“Hiya, nice t’ meet you. I’m Niall, or do you already know that?” is the first thing Niall says when Zayn peeks into the hospital room.
That’s the first thing that’s wrong. More than the tubes attached to him like wiry, spidery veins, stuck and taped into his arms, monitoring his vitals and making sure something worse doesn’t happen. More than how small Niall looks in the bed, swaddled in pristine white sheets, his own pale complexion washed out and blurred against the clean backdrop. It’s enough to make Zayn’s own heart stop, all of that.
But it’s the accent that gets him. It’s heavy and it feels clumsy, barraging against Zayn’s eardrums. He hasn’t heard Niall sound like that in a long time, years maybe. He’s too used to the way his Mullingar accent has become watered down with Liam’s rounded out vowels, the glottals Louis doles out when he’s tired. It’s missing the posh droll tone Harry’s melded into them all, and Zayn’s own drawl catching the end of Niall’s words, clipping them short. It makes Zayn stop short in the door, hearing Niall’s accent so undiluted by them all.
“Yeah, I.” He blinks. Niall lets him adjust, smiles blandly and politely while Zayn stumbles into the hospital room and leaves the door cracked behind him. “Yeah, I know. I know who you are.”
“Right,” Niall says. “How’s about you tell me your name now?”
He’s so small in the hospital bed. Zayn squints at him, stares down at the shaved patch in his hair where they had to do--something. Everything was moving so fast, everything is still moving so fast, and the only constant is it’s still Niall in this bed, whether he remembers it or not.
“Did the doctors tell you anything already?”
Niall shrugs a little. The movement catches the collar of the too-big t-shirt he has on, one of Liam’s he must have stashed away in his bag. There’s a bruise on his shoulder, probably from the impact, hitting something hard, unmoving and solid. “Far as I know I’m thinking about trying out for X-Factor next month. They said that already happened.” He bites his lip, and his gaze flicks over at Zayn for a moment. “Did I win?”
Zayn doesn’t think about X-Factor much. The live shows, yeah; the panic and worry that glued itself to the bottom of his stomach. He doesn’t think about how they almost went home before they even really knew each other. How he went on as a solo artist and got rejected as a solo artist. That there could be a universe out there where he didn’t smoke up in the Scooby-Doo van with Louis, didn’t get woken up by Liam’s alarm every morning at five fucking a.m., didn’t have permanent doodles tattooed on him, uneven and stupid, from where he and Harry were bored, silly and hyped up after a show.
Where he didn’t get to kiss Niall sometimes. Quick, hesitant little things in the morning or right before bed. Didn’t get to thumb over his hipbones or that scar on his ribs.
“No,” Zayn says. “You didn’t win.”
Niall smiles again, too quick and it fades too fast. Zayn remembers how bad he cried when they all thought they were going home for good, how red his face got, how fucking gutted he was. He hopes Niall doesn’t cry now.
“’S too bad, that,” Niall says. He blinks a few times, staring hard at the television that’s mounted on the wall. “Would have liked to, like, be a popstar or somethin’. Always wanted to sell out arenas and stuff. Make music that would make people happy.”
You still do all that, Zayn thinks. He doesn’t know what he’s allowed to say, if he’s supposed to let Niall figure everything out on his own.
“How did I meet you?” Niall asks. He turns his gaze back on Zayn, sharp and pale blue despite the sleepless smudges under his eyes. “If I lost I would have gone back home, worked with me Dad or something.” He nods at Zayn’s clunky Docs, his leather jacket, the cigarette he’s got tucked behind his ear. “There’s no one like you back in Mullingar. I’d remember someone like you.”
But you don’t.
Zayn shrugs. “We met on X-Factor,” he says. “You were--you were so loud, it was hard for anybody to miss you. You and your guitar. You never put it down.”
“Did you like me?” Niall asks. “You must have, for you to be here now.”
Zayn smiles for the first time in what feels like days. It cracks his lips, feels too stiff for his face, but he does it. He can’t help it. “Everybody likes you, Niall. I’d kill anybody who pretended otherwise.”
Niall gives him a small smile, his fingers curled up in the thin, white sheets. His lips are dry and chapped. His hair looks limp and flat, hanging in dirty-blonde waves over his forehead. He turns back to the TV and says, “Oh, hey, Rachel Ray’s on. Love that.”
He’s still Niall, even washed up in these too-clean fucking sheets. Even if he doesn’t remember how many people he’s forgotten.
“Come watch with me,” he says. “C’mon, she’s making chicken marsala.” He moves over in the bed, slow and wincing at first before his body gets the hang of it. Niall’s always been lanky, skin and bones, but Zayn wants to cover him up now. Build a little fence over his ribcage that says keep out.
He squeezes into the bed next to Niall. He’s not sure he’s supposed to, not with how many ways Niall is plugged up right now and all the machines beeping in the background. But Zayn does anyway, kicks his boots off, crosses his legs and breathes in the smell of disinfectant, the faintest hint of Niall’s soap still clinging to his skin like a reminder.
“Hey,” Niall says quietly. “You never told me your name.”
“Zayn,” he replies, just as quiet, forcing it up past the lump in his throat, the way his name clings and squeezes around his lungs and doesn’t want to let go. “I’m Zayn.”
They let them in one by one. We don’t want to overwhelm him, the doctors said, but Zayn still has to pry his fingers from the bed railing when his time is up.
“Do you have to go?” Niall asks. He looks young like this, wide eyes and pale skin. “I don’t think I want you to go.”
Zayn laughs. His fingers are trembling, so he plays with his cigarette instead, imagines the bittersweet smoke filling up his lungs. “I’ll be back,” he says. “There are some other people here who want to see you. You’ll like them too.”
“How do you know that?”
Zayn shrugs. “You already liked them. And they like you too. Love you, even.”
Niall’s mouth thins out, and Zayn’s never seen him look so unhappy for so long. “Hey,” Zayn says quietly. “Niall.” He watches Niall’s jaw work, the way he blinks too hard like he’s trying not to cry. He won’t look at Zayn. “If you don’t like them, you can just ask them to leave, and they will.”
“Won’t that make them upset with me?” Niall asks. His voice is carefully flat, blank enough that Zayn hardly recognizes it. “I don’t want to make anyone upset.”
“I already told you,” Zayn says lightly, “I’ll kill them. Just say the word and I’ll--” He kicks at the floor with one of his boots. “I’ll step on them, swear on my mum, mate.”
Niall huffs out a laugh, his body collapsing back on the pillows. “Okay,” he breathes out. “Send them in. Whoever it is.” His fingers are tapping against his leg, or where his leg might be, trapped under all those blankets, as if Zayn hasn’t been around for almost four years. Hasn’t learned to watch for all Niall’s nervous tics.
He takes his jacket off. It’s fucking cold in the hospital room, and he feels goosebumps prickle up on his skin before he’s even done. He tosses the jacket at Niall, ignoring the way his heart thumps too fast on the downbeat at the way Niall stares at it, fingers rubbing against the worn leather.
“Keep that,” Zayn says. “If you want.”
“You’ll come back for it?” Niall questions, hesitant, bringing the jacket up to his face. “Smells like you.”
Zayn gives him another smile. This one hurts, it hurts, makes him feel sick. “I promise I’ll come back for it,” he says.
Niall nods. “You can go now.”
He’s halfway out the door, grinding his teeth too hard to keep it together, because he’s so close, he’s so close, when Niall calls out, “Zayn?” and he has to stop.
He doesn’t turn around. Not when his eyes are stinging like this. He swallows and waits, his fingers clenching around the edge of the doorframe.
“Thanks,” Niall tells him quietly.
“You’re welcome,” Zayn croaks out.
He lets the door shut.
(“You came back,” Niall says surprisingly. “I didn’t know if you would.”
“Of course I did.” Zayn ignores the hurt that blooms under his skin, prickling and uncomfortable. Niall doesn’t remember him, doesn’t remember he can trust Zayn to do what he says he will. “How was it?”
“Great,” Niall tells him. He’s waning, little energy he had sapping out of him, slow and steady. He’s got three extra pillows behind him, holding him up. There’s Harry’s beanie on his head, Liam’s thumb ring glinting off his finger, and Zayn recognizes Louis’ fuzzy striped socks from the one foot Niall’s got peeking out from under the covers.
He’s wearing Zayn’s leather jacket.
“You didn’t say I was in a band,” Niall says, and Zayn loses his breath at the tired awe that’s in his voice. The sheer disbelief. “A fuckin’ boyband. That’s way cooler than being a solo artist.”
Zayn curls up in the chair next to Niall’s bed, hugs his knees to his chest and looks at Niall over the tops of them. Niall’s buzzing, the same way he does before a show. Same way he looks a lot of the time, actually. Buzzing even when he’s tired to the bone, worked down and running on nothing but sheer will.
“Didn’t know if I could tell you,” Zayn says quietly. “Like, in the movies you’re supposed to remember on your own or it doesn’t work, like.”
“You could have said I was in a band. That’s kind of important, isn’t it?”
Niall blinks sleepily at Zayn. The beanie makes him look even younger. “I liked them all, just like you said. Louis is quite funny, I think. And Liam, I like Liam. I can just tell I’ve always liked ‘im. Harry too. He’s--” He squints over at Zayn. “He’s kind of like you a bit, I think.”
“Harry?” Zayn says in surprise. “We’re nothing alike. Used to drive each other up a wall, really.”
Niall shakes his head. He fiddles with the ring on his thumb. Liam’s. It’s too big. “I’m right about this. Anyway. He’s the one that told me we were in a boyband. Sick shit, that is. Do we have, like, labels and stuff? I bet you’re, like, the cool one. Like Justin Bieber or somethin’.”
Zayn almost tells Niall they know Justin Bieber. Almost.
He laughs instead, the sound muffled in his jeans. “’M hardly cool,” he mumbles. “I dunno, Louis’s, like, the funny one, I guess. Liam’s quite responsible sometimes. Most of the time he’s a right menace with Louis.” He picks with the hole over his knee, stretches out the material that’s shredding to pieces. “Harry’s--Harry. He does his own thing a lot, but, everybody loves Harry.”
“And what about you?” Niall asks. He turns in the bed so he’s facing Zayn. “The cool one, right?”
“No,” Zayn mumbles. “I like a bit of geeky stuff. Comics and all that. I like to read. I don’t know if that counts as cool.” I like playing videos games with you. I like watching you play guitar. I like kissing you.
“Yes,” Niall says decisively. “Louis said somethin’ about comics. You and him and Liam like all that, he said.”
Zayn shrugs. He’s tired, suddenly. His back hurts from sitting in the waiting room chairs all day. Hunched over his phone and staring at the screen for hours.
Niall shifts around on the bed again. He winces when he pulls at one of his IVs, eyes flicking over to the row of monitors. “Can’t wait ‘til they unplug me from all of this shit,” he mutters. “Now tell me who I am in the band. I can’t think of anything.”
“Maybe you’re the cool one,” Zayn tells him.
Niall gives him a lopsided smile, half of it buried in his pillows. “That’s all you.”
Zayn hums softly, thinking. Niall has all their awards on the mantle in his house. He calls them all twice a week when they’re on break without fail. He drove up to Liam’s in the middle of the night once because Liam’s turtle had died. He makes sure their energy doesn’t die during rehearsals. He hypes the crowds up during shows. He rides around on that stupid segway because he knows it makes everyone laugh.
“You’re our heart,” Zayn murmurs. His throat hurts, like he’s been screaming, like he’s about to cry. He swallows. Hard. “You’re Niall.”
Niall stares at him for a long time. Zayn blinks, trying to clear his eyes, but he can’t. Everything is so blurry, and Niall swims in and out of his vision, wavy around the edges like he could disappear in a second.
“Do you want the jacket back?” Niall asks eventually.
Zayn lets out this ugly laugh. It edges more towards a sob, caught up in his throat and choked out. “No,” he whispers. “I want you to keep it. ’S’long as you want.” His fingers twitch from where they’re wrapped around his knees. “D’ya want me to go?”
“No,” Niall whispers back. “You can stay.”)
They're on an unofficial break.
"A break so unofficial," Liam says, "absolutely no one but us needs to know the reason why."
"Like we're waiting for Niall to come back?" Louis asks. "Because that's a reason no one needs to know."
"I haven't actually gone anywhere," Niall points out. He's in the back row of the van, between Zayn and Harry. He's still wearing the leather jacket. He's been wearing everything they've given him.
The jacket smells like antibacterial soap and hospital now. Like the hotel sheets Niall slept on and those little travel shampoos.
It still smells like smoke. A bit. It smells like Zayn and this Niall whose forgotten everything.
"Of course you haven't gone anywhere, love," Louis says absently. "Just misplaced, is all. Back in a jiffy."
"Misplaced," Niall mutters.
"You know what he means," Harry says. It's the first thing he's said all morning; he's been hunched over his phone, texting Grimshaw about wouldn't amnesia be odd with so many different smiley faces Zayn had to stop checking his phone over his shoulder because it was weirding him out. "Or actually, maybe you don't. Huh."
"Fuck off, Harry," Zayn sighs. He needs a cigarette, the need growing the closer they get to the airport.
He’s unsettled; there are masses waiting for them, screaming crowds that don't seem eager to move. It spikes up Zayn's heart rate, makes him nervous even after all these years. He finds himself reaching out for Niall; seeking a hand or his leg or something to reassure himself, to ground himself before they have to go into the throng of all that, but Niall is leaning up over Zayn, his face pushed against the window as he stares at all the people blocking their way. Like he’s never seen this before.
Zayn drops his hand.
“Holy shit,” Niall breathes out. “Are they all here for us?”
Harry stares at Niall. He pockets his phone, leaning up so he’s looking out the window too. “Seems like more than usual, to be honest.”
“Not surprising,” Liam says. “They all want to know why we’re canceling shows.” He bites his lip, glancing back at Zayn for a second. “I feel bad.”
“Fuck that,” Louis tells him. He punches Liam’s shoulder, grabbing one of his bags from under his feet. “Like hell I’m performing without Niall.”
“I’m not saying that--” Liam complains, but Louis cuts him off with a hand over his mouth.
He hums, staring hard at all the people outside the airport. “It’s probably a fuckshow inside, too,” he decides. “Lads,” he says briskly. “Basic Maneuver 52.”
Zayn rolls his eyes, but he starts to shift, lifting up to he can slide into the middle seat with Liam and Louis. Niall grabs his elbow at the last second, his eyes wide and his voice pitched low. Harry’s beanie looks ridiculous on him.
“What’s Basic Maneuver 52?” he asks quietly. “Is it something important?”
“Oh shit,” Louis says. “I forgot about that part where you didn’t remember anything.” His lips thin at the reminder, and Zayn feels a cigarette being lifted from his back pocket before Louis smiles again, strained slightly at the corners. “This might be a problem.”
Zayn needs to get out of this van.
“It’s how we leave out,” he explains. “First Louis, then me, then you, Harry, and Liam in the back. Got it?”
He squirms and reaches back to get a cigarette out of his pocket, shoves at Louis until he’s perched in front of the door, ready when Paul opens it. “You owe me a pack, man.”
“Why am I in the middle?” Niall asks. “I’m not, like, fragile, or anything. Just because me head’s a little fucked up.”
Louis frowns. Zayn catches it in the window reflection, tired and pronounced. “You’re always in the middle,” Louis tells him, and the door opens.
The screaming is out of control. It pierces Zayn’s eardrums, loud and overwhelming. He stares at Louis’ tense, hunched shoulders and tries to ground himself, his fingers gripping hard to the bottom of Louis’ jacket. They’re being penned in on all sides, the crowd surging in on their security, but Louis pushes them forward, Paul flanking him in front.
He feels hands on his shoulders, fingernails digging into his sweatshirt. They’re shaking, and then there’s a body pressing at Zayn’s back, too close.
“I can’t do this,” Niall says into Zayn’s ear. His voice is trembling, high and reedy. “I can’t--” and he cuts himself off, quick, gasping breaths heaving in his chest. “Shit, I can’t do this.”
“Just hold onto me, yeah?” Zayn tells him, struggles to keep his voice even and steady when he has to practically yell to be heard. He leans forward a little and feels Niall move with him. “Lou, Niall’s freaking out.”
Louis turns around a little and nods, leaning forward into Paul’s ear like a chain reaction. “Do not fucking let go of me,” he tells Zayn, before he’s pushing through people a little faster than before, sharp curses and words when they get roadblocked and have to change direction. “Check on Harry and Liam.”
Zayn cranes his neck. Harry’s got his hands around Niall’s waist, his head down and his sunglasses on. Liam’s staring straight ahead, one hand on Harry’s shoulder and the other carrying both of their carry-on bags. He meets Zayn’s eyes for a second; quirks his mouth up enough that Zayn feels something settle in his chest, just for a moment.
“They’re all right,” Zayn murmurs, and he feels Louis’ body sag a little before he straightens up again, pushes forward the last bit before they stumble inside the airport.
“What the fuck was that?” Louis says, once they’re past security and scattered in the waiting area listening for their boarding call. “No, seriously. What the fuck was that?” He paces around for a moment, absently unlocking and locking his phone before he glares at Niall. “You, sit down. Seriously, what the fuck.”
Niall collapses into one of the hard, plastic chairs. It’s only now that Zayn sees the wide, panicked set to his eyes, the way he’s biting his lip hard enough to make it bleed. Zayn had forgotten--had thought for a few moments Niall could handle this, but this isn’t Zayn’s Niall. He isn’t any of theirs.
“Shit,” he murmurs. “Are you okay?” It’s stupid, because Niall is gasping too loudly, fingers clenching into his thighs and digging in hard enough to hurt. “Head between your knees, man. Breathe.”
Zayn thinks of what he’d usually be doing now. He’d probably be on his phone or reading, quietly intoning some of the more interesting passages to whoever was closest. It’s usually Niall, bony knees pressed up against Zayn, the muffled sound of his music echoing between them while they wait for their flight.
Now it’s Zayn’s hand on Niall’s back, careful and hesitant. He recognizes the bumps and ridges of Niall’s spine as familiar, the way Niall hums to focus himself. He doesn’t recognize the gasping breaths or the way Niall’s shoulders tremble under Zayn’s fingers. The flush on his neck is one Zayn has seen before, red and expanding, but it doesn’t match the panic that lingers in the corners of Niall’s eyes when he lifts his head up.
Doesn’t match the arrhythmic beat of Zayn’s heart when he realizes he doesn’t know how to fix this.
“Drink this,” someone says, and it’s Harry pushing a cup of water in Niall’s face. He pushes some of Niall’s hair back while he drinks, ignores the way Niall’s eyes watch, lingering guardedly.
“Drink it slow,” Zayn says. “Or you’ll get sick.”
“Is it always this bad?” Niall croaks out, and he takes another tentative sip of the water, eyes still trained on Harry’s wandering hands. “It was like. Like I couldn’t breathe or somethin’.”
“Never this bad,” Zayn murmurs. Never bad enough I couldn’t help. “How do you feel now?”
Niall looks up at him, at Harry, who’s perched on the arm of the chair, spindly fingers tugging at Niall’s scalp. At Louis and Liam who are hovering behind Zayn’s shoulder, staring at Niall like they could fix him, since Zayn couldn’t, Zayn can’t.
“Messed up,” Niall says quietly. He shrugs, the movement small and defeated and sluggish. “Like ’m messing everything up.”
“You’re not,” Zayn says. He reaches out for him and pulls his hands back at the last second, hovering in the empty space. “You’re not,” he repeats. It doesn’t feel like enough.
Niall gives him an ugly smile. It doesn’t fit his face, the jagged corners cutting into his dimples, sharpening his features into something unrecognizable. “Do I usually believe you when you lie to me?”
“I don’t know,” Zayn mutters. He’s itching for a cigarette, anything to feel like himself again, shake off this awful, clinging feeling that he’s talking to someone he doesn’t know. “I don’t make a habit of it.”
Niall sighs. He relaxes into Harry’s grip finally, head lilting to the side as he gazes up at them, rests his eyes on Zayn.
“I want to go home,” he says quietly.
“Then we’ll go home,” Liam says.
Zayn fingers his cigarettes. Wishes for bitter, burning smoke. Tries not to think about Niall’s memories fading away like the last traces of tobacco, filtering out until there’s not anything left.
(Zayn grips the armrests of the plane seat tight, his knuckles colorless and strained with the effort. He stares out the window, eyes on a speck of land far out in the distance, breathing steady in and out and waiting for the first jolt of the plane. The swoop in his stomach has yet to settle, no matter how many flights he’s been on, no matter how many times he flinches and waits for the loop de loop that never comes.
He thinks about asking for gum, but he doesn’t know how steady his voice will be, doesn’t know if he has the nerve to give into being scared about this when there are much bigger things to be scared about right now.
The fact that he can remember all the flights they’ve been on as a band shuts him up, keeps him glued in his seat and refusing to ask for gum or the water the air hostess has offered him three times already.
The pilot comes on the overhead, and Zayn squeezes his eyes shut and waits for the first move of the plane, the discomfiting popping of his ears and the lurch in his chest that won’t ease until they’ve been in the air at least twenty minutes.
“Hey,” someone mumbles, and there’s the sound of Zayn’s bag hitting the floor, a body settling into the seat next to him. “Louis told me to tell you you’re an idiot for not reminding him to give you gum before he sat down.”
Zayn peeks his eyes open. Niall looks less like he’s about to faint now, color back in his cheeks and his fringe wet, probably from how long he spent in the airport loo with his head over the sink. He’s holding out a pack of mint gum, the kind Zayn always forgets to pick up from the airport shop. He raises his eyebrows when Zayn hesitates, enough that Zayn caves and takes it.
“So,” Niall says. “You’re scared of planes.”
“No,” Zayn tells him, staring out the window as the plane starts to move. “Not the plane. Just. Flying. Stupid, right?”
Niall shrugs. Zayn can feel his gaze, the sharp eyes that never seem to miss anything, never have. “How do I usually help you?” he asks eventually. “You gonna throw up or something?”
“No,” Zayn huffs out. He watches the runway disappear past them, moving fast and blurry as the plane gains speed. They’re going to die. “You just do. I don’t know.”
There’s a moment, a pause between them and a catch in turbulence where they don’t say anything and Zayn thinks I told you I loved you once. You were asleep on a plane just like this and I only said it because I knew you couldn’t hear me.
Niall holds his hand out, waggles his fingers a little in Zayn’s direction.
Niall rolls his eyes. “This can’t be weird. There’s no way this is weird. Hold my hand, man. Come on.”
The plane gains enough speed to give Zayn a headache watching the world fly by. They lift off, and Zayn’s ears pop for a second before the gum cuts it off. He squeezes the hand in his, hard, watching the clouds settle in his eyeline and the ground below turn into unrecognizable patches and shapes while his heart settles back down out of his throat.
“I’ll remember this,” Niall says offhandedly. “For next time I mean.”
“Okay,” Zayn says, and he can’t force himself to let go, doesn’t let go the whole time they’re in the air.
Doesn’t let go until he realizes he has to, because they’re on the ground. Not until there are paparazzi everywhere and too many people scrambling in too many directions. Not until he watches Niall look lost and awed in equal spades, squinting at all the people crowded around and wanting a piece of them.
Zayn lets go. Goes home and almost wishes he was back on the plane just so he’d have something to hold onto again.)
The call comes late. Zayn should have known, should have guessed with the way Niall had watched them all disappear into their cars, his arms wrapped around his backpack, his eyes wide with his security guard’s hand on his shoulder. The call comes when Zayn’s half-asleep, stretched out over his too-big bed and mostly counting the tiles on his ceiling. He’s on 279 when his phone buzzes, loud and cracking through the near silence in the bedroom.
“’Lo?” he mumbles. He figures it’s Louis, because it’s always Louis. And if it’s always Louis then it’s always Liam, not even a whole step behind. “Don’t you have sisters to annoy instead of me?”
“Um,” the voice says, and Zayn blinks hard at the phone, squinting at his screen before he breathes back out. “I don’t think I have sisters. Did I forget I have sisters?”
“Niall,” Zayn sighs. “Sorry, shit. Thought you were Lou. Louis.”
Niall hums, and Zayn can imagine the shrug, his scrawny shoulders hunching up around his ears. “Just me, I guess. Is it alright that I called? Do we--do we do this?”
Zayn drops his head into his pillow. It’s warm from where he’s been tossing wildly about the bed all night, half-convinced he should just smoke a few until his lungs burn, or hole up in his graffiti room until he can’t paint another goddamn thing.
He tries to remember the last time Niall called him. Zayn was high, lingering sweet smoke sticking to the back of his tongue. Niall’s voice had sounded that much better, warm and lilting even through the tinniness on the phone, the dim haze in Zayn’s head.
“Miss you,” Niall had said, even though he’d only gone to the golf course with Harry, and Zayn was only in a different hotel room. “Dunno why, just do.”
Zayn remembers the feeling in his chest, tight and ballooning up like now. Only it hurts this time around, like something trying to claw it’s way up his throat.
“Yeah,” he says quietly. He squeezes his eyes shut, tries to blot out the bits of Australia sticking in his head because it’s another memory, and memories are fleeting things, he’s learned. Fragile and breakable and easily lost. “We do this sometimes.”
“Good,” Niall says decisively. There’s something in his voice. It’s unsure and wary, something that Zayn catches onto and wants to say tell me because that’s what they do, that’s what they did. “I just. I dunno. Thought you were mad at me or somethin’.”
“Why would I be mad at you?”
“Dunno, just.” He blows out a breath, and if Zayn listens close, presses the phone right up to his ear, he can hear Niall plucking at his guitar. It’s so stupidly familiar that Zayn almost misses what Niall says, so busy listening for the faint strum of the strings. “I called me dad, you know? And he said I could come home if I wanted, but he said--he said you boys would be taking care of me just fine.”
There’s a pause, and Zayn hears a thousand things in it--Why aren’t you taking care of me, why don’t I remember you, did you really mean anything to me--that he can’t tell what’s Niall and what’s in his own head.
“Louis called me up. And then Liam, right after. Said I could come watch something called Avengers with them, whatever the fuck that is.” His voice is steady and quiet, always so Niall even when he doesn’t remember what that even means anymore. “Harry dropped me off, you know,” he adds, almost accusingly, like he knew exactly what Zayn was doing when he mumbled something about making it home before fucking dark. “Offered to stay for a few days, but like. It didn’t feel right. Me mam always told me to go with my gut and for some reason my gut’s stuck on you.”
Zayn swallows hard. He flops over on his stomach, pressing his face into the pillows. They smell like Danny and Ant. Like his mum’s house. Like the same detergent he’s been smelling all his life that makes him feel home in a way that hotels, buses and even the stage never could manage.
Home seems stupid right now when he feels like he can’t breathe, fists his fingers into the sheets and tries to hold on.
Do you remember when you kissed me before a show that one time. When we were hopped up on caffeine and sugar and your mouth tasted like candy floss. Remember.
“I’m sorry,” Zayn exhales out. Most of it gets lost in the sheets, but he knows Niall hears it. Can feel it lacking in the silence.
“Did I do something wrong?” Niall asks quietly. “You have to tell me, because I don’t--” He cuts off, angry in a way that’s unfamiliar, that makes him this new thing Zayn doesn’t know inside out. “I don’t fucking remember you, and I feel like I should, is all.”
Zayn’s not the type to cry. He doesn’t do it very often, won’t do it now; he’s got no right. But he does squeeze his eyes shut, inhales this awful, shaking breath that rattles his core, sends cold air through the spaces between his ribs.
“Come here,” he manages. Because he fucked up, and he wants, he can’t stop wanting. “If you want.”
“I want,” Niall tells him.
Niall shows up when the sun's coming up; his hair bright with sunrise streaks and his cheeks red. He's got pillow imprints on his face, sleep in his eyes. There's a fragility to him in the slope of his shoulders, how he meets Zayn's eyes and just stares. The beanie Harry gave him slouches over his forehead, his ears.
He's only got his guitar slung over his shoulder, a bag of toiletries in his hand.
"Where are your clothes?" is the only thing Zayn can think to say.
Niall shrugs. He's in a hoodie with the hood up, his eyes too blue and wide and unfamiliar even in their familiarity. “I don’t know,” he mumbles. He stands too skinny and pale in the doorway, and Zayn feels like the biggest asshole ever. “Don’t fit right or somethin’. Like--” He wrinkles his nose up, squinting. “Like someone who doesn’t know me bought ’em. Does that make sense? I bought them, but I don’t know the person who bought them. Isn’t that weird?”
“God,” Zayn mumbles. He feels tired now in a way he hadn’t all night. He rubs his face and leans against the doorjamb, holding himself still when Niall brushes past. “That sounds really fucked up.”
“I know,” Niall says. He rubs at the hem of his hoodie. “Just came with the clothes on my back. Fuck.”
The light from the kitchen washes him out, and Zayn stares at him, takes him in. Niall’s stood there before, that very spot probably, but he doesn’t remember it. Doesn’t remember the night they got so drunk he spent four hours with his face leaned over Zayn’s toilet. Doesn’t remember the weekend they spent marathoning Say Yes to the Dress and Zayn pressing fake tattoos into Niall’s skin, his ribs and his ankle and that soft spot under his arm.
“You can borrow mine,” Zayn tells him. “Probably have some stuff that belongs to you anyway.”
“Do we do that a lot?” Niall asks. He’s moved into the sitting room, fingers running over Zayn’s sofa, the coffee table, the dent in the wall. He looks back at Zayn before he’s off again, checking out the DVDs next to the television.
“Sometimes.” He won’t mention how he went back to the hotel when Niall was still in the hospital. How Zayn’s got Niall’s favorite sweater and one of his snapbacks shoved into the bottom of the bag he still hasn’t unpacked. “I’m possibly the guiltiest. Real thief, me.”
“Nah,” says Niall, offhanded and absent. He’s staring at the pictures Zayn’s got up on the mantel, his sisters and his mum and Danny and Ant. “Borrowing, really. Bet I don’t mind, do I?”
Zayn smiles at him. It feels real, doesn’t crack on his face and split. “No,” he says quietly. “You’ve never minded.”
They lie out on the sofa, opposite sides until suddenly it’s nine in the morning and Niall’s got his head pillowed in Zayn’s lap while The PowerPuff Girls plays low on the telly.
“Are you tired?” Niall mumbles. He’s finally taken the beanie off, and his hair’s flat and wavy, curling over his ears and his forehead. “I c’n move if ya want.”
Zayn tightens the grip he has around Niall’s shoulder. The heat is familiar; the curve of Niall’s body against his, the familiar pink flush that dwells just under his skin. This sleepy, soft Niall matches the one in Zayn’s head, the ones that snores a little and sleep-mumbles.
“No,” Zayn murmurs back. “’M fine.”
Zayn’s bone-tired; that kind of exhaustion that turns his limbs to lead, and numbs the noise in his head. He’ll have a crick in his neck from falling asleep like this, sitting up and leaned against the arm of the sofa, but.
He closes his eyes and this feels so much better than the stretching, wide expanse of his bed. There are no tiles to count, just the slow, rhythmic breathing they both give into, synced up without trying.
Zayn counts the rise and fall of Niall’s chest, thinks about counting how many memories Niall’s lost, if he’s even capable of counting that fucking high. How many stories Zayn has to tell to make up for it.
“Loud thinkin’,” Niall says, and it’s muffled against Zayn’s joggers, slurred and rough and half-asleep. “D’ya always do that?”
“Yes,” Zayn says decisively, and there’s one. One more thing Niall knows now. One less thing he has to remember.
The days go like this:
Zayn’s body is still living on tour time. He wakes up at four, sometimes five in the mornings to the phantom ring of Liam’s alarm, the not so distant memory of the heavy thud of trainers hitting the floor, and the door creaking open and then softly shut.
He’s up and showered while the sun’s still rising, blinking tiredly at the tea kettle on the stove when it’s half-six and the working people of London start to wake up too. He wrinkles his nose at his mug. It’s not Yorkshire, because he never has that at home, and he doesn’t even really like it. But his body’s still stuck on bus breakfasts, soggy cereal, Louis’ tea and the least burnt toast of the bunch.
He peeks into the living room, and Niall’s still dead asleep. Zayn almost thought Niall’s body would still be functioning on tour time too, but he sleeps in every day, morning-soft and rumpled on Zayn’s sofa. The television’s on, buzzing and turned down low, because Niall can’t sleep without the soft hum of the noise.
(Zayn frowns. “You’ve never slept with the television on, mate. Not since I’ve known you. Are you sure you used to do that?”
Niall shrugs. His cheeks are sleep-puffy and his squinting into his tea. “Never do it when other people are over. My dad says it’s rude. Guess I got out of the habit with you guys, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Zayn says quietly. “I guess.” Niall looks the same, pale and scrawny and comfortable, but his mouth twists a little, hesitance wedged in his frown lines. Zayn doesn’t know him.
“D’ya mind?” he asks. “I can, like, turn it off, obviously. Don’t want to run up the bill or somethin’.”
Zayn lets out a strangled laugh, his fingers curled around his mug. “You won’t. ’S fine, really. Promise.”)
Zayn retreats back into the kitchen, opens the blinds up and glances at the clock. His phone buzzes right on time, seven on the dot, and he clicks ‘accept’ with a resigned sort of smile tugging at his mouth.
“Hey, Li,” he says, and he can hear Liam breathing too hard, panting down the line. “Couldn’t wait ’til after your workout, man?”
“Woke up late,” Liam grunts out. “Didn’t want to deviate too much from my routine, you know? So you’ll deal.”
Zayn snorts, leaning against the counter and staring at the ring his mug’s made. “Deviate, huh? Whatever, Webster. How have you already established a routine at home? The fuck, man.”
Liam hums. Zayn can hear the press of buttons, can picture Liam in his spare room on his treadmill, could probably guess the exact clothes he picked out this morning. “It’s a very meticulous routine I’ve had in place for quite some time.”
Zayn raises his eyebrows.
“Louis finally left,” Liam admits. “I haven’t worked out in, like, a week, bro. I’ve got a massive gut going on, you don’t even know.”
“Right,” Zayn tells him. “And I’m spending my break in LA learning how to surf with Brad Pitt.”
“Is that what Harry’s been up to then?” Liam asks, and Zayn breaks, giggling quietly into his mug, his shoulders slumping over. “Been wondering.”
“’M gonna tell him,” Zayn warns. “You know how he gets when you tease him. He’ll be cross for ages.”
Zayn hears more beeping and Liam’s breathing pick up, the whir of the treadmill faint through the line. “I already talked to him anyway,” Liam pants out. Zayn feels decidedly lazy, still in trackpants and a tissue-thin t-shirt, his feet bare on the cold kitchen floor. “Said he’s laying low, whatever that means.”
“Be in The Mirror tomorrow, bet,” Zayn says. “In one of those mesh things he fancies.”
“A wig,” Liam counters. “Bet you fifteen quid.”
Zayn’s tea has gone cold. He reheats the water, idly watching the steam rise and listening to Liam’s run, the steady rhythm of his feet. “Deal.”
Liam makes an approving sound. It’s so ridiculously competitive and familiar; Zayn misses him with an ache for a moment. He wishes Liam were here to tell Zayn what to do, to fix Zayn’s mess because that’s what Liam does. He wishes Liam were here so they could hide away like they used to--burrow under the covers and read old comics that were smudged and the paper thin enough to rip with the wrong turn of a page. In the beginning when they were all learning each other, and Zayn didn’t already have a space for all of them hidden and tucked away for safekeeping.
“Hey,” Liam murmurs, and Zayn blinks, becomes aware of the kettle whistling and the soft sounds of Niall waking up in the other room. “You wanna talk about it?”
Zayn huffs out a breath. He can hear Niall padding around in the living room, folding up his blankets and pushing the sofabed back up. “No,” he croaks out. “Nothing to say, is there?”
Liam makes a patient noise, marred slightly by the fact that he’s still running. “Have you talked to Niall then?”
“About what?” Zayn mumbles. He fills his mug back up, glaring at the steam that heats his face. He can feel his good mood draining out of him, slipping away and disappearing while he watches. “I don’t--” He glances back out into the sitting room, catches Niall grabbing one of the old magazines Zayn keeps on the table. “I don’t want to, like, make it worse. He doesn’t remember, Liam.”
“Your brooding is hardly helpful,” Liam points out. “Sorry, I mean.”
“I’m not,” Liam agrees. “Do you need me to switch to cool down?”
Zayn rolls his eyes. “Yes, Liam, I would appreciate you not running a marathon while I’m trying to be fucking serious, man.”
“I think,” Liam barrels on, but Zayn can tell he’s actually switched, can hear the change in Liam’s breathing, the difference in rhythm, “You should stop worrying.”
“Brilliant advice,” Zayn says, flat. “Innovative, Li.”
“Oh, fuck off,” Liam says cheerfully. “I love you, you know.”
Zayn breathes out. Feels the ache in his chest give way to something lighter, less restricting. “I love you too, idiot.”
“You say the sweetest things,” Liam tells him. He sighs, and there’s more beeping until Zayn doesn’t hear the machine anymore, doesn’t hear the thump of Liam’s feet over the treadmill. “I’ve got to go through. Promised Mum I’d drive over. You know how she gets.”
“Yes,” Liam breathes out. “Dunno how she does it, to be honest. Anyway, mate. I’ve gotta run. You’ll text me, right?”
“You mean before or after you call me at the exact same time tomorrow?”
“Bright and early,” Liam says, and Zayn can hear his smile over the phone. “Give Niall my love, too, yeah? Tell him I’m the one with the massive guns, you know? Real fit, me.”
Zayn hangs up.
Niall stumbles into the kitchen. He’s wearing a pair of Zayn’s trackies and a huge Man U sweatshirt that has no discernible origin. His hair’s a mess, stuck up in clumps. He looks like this in the mornings, has always looked like this in the mornings.
Zayn breathes out, slow.
Niall squints at him. There’s this pause, almost negligible, where Niall really looks at him, and Zayn thinks do you remember do you remember do you remember and holds himself still. He watches Niall’s lips thin out, the jerky way he settles into the chair and smiles at Zayn, strained and tired and apologetic, maybe. If Zayn looks hard enough.
So. Not today, then.
“Morning,” Zayn says instead. “Sleep okay?”
Niall shrugs. “Was that Liam on the phone? You done your daily updates about me, then?” His tone is sharp enough that Zayn frowns, his mug clanking harder on the counter than he means for it.
“’S not like that,” Zayn starts, but Niall just stares at him, blank and flat and unconvinced. “Stop doing that.”
“Okay,” Niall agrees. He blinks and he’s back, life in his eyes again, like Zayn isn’t a complete stranger even if he actually is. “Then stop doing that.” He huffs out this laugh, raspy with morning disuse and without much humor. It rankles Zayn; it doesn’t sound like something that should even belong to Niall really, a laugh like that. “’M not, like, a patient. You don’t have to babysit me or whatever. Or whisper about me like I lost my hearing instead of my memories.”
“I’m not.” Zayn knows it’s weak, knows even before Niall rolls his eyes, dismissive in a way that Zayn can’t quite swallow down. “I don’t know what to do,” he admits with a shrug. “With you, I mean. I keep messing up.” I keep messing up, and I don’t know how to fix you, and I miss you.
Niall sighs. He runs a lazy hand through his hair, pulling the strands into something manageable. “You’re not,” he says finally. “Messing up, I mean. Or maybe, like, the whole thing’s pretty messed up, isn’t it?”
Zayn quirks his mouth up. “Just a little.” He gets up, fills up another mug with tea and pushes it across the counter at Niall. He watches Niall put too much sugar in it, like a kid that’s not quite got a hang of the bitter taste yet. “You can tell me, like, if I’m weirding you out or something.”
“You’re not,” Niall says again. “Just--what do we usually do? You and me, I mean.”
Zayn stares down hard at the countertop. A million and one things flit through his head, and none of them seem to fit. They don’t do anything. They just are, from the moment they got shoved together on an X-Factor stage. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes I kiss you. Sometimes you trace my tattoos and talk about what you’d get, if you ever mustered up the fucking nerve.
Sometimes we don’t do anything, and I like that too.
“Just chill, I guess,” Zayn says lamely. “Hang out? Mostly you--” Zayn cuts himself off, stares at the Niall across the table. He’s the same, Zayn knows that, but he can’t help holding back, doesn’t want to let someone else in all over again. “You keep me out of my head,” he finishes quietly. “I’ve always liked that.”
Niall perks up at that, his mouth curving up into some semblance of a smile. “I can work with that,” he says. “Barely even had to pry it out of you this time.”
Zayn laughs, his cheeks heating up when he looks away. He feels a warmth in his belly, faint and distant but there, heating up at the sight of Niall looked pleased. “’M not that bad.”
“You are,” Niall counters. “’S like pulling teeth, mate.” He stands up, nodding into the living room. “C’mon. If you’re done tiptoeing ‘round me like ’m glass, you owe me, like, so many marathons right now. We’re watching Deathly Hallows, man. I have to know what happens.”
“You should have just read the books,” Zayn tells him, but he follows anyway, watching the way Niall navigates with ease, flopping himself on the sofa and flicking the television on. “I’ve told you that before, by the way.”
“Somehow I absolutely knew you had,” Niall says. He pats the space beside him. Zayn complies, his knees up and his leg pressed against Niall’s. “Always been Hufflepuff meself. I’m still working you out. Don’t tell me.”
Zayn keeps silent. Niall turns the movie on, and Zayn lets himself relax, thinks sorry I’m such absolute shit at this and thinks Niall presses their legs together, once, like he heard.
A list goes up on the fridge. It has two sides.
2. likes to sleep with the telly on (apparently!)
3. doesn’t like crowds
4. thinks Snape was kind of a dick
On the other:
1. afraid of flying
2. thinks too loud
3. steals clothes
4. wakes up way too fuckin early
“I already know all those things about myself,” Zayn points out. He takes in Niall’s scrawl. He doesn’t do the hearts over his i’s, because he learned that from Harry, started it off as a way to fuck with him and then just never stopped.
Niall looks up from the list. He looks different in Zayn’s clothes, sharper around the edges. He’s in a snapback and one of Zayn’s old Boyce Avenue shirts, the sleeves coming up just shy of his wrists. He’s in a pair of skinny jeans so tight he’d never be caught wearing if he remembered, will murder Zayn if--when--he does. “Good t’ know,” he says, eyebrows raised. “Glad only one of us has amnesia.”
Zayn fights down a cringe, but Niall stares at him like he’s seen it anyway. Zayn hasn’t said it yet. Niall’s forgotten. Niall doesn’t remember. Amnesia has this succinct, clinical feel that leaves a metallic, acrid taste in the back of Zayn’s throat.
5. out of touch with reality, Niall writes on Zayn’s side.
He smiles after, like it’s a joke, but he doesn’t scratch it out until Zayn says it.
(“Amnesia,” Zayn says dutifully.
“I have amnesia,” Niall prompts. “C’mon, mate.”
Zayn looks away. At his hands. At that dent in the wall. The ceiling, and fuck, he forgot to dust the fan. “Niall has amnesia,” drags its way up his throat, claws its way out from behind clenched teeth.
There’s a sigh. “I am Niall, you know,” he hears.
But it gets crossed out anyway, messily, sloppily. Just enough that Zayn can still see it if he squints. Like a reminder staring at him every time he opens the fridge.)
“Tell me something,” Niall says.
It’s Wednesday, and Wednesday is food shopping day. It used to be Sunday for Zayn, but now Niall watches derby on Sundays, wide-eyed and screaming at Zayn’s television. Sundays are also drawing days, because sports are absolutely not Zayn’s thing, and for some reason Niall thinks Zayn’s graffiti room is sacred ground. Zayn wants to tell him he keeps masks down there for all of them, that Niall’s been down there more times than he can count. That there’s a Nialler with a heart over the ‘i’ on the far left wall that Zayn absolutely refuses to paint over.
He doesn’t though. So this Niall doesn’t come down.
“Did you hear me?” Niall asks. “Or are you doing that spaced out thing?”
“I don’t have a spaced out thing,” Zayn says absently. He blinks, and Niall comes into focus, sharp blue eyes and hair that’s starting to lean more towards brown than blonde. “Your hair’s getting dark. Time for a dye.”
Niall shrugs. “Think I’m gonna let it grow out, actually.”
Zayn laughs. The market is relatively empty, mostly because it’s eight in the morning on a Wednesday. Niall’s riding on the end of the trolley while Zayn pushes, the whole thing slow and creaking under Niall’s weight. “Liar,” Zayn tells him. “You’re addicted to the blonde.”
“Maybe,” Niall concedes. His fingers tap on the edge of the trolley, a nervous tic he doesn’t remember Zayn knows. “Tell me something,” he says again. “That I don’t know.”
Zayn narrows his eyes. Niall’s biting his lip, sheepish, but he meets Zayn’s eyes. “Why?”
Niall shrugs. He’s got on his own shirt today, a grey jumper Zayn had found stuffed in one of his drawers. Another pair of Zayn’s jeans, this time with holes in the knees. “Just--” he bites his lip again, and he finally breaks Zayn’s gaze, staring down hard at the contents of the trolley. Zayn stops pushing, watches Niall fidget with himself, nervous in a way that still trips Zayn up. Makes him remember all the things Niall can’t. “It’s a bit unfair, isn’t it? You knowing all there is t’ know about me.” Look at me, Zayn thinks. “And I think you should tell me stuff about you, too.”
“I have,” Zayn says, and it’s too sharp, he knows that before he even has to watch Niall’s face fall. Niall’s right, it is unfair, but that’s not Zayn’s fault. “Before.” He fights to gentle his voice, unclench his fingers from the trolley handle. “I’ve told you stuff before. I’ve been telling you stuff for almost four years.”
I got in my first fist fight when I was 11. I let my sisters paint my nails when I go home. I used to be afraid I was going to let you all down, I still am.
Niall makes a frustrated noise. There are splotches of red on his cheeks, flushing up around his neck and his ears. He’s upset, Zayn realizes, and he almost backpedals before Niall’s talking again.
“Stop punishing me,” he hisses, and Zayn blinks. Niall’s glaring at him, and Zayn stops in the middle of the supermarket, in between the pasta sauces and the tinned goods.
“You heard me,” Niall says, and his voice is hard and unforgiving and Zayn hates it. Hates everything in this moment. “It’s not fair. And it’s not my fucking fault. I didn’t choose to forget you.”
Zayn swallows. His heart’s thumping too loud, and he feels positive Niall can hear it, that everyone in this market can hear. “I know that,” he says quietly. He looks away this time, eyes on Niall’s bare knees, the denim that’s shredded and ripped around them.
“Bullshit,” Niall tells him, but his voice is lowered, his shoulders slumping out of their defensive hunch. “Fuck, I didn’t--I didn’t mean to do that. At least not in the middle of a fucking supermarket.”
Zayn breathes out. Ignores the way his fingers tremble slightly, how his pulse jumps. “It’s okay,” he sighs. He starts pushing the trolley again, just to give himself something to do. “Heard you’ve got a pretty sick head injury, man. Shit happens.”
Niall huffs out a laugh, and something rights itself between them. “I just--” His lips thin out, unhappy, and Zayn steels himself. “When we were with the other lads, it was, like, I could see how they fit. With me, I mean. It made sense that I was friends with them.”
“But not with me,” Zayn supplies and Niall shrugs again, still frowning.
“Not with you,” he agrees. “With you it’s, like, something is missing. Shit.” He rubs a hand over his eyes, exhales heavy enough that Zayn can pick out the way his shoulders move under his sweatshirt, jerky and angry and too skinny. “I sound like an idiot. Do I always sound like an idiot around you?”
“What’s missing?” Zayn asks instead, his breath stalled in his lungs.
“I don’t know,” Niall tells him. “Just. It’s just with you. Like there’s supposed to be something there, but I don’t know what it is. Like I have to fill it up but I don’t know how, and you won’t--you won’t tell me anything. Like you’re punishing me for not remembering what it is.”
“I’m not,” Zayn says again, and he feels so fucking stupid, standing in the middle of a supermarket having it out like this. “I just don’t--” know you, he almost says, but that’s not true, somewhere underneath all this fucking uncertainty and anger and unfairness, he knows that really isn’t true. “I wish you remembered,” he admits softly, and he feels awful about it, even if it’s honest. “I want you to remember me without me having to tell you.”
“Can you just,” Niall starts, and Zayn can, he’d do anything at this point to erase the unhappiness from Niall’s face, the lines that weren’t there before. The ones that create shadows that Zayn doesn’t know. “Tell me something you haven’t before, then. Something I didn’t already know about you.”
I hate that I wasn’t there when the van crashed.
I used to think we could be Spider-Man and Mary Jane, you and me. From the movies. Without all the drama and fuck-ups and accidents. We could be pretty good at that.
I miss you. I miss you and you’re standing right in front of me.
“I like to eat dessert when I’m stressed. Or upset, like. I just want sweets all the time.” He shrugs, looks down at the scuff marks on his Docs as he pushes the cart. “It’d be impossible to have dessert all the time on tour,” he says. “So I just never mentioned it, I don’t know. Thought it seemed stupid, I guess, needing that.”
He pushes them towards the check-out, doesn’t meet Niall’s eyes until they’re being rung up and Niall jumps off the trolley. “I’ll meet you at the car, yeah?” Niall says, and he disappears back down the aisles, his trainers squeaking over the floor.
He does meet Zayn at the car, a good ten minutes later. His bag is tied up and he holds it firmly in lap while they drive back.
“What’s in the bag?” Zayn asks eventually.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Niall tells him. “And stay out of the kitchen when we get back.”
Zayn starts a new list. On it he has the things Niall remembers.
And now the things Niall knows.
The cupcakes are red velvet and gluten free.
“Why gluten free?” Zayn asks, from where’s perched on the counter while Niall glazes icing over the ones that are cool. “And why red velvet?”
Niall’s got an apron tied around his torso, a gag gift one Louis gave Zayn last Valentine’s Day. It has Cocky Cook stitched on the front and an actual cock drawn below. It’s absolutely heinous and Zayn finds himself reassuringly unsurprised Niall finds it hilarious.
“Last thing I remember baking,” Niall says. “I told my dad I wanted to try out for X-Factor, and I was scared shitless he was gonna tell me it was a dumb idea. Didn’t though. So I made meself some cupcakes in, like, celebration, I guess. Red velvet.” He slides a cupcake across the counter to Zayn, eyebrows raised and waiting. “Gluten-free because that’s all Greg can eat, so I guess the habit’s just stuck with me.” He laughs a little, his fingers snagging a cupcake for himself. “It feels like it just happened. But it didn’t, you know? Christ. How are they?”
Zayn takes a bite. They’re still warm, the cake smooth and soft and rich. The icing is sweet and it leaves his mouth sticky. They’re fucking amazing. “Where the hell did you learn to bake like this? What the hell, man.”
Niall makes a satisfied noise. His skin is flushed from the heat of the oven, his hair in sweaty tuffs on his forehead. He looks good like this, in Zayn’s kitchen. “Taught myself when I was younger. Never had the money to buy a birthday cake or anything, so I made my own.”
I love you, Zayn thinks. Remember that.
He tiptoes out into living room that night, hopped up on sugar and tired of staring at his own ceiling tiles.
Niall’s still up, stretched out on Zayn’s sofa and watching Miss Congeniality through slitted eyes.
“Thought you were trying to catch up with everything you missed,” Zayn whispers into the dark, Niall’s face caught in shadows and the flashes of light from the television. He shifts his legs and Zayn squeezes on the sofa too, steals some of the covers and shivers when their hands brush together for a second.
“Can’t compete with the classics,” Niall murmurs back. “Are you alright?”
Zayn presses his face into one of the pillows. “’M fine,” he mutters. There’s no response, only Niall’s tell-tale silence and how he turns the movie down a little. Zayn sighs. “Bed’s too big. I always get like this after a tour. It’s stupid, like.”
Niall hums. He’s so fucking unreadable now, and Zayn wonders when exactly he decided to open up to all of them. If Niall was always like this and Zayn just learned how to see past it.
“D’ya wanna cuddle?” he says eventually, and Zayn waits a beat, just to see if he’ll take it back. He doesn’t though, just shifts and opens his arms up and waits.
Zayn swallows hard and crawls over Niall’s lap. He avoids his dodgy knee and the bruises still lingering over his ribs from the accident. Niall smells like Zayn’s soap and Zayn’s clothes, like faded smoke and sugar and chocolate. He opens his arms up and Zayn collapses, face buried in Niall’s bony chest.
“I’m supposed to be making you feel better, I thought,” he mumbles, the sound muffled and lazy.
Niall turns the television back up, his other hand drifting down to Zayn’s waist. “Maybe you are,” he says.
5. absolutely nuts about cuddling (I am not!)
They take a ride on a Friday night.
Zayn can't sleep again, is just about to give it up and slide in with Niall on the sofa when his door creaks open, light from the hallway spilling in.
"Zayn?" Niall whispers, and he's all bundled up. Zayn can see from here, his pyjama pants and long-sleeved t-shirt and those ridiculous chihuahua slippers Harry left over ages ago. "Are you up?"
"Yeah," Zayn mumbles, the lack of sleep cracking in his voice. "You alright?"
Niall shrugs and pads into the room. He squints when Zayn turns the lamp on, his hair laid flat on one side and his face pillow-creased. "Had a weird dream," he says. "Spooked me, I guess. Can't get back to sleep."
Zayn shifts in the bed, the other side clear and beckoning. Niall slides in, sleep-warm and flushed, and Zayn forces himself not to react, not to move too fast or kiss that spot on Niall's neck that seems extra sensitive when he's tired. "What was it about?" Zayn asks.
Niall's quiet, but being in a band has taught Zayn patience in spades so he waits, listens for the shudder of Niall's breath and the rub of his clothes against the sheets when he moves.
"I don't remember anything," Niall says, and it's so quiet Zayn could miss it if he wasn't listening hard enough. "In the dream, I mean. I wake up and I don't remember being in a band or--Anything. I don't know who I am."
Zayn reaches out, his hand open in the middle of the bed for Niall to take if he wants. He does, and his hand is warm and his fingers clasp Zayn's tight enough that it hurts.
"I'm fuckin' terrified sometimes," Niall whispers, and his voice tremors and Zayn squeezes back, anchors them here together and refuses to let go. "Every time I wake up and I don't remember what I'm supposed to."
"Hey," Zayn whispers. "Niall, c'mon. You're gonna be fine. You're fine now."
“Yeah,” Niall says back. “I just--I get scared. I don’t want you guys--I don’t want you to get tired of me, you know?”
His hand shakes in Zayn’s, these slight little tremors that remind Zayn of the few minutes before a show or when they’re stuck in a crowded room and Niall grips Zayn’s hand and Zayn grips back, and it’s all of them or the two of them against the world. That’s how they work.
“Hey,” Zayn says, and Niall turns his head. He meets Zayn’s eyes and he’s all sleep and fear and trust, behind all that, even when he might not remember establishing it. He trusts Zayn. “Wanna get out of here?”
There’s this American-style diner like an hour out. Zayn and Louis had found it last year once, when they’d been starving in the middle of the night and Louis refused to eat anything that wasn’t a burger dripping in grease and the tears of my fragile cardiovascular system.
Linda’s working, like she usually does when Zayn hides out here in the middle of the night. She calls out a greeting and goes to put in an order for his chicken sandwich and extra chips.
“Two, babe,” Zayn calls back and he shoves Niall into a booth, puts himself on the other side and lets their knees brush.
Niall’s still all bundled up in his pyjamas, the fur from the slippers pushing up against Zayn’s own boots. “D’ya come here a lot?” he asks.
Zayn shrugs. It’s good for when he can’t sleep. When he wants to forget he’s a pop star because no one in here gives a shit about what songs he sings. “Sometimes,” he says. “They make a fuckin’ amazing milkshake. Nice for when I want sweets and every other place is closed.”
NIall slouches down in the booth. He looks sleepy and content, calmed by the smell of grease and the lack of having to think. Zayn feels it too, the way his bones relax even under the fluorescent lights, how the buzz in his head seems quieter and not filled with the tense, frantic what do we do now that’s taken up residence.
“Thanks,” Niall says. “For bringing me here, I guess. Not kickin’ me out back to the sofa or somethin’.”
Zayn startles at the implication, feels irritation spike just slightly under his skin. “I wouldn’t,” he says. “Niall, I wouldn’t.”
“I knew that, I think,” Niall tells him quietly. He’s all sloped shoulders and puffy eyes and pink lips and he’s Niall, Zayn thinks. “Somehow, like, I don’t know. I know you.”
“Yeah,” Zayn agrees. “You know me.”
Niall makes Zayn put on their CD on the drive back.
“The first one,” he demands. “Up All Night.”
Zayn huffs but does it, feels himself smile along to the opening beat of What Makes You Beautiful despite it being fucking ridiculous. Niall taps along to it on his thigh, drums out the beat quick enough because it’s in him still, their music. He lifts his eyebrows expectantly right before Zayn’s verse, first smile of the night playing at the corners of his mouth.
“You gonna sing for me?”
“C’mon, Zayn. Grant the poor injured Irishman his last wish.”
Zayn snorts. The breeze coming through the window is chilly and just this side of too fucking cold but it wakes him up, spreads goosebumps on his skin and makes him feel. “How long you gonna milk it, man?”
Niall laughs, loud and raucous and good, and Zayn loves him. Zayn has loved him for almost four years now.
Zayn sings, keeping time with the quiet beat Niall taps out on his bad knee.
They catch the sunrise, a few minutes before they pull up into Zayn’s garage.
“Used to watch these all the time when I was a kid,” Niall says, voice quiet and reverent and hushed.
Zayn pulls over and stops the car, squints out the window at the orange and pink and yellow that fills up the sky, leaks out over midnight blue and the last few colors remaining from the moon.
He reaches out and puts his hand on the console, waiting. There’s a moment, small and stupid, where he panics, thinks don’t do this, but Niall grabs his hand again, links their fingers together in a much less frantic grip than before.
He meets Zayn in the middle, like he always does.
6. you sing that verse on wmyb so great
The days go like this:
Niall sleeps in Zayn’s bed most nights. He sprawls, like he’s not used to sharing, and in his mind, he’s not.
Zayn wakes up in tangles, limbs and fingers and ankles all crossed and tied together. Niall is sleep-soft, rumpled and warm and he never wakes up when Zayn does.
Zayn pads out into the kitchen. It’s still dark sometimes, and he scowls at how little he’s slept. He watches the kettle boil, takes out eggs and bread and cheese and sets them on the counter. His bones creak, still asleep, so Zayn leans his elbows on the counter and waits for his body to catch up.
His phone buzzes. He stares at the clock. It’s too early even for Liam to be calling.
“Hey man,” Zayn says. He swallows down his unease, the flip of his stomach. Harry doesn’t call anybody. He texts everything. “Is everything alright?”
“Sure, fine,” Harry says. He sounds distracted and distant, and Zayn feels a spike of irritation underneath the sleep in his bones. Harry drives him mad. “Were you sleeping?”
The kettle whistles, and Zayn finds a mug and adds three packets of sugar, unsure of when he started doing so. He sets the stove on and waits for the pan to heat, Harry’s soft breathing, patient and steady down the line. “Nah,” he says. “Making eggy bread now.”
Harry perks up at that, this little wistful noise that Zayn recognizes even with miles between them. “With cheese?” he asks, a little too hopefully.
Zayn smiles. “Yeah, with cheese. Just how you like. You could come up for a weekend and I’ll make you some.”
“Yeah,” Harry says. “Might have done sooner. Thought only Niall was allowed in Chez Malik these days.”
“Oh my god, fuck off,” Zayn tells him. “I hope wherever you are doesn’t have breakfast.”
“Cruel words, bro,” Harry says. “I’m in the States actually. I got you something.”
“A magnet?” Zayn asks dryly, just to hear Harry’s bark of surprised laughter, caught out and silly.
“It’s cute,” he says. “You’ll love it.”
Zayn rolls his eyes, but lets the conversation lapse into quiet. He’s less worried now, that something’s gone wrong, that Harry’s gotten himself into some shit he can’t charm himself out of. They know each other now. They know that sometimes the quiet helps articulate thoughts more than words, know that early mornings are good for talking, with sleep weighing down inhibitions and the walls they still sometimes build around themselves.
“Niall called me,” Harry says finally, and Zayn freezes for a second, processing.
Harry pauses, and Zayn tries to read something in it, tries to hear what Harry doesn’t say yet. He can’t. “You didn’t tell him you two were dating?” Harry asks finally, and all the air goes out of Zayn’s lungs.
“What,” he says weakly, gripping the counter for balance. “Tell me you didn’t tell him.”
“He asked me,” Harry says, and Zayn will kill him one of these days. “He doesn’t need two people lying to him.”
Zayn turns the pan off. He’s suddenly not hungry, and he’s gripping the counter so hard it leaves grooves in his palms. “It’s none of your business,” he points out. “And I wasn’t lying to him.”
“Are we really going to do the whole lying by omission thing now?” Harry asks, and he changes his tone to placating when Zayn huffs, ready to hang up. “Zayn, listen, okay. He asked. He didn’t know if he was gonna fuck anything up if he--had feelings for you.”
“And I didn’t wanna fuck anything up by telling him,” Zayn says. “Like I was some--jilted lover or something waiting at his bedside for him to remember he fucking loves me back.”
“Zayn,” Harry says quietly, and Zayn deflates. He feels tired, his fingers shaking and his knees close to giving out. “There’s no way he could ever forget that. He’s still Niall, okay?”
“I know that,” Zayn mumbles. “Fuck, I know that.”
Harry makes an approving sound, like he’s won. He probably has. “Good. You should talk to him, I think. Figure things out, you know?”
“Yeah,” Zayn breathes out. He dumps his food in the trash, stares at his cooling mug of tea. “I will.”
He sends I’m kicking Harry out of the band to their group chat, but his heart’s not in it.
“You could have asked me,” Zayn says, before he bites his lip because that’s not at all how this was meant to happen.
Niall turns around. He’s baking gluten-free apple fritters, and it’s two in the morning and neither of them can seem to care. Niall’s in Zayn’s skinny jeans again, the ones with spray paint splattered on them, and a black mesh jumper that Zayn knows doesn’t belong to either of them.
Zayn loves him.
Niall raises his eyebrows. There’s flour on his cheek, some on Zayn’s too from where he threw it earlier in a fit of rage when the dough wouldn’t thicken fast enough. “Asked you what? You don’t know how to bake for shit.”
Zayn takes a moment to be offended--
(“You made me a cake?” Niall asks.
The cake is lopsided, too heavy on the icing and sugar but it tasted alright, when Zayn snuck a bite earlier. The ‘20’ candle digs into the top layer in a way it’s definitely not supposed to, but. It’s a cake.
“I did,” Zayn says. “The bus kitchen does fuck all for baking, but. Uh. Happy birthday.”
Niall wrinkles his nose, his laugh coming out throaty and too loud and infectious. Zayn kisses him, and his smile tastes like sugar. Like too sweet liquor and the gum from the plane ride earlier.
“You can’t bake for shit,” Niall mumbles. It muffled and breathless, his fingers ghosting over Zayn’s waist. “But thank you, obviously.”)
--before it’s too much and he just. He wants.
“You called Harry,” he says, and he watches Niall freeze, his shoulders hunching up and his face going smooth and blank. “You could have just asked me.”
“And you would have told me?” Niall asks, his voice incredulous and disbelieving. “Really.”
“You didn’t give me a chance,” Zayn counters. “You went behind my back--”
“And you went behind mine,” Niall interrupts. “God, I look at you and I feel this huge fucking piece of myself missing. I told you that, and you couldn’t even be honest with me.”
He’s breathing too hard, cheeks flushed and chest heaving. He stares at Zayn with this mix of hurt and betrayal and this blank slate that lacks recognition and Zayn--
--feels totally fucked.
“I’m sorry,” Zayn says. He stares hard at his knees, perched precariously in his spot on the counter next to the stove. “I’m sorry, I just. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t--I was okay just being your friend again.” He smiles at little, around the lump in his throat, glances up at Niall for a second and wonders how they got there. “I love you,” he says, and there’s that. “I’ve loved you since I met you, it feels like. I loved you when you had no idea who I was.”
He feels Niall step closer, sees blonde in his eyesight and can’t quite look yet. “I love you right now,” he says quietly, and feels his heart nearly beat out of his chest.
“Are you gonna look at me anytime soon?” Niall says, and Zayn looks up before he can stop himself. Niall’s eyes are blue and too wide and there’s flour on his cheek, dough stuck to the Cocky Cook apron he keeps wearing. He puts a hand on Zayn’s knee, thumbs at the skin poking out from the distressed denim, and there’s still a part of Zayn’s brain that expects to see Niall laughing, see him easy and light and carefree.
There’s still a version of Niall in Zayn’s head from before his accident. Before he hit the van window hard enough to splinter the glass and lose almost four years of his life. There’s a version of Niall in Zayn’s head who remembers everything, and this never happened.
That version blurs slightly over the Niall in front of Zayn now. This Niall who’s not quite smiling, but there’s warmth in his eyes, softness in how he touches Zayn. This Niall who has a scar on his collarbone from the crash. This Niall who bakes in the middle of the night and wears Zayn’s clothes and doesn’t quite know how to share a bed anymore.
This Niall who says, “Kiss me, obviously,” so Zayn does.
This Niall who kisses back and tastes like apples and dough and sugar. Who presses Zayn back on the counter and pushes their bodies together and takes, his hands digging into Zayn’s waist, nails leaving little half moons behind. Who says, “Holy shit, we could have been doing this so much sooner, you fuckin’ idiot,” and smiles when Zayn breaks away to huff out a laugh, breathless and light-headed and absolutely stupid in the best way.
“Sorry,” he says again, and Niall shakes his head, murmurs, “You’re going to make me burn my apple fritters,” but he doesn’t pull away and neither does Zayn.
The days go like this:
Niall sprawls in Zayn’s bed.
He’s flushed and out of breath and his eyes look amazing like this, blown out. Zayn feels pleasure sit heavy in his stomach, feels it spread out under his skin until he’s vibrating with it, kissing Niall’s neck and his belly button and the back of his knees. That spot where he still shudders from it, whines a little and buck his hips.
“Oh my god,” he whispers, and Zayn laughs against his skin, drags his nails down Niall’s thighs and watches him arch into Zayn’s hands.
“I like this,” Zayn says. “You have no idea what you like, do you?”
“Shut up and show me,” Niall snaps at him, hair stuck to his forehead and back curved away from the sheets.
Zayn holds him down, rubs his thumbs over Niall’s hipbones while he sucks his dick, slow, teasing and dragged out, enough that Niall’s whimpering and cursing and begging when he says please, fuck, please and Zayn lets him come.
The days go like this:
7. gives amazing blowjobs
8. makes great eggy bread for the morning after
The days go like this:
Niall’s memories come trickling back. Not altogether, not all at once.
Not even all of them.
He remembers X-Factor, remembers being put in a band and touring the world with him. He remembers late nights and early mornings and sold out shows, the whole area vibrating from the screams.
He remembers long plane rides and mint gum and too many people crowding in at once. He remembers how to breathe through it, how to get past all the people without losing his mind.
He remembers Louis ruining his trainers with lemons, Liam smoking pot for the first time and Harry almost getting married in Vegas that one weekend a year and a half ago. He remembers Zayn dropping his phone off a bridge in Amsterdam once when they were drunk.
He remembers he’s allowed down in Zayn’s graffiti room whenever he wants, but he doesn’t come down. He knocks at the door when he needs something, peeks in like he’s staring at something sacred and can’t bring himself to set foot inside.
He remembers they’re friends with Justin Bieber.
9. worst person to get amnesia around, doesn’t tell me ANYTHING
He never remembers the cake Zayn baked him for his 20th birthday. Never remembers the song they sung on the X-Factor finale until he finally looks it up. He doesn’t remember why he stopped falling asleep with the telly on, so he keeps doing it, and Zayn wakes up in the middle of the night to to find Niall in the sitting room watching Blackfish or Game of Thrones or Phineas and Ferb.
He never remembers what he was thinking right before the van crashed.
(“I feel like it was important,” he says.
He’s trying gluten-free waffles for the first time, eyeing the recipe book and pretending like forgetting doesn’t bother him nearly as much as it does.
He doesn’t remember that either, why he’s so much more unreadable now, why Zayn has to work to figure out what he’s thinking.
“You’ll remember it then,” Zayn says. “If you’re meant to remember it, you will.”
Niall shrugs, hums noncommittally and dips his finger into the waffle batter. “Rachel Ray said it would be thicker than this. Fuckin’ liar.”)
He remembers and he doesn’t, and Zayn will catch him staring into space sometimes, like he’s trying to recapture something that isn’t there anymore.
“Hey,” Zayn says, “You alright?”
And Niall will blink, and he’s back, the Niall in Zayn’s head and the one in front of him all mushed together into someone new. He smiles, not quite as wide as before but not quite as small as it could be. Somewhere in between, a mixture of the two. This Niall who remembers some things and forgets some things and knows some others, who balances between them somehow.
“Just thinking,” Niall says, and he holds his hand out and Zayn grabs it. Meets him in the middle.
The days go like this:
There’s a list on the fridge with ten things Niall knows about Zayn.
10. totally fucking dating him