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1. Liam

Later, when he was lying in his empty bed and feeling just numb enough to trace back the whole sorry evening in his head, Liam still couldn't figure out when everything had gone so catastrophically wrong. They'd quarrelled, yes, but that wasn't unusual these days. Zayn had slammed out of Liam's dressing room only half-clothed after an argument about something idiotic—a new pet? an early holoshoot? whether they'd picked the wrong number one smash to end the concert with?—but when they were back out onstage, trading solos on their latest single, it seemed impossible that the bad feelings could last. There was his beautiful Zayn, singing about how the stars in his lover's eyes took him halfway to heaven, while the audience on Sadela shrieked, tentacles and eyestalks wibbling in ecstasy. This Zayn seemed to bear no relation to the scowling, resentful boyfriend who took issue with every other word out of Liam's mouth. Inspired, Liam dropped to one knee when he came in with his own verse, asking his lover to stay with him forever, and the intense look Zayn gave him in response was all the assurance Liam needed that the bad times between them were over. The gurgles from the audience seemed to match the joy in his own heart.

Five minutes after leaving the stage, Zayn broke up with him.

"But you just—we just—" Liam couldn't believe what he was hearing. "The song!"

"It's just a song, Liam," said Zayn, cuttingly, as if he couldn't believe anyone could be dumb enough to believe a song meant anything. As if he hadn't told galaxypop himself that he'd written the song for Liam. As if the song wasn’t so massive they’d named their whole album after it.

Liam remembered he was the sensible one and took a deep breath. "Look, Zayn. I know with promo for the new album and the tour it's been really stressful, and maybe we've been fighting a lot, but I really think that if we can just talk about it—"

Zayn banged his fist into the wall, but since it was made of inflated frithium, it just sank in, parting layers of shining grey. He swore. "Liam, I don't want to talk. I'm done talking. I'm done with—Look. I just can't anymore."

"But you can't mean that really!" Liam cried. "What about us, what about our music? Our whole thing is—I mean, that's why they come, you know it is, because we have the perfect romance."

Zayn's eyes darkened. "Ironic, isn't it? Yeah, I know exactly how much you care about Two Hearts."

"And you don't care about it at all, do you?" Liam countered. "You couldn't even wait till we get through the rest of our Halfway to Heaven tour dates and back to Earth. Could you be more unprofessional?" It was one of the worst words in Liam's vocabulary, and he could see it hit home in the way Zayn's whole body slumped.

"I didn't say I wouldn't finish the tour," Zayn mumbled.

"Well, what were you thinking, Zayn? We spend two hours onstage every night singing love songs to each other!"

"I can't believe this is what you're focusing on," Zayn said. He had the audacity to look hurt and betrayed.

"Because I—" Liam stopped. His heart was broken, and he felt like he'd just been pushed into an icy black river on some backwoods planet where no starship ever flew, but somehow if they talked about the band, about practical problems, he could keep from getting swept away.

"Right," said Zayn, leaning back into the frithium. "Look, we won't tell them, ok? We'll keep it from everyone until after the tour's over."

"You'll be good at that," said Liam bitterly, remembering how Zayn had sung to him that very night. "I won't."

Zayn sighed. "You will. You'll do your job. It's what you do." His voice sounded almost gentle.

Liam didn't like the way Zayn seemed to have it all figured out. "We can't keep it from Niall, you know. Even if we still slept to—"

"We won't," Zayn interrupted. "I'll take the guest cabin on the east deck."

"Fine," Liam snapped. "I'll head back now and get changed on Niall. Break the news to him myself."

"Whatever," said Zayn. "It's not like he gives interviews."

Liam looked at Zayn's blank face and opened his mouth to yell some sense into it before shaking his head and going silent instead. There must have been some words to say that would have been the right ones but later, remembering, he still couldn't figure out what they were.

 

 

2. Zayn

Zayn watched Liam's back disappear down the hall and turned in the other direction to check in with staff about the show and run over their schedule tomorrow. He barely heard the PA as she went through the list: the show’d been great, Sadela loved Liam and Zayn already ("they don’t mind at all about you boys being human"), there’d been some major bigwigs in the audience, they’d have to get back early the next day for a signing event, and would he pass all this on to Liam? "Sure," said Zayn, which was almost true, because he’d tell Niall and Niall would take care of it. Then it was time to take off the make-up, change back into regular clothes, and skim himself back to Niall for the night.

Sometimes after a show he and Liam would go out to unwind: they’d hit a carefully chosen club with a VIP room where they'd be a step removed from their most fervent fans, have some drinks, try out the local dishes and pretend to like them, and let the paps get a few shots leaving the club. Usually Liam would insist on holding the skimmer door for Zayn, always the gentleman, and lights would flash all around the two of them, as if they were alone at the centre of a supernova.

It wouldn't be like that tonight. It might never be like that again. Instead, there would be a lot more nights like the ones he'd had when they were recording their first album, before they were together. After each day of rehearsing and laughing and standing close together, Liam would turn briskly away, while Zayn wondered if Liam could really go day after day, as close as that, and feel nothing for him at all.

That was how it felt now, back in the dressing room alone. Because it hadn't seemed like Zayn breaking it off had even registered with Liam, or at least registered any deeper than all his stupid professionalism stuff: what about the press? What about the tour? As if that stuff even mattered when Zayn's world was ending. No, not just ending—he was ending it, flipping the switch before it destroyed him first.

Zayn was about to step into the autofresher when he heard the low pulse that signified an announcement from the backstage communicator, which should have been set to emergency-only. Still, he managed a semi-polite "Go ahead," instead of grabbing the BC from where it was floating behind his left shoulder and tossing it into the autofresher. Liam would be proud of him, he thought, before he remembered how irrelevant Liam’s opinion of him ought to be now.

"Good evening, sir," the BC intoned. It was a Sadelan voice—there was always something sort of squelchy about how Sadelans pronounced Galactic Standard. "This is the assistant to the Planetary Liaison. He wishes to know if you are enjoying your unprecedented visit to the Sadela sector."

"Sure," said Zayn, because Niall had given them a whole speech about the historic nature of this moment of Terran/Sadelan cultural exchange. That said, he was pretty sure Niall had cribbed half the speech from the president of the Terran Federation.

"Also," said the BC, "there is a guest who had the great good luck of witnessing your performance this evening. She requests a personal audience."

"Are you kidding?" Zayn made a face into the mirror. "Give her a dimensigraph and thank her for coming."

"The Regulator will be most sorry to hear that, sir. Are you sure?"

"The hell is a regulator? Oh never mind, I don't care," Zayn snapped. "Tell her to go away. No, try Liam, he's all about pleasing the public.

There was a slight pause. Then the BC said, "Mr Payne has already departed, sir."

Fuck. "Oh, right. Well, I'm sorry, but it's impossible. I'm—I'm ill. Give her a dimensigraph and a Two Hearts tunic." Zayn plucked the BC out of the air and swiped the off button. The last thing he needed tonight was to deal with a swooning fan who probably just wanted to know whether Liam made him breakfast in the morning or coo over how they were the most perfect couple in the universe. He'd been having trouble making conversation with Sadelans, anyway. He knew it was speciesist and the absolute wrong attitude for someone who was half of the very first Terran pop act to tour to the Sadela sector, but something about the tentacles made him uncomfortable.

Zayn turned the BC over to reset it to emergency mode. Oddly, it was already set to high-importance. Surely that should have kept out the Sadelans. But tech never worked as it was meant to, did it? Zayn held his thumb down on the red circle until he heard the pulse that signified emergency mode. He wasn't sure how a pulse could make itself sound miffed, but somehow the BC managed it.

He spent a long time in the autofresher, longer than it really took to have his skin cleared and his body stripped of the sweat of the night. He wasn't in any rush to leave. Going to sleep in a new bedroom was going to be—a relief, Zayn reminded himself. Mental space, without Liam being horribly cheerful all the time. The clarity of not having to bite his tongue or start a stupid argument every time he felt like being needy and ridiculous, when he could barely keep himself from begging Liam to tell him the truth already, because putting it off was just making everything harder.

The thing about clarity and mental space, though, was that he'd still have to talk to Niall, and Niall would ask him questions and possibly laugh at him. Wrapped in a towel, Zayn dropped onto the dressing room sofa and closed his eyes and said, "I am a child of the universe, complete and perfect as I am, in need of no one else to provide me with happiness." He'd been reading a brilliant self-help book that said if he repeated that to himself as many times as possible he'd begin to believe it, and then it would become true. "Life is a forest of infinite pathways," he said next, and spent a moment considering all the pathways that had been eliminated by overhearing Liam's call last week. Right. It was time to move on to other pathways.

Zayn yanked a pair of trousers and a vest from the wardrobe and looked in the mirror to remind himself that he was an intergalactic popstar, flicking the settings until there were fifty floating images of him reflecting every possible angle. There was a new expression he'd been working on, because everyone was always going on about the look on his face when he was with Liam. Zayn was pretty sure people were getting "love-struck" and "in need of a smoke" confused with each other, but just in case, he was practicing a "whatever Liam, like I even care" look to use instead. He tried it out in the mirror, but he wasn't sure it worked. He needed more practice, or perhaps a different mirror setting. Three minutes later, he was out of the room, keeping his head down all the way to the docking bay, nodding briskly to staff like he had somewhere important to be. If he was lucky, by the time he got to Niall, Liam would already be in their—in his bedroom, brushing his teeth or learning how to say, "Let me hear you sing, Ix'thwccpqi75!" in local dialect for their next planet, and Zayn wouldn't have to see him at all until tomorrow.

The 2H skimmer was still in the bay, so Liam had taken a Sadelan skimmer back to Niall, which was annoyingly considerate of him. Zayn checked that that Niall's settings were intact, the shades were down, and the skimmer was on autoflight before settling into the cushions. Then he put on his VR headpiece and for thirty minutes he was a mild-mannered bot technician by day and superpowered crime-fighter by night. He'd gotten to the part of the story where the bot technician meets a beautiful yet sinister trapeze artist when the skimmer reached Niall, the Two Hearts starship now in orbit around Sadela. The skimmer doors slid silently open and Zayn stretched and stepped carefully down.

"Finally!" said Niall. "Looking rough there, buddy." His voice came floating from the highest point of the entrance bay's arched dome when Zayn came through the inner doors.

"Whatever, Niall," said Zayn, making a sharp left. "I'm going to bed."

"Wrong way, idiot," said Niall, this time speaking from a glowing footlight, because while Niall might be a highly sophisticated spacecraft, he still thought throwing his voice around was hilarious.

"I'm sleeping in the east bay tonight. I need all my stuff moved to one of the guest cabins and I don't want you waking me up in the morning and—"

"Oh god!" Niall yelped. "I didn't believe Liam before but—"

"And I need you to shut up," Zayn snapped at the display case on the wall, because now Niall's voice was coming from the Andromeda Award statuette inside it.

"Um, why are you yelling at the very highest honour in the musical galaxy?" asked Niall politely, suddenly a blond hologram lounging at the end of the corridor.

Zayn took a deep breath and remembered he was a child of the universe and that if he tried fiddling with the ship's settings to show Niall exactly what he thought of his sense of humour, Niall would probably booby-trap his new bedroom with itching powder from Alpha Centauri or something, then record the whole thing and take the video straight to Liam.

"I just thought," Zayn gritted out, "that perhaps it could tell me why we decided on a sentient starship in the first place."

Niall shrugged and disappeared. "Because you and Liam need me, of course." The voice was coming from around a corner, in the direction of Zayn's new cabin. "Follow me."

"Like there's another way to get to the east bay," muttered Zayn. When he got to the guest cabin, a pile of his clothes was neatly folded on the bed next to an overnight case. Glowing walls curved around a silky carpet of spring green. A space window displayed the scatter of stars in the night sky. It was peaceful. Also, weirdly empty.

"That's a really big bed," observed Niall from the wardrobe. "Are you sure—"

Zayn threw the overnight case at the wardrobe. There was a moment of silence.

"But I really am sorry, mate," said Niall, hurriedly, "and if there's anything I can do, you know I will." The hologram popped up again briefly, because apparently Niall wanted Zayn to appreciate his sadface.

"Yes," said Zayn meanly, "because it's your job. Just go away and leave me alone."

Niall didn't even give him his usual lecture him on how he couldn't exactly go away, because Zayn was living inside him, and how Zayn shouldn't let Niall's fantastically precise not to mention good-looking holograms fool him into thinking that Niall was merely a puny human like Zayn when he was actually an incredibly powerful spacecraft. Instead Niall just said "Goodnight, then," in a very small voice, and blinked out.

Zayn started tossing his clothes into the wardrobe. He wondered what Liam was doing. Not that he cared.

"Wait, I forgot," said Niall, which was obviously a lie. Niall didn't forget things. He just liked to time them for maximum impact.

Well, Zayn wasn't going to play that game. "Whatever it is, I don't care."

"OK," said Niall, cheerful again. "Then I'll just keep the Sadelan slave-boy in the practice room for the night."

 

 

3. Harry

The ship had been surprisingly kind, under the circumstances. To begin with, it'd actually let him and Louis in instead of making them sit in a skimmer all night, which was all that Harry had expected after neither of the singers that his Regulator loved would even agree to a meeting. After the assistant to the Planetary Liaison had communicated profuse apologies to the Regulator (along with a couple of dimensigraphs), explaining that Mr Malik was feeling poorly and Mr Payne had already left the venue, Harry and Louis had melted against each other in relief, falling back into the skimmer where they’d spent the entire concert. But instead of bringing them home, the Regulator had skimmed them straight off to the biggest starship they'd ever seen. There was a moment of confusion when they thought they were being sent off alone, but then the Regulator slithered in behind them, tentacles quivering in exasperation, and when they arrived in the docking bay, it was the Regulator who interfaced with the ship's hologram.

Harry had never ridden in anything more complicated than a skimmer, but he knew that starships were complex and intelligent biomechanical lifeforms. Sometimes they liked to micro-manifest via hologram, taking on the size and shape of their passenger species in order to communicate with them more effectively. At least, that's what that tutor had said, when Harry and Louis were being prepared for their new responsibilities. Ships usually chose an avatar that best represented the truth of their nature, she'd explained. For this ship, that apparently meant yellow hair, a smallish frame, loose clothing, oddly large footwear, and a cap with a brim projecting backward.

Of course Harry was staying well back from the conversations of free folk, just as he’d been taught, so he couldn't hear what the Regulator and the ship were saying. He was feeling anxious, but Louis was holding his hand a little too hard, so probably Harry wasn't the only one.

Harry squeezed Louis's fingers reassuringly and whispered, "The holo's kind of cute."

Louis looked over to where the hologram was scratching his stomach. "Harry, he's a ship."

"A cute ship," said Harry. "Don't pretend you can't see it."

Louis snorted. "Well, now I feel so much better about being sent offworld."

Harry pressed closer to Louis's side. "We'll be okay, Lou. We're gonna—we're gonna be together, right?"

"Says the Regulator," said Louis. And then the Regulator was beckoning them and they had to go forward.

"Greet the Most Honourable Niallhoran," the Regulator said, and Harry and Louis instantly dropped to their knees before the hologram, head down.

"Oh, um," said the Most Honourable Niallhoran. "Hey."

"Greetings, Most Honourable," Harry and Louis chorused.

"You too!" he said. "Nice to meet you, I mean get up, please."

"I shall be on my way," said the Regulator. With one tentacle it caressed Harry's hair and with another Louis's arse. "Make their Excellencies of the Two Hearts happy. Make me proud." And then the Regulator slid back into her skimmer and was gone.

"Well!" said the hologram brightly. He looked a little uncomfortable. "Interesting planet, Sadela."

"Yes, Most Honourable," said Harry and Louis, back on their feet but still bowing their heads.

"Just Niall, please," the ship’s holo said. "I mean, you could call me Most Honourable a couple times when Liam and Zayn are around, it might be good for them, but just Niall is fine for now."

"As you wish, Most Honourable," said Harry.

Louis elbowed him. "He said just Niall!"

Harry sank back down to his knees. "Please forgive me, Just Niall. If there’s anything we can do to make it up to you, we have been trained in all the arts of pleasure."

"You what," said Niall.

Louis hit Harry on the shoulder. "Oh my god, Harry, he’s a hologram! He doesn’t want a blowjob!"

"Shut up, Louis, it’s like you want to be punished on our first—"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" said Niall. His holo was flickering a little, as if he were upset. "Nobody’s getting punished. Let’s start over. I’m Niall. She said you were 156 and 157, but you two don’t seem to be calling each other numbers, so—"

"Yes we were!" said Harry quickly. "I called him 157 just a minute ago, didn’t you hear?"

"I heard you perfectly," said Niall, "it’s a side effect of being an extremely powerful spacecraft. So let’s just go with Harry and Louis, since that seems to come more naturally."

"Thank you!" said Louis, throwing a how-weird-is-this look sideways to Harry.

"No problem," said Niall. "Look, Liam and Zayn have gotten a lot of gifts from fans but they’ve never gotten boys before. So I don’t know exactly how they’re going to want to handle this, but—"

"We can please them!" Harry said.

Niall looked a little bemused. "Right, well, I’ll let them worry about that. So, um, Louis, she said you’re supposed to be for Liam, and Harry, you’re meant for Zayn. But Liam's busy sulking and Zayn's not back yet, so why don’t you come this way and freshen up while I try to explain this to Liam." He looked them up and down, and although they were wearing their best sheaths and their make-up had been applied with particular care, he wrinkled his forehead as if they were wrong somehow. Then he turned and led them down the hall.

After Niall pointed out the controls for them, they had a wonderful bath in an enormous tub that did fizzy things under the water and put on some loose clothing Niall had set out for them. Harry would have preferred to wrap back up in the bits of black silk they’d arrived with, but before leaving, Niall had insisted on leaving them clothes that belonged to their new masters instead, because supposedly they’d never miss it. Harry wasn’t so sure, but he wasn’t going to contradict. So here they were, lounging about on the floor in the bedroom that adjoined the bath. His head in Louis's lap, Harry was munching on some crisp salty things Niall had left for them and trying not to panic about what was going to happen next. Louis was licking the salt from Harry’s fingers and speculating about what kinds of things famous singers liked to do in bed. He had some exceptionally detailed advice on how Harry ought to handle Zayn. Harry felt Louis hardening against his cheek as he made his suggestions and was just about to demand a demonstration, when Niall flickered back into the room, looking a bit—well. Could ships be upset?

Harry sat back up quickly. "I’m sorry," said Niall (which was so bizarre that Harry thought he might not have heard him right), "but Liam is just absolutely refusing to hear anything right now. I mean, it’s so stupid, it’s going to blow right over like their fights always do, but in the meantime we all have to pretend it’s dead serious and not laugh at them for it."

Harry nodded as if this made any kind of sense at all, and Niall kept talking. "Liam wouldn’t even let me explain about you, it was just all ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s his is his’ and ‘divide the gifts down the middle, I don’t care’ and ‘no I don’t want to see anything tonight, I just want to go to bed’ and then he started crying and put the pillows over his head, so you see I’m going to have to make another arrangement."

Louis poked Harry in the way that meant what-the-fuck. Harry shrugged. Then they both nodded to Niall. "We understand, sir."

"You do?" Niall looked relieved. "Oh, good. So Harry, look, I’m going to take you to the east bay to wait for Zayn, and Louis, you stay here. Liam’s just through there in the next room, you’ll see him in the morning."

Louis made a small noise of dismay and slid closer to Harry. Harry cleared his throat.

"You, um, you want me to go somewhere else and Louis to stay here."

"For now," said Niall. "Zayn’s not even here yet, who knows what his story’s gonna be."

"Okay," said Louis slowly. "I mean, of course, sir."

"So could you come now? I want you both settled before I have to deal with Zayn’s share of the drama." Niall didn’t look mad, just preoccupied.

Harry and Louis exchanged worried glances. Niall had said no punishments, and now here they were getting separated. It didn’t make sense, but then the Regulator didn’t always make sense either, and they’d long ago learned that complaining and questioning only made things worse.

"Come on," said Niall, holding out his hand impatiently to Harry. Harry cast a panicky look at Louis and then, unable to stop himself, he flung himself at Louis one more time, pressing against him hard before letting him go.

Then he turned to Niall, bowed his head, and said "I’m ready."

Which was why he was now sitting on the floor in a room full of musical instruments and posters of the singers they’d been brought here to please and still hadn’t seen. He ought to sleep now, while he still could; the headache would take hours and hours to come. In fact, maybe Zayn would come to him before it started at all. But Harry could tell himself sensible things until the next triple eclipse, and it wouldn’t help much with Louis not there.

He grabbed a pillow from a chair for his head and then put it back, not sure what was allowed. Cautiously, he lowered himself back onto the floor. He’d be able to leap up quickly if Zayn wanted him. He was alone. He stared at the ceiling and waited for the pain to come.

 

 

4. Zayn

"The Sadelan WHAT?" Zayn yelped, before he remembered how witty Niall thought he was. He yanked off his shirt and threw it at Niall’s head. Naturally, it passed right through. "Hilarious, Niall, now can I go to bed?"

Niall made a show of nudging at the shirt with his trainers, while the floor rippled and the shirt slid docilely along to deposit itself in the laundry chute. "Not a joke, Zayn. He’s called Harry. Liam’s got one too."

Zayn sat up. "Are they puppies? Did someone give us puppies?"

"Sort of," said Niall, "but—"

"They don’t have tentacles, do they?" Zayn wanted to know. He hadn’t seen any animals on Sadela as far as he knew, but he imagined a Sadelan pet might look pretty weird. "Or scales? If it’s furry, I might keep it."

"He certainly has hair," Niall said. "Because they’re humanoids. Like you."

Zayn flopped back down on the bed. "I feel like when you’re really tired and really famous you shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of thing. It’s not fair."

"It’s two boys," Niall said. "One’s for Liam and one’s for you and they came from the Sadelan Regulator who said she tried to give them to you after a show but you were too sick to come out, so you can imagine how embarrassing it was when she showed up here and Liam used exactly the same excuse. Of course she feels terrible that someone so brilliant and amazing could actually feel sick because you should have nothing but happiness in your life. So she passed along a soup recipe for you and a Sadelan meditative healing chant I'm meant to perform for you at dawn, plus these slaves, who could also 'help you feel better'."

At some point during this speech, Zayn had begun groaning. Maybe he really was getting ill. "You could have turned her down. Or asked for puppies instead."

"Come to think of it, there were also some turtle-ish creatures dropped off for Liam," said Niall. "Anyway, you two love fangifts, you know you do. Don’t you even want to see him?"

"Urrrgh," said Zayn, and pulled himself miserably to his feet.

When he swung the door of the practice room open, the first thing he saw was Liam’s face, smiling down at him from the walls. But before he could tell Niall they really had to get some new posters, ones that did not make Liam look so stupidly and deceptively lovable, he saw a figure at the far end of the room roll to his knees.

"Your Most Gracious Excellency," the stranger said. He was bowing his head so that the hair Niall mentioned completely obscured his face.

"So that’s Harry," said Niall, "and Harry, this is Zayn, and I’ll just leave you two to get to know each other." He winked at Zayn and blinked out.

What did you say to a slave-boy? Someone who used to be a slave-boy, Zayn corrected himself, because he was prepared to respect other cultures, but surely when it came to human bondage there was a limit. He cleared his throat. "Um, hey."

"Master," said Harry. His voice was low and a little gravelly. "I am here to please you."

"Oh," said Zayn. "I mean, thanks? But I think there’s been kind of a misunderstanding."

There was a pause. "I have been well-trained," said the boy finally, his voice quavering a little.

"I’m sure you have!" said Zayn, trying to sound cheerful. "And that’s awesome! Um, can you, like, get up for a sec?"

Harry scrambled to his feet, keeping his head down. Zayn sighed. "I don’t mean to tell you what to do or anything, but could you maybe lift your head up so I can see you?"

The boy instantly scrubbed his hand through his hair sideways in a gesture that looked oddly ritualistic. Two eyes, one nose, one mouth, Zayn catalogued with some relief. Niall had a way of assuming anyone with two legs and two arms was a human, but this time he'd gotten it right; Harry had a sweet, open, entirely human face that wouldn’t be out of place at home in London. He smiled shyly at Zayn and then pulled off the vest he was wearing. "You wanted to see?"

"Oh," said Zayn. "Oh hey. No."

Harry looked stricken. "My miserable body is unpleasing. I apologize."

"Whoa, okay," said Zayn. "That’s not what I meant. Your body is—fine, I mean it’s none of my business, look. I just wanted to talk to you. Could you just—okay, let’s sit down." He gestured lamely to the couch.

"I am yours to command," said Harry. He sat down gingerly on the edge, staring at Zayn the whole time. He didn’t put his shirt back on.

"No, see, you’re actually not," said Zayn. He wondered whether he ought to explain to Harry that he was a child of the universe, but then thought that might be too confusing. "Like, where I come from, we don’t own people."

"Thank you for telling me about the interesting ways of your planet," said Harry. He sounded like he was trying very hard to be polite. "However, I am yours. Would you like to take me now?"

Zayn tried to avoid looking at Harry’s mouth, or his torso, or his anything else. "No, thank you?" he tried.

"I forgot that you are ill," Harry said. "I would be happy to rub you gently until your body fills with sweet pleasure and, erm, forgets its agony." He inched closer to Zayn on the couch.

"What? No!" said Zayn.

Harry flinched back and muttered something that sounded like "dammit."

"I mean, it’s very nice of you," said Zayn, "and under different circumstances I’d be happy to—never mind. The point is, you can’t be given to me because you’re a person, and I’m sorry you were enslaved, and I’m going to find out why we’re even doing concerts on planets where they do things like that, but you’re free now. Okay? And we’re happy to give you a ride to your home planet or wherever it is the people with four nipples come from, but tonight I think we should both get some sleep."

Harry looked confused. "You don’t like me?"

"Of course I like you!" Zayn said. God, he really had to lend Harry his self-help book, if he could read Galactic Standard. Clearly he had terrible self-esteem problems. Maybe Zayn could read it to him. The library had some lovely soft seating. He’d read to Harry slowly so that he understood, and Harry would be listening carefully, curled up at his feet, and as Zayn read he’d pet Harry’s hair and—fuck, wait, that was all wrong. "I like you," Zayn said, "as a person. I respect you. So I’m going to ask Niall to take you to a guest bedroom—"

"I want nothing more than to sleep at your feet!" said Harry hastily.

"Yeah, no," said Zayn. "I don’t think that would be appropriate."

Tears welled up in Harry’s eyes. "Then may I ask—I crave a very great favour, master."

"Call me Zayn," said Zayn, reminding himself that being called master was not at all appealing and he definitely was not turned on even a little bit.

"Zayn," said Harry hesitantly. He’d slipped off the couch onto his knees again. "Please. Can you—even just once—can you touch me?" Harry licked his lips nervously.

"How—what do you—" Zayn was losing his way.

"I don’t mean to presume," Harry gabbled. "Anywhere. If you don’t like my body you could touch my head or my hand, just for a moment, or let me put my head to your feet or—" He was almost keening now.

"Oh god," said Zayn. "Look, Harry, here—" and he gave Harry his hand. Harry stared worshipfully at Zayn’s hand like it was the greatest gift anyone could have given to him and took it as gently as if it were made of crystal. "Harry—" started Zayn, and then stopped, because what did you say to this? Harry raised his eyes to Zayn’s, held the stare, and then lifted Zayn’s hand to his mouth. For a crazy moment Zayn thought he was going to kiss his hand like in one of Niall’s old films, but then Harry turned Zayn’s palm to his lips and darted out his tongue and licked. Zayn felt the quick wet flick of Harry’s tongue like an electric shock, and then Liam’s face flashed into his mind, and he jerked his hand away.

"I’m sorry," said Harry. "I’m so, so sorry!"

Zayn breathed out sharply. Niall had said there was another one. Liam was probably with him right now, and for all Zayn knew the other one was just as persuasive as Harry. Was he—Liam could already be—fuck. Zayn bit his lip, tried to get himself under control.

"It’s fine, Harry," he said. "We’ll talk tomorrow, okay?" He tried to think what else to say, but a wave of tiredness crashed over him, and he felt capable of nothing except bed. "Niall!" he yelled. "Niall!"

And Niall was there, looking blessedly familiar and, as always, unimpressed.

"Harry needs a place to sleep," said Zayn. "I—I have to go." He stumbled out of the practice room and back to his empty new bed.

 

 

5. Niall

Ship's Log * 18.4.3281 Sadela

Sadela: Strange planet. Bizarre native customs.

Performance: Who knows? ZM and LP uncommunicative.

New Cargo Report: fangifts as follows: 63 stuffed animals; 26 pairs lacy undergarments; two trays small local baked goods; one three-tiered chocolate (?) cake; one cross-stitch depiction of ZM and LP in passionate embrace; six hand-knit tentacle warmers (useless); eight vibrating oddly-shaped devices of unknown function; 17 boxes of candy (I think??); 32 bouquets of flowers; 85 sealed envelopes addressed variously to ZM, LP, or both; one aquarium containing three small shelled reptiles; Harry; Louis.

Zayn Malik: Broke it off with LP. Whined. Asleep.

Liam Payne: Won't talk. Says life over. Asleep.

Harry and Louis: Offered me blowjobs. Very polite. Asleep.

Notes: Contact Ambassador Cowell re H and L? Unsure correct diplomatic protocol. Repatriation possible? How? Unknown impact on Terran/Sadelan cultural exchange. What would the president say? ?

 

 

6. Louis

The dreams were bad. When Louis finally managed to force himself out of them and open his eyes, the room was grey-dark. He was still on the floor where he’d curled up last night, and his head felt as if it had collided with a skimmer. He stretched and felt the tingling in his fingertips that meant both the craving and pain were about to spread.

"Damn," said Louis. "Damn damn damn." He tried to cuddle himself around the pillow he’d taken from the sofa last night; he’d decided to avoid sleeping on the bed without permission, but they couldn’t begrudge him a pillow, could they? Still, the pillow was very definitely not Harry. He hoped Harry was okay and not fretting himself into a panic. He hoped that Zayn hadn’t been a jerk like this Liam guy and ignored Harry all night. Really, would it have killed Liam to stop by and just maybe pat him on the head or something?

The tingling had progressed into a cold ache. How long would it be till morning? Louis got to his feet a little dizzily, feeling reckless. There was the door Niall had taken Harry through, where he couldn’t risk following, and there was the door that Niall had said led to Liam. He could stay in here until morning, falling apart piece by piece, or he could just see if maybe—Louis’ hand was on the door to Liam’s room. If it was locked, he’d just go back to the floor. But it wasn’t.

Louis stood on the threshold of Liam’s room. He was just going to see what this famous rich singer looked like in person, this wanker who thought he could take a perfectly nice slave-boy who hadn’t done a single thing wrong and leave him solitary. But all he could see was a body-shaped lump in the bed and one bare arm, a pillow covering Liam’s head. The arm didn’t look particularly evil, he had to admit, and the pillow reminded him that Niall had said something about…crying? And at the concert, the Regulator had been told Liam was ill.

On one wall, Louis could see a large framed dimensigraph of Two Hearts, Liam and Zayn standing at the edge of a waterfall, arms around each other. Even from across the room Louis could see that they were beaming with happiness. Louis felt a jolt inside, wanting Harry so badly he could have fainted with it, and turned back to Liam’s bed.

It was a stupid thing to even consider, and Louis hated that all it took was a little pain to make him ten times less careful. You didn’t get on a bed without permission, and you didn’t get near a master without permission, and you certainly didn’t get into a master’s bed without permission. If Harry were here, he’d be horrified. But then if Harry were here, Louis wouldn’t have this problem, would he? Another wave of dizziness took him, and Louis stopped pretending he could stand there and make rational decisions when he could barely stay upright. It was five steps to the bed, and then Louis was dropping down next to Liam, not bothering with the covers. He lay there for a moment, breathing, feeling Liam’s body heat, but it wasn’t enough, too much time had passed for the pain to be content with mere proximity. And Liam’s arm was right there. Louis stretched out one careful, trembling hand. He touched skin, and the noisy jangle of his nerves went still.

A groan escaped Louis as the relief washed over him. He darted a quick look at Liam—well, at the pillow covering his head—but he hadn’t moved. Of course Louis wasn’t going to stay there long. He’d just lie there long enough to get his fix, and then go back to the other room, and no one would ever know. He might as well wait just a moment more, just long enough for the pain to recede a bit more. Cautiously, he opened his hand and brought it up to encircle Liam’s wrist. It wasn’t like touching Harry. But it was enough to dull the ache. Louis closed his eyes. One minute more.

 

 

7. Liam

Liam dreamt about Zayn all night. They were on Niall, walking down a hall, and Zayn turned left where there’d been no left before, but when Liam got to where he’d turned, there was nothing but a dead end. Then they were back on Earth, in their recording studio, and Zayn was trying out a new song, letting his voice lilt and soar. He didn’t see Liam standing there watching, so Liam started singing with him, but then he realised he was singing alone. Zayn was opening and closing his mouth and making no sound.

Then they were going home from a local gig, leaning against each other in the back seat of a skimmer. When they reached home, Zayn was the first one out, tumbling to the pavement instead of stepping smoothly down. Liam started to tease him about having had a pint too many, but when he slid out of the skimmer himself, Zayn wasn’t there and the street was empty. Their front door was open though, so Liam hurried after him. He was looking for Zayn all over the house, up and down staircases he’d never seen before, and the floor was getting more and more difficult to walk on, because at some point it had gotten soft, like glue that hadn’t hardened. Liam was starting to panic when he realised there was a room just ahead of him he hadn’t seen before, which was silly, because it was obviously his bedroom. And just as obviously, Zayn was there, sleeping on his back, drooling a little. Liam crept into bed with him, very carefully, so that Zayn wouldn't disappear again. He was warm and there and Zayn, and Liam curled against him, one hand on his chest, and felt the beat of his heart.

When Liam started drifting closer to consciousness, what he remembered was finding Zayn, except that it wasn’t entirely a dream, because he could feel Zayn right there beside him. He must’ve crawled in during the night. Sleepily Liam rolled over half on top of him, his knee between Zayn’s legs, his face against Zayn’s neck. Zayn mumbled and pulled him in, his hand on Liam’s back. Eyes still shut, Liam began mouthing at Zayn’s neck, kissing his way upward to the line of his jaw. He felt less stubbly than usual. "Missed you," he whispered against Zayn's mouth.

Zayn said "Mmmmmmmm," and something about it sounded strange to Liam, even in his current state of stupor. He opened his eyes. Blinked. Sat bolt upright and stared.

The first emotion Liam was conscious of was disappointment. Sure, soon after it came all the other feelings, like surprise and OH FUCK and who the hell is THAT, but they all came chasing after what it felt like to realise that Zayn hadn’t come back after all. Liam wasn’t sure whether to yell for Niall or get up and run. The boy in his bed stretched, his eyelashes fluttering. He mumbled something too garbled for Liam to understand and opened his eyes.

Then there was a screech and a thump as the boy scrambled away, overshot, and fell on the floor, taking half the bedclothes with him. Great, dealing with a rogue fan was exactly how Liam had wanted to spend the morning. How the hell had Niall let this guy in? He was breathing hard, gazing up at Liam, mouth gaping but not forming words. Clearly this was not the kind of crazy fan who wanted to hurt Liam in some way. No, this was the kind of crazy fan who was…absolutely terrified?

"I’m ever so sorry," the boy was gabbling, adding a phrase that sounded kind of like "Your Excellency" but Liam must have heard that wrong. "I didn’t mean to. I was—just for a minute—and I must’ve fallen asleep, oh my god, I’m so sorry, I’ll make it up to you, please.

"Uh," said Liam, peering over the edge of the bed at him. He was sort of pretty, really. What did you say to someone whose neck you’d been kissing on accident? Maybe scolding was inappropriate, under the circumstances. Liam was going to have a very stern talk with Niall, however. "Right. Well, it sounds like you’ve learned your lesson, so why don’t I sign a dimensigraph for you and you can be on your way to your skimmer?"

The boy’s eyes widened and he hurled himself at the ground, forehead to the carpet. "Oh no. Please no. I haven't got a skimmer. You can punish me, you should definitely punish me really really hard and for a long time, but don’t throw me out, please don’t!" His voice trailed off into a wail.

Liam rubbed his eyes and thought about what to do. He had a busy day ahead of him. He had to work out and do vocal exercises and give a concert and write a song for Zayn that would make Zayn love him again. And here was this boy sort of quivering and rocking back and forth on his floor. Even through the loose flannel shirt, Liam could see how thin he was, and—wait, what?

"Are you wearing my shirt?" Liam asked.

The boy lifted his head off the carpet by a couple of inches. "Um…yes? Master, I am so sorry, it’s just that Niall, I mean Most Honourable Niallhoran, said that you’d never miss it." When he saw the look on Liam’s face, he slammed his head back down to the carpet again.

"NIALL!" howled Liam. "YOU GET IN HERE RIGHT THIS SECOND!" The boy cringed. He was still trying to roll himself under the bed by the time Niall’s image flashed into the room.

"You rang?" said Niall. This was one of those jokes that Niall thought was hysterical and Liam had never figured out. Niall had a lot of old 2D films in his databanks and they gave him strange ideas.

"Niall," said Liam, as calmly as he could. "Could you please explain to me first why you let this idi—this young man board you and second why you gave him my SHIRT and let him get as far AS MY BED."

"Oh yeah," said Niall. "That’s Louis."

The boy on the floor fluttered one hand up in some kind of pathetic how-do-you-do.

Niall frowned. "What’s he doing down there, Liam? I know you’re upset about Zayn but that’s no reason to go about throwing people on the floor."

Liam wrestled against the urge to hide under a pillow until all the crazy people went away. He was trying to handle the situation maturely, but how professional could you be when you were sitting cross-legged in the middle of your bed in your pants? "I’m sorry, Niall, can we go back to the part where you said OH THAT’S LOUIS? WHO. IS. LOUIS."

"You can call me 157 if you’d rather," came a rather squeaky voice from the floor.

"He won’t want to," said Niall to Louis. "It’s an Earth thing."

"Excuse me, can I interrupt this conversation?" said Liam. "I mean, I’m glad you two are getting along so well, but Niall, I do not remember giving you permission to put up your friend in my bed."

Niall sighed. "I didn’t put him in your bed, Liam. I put him in the next room. He must’ve crept in during the night."

"And I’m really, really, really, really, sorry!" piped up Louis from the floor. "I wouldn’t have except it was an emergency."

"Right," said Liam. He was used to fans justifying all kinds of intrusive behaviour with emergency attacks of feelings or whatever. "And the shirt?"

"They were wearing these weird silky things when they arrived," explained Niall helpfully. "It looked uncomfortable and I didn’t think you’d mind."

Liam jumped up and started pulling clothes on. "Niall. Did you just say ‘they’?" He felt a little ill.

"Me and Harry," said Louis. He was starting to sound a little less terrified. Liam wasn’t sure he approved of that.

"Yes," said Niall, launching his image into a sitting position on Liam’s dresser. "They come as a set, you see."

"No, I don’t see," said Liam grimly.

"Oh, for heaven’s sake," grumped Niall. "I told you last night, but you refused to listen. They’re a present from the Sadelan Regulator."

"The who?"

"Did you not pay any attention to your planetary briefing? She's quite high in the Sadelan government. Also, a giant Two Hearts fan. So she gave you Louis and Harry. Congratulations and don’t blame me."

"Oh my god," said Liam. "You can’t give people people."

"That may be," said Niall, "but here they are."

"And very very happy to do anything that might please you!" chirped Louis from the floor.

Liam ran a hand through his hair. "Can’t we just send them back?"

Niall considered this. "We could do, but politically it's a bit sticky. This is the Regulator we’re talking about, and the Terran Federation is still in the second round of trade negotiations."

"And if we’re sent back she’ll have us punished," added Louis. "Not that I’m asking Your Most Gracious Excellency to care or anything like that."

"Oh my god," Liam said again. "What is this planet."

"Our new ally?" said Niall. "That has a new energy source the Fed would quite like a piece of? Although I feel like if the President knew about this, it might take the talks in a new direction. Still, if what Louis says is true, maybe we should put up with Louis and Harry until we’re in a completely different star system."

"Oh fine," said Liam. It wasn’t, but he wasn’t going to send them back to mistreatment on some horrible slave-dealing tentacle planet. He felt a tickling at his feet and realised that Louis was kissing his toes.

"Gracious master, thank you so so much. Harry and I will give you many blowj—much oral pleasure and you will not be sorry."

Niall made a throat-clearing noise. "Louis, you’re freaking him out." He sounded far too amused. Liam glared at him.

"Most Honourable Niallhoran," Louis said, "can I ask you a question now that you've interceded to save my life?"

"Sure, whatever," said Niall. Liam made a mental note to tell Louis never to call Niall "Honourable" again.

"Only I was wondering about Harry. Is he okay?"

Niall’s face looked absent for a moment, and then his whole holo flickered. He frowned. "Well. He looks a little—uncomfortable."

"Oh no," said Louis. All the buoyancy and enthusiasm had left his voice, leaving nothing but a worried tenderness. "Can I go to him? Please."

Niall looked at Liam.

"Well, obviously," said Liam, irritated. Louis dove at him again, pressed his cheek to Liam’s leg. Liam sighed. It was going to be a long day.

 

 

8. Louis

Louis stayed two paces behind Niall and Liam as they walked up the corridor, but not so far away he couldn’t hear Liam whispering angrily and Niall giving short, shrugging replies. He couldn’t believe he’d been stupid enough to fall asleep in Liam’s bed. He wouldn’t do that again. At least Liam didn’t seem inclined to punish him for it. He was upset, yes, but more at Niall than at Louis, which was weird since it wasn’t Niall’s fault Louis had ended up in Liam’s bed, was it? It was actually Liam’s fault, Louis reminded himself: it would have been easy enough for Liam to have kept the pain away earlier on. But it was hard to stay angry about that when Liam had kissed him so gently. Louis put a hand to his neck where Liam’s lips had been and remembered how warm and heavy Liam had felt pressed against him, while Louis was still half-asleep and forgetting he didn’t have permission to be there. But why kiss him and then push him away? It didn’t make sense.

Niall had stopped outside a glowing blue door. "In here."

Oddly, Liam didn’t just open the door and walk in. He knocked and waited, then knocked again. There was a sound from inside the room that didn’t quite sort itself into words. Louis clenched his fists. "That’s Haz—that’s Harry. Please."

Niall nodded to Liam, who passed his hand over a panel by the door. When it slid open, all Louis could see was Harry, curled into a ball in the centre of the bed. Louis should have waited, of course. Dropped to his knees and made a request. He’d had loads of training, but some of it had never quite caught on. So as soon as he saw Harry, he hurtled through the doorway to him, wrapping himself around his trembling body.

"L-Lou?" mumbled Harry. "It started to hurt, Lou."

Louis felt his heart constrict when he saw Harry's face pale and shining with sweat. "It’s ok, Haz, I’m here," he whispered. He reached under Harry’s shirt, flattened his palms against his stomach and chest until he felt Harry relax under his hands.

"Missed you," muttered Harry. He was smiling now, threading his legs through Louis’s until they were fully entangled.

"Where is he?" hissed Louis, who was now feeling less scared and more outraged.

"Oh," said Harry. "He, um, he didn’t want me. But he let me hold his hand for a minute so I’m fine, really. It’s not as bad as it looks."

Louis heard Liam clear his throat behind them and tensed, remembering they weren’t alone. Harry looked up at Louis, confused, and then lifted his head to see Liam in the doorway.

"You—are you all right?" Liam asked.

Harry sat up, a little shakily. "Thank you, master, I am fine. And um, most honoured to be in your gracious presence."

"I’m Liam," said Liam. "You don’t look all right. Are you poorly? Did the Regulator hurt you?"

Harry shot an agonized glance at Louis. "The Regulator was good to me, sir."

"Then—I don’t understand," said Liam. "Are you hungry? Do you need a cuppa? Did Niall give you something to eat?"

"Oh yes!" Harry yelped. "Yes, yes, yes. The salty things. They were great. Most Honourable Niallhoran is great. Everything is great."

Louis had heard enough. If Harry kept on like this, they’d end up in the same nightmare every night. He knew Harry wouldn’t want to start right in complaining about his new master. So Louis would have to do it for him.

"Actually, sir," said Louis, "everything is not actually great. And I’m sure it’s our fault for being so unattractive and disrespectful but apparently Harry’s master is not pleased with him." Louis gave Harry a quick eyeroll to let him know he was bullshitting, because who could be idiot enough to not want Harry?

Liam scratched his head. "Are you talking about Zayn?"

"His Gracious Excellency, yes," said Louis quickly.

"Right," said Liam, "well, I know Zayn can be a bit difficult. What was the problem again?"

"No problem!" said Harry quickly.

"He didn’t want Harry," said Louis, talking over Harry. "And while I’m sure he has excellent reasons—"

"—I didn’t disobey!" Harry cut in. Louis squeezed his hand.

"—We do need to give pleasure," Louis went on, "or it kind of starts to hurt." He looked up at Liam hesitantly, trying to gauge his reaction. To Louis’s surprise, Liam actually looked kind of pleased.

"Then Zayn didn’t, um?" Liam asked, a little incoherently. "Didn’t want to, like, you know—"

"Nope," said Harry.

"Oh!" said Liam. "Well, that’s great! I mean, that would be a terrible thing to do to you lads. And Zayn’s the kindest person, I mean, he’d never force anyone, he wouldn’t hurt you…" Liam’s voice trailed off.

Louis looked at him incredulously. "You don’t…I don’t think you understand. Harry is hurt, don’t you see? I’m not, because you held me, you kissed me—"

"That was a mistake!" Liam put in hastily.

"Whatever," said Louis, too upset to puzzle this out. "But Zayn only touched Harry’s hand, don’t you see? He left Harry alone. We oughtn’t be left alone, it’s not good for us. Actually, it kind of, it kind of makes us sick."

He stopped, seeing Liam’s frown. "Niall," said Liam, his voice calmer than he looked. "What do you know about this?"

"Hmm," said Niall, his image wavering a little. "Um, I’m not sure. The Regulator said—but I thought—I may have made a little, tiny mistake."

Liam was glaring at Niall now. "Explain yourself."

"Maybe the Regulator did say something about the boys needing to be touched," Niall said reluctantly. "But I thought she meant, you know. Like you and Zayn! You’re always all over each other. It's just how humans are."

"No, Niall," Liam gritted out. "That is how humans who are in love with each other are."

"Oh," said Niall.

"Not that Zayn is," said Liam. "Anymore."

"Oh, Liam," said Niall,  "we’re gonna talk about that later. Look, so I just told the Regulator I understood and she didn’t give me any more details. Obviously if I’d known, I would’ve done things differently." He turned to Harry and Louis. "I’m sorry, mates. Honestly I am."

Louis and Harry stared at each other in disbelief. They were being personally apologized to by an interstellar spacecraft. Louis tried to think what to say and ended up with "No problem, Most Honourable." It didn’t really sound right, but surely Harry didn’t have to jab him in the ribs just because he—oh.

 

 

9. Harry

Harry jerked his head to the doorway where Zayn was leaning in, looking sleepy and confused. Louis shifted a few inches away, but kept his hand on Harry’s back. Apparently Louis wasn’t going take his hands off him until he got a direct order to the contrary. Good, Harry thought, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for Zayn to see that someone wanted to touch him. He waited for Liam to throw his arms around Zayn or sing to him or light up all over the way he did in the films their tutor had shown them to prepare them for their new life. But Liam just muttered "Morning," and walked away from him to the armchair on the other side of the room.

"Yeah," said Zayn, stepping in. He nodded to Louis on the bed. "Is that one yours, then?"

"Yes," said Louis.

"No!" said Liam.

"This is Louis," said Niall.

"Hey, Louis," said Zayn. "What’s happening."

Liam rolled his eyes. "'What’s happening?' What’s happening is that you nearly killed the other one last night."

"Oh no, no, no," Harry corrected him. "Just sort of a headache and maybe some chills, no big deal."

Louis tightened his arm around him. "It was a big deal, you idiot, so shut up and let my master handle this."

"Louis, please, I’m not your master," said Liam.

"I didn’t hurt Harry!" protested Zayn. "I barely touched him!"

"That’s the problem," hissed Liam. "You have to touch them or they fall ill." He looked over to Harry and Louis for corroboration.

"Pretty much," said Harry. "I’m sorry," he added, when he saw Zayn staring at him in dismay, "it’s how our sort is. We thought you’d know."

Zayn slid down to the floor. It was really weird being up on a bed and having a master on the floor, Harry thought. But then neither Liam nor Zayn were behaving the way he’d expected. Now Zayn was waving his arm around in the air for no discernible reason. "Cigarette," he was saying to Niall. "I need a cigarette."

"Can’t help you with that," said Niall, letting his hologram slump companionably down next to Zayn. "Haven’t got any on me."

"Ship’s stores," said Zayn. "Come on, Niall."

"Nope," said Niall. "You said you wanted to quit. Don’t bring any on board, you said. Pardon me for listening."

"Oh god," said Zayn, and put his head between his knees. "I hate you."

"If only the Regulator had known," said Louis brightly, "I’m sure she would have been more than happy to—"

"Your Regulator has done enough," said Liam. "Zayn oughtn’t smoke, he knows that."

"Piss off, Liam," said Zayn. "I don’t need a smoke anyway because I am totally in control of the situation. Niall, what are they on about?"

"What Liam said," said Niall. "You have to touch them on the regular." He gestured to where Harry was leaning into Louis.

Zayn flicked his eyes over the two of them, expression blank. "Why?" he asked. "I mean, is it like a genetic thing or they’re hypnotized or it’s drugs or a brainchip or what?"

Niall sighed. "I’ve been going through my databanks since Liam starting howling at me—"

"I do not howl!" Liam put in.

"—and so far the only relevant bit in the Sadela entry is something about a 'mutually beneficial relationship with an alien species bearing some resemblance to humanoids of Terran extraction.'"

"Mutually beneficial," repeated Harry slowly, and looked at Louis.

Louis rolled his eyes. "You know the Sadies."

Niall shrugged. "I think the Terran Federation thinks you're trading grain with each other or something. They really want to get this new treaty signed."

Liam was frowning. "Niall. I know we're the first Terran act to tour through Sadela, but are you sure there's no other info? You did sync to the mainframe before we left Earth?"

Niall looked outraged. "Of course I did! How can you even ask?"

"Knock it off, you two," said Zayn. "I don’t know why I asked Niall anyway." He nodded over to Harry. "You tell us, then."

Harry took a deep breath and then let it out when he realised he had no idea what to say. Everyone knew what their kind was like, only it was better not to talk about it. Sadies preferred not to be reminded why their pets were so cooperative. They’d rather believe that even without the ceremony they’d win their pets over anyway with kindness and skill. Why would Liam and Zayn be any different? "Me and Louis, we—" Harry began haltingly, and then looked over to Louis for guidance.

Louis pulled him in a little closer. "I think you can tell them."

"We’re not going to hurt you," Liam put in. "But you’re going to have to explain how not to."

"Well," said Harry slowly, "the main thing is physical contact. It’s something to do with our nervous systems—they go into crisis mode when we’ve gone too long without skin-to-skin contact."

"So weird," said Zayn. "No offence!" he added hastily.

Harry didn't say what he was thinking, which was that it was a lot odder to be able to go through life without touching anyone. Or to be a spacecraft with people walking around on you and in you and not ever touching them back. "Is that enough explaining, do you think?" he whispered to Louis.

Louis bit his lip. "We'll be safer if they know more."

"Or less safe," pointed out Harry. "Like with the Regulator."

"I don't think Liam's like that," Louis said, but he looked more worried than he sounded.

"So that's it?" Liam cut in. "You guys just hold hands every so often and you'll be fine?"

Harry shot a panicky glance at Louis and decided to spit it out. "We need to do more than that. Eventually."

Zayn was staring. "Do you mean what I think you mean?"

Louis apparently thought Harry was taking too long. "We need to get each other off, okay?"

"Louis!" hissed Harry.

"And that's why they're sex slaves!" said Niall, clearly pleased with himself for figuring it out.

"That's why they used to be sex slaves," Liam corrected. "How common is this? I mean, how many of your people—"

"Whoever they choose," Harry muttered.

"What?" Zayn looked sick.

Harry took a deep breath. "Look. Our people, the way I was told, the way it used to be was, when we were old enough, we found someone. To be with, always."

"We do that too," said Liam, looking at Zayn with an expression Harry couldn’t read.

"But sometimes it doesn’t work out," said Zayn, not looking at Liam at all.

"With us it usually—worked out? There was someone you needed, someone you had to have, and they needed you too. So you joined, and you were together after that. You drew strength from each other and if you were separated, it—it was bad. You can get some relief from others but most of the time it's only temporary." Louis was rubbing the side of Harry's neck comfortingly. Harry bent his head quickly and kissed his hand. "You tell the rest, Lou."

Louis nodded. "So when the Sadies took our planet, maybe forty cycles ago, they saw how it was, and they started interrupting the joinings. So that we wouldn’t join to each other, we’d join to them. And then we’d need them instead of each other."

"Oh my god," said Zayn. "Tentacles," he whispered loudly to Liam.

Distress was written all over Liam's face. "But you two—you seem to—um. Be joined?"

Harry looked at Louis questioningly. Louis nodded, so Harry took a deep breath and told. "See, we broke the law, we joined to each other early, before we were chosen."

"So by the time the Regulator took us, our first bond was already to each other," said Louis. "They told the Regulator she could make a secondary bond, but it didn't take the way it was supposed to."

"Not that we didn’t follow orders!" Harry put in.

"Because if we didn’t, we’d be separated," Louis explained. "But we couldn’t be like the others, no matter how hard we tried."

Harry looked at Louis's worried face and hoped they hadn't said too much. He addressed himself to Zayn. "We're perfect for you, though, the Regulator said. Because you're joined too." But apparently this wasn't as reassuring as he'd meant it to be, because it just seemed to make Zayn cringe.

Meanwhile, Liam was frowning in concentration. "This is the worst thing I have ever heard in my life."

Oh, no. "We didn’t mean to join each other," Harry pleaded. "It’s just, I met Louis and it just happened, we couldn’t prevent it, that’s not how it works, don’t you see?"

Zayn got up from the floor. "Harry, he’s not mad. He means it’s a bad deal you two got. Right, Liam?"

Liam nodded, eyes huge. "Couldn't your people have asked for help?"

Louis shrugged. "How? Who from? We don't have all your sorts of toys. Ships and comms and net and all. We just live and work and sometimes the Sadies come and collect us."

Niall nodded. "It's an isolated sector, Liam. I think the Sadelans have the only technologically advanced civilization in this part of the galaxy, and even they aren't up to Terran standards."

The odd thing was that Liam didn't look like he thought that was pleasantly convenient. He and Zayn both looked genuinely upset. Liam said, "Harry, Louis, I’m massively sorry. I mean I’m sorry for you and your life and your planet and your people and I understand why this might be hard to believe but I promise that Zayn and me are nothing like the tentacle people."

"Nothing!" Zayn echoed.

"So, like, you should stop offering to have sex with us, because we’d never, um, take advantage. We respect your relationship, right, Zayn?"

"…Right," said Zayn, a little less enthusiastically.

"And I'm sorry about what happened this morning," Liam ploughed onward.

"Oh," said Louis. "But I liked it!"

"Liked what?" asked Zayn.

"Nothing," said Liam, quickly.

Zayn threw up his hands. "What the fuck, Liam, it obviously wasn't nothing!"

"What do you care!" yelled Liam. "You already broke up with me!"

"It was perfectly natural," Louis put in helpfully. "You wake up in bed with someone—"

"Oh my god, Liam, you slept with him? What was that about not taking advantage? You're already fucking him!"

"Zayn, no, you—"

"Fuck you, Liam, don't talk to me." Zayn slammed the door open and stormed out. Niall winced.

"Wait, Zayn, you don't understand!" Liam gave Louis one agonized look and then was out the door after Zayn.

The door slid shut. "Tempestuous relationship, those two," said Niall. His tone was light, but Harry could hear the worry underneath.

"He only kissed me," said Louis.

"Of course, yeah," said Niall, sounding anything but convinced. "I'm just going to—" He waved an arm vaguely toward the door. "You two just make yourselves comfortable. The galley's down a level the next corridor over. When you're ready for breakfast." He blinked out, then blinked back again. "If you need anything, try the nightstand. But I'm not watching, by the way! In case you were wondering." And then he was gone.

Harry flopped back on the bed and started fumbling with the buttons on the shirt Niall had given him. "Louis. What in the world was all that?"

"I wonder why he kissed me, anyway," said Louis, helping him. "I mean if it matters so much, and apparently it does."

"Is he a good kisser?" asked Harry, a little absently. He was stripping off the rest as fast as possible; with no one else left in the room, his need for Louis's hands, Louis's body, was bright and sharp.

"Not bad," said Louis, getting his own top off. Harry reached for him, running his hands down Louis's sides, trying to soak up the warmth of his skin. "He was curled around me like this," said Louis, and crawled on top of Harry. Harry let his legs fall open for Louis as Louis settled himself against him, his mouth at Harry's neck. Louis sucked gently and explained, "That's where he was kissing me."

"Then what?" Harry wanted to know. He wrapped a leg around Louis, trying to get him as close as possible. "He fuck you?" He liked the thought of it, Liam pushing Louis down into the bed, muscled back straining over him.

Louis was mouthing at his collarbone now. "I told you already, it was just kissing. "

"Oh," said Harry, and tried to think more clearly. "You'll fuck me, though?"

Louis reached across him to fumble with the drawer Niall had pointed to. "Obviously," he said. He squeezed something slick into his hand, reached down to get Harry ready.

There was silence for a moment, and then Harry opened his eyes. "They might change their minds about not having us," he said, squirming back against Louis's fingers. "Liam and Zayn, I mean. I wouldn't mind it."

Louis bit his lip in concentration. "The thing is, I didn't want new masters. I was used to the way it was, and I thought something new might mean something worse."

"I know," said Harry softly, his hands on Louis's thighs. He was ready. He wanted Louis so badly.

"I guess it might not, though," said Louis, and tugged gently at Harry's hip until he rolled over. "If we're not," and Louis paused, kissed Harry's spine before pushing into him. "If we're not separated," he said, and then stopped talking.

Harry buried his head in the bed and concentrated on Louis, on having Louis inside him, not as a reward or a performance or because the Regulator didn't want him falling ill, but because they were being left alone. Because Liam and Zayn didn't mind. Because they could.

A while later, when Harry could speak again, he said, "We won't be. We can't be."

"Separated?" said Louis. They were lying on their sides now, facing each other. "As long as they mean it. I hope it's not just a game to them."

Harry said, "No, I think you were right before. I don't think it is."

"Because they're humanoid?"

"Not necessarily," said Harry thoughtfully. "It might just be the way these two are."

Louis thought about this. "Right. I do like Liam."

"I like Zayn," said Harry.

"What I don't understand," said Louis, "is why they pretend not to like each other."

 

 

10. Niall

Ship's Log * 19.4.3281 Sadela

Sadela: Horrible place really.

Zayn Malik: Still keeping up the nonsense with LP! Worst quarrel since the one about which superhero you'd want in a zombie apocalypse. Or was it the zombie you'd want in a superhero apocalypse? Will ask ZM when he's done sulking in the studio.

Liam Payne: Doesn't believe me when I tell him there's nothing more in the databanks on the slave trade. Accused me of keeping secrets as usual! ! Is now busy staring into space and trying to find minor chords to play on the piano.

Harry and Louis. Cute. But I said I wouldn't watch.

Notes: Must not eject ZM or LP into hyperspace no matter how annoying. Meanwhile, how to help H and L? Don't think the Terrans know about the slave system, but are the Sadelans actually hiding it? Regulator didn't seem fussed about it. Maybe they don't think it's worth mentioning?

 

 

11. Internal Communications, betelguesebadboi and bringthapayne

 

I keep tellllllling you zayn it was an acksident

 

Your mouth tripped and fell on his dick?

 

I didnt do thatttt! Cant we just talk face to face, I dont like typing on this things.

 

No.

 

Vidlink at least?

 

NO.

 

We have a signing later and your going to have to see me then

 

You want to do a signing for slaveowners??? I thought we would cancel everything

 

Can we do that ? I think we would get in trouble?!

 

So? THEY ARE HORRIBLE PEOPLE.

 

I know that but we have a contract zaynnnn

 

Your priorities are fucked Liam. If we have a concert for these people after they send us Harry and Louis it's like agreeing to it. Like we think it's fine.

 

Its not fine but we have to do our job yeah ?

 

Ugh Liam do you think we can just fly away from this? We have to do something

 

I agreeeee but your version of doing something is actually NOT doing something??

 

Whats that supposed to mean

 

Canseling the show just isnt very energetic is all

 

Liam so done with you calling me lazy

 

Wud you jsut stop making evrything I say sound terrible!!!!

 

STOP BEING TERRIBLE THEN

 

<transmission gap>

 

Sorry about that zayn im gunna tryyy to be the bigger person now and not go offline till were done

 

if you say you're going to be the bigger person you're automatically not

 

Whatevver. Your right we should help harry and louis

 

thank you

 

I have an idea tho

 

is it cancelling the concert?

 

ZAYN SERIOSLY ONLY U WOULD DECIDE THAT THE WAY TO HELP HARRY AND LOUIS IS 2 STAY NIALLSIDE AND GO NOWHERE.

 

ONLY YOU WOULD DECIDE THAT THE WAY TO HELP HARRY AND LOUIS IS TO STICK WITH THE CONTRACT AND DO AS YOUR TOLD.

 

<transmission gap>

 

ok liam I'm back online I had to go breathe

 

Are you okay?

 

That's my business.

 

If we were talking in person I could give you a backrub.

 

NO. what was your idea?

 

Go undercover at the signing!!!! we'll pretend like we dont know anything

 

 

Shut up zayn. I mean we'll ask questions about the slave stuff and GATHER INTELIGINCE, doesnt that sound cool like spies

 

Do spies get to punch anyone?

 

NO spies are sneeky they do REECON.

 

For what?

 

EVIDENCE ZAYN. To send back to earth so that ACTION CAN BE TAKEN.

 

Oh liam

 

What??

 

Just ask Harry and Louis about it before you start making big plans.

 

I will but will u do it ?

 

If Harry and Louis say it's a good idea

 

I'll go ask them now 

 

Try to ask Louis in words and not with your dick

 

YOU’RE A HIPPOCRIT ZAYN

 

????????????????

 

YOU THINK I DIDNT SEE THE WAY YOU WERE LOKING AT HARRYYYYYYY

 

Go away, Liam.

 

<end of transmission log>

 

 

 

12. External Communications, Niall Horan and the Office of Simon Cowell, Interplanetary Ambassador

Sent Mail:

Dear Ambassador Cowell

I don't know if you'll remember me, but I'm the ship flying for Two Hearts, the first Terran pop act ever to tour to the Sadela sector. I think it is my duty to tell you that something's gone a bit funny here over here. Apparently a while back the Sadelans invaded a nearby planet and they keep kidnapping its people and enslaving them! In our opinion this sort of thing is just not on! Please advise.

Yours faithfully

Niall Horan

P.S. Feel free to forward this message on to the President.

 

Inbox:

Dear Niall Horan

Thank you for your recent communication. Ambassador Cowell appreciates your good wishes and regrets that he is unable to answer all of his correspondence personally. A signed dimensigraph of Ambassador Cowell is attached herewith.

Kind Regards

The Office of Simon Cowell, Interplanetary Ambassador

 

Sent Mail:

Hello obvious autoreply,

Did you not notice the part where I'm flying an important diplomatic mission on Sadela ! Would you kindly GIVE HIM THE BLEEDING MESSAGE ! !

Niall

P.S. Did I mention the slavery is of a sexual nature.

 

Inbox:

Dear Niall

Thank you for your recent communication. Ambassador Cowell appreciates your good wishes and regrets that he is unable to answer all of his correspondence personally. A signed dimensigraph of Ambassador Cowell is attached herewith.

Kind Regards

The Office of Simon Cowell, Interplanetary Ambassador

 

Drafts:

Dear Office of Simon Arse

Bloody fucking hell call yourself a

 

Dear Office of Simon Cowell

I am going to ask you nicely one more time FUCK THIS SHIT I MEAN

 

Sent Mail:

Dear Office of Simon Cowell, Interplanetary Ambassador

If you ask me the president is NOT going to like this.

Yours faithfully

Niall

 

 

13. Zayn

It was an hour or so after Liam had accused him of looking at Harry inappropriately (one would think that Liam at least would understand what Zayn needing a smoke looked like, but no), and Zayn was drawing in his studio. He'd taken the most dangerous painting of Liam down from the wall, the one where Liam was trying to look tough but beaming instead. Zayn had always been proud of painting that one, but now he thought it would be better for his art if he didn't have to look at it. So he propped the painting against the wall facing in, ignoring a sound that might have been Niall's long-suffering sigh.

Zayn thought it would be calming to do some simple pencil sketches that would allow him to express his emotions and find his centre. By the time he heard the knock at the door, he had doodled black clouds, a rotting fruit, part of a skeleton, and Liam's face in profile, which was kind of an accident but he didn't cross it out because the shadows on his cheek looked cool.

"Go away, Liam!" called Zayn. He frowned at Liam's profile on his pad.

"Sorry!" The voice was hesitant and definitely not Liam's. "It's just Harry, I didn't mean to bother you."

Zayn let out his breath again. "You can come in."

Standing in the doorway, Harry looked taller than before, even though he was hunching his shoulders. Then again, Zayn had mostly seen him on his knees or on a bed. Now he realised that Harry was probably taller than he was.

"Sorry," said Harry again, looking uncomfortable. "Only the other master has this plan and he wants my opinion so I came to find out what my opinion is."

"He's called Liam," said Zayn, waving Harry toward the stool next to him at the drawing table, "and how should I know? Seriously, you and Louis have to give it a rest with that stuff."

Harry bit his lip and came over to stand near the stool. There was a pause. He's not going to sit down till I say so, thought Zayn, which made him feel a little dizzy. "Take the stool, Harry, yeah? Where's Louis?"

"With Liam. Oh! Your pencil!"

Zayn had broken the point. He swore and tossed it aside. "I thought you had to stay near Louis, though?"

Harry grinned at him and sat down at last. "It's okay for now. We've been together for hours and he had me this morning."

"He…" Zayn broke off and shook his head. If Harry was going to be that casual about it, he wasn't going to look a fool by giving him a reaction, no matter what images were rushing through his head. So Zayn only said, "Well. Isn't that lovely."

"Louis's always lovely," said Harry softly. He craned his neck to see Zayn's drawing pad. "You draw the other master really well. If I'm allowed to say."

Zayn stared at the picture and then turned the page and grabbed another pencil. "You can say what you want, Harry."

"Doesn't he," Harry started. "I mean, don't you, um. The Regulator said you were in love."

"Oh," said Zayn, and started sketching a skimmer on fire.

"He's not—good to you?"

"It's complicated," said Zayn.

"Because he ought to be good to you, he ought to want you," said Harry, more firmly. "I don't mean to disrespect a master but I don't understand how anyone wouldn't."

Zayn looked up to see Harry staring at him, brow furrowed in concern. Because what Zayn really needed was pity from a former sex slave. Zayn sighed. "I was the one who broke up with him, Harry."

Harry's jaw dropped. "Then there must be something wrong with him. Was he cruel to you? Should I warn Louis about him?"

Harry looked like he was ready to go rushing out the door to rescue his boyfriend. Zayn put a restraining hand on his arm. "Harry, there's nothing wrong with Liam." He thought a moment, and then added reluctantly, "Louis has nothing to worry about."

"Is this your conditioning?" Harry asked. "Like what the Regulator tried with Louis and me? I didn't think that happened to masters, but—"

"Harry, no! Liam is fine, okay, he's a good person, we just don't—we just can't get on with each other anymore. It happens, it just happens sometimes." Zayn didn't feel like explaining any further. "He'll meet someone else and make them very happy."

Harry was shaking his head. "Nope," he said, and then caught himself. "I mean, sorry master, I am not wise in the ways of your world and I am sure you are correct." He sighed loudly and dramatically.

"Thank you," said Zayn, with equal sincerity, which was to say none at all.

"I like you better, though," said Harry.

"Conditioning, yeah?" said Zayn.

"No," said Harry. There was another pause, in which Zayn shaded in some concrete planks for the skimmer to crash land on. Harry twirled a little on my stool. "Anyway, master. I see you're busy. I just came in to ask about the plan. His plan." He somehow managed to infuse the word "his" with the maximum possible suspicion.

"Oh," said Zayn. "Like give the concert anyway?"

"Yeah," said Harry. "I didn't know if it was okay with you so I couldn't tell him yes."

"Harry. I told Liam to see if it was okay with you. I don't want to play Sadela again if it means, like, endorsing what happened to you guys. We can still tell people on our planet what's going on."

Harry looked worried. "But Niall was talking about a treaty. The Sadies have, erm, something? A kind of energy your planet needs?"

"Whatever," said Zayn. "What else did Liam say?"

Harry thought. "Something called reeking. Or maybe intil? I wasn't clear what he meant. Probably because of the thing."

"The thing?"

"The thing that's wrong with him that made you break up with him even though you still love him. Except you don't, because that's what you said, and I would never disagree with you."

Zayn decided to ignore this. "I think Liam's in over his head here. Recon and intel, I ask you."

"But master—" Harry started.

Zayn frowned. "I told you, you should call me by my name. You're not less than me, okay?"

Harry swallowed and looked down. Zayn thought he might have heard a faint sound of "Zzzzzn" but he wasn't sure. He touched Harry's cheek, the spot where his dimple was when he was smiling, and said, "Look at me, Harry."

Harry lifted his head slowly, found Zayn's eyes. He put his hand over Zayn's where it was cupping his cheek. His hand's bigger than mine, thought Zayn, and leaned in almost involuntarily. "Come on, Harry. Say my name."

Harry took a breath, and Zayn was not at all watching his lips part, and then Niall blinked in.

"Zayn! Harry! If the president comes aboard for a visit, which room d'you think he'd like?"

Zayn jerked his hand away from Harry's face and spun to face Niall.

"Niall, do you knock?"

"No?" said Niall, sounding confused. "You know this" —he gestured at his flickering body— "is just a hologram, right? Why would I knock on myself?"

"It was a metaphor," said Zayn.

"I can do you an alarm thingy before I holo in, if you want," said Niall. "I'm quite good at pretending I don't hear you and Liam at all hours, you have to admit, only I haven't got used to these new—combinations." He waved a translucent arm toward Harry. "Not to mention I'd have thought this one had had enough this morning."

Zayn stepped in front of Harry. Harry didn't look upset, but he could quite possibly be hiding his pain. "I won't have you talking about Harry like that," said Zayn.

"Really," said Niall. "And there you were getting all grumpy because Liam had a bit of a cuddle with the other one."

"It's okay," said Harry to Zayn. "I think he just means Louis was vigorous. I don't mind him saying it, because it's true."

"I'm not sure Harry's really in touch with his emotions," Zayn told Niall. "Post-traumatic stress. So can we just try to be respectful to him?"

"Sure," said Niall, spinning his holographic eyes. "So that's what you were doing when I got here, yeah?"

"The master was instructing me in how to address him," Harry volunteered.

Zayn cringed.

"Gotcha," said Niall. "Like, with your tongue?"

"Like this," said Harry, and turned to Zayn. "Zayn," he said, so deep and slow Zayn felt his own name like a physical touch. "Zayn?" Harry repeated, a question this time.

"Yeah," said Zayn, except it came out a little more like a whimper. He realised he had his hand on Harry's arm and turned it into a brotherly pat before he did anything stupid.

Niall made one of his fake-sounding coughs. "Congratulations, he knows your name, back to my question, please! Actually, I should probably make him a new room altogether, yeah?"

Zayn leaned back against the table, well away from Harry. "Start over, Niall."

"Well," said Niall. "Certain people aren't answering my messages and I don't think the president would be happy about certain people not answering my messages so you and Liam are going to gather all kinds of evidence about slavery on Sadela and send it back to me and I am going to transmit it straight to the President and then he's sure to want to meet me—us—personally. Especially if you make the right sort of speech onstage. Don't you think?"

Zayn watched Niall's hologram bouncing up and down and concentrated on the fraction of this he could actually follow. "Weren't you worried about trade negotiations or something?"

"Yep!" said Niall. "And I would never want to jeopardize intergalactic diplomacy but I'm not sure our ambassador is really up to handling the talks and having this kind of dirt on Sadela might actually help anyway? And then Liam reminded me of how important freedom is to the president, so I realised this is my chance to finally get him to notice me. Do you think they need more starships in the diplomatic corps?"

"Niall," said Zayn gently. "The president is human. You're a spacecraft. I don't think this relationship can go where you want it to go."

Niall glared. "Just because you only think about one thing doesn’t mean everyone else in the galaxy has your limitations. My bond with the president is on a higher plane."

"You've never met the president," Zayn said, exasperated, but he felt instantly sorry when he saw Niall's face fall in a very reasonable facsimile of humanoid chagrin.

Harry looked from Zayn to Niall. "I'm sure when you do meet the president, he'll recognise your bond. Sometimes you just know. Louis would say the same."

"Exactly," said Niall, tilting his chin up. "So I'll thank you to cooperate, Zayn."

"Oh god," said Zayn. "How, exactly?"

"Go on the mission and fill up a dossier for me," said Niall with great satisfaction.

"Oh, I see Liam's catching," said Zayn. "Shan't do it if you're going to say things like mission and dossier. I sing stupid fucking love songs, I'm not a secret agent."

"You are now," said Niall. "Oh, and you're to take Harry and Louis with you, it'll look more convincing."

 

 

14. Liam

Liam was trying to concentrate on vocal exercises, but Louis was still fiddling away with the console Niall had shown him and looking so delighted Liam kept wanting to peek and see what was putting those smiles on his face. Liam was halfway through a scale when he heard a particularly delighted squeal from Louis and couldn't help going over to see.

Louis pointed excitedly at the screen. "What is it, what are they doing?"

Liam leaned in, his hand on Louis's shoulder. Apparently Orion United were playing Cassiopeia. "Earth football. It's a game."

"Wow," said Louis. "This is the one of the most amazing things I've ever seen, master."

"Liam," said Liam.

"Right, Liam!" said Louis, not taking his eyes off the screen. "Can you play this game? Can you teach it to me?"

"Um, sure," said Liam. "I mean, I'm not all that good at it, particularly."

"Well, I don't believe that," said Louis, swivelling around and looking Liam up and down. "Do you have one of those shirts with a number and writing all over it? We could start right away."

"Well," said Liam. "You need a football more than you need a shirt. But I guess there's one in the gym."

"Great!" said Louis. He'd gotten up from his seat and seemed to be dribbling an invisible ball. "Let's get started!"

"Whoa," said Liam. "I mean, that sounds really fun but I need to do these exercises before the show tonight. If we do the show tonight."

"Harry'll say yes," said Louis, sitting back down to watch the game again. "Harry likes to say yes. Oh my, I have to show Harry this, this—" he flaps a hand at the screen.

"Football," said Liam, "and it's not Harry I'm worried about. It's Zayn who doesn’t want to do it."

"Why?" said Louis, and then screamed "NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" which made Liam jump about a foot and then throw his arms around Louis, kneeling at his side.

"What is it? What's wrong? Are you having a flashback?"

Louis seemed to melt against him. He felt so small and fragile in Liam's arms. "I'm fine! I'm just participating! It's what everyone's shouting, see?" He pointed to the screen. "Everyone's mad at that man in the stripes." Liam peered in and saw the referee handing a red card to a Cassiopeia striker.

"Oh," said Liam. He tried to pull back but Louis seemed to be clinging on as if only digging the side of his head into Liam's chest would help him weather the unbearable excitement. Liam cleared his throat. "It's called a foul. It's when a player behaves badly, he's got to leave the game and then his team's one man down."

"Oh my god," said Louis, eyes like saucers. "You know everything. This is amazing."

"Well," said Liam. "As long as you're all right then." He gave Louis's soft hair a quick pat and then disengaged himself and got back to his feet. What they were talking about? Oh. "Zayn doesn't want to do the show," said Liam, "because he doesn't like Sadela and he doesn't like what happened to you."

"But neither do you," said Louis, a little absently.

"Of course not," said Liam. "But I think we could actually help."

"Nah," said Louis, and then jumped to his feet and pumped his arm in the air, echoing the Orion defender on the screen.

Liam sighed. "Do you even know what just happened?"

"I'm working it out," said Louis.

"Anyway," said Liam, "what do you mean, nah?"

Louis dropped to his knees in one smooth motion.

"Apologies, master, I shouldn't have disagreed with you." The words came out in a monotone and there was a flicker of something that looked like disappointment in Louis's eyes. Oh god.

"Louis, no, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. I just actually wanted to know what you meant."

"Oh," said Louis in a small voice. He took the hand Liam was holding out to him and got to his feet.

Liam squeezed his hand. "You're allowed to disagree with me, Louis. Look at Zayn, he does it all the time."

"I noticed that," said Louis, sniffing, "and I don't approve of it at all. He ought to be nicer to you."

Liam gave up on the vocal exercises and threw himself down sideways on the sofa against the wall. "We don't have to talk about Zayn." He heard how his voice quavered a little on the sound of Zayn's name and he winced.

"But you need someone to be nice to you," said Louis, licking his lips and looking—yeah, he was definitely looking at Liam's dick.

"I can always talk to Niall," croaked out Liam, and grabbed a pillow to put in his lap, just in case Louis was planning to come any closer.

Louis shrugged. "Okay. I just thought, since you're going to teach me football."

"Louis. I'd do that anyway. You don't understand, I—I still love Zayn."

"Well, obviously! Any fool could see that." Louis's forehead furrowed in confusion.

"Yeah, so…so I can't, you know." Liam gestured vaguely at the space between them. "Not that you're not—yeah."

Louis sat down next to him so that his left thigh was pressed up against Liam's feet. Louis's thighs were really sort of amazing, Liam thought, and he wouldn’t mind having his head in between them, if—well, this train of thought led nowhere good.

"Liam," said Louis. "Are you saying loving Zayn is the reason you can't fuck me even though you'd like it?"

"Oh my god," said Liam, and clutched the pillow closer. "Okay, I guess that's one way to put it."

"Huh," said Louis. "The ways of your people are strange to me."

"Also there's Harry," said Liam.

"I love Harry," said Louis simply. "I'd die for him. This—us—it's no threat to that, don't you see? Harry certainly wouldn't think so."

"Not to mention the whole thing where you were a slave so you feel obligated."

Louis paused and considered. "Do you think so? I thought I just liked you."

"Yes, I think so," said Liam firmly, before he did something idiotic like slide to the ground and shove his head into Louis's lap. He tried to regroup. "And it's been a while since Harry went to see Zayn and you probably just need some physical contact or something."

"Good point," said Louis. "So I'll just rub your neck, okay?"

Liam leapt up and walked to the other side of the room. "You know what? You were going to explain your thoughts to me about the plan tonight, in, like, a completely equal and mutually respectful fashion, and then in just a couple minutes Harry will be back and you can rub his neck."

"Okay," said Louis, shrugging. "I guess that'll work." He stretched out on the sofa. He was still wearing Liam's shirt and now it was riding up over his stomach. Liam closed his eyes for a moment. Louis said, "It's just I doubt the Sadies are going to give up their pets, no matter what your president does. And what are our people going to do? The ones who are already joined are joined. It doesn't matter if they were forced, they're not going to be able to do without their masters."

Liam bit his lip. "I didn't think about that."

"I mean, it's nice of you to want to help," said Louis.

"Can we still try?" said Liam. "I mean, it might not work, but I feel like if we record some conversations, get the evidence, then at least we've done our bit."

"Evidence," repeated Louis. "But me and Harry are evidence."

"But," said Liam. "I mean, yeah. But the Terran Federation, if we want them to do anything, if there's even the slightest chance, we have to make it airtight. We can't let them claim, like—" He broke off, not sure how to say it.

"They might think me and Harry are making it all up," said Louis. His face for a moment looked older, a little tired. "Pets are terrible liars, after all." He said it as if repeating something he'd heard many times.

"Louis," said Liam. "I'm so sorry." And he crossed the room and took Louis's hands in his.

And that was how Zayn found them when he burst into the room with Harry on his heels.

 

 

15. Harry

Harry saw how his master recoiled when he saw Liam and Louis holding hands. Zayn looked a bit like Harry felt when he'd been without Louis for too long, when the Regulator thought they were being insufficiently attentive to her and parted them for the night. Harry didn't understand, exactly, why Zayn was upset, but he'd noticed how Zayn had been keeping his distance from him since he'd finally managed to say Zayn's name, so clearly Terrans had a set of taboos he didn't fully understand.

Not that it was the time to ponder about it, because Louis had seen him and was throwing himself into Harry's arms and trying to jump up and down at the same time. "Harry! There's a game called football, it's absolutely brilliant, I'll show you!" He led Harry over to a screen where some people with three legs each were milling about on a green field with a small object flying this way and that.

"Nice!" said Harry politely, looking over Louis's shoulder. He didn't know what he was looking at, but Louis was cute when he was excited about things.

"Liam's going to teach me," said Louis, "you'll see."

Harry stiffened, worried that Louis was pronouncing Liam's name so casually. "Is that okay?" he whispered. "Saying his name like that?"

"Course," said Louis loftily. He reached behind him and put his hands on Harry's waist, under his shirt. Louis was so bold, Harry thought. He turned Louis around to face him and bent his head for a kiss, right in front of their two masters, just to show that he could be daring too. Louis opened his mouth to let Harry in, and Harry pressed close, hands slipping lower. They'd been kissing for only a moment when Harry heard a rather loud cough from Liam and an "ummmm" from Zayn and thought perhaps they were supposed to stop. Breathing hard, he pulled back from Louis's mouth, and looked up to see both Liam and Zayn staring at them. Zayn looked fascinated. Liam looked distressed. Harry had had years of experience with both expressions. He nudged Louis, and Louis nodded, understanding.

"Do you want to watch, then?" Louis asked, directing his question to Liam.

Liam opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

"You might like it," Louis continued. "Harry looks so pretty when I'm sucking him, his face goes all pink."

Harry frowned. "I thought I could do you this time, Louis. I want to show Zayn how well I can take it."

"Ah god," said Zayn faintly.

That seemed to snap Liam out of whatever trance he was in. "All right, get a hold of yourself, Zayn. Harry, Louis, thank you but no thank you, we're a bit busy at the moment."

"Yes!" said Zayn. "Busy!"

Louis whispered to Harry, "Did you hear? They're agreeing with each other!"

"It's sweet," Harry agreed, and turned to Liam. "Um, mas—" He darted a glance at Zayn, and Zayn mouthed "LIAM," so Harry hastily blurted out "Leem" as fast as he possibly could, and then continued brightly, "Zayn's just been drawing such a lovely picture of you!"

"Harry!" Zayn hissed.

"Oh!" said Harry. "But I thought I could say your name, I thought—"

"That's not. The point," said Zayn. "That was a private picture." He turned to Liam. "Just sketching. An exercise in shading, really."

"Of course," said Liam stiffly.

Harry saw the despairing look Zayn threw at Liam and turned to Louis in confusion. Louis shook his head. "Earth people," Louis whispered, as if this were explanation enough.

"Anyway," said Zayn, "Niall's telling me you want to traumatize these poor lads by taking them with us so that they have to revisit all their awful memories."

Liam threw up his hands. "You always assume the worst, don't you, Zayn? I don't want to traumatize anyone, only Niall mentioned we'd make more of an impression at the concert if we took them along. Look, I'm happy to leave them with Niall, it wasn't my idea in the first place."

"What are we doing at the concert again?" asked Zayn.

Harry looked at Zayn's worried face. "We want to stay with you," he said gently. "We want to help you with your--"

"—mission," Niall supplied, appearing in the middle of the room. Zayn groaned.

"Louis says it won't work, actually," Liam admitted.

"Oh Louis," said Harry. "You mustn't say things like that, it'll hurt their feelings."

Louis shrugged. "Liam says I can say what I like."

Niall said, "And I can too. So shut it, everybody, and listen to my plan."

 

 

16. External Communications, Niall Horan and the President of the Terran Federation

Drafts:

Dear Mr President

I don't mean to be creepy, but I think you are really

 

Dear Mr President

Sometimes I watch your old speeches on the net when I am a bit low and I wonder how are you even

 

Sent Mail:

Dear Mr President

Hello from the Sadela sector ! This is Niall, you know, the starship flying for Two Hearts. We are all doing our very best to promote this goodwill gesture of cultural exchange that will likely lead to a long and fruitful relationship between our peoples, just like you said in your speech! (By the way I've watched that speech a few times and it is wicked! !)

There's just one thing which is that Sadelans are basically slave traders and I don't think they've mentioned it to you guys?? And I tried to tell Ambassador Cowell, but his staff is autoreplying me and I thought I should let someone at the Federation know before Zayn and Liam start an antislavery movement onstage tonight because it might make the Sadelans mad. (Harry and Louis call them Sadies! Isn't that cute? Harry and Louis are the sex slaves by the way!)

Well, I don't want to talk your ear off so I'll sign off for now. I hope everything is awesome at the Terran Federation !

Yours faithfully

Niall Horan

 

Inbox:

Dear Niall Horan,

Thank you for your recent communication with the President. The President appreciates the good work that starships such as yourself do on behalf of the Terran Federation. A signed dimensigraph of the President is attached herewith.

Kind Regards

Office of the President

 

 

17. Louis

They were in the skimmer on their way to the venue. Niall had briefed them in what Zayn called the practice room but Niall seemed to be calling the command centre. Liam had warned Louis that there would be a lot of hanging about while he and Zayn had their styling done. Louis and Harry were meant to stay off to the side and stay vague if the stylists or production assistant or anyone else from the Two Hearts entourage asked questions. Liam and Zayn thought the world of their staff, and Niall got on beautifully with Paul, the spacecraft the staff travelled in, but Liam said it was best if Harry and Louis didn't share details about themselves as yet.

"You needn't make them any offers either, yeah?" said Zayn, which Louis thought was a little rude.

"We wouldn't," said Harry, looking hurt. "They're not you."

"Harry and I don't have to keep off each other though, do we?" asked Louis.

"No! Of course not!" Liam looked to Zayn for confirmation. "We'll mention you're together, so they'll expect—" He gestured vaguely to where Louis's hand was tangled in Harry's curls.

"We've got friends doing hyperspace jumps out to us all the time," added Zayn. "They're used to it."

He was right. The staff welcomed Harry and Louis and someone said something like "Ooh! Double-dating!" which Louis didn't understand, and then they were shooed onto a pile of frithium pillows in the dressing room and told to stay put.

"It'll be boring and I'm sorry," Liam told Louis, and Louis wanted to laugh. Boredom was great. Doing nothing was lovely when you weren't going to be fetched at any moment to go do things with tentacles. Because for some reason, Louis trusted that he wouldn't be. Leaning back against Harry's side, he watched Liam getting his hair arranged into artful curls and didn't feel more than mildly nervous that the Sadies were only a few doors away.

It was odd, his confidence that Liam would take care of them, Louis realised. Louis's usual policy was not to trust anyone except Harry and occasionally one of their own people, and years of slaving for the Sadies had provided ample evidence that he was quite right to be wary. You couldn't believe what the masters said, because there was no particular reason for them to treat you well or tell you the truth. At the end of the day, you still had to do as you were told.

Just because Liam was human, just because he was sweet, that was no good reason to think he'd be any different in the end, Louis told himself. That was no reason to notice the stylist's fingers at Liam's neck and wish Liam would let him touch like that: close enough to tug at the curls in his hair, smudge a bit of extra colour into his lips, whisper something in his ear. In fact, Louis ought to have been relieved when Liam promised to leave him alone, gratified that Liam kept saying no, because hadn't he had enough of masters groping at him? Louis frowned, considering, and then Harry's voice cut through his worry.

"Look at Zayn," Harry was saying. He had his eyes trained over on the opposite side of the room, where Zayn seemed to be dozing in the make-up chair while his stylist blackened the corners of his eyes. "Look how pretty he is like that."

"Not as pretty as you," said Louis automatically. He swivelled so that he was facing Harry. "Look, Haz. Don't you think this is all a bit weird?"

"Which part?" asked Harry. "I wonder if she'll put any colour in Zayn's hair."

"Pay attention," hissed Louis, and then dropped his voice. "The part where you really like Zayn and I really like Liam even though they're masters."

Harry wrinkled his forehead, puzzled. "But they're not a bit like the others."

"Harry. Do you remember the first day we were brought to the Regulator? She gave us that wonderful meal and new clothes and said we were all going to be the best of friends."

"Yeah," said Harry, "and I thought she was wonderful and I was so happy that I didn't have to work in the kitchens anymore. Ugh, why're we talking about this?"

"Because this could be the same thing. Why are we buying this from Liam and Zayn? Why do we want Liam and Zayn?"

"I dunno," said Harry. "Because they're Liam and Zayn?"

"Good point," said Louis. He looked back over to where Liam was making funny faces into the mirror. "But I think there might be something else going on."

Harry's gaze was straying back towards Zayn, whose stylist was pinning tiny green jewels into his hair. "Something like Zayn's face," said Harry.

Louis sighed. "That's not what I meant. Look, I feel it too, Harry. I just think—I'm trying to remember, we should be careful."

"Careful," Harry repeated dutifully. He squeezed Louis's hand. "I will, Louis."

That might have been reassuring if Louis still had a firm sense of what being careful meant. For example, it probably didn't mean staring at the line of Liam's neck as he tilted his head for the stylist. But then he'd never seen a master getting made up before, so possibly it was the novelty of the thing. Louis and Harry weren't wearing one bit of make-up today, which was also new. But Liam and Zayn hadn't complained at all; in fact, they hadn't even mentioned it.

"All done, love," the stylist told Liam finally. "Now don't let that one" —she jerked her head toward Zayn— "get his hands on your hair before the night's over. I know what you two are like and I don't fancy having to do all this again."

Louis saw how Liam's face fell at this, but Liam only choked out a little laugh and said, "I won't."

She winked at him. "Heard that before too. Up, then, go collect your man."

Liam winced and went over to Harry and Louis instead of Zayn. Louis pushed him a pillow and said, "I like your hair," which was only a small approximation of how he felt about Liam being all fixed up and spangly like that.

Across the room, Zayn had opened his eyes to gaze at the mirror and was pointing at his face and frowning. He and his stylist seemed to be having a serious conversation about his eyebrows.

Harry said earnestly, "Did you see how my—how Zayn looks, L-L-Liam? Don't you feel like kissing him?"

"All the time," said Liam softly, and looked down at his hands.

Louis rolled his eyes at Harry. "You're pants at this."

"You fix them then," said Harry.

Liam said, "Could you, um. Just be a bit discreet about it. Just for tonight."

"Discreet?" Louis was confused.

"We don't want anyone to know anything's wrong," Liam said. "Between Zayn and me. So if you could maybe not discuss fixing us or whatnot when there's anyone around."

"Could we talk about it later then?" asked Harry. "Because I might have an idea for you, when Louis's a bit grumpy there's a thing that I do—mmf!"

Louis took his hand away from Harry's mouth. "He doesn't want to hear it now, Haz, okay?"

"Anyway," said Liam, ignoring all this, "Zayn and I might have to be a bit—affectionate. For professional reasons. You mustn't misinterpret it though, or think that we've started—"

"—Started being sensible," Louis agreed. "Of course not. Anyway, Harry says it's Zayn's fault."

"I did not!" said Harry. "I said Zayn was the one who broke it off, that's quite a different thing." His pout was so adorable that Louis dove to kiss it off him, and when he came up for air, Liam was pacing around the room poking at his wristcomm. Apparently Zayn's stylist had finished with him, because Zayn was up and doing the same thing.

"I think they're communicating," whispered Harry. "They keep fiddling with their button-things and then glaring at each other."

"And Liam thinks no one's going to know anything's wrong." Louis shook his head.

But he'd underestimated Liam, perhaps, because when the door swished and an assistant came in to escort Liam and Zayn to the fanmeeting, Liam straightened up and smiled and held out his hand to Zayn as if they were about to run frolicking through fields of daisies, just as he had in one of the films the Regulator's tutor had shown them. They'd spent hours watching Zayn and Liam sing, talk, laugh, tumble about, and make charity appeals.

Zayn wasn't quite as good as Liam at looking happy, Louis noticed, but probably most people wouldn't notice the moment of hesitation before he took Liam's hand, or the way his lips moved a bit as if he were reminding himself of something. When Zayn paused by the sofa on his way out, he touched Harry's cheek so gently that Louis considered re-evaluating his view of Zayn as a thoughtless heartbreaker who left Harry alone and made Liam sad. Harry leaned into Zayn's hand in a way that was utterly lacking in careful and Zayn looked at him fondly and said, "We'll be back in an hour, like we said."

Louis nodded, trying to look like he was completely fine with being left without Liam and Zayn on the planet where he'd been enslaved, but Liam bit his lip and said, "Louis, I promise, the dressing room issecure. You need anything, just—" He pulled his wristcomm off and thrust it at Louis. "Press there and you'll be talking to Niall, all right?"

Louis looked at the buttons and passed the thing on to Harry to inspect. "We'll be fine, Liam."

"Yeah," said Liam. "Um, and I left VR sets for you in my bag. Something you might like to do."

"VR," repeated Louis.

"Virtual reality," explained Liam. "You did want to learn footy, didn't you?"

Then he and Zayn were gone, and their entourage after them, and Harry and Louis were alone.

 

 

18. Liam

A day ago, everything about the crowded hall would have been boring and ordinary: the autograph table at one end, the click of the graphers, shouts from the fans, a few tentacles curling out to grab at him before the security bot snatched them away. Liam would have looked at the lines of Sadelans, intermixed with a few humans here and there, and thought no more of it. But what yesterday would have seemed like a bit of species diversity was now something more sinister. Now he had to wonder whether the humans scattered in the crowd were tourists or victims. Liam was glad Harry and Louis were safely back in the dressing room.

The secbot waved an arm and the hollow circular table opened to let Liam and Zayn through, then closed seamlessly behind them, so that they were at the centre of the circle, a healthy distance from the fans. Liam pulled out Zayn's seat for him, and the fans cooed.

"Like the seats don't do that automatically anyway," said Zayn, under his breath.

"Can you try, Zayn?" said Liam, while he waved to the fans. "Can you just, like, make a temporary effort?"

"Fine," muttered Zayn. "Sorry."

Then Liam made a speech about how thrilled they were by the welcome they'd gotten on Sadela, and how it was such a massively interesting planet, and they hoped to learn more about it. Then he turned to Zayn, who announced that they were looking forward to meeting their Sadelan fans and they'd sign for as many of them as they possibly could. The Sadelans swayed back and forth and waved their tentacles in response, and then the secbot glided forward to announce that fans could come up for autographs two at a time in an orderly fashion, no pushing, and that Mr Payne and Mr Malik would not remove any portion of their clothing or sign anyone's body parts, so please don't ask.

In other words, it started like any other signing, and Liam didn't see how they were going to gather any information at all. The secbots were keeping the lines moving quickly, and Liam and Zayn were both saying, "Thanks for coming!" and "Enjoy the concert!" and scribbling their names. After a bit Zayn kicked him under the table and Liam realised ten minutes had gone by and they'd done absolutely nothing to justify their being there.

"What happened to recon?" whispered Zayn, and Liam shrugged his shoulders minutely, feeling helpless. "I've been recording this," said Zayn, motioning to his wristcomm, "but it would be nice to actually have something worth recording."

"I know," said Liam, realising they should have made a much more specific plan ahead of time instead of assuming that evidence would just fall out of thin air. He'd been so proud of his idea, but why hadn't he memorised something useful to say as he'd done for the concert later on?

Zayn tapped his pen on the desk, pulled the security bot over, and said, "Slow down the line, can't you? Give us more time with them?" To Liam, he said, "Look, let's just try…having conversations."

Liam wasn't exactly sure what Zayn meant, but at least Zayn wasn't yelling at him, so he nodded hesitantly. When a small, not very scary-looking Sadelan slid up, Liam listened carefully as Zayn asked, "So, are there a lot of humans on your planet?" But the little Sadelan just gaped at him and clutched at her face, and the secbot escorted her past.

Zayn shrugged at Liam. The next fan was taller and had the ends of her tentacles streaked in purple and gold. "Not so many," said the fan, and Liam realised she was answering Zayn's previous question, one of those fans determined not to let an opportunity go to waste. "But we just love humans," the fan went on. "You're all so sweet."

"Thanks," said Zayn, as the bot ushered her away. He shot a look at Liam.

Liam nodded and turned to the next fan. If Zayn could do it, he could do it. "So, you guys don't mind that we're human?"

"Oh," said the fan. "Oh, oh, oh, you're LIAM PAYNE." So he wasn't much help.

"Just try again," whispered Zayn to Liam.

So Liam said to the next one, "By the way, how many humans do you know?"

The Sadelan said, "My parents have humans! But that's different."

"Have humans how exactly?" asked Zayn, but the Sadelan just said, "I love you Zayn! I love you Liam! Oh my god, I can't believe I just said that!" and slid awkwardly away.

Then a fan came up to the table with a clay sculpture of Liam sitting in Zayn's lap. She pushed it over to them and gabbled, "Um, I made this for you guys, sorry it's awful," and curled her eyestalks down in obvious embarrassment.

"It's beautiful," Liam enthused, touching the miniature Zayn's painted head with one gentle finger.

It was Zayn who thought of something useful to say. "So hey, anyone ever given you a person for a present?"

The Sadelan giggled and said, "Of course not, I'm not old enough yet," and then the secbot was steering her away.

"Thank you!" Zayn called after her.

"Whoa," said Liam quietly.

"We need a few more like that," said Zayn, tapping his comm.

Liam nodded. "You're good at this. Like an actual spy agent undercover person or something." He thought, but he wasn't sure, that Zayn might have looked pleased at that.

Liam signed a few more autographs with simple thank yous while he thought about what to say next. Then a Sadelan with bracelets on every tentacle walked up and said "Welcome to Sadela!" and Liam said "You don't usually see humans like us doing this sort of thing on Sadela, do you?" and the fan said, "No, and I don't think it's fair, either."

"No?" said Zayn.

"I tell that to my friends all the time, they think I'm like obnoxious about it? But you guys have totally changed my life? And like, this is me, and if I think humans are good for more than being pets, then I'm going to say so?" The fan held up her tentacles so that her bracelets jingled.

"Pets?" asked Liam.

"You know," said the fan, and her eyes did a quick spin on their stalks. "Anyway, I totally love you both and this is the best five minutes of my entire life."

"Wow," said Liam. "Thanks!" And then she was escorted away, waving wildly to her friends.

Zayn and Liam exchanged glances. "Nice going," said Zayn.

"Thanks," Liam said, and he tried to be cool, tried not to grin too wide just because Zayn had said something nice that didn't seem sarcastic. Zayn reached out and Liam thought maybe Zayn was going for his hand and everything was okay again, but then Zayn altered course and scooped up the purple pen instead, so that was probably what he'd been going for the whole time and Liam was just a delusional idiot.

"Look," said the next fan, staring intensely at Liam. "I just want you to know that I have been a fan of yours for years. Like since SpaceFactor. Since your first go on SpaceFactor. Not like most of these so-called fans who just found out about you yesterday." He waved a contemptuous tentacle at the rest of the crowd.

"How about that!" said Liam cheerily. "Thanks!"

"Hey," said Zayn. "How do you feel about humans as sex pets?"

The fan looked a little startled. "Well, it's a complicated cultural thing and it's really what's best for them. You guys are totally different, of course."

"Of course," said Zayn sweetly. Liam signed his name on the fan's official authorized collector's edition of Halfway to Heaven without any x's or smiley-faces.

The secbot rolled over, told them that they were running out of time, and recommended they speed up their interactions by 27 seconds each.

So they signed for the next five fans without asking questions, but then two fans came up with their tentacles laced together. One of them gave Liam the official authorized Zayn Malik biography to sign and the other one gave Zayn the official authorized Liam Payne biography to sign. Liam and Zayn started switching automatically, but the one with eyestalk piercings said, "No, can you do each other's, please?"

"We think you are the cutest couple ever," explained the one wearing the official authorized Two Hearts pendant.

"Except for us," said the first one, and they both giggled.

"You're definitely cuter," said Liam easily, and then went on, "Hey, guys, can you tell me why none of the humans are coming up to meet us? I see a few of them in the back of the room."

"Oh," said Piercings, "they aren't fans."

"Not fans?" asked Zayn, pretending to be hurt. "What did we do wrong?"

"Nothing!" said Pendant. "Oh gosh, you two couldn't do anything wrong. No, it's just, they're just, you know, here with their, um—"

"Owners?" asked Liam, keeping a smile on his face.

They giggle. "Exactly!" And then the secbot guided them away.

Liam looked at the humans scattered here and there. None of them were wearing 2H tunics, but neither did they seem actively distressed. One of the humans looked in his direction, and Liam waved to her. She held Liam's gaze for a moment, blank, then dropped her eyes to the tentacle the Sadelan next to her had looped around her wrist.

Zayn whispered, "We should talk to a human, yeah?"

Liam called the secbot over to give it instructions, and it blinked confirmation and glided off into the crowd. They watched it approach a young human in the back, saw how he looked to the Sadelan next to him instead of responding, how the Sadelan answered instead, sweeping a tentacle in front of his face in the local gesture for no.

"Record this too," whispered Liam.

"Duh," Zayn said.

The secbot approached another human, but this time the older Sadelan next to her inclined his eyestalks and let the bot lead them both up to the table.

"Hi!" said Liam to the girl. "We thought it would be cool to meet a fellow humanoid!"

The girl nodded politely. "Thank you, Honourable."

The Sadelan looked a little puzzled. He flicked a tentacle in the direction of a couple of small Sadelans across the room and said, "My sons are huge 2H fans. I'm really just here to look after them."

"And you?" Zayn asked the girl.

"I'm," said the girl, and bowed her head.

"She's with me," said the Sadelan. "We take good care of you lovely humans here."

Liam felt Zayn's knee nudge his under the table. "Um," Liam said, and turned to the girl. "Would you agree with that?"

The girl looked at him blankly. "Yes, Honourable," she said.

"She's a good girl," said the Sadelan. "Not like some."

"Oh?" said Liam, encouragingly.

"There are some ungrateful types," said the Sadelan. "Stirring up trouble. I'm sure you understand. But if you wanted a nice one yourself, I could certainly make some inquiries?"

For a split second, Zayn's hand clenched down so hard on Liam's thigh that it hurt. "Uh," said Zayn. "Uh, thank you, that won't be necessary."

Liam looked at the girl. Was that a flash of anger on her face before she rearranged it back into blankness? She thinks we're like the Sadelans, Liam realised, and shook his head, trying to convey somehow that—what? He thought it was dreadful? He thought she should be free? And that was why he was letting her master steer her back into the crowd, one possessive tentacle resting across her neck? The elation he'd felt at getting such definite confirmation on video faded, and he just felt a little sick. He looked back at Zayn and saw his guilt mirrored on Zayn's face.

"We'll end it, Zayn, I promise," Liam whispered.

"I don’t want to be spies anymore," Zayn said. "No more autographs."

"Okay." Liam nodded. "Okay, that's fine, we got what we needed." He beckoned to the secbot and gave it instructions, half his mind on Harry and Louis, waiting in the dressing room. He'd felt good that he could help them, but what about everyone else?

The bot announced to the crowd that that was all the autographs they had time for, but Mr Payne and Mr Malik would be happy to stand for a few dimensigraphs. Zayn groaned softly and rubbed his head.

"Just wait, wait till the concert," Liam said. "Please, Zayn, we've got to keep this up until then." Zayn looked down pointedly to where Liam's hand seemed to be on his knee, then raised his eyebrows.

"Sorry," said Liam, deciding not to mention that Zayn had been clutching at Liam only two minutes ago. "Can't get used to—sorry." He got to his feet. The crowd shrieked. "Zayn? Whenever you're ready?"

"Just a sec," Zayn said, "I'm uploading this stuff to Niall." Liam blew kisses and tried to be distracting while Zayn tapped at his comm. When Zayn got to his feet, Liam held out his hand, because really. This was what they did, and he didn't know yet how to be 2H any other way. Zayn sighed and took Liam's hand, holding it up in the air between them while the graphers clicked.

"We love you and we love each other!" Liam called to the crowd, and the fans went if possible even more insane to hear his usual cheesy sign-off line.

"See you tonight!" Zayn added. Probably Liam was the only one who noticed that it sounded more like a threat than a promise. Liam hoped so, anyway. The last thing he saw, before the bot ushered both of them out of the room, was the human girl who'd been brought up to the table. Her master was busy herding his two sons, and her head was no longer bowed. She was glaring at them both.

 

 

19. Zayn

They were halfway through their set. Zayn was in no mood to sing, but every time he looked offstage, Harry and Louis were right there clapping or listening raptly. They were so cute that Zayn kind of wanted to do a good job just for them.

In fact, having Harry and Louis there was the saving grace of the concert, since Liam was obnoxiously singing half his lines directly to Zayn, which had to be a deliberate attempt to torture him. Staying broken up with Liam was hard enough already without Liam looking at him like that and standing so close to him and then blaming it on choreography when Zayn whispered a reproach and edged away.

Thank goodness it was going to be a short set this time. They were getting closer, now, to the moment they'd planned for, right after Halfway to Heaven. Zayn had wanted to do it before Halfway to Heaven, because then he wouldn't have to sing about how Liam's eyes took him halfway to heaven and Liam's kiss took him the rest of the way there, but Niall had said it would be more effective if they waited till afterwards, when their audience would be on a high from hearing their biggest smash, and Liam had agreed, so Zayn was outvoted. And it wasn't that Harry and Louis didn't get a vote, but Harry had agreed with Zayn and Louis had agreed with Liam, so their input hadn't been particularly decisive.

It was when they had finished singing Forever Now, out of breath from that one dance move that Liam called the Airlock and Zayn just called the Agony, that someone in the audience called out "Now kiss!"

Zayn was a professional, so he grinned and blew a kiss to the middle section of the crowd and did not at all look at Liam, because why should he?

But then another voice repeated the call and it became a chant. "Kiss! Kiss!" The crowd was so huge and on the big stage Zayn felt oddly alone, even with the musicians behind him, even with Liam just a few paces away. He shot a look offstage, saw Harry there, and felt a bit better. But then tentacle to tentacle, the rhythmic slapping began.

Like we belong to them or something, thought Zayn, edging closer to Liam, because it felt safer somehow. When Liam turned to him Zayn flicked an eyebrow in private annoyance, an near-invisible sign that only Liam would know. Liam didn't wrinkle his nose back, though. Instead he whispered, "Um, Zayn?"

"No," said Zayn instantly. "We're not their pets."

"Zayn," hissed Liam. "It's just we always do. Look at the, look at the—" he jerked his shoulder almost imperceptibly but Zayn knew he meant the graphers, documenting their every move.

"Kiss! Kiss!" shouted the crowd, and Liam stepped forward and put his hands up.

"We're negotiating," Liam said, and the crowd bubbled its laughter. Zayn really didn't get it sometimes, Liam's magic, how he always knew just what to say. "Thing is," said Liam, "you know Zayn doesn't like to smudge his make-up!" Another ripple of laughter, louder this time. There was no way, no fucking way Liam didn't know he was being an arse, but when Zayn glared at him, Liam just said, low and urgent, "Don't make things complicated, Zayn, not tonight."

And Zayn hated it, hated having to pretend, but Liam was already leaning towards him so Zayn steeled himself and met him halfway. He meant it to be a mechanical peck, doing the least possible, but when Liam's mouth was on his, one hand lightly on Zayn's chest, Zayn felt a tremor go through him. He made a small noise that only Liam could have heard, but it was embarrassing enough. "Zayn," muttered Liam against his lips. "Zayn, sweetheart."

"Fuck off," Zayn whispered back, but Liam knew him too well for it to be convincing, and he was already turning Zayn so that they were angled away from the audience, the back of Liam's head hiding their faces from view. Zayn took too long to pull away and he must have been dizzy, dizzy with the heat and the lights and the smoke effects, because when Liam kissed him again, harder, Zayn went soft in his arms, just for a moment, let Liam open his mouth with his tongue. Then the shrieks of the crowd jolted him back and Zayn ripped himself away, gasping. Liam's eyes were wide and desperate for half a second before he whirled back to face the crowd, deftly stepping in front of Zayn—and even this was maddening, that Liam knew he needed time to collect himself, that Liam presumed to give it to him—and telling the crowd they were now going to sing a song that was very special to them both.

It was Zayn's least favourite song.

Liam was Zayn's least favourite person.

But when he heard the first chords of Halfway to Heaven, he opened his mouth and began to sing, the taste of Liam's lipstick sickly-sweet on his tongue.

They got through it somehow—Liam didn't drop to one knee this time, thank goodness—and as Zayn sang he tried to remember what Liam had said on the commlink the day Zayn had overheard him, tried to keep it in mind so that when Liam's falsetto soared above Zayn's harmony during the chorus, he felt no surge of tenderness, no hope.

His last word came out in a sort of melismatic sob, which was absolutely just an artistic choice on Zayn's part, and then Zayn was done and the crowd was roaring and Liam was staring at him when he should have been acknowledging the applause.

Then Liam nodded to him—brisk, business-like, this is it—and walked far downstage to address the crowd while Zayn flicked his comm and cued the vid screens bracketing the stage to record, just as Niall had instructed him. "Last night," said Liam, "last night Zayn and I received two very special gifts." The crowd cheered. Probably, thought Zayn, they would cheer if Liam announced that he'd misplaced his toothbrush, or asked if anyone knew a shop where he could pick up some extra pairs of socks.

Zayn turned to beckon to Harry and Louis, who'd been waiting so patiently and bravely all through the set. He looked forward to making the cheering stop. Harry and Louis walked onstage together. Both of them flashed up huge on the screens, Louis giving Harry a quick kiss and moving to Liam's side, Harry staying by Zayn.

"This is Louis," said Liam.

"This is Harry," said Zayn, just like they'd planned.

"The problem is," said Liam, "the problem is—" But he never got to tell the hushed crowd just what the problem was, because that was when the verricite ceiling started to shatter and the mics cut out. All at once, the arena was masked in darkness.

Two Hearts had experienced technical difficulties once or twice before, of course. Zayn knew how to roll with it. You didn't panic. You waited for a security bot to make an announcement and you waited for the back-up lighting system and you waited for the techs to swarm over the stage and fix everything broken. Usually you held Liam's hand tight while you waited, but technically that wasn't actually necessary. Anyway, Liam was all the way on the other side of the stage, and this was Harry pressing against his side. Zayn put his arm around Harry and wondered if the plan was fucked now. He peered out into the murky darkness and sure enough, in only a few seconds the back-up lighting system was on—good—and someone was rappelling down from the broken skyhatch on a rope—fucking what?

For a moment Zayn thought Liam might have added a stunt to the plan at the last second, because it was just stupid enough to be something Liam would think was incredibly cool and Niall wouldn't bother to mention, and all right, a lady in a catsuit with great legs and lots of wavy black hair would probably be an asset to the cause in some way Zayn hadn't figured out yet. Then he saw Liam's shocked face across the stage and felt 1) relieved that Liam wasn't plotting things without him and 2) terrified, because yeah. That was a gun strapped to her back and a knife in her belt and two more catsuited girls rappelling down just above her and when Zayn scanned the back of the arena he saw no light from the exits and no security bots at all.

Liam had one hand on Louis and the other tentatively…waving to the girl on the rope? But instead of responding to this friendly overture, she grabbed something from her waist and threw it down to the stage, where it exploded. Smoke billowed upward. There were shrieks from the crowd, who seemed to have figured out now that this wasn't actually part of the stage show. "Run!" Liam called to Zayn, "I'll handle this!" Inexplicably, he started moving toward the lady on the rope.

"The fuck?" Zayn yelled back. "You run!" He jabbed at his comm for Niall and heard only static in response.

The lady assassin ninja whatever settled the dispute by leaping the ten feet from the end of the rope to the stage and brandishing her gun. "Nobody move!" she barked, and Zayn didn't know much about weaponry, but that looked an awful lot like another grenade dangling from her belt. She jerked her head upward and Zayn heard the grinding sound of a skimmer above the skyhatch and realised the ropes must be dangling from it.

Liam said, "Hi, I'm Liam! Maybe we could talk this over!"

The lady yelled, "Hands above your head, popstar!" and pointed her gun at Liam. Zayn felt an awful rushing noise start in his ears. Liam put his hands up, thank goodness, but then Louis was trying to talk to the girl, wonderful, he and Liam were made for each other, and now Liam seemed to have abandoned the hands-up experiment and was trying to push Louis behind him and Harry was shouting and where was fucking security?

"Zayn!" called Liam, "Get out of here now!" but Zayn was going to him, gun or no gun. He shoved Harry backwards toward safety and made it three steps toward Liam before the girl fired at the ground in front of him. Through the smoke Zayn could see another girl leaping from her rope to the stage and the first one pushing Louis toward her. She fired again, Zayn couldn't see where, but Liam was still standing, yes, Liam was still standing. Except that she was spinning him around and the next thing Zayn saw was her gun at Liam's temple and far upstage, the third girl's gun, pointed at Zayn. At Harry, too, because there he was, making a run for Louis.

"Fucking stay!" the first girl barked again, while Zayn hauled Harry back before he got himself killed.

"Hang on, Haz, just hang on!" called Louis, before the girl holding him put a hand over his mouth.

"You were supposed to run backstage," hissed Zayn into Harry's ear.

"She's got Louis," Harry yelled, frantic, and made another lunge forward Zayn could barely contain.

Zayn's eyes met Liam's, Liam with the first girl's arm hooked across his throat. It came to him suddenly, the thought that they were all going to die, and he called, "Liam! Liam, I—"

Then there was a loud mechanical belch, and the skimmer was descending through the skyhatch straight down to the stage. Everything went still for a second before the arena alarm finally, finally went off.

Everything happened very quickly after that. The skimmer doors opened and the girl at the wheel yelled "Get the fuck in, whoever you've got!" and the girl who had Louis manhandled him aboard. Harry shrieked and pulled free of Zayn only to stumble and fall. The sirens ratcheted louder and the crowd screamed and secbots began to appear at the back of the arena, gliding toward the stage. The third girl with the gun on Zayn and Harry, the one with the purple hair, pulled a second gun and aimed it at the bots, but there was no way, thought Zayn, that she could take them all down, and evidently she didn't think so either, because she was running downstage toward the skimmer already. The girl who had Liam shoved him toward the doors, gun at his back, and the secbots just weren't moving fast enough. The sight of Liam disappearing into the skimmer ripped Zayn from reason.

"Give them back!" he yelled, ridiculously, and then, when the skimmer began to rise, the third girl only just managing to leap on in time, gun still trained on the both of them, the incredible, impossible fact of Liam's departure hit him as if he'd taken a bullet after all. Harry was still howling for Louis, jumping as if to catch one of the ropes still dangling from the skimmer but getting nowhere close. "Then take me," Zayn yelled, because surely there was still time, time to save Liam, time to see his face again. "Please, please, take me too!"

The skimmer was twenty feet off the ground now but the purple-haired girl leaned out so far that Zayn could still see the frown on her face when she called back, "Well, it's no good now, is it? You should've said so before." And then the skimmer was gone and the security bots were swarming the stage and the crowd was roaring and Harry was there, face wet, and Zayn collapsed at his feet.

 

art

 

20. Harry

Harry was sitting on the floor next to Zayn, watching him rock back and forth with his arms clutched around himself, white-faced and dry-eyed. The security team was swarming the stage and the audience was gone but Harry and Zayn were still there and no one was remembering to tell them what to do. He kept his hands pressed flat to the floor, because at first he'd tried to touch Zayn, just on the shoulder, and Zayn had jerked away. Zayn needed Liam, not Harry, Harry knew that well enough, but it was hard to watch Zayn like this and not try, even when most of his mind was busy with thoughts like Louis and gone. He remembered Louis trying to talk to the lady with the gun, so brave, his Louis, and then thought if they hurt Louis, I'll kill them, I don't know how but I will.

Then the medibots came over and started probing at Zayn. Zayn lifted his head and stared at them blankly. One of them tried to slap a cuff on his upper arm while another one was buzzing a tool at his forehead. Zayn tried to bat it away. It responded by aiming a grapher at his eyes and asking if anything hurt. Zayn opened his mouth and said nothing, so Harry said, "Everything hurts, now GO AWAY," and shoved at the medibots. They squawked and ejected a stream of miscellaneous pills and skittered toward the musicians instead.

Harry thought, why isn't anyone helping him, he's supposed to be special, isn't he? Because no one had spoken to them since the Planetary Liaison had bustled over and told them that peacekeepers were in hot pursuit and their companions would be recaptured in no time. Then he disappeared again to yell at the security chief. Harry didn't like the word "recaptured." But Liam would take care of Louis, wouldn't he? It was the only thing Harry could be grateful for, that Louis had Liam with him, that Louis wouldn't be alone.

Then he saw her, the stylist from before, the one who'd done Zayn's hair and fussed over his eyebrows. He hadn't caught her name. She swooped onstage with blankets under one arm and said, "Darlings, I'm so sorry, we'll fix it, we'll find them, now let's get you back to Niall, you're in shock." She knelt beside them and put the blankets around their shoulders—Harry wasn't sure why, since it wasn't particularly cold—but she clearly meant to be comforting.

Zayn looked up, red-eyed. "Liam," he said. "They took Liam."

"And Louis," said Harry, because he didn't want anyone to forget and accidentally only rescue Liam.

"This awful planet," said the stylist, and tugged Zayn to his feet. Harry noticed that he tried to brush her away just as he had with Harry, but the difference was that unlike Harry she paid no attention. "Off to your dressing room now, we'll get you cleaned up and back to Niall in no time."

Harry wasn't sure what he was supposed to do, but the stylist held out her hand to him and said, "You too, Harry," in a tone that brooked no disagreement whatsoever.

"Thank you," said Harry, and followed them back to the dressing room where he and Louis had been championship footballers for a few minutes before they'd both gotten headaches and Louis had figured out how to reset the headpieces from VR to video. Then they'd watched happily, Louis sprawled out with his legs in Harry's lap and his mouth slightly open, transfixed. He'd said, "You see, Harry? You've got to be at one with the ball," and "Do you think it matters I've only got two legs?" and Harry had promised to try playing the game with Louis even though he was pretty sure it was the sort of thing he'd be rubbish at.

Zayn was standing in the middle of the room looking lost.

"The autofresher now, Zayn?" said the stylist.

"But what do they want?" Zayn asked, not moving toward it. "I don't understand, Lou, what do they want?"

"Lou's gone," said Harry, and felt the tears start in his eyes again.

"Honey…" the stylist said, and pulled Harry into a hug. "He meant me, that's my name too, remember?"

"Oh," said Harry, and felt stupid. But he thought there should probably be only one Lou, because it was too confusing and also like a knife in his gut to hear the name and have him not be there.

"It's fans," said the other Lou, answering Zayn's question. "Crazy fans. It's got to be."

Harry was shaking his head. "No. Not here."

"No offence, love," she said, "but you haven't been along on tour before, have you? You don't know how they can be."

Zayn said slowly, "No, really. Those people were human and the thing is, here on Sadela the fans aren't human."

"Come on," she said. "I can see they're a bad lot if they're kidnapping people, but I'm sure most of them wouldn't dream—"

"What he means," said Harry, "is that the humans here aren't fans, they haven't got time to be."

Zayn nodded. "Humans here are—"

"Mr Malik!" boomed a Sadie, and there he was again, the Planetary Liaison, long body coiled against the entrance. Harry moved closer to Lou. He liked her, even if she didn't understand. He wished the Liaison hadn't come. He didn't think a Sadie would be likely to mistake him for a friend of Zayn's from back home.

"Zayn was just getting into the autofresher," said Lou, and Harry could tell by the edge in her voice that she wasn't fond of the Liaison either.

"First," said the Liaison, entering the room as if he'd been invited, "I must again convey to Mr Malik my deepest condolences at the disruption of his concert."

Zayn glared at him. "Fuck the concert. You better find my—you better find them. You better find them right away."

The Liaison waved two tentacles in the air to indicate his complete agreement. "Your companion. And his companion. Of course, of course."

"And I want to know how this could happen at all," said Zayn. "How the fuck they made it through the skyhatch and there was nothing, nothing to stop them." His voice was steady but Harry could see his shoulders trembling.

"Zayn," said the stylist, and tried to rearrange the blanket around his shoulders.

The Liaison said, "Mr Malik, we apologize. The renegades surprised us this time. We promise that they will not do so again."

"What?" said Zayn. "You know who these people are?"

The Liaison's tentacles were curling and clasping together. Harry knew it for a sign of nervousness.

"I—we suspect the renegades. A spot of domestic disturbance—"

"Domestic disturbance," Zayn repeats. "They kidnap an intergalactic popstar and, and, our friend, and that's what you call it?"

The Liaison seemed to relax, as if he'd found some familiar footing. "Of course it's awful to be deprived of Mr Payne—only temporarily, believe me—but consider, Mr Malik, at least you've still got your pet." He gestured at Harry proudly.

Zayn stared at him. "What did you just say?"

The Liaison reached out with one tentacle and slid it along Harry's shoulder. "Your lovely little pet!"

Which was when Zayn punched him in the face. The Liaison made a surprised squeaking sound and crumpled backward, and Zayn followed. Harry stared, transfixed. He'd never seen a human hitting a Sadie before. He'd never really thought it possible, although Louis had talked about doing it sometimes, Louis had said there'd come a time when he'd hurt them back. But Louis talked about a lot of things, and only some of them came true.

For a moment he wished Louis could see Zayn now, pulling the Liaison forward and then driving his fist in again, his knuckles sinking into the Sadie's rubbery flesh, but then Harry came to his senses. Zayn had to stop. Nothing good happened when humans resisted Sadies. Maybe the other Lou knew it too, because she was already pulling at Zayn's shoulders, trying to calm him down.

"Zayn," tried Harry, but it came out too softly. Then he thought, I'm bigger than he is, I could pull him off, and even the idea made him feel as if he were going to be sick. Making a master do something? Telling Zayn no? But Zayn, his face grim and terrible, was ignoring Lou and shoving the Liaison down to the ground. The Sadie's tentacles writhed and clutched helplessly at the air. Zayn kept hitting hard, going for the eyestalks, and Harry was scared.

"Don't ever," Zayn was gasping out, "Don't you ever, ever, ever," but he didn't seem to have more words than that. The Sadie wasn't speaking, just letting out a kind of croaking sound, and Lou was yelling, "Harry, help me, he'll kill him."

Harry took a deep breath and flung himself on Zayn's back. He bore him to the ground, mumbling, "Sorry, sorry, sorry," and rolled him away from the Liaison. Zayn struggled, and Zayn was strong, and Harry didn't have any kind of permission, but he held Zayn's wrists and said, "Zayn. Zayn. Zayn," until Zayn shouted something wordless and despairing and tipped forward into Harry's chest.

"Thank you, Harry, I'll just get this one away then," said Lou, from somewhere behind Harry. She sounded remarkably calm. "Look, this could be a bit sticky, I'll take him back to his people and you two had better…just go back to Niall, all right? Just go, I'll manage things here." Harry felt a quick firm squeeze on his shoulder followed in a moment by a low croaking sound. Probably Lou was taking the Sadie away. He couldn't look now, though, because Zayn was shaking in his arms, weeping at last.

"It's okay, Zayn," said Harry, although it wasn't. Remembering how Zayn had twitched him off before, he wasn't sure where to put his hands. He touched Zayn's hair, feeling all the hard points of the jewels there, and then Zayn's back, his bony spine, and finally Harry wrapped his arms around Zayn and held him tight while he cried.

"Zayn," Harry whispered again, when his rigid body had relaxed. "We can't stay here, there could be trouble. We have to go."

Zayn looked up, his face a mess of make-up and tears, and said, "Autofresher?"

Harry started to say, "Whatever you want, but maybe—" and then changed his mind and just said "No." He pulled Zayn up and grabbed the rest of Zayn and Liam's stuff, while Zayn just stood there, dazed. Harry had to lead him out to the skimmer. They were both wordless as the doors slid shut. The skimmer felt larger with only the two of them on their way—home, Harry realised he was about to think, but replacing the word with "Niall" was no less comforting.

When the doors opened at last, Niall's holo was there waiting for them. Zayn said, "Liam and Louis—"

"I was told," said Niall, and the ship walls seemed to pulse and soften. Zayn put his hand on the nearest wall, and a hum rose up from the floor. Zayn beckoned to Harry and Harry went to him, leant back and let the shipwall hold him up. It seemed to give, soft as an embrace. Harry never knew before that a starship could do that. Or that a hologram could look at them the way Niall was, tears at the corners of his translucent eyes.

"We need them," said Zayn to Niall.

"I know, mate," said Niall. "Me too."

A half hour later, Zayn and Harry were sitting at a big shining table in the galley clutching cups of tea while various automated kitchen appliances beeped and whizzed as they worked on producing something Niall called a "full Irish," because, he said, they both needed to eat and breakfast tasted best at midnight, or (he noted a bit wistfully) so he'd heard. Zayn had washed his face and changed his clothes and unpinned the jewels from his hair. Every few minutes, Niall's holo went a bit unfocussed, and then he'd snap back to Zayn and Harry and give them an update, which was usually that despite the heroic efforts of the Sadelan peacekeeping force the renegades had not yet been located, but once was that Lou and the rest of the 2H gang were safely back on Paul, and another time was that the Sadelan Planetary Liaison had succumbed to a sudden and debilitating illness and would be temporarily replaced in his office until such time as he could recover.

Zayn looked a little pleased at this latest bit of news, and Niall said, "Oh, Zayn," because apparently he'd heard all about it from Lou or from Paul, and then there were heaped plates in front of them and Harry realised he was starving.

Zayn looked down at his place and said, "Liam loved toast."

"I'm sure he still does," said Niall. "And so do you, so eat."

"It doesn't seem right," said Zayn. "When Liam and Louis might have nothing to eat at all."

Harry paused, forkful of some kind of fried red fruit halfway to his mouth.

"Ignore him," Niall said to Harry. "He's just being dramatic."

"When they might not even—they might not—" Zayn's voice wobbled.

"Don't talk bollocks," said Niall. "If they'd wanted to kill them they'd have done it straightaway. This is just a kidnapping."

"Just a kidnapping," Zayn muttered. "Oh, how reassuring." But he picked up a piece of toast and began to nibble at the edge.

"It is, actually," said Niall sharply, and his holo jumped up on the table and sat on it cross-legged. "It means they might contact us. About demands. Or Liam might be able to get a message through. He's got his comm, hasn't he?"

"He gave it to Louis," said Zayn, nodding.

Harry winced at how hopeful Zayn looked. "About that," he said, and dug into his pocket.

"Oh no," said Zayn.

Harry put the thing down on the table between them. "Louis was showing it to me and I forgot to give it back."

All three of them stared down at Liam's comm. There was a picture of Zayn on it, sticking his tongue out and wearing oversized twenty-first century glasses.

"He hadn't changed his background yet," said Zayn quietly.

"As if he would," said Niall.

Zayn looked up, eyes swimming. "He must think I hate him. He's out there being tortured or something and he doesn't know, he doesn't know I—"

"He knows," Niall said. "Or at least he should. Idiots, both of you."

Zayn put his head down and started eating again.

"Now, Harry," said Niall, "you know this planet better than we do. Any idea who the kidnappers are?"

"Well," said Harry, "they were humans."

"We know that," said Zayn impatiently.

"Let him talk," said Niall.

Harry put down his fork. "And the, erm, the Planetary wossname—"

"—shithead—" Zayn supplied.

"Yeah," said Harry. "He called them renegades. Which I always thought was just a story, but maybe it's not? Although I still don't see how it's possible, because once you're joined you're joined so how could you even survive?" He noticed Niall and Zayn staring at him. Probably he'd been talking too long. "Anyway," he finished, "it's just an idea and I'm probably wrong. Louis would know but—" He broke off when he felt the first chill run through him. "I don't think I'm hungry anymore."

"Harry," said Zayn. "What are you talking about? You know who they are?"

"Please don't be angry," Harry mumbled. It was definitely starting. He wondered if Zayn would mind if he inched just a little bit closer. He was feeling it too soon, maybe because Louis was so very far away.

"Renegades," repeats Niall. "Runaways. Harry, is that it, is that what you mean?"

Harry nodded, feeling the onset of pain between his eyes. "Pets who got away. Some people say they live on their own but no one knows where. In the swamps, maybe? Sometimes something happens, there's an explosion or a master gets hurt, and the masters blame it on them. They think we don't hear, but we do."

"Rebels," Zayn said. "Of course there would be rebels, I don't know why we didn't—"

"Wait, Zayn," said Niall. "Harry, you said it might not be possible?"

"Because," said Harry, "they'd be without their bonds." He felt dizzy now, and it was coming too fast. "You can't," said Harry softly, "you can't kidnap people when you feel like this," and then he slid off his chair, very carefully, because he didn't want to alarm them. The floor was surprisingly soft. "I'm sorry," Harry said, and closed his eyes.

 

 

21. Niall

Ship's Log * 19.4.3281 (still!)

Sadela: Worst ever ! !

Performance: Interrupted by kidnapping.

Zayn Malik: Upset about LP (surprise!). Didn't touch Harry enough. Predictable consequences. Did try to make it up to him. Cuddled Harry in a moody way. Whined about not taking advantage. Now asleep.

Liam Payne: Distracted Louis with VR, contributing to abovementioned Harry problem. Kidnapped. Whereabouts unknown.

Louis: Spent time in dressing room learning football formations instead of making better use of free time with Harry. Humans: unable to plan for the future. Kidnapped. Whereabouts unknown.

Harry: More resourceful than he looks. Helped Zayn not murder a Sadelan. Rewarded by being ignored. Now in bed with Zayn. Asleep.

The President: Messaged him again with the latest developments. Am practically a real diplomat. Expect personal concerned response with typical compassion and deeply moving sentiments any minute now.

Notes: How long till Harry and Louis get sick? Cuddling won't do the job forever. Not that you'd know it to look at them now, Harry all curled into Zayn like that.

Missing Liam a bit myself. Funny thing, every now and then I think I can hear him singing. The sort of person you can't quite clear from your corridors. Wouldn't mind having Louis back again either. Him and Harry both, they just seem to fit on board somehow.

Back to sorting Sadelan security transmissions, I suppose. Could do with a bit of fuel conversion to calm my nerves! ! Just a few litres or so would set me up for the night.

 

 

22. Louis

The skimmer was small, noisy, and grimy, but the oddest thing about it was that there were no Sadies in it anywhere. Humans didn't have skimmers. Humans couldn't even drive skimmers. But here he and Liam were, squished in the back seat with the small girl with the blue hair in between them and the fair one with the purple hair on his other side. The girl who'd been giving orders and throwing smoke bombs was next to the driver up front, thank goodness, because she made Louis nervous, human or not. They were gaining altitude rapidly, the city spread out below them in a green, sprawling glow.

Harry's down there, thought Louis. He remembered how the girls had fired at the ground in front of Harry, remembered him leaping hopelessly at the ropes, remembered his face as they'd left him behind. Louis bit his lip and snuck a look sideways across the blue-haired girl, meeting Liam's worried brown eyes. "I'm sorry," Liam mouthed silently, and Louis shook his head and shrugged. It wasn't Liam's fault.

Liam seemed heartened. He cleared his throat and said, "I protest this absolutely unacceptable treatment."

"Whatever," said the smoke bomb girl, not looking round.

"We could gag him, Jade," said Purple Hair to Blue Hair, a little too gleefully in Louis's opinion. "Isn't that what you do when you capture someone?"

"Works for me," said the smoke bomb girl.

Liam quickly said, "I'll just be quiet for now, how's that?"

"Fine, yeah," said the one called Jade, and then, when the smoke bomb girl turned to glare at her, "What? Look, Leigh-Anne, I don't exactly want to be fishing about in his mouth, do I?"

The driver made some sort of retching sound, which Louis thought was just rude. Purple Hair just said, "All right, Jade, but you've at least got to help me tie their hands, come on," and that seemed to settle the argument.

"You've got guns and we haven't," Louis pointed out reasonably. "Surely you don't need to tie us up besides?" He thought it was probably his job to speak since Liam was busy cooperating.

"Like we want to be constantly waving guns at you," said Purple Hair. "Easier this way. Wrists, please."

That was promisingly polite, so Louis held up his wrists helpfully. "I think we got off on the wrong foot,"  he said. "I'm Louis."

"Fascinating," she said. "Jesy, can we not go any faster?"

"I'm trying, Perrie," said the driver, and looked worriedly back over her shoulder.

"Sadies on your six!" yelled the one called Leigh-Anne, and the skimmer jolted and went higher, into a cloudbank.

Then there was silence in the skimmer except for Leigh-Anne steadily reporting on their pursuers' positions. Jesy climbed higher and higher and then looped back. She wasn't a bad driver, Louis had to admit (not that he'd ever been allowed behind a wheel himself), but it was hard to believe a skimmer this dilapidated would be able to handle these acrobatics for long. The clouds were lit green and yellow with peacekeeper lights, and Jesy looped and then dropped again, zigzagging. Louis felt a brief flair of exhilaration that lasted until he turned to share it with Liam, saw his grim face, and realised that he'd been willing Jesy on faster, wanting her to leave the Sadies behind. But surely he wanted to be caught, because it was the quickest way back to Harry. It was only that instincts built up over the course of a lifetime told him run, run, don't let the Sadies win. Wrists bound, he pushed his left foot forward and over Jade's black boot so he could nudge at Liam's shoe. It was all moot, anyway, as they were obviously going to crash land and die. It felt horribly wrong to do a thing like that without Harry, though. Of course it was a relief that Harry was safe, that Harry would live, but still. They'd always done important things together before.

What he said out loud was, "I never even got to play footy."

Liam pushed back with his toes. "You will, Lou. I promise you will."

"Dammit," said Jade, kicking Louis and Liam's feet apart. "Bonded. We were too late."

The skimmer looped again and changed course, bearing steadily away from the city, and now the peacekeeper lights were growing fainter.

Perrie said, "Already? It can't have been more than a day, can it?"

"We'll fix it soon enough," said Jesy, squinting at her viewscreens. "Hey, I think we lost them."

"High two!" yelled Jade, and she and Perrie reached across Louis to put up two fingers against each other.

Perrie leaned forward to press her fingers to Leigh-Anne's in the front seat as well. "This is so great. Isn't it funny, we weren't even planning to take you, Louis."

"I guess I'm just lucky, then," said Louis sourly.

Perrie was nodding. "Yes, we were just going for the popstars till we got the report this afternoon from our contact at the Regulator's. We'd no idea the Sadies would be kitting them out with pets already!"

"Which means we haven't actually got any cure to hand," said Jade, sounding apologetic. "But I'll get on it straightaway, I promise." She rubbed Louis's knee in a way that seemed meant to be reassuring.

Liam's face as he stared at Jade's hand looked extremely cross. "Don't harass Louis," he said.

"That's rich, coming from you," said Leigh-Anne, and Perrie began to laugh.

Louis was just about to ask what they meant by the cure when Jesy cut in. "I still don’t understand why you didn't take the other ones too. You may think it's easy to remotely deprogram an entire set of secbots, but the least you could've done with all the time it bought you was actually complete the mission."

"Very easy to criticize when you're sitting safely in a skimmer," said Leigh-Anne. "You can fire the guns next time, Jesy, I'd be perfectly happy." "By the way," she said, turning to point at Louis, "you're welcome."

"What?" said Louis. He waved his bound wrists in the air. "I'm supposed to appreciate this?"

"Yeah, sorry," said Perrie. "It's just we can't exactly trust you till you've had your dose."

"My dose?"

"You're not giving him anything," said Liam. Which he followed with "Ow!" because Jade was jamming the heel of her boot into his foot.

"Don't make me regret not gagging you," she said.

"I regretted it from the start," said Jesy. "Do it now, please?"

"My dose?" Louis repeated.

"Are you slow?" Leigh-Anne said impatiently. "To unbind you, of course."

"You'll be so embarrassed after!" Perrie said gleefully. "When you think of how you were playing footsy with him in our skimmer!"

"He wasn't—" Liam began, and this time Jade covered his mouth with her hand.

"Happy now?" she said to Leigh-Anne.

"I didn't tell you to flirt with him, Jade," said Leigh-Anne. "Anyway, we've not got far to go now."

Jesy was taking the skimmer lower, and Louis realised there were swamplands ahead, a mass of overgrown trees and tangled vines as far as the eye could see. "Oh," he said, and then, "wow."

"That's right," Perrie told him happily. "You're safe now."

"Not from you," said Louis, annoyed. "And I already knew you were renegades, anyway."

"My goodness, you're a rude one," said Jade. "When we all just saw you practically faint from the shock."

"Not because you're renegades," said Louis. "I just realised—the dose. You're not in pain at all, are you? You're humans, and you're alone, and you're not in pain."

"We're not alone," said Leigh-Anne, and she reached her hand back and Perrie took it.

"You know what I meant. That's—is that what it does? It's an antidote? Breaks the bonds?"

"We said that already," said Perrie. "Try to keep up."

"Isn't that the turn, Jesy?" said Leigh-Anne. "The channel by the spidertree down on the right?"

Jesy leaned forward to check and then continued on straight. "Perrie, make Leigh-Anne stop trying to get me lost."

Perrie leaned forward and kissed the back of Leigh-Anne's neck. "She's just letting off steam, aren't you, love?"

Louis watched, fascinated. He had to tell Harry. It wouldn't really be true until he was telling it to Harry.

Jesy shifted left suddenly, and took the skimmer into a sharp descent, heading, Louis could see, for a barely visible clearing.

"This could change everything," said Louis, half to himself. He nudged at Liam's foot again, not sure how much he understood. "Could stop the Sadies," said Louis. "Could change the world."

"Well, obviously," said Perrie. "That's the idea."

 

 

23. Liam

Back at the beginning of their wild ride out of the city, Liam had decided that since he'd somehow gotten Louis into this mess, the most important thing he could do now was keep Louis safe. Louis was so excitable, after all; he'd need Liam's guiding hand to make sure he didn't do anything to make their situation worse. But as they'd flown on, the bandit gang chattering in their confusing and irrelevant way, Liam couldn't help but notice that Louis was not at all on the brink of hysterics. In fact, he seemed to understand exactly what the girls were talking about, and for some reason they were letting him talk, whereas every time Liam opened his mouth, they glared. Of course, Liam was glad they weren't mistreating Louis. It would be nice, though, if someone would tell him what was going on.

Liam's confusion lasted through the landing, the camouflaging of the skimmer (which took a very long time and involved at least one conflict resulting from Leigh-Anne putting leaves down the back of Perrie's neck), the trek along a narrow squelching path, the branches that scraped them, the vines that tripped them, the argument over whether or not their wrists ought to be unbound when it became clear that he and Louis would just keep falling and slowing them down if they couldn't use their arms, and the relief of being cut free at last ("but we've still got guns handy," Perrie warned them, making a face that was probably supposed to be intimidating).

As soon as Jesy cut Louis's hands free, Louis reached out for Liam, darting in to kiss the corner of his mouth and whispering, "I'm sorry, don't worry, I'll explain it to them."

"Explain what," said Liam, holding out his wrists for Jesy's knife, but Louis just said, "Ssh, later," and then they were herded on down the muddy pathway. Liam thought that perhaps they should try to escape, but then he considered that they were unarmed in an unknown alien swamp, so he didn't mention anything to Louis. Meanwhile, no one had made him drop Louis's hand.

Eventually they arrived at what from the outside looked mostly like a mass of vines but what turned out to be a sort of warehouse that the renegades called HQ17 ("there are sixteen others?" asked Louis, who seemed to be delighted at the thought), and the girls pushed them in and let them collapse on the floor inside.

It was an absolute tip, thought Liam: a table piled with weaponry, another with machinery and wires and beakers and bottles of who knows what, ratty looking chairs strewn here and there, and a giant bed at the far end that seemed to be covered in clothing. Perrie announced that she was going to radio their mission results to someone called Tulisa, and Jade went straight over to one of the big tables, took packets of something or other out of a cooler, and started fussing with vials and measuring spoons. Leigh-Anne and Jesy disappeared behind a curtain hung up at the end of the room, a curtain that might have been sparkly pink once, long ago. Nobody was talking to Liam or Louis. It was probably a little insulting that they weren't being tied up again, because what made the girls so sure he wouldn't launch a daring counterattack? Then again, Liam was hungry, and he was pretty sure that was a makeshift kitchen in the corner. Liam decided to bide his time, which meant staying huddled against the wall with Louis beside him.

It was chilly in the warehouse, and Liam was still wearing his stage outfit. It was pretty skimpy, especially on top, and thanks to a tree branch that had been blocking the path, it now had a rip down the side. If they'd been taken by male kidnappers, thought Liam, he could maybe have borrowed a sweater, but apparently everything about this experience was going to be stupid. Liam wished he could tell Zayn exactly how he felt about it. He wondered whether Zayn was worrying about them. Then he thought of the despair on Zayn's face below him as the skimmer rose, and realised he already knew. Liam put an arm around Louis, to be reassuring and also because Louis was warm.

Louis leaned into Liam so quickly that Liam felt a bit concerned. "Are you all right?"

"Fine," said Louis, and snuggled in even closer. "I'm a bit nervous about Harry, though."

"Oh," said Liam, watching Jade light a fire under a burner. "Zayn will—I guess Zayn will look after him." He was a little worried that Jade was going to set her pretty blue hair on fire.

"If he doesn't, I'll," said Louis, and stopped. "I don't know, but he won't like it."

"Louis," said Liam. "You say that like we're definitely getting out of here."

"Do you see Harry around here anywhere?" said Louis. "Me neither. So I mean, I'm happy to visit, but no, I wasn't intending to stay."

"It's just," said Liam, and he dropped his voice. "Are we going to escape, then? Escaping would be cool."

"We might not need to escape," said Louis. "If we just—"

"If Niall finds us," Liam interrupted. "Wait. Louis, have you still got my comm?"

"Your comm," Louis repeated, and then realised. "No, Harry's got it."

"Balls," said Liam, a little too loudly, and earned himself a glare from Jesy, who had just come out from behind the curtain wearing letter-printed pyjamas and looking far more comfortable.

"Is he telling you what to do, Louis?" she asked. "You haven't got to listen to him anymore, you know that, right?"

"Careful, Jesy," said Jade. "You don't want him thinking he hasn't got to do what we say."

"But," said Liam. He didn't even know where to start. "I've never told Louis what to do, I've never—"

"Can that one not make himself useful?" Perrie cut in. She'd finished her mission report or whatever she called it and now she was banging things around in the kitchen. "Here I am fixing dinner and that and he's just lazing about."

"He can do the dishes, Pez," said Leigh-Anne, emerging to flick on a screen at one of the tables. "Why even have weapons if you can't make people do the washing up?"

"You changed your clothes too," said Perrie, frowning. "I like the suits. They make us look dangerous and well-coordinated."  

"You keep yours on, then, love," said Leigh-Anne, fingers moving on a keypad. "Suits your hair. Oh, look at this, Musical Terror as Heavily Armed Mob Swarms Stage. Brave Bots Battle Brute Force and Animal Cunning. Adorable Singing Humans Cower as Rebel Horror Sweeps Through."

She read out the headlines with great dramatic emphasis as Perrie, Jesy, and Jade convulsed in giggles. "So that's that," said Leigh-Anne, "the Sadies have got absolutely nothing on us, as usual." Jesy squeezed her shoulder and dropped comfortably into a three-legged chair that seemed to be losing its stuffing.

Liam cleared his throat. "You can't possibly hope to elude one of the most sophisticated starships ever to visit your galaxy." Then he added, "Niall, I mean," because Louis was looking confused.

"Oh, Niall's brilliant," Louis agreed. "You ladies would probably like him, actually. Who did you say you worked for, before you ran off?"

"We didn't say, actually," said Perrie. "Jade, darling, what've you got?"

Jade held up a beaker to the light and swirled it gently. "None left from the last batch and this'll have to sit overnight. Pity we didn't get the report this morning, I could've had a dose prepared. Sorry, Louis." She gestured vaguely toward Liam. "Could be worse, I suppose."

"After all, he hasn't got tentacles," Louis agreed, patting Liam's arm. Liam put his hand on top of Louis's and wished he knew what they were all talking about.

"Low bar," commented Perrie, and turned back to the stove, where something seemed to be boiling over. Liam didn't feel particularly hopeful about whatever Perrie claimed to be cooking. He was no expert, but Niall's autokitchen didn't turn out anything smelling like that.

"Still," said Jade. "Wish he didn't have to wait till morning."

Louis said, "Actually, I'm not so sure about your dose. What makes you think I need it?"

The girls looked at each other. "It's obvious, isn't it?" said Jesy rather gently, pointing to where Louis was still leaning against Liam's side. "You can't keep away from him."

"We're not bonded," said Louis. And Liam knew it was ridiculous, but he did feel a little bit hurt.

Jade just laughed. "Whatever you say, Louis." She turned back to her work.

"These are really weird kidnappers," Liam whispered to Louis. And then, "What did you mean, ran off?"

"Oh!" said Louis. "You don't know. They're renegades. Ex-pets. Cool, isn't it? They don't like you, though, because you're a master."

"Am not," said Liam.

Louis sighed. "Try to be nice. We'll get it sorted."

Liam looked back at the girls and raised his voice slightly. "I'm very sorry for what you ladies have been through and if you'd like to come aboard Niall, I'm sure he could make you very comfortable."

Jesy rolled her eyes. "Oh, now he's trying to pimp us out to his sophisticated starship or whatever he called it."

"Pervert," said Perrie, and glared at him.

"Now see here," Liam began, but he broke off when Louis jabbed him.

"Just let me handle this," whispered Louis. "Please." Liam hesitated for a moment and then nodded, possibly because of Louis's eyes being so extremely blue.

"What Liam's trying to say," Louis went on, "is that he's not for the Sadies either. He's on our side, promise."

Leigh-Anne looked up from her screen. "It's cute the way you think we're going to believe anything you say until you've had your dose."

"I remember what it's like," said Jesy, a little more sympathetically. "You know you need them and you'll say what they like until you can't hardly keep it straight in your own mind."

"But Liam lets me say what I want!" said Louis. Liam winced. He might not have understood everything that was going on, but he was pretty sure that "lets" was going to give the wrong impression.

"Right," said Perrie. "I've heard the way he's letting you call him Liam. As if that means anything when he's still your master. Clear a space, will you, Jesy? Dinner's ready."

Liam wasn't sure dinner was actually the right word for the thick brownish stuff Perrie spooned out for all of them, once Jesy had shoved all the junk off one of the tables and they were all seated. But it wasn't actually inedible, and he'd eaten enough interplanetary cuisine to have built up a fairly high tolerance for unfamiliar foods. "It's good!" said Liam politely. "Do you enjoy cooking?"

"Manipulative, isn't he?" said Perrie to Jesy.

Jesy leaned back in her seat and grinned. "It just happens it's her turn tonight," she explained to Liam. "We all have to share the pain."

"You don't like it?" Perrie looked a little crestfallen.

"It's exactly as good as it needs to be," said Leigh-Anne, comfortingly, and Perrie seemed satisfied with that.

Liam took a large bite and tried to look as if he genuinely liked it. He really wanted Perrie to be in a better mood. If she was in a better mood, Leigh-Anne might be in a better mood. Jade and Jesy already seemed somewhat reasonable, as dangerous armed criminals went. Louis had one hand on Liam's thigh under the table, and it was helping Liam stay calm.

"Can I make a suggestion?" Liam said, trying to sound soothing. Then he remembered Zayn saying that when he was being deliberately soothing it made Zayn want to throw things. "I mean, I'd like to talk things over." There, more business-like, that was better.

"You'll do plenty of talking tomorrow, when you deliver our demands to your people," said Leigh-Anne.

"Oh!" said Liam. "In person? You're sending me back?"

"Don't underestimate us, Liam," said Jade. "Commlink only."

"Great!" he said. "Do you want Niall's number or Zayn's? What are the demands?"

"You're a very strange hostage," said Jade.

"How about ransom?" Liam suggested. "Let's call now! I only want to help!"

Jesy and Jade exchanged looks. "God, he's good," said Jesy. "He's overdoing it just enough to give himself away, but there was a second there when I actually believed him."

"It's the eyebrows," agreed Jade. "I mean, he probably looks in the mirror and practices being genuine, but the eyebrows are seriously convincing."

"So we can call Niall now?" Liam was trying to keep up.

"Of course not," said Leigh-Anne, "so put your eyebrows away please, it's not going to work. We need your friends and your government properly frightened and we won't be sending any demands until morning. Tomorrow we'll tell you what to do."

"But," said Liam.

"She said tomorrow," said Perrie, and when Liam looked at Louis, Louis just shrugged. So Liam ate another forkful of the brown stuff instead. A little while later, he did the dishes.

It turned out there was a tiny room just off the main one, and that was where Louis and Liam were told to sleep. There was a mattress, a dingy-looking blanket, a washbasin, and one window, too small to fit through, letting in the light of Sadela's three moons. "Don't try anything," warned Leigh-Anne. "You go anywhere except the loo across the hall, we'll hear it. We'll be out here and we'll be on watch and we've got—"

"Guns, yes, I remember," said Liam. He was just grateful he and Louis were to be left alone. "Thank you."

"It's not for you," said Perrie. "It's for Louis. We can remember what it's like."

"Right," said Liam, and stumbled, grateful, into the little room, Louis right behind him.

Liam had thought it would be the perfect opportunity for planning and strategy and escape and other important things, but he was so tired that the room began to haze around him as soon as he wriggled his trousers off and hit the mattress. "Louis," he mumbled. It was the second night without Zayn, and he didn't like that, but at the same time it was going to be awfully nice when Louis lay down next to him. He would, wouldn't he? It was why the girls had put them in here. Last night, holding Liam's hand was all Louis had needed. Liam thought he'd like that. He wouldn't mind holding Louis all night. After all, he didn't want Louis to hurt.

"Just a sec," said Louis. "Have to get something."

Liam didn't like Louis being gone. He heard the murmur of talk from the big room and remembered that the girls thought he was really Louis's master, that he was making Louis lie. Then he heard the door creak open and the water running. His eyes flew open when he felt wetness trickling down his cheek. Louis was grinning at him in the dim light, wringing out the flannel he was clutching so that a few drops of water fell on Liam's shirt.

"Louis, I'm sleepy," Liam said plaintively.

"This'll just take a minute," said Louis. "Sit up, will you? It's just that your make-up's all smudgy."

Liam sighed and scooted up the mattress so that he was leaning against the wall, legs out in front of him. "I want an autofresher."

"Too bad you've got me instead," said Louis, and climbed on top of him, straddling his lap. 'You've gotten your shirt wet somehow. Hands above your head, please."

Liam let Louis pull his shirt off. He mumbled, "Remember when you were really scared of me and you wanted to do whatever I said?"

"Yeah, oh well," said Louis. "Close your eyes." He began wiping carefully at Liam's face, starting high on his forehead and working his way down. He was taking an unnecessary amount of time about it, but then the whole thing was unnecessary. Liam was pretty sure he could manage washing his own face. And then he wouldn't have Louis on his lap, shifting his weight back and forth every time he took the flannel away to wet it in the little bowl of water he'd set next to the mattress. He wouldn't have Louis so close to him he could feel his breath.

"I could do this myself, you know," Liam said, not particularly enthusiastically.

"You could," agreed Louis, and Liam wondered if this was somehow another part to the whole weird physical contact thing, like he didn't just need skin-to-skin contact, he needed to groom or something. Liam tried to remember a documentary he once saw about primate behaviour. That was better than thinking about what was happening to his dick as Louis squirmed in his lap.

Then the flannel was dabbing at his eyelids, feather-light, before moving, soft and warm and wet, down his cheekbones. "Turn your head," breathed Louis, his hand on Liam's jaw, stroking a little with his thumb, and Liam let Louis turn him, first one way, then the other, leaning in close. "Relax, Liam," Louis said. "The girls aren't listening out there, they're too busy arguing about what to do with us."

"We're hostages on an alien planet," said Liam. "I'm allowed to be stressed out."

"That's not why you're stressed out," said Louis, and ground himself down a little on Liam's lap.

"Louis…"

"Liam." Louis dabbed carefully at Liam's lips. "No colour left here, really. Not that you ever really needed it."

"Under the lights—" Liam started, happy to have a topic to discuss.

"I actually don't care, Liam," said Louis, and then the flannel was gone and what Liam felt instead was the soft pressure of Louis's mouth. Louis had kissed him before, on the path to HQ, swift and friendly, so Liam figured he could handle one more kiss as long as it didn't turn into anything more. But then Louis bent his head down again, mouthing at Liam's bottom lip this time, and Liam let it go on for too long before he put his hands on Louis's head and pushed him gently back. They stared at each other, Louis peevish, hair a mess.

"I'm trying to make this easy," said Louis quietly.

"I wish it was."

"You could, um," said Louis. "Do you want to pretend I'm Zayn?"

Liam flinched. He thought of Zayn letting Liam kiss him at the concert, only a few hours ago. He thought of Zayn refusing to run. Of Zayn yelling at him for kissing Louis by mistake. He was pretty sure getting off with Louis was not the way to win Zayn back. But here he was in some godforsaken swamp with his hard-on pressed to Louis's arse. There was something wrong with him, probably. There had to be. "No one else could be Zayn. Would you be pretending I was Harry?"

Louis narrowed his eyes and dragged his fingers down Liam's chest, scratching a little. "No, Liam. I wouldn't."

There was a pause, in which Louis didn't get up. Liam was feeling a little desperate because if Louis didn't get off his cock very soon, Liam was going to forget all his beliefs about fidelity, not to mention truly voluntary consent. "Louis, don't you see? Not when it's not what you'd really want. Conditioning or whatever."

Louis grabbed Liam's hand and pulled it against the front of his trousers. "Do you think I'm just trying to please my master? Do you even know what you look like right now? I'm hard for you, Liam, come on."

Liam curled his fingers around Louis's cock before he could think better of it and Louis moaned, lurching forward against Liam. "God," said Liam, and tried to think clearly, tried to think about anything other than pushing Louis over into the mattress and rolling on top of him. He grabbed Louis by the shoulders instead. "Lou. Are you. Is this. Are you in pain?"

"Godfuckingdamnit," said Louis. His eyes looked a little glassy.

"You are?"

"No," said Louis.

"You don't really need it right now?"

"You want me to lie to you, Liam?" Louis's voice was too loud, too shrill.

"Sssh. No."

"I'm not in pain," said Louis. "Yet." He folded his arms across his chest and waited.

"Right," said Liam. He was glad Louis wasn't in pain. He was glad he didn't have to fuck Louis as a humanitarian act. Yeah. "I think we should go to sleep then."

Louis glared at him, which wasn't nearly as much of a boner-killer as it was probably meant to be, and then climbed off Liam's lap. Liam concentrated on not touching himself, and then, when Louis grabbed the flannel, muttering under his breath, Liam concentrated on not staring at his arse while he stalked to the washbasin to throw it in. Instead Liam flopped back down under the blanket and tried to sing scales in his head. When Louis came back, shoving off his trousers and pants and yanking his shirt over his head, Liam flipped the blanket up for him. "I'm sorry?" he tried, looking mostly at the ceiling.

"Just shut up and hold my hand," said Louis, and crawled in next to him.

 

 

24. Louis

Louis shook awake when someone squeezed his shoulder hard. He opened his eyes to Liam's big brown eyes and worried face.

"Louis," said Liam, and something in his tone told Louis that he'd already said it more than once.

"Hey," Louis tried to say, but his throat felt all gummy. He'd thought that he might be too tired to dream, but apparently he'd been stupidly optimistic.

"You were having a nightmare," Liam explained. "I'm sorry I woke you up, but."

Louis shook himself. His head hurt. "It's ok."

"Are you all right? Only you were sort of—"

"I'm fine," Louis snapped, and tried to sit up. It didn't work.

"Hold on. I'm gonna get you some water."

"Wait," said Louis, and then gave up and closed his eyes again. He ached all over. When Harry woke him, he never talked this much.

"Perrie was on watch, I guess, but she's asleep in her chair," said Liam when he got back, proudly holding a chipped glass. "She's got a gun in her lap. I hope she doesn't set it off accidentally." Louis ignored him, but Liam plopped down and pulled Louis up against him anyway, Louis's back to his chest. It occurred to Louis to resent how the pain between his eyes receded a little right away, but instead he just took the cup Liam was holding in front of him. "Do you want to talk about it?" said Liam, so Louis knew he must have sounded pretty bad.

"Bad dream. Harry was gone and you wouldn't suck my dick." Louis put the water down by the side of the mattress. He decided he hated the girls for putting him here and hated Liam for saying no to him and maybe even Harry for not being next to him right now. The only person he didn't hate, Louis decided, was Zayn. Zayn was at least smart enough to have noticed that Liam was kind of an arse. Still, Louis turned his head so his cheek was pressed to the hollow of Liam's shoulder. Liam's hand was on his head, stroking his hair.

Liam said quietly, "Your dream sounds awful." Louis didn't say anything. Liam sighed. "I dreamt too. I dreamt I wanted what I shouldn't want."

"You were having complicated ethical thoughts in your dreams?"

"Not really," Liam admitted. "I mean I dreamt we were. You know. "

"You could tell me more about that dream," Louis started, and then shook his head. "Never mind. I'm tired of being cute about it."

"Anyway," said Liam, "I woke up when I heard you crying."

"Yeah," said Louis. "Apparently for some reason I don't feel good."

Liam's hand on his hair froze, and then carefully started moving again. "The thing is," said Liam, "in my mind you were going to make it till morning fine and then we'd be rescued."

"I would've liked that," said Louis. "Only it's coming on too soon."

Liam dropped his forehead down on Louis's shoulder. "Zayn. Zayn will hate me."

"Right," said Louis. "Are you planning to hate him, when you find out what he's doing with Harry?"

There was a silence, and then Liam said, "Oh," very quietly.

"I just hope he's not being so difficult about it," said Louis. "Or would you rather have Harry wake up screaming so that Zayn can very helpfully get him a glass of water?"

"Can we just—I still don't want to hurt him."

"Right now you're hurting me."

Liam sucked in his breath and said, "You are in pain, then?"

Louis slid down a little lower in Liam's lap, feeling the wanting ache wash over him. "It's started, yeah. Obviously."

"Then I guess," said Liam. "I guess—"

"Oh, fuck you, Liam," said Louis tiredly. "You knew this would happen. You knew. But you'd rather wait till I'm in pain than do it when I just, I just wanted you."

"Oh god," said Liam. "I didn't think—I'm sorry."

Louis turned and bit sharply at Liam's chest, listening with a certain amount of satisfaction to Liam's gasp. He bit again, then sucked hard enough to mark him, feeling Liam's grip on him tightening, his hand slipping from Louis's hair to the back of his neck as Louis started nipping his way downward.

"You like it better when I'm in pain, Liam?" Louis demanded. He was on his knees now, straddling Liam's legs, pushing Liam back down on the bed. He tucked his fingers under the waistband of Liam's pants and pulled.

"No," said Liam, although he was half-hard already, and then, more firmly, "No. Louis, I honestly thought—"

Louis left tooth marks at Liam's hip bone, then licked along the diagonal. "It seems like you like it," he said, Liam's cock stiffening in his hand. "Master."

"Not like this," said Liam, but he let Louis get his pants the rest of the way off, watching with wide, troubled eyes. Louis shrugged and bent to Liam's cock, and that was when Liam pushed Louis away. "We can, Louis, all right, but I don't want it like that, like you're serving me. Can't I, um. Let me do it for you?"

Louis sat back on his heels, fighting off a wave of dizziness, and stared at him. "You're saying you wanna suck me?" He watched Liam's gaze move to his cock, saw Liam swallow. Louis shuddered, painfully hard now, and dropped down to the bed, stretching out on his back, getting a hand on his dick. "Just to make me feel better, right? Because you get off on being the hero. Fuck that. Don't pretend you don't want it too. Don't pretend you're doing me a favour."

Liam was breathing jaggedly now, a flush rising on his chest. "I just—please, Louis." His eyes were glued to Louis's hand where he was moving it slowly and deliberately over his dick.

The thing was, the Regulator had always complained about Louis, how he was supposedly the worst pet in the world—disobedient! Uncooperative! And maybe she was right, because no matter how bad it hurt, Louis was ready to wait longer, take more pain, if it meant making Liam beg. "Not yet," Louis told Liam. "Say it. Tell me you want me. Tell me the truth, you need it too."

"Yeah," groaned Liam, crawling between Louis's legs.

Louis held him off with the hand that wasn't busy, wishing he could do it for himself, wishing he could make Liam watch and give him nothing at all. "Tell me," said Louis, gritting his teeth. "Tell me you're not just tossing a treat to your needy little pet."

"God," Liam choked out. "No, Louis, please, I want you, you know I want you, fuck, let me have you," and Louis pushed his head down at last and let him suck.

Liam took his cock messily, desperately, and Louis swallowed back his groan of relief because Liam didn't need to know how fucking amazing his eager mouth was, how his tongue was licking away the pain and leaving little but the wanting. He took his hands off Liam, clenched his fists, not wanting to show Liam the immensity of his need. But when Liam pulled off, a thread of saliva trailing from his lips to the head of Louis's dick, Louis couldn't stifle a noise of protest. He needed more and he needed it deep and if Liam thought that was enough he was probably going to die after all. He pushed his hips up, trying to get back into Liam's mouth, but Liam said hoarsely, "Wait, baby, just—" and shifted himself on the bed, reaching up to grab Louis's hands and put them on his head. "I want," said Liam, "if you—" He looked up at Louis, his eyes dark and his mouth slack and open, and Louis gave up pretending. He tightened his hands in Liam's hair and worked Liam's mouth over his dick and listened to the noises Liam made and watched him take it and take it and then swallow when Louis came.

When Liam looked up, his mouth and chin were wet. He looked dazed.

"Fuck, Liam," said Louis quietly. There were marks on his thighs from how hard Liam had been gripping him, which meant—yeah. Liam was still hard and he hadn't even touched himself.

"Was that okay?" asked Liam, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Get over here," said Louis.

Liam shuffled up to Louis's side. "I want to kiss you. Is it okay if I kiss you?"

"Why wouldn't it be okay?"

"Well, you. Were kind of mad at me. And you got what you nee—I mean, that's what I wanted to do and it wouldn't be right to ask for more."

Louis stared at him, then surged forward to kiss Liam's red, swollen mouth. "I didn't get what I need yet." He kissed Liam again and fumbled for Liam's cock. Liam cried out, too loudly, and they both froze when they heard a noise from the next room.

Louis took his hand away and listened. There was nothing but silence and the sound of a marsh bird outside the window. "Liam. I think they're still asleep but you need to be quiet. I don't suppose you can be quiet with your cock in my arse?" Liam gasped then, even louder, and Louis sighed and said, "Yeah, I didn't think so. Here." Kneeling at Liam's side, he put his hand to Liam's mouth, and Liam licked at his palm without missing a beat. Louis said, "Good boy," because he'd always wanted to say that to a master, and when his hand was dripping he put it back on Liam's cock.

"Lou," gasped Liam, still too loud. "Lou."

"Sshh," Louis hissed.

Liam nodded furiously, but he was biting his bottom lip hard. "I'll help you," said Louis, and with his fist sliding on Liam's cock he nudged Liam's mouth open again with his other hand and pushed two fingers in. Liam took his fingers obediently, eyes fluttering half-shut. He circled Louis's wrist with his hand to keep his fingers in place and sucked in near-silence, matching the rhythm of Louis's hand on his cock. Louis felt a burst of pleasure, the sheer happiness of knowing what someone needed and actually wanting to give it to them. It was a feeling he only knew from Harry. Liam had his other hand on Louis's upper arm, fingers digging in hard. "You're gonna leave marks on me," Louis whispered, and then, when Liam groaned and loosened his hold: "No, Liam, I want you to."

That was when Liam tensed, gasping around Louis's fingers in his mouth, and spilled over Louis's fist. Louis exhaled, sighing into the familiar, bursting freedom that could only come from the complete disappearance of pain. That he was ready for. Everything else he felt, slowly tracing Liam's mouth now with one wet finger, was more of a surprise.

Liam's chest rose and fell, his breathing slowly returning to normal, and Louis wiped his hand on the blanket and sank down next to him, his mouth to Liam's ear. "I wonder," he started, and then stopped to think.

"Wonder what?" said Liam, and he reached out for Louis's hand. "By the way, um, thanks?"

Louis was wondering a lot of things, including how Zayn could bear to give Liam up. What he said was, "Wonder how you got such a greedy mouth. Can't get enough, can you?"

Liam snorted. "Ask Zayn." His tone was light, but Zayn's name in the room seemed to change the temperature somehow. Liam rolled over on his side, away from Louis.

"Oh, hey," said Louis. "Don't."

"Only I don't know what just happened," said Liam, muffled.

"We had sex," Louis explained helpfully. "You do know that Zayn loves you, don't you?"

"Not anymore," said Liam. "God, Louis, I know you said he'd—he'd be taking care of Harry, but you know how upset he was when he found out I kissed you yesterday. If only touching you had been—I just wish—"

"You wish we hadn't done it?" Liam didn't answer. Louis touched Liam's shoulder and felt it tense. "The thing is, Liam. I'm going to tell you a story, okay?"

"Okay."

"So. When you're first taken to Sadela, you live at the collection site. You're given jobs to do, but what you're really doing is waiting to be chosen. The Sadies, they'd come and look, they'd bargain with the Curator. And one day you'd be taken away."

Liam rolled back toward Louis. His face was grim.

"It's okay," said Louis, keeping his voice low and soothing, "just listen. So I was supposed to be cleaning floors and there was this other kid whose job was to help in the kitchen. I didn't know him before the collection; he was from a different village."

"Harry," said Liam. He was sitting up and listening closely now.

"Yeah. And we just—like, I right away knew he was special. I used to try to mop the kitchen when I knew he'd be working, and we'd have a few words. We'd been given numbers to call each other by, but we told each other our names. We couldn't talk much, but he'd put a hand on my back as I went by, things like that. We both knew it was dangerous. You weren't supposed to make friends. But this one time—well, I'd been stupid enough to be rude to a Sadie, because I wasn't really trained yet, and as punishment I was put off the meal roster for the next day."

Liam made an angry noise in his throat and Louis put a hand on his knee. "Wait. So the next day I still had to do my job as usual, only I hadn't had my lunch and I was moving pretty slowly. It was afternoon, I guess, because I remember that Harry was cooking dinner and I wasn't going to the kitchens to visit him as usual because I didn't want to smell any of the food I couldn't have. I was about to put the mop away and see if I could sneak a bit of a lie-down, when all of a sudden Harry was there and he was pulling me outside and round the back. He, he'd brought me my dinner. And I knew we'd be in for it if anyone saw, but I was so terribly hungry and there were these trees not far away where we'd be a bit hidden. We'd only just made it there when I tripped on a root. Dizzy with hunger, right? Harry steadied me, just a hand on my arm, that's all. When he touched me, though, I understood. I'm not sure he did, yet. He was pulling out these rolls of bread for me, but I didn't want them anymore.

"I was just looking at him. He was confused, he wanted to know, wasn't I hungry. I said, yes, I was, but not for that, I was dizzy but not because of that. It took him a minute to understand. Then he put the bread down and stepped close to me. It was like all my skin was on fire and I couldn't—I couldn't find any more words. He said my name. Then he told me to touch him." A shudder ran through Louis at the memory of it. "I did. I couldn't stop. I pushed him up against a tree. He was telling me yes, yes, yes. He had his hands on me, too. I think he'd—caught it somehow, this madness in me." Louis stopped for a moment, looked at Liam.

"When it was done, I remembered I was older. I'd gotten Harry into this, it was my fault. He'd thought he was just sneaking me dinner. He might not've felt it that day at all if I hadn't been so obvious. I'd put him in danger, I'd been stupid and reckless, and I told him how sorry I was. Even then, I couldn't stop kissing him. I was kissing him and telling him sorry at the same time. The thing was though, Harry was the one who wasn't scared. He held my face in his hands and told me so. I don't care, he said, I don't care, I'll never be sorry."

Louis was quiet. Liam let out a long slow breath. "Then what?"

"Then it got complicated," Louis admitted. "That was the story, though. That's what I wanted to tell you."

"Why?"

"Liam," said Louis. "You know why."

"You miss Harry," guessed Liam. "You want me to understand that this thing with you and me is just whatever."

Louis groaned and put his head in his hands. "How is it possible I made secondary bond with someone this thick?"

"What?" said Liam.

"Something's happened between us, Liam," said Louis. "I'm trying to tell you not to wish it away."

 

 

25. Zayn

It was Harry's fault. When Zayn drifted awake, he was curled on his side feeling impossibly warm with Harry spooned around him, Harry's arm holding him close. There was a world of hurt and loss right just outside the room, but right then and there, his bed was a safe and comforting little island. It felt a bit like waking up with Liam, the times when Liam stayed in bed until Zayn woke up, instead of rushing off to start on his to-do list as soon as possible. In fact, Zayn would have gone right back to sleep, putting off the moment when he'd have to deal with a kidnapped ex-boyfriend and a needy ex-sex-slave and the needy ex-sex-slave's kidnapped boyfriend, except that Harry, who'd taken off all his clothes in a sleepy, unthinking rush the previous night, was rocking a little against his backside, and Harry was hard.

Bodies are dumb, Zayn thought. Here he was feeling more anxious with each minute of being awake, the memories of last night growing sharper the longer his eyes were open, and his body still wanted to stay there and push back against Harry's dick and maybe just get fucked a little bit. It didn’t make sense. Probably there could be a zombie apocalypse and he'd still wake up with morning wood.

"Harry," said Zayn, but there wasn't any answer. Well, this is new, Zayn thought, because usually Harry asked or waited for permission or something before being completely inappropriate, but here he was breathing hot against Zayn's neck, his cock nudging at Zayn's arse, and he wasn't saying anything at all. Very carefully, Zayn went up on one elbow, holding Harry's arm in place so as not to dislodge him, and swivelled his neck to sneak a peek behind him. Harry's eyes were closed. He was still asleep.

"Must be a good dream, Harry," muttered Zayn, and sank back down on his side to think things over. His own hard-on was making it a bit difficult to process the options. He could reach behind him to pull Harry's dick between his thighs and then just kind of see what happened next. He could turn over, take Harry into his mouth and suck him off before he was fully awake. Or he could do the right thing and wake him up, because Harry obviously had no idea what he was doing.

Was it actually wrong to wake someone up by licking him, though? Zayn thought that unfortunately, in this case it probably was. So he carefully lifted Harry's arm off his side and inched forward until Harry's cock wasn't pressing quite so insistently against him and he had space to roll onto his back. Harry moaned a little and slumped onto his front but didn't open his eyes. Zayn thought that all things considered, giving Harry's shoulder a quick little kiss wasn't completely inappropriate. The problem was that having his lips on Harry's skin was not at all helpful for Zayn's own situation. Zayn bit his lip and clambered out of bed and off to the loo to get rid of his hard-on so that he could maybe wake Harry up in a decent manner without making an arse of himself.

He slumped against the closed door with his hand in his pants and thought about Harry out there face down on the bed and breathed out a long shuddery breath and—

"Zayn?" Harry's voice was plaintive and a little confused. "Are you there?"

Zayn swore and pulled his hand back out. "Yeah?"

"Oh, good!" Harry sounded way too relieved. "Thought I was alone."

Zayn gulped some cold water and grabbed a towel off the hook and wrapped it around his waist, although he was not conceivably going to be able to pretend he'd just stepped out of a shower. He opened the door and peered out. "I'm here, Harry. Morning."

"Hey," said Harry. He was sitting up, cheeks pink, hair rumpled in all directions, the duvet bunched around his waist. "Are you okay? You look a little, I dunno. Was there bad news?"

Zayn shook his head. "I haven't talked to Niall yet, but I'm sure he'd've told us if anything happened."

"That's—good, I guess?" Harry didn't look like he thought it was good. "Only I had this idea that I'd wake up and, like, Louis would be there."

Zayn sat down on the edge of the bed. "I'm sorry, Harry. Were you, um. Dreaming about him?"

"I'm not sure," said Harry thoughtfully. "I don't remember my dreams very well." He rubbed at his eyes and lay back down.

Zayn looked at Harry's disappointed face and his insides clenched, because Harry really, really didn't deserve this. "I forgot to say last night how sorry I am. If we hadn't had you come to the show last night, Louis would still be here."

Harry reached over and touched Zayn's hip. "We wanted to. It's not your fault."

"It sort of is," Zayn insisted.

"Sort of," said Harry, "but not really. And I'm not the only person missing somebody. Can I ask you something?"

"Yeah?"

"How do you feel? Without Liam?"

Zayn swung his legs back up on the bed and stretched out. "Rocks in my stomach. No, that's too heavy, like. It's blankness inside, like a vacuum. I'm here but I'm not here."

"Yeah," said Harry quietly.

"It reminds me. When me and Liam were recording our first album we had a week's holiday and we both went home to our families. It was back to real life, except that it didn't feel real at all. I felt like I was watching myself and hearing myself and not really being there. Because he wasn't, either."

"Zayn. Why did you try to break it?"

It was nice, how much more easily Harry could say his name now. "Break up?"

"No, break it. Your bond."

Zayn sighed. "It's not—never mind. Because he was going to leave me."

"No," said Harry.

"Yeah, Harry. I overheard him on a commlink, he—he was planning to go solo." Harry's face was confused. Zayn explained, "He doesn't want to sing with me anymore."

"No," Harry said, more insistently. "I saw him at the concert, how he was with you. Louis and I both saw it."

"He was pretending, Harry. For the performance. It's, it's professional of him, is all."

"He was pretending before the concert," said Harry. "At the concert, that's when both of you were telling the truth."

Zayn closed his eyes and heard Liam calling him sweetheart, heard Liam telling him to run. "Do we have to talk about it?"

"I guess not," said Harry. "I’m gonna—" and he heaved himself up. Zayn watched him walk to the bathroom. It would have been hot, except that Harry seemed to be moving with some difficulty, listing to one side a little.

When Harry came out, he said, "Can you explain about the rocks, though? The ones in your stomach?"

"In my…oh, right. It's just an expression, I guess."

Harry stared at him. He was moving very slowly toward the bed. "So you really don't feel, like, kind of achy and tingly in your joints and hot and cold all over and like if you try to move any faster you'll probably fall down?"

"Harry. That's how you feel right now?"

"No!" said Harry. "Maybe. Only a little." He dropped down to the bed with a little sigh.

Zayn swooped onto Harry so fast he fell sideways over him and bonked his chin on the top of Harry's head. "What? Why didn't you tell me?"

"I am telling you," said Harry, letting Zayn lay him out on the bed and put a pillow under his head. "I just thought maybe you were feeling the same thing, so I asked. I don't really understand the difference between how we work and how you work, you see."

"Oh my god," said Zayn. "I did it again. I left you alone the first night and now here you are in pain and I didn't even know." He was pressing himself close to Harry, rubbing idiotically at his chest, as if that would somehow make it better. Stupid, he was so stupid, he should've gone with his first impulse and stayed in bed.

"Zayn," said Harry, "it's not like that. You've been here with me the whole night, I wasn't even hurting. I think, I think I slept well? It was only when I woke up and you weren't here that things started to go a bit wonky."

"Because I got up," said Zayn, realising. "Because I didn't let you finish."

"Oh!" said Harry. "Right, I do things in my sleep sometimes, I forgot to tell you. Louis says—" He broke off and pressed his lips together tight.

I'm sorry, Liam, Zayn thought. I'm sorry, I can't not. What he said out loud was, "Harry? I left something out before. The part of me that's here, that's functioning at all, is here because of you. Because of Niall and because of you."

Harry smiled, and reached up to touch Zayn's face. His green eyes were questioning.

"Whatever you want," said Zayn. He threw the stupid towel off the bed and then shoved his underwear off as well, because fuck it. Harry was already naked so anything else wasn't really fair. "Whatever you want, I'll want it too."

"Truly?" said Harry.

Zayn nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

"Beautiful Zayn," said Harry slowly, and pulled Zayn's head down until their lips met.

Zayn kissed Harry carefully, holding himself up on one arm, fingertips of his other hand pressed to the side of Harry's neck. Harry's hand at the back of Zayn's head was firm but his lips were soft and hesitant, as if he were still waiting for something. Zayn wished Harry would stop waiting for permission, if that's what he was doing, because they didn't have time for permission anymore. "Anything," he whispered against Harry's lips, and then kissed him more deeply, trying to make him believe it. Harry went absolutely still, and then in one smooth movement pushed Zayn over and rolled on top of him.

For a split second he looked down at Zayn with fear in his eyes, but when Zayn nodded, he breathed out a long sigh and then bent to kiss Zayn again, a kiss without hesitation, without courtesy, a kiss that was one long convulsion of need. Zayn moaned, opened his mouth to Harry fully, his arms around Harry's neck. "Zayn," Harry muttered when he pulled back a little, "wanted you that first night, wanted you right away," and then he had his tongue back in Zayn's mouth before Zayn could say anything at all. Zayn probably didn't need to tell Harry how very much he felt the same, not when his cock was a hard, aching line between them, not when he couldn't help pushing his hips up against Harry's in short, desperate little shoves, caged as he was by Harry's body. "Yeah," Harry mumbled, and started to rock against him without finesse, just pushing his hard-on against Zayn's and then reaching down to grab his own dick.

Zayn arched up against Harry, his cock bumping untouched against Harry's stomach, but he kind of liked that, Harry being selfish, Harry taking what he needed, Harry kissing him again and sometimes managing it and sometimes sliding off Zayn's lips and onto his cheek or his ear. Harry pushed his cock down to catch between Zayn's legs, and Zayn managed to pull his knees up a little, so he could dig his heels against the bed and thrust up. When he felt Harry's cock dragging against his hole, Zayn's whole body shuddered. His fingers clamped down hard on Harry's back, but he willed himself not to ask, not to tell Harry what to do. But Harry suddenly stopped moving anyway, stared down at him, angled himself so that his cock nudged in the same place again, and watched Zayn whimper in response. "You want me to fuck you," Harry said slowly. "Really? Really?"

Zayn couldn't help grinning at that, at the surprise and delight in Harry's eyes. "Let me up, Harry," he said, because Harry still had him pinned. Disappointment flashed across Harry's face as he sat back on his knees, so Zayn hurriedly explained, "fuck yes I do," and reached over to the bedside table for lube. "How do you want me?" Zayn asked, but he couldn't help kissing Harry again before he could answer, one hand on Harry's cock. Harry kissed back hard, gripping his arse, pulling him close, and then he pushed Zayn down on his back again, which settled the question.

It felt good, Harry moving him around, and Zayn helpfully pulled one leg up while Harry fumbled with the lube, concentration visible in his forehead and in the way the tip of his tongue poked from the corner of his mouth while he pressed his fingers in. Harry was working him open a little more quickly than Zayn usually liked, maybe, but feeling too much too fast seemed right too. Anyway, Zayn didn't want to make decisions or explain to Harry exactly how he liked it, he didn't want to think or guide or suggest, he just wanted Harry inside him. He didn't realise he was writhing, pushing down on Harry's fingers, until Harry put a hand on the centre of his chest, held him still, said "I can, right?" and Zayn almost laughed before saying, "Yes, Harry, yes."

Harry kissed him quickly and started pushing in. Zayn swallowed hard and willed himself to relax. Harry kept his eyes on Zayn, his gaze moving between Zayn's eyes and his mouth, but he didn't pause to ask if Zayn was okay, he just kept working himself in, stopping only when he was all the way there. Zayn felt so full, so burning full, as if the emptiness that had taken up residence inside him last night was helplessly draining away. He looked at Harry, tensed above him, pushed a lock of Harry's hair back from his face, and said, "Please?"

Harry smiled down at Zayn and then drew back a little and pushed in hard, not holding back at all. Zayn cried out and clenched his thighs around Harry's hips and Harry muttered something and did it again. He fucked Zayn urgently, insistently, no hesitation left, one hand pressing Zayn's shoulder to the bed. Zayn threw his head back and thought, suddenly, of Liam, and the last time Liam had fucked him, Zayn on his side and Liam sliding into him from behind, slow and sweet and hot like they had all the time in the world. Tears came to his eyes and he felt himself start to lose his hold on the world, to drift up and away, but then Harry shifted slightly and pushed back in with the angle exactly right. His body, pounding into Zayn, unrelenting, anchored him here in this room, in this bed, with this boy, over him and inside him and muttering, "Zayn, Zayn, Zayn," under his breath, a note of incredulity there still in the sound of his name.

"I have to," gasped Zayn, because it was almost, almost enough, and he slid his hand from Harry's back to the space between them. He needed more than almost, he needed—and then Harry hissed, licked his palm, knocked Zayn's hand out of the way, and wrapped his hand around Zayn's dick at last. Zayn choked out, "Harry," and Harry twisted his hand, shoved in again, and said, wonderingly, "mine."

The room had no air. If the room had had air, Zayn would have been able to breathe. Instead he bit down on Harry's shoulder, the same shoulder he'd kissed while Harry was sleeping, and came. Harry stroked him through it, and when Zayn was done Harry dropped his forehead to Zayn's chest for a moment, breathing hard, before lifting his face again to stare at Zayn, an odd confusion in his green eyes.

"Your turn," whispered Zayn a little weakly, "come on, Harry." Harry shook his head a little as if to clear it, bent to kiss him again, then fucked into him fast and deep, all control gone, over and over, until he was coming, eyes squeezed shut, trembling all over.

Later, after Harry had pulled out, slow and careful as he hadn't been before, Zayn rolled over onto his front and buried his face in the mattress, reaching out with one blind hand for Harry. He wasn't ready to not be touching him. He wasn't sure, actually, when he'd be ready not to be touching him. Harry stretched out next to him, spread one warm hand on his back.

Harry said, "I didn't hurt you?"

Zayn turned his face to Harry. "You couldn't have."

Harry moved his hand up from Zayn's back to the nape of his neck and then into his hair, rubbing softly. "What I said when—"

"It's okay," Zayn interrupted. "People say a lot of things during, it doesn't mean anything."

Harry pulled gently at his hair. "Why do you and Liam keep claiming things don't mean what they mean?"

"But—" said Zayn, and stopped, not sure which part to argue with first. He rolled to his side, wincing a little. He felt sticky all over. It was probably time for a shower.

"I don't understand what I said, exactly," said Harry, "but I think it was true." He touched his own shoulder tentatively, pressing on a red mark, and Zayn realised he was testing the place where Zayn had bitten him. He felt a tightness in his chest. "The way you were for me," Harry went on, "the way you—god, Zayn—"

"Because you're incredibly hot, Harry. You know that, right?"

"Sort of," said Harry, frowning, "but that's not what I meant. Maybe we should talk about this later."

Zayn sat up. "Okay." It was probably psychologically healthy for Harry to feel as if he were in control, Zayn thought. It was part of the recovery process.

"Although," said Harry, "I don't think putting off conversations is necessarily good for you."

"Good for me?" Zayn repeated.

"Yeah. Like you should've already talked to Liam. You should've asked him about that call. You're going to, when we get them back."

"Whoa," said Zayn. "Is this part of it? You think you can boss me around now, huh?" Harry looked so cute, staring at him intently with that line of concentration between his eyes. Zayn leaned forward and kissed him on the nose, because he could.

"I don't know," said Harry slowly. "I don't know what I can do with you. Your orgasm was confusing and I need to talk to Louis."

"Hey, look, I'm not going to interfere with you and Louis." But Zayn could hear the edge in his voice and it was embarrassing. There was something he was supposed to repeat to himself to calm himself down, but he couldn't remember what it was.

"No," Harry said. "You don't have to—that's not what I meant." He leaned forward and kissed Zayn firmly, one hand on his jaw. Then he ducked away and slid off the bed. "Hey, can I try the shower?"

"Wait," said Zayn, "you're really going to talk to Louis about my orgasm being confusing?"

Harry shrugged. "What else would I do?"

Zayn stared at him. "Right. Um, yeah, go take a shower."

Harry grinned at him. "Thanks."

"Yeah," Zayn said to the suddenly empty room. "You too." How exactly had Harry managed to bagsy the first shower? He could hear the sound of the water and then a clunking sound, as if Harry had collided with something. Zayn sighed. "Yours," he said quietly, testing the sound of it. "Yours."

 

 

26. Harry

Harry stayed in the shower too long, probably, just standing there and letting the water course through his hair and down his back. It was so good, though, and it was like nothing he'd had on Sadela. Probably the renegades didn't have anything like it for Louis, though, which was the thought that made him turn off the water at last.

Zayn was laying some clothes out on the bed when he returned, a pair of those blue trousers the Terrans seemed to depend on, and something that looked softer to wear on top. He scratched his head and said, "You can wear these, yeah?" and didn't really look at Harry, but Harry was pretty sure that worried look was back on his face.

"Thank you," said Harry, bending to kiss him.

"Dripping on me," said Zayn, but he sounded pleased. "I'll just—" and then he was on his way to the shower.

Harry was moving slowly and still only half-dressed when he heard an odd series of beeps and bleeps from just outside the door. "Hello?"

"It's me!" said Niall's voice, and then his hologram flashed in. "Zayn threw a fit last time I interrupted you two, so that's my new alarm. Do you like it? Where's Zayn? I mean, obviously he's in the shower, what I mean is, why is he taking a shower at a time like this? We need to be in the control room."

"Hi, Niall," said Harry. "I think he was a bit sweaty."

"Don't tell me!" said Niall, throwing up a ghostly arm. "I mean, only if you must."

"Don't be creepy, Niall," said Zayn, emerging from the bathroom.

"Wait!" said Niall, disappearing. "Pretend I'm not here!"

Zayn rolled his eyes at Harry. "Niall. You're always here." He threw his towel toward a corner and it opened up and took the towel away. "Did we learn anything overnight?"

The only reply was the series of beeps and bleeps Harry had heard before.

"Thank you, Artoo," said Zayn, yanking a shirt over his head, "and I'm glad you're keeping up with your study of ancient cultures, Niall, now is there any bloody news?"

Niall reappeared again, looking aggrieved. "It was an alarm! Because of privacy! You said—oh, never mind." His holo threw itself on the bed next to Harry. Harry reached out and touched its shoulder, tentatively. But there was nothing to touch, and his fingers went right through.

Harry jerked his hand away. "Sorry!"

Niall looked amused. "It's fine, mate, go ahead. You want to touch me though, you're better off lying on the floor."

Harry considered this. "Do you like that?"

"Harry," said Zayn. "Are you chatting up my spaceship?"

"Only a little," said Harry.

"Lads," said Niall. "If you could focus on something other than sex. I had a very interesting transmission a few minutes ago."

"Liam?" The colour drained out of Zayn's face.

"Maybe?" said Niall. "I didn't want to watch it without you. It's a vid, primitive file type. The source is somewhere planetside, Sadela for sure. And it's not the Sadelans themselves because Sadelan datastamps don't—"

"Whatever, oh my god," said Zayn. "They're trying to contact us and you're rolling around on the bed with Harry."

"Excuse you," said Niall, "as if I'm the only one." But Zayn had already bolted from the room.

Niall flashed upright again and beckoned to Harry with a friendly translucent finger. "It's this way, Harry, you haven't been there before."

Harry followed Niall down the hallway, feeling bubbles of hope rise up inside him. "Do you really think it's them?"

"We'll know in a minute," said Niall gently. "And by the way, well done you."

"Me?"

"With Zayn. You both look a lot better today."

Harry grinned back at Niall and then deliberately bumped himself against the side of the corridor, just to be friendly. He'd have liked to be able to sling an arm around Niall's shoulder but he could get used to this, too. Niall steered him round another corner and into a large room full of monitors and machinery and blinking lights. Zayn was already pacing back and forth in front of a shifting screen, occasionally stabbing at a keyboard and growling.

"Where is it?" he demanded. "I want to see it now, Niall, where?"

"Calm down, you can key in your code now," said Niall. "I wasn’t going to let you start without us, was I?"

"Unbelievable," Zayn muttered, but his fingers were flying fast over the keys. Harry didn't think Zayn even realised he was there in the room, but when the lights dimmed, Zayn stepped back and took Harry's hand without taking his eyes off the screen, as if he knew exactly where Harry was without having to look.

The first thing they saw onscreen was Liam's face. Zayn made a noise, and his fingers dug into Harry's palm. Harry thought Liam looked nervous and a little annoyed, but basically fine. The camera pulled back, and he was sitting on a wooden chair in front of a stained pink curtain. He was still wearing the shirt he'd been wearing for the concert, but it looked pretty crumpled.

"His shirt is ripped," said Zayn. "Oh my god, they've been torturing him."

Niall's hologram flickered. "Ssh, Zayn, it's starting."

Liam was clutching a piece of paper scrawled over in black ink. "Go on then," came a female voice from off-screen. She sounded a little familiar. Harry remembered lilac hair and a surprisingly sweet face.

"Right," said Liam, looking down at the paper. "Hello, my name is Liam Payne," he said, "and I am one-half of the celebrated pop duo Two Hearts." He broke off and addressed someone off-camera. "Have I really got to read all this? They obviously know who I am."

"Because it'll be put on the Terranet as well," said the girl. "You're going to give us your passcodes, aren't you?"

"Of course we'll have to edit this down for the net clip," said another voice. "Too much chatter otherwise."

"Too right." That voice might be the girl who'd gotten to the stage first and started yelling at them, Harry thought. "Stay on topic, you."

"Well, if you're editing bits out anyway," said Liam. He turned back to the camera. "Hi Zayn, hi Niall, hi Harry, I'm fine, Louis's fine." He turned away again. "Can we put Louis on so Harry sees he's fine?"

There was a clattering sound and then Louis's face flashed in front of Liam's for a moment. "'lo Harry, I love you," he shouted, and then "Ow!" as a ringed hand reached over and yanked him off-screen.

Harry called back, "I love you, too."

Zayn put an arm around him. "It's pre-recorded, Harry, he can't hear you."

"I forgot," said Harry. He was shaking a little. He'd been pretty sure Louis was all right, because if he'd been harmed, Harry suspected he would've felt it somehow. But knowing it, seeing him and hearing him, even if it was on a stupid video, was overwhelming. Harry studied the screen inch by inch. There was a foot in one corner, but it wasn't Louis's. There was a blurry thumb in another, but that wasn't Louis, either. That was all right for now. Harry could wait.

"The statement, Liam," said one of the girls they couldn't see.

"Yeah, okay," said Liam, and peered at the paper again. "I have been treated well by my captors and present this statement freely and without—duress? What's duress? Oh. Well, I mean, they do have guns, but—Fine! I'm reading the statement. Um, freely and without duress. It has been brought to my attention that this beautiful planet harbours a horrifying and unspeakable secret. Is that right, though? Unspeakable? I mean, I'm speaking about it right now."

From off-camera: "Seriously, Liam? That's like my best line."

"He has a point. We could rewrite it."

"He's an idiot. Ignore him."

Liam rolled his eyes. "—A horrifying and unspeakable secret. Sadela regularly plunders a neighbouring planet to force its peaceable and biologically vul, um, vulnerable inhabitants into slavery."

So they were renegades, Harry thought, they had to be, if they cared about that. He still didn't know how it was possible, though. Unless they were like him and Louis, bonded to each other. But he'd always thought they were the only ones.

Onscreen, Liam was conferring with his captors again. "Do I really have to do this next bit?

Louis's voice: "The next bit is the only good bit in the whole speech!"

And one of the girls: "Could you be more ungrateful, Louis? Honestly!"

"They're exasperated with him already," Harry whispered to Zayn, pleased. Surely it was a good sign that Louis was feeling well enough to be difficult.

Liam cleared his throat. "Okay. Um, as Zayn and I sang on our first album, 'Baby, baby, baby, I gotta be F-R-E-E.'"

"Oh god," said Zayn, and covered his face with his hand.

"Brilliant, mate," commented Niall. "I love a good spelling lesson."

"And I would just like to note," Liam continued onscreen, "that neither of us actually wrote the lyrics to that song personally."

"That's not in the speech!" called one of the girls.

"Right. I just thought it was relevant. Anyway. Um. Clearly, being F-R-E-E is a major Two Hearts value that Zayn and I share with our captors, who have treated us very well and not abused us in any way." Liam stopped and said, "This is—there's a word for this, but I don't remember what it's called."

"It's called 'finish the fucking speech, popstar.'"

"No, that's not it. Zayn would know." Harry had to remind himself it was all pre-recorded, because now Liam's eyes looked a bit wet.

"Irony," said Zayn quietly to the screen. "Oh, Liam."

Liam swallowed and looked down at his paper again. "And so in the spirit of that number one single, I would like to state my formal objection to the Sadelan slave trade and my determination to see it come to an end." Liam broke off suddenly. "And you know I would've said that anyway, at the concert, if they'd waited ten bloody minutes more before swooping in and kidnapping us, and I keep telling them that, and they don't believe me. But it's true!" He turned sideways again, speaking to the girls off-screen. "You could've asked! You don't have to go breaking windows and tying people up!"

There was some chatter off-screen that Harry couldn't quite catch, and then a voice soaring louder than the rest: "You say that now, but for all we know you were about to thank the Sadies for giving you such lovely pets."

"He was not." It was Louis's voice, and it made Harry feel warmer inside just to hear it. "He was going to tell his fans that if they supported the slave trade they oughtn't be Two Hearts fans at all. He was going to ask them to protest and sign a pledge and bring down the system and then free concerts."

"How convenient," the girl replied, but she sounded a little less sure of herself.

Liam said, "It's true. And me and Zayn were recording evidence to take to the Terran Federation. Ask Niall, he's got the footage. It's stupid to go on not believing us just because you don't want to admit you've made a mistake."

Harry nodded, but he looked a little doubtful. "He's got a point, but he doesn't understand how long we've all been lied to and messed about. They're careful, not stupid."

An explosion of bickering seemed to be occurring off-screen. Harry heard Louis's voice here and there, but he was mostly drowned out by the flurry of female voices. The camera stayed steadfastly on Liam.

"Anyway," Liam said loudly, and waved the ragged sheet of paper in the air before bringing it up in front of his face again. "Anyway, my captors are eager to release me so that I can once again share my musical stylings with the universe at large, provided that the following demands are first met by Two Hearts and the Terran Federation."

"Here we go," said Niall.

"One," said Liam. "Two Hearts will not return to Sadela until Sadela abolishes slavery. Which by the way, we wouldn't have done anyway. You should hear Zayn on this particular topic!"

"See how much he misses you?" Harry said. "He can't stop mentioning you!"

"He's mentioning an argument we had," said Zayn. "That's different."

"Two," said Liam. "The Terran Federation will make a public commitment to ensuring that no other Terran pop acts do so either."

"Speaking of, I wish the president would answer my messages," said Niall.

"Three, Zayn Malik will make an intergalactically netivised speech advising the public of the above."

"I could do that," said Zayn. "Wow, these demands seem really easy."

"Fourth, 444,444,444 starbits will be immediately provided to my enterprising, thoughtful, and considerate captors, thus allowing them to continue to resist Sadelan exploitation of their planet and people." Liam looked up. "What's with all the fours? Oh…that's kind of sweet, actually. I will be released only when these requests have been met in full." He rolled his eyes. "Requests. Right."

"You don't know anything about diplomacy, Liam," said one of the girls.

"You kidnapped us. How diplomatic is that? Where are they supposed to send the money anyway? Oh. Please utilize the bank code attached separately. What are you guys going to do with all that cash? I feel like you have enough guns."

"Like we're going to tell you."

"Do we even have that much money, Niall?" Zayn asked.

"We have it," said Niall. "But I think—"

"This concludes the list of demands, with which your compliance is expected at your earliest convenience. And a massive thank you to all the fans!"

"What? That's not in the speech!"

"Habit," said Liam. "Sorry. Look, can I say a few words to Zayn now? You can edit it out for the net version, yeah?"

There was an epidemic of exasperated sighs off-screen.

"I'll take that as a yes," said Liam, and quickly looked straight at the camera and started talking. "Zayn, the ladies say we'll be back as soon as their demands are met but just in case something goes wrong. Or it takes longer somehow. I just wanted to tell you. Um."

"He looooooooooves you!" sang Louis from off-screen.

There was a pause. "Yes," said Liam. "That. I mean, I do."

Next to Harry, Zayn was very, very quiet.

Liam looked down for a moment, and then went on. "And, well, Louis would probably like me to mention. Our friends are depending on us, so. Please make Harry feel at home and, um, Louis will be safe with me, too."

"Oh," said Zayn. "I guess they're fucking."

Niall cackled. "Smooth, isn't he? I'm surprised he didn't throw up some air quotes just in case you didn't get it."

"Now I want a turn to talk!" called Louis from off-screen. Harry held Zayn's hand hard and waited, hoping. All he wanted was to see Louis's face again. His sharp little nose and discontented mouth. Harry could live for days, maybe, on a glimpse of blue eyes that went stormy and sweet by turns.

"Absolutely not," said one of the girls. "Could you act like a hostage, please, for one solitary minute? We've got to edit this mess now, it's a travesty."

But then Liam made a quick gesture off-screen and Louis dove into the frame and onto Liam's lap and said sunnily, "Harry, I've got to tell you something, it's the weirdest thing—" which was when the screen sort of fizzed and then went dark.

"Well," said Niall.

"What did I just watch?" asked Zayn. He was rubbing his forehead as if it hurt.

"A high-level criminal enterprise," said Niall, and then cracked up.

Harry whispered to Zayn, "Are you okay? About what Liam said?" He carefully took his hand back from where it had somehow slipped up the back of Zayn's shirt.

Zayn blinked and said, "It would be pretty shit of me to mind. Under the circumstances." Which didn't exactly answer Harry's question, but Zayn had already turned away. "Niall, what's the Terran Federation going to say? How soon can we send the money?"

"Oh, that," said Niall. "Whenever you like, really, good cause and that, but I don't think we should wait around for all the diplomatic stuff. The Fed could be dithering about this boycott idea forever while Liam and Louis are stuck in the swamps."

"I don't want to wait around either," said Zayn, "but what choice have we?"

"Well," said Niall, "we could go get them."

There was silence. Then: "Niall. What are you keeping from me?"

"Nothing," said Niall. "Only I've been running decoders this whole time and I'm pretty sure I have their location pinpointed. I mean, they've got some very good cloaking devices and misleading relays, but Sadelan tech, how shall I put it?"

"It sucks?" Zayn asked.

"I wouldn't say that," said Niall. "Only it's inferior to me."

"Everything's inferior to you, I think," said Zayn, beaming. "Oh, Niall. Let's go get them."

Niall put up his holographic fist and Zayn very carefully punched at thin air. Harry sat down on the floor and patted it. The tiles went a bit soft under his hand. Harry said, "Can we call the renegades back then? Can we tell them we're coming? Louis didn't even get to finish his sentence."

Niall's holo dropped to the ground cross-legged in front of him. "We can't, I don't think. I geo-ripped the channel but I can't open it again, I just get bounced all over the sector. You'll have to show up unannounced."

"But," said Zayn. "Guns. Who knows what'll happen if we just walk in."

"I should probably note," said Niall, wrinkling his nose, "that as a matter of diplomatic form we'd be required to involve the Sadelan security services in any attempted rescue mission and they could certainly provide any necessary military back-up."

"No," said Harry. "No Sadies."

Niall grinned and said, "Zayn, remember how a couple days ago Harry wouldn't even admit to having opinions?"

"I'm with Harry," said Zayn. "Those girls'll go mad if they see us bringing in Sadelans, and they'd be justified, too. We have to handle this ourselves."

Niall said, "Huh. Well, I would totally contact Sadie security right away but sadly I lost their number."

"It's awful how you always forget to run your back-ups," Zayn agreed, stretching out next to them, one hand on Harry's knee. "But how do we not get shot?"

Niall said, "You make your statement now, just like they said, and I'll upload it before we go. We can't speak for a total Federation boycott so we won't have complied with all the demands, but if we get your clip on the net and send the money they'll have to see we're acting in good faith."

Zayn pointed at Niall. "Genius."

"Pretty much," said Niall. "Don't say we're on the way, though, that'll only give them time to run."

Harry said, "You could also—you said you had evidence? If you put that in, to show you were always planning to help."

"Co-genius," said Niall, pointing at Harry.

"And I'll do a voice-over, explaining everything," said Zayn. "I'll say how Liam masterminded it all."

Niall raised one holographic eyebrow.

"No, really," said Zayn. "It was his idea. And if we push that aspect, you know, they might treat him better."

"And Louis," said Harry.

"Of course, Louis," agreed Zayn, but for just a moment a shadow seemed to pass over his face. "And you, Harry," Zayn went on. "You should be in the video, too."

"Me?"

"Yes!" said Niall. "Telling your heart-breaking personal story of tragedy and triumph! Go on, how would you sum it up?"

"Um," said Harry. "I was working in the kitchens. Not with the Regulator, that was different. But at the collection site, you know, I had to mix the, the…we made bread every morning. Louis liked my bread. I mean, but that was later, when I met him. It was like this, see—"

"Never mind," Zayn interrupted. "Look, Niall, we'll just tell him what to say. Not everyone's cut out for ad-libbing."

"I was just trying to answer the question!" Harry felt a little hurt.

Zayn hooked an arm around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. "I know, love, don't worry about it."

"All right," said Niall. "So it'll be Zayn's speech, then Harry's bit, then we'll run the fanmeeting footage, then back to Zayn and out. And if we get it out on the net soon enough, you might not get shot when you show up on their doorstep."

"It'll take me a bit to prepare," said Zayn.

"Of course," said Niall, "you need to work out your speech and Harry's speech and all that."

"I guess?" said Zayn. "I meant we've got to do our hair."

A few minutes later they were back in Zayn's room, and Zayn was staring at himself in the vanity mirror with Harry flopped on the bed behind him. Harry didn't really understand why it mattered, but Zayn explained that not only did his hair have to look good, to uphold the honour of Two Hearts, but it had to look a little dishevelled as well, to show that he was in mourning and had passionate feelings about injustice.

"But you do anyway," said Harry, confused.

"Yes," said Zayn, "but it's better if I can express it with my hair as well."

"So just make it messy." Harry rubbed his hands around in his own hair and then threw it back, to show him.

"It's got to be messy in the right way," said Zayn, and Harry had to accept that, because after all, what did he know about being a popstar or having popstar hair?

Harry watched Zayn make faces in the mirror for a couple of minutes and then he remembered something. "Zayn? Can you do something for me?"

Zayn said, "Probably."

"The song about being F-R-E-E, can you sing it? I was wondering how it goes."

"Absolutely not," said Zayn.

"So when you said you'd do anything—"

"Any of the sex things. None of the embarrassment things."

"Oh," said Harry. "I didn't realise how that worked."

"It's complicated," said Zayn. "All right, I'm finished."

But it turned out he wanted to do Harry's hair next, because Harry was going to be filmed as well. So Harry sat down in front of the mirror and Zayn, standing behind him, stared at his tangled curls with a defeated look on his face and muttered something about whether they had enough time to skim a stylist over from Paul.

"I don't think so," said Harry. "Can't you do it, Zayn? I want you to."

So Zayn sighed and picked up a comb and it turned out that Harry really liked having Zayn's fingers in his hair. Zayn tried pushing his hair one way and then another way and then he had his hand on Harry's jaw so Harry turned his head into Zayn's hand and kissed the soft swell at the base of his thumb. Zayn drew in his breath and said something that sounded like "no time."

"Pardon?" said Harry.

"Nothing," said Zayn, but Harry could see him in the mirror adjusting himself. "Why don't you tell me a story, okay, Harry?"

So Harry leaned back in the chair and talked about how this one time at the Regulator's he and Louis had gone for a walk and seen an interesting bird and gotten sort of lost but not really and then eventually they went back to their quarters. And Zayn nodded as if he were really interested and fussed busily with Harry's fringe but it wasn't long before his hands left Harry's hair and trailed down to his neck. Harry watched in the mirror as Zayn ran his thumbs along Harry's collarbone and then slipped a hand under Harry's shirt, moving lower until his fingers were just brushing against his nipples.

Harry stopped trying to describe the bird they'd seen. "Zayn?"

"Sorry!" said Zayn. "Yeah, okay, your hair's done."

Harry spun his chair around to face him. Zayn's eyes were dark and his mouth was glossy and his hair looked good and as if he had passionate feelings about injustice. Furthermore, he was visibly hard and Harry really wanted to suck his cock.

"Video," said Zayn, enunciating carefully. "And then rescue."

"All right," said Harry, a little hoarsely. "Tomorrow?"

Zayn looked away. "You'll have Louis tomorrow, if everything goes right."

"Yes?" said Harry, confused. "Both of you. It'll be lovely."

"Whoa," said Zayn. "What?"

Harry shrugged. "Since we joined and all."

"What we did was have sex," Zayn explained slowly and carefully, as if Harry was dumb or something.

"Look, I thought you wanted to make the video right now," said Harry. "Because I've been trying very hard to keep all of my clothes on which honestly isn't the easiest thing for me but if you're going to take the time to talk everything over I might as well go ahead and blow you."

Zayn took a deep breath. "Video. Right."

When they got back to the control room, fanmeeting clips were scrolling across the screen: Liam and Zayn at a table, fans streaming up to them, close-ups now and again of a humanoid face in the crowd.

"Niall!" Zayn called, and Niall flashed into view.

"Took you two long enough. I'm done with the editing, I think. Look how I've cut it, and then a bit with the actual concert there at the end. See, Liam's just about to make his speech when it all goes dark."

"Nice," said Zayn, watching. "Harry and me now?"

"Yeah," said Niall, "but let's film it in the practice room."

Zayn tensed beside him. "Why?"

"Posters of Liam in the background for maximum heartbreak. If we're going to push the Fed for a general boycott, we need to reach everyone, not just the renegades. Like, there should be a close-up on the piano with no one there to play it."

"I agree," said Harry softly. "Come on, Zayn."

There was a pause, and then Zayn said, "All right."

Harry thought the filming probably went well. Zayn talked about how Two Hearts would never play Sadela again until the slave trade came to an end, and how Two Hearts absolutely supported the resistance movement and only wanted to be given the opportunity to help it despite this evident misunderstanding. Then he did a voiceover for what they were calling the evidence reel. "And?" said Niall, when Zayn stopped talking.

"That's it, that's the statement," said Zayn.

Niall glared at him. "It absolutely is not and you know it. Finish it up so we can do Harry, and I'm sure he'll be far more cooperative than you are."

Zayn rolled his eyes and then sat back down on what Niall was calling "the lonely three-legged stool of loneliness" and cleared his throat. "I'll close with a special message," he said, "to someone I hope is out there watching this."

Niall mouthed "awwwww" to Harry.

"Liam Payne," Zayn said, "I miss you every minute." And then he sang the chorus of Halfway to Heaven.

"Got it," said Niall, when the silence after he was done stretched out a little long.

"Whatever," said Zayn. There were tears in his eyes. "You tell Harry what to say. I'm going to take a walk."

Harry touched Zayn's sleeve as he went by on his way out of the room, but he wasn't sure Zayn even noticed. "It's all right, Harry," said Niall. "It's only he doesn't like having to put it all out in public."

"Even when it's true?" asked Harry.

"Then especially," said Niall. "Especially when it's true."

It was easier than Harry thought to do his own little speech: he only had to say who he was and who Louis was and how they'd been given to Liam and Zayn but then freed instantly, and how they were all going to work together to change things. Harry didn't have to explain about the bonding, Niall said, because it all got a bit too complicated. "I'd tell you to say that Liam and Zayn didn't lay a finger on either of you," said Niall, "but let's just not go there."

"All right," said Harry, and he sat where Niall told him to sit and tried to speak more quickly than usual. There was something he wanted to say to the renegades, at the end, and he said it, and then he was done.

"Nice," said Niall. "I just need a few minutes for edits before we upload. Then we'll be off to the swamps, I promise."

"Great!" said Harry, "Can I, do you know if Zayn—"

Niall's holo went unfocused for a moment. "He's in the docking bay, go find him. Oh, and tell him it looks like an edit of the ransom video's already been released on the net. It's just Liam reading the prepped speech, everything else is cut out. Sadela is going nuts and so are the Terrans."

"Okay!" said Harry. "I mean, is that good?"

Niall went unfocused again. "Yes," he said, and started grinning even wider. "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a very special message to answer."

 

 

27. External Communications, Niall Horan and the President of the Terran Federation

Drafts:

Dear Mr President

Asdflkjkl;sagkjlskdgkl';slkdfjas;lkdjgasija'fgjlksdgj

 

Sent Mail:

Dear Mr President

Thank you so much for your recent communication ! It is SO COOL to hear from you. Two Hearts appreciates your support !

Please don't worry about a thing because we have an awesome plan and the whole situation is under control! I think ! ! Wait till you see our vid!

By the way how do you feel about the boycott thing?? 2H is all for it !

Yours faithfully

Niall Horan

P.S. Don't be mad at Ambassador Cowell, I'm sure he does his best!

 

Inbox:

Niall,

Are you sure you're a starship? You don't sound like a starship.

B.O.

 

 

28. Liam

After they'd taped the video, the girls mostly left him and Louis alone, and it turned out that being a hostage was kind of boring. They weren't allowed to take a walk outside HQ. Liam had asked—honestly, only because he wanted the exercise—but Perrie had just laughed and told him that if he was bored he was more than welcome to fold the laundry. So he'd asked for paper and a pen instead so he could work on a song for Zayn, but without a guitar or a piano it was hard going, and he mostly just ended up telling Louis all about Zayn: how often Zayn knew what he was thinking before he said it, how Zayn read him their press coverage and made ridiculous faces, how Zayn pretended not to like dancing but would dance with Liam alone if the door was closed, how when Zayn got moody all Liam wanted was to make him feel better. Louis listened and nodded and didn't say much, and then offered to think up a good line for his song in exchange for Liam agreeing to rip up bits of paper to play imaginary footy with.

Now the two of them were lying propped up on their elbows half-heartedly flicking crumpled scraps of paper around on the miniature pitch Louis had drawn on the stained and uneven floor. When Liam flicked a bit of paper into Louis's face by mistake, Louis reached out and pinched him, laughing. Liam was about to swoop in for a retaliatory kiss when he saw Louis jerk back fast and go silent and still. There was fear there, fear Liam hadn't seen in a while.

Liam said, "I don't mind, Louis."

"You don't mind if I pinch you," Louis whispered. "Like, in normal life, outside of bed?"

"Not really?" Liam reached out and stroked Louis's cheek. "Can I kiss you now instead, though?"

"Sure," said Louis sweetly, and then when Liam leaned in, he slid sideways instead and tweaked Liam's nipple. Which was really a remarkably quick recovery from his conditioning, Liam thought. Probably he should let Louis do whatever he liked to him. For Louis's sake.

Meanwhile, Jade fussed at her worktable and Perrie and Jesy huddled over an enormous map, making notes, eating sweets, and glaring whenever Liam came close. Leigh-Anne was monitoring reactions to their video on the net and reading the comments out loud, complete with punctuation.

MY SWEET LIAM WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOU I WILL SAVE YOU!

DID THE KIDNAPPERS CUT HIS HAIR HIS HAIR LOOKS DIFFERENT?????

IF I HAD LIAM PAYNE IN CUSTODY I WOULD TAKE A LOT MORE THAN RANSOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

YOU GUYS ARE DISGUSTING THIS IS A SERIOUS SITUATION!! LIAM IS IN DANGER AND SO IS HIS HAIR!!

JUST IMAGINE HOW MUCH ZAYN MISSES HIM AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH CRYING

"Also," Leigh-Anne continued, "#FreeLiam and #AlasPoorZayn are trending, if that's what you call it."

Jesy shook her head. "Why is #FreeLiam trending and not #FreeTheSlaves? What is wrong with people?"

Liam said, "Our fans can be a little…single-minded. Are those comments Terran or Sadelan?"

"Terran, I'm pretty sure," said Leigh-Anne. "The Sadies locked their localnet down fast when we put up the clip, and I'm the only one of us out here can get around it. They're pretty good at information control."

"Niall could probably—" began Liam, but then there was a cheer from the other end of the room. It was Jade, holding up a medicine cup and grinning. "Done!"

"Yayyyyyy!" Perrie ran over and threw her arms around Jade. "Get over here, Louis."

"Louis doesn't have to do what you say," said Liam, because he could feel Louis tensing up next to him.

"Or what you say," Jade returned. Louis slowly got to his feet. Jade smiled encouragingly and held out the cup. "Don't worry, Louis, we've all had it. It's perfectly safe."

Louis looked back at Liam and their eyes met. "I don't know," said Liam honestly. "It's your decision."

"Hold on!" yelled Leigh-Anne, still glued to her monitor. "Girls! Take a look at this!" In an instant Jesy and Perrie and Jade were at her side, antidote temporarily forgotten. No one pushed Liam and Louis away when they crowded in too. Then Leigh-Anne tapped the screen and Liam saw Zayn's face.

Louis's arm tightened around Liam's waist as they watched the video. Zayn didn't like making speeches, Liam knew, but there he was saying all the right things. Liam was so proud of him. Then Zayn spoke directly to Liam, as if he were right there in the same room, and started to sing. The girls were quiet. Liam knew he was kidnapped and helpless and at the mercy of armed rebels, but watching Zayn sing to him made his heart pound with happiness anyway.

Then Zayn faded out and Harry was onscreen instead. Liam snuck a look sideways and saw Louis staring with his eyes wide, hand clapped over his mouth. "When Louis and I first got to the ship, we were scared," Harry was saying, and Louis nodded as if Harry were waiting for his encouragement. Liam hoped the girls were paying close attention. They ought to listen to Harry even if they didn't want to trust Zayn. Harry kept talking, a little more slowly and awkwardly than Zayn. "I know why you did this," Harry was saying, and Liam realised with a start that he was speaking to their captors now. "I don't blame you. You were stolen too." Harry looked down. "But too many people have been taken away." Then he raised his eyes to the camera again. Very softly, he added, "I miss my friend."

"Harry," said Louis. "Harry."

"I know," said Liam, and he pulled Louis close. "I'm sorry, Louis, I know."

"Ssssh!" said Jesy, and then they were watching the footage from the fanmeeting—"we just love humans!"—and the girls were groaning and making rude remarks at the Sadelan fans and apparently feeling properly feisty again after the silence that had greeted Zayn and Harry. Then it was footage from the previous night, Liam standing onstage with Louis beside him, just starting to speak when everything went dark. Perrie gave a half-hearted cheer. With the screen still black, Zayn's voiceover said that he and Liam were ready to stand with the rebels if they'd give Two Hearts a chance, and then there was a horrifying concert clip from their first tour in which he and Liam were singing "F-R-E-E," and on that note of pure humiliation the video was over.

"Wow," said Jade.

"All right," said Perrie, "but that's really only one and a half demands met when you think about it, yeah? Let's not get carried away."

A chime sounded from one of Leigh-Anne's other screens. Leigh-Anne peered over. "Tulisa," she said briefly. "Apparently, the account's just grown by 444,444,444 starbits."

For a split second, there was quiet, and then Jesy shrieked and all four of them began hugging and jumping up and down.

Liam looked at Louis and shrugged. "I'm going to kill Niall for putting that last clip in."

Louis's eyes still looked a little red. "Will they let us go now?" he asked.

"I don't know," said Liam. He took a deep breath. The girls were still bouncing around and ignoring them. "Do you want—I mean, once you've got Harry back, of course—do you want to stay with them?"

"What?" said Louis.

"They're your own kind," said Liam, "and you seem to get on with them? Like, if you want to help the cause or whatever." He bit his lip and waited.

"Are you trying to get rid of me?" Louis asked.

"No! It's only—watching Harry reminded me. I—like you being on Niall. But it's not like you chose to come."

Louis stared at him. "You're right, Liam. I never did choose at all."

"So," Liam started, but then Jesy's voice cut in.

"Most of the demands met already, your boyfriend's not rubbish, Liam Payne."

"Getting the Terran Fed on board's the big one, though," Perrie objected.

"The money is the big one," Jesy argued.

"Given what the money's meant to pay for," said Jade, "I have to agree. Speaking of which, we've got unfinished business. Louis?"

"Yes?" Louis folded his arms across his chest.

"Imagine if we'd taken the sweet one with the hair instead," said Leigh-Anne. "So much less cheek."

Jade said, "Come on, Louis, take your medicine. I can see that Liam's a bit nicer than we first thought, but wouldn't you rather not need him anymore?"

"I don't know," said Louis slowly. He shot a look at Liam. "But he's not the only one I need. My first bond—you left him behind."

"The other popstar? The pretty one?" Leigh-Anne looked at Jade and shrugged. "Surprised you're doing so well without him, then. It doesn't matter though, Louis, it'll work either way."

"I don't want it to work," said Louis, his voice shaking a little. "My bond's not Zayn. It's Harry. One of us. You saw him in the video and you still don't understand."

Jade dropped back onto a stool, eyes wide. "Your first bond is another pet?"

"We're not pets anymore," said Louis. "And if you think I’m just going to—to change how I feel about him, then you really don't get it at all."

What followed was fifteen minutes of utter confusion. Jesy wanted to know how Leigh-Anne could have separated one of theirs from his own chosen bond: "It's like, against everything we stand for, isn't it? It's a proper old-fashioned bond, like we had before the Sadies came." Leigh-Anne wanted to know how Jesy thought she could possibly have known, and anyway she never asked to be best at target practice and selected mission leader, and why was she always the one being blamed for everything? Jade was trying to explain the neurochemical properties of the antidote to Louis: "I'm pretty sure it'll only prevent the pain, you'll still love your Harry. I think." Leigh-Anne was saying that Louis was an idiot if he thought taking the cure meant he couldn't have Harry, because she and Pezza had gotten rid of their Sadie bonds last year and now here they were, all loved up. Then Perrie stopped arguing because she was busy kissing Leigh-Anne. Meanwhile, Louis was trying to explain at the top of his lungs that he thought the antidote was brilliant and anyone bonded to a Sadie ought to get it, but would they please leave him out of it, because he wasn't going to change who he was without Harry, and he wasn't going to make any decisions without Harry, and if they were so on fire to help him, they could take him straight back to Harry right now. That was when he knocked Jade's cup to the floor and let it all spill out.

"Lou," started Liam, but he didn't know what to say.

"I chose," said Louis, and his eyes on Liam were fierce and proud. "Look at me, Liam, I made a choice."

In the silence that followed, there was a knock at the door.

The girls sprang into action faster than Liam would have believed possible. Leigh-Anne and Jesy grabbed guns and tossed weapons to Perrie and Jade. Then Jade grabbed Liam and Leigh-Anne grabbed Louis, and since they were carrying weapons, it seemed easiest for Liam to let himself be dragged into a defensive crouch next to Jade. Meanwhile, Jesy seemed to be going out the back window.

"Sadies wouldn't knock," said Leigh-Anne calmly, from behind Jade's worktable. She seemed to be sitting on Louis.

"Could be allies," whispered Perrie, peeking out from behind the curtain. "Tulisa?"

"They'd've alerted us," said Leigh-Anne. "New runaways, maybe?"

The knock came again, and this time Liam was sure, so sure he was trembling with it.

"It's Zayn," he said. "I'm sure it's Zayn. Please, Jade, can I get the door?"

"What?" said Jade. "How in the world would you know that?"

"Um," said Liam. "I recognise his knuckles."

Louis gave him a look that was entirely trusting and a little bit fond. "Of course you do," said Louis.

"But they don't know where we are," said Perrie. "How would they?"

Liam sighed. "Niall's pretty smart," he said. "I tried to tell you guys before, Niall's really, really smart."

There were some clunking noises from outside the door. "Are they armed?" Jade asked him. Her grip on his upper arm was painfully tight.

"Zayn likes to hit things," said Liam, "but I'm pretty sure he's never handled a real weapon in his life."

"And Harry hasn't either," said Louis. "So can I get the door now? Please?"

But then there was a sort of crashing thump, and the front door burst open. It was Jesy, coming in backwards with one shoulder to the door. She had a grip on Zayn with one hand and Harry with the other, and with a grunt she whirled to shove them both into the middle of the room. Harry landed on his bum and Zayn on his knees and there were three guns trained on them in the blink of an eye.

It wasn't a weapon that froze Liam still, though. It was the way Zayn's eyes found his, huge, searching, almost disbelieving. Liam stared back and the world seemed to tilt sideways. Dimly he was aware that Harry had scrambled up, ignoring the guns completely, and was stumbling toward Louis, who made a dive for him, tripping over Leigh-Anne and half-crawling the rest of the way. Then he and Harry were falling into each other and Louis was kissing Harry all over his face, and still Zayn was quiet in the middle of the floor. Liam took a step forward but his legs wouldn't work and he dropped to his knees and said, "Zayn."

Zayn said, "Liam," at the exact same time, but they still weren't close enough to touch.

 

 

29. Zayn

Zayn hadn't thought it would be this easy. Of course, Niall had told them exactly where to go, and he'd been feeding them directions the whole nasty, muddy way there, but Liam and Louis could easily have been taken to another location once the video had been made, and when the renegade attacked from behind and he felt cold metal pressing against his back, it seemed likely that their luck had run out, especially after being patted down for weapons in the most demeaning way possible. But then she'd shoved them both in and there was Liam, right there in front of him. Zayn was still recovering from the one-two punch of renegade attack and Liam's face when a voice cut through the haze. "They're alone. No Sadies in sight." It was the renegade who'd jumped them.

"Weapons?"

"They're clean."

"How'd they get here, anyway?"

Zayn took his eyes off Liam. "Left a skimmer a couple miles off," he said. "Didn't want to give away your location. Our ship's in a holding pattern in the upper atmosphere."

"Oh, poor Niall," said Liam, and he sounded so normal, Zayn started to get his bearings too. Maybe it would be all right.

He smiled at Liam, a little hesitantly. "Didn't even hear him complain, though." He turned back to the girls and tried to figure out who to talk to. He chose the purple-haired girl who had her arm around one of the others. "Our Niall's a bit claustrophobic," he explained to her. "Says the air's too crowded when you hit atmosphere."

"Am I meant to feel sorry for him?" inquired another girl. "Because I don't recall inviting you to come."

"Yeah, about that," said Zayn, and got to his feet. "It's only we can't really do without Liam and Louis, and we've given you most of what you wanted, anyhow."

"There's been no statement from the Terran Fed, though."

"And there won't be for a while," said Zayn. "It's politics."

Liam nodded. "People talking, you know, takes longer than guns."

"Except," said the girl who'd fired the warning shots at the concert, "sometimes it takes guns to make the talking start."

Zayn thought that this was a conversation that would take a long time and he wasn't sure what he thought about it anyway. "The point is," he said, clearing his throat, "you've got their attention now, and like I said, we'll back you all the way if you'll stop, you know, kidnapping us." He jerked his head towards Harry and Louis, wrapped around each other so tightly it wasn't exactly clear where one stopped and the other began. "Meanwhile, didn't really want to keep those two apart."

"Good—" Liam started, and then his voice cracked. "Good decision. Louis really missed Harry."

Zayn licked his lips nervously. "Yeah. Um, Harry really missed Louis as well." He hoped Liam would understand what he couldn't quite manage to say now that they were both in the same room. Liam stared back at him, quiet.

"Is this a Terran bonding ritual?" one of the girls asked.

Another one said, "I don't know, do Terrans even bond? Why are you two being so weird?"

"We're in the middle of a daring rescue from alien captivity," said Liam stiffly. "I don't think there's etiquette to cover the situation."

"Exactly," said Zayn. "Hello, how are you, Liam, fancy being rescued?"

"Why, yes," said Liam, "thank you for asking. Oh, by the way, Zayn, meet my kidnappers. That's Leigh-Anne, she's good at target practice, that's her girlfriend Perrie, who doesn't believe anything I say, you've already met Jesy up close and personal, and that's Jade, she's a mad scientist."

"How's it going," said Jade.

"Nice to meet you. Fight the power and all that." Zayn scratched his head. "Can we all go back to Niall now?"

"Absolutely not," said Leigh-Anne.

"Not yet," said Jade.

Jesy waved her hand at Harry and Louis. "Don't know if you're going to be able to pry those two apart long enough to get back to your skimmer anyway."

Perrie turned to the two of them. "Knock it off now, Louis, we can all see you're bonded, yeah? There's no need to overdo it."

"They might need it," said Jesy. "You remember how it is."

"I wonder if they'd be acting any different right now if Louis'd taken my cure," mused Jade.

Harry and Louis ignored all of this.

"Harry," said Zayn.

"Louis," said Liam.

Then Harry and Louis blinked, smiled, pulled back from each other just a little. Liam said, "We need to talk a few things over. If you two aren't—if you can manage it, it would be nice to have your input."

"For example," said Zayn, "what in the world is the 'cure'?"

A short time later everyone was seated around one of the big tables. The boys and girls were on opposite sides. Zayn was sitting next to Louis, who had Liam close by on his other side. Harry wasn't sitting down yet, because after a brief conversation with Jesy, he'd begun making something with hot water and crushed herbs that seemed to be the local equivalent of tea. Zayn hadn't even had a private word with Liam yet, except for asking him about the rip in his shirt, putting his finger to the torn place before the warmth of Liam's skin reminded him not to touch. But it turned out he hadn't been very mistreated at all. "Except they made me do the washing up," Liam added, and Zayn had snorted. Then they'd gotten pulled over to the table, and now Jade was explaining about the antidote.

Zayn said, "Well. That sounds useful."

Louis said, "Are you hearing this, Harry? D'you want to be cured of me?"

Harry said, "I'll think it over." He kissed Louis on the top of his head and handed out the drinks in crockery that had seen far, far better days, as well some biscuit-y things, because apparently he'd decided to just take over the kitchen. Perrie instantly grabbed the plate of biscuits for her end of the table. Then Harry slid in between Zayn and Louis and put his arm around Louis's neck and his hand on Zayn's thigh.

"Maybe you could get some new mugs with the ransom money," Zayn suggested to Perrie. "And a housekeeping service."

"The money," Jade said, "is for equipment and ingredients so we can mass-produce the antidote. We've gotten it out to people as best we can, but we need to move more of it if we really want to make a difference. There's not a lot we can do if we can't break Sadie bonds."

"Wow," said Liam. "That's actually a really good plan."

"How are you going to distribute it?" Zayn wanted to know. "How are you going to get people away from their owners once they've taken it?"

"We've got a few skimmers," said Leigh-Anne. "One thing at a time." But she looked a little worried.

Then Zayn felt Harry's mouth at his ear. "Niall's quite a big ship, isn't he? And he's got a few friends like him?"

"Um," said Zayn.

"He could help out," whispered Harry. "Take our people back home. Please, Zayn?" His green eyes were imploring.

"It's not my decision," said Zayn, "but I'll ask Niall."

"Ask Niall what?" said Liam, overhearing.

Zayn looked up and saw Louis's hand on Liam's neck, Louis looking at Liam like…like he was someone pretty special. It was hard to be resent affection that genuine. Not that he wasn't envious, because Zayn remembered having that kind of ease with Liam, touching him whenever he liked. Once you'd lost something like that, how did you get it back?

"Zayn?" Liam prompted gently.

Zayn bit his lip. "Ask him about helping with transport and such? Harry's idea," he remembered to say, and gave Harry a quick squeeze.

"But the claustrophobia?" That was Perrie. Zayn felt pleased that she'd remembered.

"Maybe Paul can help instead," said Zayn. "He's good at herding people." He tapped his comm for Niall.

Niall agreed that he or Paul would be delighted to help, and then he started burbling on about his diplomatic contacts, which meant that rendering material assistance to a rebel movement was probably part of his master plan to meet the president. After Zayn had made enough encouraging noises, Niall asked to speak to one of the renegades about safety testing and the manufacturing process, so Zayn turned his comm over to Jade. Jade began the conversation guardedly, but before long Zayn heard her chuckle, and then a few minutes later Jade seemed to be telling Niall about Jesy's hilarious range of Sadelan accents. By the end of the conversation she was signing off with, "Love you too!"

Jesy raised an eyebrow.

"He's very charming," said Jade defensively, "and he's going to be an enormous help with the revolution. Here's your comm, Zayn. Now I've got to get some samples together."

"Is that it?" said Leigh-Anne. "We just give them our medical breakthrough and let them go?"

"Look," said Liam. "Zayn's already promised our fans we'll help and we'll do the boycott, we'd look ridiculous if we went back on it now. You could see on the vid we meant to help all along, anyway." He shot a proud look at Zayn. Zayn gave him a thumbs-up, and Liam beamed.

"If we let them go," said Perrie, "they could give away our position to the Sadies."

"Niall can still do that, even if you're holding us," said Zayn impatiently. "But he won't. Come on. If you want intergalactic support, you can't be holding Two Hearts hostage, our fan base won't like it."

Jade said, "Let them go. We've got the cash already and they won't be helping with the cure or pushing for the boycott if they're stuck here either."

"I for one," said Jesy, "am tired of sleeping four to a bed. I'd like the spare room back, please."

"Oh," said Liam. "You'll probably want to launder the—" Then he winced and darted a look at Zayn. Zayn shrugged, to emphasize how mature he was planning to be.

"Right," said Perrie. "Let's not dwell. Okay, I vote for sending them off. Leigh-Anne?"

"All right," said Leigh-Anne, slowly. "But what about Harry and Louis?"

"What about us?" said Louis.

Leigh-Anne said, "If you wanted to stay planetside, we're sure we could find you a very nice HQ where you'd fit right in."

"Oh," said Zayn. "I forgot to mention, Niall says the president wants to meet them. So we'd like them to come, at least for a bit."

Perrie grinned. "Right, and that's the only reason, yeah?"

Liam and Zayn's eyes met. This time they both shrugged. "That is, if you don't mind, lads," Zayn remembered to add.

"We'd love to meet the president," said Harry. "The president is our spaceship's future bond," he explained to the girls. Then he turned back to Zayn. "What exactly is a president again?"

It wasn't long before Jade had prepared her samples: "These are for Niall's tests, and these are for Harry and Louis, if they like." Harry and Louis thanked her politely and wanted to know if the girls would like to come visit them on Niall. The renegades absolutely refused.

"Because sometimes runaways show up on our doorstep," said Jesy, "and we've got to be here for them."

"And Tulisa would worry," said Leigh-Anne.

"And this is our home," said Jade.

Perrie just said, "Ew, boys," and winked at Zayn. So that was the end of that conversation.

Still, they shook Zayn's and Harry's hands in a friendly enough way before turning to Liam and Louis. There was a pause. Then Jade darted in to give Liam a hug, and Jesy pounced on Louis, and finally Liam and Louis were being tackled by all four of them.

"Well," said Zayn to Harry as they watched. "This is cosy."

Harry grinned. "I guess they did a good job with the dishes."

Liam and Louis were a little breathless when they joined Zayn and Harry at the door. "Ready?" asked Zayn.

"Ready," said Liam. "Zayn, I—"

"Bye!" yelled Jesy. And the girls stood there in the vine-draped doorway of HQ17, arms around each other, and watched, waving, until Zayn and Liam and Niall and Harry made it to the first bend of the path back to the skimmer.

"What were you going to say?" Zayn asked Liam, tripping on a tree root. But Liam's sudden grip on his arm kept him from falling.

"Just," said Liam. "Just that I’m glad we're going home." And all the way to the skimmer, whenever the path was wide enough, he walked right next to Zayn.

 

 

30. Niall

Ship's Log * 20.4.3281 Sadela

Sadela: Swampy, noisy, crowded, gives me engine-ache. Wish they'd hurry it up.

Rescue Mission: Stunning success so far. Except it took them bloody forever to get through the swamp and now they're letting Louis fly the skimmer? Come on.

Rebels: Could be worse. Jade's quite clever. I've never helped with a revolution before ! Should be excellent !

The President: Has broken off trade talks with Sadela until further notice. In special session with advisors. Sent me a cute picture of his dog.

 

 

31. Liam

The ride back to Niall was nearly as terrifying as the ride to HQ had been in the first place. Niall had set the skimmer on autoflight, but after Louis begged, Liam had agreed to adjust the settings. Only far enough to let Louis correct speed and steering a bit, but somehow he managed to make the most of the limited range of choices he had. As a result, they went too slow and then too fast and bumped and bucked most of the way there. Harry was up front pointing out a cloud that looked like a heart and a cloud that looked like a small furry animal and when Louis looked where he was pointing the whole skimmer lurched.

Zayn and Liam were in the back seat. Each time Louis twisted left, Liam had to brace himself so that he wouldn't fall into Zayn's side. He remembered that time they'd gone to the amusement park back home and Zayn hadn't wanted to go on the tallest rides because he didn't like heights. Zayn still didn't like extraplanetary skimmer flights unless the shades were down and VR was involved. Liam put his hand on the seat between himself and Zayn, just in case it was needed, and snuck a glance at Zayn. Zayn was looking straight ahead. A moment later, Liam felt the side of Zayn's hand, pressed up alongside his.

"Took you long enough," was what Niall said when they finally reached him and docked the skimmer in the bay. His hologram was perched on the edge of the upper level, swinging its legs. But Liam heard a sort of mechanized rumble echoing through the ship, and as they entered into the main corridor, the walls themselves seemed to quiver a little. Someone else might have chalked it up to shifting velocity, because of course now they were aboard Niall wanted to get to open space right away. But Liam knew from experience that Niall was perfectly capable of changing course as silent and smooth as a cat.

"Missed us, then?" said Liam.

"Not a bit," said Niall's hologram, but Liam heard the rumbling sound again.

"Don't cry, Niall," said Harry, and patted the wall.

"There's dinner in the galley," said Niall in a very small voice. "Meet you there." And then his hologram was gone.

The four of them were too hungry to talk much, but since Niall didn't eat, he provided more than enough chatter to make up for it. He told them about how the President wanted to meet them all, how three other Terran pop acts had already issued statements that they wouldn't tour Sadela until slavery was abolished, how he'd informed Sadelan authorities of Liam and Louis's safe return, and how Paul made a big noisy fuss and then said he'd be delighted to help out.

Liam just nodded and focused on eating. He remembered how excited he'd been about missions and strategy but right now he wanted to stop planning and just be. Possibly he wasn't cut out to be a fulltime freedom fighter. Possibly, he was just Liam Payne, who liked to sing. Especially if he was singing with Zayn. He looked up from his plate, saw Zayn watching him, and hastily dropped his eyes again.

Meanwhile, Harry and Louis were whispering to each other, in that weird, half-telepathic way they had. Louis grinned brightly. "We're done eating!" he announced. "Thanks, Niall. See you later, Liam and Zayn. Harry and I have to go have sex now!"

Zayn coughed and set down his drink. Harry patted him on the back and said, "Meanwhile, Zayn, you should do that thing we talked about."

"Sleeping?" said Zayn.

"Talking," said Harry. "Anyway, Louis and I can see perfectly well that all you and Liam want right now is each other."

"Listen to Harry," said Niall to Zayn.

"In fact," said Louis, "I think we'll walk you both to your room just to make sure you don't do your Terran avoidance thing."

Zayn said to Liam, "Yours orders you around too, then?"

"Pretty much," said Liam, shrugging. "I guess—I guess we probably should talk."

"Right," said Zayn.

Which was how they ended up at the door to Liam's bedroom, the room that up until a couple days ago had belonged to them both. Harry kissed Zayn on the cheek. Louis licked Liam's ear. "Go on," he said, and pushed him gently through the door. Then Harry and Louis were off down the corridor and Zayn was following Liam into the bedroom, the door sliding shut behind him.

Zayn stood there by the shelf that held their vintage comic books and framed photographs and Liam's action figures and Zayn's antique robot from Titan that had never really worked. He picked up a photograph and put it down again. "So I guess I didn't really move out yet."

"No," agreed Liam. "Um. I kind of need to take my stuff off." He was still wearing his stage outfit, because that morning there'd been nothing else to put on.

"Okay," said Zayn. He sat down on the edge of the bed.

Liam pulled his crumpled shirt off and decided to toss it toward the rubbish corner instead of the laundry corner. He didn't think he'd really want to wear it again. "Next show, do you think we could start wearing a different—"

"Liam," said Zayn. "Don't really want to talk about that now."

"Right," said Liam. "Of course." He turned around and Zayn was watching him evenly, dropping his gaze from Liam's face to his chest and then lower as Liam peeled his dusty trousers off as well.

"You look good," Zayn said quietly.

Liam looked at the line of Zayn's narrow body on their bed, the cut of his lightly stubbled jaw, the dark smudge of his eyelashes. He said, "Um. You and Harry—"

"Yeah," said Zayn quickly. "Sorry."

Liam thought of Louis's story. "Don't be sorry."

"I had to," said Zayn.

"Me too," said Liam. But he ought to be more honest than that, he thought. "Also, I wanted to."

"I know," said Zayn. "Same."

"Was it," Liam began. "Was it good?"

There was a pause, in which Liam stood there awkwardly, looking down at Zayn's considering face, and was sorry he asked. Because he thought Zayn would probably be polite, and say no, it wasn't, not like it was with Liam, and then Liam would have to nod and pretend to believe him, and then every time he watched Zayn look at Harry tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, he'd remember that Zayn had lied.

But when Zayn looked up at Liam there was no hint of evasion in his eyes. "Yes," he said simply. "It was."

The stab of jealousy, when it came, was not nearly as sharp as Liam expected. "All right," Liam said. "Look, I'm gonna take a shower, okay?"

"You upset? You want me to go?"

"No," said Liam quickly. "No, we should talk. I just need–I still feel, like, swamp-ish or something. Do you mind waiting?"

Zayn shrugged. "Wouldn't mind a nap."

"You wouldn't, would you," said Liam, and Zayn made a face at him, and for a moment everything felt just the same as ever.

The hot water spraying down hard was so much better than the delicate prickle of an autofresher. Liam had done a fanmeeting and a concert and been kidnapped and walked miles in a swamp and been held hostage in a grimy warehouse and had sex with Louis and walked more miles in a swamp and had several near-death experiences in a skimmer and he stood there and thought about none of it, just felt the water stream down his body and wash it all away. He didn't know what to think about Zayn's presence in the next room. Zayn had said that he missed Liam every minute, and Liam had started by believing him, before he realised that it had been the right thing to say if Zayn wanted to break viewers' hearts. Liam wasn't sure what did or didn't count as pretending anymore.

After some time, there was a voice outside the door, just audible over the rushing water. "Liam?"

Liam sighed. "Sorry, Zayn, I'll be out soon, all right?"

"It's okay," called Zayn. "I mean, can I come in?"

"Uh," said Liam. "Yeah, of course." He flicked the shower to the cleanser setting so it would look like he was making progress.

The door opened. Liam squinted through the steam and the watershield to see Zayn standing in the doorway. "How was the nap?"

"I couldn't sleep," said Zayn. He wasn't looking at Liam.

"Okay," said Liam.

"I had to walk through the swamps too, you know," Zayn said.

"Well, yeah," said Liam. "I know you did a lot to get us out, I really appreciate—"

"No," said Zayn. "I mean, I could use a shower myself."

"So I'll just," Liam began, flicking the shower to rinse.

"Liam, please," said Zayn. "Stay there." He pulled his shirt over his head, a little blurry on the other side of the watershield, but then Liam already knew him so well: the shape of his shoulders, the colour of his nipples, the line of hair that disappeared below the waist of Zayn's jeans.

Liam cleared his throat. "Did you really miss me every minute?"

Zayn hesitated. "Most of the minutes." He stripped the rest of his clothes off. "I still miss you," Zayn said, and waved the watershield aside to step down into the water.

He stood there facing away from Liam, and the water streamed over his head and down his body. Liam wanted to run his hands over every part of him. "Zayn," he said. Zayn turned to him, face wet. Liam swallowed and said, "Can I touch you?"

"Liam," said Zayn. "Oh god, Liam, just come here, just—" and Liam didn't know if it was he who stepped forward into Zayn or Zayn who closed the gap between them, but he was kissing Zayn while the water ran over both their heads, and Liam coughed and pulled back to breathe and then went in again. They were pressed together, chest to chest, sliding against each other in the water and the steam, Zayn's cock thick and hard against Liam's stomach.

"You feel," said Liam, but Zayn slid his tongue into Liam's mouth and his hands down to Liam's arse and he forgot how to finish the sentence. Zayn pushed him a little, just a few inches back to the shower wall, and Liam moaned and went, feeling the tiles slick and heated against his back, feeling Zayn's mouth on his jaw, his neck, feeling Zayn sliding down his body until he was kneeling there, looking up at Liam through eyelashes clumped with water and then bending his head to Liam's cock.

Liam put his fingers through Zayn's wet mess of black hair, watched the stream of water hitting his shoulder blades and cascading down his back, and cried out at the slick hot slide of his lips. Zayn tilted his head so water sprayed where his mouth was working on Liam's cock, and Liam felt the suck of Zayn's mouth and the stream of water both. He cried out, knees buckling a little, and then Zayn was pulling off and coughing—"too much water, Liam, wait"—and Liam gasped, "sorry, sorry," and then moaned again because Zayn had begun stroking him in long, slow sweeps.

Zayn said, "Always so fucking loud," and sucked him in again. Liam didn't try to stifle his moans, both because he couldn’t and because he knew Zayn wanted to hear him. Zayn always wanted to know how much he was taking Liam apart. Zayn held Liam's hips hard and took him deep, and Liam had to look away from Zayn's mouth on him before he came too soon. He put his head back and closed his eyes, and then felt Zayn's fingers reaching behind his balls, rubbing gently around his hole. Liam's hips bucked forward before he could stop himself, which meant Zayn was off his cock again, spluttering, but his fingers were still pressing there, a little more insistently, while his other hand worked Liam's cock.

"Stop," said Liam, but Zayn didn't seem to hear him. "Stop, Zayn, please, I'm gonna come."

"So come," said Zayn. "God, I want you to."

"Zayn," groaned Liam, struggling for words. "I want to come when you're inside me, I want—"

"Yeah," said Zayn breathlessly, "yeah, Liam, yeah," and he tried getting up and slipped on the wet tiles, so Liam pulled him to his feet, dragging Zayn against him and kissing him.

"Bed," Zayn muttered into his mouth, and Liam nodded, flicked off the water. They stumbled together out of the bathroom, dripping wet, mouths pressed together. Zayn's face was dazed when the backs of his knees finally hit the bed, so Liam picked him up and put him there. Zayn leaned back against the pillows at the head of the bed, skin still glistening. It wasn't easy for Liam to tear his eyes away long enough to fumble for the lube in the drawer by the bed.

"I want," Zayn began, and his voice broke. "I want you to ride me."

Liam tossed the lube on the bed. "I can do that." He straddled Zayn's lap and dipped his head for a kiss.

Zayn sighed into Liam's mouth and propped himself up on his elbows. "You want me to get you ready?"

Liam thought if Zayn got a hand back on him he'd probably come from his fingers alone. Too dangerous. "I got it," said Liam, and he reached behind himself. Zayn waited, stroking absently at his own cock.

"Don't you dare come yet, Zayn," warned Liam.

"I'm not, all right?" Zayn raised his hands. "This is me not touching myself. This isn't easy."

"One sec," said Liam, his fingers still working.

"Did you do this with Louis?" Zayn asked suddenly.

Liam stopped. "No."

"Okay," said Zayn. "I mean it would have been all right if. I was just wondering."

"I blew him, he jerked me off," said Liam. "So you don't have to wonder, all right?" It was as if saying it called the memory up: the taste of Louis's cock in his mouth, the firmness of his hands.

Zayn reached out to touch Liam's face. "I get it, Liam, okay? I do."

Liam turned his head to nip at his fingers. With one slippery hand he coated Zayn's cock, fisting it loosely until Zayn's sounds began, those high, hurt whimpers from the back of his throat. "And you call me loud," said Liam.

Zayn opened his eyes to stare at Liam. "Just, just wanna be in you, Liam, want to have you."

"Zayn," whispered Liam. "I'm always yours." He went up on his knees to line up Zayn's cock, bore down, and slowly, slowly, started to take it, using his hand to guide Zayn in. He let his breath out sharply at the stretch, gritting his teeth, but kept going.

Zayn was stroking one of his forearms. "Easy, Liam. Easy."

"It's easy for you," Liam gasped.

"You calling me lazy again?" Zayn's voice was deliberately light, but his eyes were desperate, his fingers clenching harder on Liam's arm, and Liam took a deep breath and sank down until Zayn's cock was full and stiff inside him.

"Okay," said Liam quietly. "Okay." He leaned forward to kiss Zayn, and when Zayn was open-mouthed and moaning, Liam raised himself and began to move.  

He worked himself on Zayn's cock slowly and deliberately, Zayn still and careful under him, but when Liam started grinding down harder, Zayn began thrusting up to meet him. Liam leaned to angle Zayn's cock inside him, find the right spot, and then Zayn put his hand on Liam's cock and Liam started to shake. "You're so wet," Zayn groaned, moving his thumb on the head, and it was true: wet from the shower, wet from Zayn's mouth, wet from the precome Liam was leaking. "Tell me, Liam, tell me how it feels."

"You know," Liam choked out.

"Yeah?" said Zayn, teasing. "I like to hear it."

"Uhhh," was all Liam could manage. "Just please, please," but he didn't know what he was asking for, and with Zayn's cock filling him and Zayn's hand stroking him slick and fast, there was nothing left to want. Liam leaned forward to slide his arm under Zayn, gather him up so that Zayn was curled against his chest. "Feels like you," said Liam, and came hard, came for what felt like a very long time.

Zayn gave him half a moment to rest with his head on Zayn's shoulder, and then kissed him and whispered, "Want you to turn over for me, all right, Liam?" Liam managed to nod. He pulled himself up slowly, wincing a little as he let Zayn's cock slide out. It seemed to take too long to rearrange himself on his forearms and knees on the bed, too long for Zayn to position himself behind Liam and push in again. "You okay?" Zayn asked.

"Go ahead," said Liam, because it was just on the edge of being too much but also exactly what he wanted. Zayn ran his hands down Liam's back, held his hips, and fucked him in the rhythm they both liked, strong and steady, not pulling out too far.

Zayn was groaning. Liam said, "Tell me how it feels."

"Like I need you," Zayn whispered, and started to tremble the way he did when he was close. Liam felt the weight of him along his back, felt him pressing his mouth to Liam's skin. "Liam," Zayn said, his voice muffled. And then, "Liam, I need you, don't, don't leave me." Liam turned his head, shocked, because that made no sense at all, but Zayn's eyes were closed and he was speeding up, and Liam gave up figuring anything out. When Zayn came, pulsing deep inside him, he was still mumbling something. And Liam wasn't sure, but it sounded a whole lot like the word "stay."

They lay in a confusion of limbs, Zayn collapsed half on top of Liam, heavy and warm. Liam said, "That was amazing." Zayn was quiet. Liam said, "I love you." Zayn was quiet. Liam said, "I don't want to stop cuddling but the duvet's all wet," and then Zayn laughed and poked his chin sharply into Liam's shoulder blade and Liam hit him amiably and scrambled away.

Zayn gathered up the wet duvet. "Why didn't you let us towel off first, Liam? This was a terrible idea."

"The worst," Liam agreed, and grabbed the duvet and threw it weakly toward the laundry corner. The floor rippled obediently and gathered it in. "There, now Niall will know what we've been doing."

"Yes, I'm sure it was a baffling mystery up until this moment," said Zayn. He slid off the bed and disappeared into the bathroom for a moment, coming back with a flannel and tossing it to Liam. Then he went to the wardrobe and tugged another blanket off the top shelf.

"Well," said Liam, "it was a mystery to me. I mean, we broke up, right? Are we still broken up?" He finished cleaning up and threw the flannel after the duvet.

Zayn hopped back on the bed, ignoring the question. "C'mere," he said, and when Liam scooched over, he put the blanket over them both. They lay on their backs side by side.

"Wish to hell I had a fag," said Zayn.

Liam had heard this one or two or six hundred times before. "Zayn? I don't know if I heard you right before, but. I'm not going anywhere." He thought for a moment. "Unless I get kidnapped again."

Zayn turned and pressed his face against Liam's shoulder. "Harry said I have to talk to you."

"Well, by all means," Liam teased, "if Harry says so."

Zayn took a deep breath. "I heard you. On the commlink."

"Okay?"

"You know," said Zayn. "And that's your right, I guess, because our contract is up after this tour and we never really talked about the future anyway."

"Zayn," said Liam. "What in the world are you on about?"

"And maybe I shouldn't have been surprised," said Zayn quickly, "because we were fighting all the time and singing's what you care about most and everyone always said you were going to go solo anyway."

"Whoa," said Liam, sitting up fast.

"Don't steal the blanket," said Zayn instantly.

"Sorry." Liam tucked it back around Zayn's shoulders.

Zayn was still talking. "I guess you figured I'd do it too, but I won't, Liam, I'll just go home. I don't want to sing without you." Zayn looked up at him, using the blank expression Liam knew was only a shield for worry.

"I don't," began Liam, and stopped, confused. "I don't understand or even know where to start. You think I'm going solo?"

"It's perfectly understandable," Zayn mumbled. "Things aren't working between us anymore."

"They were working pretty well fifteen minutes ago!"

"Liam. You know what I mean."

"Are you saying you want me to go solo?"

"If that's what's best for you. Maybe. Or actually, no? If I want to die just thinking about it, that's a no, right?"

"You want to die just thinking about it?" Liam's voice was rising. "I would never, never, in a million years, I mean, what, Zayn, what could possibly make you think that I'd want to do that?"

"Hearing you say it," said Zayn dully. He sat up. "Are any of my clothes left in here? I want to get dressed."

Liam pointed at him. "Oh no you do not, Zayn Malik. You stay right there until we straighten this out." Zayn rolled his eyes but didn't get off the bed. "Now," said Liam, "I can absolutely promise you that I didn't say anything of the kind. And don't say you don't believe me, because I got enough of that from those girls."

Zayn licked his lips. "You said something about three years of Two Hearts, and how this was the next step for you. And then, uh, 'I'm gonna do it, we've been together for too long.' And I know you weren't talking about, like, your turtles, because you haven't had the new ones for that long and they aren't on tour with us anyway."

"That reminds me," said Liam, "did Niall mention that on the night we got Harry and Louis we also got some weird Sadelan-type turtles? I mean, not actual turtles but they're kind of…turtleoid?"

"That's not a word," said Zayn, "and now who's being evasive?"

"I'm not," said Liam, and realised he'd been bouncing a little. "I'm just excited about new pets. Real pets, I mean. Not Harry and Louis."

"Can we get back to the part where I walked in on you telling someone you were going to leave me? And if you're going to say you didn't really mean it, I don't care, you meant it at the time so you'll likely mean it again."

Liam tried to focus. "When was this, exactly?"

"Last week. Why d'you think I broke it off with you?"

"I thought," Liam said, "I thought it was that you'd stopped loving me."

Zayn's face twisted. "I wish."

"You mean," said Liam slowly, "you mean you still do?"

"That's my business," said Zayn, sullenly.

"Right," said Liam. He tried to think of the calls he'd made last week. It seemed like a long time ago.

"Anyway," said Zayn, "you were in the practice room. You were sitting at the piano and wearing that white shirt that stretches over your—oh, never mind."

That was when the whole day came rushing back. He remembered it now, how he and Zayn had quarrelled at breakfast over whether to add extra dates to the homecoming leg of their tour, and Niall had uncharacteristically snapped at them both. Liam had been feeling desperate, like he had to do something to change things between him and Zayn, reboot their relationship or something, because the only time it was good between them anymore was in bed and sometimes onstage and that wasn't right. He wanted it good between them after a show as well, good between them when they were rehearsing choreography, good between them when they were deciding on a VR to visit on a night off.

Liam took Zayn's hand. "How much of that conversation did you overhear?"

"I left when I heard you say that, I didn't think I could handle—I left."

"All right." Liam looked Zayn in the eye. "I do remember that day. I was talking to my mum."

"I don't believe you," said Zayn. "She'd have disowned you."

"She wouldn't," said Liam, "because I was telling her I was going to ask you to marry me."

Zayn put his hand to his mouth, eyes wide.

"Yeah," said Liam. "Because I thought we needed a big change. Something that would shift us off the path we were on, because we were having the same fights over and over. I thought maybe if you knew how much you meant to me, things—things would be different?" He trailed off. Zayn was still staring at him. Liam hesitated, but it seemed to late to stop now. "And it seemed to me we had a, a forever kind of thing, and maybe I'd messed up by not making that clear. That's what I was saying, we'd been together too long to just be boyfriends, so I wanted—I  wanted to take the next step."

Zayn was holding his hand so hard it was painful. "Is that true, Liam? Is that really, honestly true?"

"It is. You can ask my mum."

"Then you're an idiot!" Zayn exploded. "Everybody knows you don't get married or have a baby to save a relationship! Everything screws up anyway and then you've got a bloody baby on your hands!"

"You want a baby?" Liam said.

"I do not," said Zayn. "I mean, maybe later. Not the point. It's an incredibly dumb relationship-saving tactic and you should know better."

"Well, yeah," said Liam, shrugging. "That's what my mum said. So I decided against it."

"Oh my god, Liam Payne. Did you just jilt me at the altar? Did you just ask me to marry you and then take it back?"

"I'm confused," said Liam. "Did you want to marry me?"

"Don't be off-topic," said Zayn.

"I'm pretty sure that's on-topic. I'm pretty sure that's practically the definition of on-topic. Anyway, why are you calling me stupid when you did such a bloody awful job of eavesdropping? You drop in and then leave in the middle of a sentence? How do you expect to gather any intel that way?"

"I don't!" Zayn yelled back. "Because in case you haven't noticed, I'm not actually a bloody spy!"

"I should hope not," said Liam. "You're far too noisy to be a spy."

That was when Zayn leapt on top of him, wrestling him down, and they rolled over and over until Liam finally had Zayn pinned to the bed, sitting on him with one hand on each wrist.

"Next time," said Liam, "next time just ask me, yeah? So that you don't waste a lot of time breaking my heart."

Zayn swallowed. "The thing is, you know. The thing is that I always sort of wondered if you liked being a popstar better than you liked me."

Liam took his hands off Zayn's wrists. "I don't get it."

"Your singing. Your career, like. Whether you wanted me for me or because our romance took Two Hearts to the top. That's why I um, I misinterpreted. Because it was what I'd always been afraid of. The day when you being a star meant you'd leave me behind."

Something twisted in Liam's chest. "I want to say that's unfair," he said slowly, "but I guess. Well. Maybe once I couldn't quite tell the difference? Between how I loved you and how I loved Two Hearts? And I thought the same things would always be best for both."

Zayn was nodding. "I know."

"But I figured something out, you know, while I was being kidnapped," Liam went on. "Because I didn't think much about Two Hearts and definitely not about whether I was going to perform again. It was you I was thinking of. It was how much I wanted you."

"And Louis," said Zayn.

"Do you mind?" said Liam. "I'm trying to tell you about a meaningful whatsit here."

"Epiphany."

"All right," said Liam, "if you say so. But then I get to say turtleoid."

"You do not," said Zayn. "You do, however, get to kiss me."

So Liam did.

"Just so we're clear," said Liam a little while later, when Zayn was curled against him, his head on Liam's shoulder. "You definitely come first."

"Yes, but…"

"But? But? Was there another bad spy job you wanted to discuss?"

Zayn went up on his elbow. He looked thoughtful, which was probably a bad sign. "Harry and Louis."

"Oh," said Liam. Probably Zayn wanted to make sure he wouldn't go back to Louis. And he guessed he wouldn't, not if Zayn said not to. Louis loved Harry best anyway. Still, the thought of never touching Louis again was oddly painful. "We should stop with them, you mean? Now that we're—we're—we are back together, right?"

"I hope so," said Zayn, and leaned down to kiss him quickly. "But I didn't say, um. The thing is, Harry's under the impression…Harry thinks…" He trailed off and rubbed his forehead. "It doesn't really make any sense."

Liam said slowly, "Louis said something about a secondary bond. He thought it was why he started hurting so fast, why he needed me so soon. Did Harry mention anything like that?"

"He said we joined, yeah," said Zayn. "And I think—look, it's not what I have with you."

"I know," said Liam. "I'm not freaking out, Zayn, you can keep talking."

"I think he might be right," Zayn whispered. "I'm sorry, Liam. There's something there with me and Harry that I don't really understand."

Liam took a deep breath. "It's the same with Louis and me."

"Oh, thank goodness," said Zayn, and flopped back on the bed.

"You're relieved? Because then you won't feel bad about breaking up with me again?"

"No! I'm relieved that it's not just me, okay?" Zayn looked at him worriedly. "You are freaking out. Breathe, Liam, please."

"Well, I just—I don't know. What are we saying exactly?"

"I think," said Zayn, "we're saying we hope they stay on Niall with us, because we've known them for all of three days but we'd miss them terribly if they decided to go home."

"It would be awful," agreed Liam. "Like, stay here on Niall in a best mates kind of way? Or—"

"Liam," said Zayn. "You were the one who wanted to do something drastic to save our relationship. I don't really think it's going to do anything for our relationship if we get back together and then you have to spend half your time heroically battling to keep Louis's hands out of your pants."

"I see," said Liam. "So if it looks like you're giving Harry a blowjob, it's actually just you saving our relationship."

"The things I do for you," said Zayn.

"And Harry, apparently."

"Well," said Zayn. "Pots and kettles."

"Right," said Liam. It occurred to him that they had both gone crazy. Sensible people didn't have arrangements like that, did they? Still, he felt like something in his chest had lifted, some heaviness he hadn't even know was there. Then he remembered that it really wasn't up to him and Zayn to make Harry and Louis's plans for them. "The thing is, Zayn, now they're together again, they don't really need us. They didn't in the first place, only they started by thinking they had to, and then they got separated and they didn't have another choice. They might not want—look, Zayn, if they don't want to stay, we have to let them go."

"Yeah," said Zayn. "They're not ours. I get that, I do." But he sounded a little wistful.

"It'll be okay, Zayn. We'll talk about it in the morning, all right?"

"I'll be sleeping in the morning," said Zayn, and flicked off the light. "By the way, Liam, I'm spending the night."

"You live here," said Liam. He threw his arm over Zayn and snuggled in. "Zayn? Remember when you were wishing you didn't love me anymore?"

"Mmmmm," said Zayn. "Go to sleep, Liam."

"It definitely didn't work, right?"

"It's never going to work," said Zayn.

"You could stop wishing it, then."

"All right," said Zayn. "I will."

 

 

32. Louis

It was Louis who woke up first. Harry was still sprawled out on his stomach next to him, face mostly mashed into the pillow, one heavy arm flung across Louis's chest. Watching Harry breathe was one of Louis's favourite things. He could hardly believe that they got to do this, just lie here together, and they'd be able to keep doing it, he hoped, as long as Liam and Zayn let them stay. How long would that be, though? He'd thought Liam understood the way things were between them, the way they were meant to be, but then Liam had started up that nonsense about them staying on Sadela, so who knew what was really in his mind? Louis sighed and brushed a lock of hair back from Harry's forehead.

Harry's eyes fluttered open. "Hey, Lou."

"Hey, sunshine."

Harry's smile was ridiculously wide for someone who'd just woken up. "You've been thinking. Stop thinking."

"I'm not," said Louis. "When have you known me to have actual thoughts about anything?"

"What were you not thinking about, then?"

"About you being beautiful and peaceful, and how I want you to be able to stay like that forever."

"Arse-up in bed, you mean."

"Wouldn't mind," said Louis.

Harry's arm tightened over him and he yanked Louis in closer. "Did I just not wake up this time or did you sleep better than usual? No nightmares?"

"Nope," said Louis, grinning. "Sweet dreams only."

"Oh Louis," whispered Harry. "I'm so glad."

"Yeah," said Louis. "There must be something I'm happy about. Not exactly sure what."

Harry buried his face in Louis's neck and said something unintelligible.

"Again with actual words," said Louis.

"Just that I love you and I love being on Niall and, like, we're staying here, right? Staying for good?"

"We'll ask them," said Louis. "As if Zayn could rip himself away from you, anyway. I'd like to see him try."

"He's sweet, isn't he? I hope Liam was nice to him last night."

"As long as Zayn was nice to him," said Louis.

"But—" said Harry.

Louis held up a hand. "I know, I know. They're both to blame and I'm absolutely going to give Liam a very stern speech." Louis and Harry had spent quite a long time the previous night discussing exactly how Liam and Zayn ought to treat each other better.

"Our speeches are so clever," said Harry happily.

"Do you think they made it up already, though?"

"I don't know," said Harry. "Let's go see."

So they experimented with some kind of complicated teeth-cleaning mechanism in the bathroom and Harry showed Louis how the shower worked and together they discovered that when you spilled water on the floor, it just kind of soaked in and disappeared. Louis found some soft clothes in a drawer and made Harry put on at least a pair of shorts, and not long afterward, they were standing outside Zayn and Liam's door. The only problem was that it was locked.

"I think they're asleep," said Harry. "Should we knock?"

Louis frowned. "But I wanted to surprise Liam."

"Poor Liam," said Harry, but he rubbed the wall next to the door and whispered "Niall? Can you let us in? Louis wants to harass Liam and I want to be very, very lovely to Zayn."

There was the faint sound of a giggle and the door slid just barely open.

"Niall and I are going to get along beautifully," said Louis, and opened the door the rest of the way so they could peer in.

"Oh!" said Harry. "Oh, aren't they adorable?"

"They definitely made it up," said Louis, because Zayn was sleeping with his head on Liam's chest and their legs were all tangled together and they both looked serenely happy.

"I knew it," said Harry. "I knew it." He went over to the bed and sat down by Zayn's head and started petting his hair very lightly, as if he didn't even want to wake Zayn up.

"That's cute," said Louis, and proceeded to cannonball himself onto the bed with a loud "Good morning, Liaaaaaaaaam!"

Zayn's eyes cracked open a slit. "What the fuck."

"Hi Zayn!" Louis chirped. "Do you want to hear a song? It starts like this: Oh darling, dearest, darling Zayn, When I'm without you my world is pain."

"Is it the pain of being strangled?" Zayn muttered. But he smiled blearily up at Harry before rolling away and putting a pillow over his head.

"It's the song we're writing for you!" explained Louis happily. He reached out and pulled one of Liam's curls. "Wake up and sing your song, Liam!"

"Urrrrrggggh," Zayn said from under the pillow. "Liam knows perfectly well he's not allowed to write lyrics."

"Well, I wrote that last bit," said Louis, insulted. "It's a pun, do you get it? Because of his surname?"

Meanwhile, Liam was yawning and stretching underneath him. "Why have I got a Louis on top of me?"

"Because you're very, very lucky," Louis explained. "Liam, you haven't even sung Zayn his song yet! I don't know why he slept with you."

"Me neither," said Liam, rubbing his eyes. "Morning, Louis. Morning, Harry. Pretty sure that door was locked but I'll just say no more of it."

"Ugh, that means they've got Niall on their side," said Zayn. He threw his pillow at Harry. "Let's leave them on the next asteroid."

"Really?" said Harry, aghast.

"No, not really," said Louis. He turned to Liam. "Right?"

"We don't leave people on asteroids," said Liam. "Unfortunately. You lads didn't happen to bring breakfast with you, did you?"

"We wouldn't presume," said Louis.

"Of course not," said Liam. "Breaking into a locked bedroom and waking people up is one thing, but bringing them coffee would really be beyond the pale. Morning, Zayn, darling, dearest, darling Zayn."

"Maybe don't quit your day job," said Zayn, but he leaned over to give Liam a kiss on the nose.

"Did you want coffee?" asked Harry. "I don't know what that is, but I'd be happy to get it for you."

"You're a nice one," said Liam. "I approve of you."

"Me too," said Zayn, and he patted Harry's hand.

"Do you approve of me as well?" said Louis to Liam.

"If you want people to approve of you," said Liam, "you can't jump on top of them when they're sleeping. Especially not when they're sleeping with Zayn."

"Awwwww," said Louis. "I'm really glad you two worked it out, but you should know that Harry and I had relationship advice all ready to go just in case."

"Oh boy," said Liam. "Sorry to disappoint you."

"That's okay! We can still give it to you! Should we, Harry?"

"Definitely," said Harry, who'd slid down on the bed and was now sharing Zayn's pillow.

Louis saw that Liam and Zayn were holding hands under the blanket. He remembered those desperately sad looks Liam had been sending Zayn's way their first morning on Niall. He remembered how Liam hadn't even wanted to touch him in case it upset Zayn. Seeing them together now, he felt so happy he wanted to roll over and over and maybe jump on the bed a little bit. But first, Liam and Zayn needed his guidance. "All right," said Louis. "This advice is for Liam, and you mustn't be upset with me, Liam, because I adore you and you're very, very good at singing and also blowjobs."

"Louis!" hissed Harry, and jerked his head meaningfully toward Zayn.

"No, he is, that's true," said Zayn, who was looking on, amused.

Liam put the blanket over his head. Louis promptly pinched him through the blanket. "Listen, Liam, you like things to be happy and lovely all the time, and that's all well and good, but then when they're not, or the people around you feel differently, you have a hard time coping. Sometimes you've got to just let people be moody without either trying to fix things or pretending not to notice. And if Zayn doesn't want to do something, like a event or an interview or something, don't push it, you'll only make it worse."

There was silence from under the blanket. Louis pinched him again. "I know you can hear me."

"Can we just talk more about how talented I am?" said Liam.

"Later," said Louis. "Now it's Zayn's turn. Harry?"

"Protect me, Liam," said Zayn.

"They're very fragile," said Louis. "You need to reassure him, Harry."

"That's right," said Liam, who had poked his head back out of the blanket. "Tell him he's good at blowjobs."

"But I don't know that yet," said Harry.

"I can vouch for him," said Liam. Zayn stuck his tongue out at Liam. Liam smirked. "I cannot lie."

"You could show me," said Harry to Zayn. Louis saw that he was pressing himself a little more firmly against Zayn's side.

"Let's not get side-tracked," said Louis. "Harry, dear, was there something you wanted to say to Zayn? Maybe if you sat up you'd be able to concentrate on it."

"All right," said Harry, and a little reluctantly he pulled himself up. "Zayn, I know you already talked to Liam like I said, so maybe you don't need to hear this, but um. Mainly I think you should let Liam know when something's not right, and explain it to him clearly, because when you stay quiet and upset about things, nobody knows how to help you. And when Liam wants to do something and you don't, it's not that he doesn't love you, it's probably just that he's excitable. Which is something I know about from Louis."

Zayn turned to Liam. "Remember when they spent most of their time on their knees apologizing to us?"

"I know," said Liam, one warm hand curled around Louis's hip. "We've created monsters."

"If it makes you feel better, I'm still a bit nervous around you, Liam," said Harry. "I mean, I really don't know you yet."

Louis had an inspiration. "Just grab his dick. It's what Terrans do instead of shaking hands."

"Really?" said Harry.

"No, wait—" started Liam, but too late. The look on his face when Harry nabbed him was adorably confused.

"See?" said Louis. He was pleased. With Harry's help, they'd probably be able to make Liam look like that again and again.

"Liar," hissed Liam. "Zayn! Harry grabbed my dick! Aren't you going to do something?"

Harry had retreated back to the other side of Zayn. Zayn yawned. "I'm only surprised that that was the first time. You should see him putting the moves on Niall."

"That's my Haz," said Louis, proud.

It was then that Liam lunged across the bed to get his revenge, and in the ensuing scuffle Harry ended up on the floor. He didn't seem particularly unhappy to be there.

"Floor's so soft," said Harry dreamily. "C'mon, Lou, try it yourself."

Louis rolled over on his stomach and looked down at Harry, who was stroking the floor gently. He dangled an arm off the edge of the bed and poked the floor. It didn't give at all. "I think Niall just likes you best."

"Playing favourites, is he?" said Zayn, swinging his legs off the bed. He yelled out, "Niall!" before shuffling off to the bathroom.

Then suddenly Niall's hologram was stretched out next to Louis, arms crossed behind his head. "Hello, lads, getting along well, are we?"

"You let them in," accused Liam. "Your first loyalty should be to us."

Niall shrugged. "Should it? I mean, if they're staying." He hung his head upside down over the side of the bed. "Hey, Harry."

"Hi, Niall. You're not wearing your virtual hat today."

"I'm trying a more mature look for our call with the president later," said Niall.

"Hold on," said Louis. "We're staying?"

"You don't have to," said Liam quickly.

Zayn emerged from the bathroom, frowning. "The thing is, we'll mostly just be touring, or back on Earth making a new album. It might get boring for you? So if you want we can take you back home, or fly you wherever you'd like, really." His tone was unconcerned, but Louis noticed that his eyes were on Harry and he was biting his lip.

"I'd like to see my mum," said Louis. "Haven't since we were collected."

Harry nodded. "Same. And then there's somewhere you should fly us."

"Of course," said Liam. He looked stricken.

"Which is wherever you're going," said Louis.

"Exactly," said Harry. "Because we want to be right here on Niall with you both. Please?"

"Oh," said Liam. "That would be—that would be—"

"We'd like that," interrupted Zayn.

Liam added, "And not just because of—I mean, we do think you're awfully nice to have around. In general." He smiled at Louis so sweetly and nervously that Louis's heart lurched.

Niall seemed less impressed. "What I don't understand," he said to Harry and Louis, "is why you were waiting for those idiots to tell you you could stay. When it's up to me if it's up to anyone."

"Oh," said Harry. "Then is it all right, Niall, if we stay?"

"Of course it bloody is," said Niall, "it's Zayn and Liam who've got something to worry about. Those two are on thin ice with me."

Louis flung his arms around Liam. "Not with me. Did you think we were just going to leave you, Li? You obviously need us."

"It's as if they don’t how a secondary bond works," said Harry. "C'mere, Zayn."

"Well, no, we wouldn't know," admitted Liam. "Anyway, if you wanted, you could always take the thingummy. Jade's cure."

"I guess," said Harry. "But that's for, for dissolving bonds we never would've wanted? This is just us, though."

"Besides," said Louis to Liam, "you'd have to take it too. Or are you still pretending it's all one-sided?"

Niall said thoughtfully, "I wonder if Jade's done any research on bonding response in other humanoid life forms. We should probably bring Zayn and Liam somewhere for testing."

Zayn rolled his eyes. "I'm gonna bring you in for testing, Niall."

"Perfect as I am," said Niall, giggling.

"Like us," said Harry, beaming at Niall.

"And now it's twice as convenient," said Louis. "Not that I don't always want Harry around, but it's nice to know there's another option if for whatever reason he's not."

"I always wanted to be paracetamol when I grew up," said Liam, so Louis bit him, because what else was he supposed to do when Liam was looking at him like that?

"But you don't belong to us," said Zayn carefully, looking down at Harry, who was still sitting comfortably on the floor.

"Of course we do," said Harry. "But it's all right, because you belong to us too." He tugged at Zayn's hand.

Louis didn't miss how Zayn's eyes snapped to Liam, how Zayn said "Liam?" and waited for his response.

"Go ahead, Zayn," said Liam softly, and leaned into Louis a little more.

So Zayn let Harry pull him down to the floor. His eyes were still on Liam when Harry began to kiss him. Louis put a reassuring hand on Liam's chest, just to make sure it was all right. Which meant he could feel Liam's breathing speed up under his hand. "Although actually, Harry," said Liam. "I haven't even gotten to kiss Zayn like that this morning."

"There's plenty of room down here," said Zayn. He blew Liam a kiss and then turned to pull Harry in.

"Well," said Niall pleasantly. "This is different."

Louis decided to take this as a compliment. "They're fast learners," he said modestly, and then found out what it looked like when a hologram was wheezing with laughter.

Liam got up and padded into the bathroom while Louis watched Zayn mouth at Harry's neck. "Liam?" he called. "Is it all right if I kiss Zayn too?"

"Why don’t you ask him?" Liam called back.

"But Lou, Zayn's not bonded to you," said Harry. His voice sounded a little uneven.

"So? I still want a turn."

"Then I get to kiss Liam," said Harry, tipping his head back with a gasp as Zayn bit down.

"Well, of course you do," said Louis. "Would I have been telling you to grab his dick if I didn't want to see that happen?"

"We're still talking about my dick?" Liam was standing in the doorway.

"Go kiss Harry and Zayn," ordered Louis.

Liam scratched his head. "Do I have to get down on the floor?"

"Yes," said Harry, taking Zayn's fingers out of his mouth. "That way Niall can feel it more."

Niall grinned. "So thoughtful, Harry."

Liam walked over to Harry and Zayn and looked down at them. There was bewilderment on his face, a combination, Louis thought, of How Did This Happen and Where Should I Start.

"It's okay, Liam," said Louis. "Look, I will too." He slid off the bed, knelt by Harry and Zayn, and turned Harry's head to kiss him. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Zayn pulling at Liam's hand until Liam dropped down to him. Louis kissed his way to Harry's ear and whispered, "Look at them."

Liam's fingers were gently trailing down Zayn's face. Zayn was looking at Liam as if he'd personally hung all three of Sadela's moons.

"Sweetheart," said Zayn.

"No you," said Liam.

There was a faint rumbling noise from the ship as Liam and Zayn twined around each other. Louis looked over at Niall's hologram. He was watching dreamily with chin in hands.

"I guess Liam and Zayn can stay too," said Niall. He paused. "The thing is, humans can be so stupid."

"But sometimes," said Harry, "we get it right." He was lightly circling his thumb at the back of Liam's neck as Liam kissed Zayn, and Liam reached back to put his hand over Harry's without looking up from Zayn. Louis wasn't sure, but he thought the floor might be faintly rippling beneath them. He nodded at Harry and licked experimentally down a bit of Zayn's spine, feeling Zayn shiver in response. He quite liked Zayn, Louis decided. Being here with Harry beside him, Liam and Zayn with each other and with him and Harry as well, felt like the sort of good dream he had every once in a long while, the kind he could never remember when he woke. It was real, though, he thought; this was a moment he'd be able to go on remembering, the moment he knew he and Harry were home.

"So happy," Harry whispered in his ear, and Louis realized he'd been zoning out. But Harry had known exactly what he was feeling anyway. Harry always knew. For example, right now Harry probably knew Louis wanted to kiss him, so Louis did.

Niall groaned. "It'll be ages before you're ready to prep for your call with the president, won't it? Are you just going to roll around and have sex all day?"

"No," said Harry, shrugging at Louis, "because I need breakfast."

"And then," said Louis, giving Liam a poke, "we've got a game of football to play."

 

 

33. Niall

Ship's Log * 30.5.3281 Gliese

Gliese: Who cares? Tour's practically over ! We're almost home !

Performance: In place of usual 2H fanquestion segment, Louis gave riveting account of life in captivity. Very well-received by crowd. Complaints from parents coming in already.

Zayn Malik: At work on oil portrait of the four of them together. (I'm in the background looking a bit misty.) Has spent the most time doing brushwork on his own face. Hasn't complained about his precious cigarettes for weeks.

Liam Payne: Is still writing song about ZM, has put in verses for Harry and Louis as well. Threatens to perform it in concert when ZM's in a strop.

Louis: Has broken the skimmer three times now. Not as polite as he used to be. Hilarious instead.  

Harry: SECRETLY MY FAVORITE. Pesters me about adding a zero gravity chamber so they can all have sex on the ceiling.

Sadela: Mass anti-slavery youth movement in response to Two Hearts campaign. Sadelan Prime Minister resigns in disgrace. Interim government halts new collections, claims hands are tied with respect to pre-existing slave bonds. Pets disappearing everywhere anyway.

The Revolution: Rebels working overtime delivering antidote across Sadela. Sadelan peacekeepers on strike. HQs filling up with runaways. Tulisa skims them home a few at a time. Paul's set for mass transport duty as soon as the tour's over. Jade says whole system will have buckled by then.

Jade, Jesy, Leigh-Anne, Perrie: In addition to leading revolt, having talks with Terran publisher re possible galactic speaking tour. Also, changed the colour of their hair.

Ambassador Cowell: Answers my messages right away now ! Love him !

The President: Declared cultural boycott of Sadela until all slaves are free. Signed treaty with Louis and Harry's home planet. Turns out that it's got that energy source as well? Go Mr President! HE IS MAGIC. Also, wants me to join diplomatic corps!!!!!!

Notes: Funny to get your wish and find out it's not what you really wanted. Sadly, will have to disappoint the president :( Realised can't possibly join diplomatic corps. What would the lads do without me?? But I'm dead sure the president will still want to visit. Have started growing the new guest room already.

 

 

 

THE END