He buys a house.
It's a little way outside London, but - as the estate agent tells him - the further out you go, the more you get for your money. Harry's bought himself a flat in Hampstead; Zayn's getting something closer to a mansion.
A suspiciously cheap almost-mansion. When he asks about the price, the estate agent looks him straight in the eyes and talks about how neglected the place is; the overgrown garden, the faded wallpaper and the way everything is blanketed by dust. It's fairly isolated, too, which puts off a lot of potential buyers.
"It's perfect for you, though," she says. "Somewhere you can really get away from it all."
He looks at the pictures she sends him. He likes it, even if he can't quite put his finger on why. It's not something he'd typically go for. And it's a bit of a wreck.
"The potential to add value is huge," the estate agent says.
He goes to look around and he likes it even more.
The house is covered with ivy, clinging to the brick and curling through the rusted wrought iron window grills to press against the glass. The double front doors open onto a tiled hallway, and Zayn goes to stand by the stairs, tilting his head to observe the way they loop up to the third floor. He can already see Louis breaking his neck, attempting to slide Mary Poppins-style down the banister.
Inside, everything's quiet and gloomy until the estate agent unlatches one of the windows and starts to pull the ivy away.
"You'll want to get that all taken down," she says, but Zayn doesn't. He'll clear the windows, but he likes how the house looks now, likes the cracked ceramic sinks and the skirting boards with their layers and layers of paint. By the time they reach the third floor, his mind's made up. He pulls handfuls of vines away from what's going to be his bedroom window and looks down onto the tangled garden, green-gray and cold, even though it's mid-July.
"The house does need some work doing to it," the estate agent acknowledges from behind him, "but the damage is mainly cosmetic. It wouldn't take long at all to get it fixed up."
He's made enough money that he can buy it outright. The band never really kicked off outside of Europe - not that Zayn expected it to - but they've done well enough, and a place like this is an investment.
He signs the papers a couple of days later, and within a month the house is his.
The lower floor's alright, except that none of the lights work. The electricity's on, and the kitchen light, at least, has a bulb in - but it remains stubbornly dim, no matter how many times he flicks the switch. The wiring needs to be looked at, then.
Upstairs, he sets to work getting rid of the ivy that's crawling across the windows. It's not long before he's done the entire second floor, and in the sunlight weakly penetrating the newly unobscured glass, he can see cobwebs clinging to the corners of the room and that the air is thick with swirling motes of dust. Brilliant, thinks Zayn, I've been breathing all that in.
When he opens the door to what's going to be his bedroom, he almost has a heart attack.
There's someone standing by the window.
There's a rushing in Zayn's ears and he knows his expression mirrors the someone's - eyes frozen wide open.
"Hi," says the someone. The someone looks a bit like a boy. He's pale all over, skin almost as white as the t-shirt he's wearing and blond hair bleached into translucency by the light coming in from behind.
"Hi," says Zayn. He swallows, licks dry lips. There's a strange buzzing across his skin. "You're not allowed to be in here."
The boy - because it's definitely a boy, Zayn doesn't know why he felt unsure, how he could think anything else - raises an eyebrow, questioning.
"I've bought this house," says Zayn, and he can feel the words vibrating in his throat, up his jaw. He shakes his head to try and clear them away. "So, sorry, but you're not going to be breaking in anymore."
The boy's brows climb higher. "You've bought it?"
"Yeah," says Zayn, slightly annoyed. He doesn't not look like a homeowner.
"How old are you?" asks the boy.
Zayn's not big-headed, but the truth of the matter is, he's quite famous. And he knows a lot of teenage boys aren't really all that into boy bands, but to not be recognized at all is a rarity. But it's a good thing. It means the boy's not going to rush home and post about his encounter on the internet, and that Zayn's new garden is going to be spared being trampled by shrieking girls.
"Old enough to buy a house," shoots back Zayn. And then, because fair's fair, and for some reason he can't quite tell just by looking at him, "How old are you?"
"Older than you think," says the boy, and he grins.
"What, older than twelve, then?" snipes Zayn, and the boy lets out a mock gasp of horror that turns into a braying laugh. It's infectious, and Zayn bites his cheeks to keep from smiling.
"I'm 18," he says, and then he starts laughing again, though Zayn's got no idea what's so funny.
"Old enough to get into trouble for this kind of thing, then, yeah?" says Zayn, and he jerks his head towards the door.
"Yeah, ok," says the boy. He's still laughing to himself, and Zayn gets a flash of blue, blue eyes as he shuffles onto the landing. He traipses down the stairs, hand hovering over the banister, and Zayn leans against it to follow his progress, the way his figure grows dimmer until it's lost to the gloom.
Fixing the lights is the first thing on his list.
He's got a contractor, Jon, who's in charge of all the trades. Danny's the one who sorted it out, because Zayn's a bit hopeless when it comes to house related things, while Danny occasionally watches Grand Designs. And he does a good job, because the house is almost finished when he drives Zayn down to see it on his next day off.
The exterior looks untouched, but inside it's a lot brighter than the last time Zayn saw it. Everything smells of paint, and the kitchen is shiny and incongruously modern. He clicks the lights on and off to make sure they work.
He tries out the tap, and through a newly clean window he watches Jon lean across a stack of empty packing crates and laugh. He's talking to the blond boy from before.
By the time Zayn makes it outside, Jon's alone.
"Who was that?" asks Zayn.
"The boy you were talking to."
"Oh, Niall," says Jon. "Lovely chap, talks my ear off if I give him half the chance."
Zayn pinches the skin on the back of his hand to try and stave off the buzzing.
Zayn's pushing a chest of drawers across his bedroom, sweating and swearing, when the hairs at the back of his neck start to rise up. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees something glinting past the window.
Niall's sitting on a small stack of bricks at the end of the garden, a tabby cat curled up next to him. He's not touching it, just looking down, watching as it sleeps in the sun.
Zayn gets an alarm system fitted the next day, though he's got the strangest feeling it's not going to help.
There is something odd about the place though, aside from it's emptiness.
Everything looks right, but it feels somehow skewed, shadows bent at odd angles like a straw in a glass of water - the ends don't match up. Sometimes he can hear his own humming echoing faintly back at him, and it'd be easy enough to put that down to the effect of a big, old house, if only the songs didn't sound different. And every now and again he opens his mouth to yell something to Danny, before he remembers - there's no one else there.
But it feels like there is.
He doesn't see anything out of the ordinary until about a week later.
Zayn's sitting in the kitchen with a cup of tea, when right on the edge of his vision he catches something moving. He breathes deep to try and slow his pounding heart, and steps cautiously out into the corridor.
Something rushes past the second floor landing and Zayn's heart leaps into his throat. He swallows it back down.
There's nothing to be scared of.
He tries to block out the part of his mind that's replaying every horror movie he's ever seen, because this is nothing like that. Zayn moves up the stairs.
The second floor corridor is empty.
His heart jackhammering in his chest, Zayn pushes open the nearest door. It's still light outside; the study looks bright and normal, and Zayn calms down a little. He leaves the door open to let light into the corridor, and moves to the next room.
The guest bedrooms and bathrooms are empty, empty, empty.
The room at the end of the corridor is dark when he pushes open the door, curtains drawn shut. It looks unoccupied, but he can't quite tell, not through the gloom, not when the furniture is all fuzzy shapes pushed together in the center of the floor. He doesn't want to stick his hand in, in case something-
He's being an idiot. Zayn flicks on the light.
And bites down on his tongue.
"Fuck," he says, when his heart has stopped feeling like it's about to explode. It comes out a little garbled. "What the fuck, Niall?"
Niall looks anxious. He doesn't move from his spot, crouched down among the furniture. He's so pale and so still, eyes locked onto Zayn's, and Zayn feels his heart rate rising again.
"Come on, get out here."
Niall grimaces and shuffles forward. He's in the same clothes he's been wearing every time Zayn's seen him, and Zayn's teeth clench of their own accord.
Niall looks cautious when he asks, "How do you know my name?"
"Jon told me," says Zayn, and Niall's expression clears.
"Oh yeah, of course."
Zayn herds him onto the landing with flapping hands. "Downstairs."
Niall eyes him warily and doesn't move. "Don't push me," he says. "I'll fall."
"I'm not going to push you," says Zayn and he makes to nudge Niall forward, but Niall ducks out of the way, holding his hands up in surrender.
He starts down the stairs hesitantly, hand outstretched, ready to grip the banister.
Zayn stares at the back of Niall's head as they step down, keeps staring in the hallway. He's almost sure, he's got a feeling - the way the light from the transom cuts into Niall's face, shadows across it making him look more solid than ever-
-but it's just a feeling, thinks Zayn, cold fuzz against his brain. There's no such thing as ghosts.
A cloud passes across the sun and Niall dims, features bleeding together. He tears his eyes away from his flat, faded hand to look up at Zayn.
"This is probably a bit weird for you," he says.
Or maybe there is.
"I can pretend," says Niall, and Zayn doesn't know exactly what he means by that, but he nods and takes down two cups anyway.
"So," he says.
"So," says Niall. "I'm dead and I've been living in your house."
"You're a ghost," corrects Zayn. He slides a cup of milky tea across the island to Niall.
"Well, the two sort of go together."
Niall leans in towards the worktop, face hovering close to the cup and Zayn watches, curious.
"Can you smell it?"
"A bit," Niall scrunches up his nose. "I think I'm just remembering how it used to smell. Same with touching it - I think it feels warm, but-" He shrugs.
Zayn wants to ask him how long he's been dead, what happened, but he's not sure about the etiquette surrounding those kinds of questions. Niall seems very well adjusted for a dead person, but Zayn doesn't want to upset him just to satisfy his own curiosity.
"Are you alright?" he asks instead, and Niall looks surprised.
"Yeah. Yes. It hasn't been terrible, living here. Just boring."
Zayn stares. "But, didn't you get lonely? Don't you miss your-" he stops short of saying 'family' and takes a hasty gulp of tea to cover his mistake.
"I don't know," says Niall slowly. "I miss something, but I don't remember what. It's all muddled, like trying to make an old dream make sense."
"Can you leave the house?" asks Zayn. He winces internally, and strikes 'being smooth while talking to ghosts' off the list of things he's capable of. Niall takes it the right way though, shaking his head.
"Well what happens if you try?"
He looks blank for a second. "I don't know. I get turned around." He bites his lip.
Zayn coughs and Niall's eyes snap back up, focused. "Well then, we're going to have to some kind of arrangement." Niall looks at him curiously, and Zayn obliges. "My friend Danny's moving in in a couple of weeks. He's already picked his room - the one at the end of the third floor, with the bathroom - but you can have one of the others, if you want."
He's not sure if ghosts sleep, and obviously Niall's not got any stuff to put in his room, but it seems only polite to offer anyway.
Niall looks bemused, but then he's grinning. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," says Zayn. "You're not moving out. I'm not moving out. So it's pretty much the only solution. Danny's cool, he'll be ok with it. And I'm not asking you to lock yourself away or anything," he hastens to add. "We'll just have to muddle through somehow."
Niall beams. "Sick. When are you getting your TV put in?"
"Do it yourself then."
He feels bad the second he says it, but Niall bursts out laughing.
"Don't be an idiot," he says, "I can't."
Zayn's been thinking about it, and now seems like a good time to broach the subject. He's curious and Niall's laugh has got his heart beating a little faster. He's feeling reckless.
"Can I touch you?" he asks. Niall makes a face and lifts his shoulder in a half-shrug.
"You can give it a go," he says. "Jon tried to pat me on the arm once. It didn't - I think his brain filled in the blanks."
Zayn steps forward and presses a finger into the proffered skin of Niall's forearm. He can feel something, faintly, but saying what that something is is like holding on to fog; he can't keep his grip on the sensation.
"Can you feel it?"
"Maybe," says Niall. "Maybe I'm just lying to myself."
It takes ages to get everything connected, and even then there's no signal.
"We probably have to call someone," says Zayn vaguely. He doesn't really know, but Danny will, or maybe he should ring his mum. "Let's watch a film instead."
They sprawl at opposite ends of the couch, Niall's legs resting on Zayn's where they meet in the middle.
"Can I switch the light off?" asks Zayn.
"If it won't freak you out."
It doesn't, but Zayn doesn't like seeing a barely-there Niall. He switches the light back on.
They're halfway through The Avengers when Niall asks, "How come you bought this house?"
"I liked the vibe?"
"I mean, how could you afford it?"
"Oh," says Zayn. His plaques and memorabilia are all still in boxes. "I'm in a boy band. We're pretty famous." He waits for Niall to start laughing, but instead he sits upright, previously jiggling foot falling still.
"Hey, do you know Justin Bieber?"
Zayn's only met him twice, and he doesn't have any good stories. Niall looks slightly disappointed, so to make it up to him Zayn gets out his laptop and puts on Believe. At Niall's insistence, he starts downloading the Christmas album too.
Niall dances around the living room to Boyfriend and it's ridiculous and sort of horrific and some floating part of Zayn is thinking about how surreal all of this is, but most of him is firmly planted on the sofa watching Niall shake it, stomach muscles aching with how hard he's laughing.
And Niall has the audacity to make fun of his dancing when Zayn gives in to his cajoling and joins in.
When they finally get back to watching the film, it's late.
"I reckon I'll go to bed soon."
"Ok," says Niall, eyes fixed on the screen.
"Hey, Niall," he says, after a little while.
"Can you sleep?"
Niall twists to face Zayn. "If I want," he says. "I don't usually. It feels too much like being dead."
And Zayn doesn't know what to say to that, so he stays silent and lets Niall go back to watching the film. By the time Tony Stark has dealt with the missile, Zayn's having trouble holding his yawns in and when the credits start he hauls himself upright, joints cracking.
"I'm out. G'night."
He makes to move towards the door, but Niall's voice stops him.
"Hey, Zayn, put something else in for me?"
Niall waggles his eyebrows, and Zayn opens his laptop to set up iplayer so that Niall can watch TV instead. BBC1 finishes broadcasting in the early hours, but it'll still occupy him longer than another film would.
He feels a bit shit saying goodnight to Niall, leaving him on the sofa in the glow of the laptop. He looks wan and tired in the flickering light. Wan and tired and it's like Zayn's looking at him through a filter, his edges less defined.
He feels a bit shit, but what's he supposed to do?
"Boo," says Louis, leaning over Zayn's shoulder, and Zayn jumps a little. He thought they'd gone out for lunch. "What are you doing?"
"Ghosts?" asks Louis, and Zayn starts closing his tabs. "Is your new place haunted?" He blows on the back of Zayn's neck, and Zayn flicks him on the nose.
"Don't be an idiot."
"It's stupid, actually," Niall says. "I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm not from around here-"
"Really?" asks Zayn, and Niall sticks his tongue out at him, grinning.
"I was visiting my cousin, I think. She lives around here - or maybe not anymore, I don't know. One thing that I do remember is this house, though. It's supposed to be, like, the haunted house of the area." He looks up at the ceiling and Zayn watches his eyes trace across the molding. "I've thought about it, I reckon we were always daring each other to sneak in. And I think I did. I must've done it more than once, because when I woke up here, it felt familiar. I don't really remember what happened though. I know I fell. I don't remember, but I know, like it's a fact that everyone knows; I fell down the stairs." He grins at Zayn. "Ironic, isn't it? About the haunting, I mean."
It is, Zayn agrees, but it's a little too morbid for him to find it funny.
"I wonder if your cousin was with you?" he asks.
Niall shrugs. "I don't know. I hope not, that'd be horrible for her." He frowns. "I get the feeling I was alone - I've got a messed up knee, it's a pain in the arse. That's probably what did it. I reckon I tripped and cracked my head open."
"That's it?" asks Zayn.
"Yep," says Niall. "No murder, no crime of passion. Just a boring accident."
"Oh," says Zayn. "I always thought ghosts had, like, unfinished business."
"Nah," says Niall. "To be honest, I just really like being alive. Even if I'm dead, it's still alright. Better now that you're here." Zayn smiles and Niall fidgets. His voice is a bit quieter when it starts up again.
"I remember waking up, and I knew I was dead, you know? It felt different, like a different kind of alone."
He bumps his leg against Zayn's, and Zayn can almost feel it.
"But why would I need to watch Australian football?" he asks, and Niall just gives a jerk of his shoulders and settles down on the couch. Zayn buys a freestanding lamp, too, and positions it next to Niall's end of the sofa. When Niall sees it he grins wide enough to split his face in two, and Zayn feels like an arse for not thinking of it sooner.
Having the overhead lights off makes everything they watch seem a lot more dramatic.
"X Factor!" says Niall. "I was going to go on that."
Zayn feels almost obliged to watch it, so he's glad Niall doesn't object to his choice of program.
"Yeah? Why didn't you?" There's a strange itch between his shoulder blades, and he twists his arm to try and reach it.
Niall screws up his face in an effort to remember. "Knee?" he offers, sounding unsure.
The thing is, Zayn doesn't know exactly when Niall died. He's googled things like 'Niall accident Hertfordshire' a few times, but unsurprisingly nothing's come up, and he's been left feeling awful and oddly guilty each time. He could ask the estate agent to help him find out, or even hire someone, if he really wanted to know. But Zayn's not sure that he does. He's got a general idea, from pop culture clues that Niall's provided, and he's mostly satisfied with that. He's fine to keep collecting hints.
"Did you watch it, you know, that year?"
Niall shakes his head a little, in a way that Zayn has learned to interpret as who knows? He doesn't ask why Zayn wants to know, and Zayn doesn't say.
Instead he rests his fingers on Niall's arm, lets his brain trick him into thinking he can feel the fine hairs there as he trails them back and forth. Niall's got his eyes wide open, fixed on the movement, and Zayn keeps his unlidded too, when he leans in.
He presses his mouth against Niall's and he feels - not nothing. It's different, staring at Niall so close and Niall staring back, pupils shrinking and growing when Zayn shifts so that light from the lamp falls onto him. There's almost something there, an echo of warmth. And even if he's kidding himself, even if it doesn't feel like anything outside, inside it feels good. Inside, it feels good enough that Zayn wants to do it again.
It's late evening, and Zayn's coming down to say goodnight to Niall. He pauses when he hears voices on the other side of the living room door.
"So, no shit, you really are a ghost."
"That's cool. If you ever need to talk or anything-"
"Yeah. Thank you."
"Hey, will you change the channel for me?"
"Sure. Which one do you want?"
"Just flick through them. Stop! This is good, thanks. Goodnight, Danny."
Danny starts when he opens the door and runs right into Zayn. He doesn't say anything out loud though, just pats Zayn on the back and gives him a look before making his way up the stairs.
"Hey, Niall," says Zayn, stepping into the living room on an exhale. "D'you want to come and sleep in my room?"
"You look terrible," says Liam at practice one day, poking none too gently at the bags under Zayn's eyes.
"Someone keeping you up at night?" teases Louis.
Yes, he thinks. "No," he says.
He's not sure why he doesn't tell them about Niall. There's the obvious reason - it's difficult to talk to people about how there's a ghost in your new house - and the less obvious reason, which is that things at home feel so separate from anything past the garden gate, and he's not sure if he wants to mix the two. At home, Niall's always leaning over Zayn's shoulder, throwing his legs across Zayn's lap. Zayn gets used to it, a weightless head on his arm, the press of a projection against him.
He goes to a magazine shoot after a weekend at home, and flinches when Harry puts a hand on his neck.
Zayn's supposed to stay over at Louis' after - they're going to France in the morning, and it makes sense to cut down his travel time - but he has a change of heart.
He takes a taxi home, and when he stumbles through his front door it's into familiarity. There are voices murmuring in the kitchen and when Zayn goes to investigate he finds Niall and Danny playing Jenga, mugs of tea unattended at their elbows.
"Look what the cat dragged in," says Niall.
Danny narrows his eyes. "I thought you were staying with Louis?"
"Change of plans," says Zayn dismissively. "I didn't know we had Jenga."
"It's a bit crap," says Niall. "Danny's got to move my pieces, and he's rubbish."
Danny silently tells him to fuck off.
"I'll move your pieces for you," offers Zayn, and is affronted when Niall looks at him dubiously.
"No thanks. Me and Danny against you."
Zayn loses twice before deciding he's had enough of games.
"Just as well," Danny informs him. "It's time for Location Location Location."
Danny tells them goodnight after the show has ended, and Zayn makes himself and Niall one last cup of tea before deciding it's probably time for them to turn in too. He's going to have to get up at four if he wants to make it to Heathrow on time.
By the time Zayn comes out of the bathroom Niall's already on the bed.
"You should turn the light off," he says.
It's weird to sleep beside Niall, when Niall's not there. When he's settled close to Zayn, real and solid looking, Zayn can imagine he feels Niall, made up of warm and heavy limbs. But when the lights go out and Niall goes with them, it's harder to do. He's curled around empty space, he can't even listen to the sound of Niall's breaths and he feels suddenly uncertain-
"Goodnight, Zayn," says Niall, and Zayn dreams he feels the slightest brush of something against his ankle.
He has trouble sleeping in Paris, keeps thinking about how weird it is to fall asleep next to Niall.
It's weirder without him.
"Exactly," says Zayn, "Two months. The time for a housewarming party has been and gone."
"People will still come! It's a party and we're a hot boy band."
"It's in the middle of nowhere," says Zayn. "No one's going to come."
And that, Louis concedes, is a fair point.
"We'll come around then," says Liam. "We still haven't seen it all fixed up."
Harry nods. "It's a disgrace."
And Zayn thinks. He could get Niall to hide away in a dark corner every time they come around. But he doesn't want to do that. Niall's a people person and he'll like Liam and Louis and Harry, and they'll like him too. He can break the ghost thing to them gently when the timing's right, once they've all got to know each other.
"OK," says Zayn. "The thing is, I've got a friend staying with me."
"Right, Danny," says Harry.
"Not Danny. He's my- his name is Niall."
Louis frowns. "A friend from back home?"
"Sort of," says Zayn. "He's going to be staying with me for, um, the foreseeable future, so, you know, if you come 'round you'll be seeing him a lot."
"Zayn," say Liam slowly. "Is this a boyfriend?"
"No!" protests Zayn, but it's too late. Louis looks like he's been personally insulted.
"You've got a live-in boyfriend, and you didn't tell us?"
"Why haven't we seen him? Why hasn't he come out with us?"
"Why hasn't he been to one of our shows?" asks Harry.
"He mostly stays at home," says Zayn, casting around for a suitable excuse. "He's really, er- agoraphobic."
Louis' expression is the definition of suspicion.
"So no chance of being alright," observes Danny.
"It'll be fine," says Zayn "We can make up an excuse for the no touching. Maybe I'll tell them you've got leprosy."
Niall looks put out. "What if I just tell them I don't like being touched by strangers?"
"I don't think they'll believe it."
It goes slightly downhill once the doorbell rings. Niall's hanging back by stairs; the plan is for Zayn to greet Harry, Louis and Liam before introducing them - from a distance - to Niall. Liam ruins the plan by not waiting his turn for a hug from Zayn, and instead heading straight for Niall with outstretched arms.
Niall not having anywhere to flee to is an unforeseen flaw in the plan. He's backed himself into a corner by the time Zayn's able to grab hold of Liam's shirt and yank him backwards.
"Don't," says Zayn. "He's really claustrophobic, and you're crowding him."
"Oh, sorry," says Liam. He offers Niall an apologetic smile.
"I thought you were agoraphobic," says Louis, narrowing his eyes.
A brief look of confusion crosses Niall's face, but to his credit he plays along.
"Right," he agrees. "I'm both."
"And he's got leprosy."
"I don't have leprosy," Niall swiftly denies. "I just don't like it when people touch me."
There's a very confused pause, broken when Danny swoops with hand shakes and back slapping.
The house tour puts them away from Niall for a good hour, and then it's time for food. Zayn's pretty pleased with himself - having dinner while watching a film means everyone'll be too distracted to notice that one of them isn't eating. Niall curls up in his usual spot at the end of the couch and Zayn makes sure to sit next to him, to avoid anyone noticing that he's not really there. Liam claims the other end of the sofa and Louis is sat on the floor, in charge of all the remotes. Harry and Danny come in with the pizza, and that's Louis' signal to hit play.
Everything's like it should be.
The film starts - it's one of Harry's, something subtitled - Zayn's agreed to sit through it because he's a good friend and because he's expected to fall asleep anyway. Colors flash across the screen-
"Hey," says Louis, nudging Harry. "Turn the light off."
And Zayn thinks what?, because the light's already off. But it's an idle thought, too slow, and by the time it clicks Harry's hand is already on the switch.
"No, don't!" says Zayn, but it's too late.
In the glow of the TV he sees Louis and Liam and Harry turn to face him and it's like time has stopped.
"Oh hey," says Harry, blue light flickering across the side of his face. "Where did Niall go?"
"Niall's nice," says Liam. "He's really cool and funny and it's not fair that he's only got one friend. Or are you-?" Zayn slaps a palm across his mouth.
Louis looks intrigued but keeps his own mouth shut, for which Zayn is eternally grateful.
Things fall into a comfortable groove, and Louis starts nagging about a Halloween party. He makes a good case - Zayn's got the biggest house, and it's old and therefore creepy, and Louis promises to make sure everyone'll be too drunk to notice anything weird about Niall. "Or we can all just hang out in the kitchen and be on drinks duty?"
Zayn promises to think about it.
The shops start filling up with pumpkins and plastic bats and themed cupcakes, and Zayn stares at the little cartoon ghosts and witches made of icing and finds himself getting annoyed.
Halloween's not really a big deal, but all the same the amount of ghost-related programming definitely rises in the run up. Zayn accidentally sits through half an hour of something about mediums contacting lost souls, and even though he knows it's bullshit, it gets to him.
"This sucks," he says.
Niall looks up from the kindle he's leaning over. He's been working his way through celebrity autobiographies, ever since Danny enlightened them to automatic page turning.
"I'm going to get old and die and then you'll be alone again," says Zayn, and he tries to sound solid and indifferent but he can't quite manage it.
"Maybe," says Niall, and he glances back down and pouts in a way that Zayn knows means the page has turned before he's finished reading it. "Maybe not."
"Maybe not," repeats Zayn. "You're going to have to elaborate."
"I don't know," says Niall, abandoning the kindle altogether and coming to sit next to him. "Things are different since you moved in. I reckon I've changed a bit."
"Well, so have I," says Zayn. "Everything changes, that's how time works. So what?"
But as soon as the words leave his mouth, he realizes. "Oh."
Niall rests his head on Zayn's shoulder, and Zayn watches the slow blink of his lashes.
"I might have stayed the same forever, if you hadn't come along," he says, and Zayn's startled out of his trance.
"You know, because when I was alone, I might as well have not been here."
Zayn tries not to sound upset. "What, like an 'if a tree falls in the forest' kind of thing?" It's not something he likes to consider, especially not in relation to Niall - but if no one cares that you exist, he thinks, you might as well not.
"Sort of like that," agrees Niall. "You need to love someone, or there's not really any point. Like in that Queen song."
Zayn doesn't even know all the words to Bohemian Rhapsody, so he's not sure what Niall's talking about. "Don't you think it's the other way around?"
"Well, it's probably best if you've got it both ways." Niall tips his head back to grin at Zayn. "But no, not the other way around. You make yourself real, other people don't do it for you."
And Zayn's not sure if that's true, but it's Niall saying it, so he thinks it might be. He huffs out a sigh.
"You're still stuck here, though."
"Yeah, well," says Niall. "So are you."