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A Full Course Meal

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It was the mother of all bad ideas. Maybe even the father. Every ancestor of all bad ideas too, to be honest. Liam mumbled a curse under his breath directed at Andy, wherever he may be, while he fixed the dark grey apron a crew member had given him to wear, facing a full-body mirror propped on a wall. Of course Andy was not there to hear it, he was probably back at home, ‘cheering in spirit’, like he said he would with a full blown pout when Liam forbid him from accompanying him. Liam really didn’t need an audience, supportive or not.

Cheering from a distance was the least Andy could do, wasn’t it? Considering he was the one that convinced Liam that this was actually a good plan. When they heard from a friend that the Food Network would be recording a few episodes of Chopped in London, of course Andy talked him into sending them a tape. Of course. Like competing in Chopped was a walk in the park, like it was making morning pancakes, like it was spag bol on Sundays.

Fuck Andy. He better be cheering with a full cheerleader costume on, pompoms and all. He better be praying to every god he knew, because Liam was surely going to need all the help he could get to even get through the emotional process of a top level cooking competition.

Of course Liam was to blame too. As stupid as this idea was, he still went with it. Not only because listening to his best friend’s crazy plans was a default for him, but also because what if? What if he won? What if he could count on those ten thousand dollars to actually do something about his dreams? It was a long shot, an incredibly long shot, but what if?

According to Andy, Liam could definitely win. His experience as a Chef, cooking in one of London’s best Italian restaurants was more than enough for the cooking part of the contest, and his experience in life was that little bit extra that would help him with the crazy challenges. Maybe Andy was right. Maybe. Liam did have under his belt more than a few victories making delicious meals out of unthinkable things back in college. So just maybe…

But yeah, in that moment, Liam still cursed him under his breath, because his self-confidence was wavering and because the stupid apron made him feel too hot and in a moment he would face the show’s host and the judges and his competitors and cameras. Good god, cameras. Those would suck. Liam was good in the kitchen, yeah, but his stage presence sucked. He stuttered, he sweat, he always made a mess of himself; there was a reason why he always shied away from anything that had to do with an audience, hiding in a kitchen was a perfect career choice. It was going to be hell.

He was already there, though, there was no running away this time. He had a million chances to stop the process and resign from the competition during the sign up and audition process, but he didn’t, and now it was done. He was going to do it. Fuck…

After he was semi satisfied with his appearance, or at least as satisfied as one could be in such a crazy situation, he walked back to the high table that was located at the center of the room he was in. The waiting room, as the producer, Sally, called it. It was simply another piece of scenography, mimicking some sort of modern dining room, a high table in the middle, with four high chairs around it. There was a big leather couch on one side of the room, and the walls were painted in a dark red color that made it feel even smaller.

The lights were already on but there were no cameras around yet, which was one of the few positive points for Liam’s nerves. The crew was just getting ready, still setting up; yes, inside the room, because of course the show also included behind the scenes action, and it was supposed to be filmed in there. Down the line the cameras would be there to record every bit of juicy interaction between the contestants, trying to catch some dramatic interactions.

That was another part of the recording process he was not looking forward to, mostly because it was about looking for unnecessary drama to attract viewers, but also because his competitors looked like nice guys. Maybe he wasn’t there to make friends but he wasn’t there to make enemies either.

Liam had been the first one to arrive, as usual, and one by one the other guys had shown up eventually, relaxed, laughing, accompanied by family members and friends.

Liam had studied them from afar at first, he was too awkward with social interactions in tense situations. Maybe he didn’t want to play into the drama part of it all but he didn’t know if the other guys did, so how was he supposed to approach them? Maybe he should’ve paid more attention to important things, like trying to analyze the competition to find weak spots, but yeah, it wasn’t really his plan.

However, at first glance, the blokes seemed to be nice people. From his spot by the table he looked around, and found the blonde, Irish one, Niall, chatting with his mum behind the camera tripods. He was bubbly and funny and he laughed literally out loud every time. He seemed like the kind of guy Liam would enjoy having as a friend, you know, the kind that never lets you get bored.

The other two contestants, Louis and Harry, were whispering at each other, sitting on high stools by the table, while their friends and families chatted amiably near the studio door. He hadn’t had a chance to investigate those two too much; they practically hadn’t left each other’s side since Louis had entered the room, sauntering towards Harry as soon as he saw him. It was clear something was going on there, and Liam was definitely not getting in the middle of that.

He kind of stayed by himself, standing next to the table but keeping a safe distance, looking around with his hands in his pockets, trying to relax. He felt like he would really be interrupting something if he approached the guys at the table or Niall and his family, so he stood there alone, like a dork, feeling a bit out of place and lonely. Maybe he should have let Andy come. Or maybe not, the idiot would ruin everything. Yeah, no, coming alone was definitely the smart thing to do.

With what looked like a cheeky blink, Louis finally left Harry alone at the table. Still, Liam stood in his place, wondering if the producers were okay with the contestants becoming friends (or something) before competing.

Maybe he should stay put, just in case. But no, that was apparently not an option, because as soon as Harry noticed Liam standing there like an idiot, he waved a hand to get his attention and then he patted the stool next to him, inviting Liam to sit by his side. Liam hesitated for a bit, but eventually gave in. Maybe talking to someone was exactly what he needed to calm down.

“Nervous?” Harry asked as soon as Liam approached the table, smiling a big smile like being nervous was not something to be crapping one’s pants about, like it was a fun thing to feel.

Liam shrugged, finally parking his butt on the stool. “Yeah, kinda,” he replied, placing his hands on the table top. They were shaking a bit, dammit. He tried to be as nonchalant as possible while hiding them in his pockets again, to keep Harry from noticing. How dangerous would that be? Harry was cool but he was, after all, competition, no need to show weakness, right?

“What was that about? You two know each other?” Liam asked to change the subject, nodding his head in Louis’ direction, who was now in a corner of the room with two little girls that looked a lot like him, making faces at them to make them laugh.

Harry smiled a huge, dimpled smile looking in Louis’ direction, doing nothing to hide the huge, enamored sigh he let out. “No, I just met him… Cute, huh?” he asked, and Liam raised his eyebrows, surprised. He had already kind of guessed what was happening, but he didn’t expect Harry to just admit it like that with a smile on his face, knowing they would be competing against each other in a matter of minutes.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Liam asked, trying not to sound judgmental. He was just as into guys as both Harry and Louis seemed to be, that was not what he was asking about. They were, after all, rivals, and things could get heated in there, and maybe whatever was happening between them would end as soon as it started.

Harry smiled and looked back at Liam. “Yeah, why not? We’re competing but it’s not like we’re gonna become mortal enemies,” he explained, shrugging. “Besides, who knows? It might be hot, right? Either way, he already gave me his number, so…” he confessed with a grin, throwing another fond look in Louis’ direction.

Liam laughed. He wished he was so relaxed about it all. If he had to be honest, competing against other people wasn’t really what he was worried about. His worst enemy was surely going to be himself. The real challenge would be not getting lost in his head, not thinking too much, not letting his self-doubt win… Those things were most Chefs’ downfall. Well, that and the judges.

God, the judges… They were a team of several renowned Chefs. All talented, successful celebrity Chefs everyone in the culinary world admired and looked up to, restaurant owners, cooking shows hosts, etc. A selection of three of those Chefs selected at random formed the judging panel in each episode. And man, did they judge. They always paid exquisite attention to detail, presentation, taste, technique, everything, and they had no problem in letting contestants know when they fucked up.

Liam had taken his time studying them all, just in case. He had no idea which judges would be judging this time but he knew how to please each one of them, because of course they had different preferences when it came to food and he had to know how to work with all of them, right? Most were relatively easy to please. Some had little pet peeves that were easy to avoid, or specific ingredients they hated. Some were unforgiving when it came to presentation. Others were more focused on the cooking process, the technique, the creativity. Many of them were pretty harsh but Liam felt like he knew enough to handle any combination.

Almost like reading his mind, Harry spoke, bringing Liam back to reality. “Which judges do you think we’ll get? I hope we get Aaron, he’s the coolest,” he commented, amused. Aaron Sanchez was pretty cool, yeah, he was a Mexican Chef that had a pretty easy to please palate and was, as Harry said, one of the coolest.

Instead of agreeing, or anything else, really, Liam spoke before thinking, blurting a very stupid confession out. “As long as it’s not Zayn I’m good…” That… that would be a tragedy. That would mean Liam was doomed, and not exactly because the man was hard to please.

Zayn Malik was probably the most widely adored judge of the bunch. He was the owner of Wali’s, the best South Asian cuisine restaurant in town, along with several other similar restaurants in Los Angeles and New York. He was the host of his own cooking show on the Food Network, so he knew everything about the TV world, and he was a celebrity. He was actually pretty approachable, or so people said. As far as Liam knew, he enjoyed a lot of different types of food but was partial to spicy ones, he was kind to most contestants and he was… well, he was actually adorable. And hot. And amazing. And that was the problem, wasn’t it? Or the beginning of the problem. Because Liam had the biggest of crushes on him.

He had fallen for the man the first time he saw a clip of him on the Food Network’s Facebook page, a few years before, making beef keema. He described it as a childhood favorite, smiling, speaking slowly, describing spices with poetic words, explaining the process with that beautiful, melodic accent. Liam couldn’t stop looking at those tattooed hands, those bright, expressive brown eyes, those plush lips… His mouth watered and not exactly because of the delicious meal the man was making. Everything was almost pornographic.

He remembered saving the video, which was still stored safely in his laptop, in a hidden folder reserved for videos and pictures of Zayn. The man was brilliant and gorgeous, he was soft spoken and sweet, his voice was soothing, his hands were hypnotic and skilled and precise and yeah, Liam fell hard. He wasn’t just a fan, he didn’t just admire him. He had the most ridiculous crush he had ever had. He didn’t even need to study him to know how to please him, food-wise. Because yeah, of course, Zayn was part of Chopped’s team of judges and there was a small possibility that he would be chosen for this particular episode, which could prove catastrophic for Liam.

Apparently, the reason why he didn’t want Zayn to be a judge was so embarrassingly obvious that he didn’t need to say it out loud for Harry to realize. “You’re blushing… Oh my god, you fancy him!” he exclaimed, and Liam desperately shushed him, like there was a chance Zayn would hear the racket from wherever he was in the world.

“Oh god, shut up,” he begged, rolling his eyes. “He’s… yeah, okay, he’s… I’m… I mean… It would be bad, okay? If he’s there I’m gone, first round, I won’t last a minute,” Liam babbled, trying to explain, crossing his arms on top of the table and letting his head fall on top of them. There was really no point in denying it.

Beneath his anxiety about every other aspect of the competition, there was that constant fear tugging at his heart because as much as he would love having the opportunity to meet the man, this was definitely not the right context. Judges and contestants were not supposed to interact during the recording of the show, and even if they did, Zayn was a professional and he would be there to do his job, not to pay attention to the pathetic small time Chef with a crush on him. He was probably straight, too. And he was probably already with someone, like, why would he be single? He was perfect.

Still, Liam was panicking a bit because even if it meant nothing, Zayn being on the judging panel would provide a huge extra dose of nerves Liam really didn’t need if he actually wanted to make it.

Harry opened his mouth to say something with a pitiful expression on his face, but the five minute call to start the recording process interrupted him. They had to get ready. Fuck. “Good luck,” was all Harry wished, squeezing his shoulder before leaving the table to say goodbye to his family.

This was it, the moment of truth. Liam took a deep breath, went to check his apron on the mirror one last time, and then followed Sally and her clipboard to the set, along with the rest of the guys.

Chapter Text

After a quick touch of makeup courtesy of a very chatty red haired girl, the four Chefs were led to the studio. Liam was not expecting so many butterflies in his belly, he was more the ton of lead in the stomach kind of guy. Maybe what he felt as they walked into the main studio was a mix of both, because the truth is it was exciting, yeah, but also incredibly intimidating.

The access to the studio was through a piece of scenography that resembled a hallway, uniting the studio and the waiting room they had been in before.

The space itself was a lot bigger than it looked on TV, and Liam stared in awe. There were way too bright lights fixed to the ceiling, illuminating strategic spots, and the camera crew was already waiting to get to work, looking bored. Liam felt even sillier, being so nervous about something that seemed to be so menial for those guys, but it was reasonable, wasn’t it? He had a right to feel like that. The crew had no idea what it was like, being on this side of the cameras.

At least he had watched enough episodes to be decently aware of his surroundings, despite being actually there for the first time in his life. The center stage were the four cooking stations, lined up one besides the other, already prepped with their own sets of cutting boards, knives, pans, platters and a wide assortment of utensils.

To the right side of the studio was the pantry. It was a large, open space that resembled a small grocery store. In the middle of the space were shelves stocked with a huge variety of ingredients. Around them were two big fridges for the meat and dairy products. Liam had already studied were the important ingredients were located, knowing many Chefs lost precious time looking for things they needed. Still, as Sally instructed, he explored the place for a bit.

To the left side of the studio were the shelves storing several sets of plates they would use later serve and present their food. Those were probably going to be decided on the spot depending on what he cooked, so studying them was not that much of a priority.

Finally, straight in front of the cooking stations, was the judges’ table, a long desk that resembled a dining table, with three chairs behind it. It was still empty, which gave Liam the chance to take a little breather and try to relax as much as possible given the situation.

The show’s main producer, a tall lanky woman in her forties called Martha, showed each Chef to a station, randomly assigned according to her, and left them to their own devices for a bit, instructing them to check the stations out before filming to get familiar with the tools they had at their disposal.

Liam studied the place for a bit, trying not to get distracted by the rest of what was happening around him. The studio was full of action and noise as everyone got ready to start. The rest of the boys were pretty much doing the same, except for Louis and Harry. They were inspecting their respective stations together, whispering in each other’s ears and giggling.

After a while, Martha returned with a clipboard in hand and a headset already in place, Sally running behind her in a huff scribbling things in her own clipboard. She gathered the four Chefs around her and explained briefly how the recording process was going to go. “You guys are going to go outside in a bit through the hallway, and you’re going to stay in the waiting room for a moment, okay? While you’re in there, our host and the judges are going to take their places to film the intro to the show. Then we’re going to roll your intro videos one by one, and Sally here is going to let you know when you have to walk back in and go straight to the station I assigned you, okay? The recording process is a bit choppy, pardon the pun,” she laughed, receiving only Harry’s laugh in return for her joke. “We’ll stop and restart a lot of times to reset things, but we’re going to signal you so you know when you’re on. After your intros, we’ll go straight to the cooking, yeah? Everyone okay?” she asked with a polite smile.

The four guys nodded solemnly, and promptly walked out, escorted by Sally. They were instructed to wait in line in the waiting room, in the order they were supposed to walk in. “Oh, this is so cool…” Niall commented in a giddy tone. Harry and Louis laughed, and Liam took a deep, nervous breath.

They stayed there for a few minutes, and then Sally came back, asking if they were ready. Everyone nodded again; Liam could see that clearly, being the last in line. The furthermost station belonged to Niall, so he would be the first to walk out. Louis would go second, Harry third, and Liam last. His station was the one closer to the hallway, but further from the pantry, which would prove a damn challenge, but it wasn’t like he could complain, was it? It was all a matter of trying not to bump into anyone on his way back with his ingredients, and trying to make one trip only to save time.

Suddenly, they heard Ted Allen’s voice coming from the main studio, recording the intro. The host. Oh fuck, this was it. Liam stomach did a somersault and he closed his eyes, saying a little prayer to whatever god was listening, while he heard Niall’s introduction video being played.

He thought those were added later when the show was edited, but maybe the judges needed to see them before seeing them cook? To be better at, you know, judging them? His video was probably awkward as fuck. He spent endless nights fretting about how nervous he looked the day the shows’ team went to the restaurant he worked at to record it, how his coworkers teased him endlessly, god…

When the sound from the video stopped, Sally dragged Niall away. One by one, they heard the sound from their VTs and then, they disappeared, until Liam was left alone. Liam listened to his intro video with his eyes closed. He didn’t need to see it to remember what happened.

The video was simply him introducing himself as Chef Liam Payne, 25 years old. He showed a bit of the restaurant he worked at. It wasn’t a really fancy one but at least he liked the fact that the owners left him in charge of the menu. God, he loved Italian food, but he had managed to add flavors from the entire world to the classics, so every patron could find something they liked; from cozy, homemade pasta with Latin-American twists to eccentric, gourmet pizzas with Asian inspiration. God, he sounded a bit conceited about it in the video, but at least he managed to hide his nerves well.

The video ended and Liam opened his eyes just as Sally instructed him to walk through the hallway. Liam made his best effort to at least not look like a bumbling idiot. He took a deep breath and walked out, trying to smile a bit. He mainly ignored the cameras around him; he just kept his eyes to the front, walking straight to his station.

Only when he was already standing there, stoic, he decided to take a look around. At his side, the other Chefs were already standing at their spots, baskets of mystery ingredients in front of them on top of their stations. Liam looked then at his own basket. As usual, it was closed. He wondered what ridiculous things he would have to cook with.

Martha yelled cut, and Liam’s eyes went to her. She was signaling Ted, telling him to move from his spot by the judges table to stand closer to the contestants. Liam kept his eyes on him; he didn’t have the balls to look at the judges yet. Ted was smaller in person than he looked on TV, and he had a playful smile on his lips all the time. He seemed to be just as cool in reality as he was on screen; he greeted him and the other three guys with a little wave, wishing them good luck while the cameras weren’t rolling.

Another assistant, a short bulky guy, approached Ted and gave him a piece of paper that Liam assumed was a list of the ingredients in their baskets. Ted studied it and Liam felt like a creep still watching him, so he decided it was time to do what he had been avoiding like the plague.

The judges table was right in front of them, and Liam chanced a careful look. He started with the right end of the table, the one closest to him. And there was Alex Guarnaschelli. Thank god. She was cool. Actually, she was the coolest of all the judges, even cooler than Aaron. She was a really sweet, funny woman, and she was pretty open to weird flavors and strange combinations. She liked Chefs that knew how to take a risk. Liam smiled a bit, feeling just a tad more confident.

By her side, sitting in the middle spot, was Geoffrey Zakarian. Liam’s smile faltered. Ugh. He was a though one. Very strict on presentation, very picky on flavor. He had his funny moments, yeah, but those were more because he liked to banter with his fellow judges. Those moments usually ended up being full blown lectures about basic cooking skills in a second. He had the ability of sounding incredibly condescending, and he usually played ‘bad cop’. Pleasing the man was definitely going to be a challenge.

Hopefully, the third judge would be another cool one. Liam steeled himself and moved his eyes to the last spot. And there, sitting by Geoffrey’s side, hands one on top of the other on the table, looking sleepy and beautiful, was Zayn Malik. Fuck. Fuck…

Liam stopped breathing for a second as he felt his stomach fall to the floor and be attacked by butterflies, all at once. How was that possible? Fuck! He stood there like an idiot, frozen, looking at Zayn with his mouth open like a fish.

Zayn was so gorgeous in person Liam was kind of dying, for a moment he couldn’t even focus on what him being there would mean for his cooking skills or his mental state or his life in general. He was too star-struck, too shocked. He knew he was supposed to be freaking out but his brain was too busy admiring, completely lost in the man in front of him.

He did look sleepy which made sense considering it was pretty early in the morning, but his eyes still seemed to freaking sparkle anyways thanks to the studio lights, or thanks to magic, who the fuck knows. He was wearing a black shirt, buttoned almost all the way up, and a deep blue suit jacket, letting his tattoos on his hands peek from underneath the cuffs. His long hair was carefully arranged in a top knot, and he was smiling while he listened to something the short, bulky assistant from before was telling him.

He looked like a damn dream. Liam ogled for a minute or more with total impunity because Zayn was too distracted and the cameras weren’t rolling and honestly he didn’t give a fuck if anyone else noticed. He was hypnotized, heart beating fast, hands sweating. He wanted to see him from up close. He wanted to talk to him, maybe even touch him. How stupid would he look if he approached him just to introduce himself? Would he even have an opportunity to do that? Would he even dare doing such a stupid thing? Fuck…

By the time the assistant left, Liam was still fixated on the way Zayn’s eyelashes seemed to flutter every time he blinked slowly. He watched as Zayn turned in his chair to look at Geoffrey by his side. Geoffrey got closer to him to whisper something in his ear, laughing, and all of a sudden the both of them looked up at Liam at the same time.

Fuck! What the fuck! Shit! Liam looked down so fast he got dizzy, feeling like someone had set his entire face on fire. Fuck. Zayn Malik saw him staring at him. Fuck!

Liam stared resolutely at his cutting board, wishing he could disappear. Harry approached him, probably oblivious to what had just happened, tapping his elbow. “Sorry…” he whispered, nodding his head on the judges’ direction. Oh, right, he knew. He knew and he pitied him and he was probably happy because Liam was utterly fucked.

“Yeah…” Liam replied, dryly. He had no idea who Harry was, really. For all he knew, Harry was definitely going to use the fact that Liam would be distracted against him. Still, he had no energy left to focus on the possible threat; he was too busy feeling like his blood was boiling, because somehow he had ended up in the same room with Zayn Malik, in the worst context possible. Zayn Malik was going to watch him cook. Zayn Malik was going judge his food. His entire fate was in that man’s hands. The man that just caught him ogling like an idiot. No pressure or anything. Shit.

His inner freak out was interrupted by Martha finally asking everyone to stay quiet, so they could continue with the next stage of the recording process. Liam took another deep breath, and tried to steel himself. He was already at the party, now he had to dance the dance.

Chapter Text

The script for the next part was always the same, and Liam could recite it from memory. The host, Ted, took his place besides Liam’s station, and briefly explained to the contestants and to the viewers how the competition worked.

Four Chefs. Three courses. Appetizer, entrée and dessert. They would get a basket of mystery ingredients per round, and the dishes had to be cooked using all of them. After each round, the judges would taste their dishes and decide which one was the worst and consequently which Chef would be chopped, based on taste, creativity and presentation, until only one Chef remained. The winner would take home a ten thousand dollars prize. Simple enough, right?

The mystery ingredients of course were always unconventional things. There could be anything in there; strange exotic fruits, disgusting premade food, candies, savory ingredients for the dessert round, or sweet things for the appetizer, really anything. The ingredients got crazier and crazier each season, but they weren’t actually impossible to use. It was just a matter of having some knowledge when it came to food and knowing how to mix flavors to make them work together.

Ted announced that the first round was the appetizer. He instructed the Chefs to open the baskets and remove the ingredients one by one, placing them on top of their stations. Liam made an effort to focus on the task at hand, instead of thinking of Zayn. He tried to prepare his mind to work as fast as possible once the ingredients were known. That was key. He needed to think fast. He needed to keep his eyes on the prize.

The four Chefs opened their baskets simultaneously, and took the ingredients out in the order Ted recited them out loud. Lamb ribs, rainbow chard, cherry moonshine and a pretty gross looking loaded baked potato, already cooked. What the hell…

While Ted’s voice explained how much time they had to cook, Liam’s brain already started planning. Thinking. It was a relatively easy basket, wasn’t it? Nothing too crazy, no flavor he wasn’t familiar with. His job was now finding a way to make a dish including those ingredients, using his knowledge to come up with something actually original and delicious to stand out.

It took him a few seconds, because of the stupid burning desire to look at Zayn was distracting him and because the first few ideas that popped in his mind were all too simple. That wouldn’t work. He had watched the show enough times to see many Chefs get chopped because they couldn’t come up with a smart way to use what they were given.

Just as Ted gave them the green light to start, Liam figured out what he was going to do. Resolutely ignoring the judges table and the comments they always made out loud while the contestants cooked, he left for the pantry to find ingredients. When he arrived, the other three guys were already there, scrambling to get what they needed. Niall had his head deep inside the huge fridge, and Harry and Louis were giggling while they shouldered each other, fighting for spices.

Liam had no time to pay attention to what anyone else was doing, or even to try to guess what they would cook. He went straight for the herbs, grabbing a few that would pair well with the lamb. He grabbed Dijon mustard, ginger, olive oil, and then he beelined for the spices rack once it was free.

He chose what the needed, one, two, three small jars, fuck, the time seemed to fly while he chose a good mix of flavors, imagining the combination in his mouth, wondering if Zayn would like them. He wasn’t used to spicy food before him, but then he began experimenting with the flavors Zayn always talked about in his show and now he had found a lot of magic in that world. It was stupid, maybe, but in his mind, he would be happy if he could make a dish that impressed Zayn, or at least pleased him.

Once he had everything he needed and could carry no more, he carefully walked back to his station, trying not to lose anything along the way.

The plan was simple. Crazy as it sounded, the tricky ingredient in the basket was the stupid baked potato. So many boring things could be done with it, so Liam decided to do something interesting with it instead, hoping the other guys worried so much about their ribs they forgot to make the potato special.

He chopped the herbs, mixed them with the spices he picked and rubbed his lamb ribs with the mix. He quickly seared them in a pan, and then stuck them in the oven, sending a small prayer to the cooking gods that they would be done in time. The chards could serve two purposes, so he chopped them separating the leaves from the stems. The stems he sautéed with the juices left in the pan from the ribs and after mashing the potato, he mixed everything together, adding salt and pepper and the same mix of herbs and spices.

He refused to look at the judges to see if the oohs and aahs he could hear were about what he was doing, even though he could pick out Zayn’s voice from the mess of noise that was the studio. He needed to fucking focus, and time was flying. He just kept on going.

He put butter in a fresh pan and after turning the gross looking mixture into little patties, he stuck them in the pan and bam, hash browns. Those were better than any other option, right? They had to be an acceptable company for the ribs, much better than the obvious mashed potato option, and maybe the spices would make them taste better than the average hash brown. He prayed that would be considered creative enough, and he kept going.

The moonshine he reduced in a small pot along with the mustard, some herbs and the ginger to make a sauce. With the chard leaves he made a little salad, tossing it with more moonshine mixed in with olive oil as a vinaigrette. Salad was always important. Something fresh to balance it all out.

Just as he was done tossing the salad and was about to take the ribs out of the oven, Ted announced they had two minutes left. Perfect. He ran to find plates and then got to work plating, arranging the four square plates on top of the mess his station was. The ribs came out of the oven perfect. Fuck yes. With his stomach in knots, he placed two of them in each plate along with two hash browns, then salad, then sauce, and he was done. Four plates, one for each judge and one for camera close ups, as requested. He had ten seconds to spare and he spent them staring at his plates in disbelief, adrenaline making him dizzy while Ted did the countdown to zero.

The buzzer finally rang and Ted announced their time was up. Everyone else stopped working at once, stepping away from their stations with their hands up. Only then Liam looked to his side. The rest of the dishes looked kind of similar to each other. Ribs, salad, mashed potatoes. Fuck yeah, point for Liam. Wait… Where were Louis’ potatoes?

The answer came in the form of a hushed “Fuck!” coming from Louis’ mouth as soon as Martha yelled cut. What? What happened? He could hear the judges mumbling at each other, just as a cameraman approached Louis’ station to focus his camera on his face.

Oh. Oh no. He forgot the potato. He made the biggest mistake ever. Fuck… Liam knew he should probably be happy because that meant Louis was most likely going to be chopped for forgetting an ingredient, but no, he wasn’t happy. In part because he wanted to win fair and square, and in part because he knew Louis wanted to win too.

Louis looked distraught as Sally signaled the assistants so they could bring the plates to the judges. The cameraman walked away too, smiling, satisfied with what he could capture of what was probably the worst moment in Louis life. Yeah, this was exactly what he hated the most about these shows.

As soon as the assistants took their plates away, Harry walked up to Louis to rub his back, trying to calm him down. Liam sighed and looked down. This was bad.

Martha interrupted them, calling them to the front, asking them to stand side by side in a line in front of the judges’ table so they could taste their food and give their critiques. Liam and Niall were the first to follow her orders. No one could blame the other too for taking an extra minute.

For some reason, the whole forgotten potato debacle made Liam forget for a minute what was about to happen. No, not the judging, he was still nervous enough to know he hadn’t forgotten about that part. But only as he approached that table he remembered who was sitting there. Who would taste his food, who would have his fate in his precious hands. He had gotten so lost in the cooking and the whole drama and adrenaline of those crazy twenty minutes; he had successfully erased Zayn’s existence from his mind.

At least until he found himself there, standing right in front of him. Just a few meters apart. Now it was turn for the rest of the world to be erased because he completely ignored the other guys approaching, he ignored the assistants setting the first set of plates in front of the judges, he ignored everything while he stared at Zayn, again, like the star struck idiot he was, wanting to scream. He knew it was a risk because he could get caught again but he couldn’t help it. Damn, he was so pretty Liam couldn’t look away. So so so pretty.

Thankfully Zayn was unaware of Liam’s stare, he was smiling a tiny amused smile with his eyebrows gently furrowed while he analyzed the plate in front of him, grabbing his fork and knife. Liam held his breath. He could probably watch Zayn eat forever. It was one of Liam’s favorite parts when he watched Zayn’s show. He always tasted his own food at the end and it was so endearing, so beautiful, so hot. He had such a passion for food and he was so gorgeous and… and now he was going to judge Liam’s stupid ribs and hash browns and he should probably be looking for a place to hide instead of looking at him like that.

Martha yelled a countdown, finally pulling Liam from his thoughts, reminding him that he would look like an absolute idiot staring at Zayn on camera. He needed to get a grip, dammit. He steeled himself, joining his hands behind his back, standing as tall and as straight as he could, tearing his eyes away from Zayn to look at Ted. Ted asked Niall to describe his plate, and Liam sighed. Good. He wouldn’t go first.

“Today I made for you roasted lamb ribs with cherry pickled chard and mashed potatoes, please enjoy,” Niall explained, and only then Liam chanced another look at Zayn. He was poking at the mashed potatoes with his knife while he chewed a bite of the ribs. So cute Liam had to bite his lip. Fuck.

Ted asked for the judges’ critiques, and Liam did his best to pay attention. “The pickled chard is probably the best part of this dish,” Alex commented, bringing another bite to her mouth. “The lamb is marvelous, perfectly cooked. Maybe it could’ve used a bit more flavor? It’s a little bland. But it’s good, good job,” Liam looked at Niall, who was so red in the face he looked about to burst. Niall simply nodded, accepting the comment and thanking Alex.

“I agree with Alex, I could eat these pickled chards all day,” Geoffrey said next. “Mashed potatoes are kind of boring, though, those lacked a bit of creativity.”

Liam really needed to brace himself to hear Zayn’s voice next. “I agree too?” he said, a little questioning lilt at the end of his words, so fucking endearing Liam squealed internally. “The lamb is pretty good and the pickled chard is amazing. Maybe next time try to do something more unpredictable with the ingredients? The flavors are decent but we’re looking for that little wow factor, so yeah. Still, good job, Chef,” he smiled. Why did he have to be so amazing? He was there to judge the fuck out of them, why did he always have to make polite suggestions to improve the contestants’ cooking? He knew most judges played a role. The mean one, the kind one, the picky one, etc. Zayn had to be the helpful one, the adorable one, of course. There was a good reason Liam was so terribly infatuated.

Niall thanked the judges, and then the assistants switched the plates, putting Harry’s dish on the table. “Um, hi, I made seared lamb ribs with chard, herb salad and um, drunken pickled chard leaves and mashed potatoes,” he described, opening his hands in offering.

“These mashed potatoes are better,” Alex began after taking a moment to taste the food. “The chard leaves are good too, maybe a bit too drunken?” she suggested, making Harry laugh. And Zayn. Zayn laughed too, covering his mouth with the back of his hand. Wow. Liam had to smile, god…

“The lamb has too much fat in it, it was not properly prepared before cooking,” Geoffrey spoke next, picking at his plate with a bit of distaste. “The drunken chard leaves are actually very good, I like ‘em boozy. The rest is pretty unoriginal. Mashed potatoes, again. Salad, again.” Liam grimaced. He knew Geoffrey was supposed to be the bad guy here, but damn. Harry thanked him anyways, which was a good choice, contradicting the judges was never smart.

“You have to make sure the lamb doesn’t have too much fat on, yeah? It’s not the kind of fat that tastes good when cooked, it’s too chewy,” Zayn advised, once again. “The rest is very good, I like the flavors you put into your dish, even if the dish itself wasn’t the most original. Well done,” he congratulated Harry and smiled at him when he thanked him. That stupid smile. It made Liam fantasize about having made the best dish in the round just to make that man smile like that at him. Fuck winning, honestly.

But first, it was Louis’ turn. Liam looked at him, and he kept his head down the whole time while the plates were switched. Ted asked him to describe his dish, and he took a deep breath before speaking. “What I made for you today is, um, grilled lamb ribs with sautéed chard, and cherry cream sauce,” he explained, an expression of utter disappointment in his face.

“What happened to the potato?” Geoffrey asked before even tasting the food.

Louis shook his head, frustrated, his lips pressed in a thin line. “I put it aside while I tried to figure out what to do with it and, well, I forgot about it. I’m sorry about that, Chef,” he explained. Liam had seen it happen a million times, right? Some ingredients were easy to forget and a simple distraction could prove fatal.

“It’s a pity because what you did here is very good,” Alex commented. “The lamb is the best we had so far, it’s grilled to perfection, and this sauce, you know, booze and cream, it’s tricky, but you made it work,” she commended, smiling at Louis.

Geoffrey nodded before speaking. “The lamb is definitely the best so far and that sauce is perfect, good job on that. Too bad you forgot the potato, I would’ve liked to know how the sauce tasted mixed with some starchy ingredient,” he explained, putting his fork down and cleaning his mouth with a napkin.

Liam looked at Zayn expectantly. “Everyone makes mistakes, right? But yeah, you need to pay special attention to the ingredients in the basket, forgetting one of them is a dangerous mistake. That being said, your dish is definitely the best so far,” he complimented, eliciting a muttered ‘thanks’ from Louis.

And then it was Liam’s turn. He stared resolutely at the floor while the plates were being switched, and only looked up when Ted asked him to describe his dish. It was time to go on full Chef mode. He pushed all the nerves to the back of his mind. He looked up, he smiled and he talked. “Today I made oven roasted lamb ribs, with chard hash browns, and a chard salad with cherry vinaigrette, please enjoy.” Fuck, he sounded like an idiot anyways, too stiff, too nervous. At some point during his description, the anxiety about having Zayn tasting his food surpassed the anxiety about actually not being chopped. Or maybe one multiplied the other.

He thought he heard a satisfied moan coming from Zayn but Alex spoke over the sound and it was drowned. And no, he was not going to be stupid and weak, he had to be approachable and polite for all the judges, so instead of trying to see if Zayn looked like he could’ve moaned, he looked straight at Alex while she spoke. “These hash browns are amazing, why did you put only two in each plate?” she asked, making the whole table laugh. Making Zayn laugh too, oh god. “They work perfectly with the lamb, I love them,” she added, smiling at Liam, who was trying his best not to look away from her.

“The lamb is pretty good too. The salad is nothing original, but I get why it’s there, it adds an element of freshness. And yeah, I’ll have a few more of those hash browns to go, please,” Geoffrey requested, smiling. Actually smiling. Wow. Liam looked at him, baffled, trying to believe what was actually happening. He laughed and nodded his head. “Thank you, Chef,” he replied, nodding his head once.

And then… Then he finally looked at Zayn. Like, properly. Zayn wasn’t looking back at him, which would be a disappointment if it wasn’t because he was too busy cleaning his mouth with his napkin, staring at his empty plate. His really empty plate, occupied only by the clean bones from the ribs. What the fuck… While the others talked, Zayn ate everything, the entire dish. Liam’s eyebrows rose almost to his hairline, trying not to die because his belly was being attacked by ninja butterflies. Oh god. Was this actually happening? A clean plate was the highest form of compliment in a competition like this. Fuck.  

When he was done cleaning his mouth, Zayn put his napkin down, smiling calmly, finally looking up at Liam, making eye contact. “Wow…” he actually breathed out with a smirk, and Liam was sure at that point that his face was completely red, judging by the way it felt hotter than the sun and no, it wasn’t because of the bright studio lights. It was because for a second he didn’t know whether Zayn’s exclamation was about him or about his food and he had no idea which of the two would be more satisfying.

Zayn looked positively satisfied and happy and impressed. Fuck. Liam exhaled a nervous laugh and Zayn finally spoke. “You know, many times Chefs just do the best they can with what they’re given, but this dish is actually brilliant and creative. The hash browns don’t feel like an afterthought or a last resort to solve a complicated ingredient, they’re just… wonderful. Also you definitely get extra points for a wonderful mix of spices, I loved the flavor. Amazing job,” he concluded, and yeah, Liam was positively dying. He had no idea how he was still standing after that. Yes, praise from all judges was always important, but this was Zayn. This was a fantastic Chef he had a huge crush on, and he praised his food and smiled at him with those stupid wonderful lips and Liam was really dying.

“Thank you, Chef,” he replied with an inevitable bashful smile, praying no one would notice how stupidly affected he was, how obvious his overwhelmed reaction had to be. Hopefully everyone would just think his red face and huge smile were because his dish was a success.

After all was said and done, Ted asked the contestants to leave the studio. Judges needed to deliberate, and even if Liam was pretty sure he did good, the nerves were still there. He took one last look at the table before walking with the other Chefs backstage, and he found Zayn still smiling at him. Oh.

He quickly looked away, overwhelmed, and he followed the rest of the guys down the hallway, towards the waiting room.

Sally was waiting for them there, and she instructed them to wait there and chat about the round until she came back for them. They were supposed to sit at the round table and of course, there were cameras around them this time. Rolling. Waiting for the drama.

Liam was still on cloud nine, and while Louis and Niall and Harry discussed the possible result and Louis’ potato-gate, Liam tuned the conversation off. He was too busy thinking about the satisfaction on Zayn’s face after eating his food to pay attention to Louis freaking out and Harry trying to console him and Niall’s bantering. Whatever happened, whoever won, Liam felt like he already made it.

Thankfully, no one bothered him for not speaking or not adding to the dramatic recount of Louis’ mistake. He was happy just basking in the pleasure of Zayn having enjoyed his food, he was too busy fantasizing about Zayn maybe enjoying him too, while he watched the other guys talk.

Finally, Sally came back what felt like an eternity later, rushing them back to the studio. Everyone, including Liam, gave Louis encouraging pats in the back, and then they walked in single line back to their positions.

They stood in front of the judges again, and Liam decided to stare at the chopping block. It was basically a wooden chopping board with a metallic food lid on top of it. Underneath it sat the worst dish of the round, waiting to be revealed.

Martha gave the three, two, one count and the cameras started rolling, and no one really gasped in surprise when, after giving the proper explanation about what was about to happen, Ted revealed Louis’ dish. Liam took a look at him and he look resigned. Harry looked more distraught than him, to be honest. Which was understandable, right? Those two truly had something going on, and while no one wanted to see Louis go, it was obvious Harry would be the more transparent one about it.

Liam offered Louis a sympathetic smile, while Alex explained the missing ingredient was unforgivable. Louis nodded and thanked the judges, accepting his fate with no complaints. He walked away down the hallway and only when the cameras stopped filming, Liam looked at the judges table again. Just to find Zayn staring back at him, with a smile on his lips, and… did he give him a thumbs up? Wh—What? Why?

Judges were not supposed to interact at all with contestants in any manner outside of the judging itself, and that was… weird. And wonderful. But mostly weird and unnerving and dangerous and so many things Liam’s head started spinning.

He frowned back a Zayn, unable to contain his confused smile. For a second he considered walking up to the table to ask what that was about, but no. It was strictly forbidden, for one, he would risk getting disqualified, and two, it wasn’t like he was about to have a chance to do that, right? Zayn hid his hands under the table and looked away just as Sally hurried them backstage again, so the stations could be re-prepped for the next round.

 

Chapter Text

After a short, boring break in the waiting room, spent once again being filmed by the crew like it was the most interesting thing in the world, their now smaller group was finally called back on set.

The mood in the waiting room had been colder than before, and not only because it lacked Louis’ bubbly personality. The reality of the elimination process had apparently dawned on everyone. All of them, Liam included. Everything had felt kind of exciting until one of them was gone and the truth of what they were doing hit them.

Liam wanted to feel safe, yeah, he wanted to think that after that first pretty successful round he had been validated about his skills enough to feel sufficiently motivated to face the rest of the challenges, but… The fact was that there were still two rounds left and a single mistake could ruin his chances made him really feel that he should make an actual effort not to feel comfortable or confident. Yes, Zayn’s compliments were probably going to keep playing in his head in an endless loop for the rest of his life, but he had to remember that there were two other judges there and he was competing against two other Chefs that were now just as motivated as he was and he was still far from the finish line.

The self-pep talk kept going in his head all the way back to the main studio. They were led straight to their stations, and Liam couldn’t help but look in the direction of Louis’ empty one, wondering who would be the next one to leave.

His eyes went to the judges’ table next, but Zayn wasn’t paying attention, all three judges were giggling about something, talking in hushed voices. For a second Liam wondered what they were laughing about. He’d had his fair share of people laughing about him back in high-school, enough to feel paranoid every time a group of people laughed close to him, but it was stupid to be thinking that now. He was an adult, dammit, and the people at that table were adults, and his paranoia was just being fed by how nervous he was about the whole exchange with Zayn. It was best if he didn’t know what was so funny, so he forces himself to ignore the whole thing.

When everyone was ready and in position, the cameras started rolling again at Martha’s order. Ted did his usual speech, congratulating the three of them for advancing to the next round, and then it was straight back to business. Entrée round.

Liam took a deep breath to prepare himself, and when Ted gave the signal, he opened his basket in perfect sync with his two competitors. Inside, he found the new set of mystery ingredients, and he took them out one by one in the order Ted named them.

A pack of pork ribs was first. Ribs again? Liam frowned; repeating an ingredient was unusual. Next came a jar of sunflower seed spread; it was a weird ingredient but it was similar to peanut butter in a way, Liam would find a way to use it. Next came a box of fresh blueberries and finally, lardo. Oh, he knew that one. It was actually an Italian version of cured pork fat, kind of like salami, minus the meat.

The happiness about being familiar with all the ingredients was short lived, though. Ted announced they had thirty minutes, and Liam remembered he was supposed to come up with a dish with those familiar things, so his brain went into overdrive again, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle in their right place.

This time the trick had to be in the ribs, right? It was really weird, getting two ingredients so similar in two consecutive rounds, so maybe the key to winning this one would be doing something different with it this time around, to stand out.

The clock started ticking, and Liam opened the package with the ribs to look at them, to study them for a few seconds, trying to find inspiration. They were clearly not top quality ribs, the meat had too much fat. Tricky, tricky… Roasting them would not work. Pan searing them wouldn’t either. What if… for some reason his mind went straight to comfort food. Italian food. Pasta. He used to make fancy pasta dishes out of anything back in college. He could chop the meat and cook it along with some lardo for flavor, and use it as filling for pasta. Ravioli. Yes! Pork ravioli. Oh god, it sounded kind of gross but if he got the flavors in the filling right, it could be delicious, and it was definitely creative, right?

He dropped the ribs on the cutting board and ran. Both Harry and Niall were already back at their stations, working. Fuck, he lost precious time thinking. Determined to make up for the time lost, he grabbed the necessary ingredients for the pasta along with some herbs and spices. Back at his station, he carefully carved out the best part of the ribs and put that meat in the grinder along with the lardo.

Mixing it with spices and herbs to make it flavorful, he cooked the filling in a pan practically with one hand while he tried to make the dough for the ravioli with the other. Yes, he could use pre-made pasta sheets, but nothing beat handmade, that had to give him extra points too.

Once the filling was done, he put the ravioli together and stuck them in boiling water, hoping for the best. The blueberries could make some kind of sauce, but just as he started sautéing them, he realized he forgot the spread. “Fuck!” he cursed under his breath. It was supposed to go in the filling to bind everything together! Fuck, fuck, fuck…

He stopped in his tracks, trying to think. Think, stupid, think, think! The spread tasted kind of like salty peanut butter, maybe adding it to the blueberry sauce could work? It would make it thicker and creamy and it could add another layer of flavor. Dammit… He had no time. It was a huge risk but he had no other option.

He scooped out a spoonful and added it to the pan, trying to find the right mix of spices and herbs and the right balance of salt and pepper to make it at least edible. Once it didn’t taste like either sunflower seeds or blueberries too much, he took the pan off the heat and ran to get plates, cursing under his breath all the way to the shelves and back. Such an idiot. Fuck.

He ignored the hushed comments from the judges’ table, he focused on getting the ravioli out of the water, plating them, pouring a bit of the sauce on top and garnishing the plate with a bit of rosemary. He stared at his creation for the few seconds they had left. He glared at it like he could scare it into becoming something delicious. And then the time was gone, and it was out of his hands.

He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly when Martha yelled cut. Their plates were taken away, and they were led back in front of the judges. Liam was shaking he was so nervous, but he still noticed a flurry of movement by his side. He was so focused fretting about his mistakes that he only realized something serious had happened when Ted asked one of the other guys if he was okay. What?

He looked up at the other Chefs and noticed Harry was holding a poorly bandaged hand against his chest. Harry replied that he was okay, that they could keep going. How did he not notice someone getting injured right by his side? What had happened?

He had no time to ask, no time to even try to guess, Martha yelled places and fuck, how did everything happen so fast? He was going to get whiplash, at times going slow as all hell and then going so fast he could barely breathe. He wanted to stop for a second, ask Harry what had happened, he wanted to sit and breathe and think before facing the judges. He needed a moment to wallow in the misery of his mistakes before facing his doom, but no, no such luck.

The show was obviously not going to stop just so he could catch up. The assistants placed Niall’s dish in front of the judges and the cameras started rolling again. Liam stood there as calmly as he could, a million things going through his mind. Harry’s injury, his food, his nerves, and Zayn. Zayn, sitting there all prettily, looking at Niall’s dish with a small smile on his lips while Ted asked Niall to describe what he had cooked.

Liam tried to focus on the answer. “I made roasted pork ribs with sunflower and mustard spread, and blueberry balsamic green beans,” he described, nodding his head when he was done. Oh, that was good, but it was kind of the same thing he did the previous round.

The judges took a moment to taste the food, and then Alex spoke first. “The green beans are really good, I like what you did with them. The ribs still have too much fat in them, but you managed to cook most of it off, they taste really good, well done, Chef,” she congratulated him. Liam chanced another look at Niall. He was smiling big and proud. Fuck.

“It seems you have learned from Chef Harry’s mistakes on the previous round,” Geoffrey commented, making Harry cringe, and Niall laugh. “It was fun, this little trick, giving you very similar ingredients in two consecutive rounds. You didn’t do something too different with it, but it still works, and the presentation is really well put together,” he finished. Niall smiled even bigger.

“I wanna commend you on the green beans. They were incredibly good, yeah? And even if the ribs had too much fat to begin with, you managed to work with them anyways. The idea of mixing mustard and the sunflower spread on them was very good, the flavor is perfect,” Zayn commented next. Liam smiled too, but definitely not for the same reasons Niall was smiling. He didn’t even care if Niall was happy at all or not, all he could do was look at Zayn, loving how he always found something good to say about every dish. How was he even real?

That smile disappeared soon enough, though, because next was Liam’s dish, and the nerves came back in full force, gripping his chest. He looked at his dish while the assistants arranged the plates in front of the judges, cringing.

“Um, I made for you pork and lardo ravioli, with blueberries and sunflower sauce, please enjoy,” he described when Ted asked him to, making an effort to at least look confident, even if he wasn’t. It was key, wasn’t it? Probably the judges had already noticed him freaking the fuck out when he noticed he had forgotten the sunflower spread; his mini melt down had to be pretty evident, right? Ugh. Now it was time to own up to his shit, wherever it landed him.

The silence while the judges tasted Liam’s dish seemed to last forever. He kept his eyes resolutely fixed on the plates, avoiding their faces. He really didn’t need to die inside all over again watching Zayn, or anyone really, eating his crappy food.

Finally, Alex spoke. “To be honest, I was hesitant to even try the sauce because I saw it was almost an afterthought, wasn’t it, Chef? What happened?” she asked, and Liam groaned. Why did she have to ask?

Still, he looked at her as composed as he could, pressing his lips together in a little self-deprecating smile. “I was going to put the spread in the filling but I forgot, and… well, I tried to make it work however I could,” he explained, biting his lower lip when he was done.

Fuck, he had seen judges sending people home for desperate measures like that, because most of the times they ended up being complete failures. How did he do that? He got a compliment the previous round for not using ingredients as last resources, and now he was here, having done just that.

However, Alex smiled, taking another bite looking right at Liam, taking a moment to actually taste it. Liam frowned, confused. “I have no idea how you made it work, Chef, but you did. It actually tastes really good,” she commended, and Liam exhaled a gulp of air he wasn’t even aware of having taken. What? She liked it?

Geoffrey spoke next, not even letting Liam process the fact that Alex actually enjoyed the mess he made. “I disagree, Alex.” Oh. Fuck. Fuck, there it goes. “It tastes a bit weird, or maybe it’s not really a flavor profile I’m used to, I just—” he made a pause to use his fork to bring a bit more of the sauce to his mouth, tasting it. “Maybe it would work with something else, just not pasta, it’s… weird,” he concluded, actually grimacing. Shit.

“I’m sorry, I actually think it’s fantastic,” Zayn interjected, mumbling. Liam frowned even harder and looked at him, confused. Zayn was mumbling because he was actually talking with his mouth full. And his plate empty. Again. Oh. Wow. What?

Zayn made a pause to clean his mouth with his napkin, still looking at his clean plate. “I don’t know what you did to make this sauce work, but you did it, and it’s fantastic. It has beautiful layers of flavors and I truly enjoyed it,” he added, after putting the napkin down on the table. “Also, I wanna commend you because you did something really different and unexpected with the ribs, and the ravioli tasted amazing too. And again, wonderful mix of spices, you have a great hand for that, Chef. I mean, you even made the dough from scratch, great job!” Zayn concluded, and Liam felt his heart beating in his ears. Holy fuck.

Zayn was smiling at him, big, and Liam couldn’t tear his eyes away from that smile, not even to hide the fact that he was definitely blushing like an idiot. Not even when the assistants walked in between them to change the plates they looked away, Zayn kept his gaze on him and Liam was flying, feeling like he could be chopped right there and then and it would’ve still been worth it.

For a few seconds all Liam could feel was that tension, that magnetic force, invisible strings tugging on his heart, making him feel like there was something there. Something more than just a man enjoying his food, something… something he had a hard time believing, but it was there, it had to be, right? Zayn was kind to everyone, but that look… What was that? That bashful smile? All that praise?

It was Ted speaking again that broke the spell. Zayn looked away just as Liam looked down, failing to calm his heart. He focused on Harry’s reply to Ted to try to distract himself. “I burnt my hand taking the potatoes out of the oven, yeah,” he explained. Oh, Ted must have asked what happened. “I made pork curry with lardo roasted potatoes and blueberry sauce,” Harry described, and Liam looked up again.

He focused on Alex when she spoke. “My plate and Zayn’s have no sauce, why is that, Chef?” she asked. Only then Liam managed to pay attention to the plates and yeah, only Geoffrey’s plate had sauce on it. Oh no.

“I took too long plating because of my hand,” Harry explained. Liam looked on as both Zayn and Alex reached into Geoffrey’s plate with their forks, much to the man’s evident distaste, to try the sauce.

“It’s actually pretty good, it’s a shame it wasn’t on every plate,” Geoffrey commented, shooing the other two away and picking what remained on his plate apart, trying bits of each component.

Zayn was still trying to piss Geoffrey off, picking one of his own potatoes with his fork and trying to dip it into Geoffrey’s plate again. Liam had to bite his tongue not to laugh. Or die. He was so cute, so adorable, looking all mischievous, giggling when Geoffrey finally slapped his hand to make him to stop.

“I really liked it, Chef,” Zayn told Harry after tasting the potato he was holding in his fork. “You did a wonderful thing with the ribs too, transforming them into something else. It’s truly a pity the sauce didn’t make it to my plate, I liked it very much. Hope your hand is okay!” he wished.

Yeah, Liam’s smile was threatening to split his face in half, so hard he had to look down again in an attempt to hide it. Not letting his fondness show when there were cameras everywhere was proving to be one of the most difficult challenges so far. He just wanted to look at Zayn freely, he wanted to bask in his glory, he wanted to ogle and enjoy being in the same room with him and getting to see this playful side of him. He wanted to approach him and maybe touch him and ask him if he really enjoyed his food. He wanted more, much more than what he had but life was always kind of a bitch and this was going to be it.

Finally, the segment was done and Sally led everyone back to the waiting room to let the judges deliberate. Niall and Liam chatted for a bit with the stupid cameras on them while the medics cleaned and bandaged Harry’s hand properly.

This time deliberations were done pretty fast. While they were walking back to the studio, Niall clapped Liam’s shoulder and laughed. “See you in the dessert round, mate,” he whispered in his ear, coming closer.

“You think Harry is going?” Liam wondered, looking at him, whispering too so Harry wouldn’t hear. Not that it mattered. He seemed to have accepted his fate already; he was walking in front of them, head down, defeated.

Niall shrugged. “He was good, but not finishing plating? He’s probably going to go, don’t ya think?” Niall asked, still smiling. At least one of them was feeling confident. All three dishes got good critiques, it was a matter of whether the judges would punish Harry for not finishing in time or if they were going to forgive him in account of his injury. No one was safe, really.

Liam only offered Niall a non-committal shrug. He was too nervous to feel confident; Geoffrey’s grimacing face was still playing in a loop in his mind, overpowering Zayn’s compliments. These small breaks after each round were a bitch, they gave him time to think and fret and worry.

When they were finally standing in front of the judges again, Liam made an effort to keep his gaze fixed on the floor. He tried, okay? No one could say he didn’t try. But of course his need to look at Zayn was going to win eventually, right? It meant nothing, all the looking, and Liam tried to justify it in his head as a way to try to guess his fate. Maybe it would be in vain, maybe he would see nothing, but all of a sudden he was very aware that these could be his last minutes on set, this could be one of his last chances to look at him. Whatever the reason, he caved.

He chanced a small look, knowing the logical thing to find was Zayn stoically looking to the front, waiting for the verdict to be revealed. Instead, he found Zayn looking straight at him with sparkly eyes and a small, conspiratorial smile on his lips. He looked almost proud. Liam watched in disbelief, frowning, leaning his head to the side like a confused puppy. What the fuck? Zayn just gave him an almost imperceptible nod before looking away, leaving him shaking. What did that even mean? Was he imagining things?

Liam bit his lip, confused, just as Ted lifted the metallic lid. Liam almost snapped his neck in his haste to look at what Ted revealed. On the chopping block, go figure, sat Harry’s dish.

Liam’s mind started reeling. It didn’t even register what happened next, Alex explaining the reasons why they chose to chop Harry, Harry apologizing and thanking everyone with a little bow before leaving. Was that nod a sign? An attempt at actually communicating with him? A congratulation? A warning?

He tried to find more clues, looking in Zayn’s direction again, but the segment was done and Sally was hurrying them backstage. Niall had to literally push Liam in the direction of the waiting room because he stood there like an idiot, trying to understand. Shit. He started walking, yeah, but he still looked over his shoulder at the judges’ table. Zayn wasn’t looking at him, he was busy chatting with Geoffrey. Just like nothing had happened.

 

Chapter Text

“I love sweet stuff, I’m gonna ace this round. You ready, Liam?” Niall asked while they waited backstage for the final round. He looked incredibly confident, or maybe it was that he seemed to be one of those happy go lucky people. Liam could never relate, he was more of the freak out and hope for the best kind of guy.

“Yeah, I’m ready,” Liam replied. Lied, more like. He was not ready. Not at all. He was nowhere near ready. If he had to be honest, he wasn’t even sure how he made it this far.

He was pretty sure the only reason he made it was because the other two Chefs committed two of Chopped’s capital sins. Forgetting ingredients and not finishing plating were inexcusable mistakes, and Liam couldn’t help wondering how things would’ve worked out if they had done everything right. Probably they would’ve kicked ass and Liam would be home already by now.

However, this was the way things happened. For some reason, he was in the final round, about to go against an over-confident, happy go lucky, dessert loving Irish man.

Liam sighed, trying to relax. Dessert rounds were the trickiest. They always put some salty or gross ingredient in the basket, something impossible to turn into a delicious dessert. This one was going to require all of Liam’s focus and knowledge, or at least a healthy dose of luck.

No matter how good he was, it was still going to be quite a challenge, because of Zayn. The unexpected wild card, the source of most of Liam’s nerves. Liam tried his best not to think about everything that had happened so far; he tried not to focus on the man’s looks or gestures because it was pointless.

He was probably never going to know what they meant. Maybe they were just mind-tricks he liked to play with contestants, just like other judges relied on humor or meanness or poker faces. Maybe Zayn liked throwing people off like that, so yeah, he couldn’t focus on what it could’ve meant. He needed to focus on the cooking.

However, when they were led back to the studio, Liam made the mistake of looking at the judges table before the round started. Alex and Geoffrey were whispering who knows what at each other, but Zayn was looking at him. Again. Smiling. Shameless. Fuck.

It was wrong. It was so wrong. When this thing aired, the whole world would see them staring at each other. Liam felt the weight of millions of eyes on him, but still, he couldn’t look away. Zayn’s eyes were hypnotic. Zayn had to know the power he had. Zayn had to know what he was doing to Liam, smiling that little smirk, his eyes sparkling like magic, not looking away, not even when the cameras started rolling and Ted began speaking.

Liam just held his gaze while Ted explained what the round was about. He was going crazy. He had to be reading into things, he had to be imagining things, projecting his own wishes, seeing things that weren’t there. The encouraging smile Zayn was giving him had to be just him being polite, right? All this tension in the air had to be made up.

He wracked his brains, trying to remember if he ever saw Zayn smile like this at any other contestant before. His heartbeat went crazy when he failed, so crazy he felt his pulse beating in his ears. He frowned, like that would be enough to make Zayn understand his utter confusion. Was this on purpose? Was that smile for him? What did it mean? Did it mean he was rooting for him? What if he disappointed him? Did it mean something else? What did it—“Chef Liam?” Fuck. Ted was calling him, snapping his fingers, and Niall was giggling by his side.

Oh god. He had completely zoned out. He had missed his cue to open his basket. Fuuuuck. “Yes, sorry…” he apologized, looking away from Zayn, catching just a bit of his bashful smile before he looked down too.

Fuck, Liam had gotten so distracted by Zayn they had to start filming the segment all over again. Martha did the countdown again, sounding exasperated. All because Liam got distracted, looking longingly at someone that was clearly unattainable, someone that was probably just having fun with him. God. Focus, idiot! What the fuck!

Completely determined to concentrate on the task at hand and the possible prize, Liam tried to breathe, deep, shaking his head, ignoring those eyes, ignoring the things they were doing to him and his brain. It didn’t matter anyways; it wasn’t like he would ever get to ask Zayn what the fuck that was about.

Ted asked them again to open the baskets, and this time he obeyed. Inside he found a bottle of basil juice, a few bananas, a pack of coconut butter and a little bag full of Jordan almonds. Ugh, those were terrible. He tried not making a face about them, but they were going to be tricky. All the ingredients were tricky, and this time he couldn’t afford any distractions.

Ted indicated how much time they had, but Liam’s brain was still trying to come up with ideas. The basil juice had such a fresh taste, maybe he could use it in some kind of cream with the bananas. Maybe whipped cream? Or pastry cream? No, pastry cream took too long to make from scratch… The almonds were going to have to be completely destroyed in order to be usable, maybe… Maybe he could do a Napoleon. Delicious layers, one on top of the other. Dough, cream, fruit, repeat; stacked high, the almonds on top to give it some crunch? But that could imply the stupid, time consuming pastry cream, it would work better, it— Ted gave them the green light and when he realized he had ran out of time to think, Liam made up his mind. God, he was going to risk everything, but he made up his mind and he had to go with his gut.

He ran to the pantry and grabbed everything he needed. Phyllo dough, powder sugar, milk, eggs, flour, mint, more fruit, cognac, fuck… He was barely able to walk back to his station without losing anything on the way there. Niall was cackling while he raided the fridge, but Liam resolutely ignored him and his crazy ways.

Once he was back at his station, he started with the dough to get it out of the way. He cut the dough sheets in triangles, sprinkled it with powder sugar, and stuck it in the oven. The pastry cream was going to need all of his attention if he wanted to have it ready and cooled down in time. It was incredibly risky, yeah, but if he did it right, it would to pay off.

Carefully, he put all the ingredients for the pastry cream together, one by one, and then added a bit of the basil juice and chopped mint leaves. He patiently whisked and prayed it would work. Once it was done, he spread it thin on a metallic sheet, covered it up and stuck it in the freezer to cool it off, hoping it would be done in time. Then, he ran back to his station to chop the bananas and a bunch of strawberries while he figured out what to do with the Jordan almonds.

The fruits went in a pan with cognac. While he flambéed those, he finally decided to put the almonds in the food processor along with the coconut butter to make a little crumble to go on top. His mind was so busy doing three things at the same time that he forgot the dough. Fuck, the dough!

“Dammit!” he mumbled, running to the oven. Fuck. Well, his pretty little triangles were kinda burnt. Not carbonized, they were usable, but they were not the sweet golden color he needed them to be. Shit… Not again.

He had no time to do them over. The time was almost up and he still had to plate everything, if the cream was cold enough. Napoleons were hard to put together to look nice, and he had less than two minutes to accomplish that.

He let the dough cool off while he retrieved the pastry cream from the freezer. Yes, thank god it was pretty cold already. He ran to grab the prettiest triangular plates he could find and he got to work.

On his way back to his station, he noticed Niall was doing… nothing? He was done? How? He frowned, looking at him quizzically but Niall just shrugged, laughing.

Fuck, no time to hate him for being done already, he needed to put the Napoleons together. As carefully as he could he went layer by layer, plate by plate. Dough, flambéed fruit, pastry cream, in that order, twice. He topped each plate with the almond crumble, praying the coconut butter would be enough to disguise the flavor of the candy so no one would notice it was actually Jordan almonds in there. He added fresh strawberry slices to decorate, drizzled a bit of caramel sauce on top and sprinkled everything with a bit of powder sugar, just as the timer buzzed.

He took a deep breath, sagging his shoulders and grabbing the edge of his table for support. He was done. Like, really done. All three rounds had passed, and now it was truly out of his hands. His fate belonged to the judges, and to whatever Niall had made.

They were led back in front of the judges’ table, and once he stood there, Liam noticed he was pretty much shaking. This was it. The last judgement. The last chop. He had watched enough episodes to know a good dessert could save a contestant that didn’t do so well in the rest of the rounds, and a bad dessert could ruin a great run.

Liam was kind of confident in what he had done so far, but that stupid burnt dough could be his downfall, it was a critical mistake that affected the taste of the dish and that spoke volumes of his ability to multitask and manage his time in the kitchen. Fuck.

He wondered what Niall had made, he wondered how the fuck he finished so early, but as soon as he tried to sneak a peek at Niall’s plates, the cameras started rolling again, and he had to stand still and pretend not to freak out.

He shook his head, trying to regain focus. He had to gather his thoughts as much as possible, he needed to find a way to sell his dish, sell his ideas, sell himself, almost literally. This last effort could be what won him or lost him the big prize, and he knew that sweet talk wouldn’t fix his dish, but maybe it would help.

However, all that focus almost went to shit when he noticed the assistants putting his dessert in front of the judges. Fuck, going first was nerve wracking.

When Ted asked him to describe his dish, he tried to stay calm because a shaky voice would definitely not help him at all. “I made for you a strawberry and banana Napoleon, with mint and basil pastry cream and almond coconut crumble on top,” he detailed, nodding his head when he was done.

The few seconds the judges took to taste his dessert felt like hours as he waited for a verdict. It felt like such a long time he actually managed to take advantage of it and actually watch what was happening.

He took a small look at Alex, he knew she was supposed to speak first, but she was taking her time taking apart his Napoleon, tasting each ingredient separately with a frown on her face. Damn. If that was her reaction, no one could blame him for skipping Geoffrey and watching Zayn instead.

Besides, his head decided to remind him that this was definitely the last time he was ever going to have Zayn in front of him, eating his food. Once this round was done, whatever the result, he would go back to his life, and he would never even have the chance to be in the same room as him again.

With a defeated sight, he took a last look at his stupid crush. Zayn was definitely not taking anything apart. Oh no, he was eating Liam’s dessert the way it was supposed to be eaten, a bit of everything in every bite. And man… he was enjoying it. He took his time savoring every forkful, slowly closing his eyes, fuck. Liam could almost imagine hearing him moaning. Liam’s pulse skyrocketed as he actually took in the sight in front of him. Zayn was definitely a dessert man, wasn’t he? And he was enjoying the hell out of his little creation and Liam was kind of not breathing, afraid that if he did, Zayn would notice how hard he was staring. Ogling. Drooling.

Zayn made eating look almost pornographic, slowly sliding his fork out of his mouth every time, smiling with his eyes still closed, his long eyelashes practically fluttering as he enjoyed every bite. Liam wondered if he was even aware that the cameras were still there, still paying attention to every single move anyone made. Time seemed to stand still and Liam bit his lip in a futile attempt to stop the rush of blood headed south. Was he doing that on purpose?

Just when Liam felt like passing out (or running to the bathroom to touch himself), Zayn opened his eyes, staring straight at him, smiling a mischievous little smile while he licked his lips. Like he knew exactly what he was doing, and who he was doing it for. Like he was just checking to see if his actions had the desired effect. Fuck. Liam stared back at him with his mouth open, breathless.

Shaking was an understatement by then; Liam had no idea what to do with himself, what to say, how to react, and Alex chose that exact moment to speak, breaking the tension. Liam didn’t know if he wanted to thank her or kill her for interrupting.

Time seemed to start running again with the sound of her voice, reminding Liam that the whole exchange with Zayn had probably lasted a few seconds at most, instead of the eternity he felt. He was fucking sweating, fuck. It took him maybe a second too long to tear his eyes away from Zayn’s shiny, probably sweet, luscious lips to look at Alex, and he prayed she didn’t notice his state.

She was smiling. Fuck, please let that mean she didn’t notice… “Oh, Chef… I really wish you would’ve pulled the dough out of the oven in time, because this is absolutely delicious, but the burnt flavor is kind of ruining it for me,” she lamented, making Liam grimace. “The pastry cream is gorgeous, really soft and sweet and it goes perfectly with the fruit, but yeah, the dough kind of ruined it for me, sorry,” she concluded, still picking at what was left in her plate.

Liam took a deep breath, looking down. Shit. Shit shit shit. This was bad. Her critique was very effective in bringing him back to earth. “Yeah, it was definitely a critical mistake, I think,” Geoffrey added. Oh, it was really really bad. “I mean, congratulations on making a great pastry cream on the spot, and for doing something pretty creative with those Jordan almonds, but yeah, I agree that the burnt flavor is off-putting,” he finished as Liam looked up at him.

His stomach was pretty much on the floor by his feet, and all the beautiful emotions he felt watching Zayn were pretty much gone. If the mistake had been that bad, then surely Zayn was going to agree? There was no way he would contradict the other judges on something so big.

“I have to admit I’m a bit of a fan of flaky, kinda burnt dough,” Zayn said, shrugging. “I mean, when I was little I was always the one that ate the semi-burnt cookies off the platter when my mum forgot them in the oven for too long. Maybe it’s the taste of the burnt sugar that I like, I don’t know,” he explained, smiling. Liam shot him a questioning, baffled look that was met with a bashful, innocent smile, like the almost sexual interaction they just had never happened. “I think the Napoleon works anyways and very well at that. It would be pretty unfair of me to scold you for the dough when you made such an amazing pastry cream with such little time,” he suggested, and Liam frowned at the same time Alex complained.

“Are you saying we’re being unfair, Zayn?” she asked, leaning forward to look at him from her side of the table, her expression half offended, half… mocking? Amused? What the fuck?

Zayn shrugged again, looking back at her with a calm smile on his lips. “Maybe I am. His dish was delicious, I’m giving him the compliments he deserves,” he replied, and yeah, maybe Liam was going to faint or something, because Zayn was defending him and his dish. On camera. On TV. And the whole world would see. Oh god.

“You’re insufferable, Malik,” Geoffrey interjected, shaking his head with a chuckle. What was even happening? Why did this feel like there was some inside joke Liam was not getting? It kind of felt like they were teasing Zayn, but… that was stupid, right? That was ridiculous, and Liam was grateful the director stopped that back and forth to switch the dishes before it went any further.

Liam didn’t even dare looking back at Zayn. He was too baffled and too embarrassed to even think straight. He felt hot all over, like he used to feel back in high school when he was discovering his sexuality and his friends teased him endlessly about his obvious crushes on other boys. His brain kept trying to make sense of what had just happened; wondering if they were teasing Zayn because they had noticed the way Liam looked at him. Liam struggled to stop that thought in its tracks because it didn’t matter anyways, right? This would be over soon. Way too soon. Or not soon enough, whatever.

A moment later, everything was ready for the judges to try Niall’s dessert, and Liam tried to focus back on what was happening. “I made for you a microwaved sponge cake, with bananas Foster,” Niall explained, and Liam frowned. Microwaved cake? What the fuck? No wonder he finished so soon, but… That was one hell of a risk. This was a prestigious cooking competition for highly qualified Chefs and he made microwaved food? Maybe… Maybe that meant Liam still had a chance. They had to scold Niall for making his dish on the microwave oven, right?

This time it took Alex only a second to speak, with her mouth still full. “Oh my god, this is so good,” she practically moaned, and Liam frowned again, feeling his heart drop to the floor.

He took a look at the dish in front of the judges. It didn’t even look pretty, there was a fuckton of sauce at the bottom of the plate, a small sponge cake sat in the middle instead of ice cream, the bananas Foster around it and what looked like processed almonds on top of it all. It looked insultingly simple but Alex was in love, she barely stopped eating in order to speak. “It’s such an understated dessert but it is brilliant, Chef, and it tastes amazing. Very well done,” she congratulated, and Niall thanked her. Liam made an effort not to roll his eyes because what the fuck?

“Yep, it’s very good,” Geoffrey added, licking his fork. “The sauce is what makes everything come together, and I think it’s brilliant that you did all this in such little time, with our mystery ingredients and a box of cake mix.” Liam felt literal anger rise inside his chest. Cake mix? Fucking cake mix? He didn’t even make it from scratch? Liam had to make an actual effort not to complain out loud. They had to be kidding, right?

He looked resolutely at the floor, with a very obvious frown on his face, not even caring if the cameras caught it. He was not ready at all to hear Zayn praise Niall too. Niall microwaved cake mix while he whisked pastry cream from scratch like a mad man, for fuck’s sake. What Niall did didn’t even count as cooking, a child could microwave cake mix.

“It does taste good, but… Microwaved cake mix, Chef? Really?” Zayn asked, sounding actually offended. Liam looked up, feeling like screaming. Yes! Someone gets it! It was the first time Zayn actually criticized any of them, and Liam was half proud, half puzzled. “It’s probably the epitome of laziness and I’m not sure I can condone it, no matter how delicious it tastes. I expect more finesse and technique coming from any contestant of this show,” he added, and Liam’s jaw pretty much dropped. Wow. That was harsh, but incredibly on point.

Alex crossed her arms and Geoffrey scoffed, rolling his eyes. “Come on, Zayn, that was creative,” Alex complained, not even looking at him, still licking her spoon.

Zayn shrugged, picking the rest of his sponge cake apart with a fork with a disinterested look on his face. “I’m sorry, I really don’t think it was on the same level as his competitor’s dessert, or the competition itself,” he explained, a small smile on his lips. Liam was shaking.

“Oh for Christ’s sake…” Geoffrey complained under his breath, shooting Alex an exasperated look.

Liam was thoroughly confused and marveled at the same time, but he had no time to even stop to analyze what was happening, because Ted spoke again.

He asked each contestant to explain what they wanted the prize money for. Liam wanted to shut him up so he would go kiss Zayn stupid for defending him, but yeah, they were rolling, so he stayed put.

Niall spoke first. “I would like to travel the world, and, you know, find new flavors and learn new techniques and, yeah, that,” he explained, grinning all along. It was a decent answer. A generic one, maybe, but then Liam’s was too, right?

When Ted asked Liam, he shrugged. “I’ve been dreaming of having my own restaurant since my first day in culinary school. I’ve been saving up for years but it’s still not enough, so if I win, the money would definitely go to making that dream come true,” he replied, politely, hoping the confusion and elation still fogging his mind wouldn’t be too evident in his voice.

Ted thanked the both of them, asking them to leave the room to let the judges deliberate for the last time. Liam chanced a small look at Zayn before leaving, but he wasn’t looking at him, he was distracted looking at his hands on top of the table, a tiny happy smile on his lips, while Geoffrey whispered something in his ears.

Liam and Niall finally turned to leave, and just as they were walking away, Liam could faintly hear Alex’s voice asking ‘If you love him that much why don’t you marry him? Fuck, you’re ridiculous!’ His heart skipped a beat before he remembered there was no way they would be talking about Zayn, or him. He was no one. One of hundreds of contestants, hell, one of maybe thousands of people Alex could be referring to.

He was too lost in his own head to even register Niall talking to him, complaining about how Zayn slaughtered him. “Um, what?” he asked, when he finally managed to pay attention to Niall.

“Zayn. What an arsehole, right? I mean, my dessert was good! He didn’t need to be so mean,” Niall complained, huffing, with his arms crossed over his chest while they entered the waiting room. The cameras were not rolling yet, so Liam didn’t try to find an appropriate answer, he just shrugged non-commitally, too shaken and nervous to even consider what Niall was saying. He wouldn’t be able to say anything bad about Zayn after all, on or off camera. “Oh, yeah, of course you won’t say shit about Zayn, you totally have the hots for him,” Niall proclaimed, rolling his eyes, forcing Liam to finally react.

“Shut up, Niall!” he practically growled under his breath, looking around to make sure the camera-men were actually not paying attention. “Why would you even say that, oh my god…” he tried looking offended. The last thing he needed was a teasing session from a disgruntled Irish man.

Niall laughed a loud laugh, clapping him on the shoulder with a hand. “Oh, relax, man, it’s not like I’m gonna tell anyone. Besides, I think it’s mutual, considering the way he eats your food and looks at you and constantly defends you,” Niall declared in a teasing tone, clearly amused by the whole thing, unaware of Liam’s annoyance.

Liam rolled his eyes, shaking his head, parking his ass on one of the stools. He tried staying angry at Niall, after all he was his competition and that stupid microwaved cake could steal his win. Also, he was spewing nonsense about Zayn, but he was too exhausted to even think about being angry. “Are you crazy?” he asked Niall, grabbing a water bottle from the table. “He’s not… I mean, why would he? He’s always polite to everyone, what he said about me means nothing, Niall, please shut up,” Liam begged.

The mere thought of Zayn actually behaving like that because he liked him was driving him crazy, impossible as it was, and that was the last thing he needed. This was a competition and Zayn was simply a judge and in a few minutes it would all be over and Zayn would go back to his amazing successful life, and Liam would go back to his loneliness and his unrequited infatuation over the TV screen.

Before Niall could formulate a complete answer, Sally interrupted them, taking Niall away to another room to record a personalized interview. Before leaving, however, Niall laughed again, looking at Liam with something similar to fondness. “Oh, you poor clueless soul…” he smirked, amused. Liam frowned but by the time he came up with a clever answer, Niall was gone.

They didn’t speak much when Niall returned, the cameras were on by then and the conversation went around the same generic topics it did every time. How nervous they were, how they thought the critiques went and how much they wanted to win. After a while, Sally came back for Liam, and he was led to another smaller studio.

He was sat on a chair in front of a camera and he was asked to describe everything he did from the start. Every dish, every critique, every ingredient. It was boring and unfair, he was too nervous to even remember some of the things that had happened, but Sally was at least kind enough to remind him of the important details they needed him to talk about, before letting him go back to the waiting room.

The whole waiting process took over an hour, and when the judges finally made a call, Sally gave them the five minute call, reminding them to relax, whatever the result. Not that it was possible, Liam was nowhere ready for what was about to happen, good or bad.

When they entered the main studio again, the dreaded chopping block awaited. The lid was already in place, hiding the losing dessert under it.

They stood in front of the judges for the last time, and even though his nerves were definitely getting the best of him, Liam chanced a small look at Zayn, knowing this time it was for real the last one. That was enough to make Liam feel stupid sadness in his chest, but the worst part was what he saw when his eyes found Zayn’s face.

For the first time since the competition started, Zayn was not smiling. His expression wasn’t even neutral, he actually looked angry, pissed off. There wasn’t even a hint of a smile as he looked down, with his arms crossed on top of the table, his posture stiff.

It didn’t even matter if it was unfounded or not, it didn’t matter if Liam was making things up. For a second all he could think was that it was bad news for him. His stomach sank. It was pretty ridiculous if he thought about it from a realistic point of view, right? There was no way of knowing what had happened during the judging process, but… He couldn’t stop thinking about everything, about Zayn’s winks and words of encouragement, about his praise and how he defended Liam when the rest of the judges were giving him a hard time. He remembered Zayn’s small smiles and hints of encouragement on the previous rounds, and a small stubborn flame burning inside his heart was convinced that all of that had to mean something, something more than just having liked his food, so his grumpy face now had to mean maybe the rest of the judges had won this battle and Liam was out.

It was actually pretty ironic that his realistic side was the one clinging to hope. If he ignored Zayn’s clues, he had a chance of fantasizing about having won, because it was in fact a close battle, as Ted reminded them when the cameras started rolling and he made the introduction for the final chop. Liam tore his eyes away from Zayn and forced himself to look at Ted. It was the polite thing to do, and seeing Zayn’s mouth almost morph into a pout wasn’t helping.

He watched as Ted’s hand went to the lid, grabbing the handle, making the customary pause for dramatic effect before the reveal. Liam looked at the lid so intently it was a miracle it didn’t melt, but as soon as Ted lifted it, he wished he could unsee what he saw. On the chopping block sat his Napoleon.

Of course. Of fucking course. He lost. Niall barked a laugh by his side, celebrating his win, oblivious to his misery. Liam’s heart landed on the ground too, alongside his stomach. Fuck. It was… maybe it was a fair win, Niall’s, maybe the judges had good reasons to give him the prize, but it still hurt. It was still disappointing, going through all the drama only to leave empty handed.

The moment was kind of a blur that Liam couldn’t pay much attention to. His pulse was buzzing in his ears and all he wanted was to leave. ASAP. He felt fucking sick to his stomach. Someone signaled him to hug Niall and congratulate him, and he did. Niall deserved to win, in a way, he was not really bitter about that; it wasn’t Niall he was angry with, not anymore. It was definitely himself. He let himself get distracted like an idiot, and he ruined a brilliant dessert, and it didn’t matter that Zayn liked it, it still sucked, it was still burnt.

Once Niall let go of him, he thanked the judges and Ted for the opportunity as was customary. His eyes went to Zayn alone, though. Zayn was looking back at him this time, his lips pressed in a thin straight line, his brows furrowed, he looked… he looked sad this time. It was the first time Liam saw anything resembling sadness in that gorgeous face and it was heartbreaking.

Liam felt the need to ask him why, ask him what the hell everything meant, ask him if he always behaved like that with the contestants he rooted for or if this was different. He wanted to stop time, stop the cameras, everything, and just… just talk. Apologize, maybe, for disappointing him. He wanted to ask and say so many things but instead he bowed politely and turned to leave. He really needed to just go and process everything, alone.

Backstage was a mess of claps on the shoulder and ‘I’m sorry buddy’s that he had no time for. Everything felt so condescending and rehearsed, especially considering these people saw Chefs loose on the daily; they didn’t give a fuck about him. It was pretty disheartening.

Once he got to the waiting room, Sally and a cameraman asked him a couple of final questions about how he was feeling for the final interview. Oh man, that was hard. Having to spit out cliché phrases about being proud of what he did anyways and hoping his participation on the show would open doors for him even if he lost was hard. He did it anyways, eager to leave.

As soon as he was done, he took his apron off and folded it on top of the table. He thanked the make-up girl that handed him a wet towel to clean his face off and he went to the big mirror. While he was cleaning his face, a cacophony of congratulations and laughs came from the hallway that led to the main studio. The voices preceded Niall, who was smiling like a madman when he entered the room, already done filming his celebration.

Liam pretty much ignored the racket, once he was done cleaning his face all he wanted to do was to leave. He ignored Niall too but Niall wasn’t really having it. Bubbly and happy as he was, he approached Liam and threw an arm over his shoulder. “It was an honor, man, it was a close fight! You’re so good! I bet you would win if you did this thing again,” he declared, so full of energy Liam felt ten times as exhausted just having him close.

“Nah, that won’t happen,” Liam replied, looking down. There was no way he would do all of this again. No way would he go through so much stress to end up empty handed and disappointed at himself.

Niall laughed and let go of Liam to accept his own wet towel to clean his face with. “That’s fair, mate. I’d do it a million times, though…” he replied with a shrug. Of course he would, he won. Whatever.

Liam was about to excuse himself to finally leave, when Niall stopped him, talking again. “Hey, Harry and Louis texted me a few minutes ago, they say we could all go for beers to celebrate and unwind, what do you say? They’re already at a bar nearby, and some of the crew people were going to come too,” he proposed, clearly excited about the plan.

Liam shook his head while he picked up his backpack from the locker he had left it in. “No, thanks, I, um… I’m really exhausted, I just wanna go home if that’s alright,” he excused himself. There was no way he was in the mood for drinks with the other guys. Not because they were bad people or because he didn’t like them, he just needed to unwind and process and probably get drunk home alone to wallow in his misery.

“Okay, man, look,” Niall agreed, grabbing a pen from the table and then grabbing Liam’s arm like it was nothing. “This is my number, yeah? If you change your mind, gimme a call, okay?” he asked, hopeful, while he scribbled his digits on Liam’s forearm.

Liam actually smiled. Niall was kind of crazy, and even if he won with a stupid lazy microwaved cake, Liam still liked him enough. “Yeah, okay, man,” Liam replied, thinking he could go for drinks with them one day in the future, just not yet. “I gotta go, man, take care,” he added, offering Niall a short hug before leaving.

Every step leading him outside felt heavy, like something in him was telling him he should stay, maybe try to talk to Zayn, maybe figure out what the hell had happened between them, but that was nonsense. It was an idea even stupider than thinking he could win Chopped.

Chapter Text

Seven months, three weeks and four days later… (Not that Liam was counting)

 

Andy had definitely been wrong. Again. Which wasn’t news, Andy was wrong a lot of the time; he always was that kind of super positive guy that saw an upside to everything, no matter how delusional. Liam, as usual, was the realistic one, but still, he didn’t give Andy a hard time for it this time, because he really wished Andy had been right for once.

For a moment there, Andy’s positivity had rubbed off on him, making him believe his theory could be right. Andy’s theory, of course, was that it didn’t matter whether Liam won or not; when the show aired and people around the world saw Liam cooking, his name would be out there and he would get amazing job opportunities. Renowned Chefs from cool restaurants would blast Liam’s phone wanting to hire him.

Maybe even losing was a good thing, because someone was bound to want to help redeem him. At the least, food critics would see how brilliant Liam was and how unfair his loss was and they would swarm the restaurant Liam worked at, tasting his food and adoring it and writing about it in their blogs or newspaper columns or whatever.

It was a beautiful sentiment, and Liam tried to hold on to it for a while after the show aired, but no. That didn’t happen. Like, at all. The days went by and his phone never rang. The only people that called him were actually kind of unwelcomed. There was that shitty ex-boyfriend that called to congratulate him and ask if they could see each other again. There were two mates from college asking if now that he was famous they could go eat at his restaurant for free. Finally, there was that one old aunt that always sent him money on Christmas, telling him that she saw him on the TV and that he was chubbier than the last time she saw him. Nothing else, which was pretty disappointing, but then again, the only idiot that had high hopes was Andy. Liam tried to stay positive, he did, but life taught him to always set his expectations as low as possible and maybe, just maybe, if he was lucky, life would surprise him from time to time.

Just not this time, though.

He kept working in the same restaurant he always did. His boss was proud of him but apparently that didn’t really merit a raise. After the show aired a few customers would recognize him sometimes, giving him the usual awkward congratulation because yes, he was on TV, but he lost, so there was nothing to congratulate him about, right? Those interactions were always weird and at most they ended with bigger tips that usually ended up in the waiter’s hands and did nothing to get Liam closer to his dream.

That was the shittiest part. It wasn’t just having lost; it was that he was still in the same place. He had been convinced for a moment there that participating in such a popular cooking show would at least increase his chances of fulfilling his dream, but no, not even that. He was nowhere nearer to having his own restaurant.

The only really good thing that came out of Chopped were the boys. Once he processed everything that happened and felt ready to face the world again, he did call Niall. The guy was so happy about receiving that call that he almost left Liam deaf screaming and laughing excitedly. They arranged to go for drinks, the four of them, a month after the recording. Niall was still planning his trip around the world so he had time to meet, and the other two… well, of course they were dating by then, so they showed up together and practically never left each other’s side.

Seeing them was actually really nice. It was a good thing, making the decision to get in touch with them. Maybe doing Chopped hadn’t been such a life changing thing but still, that part was nice. Making new friends was nice, and being able to talk to people that actually knew how it felt, how chaotic and hard it was. The four of them stayed good friends and Liam needed that, having a bit of fun, clearing his head.

The rest of his life stayed pretty much the same, with the exception of his crush on Zayn Malik. Oh, that had been irrevocably altered. In part because meeting him was… it was… You know how they say never meet your heroes (or your favorite hot Chefs) because they might disappoint you? Well, in Zayn’s case, it was the opposite. Liam already believed Zayn was the kindest, most amazing human being to ever grace the planet, but now…

Now he couldn’t stop thinking about him, how kind he was, how he always remained polite and lovely even when the cameras were off, how sweet he was even when he had to criticize something, how… how utterly amazing he was. He couldn’t stop thinking about how exciting the combination was, how such a sweet, adorable man could also set him on fire with just a look…

Liam’s crush had progressed into something more, something that was fueled in part by having seen him in person and loving the kind of man he was, and in part by all the things that had happened. All those small little things that probably no one noticed, that maybe meant nothing, that maybe were part of all of Zayn’s interactions with contestants he supported and that possibly were all in Liam’s head, but… How could Liam ever just… stop thinking about it?

He still kept their episode in his computer. He watched it every now and then, reliving it, replaying again and again every single second Zayn was on the screen, smiling or talking or eating. God, eating Liam’s food with so much gusto, all those little details Liam missed because of his nerves but that the cameras captured perfectly.

He spent long nights fantasizing, long nights dreaming both awake and asleep about Zayn. He couldn’t stop wondering what would have happened if things would’ve been different, if he would’ve won, or if he hadn’t ran from the studio like he did. He regretted many things he did during the show, mostly cooking related things, but on those nights he couldn’t help but hate himself for not having stayed.

Niall told him once that after he left, Zayn showed up backstage, looking kind of lost, before disappearing again. Of course Niall had no idea the effect that little tidbit of information had on Liam, after all Harry was still the only one that really knew about Liam’s feelings, but…

What if Zayn was looking for him? It was farfetched, yeah, it was delusional, but what if? What if he had stayed? What if he missed a chance to talk to him?

He never stopped making up ridiculous endings for that day, letting his mind and his heart and his body imagine stories about how that could’ve been the start of something, how maybe they would’ve found a small secluded corner to talk, and then kiss, and then leave together and then…

…and then nothing… It made no sense. It was stupid. His stubbornly realistic side reminded him all the time that he was no one, and that he was probably going crazy. Zayn was probably straight, or not, but either way he probably had someone already. His private life was really private, Liam had no way to know. The thing was, if Zayn wanted to find him, he knew how. It would be easy for him, Liam had left all of his info with Sally. But no, that didn’t happen, it wouldn’t happen, it was just was ridiculous as his sisters’ fantasies about their favorite celebrity crushes finding them and wanting to marry them on the spot, back when they were teenagers.    

So yeah, he let those useless newfound feelings fester inside of him, doing his best to ignore them, failing miserably every time Zayn appeared on his TV screen. The things that made him feel butterflies before, made him feel a kind of vertigo that left him weightless now; mixed with a weird, out of place sadness he hated. How could he feel sad about something that never even had a chance to exist? Why did he even feel like he lost something when he walked out of that studio, when he clearly had nothing to begin with?

He did his best trying not to think about it, distracting himself. He focused on his job, occupying his free time with his friends and family. Hell, he even agreed to a small vacation with his parents and his sisters, that’s how desperate he was to get his mind out of things.

He kept seeing the boys every other weekend, going out for drinks with them, or with Andy when they were busy. Sometimes guys or girls would chat him up at bars and clubs, and every time he said no.

Maybe he could’ve used someone else to force himself to stop thinking, maybe, yeah. But that wasn’t his style, and the people in front of him didn’t have eyelashes longer than life… They didn’t have heavenly lips, their voices were plain and dissonant, and no one knew how to look at him and make him shake like a leaf, so no. Just no.

He couldn’t even find the will to pay attention to anyone out of desperation. There was no physical need he didn’t rather take care of alone in his room after all. That was more his style. He was always the romantic type, unable to find fun or fulfillment in one night stands. That ended up in long, really long dry spells and bouts of loneliness he had a hard time dealing with, but there was nothing he could do about that.

That’s why he ended up doing one very ridiculous, very stupid thing one very random, very hot Friday night. Andy had called him earlier to invite him to his place for a movie but he claimed to be too tired from work, and he chose to stay home. That was mistake number one. Mistake number two was of course not being able to sit still at home, alone with his head, and choosing to go out for a walk.

That wasn’t really out of the ordinary. When his mind had too much noise inside, walking around town listening to music in his iPod was usually enough to distract him and clear his head.

That Friday night was an especially bad one. That same morning, he had a lovely conversation with his mother. She was a great woman, but sometimes she didn’t know when to stop worrying, right? She never knew how to stop pushing when she thought her son was unhappy. So, when she asked Liam about his love life for the fifth time that week, he replied once more that he didn’t want to talk about it. But she kept on going.

She reminded him a million times about how lonely he looked, how a boyfriend would help him smile more, how he needed to think about settling down and having a family and fuck knows what else.

Liam tuned her out as soon as he felt almost ready to explode.

He politely replied he would think about it and he hung up, emotionally exhausted. Of course he rejected Andy when he called after that little exchange. Andy’s girlfriend would be there if he went to his place to watch a movie, and Liam loved her, yeah, but it was definitely not the day to witness other people’s PDAs. He loved how happy Andy was with her, but some days it was just a reminder of his own loneliness.

The point was, taking a walk ended up being the best option. He needed to take his mind off of the stupid things his mother had said, and all the things he had been feeling lately. Because that was the worst part. She was right, in a way. He did feel lonely. Incredibly lonely, and stupid, and he did want to change that but he didn’t know how. It had been almost two years since the last time he had a real, official boyfriend. It had been a bit over a year since the last time he had actual sex. He felt more than lonely. He felt sad and frustrated and he hated his head for not letting him think about anyone but an impossible man.

He walked around for about an hour, and his subconscious was a bitch, really, because when he actually relaxed enough to be able to look at his surroundings, he was absurdly aware of never making the conscious decision to end up at the place he did. Mistake number three. His thoughts for some stupid reason had subconsciously led his steps, right? By the time he stopped fuming and look around himself, he realized he had ended up at a familiar place. Just half a block down from where he was standing, was Wali’s. Zayn’s restaurant. Fuck.

He stopped in his tracks, furtively looking around like somehow Zayn would appear out of nowhere, catching him red handed, laughing at him.

He considered running away, but that wasn’t really an option, there were other people on the street and he wasn’t completely insane yet. The smartest decision would be making peace with looking like an idiot, pretending to realize he forgot something, turn around and leave.

But no. Of course not. His feet reacted before his mind could. He just slowly, nonchalantly, walked the rest of the steps that separated him from the restaurant’s entrance, and he stopped there.

He knew the place. Yes, he had eaten there before, of course he had. Back when his crush was just a crush, before Chopped, he had walked inside with sweaty hands and a pounding heart, wondering if Zayn would be there. Of course he wasn’t, neither of the two times he tried. Zayn was a busy man and he owned many restaurants, why would he be there? Still, he sat down and ordered something and fantasized about it being cooked by those pretty hands like he was a silly teenager. No one had to know, right?

This time, though, everything was different. This time he had already seen the man, and the man had seen him. This time Zayn knew his face, and they had shared… something. This time what he felt was not a crush, it was something more. It was this indescribable thing he couldn’t stop thinking about, feeling it everywhere; in his heart, in the pit of his stomach, in the palm of his fucking hands, fuck.

He stood there like an idiot, staring inside, wondering what if… Another stupid what if, but… Really, what would happen if he walked inside, and just… just ate? Like… for a second he didn’t even think about seeing Zayn, clearly the man didn’t work at this restaurant so seeing him wasn’t an option, but… What if he just did it? Like before? It was just food, wasn’t it? It was just a stupid silly little selfish thing, no one had to know…

A shiver of anticipation made Liam’s belly flutter just thinking about it. Just thinking about sitting there again, in the restaurant that Zayn built from scratch, surrounded by that warmth, by the smell of spices, eating something created by someone he couldn’t keep out of his thoughts. He couldn’t help wanting to do that, just once, just to satisfy that stupid need in his stomach that was definitely not hunger. He needed something, and this could do, right? It wasn’t like he was going to have Zayn prepare a meal just for him, but it would be the closest thing to that he could get.

All of a sudden the door opened in front of his face, startling him, rattling his thoughts. A couple walked out, carrying with them the delicious smell from inside. The guy held the door for Liam, looking at him questioningly, like asking him if he was going to get in or not. Just as unconsciously as he ended up walking there, he nodded and he walked in, shaking.

He had no idea what he was doing. It wasn’t like he was expecting anything, really. It wasn’t like this was a desperate attempt at heading his mother’s words or anything like that. It kind of was, in a way, though. That feeling that he could somehow calm his hunger for company with food was stupid but it was there anyways, but yeah, it wasn’t like he was there with hopes of anything in his mind. He didn’t even hope he would see Zayn in the flesh, he just… he just wanted to eat a delicious meal, surrounded by things that made him think of the man he wanted to stop thinking about. Which was ridiculous and ironic, yes, but the point is he wanted a respite of sorts. He was exhausted. Tired of the constant effort it took trying to keep Zayn far away from his thoughts. He could be selfish for once, right? He could just enjoy it for once, enjoy the feeling, revel in it.

As soon as he walked in, a tall, handsome dark skinned man greeted him and guided him to the table he chose. Yes, he did have a favorite table; far from the door, close to the window, by the big painting of a tiger.

He looked around as he walked. God, he loved the place. It was incredibly homey, warm lights illuminated everything and made it feel almost dreamlike. The decor made him feel he was sitting at someone’s dinner table instead of at a restaurant. He still remembered that interview he watched once, where Zayn talked about picking the decorations himself, with the intent of making it feel like his own home. That was enough to make Liam feel all warm and fuzzy inside just being there, in a place that was so close to Zayn’s heart.

He sat with his back to the window, and he looked around, smiling to himself, until a waitress approached him. She introduced herself as Doniya, smiling at him before handing him a menu to look at. He asked for a glass of water first, and when the girl left to fetch it, giving him time to decide, he took a look at the menu in his hand. Not that he needed to actually choose a meal, he already knew what to order. He just loved looking at the lettering. Every menu seemed to be handmade, with incredibly artistic lettering, done in golden ink on black paper. He loved trying to guess what the foreign names meant, imagining what they would sound like on Zayn’s lips.

When the waitress returned, ready to take his order, he asked the same thing he ordered those two times he had been there before; the same thing he saw Zayn cooking that first time he watched his show. Beef keema. The girl smiled, saying it was an excellent choice because it was the Chef’s favorite before leaving.

Liam smiled to himself and waited patiently, taking his environment in, getting lost in his surroundings. The place was practically full but it still felt relaxing, welcoming. A gorgeous woman in her fifties was behind the bar, arranging clean glasses on a shelf. She was chatting amiably with a customer that was sitting on a stool, a younger woman wearing a hijab. That was another thing he loved, everything was so true to Zayn’s culture, it was almost like traveling to another place.

A few moments later, the waitress came back with his food. She set it down on the table and winked at him before leaving again. Liam frowned, chuckling to himself. It wouldn’t be the first time a girl flirted with him, but it just caught him a bit off guard. The glint in her eye reminded him of something, or someone, but he was too distracted by the smell of his meal to really think about it.

He focused on eating instead, taking his time to savor the food, bite by bite. That was something he always did, even before knowing he wanted to cook for a living. He loved taking his time getting acquainted with every flavor, trying to find every spice, every ingredient, letting them come together and create something new in his mouth. It was the only way he knew how to enjoy food, but this time it was special, wasn’t it? It was… It not only was a delicious meal, everything around him heightened his experience. Hell, his own feelings did too.

It tasted amazing, the flavor was even more complex than the previous times he had tasted this same dish. Maybe it was him that had changed. Maybe it was only his mind, playing tricks on him. Maybe it was just that his feelings about both the dish and this place had changed since the last time.

Not that he cared, really. He let himself enjoy every single bite until his plate was clean and his belly was full and he felt content.

He was almost in a daze, too full to think, too satisfied. He sighed with a smile, sitting back, zoning out and letting his gaze get lost in the details of the painting on the wall by his side. Along the tiger’s stripes were thin golden lines, and he let his mind wander while his eyes followed them. At least until he heard someone clear his throat, standing by his side.

He slowly took his eyes away from the painting, thinking maybe the waitress had come back, but no. It was not her. Standing there, looking kind of awkward, wearing a black apron over a simple white t-shirt, was Zayn. Liam’s heart skipped a beat and then started pounding furiously as soon as his brain processed the information. What the fuck? Fuck! He almost jumped out of his chair, trying to sit straighter, trying to wake up from his daze, trying to react. Was he imagining things? What… What was Zayn doing there? Looking at him? What?

Zayn opened his mouth before Liam managed to even regain his composure. “Um, hi… Can I?” he asked with a tiny, playful smile, pointing at the empty chair across from Liam.

Liam still had no idea what was happening and his pulse was buzzing in his ears but he still nodded, with his mouth open like an idiot, staring at him. He had a million questions bombarding his mind all at once and he was kind of dizzy with adrenaline, he was still very much confused but he was too shocked to even ask anything, he just gave the man permission to sit and then he resumed his panicked staring.

Was he dreaming this? It was a possibility, he had dreamt about this before. Showing up at Zayn’s restaurant, Zayn being there, them talking then kissing then fucking somewhere in the kitchen; the whole thing. But no, this felt real, this was real. It was happening. How could this be happening? Fuck, Liam couldn’t fucking breathe, much less speak. He wasn’t ready for this, he wasn’t prepared. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

He kept looking at Zayn like a deer in headlights, trying to force his brain to think of something coherent to say, but Zayn beat him to it. “Have you enjoyed your meal?” he asked politely, nodding his head to point at the empty plate with a small, satisfied smile, like he knew the answer already and it pleased him to no end.

Liam nodded, again, trying to find words and failing, he was too busy fucking shaking. Fuck, he was behaving like an idiot, and it wasn’t because he was star struck. He was way past that; it wasn’t Zayn’s celebrity status what made Liam lose his mind. He was in front of Zayn, again. In his restaurant. After all that happened. And they were alone. Or, well, not alone, but compared to the recording, they were alone. And they were talking; or at least Zayn was, and he was staring like an idiot, and…

“I made it myself,” Zayn decided to happily confess after Liam spent a considerable amount of seconds unable to speak. That confession effectively forced all of Liam’s attention on him, and away from the freak out. Liam frowned, tilting his head to the side, confused. What?

Zayn laughed and explained, probably noticing Liam’s confusion. “I’m not supposed to be working today, I was just visiting. But then my sister told me you were here, and that you ordered my favorite, so I just had to get into the kitchen and cook it for you,” he explained, shrugging like it was no big deal, like he hadn’t just let Liam know that he had, in fact, just eaten food made by Zayn’s own hands. Wow.

Liam’s muddy brain, however, chose to focus on another detail, maybe trying to veer away from the embarrassing meltdown he wanted to have over that other confession. In a way, it was a much more important detail. “I’m sorry, your sister?” he asked, furrowing his brows.

Zayn hid a tiny laugh behind the back of a hand. “Oh right, sorry. Doni. Doniya? Your waitress? She’s my sister. She told me you were here,” Zayn explained, like that was enough information for Liam to understand. It clearly wasn’t, or maybe Liam was just too distracted by the fact that Zayn Malik was in front of him to even process things right.

How could his brain work properly, when the first thing he managed to do once the panic receded was stare? His eyes got lost in Zayn, trying to capture every detail of the man in front of him. He felt starved, like he hadn’t realized how badly he needed to see him again until now, like looking away would mean losing precious time because who knew if this would happen again? This felt like an unexpected blessing, and he felt desperate to capture every second.

He captured everything, from the delicate pink of his lips to the deep brown of his eyes; from how gorgeous he looked with his hair in a messy ponytail to how hard he wanted to rub his face all over Zayn’s unkempt beard. He was clearly not carefully groomed like that day at the studio, he looked relaxed and normal and so fucking beautiful it hurt.

The problem was that he still needed to pretend to be a normal, functioning human being that was in no way dying inside, and that was quite the challenge. It took him a moment, but when he was done juggling images and thoughts and feelings, when he managed to register and process Zayn’s last statement, he felt even more confused than before. “Oh… But wait, she… She knows who I am?” Liam asked, because he was pretty sure his small participation in Chopped didn’t warrant him being recognized by people that didn’t know him from before. Why would she even know him?

Before Zayn even opened his mouth to explain, he blushed. The lights were low, but Liam could tell. He blushed and his eyes were fucking twinkling like stars and Liam was truly dying, needing to understand. Zayn had looked gorgeous, all dolled up for the recording of Chopped, but this version of Zayn was even sexier, more beautiful, more endearing. “Um, yes, she does, I…” he giggled and then he sighed, like he was gathering strength to say what he wanted to say. “I kinda haven’t stopped talking about you?”

Wait, what? “About me?” Liam asked, feeling his face burn up in a furious blush. This had to be a joke, this… Liam felt butterflies fluttering along his entire body; fuck that misconception that they were located in the belly area only. Oh god.

“Yeah, I…” Zayn made a pause, biting his lip, looking down for a second. Liam swallowed a sigh, those pretty eyelashes rested softly on those cheeks drawing wonderful spidery shadows on Zayn’s skin and he wanted to fucking scream. What was even happening? “I’m sorry, this sounds super creepy and forward, you can stop me if you want, okay? I just… I’m really glad you’re here, I thought I was never going to see you again,” Zayn confessed, and Liam effectively died.

What? No, really, what? Half of his brain was focused on not throwing himself at Zayn, and the other was simply trying to understand what Zayn was saying. “You did?” he asked, which prompted a laugh from Zayn, a laugh that made Liam laugh, somehow breaking the tension a bit, somehow making him feel he wasn’t the only one overwhelmed by the whole thing. Which still was a ridiculous concept to even think about, but damn, it felt so good it helped Liam relax.

“You’re full of questions, aren’t ya?” Zayn asked, and Liam felt his face get redder. He had indeed answered every question with more questions. He was sounding like an idiot. He could blame his nerves, but this moment deserved better. Zayn deserved better. No matter what was happening, he needed to pull himself together and stop acting like an infatuated dork.

He took a deep breath, trying to center himself, shaking his head. “Sorry,” he mumbled, straightening his back, trying to breathe, trying to focus on anything but the fact that the man he spent the last months dreaming about was in front of him, saying potentially insane things. “I’m just kind of… confused,” Liam explained, placing his hands on the table, one on top of the other, to keep them from shaking.

“Yeah, sorry, let me explain,” Zayn asked, polite as always. Liam nodded, encouraging him, because he really needed to know what the hell was happening. He needed to stop projecting things onto Zayn’s words and let him explain himself. “What I mean to say is, I really wanted to talk to you? You know, after the recording of your episode? In part because your loss was a travesty and I hated the way you left, it was incredibly unfair and I didn’t want you to leave thinking you did anything wrong? You did deserve to win, you were amazing,” Zayn explained.

Liam was about to catch on fire. Yeah, he wished he would’ve won too, but hearing Zayn saying that out loud was somehow even better than ten thousand dollars. It wasn’t exactly what he fantasized a million times about hearing, but it was okay, it still felt wonderful, it still filled his heart with an unexpected wave of warmth. He bit a smile as Zayn went on. “You know, I actually think both Alex and Geoffrey still resent me for the way we argued about you, but well, there was two of them and one of me, so I was outnumbered. But yeah, in part it was because I wanted to tell you that, I really wanted to reassure you,” Zayn concluded, smiling.

Liam smiled too. How was this man even real? He wanted to see him again just to reassure him? How considerate and cute and sweet was that? Fuck… “Um, thanks… Hearing that does mean a lot,” he replied. The warmth he felt in his chest was so overwhelming he kinda felt like crying, but he didn’t, because Zayn was apparently not done talking.

“In part it was also because…” he made a pause, and Liam started shaking again. He couldn’t help it, okay? Because Zayn’s kind eyes all of a sudden seemed to almost change color, getting darker, deeper, as his smile turned into a smirk and that was enough to make Liam feel vertigo. “…I mean… please tell me I’m not the only one that, like… felt it?” Zayn asked suggestively, and Liam stopped breathing. The world stopped turning.

They looked at each other for a frozen moment, and Liam could feel the exact instant the realization hit the both of them. The recognition. The admission of a delicious, shared guilt. In a way, he didn’t need to reply; in a way he felt the sudden electricity in the air between them should be enough, right?

Because they looked at each other like they were having a silent conversation, asking and answering a million questions at once; Zayn confirming what Liam was dying to know, Liam letting all of his secrets out in the open for Zayn to see. Fuck.

They looked at each other like it was the only thing that mattered, like somehow they both had missed that undeniable connection. Liam got completely lost in Zayn’s eyes, and it should’ve been a momentous thing, it should’ve felt massive, the realization that Zayn was actually really into him, but it wasn’t. It was like letting go, like letting himself believe something he wished with all his heart but truly thought was impossible. It was something he wanted so bad his entire body just accepted it.

He became utterly unable to hide the effect Zayn had on him, and Zayn did nothing to hide either. It was the most bizarre, intense, exciting second of Liam’s life. It made complete sense he couldn’t even look at anyone else; look at what Zayn could do with just his eyes and a knowing smirk? Fuck…

All of a sudden there it was. That truth, their truth; laying there, out in the open for the both of them to see. But still, Liam asked, because he needed to know, he needed to hear it out loud. Fucking insecurities. “Felt what?” he asked in a hushed voice, leaning forward a bit, like he was asking Zayn to share a secret. No, not because he was feeling brave or because he was a daring man. He was just hypnotized and nervous and out of control already; he felt a selfish need to just hear the words coming out of that mouth.

Zayn licked his lips, forcing all the air out of Liam’s lungs in a deep exhale. His smile grew bigger, like he had just answered Liam’s question by eliciting that reaction from him. “That…” he replied, leaning forward too, resting his forearms on the table. “I could lie and say that the only thing I enjoyed that day was your delicious food, but I won’t do that. I don’t want to lie to you. I want you to know, you deserve to know. I was fascinated by you from the very second you walked in. Your cooking only made you more impressive in my eyes, I… I couldn’t stop watching you. You were mesmerizing, all focused energy, creative and smart. And then you looked at me, just like you’re looking at me right now, and I…” He bit his lower lip, sighing, showing Liam a reaction equivalent to his deep exhale. How was this real? How could he have this effect on a man like Zayn? “…I really, really wanted to find you after we were done, talk to you, but one of the crew members told me you had left already and—”

“Why didn’t you? Find me?” Liam interrupted. He thought about that a million times, right? Zayn had all the means to find him if he wanted to, but he hadn’t, which had to mean he wasn’t really interested, right? He was going to need a bit of time to digest the fact that all the things he felt coming from Zayn on that day weren’t only his desperate imagination, but in that moment what he really needed to know was why seven months, three weeks and four days had gone by and Zayn never looked for him, if he was serious about what he was saying.

Zayn looked down, pressing his lips in a small embarrassed smile. “I thought about it, I have… You have no idea how many times. I still have your number written down on a napkin in my wallet, I got it from your application,” he confessed, looking up again. “But then I thought, I don’t know, maybe it was all in my mind? Maybe you left like that on purpose, and you wouldn’t want to be bothered by my creepy, overstepping arse, so I never called. Now I know that I should’ve,” he admitted, shrugging apologetically.

Liam chuckled. He was still incredibly confused about a lot of things, and he had no idea how to deal with the things he did understand, but somehow the adrenaline in his veins and the way Zayn was looking at him made it so that none of that mattered. Not really. His entire existence had desperately embraced what was happening, even if he didn’t understand it yet. “Yeah, you should’ve…” he exhaled, biting his lip nervously.

Another little silence fell on them both, but this time it felt different. Sweeter, maybe, as they looked at each other without saying a word. Liam’s heart found a new rhythm, a new cadence, slower, softer, as he got lost in Zayn’s eyes again, full of questions. What did all of this mean? What were they going to do about it? It was the most unexpected twist of fate, walking into Wali’s the same day Zayn was there, seeing him, hearing what he had to say, facing the reality that no, it wasn’t just his imagination. There was something there and he had no idea what to do with it, he was never good at taking first steps, and the simple fact that there were steps to be taken was driving him crazy.

“So, would you like dessert?” Zayn asked, breaking the silence, pulling Liam from the hurricane of over-thinking his mind had become.

Liam frowned, curious, looking back at him. “What do you mean?” he had to ask, because yeah, he also sucked at knowing when innuendo was actually innuendo, or when it was just innocent words. It had caused him more than one awkward misunderstanding in his life.

Zayn laughed the cutest little laugh in the world, shaking his head a bit. “Dessert? I mean, if you’re interested, I would like to make dessert for you. But not here. At my place?” Oh. Oh! Oh, fuck. That was…

“Right now?” Liam asked, all of a sudden aware of the most menial details, like not having showered since that morning, or probably having awful breath, or not being ready, or not knowing what the hell to do because Zayn Malik was inviting him to his home for dessert. Alone. Just the two of them, very alone, very together, after all they confessed. An invitation that would probably end in kissing and touching and things Liam had only dreamt about for months, thinking they would never ever happen.

Zayn shook his head, hiding a bashful smile behind one hand. “No, not right now. I’ve been in the kitchen, I probably smell awful,” he explained, making Liam laugh.

“I’m used to kitchen smells, you know? I’m a Chef,” Liam joked out of nerves. It sounded like he was ready to go, but he wasn’t. It was just his brain short-circuiting, making him say stupid things, evasion through humor.

Zayn nodded, amused. “Yes, you are,” he replied fondly, leaning forward again. “Still, you deserve better than an improvised date, okay? So no, not today,” he declared, like that little statement, that little word wouldn’t drive Liam crazy.

“A date?” Liam asked, his eyebrows probably reaching his hairline, his hands sweating, his entire body full of so much anticipation he was shaking.

“If you want to, yeah. Anything you want,” Zayn confirmed, licking his lips, making all of Liam’s anticipation focus in only one place in his body. Fuck. “I’ll tell you what,” Zayn proposed, leaning back to take a pen from the front pocket of his apron, along with a little notepad. “This is my address,” he explained as he scribbled something on a blank page. “If, you know… if you’re interested, if you think this—this thing between us is worth a try, then I’ll wait for you tomorrow night, at eight o’clock, with a homemade dessert ready for you to enjoy. Is that okay?”

Liam nodded, taking the little piece of paper Zayn slid over the table towards him. He took a look at it. Of course the address was in the fanciest part of the city. That alone made Liam feel smaller, but still, he looked up and nodded. “Okay,” he replied, closing his fingers around the paper.

Zayn smiled as he stood up. Liam almost complained, he didn’t want him to go, not yet. “I have to go, yeah? But I really do hope to see you tomorrow, Liam,” he declared, making Liam shake just with the way his name sounded in those lips. “Have a great night,” he wished with a smile, leaving before Liam could reply. Fuck.

Chapter Text

Every second of Liam’s life, from the moment Zayn turned around to leave until the next day at 8PM, felt like the most bizarre kind of dream. It felt like he had entered some kind of half exciting half scary parallel reality he didn’t really want to escape from, confusing as it was.

As soon as Zayn left him alone, a million thoughts and feelings attacked him mercilessly, rendering him unable to move or speak. He just sat there, looking at Zayn’s retreating figure, full of… of anticipation, confusion, fear, nerves, excitement… god, even pleasure. The thought of what could happen if he accepted Zayn’s invitation gave him actual pleasure. With just a few words Zayn had turned his world completely upside down.

Liam had been firmly convinced that he would never even see Zayn again, which of course also meant whatever stupid fantasy he had involving the man would stay that, a fantasy, but then… Not only he saw Zayn again, but all of a sudden those fantasies and dreams felt almost possible, almost tangible. Zayn had opened a door he had no idea how long Liam had spent looking at, dreaming about having the key. Everything felt surreal and bizarre and Liam needed a moment to regain his composure, still holding the little paper with Zayn’s address tight in his hand, trying to breathe.

His heart was still racing by the time the waitress came back to clear his table. No, not the waitress. Doniya. Zayn’s sister, fuck. Liam fumbled through his reply when she asked with a smile if he had enjoyed his meal, but the worst part was when she refused to bring him the check. His food was on the house, she claimed with another wink. He insisted what felt like a million times, but she dismissed him with a shush that made him laugh nervously as soon as he considered the possibility that her forwardness was because of what Zayn might’ve told her about him. Holy fuck. What had Zayn even told her?  

Things got even weirder when he finally left his table, and both the woman behind the counter and the man that had guided him to his table wished him a good night, calling him by his name. What? He stuttered through those responses too. Did all of Zayn’s staff knew about him? About them? About… whatever it was Zayn felt about him? Shit…

There was simply no way to achieve sleep when he finally got back home. He was too shaken, too confused. His mind kept trying to make sense of everything, at times turning itself off when the rest of him tried to process things too. Mind, heart and body took turns driving him mad, keeping him up almost until sunrise. His heart would sometimes stop his incessant over-thinking to flutter like crazy remembering Zayn’s words, his beautiful eyes, the sound of his voice, the unbelievable things his invitation could mean. His body got in the way of his head too, remembering other things, like the way he made him feel with just a look, like the overwhelming need to touch him, fantasizing about all the things that could happen if he did accept the invitation.

Because no, he was still not sure about it. Not because he didn’t want whatever Zayn had to offer; he was so hungry about anything that had to do with that miracle of a man that he would probably beg for it on his knees, even if it was actually only dessert. It just felt like it was too good to be true. Stubborn realist, remember?

He hated himself for it, if he had to be honest. He wished he could be one of those people that simply threw themselves at these kinds of opportunities with a radiant confidence that everything would work out because they deserved it. He was more the kind of person to doubt everything and spend so much time fretting about it, sometimes opportunities simply passed him by.

He knew it was a huge character flaw, he knew that, and most of his internal struggle this time around was about trying to drown that part of him that kept whispering in his ear that he had nothing to offer back to Zayn. That Zayn was a renowned international Chef, a celebrity in his own right, an interesting, smart, cultured man that would find nothing of interest in Liam once he got to know him.

Because that’s what Liam wanted. Yeah, of course, he had wet dreams both asleep and awake about hooking up and having a wild night with his more-than-a-crush, but the truth was that he wanted more than that. These crazy things he felt about Zayn were about much more than just how hot he was, and the fear of leaving Zayn’s place with nothing but a good memory in his mind terrified him.

Not that it mattered. None of that shit mattered. All of the hours he spent fretting about it lost all importance when he woke up the next day and he realized that no matter the result, he still wanted whatever Zayn wanted to give him, dessert or otherwise. It didn’t matter if it was one night or a million, Liam still wanted it, wanted him. He would be the stupidest human being to ever live if he said no. Yeah, he needed and wanted a lot of delusional things, but he would still take whatever small drop of attention he could get from Zayn.

So, after a long day of drowning in anticipation and after careful deliberation in front of his closet, he chose an outfit and got ready. Getting ready of course involved a long shower. Not exactly because he was sure something would happen that would demand cleanliness on his part. He did hope for that, yeah, but… The point was that he needed more than just cleaning his body to consider himself ready to face Zayn again, in an intimate setting.

That shower inevitably included a few delicious scenarios he couldn’t keep at bay, and the obvious consequence. He let his imagination fly, wondering what Zayn would think if he knew Liam came hard thinking about him, with his name on his lips, and definitely not for the first time. Zayn had been fuel for all of Liam’s orgasms for so long now it should probably be embarrassing, but there was nothing he could do. There was nothing as effective as thinking about him, and no one really had to know, right?

After that shower, Liam got dressed. He had chosen a kind of dressy outfit on a hunch. It wasn’t a suit, of course, he wasn’t that crazy, but he did wear the best pair of black jeans he owned, along with his favorite dark blue shirt. He spent almost half an hour doing his hair, and after a bit of cologne, he was done. Ready. Well, not ready, but yeah. Done.

Shaking in his shoes he drove his shitty car all the way to the best part of town. The small piece of paper with Zayn’s address was carefully tucked in his breast pocket, just in case, even though he had read it so many times he already knew it by heart.

Thankfully there was a free parking space right in front of the building. His car looked even shittier compared to the beautiful ones parked on the street, but he had little time to contemplate that detail. He locked the doors and walked the few steps that separated him from the building, so nervous he felt like he was floating.  

Just as he arrived at the front door, a man walked out with a dog, leaving the door open for Liam to walk in. It was a bit of a win, not having to ring the intercom bell. He took the elevator to Zayn’s floor, and his jaw kinda dropped open when he noticed it was, in fact, Zayn’s floor. The whole thing. There was only a short hallway that led to a single black door, which pretty much meant he owned the whole thing, right? Shit. Liam felt underdressed all of a sudden.

Not that he had much time to think, because the door was right there and all he had to do was take a few steps and knock on it. He paused for a bit in front of it, taking a deep breath, trying to stop his entire body from shaking in anticipation, and then he raised a closed fist and rapped his knuckles against it, looking down at his shoes.

The time that passed until the door creaked open felt like an eternity and less than a second, all at the same time. Liam held his breath and looked up, and there was Zayn. Oh god. There were too many things to look at, too many precious details attacking Liam’s senses all at once. He tried to choose but it was impossible, so he did a little once over that probably made him look thirsty and desperate but fuck, who could blame him?

He started from the bottom and Zayn was standing there, barefoot. Freaking barefoot. Wearing what looked like incredibly comfortable black joggers and a dark red Henley with the sleeves rolled up, the tattoos on his arms and his chest on display. He looked so warm and gorgeous and comfy Liam had a hard time trying to focus on his face. His beard was just a tiny bit longer than the night before, and his hair was loose, a beautiful mess on top of his head, like he had been running his hands through it all day, like he didn’t even bother trying to style it because he knew it would look amazing either way. He was smiling that stupid side smirk Liam hated so much he could cry, and his eyes were… Well, they were sparkling, busy doing the same thing Liam was doing.

All of a sudden Liam felt breathless, absurdly aware of the fact that neither of them had said a word; too busy just looking at each other. Liam mumbled something trying to regain his composure and it caught Zayn’s attention, his eyes finally focusing on Liam’s face.

“Hi…” Zayn greeted him, the smirk turning into a full blown smile, that dorky one with his tongue behind his teeth. Liam hated that one too; it was so cute he could scream. “…you look beautiful,” Zayn added and Liam pretty much felt like melting into a puddle of goo.

He mumbled, again. Fuck. He shook his head to try to clear it, before actually managing to say full words. “You look…” what was he supposed to say? Was there even a word in the English language for what he had in front of him? Instead of finding something smart or nice to say, he said something stupid, of course. “I feel overdressed,” he blurted out, because a few seconds before that door opened, the posh building made him feel underdressed but seeing Zayn like that made him feel like maybe he should’ve just worn his pajamas and that would’ve been just fine.

Oh, god, an intrusive image of the both of them, cuddling in Zayn’s bed in their pajamas made Liam’s heart skip a beat… that was a thought he didn’t need right then, but still he kept in the back of his mind for later.

Zayn laughed, shaking his head. “You’re perfect, don’t worry,” he reassured Liam, moving away from the door to let him in. “It’s just that I’ve been in a suit and dress shoes all day, I was in dire need of some comfort,” he explained, shrugging, and this time it was Liam smiling a dorky smile. Fuck, this man was simply perfect.

Liam adored the little scene that played in his head. A glorious, professional looking Zayn, finally home after a long exhausting day, changing into the comfiest clothes he could find. The thought was comforting in a way, it made Zayn look and feel incredibly down to earth, more real, less of a god and more of a man. “Come in, please, make yourself at home,” Zayn invited him, and Liam somehow managed to wake up from the beautiful scene in his mind in order to walk inside.

Zayn guided him through a short hallway until they reached a huge living room. Liam’s attention got captured immediately by his surroundings. Oh wow. The open space had a fireplace on one side, surrounded by enough couches to sit at least ten people. There was no fire on, and it made sense, it being summer and all, but it was impressive none the less.

On the other side of the room was a long, wooden dining table that could fit probably the same amount of people, decorated with flower vases and candles. The wall opposite the hallway wasn’t a wall at all; it was a floor to ceiling window that overlooked the entire city. Holy fuck.

Probably the sheer size of it all should be what made Liam stare at the place with his mouth open, but no. The furniture and the décor did look kind of expensive but what made Liam feel a visceral reaction was the ambience. The mood, the feeling. That was the thing, wasn’t it? Somehow the entire room felt like an extension of Zayn’s restaurant. Homey, welcoming, very lived in, decorated in rich browns and reds, no stainless steel nor sharp edges. Everything was made of wood or leather or soft fabrics.

There were gorgeous paintings decorating the walls, just like at Wali’s, and the lights were low and warm. There were family photographs everywhere he looked, it felt… It felt like a home, no matter the size of it or how expensive everything could be. It made Liam feel just like when he was at Zayn’s restaurant, like he was really in a place where he belonged, a placed in which he wanted to stay forever, cuddled on the couch or having big family dinners on that table. That feeling left Liam kind of breathless.

His heart felt so enamored by everything he was seeing he barely registered Zayn speaking. “Please sit,” he asked, pointing at the big table when Liam finally managed to look back at him. “I’ll go get the dessert,” he promised, disappearing through another hallway, leaving Liam alone.

Liam took his time to walk to the table. He needed to take a look out the window first, taking in the view, letting the marvelous sight of the city lights below calm him down. It was truly a unique view.

The photographs displayed on a shelf on his way from the window to the table distracted him next, and those made his nerves spike again when he noticed the man and the woman from the restaurant featured in many of them, holding Zayn in their arms, smiling lovingly, looking like… Were they his parents? Oh god. He felt his pulse skyrocket again, remembering how they called him by name, wondering what the hell that meant. Did he talk about him with them too?

He had no time to panic, though, because just as he was slowly walking away from the photos like they were time bombs, his mind racing, Zayn came back. “Hey, come here, sit,” he asked again, drawing Liam’s attention away from the photos because, yeah, who has time to panic when a man like Zayn is calling, with dessert in his hands?

Still a bit confused but deciding to keep that question for later, Liam watched as Zayn carefully arranged two small bowls on the table, setting two spoons right next to them.

“Yeah, sorry,” Liam apologized, finally walking to the table to join Zayn. There would be time for panicking and overthinking later, right? Dessert was first.

There was obviously too much space on the huge table for only two people and for a moment he hated the thought of sitting far away from Zayn. However, Zayn pulled two chairs from the same side of the table, one next to the other, so they could sit side by side. That little gesture felt so sweet it made Liam smile.

He sat on the chair Zayn offered him, smiling when Zayn moved to sit too, but then… then Zayn rearranged his chair before sitting down, turning it so it would face Liam before sitting. Oh. Liam swallowed a small awkward laugh and decided to do the same, standing up to turn his chair around, facing Zayn, then sitting down again. Oh, their knees were almost bumping, and it was such a small, silly thing, but it made Liam realize it was the closest they had even been.

Zayn laughed a bit too once they were both finally seated, a tiny amused laugh that was too adorable to be real. The awkward moment ended when Zayn pointed at the bowls on the table. “It took me a little while to decide what to make for you,” Zayn explained, taking one of the two spoons he had set on the table by the bowls, offering it to Liam. “But, considering its hot today I chose a childhood favorite of mine. It’s called kulfa, it’s kind of like ice cream, but with a few spices that make it special,” he described, grabbing his own spoon once Liam had accepted his.

“Oh, I love kulfa,” Liam commented, looking at his bowl, already imagining the taste, listing in his mind the spices he knew it should be made with. For a moment, he got completely lost in the satisfaction he felt knowing he would eat food Zayn made especially for him. This time it would be even better than back at the restaurant, wouldn’t it? Because this time he actually knew.

But before he could dig in, Zayn interrupted him. “You already had it?” he asked, and when Liam looked up at him he was sporting a frown, looking kind of confused, or disappointed, like he was expecting to be the first person to show it to Liam.

Liam felt a pressing need to comfort him, but it took him a moment to say anything because he had been caught red handed, in a way. No, he had never had it, he just… “Um, no, no, I,” how much of a creep Zayn would think he was if he told him the truth about how he knew about kulfa?

He hesitated for a second, but finally he decided that whatever happened, the truth was the best course of action, always. Besides, he was here already, wasn’t he? That spoke volumes about what he might feel about Zayn, it was already an indication of at least a portion of his intentions. Also, Zayn’s adorable pout was messing with his decision making abilities, so he just said it. “No, I’ve never had it, I just watched you make it. You know, on your show?” Liam explained, feeling his face heat up with that confession, anticipation building up in his belly while he waited for Zayn’s reaction.

Zayn’s reaction, of course, came in the form of a big smile. “You watch it a lot?” he asked, sounding incredibly curious and satisfied with Liam’s answer. He didn’t sound mocking at all, he sounded honestly flattered about it.

Liam shrugged a bit, like that would make his reply sound less embarrassing. “Yeah, I… I’ve been watching it for some time now, like… since before Chopped? I really like, um…” he stopped himself for a bit, because the words he was thinking sounded incredibly fanboyish. He couldn’t really let Zayn know the extent of his obsession, could he? What would he think if he knew the amount of times Liam had watched every episode, or how he had everything downloaded on his computer? That part had to stay a secret, but maybe he could say something else, something just as important but a little less creepy. “…I really like watching you cook,” he confessed, biting his lip. Fuck. He laughed, looking down, all of a sudden feeling exposed and weirdly enough loving the rush of adrenaline it gave him.

“You do, huh?” Zayn asked, an amused tone in his voice. Liam looked up, smiling and nodding even though it was a rhetorical question. “It’s only fair,” Zayn began, looking just as overwhelmed by this situation as Liam felt. “After all I like watching you cook too, remember?” he added, like it was nothing, making Liam feel dizzy.

“Yeah, I do remember,” Liam exhaled. Of course he did. He would probably never ever forget that moment, back at the restaurant, when he felt his world turn upside down because Zayn was describing exactly how much attention he had paid to Liam’s cooking and how much he had enjoyed it.

They stayed silent for a bit, just looking at each other, letting this exciting electricity fill the air between them, until Zayn changed the subject. Or maybe not. “Please, dig in,” is what he said, and it might have sounded like he was interrupting what was happening there, but it didn’t feel that way for Liam. Mostly because the simple act of eating Zayn’s food was almost a continuation of that giddiness and anticipation he was feeling, a natural progression. It was a simple invitation but for him it meant so much more, it sounded almost like dirty talk, or poetry.

Sure enough, the feeling was still there when he looked away from Zayn to grab his bowl, incredibly aware of Zayn’s eyes on him. The butterflies in his belly were still there when he took a spoonful of ice cream to his mouth.

And yeah, the experience, the taste, the silky texture, the simple knowledge that it had been made by Zayn’s hands especially for him, was enough to make it feel like an intimate experience. Like that electricity crackled when all of his senses seemed to get invaded by the simple action of tasting Zayn’s dessert. He swallowed a silent moan, closing his eyes to let his mouth inspect the flavor, getting lost in it; the cardamom and the almonds, the soft creaminess and the coldness on his tongue. God, it was glorious.

“You look gorgeous while you eat,” Zayn’s voice interrupted Liam’s religious experience, forcing him to open his eyes to look at him, feeling his face heat up. Right, he was watching. Shit. Liam licked his lips, because wow. Yeah, electricity was not enough to describe what was happening between them.

It was like being back at the studio, looking at each other from so far away. It was like back at the restaurant, feeling like the world stopped existing and they didn’t need words to admit to each other what was happening between them. Only now it was different, it was more, because they were alone. Completely alone, and Liam’s overwhelming need made him forget his nerves, it made him feel a bit reckless, it made the feeling addictive.

A small smile danced on his lips while he looked for the words to say, still reveling on the taste in his mouth. “You do too,” he declared, forgetting his ice cream for the moment. Zayn looked at him, curiosity sparkling in his eyes. “I watched you too, you know? Many times, watching your show. I never thought I’d get the chance to actually see you eat food made by me. That was…” oh, finding a way to describe that experience would be impossible.

Thankfully, Zayn came to the rescue. “I know…” he reminded Liam, eliminating the need to explain. He’d done the same, right? “That’s part of the reason why I took the time to cook your meal last night. I really wanted to see you eating something I made,” he explained, making Liam feel a swoop of vertigo hit his whole body.

“You stood there and watched me eat like a creep?” Liam asked, choosing humor because he was having fun with this and because he felt like he earned the right to tease Zayn.

Zayn shrugged, biting his lip, looking down at his still untouched bowl. “Kind of? Couldn’t help myself,” he declared, justifying his actions with a tone that implied he was far from regretting them.

Liam chuckled, his smile widening. “You could’ve joined me,” he whispered, raising his eyebrows. “I would’ve loved the company,” he promised, making Zayn laugh.

“I didn’t really know if that was okay,” he explained, and he wasn’t really wrong. Liam wouldn’t have approached Zayn if he saw him by chance on the street, right? It would’ve been too risky, it would’ve meant exposing himself without knowing if there would be a reward, not counting awkward as hell.

However, Zayn did approach him in the end, brave as he was, and Liam couldn’t be more grateful. Zayn seemed to be following his train of thought, because he then smiled, shrugging again. “…what matters is I’m joining you now, aren’t I? I promised you homemade dessert, and here we are,” Zayn reminded him, and yeah, Liam couldn’t fault him. In a way, this really made up for the times they missed each other, no matter the end result.

Still, Liam was drunk from the ice-cream and the intense looks so felt like playing with him, he felt like making him laugh. He was so dazed with so many emotions he felt silly and ridiculous so he went with it, he went with the playful atmosphere. “But I’m eating alone, you know? That’s pretty rude of you,” he pointed out, trying to keep a straight face, pointing at Zayn’s bowl with a nod of his head.

Mission accomplished. Zayn laughed a beautiful laugh, looking down at his bowl like he just remembered it was there, finally grabbing his spoon and capturing the entirety of Liam’s attention. “You don’t miss a thing, do you?” he asked, before plunging the spoon in the ice cream, bringing it to his mouth.

Liam held his breath in anticipation. And yeah, he could hate the summer heat all he wanted, but in that moment he thanked the weather gods for it, because the ice cream was already kind of melting, and the little mess Zayn made trying to eat a careless spoonful of it was probably the most pornographic blessing Liam had received in his life.

His heart felt like beating its way out of his chest as he watched Zayn keep savoring the ice cream without noticing he had spilled a bit of it on his t-shirt, and most importantly, on the side of his mouth. Liam was dead. Yep. He hid a laugh behind a hand, not knowing how to react to everything at once, and that prompted Zayn to look at him quizzically.

Liam nodded at Zayn’s chest, and only then he realized what had happened. “Oh, dammit,” Zayn exclaimed, looking down at his t-shirt. Liam opened his mouth as he watched Zayn then look around, realizing he hadn’t brought any napkins, laughing like a dork. He barely managed to clean the stain on his t-shirt with his own fingers, still not noticing the stain on his face. “Sorry, I’m not always the super cool Chef I am on TV, they edit the clumsiness out,” Zayn apologized, blushing, still trying to rub the stain out.

Liam’s eyes couldn’t care less about Zayn’s clothes in that moment. He had a hard time looking away from his mouth, so of course, the first thing he blurted out when Zayn finally looked up again was “You have a bit… there…” while he pointed at Zayn’s face like an idiot.

“Where?” Zayn asked, his eyes pointing down making him look incredibly ridiculous and adorable.

Liam bit his tongue to keep it from basically flying out of his mouth to clean it himself, and he just pointed with his finger in the general direction of Zayn’s mouth. Only Zayn did nothing to actually try to find the mess, he just smirked, making no attempt at cleaning his mouth.

Fuck. “Where?” Zayn asked again, and this time Liam pointed at his own face, to demonstrate the exact position of that tempting tiny ice cream droplet on Zayn’s beard, but Zayn wasn’t having it, or maybe he decided to have a bit of fun with Liam.

Zayn’s smirk grew even more mischievous before asking a third time. “Where?” he practically whispered, leaning forward like he was asking Liam to actually fucking clean it himself. Was he? Oh. Oh, he was. Oh fuck.

Liam exhaled, nervous all of a sudden, because the air was electrified again, or maybe he was the one feeling static all over his skin, because… yeah, he was usually pretty clueless about these kind of hints but this time it was absurdly evident. This time it was obvious Zayn was doing it on purpose and his stupid insecurities were screaming at him to ignore the message because it was dangerous and he could still get it all wrong, but the rest of his body and his heart were screaming at him to stop being such an idiot.

Of course he wasn’t about to let that fucking voice inside him win. Not in a million years. So instead of giving Zayn clear spoken instructions on where the ice cream was, he reached out. He leaned forward a bit extending a shaky hand, looking into eyes that were already looking hungrily back at him, and he touched Zayn.

His thumb went straight to the dirty spot, right next to his mouth, while the rest of his fingers softly landed on his cheek, and yeah, his original intention might have been just cleaning him but that thought flew out the window as soon as he had the sudden realization that this was the first time they touched each other. It was the first time his skin made contact with Zayn, so he sighed again, overwhelmed, fighting the need to close his eyes and fucking whine at the heat his entire body felt just because of that innocent contact.

He didn’t whine, though, he had no time for that. He needed to study Zayn’s reaction, he needed to find out if this was okay or not, if this had been Zayn’s intention or if he was being forward and out of place.

And Zayn didn’t move, not an inch. He just let Liam touch him. Shit, his beard was ridiculously soft, he was so warm, so perfect, so… Oh god, Zayn sighed and closed his eyes and Liam felt like crying or screaming or something, but no. All he did was exhale slowly, stroking that glorious little piece of heaven right by the side of that heavenly, promising mouth.

His thumb was already dirty and sticky and maybe he should move away already, but no, that wasn’t happening either, because Zayn moved first. And no, he didn’t move to get away from that touch, oh no. He turned his head just a little bit until Liam’s thumb was touching his lips, his breath brushing Liam’s skin, creating a shockwave of need that traveled like a freight train straight from Liam’s finger to his cock. Wow.

And Zayn didn’t stop there. With his eyes still closed, he parted his lips, just enough to make room for Liam’s thumb, just enough to… Yeah, no, Liam was definitely dead, because Zayn was the one whining as his tongue peeked out from between his lips to lick Liam’s finger. All of Liam’s blood went to one place and one place only, as he watched Zayn lick his finger, open his mouth wider, moving closer… shit, capturing it, going from just holding it between his teeth and lips to sucking on it hungrily in a matter of seconds.

The wetness and the heat from Zayn’s mouth were enough to make Liam close his legs tighter and moan, but what did it was the sight, the unbelievable sight of his thumb in Zayn’s mouth, those sinful lips around it, the tiny sounds escaping his throat, his eyes closed, his brow furrowed like he couldn’t contain himself… fuck… Liam’s whimper sounded so desperate and needy it made Zayn finally open his eyes and look at him in a way that definitely meant everything. Everything. The whole fucking world.

Once again, they paused, just looking at each other for a few seconds. Liam was completely broken, taken over by desire, ready to give Zayn anything he asked for, and Zayn… Zayn actually fucking smirked, with Liam’s finger still in his mouth.

From there it was hard to tell who moved first. In an instant Zayn’s hands were grabbing Liam’s shirt, pulling. In perfect sync Liam flew off his chair, opening his legs and sitting on Zayn’s lap, using that same thumb to open Zayn’s mouth wider before moving out of the way to let him devouring it.

Months and years of uncontainable need culminated in that one desperate kiss, a kiss that Liam was beyond controlling. Not that he wanted to. He let go, he just let go, finally free to show this dream of a man exactly how crazy he drove him.

Only once they were close enough, not an inch of space between them, Zayn’s hands let go of Liam’s shirt to go their separate ways, one tangling in Liam’s hair, the other going around his waist, holding him closer.

Liam didn’t waste time thinking, for once he didn’t need to. All that mattered was what he wanted, and all that he wanted was Zayn. Zayn, Zayn’s mouth, that desperate kiss, those sweet sweet sounds he was making, the way neither of them seemed to care about asking or saying anything else anymore.

There was no stopping what was happening and Liam didn’t even consider it. They were kissing each other with too much intention, too much need, and fuck, feeling wanted like that again was way too fucking delicious to stop it, so he kept going, he kept going because it felt good and because fuck, it was Zayn. The man kissing him like the world was about to end was Zayn, no one else. It was the man of his dreams, it was the one he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about since the first time he saw him, and he wanted him. Fuck, they wanted each other and yeah, Liam was completely gone.

The heat grew more and more all-encompassing and Liam let it grow, finally, finally running his fingers through Zayn’s silky hair, kissing that stupid mouth, kissing and licking and biting, feeling another swooping overdose of adrenaline every time he made Zayn groan deep in his throat, until they were so close and making out so desperately it wasn’t really a surprise when Liam’s crotch met Zayn’s erection. Zayn’s moans grew deeper and Liam smiled against those lips, moving again, and again, seeking friction, desperate to show him he was not alone, he was just as turned on.

And that’s when Zayn’s lips decided to move, leaving Liam’s mouth to attack his neck. It took him such little time to find Liam’s sensitive spots that he couldn’t help but whine, grabbing Zayn’s hair harder to keep him there, closing his eyes tighter and moving his head out of the way to make room for that mouth that was kissing his skin like it knew every inch already, like Zayn had somehow mapped it out before even touching it.

The hand that was fisted in Liam’s hair moved to his chest, undoing every button of his shirt, one by one, in record time, like he was in a hurry but still knew he had all the time in the world to get where he was going. Liam exhaled another moan when those lips chose his birthmark as a starting point, sucking a mark there before getting lost in the rest of his chest. “Oh, god…” Liam practically grunted with his head thrown back when Zayn’s mouth camped at one of his nipples. Fuck seeing stars, he was seeing galaxies.

He wanted to keep going and going until they were coming in their pants like teenagers, but Zayn appeared to have other plans. He moved beneath Liam, squirming on the chair like he wanted Liam to get off of him. Panic grabbed his chest for a second, his hands holding on tighter, until Zayn breathed words against his skin. Liam’s blood was buzzing in his ears, making it hard to hear, but when he understood, fuck seeing galaxies, he felt like he was witnessing the entire universe. “On the table… fuck, you taste so good I wanna eat you up…” Zayn practically begged, and yeah, Liam could totally move, totally.

He scrambled to stand up without letting go of Zayn. Zayn turned around, facing the table again as they both stood up. Shit, Zayn pressed Liam against the edge of the table and Liam felt his erection with such precision he wanted to die.

Zayn’s lips went back north to Liam’s mouth while his hands went south. Liam’s legs felt like giving up when clumsy fingers fought against the buttons and zipper of his jeans, so he clung to Zayn’s neck tighter, trying not to fall. “Fuck,” he breathed out when he was free, feeling cool air hitting his sex and the skin of his legs.

Zayn refused to let go of his mouth to get his clothes past his thighs so he shimmied and fought like he could to get his shoes and his clothes all the way off, refusing the stop the kiss either. The only pause came from Liam pulling at Zayn’s t-shirt, in a hurry to take it off. Zayn grunted a complaint for the interruption but still let him, pressing his naked chest against Liam’s as soon as the stupid thing was gone, joining his own clothes on the floor.

Once that was done, he didn’t have time to find a way to ogle at Zayn’s naked skin freely, he didn’t have time to explore the feeling of his erection rubbing against Zayn’s clothed thigh. He didn’t have time to dry hump him like the desperate fucker he was, because Zayn practically manhandled him, both hands on his bare ass to hoist him up on the table, making him giggle into the kiss. Who knew he was so strong?

He immediately made room for Zayn between his legs, opening them up, welcoming him, calling him, his now bare feet crossing behind Zayn’s back to keep him close.

He had no idea where this was going and that was a dangerous thing, that freedom of being able to do anything he pleased made him want everything at once. Zayn went back to kiss his neck and the “Please…” Liam begged was about… about everything, anything, he was so desperate to feel Zayn in every way that he didn’t even know where to start.

Zayn did, apparently, because at Liam’s plea he moved like a man on a mission. His mouth followed the same path as before, going from the side of his neck to his birthmark to his chest, and then… fuck… then he pushed Liam, making him lie down on the table, pushing away whatever was on it with his hands, sending it clattering to the floor, making Liam laugh again.

Oh god. In a second Zayn blanketed Liam’s body with his own and then his mouth got happily lost in the way from his chest to his cock. Boy did he take his time, licking and kissing and biting every inch of available skin, slowly but with purpose, and Liam could practically feel him smiling against his skin every time he found a sensitive spot, making Liam moan louder.

By the time Zayn got to his crotch, Liam was so wet and so hard it hurt, he was truly desperate and still he took the time to try to sit up a bit, leaning on one elbow, just to watch, because fuck… Zayn approached his cock slowly, like he was enjoying every second of the way. With his eyes closed he let his nose dive into Liam’s pubic hair, inhaling, the exhale tickling in the most amazing way.

Liam fought against the need to touch him because he didn’t want to interrupt him, he didn’t want to interrupt the ethereal sight of Zayn practically adoring his cock with his hands clinging tightly to his thighs. He didn’t even beg for more, he stayed there, watching in awe, overwhelmed, fascinated, letting Zayn destroy him as he pleased.

Until Zayn finally made contact, opening that sinful mouth of his. He licked his lips and then he latched them onto the base of Liam’s cock, slowly sliding up, making Liam feel with absurd precision the drag of that velvet tongue, all the way up.

When he got to the top, his mouth opened and he let Liam watch as he licked precum off the tip, his eyes opening, wild and hungry. He smiled, the fucker actually smiled as Liam’s eyes rolled back, overwhelmed. He barely found strength to focus his sight on the way his cock disappeared inside Zayn’s plush mouth before letting himself fall flat on the table again, hitting his head against the sturdy wood with a loud thump, his feet somehow finding some place to rest so he could open his legs wider.

From between his legs Zayn audibly laughed, making Liam laugh again, intoxicated and dazed, like he was drunk, lost in the pleasure, lost in the feeling of Zayn’s mouth, lost in the heat and the wetness, lost in the fucking amazing feeling of being devoured with so much hunger.

Because that’s what happened. That’s exactly what happened. Zayn wasn’t careful, he wasn’t cautious or delicate about it. The sounds and the sensations were enough to let Liam know how desperate it was, how messy and needy and oh, so fucking perfect.

Of course it took him a moment to get over the overdose of pleasure to realize he needed to watch, it was imperative to register everything that was happening between his legs, so he fought the waves of pleasure to lift himself up again, leaning on one elbow, and fuck… Zayn was sitting down. He was actually sitting down on his chair, with one of Liam’s feet resting on his shoulder, the other on the back of a chair. He was eating Liam’s cock like it was his last meal, both hands on him, one gripping a thigh, the other one touching him, grabbing him, driving him crazy.

“Oh god…” Liam exhaled in a groan, trying to stay alert enough to save everything in his memory. The wet moans escaping Zayn’s mouth, making his cock vibrate, the way his eyelashes fluttered on top of his cheekbones, the mind-blowing skill of those long fingers, god…

Everything was maddening to the point of taking him to the brink in a matter of short minutes, but what did it, what really did it, was seeing the moment two of Zayn’s fingers aligned themselves with Liam’s cock, and all of a sudden Zayn’s tongue and lips were wetting everything. His tongue snaked through the spaces between each finger and Liam’s cock, playing, teasing, being messy and obvious and yeah, as soon as Liam understood what that meant his entire body felt like exploding.

Like the absolute gentleman that he was, Zayn looked up at him, a smirk and a question dancing in his eyes while he licked his own fingers so obscenely Liam wanted to cry. Liam felt that the way his body reacted should be his answer, hell, even his toes curled at the thought, but he still nodded before falling back again, both hands gripping his own hair to try to deal with everything. “Please…” he begged, again, but this time he definitely knew what he wanted.

And Zayn delivered, oh yes he did. After a little laugh, he completely killed Liam, taking his cock deep into his mouth at the same time that a wet finger found its way between his ass cheeks to his entrance, caressing it once, twice, three times before slowly pushing in.

Liam’s broken moan echoed in the entire room, while his body desperately tried to deal with everything he was feeling. He felt completely intoxicated as his body relaxed, accepting the invasion, both feet on Zayn’s shoulders to make more room.

It was too much, and too little at the same time, he felt desperate for more and at the same time he felt like they were going too fast, way too fast, and it would last an instant, he felt like Zayn could have him coming in seconds and who knew what would happen then?

That didn’t stop him from asking for more, though. That urgency drove him, making him move his hips, seeking more from Zayn’s finger and from Zayn’s mouth, undulating on top of that fucking table with his eyes closed, a perfect picture of abandon and need.

Zayn must have noticed, he thought, when suddenly he stopped, letting go of his cock and taking his finger out, making Liam literally whine a complaint. “No, don’t stop…” he pleaded, opening his eyes.

“I’m not stopping, babe,” Zayn promised, both hands on Liam’s thighs, pulling him closer to him. Liam lifted his head to look at him, feeling so pathetically needy he wanted to hide. He didn’t though, the sight of a very disheveled Zayn between his legs was enough reward. “Turn around. I’m not done. Come on, I want to eat your ass…” he declared, like it was nothing.

Like he wasn’t just about to give Liam one of the biggest gifts he could receive sexually speaking because everyone has kinks and getting rimmed? Yeah, that was Liam’s. That was the one thing that drove him crazy, the one thing that could make him come embarrassingly fast, the one thing that he fantasized about constantly and that he didn’t get all that often, maybe because it wasn’t that common or because he simply had bad luck when it came to sexual partners.

And now? Now he had Zayn. Fucking Zayn Malik, sitting on that stupid chair, ready to eat his ass with a huge grin on his face, like he knew he would be good, he would be the best, like he could promise Liam he would make magic with his mouth and never break that promise.

And yeah, maybe Liam should’ve just turned the fuck around with no further complaint, but there was still the issue of him being on the verge of coming and not knowing if that would be it. He hesitated for a second, sitting straighter, gripping the edge of the table, hard, like that would be enough to stay grounded and making everything last longer, like that would keep him forever on top of it, close to Zayn.

Maybe it was just his imagination but Zayn seemed to read his mind, chuckling while he licked his lips like he was reveling in the taste of what he was about to do. He seemed to guess exactly what was happening, maybe because Liam’s contained eagerness was evident or maybe because they were more connected than he thought, because what he said next made Liam actually want to cry. “I wanna make you come like that, yeah? And then I wanna take you to my bed and fuck you and make you come again, how about that?” he asked, like he wasn’t promising actual paradise.

“Fuck…” Liam exhaled, feeling relief flooding his veins as he slid off the table, practically landing on Zayn’s lap, taking a moment to kiss him stupid just because of what he was offering. He grabbed his hair and kissed him hard, tasting his own precum mixed with Zayn’s sweet taste. “Fuck, you’re unbelievable…” he laughed against his lips, feeling like he had truly found a treasure.

Zayn took his time to kiss the hell out of those words before finally breaking the kiss, fixing his eyes on Liam’s. “Come on, turn around, beautiful,” he asked, and this time Liam didn’t hesitate. At all.

He got up from Zayn’s lap and without wasting a second he turned around and bent down until his chest touched the warm wood of the table. He opened his legs, exposing himself, letting the adrenaline that vulnerability made him feel be fuel for his anticipation.

Zayn made a little pause that made Liam practically tremble, because he had to be watching, right? Both of the man’s hands landed on his ass, opening it up, exposing it even more, but he did nothing else for a moment and yeah, he had to be watching and Liam let his forehead fall on the table, overwhelmed, trembling in anticipation.

The first slow lick made Liam drown a cry. The second forced his eyes closed. And from then on, it was the most wonderful onslaught on his sensations, on his entire body. A fucking perfect combination of lips and tongue and even teeth made a mess of him on top of that table, and by the time Zayn brought his fingers back in the equation, Liam was already half gone.

Zayn started slow, with just one, reading Liam perfectly when he asked for more, moving his hips to fuck himself on that finger. And soon there were two, working together with his mouth, his tongue circling Liam’s rim as his fingers stretched it, his beard rubbing his skin, making Liam feel so good, so fucking good, better than he ever did. He didn’t even need to think about it or try to remember to make comparisons, it was a fact. No one ever rimmed him like Zayn did, with the same dedication, the same attention to detail, the same filthy hunger, fuck…

Zayn brought him to the brink again without even touching his cock. Liam felt like he was about to break, and then Zayn pushed him over the edge, letting his fingers curve down, touching his prostate. That was pretty much it for Liam.

In and out, touching that heavenly spot every time, adjusting the pressure, reading Liam’s moans and reactions until he was almost screaming, babbling nonsense, trying desperately to find something to hold on to, finding nothing.

And then the pressure became constant, two steady fingers relentlessly massaging his most sensitive spot and Liam couldn’t take it anymore. He came like that, calling Zayn’s name, breathless, broken, untouched. He didn’t even remember the last time that happened. It lasted forever and Zayn knew exactly what to do to make it so, letting Liam fly and ride the orgasm until he felt his eyes wet with tears.

It wasn’t long before Zayn pulled his fingers out, grabbing his hips and pulling back, letting him land on top of his lap again, this time with his back plastered against Zayn’s chest. Still breathless, Liam practically melted on top of him, smiling, happy, shaking.

Zayn didn’t say anything for a moment, instead he kissed every corner of Liam’s neck and shoulder his lips could reach, with his hands open on Liam’s chest, holding him close, sighing contentedly like this was exactly what he wanted. A pile of breaths and bones and flesh that used to be Liam on top of him, exhausted and satisfied.

“You have no idea how delicious you are…” is what Zayn said a moment later, making Liam giggle. “Can’t wait to see if you feel just as good,” he added, and yeah, he knew he had come hard just a moment before but Liam’s cock twitched, interested in that prospect.

“Why don’t you come and find out? Or, well, find out and come?” Liam asked, too intoxicated to even care about sounding like a dork with horrible taste in puns.

Zayn laughed, tickling his neck with kisses until his lips reached Liam’s. He kissed him slow, deep, promising, before hurrying him off him, the both of them desperate to get to the bed.  

 

Chapter Text

They left the mess of the dining table behind. They left melting ice cream and broken bowls and drying come on the floor as they navigated the rest of the flat, looking for Zayn’s bed. Stumbling semi naked down a dark hallway, giggling and holding Zayn’s hand was definitely not in Liam’s plans for tonight. It was in his dreams, yeah, of course it was, it had been for a long time, but he never had any hope of that ever happening to him in real life. It was just a nice fantasy, a comforting thought when he felt alone and a quick wank wasn’t enough.

Sometimes he liked creating entire stories in his mind, stories that of course included sex, but they also included this, preludes and interludes and postludes, prologues and epilogues and everything in between.

In those stories, things like these happened. Things like holding hands and stumbling in the dark, things like giggling like a kid and stopping every two steps to steal another kiss, things like making out against a wall because waiting until they were in bed to do it was unthinkable. Things like the ones Zayn was giving him without him even asking for them. Dangerous things, things that made his heart beat faster. Things he was all of a sudden incredibly aware of, now that that first orgasm had calmed down some of his desperation.

He had no intention of stopping, though. Maybe later he would have time to stop and think, maybe later he would have time to become just a little more pathetic and ask Zayn what it all meant, but in that moment, all that mattered was enjoying it. Enjoying the way his pulse seemed to flutter, the way he felt like levitating, the way his chest got hit again and again with beautiful rushes of adrenaline.

By the time they reached the bedroom, Liam’s shirt had been lost along the way, and Zayn’s joggers were halfway down his legs. They fell in a tangle of limbs on the bed without even bothering to turn on the lights. This room had a huge window too and the light that came in from outside was more than enough. Hell, it was even better, everything looked kind of ethereal, barely lit by moonlight and the glow of the city.

Their lips met way before they hit the mattress, and Liam didn’t complain, at all. Zayn’s weight on top of him felt so good, and he opened his legs to feel him closer, with zero hesitation. Zayn was incredibly hard, fuck, and Liam felt his mouth water, his skin crawl with anticipation.

And still, they didn’t hurry. Zayn didn’t hurry, which would be completely understandable, given his state, but no. He took his time to kiss the fuck out of Liam, to work him up and turn him on, getting him desperate again in a matter of minutes. The pressure of Zayn’s hips on his cock was enough to drive him crazy, but then Zayn’s hands were everywhere, touching and grabbing, nails digging in his flesh, a furious demonstration of want that Liam devoured gladly, reciprocating it with everything he could.

He grabbed Zayn’s ass with both hands, he pulled on his hair just the way that made Zayn moan harder, he kissed and licked and bit that long gorgeous neck, he scratched his back, he went crazy with no restraint because Zayn never stopped him, Zayn’s entire body seemed to ask for more.

The one begging, however, was Liam. “Please… fuck me, fuck, please…” he whispered in Zayn’s ear when he couldn’t wait any longer, breathless, adoring the way Zayn reacted to that request, with a broken laugh that he drowned between Liam’s lips, kissing him just the way Liam liked, messy and dirty and full of unspoken need.

Liam felt like dying when Zayn moved away, and the only reason he didn’t was because… god, that was a sight. Zayn, naked, hard and wet; fumbling to get his joggers all the way down, nearly tripping on his way to his night table. Liam couldn’t even hide his laugh, and Zayn scolded him when he finally came back to the bed, condom and lube in hand. “Shut up, you…” he muttered, finding his place between Liam’s legs again with a glorious smile on his face.

Liam kept laughing for a bit, until the need to just watch Zayn made him forget everything he was laughing about. Because wow. Zayn knelt between his legs, looking like a god doing something incredibly mundane as opening a condom foil. Liam bit his lip, ogling because now he fucking could, ogling because that man was all his for now and that was enough and wow.

The ink went way beyond Liam’s imagination, and he had had a chance to explore it before with better lighting but well, who could pay attention to tattoos when their cock was in that mouth?

The lighting in the bedroom was poor, but it still made Zayn look heavenly, almost unreal, a sheen of sweat making his skin glow, his disheveled hair almost like a halo on top of his head. He was biting his lip too and that was enough to make Liam sigh. Fuck, he was so beautiful Liam felt like he could spend a lifetime just watching him.

Once Zayn was done opening the darn thing, watching him put it on was another experience in itself. Fuck, those deft fingers. The glorious path of dark hair between his belly button and his cock. That cock. That fucking gorgeous cock, hard and ready, all for Liam. Liam’s mouth was watering.

Next came the lube, and the anticipation made Liam almost shiver. Zayn wet his fingers and he just went for it, leaning down. Using his free hand for support he kissed Liam again with a smirk, and then those fingers were inside Liam, making him moan loudly into Zayn’s mouth. Fuck.

He opened his legs as wide as he could, making room for him, falling into that intoxicating rhythm again, moving his hips to ask for more. Zayn read him perfectly, adding a third finger, going slow, patient, like he had all the time in the world, or maybe like he truly wanted Liam to go crazy before he had a chance of feeling Zayn inside of him.

“Please…” Liam begged again, definitely ready, so ready he could scream. Zayn planted a firm kiss on his lips, then another, and a third one before removing his fingers.

He didn’t even bother cleaning his hand, still dirty with lube he grabbed Liam’s thighs, moving his legs to guide them, to wrap one around his waist and the other over his shoulder. Shit, yeah. “I love it when you beg,” Zayn whispered with a dorky grin, letting go of Liam’s legs to position himself.

Liam smiled. “Please, Zayn… please, I wanna feel you…” he pleaded, breathless, and that was all the incentive Zayn needed. He entered Liam in one long, slow, firm movement, making Liam’s mouth fly open. Fuck. He closed his eyes, hard, letting every sensation course through his body, the slight pain mixed with the pleasure, that precious feeling of being full to the brim, the heat of Zayn’s breath on his skin, Zayn’s hair tangled in his fingers, Zayn’s nails digging into his thigh, Zayn’s deep broken moan, Zayn’s perfume mixed with the smell of sweat and lube and sex, Zayn’s cock deep inside him, Zayn’s everything, Zayn, Zayn, Zayn…

He opened his eyes, trying to hold onto reality, onto something, and he found Zayn looking at him, looking at him in a way that electrified him beyond belief, in a way that made everything else feel a million times more intense. It was too much, too deep, too emotional, too intense.

And still, he didn’t have time to even try to understand that look, because Zayn moved, and yeah, the world stopped existing.

He pulled out slowly, almost all the way, and then he slid back in, a bit faster in one smooth movement until he bottomed out again and yeah, Liam’s eyes rolled back and he closed them, feeling the drag of Zayn’s cock inside him resonating everywhere. Shit.

There was no thinking after that. No doubting, no analyzing, no nothing. Nothing but feeling. Zayn found a rhythm soon enough, sending wave after wave of pleasure through Liam’s body, rendering him completely unable to do anything but feel. Feel everything, physically and emotionally, and fuck…

He had always been sensitive about sex, he never really managed to separate it completely from feelings. There was a good reason why he never did the one night stand thing. It always meant something, he always wanted it to mean something, but… The way Zayn drove him to the verge of tears was something else. Because it wasn’t only the glorious way he fucked him. Because he didn’t have to, but he still reached down and kissed Liam again, disarming him completely, and he didn’t stop. He never stopped.

He kissed him deeply, like just being inside him wasn’t enough. Like he needed to feel him in every way possible, and in that moment it didn’t matter if that was the actual intention or if it was Liam making it up. In that moment it didn’t matter if Liam was feeling that way because he had wanted Zayn for so long or because he was projecting his own feelings and wishes. In that moment Liam simply felt wanted, really really wanted, and that was enough to choke him up, to make him close his eyes tighter to try not to cry.

But Zayn didn’t help, whispering beautiful things between kisses about how he had been waiting for so long and how gorgeous Liam was, about how good it felt and how amazing it was and how he could just die in Liam’s arms forever and fuck… Liam was a sucker for those things, for words said when no words need saying because actions should be loud enough. It should be unnecessary, those things should sound cheesy and fake and useless, but… But Zayn whispering those sweet things while fucking Liam relentlessly, reaching for his cock with his hand to multiply the pleasure, it felt like heaven. It felt just right. It felt important to Liam. It felt meaningful. Honest. Intimate. Perfect.

Liam was gone, completely gone, and his orgasm hit him before he could feel it coming. Zayn was stimulating him in every possible way, and he had no way of stopping it. Zayn knew exactly how to touch him, how to fill him, how to kiss him and even talk to him and yeah, he was there before he even knew it. “Zayn!” he called his name, one hand still in his hair, the other gripping the sheets, both of his legs holding him close like it wasn’t enough.

“Fuck, so gorgeous, you are… yeah, come for me, babe,” Zayn whispered against his lips, never stopping the maddening pace, making his orgasm feel like it lasted forever. Or maybe that was because Zayn himself was coming just a few thrusts later, like he had been holding on, waiting until Liam came first. Shit, that was… Yeah, that was maddening too, that thought.

Oh god, feeling Zayn come was the perfect closure for Liam’s own orgasm. Zayn stayed still, deep inside of Liam, letting him feel every pulsation of his cock as he came, letting gorgeous little overwhelmed moans leave his mouth, falling between Liam’s open lips.

It shouldn’t have felt so emotional, so intimate, but it did, it absolutely did. Maybe that’s why, when he finally managed to move, Liam opened his eyes before doing anything else, just to spend a few seconds lost in Zayn’s beautiful dazed expression, before pulling him down to kiss him again.

Zayn let him, falling gladly into the kiss with all that he had, letting go of Liam’s leg and pulling out slowly but never moving away. That kiss lasted forever too, but instead of a crescendo it was a quiet descent, growing slower and calmer as they both relaxed, together, still in each other’s arms, Zayn still on top of Liam, between his legs. That beautiful moment was all Liam needed to come down from both the physical and the emotional high, unshed tears drying in his eyes.

“You good?” Zayn asked in a whisper when what they were doing became more shared breath and grazing lips than an actual kiss.

Liam smiled, wide. Was he for real? Asking that? Always so attentive, so kind, so perfect. “Never better,” he replied, opening his eyes again to find Zayn smiling at him, looking happy and incredibly fucked out, his hair a complete mess, his skin sweaty, his lips red and swollen. “You?” he asked back, using a hand to try to get Zayn’s hair off his face and behind his ear.

Zayn giggled, hiding his face in Liam’s neck. “Never better,” he repeated, peppering little kisses all along Liam’s shoulder.

They barely moved after that. Maybe a shower was in order, or something, at least a thorough clean up, but apparently neither of them had the energy or the will for that. Zayn only rolled off Liam for a second to take the condom off, tie it and leave it on the floor. He then grabbed what looked like a towel from a drawer on his nightstand and used it to clean Liam’s chest and belly, taking the time to tickle him and make him laugh in the process. Of course he did.

After he was done tickling and laughing, he cleaned himself up and then he went back to Liam. No, not laying belly up by his side, or sitting far away. He climbed back on the bed and in spite of the sweat and the heat, he basically plastered himself to Liam’s side, placing a small kiss on Liam’s shoulder before carefully resting his head on Liam’s chest. His arm went around Liam’s torso and he stayed there, sighing contentedly. Wow.

Liam was dumbfounded and moved, but he still went with it, hungry for the closeness. He would be damned if he missed the opportunity to actually cuddle with Zayn on his bed, still feeling the ghost of his sex inside him, so he welcomed him in his arms with a happy sigh of his own, letting Zayn tangle their legs together, kissing his head. Reveling in that, just that, in having Zayn so close to him. He was always a sucker for this kind of intimacy, in any situation but especially after sex, and the fact that Zayn sought it so naturally made his head spin and his heart sing.

They stayed in silence for a while, just breathing together, relaxing while Zayn’s fingers danced on Liam’s chest. Liam closed his eyes with an indelible smile on his face. When Zayn’s hand finally stayed still and rested, open on his chest, he lost no time thinking about it, he just went to it, slowly running his fingertips along Zayn’s long fingers, one by one, back and forth.

The slow movement and the calm rhythm of Zayn’s breathing almost made him fall asleep, but then Zayn broke the silence. “Are you satisfied?” he asked in a whisper, and Liam opened his eyes, frowning.

“What do you mean?” he asked, looking at the city lights chasing each other, reflected on the ceiling. Maybe some other time he would have just said yes, but something in Zayn’s curious tone made him feel the question came loaded with more meaning than the obvious, so yeah, he had to ask.

Zayn sighed, taking a moment before replying. “With this, I mean?” he clarified, or tried to, because Liam felt confused still. Or maybe not, maybe the question was straight forward and he was just reading into things.

Still, he chose not to be an idiot. He could have ignored the subtext and just answer, again, that yes, he just had the fuck of his life, but that wouldn’t be enough, and it wouldn’t be truthful either, because as satisfied as he was, he still felt restless and full of need and anticipation. So. “Yes and no?” was his reply, and he posed it as a question for some reason, maybe because he didn’t really know how to explain himself, and he hoped Zayn asked for clarification.

Zayn chuckled. “What do you mean?” he repeated Liam’s previous question, amused. “Are you complaining about my sexual prowess?” he asked with a little laugh, the vibration of his chest reverberating through Liam’s body.

“God no, I would never,” Liam laughed too, trying to stay serious but failing. “I would never. That’s not what I’m talking about,” he tried to explain.

Zayn moved his head from Liam’s chest to his arm to be able to look up at him. “Then what are you talking about?” he wondered, reaching up with his hand to scratch Liam’s chin, making him giggle.

Liam took full advantage of that little distraction to look for the right words. He sucked at explaining these things, for one, and also there was the vulnerability issue. He felt exposed. He felt that stupid fear, poking his ribs, reminding him of the many times he wanted more and he got rejected, reminding him of the very real possibility that Zayn wouldn’t be interested in… well, in him.

Still, he soldiered on, because many times before he didn’t care that much about rejection. It did hurt, yeah, but it wasn’t like he was losing anything really important or relevant to begin with, so he got over it pretty quickly. This time, though, it meant a lot. It meant too much. He really didn’t want to miss the chance, so he had to talk, he had to at least let Zayn know. “Do you have a favorite restaurant?” he asked, knowing the question sounded completely out of place with what they were talking about.

Zayn frowned, looking lost, but he still answered, maybe because he realized Liam was trying to get to a point. “Yeah, of course,” he confirmed. Of course he did, everyone has a favorite restaurant. “Why?” he inquired, his eyes fixed on Liam’s face.

Liam pressed his lips into a tiny smile before explaining. “I do too. It’s this little Italian place back where I grew up. I completely adore it, they make the best pasta in the world. I love going there and eating this fantastic meat lasagna that makes me wanna cry it’s so good. But the real reason why I love that place is not really the lasagna, you know? It’s… It’s what the place makes me feel. It’s that feeling of wanting to spend more than one meal sitting there, enjoying the place. It’s the feeling of belonging, it’s the things around me, the atmosphere, the wine, the freshly baked bread, god, even the damn walls I love. It’s the whole experience, you know what I mean?”

Zayn chuckled. “Yeah, I do,” he replied, still looking a bit lost but going with it.

Liam bit his lip for a second, steeling himself. “What I’m trying to say is… I really like lasagna. Like, a lot. And I could eat it somewhere else, but it wouldn’t be the same. Or, I could eat that same amazing lasagna, the best I’ve had, at that same amazing place, but if the owner, you know, asked me to leave after I’m done, no matter how full I am, I’d leave feeling really  unsatisfied, right? I’d always be left wanting more, wanting… you know, the whole experience,” he mused, knowing he was being confusing as hell. “My point is, like… Yeah, I’ve just had probably the best meal of my life and I’m beyond satisfied, in a way, but at the same time…”

“…you’re not satisfied at all?” Zayn asked, smirking, like he was finally understanding what Liam was trying to say.

Liam sighed, nodding his head. “Yeah… I, um… I am incredibly satisfied but I still kind of want more. More lasagna, and then dessert, and also wine, and a lot of freshly baked bread. I want to get to know every corner of the place. I want… I want to be able to come back to eat again anytime I want, and maybe, if I’m lucky, I’d want to, you know… stay. Get like, a membership? A free pass? A chance to eat there every day, enjoying the way the place makes me feel?” he laughed, oh god, this analogy was getting out of hand.

Luckily Zayn laughed too, holding Liam closer to kiss his cheek. “You’re such a dork… I love that,” is what he said next, and Liam felt his world go from doubtful greys to full vibrant color. What did that mean? Was he just amused by the stupid analogy, or… “We’re not talking about food, really, are we?” Zayn asked, and Liam felt his face go red.

“No, we’re not,” he confirmed anyways, shrugging, hoping Zayn wouldn’t think he was an idiot for suggesting what he was suggesting, praying maybe Zayn would be just as interested.

Zayn stayed quiet for a moment, just looking at Liam with a smile on his face. “Yeah, I want that too,” he finally replied, making Liam feel his chest fill up with joy. “I mean, I’m glad you enjoyed the lasagna. I did too, a lot, but I’m not really satisfied either,” he clarified, and Liam couldn’t believe his luck.

It was so insane that he still felt the need to keep asking, because who knows? Maybe Zayn was thinking this was only about sex? “Really?” he asked, furrowing his brows. “Do you, like… Do you really understand what I mean?”

Zayn nodded, biting his lip and moving his hand from Liam’s chest to cup his face. “I suck at metaphors, so let me be blunt, yeah?” he requested, and Liam was too stunned to do more than just nod like an idiot. “I like you. I really really like you and I hope this is not a one-time thing. I know we barely know each other but I wanna change that. I want the full course meal too. Is that what you meant?”

Liam nodded again, taking a second to look into Zayn’s eyes, wondering how the hell he got so lucky. Maybe Andy was right after all. Whatever, who cared. He laughed at the thought before kissing Zayn again, hard, feeling the happiest he had felt in years.

Chapter Text

Two Years Later

 

Liam watched fondly as Zayn looked at his own vague reflection on the industrial fridge’s metallic door, fixing his tie. He parked his ass on a close by prep table, crossing his arms over his chest, mocking exasperation as he exhaled a complaint under his breath, clearly meant to be heard.

“I heard you…” Zayn warned, and Liam bit back a laugh, rolling his eyes. Zayn was, of course, taking his time on purpose, because he already knew how anxious Liam got at these kind of events, and well, this was the biggest one yet. Zayn knew Liam would need a moment to relax before facing the crowd waiting for them outside, so Liam couldn’t fault him for locking the both of them in the now empty kitchen for a while, with the excuse of ‘they can wait a little longer, jaan…’

Liam didn’t really complain, but faking annoyance was fun anyways. It was the point of the whole charade, he was sure; a little pretend fight to help ease Liam’s nerves.

It was their thing. It was the same thing Zayn had discovered by accident over a year ago, at the Food Network studios. Liam had been so nervous he was shitting his pants that day, and of course Zayn ended up being on the receiving end of that, mostly because he was the one that put Liam in that situation.

Because no, Liam wasn’t visiting Zayn at work, or watching him record his show like he did so many times before. He was there because Zayn had convinced him of participating on Chopped again.

It took a lot of talking into, it did, but even when Liam was finally confident enough to accept the invitation to do a special rematch episode against Louis, Harry and Niall, he felt just as nervous as the first time.

Zayn had noticed, of course. He knew by then. He had taken the time to learn everything there was to learn about Liam, all the things he loved and also all about his over-thinking, his insecurities and his constant need for affection, everything that made Liam who he was.

So, on the day of the show’s taping, when it was almost time to start and Liam was freaking out, Zayn dramatically complained about some silly menial thing, and that finally made Liam laugh.

They started a silly, ridiculous made up fight in the middle of the waiting room, managing to get Liam’s focus away from his nerves, and it worked. Maybe it was also because he kissed him stupid before letting him go kick arse, but yeah, the point is that whatever he did, it worked, and it became their thing, and Liam would never be able to thank him enough, because he won.

The other guys did an excellent job, yeah, but Liam killed it. He got his much deserved win, and it being a special rematch episode, there was a double reward at stake and he absolutely killed it. He got the pickiest, meanest judges Chopped had to offer, and he still killed it, and in a way that was the start of what led them to the kitchen they were standing on.

Liam’s kitchen. Or, well, his restaurant’s kitchen. ‘The Zing’s kitchen. Because the money he won went straight to his savings account, adding to the money he had made and the money he kept making, working his ass off month after month.

A year later and with the help of a little loan he would gladly pay for a few years, he finally had enough to buy the space he wanted. It was small, yeah, but it was perfect, and he had to start somewhere, right? All he cared about was that it was his, all his, at last. He bought everything he needed to equip the kitchen to his liking, he decorated the place with the help of his family and Zayn’s, and now, he was ready for the inauguration.

Because of course, that’s another thing that happened. The people that had greeted him at Zayn’s restaurant that first night were indeed Zayn’s parents, and as soon as they found out their son was actually seeing Liam, they insisted on meeting him, formally.

That was another crazy night full of nerves. They had dinner together at Zayn’s house to make the formal introductions. At first it was just them and Zayn’s parents and sisters, but Zayn’s extended family was huge, and before they knew it the Malik’s table was full of aunts and uncles and cousins, all asking the man that had stolen their precious Zayn’s heart a million questions. It was unnerving, yeah, but strangely enough, Liam felt so at home with the Maliks the nerves went away almost immediately. From then on, he visited their house frequently, never missing any of their monthly family dinners.

Zayn’s meeting with Liam’s parent was a much smaller affair, but it was incredibly emotional. Maybe because Liam’s family knew way too much about Liam’s overall bad luck in the love department, and at some point during the night his mum saw the way Zayn looked at him and she started crying and soon enough even his sisters were crying, while Liam hid in Zayn’s chest, red as a tomato. Later that night, as they lay in bed, Liam cried tears of his own, while Zayn whispered sweet promises in his ear, promises Liam believed wholeheartedly.

Eventually, both families got to know each other, making family gatherings even bigger and crazier. Now they were all waiting impatiently outside, as Zayn still pretended to fix his tie, taking his sweet time. Every family member and friend they had in town and could attend would surely be wanting to kill them for taking so long. Hell, there were even a few famous friends of Zayn that had flown over from the states, and Liam hoped his sisters’ fangirling would be enough entertainment to make their wait less boring.

Liam was in no rush. Not really. He was content looking at Zayn, letting the beating of his heart drown the chatter of the people outside. “Are you done?” he pretended to hurry Zayn, but only because he had important matters to discuss with him before they went outside.

“Yeah, yeah… god, you’re so annoying,” Zayn complained, exaggerating the roll of his eyes as he turned around, walking the few steps that separated him from Liam. Liam laughed, uncrossing his legs to make room for Zayn, opening his arms to trap Zayn in a tight hug.

Zayn went willingly, resting his arms on Liam’s shoulders. Liam’s hands went to his waist, pulling him closer. “You look dashing… How did I ever get so lucky?” he asked, kissing Zayn’s lips calmly.

“I know, right?” Zayn asked, earning a tickle on the ribs from Liam. He was the dorkiest man in the world and Liam was so in love it hurt. Fuck.

Liam pulled Zayn closer until their chests touched and then he rested his head on Zayn’s shoulder, sighing. “I love you…” he whispered, closing his eyes, letting Zayn’s warmth calm his anxiety down.

“I love you more…” Zayn replied with a sigh of his own. “You ready?” he asked after a little silence, turning his head to kiss Liam’s cheek.

Liam didn’t answer. He just focused on breathing, in and out, because there was one last thing he needed to do before going outside to finally opening his restaurant with the people they loved. The problem was it was a big thing, he needed to steel his nerves before managing to do it. That hug was doing wonders to help him calm down, so he made no attempt to move.

“Are you okay?” Zayn asked, pulling away to look at Liam’s face. He looked worried, there was that little crease in his forehead and his hands were rubbing Liam’s back, comfortingly, like he knew something was wrong and he was doing his best to make it better.

Liam laughed, shaking his head. “I’m perfect, babe, it’s just…” he made a pause, because he had rehearsed this in his head a million times but now, looking into Zayn’s eyes, he was struggling for words. “Do you have a favorite dish? One you want to eat forever?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer. It wasn’t food he was talking about.

He clearly had a point and Zayn noticed, relaxing, smiling a knowing smile, maybe because he realized nothing was really wrong, or maybe because these food metaphors were another of their things. Zayn always had fun trying to understand what the hell Liam was trying to convey using them, so he answered with his curious expression on, squinting at him. “I do, why?” he replied, looking at Liam suspiciously.

“I do too,” Liam smiled, shrugging. “I found it two years ago, you know? And damn, I love it so much. It’s so delicious and beautiful and amazing sometimes I feel like it’s not real, like I made it up. It makes me so happy, you have no idea… I love having it every day and I want to have it for fucking ever. I want a lifetime supply of it…” he explained, and Zayn laughed, clearly understanding this was about him. Liam used that distraction to carefully remove one arm from around Zayn to look for the little treasure he had hidden in his suit’s pocket. “…I love it so much I would marry it…” he added, like it was nothing, waiting for Zayn’s reaction.

And the reaction came all at once, all of a sudden, making Liam’s stomach do a somersault. Zayn stopped laughing, his eyebrows almost reached his hairline, opening both his eyes and his mouth really big, looking at Liam like he had grown a second nose. He froze like that for a moment, frowning a bit, like he was trying to guess if Liam was serious or not, and Liam just stared back at him, nervously biting his lip but smiling reassuringly, waiting for Zayn to connect all the dots.

“What?” Zayn croaked, his brows now furrowing deeper, his eyes sparkling. He was done calculating, apparently, and he was realizing it wasn’t a joke. Liam would’ve laughed by now if it was a joke, right? But he was calmly smiling instead, with his own eyes feeling watery.

They had talked about it before. Not like a fact, or a plan, it was way back, at the beginning. It was more like a funny, casual conversation while they watched a romantic movie one night, sprawled on Zayn’s couch one on top of the other, but Liam paid attention. They both thought the whole down on one knee proposal thing was ridiculous, they both agreed that it was too cheesy. Zayn casually commented that it was more about the feeling for him, about knowing when it was right. He had said that if it ever happened to him, he would never want all the fanfare, he would just need the person he loved, an intimate setting and a feeling of certainty in his chest, nothing more. They both shrugged the conversation off as the movie kept going, but it stayed in Liam’s mind.

It stayed there until he felt ready. And then he asked Yaser and Tricia about it, and the three of them ended up crying. They were so on board they gave him Zayn’s grandmother’s ring, a simple golden band that was now carefully tucked in Liam’s hand, inside his pocket.

Liam felt like he could drag this thing for a while, make Zayn suffer a bit, but that thought went out the window as soon as he felt Zayn practically shaking against him. So he just pulled his hand from his pocket and put it between them, opening it to reveal the ring. “I mean… you’re my favorite thing in the entire world, and I want to have you every day of my life, love, so… Would you marry me?”

Zayn’s eyes flew to the ring, and then back to Liam’s face, back and forth a few times with his mouth wide open before even being able to do anything else. Liam watched him, feeling his heart flutter in his chest, feeling his throat seize, threatening him with tears.

Tears that started falling pretty much at the same time Zayn’s did. After probably realizing the ring was in fact real, Zayn’s eyes stayed with Liam’s, and for a moment they didn’t need anything else. Like they always did, they just looked at each other, having a silent conversation, a silent moment of recognition, of unexplainable connection, basking in the feeling, in the closeness, in the silent realization.

“So? What do you say? Is this… Am I doing it right? Is this too much? Oh god, it’s too much, isn’t it?” Liam asked nervously, making Zayn bark a mix between a sob and a laugh.

“Fuck, shut up, you idiot! Yes, Liam, yes, of fucking course, fuck,” he replied, all of a sudden pushing himself against Liam’s chest to reach his lips, crushing both Liam’s hand and the ring between them.

He kissed him hard, and Liam kissed him back, doing absolutely nothing to stop the tears from falling. “A million times yes, love, yes, yes, yes…” he repeated again and again against Liam’s lips, making Liam feel like he was flying.

Soon they were both a mess of laughter and tears, holding and kissing each other, hidden in a corner of that empty kitchen. Liam pulled away just a bit so he could finally put the ring on Zayn’s finger, kissing it when he was done. “I love you,” Liam whispered as he kissed Zayn again, softer this time, sealing the promise that ring represented.

“I love you more,” he replied, kissing back but pulling away all of a sudden to fix Liam with a confused look. “Wait, but today’s the inauguration! We can’t do both things today, they’re gonna kill us! It’s too much, it’s… Are we gonna tell them today?” he asked, pointing vaguely in the direction of the hallway that led back to the restaurant.

“Why not?” Liam asked, shrugging. “We got them all together in one place, might as well take advantage of that,” he suggested, and he wasn’t wrong. It had been quite the feat, choosing a date and convincing everyone of attending. Of course this little surprise was in the back of his mind all the time, and if he insisted a bit too much about having everyone there no one could blame him.

Zayn sniffled and laughed, trying to clean the tears from his face with one hand. “Are you sure you can handle all that multitasking?” he asked, mockingly, because he never let Liam live those Napoleons down.

Liam chuckled, helping Zayn clean his face with one hand while the other playfully smacked his shoulder. “Shut up, silly, I absolutely can. I’m a Chef, remember?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Yes, you are,” Zayn replied, kissing him again.