Zayn lugged his bag behind him through the airport terminal. He released a deep breath as he looked around the familiar setting; a weight seemed to be lifting off his chest. He felt a twinge of guilt at the relief of it, but, it was good to be home.
The crowds were light, to Zayn’s relief, just the normal flow of passengers back and forward, all eager to get to or from. The fans hadn’t expected him to be arriving for a few more days; they had blessfully managed to keep his early return under wraps, even though media speculation had probably been rife since he’d boarded his flight early the previous day.
Zayn was supposed to get back later in the week, with his band, after having enjoyed some of the last of the skiing season back in New Zealand. The others had decided to stay on after the news came, deflecting attention from Zayn’s hasty departure, comforting hands on his shoulders as they wished him an uneventful, if not pleasant, flight home.
At least the tour was over; once again ending down under after a long few months of near-continuous performances. It was much easier to get back to where he was needed when he wasn’t expected on stage every night.
He texted the lads to let them know he’d landed safely; let Liam know he’d be at his in an hour or so.
Climbing into a cab waiting outside, Zayn slumped into the back seat, rubbing tired eyes with the knuckles of his thumbs.
It would be good to be home. It would. For the first time in a long time he would be home for a stretch of a couple of months. The first time in a long time he could really catch up with his friends.
One Direction hadn’t performed together in over three years by that point.
They had had a good run – two record-breaking albums, tours in more countries than Zayn could probably name off the top of his head. By the time their third album was released, just after they’d celebrated Harry’s 20th birthday, they had finally won the hard-earned respect from most of the critics who had initially criticised them as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-them hit, just another boy band to watch as they faded into obscurity. With their own words, and some added maturity, it became an album they were all proud of, and which seemed to speak to their audiences almost as much as it did to them.
But it had also been an exhausting run; they had toured almost constantly when they weren’t recording. One of the only decent breaks they had been given - in between the end of a tour and the press junket for their second album release – was also the time that Louis and Harry decided to come out to the public. The boys had all agreed to the decision; Louis and Eleanor had officially broken up almost six months before, and the entire band could feel the strain it took for Harry to not be able to display his love at any and every opportunity, for Louis to have to avoid the topic at almost every interview. It was time, and the announcement was generally well received; a backlash was felt, but it was smaller than they had dared hope, and the approaching album release had soon given fans and critics alike something to move their focus to. However, it also meant that following the announcement, a barrage of interviews were also hastily made, some for just Lou and Harry, but many involving the entire band. So that break too, was cut short.
In the end, after more than three years of mania, it was a unanimous decision for One Direction, not to split up, but to go on hiatus. After the initial hype of their third album, and the short tour which had been sold out months before, the five of them simply, well, stopped. And it was weird, but it was needed by all of them.
Not that they’d ever admit it, but a large part of the decision came out of consideration for Liam. The same break which had brought Harry and Louis’ relationship into the public eye had also been the one which had Liam get down on one knee for Danielle. The media really did have a field day those couple of month - it was almost comical how well they could predict which questions were going to be asked of them, even more so than usual.
And during the three week rest the band was given after they finished their arena tour of Australia and New Zealand, a small but lavish ceremony celebrated Liam and Danielle tying the knot. Zayn had stood at Liam’s side as best man, grin plastered onto his face with almost as much sincerity as the other lads next to him.
They were all still very young, barely adults really, and it wasn’t only the gossip rags who had voiced concern at the sensibility of such an early marriage, especially with the lifestyle attached to being one of the most popular bands in the world at the time. But if there was anything that lifestyle had forced upon all of them, when they were only fresh-faced teenagers unprepared for what was about to hit them, it was early-onset maturity. Sure they all acted like complete loons most of the time, but there was a certain responsibility, to themselves as much as anything, to not screw up this chance they had been given. And so they had grown up.
And somewhere in amongst it all, Liam had met Danielle, fallen for Danielle, loved her at least as well as any of the other married couples Zayn knew; considering those were mostly friends’ parents, that probably gave them as good a shot as any. So Zayn refused to look too closely at the squirming in his gut as his best friend quietly but confidently vowed “I do.” And while the newlyweds had managed a ten-day honeymoon in a quiet, undisclosed spot in the Mediterranean, they were able to spend little time together in the following months. Their friends’ happiness, if nothing else, was a good enough reason to postpone any more commitments for the next few months.
Of course, Larry Stylinson – the others still took great pleasure in teasing them with the nickname bestowed upon them years earlier – also leapt at the chance to revel in their own domesticity (or at least, Louis revelled in Harry being all domestic for him). Now that they were together, something which genuinely developed much later than most fangirls would ever believe, it was subtly different to the almost hilarious way they had doted on each other when they first flatted together. They too, needed some time to just be together, separate from the rest of the boys.
Niall, like Zayn, was just tired. That bone-deep tired which not even sleeping in the softest of hotel beds for twelve hours straight could fix. It wasn’t the same need that drove the other three to quiet desperation for a rest, but it was no less required. Going home to family, to friends, to their own bed and a home-cooked meal; it was a simple wish, but a keen one.
And it was only going to be for a while. Until they were well-rested and restless for more.
It wasn’t supposed to be permanent.
Zayn is jolted awake by the cab rounding a corner particularly fast; he hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but he also had never been able to sleep well on planes, so the trip and the jetlag were probably catching up on him. It was a good thing he’d woken though, he was only a few minutes from Liam’s house now.
After paying the cabbie a ridiculous fare – he had to wonder where exactly he had been taken during his nap – Zayn sat his bag on the footpath and straightened his travel-worn clothes as he mentally prepared himself. It was always a big deal for Zayn when he saw his friends after months apart; he still hadn’t gotten used to the separations after years of living out of each other’s pockets.
This time was on a whole different playing field.
When he was as ready as he ever would be, although Zayn was certain he still looked a right state, he carried his gear up to the front step. Zayn was pretty sure he still had a key somewhere to get in - a copy they’d all been given for emergencies years ago – but he wasn’t quite sure where in his bag those keys were, and he didn’t want to give Liam a fright by walking in unannounced, instead opting to rap out a rhythm on the front door.
When the door was swung open, Zayn took one look at Liam, leant his suitcase against the door frame and pulled Liam into a tight embrace. The other man – for they were men now, no longer boys, playing at greatness – sank into it, a dry sob muffled into the fabric of Zayn’s shirt.
Liam was wearing sweats and a ratty tee, holey at the hem. He seemed so small, almost shrunken in on himself, and it was strange, because it was such a long time ago, even if it was such a big moment in both their lives, and Zayn barely knew Liam at the time, but the memory of Liam after they had been kicked out of X-factor – the first time, before they were put together as a group – jumped instantly to the front of Zayn’s mind. His eyes were red-rimmed, and Zayn couldn’t really blame him for it, but Liam appeared to be out of tears, for the moment at least.
“Thanks for coming, Zayn, you know you didn’t-” Liam’s voice is rough even against Zayn’s shoulder, and the words take an obvious effort.
“Course I did. You know I did,” Zayn murmurs into Liam’s curls, his hair longer than Zayn can remember it being for a long while, and only adding to the dishevelled appearance. It also made him look so young, and it struck Zayn that they really were, at 24 they were young men, who shouldn’t have to be dealing with this sort of thing. They were supposed to be strong, invincible.
“I just- I...I saw-”
Liam couldn’t get the words out, and Zayn didn’t really need to hear them. Not just then.
“Shhh, shh. I know,” he murmured as he pressed firm and even circles into Liam’s shoulder blade with the heel of his palm. He wanted to say “It’ll be okay,” but they both knew that it would have been an empty promise and would’ve helped no-one.
Liam pulled back enough to meet Zayn’s eyes, and Zayn starts slightly at the blank terror of the brown-eyed stare. It scares him a little, because Liam has always, always been so filled with emotion, bursting with happiness and worry and mischief and a million other little sparks in his eyes. Zayn can only stare as Liam tries to make his mouth form the words he needs to explain.
“But she- Zayn, Dani’s...she’s dead.”
And maybe that’s why now, that light in Liam’s eyes has disappeared. Those emotions really did take him over, until all he could see was loss.
It broke him.
And Zayn didn’t know how to put Liam back together.
He was still floundering, trying to find some small words of comfort, when a soft cry came from a room off the hall.
Liam immediately released himself from the embrace, hands reflexively wiping his cheeks of tears which hadn’t fallen as he stepped back.
“Do you, um...do you want to take your stuff in? You can just have your usual bedroom, yeah? I’ll just, I better...” Liam gestured vaguely with his hands.
“Yeah, Li, course. I’ll just chuck on some fresh clothes and be right back, ‘kay?”
As Zayn went slowly back downstairs towards the lounge, he tried to figure out what he’s supposed to do here. Liam was his best friend, but he just looked so lost, and Zayn just had no idea how to deal with this. He wasn’t the person people turned to for this thing. Unfortunately, that was usually Liam.
So you better suck it up, Malik, and do what Liam would do for you in a heartbeat.
He knew what was going to face him when he pushed the door open, but it didn’t make it any easier.
He heard them before he saw them. Liam’s strained, but soft voice, gently murmuring “Hey, baby girl, guess who’s...who has come to visit us, hey?”
Zayn forced a cheerful smile onto his face as he rounded the corner, even as he heard the innocently curious “Mum? Mum home!”
And his eyes only flickered briefly to the pale, stricken face of his friend before they gravitated to the small being in Liam’s lap.
Wide brown eyes, carbon copies of her father’s, but surrounded by an already enviable head of tightly curled, dark locks, stare back at him.