It’s not really a habit if he skips this some days. Sometimes he goes straight home after school, or out with Niall, following him around without listening to the chatter. Instead he thinks about things he shouldn’t – Harry’s hair, Louis’ knowing eyes when he’s telling dirty jokes. Payne’s shirts stretched over his shoulders, the dark stains when the weather’s cloudy and closed and Zayn’s six cigarettes in. That sort of thing, anyway.
It’s not a habit, the part where he sits in the bleachers to watch Payne. The habit is letting his mind wander.
“Where did you go just now?” Harry asks, prodding Zayn in the ribs. Zayn blinks and tries for a smile, but it sticks halfway through and he just rubs at his side where Harry dug in.
Harry gives him a funny look, then shrugs it off. “I was telling you about Louis. Did you know, the other night he washed up drunk at my house demanding to borrow a pair of socks? It was gone midnight. I worry about that boy.”
Zayn snorts. “You don’t, really. You like him crazy.”
“Who doesn’t?” Harry says, smiling slowly. Zayn squints at him, trying to put his finger on what’s odd about Harry’s expression, but he can’t quite figure it out.
“Right,” he says after a beat. “Fair enough.”
Harry chuckles, then gets up, wiping at his trousers to get the grass and dirt off. He’s bending down to grab his backpack when he notices that Zayn isn’t following suit.
“Are you going to hang around here, Malik? They do let us out, it’s not prison.”
Zayn shrugs, looking up at him from the ground. He’d probably be less confused if he had less attractive friends, he thinks suddenly, snorting. Harry raises his eyebrows, but doesn’t ask, just turns around and jogs off, shouting a goodbye over his shoulder. Meeting Louis, most likely.
It’s only been a little while since classes were done for the day, and it’s a Tuesday, so the track team’s got practice. Zayn debates it with himself for a minute, frowning in the direction of the field and fiddling with his watch, but what’s the harm in just looking? No harm at all, and he’s got nothing better to do.
Soon enough he’s sitting at his usual spot, halfway up the rows of benches. He opens his book (lately his tastes have run more towards poetry, which Louis finds very amusing) and sets it on his knees before he untangles the wire of his headphones. When he’s settled in, he hits Play and glances at the students running along the edge of the field.
His eyes automatically snap to Payne, of course. He’s looking even better than usual today – he did something with his hair, and Zayn grins a little at the mental image of Payne in the bathroom, messing around with products. Was he bored? Did he think he was being boring, looking the same day after day? He never goes to parties; it wouldn’t surprise Zayn if the guy thought himself a little dull.
Zayn digs out his pack of smokes and lights one, leaning back on his elbows on the bench behind him. Payne’s on the other side of the field and circling back towards Zayn. Zayn can’t tell if he’s being watched back, but he doubts it; Payne is nothing if not focused.
So when Payne runs past Zayn and waves at him, Zayn bites down on the filter of the cigarette in shock. It crunches unpleasantly between his teeth, but he barely registers it over the rush of blood to his head. He closes his eyes and tosses the smoke away without putting it out, snaps the book shut, and goes home.
This is getting out of hand.
Niall shows up at track practice on Thursday with two pizza boxes and a big bottle of Fanta Orange.
“I thought you’d gone out with Louis and Harry,” Zayn says, feeling a little pathetic that Niall didn’t even have to ask where Zayn would be.
“You smoke too much,” Niall says, apropos of nothing. He sits down, darting his eyes between Zayn and Liam (after the wave, he became ‘Liam’ in the privacy of Zayn’s head). “You should eat something,” is all Niall says, mercifully.
Liam chooses that moment to do a backflip. His laughter rings clear across the field; Zayn swallows dryly and grabs a slice, avoiding Niall’s eyes. They don’t say much after that, but it’s not a bad sort of silence. Maybe Niall had the right idea after all.
Zayn spends the weekend trying to finish reading Henry V, but he can’t stop thinking about Liam. It’s so stupid, is the thing – he doesn’t really know Liam, just that he gets good grades and looks like he could pick Zayn up and pin him to a wall. Zayn hadn’t even known he was interested in that until Liam bulked up. He wouldn’t even want Zayn; why would he?
Zayn has a reputation because he smokes constantly and never hangs out with anyone except Harry and Louis (who are absolute terrors), and Niall (who makes everyone look like a bad person by comparison). He only gets good marks in English, he’s either too loud or lost in his own head with no middle ground, and he went to college still drunk from the previous nights on the first five Mondays of term. Eventually he got suspended. He knows he’s no catch.
Besides, Liam is probably straight. So.
On Tuesday, when Harry asks him what he wants to do after classes, Zayn doesn’t shrug it off. He’s been thinking about this a lot.
Harry looks surprised, then breaks into a smile that makes Zayn ache a bit. He wonders when he became so obvious, because he never learned how to follow a pattern until now. It’s so bloody stupid that the pattern revolves around borderline-stalking.
On Thursday, Louis catches him by the elbow on the front steps, leans in, and asks Zayn if he wants to go halves on a hat. Zayn does, so they get high in the park behind Louis’ house. Later, Zayn can’t remember if he talked about Liam or if that entire conversation was in his head. He very carefully doesn’t panic: it’s not as though Louis didn’t plan this so it was during track practice. Zayn has the best friends, really.
He wishes he could stop wanting more, but he wakes up every morning from dreams about Liam. Maybe if Liam hadn’t fucking waved at him he would’ve been able to stop.
(Who even does this, feels guilty about not going to stare at someone’s arse as the other person minds their own business?)
Zayn stays away for two more weeks before he breaks and goes back to the field. He’s surprised he even lasted so far, if he’s being honest with himself.
He’s struggling to light a cigarette in the bloody wind and doesn’t notice that Liam’s laying in Zayn’s usual spot until he’s too close to turn around and leave. He almost does, anyway, because he never planned to actually talk to Liam.
Liam smiles a bit and sits up, wincing. “Thought I’d scared you off,” he says. He has a nice voice, it’s so unfair.
“Um. No, no, I was – busy?”
Liam opens his mouth to say something, and if he asks Zayn what he was busy with, Zayn knows he’ll end up telling the truth. Busy getting high, he’s such a cliché. Instead, what Liam asks is, “Won’t you sit down? If I don’t complain about my knee to someone I’ll explode.”
Zayn learns plenty of things about Liam as Liam’s injury heals. The most unexpected of these is that Liam gets along with Zayn’s friends, fits as though he was there from the start.
Zayn was right: Liam thinks he’s boring. He doesn’t like schoolwork, but he worries about the future enough to be top of their class. He sings along to everything and gets Louis and Harry to join in. He’s a planner and doesn’t approve of a lot of the things they get up to, but he goes along with it regardless, always the team player.
The first time Liam gets high, Zayn kisses him. He can’t help himself. Liam makes a startled sound and pulls back to frown at Zayn.
“I thought Louis was joking.” He doesn’t sound angry, though, which is as good a sign as can be expected.
Zayn shrugs miserably. “I shouldn’t have done that, I know. But Louis isn’t wrong,” he says, just loud enough for Liam to hear. “We don’t have to—“
“So you’ll still want to do this when I’m sober?” Liam interrupts. “I don’t mind, only I want to remember it.” He pauses to blink slowly at Zayn. “I’m not rubbish at it, don’t want to give you the wrong impression.”
Well, then. Huh. That is…
“You were supposed to say that wasn’t rubbish, Malik.”
Zayn snorts and shoves at Liam’s shoulder, solid under his hand. “Shut up.”
These days, Zayn doesn’t go to track practice anymore. He never saw the point to running around like that, really. He meets Liam after, when he smells of soap and drags his feet a little with exhaustion.
Zayn likes him best like this, quiet and pliant, always smiling at Zayn like he’s happy he’s there.