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Drink Runner

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In every corporation, roles are well-defined, titles doled out and brandished like trophies. Not the official titles that people are hired into, sign a contract for, paid for, put into e-mail signatures or listed as bullet points in a resume. The real titles. The ones that really make someone matter - or not - in the smooth functioning of the business. And Liam Payne had a title that made him completely indispensable to his company. Liam Payne was the Byte-Sized News' Drink Run King.

On paper, he was the small British newspaper's financial reporter, using his fancy education and Business degree to monitor the London Stock Exchange and point out patterns and explain the market to their readers. He liked to sprinkle a bit of general financial advice amidst his model predictions, telling their readers to put their spare change into savings and invest in their retirement funds as soon as they got a job. He also did a bit of literary hand-holding when the economy was going down. It wasn't part of his job and really, it was probably something that would have gotten him fired from other newspapers but theirs prided themselves on selling personality in addition to news (they had to stand out somehow amidst all the competition these days and they weren't in the business of making up sensational stories).

But though he had a strong grasp on economics and a warm personality that made their readers feel like he was wrapping them in a cotton blanket and staving off unemployment and loss of income with a sword, that wasn't what he prided himself on at work.

No, it was the fact that every morning, at strictly 10 AM, he'd stand up and call time in their small bullpen and everyone would look at him with relief and hope shining in their eyes that soon, they would have their caffeinated beverages of choice to get them through until lunch.

They used to make interns and new hires take this responsibility (that's how he had gotten started) but their new intern after he had finished his internship and started working full-time was Harry Styles. Harry was extremely charming and earnest. He cared a lot about the environment and was a champion of equality - all very important qualities for the person who eventually became their paper's Community Spotlight columnist. What Harry was not, however, was graceful. During his internship, they were all lucky if he returned from the ten minute drink run to the corner Starbucks with any of their drinks intact and not spilt all over the lobby. They were all a bit relieved when he settled into his job and was no longer the most junior staff member.

Then Niall Horan started as a new hire, recently moved from Ireland, huge sports fanatic. He took on the Sports page as their former columnist was looking to try something new. Niall was a lot of fun in the office. He was always upbeat, had a lot of energy, and got along well with everyone. But that was also his downfall as a drink runner. He'd go to buy the coffee and ended up chatting with the baristas for nearly thirty-five minutes (out of his allotted daily forty-five minute break time), leaving everyone cranky and on the verge of killing each other out of caffeine-withdrawal-induced rage by the time he returned (and himself only ten minutes for lunch).

It was for the sake of morale that Caroline Watson, the paper's Editor-in-Chief, asked Liam to make his comeback as drink runner. That was two years ago and things had been running smoothly ever since. He was efficient and meticulous and he didn't mess up any orders. They still got new hires and new interns but they were never asked to make a drink run; all the veteran staff had flashbacks to the Styles and Horan Era whenever someone new even offered to get coffee for the group. No, Liam was the King of the Drink Run and it was something he was quite proud of. He loved that people relied on him for something so vital to their happiness and functional ability and that he was able to provide that for them.

They'd developed a system over the years, one that worked quite well. Liam would take everyone's orders at 10 and promptly leave at 10:05, jog over to the Starbucks which was usually fairly empty in this time between the morning and lunch rush, deliver his orders to Eleanor (who worked the weekday morning shifts), and carefully but quickly hurry back to the office to deliver everyone's drinks by 10:15.

Today, though, something was different.

Liam stood up at 10 and announced that he was taking orders. Most people had a usual but Liam always made sure to listen carefully just in case they were feeling something different that day.

"Venti half-sweet, non-fat, caramel macchiato," Caroline said first. Being Editor-in-Chief meant she got to order first.

"Tall soy skinny latte, please," Harry drawled.

"Irish coffee!" Niall shouted, his accent thicker (as usual) whenever the word 'Irish' came into play.

"Grande non-fat latte with caramel drizzled on top," Ed Sheeran, their Arts and Entertainment reviewer, requested softly.

"Venti half-caf skinny latte," Sophia Smith, their Agony Aunt, added.

So far, all was as he expected. But the hardest was yet to come.

Taking a pad of paper and a pen from his desk, he turned towards Louis Tomlinson, their senior (by a year) and lead writer, office prankster, and King of the Difficult Drink Orders. He had a different order every day and Liam was pretty sure he was trying to trip either him or Eleanor up. But Liam knew not to let conceit get the better of him. So he always wrote down Louis' order. And read it out in exactly the same way to Eleanor who would roll her eyes but hide a small smile as she put it together.

"Liam," Louis started slowly and everyone in the office braced themselves, "today I'll have a Venti iced skinny hazelnut macchiato with sugar-free syrup, an extra shot, light ice, and no whip."

Liam scribbled furiously and when he finished, his shorthand looked like: 3 ic sk hn M sfs + /ic -w. To some people, it might look like a random sequence of letters, numbers, and signs but to Liam, that was the key to a happy workplace.

He checked the time as he hustled down the stairs (much faster than waiting for the elevator and it was only three flights besides) - 10:04. He was doing good so far on time.

When he strolled into the Starbucks, it was empty (which was good) and Eleanor was talking to someone who was partially hidden behind a basket of assorted fruits (which could be interesting). When she saw that it was him, she grinned brightly and said to the other person, "Oh, good, Liam's here. Liam's one of our regulars and he orders multiple drinks for his office so he'll be a good one for you to learn from." To Liam, she said, "We've just hired someone to replace Perrie and this is his first day of training. Go easy on him."

Liam flashed her a smile. He didn't mind putting in his orders with a new employee, especially when Eleanor was supervising. She knew his regular orders just as well as he did and he had the written notes on Louis' drink.

But then Eleanor stepped back and nudged the other person forward and time seemed to stop. Because this person was gorgeous. He was slender and just a couple of inches shorter than Liam himself, with soft, shiny black hair falling in waves reaching just above his shoulders. His cheekbones were perfectly sculpted and his eyes were comprised of countless shades of brown, framed by long lashes. He was, quite simply, mesmerizing. He flashed Liam a bright smile, teeth pearly white, pink tongue pressed up against them.

"Morning," the man said, voice sultry and soft. "I'm Zayn. What would you like to order?"

"I'd like -" Liam started and then froze when he drew a blank. "Oh God, I forgot!" He clasped his hands over his face, mortified.

Eleanor snorted and when he peeked between his fingers to glare at her, he saw that Zayn's soft, pink lips were twisted a bit in mild amusement.

"Performance anxiety? It's okay, it happens to all of us once in awhile."

"What?" he spluttered, flushing when his mind jumped to the entirely inappropriate kind of 'performance anxiety.' "No!" He racked his brain desperately, but all he could think of was Zayn watching him, probably thinking that Liam was an idiot. "This has never happened before, I swear," he said when he finally looked up. Why was he still so useless around beautiful boys? He was a twenty-three year-old uni-graduated full-time employee who lived in his own flat and paid his own bills and yet a beautiful face still got him completely tongue-tied.

Zayn nodded, looking like he truly believed Liam and had all the time in the world to wait for him to remember his orders.

But he couldn't. It was all just gone. He glanced up at the clock and paled when he saw that four minutes had already passed. With each tick of the second hand, he could see his title, his pride and joy, floating away.

Eleanor finally stepped up with a roll of her eyes and said, "Don't worry, Liam. I actually do know all of the usual orders. Do you have Louis' written down?"

Liam went a bit weak in the knees in relief. "El, you're a life saver!" He dug his notepad out of his pocket and took a second to blink down at his shorthand. What did it mean again?

Just when he managed to shake himself out of his daze, Zayn spoke up again. "Oh, you work for Byte-Sized News! That's wicked!"

"Huh?" Liam asked articulately. He looked up and Zayn gestured at the letterhead on his notebook where their logo was prominently displayed. "Oh, yeah, I'm the financial reporter."

"That's really cool, mate. Numbers aren't really my thing but you make it easy to get."

"Oh, thanks," Liam said, blushing again.

"And Louis sounds like a riot. His commentaries of the day's big news stories are hilarious," Zayn added enthusiastically.

"Yeah, Louis is really something," Liam said, beating down a flare of jealousy. He had nothing to be jealous of. Zayn was totally in his right to admire Louis' ability to report the news and scathingly comment on how matters were being handled. It was his big personality they were relying on to sell papers and get Twitter followers. It was why he got the nice big corner desk right next to Caroline's office (though Liam suspected that that was also so that Caroline could better keep an eye on him to cut off any shenanigans before they got too messy). "Anyway," he said, gathering himself and making himself try to sound a bit more suave than he had been presenting as, "he wants a venti iced skinny hazelnut macchiato with sugar-free syrup, an extra shot, light ice, and no whip."

Zayn's eyes widened.

"Yeah," Liam said. "He always makes up these combinations. I have no idea what they taste like or if he even drinks it."

"We're pretty sure he's just trying to trip us up," Eleanor chimed in with a fond grin. "But Liam and I have got this down pat." She raised one hand up for a high five and Liam grinned at her and met it firmly. "Come on, my young padawan. I will teach you how to use the Force."

Liam snorted when Zayn saluted her and followed her over to the counter with the various coffee ingredients. He threw a wink over his shoulder at Liam. Hmm, did that mean there was some possibility there?

He got so lost making small talk with Zayn as he moved around making the drinks to Eleanor's specifications that he didn't even realize it was 10:20 until his phone rang. He frowned when he saw that it was the office and turned away to answer.

"Liam!" Louis shrilled hysterically. "Thank god you're alive! Are you okay? Are you lying in a ditch somewhere with a broken leg? Do we need to mobilize the rescue team?"

Liam rolled his eyes. "I'm fine, Tommo. What do you want?"

"What? Can't a friend and co-worker be concerned when someone is five minutes late getting back with coffee?"

"I'll be back soon, you dolt."

"Well, hurry up. It's a madhouse in here! And you know I get separation anxiety." Then the line went dead in typical Louis fashion.

Liam turned back and saw Zayn eyeing him curiously and he winced, wondering if Zayn could hear Louis' shrieking across the counter. "Just work."

"Oh, here, the drinks are almost all done," Zayn said hurriedly, sliding a four-cup container towards him.

"No worries, take your time." Spotting something scribbled on one of the cups, Liam picked it up and saw that Zayn had labeled Niall's cup with a little graffiti style scrawl. He checked the other cups and they were all similarly labeled. "Wow, did you do all this?"

Zayn looked over shyly and bit his lip. "Yeah, 's just something I like to do."

"It's amazing! And you must have done it so quickly too!"

"Thanks, mate."

"Did you study art?"

"Actually, yeah. Just graduated. Couldn't find a job so I'm working here for now."

"Oh, well, I'm sure you'll find something soon. You've got a lot of talent."

Zayn mumbled another thanks and turned away, light blush riding high on his cheeks.

A few minutes later, he slid another container with two more drinks in it towards Liam.

"Wait. What do you want?" Zayn asked.

"I'll get a tall latte, please."

Zayn paused, as if waiting for the add-ons. "That's it?" he asked when Liam didn't say anything else.

"I'm a simple guy." Which was only kind of a lie. And Eleanor's skeptical arched look behind Zayn silently called him out on it but (luckily) she didn't rat him out. He really didn't need the pumps of vanilla and the caramel drizzle today.

Zayn's grin brightened. "Brilliant! That's one I actually know how to make." Which was exactly what Liam had been banking on. When he turned away to start making the drink, Liam pulled a face at Eleanor and mouthed 'please don't tell him' to which she squinted and gestured that he owed her one.

She rang him up and he swiped his card and by the time his payment was authorized, his drink was ready and sitting in the to-go container. "Tell my brat of a bestie that I hope he chokes on his sugar-free syrup," Eleanor said with drily. "And that it's his turn to pick up dinner tonight."

Liam laughed and picked up both drink containers. "Alright. Thanks, El. Good to meet you, Zayn. I'll see you both soon!"

When he got back to the office, he saw that Zayn had scribbled his name on his cup in cursive and dotted the 'i' with a little heart.

If he started spending an extra five minutes getting their coffee every morning, well, he only needed thirty minutes for lunch anyway. And no one seemed bothered by it. Except for Louis, who wouldn't stop moaning about the coffee barista stealing their paper's financial expert. But not even Louis' dramatics could bring him down when at the end of the week, he went home with an empty coffee cup that had a batman logo drawn around his name and a phone number under that signed with a simple '- Z ;)'.