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this is no bridget jones

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Zayn first meets Liam at a track practice towards the end of his third year of high school. Really, he’s known of Liam since they were kids, in a periphery way because everyone knows everyone in their town, but that doesn't really matter. Plus, Zayn isn’t actually a part of track practice. Mostly, he’s seventeen and he’s bored and he somehow thinks consistently smoking half a pack of cigarettes in the bleachers while watching other students participate in things will solve both of these problems. (He comes with his sketchbook and pencils too, always - there’s no practice quite like trying to draw people in motion.)

It’s not that he’s a loner. He isn’t. He has friends. He has lots of friends. He’s not the school pariah or anything. It’s just, sometimes he’d prefer to sit alone than engage. Liam Payne doesn’t seem to get the concept of alone, though, because one day after practice ends on an unnaturally hot April afternoon, Zayn catches Liam looking up at him from the edge of the track. His arms are resting on the top of the gate that separates the field from the bleachers, and he raises a hand to shade his eyes against the sunlight.

“You know, those are really bad for you.”

“Okay,” Zayn says, because like people haven’t been telling him that for months now.

“I know you've probably heard that a billion times already.”

“Nope.” Zayn raises an eyebrow, flicks ash off the tip of his cigarette. “Never.”

Liam shrugs, the sarcasm rolling off of him like nothing. It’s kind of weird - but Liam Payne is kind of weird in general. He’s a grade behind Zayn, used to get bullied a lot as a kid, but he sort of found himself in high school. Seems happier, Zayn thinks. And he’s just… he’s nice. To everyone. And Zayn’s pretty sure that kind of personality trait would be absolutely fucking annoying if Liam didn't look so damn genuine about everything. Like right now: he’s just smiling up at Zayn like they’re old friends, like them having chats is a regular occurrence.

“Right,” Liam says, and gives a shifty look around the field before he leans forward over the gate. “Hey, can I try that?”

Zayn raises a brow. “It’s not weed or anything.”

“Oh, I know.”

“You seemed conspiratorial about it,” Zayn says, but Liam’s eyebrows furrow, “nevermind.”

He clutches his sketchpad to his chest, makes his way down the few short steps.

“Here.” Zayn hands off his already lit cigarette, and Liam holds it clumsily between inexperienced fingers. He inhales and his eyes go wonky and cross-eyed as he stares down at the ember on the end.

He coughs a bit, says, “Ugh, that’s gross,” and Zayn feels his mouth curve up one side.

“Did you think it wouldn't be?”

“No, I just wanted to see what the appeal was.” He gives it back, nods. “You’re Zayn, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Liam.”

“I know.” Zayn glances over his shoulder, gestures with the cigarette to an angry-looking man with a whistle around his neck. “I think your coach thinks I’m trying to corrupt you.”

Liam turns to look, laughs. "Simon? Nah, that’s just his face. Hey, do you like comic books?”

The non sequitur throws him off. “What?”

“Comic books?” Liam gestures to Zayn’s sketchpad. “It's just, I see you drawing a lot and I was wondering if you did? Because this new place opened in the city and I don’t really have other friends who do, not that you’re a friend or that you read comics, or that that isn’t a little creepy to ask. I haven’t been watching you or anything, you’re just always here and drawing and it’s kind of hard not to notice. But there’s that place in the city and would you wanna come with?”

He pauses, squints a little like he’s thinking.

“Also, I’m sorry that I said you weren't my friend. That’s not a nice way to put it.”

“I got the idea, I think,” Zayn says, and he’s definitely trying not to sound amused because Liam Payne likes to talk.

“I like comics, yeah. And I know the place you’re talking about. I haven’t been able to go,” he raises a shoulder half-heartedly. “No ride, and a cab is too expensive.”

“I have a car!” Liam shakes his head. “I mean, I just got my license and I can only use it if I ask first, but I have one!”

“You’re really excited,” Zayn notes and Liam huffs a little.

“I just like superheroes. So, d’you wanna come?”

Zayn doesn’t like to hang out with new people most of the time. It’s a waste, he thinks - he has perfectly good friends now, it’s not like he needs more. But Liam is smiling at him and he looks so happy at the idea of going into the city that Zayn thinks if he says no, Liam will do something terrible like frown and make Zayn feel like a horrible person.

So he says, “Yeah, alright.”

Liam asks him, “Give me your number so I can text you,” and he’s writing it on a scrap of sketch paper and that’s kind of that until Liam bounces from one foot to the other and grins and leans forward.

“I knew you were nerdy,” he says quietly, like he’s figured out Zayn’s biggest secret. “I had a feeling.”

Zayn scoffs, but it’s half a disguised laugh, too. “I am not. I’m cool, can't you see the leather jacket?”

“In April.” Liam grins wider. “I’ve seen you wearing that in the middle of summer before. Lucky you haven’t gotten heatstroke yet.”

“Don’t insult the person whose just agreed to read comics with you, Liam,” Zayn chides lightly, and Liam does laugh, then.

“Wouldn’t dream of it, Zayn.”

---

In Zayn’s defense, he doesn't actually realize he's like, stupidly in love with Liam until his eighteenth birthday. It's only after everyone's gone home and Zayn's parents have turned in for the night that Liam gives Zayn his present. He hands over the package with a tight, nervous smile and when Zayn finally gets it open, he can't quite believe what's in his hands: a The Amazing Spider-Man comic, circa 1966, bent and broken and tattered - certainly thousands and thousands of dollars less expensive than a mint condition, practically worthless monetarily in this state to be honest - but Zayn is holding an actual Silver Age comic in his hands, one Liam bought for him.

He glances up, mouth open, unable to think of anything to say, and Liam mumbles something about the powers of eBay and Zayn just steps forward and hugs him tight, mindful of the comic between them. When he pulls away, Liam’s cheeks are red like he’s embarrassed by his own sincerity, and he grins wide and happy and -

And Zayn is so in love with that smile that it hurts.

“I can’t believe you did this for me,” he says, in awe, and Liam just taps him under the chin with light fingers and goes to hug him again.

“You’re my best friend, Zayn," Liam tells him, soft. “I’d do anything for you.”

Zayn buries his face in the crook of Liam's neck, thinks only you, and it's not the first time he wants to kiss Liam, not by a long shot.

It’s definitely not the last, either.

---

Zayn graduates high school ahead of Liam. He takes year off then, partly because he wants to save up and help out around the house and partly because he has no clue what he wants to do. By the time he does decide (animation, at a university a few hours south of them, with a promising new arts program that's getting a lot of buzz across the country), it's January, and he's sitting on his bed looking at an acceptance letter in his hands for the Fall semester.

Liam comes over later, when he gets out of class. Zayn can hear him yell out a quick hello to his sisters as he bounds up the stairs and when he gets to Zayn's room, he flings the door open and dive-bombs the bed, crashing into Zayn, bag and all, like he can't contain himself. "Hey!"

"Hey," Zayn laughs, and his palms squeeze Liam's sides before letting go and sitting back up. "How's school?"

"Can't wait for it to be over," Liam shakes his head. "Can't wait to graduate - also I have a secret?" he says, smiling, voice lilting up at the end, and Zayn jerks his chin at him.

"Yeah? What?"

"I got," Liam pauses, and then he's laughing and digging into his bag, "I got into a school. A good one. Early acceptance. And it's - it's for music."

He hands over the envelope - a big one, with WELCOME! written on the front, and - and Zayn almost wants to laugh.

"Liam," he is laughing slightly, he can't help it, and Liam smiles back, just the slightest bit confused.

"I haven't told anyone yet. Besides you. I don't - I don't wanna be sensible, I think. I thought I did, and I know it's what my parents want for me but I - I don't want to study something I hate and dread going to work every day, you know? It's for audio engineering. Producing," Liam says, and when Zayn doesn't say anything, he frowns and pokes Zayn in the forehead with an index finger, "...Zayn, you there?"

"Yeah, sorry," Zayn shakes his head, "it's just that," he leans back, grabs his own big envelope from his bedside drawer. He tosses it into Liam's lap, aiming for nonchalant even though his heart feels like it's caught somewhere in his throat.

"Got this today."

Liam picks it up like its made of glass, and when he looks at Zayn, he grins. "We got into the same school."

"We got into the same school," Zayn repeats quietly.

"This is amazing." Liam pulls his bottom lip in, hesitant: "I mean - you're going, right? Or - are you - are you waiting for other responses?"

"First choice," Zayn says. "Think I wanna do animation."

Liam perks up.

"You can make a Disney movie," he says brightly, and Zayn falls back onto his bed with a chuckle.

"Yeah, sure. Work for Pixar. Something. I don't know. But I - I want what you want. To go to work happy. To be happy."

"I think we will be," Liam says, sliding his bag to the floor and putting both their envelopes on top.

"Bit naïve, maybe."

"To be happy?" Liam shakes his head, moves to lie next to Zayn. "No, it's not."

He's quiet, and then he turns his head to look at Zayn. "Can't believe we both got in. Can we dorm together? Or - no, get a place off campus."

"Not tired of me yet, Payne, even after two years?" Zayn asks, folding his hands together on his stomach.

"Never," Liam tells him, quick and genuine. He grabs Zayn's hand, links their fingers together because he’s Liam and that’s just what he does. "Never get tired of you."

Liam smiles again, his nose all scrunched up and his eyes hidden underneath a lifetime's worth of laugh lines, and leans in close, stage-whispering, "To infinity and beyond, Malik."

Zayn grins back and bites at his shoulder through his bulky sweater and thinks that, yeah, he really wants to kiss Liam all the time now but - but he loves this laughter just as much. Still, Zayn figures maybe things'll be different, once they get to school. Maybe once they're out of their small town that they can.

Well, he's not sure, exactly.

He just knows it'll be different.

It has to be.

---

(It isn't - not really.)

---

The first few weeks of school come Fall season are uneventful, at best. They move into their apartment without much fuss (if you don't count Zayn's father of all people getting weepy at the goodbyes). They settle into school, and classes, and campus jobs, and a quasi-adult life. They make acquaintances, people from orientation they both know they won't remember by January, but in the end, they have each other, and that's good enough for Zayn.

Then Liam comes back from classes at the beginning of October holding a scrap piece of paper with an address scrawled across it in someone else’s handwriting.

"Party," Liam says without an introduction, bouncing up on his toes excitedly. "Zayn, I got invited to a party!"

"Yeah?" Zayn shoves his textbooks aside and Liam sits next to him. “From who?”

"Kid named Harry in Music Composition," he shakes the paper under Zayn's nose, looking for all the world like Christmas has come early. "He said his roommate's brother is throwing something this weekend at his two-flat and that I should come and bring whoever I wanted."

"Aww," Zayn slides an arm around Liam's shoulders. "Did you make a friend, Liam?"

"I made a friend," Liam says, grinning.

"First party at school. Sounds great." Then he adds, since Liam doesn't actually drink, "Are you sure, though?”

Liam shrugs and says, “First party, right? Might as well get the experience in. Don’t really have to be drunk to do it. ...We’re going, right?" he asks, hesitant; Zayn knows Liam won’t go without him, and it makes something tighten in his chest.

“Yeah,” he says as Liam clutches the paper in his hand. “Yeah, we'll have fun.”

---

Liiiam!”

They barely make it through the door and into the packed room before someone throws their arms around Liam. He’s smiling, maybe a little nervous, but he pats the boy on the back anyway. “Hi, Harry.”

“I’m so glad you’re here; you looked like you needed a break,” his eyes are very wide and very green and very pretty, “do you ever get breaks, Liam?”

He notices Zayn then, and nods at him. “Hello, who are you? Does Liam take breaks, ever?”

“Zayn, and no, not usually,” Zayn says, holding out a hand, but it’s squished between them when Harry hugs him. "Oh - hi?"

“Sorry," he steps back, gives a charming little half-smile. "I'm not drunk, I promise. Or, well. Not very.”

He cranes his neck, trying to see over the massive crowd of people (not hard, since Harry’s got about an inch on Liam, even). “My roommate’s here somewhere, Liam. Wanted you to meet him. We’ve only known each other for a few weeks but he’s really amazing.”

“Harry, are you on something?” Liam asks, mostly joking, though Zayn can hear the slight undercurrent of concern. Harry barks out a laugh and claps his hands over his mouth.

"What? No, why?"

"You're just," Liam looks a bit flustered. "Talking faster. Faster than usual."

"So, normal-paced," Harry laughs, and then knocks Liam with his shoulder. "No, I’m just - excited. High on life. Also one of the deejay’s for our radio station is here that I think has been...” he trails off as he looks around the room, seems to find the person who he’s talking about because he gives a jaunty wave and points towards the opposite end of the room.

“Right, I have business to attend to that mostly involves hands in pants.” He takes a breath, looks between them. “Wanna drink, before I go?”

“Liam doesn’t drink,” Zayn says, and Harry’s eyebrows jump before he pats Liam on the back.

“No problem. No peer pressure here, Liam. I think there’s Coke and stuff for mixers in the fridge, if you check. The kitchen’s through there,” he points straight across the room, “Danielle - she lives here - will get you something, just ask. Do you drink?” he asks Zayn, and Zayn nods.

“Tell her you’re a friend of mine then,” Harry smiles, “she’ll put a little extra in.”

“Thanks,” Zayn says, pleased, and Harry shrugs like it’s no problem.

He heads off, and Liam turns to Zayn and lifts his shoulders with a grin. “Ready?”

Zayn throws an arm around his shoulders.

“Ready.”

---

The thing is - the thing is, they’ve only been in the kitchen - been at this party - for twenty minutes maybe, and Zayn’s pretty sure Liam’s in love with Danielle.

He’s like, eighty percent sure.

She’s gorgeous and funny and says she’s doing a graduate degree and if it were possible for Liam to have hearts in his eyes, he’d have them. Zayn sips at his drink (the bitterness of the vodka is going to give him a headache tomorrow, he already knows) and watches Liam watch Danielle.

“-only been here a few months,” Liam is saying, and Danielle interrupts him with, “Oh, you’re a freshman?” and Liam sort of frowns like he doesn’t want to answer.

“Yes?” he says, and it comes out like a question.

Danielle shrugs, goes back to reorganizing the tequila by quality of brand (Zayn can appreciate the effort). “You just don’t look eighteen.” She glances up at Zayn. “You either.”

“I'll be twenty in a few months,” Zayn tells her, and gulps down half his drink, fights back a grimace. “I took a year off.”

Danielle nods like she gets it. “I did the same thing. Wanted to get a job and help out around the house first.”

She lifts her own Solo cup up and raises an eyebrow like she’s trying to figure out if that’s what he did, too, and Zayn smiles and clinks his cup against hers. “We’re bonding,” he says dryly, and she laughs and if this were a cartoon, Liam would be in a puddle on the floor and Zayn really, really wants to hate her, but he can’t.

She takes a small sip of her drink then, eyes Liam over the rim of her cup. “D’you want to see my room?” she asks casually, and Liam looks like a deer trapped in headlights.

“Are - are you drunk?” he blurts out immediately and Danielle looks confused and Zayn snorts into his cup because it doesn’t really matter where they are or who they’re talking to, Liam is still Liam.

“What?”

“It’s just,” Liam grips his Coke in his hands. “You know, I don’t drink. And I don’t. Um. If you’ve - been drinking, I don’t?”

He doesn’t finish his thought just sort of stares helplessly at her with an expression that’s like he’s trying to be considerate and hopeful, all at once.

“Are you trying to tell me you don’t want to take advantage of someone inebriated?” she asks slowly, and Liam’s cheek go red. She laughs though, leans forward.

“I’m not,” she says. “This is the first drink I’ve had all night. But thanks for checking.”

“Don’t mention it?” Liam says quietly, and they’re probably going to have to work on the whole ending his sentences like they’re questions thing, later.

Danielle gives the counter of drinks a cursory once over and then points towards a room. “Coming?”

Liam’s eyes are wide when he turns to Zayn. He looks so earnestly lost that Zayn can’t do much but nod encouragingly and smile at him. It’s the extra confidence Liam needs, apparently, because he grins back and slides the tips of his fingers under Zayn's chin before following Danielle out of the room.

Okay. Alright. Zayn can deal with this. Liam's found a hot girl to have some fun with, and if there's something Liam always needs more of, it's fun. It's perfectly cool.

Except.

Except the party is a lot less inviting without Liam around, and it's also a lot less interesting when Zayn pictures what they might be doing up there - it's Liam, so it's not like he's going to go wild or anything, but there'll definitely be kissing involved because he knows the look Liam had when he was talking to Danielle, it's the same one Zayn saw Liam make right before he asked his last girlfriend out and it's. It's whatever. It's fine.

But Zayn finds himself downing the rest of his drink, anyway.

He wonders if he can find the Harry kid from earlier - he seemed nice - and he’s trying to make his way out of the kitchen when he trips over a shirt on the floor and knocks into someone, hard. The last bit of his drink drips onto their forearm and Zayn mutters, "Shit, sorry, man," but whoever it is just claps him on the back a couple times.

"Don’t worry about it," the guy smiles, and he's got a mouthful of dental work and a snapback on. "Hey, you wanna come hold my legs for a keg stand?"

Zayn has never seen this guy anywhere on campus, not that he or Liam venture far enough away from each other to necessitate meeting new people beyond classmates (and here Zayn resolutely Does Not Think of leggy brunettes with pretty smiles and kind faces that've always been Liam's type) but he's smiling like he simultaneously wants Zayn to have the most fun ever and like he couldn't give less of a shit if Zayn declined, so Zayn says, "Uh. Sure?"

The guy grins wider and says, "Follow me."

Zayn does. He holds the boy up while he does a keg stand in a corner away from the music; he's skinny, so light it almost takes no effort, and when he's done and Zayn sets him right side up again, he wipes his mouth and takes a deep bow to the people cheering around him.

"Thank you," he says in an affected tone, flourishing his hands out regally, and once the crowd disperses, he plops his snapback back on his head and grins as he throws an arm around Zayn’s neck to pull him in.

"And you!" he laughs, and sticks out his free hand. "Niall. It's Irish," he adds, like he's expecting Zayn to comment on it, but then he hears, "Zayn," and he snorts.

"Nevermind," he tells Zayn. "Always used to someone asking me what the hell kinda name is Niall, but we might be in the same boat?"

"No one can ever spell it first try," Zayn admits, and Niall laughs and then quiets and squints his eyes.

"Hey, you okay?" Niall asks, and honestly -

"You look really concerned for someone whose only known me for like, ten minutes."

"Fifteen, more like," Niall says breezily, "and you held my legs up, that practically makes us blood brothers."

He pats Zayn's chest and the brim of his cap catches Zayn in the temple. "You wanna play a round of beer pong with me?" he asks. "I think my usual roommate-slash-partner is currently indisposed in a room somewhere and you seem like you know what you're doing, drinking game-wise."

Zayn shrugs. "I'm alright."

"Well, I'm the best," Niall says confidently, "so we're bound to win."

He lets go of Zayn and heads towards the front room without even bothering to check if Zayn is following him.

(Zayn is, but that's not the point.)

"Onward, Zayn!" Niall yells over the music, pumping a fist up into the air.

"Once more into the drunken breach!"

---

They win the first game, and every game after that, and by the time they’ve each got a hand on a makeshift trophy (made out of beer cans, it looks like), Niall’s hugging Zayn around the waist and drunkenly singing weee are the champions my friii-eeends into his ear and Zayn isn't thinking of Liam and curly-haired girls who make Liam smile at all.

They meet up at the end of the night, Liam and Zayn, each with dopey grins for different reasons. They stumble into a cab (well, Zayn stumbles, Liam mostly just shimmies because he’s happy) and pass out on their beds the second they get to their apartment.

Zayn wakes up at two in the afternoon the next day with a painful headache, a dry mouth, and a number written along his arm in massive permanent marker print. It says NAIL FILE :D underneath and U OWE ME TROPHY!!!!! and when Zayn rolls over, he can see the beer can trophy propped up against the wall.

He’s still smiling when he texts Niall, hours later, after the pounding in his head’s dulled to a low roar and he and Liam have lounged around pathetically all day, nursing hangovers.

I’ll save it. he sends. U can keep the next one :)

He doesn’t get a reply until he’s in bed:

Hahahahadeal!!!!

---

Liam says Danielle wants to keep things casual, and Zayn almost wants to kiss her on the mouth for that. As it is, Liam is giddy enough to even have a chance that he’s smiling when he walks into their place after their first date. (It's not really a date, Zayn doesn’t think. They studied at the library and ate snacks from the vending machine, for God’s sake.)

“She says I just got here, and she doesn’t want to stop me from experiencing everything I can,” Liam says dreamily, twirling his key ring around a finger while Zayn sets up a pot of water for some pasta.

“Hm,” he says.

“Isn’t that so understanding?” Liam asks, hopping up on the counter and peering into the pot.

“Amazing, really,” Zayn tells him and Liam looks down at his keys.

“I don’t think I want to date someone else, though. Right now, at least. I just want to ask her out on another date again. Casually,” he assures Zayn, who nods along, “but, you know. To let her know I’m interested.”

“Good plan,” Zayn says, because he’s never going to actively discourage Liam from pursuing someone.

“Hey,” Liam pokes him hard in the side, gets a slap on the hand with a spoon for his trouble. He laughs, and says, “Have you met anyone, by the way?”

Zayn’s phone buzzes on the table, and he glances at the incoming text from Niall:

What are u doin tonight???? THIRSTY THURSDAY come over n get drunk!!!

And after that: Tell liam to come too ! which is odd in general, because Zayn’s not actually sure how Niall knows who Liam is.

Zayn texts back Making pasta for dinner :) after? and says, “Nah, not yet. Not really looking, though,” he nudges Liam in the knee to scoot over so Zayn can sit on the counter next to him.

“Don’t they say you always find someone once you stop looking?” Liam asks, and Zayn ditches the spoon for the box of pasta.

“I think that’s when you lose stuff, not people.”

Liam shrugs, “Yeah, probably.” He slings an arm across Zayn's shoulders and grins. “But, maybe you’ll find someone when you least expect it.”

Zayn’s phone buzzes again:

BRING THE PASTA ZAYN OH MY GOD

“The water’s boiling,” Liam says.

Zayn hops off the counter to stick the pasta in. He’s watching it wilt from the heat and he says quietly, “Maybe I already found someone. Maybe they don’t know it yet.”

Liam stands on his tiptoes to watch the pot over Zayn’s shoulder.

“Maybe you don’t know it either,” he suggests, patting Zayn’s hip, and Zayn laughs.

“No,” he lowers the heat. “No, I’m pretty sure I do.”

---

Liam has an essay to finish, but says he’ll catch up later, so Zayn heads over to Niall’s dorm hall after dinner with a plate of pasta and a text on his phone that says Takin shower but a cute curly haired boy will let u up !. Zayn only has to stand awkward in front of the entrance for a few minutes when he hears, "Zayn?"

He looks up and, “oh. Harry? You’re-”

“Niall’s roommate,” Harry grins and shakes out his hair. “Yeah. Small world, hm? Where’s Liam?”

“He’s got an essay that’s due next week. He does things early,” Zayn says with an exaggerated sneer of disgust and Harry jokingly shudders in response before laughing.

“God, that’s awful. He’s coming out later though, right?”

“Said he would.”

“Cool, c’mon,” he grips Zayn’s shoulder, leads him into the building. "Niall takes awhile in the shower, hope you don't mind me in the meantime. Oh, I didn’t get to tell you at the party - nice tattoos," he says, and Zayn blinks down at his arm.

"Thanks," Zayn grins, and he can see a few inked patterns peeking out from under Harry’s jacket, on his wrist and he says, "You, too."

Harry laughs, and heads towards a stairwell. "Yeah, I kind of - uh, I don't know. Let people I like draw on me. Niall's already got a shamrock."

"That's - friendly," Zayn offers and Harry snorts, pushing the door open to the second floor.

"Look like a notebook that got doodled on by a twelve year old," he says, but he sounds fond. "Someone'll think they're dumb occasionally, but I dunno.” He shrugs, and unlocks the door to his room. He leans against it, turns his head to look at Zayn: “Can't be dumb if they're about people I love, you know?"

Zayn smiles, says, "Yeah, I know exactly what you mean," and decides he really likes Harry, then.

When they get inside, Zayn’s overwhelmed by the extreme lack of cleanliness. There's clothes and junk food wrappers everywhere and Zayn thinks maybe there was a floor once underneath it all but he's not too sure.

"The mess is something to get used to," a boy who isn't Harry says, and Harry shoves him lightly and climbs over him and into his bed. They've got game controllers and a bowl of popcorn between them and the boy says, by way of introduction, "Louis, like the King. Usually I like to play The Floor Is Lava, it makes navigating around everything lots more fun."

"Right, because you're so organized," Harry rolls his eyes. "Have a seat!"

"Uh?" Zayn steps gingerly over a lumpy mass of smelly towels and gives the one desk chair in the room not covered in anything a dubious look.

"That stain is just tartar sauce," Harry says, and un-pauses whatever game he and Louis are playing, "or maybe come."

Zayn chokes on his spit and Harry says, "Oh, God, I'm kidding! Really, it's tartar sauce, I swear. We had fish last week."

"I'll just... sit on his bed," Zayn says, quite diplomatically, he thinks, and Harry waves a hand, too engrossed in the game to be bothered.

"Yeah, go on, Niall won't care."

"Fair warning, though," Louis says, eyes glued to the television screen. "Those stains are definitely not tartar sauce."

---

Zayn watches Harry and Louis play their game - it’s something to do with zombies, and Harry’s awful, but he laughs every time game-him gets his throat ripped out, so he’s a good sport about it, at least. They’re halfway through a level when Niall finally stumbles out of the bathroom, dressed, with wet hair curling around his ears.

"Zayn," he smiles, and flings his used towel across the room at Louis, who ducks. "Where's Liam?"

"He’s coming later - I was gonna ask, how do you know him? I didn't think you met at that party."

"Ooh," Louis says then, like he's just figured something out. He pauses the game right as Harry's character gets attacked (again). "Zayn, right."

"What?"

"So, you're the one who's in love with Liam?" he says, and Zayn tenses.

Harry bats at Louis. "Do you even know what tact is?"

"...Sorry?" Zayn says, voice high and nervous and Niall claps him on the back.

"Yeah, think you were a little drunker than you thought at the party the other night? You sort of mentioned it once or twice."

"Mentioned... what, exactly," Zayn says, and Louis stretches to pat his leg.

"No need to be embarrassed." He widens his eyes. “Love is beautiful, Zayn."

"You're not helping," Harry says, and gives Zayn a sympathetic smile. "I think at one point you said you thought things would different here?"

"Oh, God," Zayn covers his face, wonders if the ground can just open and swallow him up now and save everyone the trouble of this conversation.

"No, it's cool!" Niall hops up on the bed, aims a manic grin Harry's way. "Me an' Harry came up with a plan."

"Yeah, we're gonna help you woo him."

"We're wooing masters," Niall adds, and Zayn would laugh if he didn't think it'd make him vomit, too.

"You want to - sorry, what," he says, still flabbergasted by what they're offering.

Louis sticks a popcorn in Harry's hair and throws a handful Niall's way - he manages to catch one in his mouth - and explains:

"Harry has this thing where he thinks life is a film. That people should have all these," Louis waves his arm, "grand moments and at some point it definitely rains and you're sad but then you fall in love and the person always loves you, too, and you kiss and everything fades to black."

"That's... very detailed," Zayn says slowly. Then: "You want to make Liam fall in love with me?"

"Not make," Niall corrects. "Ease into. Or whatever. He loves you already, doesn't he? We just gotta - amp it up, right Harry?"

"Through a series of kooky mishaps and friendly advice," Harry nods. "And with a playful indie soundtrack in the background."

“Harry," Zayn feels like he’s losing it, "Harry, you know my life isn't a romantic comedy, right? No matter how much you try and make it one."

"Please, I've seen Love, Actually like... thirty times," Harry says, grinning. "This is going to be so much better.”

“It’s no use trying to stop them,” Louis says, shaking his head. “Harry’s life won’t be complete until he witnesses a changing-clothes-in-a-dressing-room montage, and Niall’s secretly a hopeless romantic.”

Zayn glances at Niall, who shrugs with a satisfied little smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. “He’s right.”

“You guys aren’t - we just met,” Zayn says, trying to gain some kind of hold on where this is going.

“Not true,” Harry's lying down on his bed now, throwing popcorn in the air and trying to catch it with his mouth, “I’ve known Liam since -” a piece of popcorn hits him on the nose, “September. He’s practically family.”

Louis frowns and looks down at Harry. “Just how many friends have you got here now?”

“Tons,” Harry says, smiling like he’s pleased with himself. “Why?”

Louis lifts a shoulder, his top lip curling a little. “No reason, Harold.” He nods to Zayn then. “You should trust them. I like Niall. He doesn't ever yell at me, even after I threw up on his pillow the second time we met.”

Zayn glances warily down at the pillow in question, right next to him. Niall laughs and leans into him and says, “He bought me a new one, don’t worry.”

“I am a man of much generosity,” Louis says magnanimously, lifting his chin. “Also, I thought we were getting drunk?”

“Yeah, but after you - nevermind Liam, you don’t even know me,” Zayn says, and Niall gives him a thoughtful once over.

“Well, that’s why I invited you out. We’re gonna be friends, all of us. And we’ll get to know you. And then we’ll work our magic and Liam’ll fall in love with you and you’ll graduate with honors and get married and adopt like, a billion babies or something and Louis will write a hit one man show about it where he plays every character.”

“Aw, Niall,” Louis wipes a fake tear away.

“I’m gonna regret this if I agree, aren't I,” Zayn sighs and Niall lets out a cackle when Louis says,

But think of my one man show, Zayn.”

---

“I don’t even want to be an actor, really,” Louis says to Zayn once they’re seated in a rounded booth in a bar Niall swears doesn’t card. “I’m at school to teach.”

“You don’t go here?”

“Might as well,” Niall says, nudging Harry towards the bartender. “He’s here all the time anyway.”

“Don’t get mad at me just because I like hanging out with my best friend in the entire world,” Louis says loudly to the back of Niall’s head.

Codependent,” Niall sing-songs over his shoulder, loping his arm through Harry’s, and his voice grows louder to carry over the din. “It’s kind of cute, actually. Sometimes Louis can’t make it and Harry spends the whole weekend with a pout!”

Harry’s responding "I do not!" nearly gets lost in the crowd, and Louis laughs.

“He does," he says to Zayn. "Niall took a photo once when Harry wasn’t looking and sent it to me."

Louis glances at his phone fondly. "He looked like a grumpy kitten.”

He nudges Zayn with an elbow. "Hey, I meant what I said earlier. You can trust them. They're not going to lead you down a path of, I don't know, heartbreak. Or pranks." He reconsiders this. "Actually, maybe pranks, but not mean ones."

"I trust them," Zayn says, because he kind of does, "it's just. No one's ever known before?"

"It's about time that's changed, then," Louis suggests, and Zayn must look sick to his stomach because Louis frowns for the briefest of moments and then pulls him in and gives him an encouraging grin, goofy and cross-eyed with his tongue sticking out, until Zayn feels himself start to smile back.

"Relax," he reassures Zayn, squeezing a little, "love, friendship, whatever. Everything will work out in the end, you'll see."

"Thought Harry was the sappy one," Zayn says idly, and Louis chuckles and pinches Zayn's side.

"Yeah, yeah," he sighs, like Zayn's being difficult, "just don't tell anyone."

---

They've all got drinks and have been sitting around for an hour at least, arguing about behavioral effects in video games, when Zayn finally hears a familiar voice call his name. There's a hand on the nape of his neck and Liam is standing next to him, so he scoots over in the wraparound booth to make room. Liam squeezes in, says, “The bouncer outside laughed when I told him I wasn’t going in to drink.”

“Well, that’s rude,” Harry says. “D’you want a soda? I can get it for you, my treat.”

Before Liam can answer, Louis shifts towards Harry, says with a wounded sigh, "You already have too many cool, new friends. Don't buy them things, they'll like you even more."

Harry buries his head in his folded arms on the table, laughing. "God, you're jealous."

"Am not!"

"You are," Harry insists, "and it's adorable."

Louis scowls.

Harry lifts his head and kicks gently at Zayn’s shin. "Will you both tell him you're not my best friend yet?"

"Not yet," Zayn agrees.

Liam smiles. "But you're a really good person, Harry."

"Thank you," Harry says, grinning wide, and pokes Louis in the cheek. "See? You're still first."

Louis rolls his eyes, but gets an arm around Harry as he does so.

"Yeah, fine, alright," he says, and Harry butts him in the shoulder with his head until Louis pets him. "First and best."

“Anyway," Harry says, voice muffled from Louis' arm, "this is Liam.”

He sits up, widens his eyes at Louis meaningfully, and Zayn barely resists the urge to bang his head on the table.

“Oh,” Louis looks considerably more cheerful. “Hi, Liam.”

Liam’s mouth does a weird smile-frown thing and he says, “You look like Peter Pan.”

Louis stops smiling and narrows his eyes. “Yeah? Well, where’d all your hair go?” he says, glancing up. “Did you lose a bet or something?”

“I just wanted a different look for school,” Liam shrugs.

“And what look was that,” Louis sniffs, unimpressed. “Newborn baby?”

"Zayn!" Niall's voice cuts through them, and they all look at him. "Why don't you buy Liam's drink for him? That would be nice of you. Kind and thoughtful. Right, Harry?"

"Yes," Harry responds dutifully with a short nod. "A perfect gentleman. Don't you think, Liam?"

"Er," Liam glances at Zayn, who is counting to ten in his head with his eyes closed, thanks. "Yeah, I guess?"

Zayn makes what he thinks is a sound of agreement, and Louis says, "Whew, whoever dates him is gonna be really lucky, huh?"

"Yeah," Liam's mouth quirks up at the end at that. "Zayn's a great guy."

"Good boyfriend material," Niall supplies.

"He'd make a good boyfriend for anyone," Liam says, and Harry nods a bit too energetically and spills a bit of his drink.

"Especially his friends!"

"Good friends," Louis says, and Niall slaps his hand on the table hard enough to shake it.

"Best friends, even!"

"I'm going to get Liam a drink," Zayn says loudly, standing up and knocking back his chair a little. He dials back the volume when he adds, "I mean. Um. Coke is fine?"

Liam nods, turns to stare at Louis when he slides over to take Zayn's seat.

"Attractive and considerate," Louis says. "What's not to like?"

"Nothing," Harry says. "And he's funny, too. He's perfect."

"One of a kind," Niall adds, smiling at Zayn as he does so.

Liam looks between the four of them for a few moments, a wrinkle between his brows, before he says, "I - are you all trying to - date Zayn, or something? He doesn't really do... casual."

Louis just stares at Liam with a vaguely amused tilt of his mouth, before glancing over his head at Zayn.

"Well," he says, like that explains that. "I think we've always liked a bit of a challenge."