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In Your Eyes

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The Past

The day started out just like any other. Liam had walked to school with his buddies Andy and Maz, listening to them teasing him about not joining in with their drinking the night before. It wasn’t just because they were too young or that he was afraid his father would catch them, he was passed out more often than not, but because of his useless kidney that he kept a secret from everyone.

They got to school and took their seats at the back of the classroom, the teacher giving them the evil eye for being late. Liam glanced out the window, wishing he could be back outside in the Arizona sun, instead of inside a stuffy classroom where the air conditioning only worked part of the time. Mr. Smith began passing back tests, laying his face down unlike the others, and giving him a small smile. Liam picked up the corner of the page, fighting back a grin at the “A- Great work!” written in red marker. He quickly slapped it down and covered it with his hand when Andy leaned over towards him.

“How’d you do, Payne-in-the-ass?” he hissed.

“Bombed it,” Liam responded, ignoring the look he got from the teacher. It was easier to let his friends think he was doing as poorly as they were. He hated lying, but he valued not being teased even more. He settled in, pretending to stare out of the window and daydream while Andy and Maz goofed around and the teacher talked about the book they were reading.

Somewhere many states away, Zayn Malik stood at the bottom of a snow covered hill next to his mom, smiling at the kids flying towards them on sleds and toboggans, laughing and screaming in glee. This was the first time his mom was going to let him ride down the hill by himself. He had a hand-me-down sled from his sister and he couldn’t wait.

He climbed the hill slowly, the cold wind biting at his already rosy cheeks. He could hear his mom shouting encouragement behind him and he hoped no one realized it was him she was yelling at. He was a big boy, he could do this alone. As he waited in line, he kicked around snow and giggled as his boots got more and more covered. When he reached the front of the line, he looked down the hill - correction, mountain - swallowing hard as he saw just how high he really was, feeling a tingle of fear in his belly.

He laid down on the sled, face first, hands on the steering bar like his older sister had shown him. Taking a deep breath, he used a foot to push off, just as his vision began to blur. “Not now,” he thought as he felt his body hurdling through the snow, but felt only heat and strange lights.

Liam shivered as he suddenly felt extremely cold. He blinked his eyes and the classroom disappeared. He could vaguely hear his teacher talking, but it was overpowered by the sound of wind whistling in his ears. He felt his face being pummeled with cold and all he could see was white. He clamped his hands on the edges of his desk as he began to feel it shake. Trying to turn his head, he looked down and instead of his desk, he saw what looked like the front of a sled; he’d only seen them in movies, so he wasn’t sure. Small mittened hands held each end of a wooden bar and as he saw them tighten, he felt his own hands tightening.

Zayn screamed as he hit a bump and felt the steering bar break off in his hand. He blinked his eyes rapidly, but couldn’t see where he was going, all he could see was what looked like a classroom and suddenly the very angry face of a man shouting, “Liam! Stop screwing around!”

Liam filled with fear as he heard a woman screaming, “Zen! Jump off!” but he couldn’t bring himself to release his hold. He felt his own scream leave his body as he saw the tree directly in his path. Then all he felt was nothing.

The next thing Liam was aware of, he was waking up on the floor of his classroom, nose pressed to the linoleum and his teacher’s worried voice was begging him to wake up. As he blinked his eyes, focusing on the classroom and Mr. Smith’s voice, he had a foggy memory of a woman shouting the same thing, but there were no women in the classroom.

Twenty Years Later

Liam sighed as he pulled his truck up in front of his trailer. It had been a long day at the garage and all he wanted to do was go to sleep, but he saw the beat up sedan sitting in the bit of sand that passed as his driveway and knew he had company. It wasn’t the worst person in the world, but not someone he was ever excited about seeing; then again, there was no one in his life he was excited to see.

“Liam, my man, you gotta get yourself some new porn,” Patrick “Paddy” O’Brien joked from his couch where he was flipping through an old gardening supplies catalog.

Liam just shook his head. He knew he was lucky to have such a laid back person as his parole officer and thought that if things were different, he might even consider the older gentleman a friend, but unfortunately, things weren’t different. “Breaking and entering again, I see.”

“Can’t break into what isn’t locked,” he responded, settling back on the old sofa and making a face, so Liam knew he had just been poked by the broken spring.

“Want a beer?” He knew what the answer would be, but he’d been waiting all day, so he took the two steps to the fridge and pulled out one.

“I’m on the clock, which you know because I’m here. Where’ve you been?” He picked up the file folder that was sitting beside him on the couch and flipped a few pages.

“Out.” He pushed some newspapers off the chair; he’d been going through them trying to find a new job, but not a whole lot of places were willing to hire someone who’d spent a few years in prison for breaking and entering.

Paddy kicked a foot at the papers as they fell across the floor, coughing at the cloud of dust kicked up by Liam dropping into the chair. “Ever consider tidying up a bit around here?”

“You’re the only person who ever comes by,” Liam told him, putting his feet up on the coffee table made up of two by fours and cinder blocks. “Not trying to impress you.”

“Maybe you should,” he muttered. “Where you been?”

“Picked up an extra shift.” Liam could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing up, knowing where this conversation was going and it wasn’t good. He took a long pull of his beer, waiting for the inevitable.

“Bullshit.” Paddy’s voice was teasing, but his eyes were hard so Liam knew he really didn’t believe him.

“Call 'em if you think I’m lying.”

“Think I won't?”

Liam pulled his phone out and threw it at Paddy, chuckling when it hit him in the chest and fell to his lap. “Think you should.”

Paddy’s face finally broke into a smile and he started scrolling through the contacts in the phone. Although he knew he had nothing to worry about, he could feel a sweat starting on his brow. “Have you been associating with any known criminals?”

“Have you?” Liam quipped, immediately stilling when Paddy turned serious again. “No, sir, I have not.”

He made a mark in the folder. “Have you crossed over the state's line at any time?”

Liam could recite this line of questions in his sleep, but the last time he’d tried answering them without Paddy actually asking them he’d earned a dressing-down he didn't care to repeat. “No, sir. Have not.”

Another check mark. “How's the job going?” Paddy looked up at this and appeared genuinely interested. Again, Liam had the feeling they could’ve been friends.

“Dull as the dirt that my front yard is made of, but still mine. Two months now.” He knew he sounded proud, but it’d been the longest he’d kept a job since getting out.

“Gotta be some kinda record.” Paddy was scribbling now, his attention on the folder.

“Anything else you need to know?” Liam snapped, pushing to his feet as he tipped his head back to finish off the beer he’d been sipping during the interrogation.

“I need to know when you're gonna slip up, and stick your packet in the grease again.” Paddy rose as well, brushing the file folder over his bum, a look of disgust on his face as dust flew again.

“What the hell did I ever do to you?” Liam was genuinely curious how Paddy could go from being jovial and kind one moment and judgemental as hell the next.

“You went into other people's houses, and took things that didn't belong to you. Things that they worked long and hard for.” His eyes were narrowed as he studied him.

“I did my time, O’Brien!” He crossed to the door and shoved it open. “My conscience is shiny and new.”

“Yeah, well, how about Andy and Maz?”

This was what this was leading to, asking Liam to throw his friends under the bus. He hadn’t done it two years ago and he wasn’t going to do it now. “Andy and Maz weren't on that job.”

Paddy nodded, looking at the file. “So, record and you keep saying.” Liam shrugged. “Such a great guy, taking the fall for those two bozos.”

“O’Brien, all due respect, you're not a detective. You're my PO.” Paddy acknowledged the statement with a nod and slight blush to his cheeks. “And I know that you ride me more than most, what I don’t know is why.”

“You're smart. There isn’t anything in the world dumber, or more dangerous, than a smart man. You know what is out in the world beyond where you currently are and you want it, but you’re not always smart enough to know the right way to go about getting it.” He places a hand on his shoulder. “And when you do the wrong thing to get it, it will all go to hell.”

“You act like I'm nothing more than my criminal record.” Liam shrugged the hand off and jerked his head towards the door. “There might be more to me than you think.”

“As long as I’m your PO, you are only what you let me see and so far, I don’t see anything else.” He moved through the door. “I’ll see you-”

His voice cut off as Liam pulled the door shut. He couldn’t help but laugh when he heard Paddy call him an unfavourable name. Shaking his head, he crossed to the back of the trailer, suddenly wanting nothing more than to sleep away the rest of the day.

Across the country, Zayn stood in front of the full length mirror on his closet door. He struggled with the tie around his neck as his mother, Trisha, stuck her head around the door letting out a sigh of relief.

“You’re almost ready?” she asked.

He wiggled the ends of the tie at her, smiling when she came into the room and began tying it for him. “Did he make it home?”

“Just barely,” she answered, tugging lightly at the neat knot she’d completed before smoothing down the front of his shirt. “You look very handsome, sonshine.” They heard his father shouting from the doorway.

“In the knick of time,” Zayn smiled, grabbing his black jacket and shrugging into it.

“With only twelve hours to get ready, too,” his mom teased as she checked herself out in the mirror. “Should’ve started yesterday.” They walked out of the room together, descending the stairs, their laughter cut off as they met Zayn’s father, Yaser, who impatiently checked his watch under the guise of adjusting it.

“Or he should’ve,” Zayn whispered, smiling when his mom had to press her lips together to hold in a laugh.

They walked out the door to climb into the limo, Zayn sitting with his back to the front, across from his parents. He recognized the look in his father’s eye as soon as the car began moving too quickly for him to throw himself out the door without causing major damage or death. He knew that tonight was going to lead to more business beneficial matchmaking on his father’s part.

“Well, two of our trustees are gonna be at the Tomlinsons tonight.” Zayn bit back the groan, realizing his plan to hide out with his mate Louis, the eldest Tomlinson offspring, was not going to be feasible. “Cowell and Hadid.”

Zayn did let out a small sound of disgust as he pictured the two Hadid girls, wondering which of them his father had in mind for him, or if it mattered which one. He still hadn’t mustered up the courage to tell him that he’d be more interested in the youngest Hadid sibling, if he weren’t barely legal and a bit of a bore. “Do I have to be charming?” he asked, smirking when his mother hid a snort behind her hand.

“Just be yourself,” Yaser stated off-handedly while checking his phone, brows furrowed. After a moment he looked up with a bit of a mischievous glint to his eye. “Actually, you need to be a little charming. Just nod, smile, and talk to the daughters. Jelena and Isabella will be in attendance.” He shook his head at Zayn’s eye roll. “It’s the Tomlinsons, Louis will be there. You can gossip behind the old folks’ backs and I promise to turn my back as often as possible.”

After several minutes of silence, the car pulled up in front of the Tomlinson’s sprawling mansion and Zayn followed his mother out of the car as they waited for his father. Once they had all exited the car, Yaser slid his phone into his pocket and made eye contact with his wife and son for the first time that night. “Is that what you’re wearing?”

Several thousand miles away, in a small bar that looked as if it had been featured in every ‘wrong side of the tracks” love story ever written, the jukebox blasted some ancient country song as Liam leaned against the pool table rubbing chalk on the end of the cue, trying to ignore Andy and Maz who had just walked in through the door. Unfortunately, as he bent over the table and took his shot, he sunk the eight ball in the corner pocket. With a shake of his head, he admitted it was time to give up and go home.

As he shrugged into his jacket, his opponent let his displeasure at being forced to end his winning streak be known. “Let’s go double or nothin’. I’ll even spot you three balls this time,” he said, holding up three fingers and Liam had to admit he was impressed the loser could count that high.

“All tapped out, buddy,” he said with a shrug, attempting to move past him while Andy and Maz had their backs turned. If he could just get to the door without those two seeing him, he’d be all set.

“C’mon, man. Don’t be an asshole. I know you got some green right there in your pocket.” The guy poked at his jacket and Liam put a hand protectively over it, trying to reign in the desire to throw a punch to get the guy to back off. He just wanted to go home.

“Nah, I’m good.”

The guy’s face grew red. “You walk out on a man who's still gambling, you might catch a bad-”

His words were cut off when Andy walked up and picked Liam up in a bone crushing hug. “You picking fights again, Payne-in-the-ass?”

Maz stepped up to the gambler, pulling him away to start another game, telling him he’d be happy to take Liam’s money off him. Once Maz had taken his first shot, Andy pulled Liam over to the bar. “Let me buy you a beer.”

Once they were settled, Andy grabbed some peanuts and shoved them into his mouth, not even chewing before he started talking. “What’cha been up to, man?”

“Broken down cars, mostly,” Liam answered, a sneaking suspicion of where this conversation was going, but at the same time, glad to be talking to someone other than his parole officer and boss.

Andy rolled his eyes as he grabbed another handful of nuts. “Sounds shitty, that does.” He looked around before leaning closer and lowering his voice, although he couldn’t lower it too much and still be heard over the jukebox and general conversations going on around them. “Better work’s comin’.”

There it was, exactly what Liam had been expecting to hear. Andy had another grand scheme to get rich quick and he was far too adept at convincing Liam his ideas were genius. Of course, the last time he’d done that, Liam had ended up spending several years behind bars and gained a parole officer with a dad complex, while Andy and Maz continued their lives as if nothing had happened.

“This economy is deadly. It’s killing all sorts of businesses. Every day another ‘closed for business’ sign is appearing on another building. Tons of shit just sitting there in these buildings, just waiting to be picked.” He glanced over at the bartender who had made his way closer and was watching them, his eyes narrowed. Bressie had never trusted Andy, it was part of what Liam had always liked about the man.

“Look, I know you could use the money,” Andy told him, laughing when Maz cheered and Liam’s former opponent let out a curse. “Especially if you ever wanna play pool again.”

“I’m not exactly flush,” Liam admitted, feeling his walls breaking down.

“Well, hell, let’s change that, shall we? Hey, Breslin!” Andy shouted to Bressie who rolled his eyes and Liam hid a laugh under a cough. “Can I get a beer here for my poor relation?” Bressie nodded and produced a long neck, twisting the cap off in a practiced motion before setting it in front of Liam and taking Andy’s cash and pocketing it with an innocent smile when he held his hand out for change. Andy flashed a middle finger at him before turning away. “We’ll be seeing you,” he shouted at Liam as he watched Maz take another shot.

Bressie leaned on the bar, passing the change from Andy’s money to Liam before laying a hand on Liam’s arm and drawing his attention away from Andy and Maz. “You know, O’Brien finds out that you and Andy’ve been chattin’, he’s gonna send you right back up.” His face was lined with concern and Liam swallowed hard to hide the flood of emotion that choked him suddenly. He sometimes forgot there was still a person or two who looked out for him.

“Yeah, probably will anyway,” he admitted, lifting his beer to his lips and taking another long drink.

Zayn watched the large wood and glass double doors open before him to reveal Louis with a smirk on his face that Zayn returned with an eye roll from behind his parents’ backs. Louis’ father appeared behind him, his wife of the week on his arm with a debutante smile and a fake voice to match as she greeted them. “Maliks! Welcome!”

As soon as Zayn was through the door, his coat taken and a glass of chardonnay in hand, Louis dragged him by the arm over to another young man with curly hair that was leaning against the wall, legs crossed and drink in his hand. “Styles,” Zayn greeted.

“Malik,” he returned before turning to Louis. “Loubear.” His voice was softer and full of adoration.

“Hazza,” Louis whispered back before brushing his nose against his boyfriend’s cheek.

“Get a room,” Zayn teased, shutting up quickly when he realized his parents had stopped behind him to talk to some of the board members of the hospital where his father was head of Emergency Services. He tried not to eavesdrop, but he couldn’t help himself.

The board members were attempting to convince his father that he should run for city council, but his father protested, claiming he was far too busy being Chief of Staff and running a hospital to think about running a city. Zayn knew his father’s words were all an act, thinking of all the nights his father had spent screaming at his mother and anyone who would listen about how he would run this city better than anyone else could and that one day he would. His father was only protesting to encourage the others to fawn over him and the pretentious lickspittles were falling right into his trap.

“Zayn, are you even listening?” Louis snapped his fingers in Zayn’s face, bringing his attention back to the two in front of him instead of the group behind.

“I’m sorry, what were you saying? Something about undeniable truths?” With Louis, those words could mean he was discussing anything from idle gossip to the importance of democracy in the modern world; the man was a genius, but a massive brat at the same time.

“Cowell is having a thing,” Louis said, his voice holding a bit of impatience when Zayn only responded with a confused look. Dr. Cowell was in charge of a study in schizophrenia pharmaceuticals that his father was becoming increasingly involved with, much to Zayn’s horror; Dr. Cowell was a creepy bastard.

“He’s taking lovers,” Harry supplied, drawing the last word out to make it seem dirtier than it actually was.

Male lovers,” Louis added.

Young , male lovers,” Harry continued with a leer.

“Are you two applying for the role?” Zayn asked with a smirk, smiling when a waiter held out a wine bottle to top off his glass, but before he could tip it, Yaser’s hand was there stealing away Zayn’s glass.

“He’s good,” Yaser stated firmly, eyes narrowing when Zayn opened his mouth to protest that he’d barely had one glass. He tried to focus back on the conversation in front of him, but really was looking at the antique clock on the wall and trying to figure out how much longer he would have to be there.

Liam studied the neon clock hanging over the bar and glanced down at his barely drunk bottle, deciding it was probably a good time to head for home. If he left before Maz finished his pool game, he might be able to escape before Andy decided to try to sell him some more tarnished dreams. Waving at Bressie, Liam turned to leave and ran smack into a small blond man who started to curse him out. Liam smiled as he recognized the voice.

“Niall,” he said, his voice higher than usual. He suddenly felt very warm as wide blue eyes looked up at him.

“Liam,” he responded, his voice sounding just as awkward and Liam felt like he was back in high school. In fact, he might as well be, since that was when his stupid crush on the boy in front of him had started. They both looked everywhere except at each other before Niall finally took a deep breath and spoke again. “You’ll buy me a beer?”

Liam felt his heart sink as he patted his pockets. “Dammit, I’m cleaned out right now.” Niall’s face was a mix of hurt and disbelieving. “I mean I would.” Liam looked around desperately, eyes falling on his own beer. “You can have mine!” he all but shouted as he shoved the bottle at Niall.

Blue eyes were wide as he laughed and pushed the beer back towards Liam. “No. No, that’s alright. I don’t want your cooties.”

Liam froze for a moment before he realized Niall was teasing him, and not the mean teasing he’d endured in school, but friendly teasing. “No. No. No. Haven’t you heard through the gossip mill? I’ve been to a specialist. Turns out they’re like benign cooties, so…” Liam trailed off and wanted to smack himself for babbling like an idiot, but this always happened when he was around Niall.

Niall laughed, but then a blank look fell over his face. “Wait, what?”

“Nothing, just some…” He let his words die again as Niall began glancing around the bar, probably looking for any reason to stop talking to him, or maybe for someone who could actually afford to buy him a drink. “So, what’s been going on with you?” he spit out just as Niall began to slide off the barstool next to him.

“Oh, just, you know, the usual,” Niall responded with a shrug, his attention only half on Liam as he winked at someone across the room, his face falling when the person turned their attention elsewhere. “Hey, you working?”

“I am,” Liam said, proudly. It might be a shit job, but he really was proud of it and enjoyed doing it. “Over at Wolf Auto Repair, still. Two months now.”

Niall actually turned his full attention on him. “Yeah? That’s really great.”

“Yeah. I think so,” Liam responded. He tried to come up with something else, but he never was good at finding words around anyone, but especially not around Niall.

After several moments of awkward silence, they both spoke at once. “No, no, you go ahead,” Liam offered.

“It was really great to see you,” Niall said. Liam nodded his head enthusiastically, feeling completely foolish when Niall took several steps back with wide eyes. “I’ll see you around.”

“Alright. Okay,” Liam said, realizing that Niall was already halfway across the bar. “Good talk,” he muttered to himself as he watched Niall move down the bar to lean over and bat his eyes at Bressie who puffed up his chest and smiled down at the smaller man.

As Liam watched the exchange, movement just behind them caught his attention. He focused to see the man he’d lost to earlier glaring at him as he counted out money into Maz’s hands. Liam took another sip of his beer as he contemplated whether he was going to get out of the bar unscathed that night.

Zayn sighed as he fiddled with the water glass in his hand, watching the ice clink against the sides. The people surrounding him on the couches were talking loudly. Louis and Harry had disappeared about a half-hour earlier, leaving him at the mercy of his father who had pulled over the Hadids and forced Zayn into being social. Of course, Zayn’s idea of being social was to sit as close to the edge of the couch as possible and smile like he knew what was going on while his mind traveled anywhere except for where he was.

“No, it’s the best thing in the world, really,” the oldest daughter, Jelena, was saying, her voice bothering Zayn’s ears as she bumped him with her shoulder and giggled, proving that he was definitely the only sober person in the room. “I mean, when I started I only took it because Isabella didn’t want to take it alone.”

“And the naked man,” Isabella chimed in with a slight leer.

“Oh, of course for the naked man,” she admitted, her giggle becoming even more grating as she laid a hand on Zayn’s and winked when he looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “But now, even after Isabella gave up because she was awful-” She cut off when her sister dipped her fingers in her wine glass and flicked the liquid at her, some splashing Zayn as well. “Anyway, it’s really an obsession. The drawing, not the man.”

“What about you, Zayn?” Mrs. Hadid was asking, her gaze locked on her daughter’s hand covering his. He withdrew the hand to wipe away the bit of wine on his cheek as he glanced over to see his father glaring as he did whenever art was mentioned in regards to Zayn.

After a moment, his father gave a resigned nod of approval to speak on the subject, so Zayn cleared his throat and commented, “I used to take a painting class.” He remembered standing in that room and loving the smell of the paint and putting a brush to canvas. He could still hear the praises of his instructor who’d been very disappointed when he’d quit without notice due to his father deciding it was a waste of time. “I wasn’t very good, though.” He convinced himself that it hurt less when he said that, instead of focusing on having lost something he loved and did well. He scooched slightly away from Jelena and began to fidget with the edge of his sleeve.

He tried to ignore the pitying looks the others were giving him, but when Mrs. Hadid opened her mouth to speak, all he could hear was a loud, angry male voice. Zayn’s eyes widened as he glanced around the room hurriedly, looking around for the source of the voice, but it was gone as quickly as it had started. As he turned back into the conversation, he realized that no one else had noticed the voice as Jelena was speaking again.

“It’s not about being good. It’s not like art is something to make a living at.” She squeezed his shoulder. He tensed as her nails dug into the jacket possessively, making him wonder how rude he would be if he’d suddenly pulled away. “It’s about the escape.”

Zayn had made the decision to stand and go in search of Louis and Harry when pain shot through his shoulder where Jelena was grasping him. He let out a yelp as he felt himself shoved hard. Everyone around him began shouting as he landed on the floor, the side of his head bouncing slightly and the angry male voice sounding in his ears again.

Liam laid on the ground, grasping his shoulder where his earlier opponent had just bashed him with the, now broken, pool cue in his hand. “I had a straight one!! You walked away when I was on a streak!” He continued to scream at him as Andy and Maz tried to hold him back, grabbing the cue when he lifted it over his head. Liam ducked, trying to protect himself and his already injured arm at the same time.

Bressie came around the bar, as Andy and Maz dragged the guy towards the door. “Hey! You boys take that crap outside!” The door shut behind them quieting their voices as Bressie reached down and pulled Liam to his feet and started brushing him off. “You alright?”

Liam closed his eyes for a second, taking a mental inventory; the only severe pain was his shoulder, but he had a bit of an ache on the side of his head, like a fading headache. “Yeah.” Bressie gave him a disbelieving look. “Man, I didn’t even see him coming.” The guy had jumped him out of nowhere when he’d been looking around the bar having suddenly heard the sound of classical music and female voices over the faded sound of the jukebox, but as soon as he'd been hit the music had disappeared and the jukebox was deafening again.

“Well, he knocked the living piss outta you. You sure you’re alright?” Bressie was still looking him over and apologizing when Liam winced after he brushed a little too hard against his arm, that was definitely gonna bruise.

“Yeah, I’m good.”

“Well, let me get you another beer.” Liam opened his mouth, but the bartender held up a hand. “On the house.”

“You know what, I’ll pass, Bressie. I’m just gonna head on home,” Liam explained. After the extra shift at work, the surprise visit from O’Brien and now this, Liam was more than ready for this day to be over. “Gotta be up early for work, tomorrow.”

“Well, I owe you one then,” he said, patting Liam on his uninjured shoulder before heading back behind the bar.

Zayn looked around, feeling uncomfortable with everyone staring at him as his mother knelt next to him. “Zayn?”

“Is he alright?” Jelena asked.

Zayn pushed himself to stand, trying not to let the tears that were rushing to his eyes fall. “I’m sorry...sorry.” He could feel the trembling start and appreciated it when his mother wrapped a hand lightly around his elbow. “I’m...fine.”

“Oh my God, Jelena, what did you do to him?” Isabella shouted.

The door of the bar was barely closed behind him when Liam heard the sound of punches landing. Looking across the parking lot, he saw Maz holding Liam’s attacker up against the side of a vehicle while Andy pummeled him.

“Yeah, hit him again, man!” Maz shouted.

Liam shook his head and kept walking, saying just loud enough to be heard, “You made your point, guys.”

He could feel Andy’s eyes on him as he crawled into the cab of his truck. “You’re welcome!” Andy shouted and Liam just shook his head, wanting nothing more than to go home, but realizing that although he was a long way from drunk, he couldn’t risk getting pulled over by an overzealous officer trying to reach his quota of drunk driving citations for the month.

Crawling back out of the truck, he locked it, pocketing his keys and looking up at the sky, seeing a blinking star. “I really wish there was more than this,” he muttered, as he shoved his hands into his pockets and started the walk home.

Zayn sat in the car across from his parents. He had his hands clasped tightly in his lap as he felt his father’s disapproving gaze. “Give me a little warning the next time you have another seizure, Zayn.” His tone matched his expression and Zayn had to fight back a snort at the ridiculousness of the request. “I mean, it was really quite a show. If you wanted to leave, you could’ve just quietly requested, rather than cause a scene.”

“It was a muscle spasm, father,” Zayn tried to explain. “It hurt a lot.” He sighed as his father snorted. “For a second, it felt like somebody…” He knew the next words out of his mouth would sound unbelievable, but he was tired of the look his father was giving him. “It felt like somebody hit me.”

“The look on your face. It was just a bit much. This is going to be all anyone talks about.” It was like Zayn hadn’t even spoken, but he could see by the concerned look on his mother's face that he had; his father was just ignoring him. Again.

His mother reached across the back of the car and clasped his hand. “For a second, I was worried this was the beginning of another-”

“It’s not!” Zayn snapped, immediately feeling badly for yelling. “It’s not.”

His mom nodded, pursing her lips. “Okay. I’ll give you a shoulder rub when we get home,” she offered.

Zayn let his head fall against the window and stared up at the night sky, his eyes falling on one twinkling star; he wished he could fly away to the stars and leave behind everything and everyone. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”

***

Liam groaned as he rolled over, the sun burning behind his eyes. Grabbing the pillow that fell to the floor, he pulled it back over his face, ready to crash back into a deep sleep. Just as he got comfortable, he heard his phone ringing, the sound that must have woken him in the first place. Without looking, he answered. “Hello?” As soon as he heard the voice on the other end, he shot up into a sitting position, falling off of the bed and scrambling to his feet. “What time is it?” Grabbing the first work shirt he saw, not caring if it was dirty or not, he started cursing wildly as he realized he was late for work. “I’m on my way!”

He grabbed his boots as he ran towards the door, thankful that he had fallen asleep in his clothes the night before. He paused only long enough to grab his toothbrush, wetting it briefly and shoving it in this mouth, figuring it was better than nothing. He was hitting the unlock option on his key fob when he came to a dead stop, the toothbrush falling from his mouth as he stared at his empty drive. “Oh shit!” The night before came flooding back to him and he remembered leaving his truck sitting outside of Bressie’s bar. Taking off at a run, he just hoped he didn’t lose his job for being late.

Zayn smiled to himself as he opened the door to the store set back and around a corner in Time’s Square. He’d just left his mom to have breakfast with some friends, promising he wouldn’t wander the city for too long before heading back to the house. He wasn’t allowed these liberties often and after everything that had happened the night before was surprised his mother had allowed him out alone. “Malik!” the boy behind the counter shouted when he looked up at the jingle of the bell over the door.

“Clifford,” he greeted in return, smiling as he took in the boy’s hair. “I’m liking this new look. What do you call it?” The boy’s hair changed colour as often as a mood ring and today it was different shades of black, purple and blue.

“Galaxy hair,” he responded, reaching under the counter and pulling out a stack of comics. “Set these aside for you.”

Zayn smiled at the boy, appreciating that even though he could only visit the shop every once in a blue moon, there was always a stack of comics waiting especially for him. He reached a hand out to pick up the one on top when a wave of dizziness came over him. Blinking rapidly, he tried to focus on the counter, but it was gone, replaced by a hand reaching for a dashboard radio. A loud honking rang through Zayn’s head and he looked up, startled to see what looked like a road with a semi-truck coming straight at him.

“LOOK OUT!” Liam’s eyes widened and he whipped his truck out of the oncoming traffic and pulled to the side of the road as the eighteen wheeler he’d almost plowed into blew it’s horn and sped fast.

Glancing around the truck, Liam tried to find the person who had shouted at him to watch out, essentially saving his life. “Hello?” he called out cautiously, freezing when everything went dark for a moment before he heard a voice echo his word in an even quieter tone. “Where are you?”

“Um…” Liam’s eyes widened as he realized the voice seemed to be coming from inside his head. He tried to focus on it and his vision started to blur. The dash of his truck gave way to something else entirely. Shoving himself from the truck, he scrambled backwards until he felt himself pressed against a guardrail on the side of the road. “Are you alright?”

Zayn shivered in the cold, having darted out of the store when he saw the large truck barrelling towards him. Logically, he knew there was no way a truck was going to strike him down while he stood in a store, but it looked so real and he couldn’t stop himself from shouting out a warning, shocked when he felt himself jerked to the side like he was in a moving vehicle.

“Hello?”

Zayn shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment trying to fight off the feeling the voice was coming from inside his own brain. “Hello?” he whispered, suddenly feeling very foolish as he pushed his forehead against the store window, watching Michael watching him, although the man seemed a million miles away as his body temperature began rising unexplainably.

“Where are you?”

“Um….” Zayn glanced around him, wondering if this was some elaborate practical joke that Louis and Harry were pulling on him, but as he noticed the street was more or less empty, as empty as a street in New York could get, and no one seemed to be watching him, he decided it couldn’t be that.

“Are you alright?” Zayn jumped when a hand was placed on his arm. He slowly turned, his eyes widening at the sight of the police officer looking at him.

“Hello?” Zayn groaned. The voice was still going in his head. “Is that a cop!?” He almost laughed at the terrified tone, wondering if the officer could hear the voice too, but since his expression remained one of quiet concern, he figured not.

“Yes,” he said, answering both questions. “I’m fine, officer.” He pulled on every bit of his upbringing to stand tall, trying to imitate the haughty look his father sometimes gave when he was dealing with people he felt weren’t worthy of his time.

“You’re sure?” The officer looked hesitant to walk away and Zayn could hear the voice in his head mumbling curses and freaking out. He still wasn’t sure what was going on, but he had the indescribable need to calm down the voice.

“Yes, I’m perfectly alright, sir,” Zayn said, keeping his voice even. “Had a bit too much fun at a get-together last night, if I’m being honest.” He leaned in and spoke in a conspiratorial tone, earning a knowing smile from the officer.

“Alright, son. You have a good rest of the day.” With a nod of his head, he continued down the street and Zayn quickly turned back around to face the store window, smiling and waving at Michael who was giving him a concerned look.

“Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it,” Zayn kept repeating to himself, hoping to make the voice go away, terrified it wouldn’t.

“Hey, shut up!”

“You’re still there?” he whispered.

“Can you hear me?” The voice sounded as unsure as he did. “Who are you?”

“I’m sorry,” Zayn choked out, realizing tears were starting to fill his eyes. He sincerely hoped the officer wouldn’t come back to check on him, or, even worse, take him home.

“I’m sorry? What am I sorry about? What did I do?”

“Who are you?” Zayn pleaded, banging a hand against the window.

“I ASKED YOU THAT!” Zayn was panting as the voice shouted at him. “I’m looking at a store window,” the voice continued, a bit of confusion and awe in the tone. Zayn started to respond by questioning what he was looking at because it appeared to be a long stretch of road coated in dust, but the voice didn’t pause long enough. “Is that the new Batman? Sick.” Zayn chuckled. “Okay, new comic is so not the point. The point is I’m losing my mind.”

Zayn flat out laughed at the voice now. “If you’re losing your mind, I’m losing mine as well.” The voice fell quiet for so long that Zayn would have thought it was gone except for the strange thing that was happening with his vision. He saw hands move up in front of his vision, hands that were definitely not his. Raising his own hands up he wiggled them around before clenching them into fists and slowly extending the middle fingers.

Liam couldn’t help the laugh that escaped him when the strange hands that he could see, but knew were not there, gave him a double bird. “Are you me?”

“No. No. NO. NO!” Liam flinched as the volume of the voice grew. “You’re in my head. You are in my head.” The sound of panting filled Liam’s head and he could feel a strange tightness in his chest; although he’d never had a panic attack, it felt strangely familiar. “Oh, Allah, I’m so scared.”

As crazy as it sounded, Liam knew he had to do something to quiet this voice in his head, whoever or whatever it was, the terror was beginning to infect him. With a deep breath, he spoke. “Where am I?” He nearly laughed at the ridiculousness of the question, but it seemed to distract the voice.

“What?”

A small smile came to Liam’s lips as he heard slightly less panic in the voice. “Where am I?” he repeated slowly as he turned this way and that, looking around before turning towards his truck and putting both hands on the hood and breathing deeply and slowly.

“Uh...you’re on a road.” The voice paused and Liam was about to speak again, but it continued. “There’s a truck. Why is there a truck?”

“It’s my truck. I have a truck. It’s a nice truck. I have a car too, well, parts of a car, but it’s gonna be a nice car.” Liam could feel the pride in his voice as he said the words. He loved his truck; it was old and beat up, but it ran great and, most importantly, it was all his.

“You have a truck?” A small laugh filled his head, making the feeling of pride grow even larger.

“Yeah, what do you have?” He shook his head at himself. Was he seriously having a conversation with a voice in his head? He was beginning to wonder if this was all a dream and he’d never actually gotten out of bed that morning, or if possibly he’d been knocked unconscious in the attack the night before.

“A Range Rover.”

Liam was impressed that his imaginary friend was apparently really well off. “Nice. Safe. Smart.”

Zayn laughed loudly at the impressed tone of the voice. Slapping a hand over his mouth, he waved off a person who looked at him strangely, although he probably did look weird from where he’d moved to sit on the raised ledge just outside of the comic book store talking to himself. “I can see out there, but I can see here, too. If I don’t focus, it’s like overlaying images, a double-exposed photograph, but if I focus I can see here or I can see what’s inside my head.”

“Man, it’s not your head. It’s Arizona.”

“Wait, you’re saying you’re real?” The voice chuckled. “You’re a real person!”

Liam didn’t know why, but the amazement in the voice made him giddy. “That’s just about the sweetest thing anybody’s ever said to me.” Sadly, that was true. He shivered, glancing down at his arms as goosebumps broke out over his skin. “I don’t get it. I feel cold.” He squinted his eyes, but all he could see were hands on knees and just beyond that a tiny bit of what looked like snow. “Is that snow? Is it cold where you are?”

“Yeah, it’s, like, nearly winter,” the voice responded and Liam could tell he was looking around because suddenly all he saw were cars and signs and his head was filled with lots of noise like he’d uncovered his ears as a hat was held in front of his face. “This is my hat.” He recognized the Green Lantern logo on the front.

“Sick,” Liam said, finally settling down on the ground and leaning back against the bumper of his truck. “I can feel the cold and I can hear you-”

“Like I hear myself.”

Liam shook his head, wondering what the people driving by thought of him sitting on the side of the road talking to himself.  He was suddenly thankful this wasn’t a very busy street. “Where are you? I mean, I’m guessing since you said I’m a real person that you must be as well, so if you aren’t in my head and it’s cold there, where are you?”

“New York City.”

“New York City?! Get outta here!” Liam had never been out of Arizona, let alone as far away as New York. “Wait a minute, what time is it?” The voice didn’t answer right away. “You know what, what, what day is it?”

“It’s Friday, like, the eighteenth?”

“Well, that’s today.” That sounded right, but, to be honest, Liam lost track of dates most of the time. “I think. Do you have a watch?” He looked down at his own watch, smiling as he saw the other hand move until the watch faces lined up. A jolt ran through him as he noticed the hour hands. “Oh, my God! You’re in the future! You’re three hours in the fut-”

Zayn’s laughter drowned out the rest of the sentence. “Not the future. Different time zone.” He kept giggling as he imagined the look on the face that belonged to the voice and then he found himself wondering about the face.

“Oh, yeah, right.”

He, the voice was definitely a he, sounded embarrassed and Zayn began to wonder if he was blushing, if he could blush and what else could make him blush. As his mind began to wonder, he had a moment of panic. “Can you hear my thoughts?!”

“I don’t know. Think something.”

That was definitely a no, then, but Zayn tried to think of something ridiculous anyway, finally deciding on an inflatable banana, embarrassed by how phallic that seemed and switching his thoughts to a dancing alligator instead. He really hoped the voice couldn’t read his mind, otherwise it would think he was crazy. Then again, don’t voices in your head usually mean you’re crazy anyway?

“Okay…”

“I got nothing.”

Zayn felt relief. “I was thinking about a dancing alligator.” He laughed loudly as the voice chuckled unsurely.

“Well, that’s a weird one, but what if-”

“Zayn, man, you alright?” Louis face filled his line of vision and he groaned, focusing on him and realizing he couldn’t see the road anymore.

“Hey, Lou.” He took the hand stretched out to him and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet.

“Why were you on the ground?”

Zayn panicked, what could he possible come up with to explain why he’d been sitting on the cold ground talking to himself. “I fell?”

“Is that a question?” Louis said, elbowing him in the ribs.

“Yeah..I mean, no. I got a little dizzy and must’ve stumbled.” He watched as Louis’ face grew concerned. “I’m alright. I’m just gonna head home now. Talk to you later.”

“You sure you’re alright, man? Didn’t hurt yourself or anything?” Louis walked next to Zayn as he continued down the road, his Range Rover coming into sight.

“No, I’m fine. Just need to get a bit more rest. Still feeling a bit off from last night.” He pressed the button to unlock his vehicle, climbing in and smiling as Louis stood in the way of closing the door.

“I heard about that. You sure you’re alright?” His friend genuinely looked concerned and Zayn felt badly for rushing off, but he didn’t want to keep going over last night. He pressed a quick kiss to Louis’ cheek and then shoved him gently out of the way so he could close the door.

He rolled down the window and smiled at Louis as he put the vehicle into gear. “I’ll talk to you soon, yeah? Tell Harry I said, ‘hey’!”

Liam paced along the side of the road, feeling panicked when the voice had suddenly disappeared. He’d tried calling out a few times to get their attention, but got nothing in response. It wasn’t just the voice that had gone, but the feeling of cold and the ability to see the sidewalk and store windows. His head felt completely empty, something he was sure O’Brien would have a comment on. He’d been pacing for a good five minutes and was just about to get back into his truck when he heard it.

“Are you there?”

Liam couldn’t even explain away the sense of relief that flooded him when he heard the voice. “Wow. Guess we got disconnected,” he joked, at a loss for what else to say or do; this wasn’t exactly a situation they covered in school.

“Yeah, Louis showed up and I had to cut you off.” The voice sounded almost regretful and Liam wondered who Louis was, but he remembered hearing another voice speak before his head had emptied.

“Wait, how did you do that?”

“I could feel you trying to, like, ‘come in,’ I guess. Like a pushing at the back of my head, but I just, like, stopped it.”

Liam wondered if this was something he would be able to do, or if he even wanted to. He smiled as he realized he was enjoying the craziness his day had become and to think it’d started off with that call from work. “Work!”

“What?”

“I can’t talk now. If I’ve still got a job, and, God, I pray I still have a job or there is gonna be some major hell to pay with O’Brien, I need to get to it, but... “ He trailed off as he realized he really wanted to keep talking, that this was the first person he’d been able to talk to and laugh with that didn’t judge him for what he’d done, in a long time. “We really need to talk about all this.”

“Seven o’clock?”

Liam nodded, but realized the voice couldn’t see that, but maybe he could. Either way. “Okay.” As soon as the word was out, he realized something. “Wait, that’s four my time and I’m still at work. Say, seven for me? Ten for you?”

“Yeah, that’s perfect.”

Liam walked back towards his truck, grasping the door handle and feeling the heat seep into his palm. “And, you know, if it doesn’t work out, it-”

“It was nice...meeting you.”

Liam smiled as he returned the sentiment, startling when something cold brushed against his cheek, focusing his eyes he looked toward the sky. “Hey, it’s snowing.”

Zayn felt it when the voice was gone, his head empty. He’d managed to get back home and exit the car while talking and now stood in the backyard staring up at the snow as it fell. For a moment, he debated sticking his tongue out to catch snowflakes before finally giving into the urge. As he caught a flake, he giggled as he remembered the soft voice in his head. Glancing at his watch, he started counting down to when he would, hopefully, hear it again.

He passed the remainder of the day helping his mother stuff envelopes for a charity fundraiser his father was hosting in the coming months, something to do with mental health cases and Zayn tried his best not to think about his own mental health while doing it. Every once in awhile, he could feel his mind wandering and when he’d come back to himself, his mother would be watching him with a soft smile on her face.

“What?”

“You look happy,” she told him, rising to her feet and kissing him on the forehead and excusing herself to go talk to the kitchen staff. “Dinner is going to be late. Your father won’t be home until after nine.”

Zayn panicked, if they didn’t eat until after nine, he wouldn’t be ready by ten. “I was hoping to try to get to bed early. I’m still feeling a bit off from last night.” He tried to keep his voice even and hint at some embarrassment from what had occurred the night before.

She gave him a sad smile from the doorway, but nodded. “I’ll have Carolyn fix you up something now and you can take it to your room. I’m sure your father will understand.”

Zayn knew his father would not understand, but he hoped his mother would keep him calm enough to not come barging into his room and berating him for being rude and antisocial. He sighed as he thought about just how little his father understood about his own flesh and blood. Sighing heavily, he finished up the stack of envelopes in front of himself and moved to the kitchen to see what the chef had prepared for him.

Liam hurried home from work, exhausted and sore. His boss had berated him for a good half-hour about being late, but, thankfully, had not fired him. In his rush to make up for being late, he’d messed up a simple oil change and ended up with a face full of old motor oil and that had just about set the tone for the rest of the day.

As he came through the door, he immediately headed for the shower, glancing at the clock, he saw that he had about thirty minutes to get cleaned up before he was scheduled to chat with the voice. He laughed out loud and made a mental note to be sure and ask for a name so he could stop referring to him as such.

The alarm he’d set on his phone was ringing as he left the bathroom, still towel drying his hair. As he reached for it, his mind went to the voice and suddenly he took a step back as his vision was flooded with an unfamiliar room.

“Woah.”

Liam let out a chuckle at the awe coming through and wondered if the connection was as sudden and disconcerting for the other as it was for him. “Wow. Hey, there. I really didn't think this was going to work. I thought that maybe-”

“Same. I’ve been wracking my brain all day about this.”

“I did the same. Nearly got a face full of oil for my trouble,” Liam responded as he paced around the trailer, nervous energy making it impossible for him to relax enough to sit down.

“I didn’t come up with any sort of explanation. You?” The voice sounded a bit exasperated and he could almost feel the same emotion building inside of himself.

He hesitated to give the only theory he was able to come up with, the one that had come to him when he’d been working on the speedometer of an old Mustang with a statue of Jesus stuck to the dashboard. “I came up with one idea, but it’s really out there and I really hope that it’s not what is going on because that would really suck because talking to you doesn't seem like a bad thing even though it probably means I’m a bit crazier than everyone always-” The chuckle that echoed in his head stopped his rambling and he could feel the blush covering his cheeks, normally he didn’t talk that much to anyone. “Are you, by any chance, Satan?”

Zayn’s eyes widened at the question and he held back the laugh that was trying to fight it’s way out of him because he’d just heard someone walk past his room. “No. My name is Zayn,” he offered, suddenly wondering briefly if perhaps the voice in his head was actually Satan and this was how he was choosing to reveal himself.

“That’s....well, I don’t think I would’ve come up with that on my own.” The voice sounded awed and Zayn smiled a bit, about to ask for a name in return, but didn’t get the chance. “I’m Liam.”

“Liam. Leeyum,” Zayn drew it out, liking how the name felt in his mouth, the way his lips and tongue twisted around the letters. “I like it.” He began to walk around the room, a strange sensation because the room he saw in front of himself wasn’t moving and he wondered if Liam was sitting down.

“I like the room. Is that your house?”

“Yeah, it’s my house, well, my parents’. This is my room, though.” Zayn shifted his focus to look at his room, trying to see it through Liam’s eyes. He loved his room, it was probably his favourite place in the entire world, if only because his father never ventured through the doorway. A grey curtain hid a glass door that led to a small balcony where Zayn would occasionally sit and sneak the odd cigarette or other smokable. To the right of the window was a wall full of framed black and white photographs his sister had taken. He smiled as he remembered refusing to take them down even when his father had demanded.

“Did I see skylights?”

Zayn turned his gaze up and took in the slanted ceiling above his bed that had two wide skylights that he could open if it got too hot in his room in the summer. He fell back on the bed with a laugh as he looked up at the night sky, glad the house was far enough from the city that he could see the stars.

Liam blinked as he took in the sky he was seeing so far away. He loved the stars, he was always able to see them in the sky above his trailer, but this was different. He smiled as he realized that Zayn clearly had more money than him, or at least his parents did. “You live with your parents?” Liam shrugged at the thought that there was more to the other boy than just a voice in his head; he had an actual life. “Why not? You’ve got a name I’ve never heard of, why wouldn’t you have a family, as well.” He wondered if Zayn’s family was close and what that was like; he hadn’t spoken to his own father for more years than he cared to count and his mother had disappeared after he’d been arrested. He didn’t even want to think of his sister who had turned her back when he needed her most. “Did you tell them about this? About me?”

Zayn’s breath caught in his throat at the thought of sitting down with his parents and saying, “So, I’ve been hearing voices.” He would’ve found himself with a one-way ticket as far away from the family as they could possibly send him. He shook his head. “No, I wasn’t quite sure…”

“Yeah, it’s hard enough for me to believe and it’s happening to us. I can’t even imagine how to explain it to someone else. They’d think we’d lost our marbles.” Liam sounded amused and Zayn giggled.

“Yeah, my family would probably-” He cut himself off as he realized something and used the thought to change the subject. “This is your house?” It was a bit dim and small, but it looked comfortable. Suddenly, Liam seemed to be in motion, Zayn’s view moving up and down rapidly.

“Yeah, it is, but it’s a complete disaster.” Liam’s giggle came through, nervous and adorable and Zayn felt his own humour building rapidly as Liam must have looked down at the pile of dirty clothes he was holding.

“The maid’s day off,” he joked, knowing if his family didn’t hire someone to come in and clean his room daily, it would probably be in a similar state.

“More like decade,” Liam muttered and suddenly Zayn found himself staring at a wood paneled wall, Liam’s hands pressed at shoulder height against it.

Zayn laughed. “What are you doing?”

He could tell Liam shook his head before answering. “It’s better this way. No one should have-I really don't have people over much.”

He could hear the sadness in Liam’s voice, practically felt it creeping into his own mood, so he struggled to think of something to say, hoping he could find something to talk to Liam about to distract him from whatever was upsetting him and get him to stop staring at the wall. He tried to remember anything he’d seen in Liam’s house to comment on, but was coming up blank. He glanced around his room, his eyes falling on a picture of his grandfather standing behind the bar of the pub he’d owned while still alive.

“Okay, I have a really crazy question to ask you, so don’t, like, judge me, yeah?” Zayn waited until Liam made a humming sound that sounded like interest. “Did you, like, did you get hit last night? On the shoulder?” He swallowed as he remembered the pain. “Like really hard.”

Liam burst into laughter and it warmed Zayn to his core to hear the happiness replacing the negativity that had been there just moments earlier. He could almost feel the connection growing stronger, the distance between them shrinking.

“Yeah, sure did. Lousy bastard just like came at me-”

“With a pool cue! I know, I was there, but I was also at this awful dinner party with-”

“Classical music and lots of people talking!”

“I fell off a couch and everyone thought I’d lost it, but I felt it!” Liam was laughing so loudly now that Zayn couldn’t help joining in, his own laughter echoing through the room and it felt odd.

Zayn froze when there was a knock on his door and his father’s voice carried through the wood. “Son?”

Zayn snatched his cell off his desk as he went, holding it to his ear as he pulled open the door and found his father’s stern face. “Hello, Father. Sorry about the noise.” He pulled the phone from his ear, wrapping his hand over it. “It’s Louis; I’m telling him about what he missed after he disappeared last night.”

His father looked unimpressed. “I just wanted to remind you that your mother and I are leaving in the morning for that conference in Washington.” Zayn nodded and his father returned the gesture before turning away. Zayn pretended to talk into the phone as he closed the door. “Yeah, Lou, that sounds amazing. I’m really happy for you and Harry.” As soon as his father headed down the stairs, Zayn shut the door and leaned back against it, laughing again as he tossed his phone onto his bed.

Liam laughed as he felt relief flood through him, wondering if it was just his or Zayn’s as well. “That was pretty awesome.”

“Thank you, Louis.” Zayn was still giggling.

Liam wanted to ask who Louis was and Harry, as well, but he didn’t want to be too nosy. “So, that was your dad?” Liam asked, moving away from the wall and settling on his own bed, leaning against the pillows and pulling his knees up to his chest. The man had been older, handsome with dark skin and black hair peppered with silver. Liam wondered if Zayn took after his father or his mother.

“Yeah, that was Yaser, my father.” Zayn’s voice had lost its warmth; Liam wondered what had brought about the change. “He’s a doctor and runs a hospital.”

Liam was impressed and wondered if Zayn wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps or if he had a different plan for his life. “Professional man. Do-”

“I really should be going,” Zayn interrupted and Liam tried not to let the disappointment settle in because he was pretty sure Zayn would know what he was feeling.

“Well, do you wanna talk again? Tomorrow?” He hoped he wasn’t sounding like he was pleading, but the idea of never talking to Zayn again was pretty overwhelming.

Zayn smiled at the eagerness in Liam’s voice and he was glad that despite the downturn in his mood, Liam didn’t seem to be done with him. “Yeah, but it’ll, like, have to be after my parents leave. You’re not, like, planning on getting hit again, are you? I don’t know if I can handle a repeat.”

Liam roared with laughter. “Well, it’s not on my calendar, but at least it wasn’t the worst I ev- Oh my God!”

 

Zayn chuckled at Liam’s outburst. “What happened?”

“I have to know something. Have you ever been sledding?”

Zayn laughed loudly, slapping a hand over his mouth and holding his breath. When there was no noise outside his bedroom, he removed his hand and replied, “I live in New York, one of the coldest states in the nation, of course I’ve been sledding.”

“Did you ever go sledding and get like really hurt?”

“I...I hit a tree.” Zayn knew his voice was quiet, but he was shocked. He’d only been about seven years old when it had happened. If Liam was asking about it, did that mean he was there? “I got, like, fifteen stitches.”

“I was in class and got knocked out cold! The teacher was just about to call for an ambulance when I finally came around. Had a headache for days.”

“Liam, that was twenty years ago,” Zayn stated, feeling shocked. Had Liam always been there? A large yawn suddenly overtook him and his jaw popped from the size of it.

“You’re exhausted and I’m getting there. Get some sleep, Zayn. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

Zayn felt peace settle over him at the softness in Liam’s voice. “Definitely. What time?”

Once everything was settled for the next day, Liam felt the connection break. He stood and just let the empty feeling in his head consume him for a few moments before heading over to his fridge and pulling out a beer. Dropping down on the couch, he started coughing at the dust that was kicked up. After it had settled, he looked around his trailer, taking in the surroundings for the first time with more concern than that it was just a place to sleep. With a giant sigh, he pushed himself to stand and crossed to his sink. Squatting down, he dug around underneath and unearthed the small supply of cleaning supplies that had been left there by the previous owner.

***

Liam woke up with a smile on his face; looking around his trailer he was glad to see that it actually looked halfway decent. He made himself a cup of coffee, singing to himself under his breath as he looked at the clock and realized that it was nearing the time for him and Zayn to “meet up”. Stepping out onto the deck outside his trailer, he closed the door and sat down on the steps and pressed his back against it, sipping at the mug as he watched the sun rise.

Once the sun had risen completely, he surveyed the yard around his trailer and made a face when he realized the outside was actually worse than the inside. He glanced around at the engine and car parts that he’d been collecting to try to fix up the old Corvette that he’d found on a trip to the junkyard. As he took in the mess, he felt the connection open.

Zayn called his name loudly and he could see that he was moving up and down rapidly. “I’m awake. What the hell are you doing?” The movement suddenly stopped and Liam could feel warmth in his cheeks; Zayn was blushing. “What?”

“Jumping up and down on the bed. I got bored waiting for time to pass.”

“You’re crazy,” Liam muttered, smiling wide.

“Good that you know that now,” Zayn responded, his voice quieter.

Liam felt it was time to change the subject, so he wracked his brain trying to remember some of the things he had thought about asking Zayn while he was cleaning last night. “Oh, hey! When you were in your teens, around sixteen, I think? You were really upset about something. I remember it was the dead of summer because I was thankful I didn't have to go to school. I was a wreck for a month.”

Zayn listened to Liam talk, trying not to let him calling him crazy bother him; there was no way that Liam could know how that word affected him. He shook his head as he tried to figure out what Liam was asking. If he’d not mentioned the age, he would’ve thought it was something completely different, but as he started thinking back, he felt his face warming and he put his hands over his face as he giggled. “Nope. Not going there,” he said through his hands.

“C’mon, man. How bad can it be? You owe me!”

“Nope. Too personal.”

“Too personal? We’re inside each other’s heads; can’t get much more personal than that. Besides, you owe me a whole July!”

Zayn stood up and headed down into the kitchen, suddenly wanting to busy himself and he knew Carolyn was off for the day, so he decided to make himself something to eat. “That was Ant.”

“You were devastated over an ant? What did you do? Step on him?” Liam sounded genuinely confused and Zayn laughed loudly, forgetting for a moment the seriousness of the topic.

“Not an Ant. Just Ant. Anthony. My first boyfriend.” Liam let a small sound escape and Zayn wondered what that meant, but he just kept talking. “I was mad over him. He was older, like, twenty or something, I don’t remember now.” Zayn opened the refrigerator and pulled out sandwich fixings and carried them to the island where he began putting together an easy sandwich while he talked. “We went out for, like, two months. Then he dumped me right after we...we...well, you know.”

“Oh,” Liam’s voice was quiet and then suddenly louder. “Oh! OH! No wonder. What a bastard. Did he like do it over the phone?”

“No, I mean he did it right after. The cum was barely tacky and my clothes were still on the floor,” Zayn said, bitterly.

“Fucking bastard. He’s lucky I was here and not there. I would’ve kicked his ass.” Liam’s voice was growly and made Zayn feel warm.

Liam wanted to punch something. He hated the hurt he was hearing in Zayn’s tone. He’d never had a lot of luck with people, girls and boys alike, but he’d never had someone be that callous towards him. Pushing himself to stand, he started moving around the yard and trying to organize some of the mess that surrounded him.

“Sorry, if I, like, ruined your summer.”

It hurt to hear guilt in Zayn’s voice, to know he was carrying the weight of something he didn’t know was happening on his shoulders; no one deserved that feeling. “No. It’s really not as big a deal as I was making it. After awhile, I got used to having these crazy mood swings that I couldn’t explain.”

“Same. I’d pretty much chalked you up to PMS, until my sister explained that wasn’t possible.” Zayn chuckled.

Although laughter was Zayn’s first response, he felt a familiar heaviness squeeze his heart; it happened whenever he thought about Doniya. He blinked back tears and rubbed at his eyes, hating that he knew Liam knew he was crying even though he was trying to hide it.

“I remember her,” Liam whispered.

“Of course you do,” Zayn responded, letting the tears fall. He never got to talk about her, his father forbidding anyone in the house to mention her; it’s why he hated that Zayn kept her photographs up on the walls. He prefered to forget she ever existed. If she never existed then she never had a life to take.

“You were in college, right?”

Zayn swallowed hard as he dumped the sandwich he’d just finished making into the trash before moving to lean against the wall and sliding to the floor, burying his face in his arms. “Yeah. She wasn't ever very well. She was kind of like me; maybe she had her own inside her head friend, but probably not. She was just never happy and our father didn’t make it any easier on her. He rode her so hard until I think she felt she didn’t have any choice, like she couldn’t get away any other way.” He bit back his sobs, not wanting Liam to hear even though he knew he couldn’t hide his emotions. Every time he thought of his sister, he missed her more. The more he missed her, the more he wondered if she’d had the right idea. If getting away from their father and his controlling ways was more important than actually living.

 

The days following her death, when his father refused to acknowledge what had happened, refused to have a memorial of any kind, were some of the hardest of his life. He remembered feeling like he was going to break, but every time he got to the point of following Doniya where he shouldn’t go, something had held him back. “Liam, there’s something that didn't make sense to me at the time. I always felt this way, but it was even more obvious then; I just always felt like there was someone there. Even at my lowest, I swore there was someone with me.” He let out a deep sigh; Liam had been so quiet, he would’ve thought he’d broken the connection if it weren’t for the shared sadness he felt. “Did you ever feel that way?”

Liam wiped at his own eyes, the tears weren’t just his, but Zayn’s as well. He remembered the feelings of hopelessness and desperation that he’d gone through. He remembered the dreams of a beautiful girl that he now knew bore a slight resemblance to Zayn’s father, a man who Zayn clearly did not like very much, and with good reason. He also remembered all of the times when he’d felt his own loneliness wash over him and felt like he had no one left in his life, except for a far away feeling in his heart. “Why don't you tell me?”

“I...I remember your first night in prison?” Zayn’s voice was matter-of-fact, not pitying or judgemental, but Liam felt embarrassed anyway.


“Guess I really don’t have any secrets from you. Fuck,” he muttered under his breath as he picked up a tire that had found it’s way to the center of the yard and rolled it towards the shell of a car, smiling when it bumped the side and came rolling back towards him.

“What did you do?”

“Something that seemed like a great idea until I found myself in a cell,” Liam admitted, rolling the tire back towards the car and watching it fall to the ground instead of rolling back. “I’m just good with locks. Not so good with silent alarms.” He gave a wry chuckle, glad to hear Zayn giggle slightly in return. “Got two years with mostly lifers.” He shuddered at the memories of what had happened to him when he was on the inside, things he never wanted to revisit inside his head or otherwise.

“I figured that was a nightmare,” Zayn admitted.

“It was,” Liam muttered before continuing a bit louder. “I never felt as alone as I did while doing my bid.”

“You weren’t.” Zayn’s voice was quiet, but the surety of the statement brought a smile to Liam’s face and a sudden desire to change the subject.

“Hey!” He snapped his fingers and stopped moving around the yard.

“What?”

“Go look in a mirror,” Liam said, feeling his curiosity about how Zayn looked getting the better of him; he’d been trying to picture him since he’d seen his father. He was even more curious now that he knew the girl he’d grown up seeing was Zayn’s sister.

“What?”

“Did your brain break?” Liam teased, listening to Zayn stammer in response. He kept talking, trying to drown out the nonsense syllables coming through the connection. “I only know what your hands look like, and while they’re very nice hands, I wanna see you . Go on, now. Show me!”

Zayn looked down at himself, taking in the sweatpants that were hanging low on his hips and the tank top that had seen better days; clothes he would normally never wear outside the confines of his room, but with his parents gone he didn’t care. “Why don’t you go look in a mirror?”

“‘Cause I asked you first!”

“What are you, five?” Zayn argued, running a hand through his hair and groaning when he realized it was still a mess from sleeping. When Liam only grunted in outrage, Zayn found himself wondering what his face looked like when he made that noise. He tried to picture how Liam’s mouth formed words and what colour his eyes were. “I’m not doing it unless you do.”

“Alright, fine, but after you.” He could tell Liam had stepped back inside his trailer and as he passed through the living room area, it looked like he’d been cleaning, a basket of dirty laundry on the couch and a couple of garbage bags tied off near the wall.

“I’m still in my pajamas!” Zayn argued.

“It’s not my fault you’re a lazy bones! Get moving. C’mon, man.” Liam’s tone was teasing, but Zayn could hear the undercurrent of concern contained within it. He knew that if he really didn’t want to do this, Liam would understand, but, at the same time, he also really wanted to see Liam.

“Fine,” he snapped, but Liam just laughed in response. Zayn headed up the stairs to his bedroom, thinking of the full length mirror on the outside of his closet door. When he reached the top of the stairs, he turned right and stood in front of his room for a moment. “This is ridiculous. I’m scared.”

“Oh, c’mon. What’s there to be scared of?” Liam teased.

“Shut up, you’re scared, too!” Zayn took a deep breath and walked through his doorway and closed his eyes. “Ok. I’m going to the mirror, now.” He turned and walked the few steps until he knew he was standing in front of the mirror. Swallowing the lump growing in his throat, he lifted his head, opening his eyes and looked directly at the mirror.

Liam gasped when the veil of Zayn’s closed eyes lifted and he took in the other man for the first time. He started at the top of his head and the way his deep black hair was mussed around his ears, like he’d been running his hands through it. Zayn’s eyes were gold, literally gold with flecks of a purer gold and if he squinted, he could make out a small bit of colour floating in the whites. His cheekbones could have been used as examples in a plastic surgeon’s office; his entire face would be an ideal for anyone and Liam was having a hard time catching his breath. As Zayn’s teeth dug into his lower lip, Liam’s gaze shifted there and he found himself thinking things about those lips that made him eternally grateful that Zayn couldn’t read his mind.

“Wow, I’m gorgeous,” Liam breathed out, his voice awed. He realized how ridiculous the statement sounded, but it really felt like Liam was looking at himself, but seeing Zayn.

“Oh, don’t be daft,” Zayn snapped. His fingers tangled in the hem of his tank top and he was chewing his lip even harder.

Liam shook himself, trying to break the spell that Zayn had somehow cast over him, making him forget for a moment that he was looking at a mirror image of Zayn and not really himself. “Yeah, no. You’re right. By gorgeous, I meant ugly and disgusting.” Zayn started giggling. “What did I say?”

Zayn could feel his cheeks burning and didn’t want to risk Liam seeing the blush if it actually made itself visible so he slapped his hands over his face and turned away from the mirror, trying to forget the way he had felt Liam’s eyes on him, tracing him. “Just don’t flatter me because I spent the night in prison with you.”

“What the hell are you talking about? I wasn’t trying to flatter you. C’mon, I was having fun pretending to be a gorgeous man. I wanted to, uh, go strut my stuff on a runway or something. Go back!”

Zayn knew that Liam was teasing about the runway stuff, but he could feel his sincerity in his opinion of Zayn’s appearance and he didn’t know how to deal with that information. “It’s your turn!” He was giggling and his hands were still over his face.

“Read ‘em and weep,” Liam said and his image appeared on Zayn’s palms for a moment before he dropped his hands to get a better look. His breath didn’t catch like Liam’s, but he could feel a warmth in his stomach as he took in the short mass of brown hair that just dusted his forehead and curled at the edges. Eyes that mirrored the puppy Zayn had as a child blinked at him, insecurity glowing from behind soft lashes that Zayn raised his hand to reach out and brush his fingertips across. He realized the futility of the action and closed his hand in a fist, dropping it to his side as he kept studying the far-away face in front of him. Liam’s nose was a cute little button that Zayn had the sudden urge to nip the tip of and then had to wonder where the hell that thought had come from before he tore his eyes away.

Unfortunately, the next part that drew his attention was Liam’s lips,  pink and full and a bit wet from his tongue running over them before he nibbled gently at the corner. The warmth in Zayn’s stomach began sliding downwards, so he turned his attention away from Liam’s face. If he thought that would be an improvement, he was sorely mistaken, because Liam’s body looked as if he’d been working out every day since birth. The curve of muscle showing beneath the sleeve of his sweat-soaked tee didn’t help Zayn’s growing arousal.

He felt his gaze drifting lower and quickly jerked it back upwards when he saw the outline of Liam’s cock twitch underneath jeans that were faded and ripped. Liam’s arm lifted and rubbed against the back of his neck as he avoided looking at Zayn, discomfort beginning to flow through the connection effectively tamping down Zayn’s arousal. “You’ve got a really nice...face.”

Liam’s jaw gaped and he shook his head. “Nice, huh?”

“Oh no!” Zayn shouted, feeling terrible, but then he felt more than heard the chuckle running through Liam’s body. “I mean, yeah, it is.”

“It might not be as photogenic as yours, but it does hold my minimal amount of brains in, so that’s a plus.” Liam blinked both eyes in the mirror, which Zayn realized must be his form of a wink. Zayn could tell that he was remembering the feelings that had been rushing through him as he’d taken in Liam’s appearance, but was being nice enough not to tease him too much about it.

With a soft smile, Zayn turned back towards his mirror, smiling as their images overlaid each other. “Hi.”

“Hi.”

***

As the months passed, Liam and Zayn took more and more time to talk to each other.  Zayn had gone out one day and purchased a bluetooth headset and took to wearing it whenever he could, so that people didn’t make a big deal out of him talking to himself. The last thing he needed was word getting back to his father that he was doing things that made others question his sanity.

For a long time, Liam refused to open the connection while he was at work, not wanting to bore Zayn, but one day he was on a creeper underneath an old VW Bus and he let his mind wander to the idea of road trips and just how far away New York really was. The next thing he knew, Zayn was laughing and Liam had jumped and clunked his head on the muffler. Once he’d recovered, he found that talking to Zayn helped to pass the hours while he was at work. He hadn’t really connected with anyone at the garage, so having Zayn there really helped.

The first major snow of the season, Liam convinced Zayn to bundle up and go stand under the falling flakes. He even made him stick his tongue out and catch flakes, making Zayn laugh with how excited he was about something he’d been around his entire life. Once Liam had his fill of the snow, Zayn began building a snowman, laughing every time Liam did until it was completed, looking a bit lopsided. He hadn’t built one since he and Doniya were kids and he found that memory didn’t make him sad anymore, so as he tilted his head to take in the face of rock and carrots, he told Liam about it. It was the first time he’d talked about her without feeling like he was going to break down again.

Liam spent his days off working on the Corvette he was trying to rebuild. He would explain some of what he was doing and was glad when Zayn seemed to be genuinely interested. One day while he was working on his own car, he realized that Zayn was speaking to someone else about a rattling engine. After the mechanic went to check his schedule, he asked Zayn what was going on because the things the mechanic had been spouting could not possibly be going on in a pretty much brand new Range Rover. After a few minutes of listening to the engine, Liam had Zayn look at it and they found a loose sensor wire. The car was fixed before the mechanic came back out and Liam felt proud to have been useful to Zayn.

***

One night, Zayn found himself in a screaming match with his father, something that rarely happened; normally, Zayn was fairly meek and agreeable to this father. That night, however, his father was pushing for him to take one of the Hadid girls out for dinner and Zayn wasn’t having it. It wasn’t the first time his father had tried to force him to date the daughter of one of his colleagues or another influential person in their circle, but it was the first time his father pushed the issue of Zayn settling down with “someone to continue the Malik line”. He bit his tongue to hold back the confession, the words that would probably cause his father to disown him for good, or even worse, literally, kill him.

After the argument, his father left the house in a huff, dragging his mother off to another schmoozing dinner with Dr. Cowell about the schizophrenia pharmaceutical study. Zayn politely refused Carolyn’s offer to make him dinner before she left and headed up to his room. Once he was alone, he dug underneath his bed and pulled out the small wooden box that had belonged to his sister. When he’d found it after her death, shoved back into the closet underneath a pile of old clothing, he’d been surprised to see the contents. His surprise quickly gave way to glee as he’d snuck out onto his balcony and lit up one of the joints.

Thanks to Louis, he’d managed to keep the box stocked and continued to use the weed as the perfect escape from his father. He stepped onto the balcony and set the box on the ground next to the large papasan chair he kept out there before curling up in it and staring out over the property as the sun began to settle over the trees. He thought about Liam, wondering if he ever had time to sit and watch the sunset; he always seemed so busy working at his job or on his own projects around his trailer.

He felt when the connection opened, but was still startled to hear Liam’s gasp. “That’s beautiful, Zee.”

They sat in comfortable silence until the sun disappeared completely, the sky darkening and the stars blinking into view. Zayn thought about leaning over to the grab the box, but was distracted by something in Liam’s yard. “What is that?” He felt the pleased flush of Liam’s cheeks as he moved closer to what had caught Zayn’s eye.

Liam had been very careful while working on the project, hoping to keep it a secret from Zayn until it was finished. He wasn’t sure why he had felt the need to do that, but he knew he couldn’t exactly give Zayn a gift but he figured he might be able to give him something pretty to look at while they sat outside of his trailer. He’d realized once he’d finished clearing up all of the car parts and other junk in his yard that some of the items could be useful. He’d taken old cinder blocks that had been left behind by the previous owners and set them up in a starburst pattern with six rays of four blocks a piece. Over the center blocks, he had carried over an old engine block, happy when it sat sturdily in place.

He’d spent an afternoon at the nursery talking to a young woman who helped him to choose plants that wouldn’t automatically die out in the desert air. In the center of the engine block, he’d planted a large desert rose tree, the pink and white blossoms sending a soft scent through the air. In the sides of the engine block, he’d alternated desert bluebells and sundrops. In the holes of the cinder blocks he’d put various succulents and cacti, the tallest towards the center and gradually growing smaller. He was still debating what to put between the cinder blocks in the triangles, but had thought about maybe trying to grow his own vegetables.

“That is really beautiful. Touch the tree!” Zayn demanded. Liam reached out and ran his fingers over the twisted base before petting one of the petals of the roses. “Smell them!” Liam obeyed, pressing his nose into the center of the bloom and inhaling deeply, feeling Zayn’s sigh.

Zayn continued to give instructions that Liam followed, enjoying the joy that was radiating from Zayn. It was a vast improvement to the quiet anger that had been simmering through him when they’d first connected that evening. Once they’d circled the entire display, Liam settled on the steps leading into his trailer and leaned back against the door. “I’m glad you like it.”

“I wish I could see it for real,” Zayn whispered. “Wish I could come sit there and sketch for hours. Or read. Or really anything to not be here.”

“What’s wrong?”

Zayn shook his head, not because he didn’t want to tell Liam what was wrong, but because he didn’t even want to think about it anymore. Unfortunately, even while Liam had allowed him to explore every inch of the flowers, he couldn’t push away the argument he’d had with his father. “My father is trying to force me into marriage.”

“I didn’t even realize you had a girlfriend.”

“I don’t.” Zayn chose his next words carefully. “I wouldn’t want one anyway.”

“Not into commitment?” Liam’s voice sounded strange and Zayn could feel the teeth he was digging into his lower lip.

“Not into, like, women, to be honest,” Zayn explained and then held his breath. He was pretty sure Liam wouldn’t freak out on him and slam the door on the connection, but he really wasn’t sure what to think when he felt a strange emotion flow between them. “I’m gay,” he finally blurted out when the silence stretched out for too long.

Liam chuckled. “Got that from when you told me about Ant, but figured if it was marriage your father was looking for, then it had to be a woman, continue the family line and all.” Zayn felt the warmth in his face as he remembered coming out to Liam and not even realizing it.

“Yeah, well, my father doesn’t know about Ant or even that I’m gay, but I came so close to telling him just so he’d stop with pushing me to date these women.” Zayn was growling.

“I take it that it wouldn’t go well if he knew.”

Zayn blinked back the tears at the thought of just how awful his father’s reaction would be, how many times he’d had to listen to him spout homophobic rhetoric and vitriol. He shuddered to think if he’d even make it out of the house alive if his father knew. “No.”

“Well, if it’s any consolation, my family wasn’t thrilled either.”

***

The next morning, Liam struggled to get out of bed when his alarm went off; he’d been up until well after one in the morning talking to Zayn, envying the other man for not having to get up that morning. He thought back over the conversation, surprised when he felt a tug at the back of his mind. Switching his focus, he smiled at Zayn’s face looking in a mirror, toothbrush in his mouth.

“Mornin’!” he shouted, spitting out the toothpaste.

“How are you awake?” Liam asked as he pulled clothes out of his drawers, amazed at Zayn’s energy; usually he was lethargic and barely conscious when they spoke in the morning.

“You have your meeting, yeah?” Zayn was moving and then Liam felt him settle and the view of a large screen television with the screen on, the volume off, was familiar.

“Did you just get back into bed?”

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Zayn teased.

“Well, I have to shower.” Liam felt Zayn’s eyebrows wiggle. “Stop that. I’ll talk to you later.” He closed the connection on Zayn’s laughter.

***

Liam’s fingers tapped nervously on the desk in front of him. He hated these monthly appointments with O’Brien almost as much as the surprise visits to his home, maybe even more. He squinted against the sun that shone over the parole officer’s shoulder and right into his eyes; he swore blinding him was the reason his appointment was always early in the morning.

“So, how’s the mechanic’s life going?” He only briefly glanced up at Liam before returning to studying the file in front of him, running his fingers over a couple of things.

Liam took a deep breath as he chose his next words carefully, knowing exactly what kind of reaction they would inspire. “It’s going alright, but…” He paused when Paddy’s head snapped up. “I’m actually thinking about looking for something else.”

“Let me guess, with Andy? Maybe, you and Maz are going to strike out on your own?” He started to scribble in the file and Liam swallowed hard.

“No. I just wanna see if I can maybe find something different. Something better. I’m not gonna do something stupid like quit the garage or anything, at least not until I’m sure, but…” He trailed off as he thought about Zayn, about finding a job that would make the other man proud. It seemed that the more they talked, the more Liam thought about him and his thoughts weren’t always the most appropriate for their situation. It wasn’t like they were dating or something; hell, Liam couldn’t even leave the state to go visit him without getting himself thrown back into prison.

“You alright?” Paddy actually sounded concerned and Liam tilted his head in question. “You look like you’re gonna kiss me or something.” He chuckled when Liam shook his head.

“Well, in this light with your face half in shadow-”

“Knock it off, Payne.” At least Paddy was still laughing, but his eyes still held concern and that discomforted Liam more than anything. “Seriously, what’s going on?”

“Nothing!”

“You’re a crap liar, you do know that, right?” Paddy narrowed his eyes at him again; Liam still wasn’t sure what he was trying to see when he did that, but he got nervous when Paddy started making notes again.

He wasn’t sure how to explain to Paddy about Zayn. How do you tell the person keeping you out of prison that you had what amounted to an imaginary friend. He smiled to himself as he felt the familiar tug and, without even trying, the connection opened. He tried to slam it shut, but Zayn was already talking.

“How’d it - woah, is that him?” He started laughing. “He looks like a giant teddy bear. How can you be afraid of him?”

“I met someone!” Liam blurted out, choosing to ignore Zayn, knowing he’d understand.

“What!?”

“Aha! There we go! You’re finally getting some and now you think you’re too good for everything. She know you’re a con?”

Liam swallowed, debating correcting Paddy’s assumption, snorting when Zayn started shouting. “He’s more than that, you lousy bastard!”

“They don’t seem to mind.”

Paddy laughed loudly enough to draw attention from the other people in the large room. “Oh, I see, you got yourself one of those classy women.”

“I don’t like his fucking tone,” Zayn hissed and Liam finally let his own laugh escape.

“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Liam’s grin was genuine as Zayn was still muttering unkind things about the parole officer.

“Mr. O’Brien, your next appointment is here,” a young woman in a suit interrupted them.

“Nothing you do can surprise me.” He handed over a sheet of paper. “You know the drill. Get outta here. So many cons, so little time.”

***

Zayn kept Liam company as he stopped at the grocery store before heading back home, talking about anything except the appointment with the parole officer. Liam knew if he wanted to talk about it, he could and Zayn would listen attentively and be supportive. Zayn was always supportive and he wasn’t sure he let him know how much he appreciated it. While at the grocery store, he saw some bundles of fresh cut flowers and stopped to look at them. “I’d buy them for you if I could,” he whispered, smiling at Zayn’s hum of appreciation. He ended up buying the smallest bundle they had anyway.

When he got back to his trailer, he started digging through the cupboards for something to put the flowers in, but came up with nothing. “Use a glass. I think I saw a tall one in the cupboard next to the fridge.” Zayn’s voice was offhand because he was focusing on the hand of solitaire laid out in front of him.

Shaking his head, Liam opened the cupboard and pulled down the glass, filling it halfway with water before unwrapping the flowers and starting to shove them into the glass. “You have to cut the ends first!”

After several minutes of playful bickering, the flowers were cut and in the glass. He sat them on the makeshift coffee table. All except for one single lily type flower that Zayn had insisted Liam place in a beer bottle half-filled with water on the end table by his bed. “Then you have something pretty to look at when you wake up and when you go to sleep.” Liam opened his mouth to say he thought that was what he had Zayn for, but he bit his tongue at the last second.

Zayn continued playing cards while watching Liam place the flowers around his trailer, smiling at the thought that Liam had bought them for him; no one had ever done something like that for him before. He kept focusing on his hands of solitaire to keep his mind from wandering too far down a road of fairy tales that he knew wouldn’t come true. He just wasn’t that lucky.

He listened to Liam start talking more to himself as he walked over to the car he was rebuilding, ticking off what he needed to work on that day. Zayn wondered if he was any closer to finishing and was going to ask, but Liam started complaining about his meeting with his parole officer earlier.

“I know it’s my own damn fault, but I’m tired of having to take a day off from the job that I’m forced to stay at to please the parole officer just to go see him. ” He pulled the tarp off that was covering the open area at the front of the car and stood with his hands on his hips. “I really wish I could just tell him to fuck off!”

Zayn giggled. Liam didn’t curse that often and he had the feeling he was careful around him even though Zayn was terrible about his language more often than not. “I think you threw him when you told him you’d met someone.”

“Some people will believe anything.” Liam’s hands were resting on the engine, unmoving, and his voice was bitter.

“Come on, you’ve had lovers!” Zayn laughed at the ridiculousness of someone as good looking and kind as Liam not having a romantic past of some kind.

“Nothing that lasted beyond a few dates. Women got upset when I realized they didn’t do it for me and I’ve never been very successful with men.” Zayn touched his own cheek at the warmth he felt.

“What about...you know....your needs?” Zayn whispered the last bit and he wasn’t sure if the extra flare of heat in his face was from him, Liam, or both.

“Zayn!!!” Liam’s voice sounded horribly offended, but his laughter was loud and brought a smile to Zayn’s face. “You’ve got a filthy mind!”

“I prefer to think of it as a sexy imagination,” Zayn countered, using words Liam had on a poster on his bedroom wall. Zayn moved a card as Liam laughed. “Dammit.”

“Move the other six back and then you can move that one over,” Liam said as his own hands finally began moving along the engine.

“I can’t do that, it’s cheating!” Zayn argued, lowering his voice as he saw one of the maids pass by his bedroom, glancing in quickly at the sound of his voice.

“It’s not cheating. It’s...creative!” Liam moved around the car and into the driver’s seat, easy to do since there were no doors on that side yet.

Although Zayn liked thinking of it that way, he still couldn’t bring himself to agree. Too many years of his father drilling his rules of life into Zayn’s head. “Cheating takes the fun out of winning.”

Wow, that eye roll Liam gave felt weird, it wasn’t something that Zayn had expected to be able to feel. “Keep telling yourself that, darlin’. You don’t cheat because you’ve always been told it was wrong. Sometimes the wrong thing feels good and you gotta do what feels good.”

“Spoken like a true convict,” Zayn snapped back, immediately freezing when he felt the connection break. “Shit. Liam!” He kept shouting his name and prodding the connection, even though he knew that here was no way Liam could hear him; he wouldn’t come back unless he chose to come back.

Liam blinked his eyes rapidly, blaming the sun bouncing off the cracked windshield for the tears that were in his eyes. Zayn’s voice was echoing in his head and he tried to shake it out. He’d really thought that Zayn saw him as more than that; he’d been so indignant when Paddy had implied that he was nothing more than the mistakes of his past. He shook his head, immediately feeling badly because he knew Zayn thought more of him than that. Zayn was the only person who had always been there when he needed him most and he was the same for Zayn, he hoped. Before he could think better of it, he reopened the connection.

“LIAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“Damn, Zee, I’m a convict, not deaf,” he joked, but he knew the hurt was still evident.

Zayn breathed out a sigh of relief when he heard Liam’s voice, but winced at the obvious strain that his words caused him. Brushing away the tears that had been falling steadily after Liam had ‘hung up’ on him, he forced out a chuckle that sounded more like a sob. “I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you apologizing? You weren’t trying to be mean. It’s all true, anyway. I got no right to be so touchy about it.” His voice wasn’t as convincing as he probably hoped it would be, but Zayn was more than willing to drop the subject for now; although, he knew he’d be spending a lot of time making up for it.

“How’s the car doing?” he asked, as he started picking up the cards he’d scattered while frantically calling for Liam, deciding he was done with them for today.

“Well, the engine’s almost done, but it still needs a lot of body parts. Probably gonna take a trip to the junkyard this week sometime, although there is a couple of doors at the shop that will probably fit.” Zayn watched as Liam walked around the car and he took in how much had already been done, but even to his unknowledgeable eye, he could tell the vehicle wouldn’t be up and running anytime soon. “Oh, hey, I think I figured it out.”

“Figured what out?”

“Y’know, why it happened. Why we connected like we did.”

Zayn felt a thrill go through him; he’d been wondering after so many years of glimpses into each other's lives, leaving him more confused than anything, why they suddenly started being able to control it and actually communicate with each other. He’d actually been writing down reasons in his journal, but nothing made any kind of sense. “Why?”

Liam smiled at the eagerness in Zayn’s voice and he wondered if he’d been thinking about it as much as he had; he’d noticed Zayn’s journal open the other day and although the glance was brief, he’d seen the list of possible reasons. “Why not?” He smiled when Zayn let out a breath and giggled.

The smile disappeared when he saw the car coming down the road at too fast a pace, dust kicking up behind it. He groaned loudly. “Who’s that?”

“No one important, but I gotta go, Zee. I’ll talk to you later.” Liam’s discomfort was growing as the car pulled in behind his truck. Andy and Maz climbed out, both smiling widely and making him feel sick to his stomach.

“Okay. Later,” Zayn said, his voice cautious making Liam hesitate to close the connection, but Zayn did it instead after Andy called out to him.

“What up, Payne-in-the-ass?” Andy shouted, walking up and slapping a hand on Liam’s shoulder, causing him to flinch away.

“Not a lot, Andy. Did you need somethin’?” Liam moved towards the trailer, the other two following him. When they got inside, Maz headed for the fridge grabbing out beers without asking while Andy flopped down on the couch and kicked his legs up on the coffee table, knocking over Zayn’s flowers in the process.

Liam snatched up the flowers, hurrying to the kitchen to grab a towel to clean up the spilled water. He was refilling the glass when he registered that the trailer had fallen silent. Glancing around, Andy and Maz were staring at him with their eyes wide. Rolling his own eyes, he settled the glass of flowers back on the table and knocked away Andy’s feet before he could knock them over again.

“Your mom comin’ to visit or something?” Maz asked, breaking the silence as Liam leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his chest.

“Fuck you, Maz.”

“Enough. Whatever Payne-in-the-ass’s sudden obsession with home decor is, is his own business. Our business is Peazer Tech Supply. That bitch is ripe, man!” Andy was leaning forward now, elbows on his knees, his face alight with eagerness and Liam felt a sick feeling beginning in the pit of his stomach.

“Is it?” Liam tried to keep his voice even, disdainful even, but he feared a slight flare of eagerness came through because Andy moved himself to slouch back on the couch with a smug smile on his grizzled mug.

“You remember our friend Travis? The one who got outta that aggravated assault charge against a convenience store clerk?” Andy asked, tilting his head.

Liam remembered, still amazed that a broken surveillance camera had managed to keep him out of prison when he’d nearly killed the man. “Kicked his lard ass all up and down the freezer section.” Maz roared with laughter as he made his way around the room, picking up and setting down everything, making Liam more and more antsy.

“Not what we’re talking about,” Andy snaps, drawing Liam’s attention back to him. “Anyway, Trav is working maintenance at the industrial park. He said Peazer is empty as a church on Superbowl Sunday.” Liam’s eyebrows rose and he felt that pull he used to feel, but quickly tamped it down, thinking about Zayn again, but being careful not to prod the connection. “Here’s the best part. No silent alarms.” Andy shook his head slowly, an expression of mock sadness on his face. “Doesn’t that just make your heart sink?”

It actually made Liam’s heart soar for a moment, his mind going to the thought of having money, maybe enough to get out of this trailer and into something that might impress Zayn a bit more. As quickly as the thought appeared, he pushed it away. He turned his thoughts to O’Brien giving him that knowing look every time he tried to catch Liam fucking up. “I don’t know. Y’know that O’Brien’s just chomping at the bit for me to do something stupid like this.”

Andy snorted, standing and slapping a hand down on Liam’s shoulder, forcing him to school the wince at the flash of pain it caused. “Don’t worry about that asshole. He’ll sleep through it. Your part will be, what, two hours at most?” He looked over at Maz who nodded quickly. “You open her up and we’ll handle the rest. Won’t even have to be seen with us.” Liam gaped. “Hey, I’m not stupid. I get that you’re trying to keep away from a ‘bad element’. Shit, we’ll mail you your cut.”

Liam shook his head; Andy could really paint an inviting picture. The whole thing sounded quick and easy. “I could use some walking around money,” he whispered.

“Aw, man, this is more than just walking around money. We got a fence lined up already. He’s gonna buy the whole lot!” Andy was so excited, that Liam fully expected him to start jumping up and down and clapping his hands together like a toddler. “You get done with your parole, this is you setting up a whole new life in a new town. Make yourself a proper man. Get yourself one of them fancy broads.”

Liam swallowed hard at the thought of having enough money to be good enough for Zayn, for Zayn’s family. He could picture himself showing up on the front step of that big old house they lived in and knocking on the door in a fancy suit, his arms filled with all of Zayn’s favourite flowers and a fancy car parked behind him. Hell, if he had enough money, maybe it wouldn’t even matter to Dr. Malik that he was a guy.

“All you gotta do is keep that mammoth mouth of yours zipped, Payne-in-the-ass! You don’t talk, who’s ever gonna know?” Maz said, moving to stand next to Andy, basically boxing Liam up against the wall.

He physically shook his head while mentally shaking himself. He couldn’t let himself be drawn into this again. He just couldn't. “I don’t know...I just...it’s just not….this really isn't a good time for me to be doing something like this.”

Maz leaned in closer, his voice a bit growly. “What the hell else ya gonna do, man? Gonna spend your life underneath other people’s rides?”

Andy shook his head, his voice growing softer. “Liam, this was your idea.” It was? Liam tried to figure out how that was possible. “When you got out and didn’t know where you were gonna be living, you asked for some action.” Liam remembered that, but that had been when he first got out, not now, not when he was trying to get his life together. “This is what you need. Something safe. A way to get the hell outta this nowhere town like you’d always dreamt about.” He moved to throw an arm around Liam’s shoulders and then waved his other arm in the air as if drawing an image in the sky. “Picture it, man. All that equipment just sitting there, covered in cobwebs and going to waste. There’s no people. There’s no business anymore. It’s all gonna be lost to the hands of time. There’s no victim here!”

“Yeah. Just a true convict.” The words hurt to say almost as much as they had hurt to hear in Zayn’s voice. He let himself fall back against the wall as Andy released him and poked a finger into his shoulder.

“Liam, we let you in on this because you asked. Now, I don’t like you knowing if you don’t have a stake in it.” He glared at Liam when their eyes met and Liam felt anger flare through him; he’d never ratted before, not on anyone. After a minute of glaring, Andy broke eye contact first, moving to pull open the door and stepping through. “We’ll be waiting on you, boy.”

Maz shook his head and pretended to throw a punch at Liam’s face, causing him to flinch away. “Catch you on the flipside, Payne-in-the-ass!”

Once Liam heard their car pull away, he finally moved away from the wall only to suddenly turn and punch his hand into it, cursing loudly as it connected. Dropping to the floor in front of the couch, he buried his head in his knees and screamed in frustration.

***

Zayn walked alongside his mother, hands shoved deep into his pockets. He hated coming to visit his father at the hospital, but he’d been out shopping with his mom and she’d decided that dropping by to surprise his father and take him to lunch was the greatest idea ever. He could’ve told her that they should’ve called first, but no one ever asked Zayn for his opinion.

They’d just walked into the executive offices, which were surprisingly empty except for an intern at the copy machine. They began walking over towards the young woman when they were startled by the appearance of Zayn’s father from one of the conference rooms. “Trisha,” he greeted.

“Yaser!” she exclaimed, leaning to kiss him on the cheek and then stepping back so that Zayn and his father could nod at each other in greeting.

“Son.”

“Father.” Zayn didn’t even make eye contact, preferring to glance down at his feet. He avoided looking up as much as possible whenever he was dragged along to the hospital; if he could stop breathing just so he didn't have to smell the place, he would. He jumped when he felt a hand on his arm. He saw that it was his mother’s and glanced up to see her concerned eyes. “Sorry, you know how I get.”

“We do know, which is why I’m surprised to see you,” Dr. Malik said, beginning to walk. Zayn’s mother hurried to keep up, dragging Zayn along with her. “Is everything alright? One of you aren’t feeling poorly, are you?”

“Oh no, darling,” Trisha said, smiling up at her husband. “Zayn and I were out running errands and I had a wild notion that you might be free for lunch?” Dr. Malik looked uncomfortable. “It was a cra-wild idea.”

“I’m terribly sorry, darling, but I’ve got a busy day. I’m afraid that Dr. Cowell has turned up to discuss his research program.” He glanced at Zayn. “You know the one we were discussing over dinner the other night.”

Zayn nodded, remembering. “The one the fundraiser is for. The schizophrenic nacro…” His mother trailed off, looking to Zayn for help.

“Narcotherapy,” he provided.

“It’s a big word,” his father said condescendingly to his mother, making the hair on the back of Zayn’s neck stand up. “Don’t forget the fundraiser is this Thursday and we will all be attending.” Zayn groaned.

“Dr. Malik,” someone called and the three of them turned. Zayn swallowed his groan before it became audible. “Ah, the ever beautiful Mrs. Malik and Zayn.”

“Dr. Cowell, I’ve told you, please call me Trisha,” she said, offering her hand, which Dr. Cowell kissed the back of briefly before releasing it.

“Only if you’ll call me Simon,” he said, sweetly, his attention turning to Zayn. He held out a hand and they shook briefly, but as soon as he turned his attention back to Zayn’s father, Zayn wiped his palm on the side of his pants. He knew it was childish, but he couldn’t help it. “I’m not interrupting a family outing, am I?”

Zayn’s mom giggled and he could feel his eye’s widening. “No, no. I just need to remember to call ahead first.”

“Spontaneity is not a good trait in our family,” Zayn mumbled.

Simon cut a quick glance towards Zayn before turning a smile back towards the adults. “I see.”

“We should go, mother,” Zayn said, tugging on the sleeve of her jacket, his feet already moving towards the doors.

“Have a good afternoon,” Dr. Malik said, leaning in to press a kiss to his wife’s cheek and sparing a glare at Zayn, who fought the urge to roll his eyes, knowing the punishment that would bring down when they were in private.

“I look forward to seeing you Thursday at the fundraiser,” Dr. Cowell stated, facing his parents, but eyes watching Zayn who couldn’t stop the silent snarl that curled his lips.

“Zayn, why don’t you go pull the car around and I’ll meet you out front,” his mother said, smiling at him widely.

“Oh-kay,” he responded slowly, suspicion curling through his brain as he began to walk away, the whispers of the adults carrying behind him, but not loud enough for him to make out any words. Despite that, he knew they were discussing him. He turned his focus away from the adults and towards the bottle of Jack Daniels he had hidden underneath his bed.

***

Zayn had been in a weird mood when the connection opened; he’d been bouncing off the walls, insisting that Liam take him out so he could see something besides Liam’s trailer and the inside of his place of employment. It had taken some convincing, but finally, Liam had headed up to Bressie’s and settled at the bar, pressing his cellphone to his ear to continue his conversation without earning strange looks from the other bar patrons.

“Wait! Who’s that guy?”

Liam chuckled as his eyes fell on the young guy in a leather jacket leaning against the wall and trying to chat up a girl who probably used her older sister’s driver’s license to get in the bar. Bressie was no idiot, though, so the brightly coloured drink in her hand was probably plain fruit juice. “That’s ‘Muffler’ Mike.”

“Muffler?”

“His muffler’s been busted for as long as he’s had a car, I think. So everyone knows when he’s coming.” He turned away just as the young girl slapped Mike, but heard Zayn giggle anyway. He moved his gaze to a man sitting at the bar, shoulders hunched over a beer bottle. His long hair hung scraggly from underneath an old trucker hat that hid his bald spot. “That’s Bob Greezy. We call him…”

“No...no...let me guess. Greasy!” Zayn laughed and clapped his hands, bringing a warm sting to the palms of Liam’s hands. He rubbed the hand not holding his phone against the bar top.

“Okay, so it’s not brilliant, but I…”

“Liam!” Bressie snapped out. Liam turned to him with wide eyes, a shiver of fear running through him until he saw the slightly amused expression on the bar owner’s face. He followed Bressie’s pointing finger to a handwritten sign forbidding the use of cellphones inside the bar.

With a grimace, Liam pocketed the phone and turned himself towards the bar, holding his beer bottle to his lips and talking around it. “I worked a highway job with him once.” It had been while he was still in prison on the work release crew, but Zayn didn't need to know that. “He had a rather...unique smell.”

Zayn laughed loudly and it brought a laugh to Liam’s lips as well, drawing the attention of the rather large man sitting on the bar stool next to Liam. “Got a problem, buddy?”

“Tell him to go fuck himself,” Zayn shouted.

“No. No,” Liam said to the man as much as Zayn who was still laughing and punching the air like a prize fighter.

“Go fuck yourself, dude.”

“No, no problem at at all,” Liam told the man who grumbled but turned his attention away. “We’re cool,” he muttered under his breath to Zayn.

“Such a wimp! Letting those huge biceps of yours go to waste.” Zayn was being huffy, but Liam felt his cheeks flush at the mention of his arms.

“So, you like it when we get hit?” Liam teased.

Zayn shook his head, wishing he could take back the comment about Liam’s arms, but deciding it didn’t matter, the man had some really nice arms. He shook his own out remembered the one time they kept the connection open while Liam worked out. He observed as Liam looked around the bar, noting when his movement slowed down briefly on a young guy with blond hair.

“Hey! Who’s that! Go back!!!!” He scrambled to his knees as if it could control Liam’s movements, but after a minute the guy was in their field of vision again. “He’s cute!”

“Um...that’s Niall.” Zayn could feel warmth in his cheeks and as Liam glanced away, their eyes met in the mirror behind the bar. “He’s a nice guy.”

“You’re blushing! You like him!” Zayn was teasing now, but he could feel the ache of another emotion in his chest wrapping around his heart and squeezing. He pushed the feeling away as much as he could before continuing to torment Liam. “A nice guy?” He snorted. “Is he single? A walking advert for sexually transmitted diseases? Why are we not tapping that?” Liam put his hands over his eyes and Zayn could feel the heat rising even higher in his face, but he kept laughing as Liam told him to shut up.

“I told you things don’t work out for me like that,” Liam growled as he glanced over his shoulder again towards Niall. He didn’t like the way Zayn was teasing him and was debating just leaving when Niall raised a hand and smiled brightly.

“He’s waving at us!”

“I can see that.” Liam raised a hand to return the wave and then groaned when Niall started making his way through the crowd over to him.

“You know each other?! Ask him out!”

Liam balked at the demand. He’d thought about it before, of course he had, but he hadn’t even considered it since he and Zayn began talking. In fact, the more time that passed, the less he thought about anyone except Zayn. He thought that maybe Zayn felt the same way, but if he was trying to push him into asking someone else out, he must have been mistaken. “I’m not gonna ask him out,” he hissed.

“Stop being a wuss. You want him. You know you do! At least it’ll be a chance to take care of your needs, ” Zayn said and Liam felt his temper start to rise as well as his embarrassment.

Zayn shook his head at how stubborn Liam was being and the flare of anger that flashed through him was strange. Why would Liam be upset? He tried to figure it out as he saw the view change just as Niall started to walk towards them. “What are you doing? He was coming over! Turn back around and be nice!”

“If you don’t shut up, I’m gonna shut you out,” Liam growled, but Zayn knew he was all bark and no bite; if he really wanted to shut Zayn out, he would’ve done it already.

“You’d better not, not when our boyfriend is getting closer,” Zayn teased, having no idea if he really was or not, but it got Liam to whip around and he saw that the boy was standing just a few feet away and still moving in their direction. “Come to me, slave boy,” he called in a overly dramatic voice, laughing at the low growl Liam gave at that statement, but he couldn’t reprimand because Niall was right in front of them, leaning against the bar with an adorable tilt to his head.

When he said hello to Liam, Zayn gaped at the Irish accent. This guy was adorable and had the cutest little accent. Zayn started shouting at Liam to stop screwing around and ask him out, but apparently nothing he said was getting through; Liam was actually ignoring him.

Liam couldn’t believe how excited Zayn was about Niall, but he remembered feeling that way before when he’d see the blond. Those feelings had been diminishing as he’d spent more time away from the bar and with Zayn, but now as he’s experiencing the blond through Zayn’s excitement, some of those feelings were coming back.

“Hey, Niall,” he whispered.

“That’s all you’ve got?” Zayn snorted.

“You here alone?” Liam looked around the bar, but didn’t see any of Niall’s usual group of friends hanging around.

Niall glanced around and turned back to Liam with a bit of a pout. “Well, John’s supposed to be coming, but…” He glanced around again, letting the sentence trail off. “Haven’t see you around much lately.” He shifted to slide onto the stool next to him.

“Haven’t been around,” Liam responded, wanting to chuckle when he felt the slap upside the back of the head from Zayn.

“Damn, you have a hard head.” Liam chuckled at Zayn’s muttered words. “Say something suave. Compliment something!”

Liam looked over Niall, watching as he began to look uncomfortable. He tried to focus on something to compliment and finally spotted his feet. “I like your...your boots. They new?”

Niall tilted his head as Zayn groaned. “Seriously? That’s the best you could come up with? No wonder you don't have any luck getting your needs met.”

“Hey,” Liam said, sadly, jumping when he felt Niall’s hand on his arm.

“Thanks, man. They’re new and I wasn’t sure if I could pull ‘em off, to be honest.” He stretched out a leg and tilted his foot back and forth as they both looked at the soft brown work boots.

“They are pretty cool,” Zayn admitted and Liam passed the message onto Niall, claiming credit for the comment himself. “See, stick with me, kid, and we’ll get all your needs taken -”

“Shut up!” Liam snapped and Niall’s eyes grew wide.

“I’m sorry?”

Liam shook his head, feeling ticked off at Zayn for continually bringing up his lack of action and embarrassed because he’d basically just shouted at Niall for no reason. “I just really hate this song,” he spit out.

“No way!” Niall argued. “This is like a classic! One of my faves!” His eyes narrowed as he studied Liam and it was then he realized the song playing was Hotel California by the Eagles, one of Niall’s favourite bands.

“Well, yeah, it’s a classic, but I’ve heard it like a billion times.” Liam rolled his eyes with great exaggeration and a forced chuckle.

Niall laughed loudly as he nodded. “Yeah, that’s a fair point. I think I play it at least five times on the juke box every time I’m here. Sorry.” He shrugged when Liam’s laughter became genuine.

Zayn stepped off his bed and out onto the balcony, annoyed with the conversation even though he’d encouraged it. “Open mouth. Insert foot,” muttered Zayn. “I’m bored now. Just ask him out or something already.” He flopped into the chair, pulling out the cigarettes from their hiding place beneath the cushion, lighting up as he listened to Liam fumbled his way through conversation with Niall. If this was the way he always was, it was amazing that Liam had ever gotten laid. “Ask him out. Ask him out! ASK HIM OUT!”

Niall was going on about the open mic night he was thinking about doing with his band the following week, when Liam finally got tired of Zayn’s chants inside of his skull. “Niall, I was thinking...oops, sorry,” he apologized for cutting him off, but Niall just waved a hand. “Are you...are you busy on Tuesday night?”

Niall shrugged. “I’m busy most nights, but what did you have in mind?” He leaned closer, and laid a hand on Liam’s on the bar.

Liam panicked, not knowing what to do; he didn’t have enough money to take Niall out on a proper date and he didn’t think Niall would appreciate a dinner of ramen noodles from the microwave. “Oh, I just thought...er...shit…”

“I could cook for you! You could cook for him and I could help! We can cook for him!”

“I could cook you dinner!” Liam practically shouted, drawing Bressie’s attention and laughter.

“You cook?”

“Well, I mean, I get by. What do you like?” Liam hoped Niall’s tastes were simple, even with Zayn’s help, he wasn’t sure he could manage anything too difficult.

“I love steak. Big fan of big steaks!” Niall told him, rubbing his stomach with the hand that had been on Liam’s.

“I can do steak with all the trimmings,” Zayn told him and started listing off things that they could do, a nice sauce with mashed potatoes and gravy.

“Alright, yeah, I could do that. I’ll fix it up good. A rare steak, with a fancy sauce and sides for days,” Liam told Niall, who looked a bit overwhelmed.

“Uh, okay.”

Liam realized how eager he sounded and tried to reign in his enthusiasm. “I mean, if you’re not too busy.”

“You’re so smooth.” Zayn snorted.

“Shit, Tuesday I’m babysitting my nephew,” Niall told him, eyes traveling over Liam’s shoulder.

“Oh, well, just forget it then, I guess,” Liam said, surprised to feel his stomach drop with disappointment.

“I’m free Thursday, though,” Niall supplied.

Zayn panicked as Liam’s vision dimmed and he knew Liam was smiling that smile where his eyes squeezed shut. “Thursday is no good! I’m busy Thursday!” he shouted.

“Done. Dinner at my place at six-thirty,” Liam said.

Zayn huffed. “I said Thursday didn’t work for me!” He heard Niall confirm the day and time and then disappear from Liam’s view before he was looking in the mirror over the bar again. “Get him back here and change the day. I can’t do Thursday!”

Liam finished off his beer and stood, placing money on the bartop. He waved goodbye to Bressie as he walked out of the door and got into his truck. “You’re not coming.”

“I have to go to a stupid fundraiser with my parents! You can’t do this without me!”

Liam scoffed. “You really think I want you there on my date? You gonna tell me out to kiss and stuff? You so desperate to get laid you wanna do it through me?”

He immediately regretted his words when he felt a stillness coming off of Zayn and the view darkened. He could feel the slow even breaths that Zayn was taking and his own anxiety began to grow as the silence went on; he thought for sure the connection would break, but instead Zayn opened his eyes and he found himself looking at Zayn's face in a mirror, his eyes flashing and bright with tears.

“Who made you ask him out? You wouldn’t even talk to him if it weren’t for me.” Zayn leaned closer to the mirror and if they had been in the same room, he knew he’d feel Zayn’s breath on his face. “You are nothing without me.”

Swallowing hard, Liam pulled down the visor in his truck and stared into the mirror so that Zayn could see the smirk on his face and hopefully ignore the feelings going on inside of him. “Still not coming,” he told him.

A laugh burst out of Zayn. “I made you. I can break you.”

***

Zayn sat next to his mother, his elbow on the table, chin resting on his hand as one of the more affluent hospital board members talked loudly to her. If his father caught him sitting like this, he’d be in big trouble, but luckily he was too busy schmoozing rich bastards like himself to pay any attention to the behaviour of his son.

“A charity donation is just like any other investment, you’d wanna know your money is being put to good use,” the man, Mr. Walsh, said to his mother, talking across Zayn who was struggling not to roll his eyes.

“Well, you know, I can’t think of a better place to put your money than in a research fund,” his mother said, smiling at the man.

“Of course, you can’t! Your husband’s on the board,” Mr. Walsh nearly shouted, catching himself when Zayn turned to glare at him; no one spoke to his mother that way. “But, you’re right. Sick people are always the best. Real lump in the throat stuff, these hospital charities. Give me a pathetic cripple every time.” The man chuckled and Zayn felt his temper flaring.

“These are psychos, not cripples, but, you know, whatever,” Zayn snapped, flinching when he felt his mother pinch his thigh hard underneath the table. He jumped to his feet. “Would you please excuse me for a moment.” He hurried away from the table and out of the room towards a hallway where he’d spotted an out of the way restroom when they’d first arrived.

Slipping through the door and making sure the room was empty, he locked the door and turned towards the mirror, opening the connection on his end, relieved when Liam was there. They’d only spoken long enough for Zayn to give him a couple of recipes for his date. The air between them had been tense since their argument the other day and he’d genuinely been afraid that Liam would close him out entirely for his date.

“Help me!” Liam shouted as soon as they connected.

Zayn shook his head and held back a laugh, the distress was rolling off Liam in waves. “I was going to ask how it’s going, but…”

“I’m fine. Just fine,” Liam snapped. “Did you want something?”

“I was just checking in. See how things are going.” Zayn was getting a little irritated; if Liam didn’t want to talk to him, why did he leave the connection open?

“Yeah, everything’s just great!”

Zayn sniffed. “Something’s burning.”

Liam groaned at Zayn’s words and whipped around to see smoke coming from the saucepan. He removed it from the heat and turned off the gas. “This is insane. I haven’t cooked something that didn’t come prepackaged with microwave instructions ever.” He dipped a spoon into the sauce and held it up. “Smell this.”

He heard Zayn sniff. “What is that? Green onions?”

Liam glanced at the spoon. “Yeah. That’s what a shallot is, right?”

“No,” Zayn said. “It should be fine, but it’s a little thick.”

“You said it was supposed to be thick.” Liam was confused. He glanced over at the sheet of paper where he’d written the instructions that Zayn had given him the other day.

“I said thick, not brick.” Zayn’s voice was teasing, but Liam facepalmed anyway. When he dropped his hand, he noticed the clock on the microwave.

“Dammit!” He raced out of the room into the bathroom; Niall was due to arrive any moment and he wasn’t finished getting ready. He skidded to a stop in front of the mirror and smoothed down the button-up he was wearing; he’d picked it up from the second hand store in town. He saw Zayn make a face in the mirror. “Awwww. You hate this shirt!”

“Chill. The shirt’s a bit stiff, but it’ll be fine. Just undo a button or two. You look like you’re about to choke.” Liam reached up and undid the first button, moving onto the second when Zayn hummed. “Oh, look, sexy chest hair. Better already. Everything is going to be just fine.”

“Easy for you to say,” Liam countered, taking in Zayn’s appearance for the first time. He looked amazing in a fitted black suit with a collarless shirt underneath. His hair was pushed up into a fancy style with one strand falling down in front of his face. Liam wiped at his face, hoping he wasn’t gawking too obviously. “How’s your money dinner thing?”

Zayn rolled his eyes and chuckled. “You know. Stuffed shirts anonymous.” He gave an exaggerated yawn. “I just have to worry about not falling asleep while the speeches and subtle begging is going on.”

A knock sounds behind Liam. “Shit!” He ran his fingers through his hair quickly, groaning when it seemed to make the long hairs on the top of his head even more unmanageable. “I need a haircut.”

Zayn rolled his eyes, taking in the messy hair with a smile; it looked like it was supposed to be that way. The bed head look was very in with his friends these days, so he knew that Liam would be fine. “There’s no time for that. You’re gonna do great. He’s going to love you.” Zayn swallowed hard against the knot of something he refused to acknowledge as jealousy choked him. “Good luck.”

“Thanks, Zee.”

Liam thought about closing the connection, but decided it wouldn’t hurt to have Zayn whispering encouragement and if it helped him get through the monotony of the fundraiser, all the better. He pulled the door open just as Niall raised his hand to knock again. “Hey.”

“Hey, there,” Niall said.

They stared at each other for a few moments before Liam noticed the flames of the grill behind Niall. “Shit!” he shouted, shoving past Niall and hurrying over and grabbing the tongs to rescue the, now well-done, steaks. “Great. Lovely start.” He shook his head as he thought about the things inside. “Everything’s going to be great,” he muttered, as he carried the plate with the steaks on them inside. “Come on in.”

Niall looked around the living area while Liam hurried into the kitchen, groaning at the sauce as he moved it back to a burner and lighting the flame again. He added a little bit of milk, hoping that it would thin the brick. “I’ve never seen your place before.”

“Really?” Liam thought back over the few times he’d had people over to the trailer and realized he couldn’t remember seeing Niall. He knew he’d never had the guts to invite him, but there were always people showing up that hadn’t been invited. “You weren’t out here for the Fourth?”

Niall shook his head as he picked up one of the car part catalogs sitting on the table, flipping through it. Liam leaned on the counter between the kitchen area and where Niall was standing looking bored and uncomfortable. “Really? Thought everyone was here. Had a barbecue.” He smiled as he continued, “It’s kind of my own concept. Barbecue on the Fourth of July.”

Niall rolled his eyes. “Everyone does that,” he said before turning his back to look over the sparse collection of books on the shelf by the television.

Clearly, Liam’s humour went right over the other’s head, so he tried to come up with something else to say. He looked over Niall taking in the casual outfit that he was wearing, jeans and a plaid shirt and finally a pair of boots, but they were different than the ones he’d been wearing the other night.

“Nice boots,” he spit out, trying to save the conversation.

Niall came back over to lean against the counter, staring at Liam suspiciously. “You got a thing for feet? Dated someone like that once.” He gave a full body shudder. “Real creep.”

Liam stumbled back. “No! No, I definitely don’t have a thing for feet.” He shook his head as he looked around the kitchen, suddenly wishing that Zayn weren’t sitting at a dining table with a bunch of rich folks and could give him a hand here. Zayn always knew the right thing to say and he realized he shouldn’t have tried to shut him out of this night as much as he had.

“A drink would be lovely,” Zayn said and Liam could feel the smile on his face. He watched as his mother gave him a strange look, but nodded. “Offer him a drink, dammit,” Zayn hissed once he was away from the table.

Liam wanted to smack himself in the head for being so clueless, but Niall was already watching him unsurely. “Can I get you something to drink? I heard red wine is good with steak, so I picked up a bottle.” He reached for the bottle that was on his counter and showed it to Niall.

Niall gave a single negative shake of his head. “You got a beer?” he questioned, moving past Liam to open the fridge.

“Wow. Rude, much,” Zayn mumbled.

“Yeah, definitely.” Liam wasn’t sure if he was speaking to Niall or Zayn at this point, but he could feel irritation towards Niall rolling off of Zayn. “I’ll take one of those actually.” Niall reached back in for a second bottle. “Thanks. Just twist.” Niall knocked the cap off on the edge of the counter. “Or that, yeah. Cheers.” He raised his bottle but Niall was already tilting his head back and swallowing heavily.

Niall ran a hand over his mouth and smiled at Liam. “Cheers. So, you actually do cook?” He moved to stand behind Liam, glancing over his shoulder into the saucepan. “Ugh! What the fuck is this?”

“It’s the sauce.” Niall made a face and moved away from Liam, picking up a dishtowel and swinging it around in the air.

“What an asshole,” Zayn cursed out.

“Well, it’s not for tonight,” Liam muttered sadly, looking around for the dishtowel that had been sitting next to the stovetop.

“Well, good, I don’t need my steaks all fancy or anything. Just burn it and give me some ketchup and I’m happy,” Niall told him, tossing the dishtowel towards him when Liam gestured for it.

Zayn moved back to the table, a glass of red wine in hand. “Figures,” he muttered as he took his seat.

“I’m sorry?” Mr. Walsh spoke up next to Zayn, startling him to realize he was still lost in the events occurring in Liam’s trailer.

“What?” Zayn asked.

“I just thought you said something,” he responded, reaching towards the middle of the table for a wine glass.

Zayn shook his head, laughing half-heartedly. “I may have. I have a tendency to speak my - Holy shit!” he screamed as flames burst up from Liam’s stove, the dishtowel he’d been using to remove the pan igniting quickly. Zayn shoved back from the table, knocking over his chair and half of the drinks on the table, soaking the front of his suit.

Liam was standing with the pan and burning dishtowel in his hand, the heat engulfing his arm as he stood frozen. “In the sink! Put it in the sink!” Zayn screamed waving his hands and pointing, ignoring the panicked and curious glances around him.

Liam did as he was told and snarled, “There, happy now?” Niall gave a confused look before pointing to himself as he swallowed more beer.

Zayn’s father gripped Zayn sharply by the arm and shaking him slightly. “Maybe you better go wash that off, son,” he hissed with a faux concerned look on his face.

“Stay out of this, Dr. Malik!”

Zayn looked around himself, stunned as everyone stared at him. Now that Liam was out of danger, he realized what had just happened, all of the attention he could feel being directed at himself. His father’s grip on his arm tightened as his mother moved to stand in front of him. “I am so sorry,” he said, looking at his mother with pleading eyes, his arm starting to throb and he knew there would be bruising later.

His mother laid a hand over his father’s, forcing him to loosen his grip and release Zayn before turning her attention on her son. “Why don’t you go to the bathroom? Collect yourself,” she whispered as the voices around him began picking up again, his name being heard here and there throughout the room.

“Yeah,” Zayn said, nodding and taking a step back, stopping when his father gripped his arm again. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

His father leaned in and hissed into his ear, “Get it together, son. We will be discussing this...this disaster when we get home.” With that he gave Zayn a none-too-gentle shove towards the exit before turning back to the people at table behind him who were still openly gaping. “Everything’s alright, everyone. Are you alright?”

Zayn could hear his father schmoozing behind him, blowing off any inquiries into Zayn’s well-being, as he’d been doing for years. The situation became even worse when Dr. Cowell hurried over and grasped Zayn by the arm where his father had, causing Zayn to hiss and jerk away. Zayn could feel the embarrassment engulfing him again as he hurried without looking like he was hurrying to the bathroom. As he went, he tried to refocus on Liam and his date.

Liam was lost between worrying about the interaction between Zayn and his father and making sure the fire was completely out. He was so focused on the pain in his arm and the water running in the sink, he’d almost forgotten that Niall was there. He shut the water off and turned around, rubbing at his arm and cursing that particular trait of the connection. He jumped when he saw Niall standing right behind him, blue eyes wide.

“Who’s Dr. Malik?”

Liam groaned. Of course he’d spoken aloud because Zayn wouldn’t have heard him otherwise, but it had the sorry side effect of Niall overhearing him as well. He really wanted to clear things up with the other man, but he was determined to check on Zayn first. “Give me a second?” he requested, rubbing his hands on his shirt and groaning at the stain he was spreading there.

Niall just shrugged and moved to the fridge and removed another beer and dropped down on the sofa. Liam raced through the trailer to his bedroom, sliding the door shut behind him and crossing to the mirror. He was relieved when Zayn made it to a mirror on his side.

“What the hell happened?” Zayn snapped, but he was trembling as he spoke, his hand rubbing his arm, mirroring Liam’s movements.

“I told you that you weren’t invited tonight!” Liam snapped, surprised at just how angry he sounded when just a few minutes ago he’d been so worried. When he thought about it, he realized he was angry because Zayn had probably ruined an opportunity for him with an actual person - a person he could touch and feel. “I had everything under control!”

Zayn snorted. “You had everything on fire!”

Liam really didn’t have a defense against that so he shrugged it off. “Yeah, well, that’s the way I like it!” He knew he sounded ridiculous, but the words came out without his consent.

Zayn turned away from the mirror, so Liam couldn’t see his face anymore, but the set of his shoulders was defeated as he whispered nastily, “Just burn it and give me some ketchup.”

“You are such a snob!” Liam whisper-shouted. “It’s none of your business what he eats! He’s my date!”

Zayn whipped around to face the mirror, the sudden movement disorientating to Liam. “Ha! Well, you sure know how to pick ‘em, don’t you?”

Liam snorted, an odd feeling welling up inside of him that he honestly wasn’t sure was coming from him or Zayn, but it was easily identifiable. “What? You jealous?” Zayn scoffed, his nose wrinkling in the mirror. “You are!”

“Nooooo. ” Liam narrowed his eyes at the mirror. “I’m not jealous!” Zayn yelled.

“Then butt out.” Liam leaned close to the mirror, locking his eyes on the reflection of Zayn he saw and speaking slowly.

Zayn’s laughter had an edge of mania to it and Liam felt a spark of fear that he was witnessing someone breaking from sanity completely. “Why don’t you make me?”

They glared at each other in the mirrors, Liam still leaning on the counter, Zayn’s hands on his hips, the tension growing internally. “You think I won’t?” Liam challenged.

“Well, c’mon then? Just c’mon!” Zayn jutted his chin out, a haughty expression on his face and he quirked an eyebrow as he rolled his eyes.

Without giving it much more thought, Liam reached up and smacked himself across the face. Obviously, he didn’t do it as hard as he would’ve to someone else because he did have some sense of self-preservation, but there was a bit of reddening underneath his stubble. “There! Happy now?” he sassed at Zayn.

Zayn’s hand flew to his own cheek, the burn of the smack wasn’t nearly as bad as the shock that Liam had actually done it. He started to tell Liam to knock it off, but the smug look on his face only caused Zayn’s anger to grow even larger. “That all you got, tough guy?” he snarked to Liam, startling when he saw Liam’s hand moving and another, harder, slap landed on the apple of his cheek. “Stop it!”

Liam’s hand connected again with his right cheek. “Did it again!” Another slap to the other cheek. “Did it again!”

His voice was growing louder in Zayn’s head, adding a headache onto the ache growing in his face. “Liam, knock it off!” That just earned another smack and Zayn smacked his hands down on the counter top. “Knock it off!” Another smack, this one catching the side of their lips and Zayn watched as the redness of his face grew, he tried to ignore the tears he could feel springing to his eyes and hoped that Liam didn’t see or feel them as well.

Liam could tell that he was actually starting to hurt Zayn, not only could he see how red both of their faces were getting, he knew Zayn was holding back tears. He could feel the tears choking his throat and knew there weren’t his own. And yet, he couldn't get himself to stop, which just made him angrier at himself and he wasn’t sure anymore who the smacks were aimed at anymore.

“Not gonna stop!” He smacked first his left cheek and then his right. “Nope, not gonna stop! I won’t!” He began smacking his cheeks alternatingly for several minutes before he noticed another face looking into the mirror over his shoulder. He’d forgotten he wasn’t alone in the trailer. “Hey, Niall.” He dropped his hands to his sides and held eye contact in the mirror, seeing Zayn disappear from the view, having turned to face another wall, feeling his hands rubbing at his eyes.

“Hey.” Niall’s gaze dropped and he turned to look over his shoulder in the direction of the front door.

Liam patted his own cheeks. “I was just freshening up a little. Grabbed a bit of aftershave to cover the burning towel smell.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna go,” Niall said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder before turning and practically running for the exit.

Liam froze for a couple of minutes before he heard the door bang open and started to chase after the retreating man. “Niall!” he shouted as he reached the doorway, watching Niall scramble into his car.

“Liam?” Zayn sounded worried, but Liam didn't care and slammed the connection shut, something he probably should’ve already done hours earlier.

“Niall! Wait! I was making a joke!” Niall’s car tore out of the driveway, sending gravel and sand flying in a cloud and Liam let his voice trail off as he watched his date end in the most disastrous way possible. As he went back into the trailer and shut the door behind himself, he wondered how soon word would spread that Liam Payne had finally gone completely around the bend.

***

The ride home from the fundraiser was beyond awkward. His father hadn’t spoken two words to him since he’d raced away from the table earlier and his mother was giving him worried glances. Occasionally she would reach out as if she were going to touch Zayn, but her hand would drop after a stern look from his father.

The whole situation might have been easier to ignore if Liam weren’t shutting him out as well. He’d tried to prod the connection several times since Liam had slammed it shut as he’d chased Niall out of the trailer. As upset as he was with Liam for smacking him, he was more distressed over the feeling of abandonment.

They arrived home and walked into the house, Zayn heading for the stairs as quickly as possible, stopping when he heard his father speak. “Trisha, remind your son that he is scheduled to have lunch with the Hadids tomorrow.”

Zayn stopped with his foot on the first step. “You are going to speak to me again before we die, right?”

“What exactly would you like me to say, Zayn? Thank you? So glad you made a fool of yourself and this family?” Sarcasm was a trait he’d picked up from his father, but while Zayn used it for humour, his father used it to hurt. Zayn turned to argue, but his father interrupted him. “You didn’t even apologize to Dr. Cowell!”

“I don’t like Dr. Cowell. He always looks at me like he’s trying to figure out my dick size!” Zayn shouted.

The room fell silent as his father glared at him. He opened his mouth to speak again, to apologize, to do anything, but was stopped when Yaser’s hand struck out against his cheek with far more power than any of Liam’s had earlier. “Dr. Cowell was trying to raise money for an important project I happen to be involved with and he deserves your respect, as do I.” His father turned on his heel and headed into his office, the sound of the door shutting soundly echoing behind him.

Zayn looked at his mother who was watching with her mouth dropped open and tears in her eyes. “Sonshine…”

“Don’t, mother,” he said to her. “Please don’t defend him. He doesn’t deserve it.” He turned and started slowly up the stairs, practically pulling himself along with his hand on the railing, his entire being feeling weighed down by the hatred he’d felt rolling off the man who should love him unconditionally.

He made it to his room and curled up atop his bed when he realized his mother had followed him. “Go to bed,” he spoke, without looking at her. He kept his eyes on Doniya’s photos, wishing she were there because she would understand. He prodded the connection but was met with nothing and he turned his face into the pillow and whimpered as his cheek burned against it.

He felt his mother settle onto the bed behind him, a soft hand reaching to run gently over his arm. “She was so talented,” she whispered and Zayn nodded against his pillow. “So are you and now this art class-”

“Mother,” he interrupted. “Please, don’t. No small talk. I’m alright. Just go to bed.”

“Something is happening to you, Zayn. I don’t know what it is and it scares me. I don’t know if it’s what happened before-”

“It’s not.” He sighed and sat up to face her, wincing when she laid her hand over his cheek, her eyes showing her doubts. “I swear it’s not. Please believe me.” He knew he was pleading, but since his father had given up on him, he really needed his mother on his side. He also knew this wasn’t like the last time; the last time wasn’t Liam.

“I want to believe you, but you’ve been so different lately. I feel like we are losing you just like I thought we were the last time. If it’s not like that, what is it then?” Her voice held the same pleading tone as his, but there was even more fear behind it. He hated that he had put her through all of that in the past and even more that he was making her feel that way again.

“I don’t know if I can even explain it.” He looked up through the skylights at the stars and remembered wishing for more and then getting Liam. He smiled softly. “Sometimes, you look at everything that has always been there, that has always been in your life, and everything is just different.” The stars even looked different now when he thought about how they looked through Liam’s eyes. How the sunset had different colours when Liam was watching it as opposed to Zayn staring into the fading light. “I don’t know if you understand.”

She giggled. “I think they call that puberty.”

Zayn laughed. “That’s not it at all. It never stops. Things keep changing and suddenly you’re changing, too.”

The smile fell from her face. “Is that what you’re doing? Changing?”

“Yeah, sort of,” he responded with a shrug and a half-smile as he turned to look at her again. “Maybe I’m just finally growing up and becoming the twenty-seven year old I’m supposed to be.”

“Growing up and outgrowing me.” Her voice was sad and she wasn’t even trying to stop the tears as they fell.

“Never!” he assured her and pulled her into a hug. “I’ll always need you, mom. Always.”

They sat together for several minutes, just holding each other as Trisha cried and Zayn soothed her; it reminded him so much of nights after Doniya was gone that he felt that ache in his heart for her again. When Trisha was finally done crying, she sat up and wiped at her eyes before leaning in and pressing a soft kiss to his bruising cheek.

“I love you, sonshine. I will see you in the morning.” She gave him a knowing look as he pushed himself to stand and walked her to his door. “Get some sleep. No staying up all night getting lost in your books.”

“Sleep. Got it,” he lied as he gave her one last hug and a kiss atop her head, closing his door behind her and locking it.

Once he heard her footsteps fade, he moved to dig under his bed and pulled out the box, thankful he’d managed to see Louis and restock earlier in the week. Working quickly, he rolled a small joint and stepped out onto his balcony, shutting the door behind him as he sat on the ground and leaned back against the railing surrounding it. Lighting up, he took a deep inhale and allowed the feeling of calm to work it’s way through him.

He smoked and thought about Liam and what he would do if he never spoke to him again or even if he did. He hadn’t even considered that every time they connected, it could be the last time. They had never found an explanation for what was going on between them, although a small part of him wondered if it was a soulmate thing, but he was far too cynical for the idea of soulmates.

As he worked his way through the joint, his body felt lighter and he let his mind wander over what if’s and possibilities. “What if Liam was his soulmate?” “What if they’d never spoken?” “What if Liam wasn’t real and he really was going crazy?” Again.

He was putting out the roach before replacing it in the special case inside of the box when he felt that familiar tingle in his mind and the view changed from winter ready trees and landscape under a deep blackness to a roaring fire surrounded by rocks and dirt.

“Hey,” he said, speaking slowly, tasting the words and feeling the joy at having Liam in his head, making it feel full and right.

“Hi.” Liam’s voice sounded off, but at least it was there filling all the spaces between Zayn’s darkest thoughts with a bit of light.

“I’m really sorry,” he started, trying to put into words the things he wanted to say. “I know I messed everything up for you and I am so, so sorry. I’m a stupid idiot who really needs to learn when to keep his mouth shut.”

Liam laughed and Zayn clamped his mouth shut, feeling the blush warming his cheeks, a much more pleasant feeling than the heat of the slaps earlier. “It’s all good,” Liam assured him and Zayn snorted. “Really. You saved me the time wasted on trying to impress him and then messing it all up on my own. I should probably be thanking you.”

Zayn heart skipped unhappily at the tone of Liam’s voice and the rush of negativity he felt run through Liam.

“Cut yourself some slack, bro,” Zayn teased. “That kid really likes you!” He thought about the way Niall’s blue eyes had sparkled when Liam had asked him out, how happiness just radiated from the blond. He thought about how Niall was pretty much Zayn’s polar opposite and felt himself get a wee bit sad.

“Well, even if he did, and I highly doubt that, he got over it really quick when he caught me talking to the little man inside of my head and smacking myself repeatedly.” Zayn felt Liam’s face grow warm and his fingers brush against his own cheek, causing Zayn to wince. “I am so sorry for that. I didn’t realize I hit that hard.”

“You didn’t,” Zayn whispered. “My father took a shot when we got home.”

“Zayn-”

“Stop. It’s alright. I’m alright. I probably deserved it and more for embarrassing him like I did.” He sighed and tapped his fingers on the box before standing and grabbing the box, returning to his room and sliding it into place under his bed. “Sometimes, when I’m with you, I forget myself. I forget that I’m the only one who can hear you.”

Liam nodded his head, making a sound of understanding as he reached to stoke the fire. He focused his mind on Zayn, trying to see if his father had done anything other than strike his cheek. As he took inventory of the body that he felt like he knew almost as well as his own, at least mentally, he realized something. “You feel funny,” he blurted out.

“What?” Zayn was giggling and Liam could tell he was curling up in his bed as he felt the softness of Zayn’s comforter brush over his arms.

He tried to explain the feeling. It was a bit loose, like being almost drunk, but not quite. “Don’t you feel funny?” Zayn just continued giggling and Liam felt himself begin to, as well. “Like, not, drunk, but…”

Zayn’s laughter was loud for a moment before he muffled it, with the blanket from the sudden taste in Liam’s mouth. “Oh...well, I might have partaken in some herbal refreshment earlier,” he whispered.

“What kind of tea do you…” Liam trailed off as he went over the words in his head. “Oh. Not tea.”

“Not tea, silly.” Zayn’s giggles were growing softer and Liam could feel a heaviness in his head, like he was trying not to fall asleep even though he was wide awake.

Liam was embarrassed, but he realized that not only did he feel loose, he could now identify the odd smell he’d noticed when they’d first connected. “Well, you smell different. Like skunky.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“I know, that was stupid and out of line…” He trailed off as Zayn let out a loud yawn and Liam could feel it in his own jaw.

“I should go.”

“Yeah, I’ll probably head off to bed soon, too.” He smiled as what he could see through Zayn’s eyes dimmed before reappearing quickly, the other boy’s blinking slowing down gradually with each repetition. “I’m really sorry about tonight.”

“Me, too,” Zayn whispered, smacking his lips.

“Good night,” Liam whispered, standing to stoke the fire a bit.

“Good night,” Zayn returned.

Liam felt warm sharing this moment and couldn’t help saying good night again, smiling when Zayn’s answering phrase was slower and more slurred. They went back and forth several times before Zayn stopped answering, but surprisingly the connection didn't cut off, so Liam sat by the fire closing his eyes and listening to Zayn’s even breathing and trying to fight against the feeling that was growing in his heart.

***

Liam was taking his lunch break at work, sitting on a bench outside the garage with a radio playing quietly next to him and a magazine he’d grabbed from the waiting room open in front of him. “I can’t believe you grabbed a Cosmo!” Zayn laughed at him.

“Go back to cleaning!” Liam snapped playfully as he turned another page. He had meant to grab the new Sports Illustrated , but someone must have beat him to it and he’d grabbed the fashion magazine by mistake, but he’d never let Zayn know that, so he was pretending to be completely enthralled with the glossy pages full of way too thin women. He flipped another page and reached for his sandwich.

“It’s Jelena.” Zayn said and Liam looked around, wondering if he was going to have to cut off the conversation. “Stop moving your head around like that! In the magazine! It’s Jelena - one of the girls that Father would love for me to marry.”

Liam tilted his head and gave the girl a closer look. Deciding she wasn’t anything special and questioning how she’d gotten into modeling, he decided to tease Zayn a little bit. “You mean you aren’t dying to spend the rest of your life with her?”

He heard Zayn’s snort of derision. “We’ve been over this, Liam. Unless she’s suddenly grown a dick, she’s not my type.”

“That’s what strap-ons are for,” Liam countered, feeling his cheeks heat up, not quite sure if it was coming from him or Zayn. He laughed aloud as Zayn spluttered, but he closed the magazine and tossed it to the side, deciding that they would people-watch instead. When he looked up, he saw his boss and one of his co-workers staring at him through the window with perplexed expressions on their faces. He gave a wave and a smile which they returned before suddenly disappearing, heads bent together.

He was going to ask Zayn if he’d seen that, but before he could speak, Zayn was shouting. “Turn up the radio! I love this song!”

Liam reached over and did it, smiling when he heard the song, a classic that he’d always been fond of and he started bouncing his head to the beat as he sat on the bench. “You like this?”

“I love it!” Liam could tell that Zayn was dancing and before he could even give it a second thought, he was on his feet dancing along as well, ignoring the strange looks he started getting from people in the garage again.

“I remember my mom playing this song in the kitchen when I was a kid.” He started singing along, smiling when Zayn’s voice joined in, their voices melding together seamlessly. He got lost in the song and the feeling of contentment he felt rolling off of Zayn.

Zayn smiled as he thought of a smaller version of Liam dancing around to this song with his mom and then realized it was one of the first times he’d heard anything about his family. A part of him really wanted to ask for more info, but that could wait until the song was over; he was having too much fun and felt like laughing, so he did. He was still laughing and enjoying the song when he turned around and found himself facing his mother who looked concerned.

“Hi, mom,” he said, stilling and hearing Liam turn off the radio.

“Is this more growing up?” she asked, a smile twitching the corners of her lips.

“No, this is dancing,” he said, reaching for his mother’s hand and pulling her into an impromptu waltz, smiling when she started laughing.

“I’ll see you later,” Liam said and the connection shut quickly making Zayn wonder if he’d done something wrong.

His mother pulled herself out of Zayn’s arms, still smiling as she looked around the basement. “What brings you down here?”

With his hands on his hips, he glanced around at all the boxes before turning back to his mother. “I was looking for the family photo albums. I thought we had stored them down here.”

His mother suddenly appeared nervous as she twisted her hands in front of herself. “Yeah, yeah. They were here the last time I saw them.” She made a quick lap around the room, touching random boxes and peering inside before turning back to Zayn. “I hope that one of the maids didn’t throw them out when they did spring cleaning last year.”

Zayn shook his head. “No, they wouldn’t do that.” He tried to imagine the maids, who had all worked for the family since Zayn was tiny, throwing away a piece of personal family memorabilia without discussing it with them first. Unless they had discussed it with his father. He felt his temper start to rise when his mother spoke again.

“Oh! I ran into Yolanda! She said that Jelena told her you were going to do the...the painting class.” His mother looked excited for him, but he was suspicious by the change of topic.

“It’s a figure drawing class,” Zayn corrected as he started going through boxes again.

“Right, right, figure drawing.” She was definitely distracted and he wondered if maybe his father had decided to be difficult about him taking the class.

“I don’t have to do it,” he told her, pulling down a box and opening it, letting out a huff of disappointment when it was full of old bed linens and not family albums.

“Of course not, sweetie,” she assured. Zayn moved onto another box and his mother closed the one left behind. “It’ll be good to get you out of the house and your mind off of…” She trailed off with a sigh as Zayn shoved a box in anger when he found it full of his baby clothes.

“Why would the maid throw out our photo albums?” Zayn asked, beginning to tear boxes open at random, ignoring his mother as she tried to get him to stop.

“I’m not saying she did it on purpose, but accidents happen, maybe the box got put in the wrong pile.” She grabbed him by the arm, pulling him gently away from the boxes and into the middle of the room. “Why do you have the sudden urge to look at photos?”

“I just wanted to show them to Lia…to...to myself.” He sighed, hoping his mother hadn’t caught his slip up. “I just want to look at them. Why is that such a problem?”

“I’m not saying it’s a problem. Look, your father is waiting to go to dinner, but I’ll help you look. It won’t kill him to wait a few minutes.” She made her way to another box, but Zayn stopped her.

“Yes, it will.” He hugged her and then pushed her towards the door. “Go. I’ll just keep looking.”

“I miss her, too,” she whispered before she walked out.

Zayn shook his head, not doubting his mother’s words, but couldn’t help but wonder if maybe they were the only ones who did. The more boxes he went through, the more convinced he became that his father had the maids throw the albums away. There was not one item in any of the boxes that pointed to the fact that Doniya had ever existed. As he dropped to the floor, he leaned back against the wall, exhausted, he realized the photos in his room were the only proof that he’d ever had a sister.

With a curse, he headed into the wine cellar and grabbed a couple of bottles before heading upstairs into the kitchen. He glanced around before remembering it was Carolyn’s night off, so he dug in the fridge to find something easy to make. As the water was boiling for pasta, he opened the first bottle and started drinking from it.

***

Liam dragged himself in after a really long day at work. His boss had been watching him all day long and he hadn’t been able to try to get in touch with Zayn. Despite not being able to talk to him, his mind had been filled with thoughts of Zayn. After he’d finally stopped listening to Zayn sleep the night before, Liam had laid awake thinking about him and the friendship they’d developed. Without even trying, Zayn had become the most important person in his life and it terrified him as much as it thrilled him.

Now, Liam was ready to fall into bed and sleep. He stripped out of his clothes to get ready to shower. He was peeing when suddenly the connection exploded open and he jumped, nearly missing the toilet completely. He shook his head as he looked down at himself and Zayn giggled.

“Everything come out alright?”

Liam shook his head and finished his business, washing his hands as Zayn continued to giggle and make bathroom humour jokes. With a smile, he decided to forgo the shower and climbed onto his bed, still naked, pulling the covers over himself. He put one hand behind his head and stared up at the ceiling, seeing the inside of Zayn’s kitchen. “You’re drunk.”

“Bullshit,” Zayn shouted, raising a bottle to his lips and taking another long drink. “I’ve only had one bottle, but give me time, baby.” He coughed and looked down and Liam saw a deep red stain on his pants . “I got wine on my clothes. Whatever will Father think?” He hopped off the counter and the vision was getting shaky for a bit as Liam tried to figure out what Zayn was doing, but a moment later he saw Zayn’s pants fly across the room.

“Where is your Father?” Liam couldn’t even imagine what Zayn’s father would think if he came home to find Zayn drunk and half-naked in the kitchen.

“Fancy hobnobbing dinner with that asshole Dr. Cowell!” Zayn spun around and Liam worried for his safety. “Have I given you a tour of my luxurious prison?”

Liam’s heart lurched at Zayn’s choice of words. He listened as Zayn slurred his way through descriptions of the rooms he was stumbling through until he reached the bottom of the main stairway and sat down hard on the bottom step. He sniffled a bit and Liam struggled to come up with something to distract Zayn from whatever had brought on this out-of-character drinking binge.

“Hey! Did you ever find those pictures you wanted me to see?” Liam asked, shoving himself up to sit when he heard Zayn start sobbing. “Hey! What is it? It’s not a big deal, I just remembered you mentioning them. I wasn’t trying to-”

“They’re gone! I searched the entire basement and the attic and this entire fucking cold-as-ice, impersonal showroom of a fucking prison and they’re just gone!” Zayn got up and began moving up the stairs, still ranting and Liam actually reached out when he stumbled a few times.

“They couldn’t just be gone,” Liam tried to speak softly, breathing out a sigh of relief when Zayn reached the top of the stairs. In a few moments, Liam was relieved to see that Zayn had headed to his own bedroom and not somewhere else. Now, he just had to hope Zayn wouldn’t decide he wanted to go out onto his balcony.

“But they are! Maybe one of the maids ate them!”

Liam chuckled. “That means maybe you should pay them a bit more so they can buy food,” he teased, immediately apologizing when Zayn sobbed again.

“Don’t be an idiot! The maid didn’t eat them! My father had them disposed of!”

Liam watched as pillows began flying across his line of vision and he was glad that Zayn was going to climb into bed, but he was still concerned about his mental state. “Why the hell would he do that? Those are your family’s memories, dammit!”

Zayn felt the anger in his body growing, knowing that it was coming from Liam and he felt justified in his own anger because of that fact. He threw the last pillow and started pulling the duvet of the bed, falling on his ass in the process; this was why he didn’t get drunk very often, and never alone. With his luck, he’d fall and hit his head and die before someone found him. He was sure his father would be thrilled by that turn of events.

As angry as he was and as much as he believed his father had thrown away the albums, he also believed, deep down, when he allowed himself to really think about it, that his father had done what he felt was best for the family, as misguided as it might have been. He shook his head because he hated when he began giving his father the benefit of the doubt. He tried to focus on what a shitty father he’d been, always absent, always obsessed with appearances, but he felt that niggling of doubt anyway.

“He did it because he knows me. Because he knows what’s best for me.” Zayn’s voice was quiet because if he said the words out loud, it made everything seem more realistic and if Liam were to agree with him, then it would mean that his father did love him and that everything he’d ever done to embarrass his father, as unintentional as it had been, made him the bad guy in his family.

“That’s not doing what’s...that’s not...fuck...that sucks!” Liam was angry, Zayn could tell.

“He’s not being mean, he’s not,” Zayn argued, but his own brain wanted to scream at him for lying even if another part of him seemed to be relieved by the self-acceptance of his father’s behaviour. He shook his head, knowing that part wasn’t right, but still finding words defending his father’s actions pouring out of his mouth. “He knows how I get sometimes looking through that stuff.” He tugged at his hair, rocking a bit on the floor before jumping to his feet.

He paced the room as the logical part of his brain, the part that hated his father began to take control again. “Doesn’t matter if they’re there or not,” he said, stopping before a trunk pushed up against one wall and pulling it open. He pulled out sketchbooks, opening them to show off drawings, tons of drawings that he’d done. Every single one of them were of her, of Doniya. “I know every single picture in those books by heart and the important ones, they’re here.”

He opened to a page of a seven-year-old Doniya sitting in the middle of a bed and smiling, her eyes wide as her hands appeared to be twisting a stuffed toy in her lap. “This is Doniya when we were kids. She has my eyes, hazel with flecks of panic.”

He flipped a page to the two of them in swimsuits standing at the edge of the lake. “This was a summer at the cottage when she tried to teach me to swim. See how tight my grip is on her arm. She tried so hard to teach me, but it was a massive failure. I nearly drowned and spent three days in the hospital.”

He flipped a page and began laughing. “And this is a pony. I’m not even sure why this is here, but it is.”

Zayn hesitated before turning the page again, knowing what would be revealed next, holding his breath he closed his eyes and did it anyway. “This is my dad.” He opened his eyes, taking in the drawing, the darkest he’d probably ever drawn in his life. “The scariest man who ever lived. Even grown-ups are terrified of him. All he ever taught me was to be afraid, but Doniya never was. She was the bravest person I’ve ever met in my life.”

He turned to the last page, a drawing of Zayn and Doniya, probably the last photo of the two of them that had ever been taken. He glanced up to his nightstand where the empty frame that used to hold the actual photo still sat, the photo having disappeared one night while he’d been gone. “Then Doniya was gone and there was no one to stand up to the Big Bad Wolf, so I decided I would just be the perfect child because my mother had already lost one and wasn’t even allowed to remember her, so I couldn’t let my father get rid of me as well.”

Zayn shoved the book off his lap and began pacing again. “I let my father remove every reminder of her, except her photos.” He stepped in front of the wall. “I don’t even think he realized at first that she had taken them and that's the only reason they weren’t tossed with everything else.” He laid a finger on the largest picture, the one of the abandoned main street that had been near their cottage, the photo where if you looked closely, you could see Doniya’s reflection in one of the windows.

“I let my desire to be the best son chip away at everything that made me me. All my quirks, all my interests, and insecurities until...Voila! Nothing left!” Zayn grabbed the empty photo frame and threw it at the wall, listening to the glass shatter and fly everywhere.

Liam jumped when he heard the glass shatter. He’d been focusing on Zayn’s words, wanting to do nothing more than to gather Zayn into his arms and protect him from everything evil in the world, most importantly his father.

“Nothing like a little truth to sober you up, huh?” Zayn’s laughter was almost maniacal, frightening Liam a bit.

“You wanna hear about a fucked up family? Let me tell you about mine. I got a sister named Ruth, we called her Roo. She moved almost two thousand miles away just so she wouldn’t have to loan me anymore money.” He shook his hand as he reached into his bedside drawer, digging to the bottom and pulling out the beat up photo from when he was about five, the only family photo he had left. “My mama’s...shit...I put her through so much that by the time I got sent up, she just stopped talking to me. She didn’t even wait for the trial, just packed up and left town, probably to live with my sister, but I don’t know since they changed their phone numbers and all mail is returned unopened.”

He brushed at his eyes and he heard Zayn start to interrupt, but now that he had gotten started, he didn’t want to stop. “I’ve never met anyone that I didn’t wind up disappointing.” He crumbled the picture and tossed it aside before turning onto his knees and punching into his pillow. “I mean, the best thing, the only thing about me that I even like...is you.” He could feel the tears starting to fall now because he hated that he was in love with Zayn and he hated even more that he couldn’t be there with Zayn, but he could never hate Zayn. “Fuck, why do you have to be so damn gorgeous, Zayn Malik.” He rolled over and fell back against the pillows and stared at the ceiling. “I know this is dumb and shallow, but I mean, you are a million miles away with your rich, fucked up family, and I’m on parole. Still, sometimes, I think…”

Liam trailed off, he couldn't tell Zayn what he thought, he shouldn’t tell him that he truly believed that Zayn was his soulmate. He couldn’t open himself up and risk Zayn laughing at him or cutting off their relationship forever. He definitely couldn’t tell Zayn just how much he loved him. “I really wish you weren't so fucking beautiful.”

Zayn stood frozen in the middle of his room, listening to Liam and feeling pain wash over him. His heart clenched when Liam called him beautiful. He longed to feel Liam’s breath on his face as he said those words, tried to picture his full rose-coloured lips pressed against his own. Moving in front of the mirror, Zayn looked at himself in his button down shirt and boxers. Locking eyes with his reflection to be sure Liam was watching, he slowly pushed down his boxers until they pooled at his feet.

He heard Liam’s gasp as his fingers went to the buttons on his shirt slowly undoing them until the shirt fell from his shoulders to the floor, leaving him completely naked in the mirror. He dragged his own eyes up and down his reflection, feeling his own arousal being wrapped up in Liam’s. He dragged a hand down his chest, over his stomach, tickling the hairs of his happy trail before hesitating just above his already half-hard  cock.

“Liam, I want to know what you feel like,” he whispered before wrapping his hand around himself.

***

The morning after their very personal encounter, Zayn was still remembering the way it felt, both physically and deep inside his heart. A part of him knew it had been a mistake, but it wasn’t one he could find himself regretting. However, it made it even more difficult knowing that what they had could never be real. Even if his father would let him be involved with a man, leaving to go to Arizona was out of the question and, because of his parole, Liam couldn’t come to New York.

Now, he found himself in his figure drawing class and couldn’t help comparing the male model to Liam as he’d seen him the night before when they’d shared their touches until they’d both reached completion, one more satisfying than he’d ever experienced. Glancing between the model and his drawing, he made a noise of disgust at how it was turning out, but he easily blamed it on Liam’s running commentary. Each giggle drew Jelena’s attention, making it even harder for Zayn to be serious.

“Cut it out! It’s good! Very cool!” Liam was lying on a creeper underneath a car in the garage, talking quietly to Zayn. “Look over at Jelena’s.” Zayn did, trying not to snicker because the girl had her tongue between her teeth as she scratched the charcoal across the page. “That’s a little abstract there, darlin’. Try drawing the nice man.” Zayn’s eyes flickered up to the model again as he giggled.

Liam shook his head as he laughed, making another adjustment to the muffler he was installing. He had just finished and slid out from underneath the car, finding himself looking up into the concerned face of his boss, Paul. “My office, now, Payne.”

Swallowing thickly, he whispered a goodbye to Zayn before shutting the connection. He wiped his hands off on the rag in his back pocket as he hurried into the office. Paul shut the door, making Liam even more nervous, but he took a few deep breaths trying to convince himself that everything was alright.

“What’s going on, Paul?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest, but thinking that looked too defensive, so he shoved his hands into the pockets of his coveralls before shaking them out and moving them to the back pockets.

“It’s not good, kid,” Paul said, picking up an envelope off the top of his desk.

“What...what isn’t?”

Paul shook his head and held the envelope out to Liam. “It’s no good. It doesn’t work.”

Liam took the envelope and looked inside seeing a paycheck, but payday wasn’t until the end of the week. “Wait. Wait! Am I fired?” His chest heaved as his heart sped up and he was really thankful that he had cut off the connection with Zayn; he didn’t need to see or hear this. The panic was terrifying and he kept staring at Paul. “Why?”

Paul shook his head, the look on his face conflicted as he came around to lean against the desk. “What would you do if you were me, Liam? Keep the ex-con who talks to himself? All day?” He ran a hand over his hair and picked up a stack of papers that he recognized as formal complaints. “You’re scaring the customers.” They both scowled at the stack as Paul dropped them back on the desk. “Look, when you get another gig, and you will get another one, just leave your imaginary friend at home.”

Liam felt like he’d been smacked. He didn’t know if he was angrier about being fired or Zayn being called imaginary. He knew how it looked to other people, but when he was “with” Zayn, he just got lost. His happiest moments all involved Zayn and people thought he was all in Liam’s head. Liam pulled off the company coveralls, leaving himself in his jeans and a white tank top. Shoving the check in his back pocket, he looked at Paul. “Okay.”

“You’re not the first ex-con I’ve hired, so listen when I tell you, you gotta start living in this world, brother. You gotta be present and not just in your head. You understand what I’m saying. Be here.”

Liam nodded and turned towards the door, feeling his anger pushing at the surface and wanting to keep it under control. “Okay.”

As Liam opened the door, Paul’s hand fell on his shoulder. “I’ll give you a recommendation if you need one. I won’t lie, but I’ll say you’re honest and work hard.” Liam just nodded and walked out the door, ignoring the looks and whispers from the others in the shop as he broke into a run as soon as he was out the door.

***

Art class was over and Zayn was packing up his stuff, eyeing the model who was talking with some of the women who were fawning over him. He’d yet to put his robe back on, clearly comfortable with his nudity and Zayn wasn’t going to complain about the view. He knew his staring was out-of-control when Jelena stepped into his line of sight and startled him.

Glancing over her shoulder at the model and then back to Zayn, she gave him an unsure smile. “Look, Zayn, we’re friends.” Zayn crooked an eyebrow at her. “Okay, so our parents want us to be more, but we’ve known each other since diapers.”

“Of course,” Zayn admitted. He didn’t hate the Hadid girls, even if they were a bit on the shallow side and had a tendency to make racist jokes that only they found funny. He did know that they understood the pressure of having a parent like his father though.

“You can tell me. You really should,” she said, moving closer.

Zayn tilted his head, looking at her and also trying to see past her to the model who was now alone and watching them, a smirk on his face as he shrugged into his robe, leaving it hanging open. “I have no idea what you're talking about,” he told her.

She moved to block his view again, but the model moved enough to stay in his eyeline. “Not at all? Well, everybody is talking about you. They’re worried something is going on and I think I know what it is, but you can tell me.”

“Nothing to tell,” he responded, smiling when the model winked at him before tying his robe and disappearing into the curtained off area that served as his dressing room. Zayn turned his attention back to putting his stuff in his bag, hoping that Jelena would leave him alone.

“Are you seeing someone?”

“No.” He thought about her question. “You’re a really nice girl and I know my father would be thrilled if we got together, but you’re really not my type.”

Her eyes went wide. “No! I meant a shrink!” She thought for a minute, her head whipping between the curtained area and Zayn’s face. “Wait! You’re gay! Do you have a boyfriend?”

Zayn’s heart leapt into his throat at her declaration and he refused to admit that Liam’s face popped into his mind at the word ‘boyfriend’. If her empty head had figured it out, then how could he possibly keep the secret from his family. “No. No. No, nononono,” he babbled.

“Because I’m really good at keeping-”

“Jelena, I’m not. Alright! Just drop it!” Zayn could feel the laughter at the idea of the biggest gossip on the planet keeping secrets. He was so screwed.

“Your father is going to flip if he finds out, isn’t he? Poor Dr. Malik,” she muttered and Zayn whipped around to look at her. She raised her hands in the air like he was going to attack her. “I didn’t mean that, really. You know what, don’t even worry about it, but if you are keeping a secret like this, it explains so much.” She shook her head and started gathering her own stuff. “We never had this conversation.”

She started to rush out, but Zayn caught her by the arm. “Explains what?”

She sighed and looked around before leaning in. “Well, I guess I don’t mind telling you now that I know you’re not crazy, just…” She looked around again before whispering the next word. “Gay. But everybody’s talking about you.” Zayn gave her a stunned look even though he really shouldn’t be surprised. “You must know that, especially after the fundraiser.”

“Everybody’s talking about me.” His head was spinning. He wasn’t quite sure how her figuring out he was gay ruled out his being crazy or even how his behaviour at the fundraiser could be explained away by it, but at least he seemed to have her on his side now. “Why? Don’t they have lives?”

“Hey, my lips are sealed. Zip-locked tight.” She actually mimed zipping her lips shut, locking them and throwing away the key. “You don’t even have to tell me who it is.” He opened his mouth to argue and her eyes lit up like a child in a candy store. “Unless you want to tell me. Is it someone I know? Is it Dr. Cowell? ” They both gave a shudder at the very thought.

“Look, honestly, I don’t have a boyfriend. I swear.” He shook his head. “I’m just crazy. Okay. Losing my mind completely.”

He let out a long sigh when she just gave him a smile and an exaggerated wink before finally leaving the room. He finished grabbing his stuff and jumped when he turned to find the model standing behind him with a smile on his face. “I...I gotta go,” Zayn said and hurried out of the room, barely noticing Jelena huddled in a corner with her phone pressed to her ear, talking rapidly.

***

Liam was lining up a shot on the pool table at Bressie’s, but the damn balls wouldn’t stay still and he swore there were two eight balls. He shook his head as he closed one eye and tried again. He pulled back for the shot, striking the cue ball completely off center when Niall walked up and said hello. He watched as the cue ball bounced off the table and disappeared.

With a smile, he turned to Niall and threw an arm around him. “Niall!!!!! Nialler! My man!!! You come to watch me making pool history?” He giggled at himself as he gestured wildly to the pool table with the cue still in his hand.

Niall stepped away and gently took away the cue. “Had a few pitchers, did you?”

Liam shrugged as he bent to look under the table, trying to find the errant pool ball. “You know my only regret?” he asked as he stood up quickly, dizziness overtaking him for a moment. He smiled as Niall reached out to steady him. “It’s that I gave up my law practice to become a showgirl.” He gave a couple drunken high kicks and fell on his ass, giving up and lying back on the dirty bar floor.

Niall chuckled as he grabbed the nearly empty pitcher. “Mind if I have some?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hey! Have a beer!” Niall shook his head as he began pouring a glass. Liam looked around and spotted the cue ball under the far side of the table. Flipping over to his stomach he began to crawl under the table. “I’m just gonna get this elus..eff...runaway ball.”

“Bressie said that Paul gave you the axe.” Niall said, leaning against the table as the door to the bar opened, Andy and Maz passing through. “That sucks hard.”

“Don’t it, man,” Andy said.

Liam heard his voice and jumped, bashing his head on the underside of the pool table, letting out a long line of curses. Maz ducked down, spotting him and laughing. “Where the hell you been hiding at, Payne-in-the-ass?”

Liam scrambled out from under the table, suddenly very excited to see these men because that meant money. “Thank God, you’re here! Is it time to do crimes?” he shouted and Andy wrapped an arm around his neck, slapping his hand over his mouth.

“Yeah, man, we just been waiting on you,” he told him.

Liam nodded and held up the ball he’d found. “Cue ball,” he said when Andy released his mouth. For whatever reason, Liam found himself immensely funny and burst into giggles.

“Holy hell! That’s enough dicking around. We gonna do this or not?” Andy asked, shoving Liam away.

“Hell, yeah!” Liam said, starting to gather his stuff. He was ready to do this now. If he got money, he could get outta this town. Hide away where no one would find him. Except Zayn. Zayn could always find him and that would be alright. “Let’s do it. C’mon, let’s do it!” he shouted as he crossed to the door and realized no one was following him.

Maz grabbed Liam and pulled him back over to the table. Andy showed him a folded piece of paper before shoving it into Liam’s pocket. “That’s the address. Need you to roll up there and check the place out. We go in Thursday night.”

“That’s almost two full days away. Fuck that. Let’s do it now!” Liam told them, confused when the guys shook their heads and attempted to quiet him down, but it only had the opposite effect. “Right now. I mean, what the hell am I waiting for right? This is what I do. I’m a criminal-element type, man. Just like you! Like, who was I kidding trying to stay on the straight and narrow.” He snorted as he thought about the time he’d wasted working at the garage and trying to do what he was supposed to do.

Bressie walked over, slapping a hand down on Liam’s shoulder, his eyes kind, but his voice and expression firm. “Maybe you’ve had enough, Li. Maybe you wanna head home and sleep it off.”

Liam swung his arm to shake off Bressie’s hand. “No! I don't want sleep, I want some action. Yeah! C’mon! Let’s get lost.” His eyes fall on Niall who was inching closer to Bressie. Liam started to grab for him, thinking he’d make a great partner-in-crime and could take care of his, what did Zayn call them? His needs!

Once he thought of Zayn again, his mind started changing gears. “See, I got this problem, though. It’s that Jiminey Cricket is gonna get all upset with me, man. I can’t go messing with him. I really can’t. He’ll give me that sad, disappointed feeling and that’s just too much.”

Bressie glanced down at Niall. “Is he talking Pinocchio?” Niall shrugged, but was nodding at the same time.

“He’s not alone though, he lives in there with his parents Dr. and Mrs. Cricket.” He knew he wasn’t making sense, but he couldn’t bring himself to say Zayn’s name aloud so he kept going with the Disney nonsense. “What am I gonna do when he finds out I’m not better than anyone else?” He turned and grabbed the front of Andy’s shirt in both hands. “What will he say when he finds out, Andy?” He could feel tears in his eyes and he brushed them away as he thought about how disappointed in him Zayn would be when he found out he’d been fired. He could just imagine the look of disdain he would get if he did this job as well.

Andy gripped Liam’s wrists to get him to release his shirt and then stepped away. “You got voices in your head? Is that what you’re saying?” He rolled his eyes.

“You don’t believe me?” Liam laughed, his gaze falling on Niall who was watching him carefully from the protection of Bressie’s arm. “Niall?”

“He does.”

“Thank you,” Liam told him. “I have a whole world of craziness up here, man. So...you might wanna find someone a bit more stable to be your wire man.” He shrugged. “Maybe I’m just not your guy. I mean, burglary is a pretty tricky piece of business.” Liam knew he was shouting and he could see that Andy’s temper was beginning to rise, but clearly all sense of self-preservation had flown out the window since he’d been fired.

“It’s time to shut your mouth. Now.” Andy hissed getting right up in Liam’s face.

Liam narrowed his eyes. “You know what? I’m getting so sick and tired of everybody telling me what to do!”

He was angry and wanted to strike out and when Maz grabbed him by the shoulder and jerked him around so they were facing each other, his body started acting without his permission. He swung his arm, cue ball still clutched in his hand. When Maz tried to turn away from the strike, Liam caught him against the back of the head. As soon as he released him, Liam whipped back around and punched Andy in the stomach and then shoved him into the wall. He turned back to protect himself from Maz who was coming back at him with a pool cue in hand.

They all froze when a shotgun came between them. Following the barrel, they found Bressie glaring at them. Niall stood behind him, jaw dropped and phone in hand. “Oi! Step away, Liam. Just get away from them.” Liam saw Niall moving to grab him and pull him away from the center of the group. “You two, get the hell outta my bar!” Bressie bellowed.

“You got it, Brez. Just put down the gun,” Andy told him, fisting Maz’s shirt dragging him towards the door while he complained about the back of his head, asking Andy to check for a lump. “Shut up. Shut up, Maz!” He turned his attention back to the other three. “That’s okay. Everything’s fine.” He narrowed his gaze on Liam who was rubbing his knuckles. “Liam, I don’t care how long we’ve known each other or how many times you’ve saved my ass, you screw this up…” He held his hands up as Bressie waved the gun at him again and then disappeared out the door yelling at Maz who was still complaining.

***

The next morning, Liam was awakened when he felt his entire body chilled to the core. Shooting to sit upright, he nearly fell off the sofa where he’d passed out the night before. He’d broken down and told Zayn about being fired and had immediately regretted it when negative emotions began flowing between them. Instead of disappointment or anger, it had just been sad which had confused Liam, but Zayn had closed the connection before he could question him. Liam had passed out with tears on his face, convinced that Zayn would never speak to him again.

Instead, he woke up cold and seeing a snow covered hill. Only the second time in his life that he’d seen snow and both times had been through Zayn’s eyes. He began to wonder if this hill was the same one.

“Do you recognise it?”

Liam laughed. “It doesn’t look any smaller. You would think it would,” he said, as he pushed himself to stand. He stepped out into his yard, hoping the heat of the just rising sun would be enough to keep him warm while Zayn explored the hill.

“This is the first time I’ve been back.” Zayn was standing at the top of the hill and Liam wondered if he’d brought a sled, but figured that would’ve been silly. “I was always too afraid. It always felt like there was something here. Something too grown up and real for me to deal with.”

Liam sat on the stairs to his trailer, leaning back against the door, remembering how it had felt when he’d been flying down the hill with Zayn. He’d been so scared then because he’d had no clue what was happening, but looking back on it, it had been the most fun he’d had in forever. He wondered if the fact that Zayn had finally gone back to the hill meant his feelings for the spot had changed as well.

Zayn leaned against a tree as he felt a peace wash over Liam. He wished he could steal some of that peace, but instead he just felt nervous. He’d come here today for a reason. After tossing and turning all night thinking about Liam losing his job and Jelena discovering his sexuality, he was exhausted and had come to a decision. “Do you think this was the place I first went nuts or does it go further back?”

“Zee, you’re not crazy, c’mon,” Liam teased.

Zayn dropped down on a log that was mostly cleared of snow. He put his elbows on his knees, resting his chin on his hands. “I was once. Right after college. After Doniya.” His heart hurt as he thought about her. He tried to blink back his tears, genuinely concerned that they would freeze if he let them escape. “I just kind of fell apart. I couldn’t deal with being in the world and I made the mistake of telling my father that, hoping the loss of one child would soften his heart some. Instead, I ended up spending time in a hospital up state.” He shook his head and wiped away the tears because they were stubborn and fell anyway. “Rehabilitating.”

“I didn’t know about that. How did I not know about that?” Liam sounded panicked.

Zayn couldn’t hold back his bitter laugh. “Yeah, you missed out on that fun time. Probably because I missed most of it, too.” He hated remembering those days, but the more he’d thought about Liam the night before, the more he felt himself headed back to that place and he couldn’t do that again. “I couldn’t feel anything. I just laid in bed for almost three months trying to work up enough energy to cry, to mourn my sister and myself. My mom was there with me through all of it. She read to me and sat with me and did everything to get me through it, which she probably did because it sure wasn’t me. If I’d had my way, I would’ve gone out like Doniya.” He squeezed his hands into fists, pushing them against the side of his head. “I was so fucking weak.”

Liam was stunned by Zayn’s words, wishing he could remember that time in his life, wishing he could’ve been there for him like his mother had been, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember anything like that. Now, hearing Zayn break down and call himself weak crushed him because Zayn was the strongest person he knew. “Zayn, how can you say that? After everything you’ve done for me?”

Zayn’s laughter hurt Liam, not his ears, but his heart because it sounded so hollow, so unlike the man he’d gotten to know over the last few months. The man he knew that he loved more than anyone else in his pathetic life. “Have I made your life any easier? Honestly, Liam?”

Liam didn’t even hesitate before he responded. “Yes.”

Zayn pushed off the log and began pacing. “You know I can’t read your mind, Liam, but I know when you’re lying.” It scared him how well he could tell when Liam was lying, but what scared him more now was that he wasn’t sure if Liam was lying to him or to himself.

“Zayn, you’re scaring me. Whatever you’re thinking, please don’t do it.”

“I can’t live like this anymore, Liam. I’m torn between my family and you. I know my father is a gigantic ass, you don't have to tell me, but my mom is amazing and she loves me. Maybe if I do what my father asks of me, if I’m a better son, maybe he’ll even love me again.”

“Just be the dutiful son, right? No matter what it does to you.” Liam snapped, his tone nastier than Zayn had ever heard it, even worse than the night of his destroyed date.

Part of Liam regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, but another part of him really hoped they would snap Zayn out of whatever crazy idea he had. “That’s not fair.” Zayn’s voice was barely a whisper, but it echoed inside Liam’s head.

“Fair? You want to talk about fair?” Liam pushed to stand and strode across his front yard and picked up one of the rocks leftover from the landscaping. He tossed it from hand to hand. “I, finally, for the first time in my life, I can see something. Something real, and you tell me I gotta give it up, so…” He trailed of and threw the rock as hard as he could, feeling the stretch of muscle in his shoulder as the rock sailed and landed in the dirt with a quiet thud. “How can you even call that fair?” He picked up another rock and threw it as he screamed, “How?!”

Zayn felt as if he’d been punched in the gut, his breath stolen from him as he tried to stick to his plan, determination faltering at the agony he could hear and feel from Liam. “I can’t be with you.” At least, not like this, but how did he tell Liam that? How did he tell him it hurt way too much to have him inside his head and not in his arms, to watch the way having him in Liam’s head destroyed the life he’d been trying so hard to build back up. How much he hated himself for what he was doing to Liam when he didn't think it was possible to hate himself more than he already did. “I can’t play at this anymore,” he choked out.

“Fuck, Zayn!” Zayn flinched at the curse, but didn’t say anything. “This isn’t a game! What we have isn’t something you play.” His next words came out strangled and twisted to the point where Zayn could barely understand them and wished he couldn’t at all. “What am I supposed to do?”

Zayn took a deep breath, trying to fight back the tears in his eyes, trying to pull himself together to convince Liam that this was what he wanted. “You are going to be fine. Dammit, Liam, you have so much.” He tried to put into words everything he saw in Liam because he knew, just like him, Liam couldn't see it in himself. “You have so much… You, you just blew me away. You know that, don’t you? You know that I’m never gonna forget that? Never gonna forget you?”

Liam snorted; the words seemed meaningless because all he kept seeing was a giant neon sign flashing ‘loser’ and that horrible voice in his head that sounded a lot like his mother tell him he’d messed everything up again. He’d let so many people just walk away from him without a fight, but he couldn’t do that with Zayn. “Couldn’t we just…”

“No.” Zayn’s voice was cold and final. It was the one he’d heard him use with his father.

Liam reached to brush away the tears that had sprung to his eyes, but at the last minute stopped himself, wanting Zayn to feel what he was doing to him. Wanted Zayn to hurt as much as he did. “How can you expect me to be able to just shut you off?”

“Because you love me,” Zayn whispered before closing the connection so quickly that it felt like a door being slammed in Liam’s face.

Liam’s entire body shook as he began picking up rocks and throwing them in rapid succession, screaming Zayn’s name with each one. He didn’t stop even when his arms grew tired. When he ran out of rocks, he began dismantling the landscaping he’d done and throwing cinder blocks. When his voice was hoarse, he whispered Zayn’s name. He didn’t stop until a cinder block went asunder and landed on the engine of the car he’d been working on, destroying his hard work.

One last shout, ripping at his raw throat and he collapsed to his knees in the middle of his yard and sobbed.

***

The next morning, Liam woke up with his eyes swollen shut from crying, but he didn’t care. He didn’t care when he got into his truck that he was still wearing his clothes from the day before or that he smelled like the outdoors where he’d passed out in the middle of his yard. He only spared a thought to wonder at the fact that he hadn't been eaten by coyotes in the night.

Once in his truck, he reached into his pocket and removed the scrap of paper Andy had given him. He recognized the area that the address lead him to and he drove carefully, keeping an eye out for anyone who might find his presence suspicious, but in the five minutes it took him to get from the front of the industrial park to the building, he didn’t encounter another vehicle. It was all a bit creepy.

He parked across from the front doors of the large white building, the landscaping in front overrun and he flinched as he thought about his own front yard and how much he had demolished it the day before. The building was dark, not even the backup lights running. Through the windows, he could see boxes, but no signs of life.

He didn’t feel the drive to break-in as he had in the past, the strong burn to get money. All he felt was the sad realization that this was his life. A small part of him hoped there would be a silent alarm and he’d be caught again. He could go back to prison and maybe this time he would let the hell that place was break him down until there was nothing left of him. Maybe this time he wouldn’t fight back and just give in to whatever fate had in store for him.

He shook his head sadly, putting his car in gear and heading towards Bressie’s. He really needed a drink and he could only hope that Bressie would let him through the door after the antics of the other day. His fist still throbbed a bit from all of it, but that was less than the ache in his muscles from throwing rocks and blocks the day before.

Twenty minutes later he walked into the bar, freezing for a moment when he saw who was sitting at the bar. With a muttered, “Fuck it,” he moved to take the stool next to O’Brien. “Give me a whiskey, neat. Please,” he called out to Bressie.

Paddy turned sideways on his stool, leaning one arm on the bar, focusing on Liam who was watching his drink being poured. “So, the story goes, you come in here and it’s always some kind of trouble.”

Liam took the drink from Bressie, taking a short drink and setting the glass back on the counter, turning it between his hands and looking into the mirror behind Bressie. “Is that what you hear?”

Bressie chuckled before turning away to make himself busy at the other end of the bar, but obviously still paying close attention to what was happening between Liam and O’Brien.  “Not two nights ago, you were in here dancing with Andy and Maz, two men you swore you didn’t associate with anymore.”

“They showed up. I left.” Liam took another drink. “We didn’t associate.” He shook his head, because something felt strange.

“Look, Liam, this isn’t a drill. You got yourself fired, you’re hanging around with known felons and Maz is ready to bust your ass off all across the desert. You’ve broken-”

Liam’s ears had begun ringing the entire time O’Brien lectured him. He tried shaking it again and then realized what was happening. “Paddy, look, can you-”

The connection banged open with Zayn screaming. “No! No! No! Please stop! Don’t do this! Please!” Zayn was sobbing as he was dragged down a long white hallway that echoed with the sound of keys rattling and doors slamming shut; sounds that reminded Liam far too much of prison.

Liam scrambled to get away from the connection, but it just wouldn’t close. He fell backwards and hit the ground, looking up he could see and hear O’Brien, but it was like he was a great distance away behind what Zayn was seeing.

“Payne! Payne! What’s wrong with you?”

“Please!”

Bressie came around the bar and pulled Liam to his feet. “Liam! Liam! What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“Those bastards!” Liam shouted, realizing what was happening to Zayn and even after yesterday, Zayn had opened the connection and was in trouble. He needed Liam.

O’Brien’s face was concerned, but a spark of excitement in his eyes. “Who? Andy and Maz? Are you ready to tell the truth about them?”

“You know what I’m looking at right now?” He didn't even care if O’Brien thought he was crazy or Bressie barred him for life, he was telling them. “A cell.”

“Look, Liam, you tell me what’s going on with those two. Tell me what they got planned. You won’t even have to think about that. I’ll take it to-”

Liam laughed, reaching into his pocket and throwing the scrap of paper at O’Brien with no explanation of what it was. “No, I mean, I’m looking at it right now. I’m inside of it!” The bars on the windows sent chills through him, even if the rest of the room was far nicer than his prison cell had ever been.

O’Brien grabbed the paper out of the air before it could hit the ground, eyes widening at what he saw. “What?”

Liam was focused on Zayn, only half paying attention to what was going on around him. “The walls are closing in,” he muttered, not sure if he meant on Andy and Maz or on Zayn or even himself. “This is where they put me because this is how they see me.” It was Zayn in the cell, but he was there because of Liam. It was all Liam’s fault.

O’Brien stopped staring at the paper and gave Liam a suspicious look. “Wait a minute, so is this where you start to blame the whole world for your crap, is that right?”

Liam laughed out loud. “No siree, Paddy.” He grabbed him by both cheeks and kissed him smack on the lips. “This is where I stop.” He ran for the door of the bar.

“Now, wait a minute! We aren’t done here!” O’Brien shouted after him.

Liam stopped in the doorway, his back to everyone. “Tonight. That address. Just after dark.” With those final words, he was gone, his mind already racing on the next steps of his plan.

***

Zayn was curled up on his side in a bed that wasn’t his own in a place he would never consider home, but that he was afraid he’d never be leaving again. His mother sat beside him, a hand on his ankle while his father stood with his back against the door. Zayn knew he was drugged enough that responses weren’t expected, but he really wanted to scream at every word they said to him.

“I, we just want you to get better,” his mother said, her voice quiet and sad.

Zayn wanted to laugh. He knew she wanted to see him in a better place, a happier mindset, but his father only cared about appearances. It didn't matter to him if Zayn stayed in this room for the rest of his life because the only way he was getting out was if he agreed to forever do what he was told. He could only leave if he married one of the Hadid girls or some other socialite that met his father’s approval.

“You just need to stop worrying about everything, sonshine. Everything is going to be fine.” Her voice was soothing, but the heavy presence of his father kept Zayn full of stress. He thought about Liam, wondering if Liam was thinking about him. He tried to prod the connection, but got nothing in response. He wouldn’t blame Liam if he never spoke to him again.

Dr. Malik cleared his throat, startling Zayn and getting the only reaction he would give, a slight flinch. “You will stay here. Alone. No distractions. Once you feel more acceptable, we will discuss you coming back to the house.”

The house. Not even his father thought of that place as home. Nothing had been home since Doniya’s death. Even his mother, with all of her goodness, still kowtowed to his father, so even she wasn’t home. Zayn closed his eyes, knowing he was lying. One person had felt like home. Now, he didn’t know if he’d ever feel that way again.

He heard the door open and footsteps disappearing through before his mother stood from the bed. She leaned over and placed a kiss to Zayn’s forehead before her heels clicked away. “I love you, Zayn,” she whispered just as the door shut behind her, followed by the clicking of locks.

***

“Thanks, man!” Liam said to the guy at the dealership. He looked down at the cash in his hands, counting quickly before staring longingly at his truck that was no longer his truck. He felt a pang, but then he remembered the feeling of terror from Zayn and he pocketed the cash, trying to figure out how he was going to get to New York quickly and quietly.

He was distracted and nearly walked into the car that was blocking the path across the parking lot. Looking up, he groaned at Andy who had his arms resting on the roof of his car, staring at Liam. He started to say something, but felt something slammed into the back of his head. “Oh for the…” he muttered, lifting a hand to the abused spot.

“There! Now we both got lumps on our heads,” Maz taunted and out of the corner of his eye, Liam could see the gun that must’ve been what had hit him.

Andy was laughing as he drummed his hands on top of the car. “It’s Thursday!” he sung out. “Time to go to work, Payne!”

“Man, I gotta be somewhere.” Liam had really hoped to slip out of town before Andy found him, but he should’ve known better.

“And we know where,” Andy told him.

Maz stopped Liam as he started to back away. “You know, I told Andy that we should just bust you up and leave you there when we’re through. Use you and lose you, but he’s got some kind of damn code.”

Liam swallowed hard. He knew that these guys had no loyalty to him, despite the fact he’d protected them when he’d gotten caught before. He thought about the piece of paper and other information he’d fed to O’Brien before taking off and he knew that if they weren’t caught he would never be able to show his face in this town again.

“Two hours and comfortable living, Liam. That’s all you owe us and then you’ll never see us again,” Andy told him.

As tempting as that thought was, Liam didn’t have two hours. Zayn didn’t have two hours. He eyed the car, chewing his lower lip as a plan began forming in his head. “No. I need to be somewhere. I’m asking-”

“And I’m answering,” Andy interrupted as he got into the car.

Maz pulled open the passenger side door and grasped Liam’s shoulder to move him into the car, but Liam jerked his elbow backwards, connecting with Maz’s nose. He felt a bit of sick pleasure at the crack that resounded as Maz released him, cursing loudly and dropping the gun to the ground. Once he was free of Maz, Liam grasped the roof of the car and swung his legs into it, his feet connecting with Andy who was seated and reaching to close the door. Andy tumbled out of the car. Liam followed his momentum to land in the driver's seat, slamming the car into gear and letting the doors slam as he spun out of the parking lot, leaving Andy and Maz screaming and cursing behind him

Liam knew he couldn’t take the car all the way to New York and he was sure it wouldn’t be long before O’Brien was looking for it and him. Different modes of transportation passed through his brain, each with its own unique list of pros and cons. He was about to give up and just drive as fast as he possibly could, hoping two thousand plus miles went more quickly than he hoped. He was passing the bus station when a new plan came to him.

***

Zayn sat on the floor, his back to the door of his room. He could hear his father outside the door talking to Dr. Cowell and his curiosity was peaked. He couldn’t believe a physician would do something as cruel as throw someone into a mental hospital simply on the parent’s cruel whim; he was pretty sure it went against the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. A small part of him wished that he did talk to himself, so maybe he was exactly where he needed to be, but he knew in his heart that Liam was real. He knew what was happening between them was unlikely, but that didn’t mean it was impossible.

“We’ll worry about forms later,” Dr. Malik spoke quietly and urgently. “None of your people will even know he was here.”

“You are risking my reputation,” Dr. Cowell argued.

“What reputation? I would say my son fits right into the stories I’ve heard about you,” he sneered and a small part of Zayn wanted to cheer. “I’m betting he’ll be back to normal in no time. A couple of months at most should have him turned around.”

“Just as long as no one knows that he’s here, right?” Dr. Cowell pointed out. “Can’t let confirmation of your son being crazy just like your daughter get out, people might start questioning you.”

The silence between the two men was heavy enough that Zayn could feel it through the door. After it had dragged on, Zayn heard footsteps echoing down the hallway in opposite directions. He let out a small sigh and tried prodding the connection, sighing when there was no response. He moved to curl up on the bed, wrapping his arms around his waist, closing his eyes and trying not to cry.

***

Liam glanced around as he fidgeted in his seat. He was happy to see that there was no one else in his row as he ducked his head into his chest and whispered urgently, “Zayn!” against the connection.

The announcements overhead distracted Liam for a moment before his vision started to swim. He breathed out a sigh of relief, hating how blurry everything was. “Zayn. Can you hear me?” There was no response, but the scenery changed and he found himself staring at a plain white ceiling. “Come on, answer me, Zayn!” He smiled at the woman across the aisle from him.

Zayn rolled to his back, staring up at the holes in the ceiling, he’d tried counting them ,but got lost once the drugs started taking effect. He still wasn’t sure what his father had thought drugging him would accomplish. There were no drugs that would suddenly make him straight and acceptable to his father’s public image.

He rolled to his side, ready to curl up and, hopefully, sleep when he heard Liam from a great distance. Rolling to his back again, he squinted at the ceiling, trying to focus and clear the connection, but he knew the drugs were working against him. “Liam?”

Liam let his head fall back against the seat, relief flooding through him. “Dammit, Zayn. What the hell is going on?”

Zayn sniffled, hating himself for how happy he was to hear Liam’s voice. He knew that Liam was better off without him and he’d tried to let him go for that, but, right now, he needed to know there was at least one person on his side. “My dad put me in here.” He glanced towards the door before whispering, “He found out I’m gay.”

Liam’s sound of outrage echoed through his head, bringing a warm feeling to his chest and Zayn felt his lips twitching into a smile for the first time since he’d been dragged into this wretched place. “So he locks you up?! He can’t do that!” Liam quieted suddenly. “Can he do that?”

Zayn whimpered as he remembered the outraged expression on his father’s face when the ambulance had pulled up to the house, the medics dragging Zayn out kicking and screaming. “I don’t know.” He swallowed hard and curled up on his side, pressing the palms of his hands against his eyes to hold back tears. “I’m afraid of him. I don’t know what he’s gonna do.”

Liam’s heart froze at the cold fear running through him. He’d never heard Zayn sound so small. The last time Liam had felt this much despair had been right after Zayn’s sister had killed herself. Even though the emotion was strong, it felt strange, muffled. “You feel like you’re underwater. What are they giving you?”

Zayn closed his eyes, trying to focus his mind. It was getting harder and he started feeling Liam slipping further away the more he tried to remember. “Dr. Cowell gave me pills. I took them. My father told me to take them so I took them.”

Liam’s sigh was loud enough that Zayn felt it as a breeze through him and he started to giggle. “Do you know where you are?”

“Yeah. I, er, was here before. It’s the Modest Clinic, a mental institution.” He always hated the name of the clinic because nothing about the building screamed modesty.

“Your father ought to be a permanent resident,” Liam muttered, his voice being drowned out by another voice talking about altitude.

“Are you on a plane?” Zayn started to panic slightly because Liam wasn’t supposed to leave Arizona. If he left Arizona, he’d go back to prison; he’d heard Liam’s parole officer remind him of that fact.

“I’m headed your way.” The panic didn’t disappear, but it settled as a soft smile grew across Zayn’s face. His Liam was coming to him, the consequences be damned. Liam was putting Zayn first and he couldn’t find it in himself to tell Liam to turn around and go home. “Listen, I need to see the room.”

“What?” Zayn was confused, but he sat up and looked towards the windows, the bars casting shadows from the lights in the parking lot, the sun having long since set.

“Look around. I want to see everything, every corner, every door, everything,” Liam explained.

Smiling, Zayn started slowly taking in the room for the first time since he’d been brought there. His eyes traced the corners of the room, frowning when he saw the camera in the corner near the door. He looked out the window trying to see as far down the hall in each direction as he could before Liam told him to kneel down and look at the lock.

They spent the next hour going every inch of the room, passing the time of Liam’s flight and before they knew it, he had landed and Zayn was feeling much more clear-headed. He hurried from the plane, trying to appear inconspicuous, he’d already had to tell a sob story in Arizona to the airline ticket seller because he was trying to buy a last minute ticket across the country with no luggage.

He saw the car rental counter and hurried over, reaching into his pocket for his wallet and swallowing hard when he realized it was gone. Panicking, he searched all of his pockets as he remembered pulling it out and laying it on the ticket counter in Arizona, where it was probably still sitting. Tugging his phone out of his pocket, he turned it back on, hoping that he wasn’t being traced.

There was one voicemail, from O’Brien. He lifted the phone slowly to his ear as it started to play. “Liam, it’s Paddy.” That was a good sign, so Liam felt his shoulders relax just slightly. “We’ve got Andy and Maz. They decided to try and do the job without you. They tried to sell you out for stealing their car. By the way, nice play leaving Andy’s car at the bus station, had me hunting for hours until Noelle called from the airport and let me know she’d seen one of my kids buying a plane ticket. Not smart, but since you did me a favour, I’ll do you one. Be back in my office by the day after tomorrow without getting caught breaking any more laws and we’ll forget this…”

Liam chuckled. He could do this. He could grab Zayn and go back to Arizona and everything would be alright, he just had to get to him without getting caught breaking any laws. He approached the desk and began talking to the clerk. They got through most of the procedure when she asked him for his driver’s license.

“Look, I left it in Arizona.” The clerk gave him a sad look and began to look at the line behind him. Following her gaze, Liam spotted a couple of security officer standing with a dog and even though he knew that Paddy hadn’t sent anyone after him, he felt his heart rate pick up. “Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“I understand that you are in quite a pickle, sir, but unfortunately, we can’t rent you a vehicle without a valid driver’s license.” She glanced behind him again and began to motion to the line and Liam glanced at the security officers again as they looked over at the desk.

“I know I’m an idiot for leaving it in Arizona, but can’t you just call the ticket desk there and have them fax it? It’s just, I have a really important job interview in like an hour.” He scowled when she looked over his jeans and plaid shirt with disdain.

Her perky smile returned to her face. “And I do hope you get that job. What I can do is arrange a cab for you. Perhaps a friend can overnight your license while I hold the res-” Liam just walked away, knowing a cab would take to long and he had to get to the hospital. “Sir?”

“Thanks!” he called back. “I’ll figure something out.”

He stepped outside the airport and looked at all of the cars lined up dropping off and picking up travelers. His eyes fell on a beautiful corvette, a pristine version of the one he’d been attempting to rebuild. Glancing over his shoulder, he watched as the driver kept glancing out the window towards the doors of the airport.

Zayn was waiting impatiently for some word from Liam. His flight had landed thirty minutes ago and he’d been headed to a rental desk. The door to his room opened and Dr. Cowell walked in with his lunch tray and a small cup with pills in it. Making a face, Zayn grabbed the cup and threw the pills back with a flourish. Sticking his tongue out and grinning as he sidestepped Dr. Cowell’s grab for him. After a moment the doctor left and Zayn moved to the corner of the room directly below the video camera where, according to Liam, he would be out of sight. Opening the drawer in his side table, he spit out the slowly dissolving pills he’d hidden under his tongue.

Liam was about ready to just start walking. He sincerely hoped the hospital wasn’t far. He’d only taken a few steps when he noticed the driver of the Corvette get out and walk around the car to greet someone, leaving the door open and the motor running. Taking a deep breath, he watched the romantic greeting between the driver and his girlfriend and edged his way around the car.

“Where are you?”

He jumped when he heard Zayn’s voice, guilt filling him. “Still at the airport.”

“What’s taking so long?” There was definitely panic in Zayn’s voice which motivated Liam to slide in behind the wheel of the car. He yanked the door shut before slamming the car into gear and taking off, listening to the owner screaming behind him. “What are you doing?”

“Renting,” Liam breathed out, glad to see the airport falling quickly behind and wondering how long before the police would be onto him. He sent out a quiet apology to Paddy, knowing that he had blown his chances of returning to Arizona now.

Zayn had a sinking feeling that Liam wasn’t renting the vehicle he was driving. He could feel the elevated heart rate and the way he kept checking the rearview mirror. He should be angry, but instead he felt a thrill that Liam was risking so much, his own freedom, just to rescue Zayn. He held up the fork from lunch, still surprised they'd allowed him an actual metal fork and the paperclip he’d stolen from a chart Dr. Cowell hadn’t been watching closely. “What do I do?”

“Let me see the fork again.” Zayn held it up so that Liam could see how he’d bent three of the tines down, leaving one extended. He’d also straightened out the paper clip. He followed Liam’s instructions inserting the tine and the clip into the lock. “Now, twist it to the left. Slowly.” Zayn continued wiggling around in the lock, smiling when he felt things moving and clicking. “Now, see if you can find the empty space.”

Zayn was shaking. “Liam, I can’t do this. I feel like a four-year-old.”

Liam glanced into the rearview mirror, afraid with every street he passed that a cop would suddenly pull out like in the movies and trail him through the streets. “You can do it. It’s a simple door lock, not Fort Knox.”

“Oh, uhm, turn there!’ Liam turned. “Where did you learn to do all this stuff anyway?”

Liam chuckled. “YouTube, actually.”

“Seriously? They have that type of stuff on there?”

“It’s not just cute cat videos and makeup tutorials,” Liam joked, his eyes catching on the police station as he drove by. He held his breath as he eased his foot up on the gas pedal even though he wasn’t technically speeding.

Zayn could feel Liam’s stress level jump, but he was too focused on the lock in front of him to try and figure out the cause. “I actually prefer the art process videos.” The lock clicked and the knob turned in his hand.

“Haha!”

“Holy shit, holy shit!” Zayn said, slapping a hand over his mouth when he realized how loud he was being.

“Damn! That took me a week to learn! You’re a natural born criminal!” Pride rang through Liam’s voice.

Zayn’s cheeks felt warm, his face aching from the wideness of his smile. “I bet you say that to all the boys.”

Liam paused before answering and Zayn wished, once again, he could actually read his mind. “Am I close?”

Zayn took in what Liam was seeing, but it took a moment before something clicked as familiar. “Yeah, I think so. Just keep going all the way through town. It’s right by the train tracks. Big creepy building. You can’t miss it.”

“Okay, I’ll find it. It’s time to get moving.” Zayn tugged the door open and started to step out, stopping when Liam shouted at him to wait. “Er...anybody in the hall?”

Zayn closed the door a bit again and peeked through the window, looking as far as he could in each direction. He spotted one of the night nurses, a creepy older woman who kept making inappropriate comments when she’d delivered his medicine the night before. He ducked behind the door and waited for her to pass. “One sec,” he whispered when he heard her steps slowing just outside his door.

“Wait until she leaves the hall,” Liam instructed.

Zayn rolled his eyes. “Check.”

Liam smiled at the sass in Zayn’s voice. “Nervous?” he teased.

“Check,” Zayn breathed out as he pulled open the door to his room, his cell.

Liam saw a flash of white and blue fly behind him on one of the cross streets. “Listen, when you get outta there...um...you ever been to Canada?”

Zayn giggled. “Why? What do you have in mind?”

Liam kept an eye on his rearview mirror and another on his speedometer. “I just thought maybe you’d like to have a romance in an exotic city.”

“Romance?” Liam felt his face flushing. “I think I’d like that. A lot.”

“Okay, go for it. Just walk like you know where you’re going.” Liam’s grip tightened on the wheel and his foot pressed harder on the accelerator when he heard a siren somewhere behind him. He didn’t see any lights, so he tried to calm himself as he noticed Zayn in a stairwell, grabbing a door and sneaking back out of it. “Hey, do you have any idea where I am?” He thought for sure he would’ve passed the railroad tracks Zayn had mentioned by now.

Zayn was quiet for a minute. “No. Get back onto the main street.”

Liam wasn’t sure when he’d gotten off the main street, but he saw a self-storage place coming up on the right and turned into it to turn around. He drove all the way to the first turn and as he came back around to head towards the entrance, he found himself nose to nose with a cop car. “Shit!”

“Turn off the engines and show me your hands!” The officer’s voice rang out from the speaker and Liam swallowed hard.

Zayn panicked as he realized what was happening to Liam. Standing in the hallway, he wondered if he should race back to his room and pretend he’d never left. If Liam got caught by the cops, across the country from the state he wasn’t even supposed to leave, then Zayn would have nowhere to go.

“Here goes nothing!” Liam shouted and the cop car started to fade away. Zayn realized he was driving backwards.

Taking a deep breath, Zayn moved into the common room, knowing the lobby was just on the other side. It was visiting hours so the room was full; Zayn moved carefully through, glancing out the window at the snow and then down at his bare feet. When he looked up again, he spotted Dr. Cowell coming towards him. Turning quickly, he wrapped an arm around a woman who was sobbing quietly.

“Hey, it’s gonna be alright. You’re gonna be okay,” he soothed, smiling when the woman glanced over and smiled at him.

When he saw Dr. Cowell exit the room, heading towards the patient rooms, he whirled around and froze.

“Zayn,” his mother said, standing in front of him with her hands on her hips, expression stern. “Aren't you supposed to be in your room?”

Liam swallowed hard as he continued to flee the officer that was following him; he was just thankful the town was small so there was only one car. He hurried down the street, racing through a red light, thankful when no one was coming from the crossroads. Up ahead he spotted the railroad tracks and just before them was a junkyard.

Turning quickly into the yard, he sprayed mud everywhere. He was making his way into the spaces between the piles of crushed cars when he realized that Zayn was face to face with his mother. “Your mom’s there!” When he heard the woman question Zayn, he smiled, hoping his gut instinct about the woman would be accurate. “Tell her the truth.”

“What?” Zayn squeaked.

Zayn’s mother narrowed her eyes. “Where are you going?”

He listened to Liam encouraging him to tell the truth while still driving like a crazy man through a maze of twisted metal. Taking a deep breath, he knew if Liam could do that for him, he could tell the truth for Liam. “I’m getting out of here, mom. I can’t stay in this place just because my father is ashamed of who I am. I can’t let him drive me to death like he did to Doniya.”

His mother’s face tightened at the mention of his sister, but her arms came up and wrapped around him. He sobbed quietly into her shoulder for a minute as she did the same. After a couple of minutes, Zayn saw Liam driving between beat up cars now, and suddenly pulling in between two of them and throwing the car into park.

“We gotta go!” Liam shouted as he pushed open his door and Zayn could see him racing off on foot.

“Mom, I’ve got to get out of here,” Zayn whispered. “But I don't have shoes or a coat or anything.”

His mother smiled and pulled a bag from off her shoulder, unzipping it and pulling out a pair of boots and Zayn’s leather jacket. “Put these on, hurry.” Zayn obliged. “Do you have someone out there?”

“He sure does!” Liam snapped, sounding winded and cursing when they both felt a branch cut into his face.

“I do, mom,” Zayn assured as he tied up his boots.

“He better treat you right and you better call me when you are safe,” she told him, pressing a phone into his hand. “It’s what they call a burner on all the cop shows,” she explained. “My number is already programmed in there.”

“Mom! Were you planning my escape?” he asked, laughing and wrapping his arms around her when she nodded. “I love you!”

“I love you, too, sonshine. Now go.” She placed the bag over his shoulder and shoved him towards the lobby.

Zayn was smiling as he made it into the lobby, trying to walk like he knew where he was going, but he froze when he saw who was standing at the front desk. “Liam. I can’t talk to him! I can’t!” he squeaked as his father turned to face him.

Liam was panting heavily against a tree and his eyes narrowed as he took in the visage of Zayn’s very angry father. “You’ve got this, Zayn. Calm down. Take a deep breath and just keep walking.”

“Okay. Okay.” Liam smiled at the bravado he heard. “I’m just gonna walk right past him and it’s going to be fine.”

Zayn took several steps, a smile coming to his lips as his father just stared at him, but as soon as he drew closer, his father sidestepped into his path. “Zayn, what exactly do you think you are doing?”

Before he could even form words, Zayn found himself drawing his fist back and then connecting with his father’s jaw, watching him fall to the ground with a very unprofessional curse. He stood over him for a minute, shock running through him.

“Damn, boy!” Liam shouted, cheering. “Move, now!”

“I told you I couldn’t talk to him!” Zayn snapped.

“Go, Zayn! Just go!” Liam shouted, but he was laughing.

Zayn raced out the doors, the bag bumping against the back of his legs as he went. He heard his father shouting for him and the sounds of feet pounding down the stairs behind him as he headed across the parking lot. He looked around himself, trying to figure out where to go next. He had no idea how far away Liam was or which direction he should head to get to him.

“The woods!” Zayn turned towards the edge of the parking lot where a line of trees began. “Go!”

Zayn ran. He could hear branches breaking behind him, pushing him to run faster. He could hear Liam’s heavy breathing in his ears. He stopped, leaning against a tree to catch his breath. He heard shouting from the direction he had come, the voices growing closer. Looking around him, his eyes fell on a grouping of rocks. Grabbing one, he threw it as hard as he could to the right. The shouting stopped briefly, so he grabbed another rock and threw it. Two more rocks and he heard the shouting start again, but this time it was moving away from him.

Zayn started moving again, a bit slower, but still quickly enough to put distance between himself and the hospital. He only hoped he was going in the same direction as Liam. As he ducked under a branch, he was startled by a train whistle to his left.

“Do you hear that train?” Liam was breathless.

“Yes.” Zayn moved in the direction the sound came from before Liam spoke again.

Liam chuckled as much as he could at the sound of excitement in Zayn’s voice. “Run for it!” They had a solid goal now, he only hoped they were both close enough to the train to reach it before any of their pursuers caught up; he was pretty sure that the cops were still driving around the junkyard though.

It only took a few minutes and Liam could see the opening in the trees, the tracks barely visible. I’m here!” Zayn shouted.

Liam broke out of the trees just as the train began rumbling past. He glanced left and right, but all he saw was the train. “Where?” He tried to see beyond the train. “Where?”

Zayn stomped his foot. They were so close. He could see the train for himself and for Liam and it appeared it was going in opposite directions. Liam was on the other side of the train. “I’m here!” he shouted loudly, closing the connection, as he ran in the opposite direction the train was running having recognized one of the cars that Liam saw.

Liam heard Zayn. He really heard his voice, faint under the noise of the train, but most definitely no longer in his head. He kept staring between the train cars and saw movement. “Zayn!” he shouted, laughing when Zayn stumbled and turned, their eyes meeting for the first time. “Do you see the open boxcar?” he shouted.

“What?” Zayn shouted back before laughing and reopening the connection. “What?”

“The red boxcar! Right here!” Zayn saw it go by and turned to run alongside the train.

“I see it!” He had to close the connection again to focus.

“GO!” Liam screamed.

Running alongside the car, Zayn thought this was the craziest thing he’d ever done and he wished he’d quit smoking years previously. He kept running though, knowing what the reward would be once he caught up to the boxcar.

Liam was racing as quickly as he could, he caught up alongside the boxcar and reached out, grabbing the ladder that ran up the side. He felt his whole body jerked off the ground, terrified that he would slip and fall beneath the train. Swinging his body hard, he managed to grab with both hands. Carefully, he moved his body so his legs went into the open door of the boxcar and with a lot of faith, he pushed off the ladder until he stumbled into the boxcar with a crash.

Zayn was running, he saw the door of the boxcar and kept grabbing for the floor of it, but his hand slipped away. He kept trying and finally he got a decent grip, but he felt himself falling and his life began flashing before his eyes, but it stopped when a hand grabbed his wrist tightly and pulled. He started laughing as Liam lifted him bodily into the boxcar.

They crashed to the floor before rolling to opposite sides of the space. Zayn laid face down, panting hard as he took inventory of his body. He felt sore and bruised and as he turned his face to the side, he saw the bag from his mother and laughed. Pushing the bag out of the way, he saw Liam in the shadows, pushing himself up to his hands and knees.

Liam heard the familiar laugh as he slowly pushed himself to stand. Once he was up, he glanced over to where Zayn was still lying on the ground, but at least he was laughing, so he was alive. He made his way slowly across the car, the swaying motion throwing off his balance now that he was actually paying attention to what was going on around him.

Zayn was up on his feet, dropping a bag to the ground as he turned to face Liam. Smiling, he moved quickly towards Liam, reaching a hand out to touch his face, but hesitating. Liam raised his hand and gently moved Zayn’s hand to cup his cheek. They shared a smile and a laugh.

“This is gonna be so weird,” Zayn whispered before leaning in and touching his lips to Liam’s.

The kiss was gentle and chaste, but sent shocks through Zayn. After the kiss broke, they pressed their foreheads together, staring into each other’s eyes. Liam smiled as he took in the small freckle in the whites of Zayn’s eyes, having never been able to look close enough to notice it before. He pulled back to take in all of the things he hadn’t been able to notice before, the freckles dusting his cheeks that he wanted to count with kisses. He chuckled lowly at the image.

“What?” Zayn breathed out as he stared at the deep leather brown of Liam’s eyes, feeling a bit self-conscious from the laughter.

Liam just shook his head and kissed Zayn again, saving his words for another day.

Epilogue

Liam stretched an arm out, frowning when he felt the coolness of the empty side of the bed. Pushing himself up on his elbows, he frowned as he looked out the door of the room and found the trailer empty. Climbing out of bed, he grabbed his joggers and a tank top from the floor and threw them on before heading into the kitchen.

His eyes fell on the calendar on the refrigerator, that day’s date circled in red with a smiley face. He shook his head, laughing as he poured himself a mug of coffee from the pot and headed outside, only half surprised to find Paddy sitting at the outdoor table arguing playfully with Zayn.

A year earlier, Liam never imagined that he’d see these two people sharing the same space. Six months ago, he had thought for sure his life was never going to bring him back to Arizona, but thanks to Paddy, it had.

Once the train had stopped, Liam and Zayn had discovered they’d ended up in Baltimore instead of near the Canadian border. After Zayn had called his mother, Liam decided to check in with Paddy and see how much trouble he was in for Grand Theft Auto. He’d endured a half hour of yelling about his stupidity and threats against his life before Paddy had abruptly hung up on him.

He and Zayn had been having lunch in a diner near the train station, trying to plan what their next step was, when his phone had rung again. It was a much calmer Paddy who explained that he’d been in contact with the police from the county of the hospital. The car he’d stolen had been found and the owner decided not to press charges, because it was still in great condition, although a bit dirty. The three hundred dollars Liam had left on the passenger seat had helped as well.

After that bit of good news, Liam and Zayn had headed to Arizona to meet with Paddy. Liam’s parole had been extended by three months, but because of his, finally, testifying against Andy and Maz, he didn’t have to serve anymore time. That day he was finally free of parole and, apparently, Paddy decided to have their final meeting at the trailer instead of coming into the office.

“Morning, sleepyhead,” Zayn greeted, rising to his feet and pressing a kiss to Liam’s lips.

Liam took a seat and Zayn settled in his lap, earning a fond smile from Paddy. “Look at you two,” he said.

Zayn giggled and buried his face in Liam’s neck. “So, today’s the big day,” Liam said.

Paddy passed a paper across the table. “Just sign this and you’re a free man, Liam.” He signed and passed it back, feeling a sense of relief he hadn’t thought was possible. “So, what are your plans now?”

“Well, I think we’ll stay here. My job at the grocery store is going well and Zayn enjoys painting,” Liam said, thoughtfully.

“Bressie gave me a job, too,” Zayn added. Liam remembered when Bressie had offered him the position, just after the Justice of the Peace ceremony linking he and Niall till death do they part.

“Getting yourselves settled,” Paddy said. “That’s good to hear.” He rose from the table and held a hand out to Zayn, huffing a laugh when he was pulled into a hug that Liam joined in on, sandwiching the older man in the middle. “Alright, enough. Let me go, I got other ex-cons to visit.”

“Don’t be a stranger,” Liam called out as Paddy got into his vehicle, surprised how much he meant the statement.

Once the dust settled behind Paddy’s car, Liam turned to find Zayn had disappeared again. Glancing inside the trailer, he found him sitting on the sofa, his phone pressed to his ear talking quietly. He smiled and mouthed “mom” when Liam waved a hand at him.

Things with Zayn’s family were still rough, his father adamant that he didn't have a son and cutting him off completely. Trisha, however, still called a few times a week and sent money when she could, despite their protests. She was due to come for a visit in a few months, as well, and Zayn was already excited to see her again.

He smiled as he thought about his sister. Zayn had found her shortly after they’d settled in Arizona and reached out to her. She had been hesitant at first, but Zayn was persistent. Eventually, things became better, if not perfect, but he did talk to Roo every Sunday now. He still hadn’t spoken with his mother, but Roo was trying to fix that and he’d received a birthday card from her in the mail.

Liam went into the bedroom to change, thinking about taking Zayn out for breakfast to celebrate the start of the next chapter of his life, their lives. He was pulling a shirt over his head when Zayn joined him, leaning in the doorway with a soft smile on his face. “Hey,” he said, moving over to kiss him, protesting when Zayn ducked under his arm and away from the kiss. “Okay, then.”

He turned quickly to grab Zayn, but he’d made it into the bathroom and closed and locked the door behind him. Liam knocked on the door, but Zayn only laughed in response. Liam leaned his forehead against the door, smiling. This was the Zayn he’d fallen in love with before they’d ever met and he was glad to see him again because when they’d first actually met, he was more reserved. Now, he wasn’t afraid to be himself and Liam loved it.

Liam moved to the couch, picking up the college catalog Zayn had picked up the other day. They were both thinking about going back to school, Zayn for art and Liam for business. He flipped between pages, trying to figure out if there were classes they could take at the same time since they were still sharing a vehicle, the corvette Liam had finished repairing after they’d come to Arizona together.

It only took a few minutes before he realized he wasn’t really taking in anything that he was seeing, so he laid his head on the back of the couch and stared up at the ceiling. A couple of minutes passed when he felt something he hadn’t felt in a long time; a prod at the edge of his consciousness. “Zayn?” he questioned quietly.

“Hey,” Zayn responded and when Liam focused he could see the steamed up mirror in their bathroom, Zayn’s shape barely visible in it.

“What’s going on?” Liam scrunched his eyes as he tried to identify the feelings he was getting from Zayn, but he was a bit rusty when it came to this, they hadn't connected like this since the day they’d come together in the boxcar; he hadn’t even been sure they still could.

“Just testing, I guess,” Zayn responded, reaching out and wiping the mirror smiling when his face appeared.

Liam’s breath caught, as it always did, seeing Zayn in the mirror. He knew now that he was even more beautiful than his reflections could ever show and his mind filled in the blurry bits. “Do you ever miss it?”

“Sometimes,” Zayn admitted, his voice quiet in Liam’s head. “I think it was easier to talk like this.”

Liam swallowed hard as he took in the words, his heart hurting. Pushing himself to stand, he moved back to the bathroom door, leaning against it. “Are you alright?”

“You’re outside the door, aren’t you?”

Liam knocked and felt the connection shut. He held his breath until he heard the lock click and the door open. “Hi,” he said, hesitating as he reached out, his hand a hairsbreadth from Zayn’s cheek. Smiling, Zayn pressed Liam’s hand against his cheek, reminiscent of the day they’d met, their positions reversed. “What’s going on inside your head?”

Zayn averted his gaze, focusing over Liam’s shoulder. “Do you ever regret it?”

“What?” Liam leaned to press a kiss to Zayn’s forehead.

“Me.” Zayn’s voice was heavy with tears, the insecurity palpable between them. “Coming to rescue me. Being stuck with me.”

Liam had wondered if Zayn realized that he’d never really thought twice about coming to break him out of the hospital, that his only thought when he’d seen him in that cell was getting him to freedom. He’d known as he was flying over the country that there was a possibility that Zayn wouldn’t want Liam, but all that mattered was Zayn’s happiness. Even if Liam had ended up back in jail, as long as Zayn was free and happy was all that mattered.

“I love you,” Liam whispered.

Zayn’s smile was hesitant, but as it spread it grew in confidence. “I love you, too. I just don’t want you to ever feel like you have to be with me just because of the connection.”

Liam sighed as he struggled to find the words. “My entire life, I saw pieces of the world through your eyes. The moment we got together in person, and every single moment since, I’ve seen my entire world in your eyes.”

Zayn’s eyes filled with tears as he nodded before he pushed up on his toes to kiss Liam, arms wrapping around his neck. They kissed for a long time as Liam let the world around him fade away and he knew now that the ring he’d purchased a few months earlier would be on Zayn’s finger before the end of the day and he’d never been happier.