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So Take Me to the Paradise in Your Eyes

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“Louissssss,” Liam half-yells, half-whines. Because even though Louis is on the complete other side of the flat, Liam is not about to suffer through this alone. At least, not without his fair share of complaining about it.

Liam,” Louis whines back from the other room, giving him a pout when he steps into the kitchen once more.

“What if I just, like, drop out?” Liam huffs. “Become a hobo or something? Is that okay with you?”

Louis snorts. “I mean, I’d be fine with it. In fact, I’ll join you.” He grins at that but then shrugs. “But I don’t know how Karen and Geoff would take that. I mean, it’s only your first year and they’re already paying a lot for you to be here.” He fake sniffles. “So far away from home.”

Liam rolls his eyes, though there’s no heat behind it. Four months ago, that comment would have been something that would have completely annoyed Liam, so much so that he would have pouted about it all day. But now? He knows that--well, that’s just Louis. And, though it’s hard to admit, maybe Liam needs someone like him in his life, to get him to lighten up a bit.

So, this current Liam nods, knowing full well Louis is right. Once again.

Seeing this, Louis laughs, “I know you don’t like when I’m right, but you have to admit, it’s a pretty frequent occurrence.”

Liam scoffs. “As if. Get out of here.” Reaching out his foot from his chair, he gives Louis a light kick.

“You’re the one that called me here, you know.”

He had a point. Not that Liam was going to say that out loud. 
“Urghhhhh” is all Liam responds, placing his already throbbing head on the table.

Geography had made his head hurt in secondary school, and it apparently hadn’t stopped since his time at uni. It was only the second day of class and he was already 100% over the semester. In a moment of annoyance, he taps his head just hard enough against the table to to make the already precariously perched textbook slide off the table and fall to the floor with a loud bang.

“Drama ki—” Louis starts to tease, but as his eyes catch on the small piece of paper that flies across the white, tile floor, he falls silent.

“What was—” Louis’ eyebrows shoot up as his eyes lift to Liam’s to study him before they fall back to the note. “Is that… what I think it is?” He gives Liam a once over before he nods knowingly, answering himself. “Only been there one day and you’ve already gotten a number, eh?”

“Actually, if I’m being honest, I have no idea what that is.”

Louis looks unimpressed. “Really, Liam? Trying to keep secrets from me, huh?” He tsks. “I thought we were better friends than that.”

He doesn’t wait for a response before he’s shuffled over to the piece of paper. “May I?” He asks, raising one eyebrow curiously. 
Liam nods and then gives a small shrug. “But I still don’t know what it is.”

Unfolding the paper as dramatically as he can, Louis giggles when he finishes uncreasing it. “You’re a liar, Liam James Payne. You know that? I’m very disappointed you got some lad’s number and intended to keep it a secret from me.”

“No, you’re kidding me,” Liam shakes his head incredulously. “Gimme.”

He holds out his hand expectantly before he impatiently waves his fingers.
“So, who is this Zayn fellow, anyway? Is he fit? What does he look like?” Louis doesn’t even get a chance to take a breath before he’s continuing on as he hands over the paper, “You met him in your geography class, didn’t you?”

After inspecting the paper closely--even though he’s honestly not quite sure what he’s looking for--Liam sighs. “I told you I don’t know, Lou, okay?”

Not even phased by this, the other boy goes on. “He must be incredibly fit for you to try to hide him from me.” Louis’ eyes light up with a sudden thought as he gasps. “Wait, he’s not the professor, is he?”

“Shut up,” Liam moans. He gives the number another glance. “I don’t know who the hell it is. Promise.”

Louis ponders this for a moment, then seems to accept what Liam says because instead of bothering him any further he carefully lifts up the textbook from the ground. Looking over it as if it’s going to explode at any moment, he carefully lifts the cover open. “Opened this yet?” Louis asks as he continues flipping the pages.

Liam shakes his head wordlessly, eyes trained on the mysterious book. He’s a bit worried about what he’ll find, almost ponders asking Louis to stop. But, well, he’s curious, too.

Louis’ about halfway through flipping, sighing every few pages when he doesn’t find what he’s looking for, when he suddenly stops. Eyes widening, he mutters happily, “Jackpot.”

Shaking the book upside down over the table, a slightly thicker piece of paper falls out. At first sight, it looks almost glossy.

Louis scrambles to pick it up. He gives it only a moment’s glance before he says, “I mean, if you’re not going to text him, I will, ‘cause damn. He is fit.”

Curiosity piqued, he grabs the picture from Louis’ hand to give it a peek, his heart already pounding from the adrenaline of it all. The shot looks professionally done, focused on the lad’s head and his torso. But Louis is right, the boy is good-looking: he has short hair that curls around his ears, his forest green Gucci-style shirt bringing out the green in his eyes. And yeah, he looks nice, his dimples catching Liam’s attention. But he’s not really Liam’s type. In fact, not even close.

“Hmm” is all Liam responds noncommittally.

Louis gives him a look, obviously unimpressed. “Come on, mate.” He raises an eyebrow. “You’ve been wanting to get some more experience talking to lads, right?”

Liam groans, slapping Louis’ arm at his words. “Last time I drink with you.” He stares at him as menacingly as he can. (It must fail, because Louis just chuckles lightly.) “Just ‘cause I shared that with you one night when I was pissed doesn’t mean that you can go around using that for your own nefarious purposes.”

Louis bats his eyelashes innocently. “Who, me?” When he sees an unimpressed Liam, Louis concedes, “Okay, but I’m not wrong, am I?”

Liam looks to the floor, a wave of embarrassment quickly rushing through him. “Okay, yeah, but I don’t even like him.”

“Pssh,” Louis dismisses. “You don’t need to. Just get to know him on a friendly basis. A lot of that banter is the same, anyway.” He places his hand on Liam’s shoulder, softening his voice as he finishes, “Besides, it's better if you don't think he's cute--you'll concentrate better.” Without waiting for Liam to interject, he continues lightly, “You really have an opportunity here. You can get two things done with this, right? ‘Cause everyone knows you suck at geography.”

Raising his finger up to protest, Liam opens his mouth before Louis looks at him pointedly, raising his voice again to tease, “Everyone. You thought Japan was near Australia.”

Liam shrugs. “I mean, they are on the same side of the world, at least.”

Louis shakes his head. “Okay, technically, but you can’t really write that on an exam, can you?”

“Not if I want to pass,” Liam mumbles, already pulling out his phone in resignation.

“Yes!” Louis shouts when he sees Liam reaching for his phone, almost bobbing from his excitement. He waits only a moment for Liam to type in the number before he says impatiently, “Okay, text him.”

Liam frowns, suddenly thinking about how he got here and so quickly, too. “Have you ever thought about being a motivational speaker? Or a… I don’t know, a life coach? You’re pretty good at convincing people to do whatever you want.”

Louis grins menacingly. “No, but that’s a good idea. Write that one down and remind me of that one when I’m the one giving you the Imma become a hobo speech.”

Louis frowns when he sees Liam open his mouth again to talk. “Stop trying to distract me by flirting, though.”

Liam lets out a little noise of protest.

“Okay, not flirting, Liam. I know how picky you are with word choice. Complimenting me, yeah?” Louis waits a second to make sure Liam is satisfied by this stipulation before he eagerly eyes Liam’s phone, still sitting limply in Liam’s hand. “Come on,” Louis encourages excitingly.

“What if I—” Liam gulps, suddenly lowering his voice. “What if I make a fool of myself?”

Since Liam’s eyes are still wandering everywhere but at his phone and at Louis, Louis squats down to force Liam to look him in the eye. “You won’t, Li,” he promises. “You’re a cool guy, and I know I’m a bit biased…” He pauses to smile, oozing fondness from ear to ear. “But I think everyone should get the chance to know you.” He stands back up. “Besides, if things go wrong, you can just end the conversation and never talk to this Zayn person again. It’s not like he’s in any of your classes, right?”

Liam sighs, still feeling a bit unsure but wanting Louis off his back. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Yay!” Louis beams, watching Liam slowly type out the number again.

“Okay, but I need a minute to think of what to say,” Liam chastises lightly. “I don’t need you breathing over me.”

“Fine,” Louis huffs, turning to the fridge to search for the nearest beer.

After only a moment, though, Liam asks nervously, “What do I text him?”

“I don’t know. You said you didn’t want me ‘breathing over you’,” Louis points out, sounding a bit disgruntled as he decides on a beer and shuts the door.

Liam chuckles. “I changed my mind.”

Louis gives him a light tap on the head as he begins to his way to his room. “Well, you need to, one, learn your geography.” Using the hand that’s not holding his beer, he raises his fingers to count. “And, two, you need to learn how to talk to lads. Best without me.”

He gives a little wave with his two fingers still raised up. “Oh, but if at the end of this tutoring or whatever, you find out he’s single, pass him on to me.” With a wink and a smirk, Louis is out of the room before Liam can even blink. Almost as an afterthought, though, Liam hears Louis call from the end of the hall, “You can do it, Li! Just trust yourself.”

Liam moves his gaze to his phone at these words, trying to repeat them to himself. Just trust yourself. Still, seeing all the white space surrounding his blank text message, he feels suddenly overwhelmed. hey, what’s up? he tries. No, too simple for being a number he stole off of a textbook.

i think fate meant to bring us together ;) No. That one, on the other hand, is way too much. Shaking his head to clear out all of his other terrible ideas, he tries one last time. hey, i think u forgot to clear out ur old textbook haha. cuz ur number was still in there. my friend said i should text it, so... hi lol

Liam forces himself to press send before he has the chance to overthink it. Besides, it's not like he likes him, anyway, so there's really nothing to lose.

Still, he finds himself checking the message a few minutes later, his heart jumping into his throat when he sees the ominous Read 21:31. Already three minutes later and not even a hint of a response. He panics, afraid that he’s already messed up after the first words out of his mouth. Or, well, out of his phone. To save his arse, he quickly decides that he better do what Louis suggested, before he comes off as even creepier than he already has. He quickly types out, u know, since ur number was in my book for some reason… my friend thought that maybe u could give me some geography lessons haha

He sends it, waiting only a moment before three dots pop up. Knowing that the other boy is typing causes Liam to damage control some more, sending one more text as fast as he can. sorry. dont worry about it, its stupid

The three dots disappear at that message, and Liam sighs, feeling strangely relieved that the conversation seems to be over. But then, before he has the chance to be too happy about that, the dots are back. Not much later, a message replaces it. that's a bit weird lol... but i do need extra cash. assuming you’re not a serial killer or anything haha. meet me at the front of the art building at 3 tomorrow?

Liam lets out a giant breath at this response, feeling comforted that things seem to be working out alright. Or, at least, as good as Liam could have hoped for, given the circumstances. He takes a moment to think out his response. Should he really be doing this? No, probably not. But he does need the help--he can already tell from his homework for tonight. 

He ponders out an answer before finally deciding on: not a serial killer… OR an axe murderer. promise :) so I guess I’ll see you then? my name is liam, by the way Even so, he doesn't think about the smiley face until it's already sent. Then, it’s like World War III erupts within his brain, all sides firing on why he shouldn’t have typed that out.

So much for not embarrassing himself. Who sends smiley faces to random numbers in their phone?? Apparently Liam fucking Payne does. Liam pulls his lips in, doing his best to breath through his nose to calm himself down while the rest of his body continues stressing about the text he just sent.

When he finally chances a glance, his heart races when it sees that the other boy has responded. cool. im zayn :) Liam smiles, feeling himself immediately settling down when he sees that Zayn returned the smiley face. Maybe everything will actually be okay.

And to make sure of that, this time, Liam reigns in his need to respond, wanting to mention about how he already knew his name. Because it was on the damn note. But that didn’t need to be said. In fact, that topic really needed to be dropped for the rest of the evening. If not the rest of eternity. 

Liam lets out a huff of air, squeezing his eyes shut as he tries to ignore the already impending embarrassment washing over him again. Maybe, he thinks, seeing him face to face will help him get over his worry and awkwardness a bit. Because it’d surely be easy with him. He’s cute, but not really what Liam is into. It’d be like any of his other friendships. Eventually, it’d probably feel like talking to Louis.

Wrong. That’s all Liam can think when he finds his way to the art building. Still five minutes early, he sees that there’s absolutely no one there that looks like the guy from the picture. Only an old woman, sweeping the sidewalk. Which, unless he got catfished… that’s not him.

Taking a look again, he finds one other boy that must have just left the building, because he wasn’t standing on the stairs a moment ago. His smile radiates as he beams at Liam, giving him a knowing look. Meanwhile, Liam in turn shifts awkwardly on his feet, feeling suddenly very out of place.

When he starts walking towards Liam, he panics. Wrong. Liam didn’t prepare for this. In fact, he’d hardly prepared to meet the boy in the picture. But this? This was a whole other level. In Liam’s eyes, that boy had been a 6. And that had been stressful enough. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

“Hi, you must be Liam?” The boy--Zayn, he supposes--inquires, stopping Liam’s thoughts in its tracks. Liam can’t imagine anything worse at this moment, finding out he is Zayn. He can only flash back to that awful, embarrassing smiley face he sent last night, how he introduced himself by saying he found his number in a textbook. Shit. Because by comparison, this boy, with the styled black quiff, high cheekbones, and twinkling brown eyes? He’s a solid 10.

And Liam can’t form words in front of tens, can’t even get out syllables, instead only finding it in himself to nod weakly.

The only consolation he can give himself as Zayn leads him to the back of the building is that--well, Zayn had sent a smiley face back. And that has to mean something, right?

Chapter Text

“Sooooo,” Zayn starts, a half smile forming on his lips as he sits on one side of the picnic table. “Liam, it’s nice to meet you. Officially, I guess.”

Liam jerks his hand out awkwardly, all too aware as Zayn’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise at the motion. Still, he shakes his hand, gripping tightly for a moment. “Same to you,” Liam responds, still feeling too formal, not acting like he should be. He closes his eyes for half a second to mentally set himself up to try again. “Not just a number in a book anymore.” Or a wrong picture in a book, either.

They both nod at each other for a moment, a heavy silence between the two of them. Zayn stares at Liam, obviously trying to size him up while Liam does the same to Zayn. He must be alright with what he sees, because, well, he doesn’t run away screaming. In fact, after a moment,  Zayn even laughs before he says, “No, I’m a real person in the flesh.” He grins at Liam, waiting to make sure that Liam will grin back before he adds, “That is, unless I’m just a hologram here from the future.” Zayn raises one eyebrow mysteriously, and Liam can’t help it: he leans down, moving his arm forward to attempt to swipe at him.

And, yeah, that’s one way to break the ice. It’s like Liam only has two modes: thinking too much, or not thinking at all. He’s apparently switched from the first to the second before he can even blink. Thanks, Zayn.

“Hey!” Zayn wriggles away from Liam, looking shocked but laughing nonetheless.

“I don’t know,” Liam chuckles, looking amused. “You seem pretty solid to me.”

Zayn crosses his arms. “Fine,” he faux pouts. “But I can still help you. I just won’t have Google programmed into me or anything.” He watches Liam’s reaction, making sure he laughs before asking, “So, you’re only one day in and you’re already needing help?”

Before Liam can respond, he’s continuing quickly, eyebrows furrowing in worry as if just realizing what he’s doing. “Also, is it alright to sit outside? Or do you want me to try to find a spot inside the building? Sorry, I should’ve asked before I just sat somewhere and--” Zayn forces himself to trail off.

In response, Liam nods quietly, already moving his hand to the back of his neck to rub at it. He sits down on the opposite side quickly so that he can avoid eye contact with the other boy. “This is fine.” He forces a smile. “Good, I mean.” He breathes out, knowing he should also respond to the first part of Zayn’s question, but all the same not wanting to. “And, I--err--umm…” He gulps, trying not to say the truth: that his roommate thought he should text him, because he was--well, he thought--was someone else. “I’ve always been really bad at geography.”

Zayn raises his eyebrows, not quite sure if he should believe this or not. “Always?” He looks thoughtful for a moment. “Like, you came out of the womb and you didn’t know the Eastern hemisphere from the Western one?”

Liam lets out a surprised giggle at this, not at all expecting a response like that. “I mean, I think that’s how it works normally, doesn’t it? Or did you come out of the womb a geography expert?”

Zayn shakes his head, a grin peeking through his features. Still, he teases, “You don’t know me.”

Liam blushes, suddenly quite aware of himself, of Zayn across from him, of time moving between the two of them. And he’s not quite sure if it’s because of his words or because of the quietly intrigued way Zayn is staring at him, but he concedes shakily, “You’re right, I don’t.” He swallows down the quickly enlarging lump in his throat.

His mouth moves to form the words, But maybe you can tutor me on that, too.

But he doesn’t say them, only breaking eye contact once more to pull his textbook and his already-looming homework out of his backpack.

“So, here’s where I’m struggling,” Liam forces himself to say. Makes his tongue form the words and his eyes lead to the page.

Zayn listens intently, and for his part, is surprisingly good at what he does.

And things seem relatively easy. There’s still that uneasiness of meeting someone new, especially considering how that came about but… forgetting that, it feels natural.

Basically, things are as comfortable as they can be for two people who just met through a textbook.

Except.

Except Louis’ plan has failed Liam, because while it wouldn’t have been a problem with the other boy in the picture, it’s a problem with the real Zayn.

Liam misses every single word that comes out of the other lad’s mouth, only catching onto syllables. He’s not able to resist taking in how the words fall off his tongue, his Yorkshire accent only getting thicker as he thinks harder about how to best explain something.

“Get it?” Zayn asks suddenly and Liam blinks, not realizing how out of it he is until Zayn says that. It hadn’t been conscious, really. Or even wanted.

All he needs is to pass this class, not fall head over heels over another straight guy.

“I think so,” Liam lies, nodding a bit to make it look more believable.

“Okay, why don’t you tell me in your own words then?”

Liam blinks twice at that, feeling suddenly caught, as if he’s been found stealing a cookie from the cookie jar. “What?” Liam’s voice is all throaty and it sounds different, wrong.

“My intro to teaching class taught me that it’s really good to have students say new concepts in their own way, because then it means they’re actually understanding it, not just repeating it like a monkey.”

Before Liam can think, he’s spitting out, “But what if I am a monkey?”

Zayn just looks at him for a moment, suddenly quiet. Liam’s heart thumps through his whole body as another wave of embarrassment runs through him before Zayn’s laughing again good-naturedly. “Well, monkeys probably aren’t that good at geography, so it’s possible, I suppose.” He gives him a little nod. “But go ahead, just try to sum it up.”

Giving him a soft look, he waits patiently. “Erm, ahem, I--“ Liam stutters out a few excuses for words before he feels his chest turning bright red. “To be honest, I didn’t get that much.” He pauses. “I was a bit… distracted.”

Zayn suddenly looks down, his phone buzzing loudly on the table. “Speaking of which...” He jokes. He moves to put it in his pocket. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s alright, you can answer it,” Liam smiles, hoping and praying that he does because he needs Zayn’s attention on anyone but him right now.

“No, don’t worry, it’s no big deal,” Zayn starts to say, but he must see the almost pleading in Liam’s eyes, because he quickly types out a message.

“Girlfriend?” Liam asks knowingly, not sure why he’s even asking at all. But it’s too late, the words have already left his mouth and Zayn is halfway to answering.

“No” is all Zayn says simply, but he seems to be laughing at the thought.

“What?” Liam asks suspiciously, squinting his eyes at him.

“Nothing,” Zayn says lightly, but it doesn’t sound convincing to Liam. “It’s just Harry.” There’s a moment of silence before Zayn finishes, “And, well, I guess it’s just kind of funny to me, ‘cause I’d never have a girlfriend.”

Liam wonders at that, wonders if it could be what some little part of him wishes, yearns for, and--”I’m not really interested in girls, I mean.”

Liam isn’t able to say why, but his heart leaps as Zayn says this, feeling suddenly airy and as lightheaded as a balloon. He can’t decide if it makes him feel uplifted, soaring through the clouds, or like his feet are left dangling 50 feet in the air.

Only…

The tension in Liam’s stomach comes back. Who is just Harry? And, perhaps the bigger question, why does it bother Liam so much that he doesn’t know?

“Oh, okay, cool” is all Liam responds, not quite sure what the normal-I’m-not-interested-in-you response is in this case.

After he sends the text, Zayn turns back to Liam. “What were you distracted by?” He asks gently.

Shit. Liam had hoped that Zayn would forget that question by the time he sent the text. “Ehh,” Liam gets out weakly. “I guess, I’m just…”

Another text comes in on Zayn’s phone, and he looks down as he hears the buzz, grinning and chuckling to himself.

Liam suddenly wants to bring more words forward, wants to ask why that man’s picture was in his textbook in the first place--but he’s not so sure he wants to know the answer, not so sure he really wants to talk about this Harry person anymore. Doesn’t really want Harry to be the reason for Zayn’s laugh anymore.

In fact, Liam thinks quite bitterly, he’d much rather try to explain what he (didn’t) learn than talk about this for one more second.

But instead of saying any of that, Liam just sighs and mutters, “It's just that I have a big exam today and I'm a bit worried.” He bites at his lip as he watches Zayn’s expression turn downward into pity.

“We could study that for a bit, if you want,” Zayn says next. And Liam hadn't planned a response like that, hadn't thought that Zayn would be kind enough to offer something like that. “Free of charge,” he adds, and Liam smiles.

Because if he can listen to Zayn’s voice and not go broke, all at the same time, that'd be ideal. Besides, maybe he'd learn his vocab words faster if he had Zayn’s voice to hold on to, anyway. Because it’s true. He really does have an exam today, though he's not as panicked about it as he's led on.

Hermana,” Zayn says loudly, pronouncing the h in the word full force.

Liam flinches. “I may only be in Spanish 101, but I still know not to pronounce the h, mate.”

Zayn raises his eyebrows. “Getting sassy, are we?” He gives him a fake stern look. “I don't have to help you, you know.”

Liam pouts. “I'm sorry, keep going.”

“Besides,” Zayn adds, “I never took Spanish. Just English classes and learned Urdu from my dad.”

Liam's face lights up. Zayn sees this and frowns, knowing immediately where his mind has gone. “No, I will not teach you swear words in Urdu. Now, come on, what does hermana mean?”

And they continue on like this until suddenly it's an hour later and Liam’s almost running late for his test. As he quickly packs up his stuff, Zayn pouts, finding himself wanting to say “Don't go.” Instead, as Liam rushes down the hall, he ends up calling to him, biting his lip as he attempts to remember the new words he's learned. “Let me know how it goes, chico. Adios!”

And he still pronounces it quite terribly, Liam thinks, but it's so endearing, he wishes he would never stop.

Chapter Text

“Are you going to see him again?” Louis gets out the moment after Liam’s mouth closes, eyebrows raised in interest. Liam’s barely finished explaining how his meetup went before Louis is already aiming questions at him, questions that, truthfully, Liam would rather not think about.

“Why do you care?” Liam responds suspiciously, returning the eyebrow raise.

“I mean, if this guy is a so-called ten, as you say he is…” He shrugs, a devilish grin crossing his features. “I wanna see what he looks like.”

“I’m not taking a stalker picture of him for you,” Liam says flatly.

Louis drops his head, pouting. But it only takes him a moment before he’s snapping his head back up, the lightbulb of an idea above his head almost visible. “Then just bring him here.”

“No,” Liam quickly snaps. “I’m not bringing him here for you to a) incessentantly ogle him, or for you to b) fire a bunch of questions at him about his love life and how I do or don’t fit into it.”

“I would not just ogle him, Liam,” Louis gasps, sounding truly offended. “Besides, I’m more interested in the guy behind that Zayn-not-Zayn picture.”

Liam shakes his head, noting how Louis doesn’t even try to deny the second part.

“I’ll text him again in a few days, okay? That’s all I’m promising,” he sighs as he gets out of the chair, making it sound as if it’s a chore, even though he’s been aching to do it for the past… well, three hours.

As he’s leaving the room, he hears Louis call out to him, “Text him about who that boy is, please!”

Liam huffs out a laugh as he calls back, “Not happening, Lou.”

---

Two days pass by slower than Liam’s ever imagined possible, minutes and hours seemingly running through molasses. Even though he doesn’t know much about dating, he knows he’s heard somewhere about the three day rule. Something about waiting to call them until after the third day?

With that logic, he figures if he texts him back at the end of the second day, maybe it’ll be the opposite. Maybe Zayn won’t suspect Liam’s interested, because he’s earlier than his supposed “interest window”.

It sounds convoluted, even in Liam’s head, but he’s already planned it out and might as well stick it out, because, if he’s being honest, he doesn’t really want to wait more than two days to text him, anyway.

When can I see you again? Liam types out, knowing immediately that he will never actually send that. Still, he wants to see the words on the screen, wants to imagine pressing the send button and letting it whoosh off to Zayn.

He deletes the sentence, but then, when it’s just a blank message once more, he’s not even sure where to start. His heart tells him to just go for it, say it all, everything he’s thought and wondered and dreamed and more.

His brain, though? He says to keep it simple, keep it about the tutoring. They have only met one time, Liam’s head reminds himself condescendingly.

And Liam knows before he even starts that this thought will conquer, because his brain always wins out, the ringleader of his leashed and pulled back heart.

hey, im still having some trouble with my hw, u free today to help?

He rereads the words, double checking that he seems casual enough, no hint of the heart-pumping and held breath going on underneath.

And it’s not a lie. He hasn’t exactly started the homework yet, but he’s known ever since he first got assigned the problems that he would be struggling with it for at least the rest of the night.

It’s less than a minute later when he sees the notification pop up, the short but sweet response. yeah! meet at the same spot in thirty? :D

Liam smiles, doing his very best to ignore the way the words, the impending meeting, crinkle up his stomach like a used wrapper. see you then :), he answers back, quickly forcing himself out of bed to try to piece together the right outfit and overall look: the one that says I look good but not good enough for you to be suspicious of my intentions.

Settling on a tight, white t-shirt, layered with his favorite red plaid shirt, and dark wash jeans, he gives himself a once-over in the mirror. He messes with his hair, styling it up into a quiff, patting it back down. Repeating, and then repeating again. 

Finally deciding on a similar style to Zayn’s (that he’d rather not think on too long), he grabs a little gel and officially styles it into a small quiff. As a last thought, he reaches over to grab the cologne sitting on his vanity, spraying it a couple of times on himself before he sighs, mentally preparing himself to meet Zayn again.

The whole walk over, all he can think is how this is really his first impression. Or, at least, what feels like his first impression since he only now knows what he’s getting himself into. Or who.

“Hey, Zayn,” Liam says as easily as he can when he gets there, finding himself at what he guesses would now be considered their table.

“Leeyummmm,” Zayn grins, expression instantly picking up when he catches Liam’s eye. “Sit down.” He pats the seat next to him, his smile never faltering.

Liam shuffles over to the boy, heart picking up once more. He cautiously and slowly slides his legs up and around the bench to sit, all too aware of the distance between him and Zayn. As he moves to actually sit, he can’t decide how far away he’s supposed to be. Six inches or three?

Having to quickly decide, he ends up sitting almost nine inches away, feeling suddenly sheepish. “So, err, I ended up figuring out the homework I had from the other day.”

Heavily combing through his textbook and using keywords to bring back memories that Liam had subconsciously heard somewhere in the back of his mind, he had been able to slowly but surely piece it together. “I apparently did get some of what you told me,” he chuckles.

“Good,” Zayn beams, and it feels so genuine, even for something so silly as his first homework assignment.

“But now, well, I’m sort of stuck on this one. We’re going over, like, the different types of geography, I guess? And the tools they use to measure that kind of stuff.” Liam shrugs. “I don’t know, science-y things have never really been my strong suit, and this is like a weird mix of science and the world and it’s confusing me.”

“Ah, yes, I remember learning about this,” Zayn ponders. “It’s not too bad once you get the hang of it, I promise. I’ll help you understand this ‘weird mix of science and the world’, as much as I can.” He gives a reassuring smile. “I’ll go over economic geography first, ‘cause that one confused me the most.” Elbowing Liam lightly, he continues, “And maybe going from hardest to easiest will make the others feel less confusing.”

Liam blinks, suddenly realizing he has no idea what year Zayn is. “When did you learn about this, again?”

“Only last semester,” Zayn answers as he starts to pick up Liam’s pen. He glances down, obviously having felt the bite marks on it, but nothing except the small wrinkle of his nose gives him away. Instead, he finishes, sounding almost embarrassed, “I’m only a first year.”

“Me too,” Liam says happily, not quite sure why this fact pleases him. We have three more years together, then, he wants to say, but he holds his tongue instead.

“Awesome,” Zayn laughs. “Oh yeah, how do your exam go also?” He gives Liam a little poke in the side.

Liam giggles from the sudden contact, feeling himself blushing from the touch. “It went really well, actually. I got an 85.”

“Congrats, mate,” Zayn praises, clapping Liam on the back and squeezing just slightly. “Now let’s see if we can get you that for your first geography exam, too, whenever that happens.”

He releases his arm to pull Liam’s book closer. “You have to pay attention this time, though,” he chides gently, gaze raising from the book to Liam, tongue poking out between his smile.

Liam sticks out his tongue in return, but can’t help the laugh that lurches from his mouth. “You try paying attention for this long, see how well you do,” he jokes.

“I do it all the time, bro. My, you know, professors?” Zayn teases in return, quirking an eyebrow.

“Well, you’re a lot easier on the eyes than any of the professors I’ve ever known,” Liam gets out quickly, not even thinking about his words until they’ve already left his lips.

Zayn’s mouth forms into a small o for a millisecond, not able to hide his surprise. “Touche,” he responds after a moment, and his surprise seems long gone, followed by the ever-present smile that Liam can’t help but mirror.

As they make their way through the assignment, Liam slowly finds himself inching a little closer to Zayn. He tells himself that it’s because he has to be able to see the assignment better, to more easily see the diagrams Zayn draws, but… It feels more meaningful than that, somehow. 

Liam doesn’t want to dwell too much on it. Not today.

By the time they’re finishing up, Liam is only a couple of inches away from Zayn, the sun is setting behind them, and Liam’s stomach is starting to growl.

As they begin to wind down, Liam can tell that Zayn is coming back to his more formalized tutoring self when he asks, “Do you want to meet up, like, only when you need help or maybe once a week or something? What do you want?”

“Twice a week sounds good,” Liam says quietly, trying to hide his smile behind a hand and a fake cough.

Zayn gives him a long look and a nod before he bites his lip. Then, he’s just as quickly out of his tutoring mode as he came into it as he gets out, “You know, you don’t have to just hang out with me when I’m tutoring you. Like, we can hang out some other time.” He clears his throat. “If you want, I mean. It’s cool.” He gulps. “Or, like, not. If you don’t want, either. Whatever.”

Zayn flinches, just barely noticeably, but Liam ignores it, smiling slowly. “Okay.” He starts to pack up his things, doing it as meticulously as he can to prolong his time with Zayn. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that some time.”

Chapter Text

“I’m off,” Liam calls happily to Louis’ closed bedroom door.

There’s a quick shuffle of feet before the door swings open, Louis squinting as he takes Liam in. “What’re you so happy about?” There’s a small pause before a smirk crawls onto his face, the realization slowly settling in. “You’re meeting Zayn again, aren’t you?”

“None of your business,” Liam mutters, scuffing his feet together as he finds himself needing to do something. He’s not sure why, but he’s suddenly feeling like all his pent-up nervous energy is too much for him to keep bundled up tight any longer.

Still, he can’t hide the small smile that blooms on his face. Louis, of course--bastard that he is--picks up on it almost instantly, chuckling knowingly. “I knew it.” Clapping him on the back, he cries in a rush, “Use protection!” Then, he closes the door in a flash, knowing full well the slap that will find his shoulder if he doesn’t.

If only he knew about Harry, Liam thinks. “That won’t be a problem, Lou. Don’t you even worry,” he grumbles bitterly.

“Don’t be so sure,” Louis says back in a singsong voice, his voice a little muffled because of the large slab of wood still between them. Because Louis’ just that stubborn. “He’d be completely mad not to fall for you.”

“You’re only saying that so I don’t come in there and give you that hit you know you deserve!” Liam teases, sticking out his tongue at the door for effect, even though he’s well aware that there’s no one to see it.

“He lovesssss you,” Louis continues in the same voice, only slightly mocking.

“Shut up, I’m leaving now,” Liam groans as he playfully hits the door between them. “And, no, I’m still not asking about that boy, before you ask.”

All he gets is a dramatic huff in return.

---

If it’s possible, the next tutoring session goes even easier than the last. They conquer their corner once more--though, from the empty picnic tables and wordless air that always surrounds them, it doesn’t really seem to be all that popular. In fact, Liam’s not sure if he’s seen another soul there before. Like, ever.

He’s not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Because, as Liam has been slowly piecing together, day by day, it effectively creates a bubble for just the two of them, a sense of intimacy that Liam isn’t quite sure how to react to. And every time they meet, Liam seems to be just a bit more aware of it than the time before.

“So, we’ve met, like, four times now, right?” Liam asks at the end of their session, smile growing as Zayn slowly shakes his head. Not that Liam would ever change the number to see if Zayn had been keeping track like he had. Of course not. 

(Though, if he was being fully honest, he most certainly had and just did. Not that Zayn ever needed to know that.)

Though it’s part of Zayn’s job to count the number of times we’ve met, a whiny voice reminds Liam in the back of his mind.

Never mind that.

“It’s been three times, I think, actually,” Zayn says gently, giving Liam a soft look that matches his tone. “Though I’ll say it kind of does feel like more.”

Taking the opportunity as he finds it, Liam pouts. “Are you saying I’m boring?” He whines, though he has to break eye contact momentarily before he glances back at Zayn, anything to try to keep back the smile threatening to crack his porcelain surface.

“No, no, not at all,” Zayn says quickly, looking at Liam carefully as he tries to decipher his expression. “But,” he drawls out as he sees what he thinks (hopes) is the twitch of a lip, a hint of a grin. “Well, maybe I am.” He shrugs, a mischievous glint in his eye. “What are you gonna do about it?”

“Shut it,” Liam side shoves Zayn playfully, doing his very best to even ignore Zayn’s question. “I don’t have time to deal with you,” he teases lightly. 

He wants to--needs to--ignore the question. Because, if Liam’s being honest with himself, he has no clue what he wants to do about it. About it, about him, about this. 

This pulsing energy between them that maybe only Liam feels, maybe only Liam frets over in the middle of the night, tossing and turning as his mind spills over with thoughts of Zayn. 

Or maybe it’s this very same energy that Zayn picks up on, too. And maybe Liam’s supposed to be the one to do something about it.

But instead of dealing with any of this, he gives Zayn a faux annoyed look before continuing on. “Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is—what do I owe you? Besides my brilliant smile and charming personality, of course.”

Zayn blinks, seemingly surprised by Liam’s words. Not that Liam feels any differently—he’s not sure where all these words are coming from, flowing easily from his mouth before he can process them. All he knows is that it seems the less he thinks about these things, the better.

And if he can get out things like this instead of, well, things about their pulsing energy and all thatthat’s probably the best compromise for himself he’s going to come up with.

And he doesn’t think he’s going to be able to do any better, anyway, because around Zayn, Liam can’t even think, let alone think properly.

Zayn waves him off. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll settle it somehow.”

Liam raises his eyebrows. “I have to give you something,” he insists.

“Alright, well, when we finally hang out, you can pay for whatever it is we do.” He glances at Liam to see how he takes this. “Fair?” He asks with a small smile.

“Alright, I guess that’ll work,” Liam says easily, trying to pretend as if the mere thought doesn’t send him into a panic, his heart tittering like a rattlesnake.

“Speaking of which,” Zayn smirks. “I’m having a movie marathon at my place tonight, if you wanna come.” He shrugs, as if this invitation is nothing. “I think we’re watching the Dark Knight series.”

Liam frowns at the loud we that drowns out all the other words in the sentence. “We?” He gulps after a moment, knowing full well who he’s going to say, but hoping all the same.

“Harry and I,” he clarifies. “It won’t be anything big,” he says suddenly, as if this is what would be holding him back.

“I don’t know,” Liam hesitates, unconsciously scooting a bit further from Zayn. He can tell he’s seemingly standing at the edge of an important decision but all he can think is Harry. He doesn’t even know what Harry looks like, but he imagines he’s some sort of model, maybe a buff, tan one, the kind that has a perfect laugh and the whitest teeth known to man. 

Please, Leeyum, it’ll be a lot of fun.” He flashes a grin. “I promise.” He taps his hip against Liam’s side. “In fact, I’ll let you choose the movie if you want. It’s Harry turn to choose, but I’ll persuade him somehow to let you pick.”

The idea that it’s Harry’s turn and that he’ll need to persuade him and all that entails turns Liam’s insides.

But Zayn’s eyes, his wide hopeful eyes and the almost pleading that leaves his mouth makes Liam do things against his better judgment. (Who is he kidding? Zayn, in all his entirety, makes him do things against his better judgment. Not that anyone could really blame Liam for that.)

“Alright,” he finally concedes with a shy smile. “I guess I’ll come.”

Chapter Text

“So, I’ve found a flaw in your plan,” Liam says slowly as they’re walking to—well, he’s not actually quite sure where they’re going. Zayn’s flat, likely? Or maybe Harry’s flat?

Are they serious enough to be sharing a flat? The sudden thought brings a sharp twinge to Liam’s stomach.

This thought is suddenly (and thankfully) pushed aside when Zayn gives him a side look. “How do you mean?” He pauses a moment. “Is it ‘cause it’s the middle of January, I’m making us walk, and the only thing I have to keep warm is this leather jacket?”

Liam snorts. “No, ‘cause I really can’t say much either,” he points out as he gestures to his thinly-lined jumper.

“I see what you mean” is all Zayn says, shaking his head with a chuckle. “Guess neither of us can be chivalrous and give our coats to the other then.” He flashes a grin at Liam, seemingly simultaneously checking out his reaction to his words. “We’ll be stuck in this frozen hell forever.”

Liam taps his elbow against Zayn’s side. “There could be worse things,” he admits. “Like the real flaw in your plan,” he reminds him lightly.

Zayn huffs out a laugh. “Right, right, continue on, Li.” And the nickname feels so natural leaving his lips. Though he doesn’t mean to say it, and he’s not even aware that he’s done it, it just feels right. When a small, lopsided grin pops up on Liam’s face, though, Zayn puts the pieces together, flushing just slightly.

“As I was saying,” Liam teases—though he admits to himself that he will today and forever more accept any form of interruption from Zayn—”the flaw in this whole ‘movie night’ thing is that.” He smiles a little. “How am I supposed to pay you back for anything when all we’re doing is watching movies and, I don’t know, eating popcorn or something?”

“Well, are you hungry?” Zayn asks, and Liam’s stomach rumbles on cue at that.

Liam nods a little shyly, humming in response.

“Then, you can pick what we get for takeaway. Fair?”

“I guess I could make that work,” Liam replies happily.

And maybe he’s getting a bit too comfortable. His arms slightly swaying as they walk, his hand barely brushes against Zayn’s. This, he thinks, is the problem with walking side by side.

Only, a small part reminds him, is it really a problem?

“Sorry,” Liam mutters as he brings his eyes down to the cement underneath them. He feels like it’s something he should do, something to clear the suddenly taut air.

“Don’t worry about it,” Zayn breathes back, and he’s suddenly three degrees quieter, shier. Quickly glancing back at Zayn, Liam sees him biting back something on his lips, only he’s not sure what.

After a minute or so of silence, Zayn clears his throat. “Almost there, don’t worry,” he reassures, as if thinking about that was what made them both go quiet. Gulping, he glances up at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. “I know our place is a little far to walk, but it’s—” He continues talking as the light shifts and he starts walking, but the words fade out of Liam’s memory as he fuzzily picks up the our in the sentence and nothing else. He forces himself to stumble along behind Zayn.

Our. Our. Our.

Fucking fantastic.

---

Liam isn’t quite sure what to expect as he steps into the flat, though his mind effortlessly makes a long list of all the things he’s terrified of: tea candles giving off a low light in the living area, sultry music playing on the stereo, Harry fully ready to pounce on Zayn.

Thankfully, only one of those things happen.

Unfortunately, though, it’s the one that Liam hates the most.

The second that Zayn opens the door, a lanky lad looks up from the pot he’s currently stirring. “Zaynie!” He cries happily, gently setting the wooden spoon against the pot before he shuffles over to pull Zayn into a hug and plop a big, wet kiss on his cheek. “Been so long,” he drawls, and Zayn pokes him in the cheek with a laugh.

“Saw you this morning, you donut.”

Liam’s not sure why, but as Harry finally turns his radiant, green eyes away from Zayn to look at him, something about him seems so familiar. He can’t place it, can’t quite pick up why those short curls look similar somehow, why those eyes, practically boring into him, seem like an old sensation. But he can’t think, not when both this new man and Zayn are looking at him like he’s a lost puppy. 

“I’m Harry,” the man introduces himself when Liam must give him a bit more of a confused (and probably begrudging) look than he means to. “You must be Liam?” He reaches out for Liam’s hand, and Liam reciprocates, feeling suddenly too stiff and unsure of how to hold himself. He gives a slight nod, answering his question, before Harry continues, “Mr. Malik here has told me so much about you.” He pats Zayn on the shoulder, giving him a strong squeeze before he smirks at him.

Liam isn’t quite sure how he fits into all of this, or why he’s even here, except for maybe giving Zayn the opportunity to rub Harry in his face. He can feel himself paling slightly, but not knowing of any way to stop it, he just gives a weak smile.

“I’m making chicken and pasta. Hope you don’t mind.” He wraps one arm around Zayn’s waist. “It’s one of Zayn’s favorites.” Harry taps his hip with his hand when he says his name. 

Before Liam can somehow protest, not wanting to see or hear any more of this than he needs to, Zayn’s crinkling his nose. “Haz,” he whines. “I told you not to make this too big of a thing.” He pulls back. Pouting at Harry, he gives him a light shove. “Besides, Liam was gonna order takeaway for us.”

Harry frowns, his forehead wrinkling in the process. “Oh,” he says quietly, sounding a bit disappointed. “I’m sorr—” Harry is starting to say before Zayn pulls him into his chest for a hug, effectively muffling him.

Giving him a light kiss on the top of his head, he soothes, “It’s okay. This sounds good, too.”

Liam is so completely unsure of what to do with himself. In fact, if he’s being brutally honest, he’s more unsure than he’s ever been of anything in his life. So he blurts out the first thing he can think of. “I can go and get some dessert if you want.” He gulps as the two of them look up at him, seemingly a little started and confused. “Like, if there’s a store nearby. I can just walk while you make the chicken, Haz.” He shakes his head. “Err, Harry.” He can’t think straight, this feeling of Zayn intoxicating his brain to a whole new level. Instead of just taking in Zayn, this time it’s Zayn and Harry, Zayn and Harry, ripping in and out of his lungs, his brain, his heart with every breath.

“Are you sure, Leeyum?” Zayn asks, and it sounds so heartfelt, so caring, that Liam wants to cry. “You don’t have to. It’s really not a big deal.”

Liam’s chest tightens, the two of them still closer than a match to a flame. He starts fervently shaking his head. “It’s fine,” he gets out. “I want to.”

He doesn’t even think about asking what they want before he’s moving to the door.

“There’s a gas station only a block away, to the right!” Harry calls after him, sounding helpful, but Liam still resents him, anyway.

He slams the door behind him, accidentally giving away more of his emotions than he means to, though he’s fuming too much to stop it at this point.

The whole way over, he plans out how he can leave without looking suspicious, without Zayn getting worried about him.

When he arrives at the store, he skims through the aisles (quickly realizing that he literally has no idea what the other boys like) when it suddenly dawns on him.

Harry. Harry, the one with the bouncy curls and the bright, green eyes? That was the lad from Zayn’s textbook, the picture that’d fallen to the floor.

First, he thinks of Louis. Quickly pulling out his phone, he types simply, he’s taken. sorry bro :(. He knows Louis well enough to know that he’ll figure out the slightly cryptic message very soon.

Second, the irony of the situation dawns on him, his face heating, of how he thought Zayn was Harry. And then of how he was disappointed when Zayn wasn’t him, and then when he was disappointed once more to actually meet the man behind the picture—and for entirely different reasons than could’ve ever been foreseen.

Lastly, he feels a bit bad. He can’t even pay attention to which cake he picks up, a sudden wave of guilt washing over him as he thinks of how, really, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Harry. In fact, Liam’d been excited to meet him, to have a nice-looking tutor to help him with geography. It’s just… who he’s with that bothers Liam.

Before he can find it in himself to flash through any more emotions, he whips through the freezer section as well, buying an ice cream to go with the mystery cake. Then, he pushes himself to get through the checkout to make his way back to the flat. Really, he should be taking his time, but now that he’s pieced everything together about Harry, he feels like he’s on a mission. Though he’s not quite sure of his endgame.

The first thing Liam hears from a surprised Zayn as he pushes open the door is, “Wow, that was fast.”

“What’d you get?” Harry asks excitedly, untangling himself from Zayn—who knows what in the bloody hell they got up to in the short time Liam was gone—so that he can greedily grab at the bag.

“God, you’re as bad as Niall,” Zayn teases, gently slapping his hand away from Liam. “We’ll eat it after dinner.”

Harry’s the one to pout this time. “Fine.” He takes a few steps closer to his food, swerving on his heel to face the almost boiling pot. “But no extra chicken for you.”

Zayn rolls his eyes at this, but ignores him, instead padding over to Liam. He walks a bit further away from Harry, pulling Liam into the TV room before he whispers, “Are you okay?”

He lets his hand rest against Liam’s forearm, and Liam (curse him) can’t think of anything but the sudden heat that lingers there. “Yeah,” he says quietly, and just saying it aloud, the touch on his arm: all of it makes the anger, the hurt, the guilt, all fade away. 

And, surprisingly, he’s not lying. He’s okay. Or, at least, he will be okay.

He just has to realize that Zayn cares for him—seemingly cares for him a lot, actually, even though they’ve only known each other a few weeks now—he’ll just never be able to care for him the same way he does for Harry.

Chapter Text

“Time to eat!” Harry calls behind him, the excitement and pride in his voice obvious. In a second, Zayn’s already ready to go, plates in hand as he begins scooping it out for everyone.

Liam feels a sudden pang at such a small detail, at the pure domesticity of it all.

Of how comfortable the two of them seem to be with each other.

It feels different, somehow, than the tutoring sessions between him and Zayn, like this is the true, raw Zayn, and every other version of him is just a weak copy.

The pang takes on a name as it swims in his gut: jealousy.

He does his best to swallow it down by grabbing at a small piece of chicken atop the plate Zayn holds out for him. He hardly even chews it, just lurches it down his throat as if this will somehow rid him of all of his emotions.

“Thanks,” he tries to get out, but no words leave his mouth as he feels the seemingly-growing bite force its way down his throat.

He flinches, a cough bursting out of his mouth as the chicken finally makes it way downward. Knowing Zayn’s watching his every move carefully, Liam blanches. “You okay there?” Zayn worries.

Liam sighs. This might as well be his life.

Liam just nods, avoiding any further eye contact. “I’m fine.”

Stepping into the kitchen, he grabs himself a glass of water as Zayn quietly replies, “Alright.” He wordlessly follows Harry into their TV room to claim a spot. 

When Liam gets there a minute later, he finds that Zayn’s taken the middle seat next to Harry, leaving only Zayn’s other side empty. Liam gulps at this. He’s suddenly lightheaded at the idea, though he’s not sure why.

Fumbling over to the couch, he awkwardly sinks into the spot next to him.

Knowing what he’s just about to subject himself to-–i.e. third-wheeling as Harry and Zayn watch a movie, cuddle, and generally do other couple-y things Liam has no desire to see–-he keeps his eyes on his food and avoids looking at the two boys.

It’s going to be a long night.

“Ready, Liam?” Zayn asks gently. He looks over to him with inquisitive eyes, a soft look that silently pleads Liam to explain what’s going on.

All too aware of this, guilt settles in Liam’s stomach, knowing that none of this is his fault.

“Ready,” he replies, thought it comes out a bit pinched at the end when he feels Zayn inch just slightly closer to him.

And, well, maybe the flaw in Liam’s plan–-his plan to get over Zayn, and to get over HarryandZayn-–maybe the flaw in all that was thinking it would be so easy.

---

Liam had an inkling when James came along. Only a Year 12 at the time, life was full of questions of A-Levels, of uni in a couple of years. And of something else tugging at the back of Liam’s mind, something he wasn’t ready to admit yet.

He didn’t know for sure until Will.

In a way, Zayn felt different than Will did. But in another way, he was exactly the same, Liam only a year older but seemingly none the wiser.

Still, that doesn’t stop Liam’s heart from skipping a beat as Zayn’s hand twitches next to him, momentarily grazing his thigh gently.

Instead of paying attention to any of that, though, Zayn suddenly turns to Harry, leaning in close so he can whisper something in his ear.

He giggles softly, shoving Harry lightly as he says something back. “Hush, hush,” Liam can hear Zayn whisper, trying to force Harry’s voice down as it starts to get louder.

Liam huffs, crossing his arms as he tries once more to shift his focus to the movie in front of him. (At Liam’s request, they’d picked The Dark Knight--to which Zayn had raised his eyebrows and given him an approving nod, followed by “Good choice.”)

And even though he’s the one who chose the movie, he can’t seem to keep his eyes on it, instead letting his gaze wander back to HarryandZayn.

Not even a quarterway through the movie, Harry’s already leaning his head against Zayn’s shoulder, one foot tucked under Zayn’s thigh.

Zayn is grinning at him, looking so comfortable and at home.

Liam’s stomach swoops at the sight.

Moments later, though, it’s like Zayn has a radar for all Liam’s bitter thoughts, because he’s turning to him in an instant.

“Sorry,” Zayn apologizes, and it seems sincere enough. “Harry’s never really been good at watching movies.” He leans in a bit closer to whisper, “He’s too fidgety and can’t stop from talking the whole way through.”

Liam ignores the fact that Zayn was the one that started the sickening whispering and giggling, though he still can’t stop himself from saying, “I mean, he looks pretty comfortable right now.”

It comes out sharper than he intended. Even with Zayn so close to him, he can’t stop the fact that he’s basically radiating bitterness from every single pore.

Zayn gulps, picking up on the tension in his voice. He opens his mouth to speak before changing his mind and closing it again.

Clearing his throat, he just shakes his head slightly. “You might think so, but twenty minutes from now, he’ll probably be starfishing on the floor or some shit.”

Zayn is wrong. It takes 37 minutes. Not that Liam is counting.

Those 37 minutes are filled with Harry constantly squirming against Zayn. That is, until Zayn lifts his arm up to wrap around his shoulder, instantly stilling Harry.

Still, every once in a while, Zayn will turn to Liam with a small smile, seemingly checking up on him.

About halfway through the movie, he drops his arm from Harry to turn fully to Liam. “Doing okay still?”

Liam gulps, the impending No at his lips. Instead, he offers a small nod. It must not seem convincing, because Zayn turns his attention completely away from Harry and onto Liam. “Did I--” Zayn swallows hard, not sure quite how to continue. “Did I do something to upset you?” When Liam doesn’t immediately answer, he gestures to all of him, as if that will explain everything. “You seem a bit off today.”
Liam shakes his head vehemently, because, well, no, Zayn hasn’t done anything to upset him. HarryandZayn, though? That’s a whole other story.

One that Liam doesn’t really feel like getting into with Zayn at the moment.

“It’s just… been a long day,” Liam sighs, eyes flicking to the screen as an excuse to break eye contact with Zayn.

He watches out of the corner of his eye, curious, as Harry (finally) sinks to the floor, stretching his arms and legs as far away from himself as possible, as if he’s about to make a snow angel.

“What did I tell you?” Zayn smiles, elbowing Liam lightly.

Liam holds back the deep sigh that threatens to erupt from his mouth. “You sure seem to know a lot about each other,” Liam says, and this time, at least, it sounds more factual than upset.

Zayn seems to pick up on something, though, because he gives Liam a curious look, head tilting to the right just slightly. “We’ve known each other for a long time,” Zayn replies simply.

When Liam seems to have nothing to say to that, Zayn brings the conversation back to the original topic. “And, well,” he pauses. “About your long day, you can always talk to me about it.” He waits until Liam looks back at him before he says quietly, “You know that, right?”

Liam gives a weak smile in return, nodding as well as he’s able. 

Continuing to feel Zayn’s stare, he flushes at the attention Zayn keeps giving him. 

“I’ll explain.” Liam licks his lips. “Eventually.” 

And he knows that just by saying these words aloud, he’s somehow promised to not only Zayn but to himself that he’ll have to explain everything.

Someday.  

But, all too aware of Harry’s curls occasionally flitting past his feet as he tries to get comfortable, now doesn’t seem like the time. Not yet.

Zayn seems to accept this answer with a hum. He gives Liam a long look, as if contemplating something. 

There’s more space on the couch now with Harry gone, but Zayn doesn’t seem to take it. In fact, quite the opposite. Seemingly having made up his mind, he scoots closer to Liam, filling up the space between them. 

Their thighs touching, Liam’s heart races, suddenly incapable of paying attention to any part of the movie (not that he knew what part they were at, anyway). 

Still, he doesn’t stir, afraid to accidentally send Zayn away. 

But his attention does fall swiftly to Harry, feeling suddenly guilty for the move Zayn’s made.

He gives it a few minutes before Harry gets up to grab a glass of water, Zayn yelling into the kitchen, “Haz, grab us some popcorn, will ya?”

Zayn snickers into Liam’s shoulder as Harry shoots him a look. “Just watch. He’ll still do it,” Zayn whispers against Liam’s shirt. 

Liam looks between him and Harry, now thoroughly confused. And, just as Zayn predicted, Harry does what he asks. But not without a little sarcastic comment.

“Okay, but riddle me this. What happened to your legs, Z?” Sticking the bag of kernels into the microwave, he turns back around to quirk an eyebrow at him. 

“We’re comfy,” Zayn whines, giving a pout. Harry’s eyes flicker between Liam and Zayn, and he lets out a little huff but doesn’t say anything further. In fact, his lips even pull into a smile.

We’re comfy. The word rings in Liam’s ears, so little yet so much. 

Zayn’s sitting position doesn’t seem to bother Harry much, Liam notices. And though this baffles him, it definitely makes him feel a bit better, like he doesn’t have to make an excuse to suddenly leave this couch, leave Zayn, behind. 

In fact, Harry seems more annoyed about making popcorn than he does about anything Zayn does with Liam. 

Maybe--maybe Zayn’s just a very touchy-feely person? Maybe---he acts like this to all of his friends. And maybe Harry’s used to having to share him, to having to see him get close to everyone he meets.

Only--

Only when Harry brings over the popcorn, a big bowl that he sets into Liam’s lap and a smaller one just for himself, he’s careful to move himself a few more inches away from Zayn’s feet on the floor. As he goes to lay down, he widens his eyes at Zayn, seemingly trying to communicate something. 

At this, Liam expects Zayn to scoot back to his original seat or even follow Harry to the floor.

Instead, however, Zayn bites his bottom lip, his hand inching towards Liam’s. Their hands are touching now, just enough that it could seem casual enough to be an accident.

Until Zayn brings his fingers forward just a bit, gently interlacing them with Liam’s. 

Liam’s head spins at this, not having expected this at all. He shallowly lets in air, trying to remember how to think. 

Seemingly noticing this, Zayn asks worriedly, “Is this okay?” He rubs his thumb soothingly against the back of Liam’s hand. 

“What about Harry?” Liam asks quietly, barely getting the words out of his throat.

Zayn looks at him quickly, eyebrows furrowed. “What about Harry?” Zayn replies in a low voice. He loosens his grip on Liam’s hand, suddenly apprehensive. “He won’t bother us,” Zayn says slowly. He leans back a little bit to get a better look at him, as if trying to figure out why Liam would be worried about Harry right now.

And maybe--Zayn’s just holding his hand in a friendly way. Only... that doesn’t make sense, not with the buildup Zayn had. Maybe-- “I don’t... I don’t understand” is all Liam can choke out finally, pulling away from Zayn’s touch.

“I don’t think I do either,” Zayn responds, though it’s not unkindly. He looks at Liam closely.

At Zayn’s befuddled glance, Liam tries to explain, the movie completely forgotten by both of them. “Is Harry your--” He stops suddenly, tears welling up in his eyes. He’s embarrassed by the sudden emotion, by the way he can’t just say what he needs to. He can’t even seem to look at Zayn, doesn’t want to look at anyone or anything at this moment. In fact, he wishes that he could just sink into the couch cushions and never return.

It’s like all of the emotions he’s been holding back ever since he heard about Harry have swelled to the point of bursting, just from the way Zayn’s looking at him.

Leeyum,” Zayn mutters, and it’s so soft, so gentle, that Liam squeezes his eyes shut, lowering his head. He can’t let himself think like this anymore, think of what could be or might have been, if things had gone differently.

He doesn’t see it, but rather feels it as Zayn gently tips his chin up with one finger, forcing Liam to open his eyes and look at him. 

“Harry is my roommate,” Zayn says slowly, obviously not quite sure where Liam’s wanting this conversation to go.

Eyebrows drawing together as Liam doesn’t immediately clarify, Zayn looks between him and Harry. He lightly gestures with a nod of his head for Harry to leave the room. He goes easily, seemingly understanding as he gets up and heads to another room.

Watching Harry go, Liam forces an exhale out of his mouth. “Okay, so he’s your--roommate.” He pauses on the last word, forcing it out. “But, is he--are you--” He tries again with a shaky breath, whispering the last word. “Together?”

Zayn pulls back at these words, as if he’s been burned. 

“No,” Zayn says vehemently, looking almost hurt as he says the words. “Harry’s not my boyfriend, if that’s what you thought.”

He sounds shocked, sure, but he doesn’t sound angry, at least. 

Maybe he really is different from Will, after all. Maybe he’s not hurt at all, just... surprised.

Even as he tries to process all this, he still can’t seem to control his emotions. “I’m... sorry...” Liam almost sobs.

“Hey, hey,” Zayn says as soothingly as he can. He reaches up to stroke Liam’s cheek with his thumb, cupping his hand under his jaw. “It’s okay, I’m not upset.” He leans forward to press a light kiss to Liam’s nose. “I’m sorry, I would never want to make you feel uncomfortable.” 

Liam shakes his head. “You didn’t. Never.” And he says it with such conviction that Zayn believes him, even as a voice in the back of Liam’s mind shouts that he is uncomfortable.

But that’s not about Zayn, but rather about the newness, the way his gut twists in ways he’s never experienced before. The mind-stopping quiet that follows whenever Zayn looks at him like--well, like that

Liam blinks at Zayn, taking in the fondness in Zayn’s eyes, followed by the confusion as Liam still seems on edge somehow. 

It’s not uncomfortable so much as it is thrilling and confusing, all at the same time.

Zayn drops his hand from Liam when he doesn’t continue.

Liam can’t even explain why he’s sorry, he’s not even 100% sure why he is. But it’s something to do with what happened last time, what happened before. And something about the guilt Liam still feels for not telling Zayn about the picture from the book.

“I better--” Liam forces himself to say before he trails off. “Go,” he gets out after swallowing hard. He looks at Zayn almost sadly, even though he himself is very much the one leaving. “I’ll text you later, okay?” he says in a rush. 

He stands up abruptly, heading towards the door as he reaches for his backpack. He’s throwing it on his back, just about to turn the knob when he finds Zayn right behind him. 

“Liam, can you please just tell me what’s wrong?” He pleads, reaching out to grab onto Liam’s arm. “I want to help.”

These words stop Liam in his tracks, causing him to reevaluate. And, well, if Zayn really wants to know so badly, maybe it’s time to just tell him. If he finds him too much of a freak to ever talk to him again, it’s probably for the best that he finds out now.

“I--erm--” Liam gulps, slowly turning back around to face Zayn. “Okay,” he gives in, sounding defeated.

“Do you remember when I first met you?” Liam begins, watching Zayn’s expression turn up in surprise.

“Of course I do,” Zayn says, almost lightheartedly. “How could I ever forget when I was meeting someone off of my old textbook?”

“True.” Liam gives a halfhearted smile before his expression changes as he purses his lips. “Well, I remember it even better than normal, ‘cause, well, you weren’t... you weren’t who I thought you’d be.”

Zayn’s face falls at that, and of course it was too good to be true. Still, he urges him on, tilting his head just slightly. “How do you mean?”

“Well,” Liam gulps, feeling the butterflies threatening to eat the lining of his stomach soon. “I thought you looked different?” It comes out as a question.

“Mmm,” Zayn says noncommittally, hoping Liam will continue on. After a moment of pressurized silence, he does.

“Em.” He exhales. “I’ll just show you. One second.” He lets his backpack drop to the floor. Leaning over, he loudly digs around for what feels like minutes. Finally, he pulls out the photo from weeks ago, now all crumpled up. “I thought this was you.” He lifts it up so Zayn can see better in the dim light. 

“Is that... who I think that is?” Zayn asks hesitantly, as he slowly realizes who the face belongs to. Liam can only nod as Zayn keeps his gaze on the photo, only looking at Liam from the corner of his eye. He goes from squinting at the picture to squinting at Liam. “Are you being serious with me right now, mate? Or are you kidding?” He sounds uncertain, confused, like he’s missing the butt of a joke.

“It’s true,” Liam forces out. “I found it in my--err, your--textbook,” he adds, biting his lip. “Along with your number. For some reason.” 

He’s babbling now, but he doesn’t care. He has to try to explain to Zayn that it’s not as bad as it seems. “I know it all sounds weird and crazy, but I didn’t mean it to be. Louis said I should text you to get some help on my homework, because obviously you’d already taken the class, and--” (He decides to leave out the part about wanting the chance to talk to a boy, because that makes him sound like even more of a donut.)

Liam stops suddenly when Zayn erupts into laughter. “Well,” he says honestly, “I didn’t expect that to be what was bothering you.” He looks at Liam, obviously surprised and a little unsure still, but there’s a small smile on his face. “But I can see why that would be distracting. Harry and I don’t really look very much alike, huh?”

That's an understatement. Liam hums in agreement, too shocked to say anything else.

“Thanks for telling me,” Zayn starts, sounding truthful. He seems to make a decision before he continues on, sounding more certain of his words. “But I don’t really care, Liam.” He looks him up and down. “I know you well enough now to know you don’t seem like a mad stalker or anything, just that a misguided friend led you astray.” He snorts. “You can tell this ‘Louis’ guy I said that, if you want,” he adds. 

Liam lets out a sigh of relief, not sure what to say in return. “I’m not” is all he can croak. “A stalker, I mean,” he rushes to finish.

"I know” is all Zayn says simply, no hint of teasing in his voice. He looks at Liam for a moment, seemingly building up his courage before he gets out, “So, now that that’s out of the way... If you don’t mind, I’m curious.”

And the way he’s looking at him, long eyelashes fanning over his golden eyes, Liam knows that he’d answer absolutely anything Zayn asked him… Just because he was ‘curious’.

Liam had a problem, that much was apparent. “Sure,” Liam breathes, unable to think past that.

“How did you feel when you found out that that wasn’t me and this”--he gestures to all of himself--“was me?”

Liam thinks through the question, trying to find the right adjective when Zayn adds, “Good? Bad?” He pauses, studying Liam. “Indifferent?”

And Liam can answer that, at least. Catching Zayn’s eye, he shyly smiles, “Good.” He nods slowly, as if to reaffirm his words. “Yeah, really good.” He bites his tongue to keep from gushing any more, knowing he’s done more than enough damage for the day.

Zayn ponders this. “Well, then,” he says after a second. “I still have some questions, to be honest, but you seem fine. Just a guy that needed a tutor, so.” He shrugs, and this... well, compliment?, Liam guesses, calms him down. “If you’re okay with it, maybe we could just--have a do over? A da--” Zayn gulps down the word, unsure of what this, of what they’re doing now, even is. “Like, we could meet up again? Talk about all of this”--he waves his hands in the air vaguely--”without Harry?” 

Liam nods earnestly. “I think we both deserve that,” he replies frankly. “And what’s even better,” he starts, a mischievous grin on his face, “is I’ll pay.”

Zayn looks at him with a straight face. He opens his mouth to argue before he catches the determination in Liam’s eyes.

“Alright, fine,” he sighs, agreeing reluctantly. “But I’ll pick you up.”

“Done,” Liam smiles, firmly nodding his head as if they’ve just made a deal. Feeling suddenly nervous again as the conversation stalls, he looks between Zayn and the room where he knows Harry’s wandered off to. He still has so many unanswered questions on the tip of his tongue, and he knows Zayn does, too. But he’s not quite sure he’s ready for the answers yet.

“Okay, well,” Liam faces his feet towards the door. “This time, I really should go,” he says shyly. 

“Why? Do you have more secrets to spill?” Zayn asks jokingly, his tongue sticking out between his teeth as he grins. 

Liam lifts his leg back behind him to kick his shin lightly, but he laughs as he turns his head to reply, “Not today I don’t.” He flips the knob before he says seriously, “But, I do want to tell you...” He’s out the door, calling back behind him as he teases, “Don’t forget to eat the cake and ice cream I bought you!”

Zayn chuckles. He shakes his head, having expected something different than that. “I won’t. I’ll even save you a piece for next time,” Zayn retorts with a smile, but there’s some truth behind his voice.

Giving Zayn one last lingering look, Liam’s lips upturn before he makes himself shut the door, needing a moment (or ten) to catch his breath, to think through what just happened.

Little does he know that, because of him, Zayn is doing the same on just the other side of the door.

Chapter Text

Liam stresses. He wishes he could say it only happens for a few hours after their movie night.

No. It goes on for days.

First, he freaks out when Zayn messages him to set up a day and a time, not giving him any more information than the bare basics. are u free sat at 7 to hang out?

Liam’s palms sweat at the text as he tries to decide how nonchalant to be in return. i guess i could be free ;) He ends up messaging back, hands shaking as he types.

After a few minutes, the reply chimes in. i’ll meet u by our table then :)

Liam’s not even really sure what he’s stressing about–well, alright. He does know. He knows full well, because he can’t stop overthinking all the anxiety-inducing questions he has without any answers. Like, is he going on a date? If so, what does he do on this so-called date? Even more basic than that, what even constitutes a date in the first place?

His heart thumps at all the possibilities–at the thought of it being in public, of having to not only deal with the unknowns of Zayn but at the unknowns of the world around him.

At the thought of it being something that Liam can’t predict.

After two days, Liam finally gives in and sends Zayn another text, doing his best to figure out what he’s planning. sooooo do i get to guess where ur taking me tomorrow?

hmm… Zayn sends back quickly. no :)

:( pleaaaase? Liam replies, pouting instinctively, even though he knows Zayn can’t see him. Even as his bottom lip turns down, his face flushes from the embarrassment of his words. He feels completely silly, but he forces himself to play along anyway.

It pays off.

if u must know i may show u around my fave coffee shop

Liam snorts at the message. That wasn’t a guess at all, nor even a hint. That was fucking telling him the whole, entire date.

Not that Liam is really shocked–Zayn hadn’t really struck him as the type that was super into surprises.

After he processes all this, the text sits in his mind. This, unfortunately, allows the words to settle in. As well as the panic.

He does his best to take a steading breath as the reality of Zayn’s message hits, of the very-not-aloneness that a coffee shop entails.

Even to his own ears, he can hear how shaky his breath sounds.

what if we get it to go? He decides to ask finally, trying his best to be subtle so as to keep his fears as subdued as possible. i may have a fave place of my own too

Zayn types back almost instantly. sure! as long as we dont have to walk there :P

Seeing the promising message come through, Liam exhales, his heart beginning to regulate itself again. At least for the moment. i promise u can still be my chaffeir :D

Still, for the next 24 hours, he can’t stop his mind from replaying his thoughts, his worries, about their meet-up.

He just hopes it goes better than their last meeting.

 ---

Liam can’t decide what to wear.

Louis, unsurprisingly, is no help. First suggesting he go bare (Liam pales at the thought and throws his pillow at him), he then turns to his favorite accessory: suspenders.

Leaving Liam’s room so he can rifle through his drawers for an extra pair of suspenders, he’s barely even out of the room before Liam deadpans, “No”, and closes the door behind him.

He can hear some sort of protest from the other side, but he doesn’t budge. “I’m not wearing those.”

He changes outfits at least five times. After looking at himself in the mirror for what feels like minutes at a time, he decides on his skinny black jeans, the ones with the rips in the knee, and he pairs it with a black and white long-sleeved flannel.

By the time he finally leaves his room, Louis--of course--is waiting for him, ready to pounce. “Not too shabby,” he offers when he sees Liam’s outfit, and that’s about as much encouragement Liam will ever get from him over his fashion choices.

He clears his throat. “And just remember: I’d die for you, mate.” He bats his eyelashes, and Liam doesn’t like where this is going.

No, he doesn’t like this at all.

“Just know…” He raises himself up so he can slap his arm around Liam’s shoulder. “That I wouldn’t ever leave you hanging.”

Liam blinks at him for a moment. “This is about Harry, isn’t it?” He groans, rolling his eyes as Louis’ face lights up at the name.

“I’m just saying, like, if you’re sharing secrets and all on this datey date, maybe slip in a few questions about the lad.” He pauses, offering a perfect pout. “For me.”

Instead of agreeing or disagreeing to this, Liam huffs, “It’s not a date.”

Louis scoffs as he pulls his arm off of him to look him up and down dramatically. “Tell that to the outfit you’re wearing.” He then inhales deeply. “And the whole bottle of cologne you put on.” Knowing he’s won, he slaps his back before scampering off without another word. 

And, well, maybe Louis is smarter than Liam thought.

By the time Liam makes it down to the entrance of his flat, he’s surprised to see a car already parked, waiting for him. He’s still five minutes early, but apparently, Zayn was five minutes earlier.

Zayn pulls himself out of the car, practically racing to get to his passenger door before Liam can. “For you,” he nods as he opens the door with a nervous grin, feeling a bit silly and out-of-character but nonetheless wanting to do it.

Wanting to do anything and everything for Liam. 

Not that he’s planning on saying that aloud.

He waits quietly as Liam settles in, dutifully buckling his seatbelt before he looks up at Zayn with a shy smile. “Thanks,” he flushes, the word barely coming out.

And he must have been busy, watching Zayn’s motions instead of what was in his hands, because when the slice of cake makes its way to Liam, all he can do is look at it.

“Told you I’d save you a piece, didn’t I?” Zayn laughs, paying close attention as Liam tries to process it all.

Liam bobs his head in some sort of nod as he reaches out to grab the plate, feeling his cheeks flame again. He’s grateful when Zayn finally shuts his door and rushes to the driver’s side, if only because it gives him a moment to breathe and calm himself down.

His nerves are all over the place, blood rushing to his head as he tries to think of something to say.

Coming up empty, he decides instead to just bite into the cake.

It’s a great cake, actually. He hadn’t really had high hopes considering the little amount of thought and time he put into grabbing one.

As Zayn starts the car, pulling out into the street, Liam focuses his eyes on him. “Glad you liked my homemade masterpiece,” he chokes out between a mouthful of the crumbly mess.

It’s, of course, supposed to be a joke, but it comes up flat, like a soda that’s been sitting out too long.

Thankfully, though, when Zayn chances a glance at Liam, he figures it out and a snort bursts out of him as he shakes his head.

“You know, though,” Zayn teases lightly. “Au contraire, I think whoever cuts it is the one who made it, so…”

Liam raises an eyebrow. “Is that so?” He looks down at his cake to finish the last bite. “I don’t remember that being a rule.”

Zayn hums. “It is. It’s in the Cake Rulebook. Created and signed by a Mr. Zayn Malik.”

“That’s cheating,” Liam points out, leaning over a bit so he can poke Zayn in the arm.

“Doesn’t say it is in the Cake Rulebook,” Zayn shrugs, playfully flicking Liam’s finger away from him.

The touch lingers momentarily, and Liam gulps, suddenly forgetting the conversation.

Zayn doesn’t seem to be as easily distracted, instead continuing on with, “You know, though, you really did ace at picking out a cake.”

Liam’s eyebrows raise, surprised at the words. “How did you know German Chocolate Cake was my favorite?” Zayn asks, looking away from the road to give him an easy smile.

“Lucky guess,” Liam says weakly, squirming just slightly under Zayn’s gaze.

God, he’s pathetic.

He feels like an alien, like it’s his first time seeing a human, interacting with one. Flirting with one.

Even after wading through all of this novelty, though, there’s a small part of him that wonders if every kind of cake would be Zayn’s favorite, as long as Liam had picked it out.

And Liam doesn’t quite know how to feel about that, the weight that comes with that--and the fact that Liam can’t say he’d be any different if the roles were reversed.

Chapter Text

Liam is an idiot. An absolute, complete idiot.

Because not only does he not know how to think around Zayn, he also, apparently, doesn’t know how to plan around him.

“So, do I get any hints about this ‘fave place’ of yours, then?” Zayn asks after a moment of silence, and that’s when it hits: white-water rapids that roll and crash around somewhere deep inside his stomach.

“Oh!” Liam gets out in a squeak, and it sounds much too surprised for his liking.

It’s not like he’s completely forgot to think through where they should go with their drinks. Because that would be completely ridiculous, of course.

Except, for Liam, nothing is ridiculous anymore.

There’s a snail-like pause where Liam grasps for words from deep within his cobweb-filled brain. “Hmm…” He hums, stalling for time, when he remembers Zayn’s similarly-worded text from just a couple of days ago. “No.” He looks at Zayn pointedly, offering only a wolfish grin.

“That’s not fair,” Zayn whines, a playful pout passing his lips.

“All’s fair in love and war,” Liam shrugs without think–

Shit.

Zayn’s eyes flicker curiously from the road over to a now stricken Liam. Raising one eyebrow, he snorts, seemingly amused. “Oh, really? And which one are we?”

Liam bats his eyelashes as innocently as he can, not allowing himself to think (because maybe if not thinking got him into this mess, not thinking can get him out of it, too). Suddenly, he’s blurting out, “You tell me.”

Zayn only laughs in return, and it’s not a concerned chuckle. It’s not a fake laugh that screams dear-God-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into. It’s just a giggle, simple as that.

And Liam’s never heard anything quite so wonderful.

“Well, I’d say it’s probably a bit of both,” Zayn muses in a voice so low that Liam almost thinks he’s dreamt it. Until Zayn’s eyes flit over to Liam, lingering just long enough for him to know.

The pound of Liam’s heart impedes even shadows of words, so much so that he’s only able to get out a distracted hum. “So…” He finally starts after a pause, desperately needing to change the subject before his thoughts start spiraling to a place he’s not ready to go yet.

“I thought you were gonna pick me up at our table, hmm?” Liam asks, and though he doesn’t intend it--because he never intends anything that comes out of his mouth, apparently--he sounds a little too smug at this change.

“Well, you liked the direct service, didn’t you?” Zayn smiles, a lightness to his voice. When Liam doesn’t immediately respond, he licks his lip before he continues, sounding a little more worried this time. “I couldn’t find a spot at the art building, so I thought I’d just go a couple of streets down and wait until I saw you make your way over there.” He chuckles, elbowing him lightly. “Didn’t know you’d be that close by.”

“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” Liam laughs. But then he furrows his eyebrows, stumbling on as he realizes how that sounds, “I mean, you could if you wanted to.” As the words tumble out, he has the sudden thought that if he’d just stopped his words after the first bit, he’d probably be alright. It’s just that he clearly can’t do that, for some unknown reason. When he gets started, there’s seemingly no way to stop whatever comes next, the words swirling up into some sort of jumbled alphabet hurricane. “I’m not a koala. I wouldn’t attach myself to your leg or anything,” he gulps with an embarrassed shrug of one shoulder.

Thankfully, Zayn seems to ignore the second half of Liam’s string of words, focusing only on the beginning as he says seriously, “Good.” He shakes his head slowly as he pulls into the driveway of the coffee shop. “But I’m not going anywhere.”

Liam can only nod as his raging thoughts take over, mind suddenly whirring back to life. Is this normal first date banter? He doesn’t think it is, but, well, it’s not like he’s really experienced in all this. Especially with a--Liam gulps unconsciously--man. 

So far, dating (Liam pushes aside the dangling question mark that hangs above the word, of the still undefined) feels much worse with a lad. It’s like he’s covered his eyes, scooted all the way to the edge of a cliff, and carefully lifted one foot from the dirt, letting it dangle off the edge of the worst incline he could imagine. With a rabid pack of hyenas below, he mentally adds. And maybe some piranhas, for good measure. Somehow.

The thought electrifies him, his tight chest and abuzz body reminding him every second that even through all of this, he’s also never felt quite so much, not like this.

“Hey, Liam, we’re here,” Zayn says gently, turning in his seat to face him.

Liam jerks just slightly at the words, ignoring his now-pounding heart as he gives a sheepish smile. “Sorry.” He clears his throat. “Looks like a cute place,” he gets out weakly, hoping to distract Zayn from the minefield threatening to explode from deep within Liam.

“Can’t believe you’d expect any less,” Zayn scoffs, putting one hand over his heart in mock offense.

“Shut it,” Liam groans, whacking him lightly before he lifts himself out of the car. And as he looks up at the building, the bright, modern signs clashing with the fading, red brick, he almost forgets.

But not quite, he remembers bitterly, as Zayn races forward to hold open the door to the shop. The suddenly cold air from inside washing over him, he shivers and he can’t make eye contact with Zayn as he forces himself through the doorway. “Thanks,” he mumbles, only going a little bit further before he steps to the side to wait for Zayn.

“They don’t bite,” Zayn laughs, looking back at Liam as he charges through the entry into the main room. “If anything, they’d drink,” he teases, motioning as if taking a sip from a cup.

“You’re not funny,” Liam deadpans, but he walks forward, anyway, following closely behind Zayn as a stray giggle falls from his lips.

Liam’s breath catches in his throat as he sees a few heads turn at his words. Eyes darting around the room, he swallows hard, suddenly unsure of what to do.

Unable to bring forward any thoughts, he stands there helplessly for a moment, looking between an oblivious Zayn and the groups of people around them.

He wants to get closer to Zayn, knows he’ll feel better if he does.

But the hardening pit in his stomach reminds him that the closer he gets to him, the more they might stare, and they might whisper. He takes a couple of steps forward, shifting on his feet next to Zayn. Too close, maybe? He thinks but he can’t remember what’s normal, doesn’t have any idea how to move his body, focusing solely on stopping his sudden inclination to curl into Zayn.

Liam was wrong before. He didn’t have one foot dangling over the edge, he only had one toe out, he thinks.

He knows because this right here is already so much more, the dizzy, off-balance, head-spinning feeling that comes with one foot fully out now.