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conjure up a second heart (to house your sweet pain)

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He nudges the cup of water closer to the edge of the table, just casually, with his elbow. He’s still chatting to Liam and Niall, carrying on like normal, but every minute or so he gives another little push, until the cup is balancing just at the edge, and the next movement will dump it neatly onto the back of Zayn’s neck where he’s doodling on the sofa.

“Mate, don’t,” says Niall, tapping Louis’s other elbow and being too bloody perceptive suddenly.

Louis elbows the cup hard this time, flipping it off the table and into the back of Zayn’s head, and lifts his eyebrows at Niall as Zayn yells. Liam puts his face in his hands immediately, fending off the repercussions. Harry is studiously ignoring the whole thing with his headphones on. Zayn is slapping ineffectually at the back of his neck, wiping the water away with his hood as he turns to glare. It’s hard for Zayn to look really angry, especially at Louis, but Louis gives him his most winning smile just in case.

Zayn responds with a roll of his eyes and shakes off the excess water, schooling his expression down to neutral. “Mate, one day you’re going to get a smack for the shit you pull.”

“You wouldn’t,” says Louis with a cheeky grin. Zayn is fundamentally gentle and sweet, moreso even than Niall, and Louis’s wagering Zayn’s kindness will trump his annoyance.

That’s why he’s surprised by the loud, cracking swat to his bum just before they go on stage, the kind of hit that lifts his arse cheek and leaves a heavy sting behind. “That’s for earlier,” Zayn says, slipping past as Louis’s still feeling up his own bum. He thinks he can tell where the skin is warmed beneath his trousers, the spreading redness in the shape of Zayn’s hand. It makes him feel marked and jittery and strange, a different kind of rush than he usually has running onto the stage. But he’s able to brush it off easily enough, get back to tormenting the other lads as usual, tugging their hair and stealing their mics and whispering substitute lyrics in their ears.

 

Eleanor comes to visit while they’re in France, and at first it’s lovely, having her there, staying in the hotel with her and curling their fingers together everywhere they go. But within 24 hours, Louis realizes that she’s always tugging away a little, holding back in a way she never has before. He asks her about it over room service on the sofa in his room, staring at the delicate arches of her feet because he can’t bear to look at her face when she’s gone sad like this.

“I wanted to find the right time to tell you,” she says. “I’ve been offered a job. A proper job with a non-profit in Washington, working on exactly the kind of policy I’m most interested in.” She juts her chin out, a stubborn gesture she’s learned from him. “I didn’t ever think I’d get it. I’m not even sure why I applied.”

“If it’s everything you want to do, that’s a pretty good reason to apply, I reckon.” Louis’s stomach is churning, and he has to set aside his plate in order to hide the way his hands shake.

“It is,” she assures him. “Lou, it’s amazing. They’re taking my degree seriously. They don’t give a fuck that I’m Louis Tomlinson’s girlfriend. They care about my first in international policy, and my dissertation, and my brain.”

“It’s a fucking brilliant brain,” he agrees. “I’m just waiting for the ‘but’ here, love.” He risks a look at her face, and her eyes are bright with tears, her lashes spiky and wet.

“I don’t want to say, ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’” she tells him. “But I have to take this job. It would mean everything. And if I do it, I can’t travel, not for ages. And that’s not fair. It’s not sustainable. It wouldn’t make me happy. Or you.”

“When would you start?”

“September,” she says. “Soon.”

Louis is well aware how soon September is, how terrifyingly little time that is before he’d be left at loose ends. “Is there anything else we can do?”

She folds her feet up under her on the sofa. “I haven’t been able to think of anything.”

“I’m really proud of you, Els,” he says into the silence that follows. “You deserve to have people, like, care about your brain.”

“Thanks, Lou. I’m proud of me too. I just wish it wasn’t like this.” There’s this sense of finality to it, even though he’s still looking for a way out of it in his head, any kind of promise he can make. But he’s got a job that doesn’t ever stop.

“Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad,” he says anyway. “Like, maybe if we just talk a lot like we do when I’m on tour, we could make it work. You’ve been in uni all this time, and that’s been all right.”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. This won’t be like uni. I won’t have breaks like that. I won’t be able to just go and see you. Not with a job like that.”

“But you’ll have time off. Everyone has time off, even people with proper jobs.”

“I don’t know. Would you come visit and all?”

“Of course.” But the thought of trying to split his time off between Eleanor in America and his family in England is devastating. Already he feels stretched too thin, pulled apart between too many places he’s needed. He can’t give her enough of his time as it is. “I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to not have you in my life.”

“I know. Me too.” They look at each other for a long moment, and knowing she’ll be with him for the next week, from Paris to Amsterdam, just feels like drawing it out. She’s already thinking of a life without him, and it’s maybe strange that they’ve never discussed it before, what she was going to do when she graduated, what her life was going to look like. They’ve been so solid, but maybe they never had a future together at all. There’s no room to discuss her career, really. As much as he might think to question her choices, when someone gives you a chance to do exactly what you love, he’s the last person to recommend you say no.

The next seven days are a countdown to the end, but they both try to act as normal as possible. Louis doesn’t want anyone to know just yet that when she leaves, she’s not coming back. And once she’s gone, it doesn’t make any sense to bring it up. There’s no time in their tour schedule to say, “Eleanor’s gone and there’s a gaping hole in my life.”

He starts fucking with the other lads more, making a nuisance of himself with the entire crew. He nearly breaks Niall’s Segway in Dusseldorf crashing it into a wall, and he’s somehow disappointed when neither Niall (careful, practical Niall who always looks after his things) nor anyone else gives him shit for it. Like maybe they’re all so used to him fucking up that he doesn’t even need to be punished for it.

He's being the worst kind of asshole, and he knows it perfectly well. He's inciting and aggravating and making everyone else jumpy and unhappy. But he can't make himself stop, and no one else seems to want to make him stop either. There's no reason for them to put up with his bullshit, but they do, turning the other cheek over and over again. Even when they fight back, it doesn't help. There's no fun in food fights or prank wars for him right now.

Finally he squirts Zayn with his super soaker while he's sleeping, and Zayn gets angry enough to yell at him. "What the fuck is wrong with you, Lou?" he snaps, spilling out of his bunk and taking Louis by the shoulders. "I've got to be up again in two fucking hours. Like, can't you just wait? Can't you maybe fuck with someone else tonight?"

"Nope," says Louis with a manic grin. "Fraid it's all you tonight."

Zayn is tough to genuinely piss off, but his eyes are burning now, wild, darkly shadowed from lack of sleep underneath. "What the fuck? What did I do?"

"Reckon you didn't do anything, mate. This was all me." He taps Zayn on the cheek with the water gun.

Zayn pushes it away. "You're like a bloody kid lately. Do you need a time out? Do I need to take you over my knee?"

There's a thrill in it, the thought of being punished like that, and Louis shrugs through the tingling of it down his spine. "Try it, mate," he says.

Zayn watches him for a moment, still and silent. Then he grabs Louis by the ear and yanks him toward the back of the bus. Louis yelps, but he doesn't struggle, lets Zayn shove him down face first onto the sofa. Liam's sat nearby on his mobile, and he lifts his eyebrows as Zayn sits himself squarely in the middle of Louis's back.

"He needed a time out," Zayn explains. Louis feels the weight of him with every breath, gasping a little into the leather of the sofa. He turns his head to meet Liam's eyes.

"I deserved it," he says.

Liam covers his phone with his hand. "I'm sure you did, mate." He gets up, says, "Babe, hang on, bit crowded in here at the minute. I'm going to find someplace quieter." He slips out of the room, and Louis closes his eyes, cushions his head on one hand.

"How long is a timeout?" he asks. He has to hitch an extra breath to speak. Zayn isn't heavy, but he's sitting right on Louis's ribs, limiting his movement.

"Dunno, mate," Zayn says, looking down at him. "Can't time it, really, without my phone. I could run get it from my bunk if you'll stay still while I'm gone and not go straight for the super soaker again."

Louis shakes his head as much as he can. "No promises. You'd better stay. Reckon you'll get bored in a bit." He doesn't know why he just lets it happen. He could buck Zayn off if he wanted, skinny as he is, but Zayn holding him down on the sofa makes him feel quieter, calmer than he has in three weeks. He's finally reaping some consequences, and it feels like some balance coming right.

Zayn touches the back of his neck, gently with his fingertips. "You breathing all right?"

"Yeah."

Zayn strokes his hair absently, and Louis wonders if Zayn might fall asleep sat like this. Louis would deserve that too. He probably wouldn't even move. "Can you tell me what's going on?" Zayn asks, smoothing Louis's hair back around his ear.

"You're sitting on me," says Louis.

"That's not what I meant."

"You're sitting on me because I was a right twat and woke you up."

"Yeah, and why'd you do that?"

Louis rubs his face against the sofa, keeps his eyes closed. "Dunno. Just felt like it, I reckon."

Zayn tugs a little, makes Louis’s breath go sharp for a moment. “I don’t believe that for a second, mate.”

Louis is silent, stubborn, and Zayn doesn’t stop petting him, so that must be all right. His fingers dance along the crown of Louis’s head, scratching gently, making him shiver with a first hint of arousal. It’s not supposed to be sexy, Zayn holding him down, but Louis keeps accidentally putting himself off wanking by thinking of Eleanor, and there’s been a ball of tension sat low in his belly all the time. This much contact is nearly too much for his confused body.

“You can tell me anything,” Zayn says quietly. “I love you.”

“Love you, too,” sighs Louis, and it doesn’t even sound grudging.

Zayn shifts after another minute or two, and Louis oofs uncomfortably into the cushion. “Sorry, mate. Reckon maybe that’s long enough. My arse is starting to fall asleep.”

He stands, and Louis heaves in a deep, deep breath, filling up his lungs. He doesn’t move, not yet, lies flat against the sofa and shuts his eyes again. Zayn touches his cheek. “All right, Lou?”

“Only internal injuries,” says Louis, muffled into his own elbow.

Zayn stays for a minute, standing over him quiet and curious, and Louis wishes he would do something, say something Louis could brush off, but he just bends to kiss the top of Louis’s head and goes back to his bunk. And then it’s just Louis again, alone with his thoughts.

He focuses in on Zayn after that, and it’s probably fucking cruel, but Zayn’s the only one of them who’s shown any interest in giving Louis what he needs. Whatever that is, honestly. A good thumping, a chair in the corner, maybe a single sharp smack. He steals Zayn’s sketchbook, and then all of his socks, and finally his favorite DMs. Zayn’s always been as likely to wear anyone else’s socks as his own, and he seems to figure the sketchbook will probably turn up when the cleaners come for the bus, but the boots tip him off immediately.

“Give them back,” he says, grabbing the back of Louis’s t-shirt in the green room in Madrid. It’s the second-to-last stop in Europe, so they’re three days from a two-week break, and Louis is edgier than ever. He hasn’t told his family about Eleanor, but he knows he’ll crack as soon as he looks his mum in the face. And they’ll want to comfort him, be kind to him, and that’s the last thing he wants.

“Give what back, dear Zayn?” he asks, wriggling away and making Zayn chase him round the corner of the sofa. Niall’s asleep in a chair in the corner, and Harry and Liam are still out sightseeing with Josh and Sandy, so Zayn doesn’t need to step close to speak to him, doesn’t need to use that low, dangerous whisper.

“My boots, you twat,” says Zayn. “I don’t know where you put them because I went through all of your shit on the bus, and they’re not there. But you’d better still have them. And you’d better give them back.” He punctuates the last three words with a pinch to the most sensitive stretch of Louis’s side, and Louis wonders if that’s the closest he’ll be pushed to actual violence.

“Make me,” he tells Zayn, twitching his eyebrows in a challenge.

Zayn pinches him again, and Louis wonders if it’s enough to bruise. He sets his jaw and stays silent. Another sharp pinch. “Is it because you like this?” Zayn asks.

That hits Louis harder than any kind of actual blow, makes him drop his eyes at once.

“That’s why you’ve been, like, antagonizing everyone, right? Stealing stuff and breaking stuff and being a nuisance on the bus? You want somebody to catch you and beat the living shit out of you. But we won’t because we’re all too nice.”

Louis tries to laugh, but it comes out funny and choked. “Right, yeah, that must be it. Pull the other one, mate.”

“Nah. Reckon you’d like that, too.”

Louis’s startled into laughing properly then, and Zayn smiles at him, moves half a step back so Louis has room to breathe.

“You could just say what’s wrong, mate,” Zayn goes on after a moment. “There’s nothing in the world we’d judge you for. But going round trying to get someone to smack you isn’t working out so well.”

Louis thinks about that for a moment, but he can’t make himself explain. “Your boots are in the DVD cupboard on the bus,” he says instead, slipping sideways before Zayn grabs his wrist.

“Do you want me to smack you anyway?” Zayn asks.

“No,” says Louis. “Thanks though.” He’s all hollowed out now, by Zayn knowing, by knowing that Zayn knows, and he’ll either need a new tactic or he’ll need to get the fuck over himself. No bets on how that’s going to go.

 

Being home is awful, even worse than he expected. His mum fetches him from the airport, and halfway through the apparently endless drive to Doncaster, he blurts out, “Eleanor broke up with me.”

She nearly collides with the car in front of them in the snail-like traffic. “Oh, sweetheart, she didn’t,” she says, reaching out to stroke his cheek. “I’m so sorry.”

“She’s taking a job in America, and it just, it wouldn’t have worked. I reckon it wouldn’t have worked.” He can’t keep his voice from going a bit wobbly. He’s thought about it plenty the last couple of weeks, and he still can’t come up with any other way out of the situation. “It’s good though. For her. It’s a brilliant job, apparently.”

His mum holds his hand for the next twenty miles in between shifting gears up and down to accommodate the traffic. She murmurs soft words, words he barely even hears, and the sound of her voice is familiar and devastating. It doesn’t ease the manic energy thrumming through him. And once he’s home, there’s absolutely no one for him to take it out on.

He spends three days snapping at his sisters and sleeping through family dinners before he gives up and heads for Zayn’s. It’s not until he parked in the drive that he realises Zayn may have gone home to his parents’ as well, that he hasn’t given a word of warning before just showing up. He phones, just in case Zayn’s got his phone on him for once in his life.

“Get out of the car, you tit,” Zayn answers, then rings off again. He’s at the door by the time Louis gets there.

“You really thought you could sit in front of my house and I wouldn’t notice?” Zayn asks, tugging him into an unwilling hug.

“Thought maybe you wouldn’t be here,” says Louis.

Zayn looks at him for a long moment. “Come on in.” He’s got the telly on in the lounge, playing the Batman movie with George Clooney and the nipple suit. “Decided to rewatch them all, like, since I wasn’t doing nothing anyway.”

“Sorry I missed Catwoman.”

“We can always go back. Do you want anything? Tea? Pizza? Haven’t got much else in at the moment.”

Louis shakes his head. Now that he’s here, he’s not sure why he came. Zayn needs time off as much as anyone. He stands awkwardly for a moment before Zayn pulls him toward the sofa. “Come on, mate, Uma Thurman’s fit, and she’s about to kill some dudes.”

It’s nice to curl into Zayn’s side and turn his brain off for a while, let Zayn settle an arm around his waist. When he starts to fidget, Zayn pinches him, fingernails digging deep into Louis’s side. Louis shivers and then settles, abruptly aware of every part of his body. By the time the film ends, Louis’s got his head tucked into the curve of Zayn’s shoulder, and Zayn is plucking at his skin like a musical instrument. The sharp, little pricks of pain are satisfying, and it’s the closest thing in days to what Louis wants.

“Eleanor broke up with me,” he says into the silence when Zayn turns off the DVD.

Zayn bites his lip and nods. “Is that why you’ve been such a prick lately?”

“Yeah,” says Louis. “Reckon so. Sorry.”

“Nah,” says Zayn, stroking his back, avoiding his ticklish spots. “That’s a good reason to feel like shit. Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not even a bit.”

“Then do you want to get up and put in Batman Begins?”

“Not that either.”

Zayn lays an awkward little smack on Louis’s hip, no power behind it with the angle of his arm, but it makes Louis shiver anyway. He gets up to put in the DVD, says it with his back turned because he won’t ever otherwise, “You said you’d put me over your knee if I bugged you too much. Would you still do that?”

He doesn’t turn round again until Zayn replies, “We can talk about that later.” Which isn’t a yes but isn’t a no either.

 

Later on, Zayn orders Chinese and they share it out of the cartons while the Joker sows chaos in the background. They’ve all seen these movies more times than probably any of them want to count, and they know all the best bits off by heart. Louis starts to doze partway through Dark Knight Rises, so it gets shuffled into a confusing dream where he’s lost in a sewer that gets darker at every turn. He wakes up snuffling into Zayn’s shoulder as Bruce Wayne climbs out of Bane’s prison, chanting ringing in his ears.

“Bed after this, yeah?” says Zayn, stroking his hair.

Louis feels looked after and tongue-tied with gratitude. Zayn doesn’t ask him for anything at all, just lets him sit and be nothing for a while. And maybe that’s exactly what he needs.

“Do you want to bunk with me tonight?” Zayn asks, nudging Louis up off the sofa.

Louis’s body is heavy and slow with sleep, and when he stretches his arms over his head, he can feel every place where Zayn’s fingers have dug into his side. “Is that all right?”

“Course,” says Zayn. “Saves me making up the spare room, yeah?”

Louis realises he’s still got a bag of his things in the car, but there’s no way he’s going out for it now. He uses Zayn’s toothbrush without asking and strips down to his pants before crawling into bed. The pillow smells like Zayn’s hair gel, and Louis buries his face in it, spreading his arms against the smooth sheets.

“There’s a spare toothbrush in the cabinet,” Zayn says, coming out of the bathroom. “You didn’t have to nick mine.”

“Mine’s in the car. That’s too far away.”

“Or you’re just asking for a spanking.”

He genuinely hadn’t been, this time, but when he leans up on his elbows to tell Zayn so, he realises Zayn’s staring at him. “What?”

Zayn kneels onto the bed, curls a hand around Louis’s ribs. “You can see it,” he says. “Fuck, I didn’t know I was doing it that hard.” He rubs his hand down Louis’s side, and Louis cranes his head awkwardly to see the litter of pink marks on his skin.

“S’alright,” says Louis self-consciously. “I don’t mind.”

“You like me to hurt you?”

“Sounds fucking daft when you say it that way,” says Louis, ducking his head back down as Zayn presses on one of the little marks.

“It doesn’t though,” says Zayn. “It’s like, people like all sorts of things, yeah? They like to feel all sorts of things. So I reckon it’s not, like, weird if you want someone to be a little rough with you.” His fingers spread gently against Louis’s ribs, and Louis tries to breathe past the sudden swelling of his cock. He feels raw and touch starved, wanting to curl into Zayn and also pull away. “Unless you think you deserve to be hurt,” Zayn adds. He slides his hand up to the back of Louis’s neck, squeezing lightly. Louis wants to cry, wound up too tight to even say anything. “You don’t deserve to be hurt, Lou.”

“Tired,” says Louis finally, because Zayn digging into his brain is much more painful than Zayn pinching him hard enough to bruise.

“Night, then,” says Zayn. He pulls his hand away, but when Louis jolts awake in the middle of the night, he finds Zayn spooned around him, knees tucked into the bend of his, Zayn’s breath fluttering over his bare shoulder. He curls a hand over Zayn’s on his belly, hooks his thumb under Zayn’s, and goes back to sleep.

 

It spills out of him bit by bit because he can’t say it all at once, but it’s like poison eating away at him.

“She’s taking a job in America,” he says over cereal in the morning, sat at the counter in Zayn’s kitchen.

Zayn hooks an ankle around his and says nothing, keeps chewing.

“It’s a, like, policy institute? I don’t even know what that is. But they want her to work on the stuff she wrote her dissertation on. Which I also didn’t understand, by the way. Because I’m a fucking idiot who couldn’t even make it through A levels. Christ, what did I even think I was doing?”

“You’re not an idiot,” Zayn says quietly. “Least not because of that.”

“Cheers,” says Louis. Zayn taps his foot against Louis’s, wriggles his toes against Louis’s instep.

 

It’s hours later, and he’s watching Zayn paint, sprawled out on the sofa while Zayn chews the end of an actual paintbrush. Louis had had to promise not to laugh when Zayn let him watch; he’s trying to teach himself to paint “properly” but from the sofa it looks like mostly mixing colours and scowling. After a while, Zayn declares he’s taking a break and flops down onto the other end of the sofa. He pulls a pipe out of a drawer, holds it out and raises his eyebrows.

“Every artist needs to relax, right?” says Zayn.

“That is my motto as a platinum-selling songwriter,” agrees Louis.

They smoke until Louis’s lips feel dry and papery and his head is cloudy and calm. He wonders why he didn’t spend more of the European leg of the tour like this.

“Good?” asks Zayn, sliding an arm around Louis’s shoulders and pulling him tight to his side.

“I miss her,” Louis replies, which wasn’t the question at all. But god, he aches with it suddenly. He can practically smell her perfume, feel the drift of her hair across his skin. “I miss her so much.”

“I know, mate. Of course you do. Have you talked to her?”

Louis shakes his head. “I reckon, like, she’s starting this new life. She doesn’t need me hanging round, reminding her what she’s getting free from.”

Zayn pinches him, hard, right over one of the tender spots from last night. “Don’t do that. Don’t put yourself down. I’m sure she misses you too.”

Louis doesn’t want to consider that, doesn’t want to think about her in her flat in Manchester feeling as torn apart as he does. “I always thought, like, I’d fuck it up somehow. If it didn’t work, it would be because I’d done something. But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t fucking do anything at all.” He can feel the lump in his throat, the tightness behind his eyes, tries to pretend it’s just the pot, but it’s clearly more than that. He screws his face up, trying not to cry because he hasn’t yet, not since Eleanor actually left, not with his mum and not on his own, and if he can get through it without crying, that will be some small victory.

But Zayn won’t let him have that even. He curls his arms around Louis’s waist and tugs him down until they’re laid out full-length, and Louis’s head fits just right into the curve of Zayn’s shoulder. He takes a hitching breath that doesn’t seem to fill up his lungs properly, and then he’s full-on bawling all of a sudden, like a dam cracking open. It’s messy and wet and fuck, he’s interrupted Zayn’s break to steal his weed and snot all over him, he deserves every bad thing that could happen to him.

“You’re alright, man,” says Zayn, which is completely untrue, but Louis just rubs his leaking eyes against Zayn’s worn t-shirt and doesn’t argue.

He must cry himself to sleep because he wakes up basically glued to Zayn’s shoulder, Zayn fast asleep but still holding him just as tight. Louis untangles himself and stands, looks at the tubes of paint beside Zayn’s canvas. He squeezes some red onto his finger and swipes it onto Zayn’s cheek, shapes it into something like a dick.

“Do you want your spanking now or later?” Zayn says, still with his eyes shut. Louis responds by poking a bit of red onto the tip of Zayn’s nose. He feels lighter, not anything like happy, but not falling apart for the moment. He goes into the kitchen and pours himself a glass of water. A moment later Zayn comes in, wiping his cheek with a towel.

Louis sniffs. “You’re ruining my masterpiece.”

“You can draw dicks on something else later,” Zayn replies, tossing the stained towel at his head. “Feeling better?”

“Yeah,” says Louis. “Cheers, mate. You’ve still got balls on your face, so you know.”

Zayn circles around Louis from behind as he’s stood at the counter, and Louis tenses even before Zayn’s palm connects with the lower curve of his bum, catching the top of his thigh in its sweep. He gasps and presses his palms flat to the counter, ducks his head down and pushes his arse out, blatantly inviting another smack.

“Again?” asks Zayn, and Louis nods stiffly, closes his eyes as Zayn hits him again, sharp on the other cheek now, a matching throb of heat. There are two more quick smacks, and then Zayn cups his palm against the curve of Louis’s arse instead of pulling away. The pressure of Zayn’s hand on his burning skin makes Louis shiver. “Do you need a couple more still?” Zayn says.

Louis manages a shrug. “If you reckon I deserve it.”

Zayn rubs his thumb over the plushest part of Louis’s bum, and Louis, in trackies but no pants, feels unbearably sensitive, arousal starting to simmer in his belly. “You don’t deserve to be hit, Lou. Not at all. Not when you paint dicks on my face or nick my stuff or even crash Niall’s Segway. But if you want me to hit you, I will.”

Louis ducks away instead, can’t take Zayn calling him out that way, making it so blatant. Making him ask for it. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he says tightly. The house feels too small suddenly, with Louis and Zayn and all of Louis’s fucked-up feelings, so he grabs his keys and says he’s going to pick up some milk and things at the supermarket. It hurts to sit, not letting him forget for a second, and he has to wait for his dick to calm down before he pulls out of the drive.

Zayn doesn’t say anything about the fact that a litre of milk, a packet of biscuits, and a couple of ready meals takes him nearly two hours to bring home. He lets Louis pick out a film while the food heats, settles his arm around Louis’s waist just like the night before. He waits until Louis’s come back with plates of lasagne and set them safely on the coffee table before he sneaks a grope of Louis’s bum. Louis yelps indignantly.

“Sore?” Zayn asks.

“Not anymore,” Louis replies. When Zayn’s hand settles this time, it’s over the curve of Louis’s hip, the cool tips of his fingers slipping into Louis’s trackies, settling against the faded ache there. He wants Zayn to hit him again, wants the sharp pain instead of this gentleness. He doesn’t know what to do if he’s not being punished.

 

The only thing on the calendar before they head for America is a magazine interview and a photo shoot, and Louis’s feeling as ready as he can be for the usual bullshit questions. He whinges about his glorious pelt when Lou shaves him before the magazine’s makeup staff have even got to him, but she just pats his cheek and tells him it’ll grow back. Next he tries to convince her to let him shave his name into the short bits on the sides of Zayn’s head, but Zayn just says, “You know what will happen if you try,” and the threat of it makes Louis flush.

He’s jittery but all right through the interview, right up until they’re asked if they’ve made friends in different parts of the world while they’re traveling, if they’re able to visit a bit on tour. No one’s even looking at him, as Harry starts rambling on about staying with Cal immediately, but he has to stuff his hands under his thighs to keep from fidgeting. All he can think of is being in America while Eleanor’s moving her whole life there and not being able to see her. He jumps a bit when Zayn’s fingernails bite into the thin skin of his wrist, but it grounds him, gives him a point of focus. Zayn keeps his hand just there for the rest of the interview, fingers poised, hidden by his crossed legs, and Louis breathes easier for knowing it.

The photo shoot is a fucking disaster though. Louis can’t keep still, ducking into solo shots and out of group ones, and he hears the photographer’s assistant whisper, “I told you it would be like this,” and that just makes it worse. This is what people expect from him, and even when Liam is laughing along, he feels all wrong, unsteady and out of control. Harry steers well clear of him and Niall tries to dance him into a corner where he’ll be out of the way, but when it’s Zayn’s turn to sit on a chaise longue and look soulful, he points at Louis and says, “You’re earning it right now, mate,” and Louis draws up short. Zayn’s eyes are stern, and Louis has to look away, retreat to the other side of the studio and settle himself against Niall.

“Having a good break?” asks Niall, chin tucked into Louis’s shoulder, hands on his hips swaying him back and forth. Louis turns into Niall’s arms and laces their fingers together, waltzing him in a small circle. “Things all right at Zayn’s?”

“Yeah, mate, good,” says Louis. “How’s your break?”

“Chilling out. Grilling out. You should come round.” He dips Louis so fast Louis nearly overbalances them both. “But I reckon I’ll make you tell me how you really are, if you do.” He tips Louis upright again.

Louis wants to bristle and blow him off, but that doesn’t work on Niall. “You mean to say, you’ll grill me?”

Niall gets a friendly elbow into Louis’s ribs. “That was a Harry joke, mate. You can do better.”

The photographer calls for Niall then, and Louis looks round for Zayn, finds him on the other side of the studio with his phone pressed to his ear. But Liam’s suddenly at Louis’s side, like they’re tag-team distracting him, and it’s aggravating, but it’s not like they don’t have good reason.

“Pez says hi,” Zayn tells him, when he finally comes back over. “And they’re just about ready to take your picture, I reckon. Be good.”

“Never,” says Louis. Afterwards, he’s quite sure he doesn’t want to know what those photos look like.

 

He lets Zayn drive his car back, fiddling with the radio until Zayn smacks his hand and tells him to quit it. It seems to take hours longer getting to Zayn’s than it took getting to London, and Louis is so wound up he’s nearly sick by the time they arrive. He wonders if the rest of the tour will be like this, if this feeling that he’s just not right will fade away, and the idea that it won’t is suffocating in its awfulness. He scrambles out of the car and up to the door before he realizes Zayn’s got the house keys, so he’s just stood there rocking on the balls of his feet.

Zayn slides his free arm around Louis’s waist, pinches the soft spot just above his hip. “I know you hate this, but I think we need to talk. Like, properly.”

“No,” replies Louis. It earns him another pinch, and, more surprisingly, a soft kiss to the back of his neck that warms him all through.

“Yes,” says Zayn. He guides Louis straight to his bedroom, doesn’t even bother turning on the lights, and Louis knows this isn’t just about a spanking. It isn’t just about him needing to be punished. This is everything that’s churned up inside him, and he doesn’t know what to do. His knees seem to turn to liquid in the doorway. “I just need you to tell me, like, I’ve got this right.”

“You called Perrie because of me,” he realises. He’s known about Zayn and Perrie’s rules for as long as they’ve existed, and now suddenly they apply to him.

“I wanted to be sure I could give you whatever you needed,” says Zayn, stroking his hip, so gentle Louis can hardly bear it. “That’s what you deserve, all right? So tell me I have it right.”

Louis is close to tears, just from the tenderness in Zayn’s voice, and his dick is flushing hard in his tight jeans. “You do,” Louis whispers.

“Then take off your clothes and get on the bed.”

Louis doesn’t even argue, throws off his jacket and strips out of his t-shirt and jeans, kicking his shoes into opposite corners of the room. He’d scrubbed off all the makeup back at the studio, and his cheeks are burning with hectic color. When he peels down his pants and lays himself out on Zayn’s bed, he feels raw, skinned. He shuts his eyes, takes a deep breath, and nearly chokes on the exhale when Zayn lays a cool hand in the centre of his back.

“All right, love?” Zayn says, trailing his hand down until he’s stroking the swell of Louis’s arse, rubbing over it so Louis’s acutely aware of the give of his own flesh. “You can tell me to stop any time.”

He’s obviously waiting for an answer, so Louis huffs out a tiny “yes” and next moment he feels the swing of Zayn’s hand and the first shock of impact. It shudders all through him, but Zayn doesn’t give him time to recover, hits him again with a sharp cracking sound. By the third one, he’s crying outright, and he’s shaking all over by the fourth. It’s like everything inside him is just leaking out, messy and unstoppable. The burn drives a little bit deeper each time, and he stifles a sob in a mouthful of duvet, blinks falling tears from his eyes. There’s a rhythm to it, a smack to each side and then one in the middle, three strokes and then a pause before the next set. He doesn’t count them all, focussed in on the spreading heat in his bum, the way he can feel it jiggling each time Zayn hits him, the way his whole body locks up and relaxes.

And then Zayn stops, and the sounds of his own heartbeat and his own strangled sobs are the only things he hears. Louis’s aching and hot and he cries out as Zayn strokes his thumb along the crack of his ass, smoothing over the throbbing warmth of Louis’s skin.

“That was so good, Lou,” Zayn whispers, crawling up next to him and nudging Louis onto his side. “You’re so good.”

He wraps his arms around Louis’s chest, and Louis hides his face in the curve of Zayn’s collarbone as Zayn keeps talking to him, telling Louis how much he loves him. He can’t seem to stop crying long enough to speak. Their legs tangle together, and the hard tip of Louis’s cock catches against Zayn’s belly. He doesn’t understand what his body’s doing anymore, but he’s aching with the need to come. “Can I touch you?” Zayn asks.

Louis hitches his hips forward in answer, still clinging tight. He hears Zayn spit into his palm, and then Zayn’s slim fingers are wrapping his dick, stroking it slow and steady like Zayn can just coax the orgasm out of him. And Louis’s so far gone, so heavy and hurting and broken open, that this is as all he can take. Zayn dips down to kiss him as he starts to come, and Louis licks into Zayn’s mouth, tasting the salt of his own tears. He feels Zayn wanking himself after, Zayn’s knuckles brushing the shaft of Louis’s oversensitive cock as he works himself hard. The burst of Zayn’s come flares across Louis’s belly, and Zayn moans into his mouth.

“Love you,” Louis manages finally, feeling so small, Zayn anchoring him, holding him tight. He’s still crying a bit, but Zayn doesn’t seem to mind, kissing along the slope of Louis’s cheekbone, right up to the corner of his closed eye.

“Love you too.” He nuzzles at Louis’s cheek, kisses him softly on the mouth again. “I have some lotion, if you’re too sore. I read that was, like, a thing some people did.”

“You read?” Louis asks hoarsely. “You researched?”

Zayn’s hand ghosts over the aching flesh of Louis’s arse, strokes along the back of his thigh. “I wanted to give you what you needed.”

Louis hitches out a new sob. “Fuck, Zayn.”

“I got you, man. I’m right here.”

 

Later, maybe even hours later, Zayn lays Louis out on his belly again and works him over with a handful of lotion, smoothing it in where his skin is still hot and stinging. “It won’t keep you from bruising,” Zayn says, spreading the lotion down to the tops of his thighs and beginning to rub it in.

“Feels good though,” Louis murmurs. He’d dozed in Zayn’s arms for a while, and he thinks it must be late now, pitch dark outside the window.

Zayn rubs both his hands over the cheeks of Louis’s arse, thumbs sliding along his crack, clever fingers making small circles against his skin. Louis’s dick starts to plump up again. “You like that?” Zayn says, spreading him a little, thumbing deeper into the split of his arse.

“Yeah,” says Louis. He’s out of shame, out of resistance to the little flare of pleasure in his belly as Zayn strokes him. He’s sore, but not where Zayn is touching him now, one slicked fingertip pressed to his arsehole. “Don’t stop.”

Zayn rubs at him with slippery fingers, dips one into him so slowly he feels as though he was made for it by the time Zayn’s works him open on a second. He can’t help the way his hips work against the bed, his dick fat and smearing precome, and he didn’t think he could come on Zayn’s fingers, but he’s suddenly not sure he’ll need anything else. Zayn crooks his fingers, presses his thumb to the smooth skin behind Louis’s balls, and Louis makes a strangled sound and presses down harder into the messy sheets. “That’s good,” Zayn tells him, circling inside him. “That’s right.” The ache in his arse intensifies as he clenches down on Zayn’s knuckles, but the throb of pain just makes it better, shoves him that much closer to the edge. Zayn presses a kiss to the base of his spine. “Come for me, love. Be a good boy for me.”

Louis’s never been a good boy in his life, but he does. For that gorgeous moment, he forgets everything he needs to be punished for, wrapped up in Zayn’s love.