It’s honestly not Zayn’s fault Liam gets himself stuck in the Underworld.
Like -- yes, fine, Zayn was the one who listened to Louis and abducted Liam in the first place. Louis is a trickster and Zayn should have known better, but he still went ahead and hitched his four horses, black as night and shining like diamonds, to the chariot and everything, just to make sure the Olympians understood he wasn’t kidding. He’d rather have just gone on his skateboard, but apparently they find that kind of thing frivolous on Olympus. They call all their pomp and circumstance “honoring traditions”; Zayn calls it fucking obnoxious.
Not the point.
The point is, Zayn may have styled his hair as high as it could go and put on his least-ripped pair of black skinny jeans and his most badass leather jacket and ridden his chariot miles and miles Upward until he could pull away the ground under Liam’s feet and snatch him away in a scene so epic they’d better write some fucking poems about it, but the rest is Liam’s fault. Zayn was totally going to give Liam back, this whole thing was just to make the Olympians pay attention. But --
“Wicked!” Liam exclaims, as Zayn cracks the reins and the four horses, black as night and shining like diamonds, execute a gorgeous U-turn and plunge furiously back into the Depths Below. Zayn had expected Liam to do more -- or, well, at least some -- kicking and screaming, but once the other boy finds his feet in the chariot all he does is put his chin on Zayn’s shoulder and his arms around Zayn’s waist and yell like he’s on a rollercoaster.
“You all right?” Zayn asks awkwardly.
“This is brilliant!” Liam says. The stubble on his cheek catches on Zayn’s as he laughs. “Better than a motorbike!”
Zayn actually has a motorbike. It’s in the shed next to the stables where he keeps the four horses, black as night and blah blah blah. He scowls at the sudden impulse to sell the bike on eBay and buy another chariot instead, maybe a faster one to see if he can make Liam hold onto him tighter.
The chariot lands with a bone-rattling crash on the barren bank of the River Acheron. The grey ephemeral souls of the dead, milling around in a disorganized crowd by the ferry dock, cower away. Liam whoops as Zayn drives straight into the water, which boils ominously around the chariot wheels and the hooves of the four horses. Zayn lifts a hand to Niall, who waves back cheerily from his kayak in the middle of the river where, judging by the takeaway plate of falafel in his lap, he’s enjoying his lunch break. Liam, the idiot, lets go of Zayn with one arm to wave too. “No,” Zayn snaps, grabbing Liam by the wrist to pull his arm back around Zayn’s waist where it belongs. “Do you have any idea how fast we’re going? You’ll fall off backwards or something.”
“Sorry,” Liam says. Out of the corner of his eye, Zayn can see him stick out his bottom lip repentantly. “I didn’t realize.”
“Yeah, well,” Zayn says, as the four horses, still black but sort of muddy and not at all shining now, stampede up onto the far side of the dread river. Their hooves strike the bank so hard they leave smoking prints behind in the clay. The chariot wheels leave no tracks at all. “Just hold on, will you?”
Liam holds on. His hands are fucking huge. Zayn can feel the heat of them through his T-shirt. Irritated, he gestures the Gates of the Dark Realm open. Cerberus, standing guard faithfully outside the Gates, howls an eerie greeting at the chariot. Probably he’s overdue for some exercise; Waliyha was supposed to take him with her on her morning run through Erebus today, but the last time she did that she let him drink out of the River Lethe and he forgot years’ and years’ worth of his training, so maybe it’s for the best. “Aw,” Liam croons as all three of Cerberus’ heads bare rows of jagged teeth when the chariot thunders through the Gates. “A puppy! How long have you had him?”
* * *
Zayn leaves Liam in the Cavern of the Ebony Throne with a stern “Stay!” while he lets some minions sort out how to pivot the chariot back into the garage. He goes to stable and rub down the four horses, brown with dust and dark with sweat, with his own hands. He’s not a little dusty and sweaty himself, not to mention smelling strongly of horse, by the time he’s done, so he detours for a shower. Afterward he skateboards back to the Cavern down the corridors of the Palace Formerly Known as Hades -- he’d tried to rename it Zayn Palace when he was crowned, but Mum rolled her eyes and now nobody will call it that -- and comes to a sweet stop at the foot of the Ebony Throne. Liam’s sitting in it crosslegged, playing Tetris on his phone.
“Did you know, I get better service down here than I usually do at home?” Liam says cheerfully. “Look, four bars!” He brandishes his iPhone in Zayn’s direction. “Though there’s a lot of wifi networks, I wasn’t sure which was yours.”
“Look,” Zayn says, “so I’m sorry I abducted you and that.”
“Don’t worry about it, mate,” Liam says.
“It’s not permanent or anything,” Zayn explains, “it’s just the Olympians have been pains in the arse recently, I have to send in a petition every time I want to take my sisters to the Land of the Living and I can’t even get an audience in Olympus, so my mate Louis thought it might get their attention if I kidnapped somebody important to them.”
Liam laughs. His eyes go all squinty and his smile is gigantic. Zayn kind of wants to put a paper bag over his head for his own peace of mind. Zayn’s the Lord of the Underworld, probably he could make that happen. “Good luck, honest, but I think you’ll be waiting a while.”
“Why? I thought you were a son of the Thunder God!”
“I am, but…” Liam shrugs. “He’s got a lot of illegitimate kids, and I don’t think he cares much about most of us. I petitioned to visit Olympus a few years ago, and he came down and sat in my mum and dad’s parlor and told me to apply again when I’d grown up a little.”
Liam shakes his head. Even when his smile is self-deprecating it’s beautiful. “Nah, it’s all right. Gave me a chance to finish college, didn’t it? What would I do with myself sitting up there in the clouds anyway? Although,” he adds thoughtfully, “maybe I’d have met you sooner.”
If Louis were the one to say that, Zayn would know he was being sarcastic and could snipe something back. With Liam, though, he’s not sure. He’s pretty sure Liam means it, which is… weird. “Maybe not,” he says cautiously. “I don’t go Above much, especially not all the way up to Olympus.”
“Lord of the Underworld, I guess you wouldn’t,” Liam says. “Anyway, what I mean to say is, they probably won’t notice you up there unless you do something drastic like find a way to keep me down here forever. Taking me on a cool field trip for a day isn’t going to do it.”
Zayn raises an eyebrow. “You’re new to this being-a-hostage business, aren’t you?”
“What gave it away?” Liam asks, beaming.
* * *
Zayn spends the night trying to think of other options, because it really wouldn’t be cool of him, would it, trapping Liam in the Depths Below forever? Guileless Liam, child of the Land of the Living, heir to -- well, not Thunder itself, probably -- but something of Simon’s, with his human mum and adoptive dad besides, sentenced to eternity with Zayn in the Dark Realm… that’d hardly be fair. Liam with his warm smile and hot hands, across the dinner table from Zayn that evening, asking “So is this pomegranate juice?” as he lifted his opal-encrusted goblet of wine to his lips, doesn’t deserve to be stuck haunting the Underworld. It’s not right.
In the morning, Zayn takes Cerberus for a run and, once they’re filthy and panting, washes them both clean in the flames of the River Phlegethon. He leaves the dog drooling happily at the Gates of the Dark Realm with an affectionate “Guard!” and, still dripping little tongues of fire from his fringe, trudges up the Eternal Stairs of the Palace Formerly Known as Hades to meet Liam for breakfast. He doesn’t like to see Liam again without having made some sort of decision, but there’s nothing to be done about it at the moment. Hopefully something will occur to him soon.
Of course all of that is rendered moot when Zayn slips into the Cavern of the Ebony Throne to find Liam perched on a stool at the breakfast nook, messily eating a pomegranate.
Liam’s cradling the remaining half of the fruit in his left hand, and there’s juice everywhere, splattered on his forearms and on his Kanye T-shirt and on the remains of his toast and eggs. He’s picking the seeds from the flesh of the fruit with his right hand, fingers and palm and mouth glistening red red red, and his smile when he looks up and sees Zayn is triumphant. “Morning,” he says.
“Hey,” Zayn says, walking warily closer. “Um, Liam… where’d you get that fruit?”
Liam shrugs. “I was feeling peckish this morning, asked around.”
“Right, but -- but who gave it to you? Who told you it was all right to eat?”
“I ran into one of my mates in the kitchens,” Liam says. “Look, does it really matter who gave me it?”
“Well, yeah,” Zayn says, “considering they’ve, like, damned you to eons in the Dark Realm with me. Who do you know that you’d run into in my kitchens?”
“Harry?” Liam says, but like he’s asking, not answering. He eats a few more pomegranate seeds like he hasn’t just been given life-endingly terrible news. “Styles? He’s one of them love gods, sort of goes where he wants. He’d told me he’d got a job baking, but forgot to mention where exactly. Wasn’t I surprised when I found him here!”
“And you’re not upset that a ‘friend’ of yours didn’t stop you from eating that fruit, when he must have known better?”
“Zayn,” Liam says patiently, “I knew better.”
“You -- what?”
“I knew what eating the fruit would do. Everybody knows. If you meant for it to be a secret you haven’t kept it very well.”
“I figure,” Liam says, putting his gutted pomegranate down and wiping his hands with the handkerchief dangling from his back jeans pocket, “we both need the Olympians to take us more seriously, and this is the best way to do it. Simon will see you’re not playing around with this Lord of the Underworld business, and maybe he’ll, like. Work out a visiting schedule with me or something now that I don’t belong to the Land of the Living anymore.”
Zayn sighs. “Right, but Liam, I wish you’d talked to me first, you know? You don’t have any choices now. You might as well have signed a contract in blood saying you’re mine to keep.”
“I know,” Liam says, and then, slowly: “This is my choice, Zayn. I choose here.” It’s hard to tell in the gloom of the Cavern of the Ebony Throne, but Zayn is pretty sure the tips of Liam’s ears are blushing. “I choose here, with you.”
“You, um.” Zayn clears his throat. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. “You do?”
“I like it here!” Liam says, gesturing around. Zayn doesn’t know if he means he likes the slim dark Ebony Throne, the seat of which is elevated enough that Zayn needs a little sculpted stepladder to reach it, and the back of which teeters higher and higher til the very top is lost in the fog that obscures the Cavern’s ceiling; or if he means the entire Palace Formerly Known as Hades in all its sprawling, looming, lurking glory, with its wide endless corridors and its rough walls covered in Zayn’s graffiti; or if he means the Underworld itself, and Zayn as its King. Zayn’s not sure what to say in any case. Most of the people from the Land of the Living who come down here do lots of wailing and rending of garments, but here’s Liam up to his elbows in pomegranate juice saying he likes it.
All Zayn seems capable of doing is ducking his head and smiling like an idiot. Of course, Liam smiles right back.
* * *
Zayn gives Liam run of the Palace, so he doesn’t know what Liam actually does for most of the day, but he must cross paths with the alleged Harry again at some point, because when Liam returns to the Cavern of the Ebony Throne around tea-time, he’s got another pomegranate with him.
Zayn’s official audience hours have just ended, the last tortured souls and disgruntled minor deities being gently but firmly ushered away by Zayn’s mum, who thinks he works too hard. “Honestly, not even taking a lunch break,” she mutters as the guards, with much ceremony, walk the towering double doors closed. “I won’t have you getting faint on that Throne, Zayn, if I have to bring you tikkas or summat myself.”
“I’m fine, Mum,” Zayn says, trying -- unsuccessfully -- not to roll his eyes. The ineffable majesty of being Lord of the Underworld gets a little tarnished if your mum brings you snackies during business hours while you’re meting out terrible justice.
“Don’t you roll your eyes at me,” Mum retorts. “You’re too young for this job, Zayn, and your baba and I only let you take the Throne when they offered because you promised you’d take care of yourself. I know you’re good at what you do, and we’re that proud of you, but if you can’t even eat a little protein and stay hydrated then I don’t -- oh. Who’s this? You’re never Liam.”
“Hullo!” comes Liam’s sunny voice.
Zayn sits abruptly upright from where he’d slumped into the corner of the Throne. Mum’s beckoning Liam forward from the back corner of the Cavern, where he must have come in through the Royal Mud Room. “Mum,” Zayn hisses prohibitively.
“Goodness,” Zayn’s mother says, ignoring him. Liam takes her delicate hand in one of his big ones and bows over it. (His other hand, bent behind his back, holds a pomegranate.) When he straightens again, Mum gazes up at him, wide-eyed, through her lashes. Zayn knows that move. Zayn has used that move himself. He’s not sure what’s worse: watching his mother flirt with a boy he thinks is fit, or realizing that he got his own best flirting moves from her in the first place. “Zayn never said you were so handsome.”
“Mum!” Zayn whispers, agonized.
Liam actually blushes, both his cheeks flushing violently, and he’s smiling with all his teeth showing when he replies, “Well, it’s obvious which side of the family Zayn gets his good looks from.”
This is what dying feels like. Zayn is dying of embarrassment. “Muuuuuuum!”
Mum laughs. She’s always said she was human, but Zayn would bet anything at this moment that she’s some kind of nightmare goddess. “All right, all right,” Mum says, “I’m going. But don’t forget what I said before, Zayn!” she adds, pointing a manicured finger at him. “I’ve got no problem taking drastic action if you won’t look after yourself properly!”
“Yes, anything, fine,” Zayn says, “I will eat as many lunches as you’d like, just please--”
“Have a good night, boys,” Mum trills, satisfied, and swans away.
“It was lovely to meet you!” Liam calls.
Mum replies with something that sounds hideously like “Toodle-oo!”, but then she’s gone through the Northeast Side Door, which shuts gravely behind her.
Zayn cannot believe his actual life. He slouches over the right armrest of the Ebony Throne, morose in his defeat. “Hello, Liam,” he says.
“Heya!” Liam says. “Budge up, would you?”
“What?” Zayn says, but Liam’s already tossed his stupid pomegranate up into the Throne and is hoisting himself after it, the muscles under his tight T-shirt bulging. There’s room for both of them on the Ebony Throne -- it’s a godly artefact, after all, it will accommodate exactly as many people as it must -- but only if they press quite close together after Liam’s finished wriggling around.
“Good view up here, yeah?” Liam says, kicking his foot against Zayn’s. He doesn’t move it away when he’s done.
“It’s all right,” Zayn allows, and surveys the grand echoing Cavern with no little satisfaction. He loves the fog-wreathed ceiling lost almost entirely to the darkness, loves the polished black marble floors and the tall arched windows set with black glass and the rough walls covered in ominous art painted by Zayn’s own hand. He’s never found anybody else who likes it before; Louis and Niall won’t come to the Cavern at all, and even his own family find it “a bit much”. Liam, though, is looking around with shining eyes, not even a little cowed by the gloomy splendor of the Cavern of the Ebony Throne at the heart of the Dark Realm.
Liam produces a little knife from his jeans pocket, unfolds it, and begins gently scoring the pomegranate round the middle. Somebody must have shown him how since this morning. “The paintings are brilliant, especially,” he comments.
“Thanks!” Zayn says, and then hesitantly, “Took me a week to finish ‘em.”
Liam pauses and looks up, eyebrows raised, from where his big hands are deftly handling the fruit and the knife. “What, you did these yourself?”
Zayn can feel his own smile getting a little too big for his face, but there’s nothing he can do about it. “Yeah.”
“And all the other ones around the castle?”
At least Zayn can manage to stop himself from telling Liam it’s a Palace, not a castle, and just says “Yeah” again instead.
“That is wicked,” Liam says. “You’re really, really good. It’s stuff like you’d see on a graffiti wall somewhere in, like. New York.”
Lords of the Underworld aren’t supposed to smile like this, Zayn is pretty sure, but he really can’t help it at all. “Thanks.”
Liam bumps Zayn’s shoulder with his own and turns his attention back to the pomegranate, gripping it firmly and pulling it apart. It comes away pretty neatly where he’d used his pocket knife to score the skin. “Want some?” he says, and offers Zayn half.
“Um,” Zayn says. He’s not sure he’s strong enough to sit all squashed up against Liam’s solid, warm side, sharing fruit that you eat with your hands, without doing something totally inappropriate. “Nah, I’m good.”
Liam nudges Zayn with his knee this time and says, grinning slyly, “C’mon, your mum says you need to eat more.”
“Jesus,” Zayn says despairingly, and then:
“Here,” Liam says, and all at once pinches some seeds from the flesh of the fruit with his fingers and lifts them to Zayn’s mouth. “Go on.”
His own pulse suddenly pounding in his ears, Zayn parts his lips and lets Liam slip the pomegranate seeds inside. Liam’s fingertips catch a little where the dip of Zayn’s bottom lip is chapped. Zayn looks into Liam’s bright brown eyes as he bites down on the seeds, relishes the tartness that floods his mouth, and swallows hard. Liam swallows too, absently stroking Zayn’s lip with his fingers. “Um,” Zayn says.
“More?” Liam asks, hopeful, and Zayn nods. This time when Liam lifts the seeds to Zayn’s lips, Zayn bends to meet him with an open mouth. Liam touches Zayn’s face tenderly while Zayn chews and swallows, tracing his cheekbone and his jawline, before returning to his mouth, tugging a little on Zayn’s bottom lip with his thumb. Zayn kisses the pad of Liam’s thumb because he can, because he’s got to. Liam’s breath hitches.
Then they’re both leaning in. Liam’s a little taller than Zayn, and it’s the first time Zayn has ever had to arch up for a kiss. Their noses touch first and they hesitate for a moment. The air seems to hum, and Zayn belatedly realizes it’s because his ineffable power, piqued by the tension, is literally making the Ebony Throne vibrate. He darts a glance up; Liam’s looking at him too, and his brown eyes are warm like always and so, so bright, eager and unafraid. It’s all completely too much. Zayn presses a dry silly little kiss to Liam’s mouth. Liam kisses him back, smiling, and it’s just a mess of lips and teeth for a moment as they laugh and try to kiss each other at the same time.
They’re able to settle down eventually. Liam opens his mouth against Zayn’s with a sigh and it’s so good, figuring out how he and Liam best fit together, who tilts where, all lips and no tongues yet. Zayn cups Liam’s face in both his hands so he can suck on his plump bottom lip for a minute. Liam shivers when one of Zayn’s hands slides down to rest on his clavicle, fingers curving up around his neck. Zayn shudders when Liam puts his broad hot hand on Zayn’s waist and pulls him closer. There are a couple of splats as the pomegranate halves roll off the Throne and fall to the marble floor, but nobody cares.
Liam gasps gratifyingly when Zayn nips at him a bit, gives his bottom lip a good little tug. Zayn wants Liam closer, closer than the Ebony Throne -- which, fine, knows what it’s doing -- had them sitting side-by-side. “Here, can you--” Zayn stutters, breathless. Liam interrupts him with a kiss. “Liam, just -- c’mere, can you--”
“What,” Liam says absently, kissing him again. His fingers on Zayn’s side press in, possessive. Zayn likes it.
“Closer,” Zayn insists. “Would you come here please?”
There’s a bit of awkward shuffling around as they sort their limbs out, but it ends well, with Zayn pressed back into the Ebony Throne, his feet dangling over the edge into darkness, and Liam bent over him, straddling his lap. “Good?” Liam asks, bracing himself on Zayn’s shoulders.
“Yeah, perfect,” Zayn says, and tilts his head back. Liam dips to kiss him, sweeps his hands along Zayn’s shoulders and up his neck and into his hair, while Zayn marvels at how much of Liam there is for him to touch. He relishes the taut muscles of Liam’s back under his T-shirt, the soft skin revealed between the hem of his shirt and the band of his pants. Zayn kind of wants to put his hands in the back pockets of Liam’s jeans, but he finds they ride so low it’s impossible, and he’s not sure if he dares yet to grope Liam’s arse through just his pants. They’ll get there, but in the meantime he gets to spread his hands on Liam’s thighs where they bracket his own hips and feel Liam try to wriggle closer as they kiss.
“Zayn,” Liam breathes.
“Do you--” Kiss. “I mean--” Kiss, and then all at once: “I guess this means you don’t mind me being here anymore?”
“Oh, Liam.” Zayn squeezes Liam’s thighs, strokes upward to hold him by the waist, the cotton of Liam’s shirt bunching under his fingertips. “I didn’t mind that it was you, I just -- I don’t want you stuck here. The Dark Realm can be kind of rough on people who are used to the Land of the Living. It’s awfully gloomy.”
“It’s not gloomy!” Liam protests, sitting back on Zayn’s knees. Zayn lifts an eyebrow at him, and Liam huffs. “I mean, yes, it is, but it’s not bad gloomy, it’s -- it’s atmospheric, innit? This is how it’s supposed to be. I like it.”
“Liam,” Zayn sighs happily, “You’re so weird.”
Liam grins. “Well, I ought to fit in pretty well then, ay?”
“Sure,” Zayn says. “Yeah.”
“And besides, like.” Liam takes one of Zayn’s hands in his. “Even if it were too dark or whatever, you’re here, aren’t you? Zayn, you… you shine down here.”
“Reckon I’m supposed to, it’s my Realm.” Zayn watches Liam entwine their fingers and looks up again into his sweet face. “But Liam, babe. You shine too.”