Acrylic and wood on canvas
100 cm x 70 cm, 100 cm x 70 cm, 100 cm x 70 cm
From the gallery booklet (first painting):
The first painting is characteristic of Zayn Malik's work in this period: abstract shapes and colours representing concrete ideas. Messier strokes and undiluted red on black and white suggest something bold and less compromising than other depictions. While Malik has previously confirmed that most of this era's paintings represent people and the events happening around them, he declined to share who specifically this painting referenced. The only hint comes from the working title as a solo piece: "First Blush".
Zayn hears a lot of "if you don't sell, you don't get wall space" for the first couple of months he hangs his works in the new gallery. Nothing he isn't expecting. He's taking pieces of himself to get money for food, and it isn't selling out because he wants to do it, but there isn't always recognition of basic humanity involved. Kinda ironic, in art.
But after a month or two, the gallery curator starts saying, "If you don't sell to that bloke who keeps coming round, you're out." It takes two or three times before Zayn understands: he's caught someone's eye.
He lingers around the gallery more than usual; nothing feels like it's clawing out of his chest, so he doesn't have to be in the studio as much, and he can brush off the pointed stares and comments from the curator. It doesn't take long. Couple of days, at most.
The man's not what he expected. Of course, it's not like a specific type wants Zayn. He just had an old, rich man in mind. Louis is neither, which is probably why he hasn't bought before. But Zayn knows him for his admirer instantly; Louis hovers by Zayn's work, bundled in the many layers winter requires, and he doesn't stare at the painting like he's trying to understand. It's clear he's already found what he's looking for.
Zayn doesn't talk to him immediately, just follows him out into the chill when he's ready to smoke. His first line isn't much of one, but it serves his purpose.
"Got a light? Mine's bollocks in the wind."
Louis pulls out his lighter, and within seconds, Zayn's got smoke in his lungs and nicotine in his veins. He leans against the wall and scrubs a paint-streaked hand over his face.
"All right?" Louis asks.
Zayn nods. "You? Surprised the curator let you leave with all your money."
Louis laughs. "Not much to take from a poor student. I'm surprised they let me in at all. Don't they have bouncers or something to keep my sort out?"
"Probably end up tossing out more artists than buyers, mate."
When Louis laughs again, Zayn's tummy feels warm. He offers Louis a drag, and their chilly fingers brush as Louis takes the cigarette and puts it to his lips.
"So what caught your eye?" Zayn asks.
"One in the back." Louis describes it after he exhales and hands Zayn the cigarette back. "Don't know shit about art, but I can't stop visiting."
"Think it'd look good on your wall?"
"I didn't have me in mind for that one." Quiet fills the air for a moment, Louis looking down at the ground, before his head snaps up. "Not to say. Uh. Fuck. I was thinking of it for a friend. In the universe where I'm wealthy, of course."
"'S my piece, you know." Zayn grins and drops his cigarette to crush when Louis flushes. "Am I rich in this universe, too?"
Louis recovers quickly, standing tall and confident. "Naturally. I'm your patron, like in the classical days."
The wind gusts up for a second, blowing the edges of Zayn's coat up. He shivers and pulls up his collar. Louis's got his hands stuffed in his pockets, but his eyes are bright over his red cheeks.
"As my patron, you want to come to mine? My studio, I mean," Zayn says quickly.
"That your way of saying 'I've got some etchings'?"
Zayn shakes his head. "Could use some fresh eyes. My new style, it's, like...different."
"Sorry, mate. I know just as much about art as I did five minutes ago."
Another gust nearly knocks Zayn over. He positions himself in the way of it to shield Louis, and he says, "Exactly. You won't give me shit about lighting or market value. I want to see what you're feeling."
Louis studies Zayn's face. "I do feel things. Suppose that will do." He offers Zayn his arm. "Shall we?"
Zayn shakes his head, but he takes Louis's arm.
All of Louis's emotions are on his face as he stares at Zayn's painting. Normally, Zayn has to spend days staring at paint and canvases to get even the beginnings of ideas, but just glancing at Louis sends tendrils of colour shooting through Zayn's mind. All the colours, really, but he knows which ones are Louis straight off; he can almost see them zigzagging behind Louis's head. Zayn could watch Louis forever.
"Who was she?"
The colours disappear, and Zayn, shaken, says, "No one."
Louis raises an eyebrow and crosses his arms; he obviously isn't convinced and says as much. But in that moment, nothing has been truer.
"Doesn't matter," Zayn says aloud. "I wasn't what she wanted."
At that, Louis's gaze falls on Zayn like it did on the canvas, but Zayn feels less exposed. It never feels like much stays behind after he paints. Not usually the kinds of things he wants to keep anyway.
"Her loss," Louis says.
Zayn has to reach for him. Louis moves into his touch and kisses Zayn like he expected nothing less.
Zayn starts painting Louis before he even hears of Harry. Officially, anyway. It takes Zayn maybe three dates - if orgasms in the studio count as dates - before he spots the empty space where Harry should be. Louis will make comments and pause like someone's supposed to answer, and even when Zayn's across the room, Louis moves like he's expecting others to step aside.
"You live with someone?" Zayn asks when Louis's over a fourth time, hooking his chin on Louis's shoulder as Louis checks his phone. It's not a weird question. Louis has never offered to take Zayn back to a flat, but he doesn't act ashamed of Zayn, either. They hold hands when going to the shop round the corner; they kissed outside the gallery when Zayn caught Louis lurking again. (That was one of the moments Zayn wishes he'd gone into photography, both to capture the curator's scowl and Louis's returning smirk. Zayn likes to watch others draw Louis's barbs their way.)
"A flatmate. You wanna meet him?"
"Never," Zayn says, grinning at Louis's mock offended look. "No, 'course, love. Want to meet everyone in your life."
He doesn't tell Louis that he's trying to finish the painting in his head, but he doesn't think he has to. Louis's returning kiss seems to understand.
From the gallery booklet (second painting):
The second painting is clearly a play off the first, despite a dramatically different look at first glance. While it continues the canvas size trend, the painting uses a nearly opposite palette on the vast majority of the canvas: greens and golds blending in lines so subtle, they're more present for texture than delineation. The real connection between the two pieces comes from accents that draw the eye: red, black, and white sprinkled on top of the base colours.
"You," is the first thing Harry says to Zayn. Harry's eyes are the size of saucers, and his chin hangs low until he brings it up with a snap. He swallows, and then. Then he grins, and Zayn's the one whose breath comes rough.
It happens in the space of about two seconds, and Zayn knows Harry isn't just Louis's missing spot. He's all the space outside, too.
"Me," Zayn says after a moment, offering his hand. "You're Louis's flatmate?"
It takes a moment, but Harry takes his hand, shakes firmly.
Louis appears behind Harry's shoulder just as they let go. He's shorter than Harry, but he doesn't duck around Harry or wait for him to move. He clears his throat, and Harry gives way like it's as natural as breathing. Probably is. Zayn already feels that way around Louis.
But Harry turning away is kind of like the sun going behind a cloud. He directs it to Louis, and Louis glows under the attention for a moment before he grabs Zayn's hand and pulls him close.
"Harry's done lunch." Louis kisses Zayn on the cheek, and Zayn relaxes. "Never met a lad who could do a better sandwich in my life."
Zayn sticks his free hand in his coat and nods. Harry nods back like Zayn spoke aloud, and as he breaks off to the kitchen, something in the room dissolves. It's more comfortable and more lonely at the same time.
Harry pulls Zayn aside in the middle of watching a DVD and says, "You hurt him, and they'll never find the body."
It isn't the words so much, or even the way Harry says them. It's the flash of Louis's colours in Zayn's mind when he sees, just briefly, the sadness in Harry's eyes.
If he'd had any doubts about Harry being in love with Louis, that moment ends them.
It's a week or so later - Zayn finally started on his painting of Louis, so time's a little looser - that Louis asks, "What do you think of Harry?"
Zayn stills his hand in Louis's hair. They've just fucked for the first time in days, and they're lying in Louis's bed, Harry probably (hopefully) asleep a wall away.
He doesn't say "Harry hates me" even though it's the truth, or a partial one. He's seen Harry's eyes loving and soft in Louis's direction, how they turn sharp when Zayn reminds Harry they're in the same room. But it's the work of a moment, and Harry's back to staring at Zayn, smiling at him, trying to include him. Zayn's never met someone so terrible at holding grudges.
"All right, I suppose," Zayn says.
"All right, you suppose." Louis huffs a laugh. "High praise coming from you."
"You're still my favourite, babe."
Louis laughs again as Zayn kisses the top of his head. "For now. Harry is everyone's favourite."
Time wears away Harry's sharpness toward Zayn. Harry doesn't have edges in general, which is probably why he and Louis get on so well. Louis has edges to spare.
He starts spending time with Harry when Zayn has free time and Louis doesn't. Zayn and Louis can - and do - spend all day lying about, smoking up and having sex and laughing. Harry doesn't stop moving. He talks to everyone he's around for more than five seconds: people his age, people much older, people much younger. They go to the park, and Harry starts so many happy conversations, it takes the sun setting for Harry to pull away.
"Sorry about that," Harry says sheepishly when they go back to Harry and Louis's flat to wait for Louis to get back from class. "You can tell me to stop. My sister always complains when I get carried away."
Zayn thinks of Harry with his boxers over his jeans to make his point about superheroes, of the smile he gets when toddlers wave to him, and he says, "I'm an artist. Gives me a chance to watch people."
"Then we're the perfect team." Harry gives him a hug and goes off into the kitchen.
After Louis falls asleep that same night, Zayn goes to his studio and works on his painting. He has to go into the gallery because he's actually selling and he needs to get his cheque, and when Harry sees him bright and smiling from the rush of a new sale, there's only one thought in mind.
Harry has to see the new painting.
It still isn't finished, but Zayn needs someone who knows Louis to see. Louis himself can't go because it's too personal...or, at least, that's what he tells himself. He would take Louis to see Harry first, and that thought certainly has the ring of truth in his mind.
But when Harry takes one look at the painting and presses Zayn against the wall, and Zayn knows he's should pull away because of Louis, he has just enough time to feel yes with every fibre of his being before their lips touch.
He kisses Harry and sees Harry's colours when he closes his eyes.
From the gallery booklet (third painting):
Like the second piece, the final part of the work's only commonality with the first two is its canvas size. Its biggest difference from the other two is the presence of something besides paint; broken, jagged pieces of wood in a somewhat circular pattern in the first use of an extra dimension in Malik's work. The inside of the shape has all the colours from the other paintings, sometimes mixed in muddy configurations, sometimes dragged for bigger strokes. The paint even makes it to the wood, covering its original shades completely.
What makes this section stand out from all of Malik's pieces, both inside the triptych and outside, is that all the chaos stops with the wood. The corners of the canvas are dark blue and completely free of any disturbance.
(This is labelled as the third painting because of its place in the whole work's chronology. It is hung in the gallery as the artist meant for it to be presented: in the centre of the triptych, with the first and second surrounding it. Malik specifically stated that its place chronologically is just as important as its physical location, although he declined to specify why.)
Somehow, Louis doesn't know.
Louis doesn't notice that Zayn avoids going to his when he knows Harry will be there. He doesn't notice the frantic edge to Zayn when they're shagging, how Zayn will spend so much extra time worshipping Louis during foreplay that he'll be leaking on his stomach and near tears with how much he needs to come by the time Zayn does something about it. They've always had amazing chemistry, emotionally and physically, but Zayn feels like his betrayal's everywhere. How can Louis not see?
He runs into Louis and Harry shopping at Tesco's one day, and it should be the most mundane thing in the world. But Louis watches Harry balance cereal boxes on his head and flopping randomly on the ground like Harry is his whole world, and it all makes sense. Who could see Zayn's mess when they're so busy staring at the sun?
But Louis looks just as happy for Zayn to interrupt, and when Louis leaves to study, Harry doesn't hesitate to pull Zayn by the trolleys, drop his bags on the ground, and kiss him. He kisses Zayn like he's searching for something, and Zayn responds in kind.
Harry keeps looking, and Zayn keeps looking back.
Louis's painting is long since finished, and Zayn is well into Harry's, rushing to the studio to work every time he and Harry kiss. It never goes further than kisses. Zayn might know Harry's mouth as well as he knows Louis's now, and they grab at each other like they're both sinking, but they stop well short of any progression. It's the only thing Zayn does stop.
So, of course, Louis does finally catch them.
They're in the flat Louis and Harry share; that's one mark against them. The second is that Zayn initially came round because he knew Louis would be there soon. The third is that they end up in Louis's room, but maybe that's the most telling part. Maybe it's why Harry looks resigned rather than guilty when he hears Louis say his name, and maybe it's why Louis doesn't look anywhere near Zayn when he speaks.
If Zayn hadn't been so wrapped up in his own guilt, maybe he would have seen it.
He pulls away from Harry's warmth, lays a kiss on Louis's cheek, and tells him what he's finally learned. "It doesn't mean anything, Lou. Not when he'd rather be kissing you."
And with that, he leaves.
Painting will fix it. Painting has to fix it.
Both Harry and Louis are in their corners when Zayn gets back to the studio, but he can't look at them. He drops coverings on both of the finished paintings and pulls out fresh canvas.
He usually takes care with his supplies, but there's nothing tentative about the way he smears his brushes in the paint and slaps the bristles on the canvas. He muddies the colours and loses the threads, destroys the canvas with scissors, and starts fresh.
He can't get it right.
Zayn loses track of the days and paints until he can't stay awake and wakes when the curator comes round. He thinks, distantly, that he was supposed to make a delivery, but it doesn't matter. He starts to paint again, and the curator's gone when he stops to throw another canvas aside hours later, snapping one of his wooden easels on top of it.
He pauses before he grabs another canvas. He's gone through most of the ones around, and there's only one more. When he steps to pick it up from behind Harry's painting, the covering slips free to reveal a hint of his colour. He takes a shuddering breath as pain stabs through him.
But he puts the canvas on his easel, and for some reason, that's the moment.
When he finishes, the light of a new day's coming in the room, and staring at the finished painting hurts just as much as seeing Harry's painting had. It's the first time he's ever finished not feeling drained of whatever stuck with him, and it's too much.
He must fall asleep again because he's sat on the floor one moment, looking at the painting, and gentle touches are rousing him the next.
Zayn's shaking on top of the debris he's left, but he isn't alone. Louis's holding his face gently and kissing him, and Harry's wrapped his arms around, and they quiet his apologies and give some of their own. They should have known. They shouldn't have brought Zayn into the middle of it.
"But I want to be," Zayn says. He doesn't know until he says it.
No one says anything for some time after that. No one needs to.
From the gallery booklet (whole piece):
The centrepiece of our exhibition, Triptych is simultaneously the most inviting and least accessible of Zayn Malik's pieces. Initially created as separate works representing different parts of the artist's life, the three paintings were combined for their début show. The work itself is finished, but when Malik was asked for the context his life would provide, he said, "I don't talk about works in progress."