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Before We Burn

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As much as Niall doesn’t want to be here, it’s better than being stuck at home waiting for a phone call that probably won’t come. Music has restrictions these days, too, so it’s a much harder industry to break into. First the label has to like you, then the government has to approve, and then you have to keep that approval.

This is much more practical, Niall thinks to himself, as he often finds himself doing at two in the morning on any given weekday. This job is a constant, a routine, and getting a record deal—hell, even an interview from a label—is a pipe dream.

The books smell nice too, Niall has to admit. If he focuses hard enough to ignore the lingerings of smoke, that is.

Something creaks off to his side. The storage room is made almost entirely of wood, so Niall doesn’t initially panic. The floorboards creak all the time with the weight of supporting all the stories they hold.

That’s Niall’s first mistake: Brushing it off.

Niall isn’t prepared when he wanders over towards the noise (purely because protocol requires him to). Greg will kill him if he watches the security footage back and sees Niall ignoring the rules, or fire him at least. Still, he’s idly waving his baton around, grip loose, when he hears another sound behind him.

It isn’t a creak, Niall notices belatedly. It sounds more like a joint cracking, and that isn’t a sound that the storage has made in the two years Niall has spent as a night guard here.

He turns to look at the source, and it’s a man, baseball bat in hand and dressed head to toe in black. The lights are dim and cast shadows over the man’s face, which unsurprisingly is mostly covered as well.

Bats beat batons, Niall thinks.

“What are you doing over here at this time of night?”

Niall blinks at him. He’s got no clue what the man is talking about, because he sounds genuinely curious to know the answer despite the fact that his arms are loaded up with books and he’s robbing them.

“Uh, I work here?” is the response Niall comes up with. The wrong one, too, judging by how the man raises one of his eyebrows.

“I don’t mean that, Niall. I mean what are you doing in the fantasy section?” the man clarifies, shifting his armful of books so they’re resting more comfortably in the cradle of his arm. “You’re usually still around the graphic novels about now.”

“Um,” Niall starts, stops, furrows his eyebrows. Why is he even thinking of explaining himself to this guy? Greg trained him for this and here he is making small talk. God. “How do you even know my name? How do you know where I usually am?”

The man chuckles, reaches out to pick up a book from the shelf he’s leaning against. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Niall reads. “Your technology is really easy to tap into.”

Niall’s eyes flit up to one of the cameras mounted on the wall. “I’ll make sure to tell Greg.”

Sighing, the man puts the book in his hand down on the top of his pile. “Don’t. I like to look at the books even when I don’t have anything planned.”

“Why would you do that?” Niall asks despite himself. “Watch them even when you aren’t figuring out how to take them?”

He sighs, trails a finger down the binding of an older looking book in his hands. “I just like reminding myself that they’re still here. And even if lots of them get burned, more come in, and the shelves are still full at the end of the day. Like, as upsetting as this all is, there are still lots of books out there that people like your brother’s firefighters haven’t gotten to yet.”

Niall decides not to ask how he knows that Greg is his brother. They’re siblings with the same last name, after all, so the leap isn’t too genius. Though, how this guy would know their names is… something.

“Why do you want the books?”

The man laughs, too loud in the quiet of the building. “Why wouldn’t I?” He pauses, and when Niall looks up at him, he sees that the man is watching him with narrowed eyes. Calculating. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” Niall asks. This guy looks like he could be fast, and his bat is at the ready. If Niall wanted to grab his radio, he’d have to fumble and find the panic button fast if he had any chance to push it before he himself got hit. With Niall’s hands already shaking, he’d have to do it soon. Move now, Niall thinks to himself. Do it now. Fucking press the button.

He doesn’t move.

“Have you ever read one?”

“What, a book?” Niall scoffs. “What kind of question is that? Of course I haven’t. I’ve just seen some covers. I’ve read what they say I can read. Don’t wanna get in trouble.”

“You should.” The stranger’s eyes burn into his own, and Niall can’t look away. “You mean to tell me you’re surrounded by all these books every night and you’ve never once taken a look?”

Niall blushes, thinks back to one of his first shifts where he’d flipped a book open, just for a moment. He really likes space and he was curious, so sue him. Niall had opened to a random page, even though he probably should have started on page one, if he was going to start at all.

Science has achieved some wonderful things, of course, but I'd far rather be happy than right any day.

Then his radio beeped, and Niall let the book fall shut again. He forgot the name of it.

Suddenly, the lights of the storage turn red and an alarm starts blaring from Niall’s pocket, snapping him back to reality. He takes out his radio and looks at the flashing message.

BREACH REPORTED. AUTHORITIES CONTACTED. COMMENCE LOCKDOWN.

“Shit,” the guy says. Niall looks up again, and he looks panicked for the first time. “Shit, shit, fuck.”

Niall drops the radio back into his pocket and looks up at the stranger again. He struggles trying to get the books into the bag he has slung over his shoulder while trying to pick up his bat at the same time. For a moment Niall considers helping him, then thinks of the cameras and decides against it. He isn’t going to help this guy rob him, even if his panicked movements make Niall’s fingers twitch.

“Will they burn the books?”

“What? You know they burn books. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” Niall frowns, watching the man try to hold everything with his shaking hands. Niall’s brain feels oddly disconnected, like he’s watching this happen on a screen instead of living it.

The man huffs, giving up and deciding to hold a stack in his hands as well. One of them tips to the floor and some bump into the man’s chin, but he keeps his grip on most of them. “No, I mean will they burn the storage down now that someone’s pushed that?”

Niall hasn’t pushed the button before, nor has he really asked Greg about what happens in detail after a panic button gets pushed, but he knows there are three strikes, and that this would only be strike one for them.

“No. No, they won’t burn the place down yet.”

The man exhales loudly. “Good, good.”

He scrambles for a few seconds longer, then turns back to Niall again. “Why aren’t you trying to stop me? You didn’t even hit the button, did you?” He’s still whispering, quiet enough that Niall knows none of the storage’s equipment will pick it up.

“I don’t know. I mean, no, I didn’t hit it.”

The man gives him a look Niall can’t decipher, then sprints back the way he came. Niall looks down at the floor again; Harry Potter looks back up at him.

 

****

 

Honestly, Niall should get a medal or something for not rolling his eyes at his brother.

“There is to be no hesitation in this storage facility,” Greg says. He glares at the staff in front of him, all gathered in the room usually reserved for meetings with government officials. “We are the last line of defense. Letting books get into the wrong hands can be catastrophic. Every time a book leaves this facility, we’re risking violence. We’re risking friction in our society.”

He’s being dramatic to prove his point, Niall realizes, but he still has to resist scoffing at him. As if Greg senses Niall’s exasperation—he probably does; he knows to some degree how he feels—he turns and glares daggers at Niall.

“So, if someone manages to break into this facility and tries to take any books, they must be stopped. You must take extensive measures to prevent book robberies, even if it means putting yourself at risk of harm.” Greg pauses, seems to reconsider for a second. “I mean, take reasonable measures. Don’t get yourself killed for no reason.

“The police will arrive shortly,” Greg continues. “You will remain here, and only after each of you is questioned individually will you be free to go. This can’t happen again.”

With that he walks out, slamming the door behind him. Dozens of glares turn to Niall, some people muttering curses at him, but all Niall can do is bite at his nails and stare blankly at the wall in front of him.

A thought Niall won’t voice is that he’s pretty sure the books aren’t the problem.

The officer that questions Niall has deep-set, beady eyes and large purple bags under them. He looks exhausted, and Niall would feel bad for him if he wasn’t so cold and accusing.

Niall tells him about the man. He says he doesn’t know how he got in, but that his face was almost completely covered and he had a weapon. Niall talks about how he was sure that one of the other guards was due to come into that section at any moment, and decided that his best bet was to stall, make sure that none of the guards were unnecessarily harmed and that the thief didn’t get away with any more books.

Eventually, the guard lets him go with an annoyed wave of his hand. Once he’s out of eyesight and earshot, Niall sighs with relief. Apparently he’s a better liar than he thought.

 

****

 

Maura is busy making herself lunch when Niall finally makes his way through the front door of their house. Usually he’s home by 7am, since his shift ends when the sun rises, but it’s past noon now.

“Did something happen?” she asks, no bullshit. Niall is never late home if he can help it, and she knows this, of course.

“Alarm went off. Some guy took some books so we all got lectured.” Niall kicks off his shoes, settles down on the couch instead of heading to his room once he sees the look on his mother’s face. “Talked to him, actually.”

“Did you?” Maura flips on the kettle before sitting down next to Niall. “What about?”

Niall sighs and lets her pull him into her side. “About books. He asked me if I’ve ever read one.” Maura just nods and drapes a blanket over their laps, so he continues. “I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing.”

“This has to be the fiftieth time we’ve had this conversation, sweetheart,” Maura says. “Why don’t you quit? I can help you until you find another job, and I won’t let Greg be mad at you.”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Even if I don’t like the job, it’s nice to have a routine, some structure in my life, but, like,” Niall pauses, scrunches up his nose. “Like, it’s kind of stupid, isn’t it? Not all books are bad, even if some are. Statistically.”

“And how do you know that?”

When Niall doesn’t respond, Maura laughs quietly, pats at his hair and stands up. “See? You’re working towards a future that you don’t believe in, sweetheart. Which one was it?”

“I’m not sure. I was so paranoid I didn’t even think to remember the title,” Niall says, tipping his head to the side so he can look at where she’s making herself a cup of tea. “Was spacey.”

“You were spacey or the book was spacey?”

“The book. Me. Both,” Niall says back. He can’t believe he’s talking so casually about having read something out of a book, now, when it was something he’d have given anything to keep hidden not 12 hours ago. Maybe it’s because it feels less of a big deal after witnessing a man steal dozens of them. Also, this is his mom; there’s something about her that just has Niall spilling the thoughts he doesn’t even want to think about to himself.

“You’ll have to be more specific. Maybe I know it.”

The chances aren’t very good, Niall thinks. He knows that there were millions of books published, and not all of them are popular enough to be remembered in a world where the only database is government restricted. “Um, it was something about wanting to be happy more than wanting to be right. And, uh, something about science. Didn’t read much else.”

Maura takes a sip from the chipped mug that she refuses to replace because Niall made it for her when he was in the seventh grade. Over the top of it she sends him a look that’s way too knowing, so Niall shrugs and starts biting his nails again. He doesn’t mention that the quote is something always floating around his head, seared on the back of his eyelids. Doesn’t mention that sometimes he has dreams that guess at its context.

“Go on to bed, now. Your eyes are all fuzzy; I can see it. We can talk more tomorrow if you want.”

Niall gives her a kiss goodnight and heads upstairs. It takes longer than it usually does for him to wind down. He’s exhausted, but he can’t stop fidgeting, flipping from side to back to side and tangling his legs up in his blanket. When he eventually falls into a fitful sleep, Niall dreams that he’s floating up into space, unable to breathe. When he looks down, all he can see is fire.

 

****

 

“You sure you’ll be fine, Horan?”

Niall sighs. “Yes, Bres, I’ll be fine. I freaked out one time, all right? It was two weeks ago; I’m over it.”

“Still, you’ve been behind the desk for those two weeks. You haven’t been on patrol since.”

“I’m okay, Bres.”

Bressie looks him over, huge arms crossed like he’s a part of the secret service instead of a guard for the smallest storage facility on the West Coast. He’d be more cut out for the Olympics, or for posing for pictures with tiny adorable animals for a calendar, Niall thinks. If only they didn’t work for the same morally questionable government organization, then Niall would try to get to know him better.

Currently, Niall is better off keeping people at arm’s length. Or further, if he can manage it.

Finally, Bressie nods, then turns and heads off towards the romance section of the wing. Early on, Niall didn’t understand why they sorted all the books by genre, then by author, then title if they were just going to be set on fire at the end of the day. Then Greg showed him the database on his computer, then made him spend the night counting and sorting and recording. Niall regretted asking, but he read a line from the only book he’d ever opened that night, so he didn’t complain.

What became clear, though, was that asking questions got people in trouble.

Niall likes wandering in the sci-fi section the most. He figures he can get away with peeking at covers through the grates of the racks every so often without getting in trouble with whoever was monitoring the security feeds that night. The covers in the sci-fi section are sometimes depictions of stars, planets, galaxies, and Niall finds himself struggling not to get caught up in his own thoughts.

He wonders what it’s like to get caught up in a world someone else has created, and wonders if, in a way, he already is.

Niall’s just taken a glance at one—Neuromancer—when he hears someone softly clear their throat.

“That’s a good one.”

He turns, looks down at the man who is again dressed in all black with his face covered, sitting on the floor in a shadowed corner. The same bat he had last time is on the floor next to him, and his bag is stuffed full with books. He’ll need a new one soon, probably, with how the seams of it are straining.

“What are you doing back here so soon?”

The man shrugs casually. “This small area right here is a dead spot. Like, no cameras can see it. Don’t look at me too much, by the way. It’s suspicious.”

Niall rolls his eyes a bit. “You’ve read this?” he asks instead of replying.

“Of course,” the man says. His fingers are working at tugging his bag more securely shut, but it isn’t getting much better, so he’s mostly just pulling uselessly at the strings. “It got, like, a bunch of awards. One of the best science fiction books of all time, people said.”

“They gave book awards?”

“All the time.”

Niall resists the urge to look down at him. “I didn’t know that.”

“That’s because people don’t want you to know.” The man kicks his leg out a bit, nudges at Niall’s shin with the toe of his boot. “I know, though. Not all of it, but I’m trying to learn as much as I can.”

“So, what’s this, then? Are you trying to recruit me?”

He laughs a bit at Niall’s guarded tone. It’s melodic, and Niall wants to hear it again. “‘Recruit’ is a bit strong, I think. It’s more like an offer. If you want to take it, y’know.”

Niall taps his fingers against the grates of the shelf above the man’s head. “So you want me to come with you, is what you’re saying.”

Shrugging, the man looks back down at his bag. “Well you didn’t set off the alarm when you saw me last, and you didn’t seem, like, closed-minded or anything, so I thought maybe you might want to. It’s hard to find good company.” He pauses to tuck his foot in a bit closer to his body. “Plus, I’ve seen how you look at them. Sad to watch someone stare at a book cover for five minutes and never even crack one open.”

The blood pounds in Niall’s ears, and he can’t bring himself to reply. His throat is dry.

The man continues, “Books aren’t the problem, but I think you know that. The government said they were burning them for the good of all of us. For a better future.” He scoffs. “But they’re wrong, and they know they are. Books help start up conversations and, like, help exchange ideas; by taking that outlet away from us, they were trying to control us. Trying to make us quiet and complacent by blaming us for the destruction of the goodness in the world, as if they won’t jump at any justification of bombing another country.

“And it’s working, Niall. They convinced so many people that sharing our stories with each other makes us fight, but it doesn’t.” He’s is getting passionate now, gesticulating and talking louder. Niall doesn’t want to look away but his eyes still glance away to make sure no one is coming out of habit. “People may use books to justify their actions, but books are meant to be interpreted, and people will read their violent bullshit into the text if that’s what they want to see. And that can happen with anything, not just books. It’s the corrupt government and society that teaches these ideals. Books are a scapegoat; this corrupt government and the shutting down of free speech is what’s destroying us as people.”

Niall’s head is spinning wildly. It’s one thing to vaguely have a thought, to shove it far back into your brain and refuse to know it. It’s a whole nother to have a stranger lay it all out in front of you. It’s the truth, Niall knows it, but still he hesitates. He can’t just leave his job, his life, his mom behind him. There’s no way he would do that just to run away with this guy—who is probably at high risk of getting caught and sent to jail, when Niall thinks about it—right?

“I—”

“People will see what they want to see,” the man sighs, seemingly calming down a bit from his tirade. “Books can be powerful, sure, but they’re not bad. They’re not at the core of the problem, and burning them all won’t suddenly fix a broken system. I think you know that, Niall.”

“I don’t—”

“Horan, who are you talking to?”

Niall quickly yanks his hand away from the shelf, spinning on his heel to face another guard. He’s staring at Niall with narrowed eyes, and his baton is out of its holster.

“Um.”

“Wait, what the fuck? Another fucking break in, is this?” The guard scoffs, snaps his hand down to his monitor to hit the now larger, more easily accessible button on the side, newly installed since Niall’s incident. For the second time that month, the lights go red and the sirens sound from each of their monitors. “And you’re caught in the middle again. Just fucking hit your button, Horan. Do your damn job.”

Meanwhile, the guy Niall was talking to hauls himself to his feet. Now he lightly touches Niall’s elbow and jerks his head in the direction away from where the guard is on the other side of the sci-fi aisle.

“Are you coming or not?”

“Come on, kid!” the guard yells. It makes Niall flinch slightly, and that helps seal his decision. His dangerous, rashly-made decision. Jesus Christ.

“I— Yeah. Yeah, I’m coming. Just—” Niall exhales shakily, turns the corner and pries open one of the floorboards there. It’s the wrong one, and Niall has to quickly flip two more of them before he finds what he’s looking for. He grabs the box wrapped sloppily in brown paper and turns back to the man.

Niall still doesn’t know his name. God, what did he just commit to?

“Here, we can get out this way. Drop your radio thing, by the way,” the man says, dragging Niall along by the end of his shirtsleeve. He’s still holding the bat, and it knocks into Niall’s thigh every few steps. The radio clatters to the ground behind them. “Hope you’re not too claustrophobic.”

“I am, but I can deal for, like, a little while. If it isn’t too closed off, I mean,” Niall says.

“I think you’ll be okay. I’ll hold onto your leg if you want.” They come to a stop in front of an air vent, the cover coming off easily when the man tugs at it. He must have taken out the screws.

At that Niall starts. “I’m going in first?”

“Yeah. I mean, this way you can’t get lost behind me if you feel too anxious to keep going, and I can push you forward if I have to.”

This is the craziest thing Niall has ever done. It’s the only crazy thing he’s ever done.

“Still never got your name,” Niall says after the man hoists him into the vent, smoothly pulling himself in afterwards. It’s pitch black and much worse than Niall thought it would be. His fingers are a grounding force around Niall’s ankle, and he manages to start shuffling forward, feeling forward with the hand he isn’t holding the box with.

“Oh, right,” he laughs. “Sorry, man. It’s Zayn. Go straight, by the way.”

It flashes in his mind, quick and blurry: A grainy photo of a man wearing a black mask pinned to a corner of a cork board, that name scrawled messily across the bottom. “Zayn. You’re on our board of People to Arrest, you know,” Niall says. It’s difficult, but he gets the hang of pulling his body forward with his elbows on the metal quickly enough. “Still go this way?”

“Am I, now?” Zayn asks, patting at Niall’s calf. “I didn’t realize I was well known. Take the next left that comes up, and it’ll lead us right out. Should reach it in five meters, give or take.”

“We have a list of, like, a hundred people,” Niall lies. There’s only eight people on that list; the rest have been crossed off in red marker and put on a different board. Zayn’s picture, unlike the others, is circled.

Turning corners is harder than just going straight; it takes a few extra seconds for him to bend himself around the metal into the next length of the vent. Breathe in, hold, breathe out.

Niall continues, “No one knows your last name so you’re at the end of the list. Easier to remember if you’re at the beginning or the end.”

Zayn scoffs quietly behind him. “Wow, you sure know how to make someone feel special.”

Niall rolls his eyes ahead at nothing, pretty sure that Zayn can’t see it. “Are we almost there? I’m feeling, like, not great.”

“We’re close, I promise. Another minute. Two at tops.”

Two minutes?” Niall’s stomach flip-flops threateningly. “That’s too slow. They’ll be waiting there for us when we get out. Zayn—”

“It’s fine, Niall. There are plenty of ways to get outside through these vents, and they can’t be everywhere right away. There aren’t enough staff.” Zayn says. Somehow he still sounds calm, and Niall forces himself to focus on Zayn’s breathing under the popping of metal as they move. He matches his inhales and exhales with Zayn’s and it helps, sort of. “You forget that I’ve done this before.”

“You really had this all planned out, didn’t you?” Niall asks. It hurts his forearms but he starts shuffling faster, Zayn keeping up with him easily. “Like, you know your escape routes, you know how long it’ll take people to react, you know our names… What don’t you know?”

“Nothing,” Zayn says quietly, barely audible over the sounds of the metal popping beneath them under their weight. “I’ve been planning this for months. Started planning before you even worked here. If I overlooked anything I might be fucked. We might be fucked, actually. But we’re probably fine.”

That’s a bit unsettling to think about, so Niall just nods instead of responding. Zayn probably can’t see it. They keep shuffling, Niall’s muscles aching, until half a minute later when Niall sees the darkness ahead of them break up.

“Hey, I think we’re reaching the end,” Niall says. His arms feel like jello, but he somehow manages to speed up, light becoming more apparent by the second.

They reach the end of the vent, streetlight shining through the bars across the covering. It doesn’t take much force for Niall to pop it open, and the cover goes clattering down onto the cement. He gulps in the fresh air while his heartbeat slows down its erratic rhythm.

“Great, now how do I get out? I can’t just go out like this; I’ll faceplant into the sidewalk.”

Zayn taps lightly at Niall’s ankle to get Niall to look back at him. He can just make out Zayn’s eyes from the dim lights coming in from outside. Zayn gestures to the still-wrapped box in Niall’s hands. “Hand me that. There’s a bit of a ledge just above the vent. If you flip onto your back and grab onto it you should, like, be able to pull yourself out that way. The drop isn’t that far.”

Awesome. It takes what feels like a monumental effort to haul his entire body out of the hole in the wall, and if Niall thought his forearms were burning before, it’s nothing compared to how much they’re aching now. He drops to the ground, the impact vibrating from his heels all the way up his spine, and watches as Zayn pulls himself out as well. Impressively, Zayn makes it look easy. If they had the time to spare, Niall would make a joke about how he wouldn’t have come along if he’d known Zayn would just show him up.

There isn’t time, though, so he keeps his mouth shut.

“Come on,” Zayn says. He doesn’t pause longer than to hand the box back to Niall before jogging down the sidewalk.

Niall follows as Zayn leads him through the shadows of abandoned buildings. Everyone’s already home and probably sleeping, since the only ones allowed out after curfew are night guards, firefighters, and the police. The only light comes from the streetlights placed sparsely along the side of the road and the blinking traffic lights, all set to red. Niall has never been outside this late, and it’s chilling.

Zayn slows to a fast walk after a few minutes, letting Niall catch up to him. Niall hasn’t run like this since high school gym class, so he’s panting heavily. There’s definitely a stitch in his side, but Zayn seems unaffected.

“They shouldn’t catch us now. The cameras stop a while back,” Zayn says, leading Niall down a dark alley. He blinks hard until he can see Zayn’s outline again. “We still have a ways to go, though, since I don’t want them figuring out which direction we leave the city.”

They stop walking, and Zayn pulls out a bike from behind a garbage compactor. It looks old, but sturdy, and it’s clearly been modified, with what looks like a GPS device clipped onto one of the handlebars, sturdy-looking baskets hooked onto the front and back, and a small machine attached just under the seat.

“So you steal kids’ books, then ride away on your tricked-out bike?”

Zayn snorts, looks over at Niall. “How did you know they were kids’ books?”

Niall’s cheeks burn and Zayn’s eyes crinkle up when he smiles. He still has the mask on. “Ah, never mind. Later. Hop on, then. There are bars that you can stand on, but you’ll have to hold onto me. Sorry.”

“‘S fine,” Niall says. It takes a bit of fumbling and Zayn has to shove Niall’s box in his bag, which is already bursting as is. In the end, Niall is standing balanced on what look to be broken pieces of pipe welded to the bike through the middle of the back tire with his hands on Zayn’s shoulders.

“You good?”

Niall nods, before realizing Zayn is too busy fiddling around with the GPS to look back at him. “Yeah, I’m good.”

Reaching down—and making Niall’s fingers dig into his jacket with the lurch—Zayn flips a switch. The bike starts up, surprisingly quiet for something that looks a bit clunky, and with a flick of Zayn’s wrist, they’re off. Niall has to lean a bit over Zayn’s shoulder, and he brings his arms around further to clasp them together in front of Zayn’s chest, but overall it’s smooth. The streets are kept very clean, almost clinical in a way, so the slight outskirts of the city have few bumps.

Zayn zips around the city, mostly taking long abandoned alleys to stay out of the light. The GPS is blinking, and there’s a list of coordinates down the side that Niall can’t make sense of. It hits him suddenly that he’s putting an absurd amount of trust into this person that he hardly knows.

More worrying than that, Niall doesn’t think he’ll regret it.

“We’re almost out,” Zayn says. He has to raise his voice to be heard over the wind whipping in their ears, and he tilts his head back a bit for good measure.

“Eyes on the road!” Niall yells back. At Zayn’s responding laugh, Niall painstakingly readjusts his hands so that he’s gripping the front of Zayn’s jacket instead of his own hands, and tries to press as much of his torso against Zayn’s back as he can manage. Cold wind whips against Niall’s face, so he turns his face into Zayn’s shoulder. No wonder he kept the mask on.

True to his word, with a sharp turn they peel away from the city. The lights are behind them now, not that Niall would risk trying to look, and ahead is darkness, only slightly lit up by the headlight strapped onto the front of Zayn’s bike. Niall isn’t totally sure which way they’re headed since Zayn circled around so much, but he thinks they might be headed towards the hills.

“How does this thing run?” Niall asks.

They aren’t going quite as fast now, so he doesn’t have to yell anymore. Still, Zayn is turning down multiple paths that Niall can’t see, and the gravel is crunching beneath the wheels, so his mouth is almost pressed against Zayn’s ear when he speaks.

When Zayn doesn’t answer right away, Niall says, “I don’t know how you got your hands on gasoline.”

“I didn’t. It’s solar powered,” Zayn says. “I charge it during the day.”

Niall nods into Zayn’s shoulder. “We have enough power to get back, though?”

“We’re almost at the halfway house. The main house is too far away to do in one trip.”

It seems like ages later—with Niall still gripping onto Zayn for dear life, even though he’s driving slower now—but the terrain gets rocky, Niall’s teeth rattling with it, then Zayn takes a sharp left onto a well-concealed path. Branches smack and sting Niall’s face, but a few seconds later Zayn shuts off the engine and looks back at him.

“It’s just through these trees, here,” Zayn says.

Zayn waits for Niall to shakily pull himself off of the bike before he pulls it over to prop against a tree trunk. The trees are so thick that Niall can hardly tell which direction they came from, the path almost completely obscured.

Zayn could definitely leave him here, Niall thinks. There could be nothing here, and he could get back on his bike and ride out before Niall would realize what’s going on. There’s no chance Niall would be able to find his way back from here; they were weaving through the forest for ages. It’s freezing cold too, so he’d get hypothermia before he would even be able to see the city lights.

“You coming?”

Teeth chattering, Niall nods and turns to follow Zayn.

The shack Zayn leads him to is small, speaking generously. It’s roughly square-shaped, with only enough room either way to lay down without kicking a wall, and the ceilings are just high enough that Niall doesn’t have to hunch. Zayn opens the door, and inside there’s nothing but a cot, a radio, a half a dozen books, and a stack of canned food in the corner. A lone light bulb dangles from the ceiling, casting a dim light around the room.

Zayn hauls in a clunky machine that was sitting just outside the shack, and then shuts the door behind him. It’s a heater, apparently, as Zayn flips a switch on the side and the grates on the front turn a soft orange.

“So, um, we’ll stay here for the night and then head home in the morning. Only have the one bed, since it’s usually just me going into the city, so I hope that’s alright.”

Niall nods. Zayn’s flitting about the tiny space, packing more books into a second bag that he picks off of a hook behind the door. He moves so swiftly, fitting the books in like jigsaw pieces with a practiced easiness. For the first time, Niall wonders how long Zayn has been stealing books. How long has he been living outside the city? Is he alone?

“You must be hungry. Do you like peaches?”

Niall startles back into reality at Zayn’s words. Currently, he’s shuffling through the cans on the opposite side of the room to Niall, an odd-looking metal contraption in one of his hands. The mask is off, hanging out of Zayn’s back pocket now, but he’s not facing Niall, so he can’t see Zayn’s face. He stares at the ink on the back of Zayn’s neck instead.

“Yeah, sure,” Niall says. “If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” Zayn says. The contraption has a pointed bit on it, and Zayn stabs it into the top of the tin before twisting the other side of it. It’s an old-fashioned can opener, Niall realizes. Jesus, he didn’t think they were still around.

“How’d you get all this, by the way?”

Zayn doesn’t look up. “I have a friend.”

After a moment, it’s apparent Niall won’t be getting any more than that. Which is fine, Niall guesses, even if Zayn is the one who made the offer for Niall to come with him. Even if he’s the one who essentially made Niall a criminal as well.

Though, Niall is the one who voluntarily said yes. He was a government worker just a few hours ago. He definitely doesn’t have a job to go back to, at least.

Zayn hands him a bowl and spoon, and then starts to dig into his own peaches. They’re sitting on opposite sides of the bed now, facing each other. Niall watches as Zayn eats, how he seems to savour every bite. He leans back against the wall when he’s done and shuts his eyes, and Niall feels more free to size him up, now.

Just by taking a look at him, Niall wouldn’t have guessed that Zayn would be any sort of threat. His features are sharp, but his hair is floppy, and he scrubs tiredly at his eyes. It’s adorable, really. Zayn’s wearing the same torn up black jeans that he wore the first time Niall met him, but instead of the black jacket he’s swapped it for a soft-looking black hoodie at least three sizes too big for him. Niall wonders where he got it from, or who he got it from.

“We should sleep soon,” Zayn says, yawning. “Don’t want you, like, falling off the bike because you’re tired or anything.”

Niall lets Zayn take his empty bowl. Zayn somehow manages to shove them into the bag that isn’t as overflowing with books.

“Sorry there’s no running water,” he says. “There’s a canteen on the hook if you get thirsty, but we’ll have to make it last until tomorrow night. So, like, don’t go nuts.”

“Thank you,” Niall says. He feels a bit disconnected, like he’s watching himself from outside his body, but he tries to put as much sincerity into the sentiment as he can.

Zayn shrugs him off. “No need to thank me. Just let me sleep farthest from the wall.”

“It’s your cot,” Niall laughs. “Think that means you have first choice. Unless your choice is to let me have first choice, in which case I choose for you to not have the wall.”

Zayn’s eyes scrunch up when he laughs. He lightly smacks Niall’s shoulder as he curls up under the duvet, and it’s overall not as awkward as maybe it should be.

 

****

 

Niall wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of pounding on the wall. He nearly has a heart attack until he flips over to face towards where Zayn’s sleeping.

There, Zayn is sleeping fitfully, body jerking and twitching. His elbow is hitting the headboard every few seconds—which is what woke Niall up—and his face is contorted in pain.

“Zayn? Zayn, wake up.” Niall tentatively shakes his shoulder. He’s afraid to speak in a voice louder than a whisper, despite the wind howling outside hard enough to shake the walls a bit.

Zayn wakes up with a violent jerk, yanking himself further from Niall. It sends him backing almost off the bed, if that’s possible with how he’s already as far from Niall as he can be. Niall grabs his shoulder to stop him from falling off, and when Zayn flinches he pulls his hands back slowly, pressing himself up against the wall to give him space.

“Hey, it’s just me,” Niall says. “You alright? What’s wrong?”

Already, Zayn has shut down. His expression is schooled carefully into one neutral and unaffected. It’s odd to look at in contrast with the rest of Zayn’s body, which is shaking and curling in on itself a bit.

“It’s nothing,” Zayn mutters. “Go back to sleep.”

Even as he speaks, Zayn hasn’t stopped shuddering. Niall sighs. “But, Zayn—”

“Leave it, please.”

With that, Zayn flips over to face away from Niall again. It takes a long time, and he never does hear Zayn’s breathing go back to normal, but eventually Niall falls asleep.

 

****

 

When Niall wakes up the second time, it’s still to pounding noises. Niall grunts and flips onto his back as he scrubs at his face.

“What’s that?”

Shit, sorry,” Zayn says. There’s a moment of silence, followed by more clattering as Niall blearily opens his eyes, and then Zayn continues. “I mean, we have to leave soon anyways, but I would have woken you up more gently. So, sorry.”

He blinks and lets his eyes adjust for a few seconds before he turns and looks at Zayn. The noise was apparently the sound of Zayn dropping an armful of books. There’s a mess of about a dozen of them on the floor.

“It’s fine,” Niall says.

Zayn nods. “We leave in a few minutes. Also, like, if you could take one of the backpacks, that’d be right on.”

Managing to shove the last book into one of the bags, Zayn gently hands him the other. It’s less full than the one Zayn’s shouldering, Niall realizes. Whether because he was being nice or because he didn’t trust Niall to take more books, he isn’t sure. Or maybe he didn’t even think about it.

Maybe Niall is overthinking things. Most likely.

Zayn opens up another can of peaches and they eat in silence. He doesn’t bring up the apparent nightmare he had, so Niall doesn’t mention it, even though he wants to ask whether he has them often. Wants to ask if they’re similar to Niall’s own occasional nightmares.

“All right, let’s head out. Can you help me carry some of these cans so we can put them in the baskets on the bike?”

Niall shoves his brown box into the bag as well, and that’s that.

 

****

 

The ride is almost completely silent. The wind in their ears and the noise of the engine are loud, sure, but they could still talk if they really wanted to. They don’t though, and Niall only talks to ask Zayn how far away they are. Even when they stop to rest and eat they don’t speak; Zayn stares intently at his can of food and doesn’t look up.

Zayn takes so many winding turns through the mountains, and Niall knows he’d never be able to find his way back on his own even if he wanted to.

Still, when Niall’s face is pressed against Zayn’s neck and his shoulders are starting to ache from the bag of books he’s holding, he feels for once that he’s headed in the right direction.

The sun has almost completely set by the time they pull up to the house. It looks old fashioned and small, but well built. It looks like it could be a museum, with old pictures and artifacts preserved inside. Nature seems to be trying to pull it back into the ground, with vines tracing up all sides and lots of tiny flowers blooming from them. There are plants sprouting from between the cracks in the logs, too.

It looks overrun and abandoned, was probably missed when the government was demolishing the houses on the outskirts of the city some 50 years ago. There’s a pretty high chance that officials don’t know it exists, considering it’s still standing.

“Home, sweet home,” Zayn says, hauling off his helmet.

Niall gets off the bike, and Zayn rolls it over to the side of the house, slightly under cover, where two logs help to hold it upright by its front wheels. After they fill their arms up with cans of peaches and sling the book bags over their shoulders, Zayn leads him towards what is apparently a door—Niall didn’t see it through the vines until Zayn grabbed the handle—and pushes his way inside.

“We’re home!” Zayn calls out, setting the cans down on the floor. There’s shuffling noises, and then shouting and banging. Niall’s still standing wide-eyed in the entranceway, and Zayn jerks his head at him. “C’mon, then.”

“Who the fuck is we, Z? If it’s a fucking cat I swear to god—”

The person yelling swings around the corner and snaps his mouth shut. He fixes Niall with a hard glare, looking him up and down with a raised eyebrow. Niall wants to sprint back out the door, but Zayn shuts it behind him. He settles on setting the peaches and the book bag down, just in case.

“Not a cat, then,” the man says. “So, Zayn, care to introduce—”

He hardly gets any words out before there’s a loud yell of “Zayn!” from behind him. Another man runs around the corner and flings himself at Zayn. It sends them both staggering into the wall, and Zayn giggles quietly as he hugs back.

“You took longer than usual! I was so worried, you asshole.”

Zayn rolls his eyes. “I took exactly as long as I usually do. You’re imagining things, Harry.”

“I still think you took longer,” Harry says.

“I didn’t.”

They finally part, with Harry pinching Zayn’s cheek and running a hand through his hair. Then, he turns to Niall.

“You brought peaches! And found a stray.” Harry extends an arm towards Niall. “I’m Harry. That’s Louis.”

Niall takes his hand to shake. “I’m Niall.”

“Picked him up from the storage in Portland,” Zayn says, shrugging. “He works there. Caught me and didn’t report me. Twice, actually.”

Used to work there, Niall thinks. He digs his teeth hard into his lower lip. They definitely wouldn’t take him back if he were to return.

Louis scoffs. “So he’s government. You picked up a fucking government guard, Zayn?”

“Hey,” Harry says, frowning. He looks cartoon-like. Niall’s face is burning. “Trust Zayn’s instincts. He’d never risk compromising us, you know that.”

Do I know that? Because it seems that we might not know anything, based off of what I’m fucking looking at,” Louis replies.

Zayn drops his backpack on the ground and scrubs harshly at his eyes. “Stop, please. I just want to go to sleep.”

At Zayn’s words, Louis seems to soften. While still glaring daggers at Niall, he nods, mutters, “Okay, Z. Fuck. Shit. Fuck,” and turns back around the corner.

Not okay,” Harry says. “You aren’t going to bed without dinner.” He looks at Niall, and Niall doesn’t see any hostility in his expression. Just genuine worry and concern. “You too, stray.”

All Niall can really do is nod and follow them. Zayn’s leaning into Harry a bit, Harry’s fingers gently rubbing his shoulders, and Niall feels a longing pang for his mom. She’s probably asleep by now. Niall wonders if she knew he’d eventually leave. Probably, knowing Maura.

“You can borrow some clothes from me, if you want,” Zayn says, eyes darting down to the storage uniform Niall’s still wearing. “Have a lot of flannels and hoodies, if that’s your thing.”

Niall nods gratefully. The uniform is scratchy on him and Zayn always looks soft and cozy. Niall could really go for wearing something soft.

After Niall changes—around the corner, since Louis wouldn’t stop glaring at him—they sit around a tiny wooden table that looks like it’s on the verge of breaking and dig into their dinner, which is just macaroni from a box Harry made on their single burner. It tastes a bit like rubber, much different than the food Niall usually opts to buy, but it’s pretty good considering the circumstances. Tiny spoons can do that to a meal, somehow. Make them just a bit better.

“So, will you be staying with us?” Harry asks, looking up at Niall. He’s somehow already finished, scraping at the piddle of leftover cheese sauce and licking it off his spoon. “It’s small but I’m sure we can make an arrangement.”

Niall glances at Zayn, but he’s staring intently at his macaroni. It looks hardly touched. “Only if it’s okay with you guys. I’m not picky; I’ll sleep wherever you’ll have me.”

“Outside.”

“Shut the fuck up, Louis,” Zayn spits.

“No one’s sleeping outside. Uhhh.” Harry starts, stops, then looks around the tiny room as he taps his chin.

The house—which appears to be just the one room—is full to the brim. Niall isn’t even sure where all three of them sleep, much less himself. There’s a huge, bulky computer with multiple monitors and blinking machines attached to it shoved into a corner. It takes up almost the entire left wall. There’s another tiny desk next to the one holding all the computer equipment, and it’s covered in papers, with a huge map pinned to the wall in front of it. The rest of the room is the kitchen, what looks to be a laundry station, and two small beds against the back and right sides.

He didn’t see a bathroom anywhere.

“We can lay out a few cushions over by the desk, probably. Should be okay, at least for now,” Zayn says. He scrubs at his eyes before pushing his bowl over to Louis. “Think ‘m gonna call it a night.”

Louis squeezes lightly at Zayn’s wrist. “I’ll be there in a bit,” he says. Zayn narrows his eyes but nods, and then Louis lets him go so that he can make his way over to the bed against the far wall.

“That’ll work, I think,” Harry says, belated. “Like, unless Nialler here wants to share a bed with me.”

“Oh, so he’s Nialler now?” Louis scoffs before pushing himself abruptly from the table. “You were really quick with that one. I’m so glad we give nicknames to fascists.”

God, Louis,” Zayn says. He’s sitting up in his bed, topless and who-knows-what-else-less under a battered quilt. “He was a low-ranking guard in a storage facility. The government is good at keeping people from knowing how fucking shitty they are, no matter if they work for them or not. They’re the problem, not the people sucked into their mess.”

“I think it’s time we all go to sleep,” Harry pipes up. Quickly, he starts collecting the bowls. They clatter loudly, and Niall’s pretty sure that it’s intentional.

Niall sighs, looks up to meet Louis’ aggressive glare and tries to hide a flinch. “I didn’t know, really. I swear. I knew it was sketchy but I didn’t know what to do. I just needed to make money and like, my brother owns the facility. ‘S the only reason why I was there.”

It’s quiet for a moment save for the sound of Harry washing their dishes in a basin. Louis appraises Niall, and Niall can just see Zayn over his shoulder, lying down with the quilt pulled all the way up to his nose.

“Okay,” Louis says eventually. “That’ll work for now, but don’t think this conversation is over yet, all right?”

Niall nods—too enthusiastically? Maybe—and says, “I get it, don’t worry. Gotta look after your own, yeah?”

Something sparks in Louis’ eyes, and he backs off just a bit. “Yeah. Exactly.”

 

****

 

Louis watches hawkishly as Harry and Niall make up Niall’s bed. They keep a large amount of spare blankets and pillows—just in case—in a small closet by the door, and it’s enough to pad the floor so that it’s relatively comfortable to lay on and then some. Harry gives him a high five with a little grin when they’re done with the bed.

“Pick out any blanket you want,” he says. He yawns so big that Niall can see all the way back to his molars. Jesus. “The outhouse is just outside around the corner to the right, if you need it. Um, I make breakfast in the mornings… Yeah.”

Niall snorts. “Go to bed, man. You’re dropping.”

Harry shoves lightly at his shoulder but nods, heading towards his own bed. It’s just across from the one Zayn is curled up in, with the head of it near where his feet are. Zayn’s face is pressed into his pillow, though, and his eyes are squeezed tightly shut in a way that betrays that he’s still awake.

Niall rummages through the closet on his own. He’s always ran a bit warm, and most of the blankets the boys have are heavy and thick. It takes a bit of digging—as Niall tries to ignore the murmurs around the corner, and the way that makes his stomach churn—but he eventually comes up with a quilt that has a rose pattern decorating the corners. It looks thin, in that well-loved kind of way. Niall takes it.

He’s just flung it over his makeshift bed when he hears a throat clearing. He looks up to see Louis glaring daggers at him.

“My mum made that,” he says.

Louis’ voice grates harshly against Niall’s eardrums, and his face burns. God, how has he already made someone hate him in this house?

“Sorry,” Niall says, already picking the quilt back up. “It’s nice, by the way.”

“So was she,” Louis says. He turns without another word, moving to shut the computer down with his back to Niall.

After a while, Niall hauls a thinner blanket from out of the back of the closet, and when he gets back, he doesn’t see Louis anywhere.

 

****

 

Niall wakes up to the sound of sizzling.

It’s a huge effort to wrench his eyes open and rub the sleep out of them, but when he does, he’s faced with Louis staring at him. He’s lying behind Zayn, which is probably why Niall didn’t see him before he went to sleep the night before. The way they’re positioned has Louis practically spooning him, with Zayn curled up in front of him. He looks small, bundled in the quilt and engulfed by Louis’ limbs. Which is a small feat, considering Niall is pretty sure Louis is smaller than Zayn.

“Morning,” Niall says. Louis just blinks at him, eyes narrowing even further, so Niall continues, “Did he wake you up?”

“Who, Zayn?” Niall nods. “What do you mean?” Louis asks. Zayn shifts a bit in his sleep, makes a quiet, distressed-sounding noise, so Louis starts running his fingers through Zayn’s hair.

“I mean, when he was sleeping the other night he had, like, a nightmare or something, and he acted like it wasn’t anything. Was just, like, wondering if it happened again.” Niall says. He shouldn’t be asking; he can feel it deep in his gut. It’s none of your business. These people aren’t your friends. But Zayn’s been nothing but kind and generous to him, and Niall wants to learn more about him. Wants to learn how he can properly thank Zayn for giving him a shot at a new life.

“First of all, you have no right to ask that.” Louis huffs. “And secondly, he never wakes me up.”

The stove clicks off behind Niall, and he turns to see Harry watching them. “He was just asking, Lou. You can’t blame him for trying to make conversation with your stubborn ass.” Harry pauses to throw a tea towel at Louis. “And they sleep together so Zayn doesn’t get nightmares. Like, it’s preventative.”

Louis practically breathes fire at that. “We don’t owe him an explanation, Harry. Why should we tell him our life stories just because he’s crashing here? He’s government, for fucks sake! Why do you and Zayn just brush that shit off?”

Zayn shuffles again, and Harry watches and waits until he stills again before, “Because Zayn trusts him, and we trust Zayn. He obviously sees something in him. And you can’t just shut people down when they’re trying to figure something out, Louis. That’s, like, counterproductive.”

“Whatever. I still don’t fucking trust him, and I don’t think this is included in the need-to-know—”

“Shut the fuck up,” Zayn says gruffly, cutting Louis off with his eyes still shut. He yawns into his pillow, then slaps at Louis’ hands. “He’s not bad. Stop being an asshole.”

After what looks like a struggle to untangle himself from Zayn and the quilt, Louis hauls himself out of the bed. “I can’t pretend to be something I’m not, Zayn. I’ll make you sleep with Harry; don’t test me.”

Zayn cracks an eye open. “No, you won’t.”

“No, I won’t,” Louis says. Surprisingly—at least to Niall—he laughs, hip-checks Harry on his way into the kitchen. “Wouldn’t subject my worst enemy to sleeping with this octopus. Not even Niall.”

Harry makes an offended noise. “I’m not that bad!”

“You absolutely are,” Zayn says. Niall’s been turning his head between all of them, probably looking like he’s watching an old school tennis match or something. When he looks back at Zayn, he’s grinning at him. “Do you like porridge and bologna?”

Wordlessly, Niall nods. Zayn’s grin widens, and Niall can’t help but smile back.

“How do you like the bologna? With cheese, or with mustard—”

“Like a heathen,” Zayn says, laughing when Harry pouts at him.

“Cheesy bologna is good, yeah,” Niall says to Harry.

Pulling on the hoodie he was wearing the day before, Zayn looks at Niall and jerks his head to the way-too-small table. All Niall can really do is follow behind.

“So,” Louis says once they’ve all settled in to eat. “How do you like your job, Neil?”

Niall coughs a little around his bologna. There must be a tiny piece of it caught in his throat, because he can’t stop the little coughs after that. His eyes are watering, too. God. When he looks up, Zayn is staring at Louis with narrowed eyes.

“What are you doing, Louis?”

“Also, it’s Niall, not Neil,” Harry says around a mouthful. “Hard ‘i’, no ‘e’.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “I know. And I’m just asking. Can’t fault a guy for trying to make conversation, right? Isn’t that what you said earlier, Harry?”

Without replying, Harry flips Louis off then takes another bite of his breakfast.

“It’s fine. I don’t mind questions,” Niall says, throat finally clear. Zayn seems to relax a bit, taking up a spoonful of porridge. “I fucking hated my job.”

Again, Louis just stares at him. Harry chews his food slowly and exaggeratedly, like a cow.

“Have you ever, like… seen a book that changed your life?” Harry asks, looks up at the ceiling instead of at any of them.

There’s a clatter as Zayn drops his knife and fork down onto his empty plate. Louis lets out one loud laugh, staccato, and his eyes blaze with a challenge when Niall looks at him. It’s as if Niall could get in Louis’ good books just by answering this question right. Which may or may not be the case; he doesn’t know how easily Louis is swayed, or isn’t.

“I mean,” Niall swallows, “I haven’t actually read any, but. There’s this one bit in a book that’s, like, ‘Science has discovered great things, but I would rather be happy than right.’ Or something like that.” Niall laughs a bit, awkwardly. He’d paraphrased, but he knows the quote word for word, feels each of them like weights in his stomach.

Zayn is looking at him intently, chin cradled in his hand. Across the table, Louis doesn’t look like he wants to throttle him anymore. Or as much, at least.

Niall continues. “So that’s like, something that stayed with me. But, um, I don’t know what book that is. Like, that bit has stuck with me but I haven’t seen the rest of it, so no book has changed my life. Though I think one could, since someone with a bunch of them definitely did.”

Harry coos a bit, and Niall feels a blush burning up his neck. Louis pretends to gag into his empty bowl, but his lips are twitching like he wants to smile. Which— thank God, really. He can’t take much longer of being Louis’ enemy.

“For the better, yeah?” Zayn asks quietly. His eyes are wide and earnest. Proud, actually.

“Yeah, definitely.” Niall grins at him, watches as one blooms on Zayn’s face, big and bright.

 

****

 

Niall’s woken up one morning by the sound of a book landing hard on the floor beside his head.

“Wha— fuck?”

“I found your book,” Zayn says. No hello or how was your nap, Niall? “Took a while to remember it, because, like, we have a lot, and I’ve read a lot of books. But I got it.”

Blinking blearily, Niall props himself up on his elbows. Zayn’s plopped down cross-legged beside him and is gently running his fingers down the spine of the book, now sitting on his lap.

“My what book?”

Zayn snorts. “‘My what book?’ The book you saw that quote in. About being happy or right? It’s from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” He taps his fingers on the front cover. “It isn’t really the most, like, well-known quote, but it’s up there, and it’s a really good one.”

Niall swallows hard. He isn’t awake enough for this. “Um. Now what?”

The tapping stops and Zayn’s eyebrows furrow as he comes out of whatever trance he was in, gaze snapping up from the book. “What do you mean? You can read it, if you want. ‘S why I, like, found it for you. That, and because it was bugging me that I couldn’t remember where the line was from.”

And Zayn laughs, but Niall’s stomach drops down through the floor. “Like… like me? You want me to read the book?”

Silence, and then, “Don’t you want to?” Zayn asks. “It’s as good a time to start reading as any. And this book is, like, really good. It’s a series of five—”

“There’s five of them?” Niall interrupts. His expression probably shows his surprise clear as day, judging by Zayn’s gentle smile.

“It’s not that intimidating, I promise. Even if it sounds like a lot.” Zayn sets the book back down on the floor, nudges at it until it bumps Niall’s arm. He has to actively force himself not to flinch. “Keep it with you, so if you want to start it, you can. It’s new territory, I know, but…” Zayn trails off with a shrug.

Niall’s breath comes out shaky. He looks at the cover, filling in the blanks of his memory with the image. “Thanks.”

Zayn nods, then suddenly straightens. “Oh, and also—” He reaches back behind him and pulls out Niall’s wrapped box. The one he took from the storage. Niall’s first steal, technically, he thinks. “Your, um. This? I was putting books away and found it.”

When Zayn tries to hand it to him, Niall just smiles and presses it back against Zayn’s chest. “Not mine, actually.”

“It isn’t?” Zayn’s head cocks to the side. “Whose is it, then?”

“Yours.”

Zayn raises an eyebrow at him. Niall can’t stop grinning. “It’s mine?”

“Yep!” He jerks his chin towards the package. “Open it.”

Very carefully, Zayn starts tearing back the brown paper. Every few seconds he glances up at Niall, glaring suspiciously at him. It’s pretty satisfying to watch as Zayn’s cautious expression morphs into one of shock and pure happiness.

“You picked up Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for me?” Zayn clutches the book to his chest, fingers tight around the binding. “How did you— Why would you—?”

“Like I said,” Niall says. It makes something in his stomach swoop, but he pats gently at Zayn’s knee. “It’s yours.”

Zayn grins and it’s like a sunrise. “Your first steal and you’re giving it to me?”

“Shut up,” Niall laughs. His cheeks are burning. “Thank you for taking me here, though,” he continues. He tries to convey as much sincerity and gratitude as he can into the words. They haven’t exactly had a heart-to-heart before, and Niall doesn’t know how often it may happen. Hopefully he gets this right, and Zayn gets how much this means to Niall. “For taking me in even though it’s inconvenient and you didn’t even know me. And thanks for, um, the book, also.”

“It’s no problem. Plus, uh, the whole speech I gave when I was trying to convince you to come with me was pretty rehearsed. I’m just glad I made any sense. Would have sucked if I, like, poured my heart out and you didn’t want to come with me,” Zayn says, laughing under his breath. He’s bashful all of a sudden, ducking his head and grinning into his lap. “Thank you for bringing this to me. I didn’t realize that this is the book I dropped until after I left and, like. I really want to read it. Thought I wouldn’t get another chance to get a copy.”

“Well, now you have your own,” Niall says.

And with that, Zayn grins, pats the cover of The Guide once more, and leaves Niall to himself.

 

****

 

Niall spends most of his days at the main house feeling pretty useless.

It’s not that he does nothing, but that he doesn’t do much of importance. Harry listens in on the police radio, notes down anything of interest, and makes sure all their food is sorted. Louis is usually hacking into something or other, recording the activity on the screen and sorting files. Most of the time, Niall doesn’t even see Zayn until dinner. He’s holed up in their very overcrowded library, sorting and cataloguing. Sometimes he reads, and then gets caught up in the book and doesn’t sort anything that day, Zayn tells Niall sheepishly.

It’s becoming more and more difficult to not be endeared by him.

Meanwhile, though, Niall doesn’t do more than tidy up. He organizes the desk, using some spare cardboard and tape to organize all the computer wires. It’s painstaking, but he manages to teach Louis how to work Excel, which he got a hang of when he had to do the recording at the storage. Louis still hasn’t warmed up to him, either. Harry has set up some sort of composting system outside for the little food scraps they have, and Niall spends a lot of his time tending to the garden. It reminds him of his mom, not that he’s told anyone that.

The Guide is tucked under his pillow. He knows the cover by heart, but he still hasn’t plucked up the courage to actually pick it up yet. Niall’s dreams are far more colourful now, though, the starry sky endless above him. There’s less fire featured in them, at least.

“Hey, Niall?”

“Yeah?” Niall pats down the dirt around a tomato plant then turns to where Zayn is standing in the doorway. Zayn shuffles his feet and crosses his arms over his chest, so Niall stops, takes off his gardening gloves and stands up.

Laughing awkwardly, Zayn says, “I was wondering if, uh, you’d be able to help me with the books today? I got caught up in Harry Potter yesterday and Louis is on my ass for being behind, again. The library is a bit of a mess.”

Niall’s stomach lurches then clenches, anxiety seizing up his torso, but he smiles and nods regardless. “Yeah, sure. Wouldn’t want you to face his wrath.”

“Not that I can’t handle it, but I appreciate the help,” Zayn says. He’s grinning now, arms falling back to his sides.

The opinion Niall has of the library—‘library’ is a generous term—in the pseudo-basement of the house changes every time he goes down there, mostly to tell Zayn that dinner is ready. It’s absolutely filled with books, taking up about the same amount of space as the main floor. But Zayn has it set up so that no surface is wasted, books sorted neatly into shelves besides the ones in a huge stack next to the door.

The only wall not blocked from view by a shelf is covered in graffiti. It’s mostly doodles, but then Niall makes out Zayn’s name, and he looks away like he’s intruding. Surprisingly, the many books shoved into many shelves don’t make Niall claustrophobic, probably due to how many tiny windows line the tops of the walls.

Being so closely surrounded by books feels like an amped-up version of Niall’s work day, but everything feels slightly skewered. Like, now that he actually has the freedom to grab a book off of a shelf, open it, read it, he can’t get around the voice yelling at him in his head that he shouldn’t.

“So, um. I have to record the title, author, and the year,” Zayn says. “Then we sort them in with the other books. And that usually means we have to, like, shuffle a bunch of other books around. There isn’t really a better system for it, I don’t think.”

Niall nods, “Sounds good.”

While Zayn flits about, unloading books from the bags and drawing up a chart on a piece of cardboard, Niall stands with his hands in his pockets. Like, he knows no book is going to jump out at him, and that no one is going to arrest him or set the whole house on fire if he opens one, but he can’t shake the anxiety that swells up like tidal waves in his stomach. No matter what he reads, it’s going to mark the start of something different in his life. The thought threatens to drown him.

“Let’s get started. Niall?”

Niall snaps out of his blank stare at one of the windows. “Huh? Yeah, yeah.”

The first hour or so is mostly quiet except for Zayn relaying information for Niall to write down. Zayn had told Niall a while ago that he usually leaves for ages at a time, transporting books to the halfway house then home and back again. The runs usually take two to three months, with only a few days actually spent at the house with Louis and Harry in that time. So the books have accumulated a bit, Zayn explains, with huge stacks of them in any given corner because Louis or Harry always do it wrong.

“Like, they mess up the sorting especially.” Zayn snorts and rolls his eyes. “They always end up separating a series, or, like, when they take out books from the shelves to make room for new ones? They, like, just leave them piled up on top of the shelves. Drives me up the wall.”

Niall laughs quietly, doesn’t really know how to reply. The more time he spends down here, the less anxious he feels. Not enough so that he’d feel comfortable opening one up, but. Still progress.

“Do you like it down here?” Zayn asks. He’s just running his hand across the cover of a book now, tracing the illustration on it with a fingertip.

“It’s…” Niall flounders, waves his pen around as he scrambles, “A bit overwhelming, but there’s something about it that’s just. I can’t put my finger on it.”

Zayn smiles gently at him. “It’s really something, yeah? Like, to be surrounded by so many stories, so many people willing to share pieces of themselves with the world.” He trails off, shaking his head. There’s something about the way he’s looking around at the books—with bright eyes and a look of awe—that makes Niall’s heart melt.

“Do you have a favourite?”

“Book?” When Niall nods, Zayn hums softly. He looks around the room, drumming lightly on a paperback. “I have a few for, like, different moods, you know? Like if I want to feel happy, or if I want to think, or if I want to just space out for a while. They’re my favourites for different reasons.”

Niall doesn’t push him, since the concept of picking favourites is drawing a furrow in Zayn’s brow, wrinkling his forehead with stress. Adorably, but still. “How’s the one I picked up for you? Um, the dead and hollow one?”

The Deathly Hallows,” Zayn says, grinning. “Like, that’s the last book in the series of seven, so I was really desperate to get at it, since I’ve read the rest. It’s like, I’ve got to get closure and stuff, you know?” Niall makes noises of agreement, even though he can’t really relate.

Clearing his throat, Zayn smacks at his thighs and stands back up. “So um, let’s put these ones away for now?”

“I’ll help,” Niall says quickly, swiping off the dust from his legs.

Zayn hands him authors with last names starting with the letters P through Z, taking the rest for himself. As they’re putting them away—Niall doing so rather slowly, careful not to open one or jam them in in ways that bend the paper—Zayn sings under his breath. Niall takes a moment to mourn his now-impossible dream of being a singer that he’s not even sure he wants anymore, if he’d be puppeteered by the government, then joins in. He tries not to blush when he sees Zayn grin out of the corner of his eye and fails.

It’s not that bad, overall. Not bad at all.

 

****

 

“Don’t you want to sleep?”

Zayn yawns hard enough for his jaw to crack. “Just wanna finish this chapter.”

Niall hides his eye roll behind his pillow. “Zayn. C’mon, you’re practically asleep with your eyes open. Do you really need to finish it?”

“Mhmm,” Zayn hums, blinks hard down at the page he’s on, flips it over. “It’s, like, um…”

When Zayn doesn’t continue after a few moments, Niall laughs. “Yeah, I see that. Is it really that good?”

A page later, Zayn sticks a piece of cardboard from an old macaroni box in the book and shuts it. “It is that good, yeah,” Zayn says. His voice is dreamy, and he looks soft and content. “It’s nice to just forget about the shit we have to deal with and read about other people solving their problems. I mean, like, their world is messed up too, but in different ways, and it’s nice to know that there might be a happy ending out there, you know?”

Niall can only nod at him, watch as Zayn’s face crumbles a bit, exhaustion taking over. “Like, if everything can go to such shit and they can still find ways to be happy, then we can try to do the same thing, right?”

“Yeah, Zayn,” Niall says. “I mean, this is good though, right? Like not everything is perfect but you’ve got Louis and Harry who care about you, and you’ve got more books than you can shake a stick at.”

Zayn giggles, and it makes Niall feel warm and bubbly inside, like he’s had just the right amount of champagne. The other boys are already asleep, Harry snoring softly and Louis with his face pressed against the wall. Zayn’s sitting cross-legged on the floor with his back leaning against the bedframe. It’s dim, since they just turned on one lamp and set it on the floor instead of on the table. The warm light on Zayn’s face is doing weird things to Niall’s stomach.

“You’re funny,” Zayn murmurs. “But I’ve got you too now, right? And you’ve got us. Even if Louis pretends you don’t.”

Niall’s gaze flits to The Guide, which has migrated slightly underneath the desk. “You’ve got me.”

There’s a soft thud as Zayn tips over, laying on his side so he’s facing Niall. “Don’t know how I missed it, but I think the floor might be more comfy than the bed.”

Niall snorts. “How is that possible?”

“The springs,” Zayn laughs. “They’re a real pain on the back, like.”

“Ahh,” Niall says. “Can’t believe drawing the short straw actually got me a better deal.”

“Shut up.” Zayn shuts his eyes. “Gonna steal your bed.”

It’s a battle to get them untangled, but Niall wrangles one of his blankets from the pile on top of him and tosses one over to Zayn. It lands over his head and he sputters, but manages to rearrange it so that it’s covering his whole body and then pops his head out.

“Can’t steal my bed if it isn’t really a bed.”

Zayn huffs. “I’ll steal your layers of blankets. Mark my words, Niall.”

“Oh yeah, you’re really intimidating,” Niall says. The only indicator of Zayn’s smile is the crinkling of his eyes where they’re just peeking out above the fabric.

“I’m very badass, I’ll have you know. I steal books, I breathe danger—”

“You steal books after extensive research. Some of them are kids’ books. And you live off of canned peaches,” Niall says. “Also, you look ridiculous wrapped in the blanket like that.”

Zayn laughs into his blanket. “Fuck off.”

They quiet, then, laughs pittering off, and Niall watches as Zayn’s eyes start to fall shut again. Slowly, Niall reaches his arm up until his fingers graze the cover of The Guide. It slides quietly across the floor, thankfully. The feel of it under his palm makes Niall’s stomach seize up, but he stares at the book and runs his fingers down the spine like he’s seen Zayn do multiple times. His brain has gone fuzzy with how anxious he feels.

Remarkably, after a few minutes of just staring at it, the twist in his stomach unwinds, and his breathing slows back down. Niall can feel it in his fingers, a tingling knowing that an entire story— an entire world is in the paper under his hand.

“You’re not so bad,” Niall says quietly. “Not that scary. If I don’t like the book... I can just close it. Books aren’t evil. You aren’t evil.”

He’s losing his mind. Niall doesn’t know if he’s talking to the book or himself, but either way he feels as if he’s having an out-of-body experience.

Very carefully, with Zayn’s voice bouncing around in his mind, Niall cracks open the book and starts to read.

 

****

 

Niall only snaps out of it when Zayn starts mumbling and shifting in his sleep.

It hasn’t yet escalated to the full on thrashing that Niall saw back at the halfway house. Niall hauls himself out of his blankets and goes over to shake Zayn’s shoulder.

“Zayn? Zayn, bro, wake up.”

He mumbles for a few moments longer, and Niall has to shake him a few more times for Zayn to wake up, but he does with a start. As soon as he sits up, Niall backs away.

“You were having a nightmare,” Niall whispers. “Sorry. Knew I probably shouldn’t have let you sleep on the floor—”

“Isn’t your fault,” Zayn says. He yawns and stretches a little before collapsing back onto the floor. “Ouch. Fuck.”

“Is the floor really more comfortable?” Niall asks.

There’s a long stretch of silence, and then, “No. Was just tired. Think your blankets might actually be better, though.”

Zayn blinks and scrubs blearily at his eyes. “Though, uh, thanks for waking me up.”

“No problem. Caught it before you went full—” Niall waves his hands around to illustrate, and Zayn ahh’s in understanding.

“That’s good.” Zayn’s eyebrows furrow, and he props himself up enough to peer behind Niall. “Wait, Niall, were you… reading?”

“What? Oh, um.” Niall glances behind him. The book shut while he was trying to wake Zayn up, it seems. What page was he on again? “Yeah, kinda.”

All of a sudden, Zayn is awake, eyes bright. “All night? Do you like it?”

A blush burns up Niall’s cheeks, and he scratches at the back of his neck. “Um, I do, actually. Like, it was a bit confusing at first, trying to get where they were and everything, but I, like. I had to keep reading, I dunno. It sucked me in.”

The look on Zayn’s face is nothing less than elated. “Really? Where are you in it?”

“Um,” Niall laughs a bit, “42.”

Zayn grins widely. “Ahh, the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything.”

“If only it was that easy,” Niall says. “Like, if a number was the solution to the entire universe.”

“God, if only,” Zayn sighs. “Or, like, 54. Maybe our universe’s answer is 54.”

Niall rolls his eyes. “Because it was supposed to be six times nine, but the machine screwed up.”

“Yeah!” Zayn says. “Like, it’s totally wrong but no one corrected it. It’s, like… they think the answer to everything in the universe is 42 when it should be 54, just because that’s what they’re told by the machine.”

Something inside Niall jolts. “It’s so weird to think that this was written so long ago but it still, like, matters. People assume things are true just because they’re told so by people they are told are trustworthy. It’s, like… eye-opening.”

Zayn smiles sadly, drums his fingers slowly on the hardwood floor. “It’s amazing how, like, we can all have different experiences and still take something out of stories from hundreds or even thousands of years ago.”

All Niall can do is nod. Nothing he could say seems like enough. The weight of their words settle heavy on Niall’s shoulders. They have meaning, though, and he thinks he’s fine with carrying this knowledge with him if he believes it’s the truth.

Yawning, Zayn pats at Niall’s knee once before he stands up. “We should get some sleep, yeah?”

Niall shakes his head, rakes his hands through his own hair. Zayn is looking at him, open and kind, and Niall doesn’t know how to thank him for this, either. The list of things Zayn is showing him just keeps growing.

“Okay,” is what Niall decides on saying. “Okay, yeah. Goodnight, Zayn.”

 

****

 

Louis wakes them up with yelling whenever he’s the alarm clock for the day.

“Rise and shine!” He has a wooden spoon in one hand and a rather beat up looking frying pan in the other. “It’s a travel day for you guys, so you better get up and at ‘em before I show you how not-talented I am at drumming.”

Niall opens his eyes, scrubs away the crust and looks at Harry, who is already sitting at the table in a robe eating cereal contentedly. He’s even bopping a bit, like there’s music playing instead of just Louis’ screechy falsetto. Fucking morning people.

“We’re up, we’re up,” Zayn says from somewhere behind him. “Chill out.”

“Not my fault you fuckers spend all night reading.” Louis hits the pan a few times; Niall buries himself under his covers.

“That’s counterproductive,” he says.

The blankets are yanked from off of him. “Just because you’re well-read or something now doesn’t mean you have to use big words. Harry and I can hear you two giggling into the night, you know. It’s disgusting.”

“Niall isn’t even halfway done and it’s been two weeks,” Zayn says. Looking over at him, Niall sees that he’s doing a barrell roll, plopping right off of the bed onto the floor. “Fuck. I’ve finished, like, almost three books in that time. You’re just bitter because we ran out of ham.”

“And you’re going to fucking get me some more,” Louis says. He hits the pan once more—God—before he sets both it and the spoon back on the counter.

“Yes, yes,” Zayn says. “I told Liam last time to get you some ham.”

Since they’re all up now, Niall hauls himself to his feet. “Who is Liam?”

“Well, you know how I said I had a guy?” Zayn asks. When Niall nods, he just waves his hand around a bit, then shuffles his way into the kitchen area.

“Liam’s the guy is what he’s saying,” Harry says through a mouthful of cornflakes. “He gave Zayn that hoodie too, since he manages to leave all his jackets in storage rooms.”

“We’re so fucking lucky he hasn’t been caught, honestly,” Louis says. Zayn smacks his shoulder. “Like, what robber leaves a jacket everywhere he goes? It’s like a shitty signature or something.”

Zayn grumpily and aggressively opens a can of peaches. “Fuck you. You know I’m not actually a robber, like. I’m just forcibly taking books from the library and not giving them back.”

“And what a rebel you are,” Niall says. The way Zayn is struggling to shove a huge slice of a peach into his mouth whole softens his glare.

Louis picks up the pan again, knocking on it with his knuckles this time. “Yeah, bunch of modern day Avengers is what you guys are.” Niall doesn’t get the reference, but he doesn’t ask about it. “Now, hurry up if you want to get to the house by dark. I can’t do everything for you.”

 

****

 

“Bro, I don’t know how to sleep without reading anymore.”

It startles a laugh out of Zayn, and he turns to Niall, crinkly smile and all. “I turned you into a reader. Who would have thought?”

Niall chucks their only pillow at him before laughing with him. “Shut up. It’s nice to get away for a while. Didn’t know that I could totally mentally check out of life without falling asleep and hoping for a dream. And more than half the time they aren’t great ones.”

“I know,” Zayn sighs. “You’re preaching to the choir, yeah.”

Niall waits until Zayn settles into the cot beside him and turns off the lamp. “Am I allowed to ask about that? Let me know if you don’t want to talk about it, or if you don’t feel comfortable telling me or anything, I just want to be able to help? If I can help, I mean.”

Zayn shushes him, and Niall can just make out his silhouette if he squints hard enough. “It’s fine. Like, it’s not that bad it’s just. Fire, you know? Mostly they’re dreams of, um, being stuck in a house that they’ve burned, or sometimes there’s someone I care about in the house and there’s nothing I can do.”

While he takes a shaky breath, Niall stays quiet, fits this knowledge in with the rest of the things he knows about Zayn. He cautiously reaches his hand out, fumbles a bit until he finds Zayn’s shoulder. As he rubs it Zayn just deflates, sinking down into the mattress with a heavy sigh.

“My family. They, um, were really into books. We had a bunch stashed under floorboards, in empty cereal boxes that we pretended were filled with actual cereal.” Niall shifts a bit closer to Zayn, and he continues.

“The government found us out one day, like, inevitably, and they made my family disappear. Burned up the house after they took them wherever people like us go. I was fucking around after school, so I wasn’t there. People probably should have come after me, because they definitely knew I existed, but they didn’t. Probably figured that being abandoned by my family was enough to keep me from, like. Looking into it, or rebelling, or something. I don’t know why they let me go, really.”

Zayn breathes out and tucks his head down, hair grazing Niall’s chin. “In my dreams, sometimes they’re stuck in the house. Like, the government says that they take people away before they burn the houses, but…”

“But you can never really know,” Niall finishes quietly. “I’m sorry, Zayn. That’s… that’s some real bullshit.”

Zayn laughs, but it’s choked, and Niall just has to pull him into a hug. “Some real bullshit.”

It isn’t long before Zayn’s all cried out, only a few tears actually falling, but he doesn’t move away from Niall when he does. Instead, he presses his nose against Niall’s collarbone and breathes deeply.

“You’ll be okay?” Niall asks.

When Zayn breathes out, Niall can feel it against his shoulder though his t-shirt. “No. But I’ll figure out a way to be eventually.”

“Did you want me to, um…” Niall’s fingers twitch, flexing in the material of the tank Zayn’s wearing. Too much? Maybe, but it isn’t like Zayn’s showing any reservations. “Like, Louis? If that’d help, since Louis and Harry told me that it helps. Is that reserved just for Louis? Is he the one that helps or is it like—”

Zayn snorts, and Niall snaps his mouth shut. “It’s just, like, being close to other people before I fall asleep that stops my subconscious from spiralling. Used to share a bed with my sister. Didn’t spoon but, like, yeah. So no, it’s not just Louis.”

With that Zayn flips over, pushes his back against Niall’s chest. Niall didn’t necessarily think it would be awkward, but it feels more natural than he thought it would.

“I’ll be like a Louis for the night,” Niall says. Zayn stifles his laugh into the pillow. “Except I’m Niall, so it’ll be less loud, and I’m actually taller than you, so we fit together more like spoons are supposed to fit. It’ll be better.”

Zayn laughs again, this time not restrained or muffled, and Niall presses a smile into Zayn’s hair.

“Yeah,” Zayn says. “Yeah, you’re better.”

 

****

 

Breakfast is canned peaches again. Zayn seems to really like them, and though Niall doesn’t really see his love for them, they’re growing on him. They’re easy and the juice after they’re finished isn’t bad either. He misses waffles, mostly. God, waffles with maple syrup.

“What are we doing today?”

Zayn hops around the small room, tucking what are apparently memory cards and flash drives into his backpack. “We’re going to see Liam.”

Their guy, right, right. Niall nods when Zayn looks over at him, as if he has more than an extremely vague idea of who he is. Zayn grins at him but doesn’t elaborate.

“The guy who gets you peaches.”

“He gets us food and toilet paper, not just peaches. Though he does get me a lot, because I’m his favourite.”

Niall snorts. “Right.”

“He’s nice, like, he was my best friend. He didn’t leave with us because he has connections and smuggles us stuff. We aren’t that self sufficient yet,” Zayn says.

“Really? I was under the impression that you guys are living at the height of luxury,” Niall says.

Zayn tosses Niall’s jacket to him, then hoists up his backpack onto his shoulder. “These peaches are five star quality, you know.”

Niall laughs along, but something’s been nagging at his mind since he woke up, so he tugs on Zayn’s wrist until he stops moving.

“So, um.” Niall swallows. “You didn’t have any nightmares, did you?”

Thankfully, Zayn doesn’t pull away. Instead, he turns his palm around until he can squeeze lightly at Niall’s fingers. “I slept like a baby, I promise.”

“No kicking and screaming? Good. Then you can tell Louis when we get back that he’s been replaced,” Niall says, squeezing Zayn’s hand back.

That makes Zayn pull away, laughing with his hands up in the air. “Whoa, I don’t think so. Don’t want to deal with that aftermath.”

“I’m not moving until you say you will,” Niall says.

“Well then I guess we’re not leaving.”

Niall pouts, exaggeratedly pulling down the corners of his lips as far as his muscles let him. It takes him miming trailing a tear down his cheek with the tip of his finger before Zayn cracks. He smacks Niall’s hand away from his face.

“God, you look ridiculous. Fine, I’ll do it. But we’re moving to your floor space and not the bed.”

Niall grins, stands up and slings his arm around Zayn’s shoulder. “See? That wasn’t so hard. Now we can go.”

 

****

 

They pull up to a house just as it gets dark. It looks as ordinary as any other house in the city, since they’re all cookie-cutter made, symmetrical and grey. It makes sense, Niall knows it does, was expecting the house to be like the rest, but it still feels wrong. Like a guy who is into smuggling toiletries and canned peaches to a handful of book thieves shouldn’t be living in a house so ordinary. Niall was anticipating a different vibe from the house at the least, or something. It was ridiculous that he expected differently, he realizes, now that he’s here and feeling genuinely underwhelmed.

Zayn walks up to the door and Niall jogs to catch up. They parked the bike in the back, under a tree with conspicuously thick branches hanging down. It’s probably on purpose, now that Niall thinks about it. Safety precautions for when the boys visit. Zayn knocks gently on the door and it’s opened within a few seconds.

“Zayn! You string bean!”

He squawks, smacking at Liam’s arm as he laughs. “I’m not a string bean. Your shoulders are just broader than mine so the hoodie hangs a bit baggy and we’re the ones living off of canned fruit and— you know what? I don’t need to explain anything to you.”

Liam’s grin never falters throughout Zayn’s grumbling, and he pulls him into a hug. “Good to see you, Z.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Zayn says, but hugs him back tightly anyways.

“And who is this, then?”

Quickly, Zayn detaches himself from Liam enough to turn and face Niall. “This is Niall. He’s the night guard from a month or so back that didn’t rat me out, remember?”

Liam nods, looking equal parts impressed and suspicious, but he smiles politely at Niall and holds out his hand for him to shake. “I’m Liam.”

Niall shakes his hand, and resists the urge to introduce himself again, since Zayn already said it. Why’s he so nervous? “It’s nice to meet you, Liam. Big fan of your peaches.”

Zayn pulls away from Liam fully, groaning loudly and walking past Liam into the house.

“Oh, you are?” Liam says. His smile makes his eyes go crinkled like Zayn’s does, but Zayn’s is much cuter. Then again, Niall might be biased. “Like, the canned peaches or something else?”

“What else would I mean?”

Liam surveys him for a moment, expression slowly morphing into one of realization. “Right, you probably haven’t seen, like. Emojis.”

“What are—?”

“It’s fine, they’re nothing. Don’t worry about it.” Liam waves his hand, then moves back so Niall can follow Zayn into the house.

The house is set up much like Niall’s house—Niall’s old house?—so it isn’t hard to find the living room. Even the furniture is set up the same, though like the house itself, it all feels off. Niall sits down on the couch, and looks around the room. His eyes land on a picture on the wall. It’s of Liam and an older woman, who is clearly his mom, and Niall’s stomach pangs with homesickness. Maybe Niall could convince Zayn to let him visit her just once before they go back.

“Sorry!” Zayn yells from somewhere down the hall. The bathroom, judging by the echo. “Taking advantage of Liam’s good lighting. Haven’t run off on you, promise.”

“He’s shaving his face,” Liam explains. “He always does. You can too, if you want.”

Niall can only smile slightly and shake his head. “I’m all right, but thanks.”

Liam waves his hand dismissively. “At least take a shower. And let me trim your hair or something. It’s probably been ages since you’ve had water pressure.”

Liam flits around the house, gathering the supplies he’s been hiding away under floorboards, shoved in the back of cupboards and in boxes so he can put them into two bags. Niall just watches him move in and out of the room, notes the supplies he’s giving them. In one, Liam puts soap, rechargeable batteries, toilet paper, notebooks, more soap, more batteries, a towel, toothpaste, even more soap— Niall stops paying attention to that bag after a few minutes. The other bag is mostly filled with canned peaches, oatmeal, and vacuum-sealed deli meats.

“Okay, it’s all yours.” Zayn emerges from the hallway with a towel wrapped around his waist. He fluffs up Niall’s hair with his hand as he passes, snapping Niall out of his daze. Zayn is dripping wet, skin a bit pink from scrubbing, probably. Niall forces himself to not look at his torso. “Left a towel in there for you on the counter.”

“Aw, Zaynie you shaved!” Niall jumps up to stop Zayn mid-step, gripping his chin lightly. “You look all baby-faced.”

Zayn makes an offended noise, rubbing one of his hands over his jaw. “You’re one to talk; you’re always have a baby face. Get off me and go wash or something. You’re all gross.”

His nose is scrunched like he’s joking around so Niall jumps up, rubs his hands all over Zayn’s cheeks. “Oh yeah? Am I? Am I, Zayn?”

“Stop, I just showered!” Zayn laughs, shoving at him halfheartedly. “You smell.”

You smell,” Niall says, pulling back.

“Yeah, I smell like soap, though.”

Niall scoffs, rolls his eyes as he heads to the bathroom. He does feel grimy and disgusting anyways. “Fine. I’ll shower, but just so you have someone nice and clean to spoon with.”

Zayn just beams back at him.

 

****

 

“So are we staying here tonight?”

Zayn hums around his chicken, swallows. “Too risky. The government checks up with Liam every once in awhile just to make sure he’s still loyal to the cause. Which he isn’t, so we’ll be leaving soon.”

“Not without dessert, though,” Liam says. He’s genuinely offended as well, judging by his expression. Niall laughs, and Liam smiles back at him. “I’ve got lemon pie.”

Jesus Christ, it’s been ages since he’s had a dessert. Niall sighs involuntarily, causing Zayn to glance over at him, wavering.

“Well, if you have pie, I guess we can spare a few minutes. Like, we don’t have long, though.” Zayn glances out the window. His eyebrows are all furrowed, but if Niall’s learned anything from living with him for months it’s that Zayn is a worrier. So, it’s probably not worth getting stressed out over.

As they sit and eat the pie, Niall watches as Zayn anxiously looks outside every few seconds. Niall feels bad for making him worry; it takes monumental effort to stop himself from reaching out and smoothing out the lines between Zayn’s eyebrows.

Liam leaves the table with his and Niall’s empty plates—Zayn’s still picking at his own small slice—and Niall turns to him.

“It’s fine, Zayn,” Niall says quietly. Now he does reach out, clasps Zayn’s free hand in both of his.

“I’m just—” Zayn breathes in a shuddery breath. “Sorry. I know, I’m sorry. Just— bad feelings, you know?”

Niall nods, gives him a small smile when Zayn flips his hand to grip Niall’s. “Don’t apologize. You’ve gotta trust your gut, y’know? We’ll leave now.”

Pushing back his chair, Zayn gives Niall a grateful look and lets go of his hand to walk into the kitchen. Niall feels a bit intrusive watching as Zayn and Liam hug, Zayn with his face tucked into Liam’s shoulder, arms wrapped tightly around each other. He looks away.

Niall shoves down the fluttery feelings in his stomach, picks instead at his nails and remembers sadly how his mom used to slap at his hands when he did so.

“Can I visit her?” Niall blurts. Liam and Zayn look at him confusedly. “My mom, I mean. Like, could we do that?”

Immediately Zayn shakes his head. “I don’t think so. The government either thinks you were kidnapped or that you’re an accomplice, and either way they’ll have planted more surveillance around your mom’s house. It’s too dangerous.”

Desperation swells up in his stomach and Niall is rambling and begging before he can make sense of his thought process. “Please, Zayn. I just need to know she’s okay and that Greg is taking care of her so that the government doesn’t think she’s involved. I need her to know I’m safe and not off being tortured somewhere. I can grab one of my bags so we can carry more things and—”

Niall.” Zayn’s voice breaks a little bit, and his expression is torn. Liam has stepped out, Niall vaguely notices, but he’s more focused on the way Zayn might or might not be convinced.

“Please?” And he thinks that’ll be enough. Niall isn’t stupid; he’s noticed that Zayn has a bit of a soft spot for him. He used to think it was because Zayn was trying to ease him into things, but it’s been months and he still lets Niall do things he’s never seen Louis or Harry get away with. Like play with his hair, open up any of the books he’s reading, or procrastinate until the end of the day when it’s Niall’s turn to clean the outhouse.

Really, Niall feels bad for exploiting that, but this is different.

Zayn chews on his lip and Niall stays quiet. The cogs turning in his brain are almost audible.

“It’ll have to be before we go to the Storage, when it’s darkest out,” Zayn says slowly. Niall’s breath catches in his throat as he tries not to burst. “We can’t stay longer than a few minutes, and you can’t tell your mom where you are, even vaguely.”

Niall has to pull him in, then. He wraps his arms tightly around Zayn’s waist as he says, “Thank you, thank you,” over and over again like a mantra. It feels like he’s holding onto not just Zayn but contentedness and peace of mind.

It’s not even a second before Zayn reciprocates. He rests his chin on Niall’s shoulder and Niall only just bites back the, “Cute,” on his tongue.

“And you owe me,” Zayn adds quietly.

Niall laughs but doesn’t let go. Instead, he tightens his grip on Zayn like he’s Niall’s lifeline.

 

****

 

They leave soon after, with Zayn and Liam having a rushed conversation in hushed tones while Niall puts Liam’s coasters into a stack and pretends he can’t hear them. Zayn looks a little glassy-eyed, a little more tired than he usually does, and Niall doesn’t mention it. He just squeezes Zayn’s shoulder and gives him a thankful smile. It’s all he can do, really.

“Sky looks pretty,” Niall says.

Zayn jerks out of his thoughts and gives him a look, then looks up with narrowed eyes. “Pretty, but bad.”

“What?”

They climb onto Zayn’s bike carefully, one at a time. Zayn’s fingers are flexing on his handlebars.

“Just, like. Well, there used to be some saying about the sky being red back in the day, but I forget it. It was a warning for sailors anyways, so it doesn’t really, like, work. If the sky was red at night, it’s fine, but if it’s red in the morning then the waves would be rocky.” Zayn puffs out a breath, then pulls on his helmet.

“The, um, thing that worries me is that it’s already bright out. The story— like, the waves part doesn’t matter. You ready to go, yeah?”

Niall nods into Zayn’s shoulder and then they’re off. As they ride back to the halfway house, Zayn keeps glancing up at the sun peeking over the horizon. Niall tries not to overthink it.

 

****

 

They sleep through the morning—as Zayn told him he usually does whenever he’s there—and wake up just when the sky is starting to go red. Niall feels groggy but Zayn’s just as energetic as he usually is, which is minimally.

“Weather looks beautiful,” Niall says as he cracks open the door.

Zayn shoves a peach into his mouth and leans to the side so he can look outside as well. “It’s shit.”

“What? It’s sunny, Zayn.”

“Yeah,” Zayn says, hands the can off to Niall. “Still sunny.”

Niall ahh’s, takes Zayn’s fork and stabs at a peach slice. A can of peaches as a meal hasn’t grown old on him yet, surprisingly. Although it’s definitely lacking in nutritional value. Zayn lightly smacks the back of his head when he sees him reading the chart on the wrap around the can.

“Don’t read that,” he laughs. “We have to get ready, you weirdo. It’s enough for you for now, okay?”

Niall chuckles with him, but makes a show of rolling his eyes and turning the can around in his hands until he can’t see the chart. He eats the last slices staring pointedly at the wall. Then Zayn takes the can back, drinks the peach juice before putting the empty can on top of a pile of others.

“C’mon now, mamma’s boy. It’ll be dark soon.”

 

****

 

The ride from the halfway house to Niall’s mom’s feels like years. Niall can’t help but hum to himself the entire time, excitement and anticipation and just general emotion building up in his torso, having to be let out somehow. His chin is right on Zayn’s neck, and the vibrations of it make Zayn twitch his shoulder and let out quiet giggles.

“Tickles, Niall,” Zayn says over the sound of the motor. Niall just laughs at him, hugs Zayn a bit tighter.

“Jus’ happy, y’know?”

Zayn nods and then turns his full attention back to weaving through the last of the trees, the city lights coming into view in the distance. Niall channels his excess energy into his fingers instead, tapping out a rhythm on Zayn’s chest.

They take a different path than they did yesterday, Zayn turning down alleys and behind buildings Niall doesn’t think he’s even seen before. Either way, he couldn’t retrace their path if his life depended on it. It’s only when he glances to the side and spots a house like those in his mom’s complex does Niall start actually shaking.

“Shit, Zayn.”

“It’s around here?” Zayn asks. Or doesn’t really ask, Niall notices, since Zayn didn’t say it like a question. Of course he knows where Niall lived. Still, Niall nods in affirmation automatically, brain going a bit fuzzy.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“There’s, like, um, not much cover. Not really sure where to stash the bike.”

Zayn motions for Niall to get off, and he does, still in a daze. He can see the house now, knows which one is theirs. Or his mom’s now, he supposes. It takes a lot just for him to not start sprinting towards it, but he holds back, looks at Zayn with his furrowed eyebrows.

“Um. Okay, fuck, so like—” Zayn starts, stops. He looks worried, and that makes it easier for Niall to hold himself there. Niall grabs his hand gently and gives him a soft squeeze. It’s sort of comforting, it looks like. Even when Zayn stops biting so harshly at his lip, his eyes are still wider than usual.

“I’ll go ahead, yeah?” Niall takes a hold of Zayn’s other hand for good measure. “You can find a spot to hide the bike and meet me inside. I have my key to get in. It’s just the fourth house down from here.”

It looks like Zayn is about to protest, and Niall shakes his head. “It’ll be fine. Just like, maybe point where the cameras are and I’ll try to avoid them. It’s not far.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Zayn says. Still doesn’t let go of Niall’s hands, though.

“Zayn,” Niall says. He’s pleading, a bit. His mom is so close, though, and he feels like he can’t physically wait any longer to hug her. “Please.”

That’s what makes Zayn finally sigh. “Okay. Stay low, though. Don’t run, either; that rings alarm bells. The only cameras around here are on the street lamps, I think.” Zayn points them out and Niall nods. He can’t stop bouncing on his toes, the anticipation almost making him shake.

Zayn hums, finally letting go of Niall’s hand so he can reach into his backpack. He brings out an old, ratty baseball cap and fits it on Niall’s head.

“Should have cut the blonde off, huh?” Niall jokes. The hat fits well enough, but he still lets Zayn fiddle with it, tucking more hair up into it.

“Nah,” Zayn says. “I like the blonde.”

“Oh, do you?” Niall winks. Zayn’s shoulders are so tense and it makes his stomach churn.

Pinching at Niall’s cheek, Zayn grins, nose crinkling up as he does. “Yeah. Definitely wouldn’t have asked you to come with me if you weren’t blonde.”

“You just like me for my looks, then?” Niall fakes offense, putting his hand up to his heart and everything.

“No. I like you for more than your looks,” Zayn says, suddenly tense again. He might be blushing, but it’s hard to tell in the dim light. Niall knows his own cheeks are burning. “So be careful, alright?”

All Niall can do is nod, stutter out a, “you too,” and then he walks out into the street.

He knows Zayn is watching him without turning to check. It’d probably be suspicious for him to turn anyways; Niall glances up at the street lights. He didn’t realize just how anxious he would be walking in the open again. Would it always be this way? God, he hopes not.

Something about Zayn’s nervous, paranoid behaviour probably set Niall off as well. But Zayn is a worrier in general, so it probably doesn’t mean something bad is going to happen. It’s, like, self preservation. Zayn has to be worried all the time.

Even as his thoughts have wandered, Niall’s feet have carried him—very casually and not-suspiciously, he hopes—to the back door of his mom’s house. He doesn’t spot her in the living room when he looks through the glass, so she’s probably in the kitchen, since she usually likes to sit at the table with a cup of tea around sunset. They’re both creatures of habit.

He uses his key to get in, careful to keep quiet still.

“Mom?” Niall whisper-yells into the house. No answer.

On tiptoe, Niall makes his way up the stairs, heading towards the kitchen. At the top, he pauses, and with strained ears hears the sound of the kettle boiling water. His shoulders relax as his heart leaps into his throat, and Niall almost chuckles with how emotional he feels.

When he turns the corner he stops in his tracks, though.

There’s a man in a suit standing next to the stove, picking through one of the boxes Niall’s mom keeps her teabags in. The tag clipped to the lapel of it has the government stamp on it, just like Niall’s old uniform, except the stamp is red instead of the standard worker’s black stamp. He looks up at Niall with a smile that makes his stomach drop.

“We thought it was you and your friend on our feed last night,” he says, chuckling as if they were old friends. “Though we weren’t sure. Your brother was helpful in identifying you. We were a bit surprised he was so willing to help catch you.”

Niall is still standing motionless in the doorway. He feels like he’s back in the storage room with Zayn, internally yelling at himself to run but not being physically able to move. This, though, is a million times worse.

“Turns out blood isn’t thicker than water.” The man chuckles, shaking his head. The kettle is screaming behind him, and he carefully moves it off the burner, pouring the water into a mug. Niall’s mom’s favourite mug—the one with handpainted flowers blooming up around the handle. The one he made for her.

As the man casually makes himself tea, he gestures for Niall to sit at the dining table. “Sit, Niall. Would you like a cup?”

Somehow, Niall manages to choke out, “No, thank you.”

The man narrows his eyes, reaching back to grab another mug and teabag. “You’ll have some tea, I think.”

After a while of neither speaking—Niall because his heart in his throat and the man probably because he likes making people uneasy—Niall clears his throat. The man takes a sip of his tea, no milk and no sugar, and raises his eyebrows at him.

“Where’s my mom?”

“Ah,” the man says, pretending to think and stirring Niall’s mug. “She’s with your brother. We wanted to keep her here at first, but we figured she didn’t know anything after we talked to her. No need to punish the innocent, you know?”

Niall almost scoffs at him. He’s heard stories about firefighters leaving book owners inside their homes to burn, even though it’s protocol to ask them to leave beforehand. Niall used to think they were just stories, but, well. That was before.

The man’s words register fully in his head, then, and Niall snaps his gaze up to the stranger. “Wait, punish?”

Seemingly thinking, the man continues to stir the tea, not looking back up at Niall. “Well, maybe punish.” Slowly, the man drops the other teabag in the sink with the spoon and clasps his hands in front of him. “We’re offering you a deal, you see.”

“A deal,” Niall repeats. God, he’s in so much fucking trouble. He’s not sure if he’s hoping Zayn will join him soon or if he hopes Zayn abandoned him and is on his way back home.

“I know, very strange of us to do, but we’re acting in our city’s best interest,” the man says. “Hell, we’re acting in our country’s best interest, really.”

And he wants Niall to ask, he knows. But he thinks he already knows what the government is after. Who the government has been after for ages.

“You want me to turn him over.”

The man grins, teeth like a shark’s on display. “Knew you were a smart one! Look at you, a step ahead of us.”

Niall might pass out. His fingers and face are tingling, and he thinks back to sitting with Zayn in the library.

“It’s because your body is, like, trying to move the blood to your most important organs,” Niall remembers Zayn saying. As Zayn was flipping through some medical-looking book, Niall had casually asked about it. “Like, sometimes if you get really stressed like that, your body might think you’re gonna get stabbed in the stomach or something. So it tries to stop you from bleeding out by sending your blood to your heart and your more vital bits.”

It was back in the beginning, back when Zayn took him in for whatever reason and Niall still didn’t know what to think of him. He remembers Zayn’s earnest, encouraging smiles that he gave Niall whenever he hesitated in saying something. How he wasn’t judgmental of Niall no matter the question.

He remembers Zayn finding The Guide for him, his gentle smile and his crinkly eyes. Zayn trusts him.

“I’m not going to turn him in.”

“Whoa, hold on there,” the man says. He turns around, scooping some sugar into Niall’s tea, then saunters over to where Niall is sitting, both of the mugs in hand. “I think you should hear what’s on the line first.”

It definitely isn’t a suggestion, so Niall keeps his mouth shut. The man looks meaningfully at Niall’s cup, and that isn’t a suggestion either; Niall takes a sip. It’s too hot and way too sweet but Niall keeps drinking it.

“We’ve been watching your friend for a while,” he starts. “Zayn, is it? It’s only a matter of time before we catch him. And I think you know what we do to people like him when we catch them, don’t you, Niall?” He pauses and searches Niall for a reaction. Panic wells up in Niall’s chest but he tries not to show it, stares right back at him instead.

“So, you have two choices here, Niall. Choice one: You give us Zayn. You tell us where he is, you lead us to him, since we know he’s still with you. Choice two: We burn down your house. You have some books in here, don’t you?”

“No, I don’t,” Niall says, voice strained. Zayn has to have seen that there are people here; he wouldn’t have taken this long. The thought is a relief.

The man raises his eyebrows before reaching down and picking up a briefcase Niall hadn’t noticed. He flips the buckles and opens it up, then brings out a book. Staring at Niall, he tosses the book towards the living room. He picks out another. That one hits the bottom of the stairs. Another two go into the living room. The last one before he closes his case is dropped on the table in front of him, making the mugs clatter. It’s called The Girl Who Played With Fire; Niall almost wants to laugh.

“What do you say, Niall?” The man folds his hands together on the table, smiling at him. “Where’s Zayn Malik, hm?”

“The answer is still no,” Niall says. The man raises an eyebrow, and Niall continues, for some Godforsaken reason. “You planned that though, right? Playing with fire?”

The man doesn’t smile. Niall’s head starts spinning, and he grips the edge of the table in attempts not to tip off his chair. He looks down at the tea. There probably isn’t any sugar in it.

“You’re very funny, Niall.” The man gets to his feet, and the last thing Niall sees before he has to close his eyes is him grabbing a box of matches out of his inside pocket. “I hope you don’t regret burning with that joke.”

 

****

 

When Niall next opens his eyes, it’s because Zayn’s splashing water from the canteen on his face. It’s intensely bright, making his head throb more painfully, so Niall closes them again.

“Niall, God, please get up. Niall,” Zayn is saying. His voice is fading in and out, as if Zayn is far away, but he sounds hysterical, so Niall manages to pry his eyes open again, squinting up at him. It’s like his eyes can’t focus, and he blinks in a futile attempt to clear them.

“They shut off your water. I couldn’t put it out. I’m so sorry, Niall,” Zayn says. He smacks harshly at Niall’s cheek. “Get up, come on. We have to go. We have to go now.”

Everything is bleary but Niall lets Zayn haul him to his feet. His body feels like it’s filled with lead, and his movements are delayed, limbs responding seconds after he decides to move them. Zayn barely manages to support him, but together they move forward, Niall’s arm over his shoulder.

“The staircase isn’t too bad yet but we’re going to have to move quickly through the living room, okay?” Zayn doesn’t pause to look at him, focusing instead on half-dragging Niall down the stairs.

“Okay, can you run?” Zayn asks, then, before Niall can even process his question, he continues. “No, no you can’t run. Okay. Fuck. If you can, can you, like, try to hold onto me, yeah? Like, maybe move your feet a bit and just not let go?”

Again, before Niall can reply—and the answer is I probably can’t—Zayn rushes forward. Vaguely, Niall can tell that Zayn is leading them along the wall, and he tries to move his feet as fast as he can. It doesn’t feel like he’s of any help, but they start hobbling along a bit faster. Maybe. Niall hopes, at least.

“Almost there, yeah?” Zayn says, almost yelling in Niall’s ear. Above everything, Niall can only hear ringing. “Just bear with me, Ni.”

Niall nods, tries to listen to Zayn and push past the sluggishness in his bones that makes him want to collapse again. God, Niall is boiling. It’s hard to breathe, but still Zayn pulls them both along, never wavering.

After what feels like ages, they’re at the door that leads into the yard. Zayn twists the knob but the door itself doesn’t budge, something stopping it from swinging open.

“Shit, fuck,” Zayn says, movements turning frantic. “Can you just— hold yourself up here for a second?”

Niall props himself up against the wall, trying to get air into his lungs. He’s overheating, he can tell, judging by how Zayn is blurring around the edges. Just hold yourself up, Niall tells himself. Just hold yourself up until Zayn can get the door open, then this nightmare will be over. They both can’t stop coughing. The air is getting thick and cloudy around them; Niall can make Zayn out less and less as the seconds go by.

Zayn throws his weight repeatedly into the door, shoving hard with his shoulder. They must have barricaded it from outside or something. After a minute, the door finally breaks open a crack, the sound of wood splintering snapping Niall out of his haze.

“Fuck, yes, okay.” Zayn turns back to Niall, grabbing at him with even more desperation than before. Zayn only has to kick the door once for it to swing open, smoke swirling outside with the gust of it. “Come on, Niall. We’re almost there.”

Fresh air hits Niall like a smack to the face. He’s coughing and his eyes are watering, but with each breath comes more clarity, the weights being taken off of his limbs one by one.

“Okay, I parked just behind here,” Zayn is saying, Niall registering his voice a few moments late. Everything in him aches, but it’s better than feeling nothing, and Niall musters up enough energy to start speed walking. “Thank fuck.” Zayn lets out a hysterical-sounding laugh beside him, pulling them into more of a jog. “You’re heavier than you look.”

“Shut up,” Niall says, wheezing. His voice croaks and breaks but Zayn looks at him like he just belted out a song.

You shut up. You sound awful, and you have to save your breath,” Zayn replies.

They’re only sort of trying to stay out of the scope of the cameras, Niall vaguely notes. It’s surprising that they’re alive, and it’ll be a miracle if they don’t get caught. Zayn leads them through the backyards of Niall’s old neighbours—privacy is a luxury only for high-level government workers, so there are no fences—instead of taking the sidewalk, but doesn’t make Niall duck and cover.

“We close?” Niall asks.

“Hush, I said,” Zayn says, pulling Niall closer to himself so he can help him up the small hill at the edge of the neighbourhood. “But yeah, we’re here. Can you, like, hold on to me, do you think?”

Niall pauses to do a mental check. He feels like shit, but while his body is yelling at him to sit down, maybe take a painkiller or two, he has control over it now. Sight-wise, he’s only a little blurry, and he doesn’t feel like he might tip over at any moment.

“Yeah, I can.”

Sighing in relief, Zayn yanks out a helmet from where his bike is partially hidden behind a bush. He buckles it up for Niall, even though Niall is pretty sure he could do it himself. Taking one look at Zayn though, he looks scattered, so Niall lets him, even though he’s shaking.

Zayn helps Niall get situated on the bike behind him, pulling at Niall’s arms until he’s sure that he’s gripping hard enough. Knuckles white, Zayn finally pats Niall’s forearm, then starts up the bike and kicks off so they go flying down the hill.

“God, Zayn,” Niall says into Zayn’s ear. Or his neck, really. “Slow down a bit, yeah?”

“Will once we’re out,” Zayn yells back.

Turning left sharply, Zayn pushes harder on the accelerator, tires skidding on the pavement. They weave through alleys, going dangerously fast. Niall can only tuck his face into Zayn’s shoulder and try to remember to breathe. They’re going to fucking die. They’re going to beat all the odds and then die because Zayn is going too fast on his fucking bike.

Niall’s brain spirals through dozens of scenarios: Crashing and dying; crashing and living, but getting caught; crashing and surviving, but being the only one who does. Eventually, though, the bike stops tipping back and forth, the engine quieting to its usual dull hum. Cautiously, Niall raises his head and looks out ahead of them.

They’re out. What lies ahead is completely bathed in the night, apart from the small bit visible via the bike’s headlight. Niall starts counting in his head, trying to slow down his breathing. In, one, two, three, four. Hold, one, two, three, four. Out, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Several minutes later, Niall finally has his breathing back under control, and he takes notice of Zayn. He’s shaking, teeth chattering with the force of it, and when Niall reaches his hand up to Zayn’s cheek, it comes back wet.

“Zayn?” He jerks but doesn’t reply. Niall sighs, “Zayn, pull over.”

“No,” Zayn croaks. “No, we have to go. We have to keep—”

Zayn, come on,” Niall says again. Slowly, he wipes at Zayn’s cheek with his thumb, and Zayn takes in a shuddering breath. Niall continues, “You can’t even keep us going straight with how hard you’re shaking. Just… stop for a second. It won’t hurt; nothing followed us out.”

They keep moving for a second, and then with one final jerk of the handle, the bike slows to a stop. Niall hardly manages to get off before it tips over and falls to the ground with a clatter. The headlight flickers out; Niall hopes it just turns off when the bike does.

There’s a quiet, choked sob, and then Niall follows the bike to the ground, feeling around with his hands until he finds what he assumes is Zayn’s arm.

“Zayn? It’s okay, we’re safe, yeah?” Zayn only hyperventilates in response. Niall moves so he’s laying down as well, grips Zayn’s hand. “Is this okay or do you need, like, for me to back off?”

“No,” Zayn says. He’s lying just in front of and slightly below Niall, he figures, and he scoots down until he’s where he thinks they’re eye-level. “No, no, you’re— stay here. You— stay?”

“Okay,” Niall says.

They’re pretty quiet for a few minutes, Niall breathing evenly—coughing fits aside—and trying to get Zayn to do the same. Niall doesn’t know what to say. He figures just pressing himself along Zayn’s side, reassuring Zayn that he’s there and they’re both fine, is enough. Or, he hopes that it’s enough for now, at least.

“Okay,” Zayn says. “Okay, um. I can make it back, I think.”

Niall nods, even though Zayn can’t see him in the dark. Still, Zayn doesn’t move right away, so neither does Niall. As he waits for Zayn’s say-so, Niall looks up at the stars. He only knows the one constellation—the Big Dipper—and he finds it pretty quickly. He’d be impressed with himself under any other circumstance.

“You almost died.”

Heart in his throat, Niall nods against Zayn’s shoulder. Zayn grips his fingers tightly. “But I didn’t,” Niall whispers.

With a sigh, Zayn replies, “Yeah. You didn’t,” and then starts to sit up. Niall follows.

He should probably thank Zayn, Niall thinks. He should probably thank him for saving his life, and for giving him an honest life in the first place. It’d be easier in the dark, when Zayn can’t see the way he’ll no doubt flush all the way down his chest.

Things aren’t meant to be easy, though. So, he doesn’t.

Instead, he keeps his hand on Zayn’s shoulder as he gets the bike situated, lets Zayn put his helmet on again even though it’s even more of an ordeal when neither of them can see. He lets Zayn grip onto the back of his neck and press their bodies together, rubs Zayn’s back as he breathes shakily.

Deep down, Niall knows it’s for both of them.

As they ride further away from the city lights, in through the trees along a path Zayn knows by heart, Niall holds onto Zayn like his life depends on it. Because, really, Niall thinks it does.

 

****

 

“What do you mean we aren’t leaving tomorrow?”

“You heard me,” Niall says. He tries to sound authoritative, like he knows what’s best, but it isn’t coming across. Probably because he’s having issues working the can opener and refuses to let Zayn help him. “We’ll leave the day after.”

Zayn glares at him from where he’s sitting on the cot. The blanket is wrapped around him—Niall had practically rolled Zayn up in it—and his head is only partially poking out of the top. With just his nose, eyes, hair, and the tips of his ears visible, Zayn doesn’t look intimidating.

It’s hard to believe he’s the most-wanted criminal in the city.

“I’m fine, Niall—”

“The fuck you are,” Niall says. Which end goes into the can? The spiked part goes on the inside, right?

Zayn scoffs into the blanket. “I know how I feel, Niall. Don’t tell me I don’t.”

That makes Niall deflate, all the intensity draining out of him in a second. “That’s not what I meant, Zayn.”

Zayn doesn’t respond, and when Niall looks back at him, he’s looking at Niall with these huge, sad eyes.

“Don’t pout at me.”

Zayn crinkles his nose and buries himself further in the blanket. “Not pouting.”

“You are, and we’re still not leaving tomorrow. Can you at least help me, though, please?” Niall drops the can and opener on the cot, plops down on his forearms. “Can’t get this shit open.”

“Okay, city boy,” Zayn says. His arms emerge from the blanket after a brief struggle, and he opens the can easily, taking the fork Niall offers and popping a slice into his mouth.

They eat quietly, Niall watching Zayn closely. He doesn’t look fine, is the thing. Besides the fact that both of them might as well have not showered, Zayn is tense and jittery. His forehead is creased in worry and he’s been curled in on himself since he sat down.

“What’re you looking at?” Zayn asks around a peach slice.

“Someone who saved my life.” Zayn rolls his eyes and Niall sits up, leaning against the wall so they’re touching shoulders. “Seriously, Zayn. Shit’s traumatic. Especially with, like, history considered, you know?” Niall gestures vaguely in front of him. “We have what we need here. Take an extra day to rest and get our bearings.”

“I feel fine,” Zayn says again. He sounds grumpy, but Niall can tell he isn’t fighting him.

“Do it for me, then,” Niall says. He nudges Zayn’s arm with his own. “It’ll make me feel better.”

Zayn doesn’t hesitate to nod. Leaning his head on Niall’s shoulder is a bit difficult with the blanket in the way, but he manages. “Okay.”

Something releases in Niall’s torso, and he feels like he can breathe fully again. “Thank you.”

Zayn hums in acknowledgement. “Feed me, weirdo.”

“I’m sorry, I’m the weirdo? Who’s the one who lives off of canned peaches even though he has a source that can get him, like, actual meals?”

Giggling, Zayn says, “Both of us, actually. Look around, Niall.”

Niall can’t help but chuckle along with him. Without warning, he scoops up a slice and pushes it into Zayn’s open mouth. He makes a surprised noise, scrambling to catch it before it falls onto the blanket. Juice dribbles down his chin. He looks ridiculous.

As Niall busts up laughing and Zayn pretends to be angry with him, Niall feels like maybe things will be okay. Which is weird, because they both almost died just a few hours ago, but it’s true. Still, even though his life is constantly in danger and he’s going against everything he’s been taught since he was a kid, Niall knows this is where he’s meant to be. Not necessarily sitting on a cot in a shack in the middle of the woods, covered in dirt and soot, but with Zayn. With Zayn and his books and his peaches.

Zayn eventually cracks a smile at him, opens his mouth up for another slice.

 

****

 

When Niall wakes up the next morning, he only feels slightly less disgusting than he did the day before. Zayn is clinging onto him more tightly than usual, the blanket wrapped almost suffocatingly around them. It’s too warm, but Niall doesn’t dare shift.

It took significantly longer than usual for them to go to bed. Niall’s eyes were bleary, sure, but Zayn had told him quietly that he was worried the nightmares would come back worse, so they stayed up. Somehow, some time back Zayn got his hands on a deck of playing cards. Zayn taught him a few games he’d learned as a kid, like war and poker, and Niall taught a very giggly Zayn how to play go-fish. He got a kick out of it, though, so they spent a while playing it, Zayn very insistent that the ‘pond’ be even and nice-looking. Niall was all too happy to humour him, even though he ribbed him for ages about it.

When they eventually did fall asleep, Zayn did so within minutes, Niall following soon after, both too tired to think back over the day.

Taking everything else into consideration, the night wasn’t that bad.

Surprisingly, Zayn hadn’t woken him up in the night. He’s sleeping soundly with his nose jammed up unattractively against Niall’s shoulder, both arms around Niall’s torso. It’s adorable, Niall thinks. Zayn’s adorable. He probably shouldn’t be thinking about how adorable Zayn is when there are people out there trying to hunt them down and kill them, but he can’t find it in himself to care.

Zayn said something about finding things that make you happy even when everything else has gone to shit.

Zayn snuffles into Niall’s shoulder, which is gross, and Niall watches amusedly as Zayn slowly blinks his eyes open. When Zayn finally looks blearily up at him, he snorts and moves so that his chin is on Niall’s shoulder instead of his nose.

“What’re you looking at?” Zayn asks, voice gruff and low.

He bites back the urge to say something cheesy. “You have eye crusties,” Niall says instead.

Scrubbing them away with a thumb, Zayn laughs, “Gross. Thanks.”

Niall shrugs, turning to look up at the ceiling. Staring is creepy, even if you’re in this weird sort-of-platonic relationship that involves spooning each other to sleep. The fond emotions bubbling around in his stomach aren’t a factor.

“Watch what you say or you’ll be back with Louis once we get to the house.”

There’s a smack at Niall’s chest, and then Zayn’s all up in his face. “You know what? I don’t think you’d do that.”

He’s looking at Niall knowingly, eyebrows raised. His hand is still resting over Niall’s ribs, warm through the fabric of his shirt. The blanket has dropped off of them a bit, more loose around their torsos, but Niall feels warmer than he did a minute ago.

“You don’t think so?”

Zayn shakes his head. “Nah. I wouldn’t want you to either. Kinda like you, you know.”

It takes a moment, with Niall staring at Zayn and Zayn looking earnestly back at him, but the words finally process, and he blurts out a quiet oh. Zayn raises his eyebrows at him, clearly amused. They just woke up, in Niall’s defense; he wants to physically shake himself so he can be more present, so he can properly take this in like he wants to.

“You… oh?”

“Take your time,” Zayn says, rolling his eyes. He falls back down onto Niall’s chest, head hitting his collarbone. “We have the whole day, you said.”

“Sorry,” Niall laughs. “Like, just wasn’t expecting it.”

Zayn’s eye roll is practically audible. “We have all day,” he says again.

“Forward,” Niall says.

Zayn just shrugs. “We almost died yesterday, you know. Don’t really feel like keeping a crush to myself, like. Feels like a waste of time to just… not tell you how I’m feeling.”

There’s another long pause—Niall still rolling Zayn’s words around in his head, trying to think of a coherent response, one that Zayn deserves—before Zayn speaks again. “You don’t have to say anything back. I mean, um, I just thought maybe you felt the same? Unless I’m, like, really wrong.”

“No! No, no,” Niall says. Zayn’s pulling back from him, and Niall scrambles to grab onto his hand and keep him close. “You’re not wrong. I’m just— aren’t you supposed to be incoherent in the morning? What the fuck, Zayn. You have to give me a second.”

Zayn laughs. “Sorry, I’ll be less eloquent next time.”

“There isn’t going to be a next time, weirdo,” Niall says. “You were already eloquent and the sun is barely up by the looks of it. I’m, like, not sure who you are anymore.”

“Weirdo,” Zayn repeats back at him, leaning up again. Niall keeps looking up at the ceiling, but he can see Zayn’s face peeking up at him out of the corner of his eye. His heart is pounding hard, and Zayn can probably feel it. God.

“I like weirdos, though,” Niall says. “Weirdos are, uh. Good. You’re good.”

Zayn just leans in closer, Niall going cross eyed a bit trying to look at him. “I’m flattered. You’re good, too.”

And then Zayn kisses him. Still a bit grimy, still a bit sooty, and still in a shitty, shitty situation, Niall kisses him back. Zayn sways a bit to the side, fingers clutching at Niall’s shirt as he tries to keep balance. Their noses knock together, and Niall snorts a bit trying to stifle his laugh.

“God, can you not laugh for like two seconds?” Zayn says, but he’s giggling, too. “Trying to get situated here.”

Niall pushes lightly at Zayn’s shoulders before folding his arms behind his head. Zayn’s nose scrunches up at that, and Niall swallows down another laugh. “Situate away, then.”

“Asshole.”

Zayn flops back onto his side of the cot. It takes some tugging at the blanket, but Zayn finally manages to detangle them both, with the blanket ultimately being kicked down to the end of the cot. Niall just watches him, takes note of the way Zayn huffs and furrows his eyebrows, tries not to look too fond. A minute later Zayn’s hauling himself back up, settling with a knee on either side of Niall’s torso.

“Scooch up,” Zayn says, hand patting uselessly at Niall’s stomach.

“You’re so picky,” Niall says. He’s more endeared than anything, but he pinches Zayn’s side in protest anyways.

Once they’re both where Zayn wants them, he settles his weight down on Niall’s lap. He goes to lean in again, but—

“It’s weird, right,” Niall starts, pauses to think of the right words to explain the feelings swirling around behind his ribcage. Zayn pauses with his eyebrows raised, looking mildly exasperated but very amused. Fuck, Niall should have thought of what to say before he started talking.

“Super weird. We went over this,” Zayn says. His expression is encouraging, though; Niall doesn’t think Zayn’s ever shut him down before, so there’s no reason why he’d start now.

“It’s just, like, I didn’t think this would happen. Like with all the bullshit going on, I didn’t think I’d find someone who makes me happy this way and get to be with them, too,” Niall continues. Just because he knows he can, he moves one of his hands from Zayn’s waist and thumbs at his collarbone instead. There’s ink there, a tattoo in another language that Niall’s always been curious about. He’ll ask about it one day.

Zayn nods, doesn’t reply. Waiting for Niall to say more, probably. Thinking about it, though, Niall doesn’t have anything to add. Or, nothing to add that’s more important than kissing Zayn. Which, like, why the fuck did he stop that, anyway?

“I like you.”

Zayn laughs. “I like you, too. Already told you that but, like, for the record. Anything else?”

“Nah, that’s all.” Niall says. “So, like, we can continue with the, uh, yeah.”

“‘The, uh, yeah.’” Zayn snorts. “Don’t know what that is, actually, Niall. You’ll have to, like, remind me.”

“Don’t think that’ll be a problem.”

Zayn smiles right into the kiss this time, teeth catching on Niall’s lip. He feels warm all over, the tension in his body subsiding the longer Zayn kisses him. It’s just easy, in a way that nothing that’s been happening lately has been. He can’t help but pull Zayn closer, wrap his arms around his waist and lose himself in Zayn’s warmth.

 

****

 

“You all right?”

Niall uses his free hand to cup Zayn’s face and tilt it up so he can get a good look at him. Zayn’s expression is scrunched, and he looks like he’s trying to get his bearings. Niall gently runs his thumb over his cheekbone, under his eyes where the skin is more delicate. Hopefully it’s soothing.

“Yeah, yeah,” Zayn says. “It’s like— a lot, yeah, but not bad, y’know. Another is fine, just give me a sec.”

Leaning his cheek into Niall’s palm, Zayn lets out a few deep breaths. It’s only a few moments before he presses a kiss there then nods. Niall stretches his neck until Zayn gets the hint and lowers himself down so Niall can kiss at his nose, then his cheek, then finally his lips. Zayn shifts and makes a quiet, uncomfortable-sounding noise. Niall kisses him again in an apology, ignores the way his wrist is cramping up a bit.

“I’m, good, Ni,” Zayn says. He shifts again, pushing back before making a face when Niall pulls his hand back. Niall pats his free hand on Zayn’s hip, and Zayn sticks his tongue out at Niall in response. “Aw, gross. C’mon, then.”

It takes them a few minutes, Zayn moving slowly and Niall staying perfectly still, holding his breath. Eventually, Niall smooths over the wrinkles in between Zayn’s eyebrows and they stay that way. Zayn lets out a shaky laugh and drops his head down so that his nose hits Niall’s collarbone, poorly stifling his giggles with one hand. When he pitches a bit to the left, Niall can’t help the noise that punches out of him.

Zayn—”

“Sorry, sorry,” Zayn says, taking his hand away so he can hold himself up properly again. “I’m just like, thinking about Liam putting this in our bag of stuff to take home and like—”

“You’re thinking about Liam?” Niall scoffs, pretending to be offended, but it doesn’t work when he can feel the smile tugging on his lips. “I thought you liked me, though. Also, how did you know how to do this, again?”

“Imagine if we didn’t find it, though, and, like, Louis or Harry unpacked it. He could have packed another can of peaches or something.” Zayn laughs again, this time louder, more freely. “And I’ve read books about this, like. It isn’t hard to figure out, like— Shut up.”

Zayn looks flustered, and Niall giggles at him, notices that his own body is warm all over as well. Not like he’s overheating, but like he’s spent the day out in the sun. And Zayn mentioning the other boys should kill the mood, he thinks, but somehow it doesn’t, really. As long as Zayn is smiling, Niall finds that he’s quite happy to continue.

“Louis and Harry unpacking it would be the most gross. Stop thinking about your friends, Z,” Niall laughs, deciding to drop the subject of how Zayn got this knowledge, even though it makes him flush a deep red that Niall wants to kiss off of him. Which he can do now, so— “C’mere. Wanna kiss you.”

Zayn makes a happy humming noise, props himself up on Niall’s chest so he can connect their lips again. Still, he doesn’t stop giggling, shifting and trailing his fingers along Niall’s jaw. It makes Niall feel a bit desperate, and he has to reach his hands up and grip tightly at Zayn’s hips to get him to stop so he can take a breath.

“And uh,” Niall starts, pulling away only enough so that he can speak clearly. “Not that I’m opposed to you laughing, because it’s my favourite thing, but don’t expect this to last that long, like...”

Zayn just laughs again with his whole body, then laughs harder at the face Niall makes. “Sorry, sorry,” he says, breathing deeply a few times until he gets his bearings again. He looks quietly proud of himself.

With a bit more intensity than the rest of this endeavor has had, Niall manages to flip them so Zayn is the one pinned to the tiny cot instead of the other way around. They almost fly off the side of it but somehow manage to stay on. He presses himself forward, watching as Zayn’s slightly smug expression falls away immediately and his head drops back onto the pillow.

That, yeah,” Zayn says. His fingernails press crescent moons into Niall’s forearm.

“Not so smug now,” Niall says, kissing lightly at Zayn’s shoulder before pulling back again.

Zayn’s face scrunches up in what Niall assumes is supposed to be a grumpy look but is failing and instead just looks amused. Is it appropriate for Niall to tell him he looks adorable? “I’m fine with that, just keep—”

Niall cuts him off again, kissing Zayn hard as his fingers tighten on Niall’s arm. Zayn makes another noise, parting his lips so Niall can bite at them gently before licking slowly into his mouth. Zayn tastes sweet, like the peaches they had for breakfast.

“Tickles,” Zayn mumbles, Niall’s tongue tracing behind his teeth. Zayn lets out a content sigh, moves his hands so he’s cupping Niall’s face in his hands. Something about how gentle and soft he is makes Niall want to tear the entire world apart, try to piece it back together into one that’s kinder. Instead, he just does what he can, tries to convey all the emotions he’s feeling into this, tries to make it as good as he can.

Zayn stills, holding tightly onto Niall with his nails digging into his back and biting gently at Niall’s shoulder. Niall tries to stay steady, but Zayn’s blinking dazedly up at him and gently running his fingers through Niall’s hair, pushing it out of his eyes. Using his grip, he pulls Niall back into another kiss, murmuring, “c’mon, Ni,” into his mouth.

Niall’s collapses with his face in Zayn’s neck, presses soft kisses there because he can. It feels like sunshine is simmering just under his skin. As their heartbeats finally slow down, Zayn is quiet except for the happy content noises he keeps making in the back of his throat. It takes a minute, but they resituate so Zayn is tucked into Niall’s side and pull the blankets back up over them, and Niall takes a few moments to drink in this moment. Out of everything in his life that’s been royally fucked up, this is one of the few things he got right.

 

****

 

Harry and Louis are waiting up for them when they get home. Before they can even properly get inside the house, Louis comes careening around the corner and smacks Zayn hard in the arm.

“You fucking dick. You were supposed to be home yesterday,” Louis says. Harshly, but Niall sees it for the worry it is, now. “We set schedules for a reason, Zayn. Food runs take two days, not three. Stupid fucker. Fuck you.”

At this point, Louis has already pulled Zayn into a hug, squeezing him so hard that his shoulder blades almost meet in the middle of his back. Niall’s too busy swimming in his own guilt that he doesn’t notice Harry walk up to him.

“We were really worried, is what Louis means,” Harry says, arms wrapping around Niall’s shoulders almost one and a half times, face half-shoved into Niall’s own. “We’re glad you guys are home.”

He cut his hair short in the almost four days they were gone. It curls around his ears but still manages to tickle at Niall’s nose. “We?” Niall asks, eyes flickering over to Louis and then back at Harry. It’s weird to imagine Louis worrying about him. “Like, both of you missed both of us?”

“Of course!” Harry says. He sounds offended that Niall would ask. As if Louis hasn’t made his distaste for an extra body living in the house painfully clear since Niall first showed up. “He, like, shows that he cares differently, I swear. He was freaking out all night,” Harry continues in a poor attempt at a whisper.

Louis snorts from where he’s still apparently trying to break Zayn. “Can hear you, you know. Stop telling people I’m nice, liar,” he snaps. He looks at Niall for a split second, but looks away again before Niall can figure out what emotion he’s displaying.

Rolling his eyes, Harry ushers them all inside, wingspan big enough that he can without any issue. Louis still has a death grip on Zayn, but on his wrist this time, like he’s scared Zayn will wander too far. Zayn reaches his free hand back, and Niall grabs it without thinking.

This is kind of symbolic, Niall thinks. Probably because he’s been reading.

“Have you eaten anything but peaches over the past few days, Zayn? What did we tell you about that?” Harry sighs, hopping forward so he can wrap an arm around Zayn’s shoulders. They’re all connected somehow, now. “You need, like, protein.”

“Stupid,” Louis snorts.

“I know,” Zayn says, “But—”

“We had, um, some trail mix,” Niall pipes in, trying not to look at Louis. It’d look like he was looking for approval, or something. Probably. “Like, in between the peaches, but still.”

Louis turns to look at Niall. They’re sort of dispersing, now, since they’ve made their way into the main room. Harry’s moved into the kitchen, opening cupboards, rummaging around and generally making a mess. Zayn is still watching Niall and Louis, but goes to set his bags down, some by the bed and some by the fridge.

“Why were you guys late?” Louis asks. It’s directed at both Niall and Zayn, but Louis is just staring him down, eyes narrowed. “We have an agreement, you know. Like, if Zayn doesn’t come home on time we assume he’s captured or dead.”

With his head still buried in a cupboard, Harry makes a startled, stressed noise. He bangs his head on the door of it as he yanks his head out. “Jesus, Lou. Zayn’s been late coming home before. He has a one day grace period.”

Louis’ glare looks murderous as he turns it on Harry, but Harry just turns and opens up the fridge, starting to put away some of the things Liam had vacuum-sealed for them.

“Still. There has to be an explanation,” Louis snaps, looking back to Niall. Niall wishes he could phase through the floor. His face is burning.

Zayn’s hand on his shoulder makes Niall jump, but sets him at ease—like Zayn does in most situations, now that he thinks about it. “It’s long. But, like, the jist is that Niall almost died. And I almost died. So we took a day to recoup. You can back off a bit, yeah?” Zayn’s rubbing up and down the top of Niall’s arm, and it makes him feel slightly better, though Louis still looks like he wants to shoot daggers at Niall from his eyes.

“Okay,” Louis says, getting only slightly less intense when he looks over at Zayn. “Sorry— just, like. Yeah.”

“I know,” Zayn says gently. “Yeah.”

Niall watches their interaction, sees the anger rush out of Louis like water down a drain. Only Zayn can really calm him down like that, it looks like. It didn’t really occur to Niall that Louis needed Zayn just like Zayn needed Louis, but it clicks now.

“It’s— Sorry,” Louis says again, waving his hand before going to sit down at the kitchen table. “Let’s eat, yeah?”

Zayn turns to Niall, tugs lightly at Niall’s arm until he relaxes. “He’s just overprotective,” Zayn whispers to him. Actually whispers, though, unlike Harry. “He’ll be fine in a few minutes.”

“Yeah, I know,” Niall says. “I get it. You care about each other.”

Niall looks over at Zayn, and he looks happy. “Yeah. And we care about you, too.”

 

****

 

“You’ll have to be more careful next time,” Louis is saying, pacing back and forth along the small strip of floor that’s not underneath a stack of books or blankets. “No more going anywhere but to Liam’s place and the storage room. Don’t stay at the storage for longer than, like, ten minutes, tops. And leave Liam’s at least an hour before sunrise.”

Zayn nods along with him, but he’s definitely not paying attention. His left leg is draped over Niall’s right, and his thumb is tracing the veins in Niall’s wrist. Really, Louis doesn’t need to be giving Zayn and Niall a lecture about being more safe from now on. They’re both still shaken, but Niall keeps his mouth shut as Louis rambles on, for the sake of his wellbeing while they’re gone if nothing else.

“And you’re not going back to the storage for a while. You can go to Liam’s for supplies but no new books for a few months,” Louis continues. Unbeknownst to Louis, Harry has fallen asleep behind him, mouth open, breathing like he’s going to start snoring soon. “You have enough to sort here, anyways. Slacker.”

Pausing, Louis stares ahead at the wall. His eyes have gone a bit glassy.

“Okay,” Zayn says quietly. He leans to the side a bit, just to get into Louis’ peripheral.

Louis snaps out of it, looks over to Harry on his bed and then back to Zayn and Niall where they’re sitting on Niall’s bed of blankets. They’re both leaning on each other just to stay upright. Louis puffs out a breath.

“Right. Um, let’s just get to sleep,” Louis sighs. He rubs harshly at his face, stands there for a second with his palms just resting over his eyes.

Nudging at Niall’s shoulder to get him to shift, Zayn gets up and walks over to where Louis is standing. Through the tiredness blurring his vision, Niall watches as Zayn gently tugs Louis’ hands away from his face and then hugs him, murmuring something Niall can’t make out into his hair. After a few moments, Louis relaxes, breathing out heavily before pulling away.

“You coming to bed soon?” Louis asks. He’s rubbing at his eyes a bit like he was crying, but it could just be how tired they all are.

As his words finally process, Niall jerks up straighter, blinking his eyes in an attempt to make them look less droopy. Like he needs to look like he has the ability to comfort Zayn as he sleeps.

“Um,” Zayn glances back at Niall, then turns to look at Louis again. “I’m, um, staying with Niall tonight, if that’s okay?”

He phrases it like a question, and Louis practically scoffs. “You don’t have to ask me, Zayn. It’s fine. Did you want the bed?”

“No, no,” Zayn replies. “We’ll just take the floor, like. Get some more blankets or something.”

Louis looks over at Niall, and his expression is far less hateful than any other look Louis has given him. “Yeah, I’ll grab some.”

Sighing deeply, Niall flops back onto his bed of blankets. Anxiety has been simmering under his skin since they left his mom’s place, but the longer he’s at the main house, surrounded by more people, the safer he feels and the more it begins to subside. Still, though, worry for his mom prods at his mind, and while he feels safe, there’s no way for him to know if she is.

A blanket is laid out over him, and Niall startles from his thoughts—that were slowly but surely starting to spiral—to look up at Zayn, where he’s plopped down beside him. He’s frowning at Niall, and he reaches over to thumb at Niall’s cheeks. He hadn’t realized he’d started crying.

“What are you thinking about?” Zayn asks, hardly a whisper.

Niall snuffles, focuses on the warmth of Zayn’s palm on his cheek in an attempt to center himself. “My mom.”

Zayn hums quietly. Carefully, he arranges another blanket on top of them both and tucks himself in next to Niall. “Do you think your brother let something happen to her?”

“I don’t know,” Niall says. Zayn grabs his hand and holds it to his chest. His heart beats against the back of Niall’s palm. “I mean, he’s very serious about his work, so I can see why he’d rat me out. Maybe, like, before I could say that he wouldn’t ever put our mom in harm’s way but… I don’t know him anymore.”

“Well, she didn’t even know we were coming, and the government probably knows that,” Zayn says slowly. “And since she has ties to your brother, she’s probably safe.”

Swallowing down the lump in his throat, Niall nods. Carefully, Zayn arranges them so his head is on Niall’s chest and their joined hands are pressed in between their chests, where their hearts are. Zayn’s hair tickles at his neck but he doesn’t mention it, just tries to press them closer together. He gets it now, how the closeness soothes Zayn’s mind. Though he wishes neither of them had be calmed down from the spirals their thoughts go down.

“We’ll try to find her,” Zayn says into Niall’s collarbone. “I’m sorry, Niall.”

“It isn’t your fault,” Niall says back. It’s said quietly and into Zayn’s hair, so he isn’t sure if Zayn heard him, but Zayn presses his lips to Niall’s neck like he knows, and they both fall asleep like that to the sounds of Louis shifting and Harry snoring.

 

****

 

“C’mon, Ni,” Zayn says. “We have to leave soon if we want to get to the halfway house by sundown.”

Niall adjusts the straps of his backpack, breathing deeply in through his nose. “Yeah, yeah.”

Predictably, Zayn stops tying his laces to walk over to where Niall is standing a few feet back from the door. One shoe on, he cups Niall’s cheek in his palm, skates his thumb lightly over the skin under Niall’s eye.

“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, you know that, right?” Zayn murmurs. “I won’t be mad. I’m fine if you’re not ready yet.”

Niall sighs, tips his head so their noses knock together. Zayn moves his hand to the back of Niall’s neck when he nods.

“Yeah, just, um. Give me a minute? I’m not—” Niall cuts himself off. His thoughts are jumbled, and his emotions feel like they’re tangled together in a knot in his stomach. It’s difficult to pick them apart, figure out if he’s in any state to get on the back of Zayn’s bike.

“Of course,” Zayn says. He presses their lips together softly, warmth flooding through Niall’s middle and making his fingers tingle.

It’d be so easy to just pull Zayn into him by the open ends of his flannel shirt, make some weird loud noises until Zayn is laughing and Louis spontaneously decides that he needs to tend to the garden and drags Harry outside with him. All Niall wants to do is lose himself in the feeling of Zayn’s tongue dragging against his, Zayn’s fingers gently tugging at the ends of Niall’s hair, Zayn in general.

But the world they live in isn’t one where they can do that for very long. And they’re running low on supplies, having skipped going into town two weeks ago in order to stay off the government’s radar.

“You aren’t helping me think,” Niall says into Zayn’s mouth. Zayn laughs softly, and Niall leans into it, tries to taste it, catch some of Zayn’s quiet confidence and use it to spur himself into being brave.

“Sorry,” Zayn says, sounding very obviously not sorry at all. He pulls back breathlessly, pecks Niall’s lips once more before going back to tying his shoes.

Niall turns away from the door, wanders slowly into the kitchen and sits down at the dining table. His heart's still racing, both because of Zayn and because of what’s to come, and he traces his fingers along the twisty lines of the wooden table in vain attempts to calm himself.

Really, he doesn’t know how Zayn can go back into town so easily, so quickly after what happened. It’s been a month, sure, but they still occasionally wake up in jolts, covered in sweat with the other gently shaking their shoulder. Though Niall supposes Zayn has already had to get back up from a traumatic situation and face it head on again, it makes him swell in admiration to see how Zayn consistently gets knocked down, yet always gets back up again. He hasn’t quite figured out how to do the same.

“Hey, Niall?”

Niall’s nail scrapes the table as he’s startled out of his spinning thoughts. He looks up at Louis, where he’s standing across from him, hands clasping and unclasping repeatedly. Anxiously.

“Yeah?”

“I, uh, have something to show you? Before you go. If you go, I mean? Not to say that I think you won’t, but—”

“Sure, Louis,” Niall says. It’s weird seeing Louis so anxious, and even weirder seeing him look vulnerable while talking to Niall. Usually any and all softness is reserved for Zayn, and sometimes Harry, albeit in different manifestations.

Louis nods, and then heads towards the computer. Before Niall even makes it to stand behind the chair Louis has clicked and typed a million different things. It only takes a few seconds before Louis is clicking on a video file.

“So, uh. This clip is from today. I just saved it like a few hours ago while you and Z were packing up,” Louis says. He leans back so he’s not an inch away from the computer screen anymore, but still looks fidgety. “And I wanted to show you right away, but I also, like, wanted to make sure I was right so that I didn’t give you false hope or anything. Because that’d be, like, crushing. But I looked through the old security tapes and traced it back to your house...”

He trails off and looks back at Niall.

“That’s her, right?”

And Niall can hardly see anymore through the tears in his eyes, but the woman bustling around in a kitchen is definitely his mom. The security shot is inside the room, because of course Greg would put security cameras in his own home, but Niall would know her anywhere. The ugly, chipped, handmade mug in her hands is what finally breaks the dam, sends big tears running down his cheeks. There must be some good left in his brother, at least, if he let her go back for it, and it makes Niall’s shoulders sag in relief.

“Yeah,” Niall says, once he feels like he can speak. “Yeah, it is. Oh my God, Louis.”

Louis relaxes instantly, exhaling deeply and leaning back in his chair. Now, Niall notices the exhaustion in his features, the bags under his eyes. All of them pretty much look tired all the time, but Niall had thought Louis was just a bit more tired due to the increased number of security watches he was taking. He didn’t realize he was doing more than just watching the tapes.

“Zayn told me to keep an eye out, told me you were worried about her. But, like, I’ve been a bit of a dick, so…” Louis lets his words hang, shrugs a bit in lieu of finishing.

“Thank you,” Niall says. He’s still crying, fat ugly tears, of course, but still Louis looks up at him and smiles. Carefully, he stands up, opens his arms out to Niall in an offering.

“Friends, yeah?”

It’s like something in Niall finally unclenches, leaving his heart aching a bit, but it feels like a good stretch would. Like something he needed. So he steps into Louis’ arms without a second thought, buries his face in Louis’ shoulder. It’s comforting, actually, and he gets why Zayn always slept with him.

“Of course, Lou.”

After a few pats on the back, Louis pulls back, gives him a nod, then goes back to clicking through the different security footage he has pulled up.

Niall isn’t left alone for long though, as it’s become during the last few months of living with the boys. The arms that wrap around him from behind are long, and he feels a weight on his back that’s distinctly Harry.

“I’m glad Louis found your mom,” Harry says into Niall’s ear. “Just glad everything’s okay.”

“Well, not everything is okay,” Niall says. “But, like, there are some good things, and this is one.”

Harry’s inquisitive hum buzzes Niall’s earlobe, and he jerks away. Laughing, Harry asks, “What are some other ones?” He’s grinning like he knows the answer, but he wants to hear it anyways.

Niall makes a sweeping gesture with his arms, meaning books, Harry, Louis, his new life, Zayn, Zayn, Zayn. It seems to make sense to Harry, as his expression softens, and he tugs Niall into another short hug, this time punctuated by a loud kiss to Niall’s temple.

“Don’t mean to interrupt, but, um.” Harry pulls away from Niall fully, raising his hands up in surrender. Zayn just snorts, rolls his eyes and continues. “If we’re going to leave we have to leave, like, soon. And I mean that like we should have left ten minutes ago but we can cut one bathroom stop.”

Nodding, Niall squeezes Harry’s shoulder and heads over to where Zayn’s standing near the doorway.

“So, um, what do you think?” Zayn asks.

Niall knows he’d be endlessly understanding if he decided not to go, would hurry home and smother Niall in hugs and kisses once he gets back. But his mom is okay, and that gives Niall the little push he needs.

“We’re in this together,” Niall says, surprised when his voice comes out clear and sure. “Louis found my mom and— and I want to come with you. We’re a duo now, whether you like it or not.”

His tone is joking, but Zayn looks at him fondly, looking all soft and endearing. Niall wants to, like, bundle him up and keep all the bad things in the world away from him. And he’s pretty sure Zayn wants to do the same with him.

“I like it.” Zayn says quietly. “Like, we make a good team.”

“Yeah, we do. In other things, too,” Niall says, not able to stop his face from breaking into a grin even if he wanted to.

Softly, Zayn presses his lips to Niall’s, though he mostly gets teeth, so he chuckles, shifts so he can get a better angle. It’s almost enough to make Niall forget about the danger he’s willingly putting himself into. It’s the least worried he’s been about going into the city since he left with Zayn in the first place.

Zayn makes a noise like he knows Niall’s thoughts are drifting, and he presses closer. Niall sucks on his tongue to placate him, which only results in Zayn getting louder.

“Gross!” Louis yells from the computer desk. “Get a room, or go outside, or something.”

“Outside, please, since you have to go out anyways,” Harry says, laughter in his voice.

Niall pulls back regretfully, but Zayn is still smiling softly at him. It’s something special, Niall thinks, to have these boys in his life that he knows will always have his back. He can face anything as long as that’s true.

He’s pretty happy with his life, all things considered.

And Zayn, of course, steady and encouraging, looks at Niall like he’s the most amazing thing he’s ever seen. He drops his hands from where they were in Niall’s hair, takes one of Niall’s hands instead. Maybe one day Niall will be able to perfectly commit the feeling to memory.

“Shall we?”