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hold without touch

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Bartending on quiet nights really sucks. Sad, lonely people come in to drown their sorrows, and people who get stood up always end up at the bar looking for comforting words. And it's all so awkward. And Zayn hates awkward. He's not good at listening to people's problems. Or listening. Or people. He's probably the worst bartender to ever live. Louis actually tells him this on a daily basis. Only for different reasons.

"Dude, you should be having more sex than you can even handle," he's saying. "You're pretty much a disgrace to bartenders everywhere."

"I don't have time for 'more sex than I can handle'," Zayn points out for the millionth time.

"Yeah, whatever, you have school and work and blah blah blah. I'd still make time to get me some magical disco stick. If you know what I'm saying." He winks at him. Zayn wonders, not for the first time in his life, how one person could be so extremely lacking in subtlety.

"Everyone knows what you're saying, Louis. Also: eww."

*

It's kind of unfortunate that Louis's there when Liam comes in the first time.

Louis looks across at him interestedly when he sits down. But not his usual kind of interested.

"What can I get you?" Zayn says before he's wrong and Louis actually does decide to make some kind of lewd advances on the poor guy.

"Um, diet Coke? I don't drink," he says.

"Why are you here then?" He probably sounds more judgmental than he intends to.

He doesn't seem to notice though. "I'm in a band. Had to speak to the manager about our booking."

"So now you're just hanging around?" Maybe Louis has a point about the worst bartender ever thing.

Liam just keeps politely explaining everything. Even though he doesn't have to.

"My bandmates are practically zombies right now. We've kind of been stuck in a van together for the last couple months. All they do is sleep and then wake up to destroy each other at Mario Kart. I need some real human interaction or I'll go mental."

Zayn's about to tell him he isn't sure he's the best person for that.

But then Louis's saying loudly, "Oh, Zayn is great at that. I mean, he has to be, doesn't he?" And he laughs like it's the funniest thing anyone's ever said.

Liam looks kind of strangely at Louis but then he smiles at Zayn and Zayn just swallows anything he was about to say.

Louis pats him on the back encouragingly, like he's done him a huge favour, and takes off.

*

"So you're playing here?" Zayn's asking, wiping down a glass.

"Yeah, on Friday."

"Should be busy then. I mean, if you guys are any good..."

"We're okay," Liam says shrugging, taking a sip of his diet Coke.

"Well, we'll see, won't we?" He gives him a half-smile that's more earnest than any of the ones he usually gives to patrons.

Liam smiles back, looking kind of surprised, and he says, "Yeah," like it's some kind of challenge.

*

He comes around the next few days after that. He jokes that he's keeping Zayn company. It's funny because Liam's the one actually craving company, and Louis grabs Liam by the shoulders the second night when he stops by and says, like it's some huge, terrible revelation in a soap-opera or something, "Zayn doesn't like people."

Liam lets out an exaggerated gasp.

"It's true though," Zayn says mournfully, like it's an incurable disease. "I just have to try to...soldier on."

"But he likes you though," Liam says turning to Louis, like he's really trying to understand this. Like Zayn's some kind of enigma he's desperate to figure out.

"No, common misconception. I just haven't figured out how to kill him yet."

Louis grabs his chest at that. "You hurt my soul, Zayn. My soul."

He fakes falling off the stool and then half-drags himself out of the bar.

"Wow," Liam says when he's gone.

"Yeah," Zayn agrees.

*

Usually, Zayn likes silences. It's how he knows if he really has a connection with someone, if they can share a comfortable silence. He hasn't met a lot of people like that though.

Liam's silences are not exactly comfortable either. He looks really jumpy, like he's about to say something or do something every other minute. But he doesn't, and then he just resigns himself to sit still for a while until it starts happening all over again. It's like he's not sure what to do, but he just wants to do something. It's like he thinks so much about things, about other people, about situations, that all his impulses just kind of rise up in a tangled mess all at once and it's hard to sort them all out.

He thinks Liam's one of those people who get more uneasy around you the longer you know them, like caring is a physical exertion on him that he can't ever ignore.

Zayn's not really great at dealing with that, with concerned looks and questions, with anxious presences. But he kind of wants to grab his hands, watch them relax on the bartop.

Zayn's not good at letting people in, but when he does, they stay there. They become a part of him. But they don't usually feel the same about him.

*

"So, why don't you drink?" he asks finally.

Liam looks ridiculously relieved.

"I mean, is it just a personal -" Zayn continues, casually, like he hasn't noticed anything.

"No," Liam says. "I mean, yeah, kind of. But I only have one kidney, and -"

"Wow, seriously?"

"Yeah." Liam laughs softly. "I mean, I can drink, but I'm not really bothered to. Just showing some solidarity with people who can't, or don't, or whatever."

"That's pretty cool, actually," Zayn says after a beat.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, I mean. I don't how you stay sane, but good for you, man."

Liam laughs louder at that, and Zayn thinks he's actually succeeded at something. He isn't sure what though.

Maybe he'll tell Louis he actually isn't the worst bartender in the world.

*

It feels oddly like fate or something stupid like that (Louis is rubbing off on him, probably) when he runs into Liam in the grocery later that night. He's in the cereal aisle, holding up a box and apparently scrutinising the nutrition facts.

He kind of thinks about turning around and walking away for a second.

Instead he says, "Hey. Are you stalking me outside of my place of work now?"

Liam looks kind of startled as he turns. He grins when he sees him though.

"Oh, hey. It's you. Thought I was the only doing the sad midnight shopper thing."

"It's a good a time as any," Zayn says, shrugging.

He walks closer to Liam, looking at the shelves. "So, what are doing here?"

"Crisps and Coke run," he explains. "For the lads."

"Oh, they haven't come out of hibernation yet?"

"Sadly, no. Good thing the gig's in the nighttime, because they'd probably melt in the sun at this point. Why are you here though? Shouldn't you be getting some beauty sleep?" He's only half-joking.

"I don't really get time to do this stuff. Between classes and the bar, I mean."

"Oh, oh. Right." He thinks maybe Liam's had a glamourised impression of his life so far. It probably should actually be the other way around, but Liam's been so self-deprecating and normal since he met him. So entirely different from any other guys in bands he's met.

It feels weird after a while, the two of them standing there staring at cereal boxes, Liam perfectly put-together in jeans and a red plaid shirt although he was probably in pajamas when he left, and Zayn in his standard black tee still smelling like smoke and sweat and spilled booze.

"You reckon the fibre content in this is legit?" Liam says, brandishing the same box he's been holding the whole time.

"Probably not. Everyone's a liar, man," he says, like he's apologising for the fact.

Liam looks down at it, says, "Yeah," quietly. He looks back up at him, as if asking, What about you? What are you?

All he feels right then is scared. But safe somehow, too. In Liam's gaze.

He feels like Liam really calms down for the first time since they met, like he's understood finally. He's understood what he can do. He's understood that he's allowed. He's allowed to just be there. And that's enough.

It's kind of hard to speak, but he has to get it all out. Before Liam leaves, or he walks away like he wanted to in the first place. Before Zayn chickens out or Liam gives in to that one tiny urge buried under all the others and leaves him alone. Before they don't get to talk to each other again.

"Hey, so I'm only doing this because I feel sorry for you, but Louis's having an early birthday party at the bar tomorrow night. You should come. And bring your bandmates. Tell them there'll be free food and booze?"

"That's a pretty good sell," Liam says, nodding.

"Only because I feel sorry for you," he reminds him.

"Right."

*

They definitely look like they haven't been out in a while. Harry's hair is a tangled mess and his eyes are bloodshot like he hasn't slept in days. Niall has what looks like soy sauce stains all over his hoodie, and he seems to be eyeing a plate of chips on a nearby table.

They get lost in the crowd soon after that. And Liam and Zayn are just left alone together.

"So how do you know Louis?" Liam asks.

"We practically grew up together," Zayn explains. It's kind of unsettling, not having a bar between them, distance with empty space and boundaries, physical or immaterial. It feels like whatever this weird thing is he has with Liam has crossed over into some new, foreign territory. He's not really sure what to expect.

"So does he go to school or...?"

"Nah, not at the moment. He says he's just taking life as it comes. Typical Louis, really."

"So what about you? What are you studying?" And it feels strange, that Zayn hasn't talked about himself much with Liam while he feels he knows a lot about him already. He guesses that's how most of his over-the-bar conversations happen. But it's different somehow, with Liam. He wants to tell him things. He wants to talk to him for hours and hours and get lost in his brown eyes. He knows that Liam will listen to all of it, in that way Zayn doesn't quite know how to listen to most people.

"I'm studying dance," he tells him.

"Oh, wow, that's really cool. I'm sure you're really good." He looks like he means it.

"I'm alright." And he usually brags more, even if he feels insecure about it sometimes, but he feels like Liam would appreciate his honesty.

"So do you want to?"

"What?"

"Show me what you can do."

And he'd also usually decline, but he feels like Liam's being brave just asking him, so he decides to be brave too.

It gets kind of ridiculous when Louis tries to insert his drunken self between them, but it's fun too, he has to admit. More fun than he's had in a long while. Liam just laughs and laughs and he can't help smiling back.

*

Liam helps him drag Louis into a cab afterwards.

"Thanks," he says when they're both standing on the pavement.

"No problem," Liam says.

Zayn watches him longer than he should as he walks down the street to meet up with his bandmates.

He goes back inside to clean up.

*

Louis is staring at one of Liam's bandmates. Harry, he thinks. With the curly hair. Zayn swears he sees his jaw actually drop. He's not surprised. Louis's always been attracted to pretty things, and Harry is definitely very pretty. Zayn looks over at Liam instead. He thinks he's kind of quietly beautiful, in that way that sneaks up on you over time. But it's the kind that lasts.

"I think I'm in love," Louis leans in to whisper dramatically.

"Of course you are," Zayn responds.

*

After their set is done, Louis practically barrels his way over to the band. Zayn can see him engrossed in some weird, animated conversation with Niall while Harry just looks on at them amusedly. He wonders if this is all some part of his master plan to woo him.

Liam spots Zayn, though, and walks over to where he's leaning against the bar.

"So, you were pretty good," Zayn says casually as he approaches.

"Oh, really, you thought so?" Liam teases him.

"Yeah, yeah."

"So, uh," Liam says, suddenly nervous, biting his lip. "Do you want to, I don't know, do something tonight?"

"I'm kind of…working right now," Zayn points out, but it's apologetic.

"Oh, right." Liam laughs kind of awkwardly, looking like he's thinking about retreating, or getting swallowed up by the earth. One of those.

"Wait," Zayn calls out when he starts walking back to the other boys.

Liam turns around, eyes wide and looking eagerly at him.

"My shift ends at ten?" he says, equally hopeful.

Liam just nods, smiling brightly.