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Liam's on his way to get groceries when he hears the music. It's low and beautiful, seeping through his skin and settling in his bones and Liam forgets about everything else, makes a sharp turn towards the source of it, nearly turning over his bike in his haste. He rounds two corners before he finds the boy, sitting on an overturned bucket with a guitar in his lap and a bike carelessly toppled by his feet. He's beautiful too, the boy, black hair soft against his forehead and dark skin wrapped up in a sweater that is a few sizes too big and a few decades too worn. His brow is furrowed in concentration over the notes and his voice trips with emotion that winds its way around Liam's shoulders, holds on tight.

Then, abruptly he stops playing, his movements jarring in their frustration. He tucks his guitar into his case and the tragedy of the unfinished song hits Liam so hard he cries out -

"Don't!" He hops off his bike as the other boy looks up at him, startled. "Sorry," Liam curses himself silently, "I mean, is it yours?"

Hesitantly, the boy nods.

"It's beautiful," Liam says, feeling suddenly, woefully, inadequate. But he approaches the boy, determined.

"I'm Liam," he says, "And your music is beautiful."

"Zayn," the boy responds almost automatically, averting his eyes.

"Are you, I mean -" Liam flails around for something to say, "I haven't seen you around before," he finishes lamely.

The boy cocks an eyebrow at him.

"Should you have?" he asks coolly.

Liam winces.

"No I only meant, you look like you should be in uni and it's not that big so I figured I would have - I mean," and crap, Liam has no idea how old Zayn is or whether he even goes to uni and he normally never does this, ok. He doesn't normally strike up conversation with complete strangers so.

"I go to uni," Zayn is saying, apparently having taken pity on him, "Only I take night classes so I can help my dad out in his shop in the mornings, and so I can work on my music," he adds bitterly, almost to himself.

"That's brilliant," Liam says, "Are you - "

But Zayn is shaking his head.

"I'm not playing anymore, I'm giving it up. I quit."

"But, you can't," Liam protests fiercely, shocked, "You're. You're incredible, why would you ever want to give it up?"

"Because. No one listens," Zayn mutters darkly, scowling at Liam like its his fault. "No one cares. No one - "

"I care," Liam interrupts him, sincere against his scowl, "I'd listen to your music everyday if I could."

Zayn shrugs, looks at his feet, and Liam guesses he's embarrassed him so he casts about for something to say to change the subject.

"What does your dad do?" He settles on finally. Zayn shrugs again but the blush is fading on his cheeks when he looks up at Liam.

"Watches. I mean," he frowns a little. "We sell and repair watches."

Liam's eyes widen.

"Really?" he asks excitedly, fidgeting with his sweater and pulling up his cuff as Zayn watches him suspiciously, "Could you possibly," he extends his arm to Zayn to show him the watch he's got on his wrist, the gold hands stuck forever on 4:42, "Is it mendable?" he breathes softly.

"You wear a broken watch everyday?" Zayn asks him a bit contemptuously.

"It was my father's," Liam says, smiling because he doesn't want Zayn to feel bad. People always react differently to death, Liam's found, but in general, it tends to put a stop to comfortable conversation, and Liam doesn't want that at all, not with this beautiful boy who makes beautiful music.

"Oh," is all Zayn says though. He reaches out for Liam's wrist and runs a thumb over the engraved carvings. "Wow," he tells Liam, and Liam tries not to focus on the way his slim cold fingers feel wrapped tight round Liam's pulse point, "I could try fixing it, if you wanted," Zayn says.

"That'd be brilliant," Liam smiles at him, and then he frowns, "Fuck I mean. I can't really. I couldn't really pay you. I could pay you in music maybe?" he asks hopefully.

"Music?" Zayn asks, arching his eyebrows in what Liam takes to be a challenge.

"Music," Liam affirms, "Piano, actually."

"You play?" Zayn asks and Liam probably should be insulted by his skepticism but a rush of exhilaration flows through him at the way he's managed to rile Zayn up.

"My father taught me," Liam tells him, twisting his wrist in Zayn's hand to play a melody into his forearm.

Zayn drops his arm.

"C'mon then," Liam says, swallowing his laugh, "I'll grab your guitar."

"My guitar? No wait - leave it, I don't need it anymore."

Liam opens and closes his mouth once.

"I'll grab your guitar," he repeats, as if Zayn hadn't even spoken, rolling his eyes when Zayn scowls at him again. "C'mon then," Liam orders, swinging Zayn's guitar over his shoulder and then hopping onto his bike.

Zayn's glaring at him, the frown in his eyes a seemingly permanent tinge to his brown eyes and long lashes, but he does what he's told, getting on his bike and shoving up his sleeves a bit.

"Where are we going?" he asks but Liam just shoots him a wide grin, begins to pedal off.

They bike for about ten minutes in silence, the wind in their ears enough to keep the awkwardness at bay. Zayn seems comfortable on a bike, keeping up with Liam effortlessly, and Liam smiles to himself, picks up the pace a bit. It's an important measure of a person, the abilty to ride, at least to Liam. He grew up with his feet in the pedals, spent years chasing after the older kids on the block, until he was the one being chased, setting his own rules in the skate park. He left that life behind six years ago, but he still loves to ride.

When they reach their destination Liam dismounts and leaves his bike rack, and after a moment Zayn does the same, cursing slightly under his breath when his sleeves fall over his fingers.

"Where'd you learn to ride?" Liam asks him curiously, because he's got a rough sort of style that means he hasn't grown up on Liam's side of the block so to speak.

"A mate, Danny Riach," Zayn says with a twisted half smile, like he guesses what Liam's trying to get at, "East side," he offers a little warily, "Up until my mum died."

Liam nods. He doesn't know much about it, mostly because that sort of thing doesn't happen as intensely on the west side as it does over east, but he's heard the stories of course, of the violence and the drugs and the gang leaders.

"Oh," he responds after awhile. "Sorry about your mum."

"S'okay," Zayn shrugs, gaze focused on his feet, "She was, um. She was really unstable. We did our best together, but -. Anyway, when she died, I moved in with my dad."

"Do you and your dad get along?" Liam asks, curious to hear more.

Zayn fixes him with a stare.

"Guess so. I don't really know him, honestly. He was the child support check every month or the occasional birthday card if he remembered for most of my life. But the alternative - " he shudders a little, "I just knew I needed to get clean of it. So I did. Paid my dues and all."

"That's really good," Liam says sincerely, bumping their shoulders together as they walk, "I'm glad."

"Thanks," Zayn mumbles, "So um. Where are we going?"

"Only the best place on earth," Liam grins at him, pushing open a door and holding it out for Zayn. The sign above the door says 'Music' in all capital letters, though the C hangs crooked and the lights don't work anymore.

It's dark in the shop because its past closing time, but from somewhere inside the lights flick on as the door clangs to a shut behind them and a voice calls out -

"Oi, Liam, that you?? Thought you weren't coming by until - "

He lets out a low wolf whistle as he approaches, eyes dragging along Zayn's slim frame, features shifting into a mischievous grin that Liam knows is practically permanently etched onto his face.

"Wow," he says slowly. "Way to go, Liam, I'm impressed."

"Tommo," Liam groans, Zayn's eyes are lowered and he's smirking, god, and Liam wants to disappear into the dirty off-colored floor, "Chrissake Tommo - "

"Don't get me wrong," Louis says conversationally to Zayn, ignoring Liam entirely, "I know Liam spits a good game it's just been a while since I've seen it in action - "

"Zayn's a musician," Liam interrupts loudly, cursing himself inwardly for the way he knows he's flushed red, "We met a whole five seconds ago on the corner of Walt and Canary," he glares at Louis and Louis fists a hand in Liam's shirt by his hip in apology.

He's still laughing at Liam though. Liam hates him.

"Louis," he says, extending his other hand out.

"I'm Zayn," Zayn replies, shaking his hand, "Not a musician though."

"Why've you come to my music shop then?" Louis asks, eyes twinkling amusedly.

"It's yours?" Zayn asks, glancing around at the instruments and equipment and sheet music that line every wall.

"Yup," Louis nods, "Was my dad's, and now - well I'm just trying to keep it afloat. You know."

Zayn just shrugs but Louis seems satisfied anyway, hand relaxing slightly where he's got a grip on Liam.

"So why've you brought him here then?" Louis asks, leaning into Liam's shoulder.

"Was gonna um, was gonna play for him so he'd fix my watch."

"Oh," Louis arches an eyebrow at him curiously, but doesn't ask, "Go on then," he nods Zayn towards the back door. Liam makes to follow him but Louis holds him back with a slight pressure.

"Doesn't say much does he?" he mutters out of the corner of his mouth, "but god he's so pretty - "

"Shut up, Lou - " Liam hisses, "I don't even know if he's gay for chrissake."

Louis smirks at him.

Liam shuts the back door in his face.

 

Zayn's got his back to him when Liam turns, and he's running smooth hands along the black surface of the piano. Liam smiles at the sight.

"Saying hello to my piano?" Liam asks softly and Zayn looks over his shoulder at him but his expression is unreadable.

"Guess so," he says just as quietly. Liam grins, walks around to settle himself on the familiar piano bench, shifting his weight from left to right.

"Hello piano," he says very seriously, hands playing on the keys in a caress.

"You have massive hands," Zayn says, blinking. Liam laughs at him.

"Suppose I do, fat fingers too, it's awful."

Zayn shakes his head.

"No, I don't think that at all," he tells Liam, smirking a little at the blush in Liam's cheeks. His eyes widen then, as if remembering something and his smirk grows, "Your friend's really funny," he says casually.

Liam groans, drops his face into his hands.

"God, I'm sorry about that. He's. Louis's been my best mate since I can remember. I keep trying to get rid of him but - "

Zayn chuckles a little.

"I am, for the record," he says offhandedly.

"What?" Liam asks cautiously.

"Gay," Zayn says.

Oh. Liam shrugs a little apologetically. Louis tends to have this effect on people. This isn't the first person he's had to let down easy over the years.

"Louis's got a boy friend. They're, they've been together for years, live together above the shop and everything. He's a bit of a flirt, yeah, but he's properly in love with Harry. So um. Sorry about that."

Zayn stares at him for a full minute, and then he bursts into laughter. It's a real laugh, one that starts in his belly and reaches all the way to his eyes, creating lines that shape his face into something younger and brighter and even more beautiful and Liam can't help but laugh too, even though he's sure Zayn's laughing at him. He's laughing a little giddily, hands still moving over the piano keys and then suddenly he's playing too, chords that create a backdrop for Zayn's amusement.

Zayn goes quiet, laughter fading until it's just him staring intently at Liam. Liam's hands still.

"You really can play," he says with a little wonderment. Liam nods.

"Can't believe you doubted me," he teases, but Zayn doesn't laugh.

"Here," he fiddles with his jeans pocket for a moment before pulling out a crinkled piece of paper and handing it to Liam, "Could you. I mean, you don't have to, if you don't want to. But - "

He falls silent as Liam unfolds the paper and smooths it out.

It's sheet music, chords and a few words written in, surrounded by doodles and scribbles and strike outs.

"Get your guitar," he demands, eyes never leaving the paper, already working through the chords in his head, letting the melody play into him, dance through his fingers and down the strings of the piano.

"What? But I -" Zayn hesitates and Liam wants to shake him.

"Your guitar, Zayn," Liam insists impatiently, so Zayn sighs, takes it out and messes about with it for a moment before joining Liam on the piano bench, his back to Liam's shoulder.

And then he begins to play, and Liam sucks in a quiet breath, listening to the way the song mourns, Zayn's voice arching high above the rough chords.

Liam joins him after a moment, adding his voice and his notes and he can't see Zayn's face but he can see the way his shoulders relax and his back straightens out, can see the muscles of his forearms tense and relax. He thinks if he looked hard enough he could probably see the blood rush through his veins in time to this moment, and he feels the hairs along his arms rise as his body responds too.

It's over too quickly, and Liam bites his lip as Zayn colors his last note with a sorrowful vibrato.

Zayn swivels around on the bench to face him.

"You sing too," Zayn accuses him and he's staring hard at Liam and there's something in his eyes and suddenly Liam can actually feel himself falling, can feel his muscles tense and his heart speed up and his breath go shallow in preparation for the crash.

Fuck.

Stupidly beautiful boys were definitely not on his grocery list.

"Not really," he mumbles and then, when the silence stretches too long, "Come on, I played for you didn't I? You promised you'd fix my watch."

Zayn seems taken aback by the abrupt change, but he recovers.

"No I didn't," he mutters, but either Liam's growing on him or he's got nothing else to do because he follows Liam out the back room into the music shop and then says, "My place isn't too far from here actually."

"You kids leaving already?" Louis asks. He's got some kind of weird tool in one hand and there's grease on his cheek and Liam chuckles, wipes it off with a thumb.

"Yeah," he tells him, "Gotta get my watch repaired and then be home in time for dinner. Speaking of which, you let mum know Harry's back tonight?"

"Not tonight, Saturday night, Liam," Louis says patiently, "And she already knows, of course she does."

"Right, sorry," Liam cuffs him on the shoulder and then turns to leave.

"Nice meeting you Zayn," Louis calls out, "I'm sure I'll see you again."

Zayn frowns a little.

"Yeah, sure mate."

 

"So you still live with your mum then?" Zayn asks him, nudging their shoulders together to let Liam know he's teasing. They're walking their bikes down the road and they've interrupted the sun as she sets, her late afternoon rays flushing the streets a deep orange and kissing the tips of Zayn's eyelashes.

Liam nods.

"Yeah, was gonna live with Louis but. Things changed."

He thinks about telling Zayn everything. Thinks about the way Zayn would probably withdraw, cold and critical.

He stays quiet.

"Was only joking," Zayn says finally, "Still live with my dad after all don't I? Anyway, you're in uni? Last year?"

"Um, no, not exactly," Liam responds, fudging his answer again, "I had to take some time off, after college so. I'm twenty four, but still in my third year," he laughs a little at himself.

"Oh," Zayn's nodding sympathetically, and Liam flinches against the undeserved understanding. He normally doesn't lie like this, hates it really, but Zayn is. Well he's a stranger and after he fixes Liam's watch they'll probably part ways and never see each other again. And it feels so good to be with someone who doesn't know, who doesn't have pity or judgement behind their eyes for Liam, who Liam can just be with.

"What about you?" he asks, glancing at him.

Zayn's head tilts in consideration.

"Well, five years ago I was all set to go to uni for music. And then the store took a hit so I took a couple years off to help my dad, and when I was finally ready to go back to school well. Music seemed like a real risky investment so. I don't know. Decided to do business instead. I'm making my way slowly to a degree now, taking a few night classes every semester and what - ?" he breaks off, because Liam is sort staring at him with his mouth open, he can't help it.

"Nothing," he stammers out, "S'just, I didn't know you knew that many words."

Zayn's eyes widen as surprise and then indignation and then amusement flicker through them.

"Shut up," he laughs, nudging at Liam again, "God. You asked!"

"No no I know, I'm sorry," Liam says quickly, nudging him back. "I like it. I mean. I like you."

Zayn's laughing at him with his eyes, amusement painting his face a shade younger, and Liam wishes for a moment that they'd met years ago in a sandbox somewhere, dirt under their fingernails and in between their toes.

"I'm embarrassing myself, aren't I," Liam asks Zayn slowly, thinking that's alright if it keeps the mirth in Zayn's eyes.

"A bit, yeah," Zayn agrees, wrinkling his nose when he smiles.

"It's just, I don't normally do this you know?" Liam admits, waving a hand between them.

"What, tell strangers they make beautiful music? I hope not," Zayn teases, voice dipping low with something Liam can't place.

Liam shakes his head, serious.

"No I mean I just. I've only got a handful of friends yeah? Niall and Louis and I'm not even sure if Harry counts because he's Louis's boy friend. I mean that's how I know anyone really, through Louis, and he's been my friend since I can remember so - "

"Hey it's alright," Zayn tries to reassure him but Liam shrugs it off, frustrated with himself.

"No I mean, I'm fine, I'm happy, that's not the point," he takes a deep breath, "It's just. I really think you make beautiful music. It actually stopped me in my tracks and made me open my mouth and talk to you and now I'm humiliating myself because I can't stop talking and it's all because of you. So you should never stop playing, is what I'm trying to say really."

"Oh," Zayn stops short, and Liam does too, feels himself being sized up. "Okay," he says finally.

"Okay?" Liam asks, unable to help his surprise, "I mean. Okay, then. Good."

After a moment, Zayn starts moving again and so Liam follows him. He seems to be mulling something over in his head and Liam is beginning to think maybe Zayn thinks he's off his rocker.

He wouldn't be far off.

But then Zayn turns back to him and there's something inside him that has unwound, leaving him looser, more relaxed, and so Liam relaxes too.

"So," Zayn starts, the beginnings of mischief showing when he bares his teeth and Liam has a flash of shit, just signed up for another Louis in my life before he remembers that this is temporary, "Louis and your mum are really close then?" Zayn is waggling his eyebrows a little, and Liam huffs a surprised laugh, swats at him.

"Sod off, that's my mum," Liam whines. Zayn shoots him an innocent grin and god, but he's so beautiful, "Nah, it was only Louis and his dad you know, for a long time, and then his dad died and my mum just kind of took him in. And when Harry moved in she kind of took him in too.'

"Took him in?"

"Yeah well," he smiles a little wistfully, "You know how Harry and Louis have a flat about the shop right? All they really do in there is sleep. Otherwise, they're eating meals at my mum's place or helping her around the house or annoying the hell out of me. Niall's the same way really. Kid moved here from Ireland with hardly anything but the clothes he was wearing, stumbled into Louis' music shop and hasn't left since," he laughs a little, "And in exchange my mum gets three more sons. Or something."

Zayn grins.

"Sounds like a nightmare. Besides, aren't you a handful already?" he teases. Liam scowls at him.

"Where's this goddamn shop already," he grumbles, mostly because he doesn't want to focus on the way Zayn's tongue goes to the back of his teeth when he's poking fun at Liam.

"Here," Zayn announces suddenly, gesturing widely with both hands and letting his bike clatter to his feet. It's a small shop, with a simple "Watches" in big faded letters hanging low over the doorway. Liam's probably passed it a thousand times without giving it another thought, and suddenly it seems so insane that Zayn has lived here for half his life without Liam. "S'not much but it gets the job done," Zayn tells him.

He's locking up his bike with a look of concentration that Liam cannot look away from. When Zayn looks up to find Liam watching him, he huffs an embarrassed laugh.

"I know I don't have to," he says, gesturing to the padlock. It's true. Liam doesn't even carry a lock on him. "But. Old habits die hard. East side streets aren't nearly as safe as these."

He's fishing for his keys in his giant sweater pocket a little angrily and Liam bites his lip against a frown, doesn't want his empathy to be mistaken for pity.

"I'd be devastated if my bike got stolen," he says. Zayn smiles a little gratefully at him.

"Yeah, me too," he says.

He pushes through the door and beckons Liam to follow after him. The shop is small and narrow with watches everywhere and Zayn leads him to the very back of it, pushing through a thick curtain and into a small study. There's a desk in the corner with a gigantic magnifying glass on top of it and Zayn settles in the chair and reaches for Liam's watch.

Liam fumbles with it for a moment before he manages to take it off, wrist feeling odd without the weight of it against his bones.

It's a little mesmerizing, watching Zayn's hands play with the delicacy of the instrument, tongue between his teeth as he works through it. Liam watches him shamelessly. A couple more hours and he's home free, he tells himself. It can't hurt to look, right?

"Seems like a problem with the balance wheel and its adjacent spring," Zayn says after awhile.

"Can you fix it?" Liam asks curiously.

"Course I can," Zayn grins woolfishly at him from underneath long lashes, "Can fix anything."

"Yeah yeah," Liam's smile tugs reluctantly at the corners of his mouth, "How long's it gonna take?"

"Well we've got to order the part. Might take a couple days for it to get here," Zayn tells him apologetically, "I'll take good care of it, yeah?" he says, voice softening. Liam nods.

"Yeah, no big deal. I'll come back in a couple days -" he turns to leave but Zayn gets out of his chair.

"Hey, do you smoke?" he asks, "Cause I just picked up some of this gold kush - "

"I haven't," Liam interrupts him, "Not in a long time." Not since Mack, his brain fills in unhelpfully.

"C'mon," Zayn wheedles, and his eyes are big and round and eager and suddenly Liam's only got one word left in his vocabulary.

"Yeah, alright."

Two, then.

"Really?" and Zayn's eyes light up like a kid's on Christmas, except that Liam has never wanted to kiss a little kid.

"Oh for fuck's sake," Liam grumbles, "Stop that, you've already convinced me."

"What, this?" Zayn asks innocently, tilting his head and batting his eyelashes. Liam groans.

"This better be some quality spliff," Liam mutters under his breath, flushing a little when Zayn laughs heartily at him.

He follows Zayn up a narrow staircase and into a comfortable looking flat. The sitting room's neat if not a little bare and the kitchen looks like it's hardly been used.

"Dad's a stickler for tidiness," Zayn explains, pushing Liam down the hall a little, "That's why he hates my room."

Liam knows instantly that Zayn isn't exaggerating. Zayn's room is an absolute mess. And he's an expert at messes, ok?

"Jesus Christ, you're messier than my - than Niall," he finishes lamely, flushing. Zayn eyes him curiously but is kind enough not to question it.

"It's nurturing," Zayn says with a shrug, looking around. Posters cover every inch of wall space and most of them are torn and tattered. His duvet lies half off his bed and half on the floor and everywhere else there are clothes and crumpled up pieces of paper and broken cd covers. Liam isn't sure where to put his feet.

"It's unhealthy," he retorts.

Zayn smirks.

"Don't worry, I'll clear a space on the bed for us," he says and Liam feels himself go hot.

"Where's the spliff?" he asks.

"Bottom drawer," Zayn informs him with a slight nod of his head. "Go on, I'll even let you roll."

It's been a while since Liam's rolled a joint but he manages, fingers finding their muscle memory, deft in a way only repetition can bring.

"Greens?" he offers Zayn, who's sitting crosslegged across from him on the bed, knees overlapping slightly. He's warm already, where Liam can feel him, and a part of Liam can't wait for his blood to get hot and slow.

Zayn's lips settle around the edge of the joint and his eyes flutter shut and Liam can't look away, hand shaking slightly as he lets the flame lick at the spliff, eyes trained to the hollow of Zayn's cheeks.

Yeah, most parts of Liam're telling him to take two hits and get the hell out of here.

"Shotgun?" Zayn challenges, voice a croak to keep the smoke back. Liam shakes his head immediately. He's always been sensible.

"No, nah, I'm good. Thanks," he says, hastily taking his own pull, coughing on the exhale. Zayn rubs his back in comfort and he already feels warmer but maybe that's just the electricity under Liam's own skin.

There's no slow burn to be found here, he knows that. Just hot flames, stubborn and uncontrollable and dangerous.

"I should um," he starts to move, "I should go. It's probably best if I - "

"Hey, wait," Zayn stands too, arms open, "Let me just - "

He presses himself to Liam, cups his free hand around the back of Liam's head and pulls him down gently for a kiss, but Liam's ready. He doesn't allow himself to feel a thing.

"I can't," he says firmly, pushing Zayn away. "I'm sorry. Trust me, you don't want - . You'd thank me. If you knew everything, you'd thank me."

He doesn't look back.

 

He thinks that's the end of it, really. He thinks maybe at the end of the week he'll swing by, pick up his watch, leave a bit of money for Zayn and his dad and retreat back into his own solid world. He thinks in a few weeks time he'll forget he ever met Zayn and Zayn will forget he ever met him and they'll spend the rest of their time in this city walking on parallel paths once more.

He thinks maybe he'll start shopping at the Tesco on the other side of town, just in case.

So when he answers the door two days later, he's really really not expecting this stupidly beautiful boy on his doorstep looking up at him with a stupidly beautiful smile on his face and a guitar slung around his back. And it's worse because Liam's got Mack settled on his hip with her hands in his hair, having had to chase her down before she answered the door by herself.

If Zayn can sense his discomfort he doesn't comment, just smiles breathlessly up at Liam, fisting his hands in the strap across his chest.

"Hi," he says, smile widening for the little girl who's tucking her face into Liam's chest in a sudden bout of shyness. "Who's this pretty little thing? What's your name?"

"Mack," she mumbles, lifting her head up to fix big suspicious brown eyes on the stranger, wild curls bouncing around her face in a huff.

"Hi Mack," Zayn says politely, "I'm Zayn, pleasure to make your acquaintance." He takes one of her small hands and kisses the back of it and Mack giggles, smile lighting up her entire face. And then her attention catches on Zayn's shirt and her eyes widen. Her gaze drops down to her own shirt and then back up at Zayn's.

"You're wearing my shirt," she accuses. He grins at her.

"Oh yeah," he agrees, "Spiderman's pretty cool huh?"

"Yeah," she says cautiously, "I watched all the movies," she tells him, "I didn't even cover my eyes during the scary parts. Eric at school says only boys get to like Spiderman, but I think he's wrong," she says defiantly, raising her chin as if daring Zayn to disagree.

"I think girls can like Spiderman," Zayn says very seriously, "Spiderman's pretty special. Boys and girls should like him."

She nods, apprehension vanishing in place of a happy smile.

"I know! He's so awesome," she says earnestly, eyes wild with excitement. Liam kisses the top of her forehead before she can get carried away. He's seen it happen.

"Mack, baby," he says quietly, smiling a little when she looks up at him, "Do you think maybe you could give Zayn and I a second to talk?"

"Ok," she nods seriously, and then she cups Liam's face with both hands, pats him firmly on the cheeks, "Don't scare him away, ok? I like him," she says sternly, and behind her he can hear Zayn muffle a laugh into his palm. His heart sinks a little. He's gonna be scared away all on his own, he wants to tell her. Instead he nudges their noses together.

"I'll do my best, ok?" he promises. When he sets her down she makes a run for the kitchen, curls flying behind her, and Liam takes a second to remember how blessed he is before he turns back to the boy on his doorstep, resigned.

"Smart kid," Zayn points out, grinning at Liam. Liam wipes a hand over his face.

"Yeah," he mumbles, "Too smart."

"I know what you mean," Zayn nods, "My kid cousin's growing up way too fast and - "

"She's mine, Zayn," Liam interrupts, and suddenly he's exhausted, slumping against the doorframe. Zayn closes his mouth. "She's my daughter. She's six."

"I know," Zayn says slowly, staring at Liam, "I mean, I figured. She's got your eyes."

"Yeah," Liam says. He pinches the bridge of his nose. "Right so. I'll see you around, I guess."

He goes to close the door but Zayn gets a hand in there before he can.

"Jesus Christ Li," he snaps, and he's still staring at Liam, eyes wide, "I just came to give you your watch back. No need to go slamming doors."

Liam blinks.

"My watch?"

Zayn waves a box in front of his face.

"The watch you gave to me to repair? Didn't want you to feel weird about coming to pick it up after. After I tried to kiss you," he blushes, "So I just thought I'd drop it off."

"Look Zayn - " Liam starts, but the other boy waves a hand to shut him up.

"I get it, yeah? You're not interested. I just - " he fiddles with the strap on his back. "I thought -" abruptly, he stiffens. "Nevermind," he mutters darkly, "I dunno what I thought."

"Are you still interested?" Liam blurts out incredulously, unable to help himself.

Zayn raises an eyebrow.

"Have you grown a third arm somewhere I can't see? Killed someone since we last met?" he asks him sharply. Liam shakes his head cautiously.

"Then yes, I'm still interested. Why wouldn't I be?"

"I just thought. With Mack and all I just," he bites his lip, "I shouldn't anyway. I mean, I don't. I don't just fool around with - "

"Liam honey, have you been keeping that poor boy out on the doorstep all this while?" Liam's mom comes up behind Liam with Mack tugging on her hand. "Hi there, I'm Karen. Excuse his poor manners, he's been taught better than that."

"Zayn," he says, "It's nice to meet you. Don't worry, I was just going - "

"Hi Zayn," Louis says, grinning over Karen's shoulder at him, "See, I told you I'd see you again."

"Hi Louis," Zayn says a little warily. Liam has to bite his lip to keep from grinning. Wariness is exactly the reaction Louis should evoke in people.

"Karen, did Liam tell you Zayn's a musician? They came to the shop so Liam could play for him," he says significantly. Zayn's watching them curiously. Liam wants to hit Louis.

"Oh," Karen says, squeezing Liam's arm in surprise, "Wow. Guess you should stay for dinner then, if you got Liam to play piano."

"Mum - " Liam whines but Zayn comes to his rescue.

"I really appreciate the invitation," Zayn says politely, "But I can't tonight. I told my dad I'd - "

"Tomorrow then," Louis interrupts, a gleam in his eye that can only mean more trouble for Liam, "C'mon, it'll be fun. You can bring your guitar."

"Well, I don't know - " Zayn says slowly. He looks up at Liam, a question in his eye, and Liam glances from Louis to his Mum and back to Zayn and then sighs, nods his head once. He knows when it's futile to fight.

"Come for dinner," he says, trying to keep the reluctance out of his voice, "It'll be fun."

 

Zayn shows up in a collared shirt and thin black tie, guitar slung on his back and two boxes in his hands. One contains a pecan pie still warm from the bakery that he gives to Karen, who pulls him into a hug with a whispered welcome and then retreats into the kitchen with it. And the other has a Spiderman action figure with web-shooting action that he gives to Mack.

She can't stop staring at it, small hands clutching the box tightly, as if Zayn might take it back at any moment.

"Is this really for me?" she asks him, a little overwhelmed. Zayn nods solemnly.

"Girls should get to play with action figures too, right?" he says. She grins at him.

"Thanks, Zayn," she says eagerly, "Can I open him Daddy? Please?"

"After dinner," Liam says firmly, "You really didn't have to - " he tells Zayn quietly, rubbing the back of his neck.

"I wanted to," Zayn says. He shrugs a little but he's staring meaningfully at Liam, and Liam looks away.

"Harry just flew in tonight, so you'll get to meet the whole gang," he says lamely. He wonders idly what it means that a boy with long lashes and calloused fingers can come in and turn his world upside down in a heartbeat.

"That's right," Mack jumps in, momentarily distracted from her new toy. She reaches out and grabs Zayn's hand.

"C'mon," she says, "You can meet all my uncles."

Zayn scoops her up easily, tickling her feet.

"What's for dinner Mack?" he demands playfully, "What'd you cook for me?"

"Nothing," she giggles and shrieks, bopping him on the nose, "I don't cook," she informs him, wrinkling her nose at the idea, "Cooking's for grown ups."

 

"He seems nice," Liam's mum whispers, wrapping her arms around Liam when he reenters the kitchen. Together they watch Mack tug Zayn along to the dining room. Harry and Louis are making out against the table and Liam winces a little in sympathy as he watches his daughter wedge herself between the two of them, holding Zayn's hand in a vice grip.

"Mum," Liam warns, just as softly.

"Liam," she counters, "C'mon Liam baby, you're allowed to - "

"No I'm not," Liam interrupts firmly, "No, I'm not. It's not fair to you and it's not fair to Mack and. I can't. Ok?"

"Liam - " she pleads but he shakes his head stubbornly.

"And besides," he tells her over her sigh of exasperation, steering her into the dining room with two hands on her shoulders, "I hardly even know him. He could be like, a serial killer or something."

"Excuse me," Mack is demanding, pushing at Harry with all her strength. Harry doesn't move an inch, "I want you to meet my friend - Uncle Lou," she whines, when they don't break apart.

"Sorry Mackadoo," Louis grins breathlessly against Harry's lips, "I've just missed him a lot."

"Well, you're hogging him," she tells him, "What if I've missed him too?"

"You missed me?" Harry asks with a happy grin, breaking away from Louis to pick Mack up and toss her in the air delightedly, "Doesn't look like you missed me. Looks like you replaced me," he pouts at her and she giggles, swats at him.

"No, I haven't. You're silly," she scolds, "This is my friend Zayn. Well he was Daddy's friend first but he was my friend second so we're going to share him," she explains as the two of them shake hands.

Over Zayn's shoulder Harry's shooting him a look. Liam glares back at him stubbornly.

"Hey now," Louis says, taking Mack from Harry's arms, "I knew him before you, remember? He was Daddy's friend first but he was my friend second and your friend third."

"Oh," Mack frowns, "But you're going to share him right?"

"Well - " Louis hums in consideration and Mack pouts back at him.

"C'mon," she needles, "You're my favorite uncle - "

"Hey," exclaims Harry indignantly, stealing her back and tickling her all over.

"You three better not be scuffling over my pot roast," warns Liam's mom, "Liam, put out an extra place setting for Zayn would you?"

"I can - " Zayn starts but Liam waves a dismissive hand in his direction and moves to grab the silverware.

"Well, your granddaughter's being a nuisance," Harry tells Karen, tickling her some more.

"Uncle Harry," Mack is shrieking, laughing so that her entire body shakes uncontrollably.

"Hey did you really miss me?" he asks seriously, swinging her around so she can wrap her arms around his neck. He presses a kiss to her forehead and she presses a kiss back on his.

"Mhmm," she nods vigorously, "Well, not as much as Uncle Louis did but - "

"He missed me a lot?" Harry asks quietly, looking up at Louis with adoration in his eyes. Liam spends half his time around them wanting to vomit and half his time feeling ridiculously fond. It's exhausting.

"Yeah he was sad for awhile," she frowns, "It took me and Daddy a lot of work to cheer him up."

"Is that right," Harry says, leaning forward to peck a light kiss to Louis' lips. Louis' cheeks are flushed but he nods a little, smiling. "Thanks for taking care of him for me, Curly. Hey, wait a minute look! I think my hair's gotten curlier than yours - "

"Not a chance," she exclaims, wiggling until Harry puts her down. She grabs Zayn's hand, "C'mon, you can sit with me - Hey what's in that?" she asks with wide eyes, watching as Zayn slings his black guitar case off his shoulders and leaves it standing carefully against the wall.

"That's my guitar," he tells her, sitting where she tells him to, "Her name's Perrie." Mack's eyes light up and Liam groans inwardly. He knows exactly what's coming.

"Ooh," she says excitedly, "Uncle Niall's got one too. His is all colorful and pretty and he named her Mackenzie after me," she tells him proudly, "He keeps telling me he'll teach me how to play but the guitar's too big for me," she frowns, and then brightens again, "Will you play for us after dinner?"

Zayn looks up at Liam cautiously from across the table and then back at Mack.

"Um, I dunno Mack," he says carefully, "I'm not sure that - "

"Stay," Liam interrupts, resigned, because Louis and Harry and his Mum are shooting him not so subtle glares. "If you want to, I mean," he adds quickly, in case Zayn was looking for an excuse to leave. He hears Louis rolls his eyes.

"I'd love to," Zayn says, smiling again, "If it's alright with you."

Liam nods reluctantly, sealing the fate of what he's sure is going to be an uncomfortable night.

 

He's wrong, surprisingly enough. Dinner's spent asking Harry questions about his semester abroad in France while Mack and Zayn whisper in hushed voices from their corner of the table. When Mack isn't monopolizing his attention, Harry and Zayn get on immediately, sharing ideas about the Lourve and the importance of contemporary art. Or something.

Liam does his best to ignore the way his daughter's treating Zayn like they've been best friends for ages. It surprises him because she's usually more careful around new people, but for Zayn she has a constant stream of chatter. He lets her feed him off her plate and tug at his shirt and seems genuinely interested in all she has to say. Not that Liam's paying attention. He nods along at what his mum says and laughs at Louis' jokes and makes sure Mack eats her vegetables and it's normal enough. And if sometimes his eyes catch on the way Zayn throws his head back to laugh, his hand covering where Mack's latches onto his sleeve, well, he's only human, ok.

 

After dinner they settle in the small family room, Liam and his mum on the couch, Louis and Harry tangled up in each other on the floor, Zayn on the chair with his guitar in his lap and Mack leaning against his knee. He's about to start playing when Niall comes in, circles under his eyes and weariness around his smile.

"You were supposed to be back ages ago," Karen says from where she's sitting with her eyes half closed and her cold toes tucked under Liam. Liam reaches down and massages her calves gently and she hums, "What kept you?"

Niall wraps arms around Liam from behind, leans down to rest his forehead on the top of Liam's head.

"Remember Amy?" he mumbles finally, "Her cousin was shot. East side gang. Drove her to the hospital. He's gonna be fine, but - " he slumps further into Liam and Liam wraps arms around his, grips him tightly. From the corner of his eye, he notices the way Zayn stiffens slightly. Liam frowns, but he can't think of a way to reassure him without embarrassing him. He tries to catch Zayn's eye but Zayn is looking down stubbornly, as if trying to hide in plain sight.

Finally Niall looks up, blinking wearily.

"Sorry," he says, "It's been a long night. "

"S'alright, Ni," Liam tells him, "Don't be silly."

"I'll see about making her a pie, honey," Karen says softly, "You can take it to work tomorrow."

"Thanks Mrs. P," Niall says gratefully.

"Don't be sad, Uncle Niall," Mack says then. "We have company."

Niall perks up almost immediately when he sees Zayn and his guitar, eyes brightening.

"Niall Horan," he says, "That's a thing of beauty."

"Zayn Malik," Zayn responds, caution back in his voice, "Thanks. Hear yours is too."

"Oh yeah?" he grins down at Mack, "You been bragging again?" he asks her. She giggles and nods, "Brat," he teases fondly, ruffling up her hair.

"Am not," she sticks her tongue out at him, "Zayn was gonna play for us," she tells him importantly.

"Is that so. Hey would it be alright if I brought Mackenzie out?" he asks her, looking to Zayn, who nods at him with a smile. Niall’s got a way of putting everyone around him at ease that Zayn apparently is not immune to. Mack claps her hands together happily.

"You guys can play duets together," she says.

"Niall," chides Liam's mum, "You haven't eaten anything. I saved you a plate - "

"Thanks Karen," he says gratefully, "I'll grab it after, yeah? This'll only take a minute." He bounds excitedly into his room to grab his guitar and Liam, Harry and Louis all roll their eyes at each other. Niall'll play for hours if people let him.

 

Niall is so obviously in awe of Zayn, Liam wants to laugh. After his first song he turns to Liam with wide eyes.

"Where'd you find him, Li?" he asks him. They all laugh, including Zayn, who's watching the exchange closely.

"Playing on the corner of Canary," Liam says, looking at Zayn and grinning almost proudly, "He was saying he was never gonna play again before he met me."

Niall looks scandalized.

"Never play again, bloody -"

"Niall!" Karen scolds and Niall clamps a hand over his mouth just in time.

"Sorry Mack," he says, eyes twinkling, "Anyway. Please tell me you were gonna bring him in to me."

"I um - " Liam stammers, looking first at Zayn, then at Mack by his feet, then around at the rest of his family. He hadn't realized what Zayn being here tonight could mean. They like him already, is the thing. Liam can tell. The lads do and Mack does and Liam - well.

This wasn't what he had wanted to happen but if Niall thinks Zayn has a chance at this then. Liam's damn well not gonna stop him, even if that means Zayn sticks around awhile, settles further into Liam and his world.

"Liam?" Louis prods gently. Liam blinks back into focus to find that Zayn's looking down at his hands. He doesn't look at Liam but he speaks up before Liam can put his thoughts together.

"Do you want to hear another?" he asks quietly.

"Yes," Niall replies adamantly, as the rest of the group settles in for it, "Let's hear what you've got."

He makes Zayn play for a half hour. He'd brought his guitar out but he hardly touches it now, leaning on the edge of his chair and urging Zayn to play song after song. Occasionally he strums a harmony or hums a descant but for the most part he just sits and listens. They all do, silently, even Mack. Liam can't help but feel proud of her.

"All original songs huh?" Niall says finally, sitting back after the set and chewing on his bottom lip thoughtfully.

Zayn nods.

"What does that mean Zayn?" Mack asks with wide eyes. She's still sitting at Zayn's feet and Zayn looks down, tugs at a curl.

"Means I wrote them," he says with a shrug.

"Oh," is all she says, looking at Zayn like he's some kind of magic. Liam thinks maybe she has the right idea.

Zayn huffs an embarrassed laugh, looks down at his guitar.

"Damn," Harry says after a moment, "Well Ni? What do you think?"

"Well, you've got talent, that's for damn sure. You got a CD or something?"

Zayn shakes his head.

"A band?"

Zayn shakes his head again.

"Money?" Niall asks, laughing when Harry swats at him.

"No, not really - wait. What is going on?" Zayn asks, confusion in the furrow of his brow.

Liam is stuck between wanting to laugh at him and wanting to rescue him but Niall's already started talking again.

"Alright well, I can at least pull some studio time for you, put together an EP. Simon'll want to hear it first, he's always got the final say, you see, but - What are you doing tomorrow?"

"Nothing but - "

"You all?" Niall ignores him, asks the group.

"I'm free," Harry proclaims enthusiastically, leaning back so that Louis can settle against his chest more comfortably.

"I've got work until five," Liam offers. Zayn turns to stare at him and Liam just shoots him a weak smile.

"I can watch the shop after that, Lou," Liam's mum speaks up, "Mack can help me, isn't that right baby girl?"

She nods, grinning and Liam winks at her.

"We can rehearse in the back room by the piano," Louis's nodding slowly, "Get four or five good songs down. You've got as many right Zayn?"

"Sorry, but, um, what is going on here?" Zayn blurts out, looking around wildly at everyone, "Studio time? Rehearsals?"

Niall's laughing with his hands against his stomach.

"God, Mum, we should come with a warning label shouldn't we?" he says between chuckles and Liam's mom smiles warmly.

"Too right," she says, picking herself up off the couch slowly. "Alright you lot, I'm done in. I'm off to bed. Don't let them bully you too much, Zayn darling. And you eat that plate of food I left for you, yeah?" she says sternly to Niall who nods warmly at her. "Mack, baby, time for bed sweetie." She picks the small girl up, running a hand carefully through her curls, "Say goodnight?"

"Goodnight everyone," she mumbles sleepily, "Goodnight Daddy."

There's a chorus of Goodnight Mum and Goodnight Mack as they leave and then a silence.

"Listen," Louis says gently, "Why don't you put that away and come sit on the couch for a bit, make yourself comfortable, yeah? Let's talk."

Zayn nods, twisting in his chair to set his guitar down in the case behind him. He settles himself on the other end of the couch, tucking his feet up so they very carefully do not brush against Liam's thigh.

Liam shifts, suddenly restless.

"I work for a production company," Niall is saying."We're small, but it'd be a start for you. If you want. I can sign you up for some studio time and - "

"For - For free?" Zayn stammers out disbelievingly.

"Yeah," Niall grins, "Boss trusts me a bit. Granted, we'll have to do like, weird evening hours and all that but. It'll be time. And you can record a demo that we can get to Simon. If he likes it, well. We'll go from there."

"Does that sound okay to you, Zayn?" Harry asks him quietly.

"We can help you out too," Niall speaks up, "Louis's great on bass and Liam plays piano and Harry sings pretty amazingly himself. And I can do guitar if need be."

"I - " Zayn stammers, "I don't know what to say. I mean, that sounds amazing. Like, incredible. But - " he looks at Liam anxiously, "You'd want to do that? For me?"

Liam considers him. It's not exactly a torture he would have chosen for himself but -

"You make beautiful music, Zayn," Liam tells him honestly, "Of course we want to be a part of that."

Zayn blushes and Liam can tell he's entirely unconvinced, and Liam wants to feed him sense with his tongue and that is a desire that knocks the wind out of Liam.

He jumps when he feels a hand on his shoulder, looks up to find Louis and Harry hovering over them and Niall packing up across the room.

"We're gonna head out ok?" Louis says quietly, "You alright?"

Liam nods.

"Yeah, yeah goodnight. Welcome home, Harry."

Harry smiles warmly at him.

"It was good to meet you, Zayn," he says, keeping his voice low, "We'll see you tomorrow."

Zayn nods.

"You too."

When they've let themselves out and Niall's trudged his way back to his room, it's just the two of them left in the brightly lit family room, desperately fighting sleep. And Liam does not think about what'd it be like to have Zayn like this every night. Because he's only known Zayn about five minutes, and he's only here to get his music recorded. That's all.

"Liam - " Zayn starts, but Liam shakes his head.

"I should check on Mack," he says without looking at him, getting up quickly.

Mack is fast asleep when Liam enters her room softly, the light from her nightlight casting her features in a soft glow. Her hair lays spread in disarray against the pillow and in one hand she clutches her new Spiderman still in his box.

Liam shakes his head.

"I love you baby. Sweet dreams," he whispers, pressing a kiss to her forehead. He shuts the door behind him and slumps against it for a moment, lets the exhaustion press against him, turn his limbs heavy and his bones to jelly.

He wonders if Zayn is waiting for him still. Allows himself, just for this moment, to wonder about what it would be like to just kiss the breath out of that boy, take what he wants. He hasn't been with anyone really since Mack's mother because it's just. It's complicated and messy and Liam cares too much about Mack to let someone waltz into her life and then leave her again.

Besides, having a kid at eighteen doesn't exactly make him a very eligible bachelor.

He sighs, forces himself to move back to the lounge where he finds Zayn standing with his back to him, hands running along their mantlepiece with their myriad of frames.

"Is this her mother?" Zayn asks quietly, turning and handing Liam a small photo. In it is a picture of Danielle holding Mack in her arms and Liam behind her looking exhausted but happy. It's the only picture they've got of Danielle. She disappeared shortly after that. Left him a note.

He nods.

"We keep it for Mack. I want her to know her mother, you know? Even though I hardly did."

"Where is she now?"

Liam shrugs.

"Fuck if I know. It was. I don't know. I was eighteen and she was seventeen and we were both young and invincible until we weren't. I never really loved her," he tells Zayn, "But I love Mack," he says fiercely, daring Zayn to disagree.

Zayn takes a step closer.

"I know, Li," he says soothingly, taking the frame from him and replacing it on the mantle. "Here," he says, fishing into his pocket for something. He pulls out the small black box he had waved at Liam yesterday. "Never got a chance to give you this."

Liam breathes out.

"You fixed it?" he asks. Zayn opens it and Liam can't even feel stupid for the way his heart skips a beat at the moving hands.

"Course I did. Fix anything can't I?" Zayn teases. Liam rolls his eyes a little helplessly, taking the watch and slipping it around his wrist.

"How much do I owe you?" he asks, looking up to find that Zayn is startlingly close. He sucks in a breath.

"Paid me in music didn't you?" Zayn tells him, "Besides, I should be thanking you. This is. It's a dream come true," he breathes, "All of it," he adds after a moment, gaze dropping to Liam's lips.

"Zayn I - " Liam tries, transfixed by the way Zayn's tongue swipes against his bottom lip.

"Please?" Zayn begs, in a voice that is more air than anything. "Li, I still want this. You're. Mack doesn't change anything, okay? Please - "

But Liam is already stepping away.

"I can't," he says a little desperately, "I'm sorry. I - "

"Tell me you don't want to," Zayn demands.

Liam doesn't say anything. He won't lie.

At his silence, Zayn takes a step back, blinking.

"Oh," he says, "Okay."

Liam looks up at him, surprised.

"Okay? That's it?"

Zayn shrugs.

"Yeah, I mean. I understand. You're a good dad and you want to make sure I won't walk out on Mack. You don't trust me, yet," he shrugs again, taps the watch on Liam's wrist, "I'm going to fix that."

 

"I'm home," Liam calls out, pulling the door shut behind him and taking off his jacket. Mack comes running in, jumping into him and throwing arms around his neck.

"Daddy," she grins and Liam kisses her on the nose, and then takes a bite out of her cheek, "Daddy!" she shrieks, "Don't eat me, I'm your only daughter remember!"

"My favorite daughter," he tells her fondly, kissing her again. She rolls her eyes, wiggles out his grasp.

"Guess who's here?" she says excitedly, pulling on him.

"Mack," he chuckles, "Harry's here everyday, it's not exactly a surprise - "

And then he freezes. Sitting on his lounge floor, crosslegged and barefooted, is Zayn Malik. He's got on a denim jacket that's he's rolled up his forearms and in his lap is his guitar.

He looks up when he hears Liam, smiling shyly up at him through his lashes. Liam wants to kiss him so badly. He clenches his fists together.

"Are you surprised, Daddy?" Mack asks him slyly.

"Ye - yeah," Liam mumbles.

"Zayn's teaching me how to play guitar," she says, going in to sit next to Zayn and looking up at him with a little bit of awe, "Look, he even brought me one that fits me!"

Sitting next to them is a smaller guitar, and Mack picks it up now, brow furrowed in concentration as she tries to position her hands. It fits her perfectly.

"Oh," Liam says faintly, "That's. That's really great Mack."

Zayn's smile has faded a little. He opens his mouth to say something but just then Harry comes in wearing an apron and waving a wooden spoon.

"Oh, good, you're home. Karen asked me to get dinner ready tonight because she's gonna be at the shop. I could use your help. Liam," he adds a bit sternly, because Liam is still rooted to the spot, "Come on."

Liam coughs a bit and nods, follows Harry into the kitchen and sinks onto a stool by the countertop.

Harry doesn't say anything, just continues to cut up carrots, and Liam gets the distinct impression that he's just been rescued.

"What is he doing here?" Liam says with his eyes to the ceiling, and it's meant to be rhetorical but Harry answers anyway.

"He's teaching Mack guitar," Harry says simply, his rhythm never breaking.

"But. Why?" Liam complains, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes.

"Because she wanted to learn? Because it's really hard to say no to your daughter?" He finally puts the knife down, looks up at Liam, "She really likes him, Li," he says quietly, "And it seems to me like he really likes you."

"He hardly knows me," Liam scoffs, and then he sighs, "He's like, twenty three years old, Harry. No twenty three year old wants a six year old daughter, ok?"

Harry shrugs.

"Peel these potatoes for me," he orders, handing him a bowl.

They work in silence for a bit and then Harry clears his throat.

"He's a good teacher anyway. I've never seen Mack more focused."

Liam groans. Of course he's a good teacher, of course he is.

 

The group of them are making their way to Louis' store, and this time it's Karen that's stolen Zayn's attention. Harry, Niall and Mack are walking ahead but Liam trails behind his mum, mostly to ensure that nothing too embarrassing gets said.

"How long have you been playing?" his mum is asking him.

"Ages," Zayn tells her, "My mum used to play guitar as well. She's the one who taught me. I remember sitting on the porch at night with all the kids on my block to listen to her sing."

"Why'd she stop?" Karen asks, and Liam winces inwardly.

"She's dead," Zayn says quietly, "She died when I was sixteen."

"Oh, you poor baby," Karen says, reaching up to wrap an arm around his shoulders, "I'm so sorry for your loss."

"Thank you," Zayn mumbles, and Liam can see a flush creeping up past the collar of his jacket.

"I'm glad you still play," she tells him, "Liam lost his dad, too, when he was young. Stopped playing piano for awhile because of it. He found his way back though. I'm hoping he'll teach Mack eventually. He plays so beautifully, it'd be a shame if - "

"Mum - " Liam groans, speaking up before she can get carried away. "Zayn doesn't care about - "

"I do care, Li," Zayn interrupts firmly, "And I agree, Mrs. Payne. I'm honored that he's willing to play my music."

 

"So, how is this going to work?" Zayn asks, looking around the room. He's got his guitar out and a messy notebook and he's sitting on a chair by the piano, Harry at his shoulder.

"We're going to jam," Niall tells him, a gleam in his eye, "It's going to be wicked. So you'll play a song straight through right? So we can get a feel for it. And then we'll play it again together. And if you hear something you like, tell us so we can do it again, and if you hear something you don't like, definitely tell us."

"Remember, we're here for you," Harry assures him with a squeeze to his shoulder, "Don't worry about bruising our egos or anything like that yeah?"

"Okay," Zayn nods, and he's starting to look inspired and Liam has to remind himself to breathe, "Okay, let's do this. Can we. Can we start with a new song? I finished writing it last night." Their eyes meet for a moment before Zayn glances away, fiddling with the pages of his notebook.

"Is it alright if I look over your shoulder?" Harry asks him, "For the lyrics?"

"Yeah, course," Zayn says gesturing for him to move closer.

"Key?" Liam asks him, cringing when his voice breaks around the word. He clears his throat.

"Uh - " Zayn shrugs, "I'm not really sure."

"Play a few chords," Niall instructs him, with a shake of his head like he can't get enough of this kid. Zayn obeys and after a moment Niall smiles, "G," he says confidently. Zayn looks impressed.

"That's pretty brilliant," he tells Niall.

"I'll teach you," Niall says with a wave of his hand like it's nothing, "You good, Li?"

Liam nods.

"Let's do this," he echoes, sending Zayn a confident smile. Zayn's smile grows.

And then he begins to sing.

"I don't know you, but I want you," he starts and Liam closes his eyes, sucks in a shaky breath.

 

He's an assault, Liam decides. A dark haired, innocent smiled, strong handed assault and Liam holds tight to his self control but even his muscles feel like they aren't his own anymore. Because Zayn fits in perfectly here in Liam's world, solid in Niall's chords and the thrum of Louis' bass and the shake of Harry's voice. It's too good to be true, he tells himself. It's not real life. He knows what real life is. He's been living real life for twenty four years. And this is not - this is.

This is an assault.

 

They rehearse for hours, until well after closing and Zayn's voice is in tatters and Liam's fingers feel sore against the piano but when they finally stop it is with a satisfaction Liam hasn't felt in years.

"I love you," Niall tells Zayn, pulling him in for a hug and kissing his ear. "I'm serious."

Harry and Louis are laughing because Zayn has gone a beet red, pressing his face into his hands.

"Shut up," he tells them all, and then, "Thank you."

"Yeah yeah," Louis grins, waving a hand. "C'mon Harry," he leans in to whisper something into his ear and Harry flushes but his eyes are darkening. He nods. "You can lock up right Li?" he calls over his shoulders.

"Gross," Niall shouts affectionately after the two of them, "Same time tomorrow?" he asks, turning to Zayn and grinning wildly at him.

"Yeah," Zayn nods, voice breathy still with disbelief, "Yeah."

 

And so it goes on. They rehearse every night, and mostly it's focused but sometimes it turns into mindless jamming, Zayn's hands playing a chord that inspires Louis or Liam into a freestyle of harmonies. When that happens, Harry's grin will disappear into his curls and he'll begin to sing doo-waps and ah ah ahs, giving bass to Zayn's thinner melodies. He'll nudge Niall until Niall grumbles and pulls out his guitar, takes the line Zayn passes to him and runs with it like Liam hasn't heard him do since he got here, years ago.

Zayn crashes into them all really, like sea water into the beach. And then he seeps into them slow, like the ocean into the sand, tucked in patiently between every granule. On the nights that Niall grants them a break, Zayn's over for dinner, or giving Mack guitar lessons, or even picking up groceries if Liam has too much coursework. Liam asks him about his own night classes once, and Zayn shrugs.

"That was never what I really wanted," he tells Liam unworriedly, "This is what I really want."

 

He has no problem helping Harry with his revision though. More often than not, Liam'll come home from work or class to find the pair of them at his kitchen table, arguing about the importance of some artist or another, Mack working on her own coursework next to them and giggling when Harry laughs triumphantly and Zayn rolls his eyes in exasperation.

 

On a night when Liam has shut himself in his room to complete his revision he hears a knock on his door. It's Zayn and he's wearing one of those ancient sweaters of his and a soft smile.

"Your mom sent me up," he says, holding out a steaming mug, "Can I come in?"

No, Liam wants to say, no, i cannot have you in my bedroom.

Instead, he smiles meekly.

"Is that coffee?" he asks. Zayn nods, laughing a little when Liam's eyes light up, "Come in," he demands, reaching out for the cup and wrapping his hands around it.

"Massive hands," Zayn points out, staring. Liam rolls his eyes. Then he checks his newly working watch.

"God it's not even late but I just want to be in bed," he moans. Zayn huffs out a laugh, moves to stand behind him so he can lean over Liam to see his work.

"What're you working on?" he murmurs. From this close Liam can smell a faint trace of aftershave and a scent that is purely Zayn and for a moment Liam can't even speak, "Li?" Zayn prods gently.

Liam turns to look up at him, inches away from being able to see if he tastes the way he smells, like spice and fresh rain.

"Psychology reading," he says, voice thick.

Zayn clears his throat, moves his heavy gaze off Liam to the textbook on his desk.

"Stockholm syndrome?" Zayn asks, quirking an eyebrow.

"Yeah. When you begin to feel affection for the person who's taken you captive," Liam explains.

"That's fucked up," Zayn says drily. Liam laughs a little, edging on hysteria.

"It's a scientific phenomenon," says Liam, feeling a little ridiculous. He's not an expert at this, okay, and even if he was, he wouldn't be able to come up with a proper response because Zayn is looking at him again, serious and intent.

"Oh," is all Zayn says, because then he's placing a hand on the back of Liam's neck, thumb stroking the line of Liam's jaw.

"Zayn," whispers Liam. It comes out more a plea than a protest.

"I'm sorry," Zayn bites his lip and then leans in anyway, eyes trained to Liam's lips and -

Then the bedroom door bangs open and Zayn pulls away like he's been burned.

"Hi Mack," he chokes out, rubbing the back of his neck. Liam can see where his ears have turned red and he'd laugh if his organs weren't all in a heap on the floor.

Mack is staring suspiciously, eyes darting between the two of them.

"What are you two doing?" she demands. Zayn shrugs.

"Your Dad was teaching me about psychology," he says. He's more composed now, offering her and easy smile as she studies him, her own mouth turned down in a thoughtful frown. Liam mutters a silent prayer.

"Ok," she says slowly, "Well, I have to say goodnight and get kisses. Goodnight Zayn," she says, walking closer and tapping her cheek.

Zayn complies obediently, kneeling down to press a kiss to her cheek.

"Night, Mackaroo," he smiles warmly at her, and then moves aside so Liam can kiss her cheek.

"Night Mack, love you baby girl," he whispers, tucking a curl behind her ear.

"Night Daddy," she says, "Love you."

When she's gone, Liam coughs slightly.

"Fuck," he mumbles. "That was - "

"I'm sorry," Zayn rushes to say, "I'm sorry. I hadn't meant to - "

"Yeah," Liam says. He wants to be reassuring but his heart is still beating too fast. He's not sure if it's from arousal or anxiety, "I don't want her to - "

"I know," Zayn says, "I know, Li, I'm sorry."

Liam stares at him. There's earnest emotion in his eyes, a backlight that makes the browns of his pupils dance. He's backed away enough but Liam can steal feel the heat of his breath and the roughness of his sweater against his skin. He wonders if he's wearing anything underneath it.

"It's ok," Liam mumbles finally. "It was my fault too."

"It won't happen again, I swear," Zayn assures him. Liam can't help but smile a little.

"Right, so I should - " he gestures back at his work.

"Right, yeah, of course," Zayn says. For a moment they just stare at each other, Zayn biting his lip like he's trying not to laugh. Liam wrinkles his nose.

"What?" he asks, though he's smiling too.

"Nothing," Zayn says, smile laden with mischief, "You're just. I mean. It was entirely your fault, the more I think about it."

Liam raises an eyebrow indignantly.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asks.

"I mean, look at you," Zayn waves a hand at him, "You're gorgeous. And that tank is indecent."

Liam flushes.

"Your face is indecent," he mutters, which, admittedly, is not one of his better lines, but Zayn is smirking at him, and that is indecent, okay?

Zayn blinks, expression shifting immediately into doe-eyed innocence.

"You don't mean that," he says. He's doing a piss poor job of hiding his laughter now, shoulders shaking. Liam glares at him and Zayn braces his hands out in front of him, "Okay, okay, I'm going," he says agreeably.

He heads towards the door, but at the last moment he turns back, catching the way Liam stares at him.

"But I'll be back."

 

That declaration is only inaccurate because in all honesty, he never really leaves. He learns his way around their kitchen and memorizes how Liam's mom takes her coffee and after he mends a squeaky cupboard door, Karen decides he's the most useful son she's got.

After he helps Liam mow the lawn and clean out the gutters and wash their old car, Liam begrudgingly agrees.

One day, when Mack's at school and Liam and Zayn are touching up the peeling paint on the door frames in a comfortable silence, Zayn stops, sits back on his heels thoughtfully.

"What?" Liam asks, pausing too.

"We could paint Mack's room you know," Zayn says slowly, thinking aloud, "It looks a little worse for wear."

Liam opens his mouth to say something stubborn, but then he closes it again.

"Yeah," Liam concedes, watching as Zayn's eyes light up.

"I've got a ton of supplies at home," he says excitedly, "If you set up the room while I run over to get my things, we could be finished by the time she gets home. She'll be completely surprised."

"What supplies do we need that we don't already have here?" Liam asks, glancing around at the array of paint brushes and pans and paint that they've got at their feet.

Zayn is already standing though, pulling his paint stained shirt over his head carefully and then wiping his hands on it. Liam does not stare.

"Just trust me, Li," Zayn says confidently, evidently not noticing the way Liam's cheeks have flushed, "She's gonna love it."

They spend the rest of the day in Mack's bedroom, maneuvering carefully around the furniture and each other as they paint to the faint rhythm of bluegrass Karen's playing in the kitchen. When they've finished and the entire room glows a beautiful sundance yellow, Zayn shoos Liam out and sets to work, bottom lip between his teeth in concentration.

By the time he comes out again, Mack is home, and she races past Liam, gasping with awe at the sight that greets her. Because Zayn's spent the day dreaming up a mural just for her, featuring a life-size Spiderman center stage. And it's beautiful, all bright colors and flourishes of movement.

Mack is so in love with it she plants a big wet kiss on Zayn's cheek and makes him sign the bottom corner. For a while Liam thinks she might never leave her room again.

 

Once, Zayn spends the night.

They tuck Mack in and then Harry, Louis, Zayn and Liam stay up to watch the Avengers, and by the time they finish, it's indecently late. Harry and Louis are yawning and getting comfortable on Liam's floor but Zayn's forcing himself up and searching for his jacket, heavy lidded and sleep soft.

"Stay," Liam says, before he can stop himself. Zayn stares at him with wide eyes. He glances briefly at Harry and Louis who make a show of closing their eyes and ears.

"I um," Zayn mutters, cheeks tinged red, "I'm not sure that's such a good idea - "

When he looks back at Liam there's already arousal in his gaze, like just the idea of spending the night with Liam is enough to drive him crazy.

Liam swallows.

"It's fine, just take the couch," he insists, attempting an indifferent shrug and failing.

"You could cut the sexual tension in here with a knife," Louis remarks casually.

"It'd probably melt though," quips Harry with a snigger. Liam flushes.

"I'll get you some blankets," he says to Zayn, voice going high with embarrassment. Zayn nods, his sleepiness easing some of his embarrassment.

"Thanks," he mumbles, shy.

Liam forces himself away as Zayn makes to unbutton his jeans, and by the time he gets back with a pile of blankets Zayn is smiling his thanks up at Liam sleepily and crawling into a cocoon of blankets.

Liam considers it an accomplishment that he manages to sleep knowing there's a half naked Zayn in the next room over but then he wakes up to a floppy haired Zayn watching Saturday morning cartoons with Mack and has to excuse himself to the kitchen.

His mom finds him there five minutes later, banging his head against the pantry door. She just smiles amusedly at him, presses two cups of coffee into his hand and sends him out again with a cluck of her tongue.

No one is on his side.

 

Three weeks pass before Niall deems them ready to record. They finish their last song on Saturday night and Niall just sits back with a satisfaction that lines every curve of his body, and one look at him has Harry grinning wildly, feeding off it and passing it along to Louis and suddenly Louis's taking Harry by the waist and waltzing him around the room and Liam obliges them, because he loves them, puts his fingers to the keys and plays what he can remember of The Blue Danube and it's only when Zayn asks them what in God's name is going on that they stop, hands on their knees to catch their breath.

"Niall's booked us studio time," Harry says importantly and Niall nods, moving to sling an arm around Zayn's waist and pinch his cheek.

"For tomorrow night," he says, "You're ready."

Zayn's eyes begin to sparkle, flecks of gold shining bright under harsh fluorescent bulbs and Liam's stomach does a little swoop of dread.

 

"But I want to go to the studio," Mack whines, stomping her foot a little and pouting up at Liam. Liam shakes his head.

"Baby, you'll get to listen ok? After it's done. I promise. But right now we've got to do some serious work - "

"I can do serious work," Mack declares petulantly.

"Hey," Zayn says, kneeling down next to her. He whispers something in her ear and suddenly she smiles.

"Really?" she asks him excitedly.

"Pinky promise," Zayn grins, extending his pinky. Mack hooks her finger in his and kisses her thumb and Zayn copies her. When she seems satisfied, he stands again, ruffling up her curls.

Liam pulls him aside after the five of them have planted a kiss on Mack's cheek and began making their way to where Niall works.

"What'd you say to her?" he demands. Zayn shrugs noncommittally.

"Told her I'd give her a CD with all our signatures on it," he says. Liam raises an eyebrow at him.

"That worked?" he asks skeptically. Zayn flushes.

"And I told her I'd take her for an ice cream after school tomorrow," he admits. Liam glares at him.

"She's not allowed out on school nights," Liam says, crossing his arms and narrowing his eyes.

"That's not a rule, Li," Louis interrupts, jumping on his back and knocking the wind out of Liam. Liam catches him instinctively with hands under his thighs, but afterwards he wishes he'd just let him fall, "Come on," Louis says, leaning forward to press a slobbery kiss to Liam's cheek, "Don't be a spoil sport."

"I'm just trying to be responsible," he says crossly. Zayn's looking at him worriedly, taking twice the number of steps to keep up with him.

"I'm sorry, Liam," Zayn says, "I overstepped. I won't take her, okay?"

A horrible, cowardly part of Liam wants Zayn to do just that. Wants Mack to be angry at Zayn for breaking his promise. Wants to prove to Mack sooner rather than later that eventually he's going to leave them both.

Louis seems to be listening in to his thoughts because he tightens his grip around Liam's neck and presses a more sincere kiss to his cheek.

"Liam," he pleads softly, "C'mon." The just give him a chance goes unsaid, but Liam hears it anyway. He sighs.

"No, you should go. It was really nice of you to offer. Thank you," Liam mumbles and Zayn grins again.

"It's my pleasure, honestly."

 

"You're staring," Niall observes quietly, voice a halfway point between teasing and serious that Niall seems to have perfected. Liam slumps in his seat. He is staring, he knows that. Zayn looks magical in the booth, like he was born to put his mouth to a microphone. Liam is entranced, "I don't blame you," Niall continues, "He's incredible."

Liam turns to him a little helplessly. It's just the two of them: Harry and Louis have allegedly gone to find some coffee. Allegedly. Found a storage closet, more like, Niall had remarked when they hadn't returned twenty minutes later.

"I don't know what to do," he confesses. Niall pulls him close in sympathy.

"Have you thought about what's going to happen when he's done?" he asks. Liam swallows, looks up to search Niall's eyes. From this angle they are a sapphire blue and they spark with a relentlessness that challenges Liam to think about things he'd rather push away. Niall nods once, guessing his question. "Simon's got some people out in New York. If Zayn's good, he'll want to send him out there for meetings and things so that Zayn can get some face time with bigger execs and producers. If that goes well, well - "

He trails off and Liam closes his eyes, lets Niall nuzzle his cheek into Liam's hair for a moment.

Then, he stiffens, forces himself to draw back.

"That'll be amazing for him," he forces the words out, "An opportunity he really deserves."

"Liam - " Niall protests, surprised. but Liam shakes his head.

"God, where are Lou and Haz with that coffee?" he stands up jerkily and storms out the door.

And that's that.

 

"We are never recording another EP with you again," Louis grumbles, kicking at the dirt under his shoe in petulant tiredness. Harry presses a sweet kiss to his temple, pulls him close.

"He's kidding," he assures Zayn, leaning forward to thread their fingers together briefly, "It was an honor, seriously."

"Thanks," Zayn says. His voice is raw and fucked out and sits right in the pit of Liam's belly, hot, "I mean it. You lot are - "

"Something else," Niall finishes cheerfully, "No need to thank us. Just don't forget us when you're rich and famous, yeah?"

"How could I?" Zayn asks softly, looking at Liam. Liam sucks in a breath. It's so unfair, he thinks miserably. He wants to punch something. Instead he smiles shakily at Zayn.

"Walk you home?" he asks. Because it's an assault, ok? An unfair, miserable assault.

Zayn beams at him.

 

"How did your dad's watch break?" Zayn asks him, breaking the quiet between them. Liam's glad for it: there was something building in that silence - coy glances, warm skin, shaky breath - that Liam doesn't think he could have controlled.

"Dunno," he says, glancing at Zayn, "It was broken when I got it. Why - ?"

"I'm just. I dunno," Zayn says slowly, "It's just. You've changed my life in so many ways over the past few weeks. And it feels like it's all because of that watch."

Liam huffs out a laugh.

"Fate," he says, and his voice catches on the word and they're already at Zayn's doorstep but Liam doesn't want to let him go. "Can we just - " he begins, hoping Zayn will understand the plea in his voice.

"Yeah," he nods immediately, "'Course." He takes a couple of steps forward past his doorway, waits for Liam to catch up.

"Your friends are incredible musicians," he nudges Liam and somehow Liam hears what he's not saying.

"Thanks," he says meaningfully.

"Did they all study music in uni?"

"Nah, um. Niall did sound engineering back in Dublin. You know Harry's doing music, he's in his last term. And Louis dropped out but he was gonna be a drama teacher probably."

"Who knows," Zayn says, smiling.

"Who knows," Liam echoes, the traces of a smile forming on his face. "Where are we going?" he asks, because Zayn's leading him off the street now and onto a dirt path.

"Not long now," Zayn assures him, a little breathless with the sudden incline. They climb in silence for a few minutes, and Liam would watch the way the full moon is slowly revealed above them if he wasn't so preoccupied with the way she casted shadows on Zayn's cheekbones.

There's a clearing ahead and they head for it and then it dips away and Liam's faced with a view of their entire city laid out before them, the streetlights casting a glow that seems to reach for them, draw them in, draw them closer.

"It's beautiful," Liam breathes.

"Yeah," Zayn murmurs, but when Liam turns he finds Zayn's watching him instead, eyes hooded with desire.

He tucks it away quickly enough though, steps back a little and stretches out on the grass. After a minute, Liam joins him.

"I come here a lot to clear my head, work on my music," he tells Liam, and there is so much stubborn patience in his voice and that just undoes something in Liam, flooding his body like a panic attack.

"Zayn," he chokes out and god he doesn't even know what he wants but somehow Zayn is right where Liam needs him to be.

"Hey," he says, concern turning his voice low, "Hey, Liam, it's alright. It's alright." He puts an arm around Liam and draws him close so that Liam can turn his head into Zayn's chest, greedy for the steadiness Zayn offers him.

"Is it?" Liam asks quietly, because the warmth of Zayn is already addicting.

"Yeah," Zayn turns his head down and hesitantly presses a kiss to Liam's forehead. Liam shudders, moves closer into him, and Zayn tightens his arms around him, "You're alright."

They sit together like that for a long time, let the exhaustion of the day lull them into a state of muffled half consciousness. Liam keeps the time with Zayn's heartbeat under his ear, pretends his own heartbeat follows the same rhythm, at least for awhile.

"Do you really think all this is possible?" Zayn asks then, quiet and unsure. "Do you really think I could - "

"Yes," Liam tells him simply. "I knew it from the first moment I heard you play. You just needed people to listen to you, remember? And I did, and Niall and Louis and Harry did too. And now - " he swallows, "You're going to build homes for people with your music Zayn. I'm sure of it."

Zayn lets out a quiet laugh.

"I'm glad you've got such faith in me, I just wish I understood why - "

"Silly," Liam scolds without bite, leaning in closer. Zayn sighs. Lets them drift back into silence for another measure.

"I played for my dad yesterday." This time when Zayn speaks his voice is rough with disuse and he has to clear his throat, "He was wondering where I kept disappearing to every night, you know."

Liam can feel his shrug.

"And - ?" he pushes gently.

"And," Zayn says. For a moment, Liam thinks he's not going to continue, but then he breathes out, "And he could pick out my mother in a few of the songs," he says quietly. "I think he really did love her."

"He did," Liam assures him quietly, "Enough to give us you, yeah?"

Zayn wrinkles his nose.

"Ew," he groans, "Please tell me you aren't thinking about my parents - "

"God, no, now I am though. Christ," Liam huffs a laugh, pinching his side.

"Hey," Zayn complains, catching Liam's hand with his own. He clears his throat again, "God, I could really use some hot tea," he says wistfully.

"We could go back to - " Liam starts to sit up but Zayn shakes his head.

"No," he says, "No, let's just - Let's just sit awhile yeah?"

"But your voice - "

"Will heal," Zayn says patiently, "And besides, we have a bit of a break now, yeah?"

Oh, Liam thinks, heart sinking back to where it'd settled since Niall had told him about New York.

"Yeah," he mumbles, On second thought, sitting here awhile sounds perfect.

 

By the time he makes it home the sun is rising and Niall's getting ready for work. He's the only one awake.

"Are you just getting in - Hey," Niall's voice shifts from incredulous to kind, and he comes up and embraces Liam where Liam is swaying on his feet, tucking Liam's head against his shoulder with a warm hand behind his neck, "You're alright, Liam," he soothes, because Liam probably looks miserable, dead on his feet exhausted. "It's alright. C'mon, let's get you to bed."

"I have to. Mack's got school today, I've got to pack her lunch and - " Liam mumbles against his neck.

"I'll take care of it," Niall says, "I'll make sure she's ready for school, yeah?"

"You shouldn't have to do that. I was irresponsible, I should have - "

"Shut up," Niall says severely, pulling back to look him in the eye, "Liam. You're. You're allowed to be irresponsible sometimes okay? For gods' sake. Let me take you to bed."

Liam sighs. He's too tired to put up a fight, and the idea of falling into his own bed is too appealing, so he lets Niall lead him to his room with a warm hand in the small of his back and a kiss to his neck.

"Shirt and trousers?" Niall prompts, when Liam's toed off his shoes clumsily. Liam blinks blearily at him and then nods and obeys tiredly.

"Too old for late night rendezvous, huh?" Niall chuckles at him, after he's tucked Liam into bed. Liam squeezes his eyes shut but a tear escapes anyway and Niall sucks in a breath, kisses his forehead, "I love you," he tells him, "Sleep, okay? I love you so much."

 

"Lou - ?" he hears Niall say in a hushed voice through layers of consciousness, "No he's here. I don't know why you've encouraged him like this, Lou he'll only - " he sighs, "Yeah, no, I know. I know he is. Yeah, stop by later will you? No, it's pretty bad - "

 

He wakes to Louis: his smell, the weight of his limbs, the warmth of his breath.

"What're you - What're you doing here," he mumbles, twisting a little in his grasp to nose against the line of his jaw.

"Good morning sunshine," Louis sings, and Liam can feel him smile against him. He doesn't sound sleepy. He sounds wide awake. "Fun night?"

Liam blushes.

"Nothing happened," he says quickly, and then, "But yeah, I had a good time."

"Nothing happened?" Louis teases, "Here I was expecting juicy details - " he makes to get out of bed and Liam huffs a laugh, tugs him back down.

"Nothing happened," he echoes, "I dunno. We just. We talked. And we sat. And - Wait, Louis, fuck! What time is it? What about the shop - "

"Calm down, Li, Christ," Louis consoles with a rolls of his eyes, "Harry's watching it for a couple hours between classes. Thought you might need a wake up call today."

"Fuck," Liam mutters, turning back around and burying his face in his hands, "I'm sorry, Lou, I - "

"What is wrong with you?" Louis asks him, but his voice is fond. "You know you don't have to apologize - "

"I do, though," Liam says stubbornly, biting his lip, "I'm making all this trouble for you and Niall, and God, for Mack, and for what? For a boy who's just going to leave?" he runs a hand through his hair, "God, what the fuck am I doing - "

"He's special," Louis whispers, "You know he is. I know he is. Fuck, even Mack knows he is." Liam turns in Louis' grasp to bury his face in Louis' chest.

"Yeah," Liam says finally, voice small.

"The fact that he didn't fuck right off after he found out about Mack should tell you that much."

"Yeah I know," Liam closes his eyes, "But it doesn't matter now, Lou, he's leaving - "

"Maybe you can go with him," Louis tries, but Liam is already shaking his head.

"Uproot my life and Mack's for a boy I met a few months ago? Lou that's insane. Maybe it'd be different if it was just me I had to think about but - "

"Liam, it's not that bad," Louis tells him feelingly, turning him over so that he can look at him properly, "You have a kid. So what? It's - Everyone's got their baggage Li - "

Liam sighs.

"She's not just baggage, Lou. She's. Responsibility and discipline and money and. I mean, Harry and you've been together for years, but you're not ready for kids yet are you?"

"No, but - "

"He's just getting started. He's got his feet on the edge of the world right now, Lou and -" Liam takes a deep breath, "And I've already crossed over. He's just getting started, and I'm already finished."

"That's not true, Li - " Louis begins fiercely, but Liam cuts him off.

"And what if he changes his mind about us? What if he decides the people he meets in his new life are more than I'll ever be? I can't have anyone walk out on her again, Louis," Liam whispers, "I can't - Fuck. She deserves the world, and I'm not. I don't care about me, okay? I care about her. Whatever it takes to give her the world."

"Oh Liam," Louis murmurs and his voice is sad and Liam turns his face into the pillow to hide from it, "You've given her everything. You're that child's everything. She wants you to be happy - "

He cuts off as the door opens and Harry appears, holding Mack on his hip and carrying a plate of food precariously with his other hand,

"Well well, look what we have here," says Harry with a grin, "Hey babe," he puts the food on the dresser and leans down to peck Louis on the lips.

"Hi you," Louis smiles against his mouth, mood perking up instantly, "Karen watching the shop?"

"Yup," Harry nods, "She and I traded places so I could bring this little munchkin," he tickles her belly, "to her Daddy. What do we say to Daddy, Mack?"

"Good morning, Daddy," Mack giggles, "It's four o clock, you big sleepy head."

"Hey, who're you calling a sleepy head," Liam growls at her, opening his arms so that she can settle in them and pull on his hair. "Thanks for bringing me my lunch, Uncle Haz," he says, taking her up in his arms and nipping at her. She shrieks.

"No no, we made you a sandwich," she protests. "Uncle Louis, save me."

"Bit busy, Mackadoo," Louis grins. He's pulled Harry down into bed, and he's bringing him in for a kiss, making smoochy noises to go along with it.

"Ew," Mack says, wrinkling her nose and sticking out her tongue at them, "I'm glad you don't do that Daddy, that's gross."

Liam feels Louis and Harry still.

"Yeah," he says, mouth suddenly dry. He swallows against it, "So I can have more time to eat you up," he teases, making her giggle again. He can feel Harry and Louis watching him and he determinedly does not look at them. "Come on, then," he says, "Tell me what you did at school today."

 

It's about twenty minutes later that Zayn shows up on his doorstep. He looks as exhausted as Liam feels, with dark circles under his eyes and sweats that pull low at his hips but he offers Liam a shy smile, tongue behind his teeth.

"Hi Zayn," Louis says brightly from behind Liam, "Wow," he whistles, "Even when you look like shit, you really don't look like shit."

Zayn blushes, bottom lip between his teeth, and Liam would come to his rescue except that he whole-heartedly agrees. Luckily Mack is there to break the awkward silence, squeezing between Louis and Liam to give Zayn a hug and Liam watches as Zayn kneels to embrace her, eyes closing as he strokes her hair.

"What are you doing here?" Liam asks dumbly, "Thought you were coming after dinner."

"Right, about that -" Zayn begins, standing up and scratching the back of his head sheepishly.

"Uh oh," Harry says amusedly, coming up behind them and wrapping arms around Louis' waist. "Someone's been naughty."

Zayn shoots him a glare.

"Niall wants to celebrate after dinner, the whole group of us, you know," he explains, "So he told me to tell you that um. He gives Mack permission to have dessert before dinner. Just this once," Zayn adds, because Mack has already started jumping up and down.

"Dessert before dinner," she's singing happily, wrapping arms around Zayn's waist.

"I've always admired his spunk," Louis says, grinning cheekily up at Harry, "Facing Papa Bear with such crazy ideas as dessert before dinner. That takes courage."

Zayn flushes and Liam does too.

"Oh, go on then, Liam," Harry says rather unhelpfully, "Just the once."

"What? No I can't, I've got revision to catch up on," Liam mumbles, feeling suddenly very outnumbered.

"Daddy slept through all his classes today," Mack pipes up helpfully.

"Is that so," Zayn says amusedly, pursing his lips like he's trying hard not to laugh.

"That is so," Louis replies solemnly, "He's all out of sorts because of you."

Liam groans.

"God, Lou, shut up," he mutters, "I swear to God - "

"So can I go, Daddy?" Mack interrupts impatiently, looking up at him with hopeful eyes.

"Yeah, can she go Daddy?" Harry asks too, eager. Liam sighs.

"Thought you guys were my friends first," he grumbles, "Alright go on then," he says, resigned, "But I'll have you know I'm being ganged up on and I don't like it one bit."

Mack lets out a triumphant shout.

"Oh, don't worry Daddy," she says, "I love you the most. I just love Zayn second - "

"What?," Louis and Harry exclaim with mock outrage. Louis twists to look up at Harry.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" he asks devilishly.

"Well," Harry tilts his head, "If you're thinking she's in a lot of trouble then yes, I'm thinking what you're thinking."

Mack giggles.

"Uncle Haz," she protests, covering her mouth with her hands.

"You better hope Zayn can protect you from us, Mack - " Louis says, sticking his tongue out at her when she giggles at him from behind Zayn's legs.

"Zayn will protect me," she says determinedly, and Zayn laughs.

"Got that right, baby girl," he says easily and they share a commiserating smirk and Liam is in so much trouble.

"You better run," Harry tells her, widening his eyes comically and pulling a scary face.

Mack shrieks.

"C'mon Zayn," she urges him.

"Hey hey wait," Liam says. "C'mere, your hair's a mess." He kneels and takes the hair tie from around her wrist, pulling her curls together into a ponytail. "Do I get a kiss then?"

"Love you," she says, pressing a kiss to his cheek obediently.

"Love you," he tells her softly, nudging their noses together.

"Impressive," Zayn teases, when Liam's straightened.

"Oh go on," Liam says gruffly, "Before I change my mind."

"And come back for dinner," Karen calls from inside the kitchen. Liam groans inwardly.

Yeah, he is definitely outnumbered.

 

"I knew this was a bad idea - " Liam is pacing furiously through their kitchen, running a hand roughly through his hair.

"Hey," Louis tries, reaching for him, but Liam shakes him off.

"Li, it's only been a few hours - " Harry begins softly.

"it's way passed dinner time," Liam growls, "They should have been back ages ago."

"I'm sure there's a perfectly good explanation - " Louis tries to reason with him, but Liam glares at him.

"Don't you dare take his side," he fumes, "He's. You hardly know him. She's my daughter and I let her go with a kid who's practically a stranger and - and you lot let me," he accuses them, voice bordering on nasty.

"Liam," Karen says sharply, "That's enough. He's not a stranger. He's a good kid and he's given you no reason not to trust him. He'll be back soon enough, you hear?"

"But I - "

Just then the doorbell rings. Harry and Louis both stand but Liam shoots them a stern look.

"Stay here," he orders. He storms out and yanks the front door open and there stand Mack and Zayn, hand in hand. She's got leaves in her hair and wind kissed cheeks and she's smiling happily up at him, eyes bright.

"Daddy," she grins, "Daddy, I had the best time - "

"Where have you been?" Liam says in a dangerous voice, looking at Zayn. The smile slides right off his face.

"Daddy - " Mack cries.

"Mackenzie, go inside," Liam tells her quietly.

"But Daddy," Mack protests.

"It was my fault, Li - " Zayn says quickly, but Liam ignores him.

"Go. Now," he shouts. Her eyes widen in shock; Liam hardly ever raises his voice. Before he can apologize though, she pushes past him, eyes swimming with tears. .

When she's gone, Liam turns his attention on Zayn, embarrassment adding to his fury.

"I've been worried sick," he yells.

"I know, I know, I'm sorry," Zayn says and his voice is choked. "We went to the park and - "

"The park?" Liam snarls, and Zayn winces, draws back, "You told me you were gonna take her for ice cream and then you take her to the damned park? Who the fuck do you think you are?"

"Liam - " Zayn pleads, but Liam's beyond reason, fear that Mack is going to get hurt, that he's going to get hurt, taking root as anger. He kicks the door shut behind him so that it's just the two of them on his doorstep.

"You can't just come marching in and take my daughter anywhere you please, Zayn," Liam yells, "You're - "

"I'm what?" Zayn interrupts, voice a quiet challenge, "What am I, Liam?"

The edge in Zayn's voice stuns Liam into silence.

Zayn's eyes narrow.

"Say it to my face, Liam," Zayn demands, low and nasty, "Come on. Say it. I'm East Side trash, Liam. Aren't I? I'm East Side trash, and you don't want me anywhere your family."

"Wh - what," Liam stutters, shocked, "That's not - "

"No, I don't blame you," Zayn says miserably, hands up in front of him, "But I told you I was clean of it. And I thought you. Fuck. I thought you listened - "

"Zayn, I - "

"No, just. God I am so stupid," Zayn mutters, shaking his head, "Just - " but Liam's fisted his hands in Zayn's shirt and pressed their lips together furiously, kissing him with a desperation he's felt since he first laid eyes on him. Zayn groans like he can't help himself, kisses back with strong hands around Liam's hips.

Liam forces himself to break the kiss but keeps him close to watch the way Zayn's eyes open slowly, pupils blown with desire.

"I never even thought about that," Liam says fiercely, "Not for one second. I swear."

Zayn closes his eyes. Liam can feel his breath coming in shudders. After a moment he nods once.

"You terrify me," Liam confesses lowly, "You scare the shit out of me but it has nothing to do with that, okay? I'm scared because it's only been a few weeks and I already have no idea what I'd do without you and - . I'm sorry. Zayn, look at me. I'm sorry, okay?"

Zayn bites his lip, eyes searching Liam's, and it takes all Liam's got not to kiss him again.

"C'mon," Liam mumbles, "Come inside. Have dinner with us. Mack's gonna be furious with me and I could use you to soften her up."

For a long minute Zayn looks like he's going to say no, but then he sighs, relaxes a little in Liam's grip.

"Both you and your daughter are impossible to say no to," he says. Liam offers him a meek smile and after a moment Zayn returns it with a wavering smile of his own, "Okay, yeah."

 

"Let me just," Zayn starts, when they're in the hallway. He rubs a hand over his face tiredly, and Liam remembers with a flash of guilt that Zayn hasn't slept much either, "Let me just use the bathroom."

"Take your time, we'll wait for you, yeah?"

 

When he walks into the kitchen, he finds Mack curled up in Harry's lap, face buried in his tee. Louis's looking at him with round sympathetic eyes, and his mom doesn't look at him at all.

"Hey, Mackadoo," Harry whispers, petting her curls. She looks up at Liam with big, water stained eyes and Liam feels them like a punch in the gut.

"Mack, I'm sorry," he says, moving forward to kneel next to her.

"Where'd he go?" she asks him, voice wet with nearly shed tears. "Did he leave? Daddy he didn't mean to bring me home late, I swear. You can't make him leave - "

Liam feels a little sick. Apparently no Payne is immune to the assault.

He opens his mouth to tell her Zayn's here still, that he hasn't walked out yet, that Liam hopes he never does, when he sees her eyes widen. He turns to see Zayn standing in the doorway, a smile on his face that creates butterflies in Liam's stomach and a thrum of energy in his muscles.

He needs to run for like, ten miles.

"I'm here, Mack," Zayn tells her softly, "Your dad can't scare me away, don't you worry. I'm not going anywhere," he shoots Liam a significant look, "And besides, told you I'd protect you from these two, didn't I?" he teases, face relaxing into a smile for Harry and Louis.

Harry kisses the top of Mack's head.

"Hear that baby, no need for tears, yeah?" he whispers, returning Zayn's smile.

Zayn takes the small girl from Harry's lap into his arms, so that she can wrap bony legs around his waist and arms around his neck.

"You've still got leaves in your hair, Mackaroo," Zayn teases, tongue behind his teeth. She offers him a watery smile.

"What'd you guys even do?" Louis asks lightly. He's stood, circled around to help Liam to his feet, and now he wraps strong arms around Liam's waist, stands on tip toes to rest his chin on Liam's shoulder.

"Had a leaf fight," Mack tells him, excitement quickly replacing her sadness, "We built this gigantic leaf pile in the park by the swings, Uncle Louis! You should have seen it. It was really really really big," she swings her arms out, nearly bopping Zayn in the nose, wriggling until he puts her down, "And Grandma, remember that man we saw doing sketches in the sidewalk? The one with the funny hat?"

Karen looks up from where she's setting the table and Zayn steals the utensils from her hand to help her out.

"Yeah, baby, I do," she says amusedly.

"Well, Zayn asked if he could borrow some chalk, and then he sketched me! Only some of the chalk smudged, but it still looked really cool!"

Harry whistles.

"Liam, you've found a man of many talents," he comments.

"I know," Liam says softly, looking at Zayn. Zayn's ducked his head, eyes lowered, and Liam feels arousal like a hand around his heart.

"I tried to draw him too, - " Mack is saying and Liam forces himself to breathe, relax into Louis' grip.

"Everything turn out okay then?" Louis asks, turning his head to whisper in Liam's ear.

Liam kisses Louis' temple in response, and Louis just smiles knowingly at him and then lets go to help his mom bring the food to the table.

"Where's Niall?" Harry asks. He's finished pulling the leaves out of Mack's hair and sent her running to wash up.

"Should be here any minute," Louis says with a frown, glancing at his watch. Right on cue, a voice booms from the hallway.

"I'm back and I'm starved, Karen," he calls out, "Had to work through lunch today - And look the family's already here. How was dessert before dinner Mack?"

He ruffles Mack's curls and presses a kiss to the frown in Liam's brow and has moved into the dining room before Liam can open his mouth.

"Hey, c'mere," Liam says, intercepting Mack before she gets to the table, "I'm sorry I yelled, baby, okay? Forgive me?"

She smiles at him, young and sweet and Liam will fight to keep that smile on her face until his dying day.

"I'm sorry I worried you," she says and Liam kisses her on the nose.

"I love you," he tells her softly.

"I love you," she says, "You're the best daddy ever."

"I agree," Louis says, pinching Liam's cheek. "Best daddy ever."

"Let's get him a mug," Harry proposes.

"No no, a tie, Harold, a tie," Louis says, "He'll look just dapper."

"A button," Zayn suggests a little slyly, and Liam attempts to glare at him but he's fighting a losing battle.

Louis claps his hands together.

"A button it is," he declares, "A button the size of your face Mackadoo."

He sticks a hand in her face and she promptly licks it. Louis squawks.

"What is with you Paynes and eating people."

 

They move into the family room after dinner. Mack is exhausted already but she fights to keep her eyes open long enough to settle between Zayn and Liam on the couch and burrow into Zayn's chest.

Liam watches quietly as her hand reaches out and clutches in the thin material of Zayn's t-shirt and swallows hard.

"If she gets heavy or - " he manages before Zayn gives him a look.

"Mack weighs like, half a pound, Li," Niall tells him incredulously.

"She's thirty four and a half pounds, actually," Liam mutters but no one's listening to him.

"I think I should get out a bottle of wine," Karen is saying, "We're supposed to be celebrating tonight, aren't we?"

"No Karen, you really don't have to," Zayn protests feebly, blushing red, but Karen clucks her tongue.

"You're family now," she tells him, "And we are going to celebrate you."

Zayn blushes harder but a small smile plays at his lips and he leans his head against Mack's curls with a sigh of happy resignation.

"Alright then," he mumbles, allows Karen to kiss him briefly on the forehead before she heads into the kitchen, Harry trailing behind her to lend a hand.

They come back with slices of pie and wine for everyone and Liam's heart does funny things in his ribcage when Zayn smiles so his eyes crinkle.

"To Zayn," Karen says, holding up her glass.

"To family," Zayn corrects with an embarrassed shake of his head.

"To beautiful music," Niall says softly.

"Really beautiful music," Mack whispers and they all start slightly.

"Thanks Mack," Zayn smiles a little, turning his attention back to the little girl curled up in his lap, "Hey. You're sneaky. I thought you were asleep."

"I am asleep," Mack mumbles and Zayn laughs silently.

"Do you want to go to your room?" he asks her. She shakes her head furiously.

"Fifteen more minutes."

"Is that alright, Daddy?" Zayn asks, looking up at him with blush stained cheeks. Liam swallows hard.

"Yeah," he manages, "Yeah that's - that's fine."

They finish their wine and their pie in a silence for Mack, sleepy themselves with the warmth of the liquid and the love. Zayn's left most of his wine untouched, glass abandoned on the corner table so he can rest his head on Mack's and close his eyes, dark lashes falling heavy against his cheekbones.

Beautiful, Liam thinks, before he can disallow it.

"To beautiful people," he says out loud. Zayn's eyes remain closed, but a shy smile softens his features, "To fate."

 

Liam's walking Zayn to the door when suddenly Zayn turns around, eyes dancing wickedly.

"What?" Liam asks cautiously, determinedly ignoring the way his pulse jumps at Zayn's mischief.

"Nothing," Zayn says casually, "Just. You kissed me here. On this very spot."

"Did I?" Liam asks faintly, dry-mouthed.

"Yeah," Zayn says, "You couldn't resist," he teases. His eyes are dark, nearly half-lidded as he looks up at Liam, "Bet I could make you do it again."

"Zayn - " Liam pleads, because, fuck. Liam wants to kiss him already and he hasn't even done anything.

Zayn smirks a little, corner of his mouth crooked up, snaring the steady beat of Liam's heart.

"Goodnight Li," he says softly, "Sweet dreams."

 

"Hey baby Mack, do you think it'd be alright if I talked to your dad for a bit?"

Liam looks up curiously at Louis from his desk. He's home early and he looks troubled so Liam immediate marks his place in the text he's reading and turns to face him.

Mack's left the room, closing the door behind her, and still Louis remains quiet, shifting his weight from side to side.

"Lou?" Liam asks tentatively, mouth pulled down in a frown. Louis sighs, eyes traveling around the room anxiously before they settle on Liam again, worry painted clear as day on his face.

"Listen, Li. I just. Before I say this, I wanted to say I was sorry. I really didn't mean to - . Fuck, I just do things sometimes without thinking and now Niall's about to have my head because of it and - "

"Hey," Liam consoles, "Slow down, Lou. What's going on?"

"Liam," Louis sighs, closes his eyes for a brief moment and then finally reopens them to look hard at Liam, "Zayn's going to go to New York for a week, to meet with a couple of execs. Simon loved his CD. Says he might have a real future there."

Liam swallows. He can't say he's surprised exactly, but hearing the words out loud still makes the ground fall away beneath him.

"Fuck," he says softly, rubbing his eyes wearily, "That's - that's incredible - "

"No," Louis cuts him off sharply, "No Li, absolutely not. You'll have to pretend with him, because you can't fucking tell him not to follow his dreams but - Not with me, Li. You tell me the truth."

Liam's eyes fill with tears.

"Fuck," he says again, but this time it's broken, "Fuck, Louis I - "

"I'm sorry," Louis crosses the room to embrace him roughly, hand gripping at the back of his neck, "I'm so sorry, Li. I thought it would work out, I really did - "

"I would have fallen for him anyway," Liam mumbles, clenching his eyes shut. He will not cry, damn it, "I would have, Lou, he's - "

"Special," Louis whispers, "I know. It'll pass. It'll - Fuck. I love you so much."

"Love you too," Liam mumbles, holding on tighter. It'll pass, he thinks desperately. It will.

 

Zayn leaves in a flurry of goodbyes and encouraging smiles and through it all Liam clings to that first day he'd heard Zayn sing, the first time he thought that this boy deserved to have it all. He won't get in the way of that, he promises himself. No matter what.

Zayn tells them he can get a taxi but Mack pouts until Liam agrees to drive them all to the airport so they can give him a proper send off. They wait for him to check in and help him find his gate and idle in front of the security line until he only has half an hour before his flight and has to board. And even then, Mack refuses to let go, wraps arms around him in a vice grip until Zayn shrugs off his leather jacket and wraps it around her, pressing a kiss to her forehead.

"I'll be back before you know it," he chides her softly, tucking her hair behind her ear, "You be good for your Daddy, you hear?"

She nods.

"I'm always good," she manages to sniff indignantly, reaching for Liam's hand. Liam squeezes gently.

"You are," he assures her softly, "Go on," he tells Zayn, before I stop you myself.

Zayn smiles a little helplessly at him and Liam can't resist, he tugs the other boy in for a one armed hug.

"Good luck," he whispers.

"Not like he'll need it," Niall says, coming up and slipping an arm around Liam's shoulders when Zayn pulls away.

"Thanks," Zayn says, eyes bright, 'For everything, I'm serious. I - "

"Shut up," Harry interrupts him fondly, "I'm serious. Now go on, really. You'll miss your flight."

With one last nod, Zayn turns, each retreating footstep along the harsh airport tiles another beat in the beginning of the end.

 

And just like that, Liam's life goes back to as it was, normal and steady and Zayn-less. He forces himself to find his old routine again: he takes care of Mack and his mum, works diligently with his revision, and retreats into the comfort of Niall's and Harry's and Louis' company once more. They welcome him back without question, don't say anything when he seems to cling to them, pulling him into the middle of them and pressing skin and warmth to his raw nerves.

And when even that's not enough, he takes off on his bike, reckless and impulsive in a way he hasn't been since Mack was born. He pushes himself until he can't hear anything but the protests of his muscles, speeding uphill and taking turns sharp.

On the third day since Zayn's left, he rides far out, focus narrowing to the steady rhythm of his pedaling and the wind whistling in his ears, cutting out anything that may remind him of Zayn, remind him of what he's lost. He bikes for miles, mind going blissfully blank, eyes trained straight ahead, numb to his surroundings other than the paved road ahead of him.

He only looks around when he hears the calls of other bikes and it's only then that he realizes he's crossed to the East Side, houses low and crumbling around him, streets littered with beer bottles and old cigarettes. One glance behind him tells him he's picked up a tail and with a muttered curse and flash of fear he forces himself to ride faster, turning two sharp corners and making the desperate retreat back to the West Side. They're shouting out names and threats but Liam doesn't pay them any mind, adrenaline replacing their voices with the thundering of blood through his body.

It's only when he's safely in the confines of his own neighborhood does he glance back to make sure they haven't followed him out and it's on his exhale of relief that he crashes, bike skidding out of control against some rocks and sending Liam to the pavement.

The shock of it has him bursting into laughter, even as the blood runs down his knees and his hands sting.

"I'm an idiot," he tells himself out loud, voice rising when he feels the liberation at the admittance, "I'm an idiot."

He collapses his weight against the ground, wincing at the pull of the burn in his knees when he folds them.

"I'm an idiot for falling for him and I'm an idiot for hoping he might fall for me enough to stay," his voice breaks around the word and he presses his palms into his eyeballs for a minute, allows himself to feel miserable and sad and heartbroken.

"He's leaving," Liam whispers, "He's leaving and I'm not even allowed to be angry with him."

 

After awhile he picks himself back up. He wipes as much dirt as he can off his ruined jeans and picks the gravel out of the microcuts on his hand and then begins to walk his bike back home. Thankfully he's only a few blocks away because he's been reduced to a limp by his still bleeding knees, breath coming shallowly by the time he reaches their driveway.

He lets his bike fall to the ground with a clatter, too exhausted to examine it for damage, and makes his way into a quiet house. All the lights are off and everyone seems to be asleep and Liam is grateful. He searches for his mother's first aid kit in the dark, cursing under his breath when he stubs his toe against one of Mack's toys.

"Where have you been?" asks a quiet voice behind him. Liam's heart races for a moment before he can manage to relax. He turns slowly. Niall is standing there in a faint light, arms crossed in front of him.

"Riding," Liam says shortly, not in the mood for a lecture. He fumbles with the antibacterial wipes for a minute. Niall snorts skeptically.

"You've bloodied up your knees and ruined a pair of perfectly good jeans," Niall says, "Here, let me." He steps closer to bat Liam's hand away impatiently. With one hand he unbuttons and unzips Liam's jeans, helps him out of them slowly. Liam bites back a groan of pain, head falling dejectedly to Niall's shoulder.

"C'mon," Niall says, voice slowing to a gentle lull, He helps Liam to sit and then kneels next to him, wipes slowly at his cuts, murmuring apologizes when Liam squirms.

"Ended up on the East Side. Some kids chased me out," Liam whispers finally, bracing himself for a scolding. When Niall remains silent, he continues, "I wasn't paying attention," he tells Niall pleadingly, "I just. I wanted to. Not think. I don't know. I wanted to get away from it and - "

Niall looks up at him and Liam's words die in his throat. He can't make out Niall's face but he's sure he knows the disappointment there.

Without a word, Niall resumes his work, cleaning and dressing his knees with steady, calloused hands and wiping away the excess blood. When he's done, he stands, and helps Liam to his feet.

"Niall - " Liam begs, "I - "

"Mack's stayed up to wait for you, in your room. She wants to show you something."

Liam raises an eyebrow, but before he can open his mouth Niall squeezes his arm harshly.

"You could have been seriously hurt," he blurts out frustratedly, "You could have been. They carry knives and sometimes guns and when the sun goes down - "

"I'm sorry," Liam tells him quietly, "I'm sorry Ni - "

Niall shakes his head.

"Mack's waiting for you," he repeats, helping him to his room, "I'm going to bed. Goodnight, Li." He hesitates and then presses a swift kiss to Liam's temple, "I love you."

 

Mack is sitting on the floor of his bedroom, crosslegged and leaning over a piece of paper with a crayon in her hand and her face shrouded in curls. She's wearing Zayn's leather jacket like a dress, sleeves rolled up to her forearms.

She looks up when Liam enters, curls bouncing back to reveal concern in her eyes.

"Where are your trousers?" she asks him, "What happened to your knees Daddy?"

Liam waves away the questions, tugs on a pair of pajamas quickly.

"S'nothing baby," he sits next to her, biting his lip against a grimace, and kisses her forehead, "Fell off my bike, that's all. What are you working on?"

She leans back to reveal her drawing, and Liam swallows hard, closes his eyes briefly, because what she's drawn is unmistakably a family portrait, three small figures holding hands and smiling brightly.

"You love him, don't you?" she asks him quietly, seriously, "Like Uncle Louis loves Uncle Harry?"

"Mack - " Liam says helplessly, caught in her knowing gaze.

"You're sad. You're sad just like Uncle Louis was when Uncle Haz left," her lower lip trembles, "Don't be sad, Daddy," she pleads, "He's coming back - "

"Oh Mack," Liam breathes, and he can't bring himself to lie to her, "He's not coming back, baby, I'm sorry - "

"He is," she protests stubbornly, "He's coming back on Sunday, he told me - "

"You're right," Liam soothes, "You're right. He's coming back on Sunday. But. You know how he makes music right?" he asks her gently, waiting until she nods slowly, "He's going to live in New York because there are people there who can help him out. Help him get his music out there for other people to listen to. You want that for him, don't you?"

"No," she says defiantly, shaking her head furiously, "No he has to come back, Daddy. He - "

"Come here," he tells his, forcing his voice not to waver. He opens his arms and she crawls into him, folding her knees on his lap and resting her head against his chest. "He makes beautiful music, you said so yourself, didn't you? Other people should get to listen to his music, don't you think? That's his dream, Mack. We can't stop him from living his dream, baby girl. Not if we love him properly."

He feels her fists clench in his sweaty old tee, and he wraps his arms tight around her, presses a kiss to the top of her head.

"Okay," she mumbles finally, "But I don't like it."

He huffs a laugh into her hair despite himself.

"Me neither, baby, me neither."

 

Zayn's flight lands in the early evening and he calls ahead to let them know he's getting a cab, and this time Mack doesn't protest. She's abandoned his leather jacket and the Spiderman doll lies carelessly on her floor and Liam is almost afraid she'll cross out his signature on her wall if he's not careful.

Louis, Harry and Niall don't say anything but Liam knows he's being watched carefully, too. Since the incident on the bike they've hardly left his side, and never all at once and Liam wants to point out that he's not like, going to do anything stupid, but he's secretly grateful for it. At least it's some kind of distraction.

On the day Zayn's supposed to arrive, Karen bakes a pie and Harry whips out a few of his favorite recipes and Louis and Niall tackle Liam onto the couch and put on Spiderman for Mack and they make it their mission to watch all three movies, stopping only for bathroom breaks and to taste test for Harry. And Liam almost forgets, with Niall's head pillowed in his lap and Mack tucked into his side, Louis leaning against his legs on the floor, itchily hot and wonderfully slow.

But when the doorbell rings, he stiffens, feels everyone around him go silent.

"I'll get it," he mumbles, extracting himself carefully from the pile of tangled limbs. No one says anything and Mack doesn't follow him and he forces himself to take a breath, bracing himself for an assault of shy smiles and wide eager eyes.

Zayn doesn't disappoint. He stands at the door with his duffel and his guitar at his feet and his hands shoved into his pockets.

"Hi," he says, eyes crinkling at the corners, "God, I've missed you."

Liam wants to kiss him. Instead he pulls him into a hug, breathes in a scent that is indisputably Zayn.

"I've missed you," he whispers into Zayn's neck. Zayn laughs breathlessly.

"Sorry," he pulls away a little, "Tickles," he claims, but his eyes are slightly glazed and he takes another step back for good measure, clears his throat. "Sorry," he says again, ducking his head.

Liam blushes, looks at his feet.

"Where's um. Where's Mack?" Zayn asks then, craning his head to look behind Liam. Liam winces.

"Um," he stands aside to let Zayn in, grabbing his duffel and earning an appreciative smile, "She's here. Sorry, just. Come in."

"Hi Zayn," both Niall and Louis chorus when Liam and Zayn reenter the room.

"Good to have you back," Niall says warmly, getting up to give him a quick hug. Louis nods briefly but doesn't move. He's not looking at Zayn, as if seeing him will melt the resolve Louis' made to stay cold with him. Liam thinks he has the right idea: the more he watches Zayn, the more he wants to touch and taste and -

He shuts that thought down fast enough.

"Thanks," Zayn is mumbling. "Hi Mack," he says tentatively. She's not looking at him, shoulders hunched, her ringlets of curls falling over her face in a disarray.

"Hi," she mutters.

"Mack," Liam scolds a little desperately: beside him, Zayn's face has fallen. But she only looks up to glare at him.

"I'm going to my room," she says, getting up off the couch.

"Mack, dinner's going to be ready in - "

"I'm not hungry," she interrupts firmly, pushing past them both. A moment later they hear the door slam.

"I'm sorry," Liam says helplessly to Zayn. He's fishing about for some excuse for her behavior when Niall comes to his rescue.

"She's just stroppy because we didn't get to finish the last movie. She'll come round, she just needs her space," he places a comforting hand around the back of Zayn's neck. "Tell me about New York and those snotty producers. Did they live up to the hype?"

"They had nothing on you," Zayn assures him earnestly, "Honest. Awful taste and everything."

"Oh, stop," Niall protests with an embarrassed wave of his hand, but Liam can tell he's pleased.

"And our music?" Louis asks. He's already losing the battle to stay angry, warming almost instinctively to Zayn. His eyes are bright with curiosity and he lets Zayn help him to his feet and then fists a hand in his collar, "I hope we weren't too shabby?"

"Not at all," Zayn protests, looking scandalized by the thought. He turns to Liam, almost bouncing on the balls of his feet, "They said your piano playing was some of the best they'd ever heard," he ducks his head a little, suddenly shy, "Told them you inspired me and that I wouldn't play with anyone else."

Liam blushes, huffing out a laugh when Niall kisses his ear.

"C'mon," he mumbles embarrassedly, "You must be hungry. And Harry's been cooking all day."

Niall groans.

"He made his famous meatballs didn't he? God I could kiss him," he says appreciatively.

"Hey," Louis says indignantly, gripping the other boy in a headlock, "Watch what you say, Horan."

They wrestle each other into the kitchen, leaving behind a Zayn who looks dazed, smile crooked with disbelief. Liam catches his arm before he can leave, startling him.

"I'm so proud of you," he whispers fervently. Zayn's face splits into a beautiful smile, eyes crinkling around the corners and tongue pressed behind his teeth. He twists his arm so that his hand finds Liam's, lacing their fingers together and holding on tight.

"Couldn't have done it without you, Li, any of it," he says feelingly, "I just wish I knew a way to repay you."

"Fixed my watch didn't you?" Liam jokes. Zayn doesn't laugh though, just traces the watch around Liam's wrist with his thumb and then dips down to trace Liam's finger where they're still entangled.

Liam sucks in a breath at the touch and Zayn's eyes fall to his lips. The living room fades around them as Liam leans in, helpless to the assault, and he's counting Zayn's eyelashes against cheeks when Zayn pulls away abruptly.

"I'm sorry," he mumbles, pulling his hand out of Liam's grasp and moving out of Liam's space, "You're. I just. I can't help it," he says, hands falling helplessly to his sides. He doesn't look at Liam. "You must think I'm - "

"Really hungry?" Liam interrupts. Zayn's head snaps up to look at him and Liam smiles a small smile at him. They're stuck, is the thing. Zayn's leaving and Liam has a kid and maybe Zayn started it, but Liam wanted to finish it. It is what it is, he thinks. And at the end of the day, no matter how much pain Zayn will cause him, no matter how much he'll want to run away from it, he wouldn't trade the time they had together for anything. He puts a hand on Zayn's shoulder, smile growing, "Me too. Let's go."

 

After Karen has pressed a warm kiss to Zayn's cheek and Harry's pulled him into a clumsy hug, they sit down for dinner without Mack. Niall has more questions for Zayn about the New York scene and when he's distracted, Louis turns to Liam.

"Alright?" he whispers. Liam nods.

"Can't help it," he says with a small smile, "Special, isn't he?"

Louis frowns a little, clears his throat. On his other side, Harry rests a hand on his knee.

"So," Louis begins. Niall and Zayn quiet to look at him. "What are the details of your contract then?"

"My - my contract?" Zayn asks, confusion evident.

"Tommo - " Liam warns quietly, but Louis ignores him.

"They loved you, didn't they? They want to sign you don't they?" Louis' voice is not unkind but there's no mistaking the implication he's making. Zayn looks from Liam to Louis.

"Yeah," he admits slowly, "Yeah, they do."

"So. You're going to leave us," Louis says flatly.

"Louis," Harry chides at the same time Karen says, "That's enough, Lou."

She shoots an apologetic glance at Zayn.

"Let the poor boy eat. Then he can answer to your accusations," she says sternly.

"I'm not accusing him," Louis says defensively, "I'm just - "

But Harry holds up a hand to silence him.

"We're happy for you," he says gently to Zayn, "We're so happy for you."

"I - " Zayn starts, but there's a small sniffle from the doorway and they all turn to find Mack there. In her hands she clutches Zayn's leather jacket.

"Don't go," she says in a small voice, lower lip trembling.

"Mack - " Liam warns, but Mack is shaking her head, walking around the table to Zayn. She presses the jacket into his arms.

"Don't go," she repeats, "Please? Daddy was really sad the entire time you were gone. You don't want him to be sad, do you? You love him too, don't you?"

Two tears run down her face and Zayn brushes them away carefully. Liam swallows.

"Zayn," he breathes out, "Zayn, I'm so sorry - "

Zayn doesn't turn to look at him.

"Is that why you're upset with me?" he asks Mack softly, "Because you think I'm leaving?"

Hesitantly, she nods.

"Don't want you to go," she mumbles.

"C'mere," Zayn says, pulling her small form into him and wrapping his arms around her. "M'not going anywhere, Mack. M'not leaving. Told you I wouldn't, didn't I? M'right here."

There is pin drop silence around the table, except for the way Liam's heart beats in his ear, fast and anxious. Louis finds his hand underneath the table and Liam holds on tightly.

After a moment, Zayn pulls back.

"Is that ok? Is that better? I'm not leaving, Mack, ok?" he looks up at the rest of the table, "Does anyone else have any other questions?" he asks. Liam looks down at his lap. He has a lot of questions, but he doesn't want to upset Mack further.

When Zayn's met with silence, he looks back at Mack.

"Can we be friends again?" he asks her. She smiles crookedly and then suddenly tugs him down by his collar to whisper something in his ear. Zayn's eyes widen and he huffs a surprised laugh, the tips of his ears going red.

"Mack," he says incredulously, but Mack is looking up at him determinedly. Zayn glances briefly at Liam before bopping her on the nose, "That's too low," he complains teasingly, "How about five?"

"Two," Mack insists stubbornly.

"Three," Zayn counters, eyes dancing with mirth now. She studies him suspiciously and then finally nods.

"Deal," she says, reaching out a hand. They shake on it and then look up to find the table staring at them. Liam is a mess of confusion and embarrassment and stupid hope stealing the color from his cheeks.

"Would it be alright if your daddy and I talked for a minute?" Zayn asks gently. As soon as Mack nods, Liam stands abruptly and leaves the dining room, slamming the front door behind him as he retreats outside.

After a moment he hears the front door reopen and then close again. He doesn't turn.

"Liam - " Zayn calls softly. Liam ignores him, shoulders tense. In Liam's silence, Zayn goes on, fondness dipping into his voice, "I'm staying, Li, I always was," he tells him gently. Liam shakes his head furiously. Zayn can't stay. Not for Liam. He has to follow his dreams -

Zayn wraps arms around his waist from behind. Liam tries to remain rigid in his embrace but he can already feel his body betraying him.

"My father still needs help and I might as well finish my degree and. They told me I could record here when I needed to and spend some time writing songs for other people even and I thought maybe, when the time was right, I could move to New York, and I could take you with me - "

Liam turns in his arms and kisses him before he can get another word out, strong hands cupping his face so he can tilt Zayn's head, deepen the kiss.

"I don't want to be the one to hold you back, I don't want to - " Liam says desperately, tucking the words into Zayn's mouth on his tongue, pressing their hips together.

Zayn groans.

"How could you even - fuck," Liam's fingers have slipped under his tee to drag along his skin and Zayn's hips stutter, "You inspire me Li, how could you - "

"Want you to be happy," Liam pants, "Want you to follow your dreams."

Zayn nibbles at his bottom lip, licks up his moan.

"People can have more than one dream, Li," he says, kissing him one last time before pulling back slightly to steeple their foreheads together and look him in the eye. "Want to watch Mack grow up, Liam. Want to be with you. If you'll have me."

Liam closes his eyes against traitorous tears, trembling as Zayn presses a kiss to his forehead.

"I don't know what to say," he mumbles finally, hands fisted tightly in Zayn's shirt to keep him close.

"Say yes," Zayn coaxes softly, "Say yes, Li, please - "

"You're staying," Liam tests the words in his mouth, opens his eyes to see Zayn's smiling at him, eyes bright with his own tears.

"I'm staying," he laughs a little, voice wet, "And I'm not going anywhere without you. Trust me."

Liam kisses him, a chaste kiss that Zayn turns dirty with his tongue, arching into Liam and tilting his head to let Liam in. Liam responds by running strong piano fingers along the ridge of his spine, groaning when Zayn goes pliant against him on a whimper.

"Want you. Fuck," Zayn says shakily. He pulls away a little, breath coming hard, and Liam has never been with someone as responsive as him, desire like electricity under Liam's fingertips where they brush against his skin, "You can't. You can't touch me like that I'll - "

Liam ignores him, placing a hand on his neck to pull him closer and dipping his thumb under Zayn's shirt to trace his collar bone.

Zayn shudders, eyes going glassy.

"Fuck," Liam mutters. He knows they can't continue this out here and he feels bad about leaving Zayn hard in his jeans, but it still takes him a long moment to gather himself enough to pull away from the beautiful boy on his doorstep, "Sorry," Liam mumbles, watching shamelessly as Zayn adjusts himself in his trousers.

"S'okay," Zayn shrugs, smiling a rueful smile that makes him look so young. Then his eyes turn serious and he's aged again, "I know what I'm signing up for."

Liam smiles a little.

"I know," he says softly, laughing when Zayn grins triumphantly.

"Told you I'd fix it," Zayn says smugly. Liam goes to kiss the expression off his face but at the last second Zayn hangs back, nosing at him so their lips only ghost against each other. Liam makes a noise of protest in his throat but Zayn doesn't move, "Gotta hold out, s'our last kiss of the day," he murmurs, eyes half lidded.

Liam pulls away in surprise.

"What?"

"Mack," Zayn explains with a twinkle in his eye, "Says we're only allowed three a day."

Liam stares at him in confusion until the conversation from earlier at dinner dawns at him, and then he covers his face with one hand.

"Oh my god," he mumbles. Zayn chuckles.

"Smart kid," he remarks, running a hand through Liam's hair.

"Yeah, too smart," Liam says, but he's smiling, "What she doesn't know won't hurt her," he says, leaning forward to kiss Zayn once more.

"But I just got my dick to behave," Zayn whines, letting Liam kiss him briefly before pushing him away with a slight hand against his chest.

"Fine," Liam grumbles playfully, "I guess we should rejoin the others."

"Assure them you haven't strangled me," Zayn teases. Liam rolls his eyes - and then he smirks.

"You look thoroughly kissed," he comments casually, "It's a good look on you."

Zayn eyes widen in surprise and then he huffs indignantly. It's adorable.

"Who's fault is that," he mutters.

"Mine," Liam says gently, kissing the corner of his scowl and watching it give way to a smile.

"Yours," Zayn agrees softly, "Yours."

 

Before they step into the dining room, Liam takes Zayn's hand. Zayn shoots him a concerned look but Liam shrugs.

"They already know," he says softly, "Mack already knows. Cornered me about it while you were away."

The wrinkles in Zayn's brow smooth out and Liam darts forward to press a quick kiss there.

"Thank you," he murmurs sincerely.

"For what?"

"For fixing it," Liam answers simply.

 

Mack takes one look at the two of them and groans, palming her forehead with one hand and sending her curls dancing.

"Are you two gonna be as gross as Uncle Louis and Uncle Haz now?" she asks with an exasperation that looks comical on her young features.

Zayn grins, picking her up off his chair, and resettling her on his lap.

"Nah," he kisses her nose, "Now there'll just be two of us to eat you up."

Mack shrieks and giggles and the rest of the table laughs too. When Liam glances at his mum he finds her smiling, tears showing bright in her eyes. She nods once, happiness making her radiant. Liam moves to kiss the top of her head and wrap his arms around her shoulders.

"Thanks Mum," he whispers. She just shakes her head.

"Sit," she orders, "Dinner's getting cold."

Liam takes his place next to Zayn, leaning forward to kiss Mack on the cheek.

"Told you you shouldn't scare him away," she tells Liam importantly. She and Zayn share a commiserating giggle and Liam sticks his tongue out at the both of them.

"I'm in trouble, aren't I?" he asks Louis. Louis's holding Harry's hand on the table, white-knuckled. Harry seems to be struggling to keep a straight face.

"Thank god," is all Louis says, slumping back in his seat.

"We were all rooting for you," Niall explains cheerily to Zayn, in between bites of meatballs. He waves his fork in Zayn's direction, "But if you hurt him, we'll cut your tongue out and stick it up your - "

"Niall," Karen scolds, glaring at him.

"Sorry," he grins angelically at her, "Excellent nosh by the way, Karen. And really looking forward to the pie. You know how I love your pies - "

"Hush," she says, grinning back at him. When she turns to Zayn her smile softens, and she reaches across the table to take his hand in hers, "Welcome to the family."

epilogue

Liam comes into the living room to find his two favorite people hard at work. They're both sitting cross-legged on the floor, Mack with a frown of concentration, occasionally blowing back a stray curl, eyes trained on Zayn's fingers on his guitar. Zayn is warm, relaxed in a way Liam loves, limbs loose, mouth open in a smile. He plays slowly, patiently, murmuring encouragements under his breath as he watches Mack play.

And he looks unbelievably sexy in Liam's old shirt, collar hanging loose around his neck and revealing skin that Liam wants to lick.

"Isn't it your bed time, baby girl?" he asks Mack, fighting to hide his impatience. Zayn's been in New York all week doing promo, ok? Liam's allowed. She glares when she notices him.

"Ten more minutes," she demands, eyes slipping back to Zayn almost instantly.

"Yeah, ten more minutes?" Zayn grins, eyes soft. Liam relents, of course he does, moves into the room to lay out on the couch and shut his eyes.

Fifteen minutes pass before the music stops.

"I'm impressed Mack, you've been practicing," Zayn says approvingly. "C'mon now, bed for you."

Liam cracks an eye open but Zayn waves a hand at him.

"I'll take her," he says, scooping her up. She's too old for that now, and she throws a fit with Liam tries it, but she doesn't protest now. Zayn is clearly her new favorite. Only because he spoils her rotten, Liam thinks, disgruntled.

"Say goodnight to Daddy, Mack," Zayn whispers. Liam opens his eyes to find Zayn holding her over him, and he raises up so she can press a kiss to his cheek.

"Goodnight to Daddy," she says obediently, giggling a little when Liam pouts. "I love you."

"I love you, Angel. Goodnight."

"Silly girl," Zayn murmurs, taking her down the hall, humming under his breath as he goes.

By the time he comes back Liam is half asleep, but he perks up when he feels a weight settle on top of him.

"Hi," he says, smiling up at Zayn. He reaches up to run a thumb along Zayn's exposed collar bone, "You're beautiful."

He watches as Zayn's eyes visibly darken.

"Bed," he groans, shoving a little at Zayn to get him to move.

They make their way to Liam's bedroom as quietly as they can, and as soon as the bedroom door shuts, Liam is on him, pressing his small frame against the door and kissing him soundly.

"Finally," he moans, biting at the junction of Zayn's neck and shoulder like he's wanted to all night, "Haven't seen you in days and you'd rather teach Mack guitar than - " he cuts off on a groan as Zayn works his hands under Liam's shirt to thumb at his nipple, "Fuck."

"You promised you'd share me," Zayn teases even he as goes to unbutton his own trousers. He's already hard and straining against the tight material. Liam bats his hand away.

"Let me," he growls, tugging off the button forcefully. Zayn huffs out a desperate laugh, canting his hips towards Liam's hands.

"What a gentleman," he manages, eyes hooded. He's fucking gorgeous like this, arched off the wall like he's drawn to Liam, small under Liam's hands but strong in the way his muscles flex underneath him, pushing as much as Liam pulls. Liam takes a deep breath, tries to focus.

"Yeah well, she's hogging you," he mutters, pulling Zayn's trousers down and then reaching for his shirt. "And you're wearing my clothes, you fucking tease."

"Packed a suitcase full of your clothes," Zayn tells him, yanking off Liam's t-shirt and pulling down Liam's sweats in one smooth motion, "Take you with me everywhere, don't I?'

Liam's heart swells three sizes and he has to pause for the overwhelming emotions that course through him, cupping Zayn's hands to still them on his hips.

"Liam? Something wrong?" Zayn asks, eyes searching his a little anxiously. Liam breathes out a rush of air, caught in Zayn's gaze.

"I love you," he says, voice thick. The corner of Zayn's mouth crooks up.

"C'mere," he murmurs soothingly, even though Liam is already pressed against him. He kisses Liam chastely, one hand tangled in the hair at the nape of Liam's neck, and one hand a firm pressure at Liam's waist. Liam trembles a little at the sweetness of it, love and trust and steadiness tucked into the gentle press of lips. "Alright?" Zayn asks, running a hand along the bare skin of his back. Liam nods, even though his body continues to shake.

"I'm sorry," he mumbles, feeling silly.

"Shh," Zayn chides, "C'mon, bed," he says, in the same voice he uses on Mack.

Liam frowns as Zayn slips his boxers back on and grabs his shirt from the floor.

"I wanted to - " Liam starts to protest but Zayn shakes his head.

"Some other time," Zayn says gently, "Want you to hold me, is that alright?"

Liam nods a little, taking the shirt Zayn passes him and adjusting his sweats. He lets Zayn lead him to bed, settles down on his back as Zayn turns off the light and downs a glass of water Liam keeps at his bedside for him.

Then he slips into bed beside Liam, settling his head on Liam's shoulder and wrapping an arm around Liam's hips, fingers searching for skin. Liam huffs a laugh, knowing that Zayn's done it on purpose to tickle him. His arm comes down to wrap tightly around Zayn and he tips his head down to press a kiss to Zayn's forehead.

"Thanks," he says.

Zayn doesn't answer, just traces and retraces the face of Liam's watch slowly, a habit he can't seem to kick.

"Will you sing something for me?" Liam asks. Zayn tilts his head up to try and make out his face. Liam doesn't ask for this often, but sometimes he craves the quiet hush of Zayn's voice, whispered notes in his ear.

"Kiss me," Zayn says softly. Liam complies, leaning down to meet Zayn's lips. After a chaste kiss, Zayn breathes out. "I don't know you, but I want to," he sings into the fraction of space between them.

Liam's eyes flutter shut as Zayn continues.

Fate, he thinks to himself. Fate and beautiful music.