The dorm rooms at Cowell and Scherzinger’s School for Boys are a little too small and a little too cold and always too loud, but they still feel something a little like home to Zayn, and he knows Liam feels the same. They share; they have done since the beginning when they’d both been tiny eleven year olds in too big uniforms, lugging too big cases all the way up the stairs to their shared room on the top floor of the dorm house. Liam’s got a new, plain navy duvet cover this year and Zayn’s replaced his posters of Chris Brown with ones of the Man U footie team, but there’s the same view out across the rugby pitch towards Holmes Chapel from the little window that still creaks when it opens and there’s still the faint, green smudge in the corner above Liam’s bed that marks where Louis had badly drawn a picture of mistletoe to kiss Liam under the night before they all left for home last Christmas. He maintains it had been a dare from Harry. Zayn’s never been too sure.
Zayn sits down on his bed and tugs his tie loose and up over his head. He hangs it on the end of his bed post. Someone’s racing up and down the hall outside and it feels good to just sit for a minute. There’s not a lot of privacy living in dorms. Zayn is forever grateful that he ended up with Liam for a dormmate and not Louis. Being friends with Louis is enough stress.
He looks at the green smudge on the ceiling and wonders how hard it has to be to get crayon off. He thinks about attacking it himself with some soapy water, but then wonders if Liam would notice.
“Zayn?” Niall shouts through the door, knocking and opening it at the same time. “Louis is talking about heading down to the kitchen to see if we can charm someone into letting us make some hot chocolate. You in?”
Zayn shrugs, figuring he can at least get some kind of an Enid Blyton quip out of it. Liam’ll laugh if no one else gets it, and that alone makes Zayn want to smile.
The Art Block is off campus in one of those quirks of an old school that no one quite cares to know the history of, and actually it’s less a ‘Block’ than a small cottage at the edge of town with big windows and a small kiln in the room at the back that probably ought to be a bedroom. Art lessons are taught in the normal school building until second year of GCSE, and then it’s like, as Liam’d said when they’d first gone out there, you’re suddenly in an elite, slightly anarchic society.
Zayn and Liam had got lost on the way back that first day and ended up walking through a field with an old, rusting train track running through a little valley in it. They’d made it back to school twenty minutes later than they ought to have done, and it’s the way they’d walked home after every lesson since.
“Harry’s already talking about what he can sneak in for the end of term,” Zayn tells Liam on their way back from Art one day at the end of November. His trousers are damp half way up his shins from where the grass they’re walking through is wet from the rain and he nearly stands in sheep shit a couple of times, but the sun is bright though it’s cold and Liam’s walking close to him for the warmth and it’s… it’s all-round nice, Zayn thinks. He looks at Liam and notices the end of his nose is flushed, and has to purse back a smile. “Louis warned me not to tell you since your, you know, moral fibre would make you feel like you had to hand Harry in.”
Liam laughs. “Why’re you telling me, then?” He asks, hitching the strap of his messenger bag up on his shoulder. Zayn shrugs.
“Thought you might want to put a request in.” He says, “Harry won’t think to bring mixers.”
They come to the stile at the northern corner of the field and Liam stands to the side so Zayn can go first like he’s a proper gentleman and everything. The wood of the fenceposts are cold and damp, and once they’re both on the other side Zayn grabs Liam’s blazer and wipes the flat of his palm down the back of it. Liam rolls his eyes and lets it happen.
“Oh, yeah, please feel free.” He mutters, “Just don’t gripe about your hand being disgusting and wet all the way back to the dorm, you finicky ponce.” Zayn raises his eyebrows at him and Liam laughs at himself. “What? I’m just trying out new insults.” Zayn twists his face into a slightly nutty ‘you nutter’ look.
“Don’t bother, mate.”
The gravel track they’re walking along turns a corner and the school is suddenly straight ahead of them, their dorm house just a rugby pitch and a lawn away. They skirt around the edge of the pitch, not fancying a telling off for ruining the ground, and run the last a hundred metres to the door of their dorm. Liam touches the door well before Zayn and turns around to grin his win at him, lifting his arms up in victory. Zayn smiles back and shoves him gently in the chest, opening the door and stamping his feet on the mat inside.
“It’s freezing,” Liam says, stamping his own feet and pulling the door shut behind him. They don’t stop long, heading straight up stairs and taking them two at a time until they reach their floor, falling against their dorm room door when they reach it and shoving it open.
Harry’s got a boy from 7th Form pushed up on Liam’s desk with his hands in Harry’s hair and Harry’s mouth on his neck and his foot pressing into Harry’s arse. Liam makes a choked sound and then shouts, “Harry, that’s my desk!”
Harry pulls away from the guy (big brown eyes, floppy hair; Zayn thinks Louis knows him, maybe) slowly and turns to look at Liam with this big, blinking sense in his eyes that he really doesn’t have to and is only doing Liam a courtesy.
“It is your desk,” Harry agrees, and blinks at Liam.
“This is the third time,” Liam says, going red. He looks to Zayn for help. He looks back at Harry and gestures to the guy who is slowly and sheepishly pushing Harry away and himself off the desk. “He’s a border; go make out on his desk in his room.”
Harry sighs. “I don’t see what the fuss is over, mate.” He says, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “You should be happy for me. Good friends are happy when their mates get some.”
“Not when they get some in their bed, they aren’t,” Liam shouts, and Zayn puts a hand on Liam’s shoulder when he goes to step towards Harry, just in case. “And definitely not on their desk.” He breathes out hard in frustration. “I work at that desk.” He says, a little pathetically. “It has, like…” He makes a sweeping gesture. “…An order. And stuff.”
“Oh, yeah, we admired that before we started making out, didn’t we?” Harry asks, taking the other guy’s hand with a cheeky grin. Liam makes a wounded noise.
“Harry. Out.” Zayn says, deciding they need to leave before Liam starts trying to reorganise his desk and has a minor breakdown. Harry grins at him on his way out and claps Liam on the back.
“Sorry, mate,” He says, “But someone needs to get some action in here.”
“I’m sure Zayn gets plenty.” Liam whispers furiously. Zayn blushes and turns to drop his bag on his bed quickly. He hears Harry laugh.
“Oh, he wishes, Liam.”
And fuck if that’s not the truth.
That Thursday night, Liam and Zayn head upstairs a little early and watch The Inbetweeners together on Zayn’s laptop, sitting on Zayn’s bed with their backs against the wall and their legs hanging off the edge, kicking against each other’s ankles every so often.
During a roll of adverts, Liam drops his head down to Zayn’s shoulder and asks, “Do you think I’m boring?”
Zayn nearly moves away just with the shock of such a random and bare question. He frowns and looks at Liam with what he hopes is a ‘why would you ask me something like that?’ look. Liam shrugs.
“I think Louis thinks I’m boring.” He says, fiddling with his sleeve. “He didn’t want me to know Harry was sneaking stuff in and he doesn’t- I don’t know.” He falls silent, his face all pinched like he’s sad and trying not to look it. Zayn looks away.
“I think you shouldn’t care so much what Louis thinks,” Zayn says, quietly, and picks at Liam’s shirt a little, absent-mindedly. Liam nods.
“I do though.”
Zayn swallows loud and wonders if they’re really having this conversation, deciding that even if Liam is, he isn’t, and with that in mind he grabs his pillow and swings it ‘round to hit Liam in the back of the head.
Liam gapes at him for a second, eyes wide. “What-“ He starts, but Zayn hits him again and Liam laughs, startled-sounding and a little too bright, and he gets up on his knees and shoves Zayn down flat onto the bed with his hands gripping tight to Zayn’s shoulders. Zayn’s laptop shuts and falls onto the floor but Zayn doesn’t bother checking if it’s alright, too busy shoving back against Liam and laughing in his face, and he gets one of Liam’s arms twisted around behind his back and Liam against the wall before he stops. Liam knees him in the stomach a little harder than it was probably meant but they both go still, then, one of Liam’s hands still wrapped around one of Zayn’s where they’re held between their faces and Liam’s knee resting against Zayn’s hip, his other leg tangled with both of Zayn’s. Liam’s face is red, and Zayn notices that just before he kisses him.
Liam’s lips feel warm and almost unreal; too still to be the lips of anyone real, Zayn thinks, but they are, and then Zayn catches up with himself and he realises he’s kissing Liam and he pulls away like he’s been hit with an electric shock.
Zayn blinks, panicked, at Liam, and waits for him to freak out.
“… Um.” Liam says, and licks his lips. They stare at each other for a second and then Liam moves, pushing himself up off the bed, grabbing his toiletry bag and his pyjama bottoms and leaving with a quick look at Zayn that’s nearly as confused as it is apologetic. Zayn stares at the ceiling until Liam comes back in whenever-it-is later. He hears Liam’s breath come a little strangely when he sees Zayn’s still there, in the same place he’d left him, but then he puts his toiletries away like he always does and gets into his own bed, his back to Zayn.
“Night,” Zayn thinks he hears Liam say, but he probably imagined it.
It’s not exactly the silent treatment but there’s a definite ‘we are not talking’ feeling around everything Liam and Zayn do the next day. Louis pretends not to notice, distracting Liam by trying to lasso him with his tie, but Niall makes great big puppy eyes at them every few seconds he’s not dealing with Harry being distractingly pretty or Mr. Henry’s floppy hair. There’s a sigh of relief after lunch when Liam and Zayn have to take their awkwardness off to double Art. Harry pats Zayn on the back as if to say ‘sort yourself out, mate.’
There’re only five of them in that classroom but it’s easy enough for Zayn to avoid looking in Liam’s direction, even, until they’re walking out the cottage door again and Zayn’s feet automatically take him their way rather than the safe way, and he thinks, fuck, well I’m committed to it now, sighs, and hopes Liam’ll walk the other way.
Which doesn’t explain why he’s so relieved that Liam follows him. He finds he’s suddenly breathing lighter and he almost wants to laugh. They walk in silence, Zayn in front of Liam, until they reach the field, and then Zayn stops at the gate to it and says, “I’m sorry,” in this really quiet, hollow voice that he hadn’t known was going to happen at all. Liam stops still and looks at him, all big brown eyes.
“I’m sorry, too.” Liam says, and shuffles on the spot. Zayn wants to ask exactly what he’s sorry for but it’s obvious, really. Trust Liam to apologise for not liking someone.
“Idiot,” Zayn says, and pushes Liam’s shoulder with a smile. Liam smiles back tentatively, and instead of being pushed away he leans back in and pulls Zayn into a hug. Zayn closes his eyes.
The moment Zayn knows everything is back to normal comes that weekend, when Louis tries to convince them all to pull a prank on… someone, or anyone. It always goes like:
“I’m bored,” Louis says, wrapping an arm around Liam and another around Harry at breakfast on Saturday morning. (Harry stays over more Fridays than not. The Saturday kitchen staff ask after him when he’s not there for breakfast. Charming bugger.)
“Get a hobby,” Harry suggests, but his face is already lighting up. Niall leans forward eagerly. Liam and Zayn exchange looks, sigh in unison, and roll their eyes. (And that’s the moment Zayn knows, really, and it’s like a bubble of happy just sitting there underneath his lungs.)
“What’s that, Harry?” Louis asks, leaning over him. “I should find myself a sick bag, a pot noodle, and a teacher to freak out? You are so right.”
Mr. Henry gives Louis and Niall detention. Harry gets away with it. Liam and Zayn look at each other and sigh, their lips twitching, but Zayn wont tell if Liam wont.
The night before the end of term, it’s pretty traditional for the day students to stay over in other boy’s bunks and sneak in contraband items. Mostly drink. Harry sneaks the five of them in some vodka and a bottle of Magners each and they all spend the night in Louis and Niall’s room.
The vodka barely gets opened. Harry complains about how tame they all are and then nearly falls asleep against Zayn’s arm, so Louis wakes him up by shouting, “TAME ARE WE?” in his ear. Harry gets his own back by making Louis admit, during a pretty lazy game of ‘I Never,’ that he is the reason Niall’s tie is never around his neck.
Soon after, Louis sings Christmas carols very loudly out the window, making up his own lyrics when he can’t remember them and sometimes just shouting random words to what he thinks is a tune, until Liam forcibly pulls him back from it and they both end up landed on the bed. They stay there, talking quietly, drinking, curled into each other as though they are both very comfortable with each other’s skin just there. Even though Zayn’s got a Harry curled up to him in exactly the same way, he’s jealous. He sighs and drinks and teases Niall about his new crush on Ms. Baxter to take his mind off it.
Still, Zayn keeps looking at where Louis’ foot is hooked under Liam’s ankle. He knows Harry’s talking to him but he just nods a couple of times and Harry lets it go.
Until he stops letting it go and grabs Zayn’s face, thumb under his chin and fingers pressing into his cheek, and turns him towards him.
“Hey,” Harry says, studying him with a frown pulling his eyebrows together. “Why don’t you do something about it?”
Zayn blinks. Maybe, he thinks, and gives Harry a little smile. Maybe.
Lying in bed that night, Zayn looks at the spot on the ceiling where there’s a green smudge he can’t quite see in the dark, and it makes him think. The next morning, instead of spending ages packing, he throws most of his clothes into his case and sits on it until it’ll close, and then he grabs a pair of scissors and some glue and texts Harry to ask if he can stop off at the Arts Block on his way in to say goodbye for Christmas. Harry agrees and they meet up outside with half an hour to go before breakfast, passing green tissue paper and gold thread between them like it’s something as illegal as the packets of cigarettes Harry sometimes sneaks in for him.
Zayn runs back up to his and Liam’s room, sitting down at his desk and sketching out a particular kind of leaf shape against the green tissue paper. He doesn’t bother with finesse or anything, manages to tear a corner and doesn’t care because he figures Liam’ll get it anyway and if he doesn’t he can just explain and he’s only got five minutes and-
Liam walks in. His hair is still wet from his shower and he looks up at Zayn where he’s standing on his desk, sellotaping his green tissue paper thing to the ceiling, with a sort of Liam-y fond confusion in his eyes and around his mouth. Zayn taps the sellotape, decides it’ll hold, and carefully jumps down so he’s standing in front of Liam with the green thing taped up above them both.
Zayn smiles, trying to make it say, ‘I’m sorry for this’ and, ‘this means something’ and, ‘I’m also really not sorry for this, sorry.’ Liam tilts his head and waits for Zayn to explain.
“Liam,” Zayn says first, and commends himself on a decent-to-good start. “I fancy you.” He says, giving himself a second to enjoy Liam’s reaction; he straightens his head and blushes right across the bridge of his nose. They blink at each other. “I’m sorry.” Zayn says, and makes a vague gesture with his right hand. “I didn’t mean to… um.” Liam shakes his head but stays silent and Zayn takes that for the ‘it’s not your fault’ he thinks it would mean on himself. Zayn bites his lip and points up at the tissue paper thing above them. “It’s just… remember last year, when Harry dared Louis to kiss you under some mistletoe and he drew a green blob on our ceiling and kissed you under it and for the second before he explained you thought he… um, you know,” Liam is going redder, “liked you, and how you’ve spent the whole year pining over him and how it’s meant you’ve barely even noticed how I’ve-“
Zayn stops himself, takes a deep breath and says, “I’ve made some crappy mistletoe,” He smiles and gestures again at the thing hanging above them, “And I’m not expecting you to pine for me all next year. But, I’ve been pining over you, and now maybe… it’s Christmas?”
Zayn bites his lip in the silence that follows so hard he worries all Liam’ll be able to taste if they do kiss is just blood. Liam looks at him.
“I already got you something,” He says, finally, and Zayn nods.
“That’s true,” He says, and he’s aware that he’ll let Liam take that out rather than push his luck, but it feels unfair that Louis just took and got so much and he’s asking and he’s going to get nothing, but then Liam’s frown is clearing like it’s a cloud on his forehead and he’s smiling, leaning forward.
And then for a second they’re kissing, both of them this time, and Liam’s hands take hold of Zayn’s arms and Zayn catches hold of Liam’s and holds on and he kisses. And he’d never actually thought Liam would. It puts this amazing spinning feeling in his stomach and he just kisses Liam like it’s the only time he ever has and ever will because besides the fact that second part is true, it’s the only way, Zayn realises, that he ever wants to kiss anyone.
Zayn pulls away with a smile and a tiny, great big, “thank you. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas.” Liam says back, his frown coming back a little as Zayn steps away and picks up the handle for his case. “There’s breakfast.” He protests, because Zayn should stay for that, but he’d said his goodbyes to Harry earlier just in case and to Liam just now, and he’ll catch Niall and Louis if he can downstairs and those are really the only people he cares about anyway. Zayn shrugs and reaches for the door handle.
Liam grabs his other wrist, the one that’s attached to the hand holding the case. He steps into Zayn’s space and says, “wait.” He reaches up, looking Zayn in the eye the whole time, and carefully grabs Zayn’s tissue mistletoe by the thread it’s hanging from, and he breaks it. He throws it gently onto his own bed.
He quirks this little, crooked smile and leans right in, pressing a gentle, third kiss on lips that Zayn suddenly feels are paper thin and dry. It’s as though all the breath leaves and comes back to him all in one go and then, suddenly, they’re kissing again. And there’s no mistletoe.