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Football players don't associate with the marching band.

It's a rule of the school that everyone follows, but of course, it's unspoken. Nobody wants to get told off by a teacher for making trouble, so they just stay away from each other. It's not like they live in some sort of Glee universe where jocks throw slushies on people and nobody reprimands them. They just ignore each other, though if nobody's looking the jocks are all too happy to go for a shove or a sneer in the hallway.

All of those miscreants sit together at lunch. Normally Niall wouldn't lump a whole group of people together like that, but the footie players do make it a habit to be complete dicks to all the people in marching band. And as Niall is in marching band, they don’t spare him from their mockery whatsoever.

Niall's never been intentionally mean to someone a day in his life, but those thugs tempt him, they really do. If his growth spurt had come with muscles instead of simply lengthening his wiry frame, he totally would tell them off, too.

As it is, though, mostly he just hides behind Liam and uses him as a shield of sorts. Liam's got actual arm muscles and things, and a glare that could curdle milk, and this way of looking at you like you're scum on his shoe. The footie players don't tend to mess with Liam, so it's a nice bonus that he's Niall's best friend.

It's because he's Niall's best friend that he informs Niall that one of the footie players is looking at him while they're all scarfing down sandwiches.

"He hasn't looked away for ten minutes," Liam says around a mouthful of turkey and bread. "I timed him."

"Course you did, you freak," Louis says cheerfully from across the table. "Is it the new kid?"

"Mhmm," is Liam's response after he gives Louis a condemning look. His looks don't ever tend to affect Louis, though. "Maybe he doesn't realize staring at band kids isn't allowed."

"He's definitely just staring at Niall, though," Harry says curiously, sending the football table a contemplative look from beside Louis. Niall can tell without looking that they're holding hands under the table. It's disgustingly cute and on days where Niall's feeling his most single, he thinks about breaking all their fingers . "I thought at first he was looking at you, Li, but when you threw your trash away he didn't even blink."

"Is he cute?" Niall asks without much thought. The others all know he's gay, and besides, they know he's not asking because he's interested. Being gay and into one of the footie players is just asking to get beat up in the bathroom, and Niall's not really into that, thank you very much.

"Gorgeous," Louis relays without flinching. "I can see his eyelashes from here."

Niall attempts to casually look over to the table and freezes as his gaze is caught by the boy the others are obviously talking about. He's wearing a varsity jacket and chinos, and Louis's right, his eyelashes are insane. He's also got cheekbones that could cut glass and his skin tone is much deeper than Niall's. He is indeed gorgeous, and Niall has to push away thoughts of what his skin might look like spread over Niall's, contrasting with his pale hands or arms or stomach.

"Holy fuck," he murmurs, not looking away. "Has he got a name?"

"Cher?" Harry says immediately, tilting his chair back on two legs to shoot the girl at the table behind them a bright smile. Cher's a cheerleader but she's got a soft spot for Harry and his friends. "You know the name of the new kid?"

"Hey Hazza," Cher smiles at him. "The one on the footie squad? Something foreign, Zayn, I think." She leans back over to her own table, conferring with her fellow cheerleaders before turning back to speak to Harry again. "Zayn Malik."

"Zayn Malik," Harry repeats, giving her another bright smile. "Thanks, Cherbear."

"No problem. Want my apple?"

"Course." Harry accepts the apple she offers and immediately hands it to Louis. "His name's Zayn Malik," he tells the table as a whole.

"He's still looking at me," Niall mumbles, tilting his head. His eyebrows raise as the other boy seems to notice that Niall's looking back at him. Dark eyes widen and he turns to the boy sat next to him, nudging him. As Niall watches, Zayn bobs his head in Niall's general direction, apparently asking who he is. The boy he's speaking to shoots Niall a cursory glance before laughing and informing Zayn with wild gesticulations before turning back to his mates.

To Niall's surprise, rather than accept that and continue eating, the boy - Zayn, his mind helpfully supplies - appears irritated, then looks back at Niall. Their eyes lock again and then, so quickly Niall almost doesn't believe it happens, Zayn jerks his head toward the boy next to him, and rolls his eyes.

He's not really sure how to respond for a moment. Finally, though, his lips curl into a smile, and he shrugs his shoulders. That's just how it is around here, and Zayn will probably realize that soon enough.

As it is, though, Zayn just returns his smile, then turns back to his lunch.

"Well," Liam says quietly, startling Niall. When Niall looks at him, his eyes are wide, and he looks vaguely impressed. "I think things are about to get very interesting around here, boys."

As he glances back toward the beautiful boy at the football table, Niall's inclined to agree.

--

"I can't find out any more about your boyfriend," Louis announces in a disgruntled tone, sliding into his seat next to Niall at their biology table.

Niall blinks, beyond confused. "Sorry," he says slowly. "My what?"

"Your mystery man!" Louis exclaims. "Me and Harry decided that calling him by his actual name is too incriminating, so he's your boyfriend now. Though I do like mystery man..." He falls into a contemplative silence.

For his part, Niall just frowns curiously at him. "Are you drunk?"

Louis snorts, startled out of his reverie. "Course not, it's a Tuesday. Have you had any more moments with him?"

"That wasn't a moment!" Niall protests. "It was just two people having a conversation with their eyes across a crowded lunch hall." He lets the smile lurking at his lips burst free with a giggle he can't suppress. "It was totally a moment wasn't it?"

"I expected you two to be making out in a dark corner by now," Louis confirms. "I'll take that as there have been no further moments, then?"

"No." Niall sighs in disappointment. "Haven't even seen him again. Starting to think we just had a mass hallucination."

"Class!" Mrs. Minogue calls for all of them to settle down, which they do slowly. "We have a new student today, so I would appreciate it if you could all at least act like you're not delinquents."

"Is this still a hallucination?" Louis asks in a murmur as the subject of their discussion walks through the door. Zayn looks bored, but unsure of himself underneath that. He's got an iron grip on the strap of his bag, which is crossing across his chest and pulling up his shirt a little in a way Niall definitely doesn't pay attention to.

"This is Zayn Malik," Mrs. Minogue introduces. "He's new so I know you'll all be perfectly nice to him, won't you?" The look on her face promises painful punishment to anyone who disobeys. "Where are you coming from, Zayn?" she asks cheerfully.

Zayn shifts on his feet, obviously uncomfortable with how everyone in the room is staring at him. "Bradford," he mumbles finally.

"Lovely!" the teacher exclaims. Zayn shoots a skeptical look her way and Niall muffles a snort of laughter which has that lovely face immediately swinging his way. Zayn's eyes widen as they settle on Niall, and it seems like he might smile, until Mrs. Minogue grasps his arm tightly and gestures that he should sit at the table beside Niall and Louis's. His partner is a mild-mannered kid Niall sees around but doesn't know the name of, and Zayn sits there without further comment.

"Now, we're working on molecular structure." Mrs. Minogue's voice sharpens as she returns to strict teacher mode. "Everyone get out paper and a writing utensil to take notes."

Niall uses the pretense of digging through his bag to exchange incredulous looks with Louis. Louis mouths, 'Wow,' at him, and Niall mimes a wolf-whistle. A tap on his shoulder startles him as he pulls a pen out. Even though from the angle it could only be one person, it still startles him to turn and see Zayn looking at him quizzically.

He swallows a few times before speaking. "Yeah?"

"Have you got a pencil I could borrow?" he asks. His accent is strong and his voice rich. Niall thinks he's almost in love. So distracted is he that he barely realizes it's an actual question.

"Er," he says intelligently. He goes digging through his bag again, almost frantic until Louis shoves a pencil into his hand and pinches him just below the ribs. "Yes!" he exclaims, turning and handing it to Zayn. Their fingers touch. It sends what feels like electric shocks up Niall's spine.

"Thanks." Zayn smiles at him. It's lazy and grateful and fuck, Niall is way too hot right now.

"Not a problem." His voice is strained but Zayn just turns back to the front, beginning to take notes. The smile lingers on his face.

"Holy shit, Nialler," Louis murmurs. "How in the hell is he interested in you?"

Niall has no idea and no answer, but he's grateful all the same.

--

"I kind of want to fuck him now," Harry says, impressed. This earns him a shove from Louis, but he just grins wider. "Seriously, though, he is way into you."

"Who's into Niall?" The voice comes from behind them, but none of them jump.

"Hey, Aiden," Liam greets as Aiden swings a chair around to sit with them. Aiden's the aide for their actual band teacher, but Mr. Cardle's out sick, so they've all formed groups to converse in.

"Is Cardle actually home sick or is he just all fucked out and unable to move?" Louis asks, taking obvious pride in how Aiden's cheeks flush. "You've got to be gentle with him, his old bones can't handle so much stimulation."

"Twenty-seven is not old!" Aiden protests. He's still blushing and his glasses are falling crooked on his nose. He doesn't actually need them, but he thinks they make him look cool. "He's got a stomach bug or something." He shrugs. "I dunno."

"Don't act like you didn't call him at home until he told you exactly what was wrong," Harry teases.

"Or like you didn't offer to make him soup and take it over there," Louis adds.

Niall grins at the steadily increasing color in Aiden's face. "Did you tell him to get plenty of fluids? Or did you just offer him a fluid of your own?" He's pretty proud of that one, and it earns him a pat on the back from Louis.

"Why do I hang out with any of you? Apart from Liam," Aiden amends when Liam gives him a very offended look. "I like Liam."

"Not as much as you like Mr. Cardle." Louis prods Aiden's shoulder.

"Matt and I are not-"

He's cut off as the others whoop with laughter.

"Oh, he's Matt now?" Louis asks in delight. "Do you call him that while you're-?"

"So!" Aiden exclaims loudly, interrupting him. "What were you talking about when I got here, who's into Niall?"

"The new kid," Harry says before Niall can formulate a response. "He's on the football team but he's totally sweet on Niall. He stares at him loads."

"He is not sweet on me!" Niall can feel himself blushing. "He just... He does stare an awful lot." He's smiling again.

"He obviously wants you." Louis flutters his eyelashes at Niall. "Last time someone stared at me that way, Harry forced himself on me in a supply closet."

"It's not forcing if you beg for it," Harry replies, barely reacting to Louis's casual discussion of their sex life.

"You two are ridiculous," Liam says loudly. He's blushing now, too, so the ratio of people who are blushing to people who aren't has shifted quite a bit. "Have you talked to him? Actual talking, not just giving him a pencil?" he asks Niall.

"Nope. Haven't seen him since Bio. If I don't see him in my next class, that's all I've got with him." Niall frowns. He's not sure why he'd really like Zayn to be in his English class. Maybe it's because he doesn't actually have friends in that class, or because he's curious about this football player who doesn't seem to follow the rules. He's not sure, but he does know he really hopes Zayn's in his English class.

"And lunch," Louis reminds him. "You two can stare longingly at each other across the cafeteria."

"Don't be stupid," Niall rebukes. He fixes his gaze on Aiden. "What d'you think, Aidey?"

"I think if he wants to stay on the footie team he'll not be so blatant about it, at least." Aiden looks a mix of sympathetic and solemn. He knows how the school hierarchy works. "But the teenage part of me really wants him to just up and snog you in the middle of class."

Niall squawks in indignation and ignores the hot spike of interest in his stomach. They're being stupid, that's all. Just stupid.

--

"I don't know if he really understands how this school works," Liam says, fiddling with the radio dial. Niall watches with amusement, wondering at how Liam’s had this car for over a year and still doesn’t know how to get the knobs to work. He's been driving Niall home since he was old enough to have a parking spot of his own at the school, and this happens every day. "Maybe it's different in Bradford."

"Maybe," Niall accepts. "I hope he keeps on, though. Unlikely, but I do hope."

"I just don't want your feelings to be hurt if he goes along with their way of thinking." Liam huffs, giving up on the radio. "It's a lot easier to go along with the majority than to stand up for yourself. I mean, he's obviously interested, but if he is gay and on the footie team, that's already a giant obstacle, and then you're a band geek..."

"Trust me, I know." Niall absently passes a hand over the case holding his tuba . It's jammed uncomfortably between his knees and he's grateful yet again to have a friend like Liam. It'd be hell getting this on and off the bus. "I don't know, it's not like he's even talked to me. Just stared a lot and borrowed a pencil from me. It wasn't even my pencil."

"Still, best to be prepared and all that," Liam advises. He takes a sharp turn, causing Niall to grip the seatbelt tightly. Driving with Liam is always an adventure. "If he starts shoving you against lockers or tripping you, just tell me and I'll kill him."

"You won't kill him, you're all anti-violence," Niall mumbles, but it made him smile nonetheless. "You're a good mate."

Liam sniffs, a soft red showing on the cheek Niall can see. "Yeah, well. Nobody gets to treat you like that."

"Getting ahead of yourself," Niall reminds him. "We've had one barely-conversation. I doubt he even knows my name."

"You like him, though," Liam says softly. "I can tell you do. You go all dreamy-eyed, like you were over that foreign exchange student last year."

"So I think he's cute." Niall shrugs. "It's not a crime. You get the same way over Louis ." He only remembers they're not supposed to talk about that when Liam swerves and nearly hits a squirrel. "Sorry!" he exclaims. "Sorry, I - forgot. Sorry," he adds again.

"My fault," Liam manages, his face now bright with embarrassment. "You just startled me."

"Still, we agreed we weren't talking about that." Niall's pretty sure he's the only one who knows about Liam's thing for Louis. Harry definitely doesn't, too focused on Louis and Louis's so busy flirting with everyone that he probably doesn't notice Liam's abysmal attempts to flirt back which, to be honest, is probably a good thing.

Liam lifts a shoulder and then drops it apathetically. "It's not like I'm very good at hiding it," he says, obviously uncomfortable. "I'm surprised he hasn't said anything about it himself, really."

"He's Louis," Niall says, which is enough of an explanation. Liam sighs and nods before returning to fiddling with the radio dial, a blatant request for Niall to change the subject, so he returns to their previous topic. "I'm not too worried about Zayn. I've only known him the day, and even that doesn't really count as knowing him, I just think he's hot. If he's a dick, it won't break my heart or anything."

"Good," Liam says firmly, pulling into Niall's driveway. "Best to keep it that way. See you tomorrow?"

"Unless you wanna come in," Niall offers hopefully. "Mum made biscuits yesterday and there should still be some left."

Liam looks sorely tempted. "I've got maths..." he trails off.

"I'll help," Niall assures, perking up. He's no good at maths and Liam knows it, but he's earnest and he loves spending time with Liam, so he hopes he'll ignore that.

It seems to have worked, because Liam breaks into a smile and checks the time. "Yeah, I'll text mum and let her know I'll be a bit late, then." He turns off the ignition. "But these had better be some good biscuits. And don't you dare help me with maths."

"Deal!" Niall grins at him, throwing the door to the car open and lugging his tuba out. He'll practice after Liam leaves. "Cardle's supposed to be back tomorrow, right? So we'll need the first six bars done?"

"First eight bars," Liam corrects, grabbing his bag from the backseat. "And yeah, he's back tomorrow. Aiden's quite pleased." A smile is lurking on Liam's lips.

"You make fun of him inside where nobody can laugh and that's not fair," Niall complains. He swings his own bag over his shoulder, heading for the front door.

"I can laugh," Liam points out. "It's plenty fair."

Just for that, Niall only lets him have three biscuits, and one of them hasn't got any chocolate chips in it.

--

Niall's just eating lunch as usual when it happens. It's been two days without any looks from the boy across the hall so he'd crushed the disappointment in his chest and gone on with his days. Louis's expressed sympathy and offered to let Niall kiss Harry if it'd make him feel better, which Niall had politely declined, and Liam had gotten him a piece of cake in the lunch line yesterday, but it's really not a big deal.

"So, er, why am I not supposed to talk to you, again?"

It's a voice Niall recognizes but not one he's expecting; why would he, after all? He should really know this is actually happening from the look on Liam's face, but he's still surprised to turn to his left and see Zayn actually standing there, wearing yet another varsity jacket (this one in blue) and a quizzical expression. He's carrying a lunch tray and looks for all the world like his stopping by a table of marching band members is a normal occurrence.

Zayn continues when Niall doesn't respond right away. "Only, three people have told me that but none can give me a reason why. Are you evil or something?" He only looks mildly curious.

He rather understands the quiet snort from Harry. Niall's sort of the least evil person he knows.

"I'm, uh." Niall meets Zayn's eyes, still in slight disbelief. "I'm in marching band."

Zayn's eyebrows slowly raise . "... Is that all?"

"You're on the footie team," Niall points out. Zayn must be aware of that, but it bears repeating. "You're not supposed to talk to band-os."

Now Zayn just looks amused. "Ah. Alright. Thanks for clearing that up - what did you say your name was?"

"Niall," he replies faintly. "My name is Niall."

"Right, thanks, Niall." Zayn nods at him and strolls off. He doesn't seem to notice that he's being watched by two contingents of the lunch room, and one doesn't look very happy. When he sits down, the boy next to him immediately begins berating him, but Zayn just looks bored as he takes a bite of his sandwich.

"Oh my god what," Harry says all in one breath, breaking the silence at their table. "As if that just actually happened."

"Marry him," Louis commands, giving Niall a sharp look. "If you don't, then I will. His cheekbones are to die for."

"I've got good cheekbones," Harry mumbles in a disgruntled tone, but Liam's talking over him.

"He's gonna get so much shit for that," he says, still watching the table Zayn is sat at. Now the boy who had been speaking to him has been joined by two others, all obviously displeased. "Why would he do that? He had to know they'd hate it."

"I think he's different," Niall says quietly. "Look at him, he doesn't even care."

Sure enough, Zayn is simply eating his sandwich, the picture of calm. Occasionally he'll swallow and then respond to something said to him, but in general, he seems much more concerned with his sandwich than the people around him. As Niall watches, he frowns, then shakes his head in a sharp jerk at something the boy on his right says.

"We'll see," Liam says darkly. "But I hope for your sake that he is."

"Has Niall got a crush?" Louis wheedles, reaching over the table to pinch one of Niall's cheeks. "That's - that's adorable, is what that is-"

"Shove off, Lou," Niall laughs, slapping at Louis's hand. "He's gorgeous, is all. Isn't he?"

"And interested, by the looks of things." Harry bobs his head toward the their table. Zayn is looking intently at Niall again, and when Niall looks over, he grins. And then winks.

"Wow," Niall barely hears Louis say over the blood rushing in his ears. "How come you never wink at me?" he demands to know of Harry.

"Do something to deserve me winking at you and maybe I will!"

Niall laughs halfheartedly, but he's not really listening. He's paying attention to the boy with the black hair and the dark eyes, who still hasn't looked away from him. He thinks maybe he'll be paying attention to him for a while.

--

"Are you gonna talk to him?" Louis asks eagerly as they walk through the door to the Bio classroom. He hasn't shut up about it since lunch, and Niall is slowly becoming frustrated with the fact that he has so many classes with him.

"I don't know," he responds in short, sitting at their table. Zayn hasn't arrived yet and Niall forces himself not to feel disappointed. "Maybe, if he talks to me."

"Make the first move!" Louis exclaims as he pulls out his textbook. "Come on, he's obviously interested. You have to do something or I'll go after him myself."

"Harry would cut off your balls," Niall murmurs without much thought, watching the door. People keep coming in but none of them are Zayn.

Finally, with about twenty seconds left before the bell sounds, he strolls in. He looks nonchalant - though that might just be his natural facial expression, considering Niall's never really seen him without it.

"Oh my god, say something to him," Louis hisses at him, pinching his thigh. Niall kicks him underneath the table, remaining silent as Zayn walks past. The boy glances at them with apparent disinterest, though his mouth twitches into a vaguely amused smile before he sits down.

"I'm playing hard to get," Niall mutters back, punching Louis in the side. "Stop fucking with my moves."

"You are - insufferable." Louis huffs at him, pretending to scribble down notes when Mrs. Minogue glares suspiciously at their table. "Where do you think we'd be right now if I'd never gone after Harry?"

Niall gives him an incredulous look. "You didn't go have to go after Harry, Harry threw himself at you and then you made out in the bathroom all lunch period. You had sex before you even went on your first date."

"Irrelevant," Louis dismisses. "We didn't waste any time, did we? And you could have that too, young Nialler, if you'd just go for it."

"I don't want to go for it!" Niall lowers his voice when Zayn lifts his head to look at them quizzically. "Best case scenario, I go for it, I get beat up by the entire footie team. Worst case scenario..." He thinks for a moment. "I die. I'm just taking my time, alright?"

"Taking your time is stupid." Louis is still frowning at him, but he looks a little more like he understands.

"People don't usually just fall together like you and Hazza did, okay?" Niall doodles a pizza on his homework. "I've known you were going to end up together since primary school."

"Well, me and Harry are made for each other." Louis is trying for aloof, but there's a softness to his expression that he only gets when he talks about Harry. "It's weird to think about being with anyone else."

"Right, but I don't have that. I don't have, like, the pleasure of having met my soulmate yet. So I'll deal with having crushes on footie players and you deal with having a boyfriend who'd die for you." Niall shrugs.

After a moment, Louis responds. "Wow, you get a shitty deal."

"It's not so bad." He shrugs again. "I get to stare longingly, that's always - Yeah, it's pretty shitty." Niall sighs.

"The offer to kiss Harry still stands if you-"

"No."

"Your loss." Louis sniffs at him, but then Mrs. Minogue is glaring at them again, so they delve into taking notes.

Class passes pretty quickly, despite the agonizing process of copying down sentences and definitions, and by the time they're ready to leave, Niall barely remembers that he's sitting very close to a hot football player. At least, he forgets until he's standing to leave and a hand catches at his sleeve, tugging the woolen material lightly.

"I just thought you should know," Zayn says to him softly, lips curled into a smile. His eyes are lovely, all brown and deep. Niall sort of wants to gaze into them forever, even as they flick to include Louis in his look as well. "Neither of you are particularly good at whispering quietly."

Niall's mind goes blank with mortification as Zayn leans a little closer.

"And just between you and me?" His smile widens. "You can stare longingly at me as much as you like, as long as I can return the favor."

With a nod at Louis, he's off, whistling jauntily as he exits the classroom.

"Louis," Niall says after a moment, still blinking gormlessly at the doorway Zayn's disappeared through. "Louis."

"Yeah, you're not dreaming." Louis sounds bewildered. "Holy shit, I'm suddenly hoping Cardle's off ill again."

"He's not, Liam saw him this morning." Niall's hands twitch a little. "Did he really just-"

"We'll just have to become reacquainted with the art of note-passing." Louis nods firmly, grasping Niall's wrist and nearly dragging him out of the room. "Come on, Nialler, we need to keep people informed of your torrid love affair!"

--

"... as much as you like, as long as I can return the favor!"

Niall hears Louis's hiss to Harry faintly from his position at the back. Louis and Harry used to sit near each other because Harry played French horn, and Louis plays trombone, so they were both in the brass group. Since Harry's moved to clarinet, they really aren't that close anymore. Louis tends to forget that sometimes, though, as is apparent when he shouts things across the room in the middle of class.

"I hate you," Niall leans forward to mumble. Through some sort of witchcraft, Niall's seat is directly behind Louis's. "Stop informing the world of developments in the non-relationship between me and hot football boy."

"It's Harry," Louis protests. "I needed to tell Harry so Harry can tell Liam."

Liam's stuck in the woodwind section with the rest of the flutes. For the longest time he was the only one, but now if he leans back and down a little, he can at least try to talk to Harry.

"Can't you just, I don't know, text him instead of shouting it across the whole fuckin' trumpet section?" Niall rolls his eyes.

"No phones in class, Horan," Louis responds before Mr. Cardle's speaking loudly to get their attention. His voice is still a little nasal but he's much less pale than he was the day before he stayed off sick.

"Everyone's got the first eight bars down, right?" he calls out to the class. There's a quiet smatter of acknowledgement, and he clears his throat. "Aiden, can you stand near the clarinets? They've been having tuning problems lately..."

"Er, course, Mr. Cardle." Aiden smiles and strides to stand behind Harry, prodding his shoulder playfully. Mr. Cardle should probably tell him off for it, but he never seems to tell Aiden off for anything. It's made for quite a few good jokes that make Aiden's face change colors.

"And I'll bring us in on the first measure, ready?" Matt raises his hands to conduct and the instruments in the room raise with them.

They get through the first three bars alright but in the middle of the fourth, the music becomes a sort of cacophony of noise instead. Matt lowers his arms, giving Aiden a questioning glance, but he's already leaning over Harry's shoulder, pointing to the music in front of the boy.

If Niall didn't know any better, he'd think what Mr. Cardle obviously thinks, that Aiden's helping Harry with the pitch or the notes or whatever, but Niall does know better. It's obvious in the smirk lurking at Harry's lips and the way Aiden's eyebrows are slowly raising what they're talking about.

"I have horrible friends," Niall mutters.

Aiden straightens with a smile he hides by tucking his lips into his mouth. "I actually think the wonky pitch is coming from the flutes," he says innocently. "Is it alright if I stay by them for a bit to see?"

"Good idea." Matt nods and Aiden moves to standing behind Liam, leaning down and pointing to his music as he speaks quickly in the boy's ear. After a moment he moves on down the line of flutes, though it takes much less time, for some reason, to tell them which note to come in on.

"We're ready, then?" Mr. Cardle asks when Aiden straightens. Aiden gives him a thumbs up, and Mr. Cardle brings them into the beginning of the song again.

It takes most of the class but by the time the bell goes off, they've nearly got that section down. There's a mad rush to put instruments away and get moving to their last class of the day, but the other three simply crowd around Niall excitedly.

"You are so in there-"

"Did he really say-?"

Aiden just pats Niall on the back and moves on into Mr. Cardle's office. Niall's grateful for that, at least.

"No, I'm not, and yes, he did." Niall grins, plucking the mouthpiece from his tuba and shoving it into the case. He lugs it into a locker, then turns back to them. "I need to get to English but we can talk about it tonight? We can have a study night at mine or something, mum won't mind as long as Liam comes." It's a well-known fact that Liam is like candy to mums. They can't get enough of him.

"Yeah, I can come." Liam smiles warmly at Niall, but it falters as Louis swings an arm around his waist.

"I'm there. Harry'll come as well," Louis answers on Harry's behalf. "We haven't gotten a proper snog in today, though, so beware of that."

"Your concern for our delicate mindsets is inspiring." Liam's voice is dry but if you're looking for it, like Niall is, the skin around his mouth is drawn taut and his eyes are shielded.

"Always," Louis exclaims, smacking a kiss to Liam's cheek. Harry doesn't even flinch, because that's just how Louis is, but Liam looks like he's about to snap, so Niall steps in.

"Good!" He pushes through Louis's arm and makes it look like he's just being a dick for fun. "See you all later then," he tosses over his shoulder. He's going to be late for English, but Zayn's not in his class, so it's not like he'll miss anything interesting.

--

"So you're really into this guy, then?" Liam asks quietly as he almost runs a traffic light. It's nice that it's just them. Louis has his own car so he'll bring Harry by later, and while Niall appreciates Louis's unique brand of assistance, he knows Liam will be calm about the whole thing.

"I dunno." Niall shrugs, digging through Liam's glove compartment. Not much ever changes in there but it gives him something to do with his hands. "I don't really know much about him, do I? I mean, he's fit. And he seems nice, but I still haven't had an actual conversation with him. And I can't just go up to him." Niall frowns. "I can't see it working out. But he's so fit."

"You mentioned that." Liam smiles a little, taking the next turn carefully. "He did say you were welcome to stare at him. And that he'd stare back, which is a pretty blatant come-on."

"Must be, if you can tell," Niall teases. He closes the glove box with a quiet click. "To be honest, I'm waiting for the catch," he admits. "For him to laugh and say he's just playing a joke on me or something."

"Either that or he really doesn't understand how it works around here." There's a frown on Liam's face now. "If he's not careful, the other players are going to notice. And they're mean."

"They're dicks," Niall corrects. He sighs. "I know what you mean. It's better for both of us if he just stops, but..." He hesitates before continuing. "I'm not really used to this. Guys liking me, I mean." His voice gets a little louder when it seems like Liam might interrupt. "Not a self-esteem thing, just that I've only got three friends, four counting Aiden. Two of them are so in love it's sickening, one of them fancies our music teacher, and you're... Liam."

"Thanks." Liam snorts but Niall can tell he's not really upset. "What's so wrong with me, then?" He pulls into Niall's driveway and turns off the car, but simply turns to face Niall curiously. "Hypothetically, anyway."

"Uh," Niall stumbles over his words. "I don't know. You're Liam." He's never thought about Liam like that. Giving him a once over, he admits, semi-reluctantly, that Liam's not unattractive. He's got muscles and things, and his smile's pretty nice. "You're practically taken already," he points out.

Liam shrugs uncomfortably. "By someone who has no idea I would ever look at him like that." This is the closest they've come to an actual conversation about Liam's thing for Louis since Liam told him about it. That conversation had been weird, to say the least, neither of them able to look at each other, crouched together on the cold floor of the bathroom for some reason.

"Still, I don't want to - try for something with someone who's interested in someone else. That'd be a whole new level of pathetic."

"We could try it." Liam looks like he's not even sure why he's so insistent about this. "Just to see. I mean, we're best friends, right? Would it make things weird?"

"It might make things weird," Niall muses, turning in his seat and then unclipping his seat belt in irritation. "D'you want to try?"

Liam jerks a shoulder. "I guess, maybe? I've never really thought about you like that. But I've never tried, either."

"Neither have I." Niall worries his lower lip, contemplating Liam. "Alright," he says suddenly. "Kiss me."

"What?" Liam's eyes are wide and for a moment Niall regrets being so blunt.

"Go on, kiss me." Niall smiles at him, trying to make it gentle. "Then we'll know, right?"

"I guess." Liam hesitates, and then unfastens the belt crossing over his chest. "Are you sure about this? I don't want to... Mess anything up, or whatever."

"We've been friends since childhood. I don't think one kiss is going to mess anything up." Niall leans forward, setting a hand on Liam's neck. It feels weird and wrong for him to be doing, but he forces himself past that. "And who knows, maybe there'll be fireworks or some shit." He's pretty sure that's not going to happen, but it's a possibility.

Liam takes a deep breath and then jerks forward, tucking his fingers underneath Niall's chin and pressing their lips together.

It feels really wrong at first but that's mostly because the angle's entirely off, so Niall tilts his head a little to let their lips fit into each other’s better. After that, it's still weird, but a manageable sort of weird.

Liam's not a bad kisser, just more hesitant than Niall's used to. He can handle that. He traces the tip of his tongue over Liam's cupid's bow and when Liam makes a strangled gasping sound, presses it past his lips.

They're really kissing now, their tongues and lips working together. Liam makes a quiet sound and Niall reciprocates it before they're suddenly both laughing into each other’s mouths.

"Oh god, that was so weird," Liam manages, pressing his forehead against Niall's shoulder. "I'm sorry, are you traumatized?"

"Only a little," Niall giggles back, rubbing between Liam's shoulder blades. "You?"

"I'll survive as long as we don't do that again." He lifts his head to send Niall a wide smile. "I'm way too into Louis to kiss other people right now, I'm sorry." He seems to realize what he's said after a moment and blushes, but his smile lingers.

"The only person I really want to be kissing is Zayn," Niall admits. "Not that I'm that invested in him, but if I wanted to kiss just anybody, I would've taken Lou up on it when he offered me Harry. Twice."

"We just won't mention this to anyone, then." Liam squeezes Niall in a hug. "Now let's go inside so your mum knows I'm here before you tell her Louis and Harry are coming later."

"Deal," Niall says with a grin, shoving his door open. When he doesn't have his tuba, it's much easier to get out of the car. "Want me to see if she'll make jammie dodgers?"

"Is that even a question?" Liam asks. He gets out of the other side and throws Niall a smile, easy and natural as ever. "We're alright?"

"Yeah," Niall says softly, punching his shoulder as he passes. "We're alright."

--

"So... he wants you," Harry concludes from his position settled between Louis's legs. They're all sat on the floor passing biscuits back and forth and discussing Niall's lack of a love life. It's something that happens far too often in Niall's opinion, but the others (well, Louis) demand it.

"I wouldn't say it's that drastic-" Niall starts before being unceremoniously cut off.

"He definitely wants you, Nialler. Did you see the look on his face?" Louis pokes Harry's cheek to get him to twist and look, then imitates Zayn's apparent expression. His eyes are half-lidded, his lips curled into a lazy grin. It fades fast, though, Louis unable to keep an expression that intense for too long, and he's grinning again soon enough. "See? He wants you."

Harry pecks Louis on the chin before bothering to respond. "That's definitely want. He definitely wants you. Plus that was a total line he used. What was it?"

"You can stare longingly at me as much as you like, as long as I can return the favor," Louis recites quickly. Niall's slightly perturbed by how Louis can remember it more clearly than he can. "It was such blatant flirtation. I almost blushed."

"So he likes looking at me," Niall attempts to brush off, but the smile on his face says it all, he's sure. "People are allowed to look at each other platonically."

"Not like that, they aren't." Harry feeds Louis a biscuit. Niall very nearly throws up. "The last time Louis had that look on his face, we fucked behind a group of bushes in the park."

"You two do things like that on a whim," Liam interjects. His cheeks are burning as he takes a gulp of his soda. Niall knows that Liam doesn't harbor any ill will toward Harry for being with Louis, but he'd really rather not hear about their sex life. "Are you going to talk to him, though?" he asks Niall inquisitively to get the conversation back on track.

"I want to, but up until now he's always been the one to start conversations, and I kind of want to keep it that way." Niall shrugs and leans back against the closet door. "It's not like I could just go up to him at lunch. If I even walk too close to that table I run the risk of getting an apple or something lobbed at my head."

"So dodge it and leap into his arms," Louis suggests, wrapping his own arms around Harry's waist. Niall notices how Liam's eyes automatically shoot there and sighs quietly. It's a wonder how his friends can notice everything about his interactions with a guy he's not even dating but they can't pay attention to the soap opera that is their own lives.

"I'm not that athletic," Niall murmurs absently. "And besides, for all I know, he could still be joking. He's a football player."

"Yeah, but he was staring at you before he even knew who you were." Louis munches on another biscuit. "It was probably love at first sight."

"You're insane." Niall is smiling at him, though. "You're a nutter."

"It's why people like me, they find it endearing." Louis sucks crumbs off of his fingers. "I'm just saying I think you should go for it. It's time you had a nice steady snogging partner. It's worked out well for me." He laughs as Harry turns to plant a kiss on him.

For his part, Liam looks at Niall and shrugs. "Maybe he's different," he says quietly. "Stranger things have happened."

"So you think I should go for it, too?" Niall raises his eyebrows. Liam's always been the cautious one, so that's a bit out of character for him.

"I didn't say that. Just... Keep an open mind," Liam suggests. "Strike up a conversation about something. Do more than blush and stutter at him. See if you have anything in common."

"I guess I could do that." Niall pulls one of his knees to his chest and wraps his arms around it. "What if he doesn't like me?"

"Then you call me and we'll go get ice cream and call him a prick." Liam sounds so matter of fact about it that Niall's nodding before he even knows what he's doing. "And on that note, I'm gonna use the loo. Be back." He looks a little out of sorts and Niall frowns in confusion as he exits the room before looking back at Louis and Harry. He rolls his eyes.

"Oi!" He throws a shoe at them, glowering playfully. "Don't make me get the hose."

Reluctantly, they part, but they both look so well kissed and smug about it that Niall throws another shoe at them and commandeers all the biscuits.

--

"Alright," Niall says to himself, staring across the lunch hall. Liam's hand is firm on his shoulder. "Alright, I can do this. I can do this."

"You can do this, Nialler," Harry encourages from across the table. "We believe in you."

"It's almost time, he's finished his sandwich," Louis reports, eyes intent on Zayn's table. They'd decided all together that it probably isn't a very good idea to just go traipsing over to the football table, so they're waiting for Zayn to throw his lunch away. "Niall, you've got your trash?"

"Loaded." Niall lifts his tray. He volunteered to be the one to take all the trash over to the bins, feeling that it might strengthen his front. "Is he moving yet?"

"Nope." Louis's eyes narrow. "Almost... Ugh, one of the smarmy shits is talking to him... Okay, now, go, go, go!"

Niall stands quickly, moving with no style or grace as he stumbles out in the general direction of the rubbish bins. Louis timed it perfectly; as Niall reaches them, Zayn does as well.

"Hey." Zayn smiles at him, a lazy, slow sort of smile that makes Niall's toes curl in his shoes. "Fancy meeting you here."

"Er, yeah." Niall swallows, his throat dry. He definitely doesn't have much time; by the rubbish bins isn't a good place for conversation.

"So, what did you want to talk to me about?" Zayn looks totally relaxed and not at all like Niall imagines he must look right now, nervous and twitchy. "Your friends have sort of been choreographing my every move since I got in here, and they're still watching us now."

Niall groans, resisting the urge to look round and check. He'll just assume Zayn's telling the truth. "Fuck, I'm sorry, they're over-invested in my life-"

"I don't mind," Zayn breaks in. He doesn't look like he minds either, his expression simply amused. "Just curious."

"Oh." Niall dawdles for a second before steeling himself. "What did you mean yesterday?" he asks. "About staring and. Things." That came out a lot less eloquently than he meant it to, but he's pretty sure Zayn gets the point.

"I thought I made myself pretty clear." Zayn's smile widens a little. "Why's anybody stare at anybody? I think you're hot."

Niall stares at him. "Well, that's... blunt." He swallows again, unsure of when his whole mouth filled up with saliva. "Really? You're not playing a joke? Or being a dick?"

"That's what you think?" Zayn raises his eyebrows, shoving his tray onto the stack of them next to the bins as Niall does the same. "No, I'm not playing a joke. I honestly just think you're gorgeous."

"Do you not realize who you are?" Niall asks him, honestly confused. He thinks they're probably in the way and they should probably not be conversing this openly, but his feet are rooted to the ground. "Or who I am?"

"Oh, that fucking stupid footie-marching band rivalry?" Zayn snorts. "Don't tell me you buy into all that. I'm not gonna be warned off you just because you happen to be musically inclined. And staying away from you because you're - what was it? A 'fucking faggot' would be pretty hypocritical of me, don't you think?"

"You're too reasonable to be on the football team." Niall frowns suspiciously. "What 's the catch?"

"There's not a catch. Christ, you're a suspicious lot, aren't you?" Amused again, Zayn grabs Niall's hand, sending a shock up his arm, and pulls a pen from his pocket, scribbling on Niall's palm for a moment. When he lets go, Niall looks down to see that it's a phone number, written in meticulously neat handwriting. "Here, text me sometime. Or send me naked pictures of yourself, I think that'd be fun."

Niall sputters, but the wide grin on Zayn's face nearly makes him want to smile himself. Zayn's whole face changes when he smiles, less bored. It suits him.

"You're really serious?" Niall asks, staring down at his hand.

"About everything I just said." Zayn tucks his pen behind his ear. "Especially the naked pictures."

He gives Niall a little mock salute, then wanders away, apparently not intimidated by the glowers and grumbling that greet him upon his return to the football table.

Niall stares at his hand a little longer before making his way back over to his own friends. They silently huddle around him, all looking down at the number on his hand.

"Well," Liam says quietly. "I think it's safe to say he might not be playing a joke."

"Yeah," Niall agrees in a slight daze. "I think that's plausible."

--

Louis's expression is displeased as he settles next to Niall to continue their conversation. "Niall." He pinches the bridge of his nose. "He asked for naked pictures of you."

"Not in so many words." Niall's mostly amused right now, at the frustrated look to Louis's countenance.

"Niall." There's a desperate whine to Louis's voice now. "That is the most obvious sign of interest I've ever heard of. He wants to see you without clothes on."

"That's what he said," Niall agrees. He looks up when knuckles rap on the table in front of him. "Hi." He smiles a little, still unsure of himself, but Zayn just smiles back.

"Hey," he greets, nodding toward Louis. "Alright?" he asks, obviously not expecting an answer as he takes his seat.

"... Yeah," Louis answers anyway after a moment. He shoots Niall a look. "When he looks at me, I just want to lick him, and I'm dating the hottest boy ever." He seems slightly bewildered by this whole series of events. "How are you not just - Jesus."

There's a soft snickering next to Niall and he recalls how Zayn said they weren't very good whisperers.

"That sounds like a personal problem, Louis." Niall pulls out a notebook to write down the definitions on the board. It seems like all they ever do in this class is copy down definitions. "I'll text him later." He shrugs, aware that Zayn is probably listening.

"You can't lick people via text message, though," Louis points out. "Viable marketing idea, but it hasn't been implemented yet."

"I've spoken twelve words to him," Niall protests. "And most of those were 'um'. I really don't think we're at the licking stage."

Louis snorts delicately. "We're teenagers. We're always at the licking stage."

"Says you." Niall wrinkles his nose, flushing a little and ducking his head as he casts his eyes to his other side. Zayn is looking at him with slightly raised eyebrows and a small smirk.

As Niall watches, he shrugs, and then in what can only be a deliberate motion, licks his lips. Niall drops his pencil.

Louis looks more disgruntled than ever. "Seriously?" he hisses, narrowing his eyes at both of them. "If you're going to flirt in front of me at least be discreet about it."

"Now you know how I feel around you and Harry all the time." Niall flicks Louis just above the elbow.

"Right, but Harry and I are actually making out on a regular basis. This, this flirting with no discernible reward, that's terrible," Louis emphasizes, giving Niall what's probably supposed to be a sympathetic look.

"I think there's probably going to be a reward, Lou." Niall casts his eyes toward Zayn again, smiling when he receives a tiny nod in return. "Maybe even multiple rewards." Another nod.

"Ugh, fine." Louis draws a line down the side of Niall's paper for revenge. "Just stop being disgustingly cute, it makes me miss Harry."

"You're going to see him in -" Niall checks the clock incredulously. "Twenty minutes!"

"And I haven't seen him for twice that." Louis shrugs. "We're very codependent."

"I've noticed. It's creepy," Niall informs him with a smile and a shake of his head. "Finish your work and I'll let you text Harry behind my bag, if you want.”

"You've always been my favorite, Nialler."

"Yeah, whatever."

--

Band practice is going swimmingly until about halfway through. Mr. Cardle even seems pleased, and he's difficult to impress. Then, of course, it's all disrupted.

"I swear, the ceilings in this place get dingier every time I step inside."

The loud voice in strongly accented English is practically a signal for them to put their instruments away. Nobody's going to accomplish anything for the rest of the day.

"Nicolo, I'm in the middle of a class." Matt's voice is weary as he leans against the podium he conducts behind. "Do you even have a visitor's pass?"

The taller man simply sniffs at him, wearing a slight frown. "When do I ever have a visitor's pass, Matty?"

"Don't call me that in front of the students." Matt simply waves a hand at them and they all move to put their things away even though it's still about half an hour until the bell. "You're undermining my authority."

"Pish posh, your authority could do with some undermining," Nicolo dismisses. "You're getting up yourself again."

"I am not-"

"Hush and let's step into your office. We need a discussion." Nicolo pauses to smile brightly at Aiden, lingering near the podium. "Hello, loverboy. Are you and Matty screwing yet?"

Niall grins to himself while Aiden stammers. He likes Nicolo, and even though he loves playing, it's nice to get a break sometimes. Nicolo makes those breaks fun.

He's still grinning even as Louis grasps his shoulders, steering him toward where Harry and Liam have already set up a cluster of chairs. Louis plops him down in one and takes the other empty one between Liam and Harry, swinging his legs up onto Liam's lap so that he can lean more comfortably on Harry's shoulder.

"Did either of you know it's possibly to see sexual tension?" Louis asks after greeting Harry with a kiss. "Because I think if I hadn't been there in bio, Niall and his football player would've been hooking up on the table, it was that intense."

"It was not!" Niall protests as Harry laughs and Liam fixes him with a scrutinizing gaze. "He's just hard not to - sexual tension with. He's sexy," Niall reasons.

"That he is," Louis sighs happily. "Oh my god, Hazza," he grumbles, rolling his eyes as Harry self-consciously feels his face. "Your cheekbones are perfectly dreamy."

"Well, you could say so more often." Harry turns up his nose but Louis just kisses his chin in response.

"I'm just in slight shock that our little Nialler managed to land himself such a catch," Louis admits. "Not that you're not perfectly, you know, cute and stuff, just. You're not really heart-throb material, if you know what I mean." He looks slightly stricken. "That sounds so shitty, I'm sorry, Nialler, that's not what I meant-"

"It's fine, Lou, I know," Niall sighs. He knows Louis wouldn't deliberately hurt his feelings, but to be honest, it's not like he's saying anything Niall doesn't already know. He's known for a long time that he's destined to be the cute friend. He doesn't have Liam's body or Louis's sense of humor or Harry's general prettiness. He's got good eyes, he supposes, and loads of marching combined with a quick metabolism means he's not fat or anything, but he's still a little sensitive about it.

"It's not fine, now you've got that look on your face." Louis looks legitimately apologetic. "I didn't mean it like that. You just don't seem like his type, you know?"

"Yeah." Niall sighs again. "I've been thinking that too. He's all cool and silent and I'm..."

"Kind of a massive dork." Harry sets his chin on Louis's shoulder as he says it, frowning a little. "It's not a bad thing, and I love you to pieces, but, well. You don't seem like his type."

"Maybe he is, though." Liam finally speaks up, having been quiet this whole time. Niall's not sure of whether that's because he was thinking deeply or if he was trying to ignore Louis's legs on his lap. "I mean, we don't know."

"Well, we know he likes the way you look. Obviously." Louis gives Niall a once-over that makes him feel vaguely dirty. "But he doesn't know anything else about you, really. Aside from how you stutter a lot."

"I don't, though!" Niall nearly wails, and Liam quickly begins patting his back. "He just makes me nervous!"

"We know that, Niall," Louis soothes, looking very grateful for his choice of seat. Louis is good at sympathy but bad at comfort. "He just needs to get to know you, maybe. Or snog you so much that you never talk and it's unnecessary for him to get to know you."

Niall's hands flutter aimlessly. "How does he like me?" he demands to know. "I'm not even - I'm me."

"We like you," Harry volunteers, offering Niall a bright smile. Harry is sweet, and cute, but Niall's stomach doesn't settle any. "He'll like you too. He has to. You're a likeable person."

"Just text him," Liam says with another pat to Niall's shoulder. "Start a conversation."

"He's probably in class," Niall mumbles, but with a shifty glance around to make sure their teacher is still monopolized, he pulls his phone from his pocket. He had programmed the number in during lunch, so it's only a matter of scrolling down to the very end. 'Zayn Malik' is right there underneath his thumb in bold typeface. All he has to do is select the name and send a message, but Niall is terrified.

"What if it vibrates too loudly and he hates me forever for getting him in trouble in class," he blurts, deliberating.

"Oh, my god," Louis groans. "Just text him. It can't possibly be worse than this indecision, can it?"

"Probably not," Niall acknowledges. He manages to actually select the name, surprising himself. "What do I say?"

"Uh, how about 'Hi'?" Harry volunteers. "Or, if you'd rather, 'Let's go get off in the bathroom.', that one always works on me."

"That's because you and Louis are always getting off in the bathroom anyway," Niall mumbles, thumbs hovering uncertainly. After a moment, he begins to tap out a message, then takes a deep breath, showing it to the others.

'hi :) this is niall, you gave me your number at lunch? whats up? :)'

"Is the double smiley face too much?" he asks with a frown. "I'm a pretty smiley person..."

"Send it," Liam commands. "It sounds fine, now send it before you lose the nerve."

The moment Niall taps the send button, he regrets it. "Oh god, I sound like an idiot," he frets. "He's going to think I'm so weird!"

"You don't sound like an idiot and he's going to still think you're hot." Louis is grinning at him from his seat. "You worry too much."

Niall's reply is cut off as his phone buzzes in his hand, and he is momentarily struck dumb before three voices are demanding that he open it. He does.

'heyyy :) i remember ur name, hot boy ;) nm just in maths, u?'

"You are hot boy," Louis states, leaning back with blatant disbelief. "Oh my god, I wonder if that's what he's put you as in his phone."

"I hope not, that'd be so much pressure." Niall's not even really sure of what he's saying, simply staring down at his phone. "Does it really say that?" he asks in disbelief.

"It really says that." Liam is squinting at the phone like he doesn't quite believe it either. "Wow."

"Yeah. Wow." Niall moves to respond, glancing up at the others before he does and then holding out his phone for their approval.

"You know, one of us isn't always going to be around to spellcheck for you," Louis says cheerfully, glancing over the message.

'band teacher distracted by italian guy, free half :D'

"Anyone not in this class will have no idea what that means," Harry laughs, shaking his head. His curls fly about his face and Niall catches Louis looking at his boyfriend with the sort of look he only gives to Harry. It makes Niall's heart skip a beat when he sees it, but he can't imagine what it does to Liam.

He takes the opportunity while the message is sending to look at Liam, and while he seems slightly envious and distracted by Louis's face, as always, he doesn't seem unduly sad. Niall's grateful for that, if nothing else.

Again, Niall's phone vibrates with a text faster than he's expecting it to. He doesn't even bother to complain when the others all crowd around to read it with him.

'lol wtf does that happen a lot?'

"Told you," Harry says loudly, leaning back. He had to wrap his arms around Louis so that he didn't fall off his chair, and even now that the danger of that happening isn't so immediate, he keeps them tightly around Louis's midsection.

Niall doesn't even bother responding before tapping out another message. Liam's still looking over his shoulder so he simply waits for his verdict.

'haha yeah hes friends with my teacher xDD he likes intrrupting class'

Liam nods but Louis demands to see the message, grabbing Niall's phone and nearly toppling to the floor in the process. "Your spelling is atrocious. There's an e in interrupting . And an apostrophe in he's." Louis fixes the message and hands the phone back to Niall. "Your first conversation and it's taking place through texts. We are a corrupt society."

"You first told Harry you loved him over the phone so shut the fuck up." Niall looks over the text again and then sends it, checking the time. "There's only ten minutes left." He can't help but be disappointed. He can't ever check his texts in English, or Walsh would 'collect' his phone until the next day.

"So have the conversation faster." Louis grins. "He certainly seems eager."

"I'm waiting for him to ask you to meet him in the park at sunset or something." Harry sighs. "Why don't you ever ask me to meet you in the park at sunset?" He glowers at Louis.

Louis just kisses his ear. "Because romantic shit like that is for when you want to seduce someone," he explains. "I seduced you with my stunning good looks long ago."

"Well, you could try harder." Harry is smiling, though, looking away so Louis can't see it. Maybe Niall would feel less terrible about Liam's situation if Harry and Louis weren't legitimately so good for each other. They've been friends for so long that they know almost everything about each other, and their relationship is everything Niall's seen in relationships between people twice their age.

"Your mum could try harder," he hears Louis mumble, but his phone's vibrated again, so he's distracted by that.

'remind me 2 thank him ;) sooo do u wana go out sometime?'

"Oh my god he asked me out," Niall blurts, staring wide-eyed at his phone, which is immediately taken from him by two pairs of scrambling hands. Louis finally just holds the phone so Harry can see it as well. Liam already saw from his position but he seems to be shocked into silence, much like Niall.

"Oh my god," Harry whispers, punching Louis's shoulder for no apparent reason. "I feel like a proud parent.”

"Give me my phone!" Niall commands. It's fumbled over surprisingly without argument. Maybe Louis realizes that he actually needs to send this text message.

'that sounds great :) jus lemme kno when?'

Niall hesitates before adding something to the end and then quickly showing Louis.

'that sounds great :) jus lemme kno when? xx'

"Niall Horan, I didn't know you had it in you!" Louis actually looks impressed. "That's - That's downright flirtatious."

Niall blushes, but sends it anyway. This time, he has to tuck his phone into his pocket because the bell rings. They gather in a group and agree that if anything at all happens, Niall has to text all of the others about it. Or really, just Liam and either Harry or Louis, since those two are bound to be together.

Niall's pocket doesn't vibrate until the middle of English class, and he almost - almost - risks taking a look at it.

He knows, though, that if his phone gets taken, he won't be able to text Zayn later. And the thought of that keeps his fingers from going anywhere near his pocket.

--

'anytime anywhere. weekend? we cn see a film :)'

Niall takes deep breaths as Liam's car swerves a little while he reads the text on Niall's phone.

"You're going to say yes, right?" Liam asks, handing the phone back and taking the next turn much more carefully. "Even I can't deny he's being sincere. Unless, I dunno, he's planning on not being there. Or coming just to dump a soda on your head." He pauses. "Or-"

"Okay, Liam, like I wasn't nervous enough already!" Niall shoves his phone into the cup holder.

"Sorry," Liam apologizes quietly. "You know I'm paranoid."

"I know, but, jesus, I'm already freaked out that he even expressed interest at all." Niall shoves a shaky hand through his hair. "Saturday's only two days from now. What do I say? How do I act?"

"You act like you," Liam reasons. "And you say whatever you want to say. It's just a guy, and you know he likes you already if he asked you on a date."

"Oh, god, it's a date," Niall groans, burying his head in his hands. "I don't know what to wear. All my clothes are terrible."

"Niall, you're being stupid. Your clothes are fine. He stared at you while you were wearing them, didn't he?" Liam is being entirely too reasonably right now, and Niall doesn't appreciate it. "Besides, cinemas are dark. He'd never be able to tell." Liam casts a critical glance over Niall's clothing.

"It's going to be in a cinema," Niall realizes with a dawning look of horror on his face. "What if he puts his arm around me? What if I eat too much of the popcorn?"

"Niall." Liam's voice is firm as he parks in Niall's drive, even going so far as to turn off the engine and face him. "It's going to be fine. It's going to be fine. You've been on dates before. You know how to hold hands and watch a film with a guy."

"He's really hot," Niall says softly. "Really hot."

"And so are you, or have you forgotten that his nickname for you is 'Hot Boy'?" Liam's smile is soft as he grips Niall's shoulder, squeezing lightly. "And I'm always a text away. If he ends up being a dick, let me know and I'll come run him over or something."

This at least surprises Niall into a snort of laughter, bubbling over out of his mouth. He grins at Liam gratefully. "You're my best friend, you know," he says, overcome all of a sudden with affection. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

Liam looks embarrassed but pleased, and he shrugs a shoulder, trying to brush it off. "Anybody'd do the same."

"Anybody's not you." Niall undoes his seat belt, but doesn't move. "You're being all reassuring and lovely even though I'm being a – wanker. And you don't have to be."

Liam snorts, but his face is still taking on color. "You don't normally get this lovey until you're drunk, Nialler. What's up?"

"I'm not allowed to appreciate my friends?" Niall lifts his chin in an air of aloofness.

"I guess." Liam shrugs. His smile is confused, but it's still happy, so that alone makes Niall smile back. "I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Yeah." Niall leans over the gear shift suddenly, wrapping his arms around Liam.

They're not the most huggy friends, though they're probably more touchy than some. They've just always been a pretty physical foursome, and while Harry and Louis take it farther, and Liam sometimes gets weird about people touching him, that's something Niall can't really see changing.

"I love you, man," Niall says softly, and he feels the tightening of Liam's arms as he returns the embrace. The smile in Liam's voice is audible as well when he responds.

"I love you too, Nialler. Now get off, I need to text Louis about your date before he dies of curiosity."

Niall laughs, pressing a careless kiss to Liam's temple when he pulls back and grabbing his phone before he ducks out of the car.

His life, Niall thinks, watching Liam back out of the driveway, would be so much easier if he could just be in love with Liam.

But definitely less exciting, he concludes with a glance at his phone.

--

Louis hasn't said a word since they all sat at the lunch table. That's extremely unusual, but Niall doesn't say anything, sure that if something's really wrong, Liam or Harry will let him know.

It doesn't last long, though, Louis's silence. Five minutes into the lunch session he bursts, arms spreading wide. One of his hands nearly smacks Harry in the face, but he doesn't appear to notice.

"Well?" he demands to know, staring at Niall. His hands drop to clench at the edge of the table so tightly his knuckles turn white.

"Er," Niall responds. He would say more if he knew what Louis wanted him to say. "Well, what?"

"Well, what." Louis stares at him, then glances at Harry. Harry, for his part, shrugs, taking another bite of sandwich. "Well, Zayn! You've got a date with him and you can't give details to your best friends?"

"There aren't any details to give!" Niall protests. “He just said we could go see a film this weekend, and I said that sounded fine. That was the extent of our conversation.”

Louis squints at him in apparent disbelief. “You didn’t even attempt to contact him further?” He heaves a sigh.

“No?” Niall shifts a little in his seat. “It’s not like we have any obligation to each other. We’re just two boys who happen to find the other attractive and are going to see a film on Saturday.”

“Well, details about the date, then?” Louis asks, impatient. “Come on, he must’ve said something back.”

“Oh, right, yeah.” Niall takes a bite of his sandwich and chews slowly even though Louis looks more and more like he’s contemplating strangling him as he does. “Saturday around eight, he said he can pick me up.”

“Did you happen to tell him where you live?” Liam asks from Niall’s side, picking the cucumbers off his salad and trying to discreetly slide them onto Harry’s tray.

“Well, yeah.” Niall smiles to himself. “If he already knew, that’d be a bit creepy, don’t you think?”

“Not the point!” Louis claps his hands loudly, actually causing a few people not at their table to look over. He gives them a narrow-eyed look until they stop. “So, Saturday, he’s picking you up.” He sets his chin on his hand. “What film are you seeing?”

Instead of responding to Louis, Niall looks at Harry. “Please tell me he’s investing in your dates this much, at least.”

Harry shrugs a shoulder, popping one of Liam’s cucumber slices into his mouth. “Most of our dates are pretty much excuses to make out in public, so I dunno. He’s certainly more invested in your love life than ours.”

“I am not.” Louis huffs. “Harry, tell them I’m an amazing boyfriend.”

“Louis is an amazing boyfriend,” Harry repeats dutifully. He bites into another cucumber slice. “I mean, the sex is amazing, at least.”

Louis looks very smug. “That’s right, it is. Back to what I was talking about,” he switches tact remarkably well. “Your date. You’re going to call us after it to tell us what happened, right?”

“I wouldn’t want to spoil the end of the film for you guys,” Niall says, smiling behind his sandwich as Louis gives him a droll look.

“Shut up,” he commands. “Liam, tell him he’s got to.”

“You know he won’t shut up until you do,” Liam mutters, collecting the trash onto his tray. For some reason, he always seems to volunteer to take everyone’s garbage up to the bins. Nobody really argues against this, but they make sure to always thank him profusely.

Niall sighs. “Fine. But I can’t talk to all of you at once. I’ll call Liam first and then you after.”

“Why me after?” Louis seems very offended.

“Because Harry’s going to be with you, and trying to have a coherent phone conversation with you both at once is exhausting.”

“Oh.” Louis is flummoxed for the moment.

“That’s fine,” Harry steps in for him. “Your lover is staring at you again.”

“He’s not my lover,” Niall murmurs, but he looks over anyway. Who else would they be talking about? He ignores Louis’s muttered “Yet,” and smiles at Zayn, who winks back. He actually winks, too, not the sort of facial-twitch Niall becomes afflicted with when he tries to wink.

He tries hard not to think the word ‘yet’ in his own head as well. It doesn’t work.

--

The next few days pass more quickly than Niall is prepared for. Sooner than he’d like, it’s Saturday, seven o’clock, and he has absolutely nothing to wear.

“I’m going to pretend to be ill,” he titters down the phone. He hears Liam release a sigh on the other end, but doesn’t pay it much attention. “I’ll pretend to break my leg. But what if he wants to come up and see me? Li, can you come over and break my leg?”

“Niall,” Liam says. That’s all he says, but it’s enough.

“Okay, so I’m being stupid but I can’t do this, Liam! I don’t go on dates with hot football players.” Niall is pacing, has been for a while. “What do I do?”

“You just go on the date,” Liam says. It’s easy for him to be calm. Liam’s not the one going on a date with Zayn the Hot Football Player.

“What if my breath smells? What if he decides I’m boring? What if he tries to hold my hand on the armrest? Liam, oh my god, what if he wants us to share a soda?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be very sanitary, but neither is what Harry and Louis do on a regular basis.” Liam sounds very matter of fact. “Look, you’re over thinking it. It’s a date. You might not have been on one for a while, and maybe it’s with a guy we don’t know very well, but you’ll be fine. Brush your teeth, bring gum, that way your breath won’t smell. You’re not boring. If he tries to hold your hand, then let him. And if you don’t want to share a soda, buy your own.”

“Stop being logical,” Niall wails. “I’m having a crisis!”

“You are not,” Liam chastises. “You’ve got an hour, right?”

“Yeah.” Niall heaves a large sigh. Truthfully, he’d been looking forward to the date quite a bit before his episode. He and Zayn have texted a little more in the days leading up to this and while sometimes he can’t really figure out if Zayn’s trying to make up his own chat acronyms or what, it’s nice to talk to someone new. He loves the boys, but they kind of monopolize his time.

“So, get dressed. It doesn’t matter what you wear, you’re going to be in a cinema for most of it, it’ll be dark.” That’s reasonable, Niall thinks, very reasonable.

“I can do that. Wear clothes.”

“I should hope so,” Liam says with a smile in his voice. He’s trying not to laugh. It’s only because he’s being so helpful that Niall doesn’t hang up on him.

“What if… What if he doesn’t like me?” Niall asks quietly. He’s not really the type to get self-conscious about things like this, but he’s not really the type to freak out before a date, either. It’s apparently a night for surprises.

“He’ll like you,” Liam assures. “Why wouldn’t he like you?”

“I don’t know,” Niall says, finally ceasing to pace and slumping in the chair for his desk. “Maybe I’ve got an obnoxious laugh.”

“You don’t.” Liam’s response is immediate.

“Maybe I-“

“Niall, stop.” It’s a command, but Liam’s voice is gentle. “You’re going to just panic more if you keep thinking like that. If it doesn’t work out, fine. But if it does, you should give it a chance.”

Niall remains silent for a moment, his bare toes playing with the leg of his desk. “When did you get so wise?”

“I have no idea. I might’ve just paraphrased the short story we read in English today. Oops.” Liam sounds genuinely sheepish, and Niall laughs.

“Okay, I’m gonna get dressed and try not to freak myself out. More,” he amends. “I’ll text you when I get back?”

“You’d better,” Liam agrees. “Have fun.”

“I’ll try my best, man.” Niall taps the button to end the call and takes a deep breath before standing. Is his red polo neck clean…?

Once Niall manages to locate his favorite jeans, it’s easy to assemble his outfit. Red polo neck (which hadn’t been clean, but a few sprays of Lynx and nobody would be the wiser) with his jeans, which are a little worn in the knees but comfortable, and he’ll figure out what shoes to wear when he goes downstairs.

Which should be soon, he thinks to himself with a glance at the time on his phone. He keeps that out in case Zayn texts him or something, and makes his way down the stairs.

“Don’t start, mum,” he groans when she immediately moves to fix his collar. “Mum. Mum.”

“Hush and let me fuss,” she says without looking at him, smoothing down the front of his shirt. “There. Presentable. Where did you say you were going again?”

“We’re seeing a film.” Niall grabs his jacket from the back of the chair. He’s notorious for getting cold at the cinema. “And no, I don’t know how late we’ll be out. I don’t know what movie we’re seeing.”

“Do you have your key?”

“Yes, I have my key, and my wallet, and my phone, and everything I could possibly need. I’ll be fine.” He pecks her on the cheek. “I’ve been on dates before. Stop worrying.”

“I’ll have plenty of time not to worry when I’m dead.” She gives him a cheerful smile, then jumps when his phone buzzes in his hand. “I’ll never get used to that,” she mutters, holding a hand to her heart.

It only takes a glance to read the message, a simple ‘im here :) x

“I’m leaving now, I’ll be back later,” he says, giving his mother a hug goodbye before he leaves, making sure to lock the door behind him. It’s a habit left over from when he was the last to leave the house in the mornings for school, one he’s never managed to get rid of.

Niall spots Zayn almost immediately, behind the wheel of a black car. It’s not overly new but it’s obvious Zayn takes care of it. The other boy gives him a smile as Niall gets into the car, backing out of where he’s parked on the street.

“Hey,” Zayn greets, starting down the road. “You look hot. As usual.”

Niall tries to pretend that’s something he hears fairly often and hopes the dark of the car covers up the fact that he’s blushing. “Thanks. You, too.”

“I wasn’t sure what sort of movie you’d want to see,” Zayn says casually as he makes a right. Niall’s having trouble keeping his mind on Zayn’s words when he looks as good as he does. In school he tends to stick to varsity jackets and jeans, but right now he’s wearing dark skinnies with a t-shirt, light colored, but Niall can’t tell what color, not that it matters. The sleeves are short and exposing the muscles in his arms, more defined than Niall would expect. Niall wonder if maybe he plays some other sport that involves throwing.

“Sorry, what?” Niall says blankly when he realizes there’s an expectant silence in the car.

Zayn laughs, a little smile pulling the corner of his mouth up. “I just said I didn’t know what you’d want to see so I figured we could decide when we get there?”

“Oh, that sounds fine to me.” Niall’s response is almost too quick. To be honest, he’s shit at acting a way he doesn’t feel, and right now, calm is not how he feels.

“Great,” Zayn says. He doesn’t mention Niall’s obvious disconcert, for which he’s grateful. Whether Zayn’s just really oblivious or a nice guy, Niall doesn’t know.

Niall’s not really sure what to say now. He feels like he should at least try to make conversation, but he has no idea what sort of things Zayn’s interested in, other than football and, apparently, Niall. The result is a silence that’s not quite awkward but not quite comfortable, either.

The cinema isn’t too far away, so it doesn’t last too long, but Niall still wishes he could think of something, anything to say.

“C’mon,” Zayn says once he’s parked, opening the door and swinging his legs out. Niall does the same, though not nearly as gracefully, and they meet behind the car. Zayn has a small smile on his face, and Niall tries to smile back.

“I like your car,” he says for lack of anything else to say to him, and immediately he feels stupid. Why did he say anything at all? Silence is perfectly alright.

Zayn doesn’t act like he’s stupid, though. He just glances back at his car, and his smile widens.

“Thanks,” he says, running his hand over the rear hood. “She runs, you know, and that’s what counts.”

“I guess, yeah,” Niall agrees. He has no idea what he’s talking about. He doesn’t know anything about cars.

Thankfully, though, they don’t linger, and Zayn leads the way into the building with a loose grasp on Niall’s wrist. They’re not quite holding hands, but it’s close enough to it that Niall feels flushed all over and like maybe he’s not breathing properly.

Zayn looks over the movie listings and then asks Niall if – something, something that starts with an S – is alright, and Niall nods because it’s not like he’s going to say no. There’s no way he’ll be able to pay attention to any film anyway, not with Zayn sat next to him. He’ll be too busy freaking about even being here to actually follow a plot.

“Right, two, then,” Zayn says, smiling at the girl working the booth. She gives them a smile back and it takes Niall a moment to realize that Zayn just paid for his ticket.

“Oh, you didn’t have to do that,” Niall says, flustered as the girl passes them the two tickets. Zayn just gives him a confused look back, frowning.

“You do realize this is a date I asked you on, right?” he asks, tilting his head. “Of course I’m going to pay for your ticket.”

“What does that make me, the girl?” Niall replies. He’s not sure if that frustrates him or just… He’s not sure how it makes him feel.

Zayn just gives him that smile again, and a half-shrug. He’s still holding on to Niall’s wrist. “No, it just makes you the person I’m buying a cinema ticket for. D’you want some popcorn?”

“What?” Niall looks up from Zayn’s face and finds that they’re standing in front of the concessions stand, and there’s another girl there looking at them expectantly. “Uh, I like popcorn.”

“Good, I’ll get you some, then.” Zayn smiles at him indulgently, then tells the girl he’d like a large bucket of popcorn. He spares a glance to Niall before continuing. “And two sodas, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Niall allows, drumming his fingers against the counter. He’s smiling too, but he doesn’t remember when he started. “Thanks.”

“Just being a gentleman.” Zayn hands Niall his cup and grabs the bucket, along with his own soda, heading off. Niall is saddened, slightly, that Zayn’s not holding his wrist anymore, but it’s not like he could while he’s carrying all that.

“Oh,” Zayn says mildly when they reach the man collecting their tickets. He glances at Niall with a sheepish look. “My hands are sort of full, mate, could you get the tickets from my pocket?”

Niall swallows hard, then steps closer, mouth dry. “Left or right?”

“Right,” Zayn says back with a note of amusement in his voice. He shifts his hip to the side to make it easier as Niall shifts behind him and then slides his fingers into Zayn’s pocket.

After a moment of freaking out in his head about what he’s doing, Niall realizes that he doesn’t actually feel anything but a little bit of pocket lint.

“Oh, sorry,” Zayn states, though he doesn’t sound it at all. He sounds like he’s smirking. “Must be the other pocket. My mistake.”

“I’m sure,” Niall murmurs. With a burst of confidence, he leaves his right hand where it is, his left hand dipping into Zayn’s pocket and coming up with the tickets. He grins, holding them between two fingers. “Got them.” He hands them to the man waiting for them to stop fooling around. He’s older, with a stern look to him and he looks ridiculous in the red suit the movie theater employees don, but Niall doesn’t dare laugh while he gets the stubs back.

They’re walking down the hall to find their theater when Zayn mumbles, “Don’t really think life worked out like he planned, y’think?”

A laugh forces itself from Niall’s throat, surprised. “Yeah, probably not. Red’s not really his color.”

“Not at all,” Zayn agrees. He absently takes a drink from his soda. “S’alright, though. Sometimes life doesn’t go as you plan. Sometimes you get stuck on one of the pages and when you finally turn it, you’ve lost the plot of the story.”

“Deep,” Niall says, blank-faced. Zayn bumps his shoulder playfully and Niall would bump him back, but, well, he really wants some popcorn, and that would almost definitely knock it over.

The theater is dark, as theaters tend to be, so it takes them a moment to find their seats. The movie’s already started, but the first scene is dark as hell. The seats, when they find them, are pretty secluded. Actually, there aren’t many people in here for a Saturday night, Niall thinks, frowning.

“Bit empty, isn’t it?” Zayn asks. He’s frowning too, but he doesn’t look upset, just curious. “Oh well,” he says with a shrug as he plops down into his seat. He lifts his feet to rest on the back of the empty seat in front of him. “More room for us.”

“Too right,” Niall replies, smiling to himself. This is a good date, so far. Even calling it a date in his head makes his breathing uneven, so he tries to think of something else. The movie, right, he can focus on the movie.

The plot is boring and contrived, and Niall figures out the identity of the murderer within the first twenty minutes. Zayn seems engrossed, though, occasionally dipping his hand into the bowl that he’s placed on his thigh so Niall can reach it more easily. Sometimes, their hands brush in the bowl as they go for a handful at the same time, and Niall will look at Zayn to find Zayn looking back at him. They’ll both smile a little and then turn back to the movie. It’s nice. Niall likes it a lot.

With about an hour left in the film, Niall is bored beyond belief. The empty popcorn bucket’s been shunted under their seats and Niall heard the dreaded slurpy-sucking gravely sound of only ice in the bottom of his cup a few minutes ago. He leans over and murmurs into Zayn’s ear that he needs to use the toilet, waiting for Zayn’s vague nod of assent before scooting out of the row. It’s pretty easy, considering they’re the only two in it.

Once he reaches the bathroom, he pulls out his phone, sending the same text message to three different numbers.

To: Harry; Liam; Tommo:

omg this movie is borin as shit wat do i do???

It only takes a moment for his phone to buzz, and then while he’s checking that one, it buzzes twice more.

Harry:

You’re actually watching the movie? Kiss his face off!!

Niall snorts, paling a little. No way could he do that. The next one, Louis’s, is very similar, except he adds in that if Niall wasn’t going to treat Zayn properly, he’d be more than happy to do it himself. Then there is a load of gibberish where Niall assumes Harry had been reading over Louis’s phone and hit him.

Liam’s, though, is a lot better, which Niall really should’ve expected.

Liam:

calm dwn its just a date :) u can do it!!

While a little more encouraging than Niall probably needs, it does help him gather the determination to head back into the theater and wait it out. Yeah, the movie’s awful, but maybe he can sneak looks at Zayn for the rest of it. Surely that’d be entertaining enough.

Zayn’s in the same position as he was when Niall left, and he gives the other boy a smile when he sits down. God, he’s gorgeous. Yes, Niall can definitely wait it out.

After about five more minutes of surreptitious glances, though, Niall feels a finger tap the back of his hand gently, and he turns like he wasn’t already looking at Zayn.

“Yeah?” he whispers, raising his eyebrows.

“This film is boring as shit,” Zayn replies just as quietly, tilting his head. “Wanna make out instead?”

Niall’s mouth hangs open a little and he’s sort of expecting Zayn’s face to dissolve and this to only be a dream, but he can feel the cold plastic of the seat arms under his hands, and Zayn’s still wearing that polite, vaguely quizzical expression.

“… Alright,” he answers after a moment. Zayn’s mouth curves into a pleased and slightly surprised grin, but then he’s leaning forward and Niall can’t see his mouth anymore, only feel it.

Zayn’s lips are as soft as they look, and he presses soft, sweet kisses to Niall’s lips for a moment before connecting them more firmly. He’s good at this, Niall notes without much surprise.

He shifts in his seat as Zayn settles one hand behind his neck, tugging him in just that little bit more. Niall’s done kissing before, he’s done loads of kissing, so it’s only a matter of falling into the rhythm Zayn sets, really.

Zayn strokes through the short hair at the nape of Niall’s neck, his touch sending goosebumps down Niall’s spine. Zayn strokes his tongue over Niall’s lower lip after a moment and Niall happily acquiesces, parting his lips and releasing a soft sound when Zayn does this purely delicious flicking thing with his tongue.

It’s slow and deep and Niall feels like he’s melting a little, honestly, just turning into honey and being poured into this seat. He settles one of his own hands on Zayn’s chest, and when he receives an encouraging noise, leaves it there. Zayn feels strong and lithely muscled, not bulky like some of the other players but sleek and wiry. It’s amazing to feel, and Niall finds he wants to feel more of it, wants to kiss Zayn while they’re lying down and not wearing shirts or anything else.

For now, though, this is gorgeous, this deep, languid kissing. It feels like they’ve been doing it forever.

Zayn changes the angle just a bit, sitting on his own foot, Niall suspects, to get that extra inch of height that lets him kiss Niall harder, and the hand at his neck slides into his hair to tug his head back a little. Zayn bites Niall’s lower lip lightly, then laves his tongue over it to soothe. Niall can’t keep his hand from clenching a little on Zayn’s chest, fingernails lightly dragging over his t-shirt, and Zayn groans. It’s quiet and muffled against Niall’s mouth, but it’s a groan nonetheless.

When Zayn finally pulls back, Niall isn’t sure he can move, let alone do anything else. His eyes open slowly to meet Zayn’s. Zayn smiles at him a little, kissing his lips one more time, but lingering there.

“Mmm,” he sighs, so close still that his content hum vibrates along Niall’s lips. “You’re stunning.”

Me?” Niall asks incredulously. Zayn’s hair is still firmly in place but his eyes are dark and his lips deeper in color, kiss-swollen. His smile looks the same as always, though.

“Yeah,” he says with a sort of nonchalance that only comes with practice. “You.”

Niall’s still having trouble dealing with why they stopped, let alone anything else. “Wha…?” He immediately regrets even opening his mouth.

“C’mon,” Zayn says without acknowledging Niall’s momentary fail to grasp the English language.

“Huh?” Niall says. God, he can’t talk at all.

“Movie’s over,” Zayn says, standing up and holding out his hand. Niall takes it, dazed. “Shall I take you home now?”

There’s something in Zayn’s voice that tells Niall he’d really prefer not to take Niall home, but he has no idea what it is, so he just nods.

Zayn looks at him for a moment, then nods as the lights go up. “Alright, I’ll do that, then.” He twirls his keyring on his finger before leaning close. Niall doesn’t move as Zayn whispers to him.

“You blush a lot when I kiss you… I wonder if you would blush while I did other things?”

Niall stays stock-still, biting his lip. A shot of courage hits him then, and before he can decide whether it’s a bad idea to say or not, he’s saying it.

“Maybe you’ll get to find out.”

Zayn’s just looking at him again now. Niall’s noticed he does a lot of looking, but he sort of wishes Zayn would do a bit more saying.

Finally, he speaks again.

“Yeah,” Zayn says softly as he leads Niall toward the exit with a light grip around his wrist. “Maybe I will.”

--

The ride back in Zayn's car is just as silent but much less awkward. Half of the way, Zayn has his hand on Niall's thigh and Niall has his hand on top. At one point, Zayn turns his hand over, pressing their palms together, and they are holding hands Niall is holding hands with Hot Football Boy.

He's curious when Zayn parks a bit farther down Niall's street, but his confusion is fully cleared when Zayn turns off the ignition and then leans over, pressing their lips together without another word. Niall could get used to this constant making out thing, if it's going to become a habit. It seems that way, anyway.

They kiss for a little (or a long) while, their breathing loud and the glass fogging up, Zayn's hands sliding up Niall's ribs underneath his jacket but over his t-shirt. Niall doesn't know where to put his own hands, so he decides to just curl one around Zayn's neck and stroke the very short hair behind his ear. Zayn tastes like popcorn and soda until they've been kissing so long that he doesn't taste like anything spit and lips and tongue.

"Mm, I really should get home," Zayn murmurs against Niall's lips, but he doesn't seem very eager, reluctant to separate his lips from Niall's even that long. Immediately after the words are out, he sucks Niall's bottom lip between his own, making it difficult for Niall to respond.

"M'er," he manages until Zayn courteously begins kissing a path across his cheek to his ear so that he can answer. "I think you should stay a bit longer," he says, but it sounds more like a sigh, the words drifting out into the air.

"Could do," is Zayn's reply as he nibbles the edge of Niall's ear, then kisses him there. Unfortunately for Niall, his ears are extremely ticklish, and he jumps, a loud curse escaping before he can shove it down.

"Uh... Sorry," Niall states after a moment of silence where Zayn doesn't move except to jerk back a little in surprise. "I'm... ticklish," he finishes lamely.

Zayn just looks at him, and then his expression melts a bit, his eyes wrinkling at the corners and his mouth moving into a real smile, not one of the small, mysterious ones he seems so fond of.

"You're something else, you know?" he says before kissing Niall again. It means he can't ask Zayn what he means by that, but actually Niall doesn't care very much.

Niall notices that Zayn carefully avoids his ears the rest of the time they're kissing and it makes a little bubble of giggles build in his stomach. He holds it back, though.

"Okay, now I've really got to go," Zayn groans, checking the time on his phone as he presses kisses to Niall's jaw. Niall is almost positive he's got a massive love bite on the base of his neck, near the curve of his shoulder, and resigns himself to either finding shirts that'll cover it or dealing with Louis's delighted mockery. He's leaning toward the second only because Louis's funny even when it's at his own expense.

"No, no, no you don't," Niall replies quickly. He kisses the corner of Zayn’s mouth and Zayn allows him to turn it into a real kiss before pulling away with a laugh.

"Trust me, I'd stay here all night if it was my choice." He gives Niall a look that makes Niall want to press him back up against the door of the car and do wonderful things to him. "It's just my mum, y'know, she worries." He rolls his eyes but there's a softness to his expression now that gives Niall the impression he cares an awful lot about his family.

"No problem, mate," Niall says quietly, smiling at him. He does lean over to kiss him again, though, and Zayn lets it linger a moment longer than it probably should.

"I'll see you Monday?" Zayn asks. He keeps his face close to Niall's, foreheads touching. They look at each other for a long while without speaking before Niall remembers that Zayn asked him a question.

"Definitely," he answers with another kiss to Zayn's mouth. It's like he can't stop, or something. He blames it on Zayn being a fantastic kisser.

Niall goes to get out of the car, stopping when Zayn wraps a hand around his upper arm. It's almost burning warm and Niall doesn't know if it's because he's overheated or because Zayn is. Maybe both. Regardless, he looks back with a curious expression.

Zayn, bizarrely, looks like he's close to laughter, eyes bright with amusement. "Er - Just, you look sort of like you've been. Making out in my car for half an hour. Thought you might want to fix that before you get inside?"

"Oh, shit, yeah," Niall curses. He reaches a hand into his hair and curses, finding it sticking in all directions from the times Zayn had combed through it with his fingers.

"Here, let me..." Zayn reaches over and Niall lets his hands drop while Zayn rearranges his hair. After a minute, Zayn stops, stroking along Niall's fringe and then down his cheek. "There, much better."

"Thanks." Niall feels like he couldn't stop grinning if he wanted to, and Zayn's hiding a smile behind his hand.

"See you later, we'll have to do this again sometime," Zayn says as Niall's actually getting out of the car. Niall's smile gets impossibly wider before he forces it to shrink and turns, holding the door open.

"Yeah, we will. You still need the answer to your question." It's more daring than he's used to being but the way Zayn's face lights up with amusement is more than worth it.

"That I do." Zayn starts the car again as Niall closes the door. Niall steps back, and Zayn waves before driving off. Niall watches until he can't see his tail lights anymore, then starts his walk home. He needs to call Liam before he explodes.

--

"Okay, talk to me." Louis's voice is as demanding as it ever gets as he practically slams his tray down on the table.

"Er-" Niall stammers. Louis doesn't take his eyes off Niall even as he picks up his sandwich and takes a bite of it. "How d'you mean?"

"Come on, I need details! Your text was terribly vague and Liam is awful at getting the right details." Louis gives Liam a very unimpressed look and Liam just looks back, unsure of whether to laugh or roll his eyes. He eventually decides on the latter and turns back to his own lunch.

"I don't know, what are the right details?" Niall asks, spearing his fork into a piece of chicken on his tray. It doesn't really taste like chicken as he chews thoughtfully, but it's food, and that's what really matters.

Louis clears his throat like he's about to deliver some grand speech. "'We kissed for the rest of the movie, then he drove me home and we made out in his car.'" He leans forward with his eyes narrowed. "That is insufficient."

Niall's cheeks are flaming and he pushes some of his food aimlessly around his plate. "Well, I dunno. That's all that happened, really."

"How was it!" Louis asks loudly, ignoring Harry's half-hearted attempts to shush him. "Did he whisper sweet nothings in your ear? Did he let you touch his cheekbones?" He grabs Harry's hand from the table and squeezes it to stall any huffs or grumbles. The way he laces their fingers is almost automatic. "Did he use too much tongue?"

"It was... Really good." Niall's getting flustered just thinking about it, honestly. "It depends on what you mean by sweet nothings. Uh, I guess I might've touched his cheekbones a few times." To be honest, the whole thing's kind of a blur of kissing and touching and more kissing. Niall has no idea what his hands were doing the whole time. "No, he didn't use too much tongue. It was... Really nice."

Louis looks delighted. "Did he whisper unsweet nothings into your ear? Tell me!" He leans even closer, eyes bright with an almost mad enthusiasm. "I am your best friend, you have to tell me."

"Oh god, I can't say it out loud," Niall grumbles, digging into his pocket for his phone and then tapping out exactly what Zayn had sad to him toward the end of the date. 'u blush a lot wen i kiss u… i wonder if u'd blush wen i did other things?' He sends it and waits for Louis to figure out which pocket his phone is in.

Louis finally digs it out from Harry’s pocket – though that’s more of a common occurrence than really makes sense. He flicks through a few other unread messages before reaching Niall’s. It takes him only a few seconds to read it, and then begin whooping with laughter.

Harry grabs Louis’s phone before he can drop it, reading the message there and raising his eyebrows. “Interesting,” he murmurs, flicking his eyes at Niall. “Does this explain why you’re wearing a scarf even though it’s boiling out?”

Niall blushes as even Liam gives him a surprised look. He fiddles with the end of his scarf, looking toward the ceiling. “Er – I get cold easily?”

“No, you don’t!” Niall doesn’t know if he’s ever seen Louis look so excited. “Come on, let’s see it!”

Niall sighs, resigned to his fate. If even Liam is peering at him with some semblance of curiosity, there’s no way he’s getting out of this lunchroom without showing them. He leans forward and tugs the scarf down to expose the mark on his neck. He knows what it looks like from the morning, when he’d stumbled into the bathroom to shower and noticed the bright splotch of color against his skin. He imagines it’s more obvious because he’s pale; lovebites on Louis’s neck have never looked this blatant.

Harry lets out a low, impressed whistle, and Louis seems stunned into silence. For his part, Liam makes an aborted movement like he’s about to touch the bruise before snatching his hand back into his lap.

“Doesn’t it hurt?” he asks instead, turning in his seat to get a better look. “It looks painful.”

Niall shrugs. “Not really, I mean, it mostly feels normal unless I poke at it – Ow!” He glares at Louis, who looks slightly sheepish. “That wasn’t an invitation!”

“Sounded like one.” Louis leans across the table again, but keeps his hands to himself. “Jesus, that’s a good one.”

Niall readjusts his scarf, helping it lie flat along his neck. “It was pretty fun to get, as well.” He chances a glance at the football table, exchanging smiles with Zayn. The other boy bites his lip, his eyes lingering noticeably on Niall’s scarf. Niall just shrugs and turns back to his friends.

“Are you going out again, then?” Harry asks expectantly. His eyes, along with the others’, had followed Niall’s gaze.

“I think so. He said we should do it again sometime. Though,” Niall says, scratching his arm, “He wasn’t really clear about whether he meant the date or the kissing.”

“Well, one sort of implies the other,” Liam reasons. “Have you talked to him since?”

“We texted a bit.” Niall flushes lightly as he remembers the exchange they’d had yesterday. Niall’s never thought he was bad at flirting, but Zayn’s definitely better at it. “He’s, yeah, I think he wouldn’t have a problem doing the kissing thing again.”

“Please tell me you’re going to be this flustered in Bio.” Louis looks practically gleeful. “I hate paying attention in that class.”

“You never pay attention anyway,” Niall mumbles. He’s pretty sure, though, that Louis will be extra entertained today.

--

“Oh – Oh, this is brilliant.”

Louis is sitting back in his seat watching Niall with a tremendously amused expression. He’s been in the same position since they arrived, eyes never leaving his friend. Niall wants to strangle him, a little.

What, Louis?” he finally asks, shooting what he hopes is an intimidating look Louis’s way. It doesn’t work very well, if the way Louis is still smiling is any indication.

“You’re adorable,” Louis informs him. “You’ve been tapping your leg since we sat down, and you can’t stop glancing at the door.”

“Shut up,” is all Niall can think to mutter, not in the least because Zayn’s just come through the door. Louis remains blessedly silent, tilting his chair onto the back two legs as Zayn stops in front of their table.

“Hey,” Zayn greets. It’s his standard greeting, Niall thinks. “Alright?”

Niall smiles up at him. “Yeah. You?”

“Mhmm.” He sets his hand over Niall’s so quickly Niall’s not sure it happened at first, then makes his way to his seat, pulling out his notebook and a pencil.

Louis lets out a deep breath from next to him. Niall wasn’t aware he was holding his own, as well, but his lungs are aching a bit.

“That was hot,” Louis mumbles, leaning his chin onto his hand and looking from Niall to Zayn past him. “He is hot. You’re fully aware.”

“Yep,” Niall agrees. He flexes his hand where he imagines he can still feel the phantom warmth of Zayn’s palm. “Wow.”

“Wow,” Louis repeats with a nod. “Mm.”

Niall spares him a look, punching him in the shoulder. “Hey, you’ve got your own.”

“Too right I do.” The vaguely dreamy look doesn’t leave Louis’s face. “I miss him.”

“You are – ridiculous.” Niall huffs through his smile. They really are cute, especially when he’s not as painfully single as he usually is. “You can barely last twenty minutes.”

“Harry says it’s romantic, so fuck you,” Louis says in response, shaking his head a little until he looks like his normal, cheerful self again. “Did you do the homework from Friday?”

“I’m guessing you didn’t?” It’s not a real question, considering Louis never does his homework. Niall slides his paper over so that he and Louis can share while the teacher goes over the answers. It’s not that Louis’s stupid; he’s just lazy. As they go down the page, he’s working everything out just fine on his own.

Louis grins up at Niall when Niall releases a put-upon sigh. “You love me,” he reminds the blond boy.

“Reluctantly,” is Niall’s response. He grins when Louis swats his arm.

“You love me perfectly… What’s the opposite of reluctantly? You love me,” Louis says firmly. “There’s no reluctant about it.”

“Whatever you say.” Niall gives him a skeptical look, but to be honest, Louis’s definitely right.

They work fairly quietly for the next twenty minutes, though Louis does his best to distract Niall from doing anything potentially productive. Niall wonders sometimes if it’s Louis’s goal in life to just keep everyone from doing what they’re supposed to do.

“You just don’t apply yourself,” Niall says once they’ve finally gotten through it, in a probably poor imitation of their teacher.

“I apply myself to the important things.” Louis busies himself doodling a naked man on the corner of Niall’s paper. It’s in pencil, so Niall doesn’t bother stopping him.

“Like Harry,” Niall mutters, drawing a little hat on the naked man’s head.

“Like Hazza,” Louis agrees, finishing the drawing with a flourish. “How much longer should I pretend to be paying attention?”

Niall checks the time. “Class is over in about five.”

“Good, good.” Louis leans back on the legs of his chair again. “So,” he says, his voice so quiet Niall has to lean closer to hear him. “You really like this guy?”

Niall is taken aback at how – serious, Louis seems to be. “Yeah,” he responds just as quietly. “He’s nice. I don’t know much about him other than he’s a good kisser and he has sisters, but…” He shrugs. “I like him.”

“He better not hurt you,” Louis says breezily. He’s not bothering to keep his voice down as much now, and Niall’s pretty sure it’s deliberate.

“We’ve been on one date, Lou,” Niall laughs. “You can save the overprotective brother bit for a little farther along the line, okay?”

“Hmph.” Louis looks up at the ceiling for a bit. “Still. He’d better not.”

Niall gives up. “I’m sure he won’t.”

“Good.” The bell rings after a moment, and the front legs of Louis’s chair hit the floor with a bang. Niall takes his time gathering his things, and is rewarded when he looks up to see Zayn standing beside his table. He looks half-amused and half-something else Niall can’t identify.

“Nice scarf,” he says quietly, eyes drifting down Niall’s frame. “Bit warm for it, though?”

Niall smiles at him, swinging his bag over his shoulder. “Is it?” he asks. “Hadn’t noticed.”

Zayn grins back, and it’s so overwhelming that Niall doesn’t move as the other boy’s hand grips his scarf, tugging it to the side. His eyes are intent on the mark he made, and as Niall remains still, his thumb moves over it exceedingly gently.

“I’ll see you later, yeah?” Zayn asks, tucking Niall’s scarf back into its proper place. “Text me?”

“Yeah, of course.” Niall swallows as Zayn’s fingertips brush across his jaw in what might be an accidental caress. “I’ll see you.”

Zayn’s gaze flicking to Louis behind Niall. “Hi,” he greets, a half-smile curling his lips. “I’m Zayn, don’t think I’ve ever actually introduced myself.”

“Uh,” is Louis’s response, and Niall snickers before Louis regains himself. “Right, yeah, I’m Louis. Nice to meet you?” He sounds slightly flustered, which never happens. Niall relishes it.

“I don’t intend on hurting him,” is all Zayn says after that, giving Louis a firm nod before strolling to the door.

“Well, good,” Louis says belatedly after Zayn’s already left. “Jesus, Nialler, pick someone less intimidating next time,” he murmurs, grasping Niall’s wrist lightly and tugging him along. “We’re gonna be late.”

“I didn’t really pick him,” Niall points out. “Mostly he picked me.”

“Same difference.”

--

When Niall leaves the building to go out to Liam’s car, Zayn is waiting for him outside. It startles him so much that for a moment, he just stares at the other boy. He looks effortlessly casual, leaning against the building and flicking a lighter's flame on and then off again.

When Zayn sees him, he stops and shoves the lighter into his pocket. "Hey," he says in greeting. "You get a ride home, right?"

Niall doesn't question how he knows, though really, how does he know that? "Er, yeah," he says instead. "My friend Liam gives me a ride."

Zayn gives him a contemplative look. "Is that the curly haired one with the dimples?"

Niall muffles a snort. "No, that's Harry."

"Oh, so the other one, with the eyebrows?" Zayn actually sort of gestures toward his own eyebrows before apparently realizing that Niall knows what eyebrows are and lowering his hand.

"Yeah, that's Liam. He's been driving me since he got his license; he doesn't live very far from me."

Zayn looks like he's actually filing the information away. "Alright, I'll remember that," he says. "Mind if I walk you to his car? Big carpark, y'know, you might get lost."

Liam always parks in the same place, but it's not like Niall's going to say no. "Yeah, of course, if you don't mind." He grins at the other boy.

"Wouldn't have offered if I minded, would I?" Zayn gives him a pointed look, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. It makes Niall feel all liquid inside, like he's melting down to his toes.

"S'pose not." He jerks a thumb over his shoulder, taking a step in that direction. "Comin'?"

Zayn easily falls in step beside him, the backs of his knuckles knocking against Niall's. Niall feels both like he should take Zayn's hand and like he shouldn't, so compromises by knocking his own knuckles back against Zayn's instead. Zayn gives him this sort of amused look, but doesn't mention it.

"I only ever see you around those three," he states, giving Niall a sidelong glance. "Do you have other friends?"

Niall shrugs a shoulder. "I've got friends," he states, unsure if he should be slightly offended or not. "Just, I've known them a long time, they're like... Like brothers, almost." He hesitates over it, because he's pretty sure brothers isn't the right word. You don't watch your brothers kiss and you definitely don't kiss them, but it's the closest he can figure.

Zayn hums in understanding. "I get that. I was just wondering."

"What about you?" Niall asks as he shifts his bag up his shoulder a little. The strap keeps digging in and pinching his skin. "Have you made friends here, yet?"

Zayn gets that little half smile again, and the look he gives Niall would make his toes curl if he wasn't walking. "A few."

"Oh," is all Niall can think to say. It comes out breathy and he's sure he's blushing. "Well, that's nice, right?"

"Mhmm," Zayn replies, his smile widening. "It's very nice. Quite pleasurable."

Zayn's eyes shift down a little, and Niall knows what he's looking at. The strap of his bag is pulling his scarf from its carefully arranged place, and he can feel the air on his neck where the bruise Zayn left is.

Zayn bobs his head a little toward his neck. "Does that hurt at all?"

"Nope," Niall promptly responds. It does, a bit, but he doesn't want to imply that he minds. "Not at all."

"Good." Zayn looks away, ahead of them again, but Niall can still see that a smile's blossomed on his face. "I had fun giving it to you."

Niall knows they've reached Liam's car, and Zayn does as well, obviously, as he slows to a stop beside the passenger door. Niall doesn't dare look inside at Liam yet.

"I guess this is where we go our separate ways," Zayn states, frowning a little. "I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Definitely," Niall agrees. He doesn't know the etiquette for this. Should he wave goodbye? Kiss him? Thankfully, Zayn makes that decision for him, arms slipping around Niall's back in a hug that presses them together from shoulder to chest.

"I'll text you later?" he murmurs in Niall's ear as his fingers weave into Niall's hair at the back and tug gently.

"Mm," is all Niall can manage to say in response, a bizarre hybrid between a whimper and a sigh. It's entirely embarrassing, but the way Zayn laughs in his ear doesn't sound harsh or mocking, just low and amused. It makes heat coil tightly in the pit of Niall's stomach.

When Zayn pulls back, he curls his hand over Niall's neck, his palm warm over the still exposed mark. It only lasts a moment but the air around them feels charged now.

Finally, Zayn takes a step back, the moment broken. He dips into his pocket to pull out his lighter again, nodding at Niall before he turns a little and opens the door of Liam's car for him. Niall slides in once he realizes, letting Zayn close the door after him.

"Drive safely," he says through the open window, eyes bright on Liam in the driver's seat. His eyes land on Niall once more, and he kisses his fingertips, patting Niall's cheek before pivoting to weave through the other cars.

There is silence in the car for a minute or two before Liam speaks in a hushed voice from next to Niall.

"Holy shit."

"Yeah," Niall replies, still staring after Zayn. "Basically."

--

This is pretty much the pattern for the next few days. Niall will exchange glances and occasionally snippets of conversation with Zayn during the day, and then the other boy will meet him outside after school and walk him to Liam's car. Louis is incredulous and slightly jealous, Harry is amused and huffy, at Louis, and Liam has a front row seat to the spectacle. It's gotten to the point where Niall just expects him and doesn't even bother with a hello before launching into a conversation about what happened during his last class.

They ease into a sort of comfortable camaraderie. With each day, Niall feels less awkward, and he's pretty sure Zayn feels the same. He still doesn't talk as much as Niall does, but he smiles more easily and has more than one expression. Niall is rather fond of the affectionately indulgent one he has when Niall talks the whole way across the carpark, though he thinks the hair ruffle is a bit much.

Niall's still not expecting it, though, when during a break for breath in a story about something he'd had for lunch, Zayn takes his hand, squeezes it, and asks, "Are you busy tomorrow?"

He kind of forgets all about what he's saying, staring at Zayn in surprise. For his part, Zayn just looks back, as though they've always held hands and this is just perfectly normal.

Well, if Zayn can act like this is nothing new, so can he, Niall decides. He squeezes Zayn's hand back as he thinks. Today's Thursday, which would make tomorrow yet another day where he has no plans. "Nope," he answers, looking back toward Zayn. "Any reason why?"

"D'you want to go out again?" And maybe Niall should've been expecting that, at least, but it makes his stomach clench pleasantly nonetheless.

"Yes," Niall is responding before he can even think about it. He doesn't have to think about it, really. The potential for more kissing is looming on the horizon, and Niall has every intention of taking advantage. "I'd love to."

Zayn beams at him, that's the only word Niall can think of for it. His teeth are showing and his eyes are crinkled up a little and wow, Niall thinks, struck dumb, wow.

"Cool," Zayn says, quickly back to the half-amused half-bored expression he usually wears. Niall misses the smile with a bit of a pang, swallowing hard. "I thought maybe we could go for sandwiches or somethin'."

"I like sandwiches," Niall says immediately. His palm is starting to get a little sweaty but like hell is he letting go. "Sounds great."

"Cool," Zayn says again. He smiles at Niall, wider than usual but not the grin from before. Niall wonders vaguely what it would take to coax it out again, but rapidly refocuses when Zayn continues. "I'll pick you up again. Seven okay?"

"Seven's perfect," Niall says with a smile, swinging their hands a little between them. This all feels slightly surreal, but in the best way possible. "Can't wait."

"Me either," Zayn says. It's drowned out by the loud blare of a car horn, but Niall can read the words from his lips. They've arrived at Liam's car again. Niall feels slightly sad and then like a dick, because Liam is his best friend and Zayn is just this guy he likes.

Niall opens his arms automatically for their usual hug, which Zayn promptly bestows upon him. Before he pulls all the way back, though, he presses a kiss to the very corner of Niall's mouth, letting it linger there as though he's making sure Niall is aware of what he just did.

It's the first time they've even almost kissed since their last date. Niall feels a shiver roll up his spine and hopes it wasn't visible, though with how close Zayn is to him, he's pretty sure it was.

Zayn doesn't mention it, but there's a softer curve to his smile when he steps away and nods to Liam. Liam gives him a wave back, from what Niall can see. It's become normal, this. Niall thinks maybe it'd be routine, except for how Zayn likes to throw in little things like that kiss or holding hands to trip Niall up.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Niall." Zayn says as he takes a few more steps backward, handily darting around the car behind him. Niall reacts the way he always does when Zayn says his name: he bites his lip very hard to stop the noise he wants to make from escaping and blushes. He's really got to figure out a way to stop that happening, actually.

"See you," he says belatedly, but Zayn is already out of hearing range, the flicker of his lighter barely visible as he strolls past a green SUV.

"How is my life my life?" he asks Liam as he finally gets into the car.

"I have no idea," Liam responds with a shake of his head. He's been growing his hair out lately, and Niall thinks it suits him. "If you figure out, though, you know when my birthday is."

--

Louis is sulking. He'd never admit that he's sulking, but Niall's known him for a long time, and he knows a pout when he sees one. Louis's lip is even pooching out a little.

"Stop pouting at me," he instructs, but Louis just continues to sulk, even as he takes a bite out of his sandwich. "I'm sorry! We can hang out tomorrow, right?"

"I can't believe you're blowing off your friends for a guy." Louis's voice is stoic, and Harry rolls his eyes.

"Come off it, Lou," he mutters, giving Niall an encouraging smile. "Have fun on your date, man, of course we can hang out tomorrow instead."

Niall can't help the frown pulling his lips down. "I - I didn't think I was blowing anyone off," he says quietly. "Have I been?"

"Of course you haven't." Niall can't see the stern look Liam is giving Louis, but he can hear it in his voice. "Louis's just in a mood. D'you know where you're going yet?"

"He just said maybe we'd get sandwiches," Niall replies, still feeling a bit guilty as Louis mutters about how they could've gotten sandwiches.

"Stop making him feel bad!" Harry huffs, narrowing his eyes at Louis. It's not quite a glare because Harry is terrible at really telling Louis off. "You should be happy for Niall. Plus, if he's out on a date, that means we can go on a date."

Louis's frown only lets up slightly. "But what about Liam? We can't just leave him all alone on a Friday night. He'll do homework or something."

Harry shrugs. "So we'll bring him with us," he says as though Liam has no say in the matter.

"Er-" Liam tries to break in, but Louis is already talking over him.

"We could do that," he says, a contemplative expression replacing the previous bitchy one. "Bowling, d'you think?"

"No, they do the thing I hate, y'know, with the-"

"The liquid cheese, yeah. The beer's cheap, though, and I'm not made of money, darling."

Harry wrinkles his nose. "Tastes cheap, too. Why don't we just stay in? Li, wanna come over tonight?" He finally turns to include Liam in their conversation. "Mum's making that casserole thing."

"You're not even supposed to know the difference between cheap and not-cheap beer, you are a child-"

"Shut up, Boo," Harry says calmly, continuing to wait expectantly for Liam's response.

For his part, Liam is just flicking his eyes between Harry and Louis with a vaguely dismayed expression. Niall knows they'll both think it's because they're dragging him away from his homework, but Niall also knows Liam only enjoys schoolwork as much as the next student. He's much more upset at the thought that he'll be alone with Harry and Louis and of course, they're going to be... Harry-and-Louis-ing everywhere.

When it's the four of them, Liam can play off Niall, use him to focus on. Without him there, though...

Still, Liam's awful at telling his friends no, so he just nods, a half-grimace on his face.

"Wonderful!" Louis begins eating with much more gusto, his expression cheerful again. Niall's grateful. Louis's face really doesn't suit frowns.

"Yeah, wonderful," Liam mutters, giving Niall a sidelong glance. For his part, Niall can only shrug unobtrusively and give him an apologetic look.

"You can still hang out tomorrow, though, right, Nialler?" Harry asks, and when Niall looks up, he's still staring straight at him. His eyes, though, flick from him to Liam with vague consternation. Apparently they weren't subtle enough.

"Yeah, of course!" Niall exclaims, sucking a bit of peanut butter from his wrist. How'd that get there? "Just text me and let me know when."

"Maybe we will, maybe we won't," Louis states with a huff. Harry mouths 'We will,' at Niall when Louis's not looking, though, so Niall isn't too concerned.

"Are you going to be a dick to me through all of Bio, or will I get a reprieve then?" Niall asks politely, sliding his empty tray under Liam's. "Only we're working in groups today; I asked this morning."

Louis looks entirely unimpressed. "He's going to work with us, isn't he." It's not a question.

Niall shrugs. "I dunno. Would that be a problem?" He really hopes not. There's already enough uncertainty surrounding who Zayn is. He doesn't want his friends to dislike him as well.

Louis sighs heavily as Harry jabs him in the ribs. "First - Ow," he says with a pointed look at his boyfriend. "Second, no, it's not a problem, get the sad puppy look off your face," he mumbles. "I feel like I've just taken candy from - well, you."

"Eye candy, maybe," Harry suggests. He looks satisfied with Louis's repentance, though, which is good enough for Niall.

"I think you'll like him," Niall says, giving Liam a grateful look when he stands to take their trash to the bins. "He's... He's interesting."

"Whatever, just don't play footsie with him under the table the whole time," Louis commands. "It's that kind of gross-romantic." He seems determined to ignore how one of his hands hasn't made it above the table this whole time because he's drawing pictures with his fingers on Harry's thigh.

Niall shakes his head with a smile. "I make no promises."

--

Predictably, Louis's defenses almost immediately crumble upon his first glimpse of Zayn, cheekbones and all. He sighs with an annoyed look at Niall.

“It’s not fair,” he mumbles, lips pursed. “That’s cheating. Illegal advantage.”

“Having cheekbones isn’t illegal, Louis,” Niall replies back under his breath. He grins at Zayn when their teacher tells them to get into groups to work on the worksheet, tilting his head in question. For his part, Zayn just smiles back, bobbing his head at Louis and giving him a curious look. “It’s alright with you if Zayn works with us, right, Lou?” he asks, turning to face Louis so that Zayn won’t see the puppy dog eyes he tries to use.

Louis sighs. “Fine. Fine. But can he leave his cheekbones at his table?”

“I don’t think that’s how it works, mate.” Zayn sounds like he’s suppressing laughter. “They’re sort of attached to my face.”

“No.” Louis gives him an annoyed look. “You’re not allowed to be witty and have fantastic cheekbones. How am I supposed to have a proper defense against that?”

“Well, you could just not have a defense against me?” Zayn reasons, shrugging a shoulder. His fingers are lightly wrapped around Niall’s wrist, stroking small circles on his skin. “I promise, I’m a nice person.”

Louis’s shoulders relax a little. “Yeah, well.” He swallows. Niall smiles to himself. Louis is terrible at being standoffish toward people for any extended period of time. He likes making people laugh too much to really be mean. “We’ll just see.” There’s a grin touching his lips now, though, so Niall lets out a quiet whoosh of air, relieved.

“Have we got any idea how to do this, then?” Zayn asks, his pen tapping against the sheet of paper in front of him. His hand has slipped down to hold Niall’s. It’s a good thing it’s his right hand, or he wouldn’t be able to write.

“I can’t even remember the last time I actually paid attention in this class,” Louis murmurs. His eyes flit over the questions on the paper, brows furrowing in confusion. “Nialler?”

“Well, we do the homework…” Niall looks over the sheet himself. “It can’t be too hard, right?”

Zayn gives him a very skeptical look. Louis just snorts.

Louis’s mouth twists into a small frown when he notices their hands disappearing together below the table. He releases a sigh. “I miss Harry,” he mutters as he doodles a little curly haired stick figure in the corner of his paper.

“Curly hair, right?” Zayn asks. He’s still relaxed, but there’s an undercurrent to his voice that Niall can’t quite figure out. “Big eyes, dimples?”

Louis perks up and Niall very nearly groans. They’re never going to get work done now, not when Zayn’s just expressed vague interest in Louis’s favorite subject: Harry.

“Yeah, that’s him. D’you know him?” He looks confused and Niall can’t blame him. As far as he’s aware, Zayn hasn’t ever interacted with Harry.

“Nah,” Zayn denies easily. “You sit with him, at lunch. Him and the one you drive home with,” he says, looking at Niall. “Erm… Liam?”

“Yeah, Liam.” Niall hopes he doesn’t look as pleased as he feels that Zayn is trying to get to know his friends.

“Right, yeah.” Zayn turns back to Louis. “You’re cute together.”

Louis beams at him, then tries to tone it down. “Thank you. I intend to keep him, so I guess it’s good we suit each other’s faces.”

“It’s not just that, y’know, it’s really clear how much you care about each other.” Zayn shrugs a shoulder like he’s not making Louis’s day right now. The other boy’s face is flushed with pleased happiness.

“Well… Well, thanks.” It only takes a glance for Niall to figure out Zayn’s won Louis over. While the cheekbones certainly don’t hurt, mostly Louis takes a liking to anybody who isn’t a dick to or about Harry.

“Not a problem.” Zayn shrugs again, seemingly back to his laid back and quiet persona. Sometimes Niall will think there’s something underneath he’s missing, when Zayn talks about something he really likes or looks at Niall in a certain way, and he’ll think there’s something else there, but then Zayn lapses back to few words and fewer facial expressions and Niall doesn’t ask why.

“We should probably actually do this,” Niall says with a frown, looking down at the worksheet. Zayn looks reluctant and Louis even more so, but they agree with near matching pinched expressions.

Miraculously, they manage to finish before the bell rings, and after Zayn hugs Niall goodbye, he actually gives Louis a smile and a “Was nice talking to you,” before he leaves.

“Alright, I approve,” Louis mutters before dragging him out the door. Niall couldn’t stop smiling if he wanted to.

--

Zayn’s there to meet Niall when he exits the school, like always. Louis had spent most of band class telling the others all about Zayn and Niall’s ‘torrid love affair’ – his words – through a complicated series of hand gestures and some exuberant mouthing of words. It hadn’t been as embarrassing as it could’ve been. Harry’s really the only one who seemed to understand at all, but maybe that was just him being amused by Louis and muffling a laugh around the mouthpiece of his clarinet. Liam had simply given Louis a perplexed look and continued playing, undeterred.

“Hi,” Zayn says as he steps up next to Niall. He’s fiddling with a cigarette, which makes Niall raise his eyebrows. He supposes it’s what he should’ve guessed, considering how often he’s seen Zayn with that lighter, but it hadn’t quite clicked until now. He feels stupid, but… Well, It’s not really any of his business anyway, he reasons.

“Hey,” Niall smiles, bobbing his head toward the little white stick in Zayn’s fingers. “I didn’t know you smoke.”

“Sometimes,” Zayn says with a cautious look. Niall gets the feeling it’s more than sometimes. “Is it a problem?”

“No,” Niall says easily, shrugging. Zayn can do what he wants with his body, as far as Niall is concerned. He does notice that Zayn’s shoulders relax a modicum at his words.

He digs a lighter from his pocket and Niall’s not sure that he meant right now, he’s okay with it, but Zayn’s already cupping his hand around the flame as he guides it to the stick in his mouth. It lights with an orange glow.

Zayn’s obviously not new to this. His motions are easy as he takes a drag off his cigarette, then taps off the end, his other hand gripping Niall’s wrist carefully. He does that a lot, the holding Niall’s hand without really holding Niall’s hand thing. He likes it, but he does wonder why Zayn won’t just go the extra two inches to press their palms together.

“We’re still on for tonight, right?” Zayn says, his cigarette held delicately between two fingers. Niall’s weirdly distracted by it.

“Er, yeah,” he says after a moment, eyes intent on the way Zayn’s lips purse around the cigarette as he inhales again. When he releases the smoke, it’s strangely hot, his jaw in stark contrast, his damp lips in a pink ‘O’ shape, the fluidity of his motions. Niall wonders incredulously how it is that Zayn makes smoking look like something beautiful. “Yeah, I’m good if you are.”

“Good,” Zayn agrees as he takes another drag and lets it out. “You always ride home with him, right?” he asks, head jerking in the general direction of Liam’s car. “With Liam?”

“Yeah, since he got the car,” Niall confirms. “Before that, we were all in Lou’s car, which was a hassle because it’s not really meant for four people. Now he just drives Harry.”

“Boyfriend Harry,” Zayn murmurs. “Boyfriend Harry with the curls.”

“Yeah, that’s him.” Niall couldn’t stop his smile from forming if he tried.

“And Louis’s in our Bio class. And a little bit crazy.” Zayn looks to Niall for confirmation.

Niall laughs, scratching his head. “Yeah, he gets a bit funny around new people. If he doesn’t know you very well, he sort of… Overcompensates.”

“Just a bit.” Zayn looks more amused than irritated. “He’s alright, though. Bit too infatuated with m’cheekbones, but that’s alright, I guess. Long as his boyfriend doesn’t mind.”

Niall thinks absently that Harry minds quite a bit, but that’s not really Zayn’s fault. “They’re very nice cheekbones,” he says instead of mentioning it. “I can see why he’d be driven to distraction.”

Zayn gives him a smile, dropping his cigarette butt to the ground and crushing it with the heel of his foot. “Can you?” he murmurs, stepping closer to him. They’ve stopped walking now, standing next to Liam’s car.

“Mhmm,” Niall replies, but that’s all he can get out before Zayn is actually, properly, kissing him. It’s always been cheek kisses or hugs before, not this gentle pressure on the back of his neck and the taste of smoke in his mouth. It’s really not bad, sort of like breathing in when you’re too close to a bonfire. It tickles the back of his throat and lingers at the corners of his mouth when Zayn pulls away.

“I’ll see you tonight,” Zayn whispers, one hand firm on Niall’s hip. “Pick you up at seven?”

Niall barely manages to reply without stammering. “Sounds great. I’ll be ready.”

Zayn gives him one last peck on the lips before sauntering off, apparently unaware of all the people looking at them out of the corners of their eyes.

“This is getting ridiculous,” Liam says when Niall finally gets into the car. “Next time you’re going to just start making out against my car.”

“I hope so,” Niall says dreamily. The punch Liam gives his arm really doesn’t hurt very much, so it’s totally worth it.

--

The place Zayn takes Niall to is small, but it looks clean when they step inside and there's an aroma of baking bread that reminds him of being young. It's pretty instantly comforting, and Niall's shoulders relax with a smile.

"This is nice," he says, twining their fingers together. Zayn's looking at him with an expression Niall doesn't recognize, but it doesn't look negative. "D'you come here a lot?"

"Hmm," Zayn hums noncommittally. "Sometimes. They make good soup."

The familiar way one of the waitresses waves to Zayn makes Niall think he probably comes here more than he just implied. He doesn't wave back, but he nods and his smile widens.

"C'mon, there's a table I always get," Zayn urges, tugging on Niall's hand. He leads him to a table in the corner, far from the clatter of the kitchen or the soft ding that the bell above the door makes whenever it opens. It's cozy, really, and Niall smiles as he sits down.

"I wouldn't think you’d've been here long enough to have a table you always get," he says, stretching his legs out under the table. His foot nudges Zayn's and Zayn nudges back, giving him yet another small smile.

"I really like soup," he says with a shrug of his shoulder.

"Oh, is that it?" Niall smiles back, scooting his chair closer to the table. "I really like soup too." Immediately, he wishes he'd said anything else. Zayn's laughing a little, though, and it doesn't seem like it's at him.
"So there's another thing we've got in common," Zayn replies with a quirk of his lips. He only ever seems to smile in quirks or bits, like he's afraid if he smiles too widely it'll destroy this mysterious image he's built up. "We both like soup."

"Who doesn't like soup?" Niall reasons. "So, uh," he says then, fumbling for something else to discuss. "Do you like it here so far?"

Zayn shrugs. "There are perks." The way he casts his eyes at Niall makes it clear what one of those perks is. "Really, schools are schools, y'know? It's all pretty shit."

"Yeah," Niall answers immediately. "Yeah, I definitely get that. But, I mean, you play football, right? So it could be worse."

The look Zayn gives him makes Niall think he's just said something wrong. "I'm gay," he says quietly, raising his eyebrows. "And it's not like I've been subtle about how much I like you. It's a bit - tense, right now."

"I'm sorry." Niall worries his lower lip, feeling suddenly guilty. "I didn't mean to... Make things difficult for you."

Zayn waves a hand then, but the smile on his face doesn't really ring true. "I like what I like. They'll deal with it. Besides, you're too hot to just give up."

Niall's face flushes like it always does. "Warm in here, isn't it?" he says, pressing the backs of his hands to his face. They're cooler than his cheeks by a good margin.

"No, you're just blushing." Zayn looks very amused now. "It's really cute."

Niall groans quietly. "Shut up," he mutters. His face feels like it's on fire.

"But why would I do that? I like you that color. Pink really suits you." Zayn's teasing him, Niall realizes, and it makes his stomach constrict for multiple reasons. It's such a - it's like what Louis and Harry do.

Luckily, though, he doesn't have to think of a witty response. Their waitress is an older woman, with long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. She greets Zayn happily, and with his name. Zayn looks a little embarrassed, but doesn't blush, as far as Niall can tell. Damn him.

"The soup, right?" she asks, already scribbling it down in her notepad. "And what about you, honey?" She looks at Niall expectantly and he stumbles over his words. He hasn't even looked at the menu yet, how is he supposed to-?

Zayn reaches over and swipes his menu gently, handing it to the waitress - Emma, her name tag says - and smiling up at her.

"Just get him the sandwich," he assures her, and she bobs her head, writing that down as well.

"And to drink?"

"D'you like tea?" Zayn asks Niall, and Niall manages a yes before the waitress is whisking away.

"What sort of sandwich is this?" he asks, out of his element. "The Sandwich just sounds a bit... Ominous."

Zayn laughs, covering it with his hand. "You'll like it, trust me," he answers, though that's really not an answer at all.

"Alright," Niall says dubiously. To be honest, though, he's never really met a food he didn't enjoy. "You really do like the soup, huh?"

"Delicious," Zayn confirms. "Never get anything else."

"Then how d'you know The Sandwich is good?" Niall yelps. He doesn't know if Zayn's laugh is over his tone of voice or how he's definitely pronouncing the capital letters in The Sandwich without meaning to.

"I just know," Zayn says simply. "You'll like it. Promise." And then he gives Niall this smile that sort of takes his breath away. It's fond, with the remnants of his laughter lingering at the corners.

"Okay," Niall agrees, sort of unable to say anything else for the moment.

Zayn's smile becomes a little smaller until it's just his normal half-smile. Niall misses the other one.

"I meant to ask you," Zayn says, drumming his fingers on the table. He actually looks a little nervous, though Niall thinks he's probably wrong about that. Zayn never seems nervous. "There's this party next Saturday, mate of mine's parents are out of town so he's going crazy. I was just wondering if you might wanna go with me?"

"You... You want me to go with you to a party?" Niall asks. It feels like all the air has rushed out of his lungs. "Are you sure? I mean, if your friends are already not happy about this... Won't your mate mind you bringing me?"

Zayn looks him straight in the eye and moves his hand to cover Niall's on the table, squeezing it. "He's not asking you, I am," he says quietly. "And I'd really like it if you came with me."

Niall can't really do anything after that but agree, his stomach twisting itself in knots. He almost thinks he won't be able to eat any sort of sandwich, let alone The Sandwich.

He can, of course. And Zayn was right, it's delicious.

--

Niall is expecting a little more of a reaction when he tells the others he’s going to a party hosted by a football player.

“Oh, that? Yeah, we’re going to that,” Louis says, heavily leaning over Harry’s back to try and grab his phone. Harry’s bent double over himself to try to keep it away. Niall has no doubt that Harry doesn’t actually care whether Louis sees his phone or not. He just likes when Louis’s all over him.

“What?” he asks, frowning. “Wait, how? Why?”

Harry shrugs as well as he can. “Cher asked this morning if we wanted to,” he wheezes. “I guess the guy’s friends with her and he wants as many people there as possible. Doesn’t really care who they - Louis, get off.”

Louis gasps, pretending to be scandalized. “Harry, we’re in public!” He grins, mouthing a kiss to the side of his neck. “Is it Aiden? Are you texting him about Cardle? Can you tell he’s blushing?”

“Lou,” Harry whines, but Niall notices that he smiles and tips his head back a little. “He’s definitely blushing, though.”

“Anyway,” Liam cuts in, looking steadily at Niall. “He asked you to go with him? Specifically with him?”

“Yeah,” Niall responds happily. “He looked nervous, too, I think. It was cute.”

Louis’s finally sat back in his own seat, but there’s a new red mark peeking out from Harry’s collar and he’s wearing a smug smile. “Adorable. Can I tease him?”

No.” Niall contemplates it for a moment. “Maybe, if you can be subtle about it.”

“I’m the master of subtlety.” Louis actually has the gall to sound offended, even as he curves his hand around Harry’s neck purely to press his thumb against the forming bruise.

“Right,” Niall says skeptically. He looks back to Liam, apparently his only sane friend. “This is a good sign, right?”

“It’s a great sign,” Liam assures. “I mean, if he’d just said there’s this party, do you want to come? That’d be different, but you’re sure he specifically asked you?”

“Yeah, he specifically said ‘I was wondering if you wanted to go to this party with me,’ Niall recites as well as he can from memory. “And I obviously said yes, and now here we are.”

“And now here we are,” Louis agrees cheerfully. “And I can’t help but notice you’re wearing a shirt with an awfully high collar, Horan.”

Niall bites his lip against a grin, hiding it in his hand. “Oh?” he says nonchalantly. “I just really like this shirt, actually.”

“I just bet.” Louis gives him an entirely unimpressed look. “Come on, let’s see it.”

“You care about this too much,” Niall mutters, but he tugs his collar down anyway, leaning forward so Louis can see the fading mark on his neck. It’s higher up than the other one had been, so it had been more difficult to cover up. He had almost considered sneaking some of his mother’s concealer or something. “Why don’t you just give Harry some more?”

Louis smirks at him and Niall immediately knows that whatever he’s about to say isn’t going to be pleasant. “Niall, just because you can’t see any love-bites on him doesn’t mean there aren’t any.” He grabs Harry around the waist and drags him into his lap. For his part, Harry just sighs and lets Louis manhandle him, apparently resigned to the fact that Louis does what he wants when he wants to do it. Louis tugs up Harry’s shirt in the front to proudly show off the obvious hickey about an inch above his navel. “See? Silly.”

A glance tells Niall that Liam’s face is bright red and he’s staring at the remains of his sandwich with remarkable determination.

“Oh, let him go,” Niall huffs, frowning at Louis. It’s not fair because Louis hasn’t even really done anything wrong other than being in stupidly sappy love with someone other than Liam, but Niall can’t help being offended on Liam’s behalf. He figures that if he knows it’s stupid, it doesn’t really count.

Louis pouts at him, but allows Harry to slip off his lap easily enough. “Well, what’s up with you? Someone piss on your head today?”

“No, we’re just in a crowded lunchroom and Harry might not appreciate you flashing his tits to everyone, that’s all.” Niall softens his tone, makes it sound more like a joke.

“All eleven of them, right, Haz?” Louis pinches Harry’s side and Harry both squirms away and somehow scoots his chair closer to Louis’s. He huffs loudly.

“They’re nipples, not tits, and there are only four of them-“

“Eleven,” Louis insists, and he cuts off Harry’s inevitable protest by kissing him. Harry never manages to continue arguments while Louis’s kissing him, so Niall returns to speaking solely to Liam.

“D’you think he meant it like… Like as something more serious?” he asks tentatively. “I mean, we haven’t called this anything yet. It’s just been going out, and kissing a lot, but maybe he wants to be… You know, boyfriends?” He tries to keep the hopeful note out of his voice, but Liam’s known him forever and gives him a knowing look.

“I think, maybe. He’s been walking you to my car for the past week or so, and you know he likes you. Do you do anything other than kiss?”

“We talk, sometimes. There’s a lot of kissing, though.” Niall frowns. “D’you think there should be less?”

Liam shrugs. “No idea. I mean, if you both like kissing…”

“Well, I like it. And he definitely seems to like it,” Niall muses, carefully patting his shirt back into place. He chances a glance at Harry and Louis and then, groaning, lobs a piece of bread at them. “C’mon, you’ve got all day,” he whines.

They do separate, but Harry’s lips are even pinker than normal and, well, distracting. Niall’s only human, he figures, and Harry’s got the lips of someone who could be in porn. Louis’s hair is in disarray, though he immediately reaches up to fix it, grumbling at Harry.

“So, what’ve we decided?” Harry asks expectantly. “You’re going, right? As a couple type thing?”

“I dunno.” Niall fidgets a little. “Maybe he’ll say before we go. Or while we’re there,” he suggests.

“It’s only polite,” Louis agrees, though it’s muffled around the mouthful of Harry’s sleeve he’s bitten down on. “I just hope I’m there. If I know you, and I do, you’re going to blush your face off, and that’s always funny.”

Niall throws his other slice of bread at him. Serves him right that he gets crumbs down his shirt.

--

Not much happens over the next few days. Louis and Harry continue to be disgusting and in love. Liam continues to pine (not very subtly) and Louis continues not to notice, though Niall’s spotted Harry giving Liam a few cautious looks. He really hopes Harry doesn’t get angry or anything. He’s almost positive Liam’s impossible to be angry with, anyway.

Zayn keeps walking Niall to Liam’s car after school, and kissing him before he lets Niall leave. He doesn’t mention the party and Niall doesn’t bring it up, either. In class, it’s the same as always, with Louis chattering beside him and Zayn giving him sideways looks from beneath his lashes that make Niall go shivery and cause Louis to make fun of him.

Thursday, though, something strange happens. The day seems normal until lunch, when Niall is unwrapping his sandwich. The sandwich isn’t what’s weird, though, it’s the body plopping itself down on the other side of his that makes Niall jump and look up.

Normally, Liam sits closest to the aisle, with Niall next to him, and Louis across from Niall, and Harry next to Louis and across from Liam. That’s it, that’s the only people who sit at their table. Now, though, there’s another tray on Niall’s other side, a tattooed arm nudging his when the other boy sits down.

“Hey,” Zayn greets like this is completely normal, like this doesn’t break every rule of the school.

Louis is staring at Zayn like he’s impressed, and Harry like he can’t believe this is actually happening. Niall can’t see Liam’s face, but he imagines it’s something like a mixture of both.

“Hi,” Niall belatedly says back, leaning in to kiss Zayn automatically. “Uh… Did you need something?” he asks, unsure of whether or not Zayn had a specific reason to come over and risk the wrath of the entire football team.

Zayn shakes his head, though, shifting his chair across the floor to sit closer to Niall. “No. I just thought I’d sit here today.” He pauses, eyes scanning the others coolly. “Problem?”

“Nope,” Louis answers immediately, though Harry is slower to shake his head, cautious. Understandable, as he hasn’t actually met Zayn. “This is Harry,” Louis introduces for him, grasping Harry’s hand and holding it out for Zayn to shake. For his part, Zayn doesn’t blink an eye, simply reaching over Niall’s tray and grabbing Harry’s hand.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Zayn draws out, a smile twitching his lips. It might just be Niall’s imagination, but he thinks he’s starting to be able to tell the difference between Zayn’s half-smiles. This one is amused and curious. “I’ve heard loads. Have you really got four nipples?”

Harry instantly switches to glaring at Louis, while Niall cracks up, remembering how that had been one of the things Louis had said while praising Harry’s every quality in class last week. Zayn had nodded and mostly just looked bemused, but apparently he had taken some of it in.

Liam’s smiling, now, though he looks like he’s not sure if he should be. Niall gives him an encouraging grin in the hope that it’ll make him loosen up. Liam’s shy around people he doesn’t know – and sometimes in front of people he does know – so while it’s not exactly unusual for him to be a bit understated around Zayn, Niall wishes he wouldn’t be.

“Louis talks too much,” Harry mumbles once he’s finished poking Louis in the stomach, apparently satisfied with the volume of the squealing noise Louis finally emitted. “Yeah, I have. No, you can’t see them.” He cracks a smile to show he’s not really too upset.

“Alright,” Zayn accepts, his arm stretching across the back of Niall’s seat. “Yours aren’t really the ones I’m interested in, anyway. No offence.”

Niall blushes while Harry snorts with laughter, finally fully grinning at Zayn.

“No offence taken,” Harry returns, leaning his chin onto his hand. “You’re welcome to them, as far as I’m concerned.”

Zayn absently twirls a strand of spaghetti on his plastic fork, peering past Niall at Liam. “Hey,” he greets. Niall’s pretty sure he’s noticed Liam’s sort of silence. “Fix that headlight?”

Yesterday, Zayn had pointed out that one of the headlights on Liam’s car was flickering as the rain slid down it. Liam had stammered quite a lot before saying that he would have to get it looked at.

“Er,” Liam says now, fingers pressing deep indentations in the soft bread of his sandwich. “Yeah, I got a new one yesterday after I dropped Niall off. Good as new.” He chances a hesitant smile and Zayn returns it.

“Good, y’know, driving in the rain with a dodgy headlight isn’t safe.” Zayn sets the hand that he isn’t using to eat on Niall’s back, between his shoulder blades. He rubs a little, in small circles, and Niall can’t help the slightly stupid smile that appears on his face.

Louis is frowning now, but if possible, it’s amused. He scoots his chair closer to Harry’s, hooking their arms together.

Niall’s almost positive now that Louis is attempting to win a competition only taking place in his head. It’s a very Louis thing for him to do. While Niall isn’t really interested in participating in this competition, he figures it can’t really hurt, so he leans his head onto Zayn’s shoulder. It’s right there, anyway, so he might as well.

He closes his eyes as well, so he doesn’t see what Louis does next, but he does hear the squawk Harry releases, and when he blinks his eyes open, Louis’s grinning unrepentantly and Harry’s glaring at him, rubbing the side of his neck.

“Is it always like this?” Zayn asks quietly into Niall’s ear. He sounds like he’s holding back laughter.

“Yeah, mostly,” Niall replies, rolling his head to look up at Zayn. “Is that alright?”

Zayn shrugs, ignoring the rapidly deteriorating tussle on the other side of the table. He calmly bats away a carrot when it comes flying at his head.

“I dunno,” he says finally, leaning down to kiss Niall’s nose with a smile. “I think maybe I could get used to it.”

--

Zayn doesn’t sit with them at lunch the next day, but he does offer Niall a little wave and when Liam goes to throw away their trash, Zayn somehow ends up there at the same time. They have a short conversation which ends when Zayn bursts into laughter and squeezes Liam’s shoulder.

“What’s that all about?” Niall asks once Liam returns, his face beet red. He’s smiling, though, shaking his head incredulously.

“Your boyfriend is weird,” Liam says as he sits back down. He’s picked up on that from Harry and Louis, who’ve been calling Zayn Niall’s boyfriend or his lover or, in Louis’s case, his paramour.

“So’s Louis, but we keep him around anyway,” Niall responds automatically. He ignores Louis’s indignant noise, keeping his eyes on Liam. “Well?”

“Nothing, he just – He just asked me if you drink, and if I do.” Liam shrugs. “I guess he wanted to make sure it’d be alright before the party tomorrow, and he didn’t want to ask you himself. Maybe he’s embarrassed.”

“That is adorable,” Louis says from his position almost in Harry’s lap. “You would’ve thought the Irish accent would’ve tipped him off.”

“Or he doesn’t base his thoughts about things on stereotypes,” Harry says primly. Niall doesn’t know how he manages to sound prim when he’s got this mass of limbs splayed all over him. “Maybe he just wants to know if he’s playing designated driver.”

“Hadn’t thought of that,” Niall admits. “That’s probably it, isn’t it?”

Liam confirms it with a nod, offering Niall a piece of gum. “He said he’s not planning on drinking, but if he does, he wanted to know if I’d be able to get you home.”

“Ugh, he doesn’t look nearly as sweet as he is,” Louis says, throwing a glance across the hall where Zayn is once again seated at the football table. “I think it’s all the black leather and tattoos.”

“He doesn’t wear that much black leather, and you can’t even see all his tattoos,” Niall protests. He flushes as Louis peers curiously at him.

“And how many of his tattoos have you seen, Niall Horan?” he asks suspiciously. “Does he have one on his dick, because I’ll be honest with you, that seems way ostentatious-“

“Oh my god,” Niall groans, rubbing his face. “I don’t know, and if I did, I definitely wouldn’t tell you.”

“Let’s see, he’s got the one on his forearm,” Louis mutters, his eyes focused intently on Zayn in a squint. “And there’s the one on his collarbone you can only see when he wears low cut tops…”

“You can stop staring at other boys any time now,” Harry grumbles, sulking. His eyes simply narrow more when Louis pets his head, fingers stroking through his curls.

“What other ones does he have?” Louis asks after another moment of watching, during which Zayn notices his stare and looks back, tremendously confused.

“He has one on his hip,” Niall admits reluctantly. “That’s all I’m telling you, though.”

Louis makes a sound of approval before dropping back down into Harry’s lap. “Alright, have your secrets.” He leans back into Harry’s embrace, forcing the other boy to let out a whoosh of air. “If Harry got a tattoo, I’d show you all the time.”

“You wouldn’t have to, considering how often he parades around naked,” Liam points out. “If Harry ever got a tattoo, we’d know about it within two minutes.”

“Yeah, well… Whatever.” Louis turns, squirming probably deliberately in Harry’s lap. “You should tattoo my face on your dick.”

“Okay,” Harry sighs agreeably, apparently satisfied simply to hold Louis’s full attention again. “Or you could just put your face on my dick,” he suggests, heedless of Niall’s disgusted groan. He’s not really disgusted by them, he just hates it when they talk about their sex lives in front of Liam. It probably comes with the best friend thing.

“Anyway,” Liam says loudly, turning back to Niall. His face has returned to the mottled pink color it goes when he blushes. “I told him it wouldn’t be a problem, because I only have the one kidney, so I don’t drink.”

“Is that when he started laughing like a ninny?” Harry asks through a purr as Louis nuzzles into his throat.

“No,” Liam replies, not even glancing at them. “He laughed because I might’ve tried to, well, er, make sure he was treating you right.”

“Oh my god,” Niall groans for the second time in one conversation. “I guess at least he found it funny…”

“Yes, hilarious,” Liam says, obviously perturbed. “He did say you were lucky to have friends like us, though,” he adds, perking up a little toward the end of his sentence. “So that’s something, I guess.”

“You really are, terribly fortunate,” Louis says airily as he runs his fingers through the back of Harry’s hair. “I’m surprised you don’t just voluntarily bow at our feet on a daily basis.”

Harry snorts. “Because I’m the only person who bows at your feet, love,” he murmurs, his head tilted onto Louis’s shoulder. They’re adorable, and if Niall didn’t know how it affects Liam, he probably would’ve cooed over them or something equally ridiculous. As it is, he settles for an internal aw and scoots closer to Liam’s chair.

The half-smile, half-grimace Liam sends him is still better than nothing.

--

The bass is up ridiculously loud in this house, so high that Niall can feel it thumping in his throat before he and Zayn even get inside. He nearly has to shout to get Zayn to hear him, leaning close into his ear.

“I’m gonna get a drink!” Niall’s pretty sure that once he gets a beer or two in him, the music won’t be quite as annoying. “D’you want anything?”

Zayn looks like he would like something very much, but he shakes his head. “Maybe later!” he replies, his voice just as raised as Niall’s is. “You go ahead, though, I’ll be over there!” He points off to the side once they squeeze through the door. There’s an unoccupied couch, which is strange because it doesn’t seem like anything else is unoccupied in this house. Every corner is filled with people, and Niall isn’t ordinarily claustrophobic, but he’s suddenly very glad Zayn doesn’t want to dance right now.

“Be right back,” he promises, kissing Zayn’s cheek before slipping around the crowd, pressed up against the wall the whole trek to the kitchen.

It’s lucky he made it, because the second he’s there, Louis’s popping out of nowhere.

“Nialler!” he exclaims, pressing a bottle into Niall’s hand. From the flush on his face and his dopey grin, he’s clearly had a few already. “Have you seen Harry?”

“I only got here a few minutes ago, Lou,” says Niall, amused. He twists the top off his bottle and takes a swig. “Don’t tell me you can’t keep track of your boyfriend.”

Louis looks understandably offended. “Of course I can!” he harrumphs, prodding Niall hard in the shoulder before pushing past him. “Liam’s here somewhere, too, maybe I’ll ask him,” he mutters.

That does surprise Niall a little, even though he knew Liam would be coming. It’s just that parties aren’t Liam’s thing, never have been. When he does come to them, he either plasters himself to the corner or lingers with Louis and Harry the whole time. It can’t be fun for him.

Niall grabs a spare beer for himself, or maybe Zayn, if he changes his mind. From there he needs to brave the crowd again, slinking alongside several girls wearing not very much in order to finally arrive back to the sofa on the far wall.

There’s a girl speaking to Zayn, perched on the arm of the couch. She’s almost definitely flirting, bouncing one leg on the other and talking with her hands. Niall feels a flair of annoyance, but then Zayn glances his way looking massively bored until he spots Niall and his features light up. Well, they light up as much as Zayn’s features ever do.

“Hey, love,” Zayn greets as Niall sits, their thighs pressed together seamlessly. “Niall, this is, er –“ He looks up at the girl with a furrowed brow.

She remains quiet until it’s clear Zayn isn’t going to remember her name. With a huff, she brushes down her skirt and flicks her hair over her shoulder. “Bryony,” she mutters, removing herself from the couch and giving Zayn one more enticing look before giving up and slipping off into the mass of people.

“Cor, she was boring as tits,” Zayn mutters, sliding his arm over Niall’s shoulders. “Thanks for driving her off.”

“I think you did that pretty well yourself,” Niall points out, relaxing back against Zayn’s arm. “Did you really not remember her name?”

Zayn looks a bit shifty. “I knew it started with a ‘B’? I mean, I don’t know how she expects anyone to remember anything about her aside from the color of her bra. Did you see what she was wearing?”

The look of disgust on Zayn’s face makes Niall laugh. “I wasn’t really paying attention,” he admits, though he does recall a rather expansive amount of leg being on display.

“Lucky you.” Zayn pulls Niall closer to him, pressing a kiss to his temple. “I saw Harry, I think, but Louis wasn’t with him. He went off toward the stairs if you wanted to say hello.”

“I’ll catch up to him later,” Niall says, much too comfortable with Zayn’s arm around him to bother. “Louis was in the kitchen looking for him.”

Zayn shakes his head with obvious amusement. “Your friends are – Different from what I’m used to,” he says diplomatically. “I think I like it, though.”

“Yeah?” asks Niall with a grin. He’s ridiculously pleased that his mates haven’t managed to frighten Zayn away.

“Yeah,” is Zayn’s reply, his fingertips skating along the edge of Niall’s collar. He smiles at Niall for a long moment before clearing his throat. “Is Liam here?”

“Louis said he was, but I’m pretty sure Louis’s already plastered, so he might’ve imagined it,” Niall says with a small smile. “He said he was coming, though.”

Zayn hums thoughtfully, his gaze moving out to where people are not really dancing, more bouncing in a vague rhythm. Still, Niall doesn’t want to be rude, or worse, boring.

“Want to dance?” he offers, a little surprised when Zayn snorts loudly.

“Er, no thanks.” Is it Niall’s imagination, or does Zayn actually look embarrassed? “I don’t really… Dance.”

“Oh?” Niall twists a little in his seat to better look at Zayn. Yeah, that’s definitely embarrassment. “You don’t?”

Zayn huffs at him. “I’m awful at it, really awful. I don’t dance, ever, I feel stupid when I try.”

“I’m not gonna force you to dance if you don’t want to.” Niall grins at him and Zayn’s pouty exterior relaxes a bit. “I don’t really dance that much, either.” Taking a pull off his beer, Niall mentally amends the ‘that much’ in his sentence to ‘at all’. He’s pretty sure the last time he danced was with Lou and Harry at another one of these parties, and he’d consumed a hell of a lot more alcohol than he has so far tonight.

“I can think of something else we could do that’s so much more fun than dancing, anyway,” Zayn murmurs, a smile slipping onto his face. It doesn’t take much more persuasion for him to draw Niall into a kiss, his fingers weaving into blond hair.

Niall loses track of the time as they kiss, which happens pretty frequently, actually. It’s something about Zayn, he thinks, where his brain forgets how to pay attention to anything but slick lips and tongues and warmth.

It seems like no time at all that Zayn’s pulling away, pressing his lips to the corner of Niall’s mouth and smiling apologetically.

“Sorry, love, need a smoke. I know-“ he cuts Niall off, stroking his thumb over his cheekbone. Niall thinks that’s playing dirty, but falls silent anyway. “Awful habit which I should most definitely quit, but I haven’t yet, so I’ll be right back?” He looks so hopeful that Niall couldn’t possibly say no.

“Alright, but be back before I decide to go find something better to do.” Niall smiles, kissing Zayn one last time, fully aware that he doesn’t sound convincing at all.

Zayn returns the kiss before easing Niall off of him and standing, pulling out his lighter as he does. Niall’s unashamed that he watches Zayn’s ass as he walks away. It’s a very nice ass and he’d like to see anyone say it’s not.

With Zayn gone it’s not a very exciting party, Niall thinks. He leans over into the warmth still lingering from where Zayn was sitting, lifting his legs onto the couch and sighing as he downs the rest of his beer. He’s never calculated how long it takes to smoke a cigarette, but it seems like ages when you haven’t got anything to distract yourself. He opens the other beer he brought and takes a drink.

Niall feels a smile touch his lips as he thinks about how Zayn looks when he’s smoking. Loads of things about Zayn make him smile, if he’s being honest, and how he looks while smoking really shouldn’t be one of them. It’s a terrible habit but part of him can’t help but love watching it.

In fact, he might’ve made an excuse to go with Zayn, but the beer and a half he’s had has made him lethargic. There’s a scuffle in the next room, sounds like, but he can’t be bothered to get up and see what that’s about, either.

Zayn returns about two minutes later to find Niall lying across the couch lengthwise, and Niall grins up at him.

“This couch smells horrible,” he reveals, sitting up quickly. “Can’t imagine why.”

Zayn looks slightly frustrated for a moment but his expression becomes amusement so quickly Niall wonders if the frustration was ever even there.

“A conundrum,” he agrees, cocking his hip against the arm of the sofa nearest to Niall. “Hey, this party’s not really doing it for me, and I’m sure my friend won’t mind if we…” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder. “I mean, would you mind?”

“Nah, course not.” Truth be told, the music hasn’t gotten any better, and he hasn’t seen hide nor hair of his other three friends since Louis in the kitchen. “I’m sure if anything exciting happens, we’ll find out tomorrow.”

Zayn smiles at him, grasping Niall’s hand loosely. “Right, of course. Off we go?”

“Off we go,” Niall agrees, letting Zayn carefully pull him through the crowd.

The fresh air is delightful after the stuffy inside of the house, and Niall breathes it in gratefully. He’s pretty sure Zayn’s looking at him like he’s a nutter, but air smells really nice when it’s not got the scent of booze and unwashed teenager on it.

Zayn’s car is relatively simple to locate, and they’re on the road in what seems like a blink. Maybe Niall should’ve had food in between drinks or something, because he’s not as focused as being around Zayn usually makes him.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” says Zayn, keeping his eyes on the road and one hand on Niall’s thigh. He does tend to keep his hand there when Niall’s in the car with him. It makes Niall’ stomach flutter a little.

“Yeah, definitely, whatever you want.” That might’ve sounded too eager, Niall thinks, but Niall’s never really been a closed book.

Zayn doesn’t say anything for another minute or two, until they pull up a few doors down from Niall’s house. He parks the car and Niall tries not to make it too obvious that he’s hoping for a repeat performance of what’s happened the last two times Zayn’s parked like this.

“So,” Zayn starts, removing his seatbelt to more fully face Niall. That’s always a good sign. “I really like you, Niall,” finishes Zayn, which isn’t what Niall was expecting, but certainly not bad.

“I like you, too,” he immediately responds, smiling , though Zayn’s looking more at his left shoulder than his face.

“So I like you, and you like me, and I was sort of hoping… I know we haven’t really called this anything, but I was hoping you might want to… Make it official?” Zayn ventures.

The smile on Niall’s face quirks a little wider. He’s almost positive he looks like a mental. “You mean like… Like boyfriends sort of official?”

Zayn finally shoots him a look. “You know that’s what I mean, shit, I’m horrible at talking.”

“I don’t know, I thought you did pretty well,” Niall disagrees, finding Zayn’s hand with his own and squeezing. When Zayn looks back up, he continues. “I’d love to be your boyfriend, Zayn.”

Zayn grins at him and it’s as overwhelming as it always is, before he leans in to show Niall that even if he’s horrible at talking, he’s fantastic at doing other things with his lips.

--

Monday is… Weird. Or at least it’s been really weird so far. This morning, a girl he vaguely recognized as being from the flute section (he’s pretty sure she sits next to Liam) glared at him when he said hello to her. The same sort of thing happens again in his second class. Nick, who he’s always gotten on with, gave him a really weird look when he sat down and proceeded to ignore him for the rest of class.

He would’ve thought lunch would be a reprieve from all the craziness. He’d texted Liam the night before to tell him Zayn asked him to be his boyfriend, but hadn’t received a reply until the next morning. Liam’s text had sounded weird, too, but Niall put it down to him being tired, unused to being out so late.

That’s clearly not the reason, though, as Liam still looks wildly uncomfortable, staring down at his plate with something like determination. Harry and Louis are being strange as well, not all over each other even a little. Louis is picking through his salad dejectedly and Harry looks like he’ll bite the head off the next person to talk to him.

It’s a very odd atmosphere, feeling so out of the loop not just with the school but in his circle of friends. It’s not a feeling Niall’s used to in the slightest.

“How was everyone’s weekend?” he asks tentatively. Tentatively, he’s never had to be tentative with his friends!

Louis heaves a sigh. Harry just grunts. Liam doesn’t reply at all.

“Okay, good to know,” Niall mutters, rubbing the back of his neck. This is the most silent lunch he’s ever eaten. And maybe it wouldn’t be so unbearable if he just knew why, but nobody’s talking at all, and Louis still looks something like guilty. Harry looks angry, only it’s Harry so he doesn’t really manage it because Harry’s face isn’t suited to glares or scowls so he only looks like a grumpy cat. A grumpy cat with its claws out, though.

And it’s just wrong, Harry being angry, because Harry’s never angry, ever. The angriest Niall’s ever seen Harry was when somebody’d made some sort of stupid comment about Louis and him, and even then, there was this hint of incredulity in the anger. But now Harry just looks pissed off, his brow furrowed and his eyes flashing irritably every time there’s a loud noise from somewhere in the lunchroom.

“Look, did I miss something?” Niall finally asks, setting his sandwich down on his tray. After he says it, it’s immediately made clear to him that it was the wrong move, because Harry makes this noise like a mixture of a hiss and a growl, jerking his tray up and stomping away toward the bins. Stunned, Niall waits for him to come back, but he doesn’t, simply heaving his bag more heavily onto his shoulder and nearly slamming through the double doors that lead out of the cafeteria.

But the weirdest part is that Louis… doesn’t do anything. He just sits there, flinches when Harry gets up, and then stares after him when he leaves. If the thought weren’t too much to process, Niall would say he looks heartbroken. The thought is too much to process, though, even if it’s appropriate for Louis’s expression, all sad eyes and a dejected frown.

“So, yeah, I did,” Niall concludes, looking slowly from Liam to Louis and back again. Louis’s face is crumpling quickly, but he bows his head before Niall can tell if he actually starts crying. His eyes have been red around the rims since Niall sat down, but Niall’s never actually seen Louis cry. He doesn’t want to, either, so part of him is grateful.

For his part, Liam is still looking down, intent on his food. Faking intent, because Niall can see his eyes flick up every so often.

Niall knows he only has to wait one class until Bio, and then maybe he'll get some answers. But he also feels like this next class is going to be the longest he's had in some time.

--

"I made out with Liam."

It's the very last thing Niall's expecting to hear so there's a moment where he just chokes on air, fingers scrabbling at the edge of the table.

"You what?" he finally coughs out, swiping a hand over his mouth to make sure he didn't accidentally drool. "Please tell me I heard that wrong."

For his part, Louis just looks guiltier, staring at the wood grain of the table.

"I didn't mean to, it just... It just happened," Louis says weakly. He folds his arms over his chest like he's trying for defensive, but he just looks sad. "I was tipsy and he was there and being Liam, you know, and I kissed him. And Harry found us."

Niall groans, heaving himself back in his seat. "Please tell me this is an awful joke."

Louis is biting at his cuticles, which he only does when he's ridiculously nervous, and he shakes his head.

"Not a joke. I don't even remember it really well but the look on Harry's face..." Louis swallows, his voice cracking. "I hurt him."

"Yeah, you probably hurt Liam, too." Niall gives him a firm look. "You've made a mess." And then he can't bear to say anything else negative because Louis looks like he might actually start crying, and Niall's never seen him this - small, before, this lacking in energy. "Oh, Lou..."

"I don't know how to fix this," Louis says, his voice wavering. Niall notices Zayn out of the corner of his eye but apparently his boyfriend (and that still sends a thrill up his spine, even now) can tell this isn't the time, and simply squeezes Niall's shoulder before silently sitting down.

"I don't know how you can fix it, either," Niall admits as class starts, dropping his voice to compensate for the lowered volume in the classroom. "What'd Harry say?"

"He didn't say anything, he just left and then I followed him, and I tried to apologize but he just said he wanted to go home." Louis's breath catches a little. Niall waits patiently for him to be able to go on. "And I wasn't in any state to drive, so he called his mum, and it's a good thing he didn't drink a lot because she would've busted him for sure."

"And he still hasn't said anything?" Niall rubs Louis's back a little, grateful that his friend doesn't flinch away. "Saturday, or?"

"He texted me to say he wasn't coming over yesterday. He always comes over on Sundays." Louis turns eyes to Niall that are definitely slightly wet. "What if he breaks up with me?" he whispers, and Niall can tell that it's what Louis's been thinking since this happened, what he's been worrying about this whole time. "What if he leaves me?"

"He's not gonna leave you, don't be stupid," Niall admonishes, coaxing Louis's head onto his shoulder. It's a good thing they sit in the back. "He loves you."

"I kissed another guy!" says Louis, pressing his face against Niall's sleeve. "And Liam had to drive me home, and I didn't know what to say to him, either, so it was really awkward and I've never felt awkward around Liam in my life." Niall's pretty sure he just heard a sniffle. "So my boyfriend's gonna break up with me and my best friend's not talking to me either and even if he did, I don't know what to say."

"It'll work out," Niall says helplessly, running his fingers through the back of Louis's hair. "Harry's just upset, he'll talk to you again soon, you know how he can't stay mad at you. He would've broken up with you already if he was going to, right?"

"I... I guess..." Louis is practically clinging to Niall now and he gives the front of the room a cursory glance to make sure the teacher hasn't noticed they're not paying attention. "What if he does? What'll I do? I don't know how to be just me, not without him."

"Shh, you're not gonna have to worry about it, okay?" Niall presses a quick kiss to Louis's temple because he thinks the other boy might actually be crying now, and that's why his face is turned away from Niall. "Don't think like that, Harry loves you. Hazza and Lou, remember? Harry's just mad. He'll probably text you later or something."

"You think so?" Louis says after a moment, lifting his head. His eyes are redder than they were and his hair's rumpled all to hell and ordinarily, he'd immediately get to fixing himself up. Now, though, he obviously can't be bothered.

"Yeah, I know so. And Liam's just confused, alright? You've never kissed him before, you just have to talk to him and make sure you're both alright." Niall internally winces, fully aware that Liam is not 'alright.' "This'll be okay, Louis, I know it doesn't feel like it right now but it will be. Promise."

"Easy for you to say, Mr. Boyfriend man." Louis attempts a smile and it doesn't work very well, but Niall appreciates the effort. "Li did mention that, but I was a bit distracted."

"Oh, we don't have to talk about that-" Niall starts to say, not wanting Louis to feel uncomfortable, but Louis waves him off dismissively.

"No, no, come on, it sounds a lot less depressing than my Friday. Was it terribly romantic?" Louis asks like he's determined for this to be okay.

"Not really," says Niall with a bit of a shrug. He'll go along with whatever Louis wants, for now. "Cute, though." Fully aware that Zayn can probably hear him, he continues with a small smile. "Pretty sure he blushed."

Louis's smile looks a little more real at that. "It sounds adorable. I'm happy for you, Nialler," he adds as his smile softens. He tugs Niall into a sideways hug and keeps him there until the bell rings, his arm a firm weight around Niall's waist.

"Band's gonna be awful," Louis murmurs, dejected again. He does manage a smile for Zayn, though, when the other boy steps up to them. "Hey."

“Hey," Zayn says back, giving Louis's shoulder a squeeze. He doesn't say anything else, but his smile is sympathetic and Louis half-heartedly grins back.

"I like this one," Louis says to Niall before graciously walking to the door to wait.

"You look like you're having a shitty day," Zayn says quietly before giving Niall a kiss that seems to linger. He pulls away smiling. "So'm I, so I figured maybe that'd help."

"I think it did," Niall agrees, spirit a bit lighter than it was. "I've got marching band, but I'll see you when school's over, right?"

“Yeah, definitely." Zayn kisses Niall one more time before letting him pass, giving him a firm smack to his bum once he's taken a step. "Later," he adds with a half-grin.

"You're terrible," Niall informs him, but there's a bounce in his step when he meets Louis at the door, so he's pretty sure Zayn can tell he's not being serious.

--

Band isn’t any better from the rest of the day. The moment Niall steps into the classroom there are whispers and more fucking glares, and even Harry’s kind of giving him a mean look, though that might be because he’s with Louis. Still, Niall feels slightly guilty. He can talk to Louis in Bio and he can talk to Liam on the ride home, but he never really sees just Harry. It sucks because logically Harry’s the one most hurt by this whole thing, but Niall still hasn’t done anything wrong, so he just meets Harry’s gaze with a sort of helpless look.

Harry settles down just a little, even managing to hitch the corner of his mouth up at Niall in what’s more of a grimace than a smile.

“Sorry,” Louis says quietly from behind him. “I didn’t know he’d – I should’ve waited and gone in after you-“

“Don’t be stupid,” Niall replies as they get their instruments. Louis shares with Harry and Liam with Niall, because Liam’s flute is really the only thing that’ll fit in with Niall’s tuba. “I’m not just gonna not talk to you, am I?”

“It’s a disease that’s been going around.” The sentence is more self-deprecation than Niall’s used to from Louis.

Niall doesn’t know what to say so he just falls silent, cleaning out his spit valve quickly before he heads to his seat. He ruffles Louis’s hair on the way and Louis releases a squawk, so it’s an improvement from lunch, at least.

He forgot there’s a game on Friday that they’re practicing for, though it explains why Mr. Cardle looks extra harassed. It’s a long week of band practice in store for them, and he knows they’ll have to be out on the field after school Wednesday through Friday. Niall sighs. It’s a good thing he loves marching, or the sacrifice wouldn’t be worth it at all.

He greets the girl who sits next to him with a smile – Lily, he’s pretty sure her name is. She only switched from trombone a week or two ago, so he forgives himself for not being positive. Lily doesn’t smile back, though, instead giving him a weird look that‘s mostly glare, and Niall’s had it.

“Look, why the hell is everyone glaring at me today?” he hisses at her as the bell rings. “Has someone written something awful on my face?”

Lily’s brow furrows, but it’s not a glare this time, more confusion. “Wait, you mean you don’t know?” she asks, bringing her tubs to her lips to begin warming up.

“If I knew, I’d be a lot less confused, wouldn’t I?” Niall asks rhetorically. “All I know is since I got here today, everyone’s been glaring at me. Or,” he backtracks. “No, it’s just band people, actually. What’ve I done?”

“I guess it’s not really what you’ve done.” She looks a bit sheepish now. “Just, your boyfriend, right? The really dishy looking footie player with the tattoos?”

“Zayn?” Niall asks incredulously. She nods, but then Mr. Cardle’s lifting his hands to conduct, so he has to wait until they’ve gone through two songs and he’s working with the clarinets to speak again. “What about Zayn?”

“Yeah, at the party on Friday, he and a few of the other guys from the football team were pushing Stan around, being dicks. I guess that’s why, ‘cause everyone knows you two are going out.”

“That doesn’t sound like Zayn, though…” Niall frowns, adjusting his mouthpiece. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah, Katie was there, she saw the whole thing. I guess he and El had a fight and all the footie players were egging it on, you know how they love shit like that.” Lily wrinkles her nose. “El was crying a lot, I saw her in the toilet.”

Niall’s frown deepens. “And you’re sure Zayn was with them?” He doesn’t want to believe it, but Zayn had been gone a while when he left to have his cigarette…

“That’s what everyone says, anyway. Katie and Cher and Stan all said he was with them.” Lily shrugs. “Sorry for getting tetchy with you – it’s just you know how much shit the football team gives us. Guess it’s not really your fault your boyfriend’s a dickhead.”

“I…” Niall swallows, not finishing his sentence even though it feels wrong not to defend Zayn. He sits back in his chair. They begin to play again, which is good, because Niall really needs to be distracted from the thoughts in his head.

--

Zayn greets him with a kiss when they meet outside, the smile on his face revealing nothing about what happened on Friday. Niall doesn’t even really want to ask, but he feels like he has to.

“Hey, why didn’t you tell me about what happened on Friday?” he asks tentatively, letting Zayn twine their fingers together.

“About what happening on Friday?” Zayn asks blankly. It’s difficult for Niall to tell if he actually doesn’t know what Niall’s talking about or if he’s just pretending. A spark of anger lights in Niall’s stomach. Maybe it’s just not important enough to Zayn for him to remember.

“About Stan and Eleanor? Y’know, they got in a fight, footie players were…” Niall hesitates to say ‘being pricks’. “There?”

“Oh, that couple?” Zayn shrugs a shoulder. “Oh, that wasn’t anything. Couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes. When I went out to smoke, remember?”

“Yeah, yeah, just… You didn’t tell me?” It’s phrased like a question even though Niall’s not sure he meant it as one.

“Well, s’not a big deal, is it?” Zayn’s looking at him weird now. “I didn’t think to mention it.”

Niall’s slightly more angry now because that’s typical, so typical of a football player to not think anything of dicking around with a marching band member. He really thought Zayn wasn’t like that, but from what he’s saying…

“Well, yeah, I guess,” he mumbles. “It’s just that Stan didn’t really deserve all that, did he?”

Zayn stares at him, confused. “Who the hell is Stan?”

Of course he doesn’t know Stan’s name. Why would he? Stan’s just in marching band. He wouldn’t matter at all to someone like Zayn.

“The guy from the couple,” he mumbles unhappily, stopping outside Liam’s car. He leans up automatically for his kiss, which Zayn presses to his lips. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Zayn looks like he wants to say something, but he doesn’t, simply nodding. “Yeah, of course. Have a nice ride home.”

“I will.” He probably won’t, actually, has a feeling this trip home is going to be filled with a lot of emotions neither he nor Liam is really prepared to deal with. “Bye.”

Zayn bobs his head in farewell, turning and lighting a cigarette at the same time. Niall didn’t even see him take it out.

He ducks into the car and sighs as he sees Liam, hands tight on the wheel, not daring to look back at Niall.

“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” Niall says quietly. “Might do you some good, though.”

Liam makes this strangled choking sound as he starts the car. “I don’t even know what to say,” he manages after a moment. “I can’t even believe Friday happened, mostly.”

“Wanna tell me what happened?” Niall offers, turning slightly in his seat, as much as the seat belt will let him. “Louis told me from his point of view.”

“I don’t…” Liam shakes his head, the expression on his face stunned. “It happened so fast. I knew he was drunk because he was slurring, but other than that, I didn’t – He just was touching me an awful lot but he’s Louis, so it’s not like it was weird. He’s Louis!” Liam exclaims. He has to swerve so he doesn’t hit a cat that scampers into the road.

“Alright, I know, calm down,” Niall urges. “So he was being touchy?”

“Yeah, and then he just came at me!” Liam swallows, his throat bobbing. “And it’s Louis, so of course I – I couldn’t just - not - and then he was in my lap and I don’t know how he got there without me noticing but that’s when Harry came in.”
“Shit, man, I’m sorry,” Niall says, setting a hand over Liam’s on the gearshift. “Rough.”

“And now Harry’s not speaking to me and I can’t blame him, and he didn’t talk to Lou all day, and I haven’t talked to Lou all day and it’s so fucked up now, Niall, I never, you know I never-“ Liam takes a deep, shuddering breath, calming down as he parks in Niall’s driveway. “You know I never would’ve done anything to break them up,” he says much more softly. “You know I’d never do that to them. Harry’s one of my best friends, no matter how I feel about – No matter what I feel. I wouldn’t do that to him, I don’t know what came over me.”

“The guy you’ve had a crush on for years kissed you, Liam, I think you’re allowed a lapse in judgment,” Niall points out quietly. He takes Liam’s hand from where it’s still squeezing the gearshift tightly, and holds it for a minute. “It’ll be alright,” he says, repeating what he told Louis because he genuinely believes it’s true. “Name the last time Harry stayed angry at anyone. Just talk to him, tell him you’re not planning on moving in on Louis.”

Almost immediately, Liam’s shaking his head. “No, I can’t talk to him, he hates me right now. If I asked to talk to him he’d throw something at me or hit me.”

“He wouldn’t hit you,” Niall admonishes, but he lets it go for now. “I’ll see you tomorrow, alright? Text me or something. Don’t beat yourself up,” he instructs even though he knows Liam is going to anyway. “We’ll figure this out, man.”

Liam looks like he’s positive they’re never going to figure this out at all, but he nods anyway. “Right. Yeah, okay.” It’s not at all convincing.

“Love you,” Niall adds, pulling Liam into a hug as well as he can. “Distract yourself. Watch Toy Story.”

Liam finally cracks some semblance of a smile. “Right, I’ll do that.”

Niall flashes him a smile back before climbing out of the car. He sighs as he watches Liam go. Maybe he should take his own advice. Thoughts of Zayn are crowding his head and he could use a distraction like mad.

--

Niall texts Harry later that night, because he’s awful at staying out of things and because he feels bad only having the two perspectives on what happened. Granted, he knows without asking that Harry’s unhappy, but he doesn’t want Harry also thinking Niall doesn’t care.

’u ok?’ he sends, open-ended. If Harry wants to ignore it, he can, and if he wants to talk, he can. Niall’s made the contact and that’s all he can do for now.

He manages to actually get some homework done before his phone vibrates with a text. He snatches it up, letting out a breath when he sees it’s from Harry.

’Not really .x’

’wanna talk about it?’ is what Niall sends next. In all likeliness, Harry won’t want to talk about it at all, and that’d be fine. But if he does, that’s fine, too.

After what seems like forever because Niall’s working on maths, Harry replies.

’Don’t know how I’m supposed to feel…or what to do.’

’dont rly think theres a way to feel here. hurt?’

’Well I feel that. I don’t want to break up…’ Niall can hear Harry’s voice in his head as he reads the message, can imagine him sat on his bed, the look on his face, even. He knows Harry so well, and still can’t even come close to what he and Louis have. He doesn’t want them to break up, either.

’so dont! you kno he was drunk, not sayin thats an excuse but he wouldnt have sober.’

’I’ve seen the way Liam looks at him you know.

Niall closes his eyes for a moment. It’s probably pretty obvious to anyone who knows what to look for, Liam’s feelings for Louis, but if there’s one person Niall really didn’t want knowing about them, it was Harry.

’he wouldnt ever do anything about it tho. he was just suprised on fri, didnt mean it.’

There’s a longer pause this time before Harry responds, his text split into two parts from length.

’I know he wouldn’t but that doesn’t mean it’s just going to go away... And Lou still kissed him. Its terrible because if it was you I know I wouldn’t care so much but it’s Liam so I do because I know Liam actually likes Louis like that.’

Niall sighs, rubbing his forehead. He wishes this just wasn’t an issue, but he guesses it was too much to hope that something like this would ever happen. He wants to blame somebody but he can’t blame Harry, obviously, and he can’t blame Liam because he knows Liam’s been wanting to kiss Louis forever, and maybe he should’ve pushed him away, maybe he should’ve thought about Harry, but Niall can’t think worse of him because he didn’t. He just can’t.

The only person left to blame is Louis, and Niall wants to blame him and be angry at him for this but then he remembers the look on Louis’s face when Harry walked away at lunch, and how close to tears he had looked in class. Niall’s never seen Louis look like that and he never wants to see it again. His immediate instinct is to want to punch the people hurting his friends, but how is he supposed to do that when his friends are the ones hurting each other?

He belatedly remembers he’s in the middle of a conversation and quickly fumbles back onto his phone, debating on how to reply.

’but you KNOW he wouldnt do anything about it. hes not going to go after lou. hes your friend.’

’I know that… I really want to believe that and everything to go back to normal but I can’t get the image out my head.’

Niall tucks his legs up underneath him, resigned to the fact that he’s not going to get any more of his homework done right now.

’i’m not saying youve got to be ok with it instantly or anythin just do u rly want 2 end a friendship & a 4 year relationship?’

Harry’s response takes a while, and in the time it takes to receive the text, Niall slowly panics. The thought of Harry and Louis not holding hands and being disgusting or of all of them not sitting together anymore, it’s awful, and he never thought he’d have to consider the possibility.

’No I don’t. But I can’t just pretend it didn’t happen.’

’hey can I call you for a mo?’ Niall makes the split second decision. Trying to have serious conversations via text message doesn’t really work for him.

His answer is his phone vibrating wildly in his hand as Harry apparently decides to do it himself.

"Hi," Niall says when he answers, holding the phone to his ear. "Sorry, I hate having conversations through texts."

“Yeah, I get that." Harry's voice is even more gravely than it usually is. Niall wonders if he's been crying. He's seen Harry cry before and it's awful.

"Nobody's asking you to pretend it didn't happen, Hazza," Niall says softly, returning to the point of the conversation even though he knows neither of them wants to have it. "Or even to forgive anyone."

"Of course I forgive him, I even forgive Liam mostly," Harry states like that should be obvious. "I just don't know how to not see it whenever I look at them."

"Then maybe... Don't look at them for a while," Niall reluctantly suggests.

There's a pause where Niall can imagine Harry's brow furrowing. "What're you - I can't just avoid it, I'm not gonna sit somewhere else during lunch or anything. I'm angry. I'm not... You know, I get jealous, but I can't just not-" He cuts himself off like he's just had a revelation.

"Harry?" Niall coaxes.

"I can't just stay away from Louis," Harry concludes so quietly Niall has to press the phone closer to his ear. "Christ, I can't. I can't break up with him, I can't do that to myself."

Niall tries not to smile, then decides fuck it, Harry can't see him anyway. "So don't break up with him, then," he says simply. "Talk to him. I know you and Lou aren't used to talking," he gently teases. "But it'd help. You need to let him know how you feel. And you need to know how he feels."

"Ugh, talk about our feelings?" Niall can practically hear Harry's nose wrinkle. He's pretty sure he's smiling, though. "I guess. I mean, it can't hurt. Maybe tomorrow."

"I think it'd be best. But I mean, what do I know? I've only had a boyfriend for like, three days." Niall's smile widens at the momentary silence on the other end of the phone.

"Oh my god, you dick!" Harry exclaims finally. "Why'd you let me natter on so long? He finally asked you properly? Was it cute? I bet it was cute, I know he's all cool and whatever but it was cute, wasn't it?"

Niall laughs at the flurry of words before answering. He feels like maybe, just maybe, things could be going back to normal.

--

Lunch the next day is better. It still isn’t back to normal, but Niall expects it’ll take more than a day to do that. Liam is still even more silent than usual, and there's still tension hanging in the air, but Harry lets Louis hold his hand under the table.

"Did anyone else know anything about Zayn apparently being a dick at the party?" Niall asks finally, just wanting something to say.

From Louis's frown, he doesn't know anything, but Harry looks contemplative.

"The thing with Stan?" he says finally. "Was he there?"

"What thing with Stan?" Louis asks, blatantly unsure if he should say anything. He clears his throat and continues when Harry doesn't glare at him or anything. "What happened?"

Harry’s answering before Niall can, and though he’s not looking at Louis, Louis still brightens just a little.

“Stan and Eleanor broke up at the party and I guess a bunch of football players were being shitty to him about it.” Harry leans over to look at the table at the other end of the lunch hall. “He does seem like he hasn’t fallen out with them. Real buddy-buddy.”

As Harry’s looking over, Zayn looks up from his conversation with the boy sitting next to him and flashes Niall a grin. When Niall doesn’t immediately smile back, his fades, and then he pulls out his phone.

Niall’s sort of expecting it when his pocket vibrates and he sighs, grabbing his own phone.

’hey can I drive u home today?? we need to talk’

Niall frowns, glancing subtly next to him. Liam looks a bit nauseous, and he still hasn’t said anything since he sat down. Niall bites his lip as he responds.

’raincheck? li’s in a really bad place xx’

Louis is obviously curious as to what he and Zayn are saying to each other, but he doesn’t say anything, just bouncing in his seat. He stops when Harry sets a hand on his thigh, though.

When Niall looks over to Zayn, the other boy is frowning, thumbs moving over his keyboard.

’u arent just making excuses right? I rly think we shud talk’

It’s Niall’s turn to frown, slightly offended.

’y would i be making excuses? I jus want 2 make sure my friend’s ok’

’rite ok.’

It’s unmistakably Zayn being short with him and Niall doesn’t really appreciate it. He shoves his phone back into his pocket, still frowning.

“Everything alright?”

It takes Niall a longer moment than he’s comfortable admitting to figure out why the voice speaking isn’t Harry or Louis. Liam is looking at him out of the corner of his eye, head still bowed.

“Yeah, fine. He just wanted to know what I was doing later,” Niall lies, offering Liam a hopeful smile. “Alright?”

Liam’s eyes widen and then flick toward the other side of the table so quickly Niall almost doesn’t catch it.

“Uh,” Liam stammers, gripping the edges of his tray. “Yeah.” He stands up, collecting Niall’s tray under his automatically and then freezing when he reaches for Harry’s as well. It’s just what he does, getting their trays for them as well, and it’s obviously a practiced movement that he just forgot about.

There’s an awkward moment that seems to last for ages before Harry pushes his tray across the table, staring hard at his own lap. Liam gulps audibly before tucking Harry’s tray under his own and collecting Louis’s as well, nearly scurrying off to the bins.

Niall hears Louis release a loud relieved breath of air, but he doesn’t mention it. Instead, Niall just nudges his foot over against Harry’s. Harry nudges back, shooting Niall a small smile from underneath his fringe.

Niall feels like another piece has clicked into place, but with a look at Zayn, now firmly ignoring him, he wonders if another piece hasn’t just clicked out of place, as well.

--

“What’s up with you and the boyfriend, then?” Louis asks in Bio, smiling at him weakly.

“Could ask you the same,” Niall responds without thinking, cringing. “Never mind,” he says quickly. “Er, not much. Just-“ He cuts himself off as Zayn enters the room. Zayn doesn’t say anything to him, but he does drum his knuckles on the table in front of Niall’s and offer him a half-smile, so Niall figures maybe he’s not still upset.

“Right, later,” Louis says, bobbing his head. He’s obviously aware he can’t whisper worth a shit. “Anyway, yeah, let’s talk about my shitty relationship. I’ve got nothing better to do.”

“It’s not shitty…” Niall squeezes Louis’s shoulder. “I know it’s rough right now, but you and Harry are more in love than like, the Obamas .”

Louis manages a smile and a snorting laugh. “You and your Obamas.” He slouches in his seat a little. “Did you talk to Harry?” he asks without further preamble.

Niall raises his eyebrows. “Uh, maybe?” he hedges. “Why?”

“You’re an awful liar.” Louis smiles at him. “Thanks. He said words to me today!”

Louis looks so excited that Niall breaks into another smile. “Yeah? Good words?”

“Well…” Louis deliberates. “He asked if I had the English homework. And he sort of smiled at me when I didn’t.”

“Progress,” Niall says optimistically. “Have you talked to Liam at all?”

Louis’s mouth sort of quirks down. “He’s been like he was at lunch all day. I mean, I only have one other class with him but he was like that then, too.”

“Quiet?” Niall asks, to clarify.

“Yeah, and sort of like – I’d call it scared just ‘cause I don’t know what else to call it. Skittish, maybe.” Louis shrugs. “I don’t, I don’t know. I want to talk to him but I don’t want Harry to be more angry with me.”

“This is so much more complicated than I know how to deal with.” Niall sighs. “I dunno, I don’t think Harry’d kill you for talking to him. You should talk to Harry first, though.”

“Has he said anything about me?” Louis asks, fiddling around with his pencil. “Just, I mean you don’t have to say if he asked you not to or anything, I just…”

“He needs time, for things to go back to normal.” Niall looks at Louis sympathetically. “But he’s not going to break up with you, okay? You just need to be patient.”

“I’m terrible at being patient,” Louis mumbles, downtrodden. He sighs heavily. “But I can be. For him.”

Niall nudges Louis’s shoulder with his own. “Hey. It’s gonna be alright.”

Louis shoots him a half-hearted smile. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.” He sighs again. “I wish it hadn’t happened, but I can’t change the past.”

Niall bites his lip and hums absently, curious about something. “Hey, Lou?” he asks quietly.

“Yeah?” Louis raises his eyebrows back. “Why d’you look shifty?”

“I was just thinking, y’know… Do you regret it?” Niall says, tentative. “I mean obviously all the bullshit that’s come out of it, but d’you regret the actual…” he trails off. “Never mind, stupid question.”

Louis doesn’t look upset, though, just thoughtful. “Are you asking if I regret the actual kissing bit?” he asks slowly.

Niall shrugs a shoulder. “I guess, yeah. You don’t have to-“

“Not really,” Louis interrupts before stopping, apparently surprised with himself. “Uh. Yeah, I guess… I mean I don’t…” He looks incredibly guilty. “I mean it was a good kiss but I never would’ve done it if I hadn’t been drinking, you know? Like, I’d kiss you if I was drunk, probably. Or Zayn.” He tips a little wave over Niall’s shoulder, and Niall hears a muffled snort.

“Slut,” Niall says affectionately. He scoots his chair closer to Louis’s and nudges his shoulder again, grateful when Louis nudges back.

“Harry’s slut, though. I swear, I’d never kiss anyone else sober. Ever. Nobody but him. I’ll never kiss anyone but him ever again.” The small smile on Louis’s face collapses into another frown.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Niall says, alarmed as Louis shoves his face into his hands. “I know that and Harry knows that, okay? I shouldn’t have even asked, it was a stupid question, I know you wouldn’t.”

“I did, though, and now he doesn’t trust me.” Louis’s words are muffled. “He’s never not trusted me before.”

“He will again, though. He’s not gonna break up with you over this, okay? He loves you too much.” Niall leans his head onto Louis’s shoulder. “C’mon, I promise. It’s all gonna be alright.”

“Guess I have to trust you on that.” Louis’s shoulders hitch in a sigh. “Now get off me, you great lump, I’ve got Bio to do.”

“You do not, you liar,” Niall replies, but he takes his head off Louis’s shoulder anyway. It’s too bony anyhow.

“You really think it’s gonna be okay, Nialler?” Louis asks, and even though he’s sort of smiling Niall knows the question is serious.

“I really do,” Niall confirms. He playfully cuffs Louis’s jaw. “Stay strong, man.”

“Oh god, it’s not like I have cancer,” Louis mumbles, but he’s still smiling, so Niall considers it a success.

Class doesn’t seem to last too much terribly longer after that, not that Niall spends it paying attention. He’s too focused on the drawing of Harry that Louis is attempting on his folder, and giving him advice that’s soundly rebuffed-

“You’ve got to be kidding me, his cock’s not that big-“

“Like you’d know! Back off, Horan!”

-despite his best attempts to help.

The bell ringing interrupts their fascinating discussion about Harry’s hips (or lack thereof), though, and Louis reluctantly packs his folder away.

“Maybe I’ll show him before band, if you don’t mind me going ahead-?” Louis asks, giving Niall pleading eyes.

“Go on, then,” Niall says, shooing him. “Your attempts at romance are both bizarre and sweet.”

Louis shoots him the bird before he leaves, sparing another wave for Zayn.

“Hey.” Niall gives Zayn a tentative smile, swinging the strap of his own bag over his head. “Alright?”

“Yeah, good.” Zayn kisses the corner of Niall’s mouth. He does that a lot, but Niall’s sort of afraid that this time it’s just because he doesn’t want to actually kiss him. “You? Better than yesterday?”

“Mhmm, a bit. Still sort of awkward around the others when it’s all three.” Niall shrugs. “What can you do?”

“What can you do,” Zayn agrees with a hum. “You’d better get to class, don’t want to be late.”

The way Zayn is sort of rubbing Niall’s hips is extremely distracting, but he reluctantly nods. “Yeah, I guess. I’ll see you later?”

Zayn just hums again. It’s pretty frustrating.

Niall leans up and kisses the corner of Zayn’s mouth this time, feeling it curve into a half smile under his lips. That’s right, you’re smiling, Niall thinks firmly. By the time he pulls back, though, Zayn just looks bored again. Damn it.

With a glance at the clock, Niall curses, pulling Zayn into a hug before he has to practically run down the hallway to make it to band on time. When he gets there, Harry’s practically howling as Louis holds the folder in front of his face, so that’s at least one reason he has to smile, even if there might not be others.

--

Zayn is waiting as usual when Niall exits the school, but he’s already smoking. He usually at least waits until the middle of their walk, and normally he still gives Niall a little questioning glance before he does. This time, though, he’s already halfway through it when he takes Niall’s hand with his other one. He drops the cigarette on the ground, crushing it beneath his heel as they begin to walk.

“Hey, are you busy tonight?” he asks abruptly. For a moment Niall is just amused by how he asked the question Niall lied about earlier before he remembers question – answer – right.

“Uh, no, not really.” He thinks. He’s got homework, but then, he always does, and that’s what free periods are for anyway. “Yeah, I’m not busy.”

“Mind if I come over? Or you could come to mine?” Zayn offers, pulling his lip between his teeth momentarily. “If not, that’s cool.”

Niall gets the feeling it’s really not cool. “Uh, yeah, if you want.” He smiles. “I was just gonna do homework anyway.”

“You lead such an exciting life,” Zayn teases, finally smiling back. “Er… Liam’s alright, then?”

Niall sighs. “Dunno. Gonna talk to him on the ride home.” He looks at Zayn sideways. “That alright?”

Zayn shrugs. “I don’t own you, you can do whatever you like.” Maybe Niall’s imagining it, but Zayn’s voice sounds slightly cooler.

Niall sighs. “What time d’you want to come over, or me to come over, or whatever?”

“I’ll just go to yours if it’s alright. I’ve got sisters. They’ve been teasing me about having a boyfriend all weekend.” Zayn shrugs. “I dunno, seven? Eight?”

“Eight sounds good.” Niall nods and bumps his hip against Zayn’s a little. “Sure you’re okay?”

Zayn smiles at him, leaning over and kissing his neck when they stop beside Liam’s car. “You’re sweet. Yeah, m’alright, love. Just a bit tired.” He looks it, too, now that Niall’s properly paying attention. “See you tonight?”

“Yeah,” Niall confirms, jumping a little as Zayn pulls him into a kiss, one hand on the back of his neck. Niall relaxes into it easily enough, though, sighing and feeling about as melty inside as kissing Zayn usually makes him feel.

Zayn sucks on his lower lip for a moment before ending the kiss, fingers playing with the hair at the nape of Niall’s neck. “See y’later,” he breathes, leaning his forehead against Niall’s.

“Mmm,” is Niall’s pathetic attempt at a response, and Zayn laughs softly as he pulls away. “Y-Yeah. See you.”

Zayn gives him one last kiss before jogging off behind a van as he lights another cigarette.

“Well, it’s nice someone’s having a good time, I guess,” Liam says as Niall piles into his car. He doesn’t sound bitter, but he does sound like he’s trying far too hard to be cheerful.

“You’d think, but he was being weird all day.” Niall shakes his head a little. “I dunno. What about you, though, how’s it going?”

Liam shrugs as he starts the car. “It’s… Going. Harry sort of looked at me today. And I think I might actually try saying something to Louis without blushing tomorrow. I was going to today but then I started stammering in my head just thinking about it.”

“Not a good sign,” Niall agrees. “Tomorrow, though. Don’t rush it, just try to act normal. As normal as you do, anyway.”

“Thanks,” says Liam dryly. “I’ll keep that in mind. Have you talked to Haz?”

“Yeah, a bit. Why?” Niall wonders momentarily if Liam feels betrayed or something before remembering that this is Liam and he wouldn’t.

“You don’t have to, but if you could – Just tell him I’m sorry?” Liam looks awkward when Niall looks over at him. “I mean, if you think it’d just make him more upset then never mind, but I just want him to know I’m sorry.”

“Why don’t you tell him you’re sorry?” Niall asks. “It’s not like he’ll hit you for speaking to him.”

“He might. I did sort of kiss his boyfriend,” Liam points out. “You think it’d be okay? I don’t want to make things worse.”

“You won’t make things worse,” Niall promises. “Harry’s pretty level-headed, don’t you think? He’ll at least make the effort to listen, now he’s calmed down a bit.”

“Yeah, I guess…” Liam sighs. “I just wish the whole thing hadn’t happened. Or,” he amends, “That it had happened under different circumstances. Before they were together or for a laugh or something, I don’t know.”

“Yeah, I get you.” Niall gives him a smile. “Well, think on the bright side.”

Liam shoots him a confused look, before setting his eyes back on the road. “What bright side?”

“Now the only one left you’ve got to kiss is Harry and you’ll have a full set,” Niall reasons. He feels quite accomplished when Liam makes a sort of hacking noise that’s a combination of a choke and a laugh.

“I don’t really think-“ Liam coughs. “I don’t really think Harry’d be in the mood to kiss me any time in the near future. Or ever,” he finishes weakly.

“Just saying. If the opportunity ever arises, you should take it.” Niall raises his hands in a truce. “Maybe you should try getting him drunk next.”

“Are you saying people have to be drunk to want to kiss me?” Liam asks in a droll tone. Niall almost apologizes before he notices the small smile lurking at the corners of Liam’s lips.

“Oh, definitely, I’d definitely say that,” he says solemnly. “Just did, in fact.”

“You’re such a – dick,” Liam concludes, punching Niall’s arm as he slows to a stop in his driveway.

“Shocked and appalled by your language,” Niall mumbles, sliding his legs out of the car. “You’re gonna be alright tonight?” he clarifies, looking back over his shoulder.

Liam smiles at him, and it looks so much more real than the one he’d given Niall when this ride started that Niall has to smile back.

“Yeah, I’m okay, Nialler,” he says quietly. “Don’t worry about me.”

“Always do,” is the last thing Niall says, giving Liam a mock-salute before closing the door.

Niall steps back, letting Liam drive away. Maybe this’ll all work out after all.

--

Zayn gets to Niall’s house at 8:04, and he texts him instead of knocking on the door. It’s something Harry does, too, so Niall’s gotten used to it even though at first he just found it incredibly annoying.

“Hello, love,” Zayn says as Niall opens the door, smiling at him. He looks much more relaxed than he did when they last spoke, his shoulders not nearly as tense. “Miss me?”

“Of course.” Niall pulls him into a hug, fully aware that his mother is peering out from the kitchen. “Come in, d’you want something to drink or anything?”

“Nah, I’m good.” Zayn steps inside when Niall steps back, closing the door behind him. He leans in close to Niall’s ear. “Should I say hello to your mum?” he asks, voice rich with amusement. “Or should I just let her think she’s inconspicuous?”

“Probably best to do the second. She’s easily excitable.” Niall grins, grasping Zayn’s hand and pulling him up the stairs.

“So, you’re Irish,” Zayn states as he takes a seat when Niall gestures to the bed. It surprises a laugh out of Niall and Zayn grins at him. “No, I just mean, you’re Irish but you don’t live in Ireland?” He phrases it like a question.

“Moved here when I was about twelve,” Niall confirms. “Had to, m’dad’s job.”

“I know the feeling.” Zayn crosses his legs as Niall sits next to him. “Same for me except with Mum, that’s why we had to move.” He shakes his head a little. “Anyway, not what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“What did you want to talk about?” Niall asks, shoving his pillows out of the way and leaning up against the wall. “I wasn’t sure, you didn’t say.” He’s actually pretty positive, so it’s not really surprising when Zayn gives him a pointed look.

“C’mon, you know what I wanted to talk about. You were being weird all yesterday.”

“Well, you were being weird all today,” Niall says defensively. He mentally adds a ‘so there’ that he’s pretty sure shows on his face, because Zayn’s frown deepens.

“Don’t be like that.” Zayn grabs Niall’s hand, thumbs pressing into his palm. “I just don’t want it to be a thing, you know? I think we’ve got a good thing going here and I don’t want you to have all these unresolved feelings.”

“I don’t have unresolved feelings,” Niall denies. “I don’t,” he repeats when Zayn looks at him skeptically. He takes his hand back to scratch his neck even though It doesn’t itch. Zayn’s eyes narrow at him.

“Don’t do that,” he says frankly. “That passive aggressive, pretending you’re not upset bullshit. If you’re pissed off, just tell me why, okay?” He takes Niall’s other hand like an act of defiance.

Niall sighs. “It’s just what happened at the party,” he says reluctantly. He’d rather not talk about this, because to be honest, he is trying to repress it a little. He doesn’t want to think about how Zayn’s a football player and because of that he does some things football players do. It’s second nature for them to be pricks to people in marching band. He just thought Zayn wouldn’t be, for some reason.

Zayn nods. “Yeah, figured it probably was. What about it, though? I don’t get why this is such a big deal to you,” he admits carefully.

Niall’s pretty sure he’s actually glaring now. “Of course you wouldn’t, ‘cause you’re a footie player, so you have no idea what it’s like, being on this end. We get shit from people like you every day, so how could you understand that? To you it was probably just another dweeb who means nothing.”

“Did you seriously just say dweeb?” Zayn asks first, looking caught between surprise and anger. He continues before Niall can respond. “It’s really great to know that’s what you think of me, Niall. I thought you knew me better than that.”

This burst of sarcasm shouldn’t surprise Niall, but it does. “Yeah, well I thought I did, too, but then all this, and… It’s not cool.”

“What’s not cool is how you’ve not even asked me what happened.” Zayn’s frowning deeply now. “Want me to tell you in detail how that guy was being a shithead yelling at his girlfriend? Or how I barely said two words the whole time? Or maybe you’d like to know about how you good guys in marching band have been fuckin’ scowling at me the past two days. Someone carrying a trumpet spit on me this morning.”

“Why are you yelling at me when I haven’t done anything wrong?” Niall asks, pulling his other hand away from Zayn as well. This time, Zayn doesn’t try to get it back. “It’s not like I’m the one who spit on you. I don’t even play trumpet.”

“That’s not the point!” Zayn exclaims. “The point is that loads of people in marching band hate me for no reason, but that’s apparently fine with you.” He’s either calm or trying to look it. "So it's alright for them to be fucking awful to me, though, right? Because I'm a football player and I deserve it, right, Niall? We're all shit, anyway."

Niall flounders, feeling like this conversation has gone rapidly downhill. “Zayn, that’s not what I meant-“

"It's not? That's what you're saying, you're saying I deserve to be treated like shit because, hell, I'll probably be just like them eventually, I'll probably shove someone into a locker or do what the fuck ever but I haven't, and I thought you knew me well enough to know I wouldn't." He shakes his head, lips in a harsh line. “How can you not get how twisted that is, Niall? You just assumed I was awful to someone for no reason even though you know that’s not like me. Playing football doesn’t automatically make me a twat.”

“I didn’t say it did,” Niall says helplessly. This has all deteriorated so quickly. “I don’t think you’re a twat, I just…” He gives Zayn a pleading look, unsure of how to say it.

Zayn's anger seems to vanish as rapidly as it came, the vaguely bored expression returning to his face. He grabs the sunglasses hanging from the collar of his shirt and shoves them on. The black plastic lenses might as well be a wall for all Niall can tell what Zayn's thinking now. They’re indoors and besides that, it’s eight-thirty in the evening, why does Zayn need sunglasses?

"It's whatever, you know?" Zayn shrugs a shoulder and picks an imaginary piece of lint off his jacket. "You can think what you want and I guess that's it."

“No, but that’s not it.” Niall’s not sure why Zayn can tell him not to be passive aggressive and then go and do it himself, but he’s hardly going to bring it up when Zayn’s already upset with him.

“I should go,” Zayn decides, rubbing the back of his neck. “Glad we had this talk at any rate, it’s good to know my boyfriend thinks I’m a massive arsehole.”

“I don’t!” Niall protests, standing as Zayn does and setting a hand on his arm. “Don’t leave angry, you’re not supposed to do that. Or maybe it’s sleeping angry. Either way, come on, don’t leave yet.”

“I really think I should,” Zayn says firmly. He grasps Niall’s wrist and gently removes his hand. “Look, we’ll talk later, alright?” he adds when he sees Niall’s face. “But right now I’m pissed off and if we talk anymore I’m gonna say something I’ll regret, so. I should go.”

“Alright,” Niall agrees. His stomach feels like it’s full of lead, but he just looks down. “I’ll see you tomorrow?” he mumbles.

He hears Zayn sigh, then feels fingers tilt his chin up and then warm lips on his.

“Yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow,” he whispers, stroking down Niall’s jaw. “Don’t frown, okay? I just need a little time.”

“Okay.” Niall’s still going to frown, he’ll just do it after Zayn leaves. “Can I have another one of those, though?”

Zayn smiles at him and it warms Niall from his insides before the kiss does, though that certainly helps. “Mm, it’s hard to be mad at someone so pretty,” he murmurs. “Cheating.”

“If it works…” Niall steals one more kiss.

“Maybe a little.” Zayn pulls Niall into a hug and sighs, relaxing into him for just a moment. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he mutters into his ear before pulling his keys out of his pocket. He steps back with a tight smile before slipping out the door.

Niall feels both like he should follow and like he shouldn’t, so he just flops back onto his bed and wonders how things can feel hopeful and hopeless at the same time.

--

The next three days are a rush of marching and watching Harry and Louis and Liam tiptoe around each other and more marching and then more marching. Niall loves marching band but he does wish on occasion that it didn’t deal with quite so much… marching.

Lunch is still strained but Louis and Harry are slowly going back to normal. Thursday, Harry offers Louis part of a granola bar, and Friday during lunch, he even lets Louis sit in his lap. Understandably, Harry and Liam are still a little touchy around each other, and as far as Niall knows, they haven’t spoken directly yet, but everything’s fitting back into place around him and it feels good.

Well, everything except Zayn.

They’re still on speaking terms and Zayn even still walks him to Liam’s car after school, but it’s strained. Niall doesn’t know how to apologize for being stupid about the party thing and Zayn doesn’t bring it up, so it’s just this floating something between them that’s making everything that bit more awkward.

Zayn’s gone back to corner-of-the-mouth kisses and side-hugs to say goodbye and Niall hates it, wishes Zayn would’ve just let him not talk about it because he was right and the talking only made it worse. Niall catches glimpses of Zayn sometimes when they’re marching because the footballers have the other side of the field to practice, and he looks happy when he’s playing, even when it rains on Thursday and everyone gets covered in mud, he just swipes at the stains on his skin and keeps smiling. Niall wishes he’d smile like that all the time.

More than that, though, he wishes Zayn would be happy with him again, and smile like that, and laugh and tease him about how much he blushes. He misses the way things were before he unintentionally implied Zayn was a terrible person, but he has no idea how to get things back to the way they were.

Today, though, he has other things to worry about. Like the football match currently happening right in front of him.

“Niall, come on, it’s almost half-time,” Louis hisses at him, breaking him from his reverie. The other boy grabs at his hand, yanking him along. “We’re getting ready for formation, stop dawdling.”

“I wasn’t dawdling,” Niall grumbles, stepping up behind him and peering over his shoulder. “Is the half really almost over? I guess I was thinking longer than I thought.”

Liam sets a hand on his shoulder. They’ve only got about a minute before they’ll have to divvy up by sections, but Harry’s there too, beside Louis. “It’ll be okay, he can’t stay mad at you forever,” Liam says sympathetically.

“He’ll get over it soon and you’ll give Lou and I competition again,” Harry agrees. Louis gives him an adoring smile that makes Niall want to throw up but also hug them. It’s a strange combination of feelings.

“Ready, boys?” Louis says. After a moment, he puts his hand in the middle. This is a ritual they do before they go on the field, every time, and Niall doesn’t hesitate to put his on top of Louis’s.

Harry sort of stares at Liam before putting his hand over Niall’s. He doesn’t look away, just biting his lip when Liam reaches his own hand out and carefully sets it on Harry’s.

“Let’s do this shit,” Harry says quietly, before turning his hand over and gripping Liam’s lightly. Niall can hear Liam suck in a breath, but he barely has time to squeeze back before they’re being quickly shuffled onto the field.

Niall could perform these songs in his sleep in a rainstorm, moving on autopilot. The grass is still damp from yesterday’s rain, so he’s careful not to slip and fall and embarrass himself, though a girl toward the end of the drum line isn’t so lucky and she goes down with a shriek. Niall tries to feel bad but then notices how even Liam is using his flute to cover up snickers and resigns himself to making weird snorty sounds against the mouthpiece of his tuba.

It’s windy but dry today, and Niall loses himself in the repetitive motions until the drum major finishes, leading them all back to the sidelines where they’ll watch the rest of the match. Niall’s not usually interested, but his boyfriend’s never been on the team before, so he sort of feels an obligation to watch.

Zayn’s gorgeous when he plays, all easy motions and long limbs, his hair, usually meticulous, now run through with dirt and sticking up in odd places. He’s beautiful, and Niall really wants to kiss him right now.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite possible, with the game still going on, so he just sits on the edge of the bleacher and keeps watching.

Niall glances to the others, wondering why nobody’s teasing him yet, only to find them all three standing together a few feet away. Harry is speaking in low tones to Liam, who still looks mostly scared, but he’s nodding along, anyway. Louis just seems apprehensive, but that’s been his normal state over the last few days, so Niall doesn’t think much of it.

Finally, Harry stops talking and raises his eyebrows and slowly, Liam nods, a smile spreading across his face like he’s not sure if he’s allowed to. Harry rolls his eyes and takes a step forward, pulling Liam into a hug that makes Niall grin so much his face hurts.

Louis looks like he might pass out from relief, and when Harry and Liam’s hug finishes, with Harry whispering something into Liam’s ear and Liam laughing hesitantly, Harry tangles his fingers with Louis’s. Everything looks almost normal now, except for how Niall’s not there.

He decides to fix this, hopping off the bleacher and taking the few steps over to them. He wraps an arm over Liam’s shoulders, smiling hopefully. “Alright?” he asks.

“Alright,” Harry confirms with a reluctant smile. Louis leans his head onto Harry’s shoulder. “How’s your lovebug doing? Is he any good?”

“He’s alright,” Niall states with a look over his shoulder at the score.

“You haven’t noticed anything but his little shorts,” Liam teases, ruffling the back of Niall’s hair. Niall barely blinks.

“Obviously. Have you seen them? I’ve only seen him wear jeans before. It’s a whole new world for me.” Niall feels like his face might split from smiling too much.

“I say after the game, you give him a congratulatory blowjob behind the stands,” Louis suggests with a glint in his eye. “He’d probably appreciate it.”

Niall’s blushing, can feel it hot on the back of his neck. “I don’t think that’d be a good idea. You know they check for it.”

“Sometimes,” Louis says with a sideways look at Harry before they both break into laughter.

“I don’t want to know,” Niall says, wrinkling his nose. He’s still smiling, though, because he can’t not, not when they’re all together and all happier than they’ve been in days. “Keep your sexual deviancies to yourself.”

“Like you’re not going to be spouting off about your deviancies once you start having them!” Louis protests indignantly. “I know you, Horan, you’ll be showing off your lovebites at every turn.”

“I’ve only ever shown you because you made me-“

Children,” Liam sighs loudly, but Niall notices with some glee that he can’t quite wipe the smile off his face, either. “I’m surrounded by children.”

Niall ducks away quickly when it looks like Louis might start throwing mud or something, drifting off to the edge of the field to watch Zayn play.

Football, it turns out, is fairly interesting when your hot boyfriend is on the team. Niall just mainly pays attention to Zayn’s legs and Zayn’s ass and Zayn’s stomach when he pulls the bottom of his shirt up to wipe dirt off his face, and it’s almost surprising when he hears the coach mention something about only a minute left in the game.

There’s a flurry of movement on the field Niall can hardly stay focused on and he sulks when he loses Zayn in the shuffle, but then a ball goes into a net and their half of the stands is going insane, so Niall’s pretty sure that means they’ve just won the game.

The other players pour onto the field to pat each other on the back and be laddish, so Niall takes the opportunity to try and sneak out there and find Zayn.

Zayn finds him first, his amused smile telling Niall he’s not quite as unobtrusive as he might wish.

“Hi,” Zayn says, eyes flicking up to Niall’s hair. “Nice hat.”

“Shut up,” Niall says good-naturedly, eyes taking in the grass stains on Zayn’s shirt. “You’re all sweaty.”

“Well I just got done doing this thing, you might’ve noticed,” Zayn says, obviously muffling laughter.

“I’ve been a dickhead,” Niall says. That’s not even what he meant to say but it’s true, so he figures he might as well continue. “You’re not an arsehole and I guess maybe some of the other ones aren’t, either. Maybe,” he allows.

“Is this an apology?” Zayn asks, folding his arms over his chest and raising an eyebrow. “’Cause, being honest, it sort of sucks.”

“Yeah, well. Yeah.” Niall doesn’t really know what else to say. “I’m sorry? Is that better?” he tries.

Zayn actually makes a face like he’s contemplating it, looking upward and rubbing his chin a little. Bastard. Unfairly attractive bastard.

“I guess it’s a little better,” Zayn finally allows with a grin, shoving his hair out of his face. “Does my being sweaty mean I can’t kiss you? I’ve missed kissing you,” he admits.

“I don’t know, you might knock off my hat…” Two can play at that game, Niall decides as he pretends to deliberate.

Unluckily (or luckily, depending on how you look at it) for him, Zayn doesn’t really care about his deliberations, simply pressing a hand to the back of Niall’s neck and yanking him into a kiss.

Their teeth clack together and Zayn really is awfully sweaty and his lips taste like wet sand, but it’s still one of the most fantastic kisses Niall’s had in… ever.

Zayn does end up knocking Niall’s hat off, but neither of them notices or cares.