue bitten between his teeth. Louis must have caught the change in Zayn's frown – a wince, a twitch of his lips as he works Liam's name around in his mouth like hard candy – because Louis smiles then, not sarcastic but a knowing smile, the kind only people who really understand you can give.

Liam's phone gets a text as he spoons the cooked scrambled eggs onto two plates. He slides them over to Louis and Zayn – the both of them thanking him, Louis sounding sincere enough that Zayn isn't forced to slap him – as he checks his messages. They're two forkfuls in when Zayn catches Liam's frown.

"Bad news?" Zayn asks.

Liam shakes his head. "No, but my friend needs me to pick him up. I have to go."

"Your friend?" Louis says, another leading question.

Liam shrugs a little stiffly. "I came here with my friend Andy. He – he went home with a girl. I need to go get him." Liam's eyes flicker up to Zayn, almost like he's aching for Zayn to believe him. No, it's more than that, it's like he wants Zayn to somehow save him, to keep him here.

"Thanks for the eggs," Zayn says, lifting his fork in salute.

"Right. Right, I – no problem, any time," Liam says, dropping his phone into his pocket and rubbing his palms on the thighs of his khaki pants.

"Mm-hm," Zayn says around a mouthful of egg.

"All right," Liam says, meekly now. Even despite the one night stand and the awkward morning Liam still has this buoyant little smile when he meets Zayn's eyes, something that fights against the idea that this might be the last they see of each other. "I'll see you around, I guess?" Nothing has sounded more hopeful.

Feeling like he's lost his damn mind, Zayn snatches a dry erase marker from the white board on the fridge, takes a hold of Liam's wrist and pushes his sleeve up his forearm. "This is my number," Zayn says, writing it large on Liam's skin before he has a chance to second-guess himself. "If you're bored, give me a shout, okay?"

Liam stares down at the numbers for a few seconds before it sinks in, a bright sudden smile as he nods. "Yeah, cool. Really cool."

"You're cute, man," Zayn says. He knows Louis is going to ruin him for that, but he can't help saying it just so he can see Liam react.

"Really?" Liam seems to realize too late that it's an incredibly stupid thing to say. "I mean, thanks. I – you are too," he adds awkwardly.

Liam is the right height, just the perfect height for Zayn, so he curls a finger and places it under Liam's chin and tips his head up an inch. Zayn kisses Liam, slow and smooth and making sure it's memorable, a lingering press that Liam comes away from blushing like mad. "See ya, dude," Zayn says, calm and casual even though his stomach is twisting, loving how Liam's mouth feels when he smiles against Zayn's lips midway through a kiss.

"Yeah," Liam breathes. Zayn feels Liam waver for a moment, almost as if he wants to push up for another kiss, his hands still lingering on the bare skin of Zayn's hips, fingertips gentle like he's trying to read Zayn's goosebumps like braille. "Bye, Zayn." Liam doesn't even seem to notice that Louis is still in the room as he walks to the front door, Zayn watching as he pulls on his shoes quickly and closes the door behind him.

The house is silent except for the snoring of a couple of dozen blacked out co-eds, the constant loop of the DVD menu, the odd gurgle of the coffee machine. Zayn takes out another cigarette and lights it, taking a calm drag from it.

"Zayn?" Louis says.

"Yeah, man?"

"There's no community college around here. Not for miles."

Zayn breathes out a stream of smoke. "What?"

"I'm just saying," Louis says with a growing smile, "that dude does not go to college."

"Oh, shut up," Zayn says.

"Hey, it's your life, Zayn," Louis says, wolfing down the rest of his eggs. "But that one isn't who he says he is."

"You live to ruin my life, don't you?" Zayn asks, a smooth drag that he blows out of the corner of his mouth towards the ceiling.

"That's why you love me," Louis says with a laugh. Zayn wishes it wasn't true.

*

The next weekend, on a dreary Sunday afternoon, Zayn's phone rings. The display shows it's an unknown number but as Zayn thumbs the button and presses it to his ear he kind of has an idea about who it is.

"Vas happening?" Zayn says.

Liam's laughter rings tinny through the phone, and Zayn hates how his heart jumps immediately at that. "Hi. It's Liam."

"Who?" Zayn asks.

"Liam? From last week?" Liam says, his voice betraying sudden worry.

"I'm fucking with you, man," Zayn says. He surveys the backyard for a moment, watching as his very hungover pledges clean up the mess of the party, rakes in hand and filling garbage bags with broken glass and crumpled solo cups. Satisfied, Zayn bows out for a moment, stepping back into the relative quiet of the frat house. "What's up?"

"I was wondering if, uh. I'm not doing anything, and. Well."

"Yeah? Sounds fun," Zayn says. He knows it's probably a little cruel, but listening Liam stumble his way around what he wants to say is half of the kid's charm.

"Are you – doing anything?"

"Me? Nah, man, babysitting the pledges, that's all."

Liam clears his throat. "Could I see you, maybe?"

Zayn smiles against the phone, and he wonders when he stopped smirking at Liam. "If you want. Nothing special going on here."

"Okay, cool," Liam says, trying to sound relaxed even though Zayn swears he can hear Liam's heart thud over the phone. "I'll be there in an hour, is that okay?"

"Is this a booty call?"

Liam makes a quiet, strangled noise over the phone. "No, no. I. No." A pause. "No?"

"Whatever," Zayn says. "Please yourself, dude. I'm always up for it."

There's a longer pause from Liam this time. "Can I kiss you when I see you?"

It's something that Zayn would normally roll his eyes at, if it were anyone else he'd laugh at them right over the phone, but with Liam he just ends up smiling in a way that Louis would piss himself if he ever saw. "Hey, you could give it a shot."

"Okay. See you soon," Liam says in a rush.

"Yep," Zayn says, thumbing the end call button. He sneaks a glance around but he's still alone and no one can see him so he grins a little bit, tucking his phone into pocket, biting down on his bottom lip like he's trying to keep a noise buried in his chest. Relax, Zayn tells himself. You're fine. You got this. Nothing to it.

*

The September afternoon has an autumn edge to it, cool and crisp and smelling of turned earth and a coming rain, and Liam shows up at the frat house bundled up in a jacket with a scarf knotted around his throat. He bounces on his heels on the doorstep as Zayn greets him, a quick jerk of his head hello.

"I'm not bothering you, am I?" Liam asks, that nervousness in his voice he gets when he needs something desperately, that way Zayn remembers from the laundry room last time around.

"Yeah, I'm really busy, like," Zayn says, chuckling as he gestures around the empty house.

"I can – I can come back later?" Liam stutters to say.

"Oh, fuck off," Zayn says, rolling his eyes as he steps aside to let Liam in.

It isn't until Liam unwinds the scarf and throws his jacket over the banister that they get up close, Liam sidestepping towards Zayn and getting in under his shadow. Liam's eyes are wide and he sweeps the hair from his forehead before he stands on tip toe and kisses Zayn. It's not as hungry as Zayn remembers from the fog of Friday night, this kiss feels entirely different. Maybe it's more comfortable, or like Liam is more sure of himself. The flicker of Liam's tongue is quick and teasing, the press of his lips warm as he tilts his head and their noses brushing together. When the kiss breaks and they move from each other, Liam presses his face against Zayn's shoulder and winds a careful arm around his waist. He takes a deep breath against Zayn chest and it's amazing knowing something as simple as his smell can make Liam look that happy.

"Hi," Liam says.

"Hey," Zayn replies, pushing a loose curl behind Liam's ear. "You left your boxers here, dude."

"I know," Liam says, his cheeks flooding with a slash of red. "You were, uh. You were wearing them when I left, actually. I didn't know how to ask for them back. Louis was there and, uh."

"Oh," Zayn says, laughing. "Right, sorry."

Liam takes a step away from Zayn, but he keeps a hold on his hip. He seems to be bursting with something he wants to say but Liam worries it in his lips, rolling them out pink and wet. "Where is everyone?" Liam finally manages to ask.

"The brothers are out, rugby game against Sigma Pi," Zayn says, raising an eyebrow in question. "The pledges are cleaning up the garden, so here I am."

"Oh, okay," Liam says but Zayn is pretty sure he knows Liam well enough now to feel the anxiousness in him, the way he buzzes with it. "Can I – can we –" Liam really struggles with this one but Zayn knows exactly what he wants just from the nervous energy in him, the way he leans harder against Zayn's front.

"Can we what?" Zayn says, enjoying this, loving every chance he gets to see the clash between Liam's shyness and his fucking hunger, that horny teenager that hums under Liam's buttoned-up, clean-cut respectability.

"Please," Liam says, actual pleading coming into his voice.

"Jesus," Zayn says, trying not to laugh. "Is that all I am to you?"

Liam shakes his head adamantly no and he seems about thirty seconds away from begging for it. "I was good, wasn't I?" It's so brittle and sweet, it's so plain on his face how much he wants Zayn that it makes Zayn crumple inwards. How could he resist?

"I don't need the hard sell, dude," Zayn says, loving that he can press a hand around the small of Liam's back and feel what that does to him (a shiver, a grin), loving how easily he's got Liam wrapped around his finger. It would feel selfish if Liam didn't seem to want it so badly. Zayn's been with a lot of people, but none of them have made him feel so desperately wanted like this before. "You know the way to my room, don't you?"

They don't even reach Zayn's bedroom before Liam is up against him, pressing Zayn against a wall and kissing him. Liam's not that dominant but he's got Zayn pinned, arms around his neck to pull him down for the kiss, and Zayn discovers a hidden kind of strength to Liam. It's not obvious in his build but it comes out solid in his arms and chest. Zayn lets Liam control everything, just standing there and kissing Liam back and responding to his every movement the way he thinks Liam wants and loving how much Liam craves it. Zayn can feel Liam's cock, already hard, grinding against his thigh and he can feel heat radiating from his skin, can hear all of the little teenage moans he makes against Zayn's mouth that gives Liam away. Liam tastes like winter, like metal and salt and cinnamon gum, and his hands are wide and warming where they slide up under the hem of Zayn's hoodie. Nothing feels better to Zayn than knowing how totally lit up Liam is right now, like a match struck against the rough of Zayn's stubble, a shy kid that only seems to be able to loosen up in Zayn's arms.

The screen door downstairs opens and opens with a creak and slams shut and Liam seizes up instantly against Zayn like all of his confidence evaporates as soon as he realizes they aren't alone. His eyes are suddenly wild with panic and Zayn knows when he's needed. He cups Liam's face, watches him until Liam is looking back, rubs his thumb over his cheek.

"My bedroom," Zayn murmurs, feeling Liam relax against him again. "Strip down. I wanna see you jerk off while you blow me."

Liam nods obediently, pupils dilating inky black. "I want you so much," Liam says, and Zayn knows he only manages to get it out because of the adrenaline, because he's so keyed up and full of the kind of confidence that comes with desperation. That doesn't stop it from hitting Zayn in the chest like a punch, though.

"I know," Zayn says, almost shaking his head.

Zayn's door locks this time, thank fuck, and by the time he's got it shut firm Liam has already pulled off his polo shirt. His skin is paler than Zayn remembers from the dim light of the laundry room, the cool air drawing it tight over Liam's muscles, his modest biceps and the shadowed lines of his abs. An inch of boxer short shows above the belt of his jeans and his thumbs are tucked in under the elastic, not sure what he should do next.

Circling around Liam without touching him, Zayn sits down on the edge of his bed, legs set apart as he leans back on the heels of his hands. "Get undressed," Zayn says. "I want to watch."

Liam bites his lip and nods. It's not all that sexy, the slightly jerky movements he makes as strips down, but Zayn loves that for some reason. There's something about the modesty of it that makes Zayn feel like he's lucky to see this, the trust Liam is giving him by letting his guard down like this. Liam stands side-face as he undoes his belt and unbuttons his jeans, the skin of his tight stomach rippling as he bends over, shoulder blades and muscles in his back moving like clockwork. Liam tugs down his jeans and boxers down in one quick go like he's in a locker room and doesn't want to be seen.

Zayn gives him a quick once-over, top to bottom, and Liam blushes right down to his chest. Liam is still so hard, his cock uncut, and he tries to shield himself in front of Zayn without trying to seem like he's hiding. Zayn's grin edges into mischief, and he beckons Liam closer.

"I got you hard already?" Zayn asks as Liam steps nearer. Liam's hands drop by his sides, giving himself up to Zayn totally. "You wanna suck me off?"

Liam nods, and Zayn is sure his voice probably doesn't work right now.

"You like it, don't you?"

Liam nods again, mouth arching up into a shy smile.

"You're fucking beautiful, Liam," Zayn says, letting himself say it, letting these things he swore he wouldn't say come out of his mouth. Zayn just knows that Liam wants to hear it and he doesn't care if this was meant to be a casual fling because Liam grins like fucking sunshine. "Come here."

Liam stands in front of Zayn and leans down, their noses brushing, mouths just touching. Zayn runs a hand up Liam's inner thigh, thumb rubbing over the milky-white skin there, and he can feel Liam's breath hitch with pleasure as he bows deeper and draws out the kiss long and wet and close.

"On your knees, babe," Zayn murmurs hotly against Liam's mouth, and, fuck, Liam obeys instantly. He totally glows under the word, babe, and it seems to loosen him up too, a spark of playfulness in the corner of Liam's mouth.

Unbuckling Zayn's belt and pulling open his jeans, Liam tugs them a few inches down Zayn's thighs. Zayn is going commando which seems to please Liam because his hand slides down to grip his own cock, starting to jerk off as he takes Zayn's dick in his other hand. Liam starts slow, bowing down to flick his tongue against the head of Zayn's cock. He brings his closed lips to Zayn's dick next, and as Liam slides lower down the shaft his bottom lip drags against skin, mouth soft and full. Zayn shivers, a full body shiver that runs from the base of his spine to a flutter in his shoulders. Liam seems to like that too.

"Hold my hair," Liam says breathlessly as he pulls off Zayn's dick, looking up at him quickly through his lashes.

"Right, right," Zayn mumbles, putting a hand on Liam's head, working his fingers through his silky hair again, a tactile memory that comes back instantly. All it takes is a simple push, a little urging, and Liam goes down on Zayn fully, lips around his cock and slowly taking as much of him as he can. Fuck, yes, Zayn remembers this exactly, that feeling of Liam's hot mouth and he bucks up into him, Liam taking every inch.

Trying to keep everything in focus is hard and Zayn wants to just throw his head back and take it but there's something about Liam that keeps Zayn there, watching him do it. It's the fucking magic of seeing this bashful kid take a cock and love it, this eagerness to get Zayn off that makes every touch electric.

Zayn can't keep his eyes off of Liam's body, naked and solid with the architecture of working muscle, his shoulders knotted, the line of his chest and stomach as he's curled towards Zayn and working his cock, his hand matching the rhythm of his mouth beat for beat. Zayn is still mostly dressed and Liam is pale and naked and that just turns Zayn on more, knowing the fragility of Liam, knowing that Liam is giving Zayn everything right now.

At any other time Zayn would just get off on being in charge, dominating him, but with Liam he feels like he's somehow fucking special for this and Zayn wants to protect him, keep him so he can earn that kind of trust.

Fuck.

The noise that Liam makes when he pulls off of Zayn's cock, the soft pop of his wet lips is filthy. Zayn pulls Liam's hair a little tighter, making him groan out, tongue dragging a line down the shaft of Zayn's cock. When he goes down again Zayn can't help it, he has to close his eyes, squeezing them tight and trying not to come, trying to hold back as long as he can.

"You jerking off?" Zayn murmurs, his voice dropping low and raspy like he's smoked a pack of cigarettes.

Liam makes a noise around Zayn's cock, his hand working his own dick harder.

"You close, babe?" Zayn asks, knowing now exactly what that word does to Liam.

Liam makes the noise again as he goes down all the way, taking almost all of Zayn's cock down his throat.

"I want you to come while you suck me off," Zayn says, fingers tightening into a fist in Liam's hair.

Liam moans this time, the noise humming against the head of Zayn's cock, a bolt of pleasure lancing through him.

"Fuck, Liam, don't stop, don't fucking stop," Zayn says, feeling as his muscles are drawn tighter, his shoulders shaking from it.

Liam doesn't stop. He builds the rhythm faster and faster as he works the head of Zayn's cock with his tongue, that moaning, buzzing feeling coming more and more often as Liam gets himself off too. Zayn can feel the heat build, growing like a new star in the pit of his stomach until it seems to burn him up inside.

"I'm coming – fuck, Liam, I'm – fuck –"

Liam pulls off Zayn's cock at the last second and uses his free hand to jerk him off, so close, so close, until Zayn loses himself and comes in Liam's hand. Liam strokes him out, come splashing against Liam's throat and chest. Zayn only manages a short, choked gasp before the star in his body goes nova. Liam goes back down on Zayn's cock right after, working him slower this time as Zayn spills out onto his tongue. Zayn's thighs jump a little, so fucking sensitive to touch in his afterglow, but he sits still as Liam tastes the last of his orgasm. Liam does just like he was told, blowing Zayn as he finishes himself off.

Zayn is still humming, lost in an afterglow that feels like the first warmth of rolling on E, when Liam finally pulls off his dick. Liam gives one hitched groan as he comes over his own fist, sticky and webbed between his fingers, a shake in his body like a tremor. It looks good on him, it looks real good. In his own daze, Liam rocks forward slightly and rests his shoulder on the edge of the mattress next to Zayn's leg. He looks up at Zayn, a tired and satisfied smile on his lips, the skin of his throat still shining wet.

"Was that good?" Zayn asks, letting go of Liam's hair then and stroking a hand along the back of his neck.

Liam nods dopily. "That felt so good."

They stay there for a little bit, Liam crouched down, naked, at the foot of Zayn's bed, boneless and exhausted and still smiling. Zayn continues to rub the back of Liam's neck, thumb rolling over the top notch of Liam's spine as the glow of sex starts to fade. Zayn can feel as he settles back into himself, the sticky sweat of sex drying, but the sparkling, floating feeling of being with Liam never really leaves.

"Zayn?" Their silence bursts as one of the pledges shouts for Zayn from downstairs, voice muffled by the locked door.

"Ah, shit, fuck, right," Zayn says, stretching and standing up, tucking his dick back into his jeans and zipping his fly and buckling his belt again. "I'm meant to be watching them. Shit. Fucking pledge educator."

Liam nods, his expression sobering. "That's fine, I won't keep you."

Zayn sighs, and this feels like yesterday morning all over again. It's another chance to treat Liam the way he probably should have from the beginning – a good bit of fun, someone to call over when he's bored, nothing much else – but that's starting to feel more and more impossible by the day. Liam just has this way of filling up these empty places so well. It's not just the sex but other parts too, taking up the empty gaps in Zayn's regular life with his brilliant smile, with that way of being rib-achingly funny without even trying, with his own kind of goodness. "Hey, you wanna come down and have a beer?"

Liam's smile brightens instantly and he nods. "If that's okay."

"I'm in charge when Louis isn't here," Zayn says, a slick grin, pressing his tongue against his teeth.

"Uh, is there –" Liam gestures to his hand, still wet from his come. "I kind of need a towel, or."

"Wipe it on your shirt," Zayn says. "I've got something you can wear."

Liam starts to dress again while Zayn rummages around in the pile of clean clothes he's been meaning to fold and put away for the past two weeks. He could choose anything really but he has one hoodie in mind. If Louis were here he'd die laughing knowing that Zayn has actually put some thought into this and is actually looking for one thing in particular to give to Liam just because he knows Liam will love it, but thankfully fucking Louis isn't here so Zayn gets to be as fucking thoughtful as he wants, dammit. He finds it at the bottom of the pile, wrinkled but clean, and he tosses it to Liam who is standing shirtless and awkward in the middle of Zayn's bedroom.

"Is this your frat?" Liam says, looking down at the Greek letters embossed in yellow on the front of the royal blue sweater.

"It's my rush week hoodie," Zayn says. "That's us. Kappa Tau Gamma."

Liam presses his face to it for a second, blushing when he realizes Zayn is still watching him. "It smells like you."

"Yeah, like, I sure hope it does," Zayn says, raising an eyebrow that makes Liam laugh. "Put it on, I need to get down there."

Liam tugs the hoodie on in one smooth motion. It's a size too big for him, cuffs ending at his knuckles, swallowing him whole. He's smiling really deeply as he tugs it about his shoulders, unrolling the tangled hood. Zayn grins back, just happy to see those letters written loud across Liam's chest, claiming it like new lands being drawn on a map.

"Come with me, I'll let you torture some of the pledges," Zayn says, walking past Liam and unlocking his bedroom door. "It's a lot of fun, I promise."

"There's going to be more people?"

"That a problem?" Zayn asks. "You met them at the party, didn't you?"

Liam thinks about it for a second. "I guess so. I was kind of tipsy, though. I'm not – that great with strangers. I'm sure they're really lovely, I know they are, but." Liam licks his lips. "I can try. I'll try, though."

That defensive impulse in Zayn kicks in again. "Just stick by me, okay?"

"Okay," Liam says, liking that option a lot. With a nod he follows Zayn downstairs all snuggled up in the thick blue hoodie, his hands vanishing into big sleeves that flop by his sides as he walks.

*

"Pledges," Zayn says as he walks out onto the back deck, hands on his hips. Taking a deep breath, he sets his jaw and takes on his character, pledge educator and charming hard-ass, leaving the softness of his bedroom behind. "This is pathetic. If Louis were here he would be ashamed of you. This should have been finished hours ago."

"If Louis were here he'd shoot us with silly string and make us dress in cheerleader outfits," one of the pledges says, resting against his rake, sweat dripping from his forehead. "We've been working for hours, Zayn."

Liam walks out next to Zayn, staying a step behind him uncertainly. Zayn catches him out of the corner of his eye, hovering awkwardly a few steps behind. Zayn would be lying if he said he wasn't trying to impress him a little. "Yeah, you're probably right about Louis," Zayn says, nodding thoughtfully. "It's a great suggestion. What do we think, boys?" Grumbling runs through the pledges as they go back to raking and cleaning, building these great mounds of empty beer bottles and fallen leaves and ashes from
the bonfire pit. "That's more like it."

Gesturing to the nearest pledge, Zayn calls him forward with a finger. It's funny because it's almost as if Liam learned Zayn backwards, starting with the hidden and only now discovering everything else, seeing Zayn act as a frat brother and not the boy behind locked doors. Being with Liam for too long makes Zayn feel naked, exposed and raw to things he has long learned to keep hidden, but Zayn is in his element now. He's back to the place where he can play his part and lean on his reputation of leather jackets and a grin like a sword's edge. It's an act Zayn's been working on for years, all sarcasm and cigarettes, and after an afternoon of feeling too much too quickly he's almost glad he gets to play the tyrant now.

"Yes, brother?" the pledge says.

"Get some chairs. Quick, man." Zayn looks down at his watch as the pledge runs and returns quickly with two folding lawn chairs. He counts the seconds out loud until the pledge returns, sweating and breathing heavily half a minute later. "Still waiting, pledge," Zayn says.

"Sorry, brother," the pledge says, unfolding them and standing them upright. "Anything else, brother?"

"What do you want, Liam?" Zayn asks as he glances back at Liam.

Liam looks startled, like he wasn't expecting to speak to anyone and instinctively he grabs the cuff of Zayn's sleeve, his fingers brushing against Zayn's open palm. The touch is enough to make Zayn shiver, almost wincing. Try as he might to resist it and shake off the feeling, he'd be lying if he said it didn't seem important, the heat of Liam's fingers tangling with his own. Yeah, they might be surrounded by pledges, this might be three years of Zayn's reputation on the line, but he know deep down that he doesn't want to be the guy who pretends that this doesn't mean something. He doesn't want to pretend he's above this. So, like every rule that came before, he breaks it. In a split second, Zayn trades a reputation for clasped hands.

"Oh, uh, I'm good," Liam says.

"Two beers. Louis has got some Stella hidden at the back of the basement fridge but you didn't hear that from me." The pledge looks down at Zayn's hand, and back up at Zayn but he says nothing about it. "That's all, man. Thanks." So much for being a badass. So much for three years of trying to seem like a badass. So much for fucking everything.

"What did you say you were again?" Liam says as he sits down next to Zayn on the deck. He draws his knees up and hugs them to his chest, pale hands emerging from the long sleeves of his hoodie. The sky is slate gray and a cool wind whips at Liam's curly hair, and snuggled in Zayn's sweater he looks quite young. Louis' voice pointing out that there are no community colleges around here sticks in Zayn's mind but that's the kind of thing you ask when there's a next step, a problem Zayn is trying to avoid.

"Pledge educator," Zayn says, crossing his legs, resting his ankle on his knee. "I teach them the ins and outs of the frat until they become full-time brothers. We do group bonding activities and shit too, but they've got to earn their keep, you know?"

"And they just do whatever you want?" Liam asks, having a hard time keeping the pushing curiosity out of his voice.

"Yeah, mostly. The days of naked obstacle courses and circle jerks is long gone, though," Zayn says, his grin getting a bit deeper as Liam laughs. "But they'll get you whatever you want. They're good kids, and you're my guest. Just ask. You want a sandwich or something, dude?"

"No, no," Liam says as the pledge returns with two sweating green bottles of Stella, handing one to each other them.

"Thanks," Zayn says, waving the pledge off. "Back to raking."

"I feel bad," Liam says, looking down at his bottle of beer. "Like I should tip them or something."

Zayn laughs, and as usual Liam reacts to it with pinking cheeks and a grin he buries into his knees. "It's part of the deal. I had to do it too. Had this particularly fucking awful guy my first year, too. Used me as a fucking footstool once." Liam reacts with appropriate shock and Zayn takes a satisfied pull of his beer, loving the way Liam hangs on to his words. "Nah, it wasn't that bad. We ended up fucking around a little bit later. He was a squealer."

"They, uh, they –" Liam takes a steadying drink of his beer, grimacing a bit like he just put back a shot of vodka. "They're cool with you – you being – you know."

"Pakistani?" Zayn suggests.

"No, no," Liam says.

"An art major?" Zayn asks.

"No," Liam says, sounding a bit exasperated. "You know. Like, the way we – what we do."

Zayn fumbles in his pockets, pulls out two cigarettes (one on the lips, one behind his ear) and lights up. "Nah. They're all cool now. Like, I wouldn't be here if they weren't, you know? Maybe once there was some trouble, but Louis wouldn't have it." Zayn blows out a steady stream of smoke, and he's feeling that hidden part of himself come alive again, something about Liam that makes Zayn too honest about things he's kept locked away. "Louis is – he's an amazing guy when you get to know him. I didn't really care if people said, like, shitty things, you know? I'm used to it by now. But Louis wouldn't stand for it, and he made it pretty clear. He's a vicious dude if you cross him, and he was being groomed to be president so I guess people listened." Zayn gives a one-shouldered shrug. "I don't know, he's my best friend."

"I remember him," Liam says quietly. "He was really funny."

Zayn gives a bark of a laugh and Liam puzzles. "No, sorry. He's just. He is great, don't get me wrong. He'd fucking love you if he heard you say that, thinks he so fucking clever." Zayn takes a little sip of his beer, of his cigarette. "He's a fucking idiot, that's what he is."

"You love him?" Liam asks, and it doesn't sound like it's jealous or anything, it just sounds like Liam is slowly piecing Zayn together bit by bit.

Zayn nods slowly. He looks out over the back garden with its runty shrubs and broken lawn furniture and beer cans overflowing with cigarette stubs, a small stretch of green land cloistered by a picket fence peeling its white paint, an open field that Zayn has spent the better part of three years laughing and singing and getting gloriously fucked up in. "He's family."

"That sounds really nice," Liam says, and there's a fragility to his voice that catches Zayn off guard, piercing him like a hypodermic needle, a sharp pinching pain in the middle of Zayn's chest.

"You're not out yet, are you?" Zayn asks quietly.

Liam doesn't reply right away, suckling instead on the lip of his beer bottle and avoiding looking at Zayn.

"It's okay," Zayn says smoothly. "We don't have to talk about it."

There's a lull in the conversation and Zayn kind of feels like an idiot. There's just so much to Liam that doesn't make sense when he thinks about it, varying so wildly that Zayn is never sure what to expect. He'll go down on Zayn in a heartbeat, suck his cock and lick the come from his lips, but then he'll stammer and start when Zayn touches his cheek or kisses the side of his neck; he'll sleep naked and happy in Zayn's bed and then he'll blush deep red when anyone so much as offers him a high five. It's maddening, and it's beautiful, and it makes Zayn want more of Liam every time.

"So you're an art major?" Liam asks politely, and it's really only then that Zayn realizes that they barely even know each other. It doesn't feel that way, Zayn swears he knows Liam pretty well, learning him slowly through touch and the warmth of his lips. Even so, there's no mistaking the fact that Zayn knows exactly what to do to make Liam groan out in pleasure but he doesn't even know his last name. It seems somehow silly though, how unimportant knowing the times and dates of Liam's life when Zayn has already felt the crazy weight of Liam's heart, how much love he has to give, all of his shy little tics and funny hiccuping laughs. Somehow learning Liam's favorite colors and his first concert and the names of his siblings doesn't seem nearly as important as that.

"Yeah, visual. Illustration," Zayn says, blowing out a cloud of smoke. "What about you?"

"I haven't. Decided yet," Liam says.

"But what program are you doing?" Zayn asks.

"Yeah, uh, I'm looking at –" Liam takes a deep breath. "Music, I guess?" The way he says the word, so protective, so obviously important to him makes Zayn want to know more.

"Performance or tech?" Zayn nudges him. Come on.

"Tech," Liam says, a bit braver this time. "Mixing and levelling and all that kind of stuff. It's what I want to do. Record and mix and, yeah. I'm getting better at making beats too, that's something I'm really into."

"That sounds really cool," Zayn says. "I know jack all about the technology side. Maybe you can show me sometime, huh?" It's only as Zayn asks for a next time that he even realizes he wants a next time. He wonders when these stupid little first date things became fun instead of irritating, wonders when he last wanted someone to hang around after they hooked up, wonders when letting someone see the soft underbelly of Zayn's carefully honed fraternity brother persona became somehow freeing instead of paralyzing. There was Harry, of course, but the lingering summer seems like it was made outside of the rules. It was probably around that time when Zayn said fuck it and broke that first little rule, probably when he woke up with Liam in his bed. Probably that first stuttering word Liam said to Zayn, and the smile that came after like a sunrise.

"So what's illustration?" Liam asks, sounding better now that he's the one asking the questions.

"Basically just drawing," Zayn says, tapping ash from his cigarette with a lazy flick of his wrist. "Comics, actually. I'm doing a graphic novel for my senior thesis."

"You draw comics?" Liam says, sounding like Zayn has admitted to being an astronaut or something.

"Yeah, and some pop art stuff. Spray paint, shit like that." Zayn raises an eyebrow. "You like comics?"

"I – I love them," Liam says like he's trying to restrain himself from just blurting it all out. He gets so brilliant and bouncy when he's excited like he can't control the wild smile on his lips or the light in his eyes. "I just bought all the new Ultimate Spider-Man. They're sitting on my desk at home. X-Men and Batman, too. I've got a whole collection, since I was eight. I've even got a copy of one of the first Spider-Mans. It's worth, like, four thousand dollars. It's kind of my pride and joy."

"Ah, so you swing both ways?" Zayn says with a grin.

"W-what?"

"Marvel and DC," Zayn says, properly laughing now.

"Oh – oh, yeah. Yeah. I just really like Catwoman and Batman. I could never choose between them." Liam's cheeks pink, and he clears his throat. "I was Batman for Halloween eight years in a row."

Zayn laughs again and Liam smiles, his eyes crinkling at the corners. It's strange thinking this is just the third actual day they've spent together. "My comic's not superheroes, though. It's, well – it's autobiographical, I guess. Have you ever read Persepolis?"

Liam shakes his head. "What is it?"

"You really should, it's a big inspiration for me. It's a graphic novel, it's about a girl growing up during the Iranian revolution. Mine's sort of like that, but, you know about me. And a lot less interesting, obviously." Zayn hates talking about this (well, to anyone apart from Louis,) people either blowing it off as arty nonsense or fluff work ("oh, it's a comic book"), so Zayn has learned to keep quiet about it, but Liam seems so genuinely interested and when he says comic book it sounds like he's talking about the Bible or something. "Growing up with a Pakistani dad and a white mom, being a Muslim in America, uh, well, being a gay Muslim in America. That kind of stuff."

Liam nods, that soft look of awe in his eyes like every new thing he learns about Zayn amazes him, intimidates him too. "Can I – can I see it? Some day? We could each show each other what we're into. It'd be cool."

"You want to read it?" Zayn asks, raising an eyebrow. He's only ever shown his profs the storyboards before, even Louis seems to treat the manuscript as strictly private.

Liam nods again. "I'd like to."

Zayn gives a one-shouldered shrug, puffing out another cloud of smoke. He suddenly really wants to show Liam what he's been working on for the past four months. He wants to show this guy – this guy who isn't out to anyone, who seems to be struggling so hard between shyness and joy, who absolutely fucking glows with love – the comic of Zayn's life. Zayn wants to fucking kiss him. "Yeah, maybe."

"Cool," Liam says, giving an easy smile.

"Personally, I like Iron Man," Zayn says with a smirk he knows makes him look a bit like Robert Downey Jr.

"Me too," Liam says as his smile turns into a grin. "I saw The Avengers six times in theaters. You actually kind of remind me of Iron Man. You've got the, like, coolness. You're funny and sarcastic like Tony Stark."

"Am I?" Zayn asks, raising an eyebrow.

"Hey, hey, hey." Louis' voice, the slam of the screen door opening and closing. "The Lemur's here!"

Zayn glances over at Liam, raising an eyebrow as Liam's face pinks with blush-blood. "Hi Louis. Did you win?"

"Course we didn't win," Louis says, walking up next to Zayn and putting a hand on his shoulder. "Can't get enough of us, can you?" he asks, turning to Liam. "You're even wearing our letters, Lemur. One of us already."

"Lemur?" Zayn asks, giving Louis a withering look.

"Someone came up with it when you were plastered," Louis says, grinning hugely. "I've been waiting for him to wear a striped shirt so I can call him a ring-tailed lemur."

Zayn turns to look at Liam. "Lemur?"

"You said everyone in the frat has a nickname," Liam says demurely. "Louis came up with it."

"Did I?" Louis asks, genuinely surprised. "Shit, I'm a genius."

More of Zayn's frat brothers start pouring into the house, coming into the backyard all loud and sweaty and joking with each other, giving the pledges a hard time for not being finished yet. Zayn can hear his brothers yelling about getting pizza for dinner, Niall going around in his shades and sweat-soaked tanktop gathering money from everyone. Zayn can actually see as Liam shrinks back within himself – right, bad with strangers – but he still seems to be keeping all the confidence he's gathered through the afternoon from Zayn's mouth and Zayn's laughter. A little skittish but keeping his smile.

"You wanna stay for dinner?" Louis asks Liam.

"Oh, wow." Liam says in a rush. "I kind of have to get home. I'd like to, though."

"Oh, come on," Louis says, stepping in next to Liam's folding chair, putting a hand on the top of his curly head. "I won't even make you pay. Free slice of pizza, man. Beautiful, delicious pizza."

"It's really kind of you –" Liam swallows roughly, "– but I really have to go."

Louis raises his eyebrows, like he's never been turned down before in his life. "Really?"

"Relax, Lou," Zayn says, standing now and crushing out his cigarette, stepping in between Liam and Louis like he's cutting in for a dance. "He'll stay some other time. Yeah?" Zayn asks, looking back at Liam.

"Yeah," Liam agrees. "It's really nice of you, Louis."

"All right," Louis says easily, pulling away from Liam. Zayn sees the look on his face, devilish and knowing, the curl of his smirk singing I told you so. Zayn gives him another firm stare and Louis backs off but he's laughing as he does. "Next time, Lemur. You've got a slice with your name on it any time you want to stay over," Louis says as he walks away, throwing a hand up in a lazy wave.

"Thanks," Liam says to Zayn, grateful for either the offer or letting him off the hook. Probably both. "I do really have to go, though." He glances around the backyard, obviously acutely aware of how many people there are now, almost the whole house mingling in the sweaty high of their defeat as they start to help the pledges clean up, cracking open cans of PBR.

"It's cool, I get it, it's a lot all at once," Zayn says quickly under his breath, hand on Liam's waist. "Come on, before they start making you do shots or something."

Liam follows Zayn through the house, staying in his shadow the whole time. He dresses himself quickly in jacket and scarf, knotting it methodically around his throat and tucking the ends down the front of his coat. When he's done he finally looks up to meet Zayn's eyes again and the familiar question pops up in Zayn's mind as usual. Will this happen again? Is this just a fling, fuck buddies? Does he even want to see Liam again? Does he want to let this dude sneak closer and closer to his heart?

"Oh, crap, my shirt. I'm still wearing your sweater, hold on," Liam says, his eyes widening helplessly. His hands go to his scarf to undo it again but Zayn grabs them and holds Liam still.

"You can bring it back next time," Zayn says quietly like he's worried of being overheard.

"Oh," Liam says, his pink lips rounding on the syllable. "Okay. Yeah, sure." Zayn watches him closely, sees Liam's eyes dart down to Zayn's mouth and then to where his hands are still holding Liam's over the lapels of his jacket. "When – when can we meet again?"

Zayn cracks up into a smile, biting his tongue between his teeth for a second. "When the hurlyburly's done. When the battle's lost and won, eh?"

"Oh, uh. What?"

"That's Macbeth, man. The witches. I was Macduff in my last year of high school."

Liam gets that look on his face, the kind when he's obviously missed something but pretends he understands. "I – I haven't read that one yet."

"You shouldn't let the other guys get to you," Zayn says, his voice dropping again. "They'll like you, I promise. They've already got a nickname for you, and they don't do that for just anyone."

Liam nods, taking a deep breath. "It's still kind of. I'm just not used to it. I always expected frat boys to be, you know. Like, like assholes, I guess? But they were so nice at the party. I never know what to think."

Zayn really laughs at that and he plants his hands on Liam's shoulders, holding him steady. "I honestly thought the same thing. I wasn't even thinking of rushing but Louis told me great things about this place and, like, here I am. We're not all, you know, rich stuck up fucking bro bros. Over here we're mostly misfits and hard partiers and, like, we have each others' backs and shit. If I like you, they'll like you too."

"You like me?" Liam asks, his voice tiny now, stumbling.

"Not really," Zayn says with a grin, and Liam finally smiles again. "Text me or something. I'm going to be in the studio all week and I'll need a distraction."

"Okay," Liam says, nodding seriously like he's been given a great task. "I'll see you later."

"Sounds like a plan," Zayn says, hand going to the back of Liam's head, fingers working gently through his hair. It's really nice, because Liam doesn't ask this time, he just stands a bit taller and kisses Zayn, a private kiss, small and lingering and tasting more familiar by the day. Sweet and dry, a little salty, Liam's own taste. Zayn kisses him back slowly, his lips working against Liam's, leaving quick fluttering touches on the corner of Liam's mouth and his nose and cheeks as they pull away.

"Bye, Zayn." Liam seems all flush and caught up in Zayn as he steps away, still lingering in that moment when Zayn's lips were against his.

"Later, dude," Zayn says. He doesn't close the door immediately this time but stands leaning against the jamb and watches as Liam walks down Greek row. Liam looks back at Zayn four times before he turns the corner and drops out of sight.

*

"You won't believe what I heard," Niall says, pushing the door of Zayn's bedroom open without knocking. "Or maybe you will."

"Hey, Niall," Zayn says without turning from his desk, covered now in a mountain of storyboards, quick sketches, chapter proposals.

"One of the pledges said you were dating that Liam dude," Niall says, sitting on the edge of Zayn's desk. He's dressed in a muscle shirt and loose sweatpants, his sunglasses pushed back through his dirty blond hair. He's got a genial grin on his face, the pleasing, joking kind when he wants to tease Zayn. If it was Louis Zayn would just push him right off the desk, but somehow when Niall butts into Zayn's life he does it with total kindness, a friendly curiosity like he's waiting to share a joke.

"We're not, though," Zayn says, his fingers dancing over the pages, looking for his inking pen, finding it and twirling it in his hands like a drumstick. "Tell the damn pledges to mind their own fucking business. We're not dating."

"I mean, I figured. You woulda told me if you were," Niall says, leaning closer to take a look at what Zayn is working on. "But what would give them that impression?"

"Did Louis put you up to this?" Zayn asks.

Niall laughs. "We're just looking out for you, Zayn."

"I don't know, he came over today to hook up and we just ended up hanging out after," Zayn says. It's only when he tastes a raw, bitter wet on his tongue does he realize he's chewing on the nib of pen without noticing. "Oh, shit," Zayn says, wiping at his lips, long smears of blank ink running along the back of his hands. "Fuck."

Niall laughs again, so bright and cheerful that Zayn can't even swear at him. "Clumsy, Zayn."

"It really doesn't mean anything," Zayn mutters, licking his palms and trying to clean it away.

"I heard you were holding hands," Niall continues. He grabs the rag Zayn normally uses to clean his brushes and offers it. Zayn takes it and wipes at his mouth. "You wanna tell me something, dude?"

"Liam grabbed my hand, whatever," Zayn says. "What was I supposed to do? Throw it off? Toss him out into the streets? He gave me a blowjob, I was being a gentleman, wasn't I?"

"Oh, yeah," Niall agrees sincerely. "My Zayn is a gentleman."

Zayn groans. "Fucking pledges need to keep their fucking noses out of this kind of shit."

"I know, man," Niall says, stroking the short bristle of shaved hair at the back of Zayn's neck. "Hey, Zayn? You've got a little bit of ink there, on your lip –" he reaches forward and smears a fat line of ink across Zayn's cheek like war paint. "Better clean that up."

"Really, Niall?" But Niall grins so freely that Zayn just shakes his head, gives a weak punch against his side.

"Hey, look, I brought you pizza," Niall says, and from behind his back he presents a paper plate piled with three slices of pepperoni, dropping it on Zayn's desk. "Thought you might need to eat."

Zayn sighs, his head dropping. "I love you, man," he says quietly, annoyed that he he's so hungry and grateful that can't even pretend to sound angry. It's so typically Niall, gentle teasing until, bam, he reminds you why you loved him in the first place. "You are a life saver."

"If you were dating him, you'd tell me and Louis first, right?" Niall asks.

"Course," Zayn says.

"Good," Niall replies. "So, are you dating him?"

"Okay, see ya, Niall," Zayn says, folding a slice of pizza in a half with one hand and spinning his chair away from Niall and back to his work. Zayn can't even manage to sound sarcastic. It's the life he chose, it's the brothers he signed up to have.

"Just looking out for you, buddy," Niall says, another brush of his hands through Zayn's hair as he stands up. He leans down and kisses the top of Zayn's head. "But I'm just saying, Dating Zayn is always happier than Single Zayn."

"Niall."

"We're all rooting for you!"

"Oh, my God."

Niall's laughter fades away as he walks away, and even though he closes the door as he leaves Zayn can hear him laughing all the way down the stairs.

*

"You really don't have anything better to do?" Zayn asks, pushing a quarter into the lock of a shopping cart and unchaining it from the row. "I hate grocery shopping, boring as shit."

"Well, I wasn't doing anything anyway," Liam says, a half-step behind Zayn as they pass through the automatic doors. He's wearing the sweater he borrowed from Zayn last weekend, clean blue jeans and shining white sneakers like they're right out of the box. It's the most relaxed Zayn has seen Liam look yet, his unbrushed hair messy from the day and obviously more comfortable this time around. "You don't mind me hanging around, do you?"

"You really need to stop asking that," Zayn says, laughing a little. "I invited you, didn't I?" Zayn steers his cart straight past the fresh fruit and vegetables, making a bee-line for the bakery at the back of the store. "That goes for texting, too. You don't have to start each one with is it okay that I'm texting you. It's okay, Liam. Seriously. You're okay."

"Okay," Liam says, hushed.

"But you really didn't have anything better to do than hit up a Kroger with me at ten o'clock at night?" Zayn asks, tipping the peak of his snapback higher. "Not that I'm complaining."

"Not really," Liam says. He trails his hands along everything they pass, palms skimming across bunkers filled with bananas, fingers walking over refrigerated counters, fingertips squishing into vacuum-sealed packs of steaks and chicken legs. Liam can't stop moving, his energy all pent up inside as he hovers close to Zayn but never touching him, fidgeting restlessly instead. The can I see you? text makes sense now, and it makes Zayn want to grab Liam's hand, calm the rattle and hum inside of him. "How's the comic – er, graphic novel going?" Liam asks.

"Shit," Zayn says. "I'm, like, a month behind schedule. I've gotta do my first proposal in October and I'm not even close."

"Oh, no," Liam says, genuine worry in his voice. "I'm sure you can pull it off, though. You said you were close, right? Almost finished the first few chapters?"

"That's why we're here," Zayn says, stopping his cart in front of a bakery case full of donuts. "I need snacks. Snacks and coffee and Red Bull. I'm not sleeping until October. Let's do this."

Liam grins and follows Zayn's lead, grabbing fistfuls of pastry and shoving them into plastic bags like it's Halloween. Their hips touch, bouncing off each other when Liam gives a bit of a laughing shove, hands covering hands as they go for the same honey crueller. Laughing, jam squished between fingers, chocolate smeared up to their wrists. Liam is so close, his head nudging against Zayn's shoulder, wanting.

"What's your favorite?" Liam asks, trying to sort through the mess.

"Get anything, dude. Everything I buy is going to be stolen in the first forty-eight hours so we need to have a lot," Zayn says, taking a handful of maple glazed. "And get whatever you want too, I'm buying."

Minutes later they've got a shopping cart filled with donuts, danishes, bagels, and all the fresh baked cookies they can find. Liam seems to gravitate towards sweetest things; powdered sugar jam-filled donuts, white chocolate chip and macadamia nut cookies, chocolate covered croissants. His fingers have sugar on them, powdery white snow in a streak on his borrowed sweater and on the tip of his nose. Sneaking a glance to make sure they're still alone, Zayn grabs Liam's wrist, his fingers resting flat against the heavy beat of his pulse point. Liam's eyes go wide as, with a smirk, Zayn brings Liam's hand to his mouth and sucks on his index finger, tasting it sweet.

"Oh," Liam breathes, flinching slightly, his eyes flickering around quickly. "Zayn," he whispers, almost scandalized.

"No one's here, man," Zayn says, loving late night shopping trips just for that, all these fluorescent lights glowing white in the hollow of a super market like a warehouse, almost like their voices could echo. He steps closer to Liam, taking his space, and hooks a fingers around a belt loop on Liam's jeans. "You miss me, dude?"

Liam nods, lifting his head to look at Zayn just so. "Today was kind of shitty," he says, though he can't hide the smile that comes when Zayn licks at his middle finger, ring finger. "Really shitty."

"Yeah?" Zayn says, letting go of Liam's wrist finally, licking his lips a final time.

Liam nods. The stark white light catches his curls, the sparse hair on his arms like spun gold, paling his skin to milk. "It – it's getting better, though. Now it's getting better."

"Good," Zayn says solidly. "Hey, go sit on the front of the cart."

"What?"

"Come on," Zayn says. "You must have done this as a kid."

"No I never really – why sit on the front of the cart?"

"Just get on," Zayn says, hand sliding to the small of Liam's back. "Trust me."

Liam obeys without another question, sits awkwardly on the front of the cart with his ass just leaning on the front metal lip of the basket and his knuckles going white where he grabs onto the sides. With a whoop and a laugh Zayn starts running, pushing the cart as fast as he can until the wheels squeak and rattle and Liam gives a nervous shout that becomes giddy laughter. They swerve unevenly down the aisles, Liam holding on for dear life as Zayn's heavy boots slam against the ground. They're the fast and the furious, piloting down aisles of cereal and dried pasta with the wheels leaving black skid marks in their wake, shouting like they're on a roller coaster. There's no one to crash into so Zayn lets go, lets the cart loose with Liam strapped to the front of it like he's on a mechanical bull. The cart swerves, unguided, and veers towards a pillar at full speed. Liam bails out at the last second, landing on the ground in a roll, splayed out in the middle of aisle nine, Baking Supplies and Bottled Water, as their shopping cart full of pastries slams into a display of brown sugar and falls over with a crash and clatter.

Zayn runs to catch up, thinking maybe he overdid it, but then he hears Liam laughing. Skidding to stop next to him, boots squeaking on the polished floors, Zayn towers over Liam and watches as Liam giggles, laughing so hard tears are pinched at the corners of his eyes. "Sick, eh?" Zayn asks, out of breath, grinning down at him.

"Can we do it again?" Liam says from the floor staring up at Zayn with the stars lit up in his brown eyes. Liam's hoodie rides up a few inches to show the pale skin of his stomach and dark elastic of his boxer shorts. Zayn smiles fondly down at him, that boy, his boy.

Zayn leans down and offers a hand, helping Liam back to standing. Zayn brushes the dirt from Liam's back, his hair and the sweater and down to his ass, leaving a little slap to mark where he's been. "Sure."

Just as they're righting the shopping cart – the donuts are a little smushed, cookies broken in places – the voice of God comes on over the PA system: "Attention customers. Please do not abuse the shopping carts. Thank you." It echoes around the empty super market for a second and Zayn watches as Liam goes from shocked and embarrassed straight into guilty delight.

"You're going to get us kicked out," Zayn says, biting his tongue between his teeth as he punches Liam's arm.

"Me?" Liam says.

"Gentler this time?"

"Gentle," Liam agrees.

They weave up and down the aisles together, walking now. Sticking close together, they browse the displays of tortilla chips and pretzels, their hands brushing side by side. Every so often, when they seem most alone, Liam will sneak a finger against Zayn's, tangling slightly, and even something that small seems huge coming from Liam. When they hear footsteps or a squeaky shopping cart wheel coming closer Liam will pull away, letting go of Zayn and taking a modest step apart, but he always comes back.

It's been a while since Zayn was with someone who wasn't out of the closet and it's strange finding all of his old behaviors in Liam. Zayn is never quite sure how comfortable Liam is doing this out in public, and he finds himself touching him without noticing only to feel Liam freeze up against him. It throws Zayn off balance, never sure what he should do or how he should react.

"Oh, wow, I really like this song," Liam says, gesturing towards the roof as a thin, tinny version of an Usher song starts playing over the speakers.

"That's What It's Made For?" Zayn asks.

"Yeah," Liam says, illuminating. "You like Usher?"

"Do I like Usher?" Zayn says, shaking his head. "Fuck, dude, I live for Usher. I've seen him in concert three times. Confessions is the album to fuck to, I'm telling you." Zayn grooves slightly, lifting his hips, rolling a wave from shoulders to thighs, a little thrust. It makes Liam chuckle. "No offense, but you never struck me as an Usher kind of guy."

"I dance sometimes," Liam says, turning away from Zayn as he admits it, closely examining a bag of plantain chips. "In my room. Just on my own." Zayn can see Liam frown, no doubt realizing how that sounds. "It's just for fun. I like Usher. He's really good."

"Show me," Zayn says, his fingertips brushing against Liam's back, walking them along the scoop of his body at the bottom of his spine, above his ass. A possessive little place, made just for Zayn.

"Here?" Liam says, frowning again as he glances around quickly.

"No one's watching, dude," Zayn says, warming to the idea and getting closer to Liam, resting his hand flat on his back now. "Come show me. Dance with me, man."

Liam seems torn, his body half-turning towards Zayn but staying firmly where he stands like he can't quite push himself to do it. Zayn keeps his hand in its spot, knowing that the touch might be enough to loosen Liam up, the way Liam gets sometimes where he needs Zayn's permission before he can do something he really wants. "I can't – not – not here."

"We're alone, babe," Zayn says. "And even if we weren't, fuck 'em. Show me what you've got."

"Dance – dance how?"

"I don't know," Zayn says. "Whatever. Just do it, just dance on me, dude." Zayn rolls his hips again but Liam stands stock still. Putting a hand on Liam's shoulder, Zayn gets closer, the pressure of his body pushing against Liam's side. Liam tries to bite back his smile, awkwardly shifting his weight from foot to foot, trying not to lose himself to the touch. Zayn gets his mouth in close to Liam's neck, no contact but near enough that his breath makes the hairs on the back of Liam's neck stand up. Zayn goes for Liam's ear next, lips a quarter of an inch away, close enough that he can feel the warmth burning from Liam's blush. It's a fucking stupid thing to do, this lame dance floor grinding in a suburban super market, but Zayn wants Liam to join him, he wants Liam to know how it feels to live like this. It's silly, it's young, it's honest, it's something they should be doing together. Come on, Zayn whispers, not words so much as his mouth brushing against the soft skin of Liam's throat.

It happens just as the song is ending, Liam's love for joining in with Zayn just strong enough to overcome the nerves. Liam moves a little, moving his shoulders forward, rolling like a wave against Zayn. He gives a bright, nervous laugh and puts a hand on Zayn's waist, letting him do most of the work while Liam just follows along.

"Yeah, perfect," Zayn says, laughing too. He bobs his head along, his shoulders loose in their sockets as he moves. "Just like that. Take it slow. No one's watching, babe."

Liam gives another nervous laugh but he follows along. He even seems to be getting into it, his eyes no longer scanning around and looking for a reason to stop. Liam focuses in on Zayn, watching Zayn's mouth, not quite getting into the rhythm but doing his best. "I feel ridiculous," Liam whispers. He's blushing, he's stammering his words, but he doesn't stop.

"Exactly," Zayn says. "I was the exact same way. Never thought I could dance. But who cares, like?"

"I really can't, though," Liam says. And it's a shuffling dance, it's a white boy dance, but it's a dance.

"Yeah, you look like an idiot," Zayn says.

"What?" Liam says, eyes fluttering quickly.

"That's the point," Zayn murmurs. "It's a grocery store dance party. We're supposed to look like idiots. We are idiots."

"Is this what your frat does?" Liam asks.

"You know it," Zayn says, hand curling up around the back of Liam's neck. "Wherever there's a good song. Mary J. Blige in a liquor store. Salt-n-Pepa in a 7-11. Hump the slurpee machines."

Liam cracks up and that loosens him up even more, getting closer to Zayn, hip on hip, the both of them moving to the last shuddering beats of the song. Liam's out of breath when the music changes, shifting weirdly to a Buddy Holly song, the two of them left pressed close together up against a wall of salsa and chips.

"So how come you haven't asked to kiss me yet?" Zayn asks in the silence, close enough to smell Liam's gum.

Liam bites down on his lower lip, and his eyes dart back and forth again, checking their empty aisle. "I thought you told me to stop asking."

Zayn gives a huff of a laugh. "Shit, yeah. You're right. Okay, then, why haven't you kissed me yet?"

"Because –"

"Because shit," Zayn says.

A little fight runs through Liam, tugging at him from side to side, his lips twitching in the corners as he looks up at Zayn, but then Liam nods and it's resolute. Making sure to move Zayn's snapback around first, Liam leans close and presses his lips to Zayn, carefully, deliberately, defiantly. It's still so nervous and small, a covert kiss, but Liam is letting himself do it, he's kissing Zayn in the middle of a super market. It's the magic of Usher and a snack aisle disco, it's a lion in Liam that gets a bit prouder with every hour they spend together. It's pretty fucking brave.

The kiss doesn't last long, and when Liam pulls away he checks up and down the aisle again, but it's there, a shared warmth left between their mouths like melting sugar.

"That's better," Zayn says, feeling quietly proud as he runs his hand up through Liam's hair, giving it a little ruffle. "You good?"

Liam nods, a smile blossoming. Zayn recognizes that too. "I've never had this much fun grocery shopping in my life."

"Want another ride on the cart?" Zayn asks.

"We'll get kicked out, won't we?"

"So?"

Liam doesn't take long to decide. "Let's do it."

*

The night smells like old rain, ozone and dirt and a parking lot that shines with wet in spots like a broken mirror. Fallen leaves swirl in the wind that brings October, crisp along the edges, a tang like metal on Zayn's tongue. Abandoning the cart by the doors of the grocery story, Liam and Zayn haul the bags of food back to the truck, Zayn patting its hood like a friendly dog when they reach it.

"You sure I can't give you a ride home?" Zayn asks, dropping the groceries into the bed of the truck.

"No, it's cool," Liam says, gathering his hands up in the sleeves of his hoodie. "I'm across town. It's only one bus, I'm fine." He gives a smile to confirm it. It seems genuine.

"You really sure?" Zayn says, pulling the keys out of his pocket, tossing them and catching them easily.

"I'm sure," Liam says. He lowers his gaze to the ground and then back up at Zayn. The cold weather brings out the brightness of his face: a prickle of winter red in his cheeks, his eyes shining from the wind, bottom lip trembling slightly with a shiver. "Thanks, though. I really appreciate it."

"Sorry I'm such a shitty booty call," Zayn says, brushing a hand against Liam's cheek, curling hair behind his ear. "What a sexy fucking grocery run. Like, two for one sales on deodorant getting me fucking hard. Man."

Liam laughs. "It's cool. I – I mostly just wanted to hang out with you. We don't need to – uh, well, we don't need to every time."

"Bored already?" Zayn says, raising an eyebrow.

"No!" Liam says. "No. I just like – you. Spending time with you."

"You're fun," Zayn says, jerking his head in an approving nod. "You can come along whenever you want."

"Cool," Liam says, that way he has of turning that one syllable into relief, acceptance, delight.

"So, I'll see you around, all right?" Zayn says, putting a hand on Liam's stomach, thumb rubbing a circle.

"Yeah," Liam whispers with a new hint of hunger, pushing up to Zayn and lingering in the moment, stretching out in it with a purr. He leans up and meets Zayn's lips, his mouth parting quickly. The touch of his tongue is warm and wet and he pushes against Zayn's lips. Zayn gets an arm around Liam and he dips his fingers down the back of Liam's jeans, down under the elastic of his boxer, cold fingers pressing in against the soft swell of his ass. Liam makes a low noise in his throat and leans into Zayn harder, their noses brushing together as Liam moves to kiss deeper, hand curling around the back of Zayn's neck and holding on to him roughly. It's a kiss that promises more next time. If Liam was a bit more open to it, Zayn would blow him right now in the cab of the truck, but a dance and a kiss in public seems like enough for one night.

The sound of a car trunk slamming nearby breaks the kiss quickly, a guillotine between them. Just across from them is a middle-aged couple opening the doors to their hatchback, illuminated under the nearest lamp post. There's no way they could have missed the kiss, there's no way they didn't see Zayn's hand snaking under the lip of Liam's jeans, there's absolutely no way.

"Oh," Liam breathes. Zayn can feel him tense up immediately, a crackle of electricity that constricts all of Liam's muscles at once. "Oh, God."

Zayn actually laughs. He can't help but laugh. "Ah, whatever. Fuck 'em," Zayn says, rolling his eyes, waving the couple away. "Fuck them, Liam, seriously." He touches a hand to Liam's chest, keeps it flat there, counting the hummingbird beats.

Liam looks up at Zayn. The couple in the car star the engine and pull away before Liam starts to relax. "Sorry, I'm just – I'm not used to this."

"It's okay, dude," Zayn says taking a step back from Liam. He keeps forgetting about Liam, how careful his touches are in public. It's not a great feeling relearning all his old, shadowed behaviors but he knes Liam needs it right now. He can feel Liam start to unwind again, unspooling back in Zayn's arms. "Who cares what they think, right? You're what's important. You're what matters to me, okay? You're with me now."

Liam breaks into an embarrassed smile, letting out a laugh. "God, I feel like my parents caught me masturbating."

"You okay?" Zayn asks, his voice dropping somewhere quieter.

Liam looks around guiltily for a moment but he nods. "I'm – I'm with you, aren't I?"

"Fuck yeah, you are," Zayn says. "Oh, shit, hold on." Zayn dips a hand into the back of the truck, finds the grocery bag filled with the stuff Liam likes most. "This is yours."

"Oh, no, I seriously can't –" Liam stumbles, but catches himself. "How about you keep it for when I come over next time?"

Zayn lifts an eyebrow. "Oh. Sure. Though, no promises it'll still be there. Louis is a fiend." Inviting himself over, honestly. Confidence looks good on Liam, Zayn will give him that. It looks really good. "Text me, okay?"

"Yeah," Liam says. He doesn't even look around before he leans up and kisses Zayn again. "Good luck on the comic."

"Thanks, dude," Zayn says, leaning back against the truck as Liam walks off. "Hey, Lemur."

Liam does a quick spin on his heel. "Yeah?"

"If you have another shitty day, let me know, yeah? I might be able to help."

Liam pauses, and he's too far away to know but Zayn is pretty sure he's blushing. "Thanks, Zayn."

"Later."

"See ya."

*

From: Liam
To: Zayn
09-25-13 2:49 pm

Hiiii r u busyyy?

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
09-25-13 2:51 pm

In the studio working, could use a break aha

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
09-25-13 2:53 pm

Doing ur comic?

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
09-25-13 2:56 pm

Yeah. Been here for five hours my hand is cramping

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
09-25-13 2:57 pm

Oh noooo :(

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
09-25-13 2:56 pm

What are you up to

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
09-25-13 2:57 pm

Boredddd in class lol I was drawing batmannn and I thot of u

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
09-25-13 2:58 pm

Thats cute

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
09-25-13 3:01 pm

:) is it ok if I tell u I miss uuu?

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
09-25-13 3:02 pm

Yes Liam it is okay

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
09-25-13 3:04 pm

Good cos I do. I wish I coud c u :( its been a bad week :(

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
09-25-13 3:08 pm

Thursday is cheap drinks night we have the house to ourselves if your free

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
09-25-13 3:11 pm

That would be so coollll can we get dinner 2?

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
09-25-13 3:14 pm

Yeah okay. And maybe I could pay you back for the last week ;)

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
09-25-13 3:15 pm

Yesss pls :D I cnt waittttt zayn ur the best

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
09-25-13 3:16 pm

Come over at 5ish okay? Ill see you then babe

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
09-25-13 3:17 pm

Babe :) :) :)

*

"He's coming over again?" Louis asks as he fusses with his hair in the mirror. Zayn sits on the floor of Louis' bedroom in his sweats, smoking a joint and burning a joss stick in a lazy attempt to hide the smell, not wanting to share his weed with anyone but Louis. The house is filled with the sound of boys getting ready to go out, the whiff of Axe body spray and shouts and crashes as they fight for the showers.

"Yeah, so? Wasn't Eleanor here, like, all of last week?" Zayn says, letting the smoke waft out of his mouth with every syllable.

"Yeah," Louis says, pushing his fringe this way, that way, and back again. "But we're dating."

"What's the difference?" Zayn asks.

"Nothing," Louis says in a way that seems to mean everything. "Okay, whatever, so you like fucking around. You know I'm totally on your side with that. Cute boy, Liam, I can see the appeal. But, shit, you have to ask Liam how old he is. He's not going here, he's definitely not in community college. I can't believe you've let him lie to you for this long."

"Why do I have to?" Zayn asks. "You know how much I hate drama."

"Because – because you just have to," Louis says. He rummages through his closet looking for a t-shirt, choosing a Joy Division one Zayn swears is his own. As he pulls it on, Louis' dark tattoos shine out from his clean-scrubbed skin and Zayn recognizes so many of his own doubled up on Louis' skin, not quite matching but their bodies inked with the same themes over and over. Louis leans down and pinches the joint from Zayn's fingers, taking a drag of his own and tapping it out into the joss stick. "The first couple of times, sure, whatever, but this is like, the fifth time or whatever, Zayn. He's either not in college – which is fine, you know, working man, that's totally cool – or he's hiding something from you. It's fucked up to just stick your fingers in your ears is all I'm saying."

Zayn frowns and gives a grunt, the noise he makes when he really doesn't want to admit that Louis is right. "You never cared before," Zayn says. "I've fucked a lot of people before this dude and you only wanted to know about the stupid things they said and shit."

"Because you almost never introduced any of them to me," Louis says, taking another hit and settling into the kind of smirk he knows Zayn hates most. "And because the kid loves you, Zayn. You know that, right?"

Zayn sighs. It's not something he's been really thinking about but it's hard not to see the way Liam acts around him, the way he talks. "I just wanted a goddamn hook up."

"Well, too bad because you and I both know this is way more important. And not just for him, I fucking see the way you get around him too," Louis says like he's playing his trump card, slapping it down on the table with restrained glee as he hands the joint back over. "How do I look?"

"Like shit," Zayn says.

"Too punky or not punk enough?"

"You look like trash."

"Leather jacket or jean?"

"Garbage bag," Zayn says, puffing angrily on the joint.

"Socks or no socks?"

"Go walk on broken glass."

"Should I shave? I like the stubble, don't you?"

"Cut your face off."

"Have a nice night," Louis says, leaning down to press a kiss on the top of Zayn's head, leaving him to be angry on his own. "Ask him."

*

The sun sets on Zayn and Liam, still curled up in Zayn's bed after their third time getting off together in as many hours. Zayn flicks on his bedside lamp as the room gets steadily darker, the old orange bonfire glow of the sky getting bruised blue and purple. Liam curls against Zayn's side, resting his head on his chest while his hand scratches absently at the tattoo spread dark over Zayn's sternum.

"You liked that?" Zayn asks, kissing the top of Liam's head, his curls all messy and rough from being tugged.

"It was even better this time," Liam mumbles. "You – give really good – uh. It was amazing."

Zayn laughs a little and Liam looks up at him with his dopey smile, always so glad he can make Zayn laugh. Pressed against Zayn's chest Liam must be able to feel the shape of the laugh go through him, echoing between naked bodies, and that makes him grin deeper, his cheeks warming against Zayn's skin. "This what you missed, eh?"

"Yeah," Liam murmurs, sleepy and fucked out, the kind of wrecked Zayn always wants to make him. "But, like, you too. I missed just. Being here with you."

Zayn swallows, and his hand stills in Liam's hair. He hates acknowledging that Louis was right but he can't shake the question from his mind, not when Liam says something like that. Getting Liam to come clean about not being in college seemed like a good idea, keep things honest, but somehow Zayn feels like this could end everything and after giving up a hundred chances to break things off with Liam before he really doesn't fancy the idea of losing him now.

Zayn has to know though, he has to give Liam the chance to stop lying because of all the fidgety, anxious things Liam does the lying really does seem to bother Liam most. Zayn thinks he understands Liam well enough to know that he doesn't want to lie, and Zayn hates knowing that he's the reason Liam is doing it. "Liam," Zayn says gently, making it sound easy and off-hand, "so, how, uh – I know I should have asked this before but I can't help wondering, like, how old are you? You're not, like, fifteen or anything right?" Zayn laughs but it sounds insincere even for him.

Liam freezes. Zayn can feel his body seize up next to him, tension coiling through his muscles, in his naked shoulders and stomach. "What?" he says and Zayn can barely hear him

"Liam, come on, I know there's no community college here," Zayn says, licking his lips. "Are you deferring a year or something? If you don't go to college I really don't give a shit. I just have to ask."

Liam's bottom lip is trembling, and he turns his head, downcast, away from Zayn. "Oh, God," he whispers. "Oh God, Zayn, I'm so sorry –"

"Liam?" Zayn pushes, keeping his voice calm even as he realizes this is much, much worse than he thought. So much worse. "How old are you?" he asks, needing an answer now.

"Seventeen," Liam says.

The blood in Zayn's veins goes cold, a tightness building in his chest like ice chips. "Seventeen when?"

"In eleven months," Liam whispers.

"Oh," Zayn says, trying hard to keep everything in control, trying not to scare Liam because he seems about ready to break down. Everything inside Zayn is freaking the fuck out but he uses every ounce of willpower to stay as even as possible. "That's, uh. That's. Not what I thought."

"I know," Liam says, still nothing but a whisper. "I – I just. Can I explain? Please, it's just. I like you so much, and I – I t-tried not to lie, but. I just. I didn't want you to stop – to stop seeing me." His voice is pale and ruined, the kind of wrecked Zayn really didn't want to cause. "I'm so sorry, I'm sorry I'm so – I just didn't –" Liam peters out in a whimper, a tremble that sounds like the last stop before crying. "Zayn?"

"Fuck, Louis is going to have a field day," Zayn says, forcing out a laugh he hopes will calm Liam down. Calm them both down. It doesn't work.

"I get it, I totally get it if you want to – want to stop," Liam says, like the words need to be torn from his throat.

"No, it's – it's –" Zayn has no idea what it is, though. It's like his head is filled with white noise like he's been chain smoking for an hour, so lightheaded he feels dizzy even lying down on his bed. One very fucked up part of him is hissing I told you so and Zayn feels his stomach bottom out. The last few weeks flash through Zayn's mind, the times they've hung out and how stupid, how ridiculous he sounded saying all of that to a sixteen year old. Since joining a frat Zayn has kind of built an immunity against shame but it doesn't work now and he feels fucking sick. The things they did, fucking around with a high schooler, letting Liam do those things to him.

The worst part is he still really likes Liam. All of that is still there, all the little things he's collected, the moments they've built together that have made Zayn glow long after Liam has gone. Even as the guilt floods through him like poison those things seem unmoveable, like they'll never lose their power no matter how wracked with fucking shame Zayn is now. It somehow makes everything worse because even as every fiber in Zayn tells him this has to end, this is wrong, the love never leaves. It happens all at once, all of this clashing in him at once and it takes all of Zayn's strength not to just punch a wall or scream into his pillow.

"I think I should drive you home," Zayn says quietly.

"Zayn," Liam whispers. "Can you just talk to me –

"Sorry, I just. I need to – I need some time to think, okay?" Zayn breathes out deeply as he slides out of bed, dressing quickly with his back to Liam. "I'll drive you home."

Liam doesn't say anything else, he just nods and crawls out of bed. He keeps his back to Zayn as he dresses, too.

*

Louis' pride and joy is a 1993 Toyota pick-up truck that's more rust than red paint, his freedom brought with him from high school and still running despite all of the shit (scrapes, screeches, vomit, spin-outs) it has gone through . Zayn is fucking lucky because it's not loaded up with empty beer kegs like it usually is and there's only a half a foot of McDonalds wrappers in the footwells. Zayn kicks out as much garbage as he can until Liam comes jogging out of the house, dressed crisp and clean again with his shoulderbag swinging on his arm. Only the redness in his eyes and the tremble in his lip betrays him.

"Where do you live?" Zayn asks as Liam slides in shotgun, slamming the door behind him.

"Glenmoriston, uh, fifty-eight," Liam says, his voice shaking a little. "Do you know where it is?"

"Yeah," Zayn says. "I know where it is."

Liam's just a bundle of ringing nerves, windchimes in a storm, the kind of panic that makes Zayn's guts twist. It's a panic that belongs to people a lot older than Liam, a sixteen year old should not be as tightly wound as a pocket watch about to break, springs loaded and gears grinding. And it's because of him. It's all because of him.

"Seat belt, Liam," Zayn says.

Zayn breaks the speed limit the whole way there, keeping his foot down even through residential streets. Liam keeps drumming his fingers on his legs nervously, too focused on the blur of the night passing them by to look at Zayn. Tall trees reaching over the road, silver leaves catching the light in the wind, a smear of neon, round street lamps lit up like orange planets.

The silence is awful. Zayn can hear the thudding of his own heart in his ears, one pulse of shame followed by one of love, the two songs playing in his head right now, one trying to drown out the other. He's still so mixed up and he almost feels like he's not safe to drive right now, like he should pull over and puke on the side of the road or something. There's one moment he can't get out of his mind though: the brilliant fucking smile Liam gave when they danced together in the supermarket, the flush of pride on his lips when he kissed Zayn. Stepping out of himself, letting himself do something Zayn knows now he had probably never done before. Sixteen.

It's in that silence that Zayn hears Liam too, the hiccuping little trembles he tries to keep buried down. A sharp sniff, labored breathing as Liam tries to calm himself down in cycles. Zayn keeps thinking you did this, you did this and he feels close to losing it too. It seems like way too high a price to pay for just a quick fuck after a break-up, a kind of selfishness Zayn wishes he never had.

It's twenty past eight when Zayn pulls up in front of Liam's house. For all the rushing and racing they've been doing, Liam is suddenly stock still, staring at a house filled up with light, not moving to get out.

"'I'm sorry, Liam," Zayn says quietly, turning off the engine.

"Me too," Liam says. He turns to look at Zayn for the first time since they sped off. He doesn't look as torn up as Zayn thought he might, he just seems so tired, more exhausted than ever. It's almost like Liam has collapsed in on himself under the weight of this, losing all of the confidence or happiness he ever had with Zayn as he faces walking back into his old life. All of his shy little giggles and bursts of needy confidence get buried underground, that jokey way he gets when he feels at his most comfortable setting like concrete. An ordinary boy, clean cut, quiet, expressionless. It's hard to think that an hour earlier he was lying next to Zayn and telling him how his day went.

"It's just – it's a lot for me right now," Zayn says. "I need to – I just need to think, okay?" Zayn tries to phrase it in a way that doesn't sound like the end, but finality creeps into his voice all the same.

"I know," Liam says, his voice barely moving above a whisper. "It's – it's why I never told you. I'm sorry about that, too."

Zayn sighs and stops himself from letting his head fall against the steering wheel. "You're a great kid, Liam. You really fucking are. I want you to know that."

"Yeah," Liam says.

"No," Zayn says, louder this time. He makes sure Liam is really looking at him. "You're kind of exceptional. More than most people I've ever been with. I want to make sure you know that."

"Okay," Liam says. His voice softens and he blinks a few times, his lashes coming away wet. "I just felt so – different with you. Freer, I guess. Like I was properly myself. I didn't want that to stop."

Zayn has to break the stare, turning away from Liam to look out the windshield at the bungalow lit up in front of them. "You'll find more people like that. You will. I didn't think so when I was in high school, but you will."

"I don't want other people," Liam says and he sounds absolutely, helplessly wounded.

It takes every fragment of strength Zayn has not to give in. He just wants to kiss Liam, he wants to fucking be that person who makes him feel like that. Because it's not just Liam who feels different, there's something in Zayn that just comes alive with Liam in a way he can't explain, all the stupid little things they talk about and do, the way the relationship things Zayn never really cared to be a part of suddenly feel not just enjoyable but necessary. It's a fleeting feeling he only gets when he brushes up against Liam's side, when Liam tells him about something he really likes, when they lock themselves up in Zayn's room and just exist side by side. A part of Zayn just wants to let that happen, to crawl back into bed with Liam and talk, thinking about how easy it would be to just turn the car around and say fuck it.

"I'm really sorry," Zayn whispers.

"Me too," Liam says again as he gets out of the truck. Liam makes to close the door but he suddenly stops himself. Leaning back into the truck he says: "I really, really hope your comic goes well. It sounded so cool, Zayn. I – I mean that. I hope you do amazing."

"Thanks, Liam. Seriously, thank you."

"Maybe – text me after your proposal? Just to tell me how you did?"

"Maybe," Zayn says.

Liam nods and his shoulders stoop as he sighs. He looks at Zayn for a moment longer like he's daring himself to lean in for a kiss but he pats the door twice instead and turns away.

The time it takes for Liam to walk up to the house and let himself in with his key is physically painful. Zayn waits until Liam closes the door behind him before he cries, a single furious, coughing sob he presses into the sleeve of his sweater. His body shudders as he takes in his next breath and he forces himself to stop. By the time Zayn pulls out of the driveway he's stone-faced and silent.

*

"Louis."

"Fugoff."

"Louis, wake up, it's noon."

"Lies."

"You've got class in two hours."

"No."

"Louis, please, just – get up, okay?"

Louis winks open an eye, glaring at Zayn. "Why?"

"I need to talk," Zayn says.

"Oh?" Louis says waking up to that idea. He rolls onto his back, drawing his blankets up to the tattoo scrawled across the top of his chest. "Would you say you need a heart to heart?"

Zayn is really not in the mood right now, he just needs his Louis. "Louis, not now."

"But then how will we talk?" Louis asks, and even though he's hungover as shit he manages a smirk. "How will I know you need a serious talk about emotions that I can't make fun of you for having? If only we had a secret word for that, like heart to heart."

"Louis, fucking please, just –"

"It's too bad," Louis says, propping himself up on his pillows now, rubbing sleep from his eyes. "Because I could use a good heart to heart with my best friend."

"Louis," Zayn finally says, letting his voice drop.

It seems it's only then that Louis notices Zayn, really looks at him. Rumpled clothes, eyes dark from the night Zayn spent tossing and turning. Louis immediately shifts gears in that way he can, jumping from a joking smirk right into the concern Zayn needs so badly right now. "Shit, Zayn, the fuck happened?"

Zayn tries to set his jaw. He came in here ready to be stoic, to hold his head high because he made the right decision, but he just can't with Louis. Being honest with Louis isn't a choice, it's the only thing Zayn knows how to do. Thank fuck, too, because Louis is the only one Zayn wants to talk to right now. He might be the king of fucking shit up but he knows Zayn, he knows exactly what he needs all the time. "Yeah, so. So he's fucking sixteen."

Louis opens his mouth with an ah of comprehension. "We haven't had a heart to heart in forever, man," Louis says sincerely this time, a bit of a smile but a consoling one as he pats the spot next to him in bed. "C'mere, dude."

Zayn takes his place, sliding under the covers like Louis insists. Zayn buries himself in the blankets next to Louis. He hasn't done this since sophomore year but it still feels totally familiar, it feels safe, and even though Louis has a queen-size mattress now Zayn still shuffles close to him like it's his old twin bed. "I don't know why I'm so fucked up about it," Zayn says. He presses his head against Louis' shoulder. "I called it quits, obviously. I – had to. But just – the way he looked at me."

"Betrayed?" Louis ventures cautiously.

"No, not at all," Zayn says. "I fucking broke him, Louis. That's how he looked at me, like he still fucking loved me even as I was ending it. I really fucked everything up."

It's the perfect chance for Louis to get out that I told you so he so very much loves to say, but instead he just puts an arm around Zayn and tugs him closer. "He must've known, it's why he didn't tell you when you first hooked up."

"I really should have asked him sooner," Zayn says with a laugh. "I fucking hate when you're right."

Another chance for Louis to get one in, but his fingers squeeze Zayn's shoulder instead. "It – it kind of looks like he fucked you up too."

Zayn really hates how obvious it must be. All those fucking cocky things he said about not dating, about hooking up for fun, and living single through college. It all made sense at the time but he can't explain the fucking ache he feels right now knowing he can't just text Liam up and have him over for an afternoon, not even just to fuck around, just to hear him and all his little insights into the world, looking at things through his eyes. The way he gets excited about the simplest of things, the way he just lives. Even after so little time Zayn almost craves having Liam close, still puzzling out the little pieces to him Zayn never got the chance to know. "I don't know. I don't know, Louis. I seriously fucked up."

"Fucked up," Louis says, balancing the words carefully. "Fucked up by not asking sooner or fucked up by breaking it off?"

"I don't know," Zayn mumbles. "Fucking both?"

Zayn can feel Louis shrug next to him. "This shit is complicated, Zayn. Sixteen is – sixteen is young, we gotta be real here. I mean, he's definitely legal, but he's young. I don't know him as well as you but he seems like he's got a good head on his shoulders but – you're twenty-one, dude. Sixteen is light years away from that." Louis sighs and snuggles closer to Zayn so they're almost under the covers now, kids at a sleepover under a blanket fort, whispering secrets. It's oddly calming being like this with Louis. They only met their first year here but he feels like they've been friends since childhood sometimes. "You said he wasn't out of the closet, right? And he's still in high school. I remember the awful fucked up stories you told me about when you were in high school. Being with him is – dude, it's going to be hard on both of you. You really wanna go back to that? After all the shit you said about hating high school and wanting to get the hell out of a place like that?"

"I saw something in him though, when we were together," Zayn says slowly, remembering how Liam felt in those moments. "He kind of. He kissed me in public. He held my hand in front of the pledges. He was – different around me."

"You aren't going to save him," Louis says quietly. "You can't magically force him out of the closet with the power of your love, dude."

Zayn thinks about that for a few long seconds. "I know. I don't want to make him come out," Zayn replies slowly. "I don't care if he's out."

"Is that really how you want to – is that really the relationship you want?" Louis asks. "I've seen you fucking blossom here, dude. The way you are now compared to when we met – it's incredible. The life you're living now, that's what you wanted, right?"

It's frustrating how on the nose Louis is about everything. He always gave the best advice but the way he can guess exactly how Zayn is feeling is annoying as it is wanted. "It is, but –"

"But?"

"Fuck it, I don't know," Zayn says, muffled against Louis' side. "Seriously, fuck it."

Louis groans but it actually makes Zayn smile, just the fondness with which Louis hates him right now. "You're fucking hopeless," Louis says. "Wasn't this some rebound or something? Weren't you supposed to just hook up and go your separate ways."

"Things got – complicated," Zayn says.

"Listen, and don't punch me when I say this, okay?"

"Okay," Zayn says, though he can't help but raise an eyebrow.

"No, seriously, promise me," Louis says.

"I promise not to punch you when you inevitably tell me something I really do not want to hear right now," Zayn says, putting a hand to his chest like a vow.

"Well, okay. Zayn, I love you to pieces, you know that. But you go hard, dude. You fall for people like no one else I've seen," Louis says. "You're intense, and I get that, that's you. You must know your rule system is bullshit though, right? We came up with it our first term and you broke it before Christmas." Louis yawns, trying to hide his smirk. "Face it, dude. You like being in love."

"I broke it?" Zayn says, hoping it's loud enough to make Louis' hangover ache. "We were meant to be two single dudes through college and you started dating Eleanor before we were even sophomores."

"Yeah, but I only promised that to make you feel better," Louis says primly. "It's cute how you think you're some awesome movie college guy who doesn't date because that's lame or something. Fucking random dudes because you think that's what college is. Zayn, you love dating, you just pretend that it's not dating. You were dating Harry. Everyone but you seemed to know that. You took him to that stupid Sigma formal, for fuck's sake. You danced with him in front of everyone. It's real cute how you think you're above it when you're the soppiest, most romantic person I know." Louis gives his most irritating smile at that. "Apart from me, of course."

"What's your fucking point, dude?" Zayn asks. He knows Louis' fucking point but he needs to hear it said anyway. The jumble of feelings he's already got for Liam – a good fuck, going too fast, wanting him, messing with his head, being genuinely charmed by him, pushing him away – are too tangled to be sorted, a snare of thorns and briars, but as usual Louis can cut through them and straight into what Zayn needs to hear.

"You gotta think, dude," Louis says. "That's all. Do you like Liam cause he's a rebound and you need someone to be with? Do you like him because you think you can save him from having the same shitty high school life that you did? Or do you like him because – well, because you like him?"

"I don't know," Zayn mutters.

"Not good enough," Louis says sharply. "Just think. You gotta figure out if this is worth it, right? If it's worth fucking up how far you've made it here and – well, you have to think about Liam's life too, if he's not ready to come out. You both gotta decide on that, dude. There's only so much I can tell you. This is something you gotta work out on your own. If it is worth it, I've got you back one hundred percent. One thousand percent. Deal?"

"Okay," Zayn says. "You can say it now."

"Ooh, seriously?" Louis says.

"Go for it, Lou."

"Because I really did tell you so," Louis says with an instant grin.

Zayn punches Louis' arm anyway. "Fuck off."

"You know, I'm actually kind of pissed though," Louis says massaging the place Zayn punched. "I think I picked seventeen in the pool. Fuck. Twenty bucks fucking gone just like that."

"You what?" Zayn asks.

"A bunch of us put money in a pool betting on how old Liam was. I think someone even bet on fifteen. Think about it, you got pretty lucky."

Groaning, Zayn digs harder into Louis' side, less cuddling and more trying to get in jabs with his elbows and knees. "I hate this place."

A quiet falls down around them like the blankets that settle back down over their heads. The light of the morning filters through the red comforter making the light around them blood-pink and hot with their shared breathing. Louis' eyes are closed again but he's still awake, fingers playing just gently against Zayn's knee. When the laughter is gone Zayn finds himself falling back into that place again, the sea of poison churning in his guts and the solitary islands that Liam left behind, places of safe port in the thought of his fixation on comics and the way he talked about music.

"So what are you going to do?" Louis whispers.

"I don't know," Zayn says. "I really don't know."

*

The art studios are never quiet, not even at one in the morning on a Tuesday night. There are a flock of fine arts majors running around with their hands and hair covered in acrylics and oils, paintbrushes accidentally washed out in cups of coffee, a general air of panic like they're in a bunker and running out of rations. Zayn miraculously manages to find an architecture room open and empty and he settles down to work on one of the desks under a single pool of light from the tableside lamp.

Spreading his rough drafts in front of him he starts to ink the carefully drawn and re-drawn pencil lines. It's soothing work, automatic as he follows each line with the delicate stroke of his pen. It's exactly the kind of work he needs right now, fluid and thoughtless, the simple transformation of the pale lines into thick wires of black.

Zayn is only just getting into the rhythm of things when his phone vibrates in his pocket.

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-02-13 1:01 am

Sorry if this is 2 late just wanted to say hi I gues

The surge of happiness he gets just from seeing Liam's name on the text makes Zayn's cheeks burn. He struggles against the smile that tugs at his lips, forcing himself back down to earth. There are a hundred things Zayn thinks about saying in reply but his thumb hovers over the buttons without typing a thing. He stares at his phone for three minutes before locking it and putting it back in his pocket.

Forcing his mind back to his work Zayn starts inking again but this time his hands shake against the pen. He stops for a moment, putting the pen back down on the work station and just breathes. In and out until his heart stops racing. He holds his hands out and they stay level, but when he picks up the pen again he can't make a straight line.

Another buzz.

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-02-13 1:07 am

I thot you mite be in the studio and maybe needed a break sorry if I woke u Ill text u later

Zayn reads the text three times. He turns the phone over and over in his hand. He said he needed time to think but honestly since he had the talk with Louis, Zayn has found every opportunity to avoid thinking about Liam. Swamped with work and class and frat stuff it's been easy to avoid thinking about Liam (except in those moments right before he falls asleep, or in the tired silence before a lecture starts, or when he shaves in the mirror and remembers the red flush on Liam's lips after they kissed) but it's unavoidable now.

Even from far away Liam can pierce Zayn's confident calm so easily. Heart racing, a beat in his throat like a kettle drum, that involuntary smile Zayn can never quite manage to get rid of. Louis said he needed to figure out what this was – rebound, white knight, actual love – but they all seem so interconnected. Liam was just a rebound but Zayn knows it never felt properly like a one-night stand, not really, not when he just kept thinking about the next time they could meet, and then next. And he does love seeing Liam slowly come out of his shell, but it's more than just feeling good that he's the one who helped do it. They're all just broken pieces of a whole that Zayn is trying to put together, different things about Liam he likes most that he knows he was beginning to fit into the shape of a boyfriend.

And his hand still won't stop shaking, so he picks up his phone.

From: Zayn
To: Liam
10-02-13 1:11 am

I am in the studio and I do need a break. How u been liam?

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-02-13 1:13 am

Ok schools been ok i bot some more comicsss haha ironman and i was just reading an thot of u. How bout u?

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
10-02-13 1:16 am

Ok. Lots of work lots and lots barely been at home barely left the studio barely done anything

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-02-13 1:17 am

I really miss you

It really was a matter time before one of them said it but seeing it under Liam's name makes Zayn's heart squeeze like a fist. Even something as stupid as seeing all the words written out in full, picturing as Liam carefully typed it out, maybe re-read it before sending. Zayn's hands fall slack against his phone, the coarse tension of their conversation like nothing was wrong collapsing into nothing.

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-02-13 1:17 am

Sorry. Sorry I just needed to

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
10-02-13 1:18 am

I miss you too

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-02-13 1:20 am

I wont say anything els just if u want to come see me just come ok i wont ask u 2 im just offering i would like it a lot if u did but i get if u dont

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
10-02-13 1:21 am

I cant promise you anything but if I did where

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-02-13 1:23 am

I box mon tue and thur at 4 that place I told u about. Just drop by if u want

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
10-02-13 1:25 am

Ok. You taking care of yourself?

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-02-13 1:26 am

Tryn 2 every day. I hope u are 2

Zayn turns off his phone and puts it back in his pocket. When he picks up his pen again it's like nothing had ever happened, the lines coming as easy as anything. Zayn starts to work, knowing he has so much to finish this week but his mind starts drifting back to the places he spent so hard closing off. It's hard not to though, and Zayn keeps smiling to himself as he draws the lines for the comic book of his life. This time when he draws it's like he's not just telling old stories but new ones too, the grin he can't shake bleeding into every touch of his pen to paper.

*

The boxing studio is a squat red brick building, plain except for a wooden sign above the door that says Lee's Dojo on faded black lettering with a phone number and fax number underneath. It really does not look like the place Liam would frequent, kind of beat up and dirty, the sort of place that might host underground boxing tournaments, but when Zayn gets out of his car and steps in the front door he sees Liam's shoulderbag resting up against the wall next to his shoes.

It's not like any gym Zayn has been in. No front desk, no foyer, just a little anteroom that leads into a wide-open space that looks like it might have been a warehouse. In the middle of the floor there are four boxing rings sitting snug together. All around them are punching bags dangling from the ceiling like weird fruit, big beat up kevlar things that have seen years of work. There's a small set of bleachers along one wall, empty except for a few men who are sitting and chatting together by the far end.

Zayn walks up the bleachers, his boots ringing against the metal until he reaches the top. There are only about a dozen of men in the room, most of them burly guys who even Zayn wouldn't want to mess with. It's impossible imagining Liam in a place like this, his excitement and sincerity clashing with the peeling paint on the walls and the dented, messed up floor that has seen too many weights dropped on it.

Scanning the room Zayn eventually does spot Liam. He's not in the ring, he's at a punching bag with a man holding a clipboard and a stopwatch, obviously a trainer here. Liam's wearing a loose white tank-top that billows when he moves, and even though he's quite well built (for a sixteen year old, a voice in his head whispers) he looks long and lanky right now. His sweatpants are loose and his bare feet squeak on the floor as he changes positions, putting weight from one foot to the other.

The flurry of punches he gives the bag is impressive. Liam's curly hair bounces as he jumps around, keeping light on his feet as he rounds the punching bg, training his jabs carefully as he does.

Ten minutes pass, giving Zayn ample time to realize how big a mistake this is. It's impulsive, taking Liam up on his offer, and Zayn knows that deep down, but at the same time he couldn't just leave it at that. Text messages at one in the morning, Liam sounding as plaintive as Zayn feels sometimes. He couldn't let it all come to nothing, he couldn't let the question of who they could be end in a panicked little drive back to Liam's house. Zayn hates knowing that the last time he saw Liam was in a rush of shame and fear and he thinks, at the very least, they deserve something just a little better. Even if it comes to nothing. Even if Zayn drives away from here and doesn't see Liam again.

It's five more minutes of Zayn wondering if he should bolt out of here before Liam notices him. There's a moment of shock but Liam suddenly grins and even from this far he can see Liam bite down on his lower lip and go up on his tiptoes like he's got too much energy in him to just stay still.

Zayn gives him a lazy wave and Liam waves back. He stares at Zayn for a moment longer before turning back to his trainer. After a quick conversation during which Liam pointed towards Zayn three times Liam's trainer nods and pats Liam's shoulder before walking off. As Liam half-jogs towards where Zayn is he stops to slap the hands of each of the rough, muscled dudes he walks past, all of them apparently knowing Liam by name. Liam has his shoulders up and even from a distance Zayn can tell he's keeping his body tight and hard, acting more like a jock than Zayn ever got a chance to see. It's the first time Zayn has really seen Liam's world before, the boy who works out in this place and knows all these grown men well enough to smile as he jogs by fucking with half of the things Zayn thought he knew about Liam.

It's eye-opening. He knew what Liam meant when he said he wasn't out but there's no denying he's different in here. A bit rougher, a bit stronger, adapting to his situation as needs be. Zayn knows instantly this isn't the place to touch Liam, even hug him, and it's the first time Zayn realizes that this is how it's going to be if they – if this happens. Not touching Liam in places like this, not being able to take his hand. All the steps Zayn made going forward will suddenly be pulled away, back to the place where he was in high school when he hooked up with dudes when he was drunk, never to talk about it again. Pretending nothing was out of the ordinary, just two friends out in public. Not even hands to brush side by side. The life he thought he left behind long ago.

But then there's Liam.

The bleachers ring out again as Zayn walks down to meet Liam on the floor. They stop three feet apart from each other, Liam almost skidding to a halt like he just remembered who they were, where they are. Liam doesn't look so lanky up close, he looks pretty buff, actually, with his flat stomach and biceps strained, sweat on his temples and staining his tank top in a crescent at his chest. When he looks at Zayn, though, it's a different story, this brilliance in his grin like he's only just stopping himself from jumping into Zayn's arms. Even though Zayn doesn't even dare touch Liam's shoulder he doesn't really care right now.

"Hi," Zayn says. "Quite the place."

"My dad knows the owner," Liam says, out of breath. "You came."

"Sorry," Zayn says because it's all he knows how to say right now. He doesn't know what he wants to apologize for, all of it maybe, but he needs to say. "I'm sorry I – sorry."

Liam shakes his head. "It's cool. I – it's cool. You – you came." Liam gives a quick look around, knowing that a few of the men in the warehouse are looking at them. His energy still rings in him though and Liam licks his lips twice before looking back at Zayn. "Give me a second to get changed, I'll meet you outside, okay?"

*

The trees have mostly lost their leaves and the hard gray concrete of the parking lot looks a lot like the flat slate of the sky. Colors are drained out here like an old television, just the faded brick of the gym and the yellow-brown grass and the gray of the industrial park that surrounds them. Zayn kicks at stones as he paces in front of the building while he tries to sort out his thoughts, feeling a lot more lost now that he's seen Liam and his grin, like a bolt of electricity passed between them.

Liam walks out of the building in his jeans and the sweater Zayn lent him, a duffel bag joining his school bag over his shoulder. When he comes near Zayn he stops three feet away again, a buffer Zayn is coming to hate after knowing how easily he fits next to Liam's side. Even as they stand apart though, even as he gets frustrated knowing this is how it will be, there's a part of Zayn that just does not give a shit.

"I'm really happy you came," Liam says, his hands fidgeting at the buckles of his bag.

"Let's talk," Zayn says, gesturing to the truck he borrowed off Louis yet again.

They get in and slam the doors almost totally in sync. The truck is facing the gym and they sit there, not daring to touch, as men walk in and out of the building.

"I'm going to be straight with you, all right?" Zayn says.

Liam looks worried but he nods.

"It's fucking hard for me with you – with you not being out," Zayn starts, fighting against the trembling in his throat. He feels hard-wired, pushed up against the rocks with his chest squeezing until it hurts but pushes on. "Coming out was - difficult for me and I worked – I worked really hard to get where I am. Going back to that is – it's not fair, for either of us. I can't be the guy you need and you can't be the one I need." It sounds so rational in his head but as he says it Zayn hates the way it sounds. "I don't know if I can go back to being like – like that."

"I'll come out –" Liam says, jumping on the idea instantly. "I don't care, I will –"

"No, shit, dude," Zayn says. He wants to tip Liam's chin towards him like the times he did it before but he knows he can't, not right now. "That's the whole point. You need to come out the way you want to, at the speed you want to. I don't want to make you do something that drastic. I know school is hard for you, I know why you go boxing, dude. You need to do this the way that feels – that feels safest."

The frown that creases Liam's face isn't frustrated or upset, it's a frown like he somehow let Zayn down. "You make me feel safe," Liam says quietly.

"Sometimes I won't," Zayn says. It's impossible for Zayn not to think about his own senior year of high school when he finally let it slip too many times, when people finally figured everything out. The sharp slap of alienation from people he thought liked him, the indifference of friends he had for years. Zayn keeps his voice steady though, thinking about the family he has now, his boys. It's hard not to want to share them with Liam, to let him know like a ghost from Christmas future that this shit turns out okay. "Sometimes it will be fucking hard. For both of us," Zayn says instead, needing Liam to know that above all.

"I know," Liam says, sniffing after he says it, wiping his face with the sleeve of the borrowed sweater. "I think I – I think I can do it, though."

Zayn takes a deep breath. Everything comes to him so strongly, the clash of those old fucked up memories with Liam here right now, looking over at Zayn and saying shit Zayn would never have been brave enough to say at sixteen. "You'll be honest with me this time?"

"Always," Liam says, a blush to his cheeks as he no doubt remembers the first lies he told.

"No, not that," Zayn says. "If it ever gets too much. If we're going too fast. If you need to stop for a while. Don't just lie and pretend like everything is fine. We need to do this right."

Liam thinks about that for a moment, his head turned as he watches men with work out bags and towels slung over their shoulders walking into the gym. His fingers tap against his knee, a nervous fidget Zayn remembers from that shitty car ride those weeks ago. This time Zayn doesn't cover his hand though, he just keeps his own flat on his knee.

"I'm in if you are," Liam says finally, his eyes wet and red but smiling when he looks at Zayn.

Zayn breathes out slowly like he's exhaling smoke. It's such a tiny little moment, trapped in a truck in front of a rundown boxing gym, not nearly the grand sweeping gesture as he dives headfirst into something that could really fuck him up, fuck them both up. But it's good enough, it's their thing now, and Zayn nods. "I'm in."

Liam grins and finally falls back against the seat of the truck like he's wriggling with energy, has to move or he'll explode. "I missed you, Zayn."

"Where do you wanna go?" Zayn asks but before he can turn the key in the ignition Liam reaches over and covers Zayn's hand with his own.

"I don't care, let's just drive for a while," Liam says.

"Sounds good to me."

*

They find a little diner on the outskirts of town, a greasy spoon all lit up in neon orange lights and the red and green of hilariously premature Christmas decorations. A nice old woman with a lavender wash in her gray hair serves them, endlessly refilling Zayn's coffee and Liam's diet coke. They each order burgers and eat while Liam talks Zayn's ear off about the new Agents of SHIELD show, the things they got right and the things they got hopelessly wrong.

"Listen, can you get this weekend off? Tell your parents you're having a sleepover or something?" Zayn asks as he steals a few fries from Liam's plate even though he has plenty of his own.

"I think so," Liam says. "Why?"

"For once we don't have any parties planned or anything. You could come over Friday, stay until Sunday if you want," Zayn says casually even as Liam smiles at his first few words. "We could have the weekend to ourselves. In, like, a safe spot. Nothing to worry about.

"I'd like that," Liam says, laughing a little. "Yeah, definitely."

"Good," Zayn says. "Come over Friday when you're done with school?"

"Sounds like a plan," Liam says. And of course, he can't help adding: "I'm really excited. I love your frat."

The diner is filled with people and Liam and Zayn sit on opposite sides of the booth, their hands not even so much brushing as they reach for the ketchup. Under the table, though, Liam presses his knee up against Zayn's their legs tangling together the way they might in bed. That touch never parts, not until they get up to pay the bill.

*

When Liam shows up at the house, just after six in the evening, he's carrying a duffel bag with him and Zayn has to keep from laughing. Liam texted on the bus ride over so Zayn is waiting on the front step by the time he rounds the corner and walks up to meet him. They greet with a quick kiss, Liam hopping up on tip toes for just a moment. Zayn tries to keep his laughter in check as he opens the door for him, a smile dancing across his lips.

"Did you – did you bring a sleepover bag?" Zayn asks, can't help but snicker a little.

Liam blushes, dropping it the bag on the floor. "Yeah?" he says carefully, unwinding his scarf and unzipping his jacket. "It's just an extra change of clothes and something to sleep in and my toothbrush and stuff."

"I have – I already have all of those things, Liam," Zayn says. Liam couldn't seem like more of a high schooler if he tried, but somehow that skips right past embarrassing and crashes right into endearing. "But this is – cool too. It's, uh. It's very you."

Liam smiles weakly at the joke and Zayn's stomach tightens. "I just wasn't sure if –"

"Hey, dude, what's up?" Zayn asks, putting a finger under Liam's chin and taking his attention in his hand.

"Nothing," Liam says, itching to turn away from Zayn's curious gaze but resisting. "I just – I just had kind of a crappy day. It's okay. I'm here now." He takes a deep breath, and he settles onto a smile when he breathes out. "The guys are here?"

Zayn nods. "Setting up the barbecue in the back. Burgers for dinner all right?"

"Great," Liam says, but he's still missing a bit of his lustre. Zayn recognizes it as Liam still carrying too much of his other life with him, heavy weights on his shoulders he hasn't quite gotten rid of. Zayn understands his mission right away.

"Come on, we'll get you set up before you're thrown to the dogs," Zayn says, taking the stairs two at a time as Liam follows him.

The sound of the boys in the backyard is quieter up here, their laughter muted in the background like a badly tuned radio, the music they're playing and the clinking of beer bottles together. There's a safety in Zayn's bedroom that he wants to let Liam take in for a little bit before everything goes down, locking the door behind him as Liam steps inside.

"You cleaned up," Liam says, and he smiles earnestly at that. "Wow."

"Yeah, whatever," Zayn says, shrugging. So he tidied up a little bit. That's normal. That's definitely something he does all the time. "Throw your stuff wherever."

"I brought your sweater back," Liam says as he drops his bag on the end of Zayn's bed and unzips it. "Washed and folded. Sorry it – took so long."

"Put it on," Zayn says. "You might as well keep it, I never wear it." It's only a bit of a lie.

"Really?" Liam asks.

"Hey, you've got a nickname, you're pretty much an honorary Kappa Tau." Zayn comes up close to Liam, sliding into his personal space, as welcome as always to take it. He gets his fingers around the hem of Liam's shirt and Liam responds immediately, raising his arms to the roof as Zayn pulls it off of him. "Besides, the boys will love that you're in our letters."

Liam tenses up at the mention of them, more obvious now that he's shirtless. Zayn runs his hands down Liam's sides, feeling the slats of his ribs, the surprisingly solid muscles of his stomach. "Are you sure they –"

"Yes, Liam. They've been asking about you, actually. Why you – hadn't been over lately," Zayn says, nuzzling Liam's ear. He presses his lips to the lobe, bites down on it gently. He can feel Liam's smile just from the pinch in his cheeks against Zayn's skin. "They want to see you. You obviously made an impression."

"I'm really nervous," Liam admits. It must be true, because he's worrying his lip between his teeth, but Zayn notices that it's a good kind of nervous, not at all like the heavy weight in him as they drove home a few nights ago. It's like Liam has been given permission to breathe out now that he's up in Zayn's arms.

"Nah, there's nothing to be worried about."

"They're your brothers, though," Liam says softly. "It's like – it's like I'm meeting your family."

Zayn gives a snort of laughter, but he likes the idea. "I guess so. My actual family are a lot smarter than this lot, though. And funnier. And they don't throw up in your laundry baskets and pretend it wasn't them."

"Your family," Liam repeats quietly, making the words sound almost holy. "I remember, you said you have sisters, right?"

"Three," Zayn says. "Doniya, Waliyha, and Safaa."

"Right," Liam says. "And, uh. Do they – do they know about you?"

"Doniya does," Zayn says easily. Zayn moves to sit on the edge of his bed, and Liam – still only half-dressed, still adjusting to being with Zayn as his smiles come easier – sits next to him, their legs touching from knee to hip, bare skin of their arms. "Yeah, she always kind of knew. Older sisters, right? She was the first person I told, she's always been really good about it. Waliyha and Safaa are pretty young, I don't know, it's never really come up with them. Maybe they know, I never asked."

"What about your parents?" Liam asks, an eagerness in his voice to know more and Zayn knows that he's looking for help, maybe imagining how his own life might turn out.

"They're cool," Zayn says evenly, giving a one-shouldered shrug. "It was a little weird at first, but they came around. God reveals everything in time, that's what my dad said. He doesn't really understand but he knows there's a reason for it, I guess. We respect each other, like." Zayn has never really talked about this before with anyone, but he's surprised to see how easily he can speak about it with Liam. Maybe it's the few years that have passed since he first came out, but it seems so simple now, none of the trouble of his teenage years left to worry about. But when he looks at Liam, he can see some of that in him, and Zayn hurts a little just remembering how raw sixteen felt. "And, you know, moms are moms."

Liam nods, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "I think maybe my sisters know. They haven't really said anything, but they – they've kind of hinted that, I don't know. They keep saying things like, that I can tell them anything, stuff like that."

"Ruth and Nicola, yeah?" Zayn asks.

Turning to look at Zayn, Liam smiles like he's still caught off-guard knowing that Zayn thinks he's important enough to remember things like that. "They're really cool. I wish you could meet them."

Zayn licks his lips, nodding slowly. "Sure, maybe."

"You'd want to meet them?" Liam asks, brightening a little. "They're really awesome. They're funny and really nice, and they'd absolutely love you. Ruth is kind of an artist too, she draws a lot." Hearing Liam talk about his sisters is painfully sweet, the life in his voice, the patter of his words the way he gets when he's excited.

"Do you want them to know about me?" Zayn asks.

Liam thinks on that for a little bit. "I think I'd like that." Liam nods, almost like he's assuring himself. "It would be nice to – to let someone know."

"Well, you can start with my brothers," Zayn says. "They're cool about this stuff, I promise. Might throw you into a couple of headlocks, though."

"There's going to be headlocks?" Liam asks.

"They're harmless," Zayn says, running his thumb along Liam's bottom lip, tilting his face closer and sealing the place he touched with his lips. "But I'll punch anyone who gives you a hard time. Just point them out and, pow, right in the throat. Cool?"

"All right," Liam says, smiling. He stands up when Zayn does, stepping away just for a moment to pull on the sweater, shaking his curly hair out when he does, but he's back up against Zayn the second after.

"Ready, dude?"

"I guess so," Liam says, taking his bottom lip in under his teeth.

"We don't have to go yet," Zayn says, just wanting to make sure Liam knows where he is, where he belongs. "If you wanna talk."

"I think I'm ready," Liam says, huffing out a steadying breath.

"Okay, just, you can refuse any shots you don't want to do, okay? Because there will be a lot," Zayn says. "Try to laugh at Louis' jokes, he'll like that. If they make fun of you that means they like you. Uh, what else?" Zayn puts a hand against Liam's back as he guides him out of the room, a hand that slips down to his ass, and then down into the back pocket of his jeans. "Just, like, be who you wanna be. These guys don't care, they'll like you all the same. They're my brothers, like." Zayn kisses the side of Liam's head and they stop walking, just taking a moment to stand at the top of the stairs while the sound of a growing party crashes at their feet, the smell of beer and lighter fluid and cooking meat. "And just stick with me, okay? You've got me. We've got each other."

"We've got each other," Liam repeats like a mantra.

"All right, come on. And Liam? Prepare to give more high fives than you've ever given in your whole fucking life."

*

Zayn has barely opened the sliding glass door when Niall jumps out of his lawn chair, throws open his arms (beer in one hand and sunglasses in the other) and yells "LEMUR!"

Everyone turns to look at them, conversations halted mid-sentence, only the sizzle of the grill and the slow beat of Kid Cudi playing on a sound system. In the lull, Liam blushes bright and gives a short wave hello. Zayn can feel him shake, and he tightens his grip around his waist.

"So, this is Liam –" Zayn starts to say but it's too late. Running from the crowd, Louis and Niall jump up onto the deck and flank Liam on each side, pulling him away from Zayn with their arms thrown over his shoulders.

"Okay, introductions, listen up!" Louis shouts, guiding Liam into the grass and towards the crowd, two dozen frat boys all wearing their uniforms of muscle shirts and snapbacks and dirty shorts. Zayn winces, but stays smiling. He knows he's tossing Liam into the deep end, but he's got enough love for Louis and Niall and the rest of his boys to know that this will turn out okay. "We've got a special guest with us this weekend. His name is Liam, and he is not legally allowed to drink!"

A chorus of cheering rises from the crowd, and immediately ten beers are thrust in Liam's direction. He stammers and waves them off and Zayn can hear him saying thank you and sorry about fifty times each.

"Some of you might know him as the dude who ruined our brave little Zayn," Louis continues in his best leadership voice, just on the edge of laughing. Another chorus of cheers, and Zayn rolls his eyes. "So I think we should raise a toast, guys. To the boy who makes Zayn blush at the very mention of his name!"

Beers are raised, clashed together, a foamy mess of spray going around as they spill their drinks in a rowdy cheer. It's all downhill after that. Louis puts a beer in Liam's hand and, with Niall, they bring him round and introduce him to the guys one by one, shouting Lemur every chance they get. In seconds Liam is devoured by the crowd, a little helpless, still very red, and smiling so hard his cheeks must be hurting.

Zayn sits down on the edge of the deck and lights up a cigarette, taking a long, laughing draw from it. It's exactly how he thought it would go, Louis never disappointing, and Zayn just takes the moment to enjoy watching his found family slowly adopt Liam as one of their own. He can hear the odd shout of his name as Liam get swallowed up in big bear hugs Zayn knows must make him stammer his words. It makes Zayn weirdly proud, not just of Liam but of his fraternity, of all the strange and broken choices that brought him to this one moment where he can introduce his sort-of-boyfriend to a group of twentysomething college kids who immediately make a space for him in their lives. Zayn knows it didn't happen by accident, that it took work to build this place into the cathedral of boyhood and drunken love it is now, but it's the first time Zayn really stepped back and realized the luck of his life and love of his friends.

"He's really cute. Like, really, really cute."

Zayn jumps a little, coughing on a breath of smoke he swallows. Harry sits down next to him on the deck, pats Zayn's knee softly. "Hey, Harry," Zayn says, bumping his shoulder against Harry's.

"Hey, Zany," Harry says, the old nickname making Zayn smile. "So this is the kid I've been hearing about from Niall and Louis?"

"That's him," Zayn says. "Hey, I haven't seen you around, dude."

"Oh, yeah," Harry says, dragging out the last syllable in that familiar way he does. "I've been working on that performance art piece."

"The one in the cube?"

"That's it," Harry says. "I'm almost done, too. It's going really well."

"I loved what you showed me of it," Zayn says. "You still doing it naked?"

"That's the whole point," Harry says, mock-seriousness, pursing his lips just so.

Zayn laughs, bumping his shoulder against Harry again. "When are you presenting?" Zayn asks, taking a few quick hits off his cigarette, blowing the smoke into the wind.

"Next week, actually," Harry says. "It's the fall showcase."

"Can I come see it?"

"Are you kidding me?" Harry says. "That would be amazing. That would be incredible, Zayn. You want to come?"

"Obviously," Zayn says. "You've been talking about that piece for, what, like a year? I want to see your – your vision."

"I'll get you some tickets," Harry says, smiling his proud, dimpled smile.

"Isn't it free?"

Harry gives an exaggerated pout, enough that he cracks Zayn up again. "I just like the idea of getting people tickets," he says, his voice dragging, a deep bass.

"Okay, get me tickets," Zayn says.

"I'll get you two. Bring Liam as well," Harry says.

"Yeah?"

Harry nods. "He really makes you happy, doesn't he?" Harry asks, slow, steady, quietly kind.

"Oh, uh." Zayn is shit at this, at dealing with an ex-boyfriend like Harry, at dealing with anything that requires more than a sarcastic reply and a shrug of his shoulders. Getting his thoughts in order with Liam is hard enough but he's still not sure of the things he left unspoken with Harry, how much of a bruise he's touching. "I don't know. He's pretty cool."

"Zayn," Harry says, nodding slowly. "I can tell. You're all, you know, happy and you're laughing all the time, you keep doing that tongue-biting smile. Yeah, that one." Harry rests his head on Zayn's shoulder then, and Zayn is so glad for it, hard to feel any of the awkwardness he probably should be going through right now. "You change around him. I like this Zayn."

"I was the same way with you," Zayn says quietly, mumbling around his cigarette.

"Yeah, no doubt," Harry says. "But he's different, isn't he?"

"I don't know," Zayn admits, feeling safe enough to admit it with Harry, glad that the chain between them is not nearly as broken as Zayn worried it might be. "I guess so. I don't know why, though."

"Love is complicated," Harry says sagely. "You're not supposed to know why. It's the mystery of life."

"Thank you, wise one," Zayn says.

Harry just keeps smiling knowingly, though. "I'm glad we're still friends."

"We really do this friends thing right, don't we?" Zayn says, tossing his cigarette to the ground and crushing it under foot. He's very, very glad his bad habit of breaking off all contact with dudes he hooked up with didn't work on Harry. He rests his head against Harry's and they watch the show together, Liam only halfway through the crowd of boys, already holding a beer in each hand that he takes nervous sips from.

"We certainly do," Harry says.

"I'm glad we gave the other thing a shot too, though," Zayn says.

"Me too," Harry replies, taking Zayn's hand for a second and squeezing it before letting go. "Are you happy, Zayn?"

"I – I don't know. I think so," Zayn says. "You?"

"Yep."

"You brought that epic weed Louis was talking about?"

"Yep," Harry says again.

"We gonna get really blazed tonight?"

"Yes, please," Harry says, dimpled smile.

"Let's do it, dude."

*

After making the rounds, after a couple of beers and a hamburger and about a hundred high fives, after having his curly hair ruffled by almost everyone at the party, Liam is absolutely glowing. He's been smiling for almost an hour straight; every time Zayn looks at him that same dopey, loved-up expression. It has to be so completely new for Liam, not only partying with a bunch of college guys but maybe just having two dozen guys knowing him honestly and not giving a shit, being accepted so fully into Zayn's little family. He wears that acceptance like a badge, his cheeks pink from the beer, his hand always finding Zayn's and lacing their fingers with a confidence Zayn's not really felt from him before. It's almost showing off sometimes, the way he sneaks up next to Zayn when he's having a conversation, threading an arm around his waist, tucking himself into that space he has only ever claimed in the darkness.

"So, not too bad, huh?" Zayn says, slouched down in a folding chair with a beer, sunglasses he stole from Niall low on his nose even though the sun has long since set. He tosses the butt of his cigarette into the roaring bonfire, a sharp snap as the wood spits out sparks.

"They're really cool," Liam says, voice still lit up. "I didn't think – you know, a fraternity and all – but they're so nice."

Zayn nods, tries not to look smug. "I did tell you."

"I can see why you like it," Liam says, his eyes dancing across the crowd, watching as Louis swings around a bottle of vodka, pouring it into open mouths. "It's like. It really is a family. If I – when I go to college, I don't know. I could see myself in a place like this."

"You fit right in," Zayn says, reaching across to pat Liam's knee. "You know how many people have told me how great you are?"

"It's kind of overwhelming," Liam says, a certain breathlessness to it. "But I like it. Like, no one even came to my birthday this year, but these guys are so, just. So cool, you know? They don't even make me feel nervous anymore."

Liam must be a little drunk the way he's throwing caution to the wind, but Zayn catches on to it, that mention of his sixteenth birthday party. Zayn always kind of suspected it, just from the way Liam so easily gives himself over to this place, but the more Zayn learns about the boy Liam is outside of these walls the lonelier a picture it seems, the more Zayn's gut tightens with the promise they made to each other. Those quiet texts, when can I see you?, make more sense day by day, the love he has for this house obviously more than just a teenage joy of getting messed up.

"What about Niall?" Zayn asks, taking a sip of his beer, letting Liam just enjoy this night for what it is. "You get to meet him too?"

Liam nods eagerly. "He's so – cool." Liam flushes. "I'm saying that word a lot, aren't I? I can hear it. But everything is just so –"

"Cool, yeah," Zayn says with a laugh, finishing his beer and chucking the bottle towards the back of the yard where it lands in the shrubs with a clatter. "I fucking love Niall. I thought you'd get a kick out of him."

"He invited me to go minigolfing tomorrow. You wanna go?"

Zayn laughs again, loving this, loving how he can just kick back and let Liam take all of this in. He likes seeing it from Liam's perspective, all of it new and shining, the qualities Zayn has gotten used to suddenly flaming to life and filling him with an old, familiar love. "Sure, if you want."

"And Louis, too. He's so funny. They just make everything all –"

"Comfortable?" Zayn says, filling in these easy blanks. It's exactly what he wanted to share with Liam, how easy it is to just live here as yourself.

Liam nods again. "I really like it here," he says, a drunken warmth to him, a way he has of settling in.

"So stay," Zayn says quietly. "You don't have to go home. You can be our house mascot, live here with us. You can cook us eggs when we're hungover and give everyone an aspirin. You'd fit right in. We need someone responsible here."

The blush in Liam's cheeks gets deeper, Zayn can see it in the firelight. "That would be really nice. I'd like that."

"Every house needs a puppy," Zayn says, a hand to the back of Liam's head, ruffling his hair in the same way the rest of the boys have been doing, grounding Liam here.

"A lemur?" Liam suggests.

"A lemur," Zayn agrees. The night has come on cool and calm, the rhythm of the crackling fire playing against the Daft Punk mix on deck, and Zayn is just at that point where everything in him settles down, a steady feeling in his chest that he wishes he could always have. "Hey, Liam?"

"Yeah?"

"You happy, babe?"

Liam turns to look at Zayn, his lips wet, his eyes reflecting the orange life of the fire. "More than I've ever been."

"I love you, kid," Zayn says quietly, sliding a hand against Liam's.

"I love you, too," Liam says, quick so say it, a little surprised, an awe that becomes a smile. "I love you, Zayn."

"So stay," Zayn says quietly, breaking eye contact with Liam as he rests his head against the back of the chair and smiles up at the sky. "Just, stay."

"Okay."

*

"You really don't have to do it if you don't want," Zayn says, holding the joint Harry has passed over. Zayn blows on the tip, making it glow bright before he takes a few quick puffs. He keeps it pinched between two fingers, not quite passing it over to Liam yet. "Seriously, it's not for everyone."

Liam is chewing nervously on his bottom lip, his eyes focused on the burning cherry of the joint. "What's it feel like?"

"Different for everyone," Niall says. He's resting his head on Harry's thigh, his sunglasses stolen back from Zayn and tucked up in his hair. "My first time, I mostly just thought – you know, everything got so much brighter. The lights and smells and tastes, everything just got really, you know, wow."

"Wow?" Louis says, shaking his head. "No, man, it makes you hungry and horny and you wanna hug everyone you see."

"It makes me want to draw," Zayn says, taking another hit from the joint as Liam decides. "And talk. It makes you honest in a funny way. Saying things you never thought before but know are true."

"Ooh, fucking deep," Louis says. He leans across the circle and takes the joint from Zayn, pulling a drag from it. "The old man is fucking deep." It's a new nickname, one that mysteriously started appearing in their vocabularies. He owes Louis a punch or twelve.

"No, Zayn's right," Harry mumbles, already very stoned, though it's hard to tell with Harry. "Remember that time we smoked a bowl before that lecture? You kept asking that dude all those fucking questions. Everyone was shitting themselves."

"Fuck, I forgot about that," Zayn says, laughing, coughing from his throat raw from smoke. "He just kept talking about the only way to make, like, good art was to have an artist's soul and be miserable all the time or something. That's some bullshit. I didn't like it."

"Zayn wouldn't let up," Harry tells Liam. "He eventually got kicked out because he called the guy the grim reaper."

"Fucking conceptualists, man," Zayn says. "I'm bored of ironic art about death. Oh, you glued some fucking sequins on a skull, I'm blown away."

The boys all laugh and Liam is smiling right at Zayn, learning him, memorizing him. Zayn knows he acts different when he's around his boys, freer maybe than when he's stuck in his own head, and Liam seems so enthralled with it. "Are you all art majors?" Liam asks.

"Nah," Louis says, passing the joint over to Niall. "Sociology and politics."

"Chemical engineering," Niall says.

"I'm arts," Harry says, raising his hand sheepishly. "Performance. That's how I met Zayn."

"You're not in the frat?" Liam asks.

"He wishes," Niall says fondly, reaching up to pat Harry's cheek. "We just adopted him when he was dating Zayn."

Zayn almost winces. He knows he should have told Liam earlier, but he really couldn't even imagine how that conversation would have gone. It never seemed important at first, and Liam must have known abstractly that Zayn had dated other people, so they never really got into it. Zayn isn't sure how Liam will take that, knowing that Zayn has been with people who were out, who weren't afraid to take Zayn's hand in public. When Zayn looks over at Liam though, he's still smiling, nodding thoughtfully. Zayn knows Liam isn't the type to get jealous but he's also acutely aware that he's Liam's first, and there's a certain gravity that comes with it that Zayn can't escape.

"We broke up a little while ago," Zayn explains quietly.

"Over the summer," Harry says, Zayn happy to hear him say it so calmly. "Hey, Liam? Does he ever do that thing when you're texting, where it's like he pretends he's just too cool to care? Like he's doing you a favor just by replying?"

"All the time!" Liam says, a bright laugh more like a hiccup. "It's like texting someone's dad."

"Yes, exactly," Harry says, bobbing his head in agreement. "I'd ask him if he wanted a blowjob and he'd text back like oh, sure, if I've got the time." Liam and Harry both laugh at the same time, Niall and Louis joining in, delighted by this turn of the tables.

"I don't like texting," Zayn mumbles, rolling his eyes.

"And that condescending little smile when he gets you off," Harry continues.

"Like he's so proud of himself," Liam adds cracking up, drunk on belonging and beer and the weight of a love spoken out loud for the first time. "That's totally what he does."

"Hey, now," Zayn says, but he doesn't put up too much of a fight. He's never seen Liam like this, throwing himself open so easily and speaking his mind to people who an hour ago were strangers, and Louis might be getting a civil war's worth of ammunition from this but Zayn doesn't want to stop Liam from smiling that way.

"This is too good," Louis says, grinning at Zayn. "So much for the mysterious fucking Zayn Malik, huh?"

Zayn grinds his teeth, but he does it to stop from smiling. It's only the five of them in this back corner of the yard, his favorite four boys, so he doesn't mind slipping up a little and giving too much away. "This was a bad idea," Zayn says, and they all laugh at that.

"Sorry," Liam says, not the usual apology but instead one he borrows from Louis, almost a little sarcastic.

"So, maybe I won't get you off, huh?" Zayn says, and the rest of the boys erupt in laughter. He gives Liam the ghost of a wink, making Liam's blush deepen.

"So, how about it?" Niall asks, holding the joint out to Liam.

"I'm not sure," Liam says.

"You feel safe?" Louis asks.

"Yeah," Liam says earnestly.

"You staying over tonight?" Niall asks next.

"Yeah," Liam says, his smile curling up at the corner.

"Then give it a shot, if you want," Zayn says. "We're here if it gets too much. We can take care of you. We've got you covered, Liam."

Liam considers it for a second and then leans over to take the joint from Niall. Zayn knows that earlier Liam might have done it just to fit in, always trying to seem older for Zayn's benefit, but it's obvious how much more comfortable Liam is now. Acting the way he wants because he wants to. Himself, not just when he's with Zayn but out here in the world, tucked up against his side. Harry and Louis cheer as Liam holds it up curiously, pinching it between thumb and forefinger like he saw Zayn doing.

"Breathe it into your mouth first," Niall instructs, "and then inhale the smoke. It burns less if you're not used to it."

"Okay," Liam says, bringing the tip to his lips. With a steadying breath he does like Niall says, his cheeks puffing, and then breathing in the smoke curling from his slightly parted lips. He holds it in for five, ten seconds, all of them watching him closely, and then he coughs out a great hacking cloud of smoke. Harry reaches over to pat his back but Louis is cracking up, falling backwards to laugh in the grass, his hands covering his mouth.

"How was it?" Zayn says on the edge of a grin.

Liam's eyes are watering, holding the joint away from him as he tries to catch his breath. "Th-thick," he says.

"Yeah, it's good shit," Niall says. "Again?"

Liam nods eagerly. "Yeah."

"That's my boy," Niall says. "Nice and easy this time, yeah?" Niall scoots over until he's sitting beside Liam, taking the joint from him to show it properly, a quick inhale of smoke in and a smooth bluish cloud out. Liam nods and repeats the motion. He does it better this time, coughing only after he exhales the smoke, little wisps of it coming up with every shake of his body.

Zayn watches it all from a distance, stoned and a little drunk and lulled into that safe place again. He watches as Niall touches Liam's hands and shows him how to hold the joint as it burns down to the roach; he watches Louis lean over to whisper things into Liam's ear, making him laugh; he watches the best parts of his life come together in a small midnight circle in his adopted home.

The stars are like bright metal pins stuck up in the sky like a map of places to visit and the wind pinches tears at the corners of Zayn's eyes that are already damp, rustling leaves like the sound of rattling rainsticks, and Zayn spreads his fingers through the cold grass like a fur blanket. Everything seems to glow around the edges, and he knows it's the weed and he knows it's something more too. Liam takes a few more hits from the joint, getting better each time under Niall's tutelage, and he keeps grinning over at Zayn.

I love you.

I love you, too.

It's a life that gets better when these boys are in it, when Liam is in it, and Zayn wants to live like this forever.

"You feeling it?" Niall asks, taking the almost finished joint from Liam, smoking it down until it burns his fingertips and lips, stubbing it out in the dirt.

"I don't know," Liam says.

"Well, how do you feel?"

Liam looks around the circle, focusing lastly on Zayn. He reaches over, his fingers through the grass, and Zayn meets him halfway. "Alive."

They all laugh, even Zayn. "Yeah, you're high," Zayn says, rubbing his thumb in a circle around Liam's wrist, soothing his confused smile. "You're really high."

"Alive," Niall repeats, obviously loving it. "This kid."

"Lemur," Louis says.

"Lemur," Harry agrees.

"Lemur," Zayn says, and Liam glows around the edges too.

*

The party is still going on when Liam and Zayn stumble into the bedroom. They can see the flicker of firelight from outside the window, an orange glow fills up the room dull and gold, the sound of laughter and mulled conversations fighting with the crunching snap crackle pop of firewood. Liam has a hard time standing upright, still floating on his high, jumping bodily onto Zayn's bed, the springs creaking under him.

Zayn locks the door and stands with his back to it, watching as Liam pulls himself up to rest on his elbows, his head lolling against one shoulder, drunk-dreamy eyes looking for Zayn.

"I always wondered why you get a room to yourself," Liam says, toeing his sneakers off, dropping them with thuds by the foot of the bed.

"Seniority," Zayn says, licking his lips, chapped from the weed and the cold. "I'm vice president."

"Did you share with Louis before?" Liam asks, big toe digging under his sock and tugging them off too.

"Yeah," Zayn says, nodding as well, his head feeling loose on his neck, buzzing on beer and weed and a sudden anticipation as he watches Liam's fumbling strip. "He was an awful roommate. His feet stink."

Liam laughs, a wide open laugh that matches his new wildness, his drunken confidence. "I really like Louis."

"Me too," Zayn says, finally pushing himself away from the door, taking a few uneven steps towards the bed. "Good cuddle buddy, though. Always there with beer and a too-big sweater."

"Cuddle buddy," Liam repeats, liking the way the words sound. "I never really, uh. My friends aren't big on, you know, touching."

"No homo, like?" Zayn asks.

Liam nods slowly. "Louis didn't care that you were – gay?"

"The good ones don't, Liam," Zayn says, resting his knee on the edge of the bed, knocking against Liam's leg. "God, I hated high school."

Liam nods at that, too. "It's not my favorite," Liam says heavily. It sounds like an understatement and Zayn knows he can't avoid asking for long, he can't keep pretending that he only gets to claim the Liam that lives here. He made a promise and Zayn wants all of Liam, even the parts that hurt, maybe especially the parts that hurt. "I don't like being there. I – I like being here."

"You wanna tell me about school?" Zayn asks, probably too fucked up to do this right, but wanting to all the same.

Liam shakes his head, but his smile is comfortable, a look on his face like he understands what Zayn is trying to do. "Not now," Liam whispers. "Right now it's just us, okay?"

The firelight glows on Liam's face, casting him in bronze, his sparse freckles standing out along his throat, that brown bullseye of a birthmark that Zayn wants to taste. "What do you want to do then, huh?"

"Am I a good cuddle buddy?" Liam asks.

Zayn smirks, leans over to put a hand on Liam's thigh, fingers resting against the rough fabric of his jeans, thumb playing along the inseam. "You're not bad."

"So, who's turn is it?" Liam asks, his voice going to a whisper. He wriggles up until he's resting on his palms, rising to meet Zayn's mouth, a few warm inches between them.

"Well, if I remember, I got you off last time," Zayn says, laughing as he touches a hand to Liam's cheek. "But you've never come while you're stoned, have you?"

Liam shakes his head, his eyes going wider. "Am I stoned?"

"Yeah, babe," Zayn says, pressing a quick, biting kiss against his chapped mouth. "You're stoned."

"I think I like it," Liam says, touching his fingers to his lips. "I – feel everything. I feel it more."

Liam is so amazing like this: his body thrumming with heat, his fingers so much more tactile where they touch Zayn's throat next, the tips of his index and middle fingers sliding down under the reach the buttons of Zayn's Henley, hanging on to the shallow cut of the shirt. It feels like everywhere Liam traces his fingers he leaves static and flashing neon light, an inky signature in tingling lines. It's hard not to want to touch Liam all over, to let Liam knows how it feels, how the sparks of contact turn to fireworks when you're fucked up out of your mind. "Let me suck you off," Zayn says, his mouth against Liam's cheek, working towards his ear.

"Your stubble," Liam says, a hitch in his throat. "That feels so – wow."

"Rough?" Zayn asks, mouth against Liam's jaw, feeling the soft down of a beard that won't come in for a few years yet.

"It feels like you, like, like totally you," Liam says, awestruck. "God, God," and each time Liam repeats it he sounds more desperate, like he's feeling the want in him come out in words, "I want you so bad, Zayn."

"I want you to know how it feels to come when you're high," Zayn says again, hand reaching up to cup Liam's face. "It's – I wanna make you feel that."

Liam nods quickly, that same little nod when he's putting himself up against the unknown. Trusting in Zayn and letting himself go. "I've thought about – I've been thinking about – f-fucking," Liam says, trembling a little, pushing himself into saying it. "About you fucking me."

Zayn lets out a little noise, an oh that tickles Liam's ear. "We can talk about it," Zayn says. "Think about it. Keep thinking about it. Think about what you want me to do. Think about me fucking you, okay?"

"Okay," Liam says, his voice breathy and lost.

Zayn drops his hands, slides them down Liam's chest to tug at the hem of his sweater, the blur of Greek letters on his chest. Liam falls back on the bed and helps Zayn tug and fight the sweater off of him. Bare-chested, Liam stretches his arms out, arches his back so that Zayn can see all of the muscles on his stomach, the folded wings of his ribcage. His stomach hollows out, shadows in the gaps of his hips where his jeans are a bit too loose, divots that Zayn slides his fingers against. Cool skin, a shiver to the touch, and Zayn pulls down Liam's jeans and boxers down in the same motion, sliding them down his pale thighs and the muscles of his legs, a tickle of sparse, dark hair.

"You okay?" Zayn asks, running his palm over the flat plane of Liam's stomach, down the sides of his hips. Liam is half-hard already, cock resting up against his belly and the head wet with precome. Liam stays splayed out and vulnerable, letting Zayn roam over him, feeling the touch amplified by the weed, a prickle of goosebumps along his arms and thighs.

"I'm really okay," Liam says, languid and soft. "It – it should be my turn though, to – to get you off –"

Zayn ignores him, drops down to his knees at the foot of his bed. "Tell me how you want me to fuck you," Zayn says, leaning close so his mouth brushes against the inside of Liam's thigh, lips dragging against soft skin. He can feel Liam's legs jump a little when his scruff scratches. Liam smells like sweat and soap, and Zayn calms the tremble in Liam's legs with his hands, smoothing his palms over the shake.

"I wanna be all – all safe," Liam mumbles. "Like right now. I wanna be with you somewhere safe and I want you to kiss me first, kiss me a lot."

"Kkeep talking, Liam," Zayn says as he takes Liam's cock in his hand, jerking him off slowly until Liam is totally hard. The quick slide of skin around his uncut dick is so hot and heavy in Zayn's fist.

"I want you to undress me, just you, taking everything off," Liam mumbles, his voice gathering strain as Zayn presses his mouth to the head of his dick. He tastes salty, sticky precome on Zayn's tongue as he dips his head down all the way. "I want you to – to get me ready, with your fingers," Liam says, his breath hitching. "I want you to tell me if I'm doing good. I want to – oh God," Liam says as Zayn's tongue flicks against the underside of his cock, finding the sensitive line of nerves he lights up again and again. "I want you to – to move me until I'm – I'm right where you want me." Liam talks like he's almost in a trance, rattling off thoughts he doesn't have time to censor, just letting everything out in one honest monologue. His voice changes with every movement of Zayn's mouth around his dick. "Your hands under my ass, lifting me, adjusting me just how you want me."

Zayn starts to create a pattern, finding his rhythm in time with Liam's breathing, with the involuntary bucking of his hips. It doesn't take much to get Liam going, still so teenage and unused to this feeling, already buzzing with hunger, so Zayn just guides him through. Lips around his cock, going as deep as he can, the smell of Liam boyish and familiar with one hand flat over his stomach and the other just under his balls, fingers sliding against his ass, slowly working at him. "Do you want me to?" Zayn asks, pulling his mouth off of Liam's cock for a moment, his lip wet and tongue heavy with the taste of him.

"Does it hurt?" Liam asks.

"No, not if we do it right," Zayn says. "I won't make it hurt."

"Please," Liam says, far gone and right here, drifting on weed smoke and anchored to Zayn's body. "Please, I wanna feel you. Inside me. I've been thinking about it for – please."

Liam gives a breath of a moan when Zayn pulls away, but returns soon after with small bottle of lube dug out from his sock drawer. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Zayn slicks up two fingers quickly, tossing the bottle across the room. He's back against Liam in seconds, and the breath of relief Liam gives is addictive. "Keep talking," Zayn says before he takes Liam in hand again, mouth around his dick, drawing out this long moan.

"I want you to – oh, Jesus, oh, God –" is all Liam manages to get out before Zayn presses his index finger against Liam's ass and – slowly, so slowly, making sure Liam can feel everything – slides his finger in. Tight around his knuckle, two knuckles, a throaty groan in Liam's voice as he tries to collect himself, finding his words again more desperate by the second. "I want you to look at me when you fuck me," Liam goes on. Zayn can't see him but he can almost feel the tension in Liam, can imagine him with his eyes screwed up tight and his teeth digging a sharp line into his bottom lip. "The – the whole time. So you can – so you can lean down and kiss me. So you can tell me if I'm doing good, if you like it."

Zayn starts to work a second finger into Liam, just as patiently, until Liam is pushing down on him, wanting more of it. Zayn slides his fingers into Liam, three knuckles deep, and finds the same rhythm with his hands as his mouth. He can tell Liam is close, can feel the twitch of his muscles, the jerk ofn his cock, the heat he's giving off like furnace.

"I wanna feel you inside of me, God – just – just like this, filling me up," Liam says. It's filthy but at the same time just, yes, it feels right, and the idea hooks in Zayn's chest like a needle. Honestly he hadn't thought much about fucking Liam before, always wanting to let Liam choose how fast this goes, but he can picture it so easily, Liam on his back with his legs pushed apart around Zayn's body, leaning up to kiss him while Zayn pounds into him. The thought of it pushes Zayn faster, fingers opening Liam up, tongue flat against the underside of Liam's cock. "I wanna be yours," Liam says, breath quick, heart pumping, voice almost strangled out to nothing. "I want you."

Liam goes quiet, like he's got nothing left in him but muffled groans, this high keening boyish gasps that he can't stop from making. Zayn is so hard, straining against his own jeans but he doesn't move a hand from Liam, keeping him still and working him until the last. As he sucks Liam off, Zayn can feel his breathing rattle, hitched and airless and reaching the very edge.

"Zayn –" Liam chokes, sharp and tight " – babe, I'm gonna come –"

The taste of come is thick in Zayn's mouth and he swallows it back, each pulse, not moving from Liam's cock. He can feel Liam seize up, all of his muscles drawn sharp like guitar strings as he arches his back, driving his cock into Zayn's mouth. Zayn keeps his fingers inside Liam, filling him like he said, opening him up until Liam finally falls back, exhausted, ruined, gasping for air.

Pulling off of him slowly, Zayn licks his lips and slowly draws his fingers out, wiping the lube off with an old t-shirt he finds on the floor. Liam doesn't say anything, just stays lying on Zayn's bed, boneless and completely out of it. Zayn stands up and admires his work, Liam's eyes still closed tightly shut and a dark indentation running in a line on Liam's lips, his fists still grasping thick handfuls of the bedspread. He looks sixteen, he looks very sixteen, and when he opens his eyes there are tears squeezed at the corners.

"Hey, Liam," Zayn says, looking down at him fondly.

Liam just smiles, and it's a smile Zayn's never seen before. Warm, broken, needy like they haven't seen each other in months. It's the smile of a boy who has been found, who has been searching for a place for years that he's only just beginning to understand.

"You were right," Liam says, almost a croak, his throat raw.

"Coming when you're stoned?"

Liam nods lazily, like it's the only part of him that he can move. "That was –"

"Amazing?"

Liam thinks about it for a second. "That was everything."

"Not quite yet," Zayn says, sitting on the edge of the bed beside Liam. "You remember what you were saying, Liam?"

The blush that runs through Liam's face has nothing to do with heat or getting worked up. "I think about it all the time. When I – when I jerk off," he says, whispering the last two words, a sense of embarrassment washing back over him now that he's in the afterglow and falling back into himself.

"Do you finger yourself?" Zayn asks, loving the red in Liam's cheeks right now.

"Y-yeah," Liam says, his voice going breathy. "Yeah, I do."

"What about other dudes?" Zayn asks. "You give – you give really good head, dude. Like, really good."

Liam squirms a little bit, touching a hand to Zayn's hip. "Yeah," he whispers. "A few times. Just fooling around mostly. A couple of boys from track teams that come to our school, no one I knew. Just to – see what it was like."

Zayn is surprised to find that he bristles at that. He covers Liam's hand and squeezes. "I guess that explains a few things."

"That was just messing around though," Liam says. "It's nothing like – it's not like this."

"When you think you're ready, we'll work it out," Zayn says gently, leaning over now to touch a hand to Liam's face, thumb brushing over the soft arches of his cheekbones. It's amazing how Liam's confidence works, seemingly just a blush of a boy and then this. He's never been shy about showing off his body for Zayn, always so happy to be naked in front of him, and Zayn knows there's more to Liam than the schoolboy and his mess of floppy curls. Liam collects his confidence in other people, in Zayn, in the boys who like him, feeding off of their laughter like he's finding something in himself to love if someone points it out to him.

"Can you kiss me?" Liam asks, slowly coming back into his body and curling towards Zayn. He's naked, his chest sweat-slick, the curly hair at his forehead wet and corkscrewed. Liam scoots over in the bed, giving Zayn a space to slide in, to take him again.

"I've still got you in my mouth," Zayn says, licking his lips again. "You want to taste?"

Liam nods slowly, and his body shakes with strain as he leans up to meet Zayn. A quick mesh of their lips, a touch of tongue against tongue. Liam pushes tentatively into Zayn's mouth and feels the sharp lines of his teeth and the salty hollows under his tongue. When Liam flops back down on the mattress he's smiling shyly, a smack of his lips. "I taste different than you. I like how you taste better."

"That so?" Zayn asks, brushing away the sweaty hair that sticks to Liam's forehead.

"Want me to go next?"

A month ago Zayn would have said yes, fucking of course yes, he still hasn't gotten off tonight, but this time he shakes his head. "You're wrecked, Liam. Besides, like, we've got the whole weekend still."

"Oh, yeah," Liam says, brightening like a goddamn sunrise. "Can we cuddle?"

A month ago Zayn would have laughed in his face. This time, well – he still laughs, but he pulls off his shirt in one quick throw and, together, they shuffle up towards the head of the bed, losing themselves in pillows and blankets. Liam's naked legs push up and tangle with Zayn's jeans and his sweat cools against Zayn's bare chest. Liam tucks his head into the crook of Zayn's neck and Zayn can feel his mouth in a round, warm spot on his throat. It's only a few minutes – with a little shifting to find the best place to sleep, clicking puzzle pieces into place – before Liam starts snoring, little snuffling breaths against Zayn's skin. Zayn counts them one by one, like sheep, watching the firelight dance on the ceiling. It doesn't take long.

*

It's only the second time Zayn has woken up in the morning beside Liam. He remembers the first time, that dull gray light, that hangover like a nail slammed between his eyes, an itch for coffee and an easy way out. Creeping out of bed, not even giving a second glance to the boy curled up in his bed. He wonders if Liam looked as good as he does now, if he looked this happy from the very start.

This time Zayn's arm is asleep where Liam is lying on it, and the morning light is yellow and grand, and Zayn remembers everything that happened and it makes him smile. This time he doesn't leave until Liam wakes up too.

*

"We've been fucking hustled," Niall says, leaning on his putter and watching as Liam lines up his shot. "You said he was shit."

"I said I'd never played with him before," Zayn says, not even bothering to hide his smirk. "That's different."

"Two hole in ones? One on a fucking par four?" Niall pushes his sunglasses down his nose, reading down the score card. "You been counting this right, Harry?"

"I have," Harry says, nodding, head on Niall's shoulder as he reads the card too. "He's very good, Niall."

"You were the one who made the bet," Zayn says. He can just see Liam at the other end of the hole, through the gap in the spinning blades of the of the windmill. Liam meets his glance for a second, a toothy grin. "You're the golfers, guys."

Niall just shakes his head. "Even with your shitty scores you're still beating us," Niall says. He bites his tongue between his teeth as he counts. "By six swings, I mean, Christ."

"We should invite him when we go golfing," Harry says magnanimously, always cheering on everyone even if they're not on his team, an obvious sign that he's not part of a frat. "Maybe he could teach us. I need help with my short game."

"He needs to fuck this shot up or we're out forty bucks," Niall says, nudging Harry's shoulder. "You're okay with that?"

Harry nods slowly. "I mean, he is very good."

Zayn just beams, swinging his golf club around like it's a cane and he's in a top hat and tails. "Who would've known?" Truth is, Zayn would have. Zayn did know, Liam told him this morning that his dad loved golf, that he's been joining him ever since he was nine. Zayn knew when he slapped palms with Niall before they set out that afternoon, each of them putting twenty bucks down on a friendly game of minigolf.

"Ready?" Liam shouts.

"Go for it," Zayn says.

They can hear the whack of a club on a ball, but they don't see it until it rolls neatly out from the other end of the windmill, arching over a gentle slope and falling cleanly into the hole.

"Fuck," Niall says, but he's grinning when he buries his head in his hands.

"Was it any good?" Liam asks as he walks over, ducking his head under low hanging pine branches, a half-jog as he meets up with them.

"Fucking brilliant," Zayn says, opening his arms. Liam does a little hop-skip when he sees Harry fetching the ball out of the hole and he jumps into Zayn's arms with a tiny shout of glee. Zayn grips his arms tight around Liam's chest, feeling the rough cotton of his plaid shirt and the body he knows beneath, and Liam keeps his legs around Zayn's hip in a vice. They spin around on momentum, Zayn swinging Liam in a circle, feeling Liam's little hiccups of laughter against his neck. His hair tickles Zayn's face and Zayn plants wild half-kisses against the side of his head until they slow down, Liam dropping back down to the ground.

"All right, all right," Niall says, tipping the peak of his snapback skywards. He reaches forward and shakes Liam's hand. "You have to come golfing with me and Harry. That was crazy, Liam."

"Sure," Liam says, still grinning. He shakes Harry's hand too. "That was really fun."

"I'll bet," Zayn says. "You just won us forty bucks."

"Really?" Liam asks, watching as both Harry and Niall pulls twenty dollar bills out of their wallets, handing them over to Zayn. "Did you tell them that I do this with my dad all the time?"

"You what?" Niall asks, his eyebrows shooting upwards. Harry starts laughing, a hand on Niall's shoulder like he's holding him back. "Your dad's a golfer?"

"Yeah, we practice together," Liam says, looking proudly up at Zayn. "Since I was a kid."

"All right, okay," Zayn says, backing away from Niall but not before quickly pocketing the cash. "Liam, quick." Crouching down, he jerks his head at Liam to urge him close. Liam laughs and does a quick hop onto Zayn's back. Zayn gets his hands up under Liam's thighs and Liam throws his arms around Zayn's neck, just as Niall's mouth opens in shock, swinging his club around like a tire iron. "Okay, see ya –" and Zayn runs off, Liam clinging to his back.

Niall gives chase but he's laughing, Harry following after shouting something about guys we gotta return the clubs. They race back through the minigolf course, under towering pine trees that fill the pathways with shade, the smell of dead leaves underfoot and the mould of torn, wet astroturf. The air is autumn-cool but the sun is bright and gold, filtering through the trees and bristling green needles. Swearing, laughing, Liam's shouts loud in Zayn's ears as they flee, the same happy shout he gave as he flew with the shopping cart into a wall. Liam holds onto Zayn the whole time, young and solid as Zayn hustles, laughing as they run between the trees and back to the parking lot.

*

The ride home is an adventure. When Harry pulls out onto the freeway and pushes his decades-old, sloppily-painted teal VW Beetle to its absolute ragged edge there's a very noticeable creak and shudder in the frame like they're riding a wooden rollercoaster over very old tracks. Smashing knees against the backs of the seats, going over potholes and bumps in the road with a rib-aching bounce, the top of Zayn's head hitting the roof of the car more than once.

"You could slow down," Zayn suggests. Even after a few months of this he has never gotten used to Harry's particular way with cars.

"It's fine, she can take it," Harry says, grinning over at Niall. "My sister taught me how to drive." Niall, normally okay with a bit of danger, can't even manage a smile in return. "She's really good."

Niall gives a nervous laugh. "Sure."

Zayn balls his fists at his sides as Harry slides through four lanes of traffic, almost missing their exit. Harry seems to think that the honking horns are for someone else as he blithely makes his way back home, smiling serenely the whole way.

"Is there anything going on today?" Liam asks. Zayn doesn't hear him, keeps his stare focused out the front of the car. He swears they go on two wheels for a moment when Harry pulls hard at the corner. "Zayn?"

It's only when Liam covers Zayn's fist with his hand that Zayn turns to look at him. "Sorry?"

"Back home? Anything on for the afternoon?" Liam asks, and he must be fearless because he's grinning.

"Dunno," Zayn manages through his tight lips.

"Family dinner," Niall says from the front, looking up at Zayn in the rearview mirror, his sunglasses mirroring the road and the light.

"Oh, right!" Harry says, taking another hard corner that almost makes Zayn grab the headrest in front of him. "I told Louis I'd help out. I'm a really good cook," he says, twisting to look back at Liam.

"Harry, the road," Zayn snaps.

"Family dinner?" Liam asks.

"A bunch of us make a big meal for all the boys," Niall explains because Zayn really doesn't think he can talk right now. "Louis insists on at least one a week that we all spend together. A family thing. He started them this year, they're good fun, team spirit stuff."

"That sounds really nice," Liam says fondly.

The wind coming through the open windows is like a gale, whipping their hair about, faces grinning out into the sun like they're riding in a speedboat over bumpy waters. Zayn can almost enjoy it just from the way Liam smiles right now, that look on his face like he'd do anything if Zayn was by his side. "Louis is all about big group stuff," Niall goes on to say. "Beach days, movie nights, lavaliering. Shit like that. He likes making sure we all stick together, it's really important to him."

"Lavaliering?" Liam asks, always endlessly curious about this stuff now that he's learned to love the fraternity a bit more.

"When a dude asks a girl to go steady," Niall says, laughing. "It's really cheesy. All the guys dress up, hold candles and roses and shit and the girl gets a necklace with the frat letters to wear. I think we're supposed to sing? We're not very good at them, actually. I don't even know why we do it. It's just a thing."

"Do you guys even know why you have half the traditions you do?" Harry asks, mercifully pulling to a stop at a red light.

"Nah," Niall says, flashing a glance at Zayn in the mirror.

"Not really," Zayn agrees. "Cause it's tradition, I guess?"

Harry and Liam both laugh. Zayn remembers giving that same laugh when Louis asked him to rush.

"Honestly, we're not really about that stuff," Niall continues, always the best at this kind of talk, a spokesperson for the things Zayn loves most about his house. "There are some frats that are really into the big show. All the songs and chants and history, you know? What was it the Chi Epsilon's said to us that one time they came to our mixer?"

"Investing in their future," Zayn provides.

"Ha!" Niall grins, a mess of dirty blond hair as Harry pulls away from the lights again. Niall slides his glasses down his nose and gives Liam a mock-serious frown. "Investing in the future business leaders of tomorrow, making connections, networking," he says with a clipped monotone, breaking into another grin soon after. "Yeah, nah, we're just here for a laugh."

"And the parties," Zayn adds.

"And the brothers," Niall says. "We're just here to love."

"Love," Zayn repeats, turning to look at Liam with a laugh on his lips. "All about the love."

Liam grins back at him before shifting lower into his seat, cozy and tucked up against Zayn's side. Zayn pats his head gently, fingers against soft hair that makes Liam smile as he looks out the window, watching the flat lands pass them by, an endless forest of tall pine trees dividing the world into bars of green and clear blue sky. His smile looks invincible.

They pull up to the frat house with a squeak of brakes and a shudder as they stop in the gravel drive. Liam lurches forward and Zayn throws a hand across his chest, keeping him pressed back in his seat even though he's wearing a seatbelt. Liam laughs and reaches up to touch the hand Zayn has pressed against his sternum, a glint of adventure in his eyes that hasn't left him since breakfast. He mouths the words thank you and rubs Zayn's hand a little bit, holding the moment like he's trying to remember it for later.

"Sorry," Harry says, twisting back to look at them. "The Grasshopper's got a bit of a hiccup."

"That was fun," Liam says sincerely and Zayn just has to shake his head.

Unlocking the front door, they pile into the frat house. It's deserted except for a couple of pledges playing X Box in the front room and sharing a two litre bottle of Dr. Pepper. Niall tosses his hoodie onto the staircase banister and throws an arm around Liam's shoulder.

"You any good at cooking?" Niall asks.

"Sort of," Liam says. "I can definitely try, though."

"Wanna help us make dinner?"

Liam nods eagerly and – Zayn can see him hesitate for a second, but he doubts anyone else would notice it – he slides his arm over Niall's in return. It's the first time Zayn has even seen Liam really go to touch another of the boys and it immediately fills him with this warmth, a tightness like a laugh constricted in his chest. Niall probably doesn't even know how big a thing it is, just casually leans in against Liam like he would anyone else, but Zayn can see the shyness in Liam's face turn to happiness. "For sure, that would be great."

"Hey, Georgie," Zayn asks the pledge currently chugging from the bottle of soda. "Know where Louis' at?"

George wipes the mouth with his shirt, putting the bottle back on the table. "On the roof, brother."

"Naturally," Zayn says, rolling his eyes. "As you were, soldier."

"On the roof?" Liam asks.

Niall does an about-turn, arm still around Liam's shoulders and guiding him back to the stairs. "On nice days a bunch of the boys suntan on the roof. Soaking up the last of summer."

"Yeah, suntan," Zayn says, miming putting a joint to his lips and watching as Liam grins, eyes squinting. "Should we join?"

Harry shrugs and Niall nods indifferently. They make the march up the stairs together to the far end of the hall, past all the messy bedrooms and piles of dirty clothes with the smell of rank boy poorly covered up by six different competing colognes. The skylight is open and a rickety ladder propped up against the hole opening up to wide blue and the gathering sound of lazy chatter and Kanye West. Niall untangles himself from Liam to go up first and Liam is quick to follow. There's no hesitation anymore and the feeling in Zayn's chest intensifies as he watches Liam start to treat this place like his own. Before he might have gone after Zayn, tugging at him, waiting for his permission, but this time he just climbs up after Niall and hoists himself up onto the roof, not even looking back once.

The shouts of "Niall!" and "Lemur!" come when Zayn is only halfway up the ladder and even before he pokes his head out he can hear Liam laughing, the clap of skin-on-skin for high fives, thumps of hands slapping backs. Last up the ladder, Harry turns and gives Zayn a hand and hoists him out onto the roof. The bright sunlight is harsh at first and Zayn squints, shielding his eyes to look around. There's a cooler and a half-dozen lawnchairs dragged (or thrown, probably thrown) from the backyard up here, the old boombox playing Late Registration at a quiet thump. Louis and a few of the other seniors are up here, shirtless and wearing matching mirrored Aviators, sharing some Coronas and the last of Harry's weed.

"Oh shit," Louis says. "Boy's got muscles."

And then there's Liam, holding his shirt in one hand, letting Louis poke a finger against the flat of his stomach. He's grinning, deep dimples pressed into his cheeks, as Niall joins in adding experimental pokes to his shoulders. Just watching them Zayn can remembers the feel of Liam's muscles under his hands, quietly appreciating the body of a boy who hides under plaid shirts.

"I honestly would not have guessed," Niall says. "You play sports, dude? We need someone for football."

"I box," Liam says, the full-blaze sunshine of his grin never leaving him.

"Shit," Louis says again. He looks up and meets Zayn's eyes over Liam's shoulder. He waggles his eyebrows, waiting for Zayn to glare at him and laughing when he gets it. "You're hiding the goods, Liam. We need to get you some tank tops. Show you off on the front lawn like the statue of David. Our own fucking marble sculpture."

"The kid's tougher than Zayn," Niall says, massaging his fingers into Liam's shoulders.

"I wouldn't've thought he was sixteen either," Louis says.

There's a whistle, a howl of laughter as Zayn sighs, weary and happy. He walks with Harry to the cooler, the both of them grabbing a beer and cracking them open against the hard edge of the brick chimney. Harry gives Zayn a sympathetic look but he's kind of laughing too.

"When'd you turn sixteen?" Louis asks.

"Last month," Liam says.

Louis swallows down a bark of a laugh, squeezing his lips together. "You better watch out. Zayn's a vampire. He'll drain the youth from it. Did you ever ask him how old he was?"

"He's twenty-one," Liam says. "Right?"

"Yeah," Louis says breathily, moving in closer to Liam so he can whisper in his ear. "But did you ask him how long he's been twenty-one?"

"Oh, fuck off, Louis," Zayn says, punching his arm.

Louis splits into a grin by Liam's cheek and ruffles his hair. "I'm just saying, you should be worried. He likes them young."

"Nah," Liam says easily, arching an eyebrow. "I've seen Zayn checking himself out in too many mirrors for him to be a vampire."

The boys all start laughing but it's like Louis can't do it immediately, he needs to take a second just to marvel at Liam as his mouth drops open and he loses it. His hand on his stomach, throwing his head back like he needs his whole body to laugh. "I fucking love you, Liam," Louis manages to choke out.

Liam glances over at Zayn for a second and Liam just shakes his head, draws a finger across his throat as he breaks into a snickering smile. Liam beams.

Up here on the roof air is clean and sharp and the pounding sun brings out the tickle of sweat against skin. The leaves might have gone from green to yellow, some even lit up with that autumn fire-orange, but it still feels like summer what with the music and the beer and the church choir of their laughter. Liam laughs along with them and with a quick flick of the wrist he snatches the sunglasses from Louis' face and puts them on instead. Another ooh runs around the crowd and Zayn joins in on that one, walking closer to put his arm around Liam's shoulders, taking a long and satisfied pull from his beer.

Zayn would love to see how they look right now together, how the boys see them now. Liam bare-chested and borrowing Zayn's sly and knowing grin to smirk at Louis, Zayn propped up beside him like a second in a duel. Want to get Liam and you have to go through me first. Gunslingers. Bankrobbers and thieves. Two against the world.

"Man," Louis says, shaking his head, "Zayn really has rubbed off on you."

"Yeah," Liam says, sticking his chin out. "Just last night, actually."

"Oh shit," Niall says with a squeak, throwing his head back to roar with laughter. The rest of the boys join in and Louis sucks in his bottom lip to stop from laughing too. He just shakes his head again like he can't believe what he's seeing and, really, so does Zayn. It's the instant magic of Liam spending a whole day here, waking up in Zayn's bed and knowing he's going to be falling asleep in the same place. The best parts of Liam are right there waiting to come out. They're bits he's borrowed and some that come out on their own, but it's all Liam, funnier and more confident and stronger for all the love he knows he has. Zayn is kind of ashamed it took this long to find it, but now that this Liam is here he'll do anything, absolutely anything to keep him this way.

"Want a beer?" Louis says. He still sounds like he's in disbelief but he lets Liam take the upper hand. Louis was unprepared, they were all fucking unprepared for this kind of Liam but Zayn can see the love sparking to life inside of Louis. He was always going to accept Liam into this family if Zayn wanted it, but it's like Louis has found something in Liam he really adores. A sucker for games, always attracted to people who can fuck shit up with him, it's the same look Louis gave Zayn after their first wasted streak through the quad. I like you. You can stay, the look says. "Grab a seat, grab a beer, let's chill."

Zayn pulls out his pack of cigarettes from his back pocket and lights one up, taking a few calm puffs as he leans against the chimney, his lips curled around the cigarette in a smile. Louis pulls out one of his own Stellas from the cooler and cracks off the top before handing it to Liam, folding it into his fingers. Soft hands, Zayn remembers, soft skin that Louis is touching now. Liam thanks Louis, still wearing his sunglasses. The rest of the boys go back to their business, settling down on their loungers and towels under the last full sun of the late, late summer.

Louis asks about the game of minigolf, cheering loudly when Liam describes his clean sweep, slapping his bare back and leaving a red mark that describes each of his fingers. Liam tells it all, every swing of the club and every wild and creative curse word Niall came up with. Zayn doesn't say anything he's just happy to watch his Louis, his Liam, the best parts of his life knitted together so neatly. They lie on their stomachs side by side on a pair of matching towels and talk about their favorite movies, a sheen of sweat mirrored between each other their shoulder blades.

Everything is normal, so normal, the way any September Saturday afternoon has always been. Liam chats, Louis jokes, and the world goes on like normal. Anyone who watched them would swear this is how it always has been. As it should be. Nothing out of place.

*

"Okay, listen up because I'm going to teach you," Niall says, putting his hands on Liam's shoulders and guiding him to the stove. There's a huge silver gallon pot on the flame right now, already sizzling with cooking onions, the house filled with the sharp, off-caramel smell of them. Niall puts a wooden spoon in Liam's hand. "Now stir. He want them brown but not burnt, okay? That's the first step."

"Okay," Liam says, holding the spoon like it's a holy relic. He starts to stir slowly, deliberately.

"Good, good," Niall says. "Harry, how are the vegetables?"

"I'm still cutting," Harry says. He's wearing a headband like this is some kind of judo tournament, the sleeves of his loose plaid shirt rolled up to the elbow. He's cutting carrots and celery slowly with extreme precision, his brow furrowed in concentration.

"Harry, speed it up, man," Zayn says from the kitchen doorway, leaning his weight against it with one leg crossed over the other. He swills his wine around the glass, cupped in his palm with the stem nestled between middle finger and ring and takes a long, luxurious sip. "You're going way too slow."

Harry turns from his work, knife in one hand and his frown serious. "You don't rush art. You should know this, Zayn." Zayn snickers, his mouth against the lip of his glass as he takes another mouthful of red wine. "No criticizing if you aren't cooking, Zany," Harry says before he turns back to his cutting board.

"What makes it your family's recipe?" Liam asks, still stirring intently. "Isn't it all just chili?"

"Two things," Niall says, peering down into the pot and nodding. "One: you cook the onions in bacon fat, gives it a nice smoky flavor. Two: a pinch of cinnamon. You don't taste it, it just warms it up a bit." Niall watches Liam stir the onions patiently and puts a hand on his shoulder, squeezing the round of his muscle. "You're doing great, man."

Liam nods seriously, like he's making note of these important steps. Harry gives a quick snort of derision. Zayn smiles, another sip of wine.

"What was that?" Niall says, turning to Harry with a smirk, the dark gold of his eyebrow lifting.

"Cinnamon in chili," Harry says. "It's a – unique choice."

"Harry thinks he's the best cook," Zayn explains to Liam, filling in the blanks of his curious smile.

"Because I am," Harry says.

Niall gives an uninterested shrug. "Sure."

"I am."

"Sure."

"I really am."

"Why are those vegetables taking so long, man?" Niall asks, always remaining loftily above this.

"They need to be cut evenly," Harry says calmly. "So they all cook at the same temperature. As the second best cook here you should know this, Niall."

Still so impossibly happy, Niall starts to hum a Frank Sinatra song as he turns away from Harry, joining Liam again at the pot. Zayn watches it all play out in front of him – Niall raising his eyebrows to catch Liam's glance, giving a slow nod and silently pointing at his chest as if to say I really am the better cook, Liam grinning in return with a breathy little laugh – and he's happy just to see it happen, three glasses of wine and the cramped kitchen warming Zayn up from the inside out. There might have been times earlier in his life when Zayn felt like he was on the outside looking in but this feels nothing like those sullen, defensive high school days. This just feels like belonging and even if he isn't actually saying or doing anything Zayn knows that he's an important part of this love. The boys make sure of that.

It started raining an hour ago and the loud patter of it against the windows plays against the sound of his brothers in the other room gathered around the TV for an intense round-robin tournament of Wii Tennis. Everything seems so nicely small in the evening, the house full of people with the smell of salty bacon and sweet onions in the air, a band taking shelter from the storm outside. The wine makes Zayn light-headed in a good way, like the first breath of a cigarette after abstaining for hours, and it's impossible to stop from smiling as he watches Harry and Niall bicker lovingly while Liam bounces happily back and forth between them.

"Whachya doing, old man?" Louis asks, sliding up next to Zayn. It's the missing puzzle piece, Louis fitting into the picture perfectly as he steals Zayn's wine glass from him and takes a sip. All the gaps are filled and there's honestly nothing about this Zayn would change.

"They're fighting about who's the best cook," Zayn says, leaning against Louis and resting his head on his shoulder.

"Oh, it's Harry," Louis says. "That's an easy one."

"What?" Niall says, spinning to look at Louis. "Are you serious?"

"Sorry, man," Louis says and Zayn can feel his shallow shrug pushed up against his body. "You ever had Harry's red velvet cake? It's incredible."

Harry smiles brightly to himself as he finishes up with the celery. His lips are stretched and his cheeks dimpled and rounded when he smiles like that, looking like a smugly satisfied little tree frog as he brings the vegetables over to Liam. "I'll make you one some time," Harry tells Liam, pushing the carrots and celery into the pot with the flat of his knife. "You like red velvet?"

"Don't think I've ever had one," Liam says. "I'd love to try it."

"You wanna make your own dinner, then?" Niall says, pointing his spoon at Louis like a fencing foil.

"No, Niall, baby," Louis says moving away from Zayn to wrap Niall up in a hug. Niall stands stiffly as Louis puts his arms around him. "You're so good, too. You make the best breakfast. You are the king of breakfast. Come on now, baby, you know I love you." Niall can't help but soften at that, hugging Louis back. "That's my boy."

"You like my chili too, right?" Niall asks.

"I love your chili, baby," Louis says, rubbing Niall's back, hand sliding under the thin cotton of his loose tank top and touching his bare skin. "When I die I want to be buried in a vat of it." Niall seems satisfied by that and he's back to grinning with Liam as they sweat the vegetables down in the pot, great clouds of steam fogging up all the kitchen windows.

Louis returns to Zayn and they find their proper places again, Louis stealing another mouthful of wine and Zayn resting his head on Louis' bony shoulder. Everything seems to shrink down again until it's just them, the five of them in this humid kitchen with its chipped and dented linoleum floor and black formica countertops that glints like silver fish scales under the glow of the lights. Harry cutting up chunks of pork loin for the stew, smiling and bopping his head along to the music of the videogames played in the next room. Niall patting Liam's shoulders three times a minute to tell him how great he's doing. Liam wearing one of Niall's red and white check aprons, listening to every instruction like he's trying to diffuse a bomb, trying so hard to get everything right.

"He really does fit right in," Louis whispers to Zayn even though Liam is too wrapped up in laughing at Niall's jokes to notice anyway.

"Yeah, he does," Zayn says. "You guys did that."

"Nah, he did it on his own," Louis says. "And think, he did all of that even though he's not allowed out after dark."

"Oh, fuck off, Tomlinson," Zayn says. He pauses for a moment. "Remember when you asked me if I thought he was worth it?"

"Yeah," Louis says, his voice getting hitched like a knot in his throat that he tries to swallow down without drawing too much attention to himself.

Zayn turns his head so he can kiss the cotton of Louis' shirt over his shoulder. "I'm glad you had my back, dude. I know you were looking out for me."

Louis murmurs in agreement. "I'm glad you've got him. I'm glad I've got you, too."

"Louis," Zayn says, smirking. "You having a moment here, man?"

Louis frowns but it's too late, Zayn knows exactly the kind of puppy dog face Louis pulls when he's feeling too much to express. He shows his emotions so damn loudly it's hard to miss any one of them and Zayn always liked that about Louis, how easily he could tell exactly how Louis was feeling instead of guessing. Over the years Zayn has come to learn Louis like a map, every valley and hill of his moods, knowing just what each one needs. Especially now, when he sucks in his lower lip and his brows knit together and his eyes shine with wet and Zayn gets to see his best friend come apart a little in the nicest way. "Shut up. I am not having a moment."

"Well, even if you aren't, I'm glad I've got you too." Zayn watches as Niall starts to dance a little bit around Liam, his weak beatboxing skills keeping the rhythm. In an instant, catching on right away, Liam starts to dance too, little helpless bopping motions as he raises his hands to the roof. A kitchen dance party, as easy as anything, not a second of hesitation. Soon Harry joins in too, crooning don't go chasing waterfalls over Niall's beat. "God, why can't it always be like this," Zayn says suddenly, can't even remember thinking the words before he says them.

Louis nods, turning to press an easy kiss against the shorn prickle of hair at the side of Zayn's head. "Hey, we can try, can't we? If anyone could do it it's us, right?" Louis asks, holding out a fist.

"Yeah," Zayn says, bumping his fist against Louis'. "Only us."

*

There is always that guy at parties. The guy who brings out his acoustic guitar near the end of the night and strums the first chord of Wonderwall (if you're unlucky) or Good Riddance (if you're very unlucky), single-handedly killing any buzz whatsoever. Thankfully, that guy is Niall and – after they've all eaten the ("delicious, fucking amazing, Liam you did so good") chili and watched Remember the Titans in a darkened room, silent except for the sound of the rain like pebbles rolling down a beach and the odd sniffle hidden by a manly clearing of the throat – he comes back with his trusty guitar and sits cross-legged on the couch tuning it by ear.

The party has thinned out after the family night in. It's Saturday night and there are mixers to go to, bars to hop, shots to be downed one after another. No one leaves until Louis makes them all come in for a group hug, though. They chant the name Kappa Tau Gamma with their arms linked around each other tight, just like the football team in Remember the Titans. Liam hesitated but Louis quickly grabbed him and pulled him in tight, lost somewhere in the hot beating heart of the hug. There are maybe only twelve of them left now, most of them pledges without fake IDs and seniors who need a little break. No one really talks much, they just pass a bucket of ice cream around in a circle like a joint, watching the Blackhawks game playing muted on the TV.

Niall strums a few major chords, a quick flick of his fingers pushing the peak of his snapback higher so everyone can see his eyes. "Any requests? Anyone wanna have a go?"

"Do you sing?" Liam asks and Zayn can recognize the same enthusiasm he had when he found out Zayn drew comics, obviously another one of Liam's favorites.

Niall nods. "I mean, not well, but I do sing, yeah."

Louis pats Niall's shoulder grandly. "You should see him at karaoke."

"Yeah, sing something, Niall," Liam says happily. "Please?"

"Humor the kid," Louis says, massaging Niall's shoulder with his thumb.

"Do Hey Ya," Harry suggests. "That was so good the last time."

"Oh, yeah, sure, I can do that," Niall says. He takes a moment, finding his fingers against the right strings, and looks over at Liam and shoots him a quick wink. He plays at about half the speed of the original and his voice is low and soft when he starts to speak-sing my baby don't mess around because she loves me so and this I know fo sho. It's so gently out of place, and with the ambience of the rain it almost tugs at Zayn's heart. Niall is so good at these kinds of things, flipping a song on its head, turning cheesy power ballads into genuine emotion. He's the only one who could make shake-shake-it sound like the chorus of Hey Jude, everyone joining in to sing like a Polaroid picture like a fucking church choir at Christmas.

Judging by the smile on Liam's face when he looks up at Zayn he's absolutely loving it. Zayn is lying back in a plush orange velour chair from the 80s and Liam sits by his feet, between his legs with the back of his head pressed up against Zayn's knees. Zayn has one hand against Liam's hair, playing with it absently, curls around his fingers. It's only hearing him quietly along with Niall that Zayn remembers the white lie Liam told when he was still pretending to be in college, his fictional major of choice being music technology. Zayn never really thought he was sincere, just a part of the story, but now he's not so sure.

The song ends on a few delicate notes, Niall picking them out carefully as he huffs out the last note turning into a hum. There's a lazy round of applause and Louis punches Niall's arm happily, a few loud thumps on his back.

"Liam, why don't you sing something," Zayn suggests, playing on a hunch.

"Oh, uh." Liam clears his throat. "I could, I guess."

Niall perks up at that. "Really? What song, man?"

Liam chews on his lip. "Cry Me a River?"

"Timberlake?"

Liam nods. "I love Timberlake," he informs them all with a grin. Zayn smiles to himself, looking down at the nest of curls pressed against his knees, knowing that a few weeks ago Liam wouldn't volunteer to speak in front of this crowd much less sing. Zayn knows that being here makes Liam more comfortable but he's starting to feel like maybe this isn't just a temporary thing, if maybe he is actually changing Liam in some fundamental way. Thinking back to the first time they met Zayn can remember all of the best qualities of Liam being there, small maybe, hidden, but there. Looking at him now though it's as if somehow in the passing weeks they've been coming out stronger, brighter. It's like Liam is somehow more himself; funnier, laughing louder, loving more. Like being with Zayn amplifies the things he likes most in himself.

"Let's do it, kid," Niall says, checking his fingering before making a decent fist of the song, sharp plucking and the palm of his hand tapping against the hollow body of the guitar to build a rhythm.

A moment of hesitation, almost missing his cue, Liam starts to sing and Zayn is genuinely speechless. His voice is incredible, deeper than his normal talking voice and richer too. He hits the falsettos of the chorus perfectly, his smoothes out held notes into velvet, meeting Niall's playing speed effortlessly. Best of all, Zayn can hear the passion in Liam's voice, the strength of everything like he's at his absolute best, doing something he has pride in. Being where he belongs, doing the thing he loves most. It's amazing.

The room is quiet except for Niall's guitar and Liam's soft tenor and the brothers have stopped watching the game, all eyes on Liam. He holds their attention for three minutes solid and Zayn can't help noticing he's holding his breath sometimes. When the song finishes and Liam stops singing, Niall plucking out the last few notes, there's absolute silence.

"Holy fuck," Louis says. "Where did that come from?"

Liam laughs a little and gives a shrug. "I dunno. I just like singing."

Niall reaches over to give Liam a fist bump, a look of goofy admiration on his face. "Killer, man."

There's a smattering of genuine applause and the people who are close enough slap Liam's shoulders, a rain of compliments Zayn knows are making Liam's cheeks burn red. Liam thanks them and kind of curls himself back into a ball, knees up and wrapping his arms around them. Not defensive, he kind of rocks backwards and forwards like he's trying to keep some huge emotion from pouring out.

"Who are you?" Zayn asks, crouching down to murmur next to Liam's ear, the familiar question that gets the familiar answer, their traditional call and response.

"I'm Liam," Liam says, twisting around to give him a smile. "I'm your Liam."

Before sliding back in his seat, Zayn leaves a kiss on the top of Liam's head. He smells his shampoo and the faint whiff of onions from cooking and that indescribable and comfortable smell of Liam Zayn found on his pillow in the morning.

"Aw," Louis coos. "Makes me fucking sick."

Liam hides his laugh behind his hand. "I know, right?"

"Isn't it past your bedtime?" Louis asks with a grin, slapping Liam's shoulder in congratulations too.

Zayn sticks out a hand, single middle finger, and without even being cued Liam does the exact same thing.

*

"You know," Liam says as he undresses in Zayn's bedroom, pulling off his sweater, t-shirt rucking up against his chest to show his stomach and the curve of hips disappearing under the waistband of his boxer briefs, "I don't have any photos of you. Or, like, of us."

"Hey," Zayn says, lying back in his bed with his hands tucked behind his head, naked except for the sheets draped over his waist, "you asking for some jerk off material, dude?"

Liam shoots Zayn an exaggerated pout, struggling against a smile. "No, I mean, just a picture of you. A normal one."

"So take one, idiot," Zayn says, reaching over to his bedside table for his own phone, thumbing the camera on. Liam laughs and takes off his t-shirt next, arms crossing over to grab the hem to pull it skywards. Zayn takes a few quick shots of Liam taking it off, the arch of his bare chest and stomach, the dark hair in his armpits, a blur of white t-shirt obscuring his face.

"Hey," Liam says, dropping the shirt.

"I don't have any photos of you either," Zayn says, grinning. "And I do need jerk off material."

"You want naked photos of me?" Liam asks sounding genuinely surprised. "Like, for real?"

"No, uh, I was kidding, there are – there are laws, actually," Zayn says, laughing as he moves around a bit, bare legs finding cold places on the mattress. "You can take whatever you want of me though, I don't give a shit."

Liam hums at that, breaking into a smile. His jeans are slung low on his hips, tugged down so far that Zayn can see the curve of his ass clad in black briefs. They drag lower when Liam climbs onto the bed on his knees, shuffling forwards until he's straddling Zayn's hips. He's got his phone in his hand, looking down at Zayn through it. "You sure?"

Zayn wriggles a little, pushing the sheets down until they're just at the top of his hips. He stretches out a bit, a half-yawn that he uses to grind up into Liam. "Whatever, dude."

The shutter sound clicks a few times. Liam smiles at the results. He leans closer and Zayn laughs up at him, loving the intent look on Liam's face with his tongue bitten between his teeth. Liam takes a photo of that laugh too.

Putting his hands on Liam's thighs Zayn pushes him down a bit, enough that the sheet can be tugged lower, the hem of it now just barely covering his cock, short thatch of dark hair that turns into a trickle as it climbs to his navel. Liam blushes but he keeps taking photos even as he does.

"Could you – uh – flip over?" Liam asks, his voice fragile.

Zayn gives Liam a wolfish grin before he obeys, a bit of a struggle under Liam's weight. Zayn finally manages turns onto his stomach and he buries his arms under his pillow as he tries to exaggerate the shape of his body, the scoop at the small of his back to the curve of his ass. Zayn's not an exhibitionist like Harry, he doesn't crave being naked, he has just learned to be comfortable like this, safely in that place with Liam that's intimate and wanted. He knows he's skinny, he knows he's kind of short, he can't change that shit so he just doesn't bother worrying about it. Knowing that he can turn Liam on this easily feels pretty great on its own so he lets Liam's hands roam and he lets him remember it for longer than the night.

"I've never seen this one," Liam says, his fingers tracing the tattoo at the top of Zayn's spine.

"That was one of my first," Zayn says. "I got it when I was sixteen."

"You like bird tattoos," Liam says.

"Yeah," Zayn says. "Take away whatever pop psychology from that as you want."

"It isn't just 'cause you like birds?"

"Thank you, Dr. Freud." Zayn can hear Liam laugh, can feel the shake of his body where he sits on the backs of Zayn's thighs. "You still thinking of getting fucked, dude?"

Liam makes a strangled little noise like a hiccup. "Oh, uh. I've been. Yeah, thinking."

"Well, normally I don't bottom, but if you'd rather fuck me first so you're comfortable with it I am totally down with that," Zayn says. He can't see Liam but just the thought of his cheeks pinking at that makes Zayn grin. "Whatever you want, dude, we'll figure it out."

There's a moment of silence before Liam answers. "No, uh, thanks but. I – I think I want you to –" a longer pause " – I want you to fuck me. I want you to." The emphasis in his last sentence sits heavily on the you.

"We can do that too," Zayn says. "Thought of when?"

"Soon," Liam says, growing calmer by the question like he only just discovered he can talk about sex with Zayn like any other conversation, that it's their thing now and he doesn't have to worry about it because it's already his. "Not yet. I don't know, sorry. It's just – it's still a big thing for me."

"No, I totally get it. Whatever you want, babe," Zayn says, huffing happily into his pillows, loving the warm weight of Liam on his body and the way his voice sounds when he talks about getting fucked. "Just say the word and I'm there."

"But," Liam says cautiously, "there are some other things I wanna do tonight."

"'zat so?" Zayn says, laughter muffled into his pillow.

"Yep," Liam says.

Zayn twists under Liam's body again, a hard wriggle under his weight as he fights to lie on his back again. Liam lifts off of him for long enough for Zayn to flip over. The Liam looking down at him is smiling, full-on, an ease in his muscles and a droop in his shoulders that really says how much he likes being able to do this.

"When was your first time?" Liam asks, touching a hand to Zayn's stomach, thumb rubbing against the line of his hip bone.

"I was seventeen," Zayn says easily, looking up at the ceiling as he tries to bring it back. "I was kind of drunk. First year here. It was with my frosh leader at his apartment. I was, like, just out of the closet so I thought it was something you kind of just did, so I sorta jumped at the first chance I got."

"Did you like it?" Liam asks next and it's not the first time Zayn feels like he's kind of blowing Liam's mind, opening him up to a whole life Liam probably hasn't even considered properly until now.

"Oh, for sure, and it was totally fun, like, I don't regret it at all. I just think I rushed into it, maybe. Coulda waited but, like, I was so glad to be out of high school and he was really cool and nice to me and I just kind of went for it." Zayn gives a shrug. "Not very interesting, sorry. I never really thought the first time was that important, but it's cool if you do. I get it, man."

Liam considers this for a little bit, mulling it over. "Yeah, I really want you to fuck me." His smile is all kinds of sweet, almost like he surprised himself by saying fuck me.

"All right, Liam, get the fuck down here, we need some photos of us together." Zayn reaches up and holds Liam's waist, tugging him closer. Liam laughs and lets himself fall, toppling into bed next to Zayn. With a twist he flips over so they're both on their backs, pressed together at the shoulders and knees, heads angled towards each other.

Holding his phone up above them, Liam shuffles as close to Zayn as he can. Click. And another click. Zayn wants to fuck with Liam a bit, to growl or smirk at the camera but he just can't stop fucking smiling. Instead, he just turns his head towards Liam and kisses his cheek. Click. Bites his ear lobe. Click. He snakes a hand down the front of Liam's jeans, palming over the length of his cock, feeling it through his briefs. Liam swallows a laugh and a moan. Click. Zayn kisses his cheek again. Another click. Zayn leans up and over to kiss Liam's mouth. Click. Zayn bats Liam's hand away and the phone drops to the floor and Liam wraps his arms around Zayn instead.

*

Somehow it's 3 am and they're still awake, too wound up after their last go, sucking each other off in a position Liam gleefully discovered was what sixty-nine meant. Too buzzed to think about sleeping they wander back downstairs to the frat house together, hands brushing by their sides, fingertips dancing along backs.

The place is dead, any party leftover long gone. The tables are littered with red solo cups and empty bottles of beer, lime wedges and the everlasting sticky spots where drinks have been spilled. Navigating around the chairs and pizza boxes and Guitar Hero instruments they stumble into the family room, the both of them only in their boxers. Zayn scratches his ass before he flops down on the couch and starts up the Playstation 3. Liam sits down next to him cross-legged on the couch, taking the controller from Zayn.

"What are we playing?"

"Portal 2," Zayn says as he slides lower on the couch, slumped up next to Liam. "You ever played?"

"The first one, on my computer," Liam says. "I always wanted to try out the second one."

"It's got co-op," Zayn says as he starts up the game he and Louis left off a week ago. "We gotta work together."

"Just tell me what to do," Liam says.

The game is difficult and Liam instantly furrows his brow and takes his role very seriously, because of course he does. That need he's always had to be the best mingling with his want to never let Zayn down makes him take this deadly serious, even if they're mostly naked in a fraternity house trying to beat a insomnia they've decided to share. They keep the volume low for the sake of boys sleeping off their drunkenness, leaving only the rain outside and the clicking-clattering of their controllers as they work through each puzzle together. Zayn gives instruction at first – put your portal there and I can jump through; block that off and walk along my path – but Liam gets a handle of the game quickly and it's not long before he's giving Zayn instructions of his own, tongue bitten sweetly between his teeth as he tries to figure the puzzles out.

It's just them in the glow of the videogame, whites and blues making shadow puppets against the walls. It's a lonely kind of room with no lights on but both of them are too lazy to switch anything on so they just sit closer together, Liam almost on Zayn's lap, their arms tangling a little as they hold their controllers. It's not long before Zayn gets kind of bored of the game and more interested in pressing his mouth against Liam's throat, nuzzling against his neck to see how quickly he can get Liam to fuck up.

"You remember when we met?" Zayn mumbles against his skin.

"Of course," Liam says. Zayn can feel the heat of his glow against his lips.

"Remember when you said you were in college?"

"Oh," Liam says, and the warmth in him gets hotter. He keeps his focus planted firmly on the screen in front of them even though Zayn's robot is walking in a corner of the room and Liam keeps falling to his death.

"No, no, I mean, you said you were taking music technology. Remember that?"

"Yeah," Liam says quietly. "Sorry –"

Zayn laughs, kisses Liam's neck. "Relax, dude. The way you sang tonight. Shit."

The robot Liam is piloting falls into a bottomless pit again and when he returns Liam's hands go slack against his controller. "You liked it?" It should be a rhetorical question but that's not how Liam frames it.

"You should," Zayn continues, the answer to Liam's question too obvious to even answer. "Do music, I mean. You're incredible. Your voice is amazing and you're only fucking sixteen. Have you thought about doing music?"

Liam shifts about like he's uncomfortable talking about it so Zayn drops his controller and just puts an arm around Liam, keeping him close. "I mean, I kind of thought about it."

"I know choosing what to do after high school is fucking overwhelming, but you should think about music. Performance, tech, whatever. There are some amazing programs." Zayn stops, realizing he's sounding way too much like his sister did when she was trying to convince him to take fine arts. "It's just a thought. And, I know I'm not an expert but you've got some fucking talent, man."

Zayn knows that accepting compliments has never been Liam's strong suit, always turning into the scuffed toe of his shoe or a blushing shrug, but it seems even worse when it's coming from Zayn. Liam almost curls up but Zayn is in the way, keeping him from falling in on himself. "You think?" Liam manages to say. He glances down and then back up, stopping for a second to look at Zayn's mouth. "Is it always this freaking stressful?"

The laugh Zayn gives is pure self-deprecation."Yes. It is. Choosing art was – well, it's a leap. And now I actually think I'm gonna try for my Masters," Zayn says. For once he doesn't feel like he's older than Liam, giving sage advice, he feels as hunted and small as Liam looks. "It's a two extra years but, uh, what's another student loan, eh?" The math isn't the question here but he leaves those words hanging for a second. "I know, who wants to hire an MFA but, I dunno, I've always wanted a Masters. I've been thinking about it for a while, though."

The game idles on screen but neither of them are paying attention to it now. There's only them, their bodies huddled up together, the future on their lips not so overwhelmingly huge when those words brush up against skin. Zayn hasn't even told Louis he wants to do a Masters yet, dreading the conversation that will happen when Louis realizes that their future might split after this year. He hasn't even told his family. He tells Liam, though. Zayn isn't great at this kind of stuff but he knows this is the sort of thing you tell your boyfriend. He knows because it terrifies him.

"You should do it," Liam says. He nods confidently, without even thinking about it, so full of the certainty Zayn was looking for. He turns to look at Zayn properly, a flash of heat still in his cheeks but less shy and more the blush of defiance. Their faces are so close now, a careful two inches of space between their mouths. "Yeah. Yeah, you should do it."

"Music tech," Zayn says but Liam seems less certain of that. "Just think about it."

They're so close Zayn can feel the breath Liam lets out as he chews on his bottom lip, working out this problem just like he did any of the ones on screen. "Music tech," Liam repeats, making it sound more real each time. "I've – it's sort of my dream job. You think I could?"

It's taken a little getting used to but Zayn has started to figure out this whole boyfriend thing. It's not just the holding hands and the stellar blowjobs and the meeting each other's friends; it's not the growing they each need to do; it's really more like talking about terrifying things at four in the morning in the cold light of a videogame and knowing that everything you say is okay, will be okay, because the same lips that worry through the words are covered instantly with a kiss.

*

It's raining even harder the next morning, a downpour that's heading towards thunder. The day is half-hearted, fully ten o'clock but still dark enough that Zayn can't properly see much when he wakes up. Rubbing his eyes, Zayn looks down to where Liam is nestled next to him, buried under the blankets so just the mop of his curly hair shows.

"Morning," Liam says groggily, his mouth pressed against Zayn's ribs, a hot spot on his skin where Liam muffles his words.

"Hey, man," Zayn says. He leans over to flip on his bedside lamp, making up for the early night outside.

"I'm up, I'm up," Liam says, struggling now to climb out of the blankets. "Gimme a sec."

Zayn laughs and gives his usual morning smoker's cough into his fist. "No, no, fuck that," Zayn says, pushing Liam down into bed, Liam oomphing happily back into place. "It's Sunday. There's a thunderstorm. You're fucking insane if you think I'm getting out of bed at all today."

Liam flips the blanket off of his head, emerging from the tangle of it with a smile. "Sounds good." He pauses for a second. "But I'm kind of hungry."

"Aha," Zayn says, reaching over to his bedside table again to pick up his phone. "This is where being in a frat has its perks." He thumbs a quick text message to one of the pledges, doesn't bother checking which one, and places his order for – "hey, you drink tea or coffee, babe?" – a coffee and a tea, a half-dozen bagels, whatever pastries are still hanging out, maybe some fruit if he can find it, but good luck with that.

"And they just do what you say?" Liam asks.

"They have to," Zayn says, yawning hugely, stretching his arms wide before snaking them back around Liam. "Problems with morning breath?"

"Nah," Liam says. "Not yours, anyway." And they kiss. "Okay, maybe we should brush our teeth."

Zayn laughs, slapping Liam's cheek gently. "Louis' got a private bathroom but I use it too. You can shower first. Turn right out of my door, down the hall, last door on your left." Liam nods but stays snuggled in for a bit, closing his eyes with his head on Zayn's chest, arms around his stomach and one leg hooked over Zayn's thighs. Zayn plays with Liam's hair again without really thinking about it, finding his hands doing that more and more often these days. Just a soft touch constantly against Liam like a connection, a simple chain linking them together even when nothing is going on. A reminder, maybe, a constant reminder that he's here, they're here.

At the first crack of thunder, a light like a camera flash going off outside and a static prickle of noise far away, Liam finally drags himself out of bed. He walks across Zayn's bedroom naked, an easiness in his stride almost like he's showing off. He doesn't have much ass, he's still got a little baby fat at his arms and in his cheeks, but he walks with the confidence of someone who knows they're wanted. Liam pulls on his briefs with a little hop, smoothing the elastic around his hips with his thumbs.

"Towels?" Liam asks.

"They're in the bathroom, mine are red. I think there's some clean ones downstairs if you're picky."

"Red, got it," Liam says. Unzipping his duffel bag he takes out a little toiletries case. He looks over his shoulder as he does and Zayn tries and fails to hide his snicker. "Shut up," Liam says.

"You're so fucking cute I can't fucking stand it," Zayn says, throwing his arms back across his pillows and taking Liam in, his blush and his smile and his cocked hip that says fuck you as kindly as Zayn has ever seen.

When Liam leaves the bedroom Zayn hops out of bed. He finds a clean pair of boxers to wear and then pats his rumpled pile of jeans looking for his cigarettes. He takes two out of the carton, sliding one behind his ear and the other between his lips. The window sticks a little bit but he finally manages to crank it open to the wild weather outside. The clouds almost totally block out the sun, a boiling metal gray. Lightning forks far away, white hot wires pressed into the skin of the sky, burned against the back of Zayn's eyelids when he closes them. The rumble of thunder comes on like a freight train, far away at first and rolling like a boulder down a hill. It echoes in his chest like a speaker's heavy bass.

Zayn lights up his cigarette and blows the smoke out into the wind. He can feel a mist of rain against his face, cooling his sleep-hot cheeks, and he watches the water flowing through the streets down below, a shallow river carrying the dull reds and orange of dead leaves towards the storm drains. The house feels like a boat tossed to sea, perfectly far away from the world, a pirate ship adrift from every responsibility Zayn has ever had. It feels good, like he could forget everything except for the boys he's chosen to surround himself with, that they could go on like this forever.

The knock on the door must be the pledge, and Zayn shouts for him to just come in.

"Hey."

"Hey, Jaymi," Zayn says, giving a lazy half-wave. "Just put it on my desk, all right?"

"Crazy weather, huh?" Jaymi says, putting the tray down where he was told.

"You like it?" Zayn asks.

Jaymi nods. He stands at attention like a private, hands behind his back with military precision, but his smile shows that he's only playing along. "No sports, though."

"You mark my words," Zayn says, his hip leaning against the window frame, taking a puff from his cigarette, "Louis is planning a FIFA 13 tournament right now."

"He is, actually," Jaymi says, breaking into a grin. "Did Liam go home already?"

"Nah," Zayn says, blowing another breath of smoke out the window. "He's having a shower. Why?"

"He should come play with us," Jaymi says easily, smiling at Zayn. "I think he'd like it."

Zayn taps the ash from his cigarette. "Yeah?"

Jaymi nods. "He's cool."

"I'll tell him about it," Zayn says, nodding slowly. He's not sure how much of this is trying to get in good with the pledge educator, but judging by the casual way Jaymi says it he seems to mean it. "Thanks for the food, man."

"Sure thing," Jaymi says, closing the door behind him.

Zayn drinks half of his coffee, smokes his cigarette and is most of the way through a second one when Liam slips back into his bedroom, a red towel knotted around his waist and one around his slim shoulders. Liam tosses his toiletries back into his bag and walks up next to Zayn by the window.

"Cats and dogs," Liam says.

"Which do you prefer?" Zayn asks, another little piece to gather.

"Dogs," Liam says cautiously, like he might change his mind of he chooses wrong. "We've got one at home. Brit. She's a total sweetheart."

"Sweet, I'm a dog person too," Zayn says. Liam's hair is still damp, wet curls around his ears and plastered to his forehead. His skin is damp, freckled with little pearls of water along his stomach, and he shivers when the rain-soaked wind blows into Zayn's bedroom. "Your tea is on the desk there, man."

"Thanks," Liam says, leaving a wet kiss on Zayn's shoulder as he walks away.

Standing by the window Zayn alternates between smoke and coffee, a mingled morning taste that wakes him up. With the dark of the rain he has no idea what time it is and he feels like he's fallen into some other place, between the cushions of the world where everything stands still long enough for Zayn to take a breath.

"Hey, is this the comic? Er. Graphic novel."

Zayn turns, leaning back against the windowsill. Liam is at his desk and he's holding his tea in one hand and flipping through a sheaf of papers with the other. "Oh, yeah, that's some unfinished stuff. Story boards, like. The finished pages and the things I'm working on are in the studio. This is just preliminary."

"Can I look?"

"Little too late to ask that, babe," Zayn says with a smirk. "Tell me what you think, at least."

Liam puts down his tea and picks up the paperclipped bundle that will be chapters seven, eight, and nine. He sits on the side of Zayn's bed and starts to leaf through them, careful not to get them wet. Flicking his cigarette out the window, Zayn crawls onto the bed and squats down behind Liam, hooking his chin on his shoulder. The smell of the shower is still fresh on his skin, Irish Spring and a flowery shampoo he recognizes as Louis', too freshly clean to properly smell like Liam. His wet hair tickles against Zayn's ear and it makes his cheek wet.

"What's this one about?" Liam asks, turning the page and squinting at Zayn's scrawled handwriting and sketchy drawings laying out the scene.

"The time I decided to go punk," Zayn says, laughing a little. "I tried to give myself an industrial with a safety pin in fourth period bio and bled so much they sent me home. I was fourteen."

"Oh," Liam says, a bright little sound of surprise. "You were a punk?"

"Were?" Zayn says. "Once you accept punk into your heart it never leaves." Liam laughs at that, a kind laugh that warms Zayn. "My older sister was going through a phase and I always tried to be just like her back then. Probably still fucking do, actually. That's kind of what the chapter's about, my older sister. I survived school because of her."

"Doniya?"

"Doniya, yeah," Zayn says. "I borrowed all her black nailpolish, she was so fucking angry. She leant me her Dead Kennedys CDs though, that was pretty cool."

"CDs?"

"Shut up, you're not that fucking young." But Liam is smiling, turning in profile to wink at Zayn. "Oh, fuck you."

The pages continue to turn and Liam is silent except to ask the odd question when Zayn's handwriting was too awful to read. While Liam reads about the time he tried to start a Blink-182 cover band Zayn takes his towel from around his shoulders and starts to dry Liam's hair. He towels him down quickly, rubbing against his damp curls and making them wild and fluffy again. Zayn is a little rough but Liam just laughs, getting knocked side to side as Zayn works.

"I can't read like this," Liam says, giving up when Zayn gets to the top of his head, towel falling in front of Liam's face.

"You're soaking my bed, man," Zayn says. Liam's hair is mostly dry, crazy curls now like he just got out of bed, so Zayn gives up and tosses the towel onto the floor. Liam starts to read through the next chapter and Zayn tucks his head on Liam's shoulder again.

In the cold of the room Liam's skin seems paler, drawn tighter against his muscle and bone. His throat bobs as he swallows, the cafe-au-lait birthmark on his throat like something Zayn wants to taste. The geometry of his body is slender and lean like this, relaxed and not trying to show off for anyone this time. Liam is on a cusp, Zayn knows it, and it's like Zayn can taste both sides, the kid who was and the man he's trying to be.

The kiss Zayn leaves on his neck makes Liam smile, stretching his head away from Zayn just a little to expose more of his pale throat.

"Mind if I –"

"Go for it," Liam says happily.

By the time Liam finishes the last page there are a constellation of a half-dozen red stars dotting the base of his throat, his shoulder, his collar bones. Zayn was careful to make sure they could all easily be hidden, but if Liam decided to wear his shirt just so, leaving a few buttons undone, he could show them off if he really wanted.

*

Zayn wakes to the sound of some crash downstairs, squinting when he opens his eyes. He doesn't remember falling asleep but he feels the sticky sweat at the back of his neck that means he must have been napping. The room is still as dark as it has ever been and he can't tell if he's been out for minutes or hours. "What time's it?"

"Four-thirty," Liam says, smiling down at Zayn. He's dressed in his boxers and a loose t-shirt, sitting up with his back against the headboard, knees tucked up to his chest and Zayn can recognize the sound of Angry Birds playing on his phone. "You were only asleep for an hour."

Struggling to lift himself up, Zayn rubs the back of his neck and yawns. "You could've woken me."

"I made you a sandwich," Liam says, pointing to the plate on Zayn's bedside table. "I might've snuck down for a game of FIFA. Louis came to see you. Don't worry, I stopped him from drawing on your face."

"What'd Louis want?" Zayn asks, sliding over so he can lie next to Liam, his head against his hip. The rain has slowed down but it's still going, no thunder or lightning this time. The patter is reassuring, still adrift and far away from anything to worry about.

There's a click as Liam locks his phone, dropping it next to him on the bed. His curls bounce as he sweeps them away from his face, that same hand then sliding down next to Zayn's looking for his fingers, easily lacing them together. "Just wanted to know if we were here for dinner. I think they're ordering Thai."

"What do you wanna do?" Zayn asks sleepily, smacking his lips and wanting for a cigarette again.

"How do you mean?"

"I mean do you want to stay here for dinner or do you want to go out and get something?"

Liam barely takes a second. "Let's go out."

"Done and done," Zayn says squeezing Liam's hand to seal the deal. "Maybe get a movie after?"

The glow in Liam's cheeks isn't from embarrassment or worry, it's the bright red of a grin that dimples hugely, crow's feet at his squinting eyes. "Like, a date?"

"Like a date," Zayn says. "We haven't tried one of those yet. Check out what all the fuss is about, yeah?"

"Might as well," Liam says, adopting Zayn's joking tone even though he seems fit to burst behind it. "A little bit of romance."

"My middle name," Zayn says.

"We could hold hands," Liam says.

"I've heard that happens," Zayn replies.

"Maybe a kiss goodnight," Liam continues on the edge of a laugh.

"If everything goes well."

"Could be fun," Liam says.

"We'll just have to see, won't we?" Zayn says as he pulls Liam down on top of him, hands sliding up under his t-shirt and jabbing at his sides, Liam grinning and laughing and fighting the whole way down.

*

The nights have finally tipped over from the last buzz of summer and into autumn; when Liam and Zayn walk out of the theatre together their breaths come out in clouds. Zayn lights up a cigarette, absolutely aching for one, the smoke joining the fog of their laughter. They stop just at the edge of the canopy, the two of them watching the rain pour down in front of them, eaves overflowing and falling in a sheet in front of them.

"So did you like it?" Zayn asks, tucking the cigarette in the corner of his mouth as he throws one arm around Liam's shoulders.

"It was pretty good," Liam says. "I liked the first Kick-Ass more though. It was like, making fun of superhero movies but still having fun. This one didn't really do that, you know?"

"Yeah," Zayn says. "I can see that. You know superhero movies better than I do."

"X-Men 2, now that was a good superhero movie," Liam says. "And the first Iron Man."

"And the Avengers, obviously," Zayn says.

"Obviously."

"Spider-Man 3?" Zayn asks.

Liam wrinkles his nose. "No thanks."

Zayn laughs and angles a stream of smoke into the air. "Same. What about Batman."

Liam smiles down at the ground, then up at Zayn looking almost apologetic. "Will you hate me if I said my favorite Batman movies were the Tim Burton ones?"

"You telling me you're a Batman snob?"

"No, no," Liam says. "They just felt more like the comic books, right? It felt more Batman-y. The new ones are so. Sad."

"A Batman purist, then."

"Yeah," Liam says, liking the sound of that. "I like that. They were more fun."

"I'll keep it in mind," Zayn says, stomping on the last of quarter inch of his cigarette. "So, as dates go?"

"Pretty good," Liam says, leaning over to rest his head snug against Zayn's shoulder. "I still should have paid, though."

"Ah, fuck it," Zayn says, "you'll get the next one." That gets just the right smile out of Liam, the one Zayn was looking for. "So, I guess I should get you home."

"Oh, but – I've – I've got a curfew, Zayn," Liam says automatically, his brow furrowing.

Zayn is confused for a second and then it hits him. Houses and homes. "Oh, no. I meant. Your home, dude. Like, your house."

"Right," Liam says. "Of course. Sure."

It's so easy to understand. If it wasn't for the flashing time on his phone Zayn might have been able to forget. The dark of the morning fading into the dark of the night has made the whole day feel kind of timeless, like it couldn't ever get to be this late, hours passing by without being noticed. Together for so long it feels almost impossible to think that they'd have to fall apart again. Three days together felt like a little forever on Friday but now their rainy little pirate ship lost at sea has run aground on the rocks of Sunday night. "I'll give you a lift home, okay?"

The air goes out of Liam immediately. He seems more defeated by that idea than usual, more than the other times his hand has lingered against Zayn's before letting go. "Okay."

Digging in his pockets for the keys, Zayn takes them out and rings them around his middle finger. "Ready to run for it?"

Liam nods but he still doesn't move. A few other moviegoers walk past them like they're islands in a moving river but Liam still doesn't move. There's a finality to it all, like getting into the truck means it's really over. "I – don't want to go back. School tomorrow, and. It went too fast." His head is still against Zayn's shoulder and Zayn can see Liam close his eyes, dark fan of his lashes against pale skin.

Drawing his arm away from Liam's shoulders Zayn gives his hair a good ruffle. "We can meet up some time during the week. For dinner or something."

Liam nods again but he still doesn't move. "Zayn?"

"Yeah?"

"I really don't want to go."

Licking his lips, an idea comes to Zayn before any words do. Quickly tugging one of the rings from his right hand, a silver band decorated in curling black designs he bought in Hyderabad on a family vacation when he was thirteen, Zayn folds it into Liam's hands, curling his fingers around the cold metal. "I'm really not far, dude."

Liam looks down at the ring in his palm, curiosity passing across his face before he breaks into a smile. "You – you sure you want me to have it?"

"I'm sure." Zayn runs a hand against the back of Liam's neck, pulling him in for a quick kiss. Zayn's not sure why it's so important to him but he knows he wants Liam to have it. He wants to be able to see it on him when they meet again, he wants to know Liam's got something to hold on to if things get too hard. He might not be able to be there, to fight all the battles Liam is going to need to fight, but he can at least give Liam something to hold on to.

The ring is a bit too big for each of Liam's fingers but it fits neatly around his thumb. A solid silver band resting just under his first knuckle. Liam looks at it admiringly and even though his eyes are wet at the corners he's smiling that damn sunshine smile. "Thanks, Zayn."

"How bad is it?" Zayn asks, almost a whisper.

The rain pouring down almost drowns Liam out. "Not – not so bad," Liam says still looking down at the ring. "I've got friends, it's not like I'm alone or anything. Mostly people ignore me, which is fine with me. There are just a couple of guys who really – just – don't like me, I guess. But it's not too bad. It's not so bad I can't handle it."

"I know, babe," Zayn murmurs, reaching out a hand to cup the nape of Liam's neck, fingers against the soft hair that curls towards the collar of his shirt. "Who could fucking hate you, though. The way you are, the way you fucking light everything up. Fuck them. I know who you are. I've seen it." With his other hand Zayn tips Liam's chip up. "Plus, you can fucking box, right?"

Liam splits into a grin again. "Yeah."

"Bet that ring can split some lips."

"You don't punch with your thumb," Liam says, laughing and loosening up against Zayn.

"Anyone ever called you a killjoy?" Zayn asks.

"Yep."

A short bark of a laugh. Zayn works his hand against the small of Liam's back, fingers walking across the cotton of his sweater. "Race you to the truck, dude."

"Okay." Liam flips his hood up, his hair poking out in curls, his eyes shining with reflected light and a glimmer of something else. He looks down at his ring again, a glint of silver, and back up to Zayn. People pass them by, adults and kids and teenagers, a crowd of strangers thick around them but Liam darts forward anyway and presses a hot, wet kiss on Zayn's mouth. "Ready?" Liam asks, flushed all over.

Zayn can still feel Liam's lips on his mouth, tasting like chocolate and mint, the weight of that one touch in the middle of a crowd somehow feeling more important than anything else. "All right," Zayn says. "Get set. Three, two – oh, for fuck's sake, you can't just run off – you fucking cheater, fuck –"

*

After getting the run around from Google Maps, lost up and down three residential streets, Zayn pulls up in front of the high school just as the last bell rings. Crisp and clear, a summer blue stretched until its thin and autumn-pale over the sky, the imposing red brick of school in front of him. Zayn swore he'd never set foot in another high school again but he's smiling as he puts on his mirrored aviators (stolen from Niall), knocks the peak of his snapback a little higher (stolen from Louis), and fidgets at the collar of his leather jacket (his own) to make sure everything is set. Tucking a cigarette behind his ear and making sure his combat boots are loose, the metal aglets of his shoelaces clattering against the pavement, Zayn takes a deep breath and walks towards the school.

Kids are pouring out, young kids, fucking impossibly young kids. It's weird knowing that some of these people are only three years younger than him because they all look like they belong in middle school. Liam must have hit some kind of genetic lottery because while he can look painfully sixteen at times, some of these seniors look to be about twelve.

Zayn walks in against a crowd that parts before him. It makes him smile, knowing the uniform he's put on – loose shirt under his jacket to show his wealth of tattoos, the clatter of his heavy boots – demands a kind of automatic respect. Or fear. Louis was pretty adamant about scaring the kids.

The main hall looks pretty much exactly like the one Zayn spent four years of his life hating. Beige bricks, beige lockers, dusty trophy cases showing awards dating back twenty, thirty years. The halls are thick with students but a path still forms in front of Zayn like he's walking on water. The numbers on the lockers count up from 100, Zayn looking for the magic 618 Liam mentioned once in passing, something about hating it because the gym doors opened right next to it.

Keeping his stride even, Zayn attracts the attention of a few dozen people. Even teachers stop to give him the stink eye as he passes. He'd be lying if he said it didn't feel good. If only he'd felt this badass while he actually was in school. Five-hundred and seventy-five. Six-hundred.

"Hey, dude," Zayn says, leaning against a closed locker just a few away from where Liam is stuffing books into his shoulder bag.

Liam's eyes are round, a day-long weariness in them vanishing as he tries to process what he's seeing. "Zayn?"

"Your sister said you needed a ride," Zayn says, loud enough for the people around them to hear.

Liam stares at him for five, ten seconds. "Oh. Right! Uhh, give me a second, okay?" His surprise becomes a smile, a hesitant little thing he tries to hide, the flash in his eyes like he's trying to say hi to Zayn, trying to get across five different emotions at once without speaking.

"Sure, man," Zayn says. He pushes away from the locker and walks a lazy semi-circle around Liam. He looks around for anyone who might be the bullies in question, trying to remember how the awful dudes at his own school looked like. He finds a few guys – boys, really, couldn't be more than seventeen themselves – and makes sure to give them a searing eyeful before moving on. "Hey, man," Zayn says, warmer this time as he nudges in next to Liam. He's careful to give him his distance, letting Liam decide on what's comfortable here. "What's happening, dude?"

"Hey," Liam says, taking a moment from his book bag to smile at Zayn. "Why – why're you here?"

An easy shrug. "Thought you might want a break."

Liam laughs and finally zips up his bag, slamming his locker door closed and locking it quickly, lit up like there's electricity crackling in his blood. "That's kind of exactly what I want."

"So, who are these dudes?" Zayn asks under his breath. "Point 'em out."

"You're not going to do anything are you?" Liam asks, somewhere between panic and delight.

"Nah," Zayn says.

"Those three in the blue, over there, they're looking at you," Liam says, averting his eyes as he does so.

"I fucking thought so too, and all," Zayn says. "All right," he announces louder, for the benefit of people staring at him. "Let's dash, bro." The path he takes brings them near the three boys Liam singled out. Clean-cut, good-looking types, square jaws, short hair that says football and lazy sneers that say asshole. All Zayn does is walk by them, Liam by his side, but makes sure to catch their eye as he passes. Zayn deliberately slows down, his laces clattering around his feet, and he curls his lip just a little.

"We've gotta pick up beer on the way home if that's cool with you," Zayn says to Liam, making sure they know exactly how old he is.

"That's cool," Liam says easily, building off of Zayn instantly, finding his confident spot by his side.

"You know, you can call me whenever you want if you need a ride," Zayn says. "I'll come get you, it's not a big deal."

"Thanks, Zayn," Liam says, really getting into the game and playing it perfectly.

They walk out of the school and into the parking lot without saying much more. Zayn keeps the act up right until they reach Louis' truck but he starts laughing before he can get it unlocked. Liam does too, cracking up when Zayn does as they slide into their seats, slamming the heavy doors closed with a thud.

"That oughta sort them out for a bit," Zayn says.

"Drive," Liam says still buzzing on the thrill of it. "I wanna kiss you so bad, we have to get out of here."

Zayn pulls out in style, twinned roostertails of gravel going up behind him as he floors the truck, rolling through the stop sign and jumping out onto the road, skipping over a few gears as he meets the speed of the traffic.

"Where did that come from?" Liam asks when they're safely on the road and the school grows smaller and smaller behind them.

"You not happy to see me?" Zayn asks. Eyebrow raised, the white of a canine tooth in his smile.

As they pull up to their first red light Liam leans across the truck and grabs a long, hot kiss from Zayn, hand on his cheek and their noses brushing as they move against each other. That answers that. "They actually looked – like, spooked. I don't think I've ever seen them look like that."

"My older cousin did the exact same thing for me when I was in school," Zayn says, relaxing now that he's gotten his first kiss of the afternoon. "He rode a motorcycle though, so it was a lot cooler. I thought I'd try to pass on the tradition."

Liam flops back into his seat, still grinning so wide, only now remembering to put on his seatbelt. "Thanks, Zayn."

"No one fucks with my boy," Zayn says gruffly and Liam's dimples get just a bit deeper because of it. "There was an actual reason for me picking you up, though," Zayn continues, one hand on the wheel, his sunglasses sliding low on his nose. "We've got a soccer game this afternoon and the brothers wanted you there."

"What? Why?"

"Like it or not but you're kind of our mascot right now," Zayn says. "The goat we had ran away last year and the boys think you're good luck so you're kind of stuck with it now."

"Really?" It's obvious that Liam loves hearing that, nodding slowly as he warms to the idea. Zayn reaches over to put a hand on Liam's knee, keeps it there with a squeeze. "I've missed them a lot," Liam says. "I know it's only Wednesday but it feels like it's been so much longer."

"Missed them?"

Liam angles his smile to the ground before he brings it up to Zayn. "Okay, I missed you too."

"Oh, no, I see how it is," Zayn says, taking his hand from Liam's leg.

"No, Zayn, no," Liam says but his laughter gives him away. "Obviously I missed you more."

"I know when I'm not wanted – are you seriously trying to fucking tickle me while I drive?"

"I love you most, Zayn," Liam says with a smile that's meant for clear blue days. Curls, dimples, the earnest flash of his brown eyes half-pleading and half-joking. "You know I love you most."

"I don't believe you."

"How can I prove it?" Liam asks.

The smirk playing across Liam's lips is infectious and Zayn can't help but feel it play up in the corner of his own mouth. "I can think of ways."

"Tell me," Liam says. his voice doesn't catch in his throat like it used to. It comes so easy now, even when he's only minutes away from his school and his home. Without even a moment's hesitation Liam just became this astounding fucking boy like the potential has been living in him for weeks now, getting stronger, glowing brighter like a star forming in the cage of his chest.

"I think blowing me while I'm driving is probably worse than tickling," Zayn says.

"So stop the car."

Zayn laughs so hard he almost runs a red light, putting his foot hard down on the brakes to stop them with a slam and a shudder. "I've created a monster."

And Liam doesn't beam, he doesn't grin, he doesn't even smile his bashful smile, he just looks out the passenger door window with his smug little smirk, sitting loftily above all the people who watched them come to a stop in a hurry like he's laying claim to it all. Liam obviously must love that feeling because he doesn't stop smirking the whole way home.

*

There's a spot on the bench waiting for Liam when they walk up to the field. Louis ushers him into it, red mesh pinnie blowing in the wind, putting a hand on each of Liam's shoulders and thanking him sincerely for coming because they're already a goal down.

"I don't know the rules of soccer at all," Liam says.

"You don't need to to be good luck," Louis says. He takes these superstitions very seriously, Zayn knows it because he can't even hear a note of sarcasm in his voice. "Just cheer for us?"

"Course," Liam says. "All the way, Louis."

"You're a rockstar," Louis says. He kisses the top of Liam's head before he runs back out onto the field to captain their ragtag crew.

Zayn sits next to Liam on the bench and takes a swig from Louis' bottle of gatorade. "Bet you didn't expect this, huh?"

"My cheeks hurt," Liam says, grinning over at Zayn. "I can't stop smiling."

"Fuck," Zayn says, angling a gentle touch of a punch to Liam's chin. "You're fucking adorable."

Liam is a very good mascot. He jumps off the bench when Louis gets a breakaway down the field, long strides and good handling of the ball, making it past a few of the Delta Epsilons with ease before fudging it on his strike, ball sailing a few feet over the net. The applause Liam gives is loud and raucous, jumping up and down on the spot as Louis jogs past them, shooting Liam a finger-gun salute.

It's like that for the rest of the match. Zayn smokes his cigarettes and watches Liam more than he actually watches the game. Liam cheers for everyone on their team, whether they're taking a corner or failing spectacularly on defence, letting in another easy goal. He shouts their names, every boy on the pitch, Zayn never realizing that Liam actually remembered them all. Jumping up when something good happens, groaning and bowing his head when something goes wrong. He gets so into it, like he did when he sang for them last weekend, just losing himself to the fun and forgetting to be self-conscious.

When Louis makes a substitution and sends a few players back to the bench, they each take it in turn to run by Liam and give his hair a good ruffle before they take their places. The boys replacing them on the field do the exact same thing, high fiving Liam as he gives them a little shout of encouragement before they join the game.

*

From: Zayn
To: Liam
10-20-13 8:22 pm

Hey dude reminder Harrys show is on saturday if your still interested

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-20-13 8:28 pm

Yesssss! Wat time???

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
10-20-13 8:31 pm

Doors at 7 want me to pick you up

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-20-13 8:33 pm

Plz!!! Do I have to dress fancyyy lol

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
10-20-13 8:40 pm

Haha no just casual

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-20-13 8:44 pm

My parnts r gone this weeknd 2......

 

From: Zayn
To: Liam
10-20-13 8:46 pm

Oh?

 

From: Liam
To: Zayn
10-20-13 8:47 pm

Im just sayinnnn lol c u then :) :) :)

*

"What – what am I looking at?" Liam whispers in Zayn's ear.

Zayn suppresses a laugh, knowing too well the shitty looks art students give if you're not appreciating their works properly. "I think it's meant to be, like, a study of American consumerism."

Liam's brow furrows as he leans closer at the display. "It's some ants in a Barbie Dream House."

Zayn gives a hearty cough into his fist, has to look away from Liam or he's really going to lose it. "Yeah, man, they're like, drones living in a plastic mass-produced prison. It's art, man."

Liam nods appreciatively, gives the serious-looking woman standing next to the work a bright smile. "It's very cool," he tells her reassuringly. The girl frowns at Liam and he looks genuinely taken aback, a little wounded.

Putting a hand against the back of Liam's collar he quietly guides him away from the exhibit because if he doesn't move he's just going to end up laughing.

Liam obviously chose to ignore Zayn's advice because he's looking fucking fine in his white Oxford cotton shirt, navy blue blazer that's a bit too small on him, probably a leftover from some wedding or funeral from a few years ago. Liam, still frowning, lets himself get moved down to a more conventional display, some crayon sketches of urban decay in Detroit. "They – uh, they don't really like it when you call their art cool, Liam," Zayn says, regretting maybe not giving him a few pointers about how to navigate this world first. It's another jump in the deep end for Liam, but the kid sure is trying.

"Oh," Liam says, his full bottom lip pushed in a pout. "Sorry."

"No, dude, it's fine, I'm just saying you stick out. Adorably. But you do."

"I – I don't really understand anything I'm looking at," Liam says, putting a finger to his chin as he examines the drawings. "Like, I get paintings and stuff. Da Vinci, you know. The Mona Lisa, that's cool – er, nice? Uh, it's pretty – but there's a mannequin over there covered in teeth. Is that – is that good? Good art?"

This is even better than Zayn imagined it would be. Zayn is not really one to go in for this kind of stuff but he always feels obligated to attend because he's enrolled in the design program too, supporting fellow artists and all that. Having Liam with him just reminds Zayn of how seriously everyone takes things here, and it makes his heart lighter to be with someone who doesn't live in this bubble, seeing how someone who doesn't spend the majority of their time in a studio looks at this kind of thing. Liam is so frank about it all, saying the things Zayn has learned to keep in the back of his mind since his freshman year, approaching everything with a naive honesty as he tries to puzzle out why there's a fishbowl full of pig's blood on display ("I think it's probably about the meat industry," Zayn says. "Oh," Liam replies. "Right. Of course, I get it now.") It's just too much, and Zayn has to fight the urge to kiss Liam just for the puzzled but encouraging thumbs up he gives to a man who is sitting in the corner of the room slowly eating the stuffing out of a bean bag chair.

"You know what? I honestly don't even fucking know," Zayn says, tucking a hand in around Liam's waist. "If you like it, you like it, I think that's the best way to go at this stuff."

"I thought it was – more complicated than that," Liam says. He's a little stiff against Zayn's side when Zayn touches him but he quickly relaxes. There are enough other couples here – tattooed girls with their patient girlfriends, a few guys Zayn recognizes from the theatre department walking hand in hand – that Liam feels a bit safer, letting himself fall in against Zayn. Hesitant at first but after no one bats an eye he takes to it much more happily. "I kind of just like the stuff that makes me feel good. But I thought that wasn't how this worked."

"Nah," Zayn says. "I like your way better."

"I feel kind of lost," Liam says.

"We don't have to stay, we can just check Harry's performance out and leave."

"Oh," Liam says. He actually sounds kind of disappointed. "I still kind of want to stay. Really, I just wanted to be with you at one of your art things. I wanted to see what kind of world you live in."

"Oh, man, Liam," Zayn says, kissing the side of Liam's head, tugging him in closer. "This is so not my world. I work with guys in animation and graphic design. This is. This is out there even for me, like. Mostly my crowd go and watch, like, Turbo in theatres together and talk about the shading and lighting after. We marathon Miyazaki movies at two in the morning with a flask. That kind of stuff."

"Turbo?" Liam asks. "The super fast snail movie?"

"Yeah, that one," Zayn says. "A bunch of us got high and went to see it over the summer."

"I loved that movie!" Liam says brightly, hooking onto that. "It was really cute. I loved the little dude."

"Exactly, that's totally more my speed." Zayn sneaks in behind Liam, resting his head on his shoulder, arms around his waist as they turn to look at a display of display of macro photography, flowers and testicles mostly. "We talk about our favorite Disney movies. I had a whole class on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby last year. It's not all – uh, sculptures made with frozen jizz."

"So I'm not embarrassing myself?" Liam asks. "Because I feel kind of – I feel pretty stupid."

But he's here, Liam actually wants to be here, even as he frowns at every exhibit and shuffles around nervously looking for something to say that won't make him blush too hard. Liam feels like an idiot but he doesn't want to go. He stays because he thinks it's Zayn's thing and Liam tries so hard to understand what's going on , trying so hard in everything he does, wishing he were the kind of person who could be in a place like this.

"Seriously, babe, you're not. I barely understand half of what's happening myself." Zayn kisses Liam's neck. "After we get out of here let's hit up McDonalds and watch some fucking cartoons."

"Deal," Liam says. He knocks his head gently against Zayn's, temple to temple, snug up in his arms and obviously comfortable there too. "Actually, about after. I was thinking about what we could do after."

"Hold on." Over Liam's shoulder Zayn can see some people gathering in the next room, and a quick check of his wrist watch shows that it's time. "I think Harry's starting, actually."

"Oh, okay, let's do this."

The next room over is empty, pale white walls lit from above in stark fluorescent keeping the room hollow and cold, a floating in-between space. As Zayn takes Liam hand and guides him through the crowd they get close enough to the front to see that the space isn't empty, not completely. In the middle of the room is a plexiglass cube, maybe three feet on each side, gleaming under the lights. In the middle of the box Harry is sitting naked, cross-legged, his eyes closed.

"Uh," Zayn can hear Liam whisper, the crowd hushed around them. "Is he – oh."

Harry seems totally at peace, that sleepy smile on his lips like he's meditating. And then, with very careful and deliberate movements he takes a small open pot of paint sitting by his left knee, dips three fingers into it and starts smearing himself with neon orange. One by one Harry chooses different colors, all of them dayglo bright, and paints his naked body in front of the attentive crowd. His tattoos, stark on his skin before, get smeared under this neon technicolor, blue and yellow on his face and in his hair, green and orange down his stomach and legs, purple like warpaint across his chest.

Zayn smiles, a laughing smile but also one that just loves knowing Harry. Of course this is his term project. When Harry pitched him that idea months ago Zayn mostly just agreed to make Harry feel better; seeing it happen is another thing entirely. "What do you think?" Zayn whispers.

"It's like. It's like, he's the art," Liam says slowly, like he's working out a hard math problem. "Like it's the person that's the art. Not the like, things you make. It's him, he's the part that's important."

"Shit," Zayn says. "That actually makes a lot of fucking sense."

Liam lights up, turning to Zayn with a grin. "Really?"

"Seriously." Zayn looks back at Harry who is now just dripping in paint, back to his meditative stance, not moving as the colors run down his body. "Harry's going to fucking love you for that, man."

The look on Liam's face is impossible to resist, bubbly and pleased that he maybe got something right, like he isn't a foreign body in this crowd but kind of belongs here by Zayn's side. He even nods appreciatively like he's been welcomed into the art world and is taking the place he deserves, and it looks fucking hilarious on him. It's also painfully sweet. "I like it. It's really cool."

"Or he's just our idiot friend sitting in a box covered in paint."

"Or that," Liam agrees. "That could be it."

"So, what were you saying before?" Zayn asks. "When I interrupted you. About after?"

"Oh," Liam says. He turns to look at Zayn and his smile is easy and lingering, familiar almost. "It's just, I have the house to myself this weekend. I thought you could come over and maybe fuck me tonight."

Zayn stares at Liam for a second before nodding weakly. "Wow."

"I'd really like that, if you want to. I'd really, really like that," Liam says as he takes a hold of Zayn's hand.

"Right," Zayn says, his pulse going so fast he's sure Liam can feel it in his wrist. "Right, okay. Yep."

*

The front hall of Liam's house is dark when Zayn follows him in, sliding the front door closed behind them. Liam pats the walls for the switch, turning on the lights just as Zayn trips over an umbrella stand and slams his shoulder against a wall.

"Shit, sorry," Zayn whispers.

"There's no one here, Zayn," Liam says with a smile. He unzips his jacket and hangs it up in the closet, taking out a hanger for Zayn. "I told you, home alone."

"Right," Zayn says. "Sorry, force of habit. I'm too used to sneaking into boys' houses after dark." Pulling off his dark wool peacoat, Liam takes it from Zayn and hangs it up next to his parents jackets lined up in a neat row. "So this is it?"

"Yep," Liam says. "Make yourself at home, dude. I'll get us a drink." He tosses his house keys into the bowl by the front door and walks down the hall into the kitchen. The lights go on in there, a bright white light at the end of the tunnel.

Taking his time, Zayn looks at the pictures hanging on the walls as he catches up with Liam. It's a simple bungalow, walls painted a dull yellow and the floors light oak hardwood, unremarkable except for the faces in the photos. Liam and his family through the ages, artsy black and white baby photos skipping into his toddler years with a tragic bowl-cut, leaping the years into the tweens where Liam looks all dopey with a buzzcut that doesn't suit his round face. His sisters – they must be two or three years older than him – always flank Liam in family photos, a hand on each of his shoulders like they're guarding him from something or someone. Into his early teens, gone all scrawny this time, on a track and field date or riding his bike with a huge open grin. The pictures at the end of the hall and nearest to where Liam is currently rummaging about in the fridge show Liam closer to how he is now. Hair growing out, hitting a growth spurt until he's taller than his sisters, even in pictures his smile turning inwards and self-conscious compared to the grinning kid he was.

"Oh, don't look at those," Liam says, two glass bottles of coke in his hands. "They're embarrassing."

"You look cute," Zayn says. He holds out one of the photos, tugging against the wire keeping it against the wall. "First day of high school?"

"Yeah," Liam says, his blush obvious in the stark kitchen light. He takes a bottle opener out of one of the drawers and pops the tops of each, handing one of the cokes to Zayn.

"You grew up good," Zayn says, letting the photo fall back against the wall.

"Oh, uh, thanks," Liam says with a grin even as he avoids looking at the photos.

"Where are your sisters?" Zayn asks, gesturing to one of the more recent photos, Liam and his sisters cheering at a Red Wings game, all of them wearing matching jerseys.

The grin Liam gives is hard to conceal, a giddy hiccup of a smile. "Actually, I asked if I could have the house to myself tonight. They're out with their boyfriends."

It takes Zayn a second to catch up with Liam. "You told them," he says, turning away from the photos to just look at Liam. A boy holding a bottle of coke out for him, his posture arrow-straight and almost proud, in his nice dress shirt and socked feet, grinning like he's been aching to tell Zayn.

"A few nights ago. I told them I had a boyfriend. I told them – well, that you were my boyfriend." Liam clings to the word boyfriend and Zayn can see how happy he gets every time he uses it. There's a glow of pride to him that Zayn finds irresistible, the kind of pride that Liam wants to share with Zayn like it's only because of him that it exists. It's as if when he says I told them there's a soft and obvious we buried somewhere under there, something that happened because of the both of them.

"Shit," Zayn says. Liam's cheek is warm when Zayn cups it, thumb rubbing over the edge of his cheekbone. They draw close together like magnets finding each other, chest to chest as they kind of fold into an accidental hug, not sure what to do but just knowing they need to be together. "How'd it go?" he asks, mouth against Liam's hair.

"Really good, like you said. They were so nice about it. I mean, I got a grilling, but they were totally on my side. I think they kind of knew and I think they were just really happy I trusted them."

"Sisters are good like that," Zayn says. The cold of the coca cola bottle is pressed against Zayn's side, freezing cold where it touches the inch-gap of skin that's been pushed up between the waistband of his jeans and his ratty t-shirt. "Did it feel good?"

"Well, uh. I cried, but, like, a good cry. It was –"

"Relief."

"Yeah." Liam pulls away from Zayn, enough that he can match his eyes again. "But they, uh. They want to meet you soon. That was kind of our compromise, so I could get the house."

"I can deal with that," Zayn says. "Fuck, Liam. I'm really. Fuck, man."

"Yeah?"

Zayn pulls him in for a proper hug this time. The bottles press against his back where Liam squeezes Zayn tighter. They don't say anything and they don't let go, they just hold each other in an empty house that creaks from the cold outside and let the words turn to nothing but touches and lips. Zayn tries to translate the pride he has for Liam into touch, into fingers sliding in against the back of Liam's head, Liam understanding everything with the flutter of eyelashes tickling Zayn's bare collar bones. It's a whole conversation in the tiniest of changes, a finger moved there and a warm sigh breathed against skin, better than anything Zayn could ever hope to turn into a sentence.

From upstairs there's a ringing, like a jangling bell, and Zayn shocks away from Liam like a kid caught making out in their parent's basement.

"Oh, no, it's okay, it's just Brit," Liam says with a laugh. "C'mere, baby. Brit?"

The tinkling of the collar gets louder and then there's a cream-colored golden retriever running down the stairs and jumping at Zayn. She's a big dog, not quite fully grown but heavy enough that she knocks Zayn back a little.

"Brit, down – crap, sorry –"

"It's cool," Zayn says. "I love dogs." He can't not grin at a dog this cute, pressing his tongue against the back of his teeth as Brit bounces back down to the ground and Zayn drops to his knees. Brit's fur is silky smooth and Zayn rubs her ears, letting Brit lick his mouth happily. "Hey, baby," Zayn says, wincing as Brit licks his open mouth. "Ah, yeah, nice to see you too."

Brit can barely control herself, brushing up against Zayn back and forth, resting her weight against his thighs, happy puppy face looking up at Zayn as her tail whacks heavily against Liam's legs.

"So, this is Brit," Liam says, taking a sip from his coke as he watches Zayn bat at Brit, getting her to play along, gently nipping as Zayn waves his hands in front of her face. "She's my little princess."

"She's so fucking cute," Zayn says. He flops back onto his ass, laughing as Brit makes circles around him. Brit keeps walking around him like she's trying to get her smell all over Zayn, covering his dark jeans with slivers of white fur. Zayn rubs the soft front of her chest, the short mane of white-gold hair she has there. Flopping over on her side, Brit rolls over so Zayn can stroke the blotched pink of her tummy. "She's, like, you but a dog."

"You think?" Liam asks, liking that. "I hope I shed less," he adds, cocking his hip and taking another pull of the coke.

Giving one last pat on Brit's stomach Zayn stands up. He walks closer to Liam, taking the coke warming in his other hand. "I woke up with one of your stupid curly hairs in my mouth once. Disgusting, man."

"Really?"

"My pillow smells like you for days after you leave." Zayn runs his tongue over his teeth, catching on sharp incisors, following Liam's eyes as he watches it happen. "I can't get rid of it. I roll over and you're right there."

"Oh," Liam says, smoothing it back with a swallow from his bottle. "I wish I had something that smelled like you. I – I wear that hoodie too often, it just smells regular now. Maybe you – maybe you wanna make my pillow smell like you?"

It's just about the sweetest way Zayn has heard anyone ask to be fucked. Zayn instantly remembers the things Liam said when he was asking for, sprawled in Zayn's room getting head and so lost he found himself totally honest, begging for it, squeezing his eyes closed and biting his lips until it hurt and imagining all the things he wanted to happen first. "You said you wanted to feel safe," Zayn says.

"Yeah," Liam says with a blush.

"And you said you wanted me to tell you I loved you."

"Yeah," Liam says again, his voice pulling taut over the word.

"Do you feel safe?"

"Yeah."

"Well, I love you."

Liam takes a deep breath before he answers. The hallway they're standing in like an ante-room to something huge is still half-dark, the copper glow of the wall-sconces and old shaded lamps throwing up shadows all around them. There's a happy dog by their feet, wagging tail bouncing between their knees like a metronome, and two cokes forgotten in their hands. On the walls there's a whole history of Liam, like cave paintings or the tapestry of a war, illustrating the major points of his life. Weddings, graduations, awards, birthdays, family vacations. It's a history continued in Facebook photos of parties from the frat where Liam is strung up under Zayn's arm and smiling, in the private photos on Zayn's phone where Liam is grinning sheepishly as he undresses in Zayn's bedroom. It's a history that seems to build to this one moment, when Liam leans up on tiptoes again to kiss his boyfriend on the lips in his family home.

"I really love you too, Zayn."

*

If Zayn had to picture Liam's bedroom, it wouldn't be like this. Sure, he had imagined the mountains of stuffed animals Liam inevitably owned but for some reason he thought it would be – quieter, more reserved, a study rather than a riot. Maybe it's a lack of imagination of Zayn's part or maybe it's just another thing Zayn underestimated about Liam, something he thought he knew that comes apart more beautifully than he could have pictured.

As it is, it's not quiet or reserved. There are posters on every wall and, surprising Zayn, only a handful are from superhero movies. Alongside them are posters for Harry Potter and Disney classics – 101 Dalmatians among them, Zayn notes with a smile, remembering how Liam lit up when Zayn said it was his favorite – a few for local sports teams, Justin Timberlake, a collage of famous tourist spots in Australia, and a triptych of Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3. Mobiles hang from the ceilings, American World War 2 bombers and fighter planes, an extra-large B52 hanging over the foot of his bed. Dreamcatchers, torpedo-like birds flying in formation, cutlery (spoons missing) jingling together like a wind-chime. So many of these things open completely new avenues, parts of Liam that haven't come up in conversation yet (a table in the corner of his room with a half-built P-51 Mustang still unpainted) and some, like the stacks upon stacks of comic books precariously balanced like the Tower of Pisa, are so painfully, obviously things Liam loves that it hurts.

There are piles of dirty clothes pouring out of the half-open closet and Liam gives them a good kick when he walks by, a scuffed toe like he's embarrassed – which, considering Zayn's room, he really should not be. His bed is unmade, just a simple white and cornflower blue design, thank God. Zayn loves Liam but he was dreading that he'd find a bed decorated with Buzz Lightyear's face.

"It's a lot cooler than my bedroom," Zayn says. He reaches up and gently touches the wing of a B-29 Superfortress. It wiggles on its string, almost like a bird flapping its wings. "I didn't know you liked all this stuff."

"Old hobbies," Liam says as he undoes the buttons of his dress shirt, taking it off to reveal a plain white t-shirt beneath. "My dad really loves planes, so I kind of inherited that one."

The system Liam has set up by his bed is not surprising, though. A Macbook connected to expensive speakers, three different microphones, a tangle of wires that could only be recording equipment. There are a bunch of blank CDs and little memory sticks like keychain fobs. The music tech thing doesn't even feel like a lie; going by this Liam isn't kidding around about that hopeful little future.

Running his fingers over the issues of Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man Zayn can't help but grin at the little sketches – childlike, some of them, or traced on others – that pile up around them. And there, above his bed, a small shelf loaded with trophies – most of them for running, but a couple are participation medals for boxing too. It's like finding out the constellation he's been staring at is actually a galaxy, a whole fucking nebula of stars Zayn never saw before. Thinking about it, it was pretty fucking naive to think there was just a Liam at home and a Liam with him. No, there are a thousand fucking sides to him, all of them connected, all of them coming together to make the boy standing nervously by the side of his bed looking at Zayn like he's a commanding officer inspecting his bunk for violations.

"Sorry it's so –" Liam pauses like he's not sure what to be sorry for first.

"Nah," Zayn dismisses outright. There's no question of his mind, only a single need, and he walks over to Liam and kisses him. It's the only thing he wants to do, to let Liam fucking know that he loves him, every single part of him, all the embarrassed sorry it's sos and dangling wooden planes and scratchy, earnest songs he's written saved on that laptop. Zayn's hands go around his back, flattening his shirt to his skin as he roams down to his ass. Liam makes a little noise of surprise but melts into Zayn so quickly, like a whole-body sigh of relief.

Getting his hands against the back of Liam's thighs Zayn hoists him up a little. Liam responds instantly, jumping up against Zayn so he can bear his whole weight, hugging Liam to his body as they keep kissing, hungrier each time. Liam's got some strength to him but he's still pretty light, and Zayn doesn't have a hard time turning around with his hands gripping under Liam's thighs. Zayn sits down on the bed and Liam settles down in his lap, legs cinched around Zayn and arms wrapped around his neck so they never stop kissing.

Hands planted firmly along Liam's back, tugging up his shirt with the grip, Zayn can feel himself get hard as Liam grinds down on his hips. The friction is electric, Liam rolling slowly on top of Zayn as they kiss, knowing exactly what he's doing and doing it well. Even as he tries to get Zayn off with his hips alone, Liam holds onto Zayn like he's afraid of what would happen if he let go.

Their kiss grows sloppy the harder they get, mouth dragging against mouth. When Zayn opens his eyes half-lidded he can see Liam's mouth raw from stubble, how he doesn't even seem to notice as he tips his head to the side, noses crushed together, breathing the same shared air as they groan together. Liam is so into it, Zayn can feel the whole weight of him clinging tight, a wanted ache in his shoulders where Liam holds on tight. It's inevitable and Zayn lets himself just back on the bed, Liam coming down with him with a husky little laugh as he readjusts himself, holding himself above Zayn on hands and knees as he leans down to kiss him again.

The hem of Liam's too-big t-shirt hangs loose from his body as he crawls over Zayn. Grabbing the cloth, Zayn gives it a tug and Liam complies quickly, pushing himself until he's straddling Zayn's hips. They pull his t-shirt off together. Liam does most of the work on his own while Zayn just runs his hands up the bare skin of his torso, the shallow dips in his stomach where muscle is coming in, the slats of his ribs where Zayn can feel his pulse racing beneath.

It's a body Zayn's explored before but never like this, Liam somehow completely new when they're in his bedroom and doing this. His skin feels warmer and his bones and muscles harder, a boy totally changed under Zayn's hands. The freckles Zayn has traced with his tongue are almost black, splattered ink on white canvas, his shoulders as broad as a football player's and the round of Liam's biceps flexing as he pulls the shirt up and over his head.

Free from his shirt, Liam goes for Zayn's next. It's harder, pinned under Liam but they manage to peel it off together. Zayn falls back to the bed with a huff and drags Liam down on top of him. They kiss like it's the last kiss they might ever have, a kiss that almost hurts with teeth and lips clashing, bitten, wanted. Zayn keeps his hands on Liam's hips and helps him start to roll them again, the both of them so fucking hard that it makes Liam gasp with each movement.

It's still an easy thing to grab and throw Liam, though. Zayn gets his hands just under Liam's armpits and quickly pulls him down, rolling over to change positions as Zayn claims his place atop Liam. A flash of shock passes across Liam's face before he's grinning up at Zayn, wriggling a little under his body. Zayn leans down and tastes that surprise, using his teeth to tug at Liam's already red-swollen bottom lip. He busies his hands at the button of Liam's dress pants, popping it free and tugging the fly down next. It's hard with their bodies so close together but he finally manages to spread his pants open to the red boxers beneath.

Zayn gets a chance to feel Liam's body again as he slides down slowly, his mouth marking a trail from mouth to chin to collar to chest. It must be the anticipation that makes Liam like this, all of his muscles drawn taut like he's ready to snap, wanting it so bad that he whimpers even as Zayn bites the lip of his navel.

Liam's cock is pressing up hard against his boxers and Zayn smirks before he runs his mouth along it, wet cotton, feeling the shape of it against his lips. Liam lifts his hips against Zayn's mouth, a gasp like it's all involuntary, so close to the edge and Zayn has barely touched him.

"In my – in my nightstand," Liam manages to gasp, touching a hand to the top of Zayn's head. "I – I prepared." A steady blush. "For tonight. I read some – some articles."

Zayn takes a second. He takes two seconds. Lifting himself away from Liam's dick he gives Liam a once-over – mouth all red and full, his face shadowed by his curls, his fucking button nose, pupils dark and huge, all of the things that crave sex and look so good on him, wanting to be used – but Zayn just can't take it. He drops his head against Liam's stomach and laughs. Breathing his smell in, feeling Liam's uncertain giggles become genuine as he laughs with Zayn. "Of course you fucking did," Zayn manages to get out. "Of fucking course."

"I wanted it to be good!" Liam says, still laughing. His fingers touch Zayn's hair gently, sounding apologetic as he brushes against the shell of his ear. "I thought I'd try."

"That's you, isn't it?" Zayn says, his eyes wet from laughing but pulling back to grin at Liam anyway. He's sitting on his heels at the foot of Liam's bed, looking at his boy all sprawled out and wanting it and laughing. "Can you do it? No, but you can fucking try."

The laughter seems to break the tension in Liam and everything just gets better. It's like they somehow forgot in the grip of each other who they really were, what this actually is. There are times for the hungry, serious, wordless fucks – Zayn has had more than enough of them – but there are times for just taking everything in and being with each other out loud and bursting out laughing because Liam bought three bottles of lube and four different kinds of condoms like he didn't know Zayn's favorite beer and decided to buy all of them just in case. Crawling across the bed to the nightstand Zayn grins when he gets them out, looking down at Liam's handiwork. Yeah, there are times to be horny and lose yourself to sex and forget the world, but this is not that time. Zayn wants Liam to laugh, he wants this to be their thing in every way it can be, he wants to remember himself and the world.

"Man, you really are fucking prepared," Zayn says, examining one of the bottles of lube. "Oh, shit, don't tell me –"

"Boy Scout," Liam says, nodding apologetically. "But, like, only for two years."

"That doesn't make me feel any better," Zayn says. He stands up and does one last stretch, his neck cracking when he rolls it about his shoulders. Leaning down he presses a kiss to Liam's mouth. "Now, babe?"

Liam adjusts quickly, getting his head up on the pillows and letting his body get loose, flexed muscles going soft as Zayn runs his hands over his stomach, cooling Liam's heat with a touch. Liam watches everything Zayn does and gives an eager little nod. "I honestly did read, like, six articles about the first time."

"You know there's, like, videos right? Porn, like?" Zayn asks as he gets his fingers under the hem of Liam's boxers and pants and – Liam wriggling to help him out – pulls them down and off his legs.

"I know but I thought, you know, they're pros," Liam says, tilting his head and smiling as he watches Zayn open the lube. "I'm just an amateur. I thought I'd start slow."

"What?" Zayn asks, a laugh he can't hide even though he doesn't want to embarrass Liam. "Dude, those things are just. Forget what you're supposed to do, what you think you should do. Just go with me, okay?"

"Okay," Liam says. Zayn swears there isn't a burning building or a no-man's-land Liam wouldn't run in to if Zayn asked. If it's them doing it together, Liam always says okay.

"You're perfect just like this," Zayn says as he pulls off his own jeans and boxers, stripping naked and throwing them off the side of the bed. He's already hard – of course he's already hard, Liam is sprawled out naked smiling softly and waiting to be fucked – and he crawls forward to kneel between Liam's legs. Ripping the condom open with his teeth he quickly rolls it on. "Spread your legs a bit," Zayn says, fingers just brushing the inside of Liam's thigh and eliciting a shiver. "You look so good like this," Zayn says. "You look so good."

Zayn had imagined Liam nervous, he had even imagined him a little scared but pushing himself to go through with this, but like everything about Liam he surprises Zayn with that smile he gets when everything is the way he wants it to be. On Zayn's bed cuddling in the morning. Holding his hand as they drive in Louis' truck. And now lying on his bed, jerking himself off with one hand while he pushes his legs apart and waits to be fucked.

"Please," Liam murmurs. "I just wanna feel you. Please, Zayn."

Slicking three of his fingers Zayn works his index and middle against Liam's ass, opening him up a little. The gasp Liam gives is full-bodied, from the pit of his stomach to his mouth as he relaxes against Zayn. Liam slides his hips down on Zayn's fingers impatiently and Zayn has to keep a laugh in his chest. He puts a third finger in Liam, one knuckle and then down to the second. He presses his fingers apart gently and that gets another good groan out of Liam.

"Feels good," Liam says, reaching for his voice. "More, please, Zayn. More."

Zayn is careful to fuck Liam gently with his fingers first, making sure Liam gets used to the feeling. It's exactly how Zayn remembers on his first time, happy and panicked on another guy's bed, feeling pain slip so easily into pleasure and back again, finding that sometimes they felt like the same thing. Liam's groans sound just like that, finding out how so much of this can hurt in a way he really wants. Liam works his own cock faster as Zayn builds a rhythm with his fingers, sliding in and out of Liam, uncertain at first but the two of them finding each other quickly.

"Good?" Zayn asks, just curling his fingers inside of Liam and hitting a spot that makes him groan out. "Does it hurt?"

"Sort of," Liam manages to gasp. Liam's not really looking at Zayn anymore, his eyes half-squinted, flickering every time he gets a little overwhelmed. "Y-yeah," Liam manages to get out. "But in – in a way I want. A good way –" Liam is cut off as he grits his teeth one, tightening around Zayn's fingers for a second. "Fuck me, please, please," Liam says, almost begs. And there it is again, Liam wanting it so bad it makes Zayn almost light-headed. It'll never get old, this feeling, knowing how much Liam gives over, trusting Zayn to give him just what he wants. "I've been thinking about it so much –"

"I'm not teasing you," Zayn says as he curls his fingers again. "I'm getting you ready."

"I'm ready," Liam breathes out in exasperation, making Zayn snicker again. "And you are teasing me."

"Maybe," Zayn agrees softly, his smile growing into a smirk. "Stop touching yourself."

Liam groans but he obeys. "You are – such a jerk," he says, panting. "Such a jerk."

"Only I can touch you, okay?" Zayn says as he shuffles closer to Liam, readying himself between his legs. "Only me."

"Okay," Liam says. "Just – come on, come on, you want me to beg?"

"Relax," Zayn says with a laugh. "Just take it in, babe."

"I am," Liam says but it takes a few seconds before Zayn – hand flat over Liam's stomach – can feel Liam actually calm down. His breathing comes steadier, his need no longer panicked and needy but full and ready. "Love you?" It comes under the hiccuping laughter as a question, tremulous and insistent.

"Love you," Zayn assures him as he gets closer to Liam, slicked up and just waiting for Liam to look at him, to make sure they're both here in this moment. Liam's eyes are half-closed but his smile is languid and lovely and Zayn can see the dimples in his cheeks as they watch each other in that one floating second.

Thank fuck they're doing this here and not in Zayn's bedroom because the groan Liam lets out when Zayn presses into him is loud and throaty. Liam turns his head against his pillows, biting down hard on his lower lip as Zayn pushes inside him. The sheets are bunched up in his hands and Zayn makes sure to take one of them, lacing their fingers hard together as he pulls out and fucks into Liam again.

The ring Zayn gave Liam is warm and hard where it bites up against Zayn's thumb. Liam squeezes his hand tight and Zayn knows that feeling, the instant pain turns into pleasure. Zayn can tell because Liam lifts his hips off the bed and down onto Zayn's cock, a full body roll like Zayn taught him when they were dancing in that fucking supermarket's aisles. That just makes Zayn push harder, lighting him up on the inside watching how good Liam has become at responding to Zayn's body.

Zayn towers over Liam as he starts to fuck him faster. Liam is so fucking tight, every push of his body making him tighter around Zayn's cock. Like he promised, he isn't touching himself, only his grip on the bed and Zayn's hand keeping him from jerking himself off. It's mind-blowing how quickly Liam is at the edge, his cock twitching as Zayn fucks him deeper, pushing all the way in and back out again. Each of Liam's breathy little moans pushes Zayn faster, faster, not just pushing into Liam but properly fucking him.

It might have been what Liam asked for but it happens naturally without even thinking about it; Zayn fucks Liam and leans down over him to find his mouth. It's like Liam has forgotten how to kiss, turning his head to meet Zayn's mouth but not really giving anything back. He's overwhelmed, too much to think about, and it takes Zayn's kiss to bring him back. Tentative at first Liam suddenly gets into it, liking it, like Zayn's mouth is another anchor he can hold on to as the rest of him is blown apart.

Liam's cock bounces up against his stomach with every thrust, still so fucking hard just from Zayn alone. There is no rhythm, they just crash into each other faster each time, Liam pushing his hips and Zayn fucking into him as hard as he thinks Liam can take. Liam can take a lot, and his kisses keep asking for more. Sweat on his upper lip, eyes clenched tight and pulling away from Zayn's mouth just to make a noise, any noise, needing to get this heat out of his lungs.

"More?"

"More." Liam can barely get a word out. "Love you," jumbled up with, "Zayn, please," and "fuck, yes, yes."

Heavy hot breaths on each others' cheeks, foreheads pressed together when they're not kissing. The bed squeaks under them, shaking against the wall as Zayn pounds into Liam. Wet mouths, not even pressed against each other but against cheek and chin, mingling the smell of their salty sweat. Hands clenched together so hard it hurts. Liam's muscles pull hard, stomach flexing as Zayn fucks him, arms taut, all the lines of tendons and veins in this throat standing out. They don't stop, they find each other at exactly the right tempo and lose themselves to it. Zayn fucks Liam and Liam begs for more on each hitched breath.

Throwing his head back Liam doesn't even have a voice when he comes, his cock untouched as he shoots up against his stomach as chest. Zayn doesn't stop fucking him, he works every spasm out of Liam, each push of his hips making Liam come more. Zayn watches as Liam comes undone and it's too fucking much, it's too hot watching Liam come just from Zayn alone and he can feel himself just start to lose it, going over that edge he's been riding so hard.

Liam must see it too because he puts a hand to Zayn's shoulder and holds him close, demanding his attention. Liam looks up at Zayn and he looks exhausted and so, so happy and Zayn knows he did that and it's fucking over.

Zayn pushes into Liam one last time and holds there, Liam so tight around him. He comes inside Liam, each pulse like a punch to the gut. It's like the most beautiful fucking feeling, stars and sparks bouncing against the backs of his eyelids, this fire ripping through him as Liam's grip on his shoulder stays hard. Zayn groans as the afterglow peels away like a veil, leaving him sticky and spent and glowing.

"Wait, stay inside me," Liam asks, his voice suddenly so small. "Stay inside."

Zayn lowers himself down onto Liam but stays inside him like he asked. Still half-hard and feeling like he's almost falling apart he holds Liam, a grip more than a hug, the two of them still buzzing with it, fragmented and cleaving to each other like they're the only solid things left in the world.

The feel of Liam's warm lips against the side of his head wakes Zayn up a little. Enough at least that he can meet Liam's mouth and kiss him back.

"I wanna do that again," Liam says happily.

Zayn laughs, a clenched little laugh that manages to finally loosen him up. "Give me a goddamn second here, Payne."

Totally ripped apart, Zayn pulls out of Liam and peels off the condom, dropping it into the wastebasket beside Liam's bed before rolling beside him. Liam snuggles against Zayn instantly. They're both still slick with Liam's come but Zayn doesn't care at all, just holds Liam close. "I really need a shower. Can we do it in the shower?"

Zayn rubs his eyes with the heel of his hand. "Jesus Christ. It's called the refractory period, bud."

"I learned about that, I think."

"I wanna fuck you again but, shit, let me have a cigarette first," Zayn says. He gets his fingers in Liam's sweaty hair, gently scratching his head the way he knows Liam likes. "You're insatiable."

"You never said it would be this good," Liam says.

"I did."

"Well, you never said it would be this good," Liam says.

"I made you feel that good?" Zayn asks, raising an eyebrow.

"Fishing for compliments," Liam intones, nipping at the tattoos on Zayn's forearm.

"Oh shut up. Relax, Liam. We've got all night," Zayn says. "Take a second to like. Breathe it in. Or at least take a second to let me fucking breathe it in."

"All night," Liam says happily. "And lots of other nights."

"And lots of other nights," Zayn agrees, turning his head to kiss Liam's nose.

Liam follows Zayn's advice to the letter, nuzzling up beside him. The heat of Liam's breath against Zayn's shoulder steadies as he comes back to himself, the weight of the world setting in again. Zayn feels tired but not sleepy, he just lies here letting the world pass them by like the two of them are standing still against a crowd. Unmoveable, not giving a shit about any of the people that walk by, lost but together in the life they've claimed for themselves.

*

The light of the fridge, the only brightness in the dark kitchen, silhouettes Liam's body. He's naked apart from his boxers, leaning against the open door and peering inside. Zayn sits on the edge of one of the stools lined up in front of the kitchen counter and absently spins his lighter on the hard granite, the soft whir of the metal and the hum of the fridge trying to fill the silence.

It's only ten o'clock but it feels a lot later. So much has happened tonight, and fucking Liam seems to have divided it in half. Fuck, it seems to have divided Zayn's life in two, everything that came before it feeling so far away and everything happening after coming on cool and bright and strong. The lights are more vivid, the grumbling in Zayn's stomach more acute as he realizes how hungry he actually is, the need for a cigarette sharp and occupying. It's like everything has been cranked all the way up, the hot touch of Liam's skin burning, the cool air from the open fridge arctic. Zayn has never felt so aware of himself before. Aware of how he feels, aware of what he can do, aware of how he can make someone feel.

The pale blue ghosts of light from the fridge move around the room as Liam digs through bottles of mustard and pickles. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, giving the odd little grumble of frustration as he comes up short. Liam's body is backlit and Zayn studies him, the way the glow of the refrigerator makes Liam's smooth skin gleam like polished silver except for the soft, faded bruises left by Zayn's fingers on his waist as he held Liam. When he's most relaxed Liam gets this absolutely teenage slouch weighing heavily through him, slumped shoulders and a loose, almost impatient tilt in his hips. Zayn can see himself in that too, Liam with his guard down and turning into the teenage slob Zayn always knew lived in him. The hair on his arms soft, wisps of it like on his legs, gold going dark as he gets older. The round of his not-terribly-full ass in his boxer shorts, Zayn remembering the red of his handprint and how Liam gave a breathy little shock of pleasure and asked for it again. It's like every part of Liam is claimed, from the curly hair Zayn gripped and tousled until messy to the tight muscles in the backs of his calves that Zayn remembers drawing taut as Liam curled his toes while Zayn fucked him.

"Yo, Liam," Zayn says, a little too loud as he jerks himself out of the silence. The kitchen is empty and cold with tile and granite and it feels like a cave, his words echoing around.

"Sorry, there's, like, nothing to eat," Liam says, still on the hunt as he pushes a carton of eggs towards the back of the fridge.

"No, that's cool," Zayn says.

"Ha. Cool. Fridge."

A huff of laughter. "Liam? You ever see yourself in me?" Zayn furrows his brow, trying to make his thoughts into words, not quite getting there. "I mean, when you look at me. Do you see the shit you've done to me?"

Liam turns, but he's still silhouetted in harsh white light. "Like how?"

"Like, when I look at you I can see the marks I left on you. Or sometimes the way you walk when you're with me, or things you say that you kind of took from me. You see anything like that when you look at me?"

The tile floor must be cold because Liam keeps shifting his weight back and forth. He turns, the door of the fridge still wide open, tilting his head to the side as he thinks about it for a few seconds. "Sometimes. Like – I like it when you blush when I'm around. When we're with all your frat brothers and they're joking and you blush because of me. I like that a lot. I like looking at your tattoos cause I remember – I remember how it feels to kiss them. I like when you don't shave for a while because I remember how your stubble feels, I can feel it for a while, even if we're not together. I like seeing your chewed fingernails because I always slap your hand when you try to bite them."

"You call that a dirty habit but you're fine with me smoking?" Zayn says. It's hard to sound sarcastic right now but Zayn does his honest best.

"Is that what you mean?" Liam asks.

"Yeah," Zayn says, putting his hand flat over his spinning lighter and sitting still for a second. "That's what I mean."

"Why?" Liam asks.

There really is no answer for it. The only thing Zayn wants to know is if Liam looks at him the same way he looks at Liam, like their bodies are a collection of things they've lived through together, every inch of them some kind of a lazy memory about belonging. He wants to see how it feels to give himself to someone else, how he's remembered by Liam when they're not together. Most of all Zayn just wants to know that when he moves or speaks he's part of something important, that he's not just one guy on his own trying hard to seem cooler, smarter, better than he feels but that he's one half of something fucking beautiful. "I was just thinking," Zayn says.

The sound of Liam clearing his throat softly, the soft smack of lips being licked. Liam turns slowly and goes back to the fridge. The light is all wrong but even from here Zayn can almost feel Liam blush as he tries to form his next words. "About belonging to each other?"

"Yeah," Zayn says. "About belonging to each other."

"I'd do anything you asked," Liam says, the hum of his words hardly louder than the fridge.

"I'd only ask you to do what makes you happy," Zayn replies.

"This makes me happy," Liam replies steadily, though he's stopped moving. "Just this."

"Then let's keep doing this," Zayn says quietly. "Yeah?"

"Please. Zayn, please," Liam asks softly, trailing out into nothing. "Wait, hey! Maraschino cherries," Liam says, giving a little hop as he takes the jar from one of the shelves on the fridge door. He spins around, a huge grin on his face. "You like cherries?"

Zayn can't help but laugh, his chest a Molotov mix of everything, the delirious high after sex and the thought of Liam's skin written all over with Zayn's name and the brilliant grin of a boy who hops from one foot to the other with a bottle of blood red cherries in his hand. It answers his question perfectly. "Love 'em," Zayn says, snatching his lighter from the countertop and snapping it shut with a flick. "Bring them back to your room, I'd kill for a cigarette."

Walking down the dark hallways of the empty house Zayn keeps a hand on Liam's waist so he doesn't stumble over any furniture or sleeping dogs. He slips two fingers under the elastic of his briefs and feels the warm flush of his skin, a kind of warmth Liam radiates with even naked in the cool air. When they get into his bedroom Zayn slides his hand down lower, a quick grab at Liam's ass that makes him laugh and stop walking, pausing just for long enough to push his hips back against Zayn's front, a dance move as he rolls against Zayn playfully.

Sex is alive in Liam now that he's had some. Zayn remembers how that felt after his first time, the enormous power of realizing what your body could do and wanting to do it over and over again. Zayn is helpless to it, letting Liam arch his head back against Zayn's shoulder, letting Liam know just how much he controls right now. Liam must know he's got some kind of upper hand and he experiments with it carefully, touching Zayn when he wants, turning in this half-embrace to look at Zayn properly front to front.

Raising his eyebrows, Zayn tugs at the elastic around Liam's hips and lets it snap back into place. It's a little playful, just testing Liam out and where his mind's at right now. Back in the cloistered bedroom that smells of their last fuck – sweat and come and sharp cologne – Zayn just wants to see how Liam will react. Without even thinking Liam slides a hand down Zayn's front and palms over Zayn's half-hard cock just because he can.

"I think I'm good to go again," Liam says, gaze raking down Zayn's body and then flashing back to his eyes. "If you're ready, old man."

"Fuck," Zayn says with a huff. "Lemme have a smoke first, asshole," Zayn says. He shakes his head happily. If Liam was eager for it before it's nothing compared to how he feels now. Zayn bets if there weren't things to do they could spend a week in this bedroom. It's so obvious where Liam's mind is: sixteen, young and pent up, knowing he's got Zayn for keeps and wanting to feel it all over again. It's beautiful, fucking beautiful.

"Aw, c'mon," Liam says. His grip on Zayn's cock through his boxers gets a bit tighter as he starts to work him.

"Relax, dude, we've got the night." Zayn presses a quick snake-bite of a kiss on Liam's mouth. "Fuck, you're so into it, aren't you?"

Liam nods eagerly. "I really, really liked it."

"Which part?" Zayn asks, definitely not to satisfy his own ego.

"When I was on my back and you were fucking me and you leaned down to kiss me and I –" his eyes flutter closed for a second like he's remembering it "– I could taste your sweat and you kept fucking me the whole time," Liam says in a rush, not even stumbling on the key words of the idea. "And I could wrap my arms around your neck. That was so good."

"Man, wait till you find out about all the other positions," Zayn says, side-stepping away to take his cigarettes out of the jeans he left in a pile on the floor

"There are other positions?" Liam asks, eyes wide as he looks at Zayn.

"Shit, dude, you need to watch more porn," Zayn says. He palms his lighter and taps out a Marlboro red, putting it between his lips. "Can I smoke out the window?"

"Sure," Liam says. A quick jump apart and he's cranking his window open for Zayn. The cold wind outside whips the curtains, trailing them like flags. One of them coils around Zayn's hips as he stands by the window and sparks his cigarette to life, taking a long draw from it as he untangles himself from the silk. "Can you teach me the other positions?" Liam asks as he rests his elbows on the window sill beside Zayn.

Zayn dances his fingers over Liam's bare back, walking them up the path of his spine to the smooth valley cupped between his shoulder blades. He can watch as ripples of shivers run up Liam's back, the private electricity of their touches bringing each wave starting at Liam's ass and ringing in his shoulders like a bell. "For sure, I'll show you the good ones." A breath for smoke. "Was it what you expected?"

"Better," Liam says, tilting his head to watch Zayn breathe smoke out the window. "I thought it would feel good, but I didn't realize how much I would – how I would feel so much closer to you. Sorry, that's so –"

"Dude, that's the whole damn point of, like, fucking," Zayn says. Instead of tickling with fingertips he just rests a flat palm on Liam's back, smoothing down the prickle of his shiver. "I wasn't just trying to get off, man. I wanted you."

"I've never really been – wanted," Liam says. His voice is kind of dreamy, almost like it wasn't meant for Zayn but just something Liam needed to say, to see his words come together in a fog and then dissipate in the cold October air. "I – think I like it."

"Smug asshole," Zayn says with a smile.

"I feel so – different," Liam says. "Is this what all those stupid movies were about?"

"What, Spider-Man? You got fucking superpowers now?"

"No, no," Liam says though he seems delighted by the idea. "Like, American Pie and crap. Losing your virginity."

"Oh, fuck that," Zayn says easily. He gets a finger at Liam's chin, making sure he's listening to this. "Virginity has nothing to do with it, that's all made up. Fuck that, you feel good 'cause we're fucking boyfriends and we had a really, really great night. We killed it. I fucking love you, and we killed it."

Liam nods seriously, like it's advice he wants to remember. "I like that more. I like that a lot."

"Good," Zayn says.

"Because we're fucking boyfriends, killing it." Liam repeats it again, nodding his head each time. "That's a better reason. That's a good reason. You're my fucking boyfriend." Liam grins when he hears himself say it, eyes squinting, nodding more assuredly each time. "I feel invincible. You feel that too?"

"Only when I'm with you," Zayn says. It's not even a matter of feeling embarrassed when he says it. A month ago it would have been the kind of thing he swore he would never let himself get caught up but now it feels like an imperative, like saying these things for Liam to hear are necessary. Not just for Liam, but for himself. It's a different way to live, this, and it's not hard to say that it's a better way.

"Gimme that," Liam says, reaching out to take Zayn's cigarette from his fingers.

"Shit, Liam," Zayn says even as he lets Liam take the cigarette from him. "Some fucking role model I am."

"Yeah, old man," Liam says, his love for that endearment growing as the days go by. Liam looks at the cigarette carefully and seems to decide that it's just another joint, putting it to his lips the way Niall taught him. The ring Zayn gave to him shines silver in the light, glinting when he holds the cigarette. "I thought wisdom came with age."

"Not sure I like you when you're feeling like this." Zayn cracks up even as he says it. Liam takes a careful drag from the cigarette and, his pink lips puckered softly, he lets the smoke out in a stream without coughing. "Fuck. You're going to be just like Louis, pretending you don't smoke and then stealing all of mine. This is bullshit."

Liam smiles as he takes another drag. He cocks his hips where he leans against the window. With a sophisticate kind of smile he breathes out another cloud of smoke, a half-cough that he covers with a fist and pretends never happened. "Tastes like you." A careful look at the cigarette and he takes another breath from it. He looks up at Zayn like he's waiting for some kind of decision, a laugh or a sigh or something.

Zayn knows he should be telling Liam not to smoke; filthy habit, addictive, all the things he tells himself when he lights up with his morning coffee, but there's a part of him that just wants to watch Liam take another drag. They've shared so many things since they've gotten together, and if they're going to share a life Zayn doesn't mind sharing bad habits too. "Who are you?" Zayn asks with a smile, hard to forget the first time he asked it and the dozens of times after, Liam always finding some new way to light Zayn up from the inside.

"I'm your Liam," Liam says. He's smiling as he holds the cigarette out for Zayn to take.

Midnight passes as they share the cigarette at Liam's bedroom window. From this vantage point they can look out over the backyards of a few neighboring houses, each suburban lawn almost a perfect square, some with covered above ground pools and others just lost to fallen leaves and weeds. Straight fences and patio furniture, wheelbarrows and rusted swings.

Zayn doesn't hate the suburbs like some of his art school friends seem to but he never felt properly comfortable in them either, raised a bit too rough and tumble to trust the endless rows of white fences and minivans. It doesn't seem to matter now though, not when he's standing at Liam's bedroom window and smoking a sneaky cigarette remembering the fuck they had before and anticipating the promise of another one soon after. There are so many things to worry about – the future, meeting family, graduation, high school senior year, his senior thesis – and Zayn remembers swearing, absolutely swearing to himself that he wouldn't get into a situation like this, telling himself that loving someone like Liam wouldn't even be in his vocabulary. But he made a promise, they each did, and they're in this together.

Right now it just doesn't feel like there's almost five years between them. By Liam's side, Zayn swears he couldn't be older than sixteen. Sixteen and stupid and in love with a quiet boy from town with his algebra homework in his bag and his clean shirts so crisp. Sixteen and alive without a thing to worry about other than when he'll get his next beer, his next kiss. Sixteen and needing nothing more than Liam and the sound of boyfriends, killing it on his lips. The rest, well, they'll deal with that together when it comes.

*

Digging through his drawers, Zayn looks for his favorite red Copic pen. His drawers are filled with crumpled up balls of paper, sheaves of old work, dried up nibs and expensive watercolor sets he hardly uses, but the pen is still missing. Coffee mugs with fuzz growing on the bottom, chocolate bar wrappers, receipts from Michael's and Blick, take out menus from Vietnamese restaurants. With a frustrated sigh he picks out a burgundy pen that will half to do, pulling the cap off with his teeth and bending over the panel he's working on.

"Everything okay?" Liam asks.

"Yeah, dude," Zayn says. "Just can't find the pen I want."

"You can have one of mine if you want," Liam says.

It's funny how Zayn's frustration can vanish just like that, just at the sound of Liam's voice. Zayn spins his chair around, cap still in his mouth that he drops into his hand. "No, not like a pen pen." Zayn holds up the one he's using right now. "It's for inking, it's special."

"Oh, no, sorry, I've only get these kinds," Liam says, twirling a blue bic between his fingers like a drumstick. He's lying on his stomach on Zayn's bed, the wrong way round with his feet at the pillows, textbooks spread open in front of him at the foot of the bed with his binders, a semi-circle of homework that he looks up from to give Zayn a goofy grin. "You sure that won't help?"

"Cute," Zayn says, rolling his eyes as he turns back to his inking.

They've been working together for about an hour, silent except for the turning pages of Liam's textbook and the scratching of Zayn's pens. Neither of them like working with the radio on but every so often Liam will start humming the chorus of a Beyoncé song and Zayn will join him, the both of them continuing it together for a few minutes before collapsing into silence again without a word said. Frank Sinatra's Luck Be a Lady. The tapping of Zayn's pen when he thinks about what to do next, the clucking of Liam's tongue as he tries to work through a difficult chapter. Coldplay's Fix You. A yawn from Zayn, the sound of bedsprings creaking when Liam stretches.

After the second hour Zayn's hand starts cramping so he gets up. His pacing always bothered Louis when they shared a room together but Liam doesn't seem to mind, not even looking up from his work when Zayn passes by him to go to the window. A tired Thursday in early November and the sky is spitting down sleet, pellets of it gathering in the grass like snow. He watches it come down for a while, fingers tap-tapping against the window, a beat that Liam picks up to hum a bar of SexyBack. This day could fit so neatly into any other that Zayn has spent working, all of them going by so quickly it's hard to even notice, but he feels like he'll remember this. Remember it for no other reason than that Liam is here and for the silent harmony they've built in their lives, layered one of the other perfectly without a sound. It's not the outrageous Halloween party he helped Louis throw a week ago where Liam came dressed Peeta in his Hunger Games jumpsuit and a burnt loaf of bread, where they toked up and got wasted and Liam, grinning hugely, won his first game of beer pong. It's not even as remarkable as the movie night Louis threw together – The Avengers, on Zayn's suggestion – where Liam educated a rapt and tipsy fraternity about just how important the Black Widow's arc was in the movie if you consider the comics (and he very much did consider the comics.) It's just a day, with the two of them quietly working in Zayn's room, and it feels as important as anything that came before it.

From the window Zayn walks over to where Liam's working. Kneeling one leg against the edge of the bed he leans forward, resting a hand on Liam's shoulder to look over at his work, the process of cytokinesis. Zayn remembers the word but not the concept, always more for English class than science. With Liam sprawled out like this Zayn forgets that biology for another; takes in the dip of Liam's back where it rolls to his ass, the shape of his shoulder-blades through his t-shirt, the two inches of boxer shorts exposed by his always low slung jeans. Zayn runs his hand down Liam's ribs to the small of his back, sliding up under his shirt just so Zayn can rest his palm skin to skin. Liam doesn't move the whole time, still reading the page in his bio textbook, but he does smile when Zayn sneaks his palm up under the hem of his shirt.

"I'm getting better," Liam says quietly. He still isn't looking at Zayn, but Zayn can tell that he's stopped paying attention to his homework.

"Getting better at what?"

"I've been trying so hard to get used to this. Not jumping when you touch me. I like it like this, with both of us in the same room doing different things, not talking, just – just being together. I think about it a lot. And then I imagine you coming over to touch me but I keep reading, hardly showing that I felt it. I want it to be like that, where I get so comfortable that it's almost nothing when we're touching, nothing more than – than what it should be." Liam drops his pen down on his spread-open binder. He takes a deep breath, tilting his head so he's pressing an ear to his shoulder as he tries to stretch his neck with a small crack. "I think I'm – I think I'm getting there."

"I know," Zayn says, fingertips tracing the divots at the small of Liam's back. "I can see it. You kissed me in a crowd. You've changed. Have you noticed that? How much braver you're getting?"

Turning about like he's going to stretch Liam rolls over onto his back. Loose-leaf paper crunches under his shoulders as he moves. On his back Liam rests one hand on his stomach, the other held loosely by his side. His shirt rides up exposing the thin trail of hair leading down from his navel, the ridges of his hips. "I wanted to be a good boyfriend," Liam says thoughtfully. He looks up at Zayn when he speaks, eyes soft and wanting, his lips dry before he licks them. "I – I hope I am."

The way Liam is lounging on Zayn's bed is so inviting, loose and relaxed with his brown eyes shining, his smile just showing a bit of teeth, but Zayn doesn't want to touch him. He just wants to watch Liam like this, totally at home in Zayn's world to the point that he's sleepy and comfortable. It's like the room belongs to both of them now, that it's as much Liam's as Zayn's own when they're in it together. Liam seems so content to be here, like he couldn't imagine a better place than a cramped fraternity bedroom with the walls covered in Radiohead and Seattle Seahawks posters. All of his nerves are gone, leaving Liam honest and young and everything Zayn likes most about him.

"You are," Zayn says. It's easy to say because Liam really is not like any other boy Zayn's been with before. No one understands Zayn like Liam does, no one has ever felt easier to love than Liam. It's like from the very beginning they just found each other the right way, never needed to bargain or compromise, it was easy enough to just be. "You're incredible, dude. Actually, I was – well, I was thinking, like. I don't know if you're interested, but if you were I was thinking I could pin you."

Liam raises an eyebrow. "Is that a sexy thing?"

"No, fuck, you little horndog," Zayn says, punching Liam's shoulder which makes him laugh. Zayn gives Liam a nod and Liam understands him immediately, shoving over on the bed to let Zayn lie down next to him. Zayn flops down and unconsciously mirrors Liam's position, one hand by his side and one on his chest like he's trying to keep the sparrow of his heart from breaking its cage. "Lavaliering. We talked about it before, in Harry's car. You're supposed to do the pin first but, I don't know, they never planned this shit for two dudes so there's no real tradition for it. There's a whole bullshit ceremony but I just thought I'd give you my letters. It's just a, like. Dating thing. It's not important." Zayn knows he's blushing and he's very glad they're both lying side by side, staring up at Zayn's dull ceiling like it's an open sky of stars. "It was just a thought."

"What do I do?" Liam asks.

"Nothing. I just order the pin from National and you wear it, if you want. It's just a little gold thing with the letters Kappa Tau Gamma." It's a sentence Zayn never thought he'd ever say. It's a sentence he thought he'd rather die than say, actually. But like everything with Liam, it's so much better to do things sincerely, to admit to his softer side than try to hide it. Liam is nothing but soft side, and he deserves it. "Not a big deal. Just something to think about."

"I'd really like that," Liam says. He rolls over onto his side and his homework spills off the edge of the bed but neither of them seem to notice. Liam curls in against Zayn's side, resting his head on Zayn's shoulder. The smell Zayn recognizes from his pillows the next morning; the smell Zayn remembers making him smile even when he wakes up alone. "What does it mean? That – that I'd be yours?"

"If you want," Zayn says. He reaches blindly for Liam's hand, brushing against his stomach, his hips, before they find each other and lace fingers. "It's not that serious or anything. Just a stupid thing, means we're dating or whatever, just to make it official. It's for sororities so I never thought I'd have the chance. I don't know if they'll even let me."

It's nice of Liam that he doesn't laugh at that even though Zayn can hear how stupid his own voice sounds. Making it official. Going steady. It sounds pathetic and, worst of all, Zayn actually likes that. "Do you want me to be yours?" Liam asks quietly.

Zayn knows when Louis hears about this he'll never live it down. And not for the first time Zayn looks forward to it. He looks forward to Louis howling with laughter and then helping him order the pin. He looks forward to the whole fraternity knowing and making fun of him for it. Making fun of him for his boyfriend, giving him noogies and catching him in headlocks, the only way a fraternity knows how to love. And it will be mortifying, and amazing. "Aren't you already?" Zayn asks.

Liam hums his agreement, a little noise of pleasure as he snuggles closer to Zayn in the narrow bed. When Zayn looks over at him, Liam is smiling like he just figured something out, an answer to a question that has been bothering him for years. Maybe how to love, or what something like this feels like, or just who he really is. Whatever the question might be, Liam just stays curled on his side, so totally at ease, lit up so fully in this room that feels shared, and he looks up at Zayn and Zayn looks down at him and they live, they just live.

*

The tiny black velvet box the gold lettered pin came in sits in Zayn's jacket pocket like a weight. It arrived only two days ago, on the wave of laughter and shoulder punches and jokes Zayn knew would come with it. It's a small pin, inconspicuous, but it reads the letters of Zayn's second home, the place where he found himself. The place where he found Liam. It might be small but it feels overwhelming in the best way possible.

Down the street Zayn can see Liam walking from the bus stop to the frat house. He's wearing a nice wool coat Zayn helped pick out for him a couple weekends ago; gray with epaulets and dark blue buttons, thinly ribbed ("for her pleasure," Zayn said, when he picked it out, which got a good groan out of Liam). He's got the collar popped up against the cold and the only thing Zayn can make out is Liam's curly hair whipped up against the wind.

Dressed sharp and ready to go, Zayn waits by the front door and opens it just as Liam rounds the driveway and walks up to the house. Even though Zayn owns a black peacoat that matches Liam's he's wearing his leather jacket today, not great for this weather but Zayn's thinking more about the shape he'll cut at a high school football game. If he's going to be standing around in the cold with a bunch of teenagers he might as well look as hopelessly out of place as he feels.

"Hey, dude," Zayn says.

Liam is grinning against the cold as he half-jogs the rest of the way to the house. "Hey, babe. Ready to go?"

"Yeah, yeah," Zayn says, motioning Liam inside. "There's just one thing first."

"Oh?" Liam asks as he steps into the house, stomping his feet from the cold as Zayn closes the door behind him. "We've only got a half-hour before kickoff."

"Won't take a second," Zayn says, actually working to keep his voice steady. He doesn't know why he's this nervous, it's not a diamond ring in his pocket. His hands shake as he digs in his pocket and pulls out the tiny jewellery box. "So, the pin came."

The grin Liam gives is exactly the kind Zayn was hoping for, as alive and bright in his eyes as it is in his chapped lips. Zayn opens the box and takes the pin out of it, tossing the package it came in over his shoulder just to get a laugh out of Liam. "Kappa Tau Gamma," Liam reads, looking at the little trinket pinched between Zayn's fingers. "Do I put it on the lapel?"

"Dunno, most girls have necklaces, I don't know what to do with the pin," Zayn says, shrugging. "Wear it where you want, I guess?"

"Pin it on me," Liam says, standing a bit straighter and puffing out his chest for Zayn, offering his left side prominently.

"Sorry, there's supposed to be a whole thing with it, songs and candles and shit," Zayn says. "But this'll have to do, I guess. So, uh. With this, uh, gold pin, I thee date." Liam is still laughing as Zayn fumbles with the pin, pulling it off the stud and needling it through the rough fabric of Liam's coat. Zayn pins it in place and stands back to admire his work. It's nothing more than a glint of gold against the gray, just like his ring is nothing but a glint of silver, but when Liam admires it in the hallway mirror he grins with what can only be pride. Liam touches gentle fingers to it, watching how the pin catches the light.

"This is so cool," Liam says. His voice carries the same kind of awe Zayn can remember from the very first day they met. It's the voice he gets when he gets amazed that he's been allowed this far into Zayn's life.

"It looks good on you," Zayn says. Like the letters on the sweatshirt Liam borrowed from Zayn look good on him. Like the Zayn's ring that Liam wears around his thumb looks good on him. Like the soft red-purple bruises Zayn's mouth leaves at the base of his throat look good on him. Like how the life they live together looks good on him.

"I think so too," Liam says.

"So, uh how did your college application go, babe?" he knows he's sneaking it in but Liam looks so happy right now, and safe, too. Safe enough that the question doesn't make him seize up, too lost with Zayn for that to happen. And in case it is, Zayn's right there to kiss him if he needs to.

Liam is still looking at the pin on his jacket when he answers. "I – I sent it in yesterday, actually." Liam finally looks up from the letters. The shiver in his voice, the anxiety over applications seems so much smoother now that he's got that gold on him, that reminder. "I still – I'm still not sure if it's – but I did. I did." Liam takes a deep breath and comes out of it smiling. "What about you?"

"Last week," Zayn says. "After we went to dinner. We'll, uh, just have to wait, I guess."

"Yeah," Liam says. "We should open them together."

"You know how fucking proud of you I am?" Zayn asks suddenly, knowing that Liam probably gets that but just wanting to make sure.

"'Bout as proud as I am of you?" Liam says, and there it is. Somewhere in the last couple of weeks Zayn couldn't help but notice the slow burn of this change. There's just so much to Liam that Zayn is discovering over the days, depths to him Zayn never noticed before. He's not sure when it happened but when Zayn looks at Liam now he doesn't see the sixteen-year-old who needs protection, he sees a boyfriend, a peer, a dude with as many answers as Zayn still has questions. Zayn's not the lofty college guy anymore, and he's surprised to find how happy that makes him.

"I fucking love you," Zayn says.

"Love you too," Liam says, dimples in his cheeks.

It's only in the silence after Liam's words that he hears the soft tenor of Louis' voice coming from the kitchen. He's singing a song and it only gets louder by the second, like he's getting closer. Zayn and Liam both turn to look down the empty hall as, sure enough, the sound of Beyoncé's Single Ladies (turned into a soft and meandering ballad) gets louder by the second. Two voices join Louis, and then more, until it's a chorus gently singing if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it getting closer and closer.

Louis is the first to come into view as he appears at the far end of the hall. He's dressed like he usually is, pyjama pants and a comfy t-shirt but he's carrying a thick white candle as he walks. The flame dances in front of him, gilding his face with copper in the low afternoon light. Louis approaches them steadily and sure enough Niall is quick on his heels. And Harry, technically against protocol but like that ever stopped Louis. And the rest of the frat following Louis' slow march, each with their own candles.

"What's – what's going on?" Liam asks. His curiosity is mixed with the same delight he gets when there's a game to be played that he's been invited to join.

"He fucking didn't," Zayn says, even though it's pretty obvious now that he fucking did. "Louis is doing the fucking lavalier ceremony." Zayn turns to Liam and grabs the front of his jacket urgently. "I swear, I had no fucking idea. I would never have done this to you."

Liam is laughing even as he puts a hand on the back of Zayn's neck and pulls him in for a kiss. "I know."

"I'm so sorry," Zayn says but it's too late. They're so close, Liam and Zayn both dressed and ready to go. They could bolt if they wanted but Louis would probably just follow them the whole way to the game, his slow procession of embarrassment with him.

The boys holding the candles line up on either side of the hallway, Louis the only one standing in the middle and barring the way. It's the whole fraternity. Every single boy is here to embarrass Zayn, to love him, to bring Liam in. They finish singing Single Ladies, out of tune but still totally deferential, and it's only then that Louis beckons Liam come forward.

"What do I do?" Liam whispers to Zayn.

"Go and blow out each of the candles," Zayn says. He puts his hand on Liam's shoulder. "I am so, so sorry, babe. He never said he would fucking do this." Louis grins at Zayn from down the hall and Zayn just draws a finger across his neck. He hates Louis. He hates Louis so much. He fucking loves Louis.

Liam doesn't seem terribly upset or embarrassed at having to go through with this, though. He makes his way down the line and blows out the candles one by one, bowing his head to each fraternity brother as they, in turn, bow their heads to him. It all takes place in the cramped hallway, the boys not in suits but in tank tops and chinos and hoodies, some of them even shirtless, but in the reverential silence it has the feel of a church. The candlelight, the pale sun coming through the demi-lune window above the front door, the dull echo of Liam's boots on the hardwood floors. The whole place smells of smoking wicks, that charcoal smell you get off matches when they strike to life.

When Liam blows out Harry's candle it's like he can't help himself, sneaks in for a quick hug that Harry easily returns. After Niall's candle is blown out Niall even leans forward to kiss Liam's cheek, leaving Liam looking happier than even before.

It's Louis next and Zayn both dreads and aches to hear what he has to say. These things always come with ridiculously overblown declarations, promises about the future and other awful outdated nonsense. Zayn can't take it, he has to step in. He walks quickly down the line until he's just behind Liam, flanking him the way Liam always used to follow Zayn around when he was in the house. There's nothing to say, nothing to do, so Zayn just stands there with his hand on Liam's waist, his other hand free in case he needs to take a loving swing at Louis' jaw.

Cheeks puffed, Liam blows out Louis' candle with a quick breath and stands back like he's waiting for a bomb to go off.

Louis makes sure to look at Zayn before turns his attention to Liam. Louis' smile is just like the ones he gets during heart to hearts, when it's just them talking about the shit of the world together under a mountain of blankets and Zayn says something funny and Louis just glows with fondness. Even before Louis says anything, Zayn knows that it will be fine. Better than fine, it will be all the good they wished for each other on those quiet nights snuggled up in Louis' bed, imagining what it would take for each of them to be happy.

"So," Louis says, glancing down at his extinguished candle. "Welcome to the family, Liam."

*

The parking lot is filled with cars, the two types always seen in any high school parking lot: the beat up, rundown decade-old Hyundais and Toyotas obviously bought by kids with part-time jobs and the Mercedes and Volvos borrowed from parents. Zayn pulls up to one of the empty spots at the far end of the lot, the brakes squeaking as he comes to a halt.

Liam takes a deep breath and nods. They never really talked about what this meant, but Zayn understands enough just from the way Liam asked him if he wanted to go to his school's football game with him, dropping words like with me and in public. Zayn accepted instantly.

Swinging out of the truck and slamming the door shut behind him, Zayn lights up a fortifying cigarette before they face the crowd. Liam joins him by the tailgate and wordlessly asks for the cigarette. Handing it over, Zayn watches as Liam takes strong, coughless breaths from it. Sure enough, Liam ended up being just like Louis, never buying his own cigarettes but always asking for a drag when one is lit. Zayn watches Liam smoke the stolen cigarette and he smiles.

"Been a long time since I've been to one of these," Zayn says, nodding towards the flow of students towards the bleachers. Liam hands the cigarette back to Zayn. "Also, you really gotta learn how to smoke without making the filter so damp, Liam."

The laugh Liam gives is half-smoke and half fogged breath. "Sorry." Zayn has never heard nerves like these since Liam was taking his first tentative steps into the fraternity. "I'm just. Yeah, I know."

Zayn isn't sure what Liam needs right now, if he wants a hand to hold or an arm around his shoulder. They're in his world now, the cold place that Zayn slowly tugged Liam out of bit by bit. Even now, though, the frankly terrifying prospect of walking around with his boyfriend doesn't seem to be enough to break Liam though, like the pin on his chest and the boy by his side are enough to keep him strong.

"Whenever you're ready," Zayn says, finishing the last of the cigarette and stomping it out under his boot.

"Okay." Liam stands up straight, shoots his cuffs to show his woolly mittens, takes a deep breath of cold November air and reaches a hand back to Zayn. "Okay," he says again. "Okay."

"Okay," Zayn agrees and takes his hand.

The grass is spongy and damp from all the sleet and rain, squelching against Zayn's boots as they step onto the field and make their way towards the stands. Liam's grip, soft through his mittens, gets tighter when people start to look at them but he keeps his head high. He's almost leading Zayn by the hand, bringing him determinedly through the crowd like he's carving out a space in the world just for them. People are whispering, discretely pointing at them, but he doesn't stop for a second. Zayn smirks as he takes his place by Liam's side, a smirk that he hopes says mine, not yours because that's exactly how he feels.

It's amazing how Liam drives himself right now, nudging his way through the crowd. Liam even smiles when he spots his friends near the top of the bleachers and gives a wave with his free hand. Zayn would have killed for this kind of confidence when he was in high school, the strength to say fuck it and live the way he wanted. Zayn knows that a lot of Liam's strength is built up because they're together but there's a spark there that Zayn had nothing to do with, a bravery in Liam that he's never really seen before. Not for the first time does Zayn think that maybe he's not nearly as strong as Liam, that the confidence that came with age is nothing compared to the spirit Liam's got in him.

They walk up the bleachers with heavy footfalls, the clang of metal beneath them. Two guys are waving at Liam and gesturing for him to come over. His grip on Zayn's hand doesn't weaken, not even when they reach the empty spots that Liam's friends are saving for him.

"Liam!" one of them shouts, putting his hands up like he's a boxer about to throw a swing when he sees Zayn and their held hands. "Oh. Hi."

"Maz, Andy, this is – this is Zayn. Uh, my boyfriend Zayn," Liam says. He immediately draws his bottom lip in, chewing on it, but he doesn't look away and he doesn't move an inch. His cheeks flame but he doesn't give anything else away. Zayn can still feel the nerves in him but Liam is every bit the indomitable will Zayn knew was waiting in him.

"Hi," the one who was boxing says, his face blank. "Maz."

"Andy," the other one says slowly.

Zayn lets go of Liam long enough to shake their hands. He finds Liam again right after. "Zayn." There's one long moment of awkward silence, the four of them looking between each other uncomfortably. "I'm in college," Zayn explains.

"Ohh," Maz says, grinning. "Shit, I thought you were like, a teacher."

"Maz!" Liam shouts, punching his shoulder. "Sick. Come on."

"Boyfriend?" Andy asks, still trying to take it in. He looks at Liam and Liam does not back down for a second and Zayn can't help but smile at the ground. "Boyfriend." Andy thinks about it for a second but he ends up smiling too. "Dude, can you buy us beer?"

"No," Zayn says flatly.

"Shit," Andy says. "You suck."

"Mm," Zayn hums while Liam cracks up beside him.

A whistle signals the start of the game and suddenly all the attention that was being focused at them dissipates and Liam lets out a long sigh like he can stop fighting for a second. His shoulders loosen and he looks at Zayn, thrilled and exhausted at once. Zayn still isn't quite sure what he's allowed to do, so he just tugs at Liam's coat for a second, waiting to see if he tucks in closer. He does, and Zayn kisses the side of his head.

Liam cheers his school's football team like he cheers for Zayn's useless fraternity. He gets right into it, jumping up and down, clapping his mitted hands and howling out a chant along with Andy. There's a dance they do, like they're rowing a canoe, balled fists pumped near their hips from right to left. Liam's cheeks are slashed red with the early winter cold, a pin-prickle of cold frosted across his cheekbones. Liam, Maz, and Andy all join in together with the school chant and Zayn tries not to laugh as he watches them, fondly shaking his head. Zayn can't help but remember that bullshit promise he made to himself that he'd never end up at a place like this again, swearing he'd never be twenty-one and standing in a crowd of cheering teenagers at a high school football game. It's almost funny thinking about it now, how completely he's given up on any chance of cool for the opportunity to watch his boyfriend cheer on the Jefferson High Woodchucks.

It's kind of a second chance, when Zayn thinks about it. To be here at a high school living the way he wants, with his leather jacket and his boyfriend and nothing but a smug smile for anyone who looks at him the wrong way. It took a while and a lot of fight for that to come out in Zayn but here Liam is, with all the guts and glory Zayn always craved. For all he's tried to help Liam figure this shit out Zayn knows he's changed as well, almost despite himself. He doesn't feel nearly as defensive as he used to, he doesn't feel beholden to a certain attitude or smug lifestyle. Being with Liam makes Zayn honest in a way he taught himself to hide, the pull of Liam's sincerity too sweet to ignore, the way he lights up when he's genuinely happy irresistible. Why bother fighting against the shit that makes him glow? Why bother pretending like he isn't just having the time of his life when he's got a life filled with people he loves so much it's almost an ache in his chest?

"You're not cheering," Liam says, jabbing an elbow on Zayn's ribs.

"I don't know the chants," Zayn says, his hands in the pockets of his jacket.

"So?" Liam says with a smile.

So. Zayn takes his hands out of his pocket and reaches into the air and jumps right alongside Liam. "Yeah!" he shouts at the top of his lungs. "Fuck them up! Fuck them right up!"

Just about every teenager in hearing distance laughs at Zayn, but none louder than Liam. It's so fucking easy being like this when he's beside Liam. It's like knowing that he's always had the best parts of Liam buried inside him waiting to come out, just like Liam's had the best parts of Zayn hiding as well. It just takes the two of them together to laugh this loud and fight this hard and love this big, impossible without each other.

Yeah, it's like Zayn has known Liam all of his life. And then they met.

End.