The morning the news breaks, he wakes up to ten messages and the worst hangover he's ever had.
The first one makes no sense, because it's not him who's leaving, damn it, even though he feels like something's missing from him, something he needs to function at the most basic level, something vital to his very being. But it's not about him. None of it's about him at the end of the day, so there shouldn't be condolences and 'Do you need to talk?'s and 'Call me anytime' from the fucking gaffer and Niall's poor attempt at cheering him up ('Can't wait to see his face when we're lifting Big Ears') and Louis saying 'Sorry, mate, I know what he meant' like he knows, like he knows anything — but then he hears the rest, 'to the club' and oh, right. The club. Of course. It's funny how you can give everything you have to one thing for most of your life, but it can cease to matter in seconds when something else comes along. And it's unfair, and stupid, and fucked-up. Because Zayn has everything he's always wanted, but yet he feels like he's been left with nothing. It's all been taken, overnight.
The second thing makes more sense, because he'd gotten drunker than he'd ever been, and Liam had come to take him home, because fucking Louis can't mind his fucking business and had called him. And maybe he'd screamed at him on the street (fuck you, fuck you, we were supposed to do this together) and then tried to hit him and slipped and fell on the pavement. And then Liam had pulled him up and he'd leaned against a lamppost, out of breath, Liam's hand still fisted in his jacket. And maybe Liam didn't move away, just said soothing things into his ear, and maybe Zayn's eyes had fallen shut as he kissed Liam's cheek, then jaw, then mouth —
It's kind of the worst way it could have ever happened.
Because Liam's flying to Spain tomorrow to do a medical, to sign a contract, to wear a different shirt that'll look so, so wrong on him, to play for another club that's not his, not theirs, not with him.
Yeah, it's definitely the worst way.
So, yeah, he should have seen it coming. He did, a long time ago. It's just — it's the business they're in. It's how their world works. People don't get attached to things or if they do, they don't stay attached for very long. People change and move on and let go. And these legs, these careers, they have an expiry date that looms over all of them regardless of age, and you have to do what you can to make the most out of the time you have. So it's always been there, the threat, the anxiety.
Maybe the first time he really feels it, this palpable sense of foreboding, is when Liam's nineteen and he gets called up for England. He's happy for him, of course he is, but it's the first realisation that this is bigger than him, than them and their boyhood club, that maybe all the things they dreamed about, all the things they'd stay up all night talking about, were actually within their grasp. And that's actually fucking terrifying.
He's not jealous, he's really not. Mostly he's just terrified of getting left behind.
It never goes away, that feeling. And then it's five years later, and he's on the TV giving a press conference, and all his worst fears come true.
The season ends, and it's disappointing to not have any silverware, a fourth-place finish in the league. There's the usual talk, about how although their partnership continues to thrive, maybe there isn't enough quality in the side overall. How maybe they need to seek better prospects elsewhere.
And Liam starts taking it seriously this time.
And God, he knew something was happening, of course he knew. Lots of meetings and calls to his agent and — fuck, maybe he's just been in denial these past few weeks. So it basically blindsides him when Liam tells him.
"Are you serious right now?" Zayn says, actually confused, and he's about to spit out so many things that are on the tip of his tongue that he thought he'd never have to say, that were supposed to be understood, that we're rebuilding, and there'll be new talent next season, and we'll sort out the kinks, just be patient, it'll happen, it'll all happen in time —
Liam cuts him off though.
"It's not — it's not about us. It's not about the team. It's about me."
"Are you really going to be selfish right now?" And it's harsh, he knows that, because Liam hasn't been selfish about anything in his life, but he can't let this go without a fight.
"I just — I can't. I can't just keep waiting. Waiting without knowing —"
"Without knowing? We never know. You think you'll know what's going to happen somewhere else? If you want security, safety —"
"I should stay right here?" Liam asks skeptically. "Maybe I don't want that. Maybe I want a risk. Because risks have chances of paying off sometimes."
It's pretty much a slap in the face.
"You're really going to do this — do this to us, to me —?"
"I don't — I don't want to hurt you." And it's earnest, painfully so, like Liam always is.
"But you will," Zayn says, a sick smile on his face.
"Not if you come with me," and fuck, it's like a physical blow to the chest, the way he means it so completely, the way he's looking so, so hopeful. And it's the first time he's actually sounded desperate for Zayn to understand him.
The words almost hurt as they come to the surface.
"I can't. You know that."
Liam nods kind of stiffly.
"Yeah, of course," he says, almost to himself. And maybe there's an ounce of regret in his voice, just for a second.
But then it's gone. "I'll see you around, Zayn."
And it's cold, and distant, and maybe this is just preparation for the physical divide that will be between them (but it's worse, far, far worse). Maybe he means tomorrow or next month (they're supposed to be going on holiday together; it's ridiculous how things can change so dramatically within a minute or two) or next season when they could be standing on different sides of a tunnel waiting to walk on the pitch to play against each other...
Liam turns and walks away.
People talk about their partnership like it's magic. And maybe it is. Maybe it's always been, since they were eight years old and tearing up the opposition at school or at the park or in the streets. Maybe their relationship, on and off the pitch, has always had a slightly otherworldly quality.
Zayn always thinks it's weird, how fast they became so close. One minute Liam was just that kid who had insane skills with a ball and who was the best player he knew apart from himself and then they were spending every waking minute together.
They've always been different but they always cared about the same things. Zayn was kind of off-putting to the other kids and everyone loved Liam so he'd help him get into their good graces. Liam was kind of horrible at English so Zayn would read books to him at night until he fell asleep. Then there was football, which belonged to both of them individually, but became so much more when it was theirs.
They went through the ranks together, eventually became good friends with Niall too. Louis...just sort of happened. Zayn still describes him as a parasite. But he was loud and wild and funny in high school, so the athletic kids liked hanging out with him. Zayn likes nothing better than mocking his 'film career' these days though. Apart from Liam, Louis knows him best.
And now, Liam's gone. Maybe for good.
He calls Niall first though. He kind of relishes in his abuse of Liam for a while, then feels guilty, then gets mad at himself for feeling guilty. After Niall thoroughly vilifies him without much comment from Zayn, throwing in an extra 'traitor' at the end for good measure, he pauses. Then he says, "I'll miss that fucking bugger though."
"Yeah," Zayn agrees.
He starts composing a ridiculously lengthy text to him:
i'm sorry. i shouldn't have acted like an asshole. but you should have...you should have told me or something man. before. you should have said. you should have talked to me, you should have asked me...but it's not my decision. yeah yeah. you're right. it's about you. i should say good luck but maybe i don't mean it. but i always mean it. i always...i always want you to do well, you know that. i just wished. i wished you could do well with me. so yeah that's it. i'll miss you.
He deletes all of it but the first two words.
He's not sure what he's sorry for, sorry for not being supportive, sorry that he can't be supportive, he can't, sorry he's leaving, sorry he couldn't do more to make him stay, sorry he can't tell him all the reasons he should stay, sorry he never said all the things he's always wanted to, sorry he won't have the chance now. Sorry they never — sorry they can't ever now.
Sorry for broken things and incomplete hearts and having everything you ever wanted but wanting more, more, always more.
He wakes up to his reply.
i'm sorry too
Louis is seriously the worst person to drink your problems away with. Or the best. He's not sure. For one, he won't shut up. And two, he expects you to actually talk about your problems while you're drinking them away. Which probably makes no logical sense. But then again, Louis and logic don't exactly mix.
"Who are you gonna cuddle with while watching X Factor now?" he says, dramatically pretending to wipe away tears.
"Not you, for sure," Zayn says, reaching for another shot.
"Oh, like I would want to. But speaking of cuddling, you never gave me that hot physio's number."
"Who, Harry?" Zayn says, trying not to laugh. "He's way too good for you."
"How is he too good for me?" Louis asks, looking genuinely baffled.
"Um, he's smart? Good-looking? Cool?"
"Ouch, man. You're actually hurting my feelings. I can see why Liam left you now..."
He takes one look at Zayn's face though and quickly says, "Oh, fuck, I didn't mean — I didn't, I swear —"
Zayn starts laughing kind of maniacally then though. Louis apparently takes this as a sign that something is really, dreadfully wrong with him.
So, because he's Louis and he can't leave things alone and he thinks people should face things head-on for some bizarre reason instead of running away the way Zayn's usually fond of, he calls Liam.
He actually starts laughing when he ends up on the pavement, tries to pull himself up. When Liam helps him, he says, "You're such an asshole, such an asshole —" Slurred and over and over. Liam just sorts of rolls his eyes. He's definitely seen his share of drunk Zayn. When he's propped up against the post, he asks, in a long drawl, "Why are you leaving me?"
Liam studies him for a second before he shakes his head. "I'm not leaving you. I'll never leave you. It doesn't have to change anything. I still — You're still my best friend. And I — I love you. It doesn't have to change."
"I love you too," Zayn says, and Liam looks like he's caught off-guard for a second, because Zayn doesn't just say things like that. But it feels right. He's drunk and slightly delirious, but he looks at Liam and is completely aware, and he wants to — he wants to open up and bare his soul to him then and there. Wants him to see all the pieces he's kept covered up. But because he's always been better at doing rather than saying, he leans up and presses his mouth to Liam's cheek.
Liam lets out a soft gasp but he leans in to the touch.
His lips trail down to his jawline, pressing kisses everywhere, and there's a part of his brain screaming he'll regret it, but Liam's not pushing him away and as long as he doesn't, Zayn's not going to stop —
Liam's lips part before Zayn's touch them. It's a half-kiss, just testing the waters, but then Liam's hand grips the back of his neck and he pulls him in to kiss him for real, full and hot and breathy and maybe Zayn's been thinking about this since they were ten years old but it's still better than his wildest dreams.
So, it doesn't change anything. He's still leaving.
But — but he kissed back. But he wanted it too, he wanted Zayn, and fuck, maybe that's the only thing he's ever really wanted to know in his life, the only thing that matters.
But he left too. He didn't stay, and Zayn woke up alone to hear the news.
It's kind of insanely messed-up. It'd probably be funny if it wasn't actually happening to him at that exact time, if the only person he thinks he'd ever really be happy with wasn't moving away from him and everything he loves, if that person didn't happen to feel the same way about him too.
Zayn doesn't leave his flat all day and the next morning Liam calls.
"Hey, how about you give me a ride to the airport?" It's not really a question.
They don't really say much during the journey.
When they stop though, Liam takes a deep breath before placing his hand over Zayn's on the gearshift.
Zayn startles a little at the touch, forces himself to calm down, closing his eyes for a second before opening them.
"What are we doing?" he asks, a little mournfully.
"I don't know," and Liam's smiling but looking like he's about to be sick at the same time.
"I don't want you to go. Not now," he says, because he has to.
"I — I keep thinking about the other night, and the more I do, the more I feel like I dreamt it, like I made it up in my head," he says, rambling, but choking up a little at the end. "Like it was my subconscious telling me to stay."
"Would you stay? If it was that?" Zayn says quietly.
"No," Liam says, shaking his head, looking like he's about to cry but still smiling through it. "Because I've been having dreams like that for as long as I can remember."
Zayn makes a tiny, involuntary sound that's almost one of pain. He feels Liam's grip on his hand tighten.
"So... So if I'd done that a couple weeks ago..."
"It's not — It's not all on you. I was an idiot. I should've — I shouldn't have given up."
"On us. I just — It's hard even being around you sometimes, knowing we can't —"
"Maybe this is better then," he says, voice tense. He's starting to close up again, putting his own distance between them this time, and Liam can sense it.
"God, Zayn, it's not like that. You know that. I just need some time to think."
"You don't have to do that in another country though."
"I said — I said before that nothing has to change. Well, it has changed, and maybe that's good. I mean...there's still some time before pre-season. And — and Spain's not that far away."
"Are you saying —" Zayn starts, barely processing what he's hearing.
"I'm saying maybe we can try...to make it work?" It's like he trying to convince himself as well as Zayn.
Zayn laughs kind of hollowly. "That's probably a terrible idea, you know."
"Yeah, I know. It's a really awful one."
"It won't be easy," Zayn says bluntly.
"It's worth it though."
"Yeah," he agrees. Zayn looks at him properly then, not holding back anything, knowing everything he feels is written all over his face but being okay with it.
Their hands are still intertwined when Liam leans over to kiss him, slowly and gently. It's like a lifetime's worth of confessions and promises and emotions poured into one moment.
It's not the end. They don't say goodbye.
Zayn lets go of his hand.