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I Would Lay My Armor Down

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I Would Lay My Armor Down

 

*

 

Gigi moves out on a Thursday.

At first, it barely even registers that she’s not there. Not that Zayn ever took having her around for granted, because he doesn’t think that he did. It’s just that there were so many times over the years when Zayn was in LA and Gigi was in New York. Or Gigi was in LA and Zayn was back in the U.K.. They never needed to be together every minute to prove to themselves or anyone else that they were happy. Sometimes they were happiest when they gave each other some space to themselves.

This, though. This is different.

This is a gaping hole in the closet across from the bed where Gigi’s dresses used to hang. This is the entire top of Zayn’s dresser clear of the bottles of perfume Gigi used to wear, the little cup that held her lip pencils and brushes missing. This is all the things Gigi had picked out for the house when she moved in all of a sudden looking like things he’s never seen before: the dinosaur shaped key dish with only one set of keys in it. The coat rack in the corner of the room holding half the amount of coats it used to.

Gigi moves out on a Thursday, and by Friday Zayn’s house doesn’t feel like his own anymore.

*

Zayn’s in his art room when his mobile buzzes quietly from where he’s left it on the floor. It’s been two days since Gigi’s gone. Two days that Zayn let himself wander around the house, picking things up and putting them back down in the wrong places just to give his hands something to do. Two days that he’s spent answering Stitch’s pitiful whimpers with quiet scratches to the head and extra treats in his doggie bowl because Zayn feels guilty.

He ignores the buzzing and tucks his tongue between his teeth, dipping the brush he’s using back into the can of red paint on the floor. He’s not even sure what it is he’s working on. The only person he’s had any contact with for the past two days has been his assistant when Zayn sent him a text asking for various cans of paints and brushes to be dropped at the house as soon as possible. The tone in the texts must have gotten across just how little he wants to be speaking to people, because his assistant had everything delivered within a few hours, his only contact with Zayn a short message for Zayn to check outside the security gates for the boxes the art store had dropped off.

It’s a bright corner of the room he’s taken to re-painting, the only mark a dark line on the bottom of the wall cutting across where the paint is still white. It’s a scuff mark from when the heel of one of Gigi’s boots had scraped against the paint when it was fresh. They had been horsing around that day, Zayn gently pushing her against the wall and laughing as he licked into her mouth, twisting his fingers in the back of her hair. A few strands had gotten hooked through one of his rings and Gigi had yelped, banging her foot back as she pretended to try and get away from him.

It was beautiful out that day, bright sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows across the room. Zayn remembers how he felt when he kissed her. How they felt together. How everything had been just so right, so perfect, and how now it’s not. His chest hurts and his mobile buzzes again and Zayn ignores it, crouches down to paint over the black mark until it’s completely covered, almost like it was never there at all.

*

Zayn doesn’t stay in the art room long. He gets hungry and his head is throbbing from the fumes and the fact that he’s consumed nothing but coffee and cigarettes for the past two days. He closes the door behind him and Stitch skitters at his feet.

“You hungry?” Zayn asks and he’s answered with a nip to his ankles and a snuffling behind his legs as if he’s trying to herd Zayn toward the kitchen. Zayn smiles and reaches down to scratch at his head, scooping him up as his mobile buzzes again.

“Jesus Christ, what,” Zayn mumbles to himself. He manages to get Stitch settled into the crook of his arm and digs into his pocket with his other hand. The mobile keeps buzzing and Zayn flicks at the button to see who’s been bothering him for two days.

There’s a slew of missed calls and messages and Zayn’s eyes go a little crossed when he tries to read them all at once. He sees a text from Doniya which he ignores, and a missed call from his mum which he knows he has to eventually answer because she’ll just keep calling and calling until he does. He skims through some more texts from his assistant and two from his manager. There’s none from Gigi, which Zayn expected but it still stings a bit, and then there at the bottom is a number he’s not seen in so, so long.

There’s no name attached, because Zayn’s long since deleted it from his contacts. He probably shouldn’t even recognize the number and it startles him, how Zayn can see just a string of numbers and remember everything in a split second.

He remembers how they all used to have numbers they would give out to contacts and acquaintances and people in the industry, and then there were numbers they had that were just for each other. The one phone they all had that no one else in the world knew about. None of them would give it to anyone except the other four, and the fact that he’s looking at one of those numbers right now, all these years later, does funny things to Zayn’s insides. His stomach gets all twisted up and his throat goes tight and hot.

His own number is different, because Zayn changes numbers and phones more than anyone he knows, but the fact that he changed it means nothing. He knows how Harry works, and how determined he could be. If he wanted Zayn’s number no matter how hard Zayn tried to keep it from him, Harry would be able to get it somehow. Zayn doesn’t know why he feels even a little bit surprised.

Heard about you and Gigi, the text reads. Zayn stares at the words on the screen and in his head he can hear Harry’s slow drawl. Can almost see the dimple sinking into his cheek, his eyes, big and wide and green.

So sorry. Hope you’re all right

All my love

Zayn stares at it while his heart thumps heavy in his chest. He doesn’t understand how a string of numbers and letters on a screen could paralyze him like this, but they do. His face is hot and his ears ring. Stitch nips at Zayn’s hand. The movement startles him out of the fog he’d slipped into, and he taps his thumb against the screen and without missing a breath, swipes across and deletes the message.

*

The thing is, Zayn had been doing a fine job of pretending everything was fine and that he was doing ok, right up until Harry’s text. It’s one of the worst possible times too, because Zayn knows pretty much all of the lads are in town, in LA, right at this very minute. LA is huge, he gets that, and the chances of randomly bumping into one of them accidentally is near to impossible. That knowledge doesn’t do much to soothe Zayn’s nerves. Just the idea that they’re all so close - Niall and Harry and Louis - has him feeling all kinds of claustrophobic, the walls of his house not strong enough to keep Zayn’s memories in the back of his mind where he’s shoved them.

Harry doesn’t text him again, not that Zayn expects him to. Harry sent his one, token text, showing Zayn that he heard the news, and that he feels badly. It’s the polite thing to do - the proper thing - and Zayn knows better than anyone that the most important thing to Harry is making sure everyone knows how nice and polite and proper he is.

He can’t stop thinking about it though. It’s like poking a bruise. Zayn doesn’t even have the text anymore but he read it. He knows it was there, knows that Harry sent it, and there’s nothing he can do to shake that knowledge from his brain.

*

Zayn wakes up on Monday morning to Stitch shoving his nose under Zayn’s pillow and slobbering all over his sheets. Zayn grunts and throws an arm over his eyes. He can tell it’s late because the sun is already casting shadows halfway across the floor, the room glowing with a deep gold midday light. Stitch whimpers and Zayn scritches his neck and the top of his head.

“You need some food, big guy?” Zayn mumbles when Stitch yips in his ear. Stitch smacks his paw on Zayn’s nose and Zayn can’t help but laugh.

He gets up slowly and makes his way down the stairs to the kitchen, Stitch tucked safely under his arm. Gigi used to always laugh at the way Zayn would carry Stitch around like a baby.

“He’s got legs, you know,” she’d scold. Her hair would be pulled back high on top of her head and one sharp eyebrow would be crooked up in Zayn’s direction. “Not that it matters, the way you carry him around like your newborn son.”

“Ssh.” Zayn would cover Stitch’s floppy ears whenever she would start on with him about it. “Don’t make him sad.”

“Don’t make him--” Gigi would trail off then, her eyes wide and blinking. Zayn stared her down on more than one occasion until she finally gave up, holding her hands in the air and shrugging. “All right! Fine! Fine. I won’t make the baby sad.”

Zayn’s so lost in the memory he nearly trips over the bottom of his sleep pants as he hits the bottom landing. He can still hear Gigi’s voice if he concentrates hard enough. He can still hear the little snort she’d do at the end of her laugh when she found something especially funny. Zayn wonders how long it will last, how long he’ll be lucky enough to keep the memories he has of her. He hopes it’s a while. He’s not quite ready to give up knowing where the tiny lines on her forehead crinkle on a laugh, or what she smells like, her hair damp and skin shining after a shower.

Like with the lads, his brain supplies, completely without his permission. Back when he left the band he never thought there would come a time when he couldn’t remember every specific thing about every one of them. The distinct stench of Louis’ sweaty socks or the deep, throaty grunt Liam would punch out while doing push ups on the bus. The way Niall would cough and clear his throat - that specific little cough, cough, clear - right before strumming some nonsense chords on his guitar. It took months for Zayn to stop expecting it, to stop looking for the shock of Niall’s blond hair around a corner any time he’d hear someone clear their throat in the distance.

He never thought he’d forget about Harry. The way his hair would feel in Zayn’s fingers, greasy after too many days of not washing. The clink of Harry’s rings against the neck of a sweaty beer bottle. The smell of cinnamon gum on Harry’s breath. The sharp bite of his teeth into Zayn’s bottom lip. Harry’s voice, the slow drawl of it when he would say Zayn’s name and the press of his fingers in Zayn’s hips, his nails digging dents into Zayn’s skin. It’s been years, and Zayn can still remember the sound of Harry’s breath when it would catch in the back of his throat as Zayn laid him out, licked over him and fucked into him, Harry’s eyes wide and blinking, tears caught in the corners because it was so good. It was always so, so fucking good.

The memories go as fast as they come, and Zayn feels like he’s being yanked from a dream when Stitch yelps and nips at Zayn’s chin. “Sorry, sorry,” Zayn mumbles. He buries his face in Stitch’s fur, and breathes in his doggie smell and closes his eyes. He’s glad he doesn’t remember any of it. He’s glad that he’s forgotten it all.

*

Zayn makes it two more days without having to deal with anyone. Two more blissful, peaceful, wonderful days where he texts his mum so she knows he’s still alive and ignores everyone else in his life. Not that all that many people are still trying to get in touch with him. His assistant knows him well enough to stop texting when Zayn stops answering, and he usually gets in touch with Zayn’s manager and stylist and anyone else who might need him to tell them to give Zayn a few days.

It’s good. It’s Zayn in his house with his dog. He cooks enough food for himself to live on: toast and tea and cold cereal. He feeds Stitch, and takes him out back to the garden to run around and play. He sleeps a lot and finishes painting the wall in his art room a bright, blood red. He takes too many days to shower, finally giving in when his face itches with stubble and the stench of his own armpits and balls makes his nose wrinkle.

After his shower he stares at himself in the mirror. The glass is fogged over with steam and he can tell his cheeks look sunken in, the skin under his eyes dark and bruised. Zayn’s hair is short, barely a peach fuzz, and he thinks about shaving it bald again. He goes so far as to plug in the razor, the cool metal vibrating in his hand when the buzzing of his mobile going off in the other room is enough of a distraction to table it for now. He unplugs it and shoves it back in the drawer, kicking a pillow across the floor as he makes his way into the bedroom.

The room is dark with the shades drawn tight, a dull, stale smell hanging in the room. He needs to open the windows, maybe light a candle to get the smell out. He definitely needs to change the sheets. He’d left them on at first because he didn’t want to wash one of the last traces of Gigi’s scent from the house, but by now he has to admit that anything she’d left behind is gone. The smell of her skin and hair. The way her giggle would bounce off the walls of whatever room they were in. It’s all just gone.

“Well that’s proper fucking morbid,” Zayn mutters. His voice is scratchy and he wonders when the last time he’s actually spoken to someone was. It’s got to be going on...Zayn squints. He honestly can’t remember who he spoke to last. That can’t be good.

The mobile buzzes again and he picks it up from his bedside table. When he swipes into the messages and sees who’s been texting his mouth twitches into a smile without him even realizing it.

are you alive or have you buried yourself in a pillow fort of sadness??

what room have you repainted this time you sorry sack

have you eaten a single thing in the past week??

make sure you take care of stitch. You I dont care about but the dog doesn’t deserve your sorry ass

“Yeah, go fuck yourself too, Tommo,” Zayn says, but he’s smiling when he says it. He tucks his tongue between his teeth when he types back, ignoring everything except the important things.

Stitch is fine. Eating better than I am most likely

It’s the wrong thing to say. Zayn knows it the minute he hits send. The next text from Louis comes back near instantly, and in just one word Zayn can hear his voice. He can see the small downward tilt to Louis’ mouth. His disappointed frown.

Zayn

I’m fine. It’s fine. he sends. And it is. Or it’s not but it will be. Zayn knows that. It’ll be fine he sends again.

I’m coming over tomorrow Louis sends, and Zayn shakes his head, murmuring, “No, no, no, no…”

Fuck off, Z he sends again, and Zayn knows it’s pointless to argue. Louis has always been the one in charge; the one to call the shots. Why would this be any different.

Fine Zayn taps out, but he’s almost smiling as he sends it. See you tomorrow.

*

Zayn wakes up early the next day, a strange flurry of nerves in his belly. He feels like his mum is coming to visit and not one of his best mates. He doesn’t want Louis to think he’s not doing well, or that anything is wrong, so he rips the sheets off the bed and tosses them in the corner of the room, fussing in the hall cupboard for a new set. He probably should have called in his cleaning lady, but the thought comes too late. Zayn will just have to make do on his own. Stitch is jumping into the pile of dirty sheets and barking happily, and Zayn stands in the middle of the room rubbing a hand over his head and trying to decide what to do next.

He remakes the bed and doesn’t think about how he can’t smell Gigi at all anymore. He’s literally washing away all the last traces of her, but that’s fine. That’s ok. Zayn can be good with that eventually.

He heads down to the kitchen when he’s done, the sounds of Stitch’s happy barking trailing behind him. The rest of the house is mostly neat. Dusty and smelling a little rank, but nothing is really out of place. There’s not much left to be out of place, he thinks sourly, and then shoves the thought to the back of his head before he manages to be in a proper mood by the time Louis shows up.

He’s in the kitchen putting the kettle on for tea when the doorbell goes, and Zayn wipes the palms of his hands on his sleep pants and heads to the door. He wonders for a split second if he maybe should have put on a shirt. Not that Louis is going to be surprised by Zayn’s bare chest or anything. Louis has seen Zayn in way less than he’s wearing now and he at least changed his pants and put on fresh ones since Louis was coming over.

“Open the door, you ugly fucker,” Louis calls out, and in a split second everything in Zayn settles quiet in his stomach. The nerves are gone and his wondering about what he should be wearing is gone. It’s just Louis here. He can hear Louis’ voice and when he opens the door he’ll see Louis’ face, and it hits him then deep in his chest just how badly he wants that.

Zayn throws the lock and pulls the door open and Louis is standing there, shoulder leaned on the edge of his doorway, a small smirk touching his lips.

“Can’t even manage to get dressed by noon,” Louis tsks. He looks Zayn up and down and sighs quietly. “Such a sad state of affairs, Malik.”

“Fuck off, Lou,” Zayn says. His voice is thick, and he swallows past the lump in his throat. “You’re lucky I’m wearing my pants.”

“That I am,” Louis confirms, and pushes his way inside.

It’s still strange, having Louis here in his house. Louis has told Zayn by now that his mum was the one who convinced Louis to call him for the first time months ago. At the time Zayn had no idea why Louis decided to text him one day out of the blue and announce that he was coming to Zayn’s house in an hour, so Zayn should send him his address immediately. Louis showed up two hours late that day - late enough that Zayn had convinced himself Louis changed his mind and wasn’t even coming - and then he’d knocked on the door, giving Zayn the same, unimpressed look he’s giving him now.

“Green?” Louis had said at the time, yanking on the dyed tips of the longest part of Zayn’s hair. “Really, you fucking wanker?” Then Louis had laughed - his voice high and sweet and achingly familiar - and Zayn finally let himself admit that he’d missed him.

That day everything in Zayn shifted, and stilled, and it was just them. Zayn and Louis. His best friend and closest mate and Zayn had needed him. He missed him, and Louis coming to him was one of the most important things that anyone has ever done for him.

That was ages ago now, but it’s still something Zayn had thought he’d lost for long enough at the time, that the sight of Louis kicking his shoes off into Zayn’s living room today startles him all over again. Louis moving through Zayn’s kitchen, switching off the kettle and opening cabinet after cabinet before finding the one with the mugs and plucking two out sends a little shiver down his spine.

“D’ya have any real tea?” Louis asks over his shoulder. Zayn realizes Louis has put down the mugs and is now shaking a box of Gigi’s fancy herbal tea in the air, and shit. He’d forgotten to clean out the cabinets in the kitchen. He’s got to do that soon, he thinks, before swallowing thickly and looking away.

“Back of the--” Zayn’s voice hitches. He clears his throat and drops his eyes. “Back of the cabinet. Behind her-- behind those other boxes.”

Louis hmms quietly and taps his foot on the floor. Zayn looks up into the silence and Louis watches him steadily before putting Gigi’s tea back exactly where it was and digging out a box of Yorkshire. He gets the bags set up and fills the mugs with water from the kettle, all while Zayn stands motionless in his own kitchen, hands hanging useless by his sides.

“Where’s my God-dog?” Louis’s voice breaks the heavy silence. “I’ve got a pressie for him.” He pulls a squeaky toy doughnut out of his back pocket and grins. It’s bright pink and the sound it makes will haunt Zayn’s nightmares for the rest of his life. Stitch will love it.

“Upstairs burying himself in a pile of dirty sheets.”

“Poor thing,” Louis says lightly. Hie lips quirk in a grin. Louis puts the doughnut down on the counter and hands Zayn his tea. Zayn knows without even sipping it that it’s made exactly how he likes it. Louis blows across the top of his mug, the fringe of his hair hanging low over his eyes. “I’ve been around your dirty sheets enough to know that’s not the most pleasant place to be.”

“He put himself there,” Zayn insists. “And don’t think you’re doing me any favors. I certainly don’t need you coming over here and spoiling him with toys so that when you leave he’s in a strop for the rest of the day and takes to weeing on my things in protest.”

“It’s not my fault all your things are piss worthy,” Louis says and it’s enough to startle a laugh out of Zayn. A real one this time. Probably the first one in days.

It reminds Zayn of old times. Of him and Louis before everything went so pear shaped. The two of them had always been cut from the same cloth, even from the beginning. They were smoking on the tour bus and sneaking out of hotels when they weren’t supposed to. They were doing weed and the occasional pill and pulling birds and blokes they had no business even talking to. They were inside jokes and comics and skateboards.

They were so much more than that though, and that’s what people never really understood about them. They were the wild cards, the ones who were most likely to say the wrong thing at the worst time, but they were also shitty movies playing low on Zayn’s laptop at night, talking about how much they loved their lives, and how much they hated them at the same time. Talking so softly because they didn’t want anyone else to hear, didn’t want to say things out loud and make them feel more real.

They didn’t want to seem ungrateful, or unthankful, but sometimes it was too much for the both of them and they knew that. They got that about each other. How much they loved each other and the rest of lads and how much they hated everyone keeping them in all of it at the same time. Wondering what they would be like when they were done, when they got out. If they’d even recognize themselves at all.

“How’s Freddie?” Zayn asks, desperate to distract himself from his thoughts. It’s a feeble attempt to change the subject, but it works. Louis’s face lights up like it always does when he’s talking about his son, and he’s putting down his tea to dig the mobile out of his pocket in a split second.

“Good, really good. So big so fast, you know?” He steps closer and Zayn tilts his head in. Louis still smells the same; a mixture of cologne and shampoo and cigarettes. Zayn breathes deep and watches the pictures flicker past with every swipe of Louis’ thumb.

“I’ve got a little video of him having a kickabout the other day too,” Louis says. “Hang on a sec, I’ll play it for you.”

The video is ridiculously cute when Louis finds it. It’s Freddie running on his stubby legs chasing a football across a wide stretch of green grass. He’s got a dark blue beanie on the top of his head and a cheeky little laugh plays from the mobile’s speaker. Zayn feels himself smile and looks up to catch Louis’ eye.

“I think that’s probably the cutest fucking thing I’ve ever seen,” Zayn says truthfully and Louis beams.

“Thanks, mate.”

Louis keeps scrolling, showing Zayn picture after picture of Freddie. Some on Louis’ lap, some with Louis’ sisters. There’s a string of pictures of Freddie in different animal hats: a grey fuzzy one with cat ears and a brown wooly one that makes him look like a lion.

“He’s adorable, Lou,” Zayn says truthfully and something in it, something in seeing Louis’s baby has Zayn desperate and almost greedy for more. “And how’s Liam’s little lad doing?” he asks. “Have you got some pictures of him too?”

Louis’ eyes flash, a bright, happy blue. “I do, yeah,” he says, then pulls up a different folder in his photos and clicks into the first one that comes up.

It’s a screencap of when Louis and Liam must have been facetiming, both of them with the babies on their laps: Louis with Freddie held in front of him, and Liam holding the fattest baby Zayn has ever seen. He’s ridiculously cute with his round, rosy cheeks and a shock of thick, dark hair on his head. Bear, Zayn thinks to himself and rolls his eyes fondly.

“Poor lad,” Zayn says seriously.

Louis looks over and squints at him. “Who?”

“Bear,” Zayn says, shaking his head slowly.

“Why’s that?”

Zayn’s mouth twitches with a smile no matter how hard he tries to hold it back. He nods at the mobile and says, “I just feel bad, yeah?” The corners of his mouth curving into a grin and he snorts out a quiet laugh. “Poor baby’s got Cheryl as a mum and comes out looking like Liam.”

Louis bursts out laughing. “Right?” he says. He’s still chuckling when he shoves the mobile back into his pocket, and It only takes that second for things to go quiet. Zayn shifts from foot to foot and scratches his belly, wishing for the first time since Louis arrived that he stopped to put a shirt on before Louis came over. He’s feeling way too open and exposed all of a sudden.

“You could ring him, you know,” Louis says. He’s trying to sound nonchalant and missing by about a mile. Louis was never considered the stealthy one. “I’m sure he’d love to hear from you. Catch up and all.”

Zayn hums noncommittally.

“Niall too,” Louis continues. Zayn shakes his head and turns away from the kitchen to head into the living room, because no. Louis does this all the time. Gets Zayn nice and comfortable and then tries to get him to agree to call the others.

“He’s here in LA, you know. Niall, that is. I’m actually headed to see him,” Louis goes on, voice picking up steam. Zayn knows what’s coming before Louis even says it and he’s already shaking his head. “I’m sure if you wanted to you could--”

“Lou,” Zayn says, sharply. He turns back to stare at Louis and there must be enough there for Louis to get it because he drops his head and sighs. They’ve had this discussion a hundred times before. Zayn is happy he’s got Louis back. He is. But trying with Liam and Niall would be - it would be too much, is all. He’d hurt them too much back then. He broke whatever it is they had and he’s just - he’s not sure he’s got it in him to try again. He can’t imagine what he would do if he went to them to try and make things better and they turned him away.

Louis gets it, on some kind of level, because he drops the subject as quickly as he brought it up like always. “Yeah. Yeah, all right. Fine,” he says. He’s quiet for a second and it stretches. “And you’ve obviously not spoken to--”

“No,” Zayn interrupts. He’d been half wondering what he would say to Louis if the subject of Harry came up, and apparently his brain made that decision for him. Maybe if Louis had asked earlier, before the pictures of the babies and the feelings that Zayn is already having trouble dealing with, his decision would have been different. But talking about Harry now, right when he’s in the middle of feeling all of this is definitely not going to happen.

“Right,” Louis says evenly. “I figured.”

It’s quiet then, the silence going heavy. Just as it’s about to get uncomfortably awkward, Zayn whistles sharply up the steps. Stitch comes bounding down instantly, nails skidding across the floor as he runs toward Louis.

“Well hello, my perfect little pup.” Louis beams when Stitch jumps all around his feet. He leans over to scoop Stitch up into the crook of his arm and tilts his head back as Stitch licks all over his cheeks and chin. “I’ve got a pressie for you,” Louis coos to the dog. “You want to see?”

Zayn watches as Louis carries him back into the kitchen, Stitch’s delighted little yelps followed by an obnoxious squeaking Zayn that is going to murder Louis for. Stitch comes barreling out right after that. The pink doughnut toy is clenched tightly between his teeth and a defiant look is in his eyes, as if he’s daring Zayn to try and take it away.

“What?” Zayn says. Stitch stands ramrod straight and gives the doughnut one single, loud squeak. “I’m not going to take it,” Zayn tells him. Stitch clearly doesn’t believe him because he gives Zayn one final look before turning around and trotting back up the stairs.

“Thanks for that,” Zayn says when Louis comes back out of the kitchen. Louis must feel the sarcasm because he smiles brightly. In the distance Zayn can hear the dull squeak, squeak, squeak from where Stitch is gnawing the hell out of the doughnut upstairs. “Lovely toy. Completely not obnoxious at all.”

“You’re welcome,” Louis quips. Zayn rolls his eyes and Louis laughs. “I’ve actually got to run though,” Louis says. “Meeting someone downtown to go over some promotional stuff.”

Zayn nods. He could be doing things like that too. He probably should be doing things like that. Instead he’s just been sitting in the house by himself every day, pretending like Gigi’s about to pop in. Like she’s just been away on a holiday, or that she’s going to walk in and tell him it was all a mistake and she’s come back home.

“You’ll be alright though?” Louis asks. His voice has gone serious. He’s near Zayn’s door now and he stops before he touches the knob. Zayn knows if he tells Louis no, that he’s not all right, Louis would stay. It’s comforting to know that at least.

“I’m good, yeah,” Zayn lies. When Louis looks like he doesn’t believe him Zayn adds, “I’ll be fine. Promise.”

Louis watches him carefully for another second, then points at him with one hand while turning the doorknob with the other. “You’ll let me know if you need me, yeah?”

“Yeah, Lou.”

Louis pauses then pulls the door open letting in a bright flood of sunlight. “Ok. I’ll be in touch.”

Zayn smiles a gives him a little salute. “Got it.”

“Be good.”

“I will.”

“Ring me in a few days.”

Zayn rolls his eyes. “Yes sir.”

“And don’t do that thing you always do,” Louis warns.

Zayn feels his forehead crinkle in confusion. “Huh?”

“The thing you do,” Louis says again. When Zayn still doesn’t get it Louis rolls his eyes and speaks very slowly. “The thing you do, where you get bored and go out one day and then come home with another dog,” Louis explains.

Zayn opens his mouth to argue but Louis talks right over him. “No. I know you. I know how you work. You get sad or bored or lonely and then boom. New puppy in the house. Stitch is enough though, yeah?” Louis says. Zayn licks his lips and tries not to smile. “Just work on keeping yourself and your one dog alive. Got it?”

Zayn bites down on the inside of his lips. “Yeah.”

“No more dogs,” Louis warns one final time.

“Right. Got it,” Zayn says, smiling as the door closes behind Louis. “No more dogs.”

*

Zayn goes out the next morning and adopts a kitten.

He doesn’t mean to, really. The idea of getting another dog hadn’t crossed his mind at all until Louis mentioned it, but once the words were out there Zayn couldn’t stop thinking about it. He tries to push it back the entire rest of the day, though, because Louis was probably right. More responsibility when Zayn was barely managing to keep himself awake and fed these days seemed insane. He shoved the idea to the side, and made some toast and another tea after Louis left and then let Stitch outside to run around in the garden.

Zayn watches Stitch closely when he’s running in the grass, chasing a ripped-up yellow ball Louis had given him the last time he’d stopped over. He doesn’t look particularly sad (for a dog at least), but Zayn knows the house is way more quiet now that Gigi’s gone. Other than Stitch, he’s not had anyone to speak to for days. Now that Zayn thinks about it, he realizes he hasn’t played any music either, or sung anything or had any conversations other than when Louis stopped over. It doesn’t seem fair, really, to subject his pup to such a quiet, sad life.

So when he wakes up the next morning to Stitch’s soft little snuffs against his ear on the pillow he decides fuck it. He hadn’t thought about it until Louis mentioned it but now it’s all he can think about.

“You want someone to play with, my guy?” Zayn says. “You want a friend here again?” Stitch gives a little growl in his sleep and Zayn scritches behind his ears before slipping out of bed.

Outside it’s bright in the early morning sun. Zayn can feel the heat against his shoulders and the back of his neck as he makes his way into the garage, swinging a set of car keys around his fingers. He should probably have called his assistant to get a car to come pick him up, but something about this feels almost like he’s sneaking around. Gigi left him and Harry texted and Louis stopped by. There’s been too much going on lately and Zayn needs a minute to do some things by himself. To make a decision for himself that no one else has any input in.

He makes his way to the pet store without incident. Halfway there he thinks about calling the owners to see if they’ve even gotten any new pups in lately, but he’s already in the car when the idea crosses his mind and by that point it’s too late to turn back. Even if there aren’t any dogs there for Zayn, he figures he can still use the trip to pick up some treats and a new toy or two for Stitch. Zayn can’t let Louis be his own dog’s favorite. That’ll never do.

He finds a parking space around the back of the store easily, the streets still fairly quiet. It’s a good thing Zayn knows Peter likes to get up and open the shop early. The front door is locked so Zayn does call him now, rocking back on his heels as he waits outside the shop on the street. It doesn’t take long for Peter to flip the shades open from the inside and grin at Zayn from behind the glass.

“Hey, Mr. Malik!” Peter says warmly. He swings open the door and ushers Zayn inside. “What brings you here so early in the morning? How’s our little Stitch doing?”

“He’s good, thanks,” Zayn says. The shop is dark, the muffled snores and quiet yips and barks of the dogs coming from their cages in the back. It’s an old fashioned shop, with a till on the counter and all sorts of pet toys and treats stacked up on the shelves around them. The smell assaults his nostrils and Zayn wrinkles his nose a bit. It’s not entirely unpleasant, just a strong smell of pet food and animals and cleaning solution.

“Sorry,” Peter says when he sees the face Zayn is making. “Just doing some cleaning before we officially open for the day.”

“No worries, mate,” Zayn says. He rocks back on his heels and peers back toward the cages, trying not to look too anxious with curiosity. “I know I’m early. I appreciate you opening up for me.”

“Anything for one of my favorite pet lovers,” Peter says. He’s got a wide face and a bright grin. His cheeks are pink and his eyes dark and shining, a thick brown beard cut close to his chin. He looks over Zayn’s shoulder, and in a split second Zayn knows what he’s going to ask before he even has time to brace himself against it.

“Speaking of, where’s your better half?” Peter asks innocently enough, and Zayn really needs to work on controlling his face when people ask about Gigi. As it is he’s got no idea what expression he’s wearing to make the smile fall off Peter’s face so thoroughly in such a short flicker of time.

“Uhm. She’s.” Zayn rubs the back of his neck and sucks in a breath from between his teeth. “I mean, we’re--”

“Ah, shit. Sorry,” Peter apologizes. He looks down at the floor and Zayn feels like an ass. It’s not like Peter would know.

“It’s fine, Peter,” Zayn assures him. He’s been doing that a lot lately; telling people he’s ok, making sure they’re ok after they ask him something uncomfortable. He forces a grin on his face and moves past it. That’s why he’s here, after all. “Speaking of better halves, where’s yours?”

“Sleeping in,” Peter says, rolling his eyes. He motions for Zayn to follow him to the back of the store and over to the cages. “We’ve been trading off lately, meaning that on weekends I get up early and on the rest of the days of the week she sleeps in.”

Zayn laughs as Peter flicks the low lights on in the back, a tiny lick of excitement curling in his belly.

“You have any idea who you’re looking for today?” Peter asks.

Zayn shakes his head. He honestly doesn’t. This entire plan is half assed at best. “Not too big, I don’t think,” Zayn says. “Stitch is small and I don’t want him overwhelmed.”

“Gotcha.”

“It’s mostly for him anyway,” Zayn quickly adds. Peter gives him with a soft look and Zayn clarifies. “The new dog. It’s for Stitch, I mean. I just - I don’t want him getting lonely now with…” He bites his lip and adds, “now with everything, I suppose.”

Peter smiles kindly. “Of course. I’m sure we’ve got someone here who’ll be perfect for him.”

Peter stands back while Zayn quietly wanders around the cages, leaning over to see the pups better and resting his hand over the open tops when he spots a dog he might be interested in. There are a few fluffy little guys, a black and grey maltese and a pure white cockapoo. There’s a light brown pomeranian and a tiny, small tan bulldog puppy Zayn almost falls in love with while it sleeps curled up on the newspaper shavings in the crate.

“Anyone striking your fancy?” Peter asks. Zayn shakes his head. They’re all cute, is the thing. He could see himself taking home any one of them. None of them have given him that feeling though. The feeling he had with Stitch. The feeling that grabs his chest and tells him that if he leaves the building without them he’s going to regret it.

He’s about to tell Peter that he’s sorry, that maybe today isn’t the day after all and he’s just going to grab a few things for Stitch and head home when he hears it. It’s such a quiet sound compared to the barking of the dogs that are waking up and the way they’re all starting to jump around their cages that he almost misses it, but it’s definitely there.

Zayn cocks his head to the side and tries to hear it again. “Is that - d’you have a cat here, mate?”

“Ahh. Just one,” Peter says, eyes twinkling. He’s walking to the far corner of the room to a cage all by itself. “A stray, if you’d believe it. Theresa found her out back a few days ago. Not too sure where the mom or the rest of the litter is. She’s almost too tiny to be on her own so we’ve been bottle feeding her and keeping her as warm as possible.” He’s bending over the cage, his voice getting muffled as he leans further in, and Zayn doesn’t know why but when Peter stands back up Zayn’s heart pounds in his chest.

“She’s a tiny little thing,” Peter says when he emerges. He’s got his hand curled around a pure black ball of fluff. Zayn steps closer and when he goes to hold his hand out he realizes it’s shaking. “You want to hold her?”

“Yeah,” Zayn croaks. His voice is rough as sandpaper. He takes the kitten from Peter and she feels like she doesn’t weigh anything at all. Just a warm, soft ball in his hands with a tiny tail flicking around.

Zayn scratches behind her ears and the kitten blinks open her eyes and levels Zayn with a silver grey stare. “Hey, little lady,” Zayn says quietly. The kitten tries to chew on his thumb and her teeth feel like the lightest pinpricks. “You want to come home with me?”

The kitten stares at him some more, then she yawns and stretches out in his hands.

“She’s going to be a bit of work,” Peter warns him. The kitten has already started to sink her tiny claws in the front of Zayn’s t-shirt and is trying to crawl inside his jacket. “She’s little. Needs a lot of attention right now.”

Zayn knew the second he saw the kitten’s face that he wasn’t leaving without her. That she was the one he’d been looking for. He knows she was meant to be his.

“That’s all right,” Zayn says, burying his nose in her soft fur and dropping a kiss to her head. The kitten mewls and taps her paw against his chin and Zayn smiles. “I’ve got time.”

*

Zayn gets the kitten settled in a crate in the front seat of his car, a huge bag of cat toys, treats and food in a bag in the boot. He can tell she’s spooked. She keeps spinning in circles before stopping and mewling at him at the top of her tiny little voice. Zayn slowly pulls his car out of the parking spot and into the street, stopping at a light and sliding his fingers into an opening in the crate for the kitten to pounce on.

He manages to wait until they’re home, car pulled up the drive and into his garage before he digs his mobile out of his pocket and snaps a picture. In it the kitten is staring up at him with big grey eyes, her mouth opened in a pitiful meow. You can see the flash of her pink tongue, and the points of her little white teeth. She’s so ridiculously cute Zayn can barely stand it.

Meet Lady he types under the picture, before sending it to Louis. He’s barely out of the car when his mobile buzzes back with a text from Louis in all caps.

GETTING A CAT WAS NOT WHAT I MEANT!!!

Zayn just laughs as he slides the mobile back into his pocket before picking up the crate and bringing Lady inside.

*

It takes a few days for Zayn, Lady and Stitch to reach a living arrangement that works for all of them. Stitch is suspicious of Lady from the second Zayn walks in the door with her, and then spends two days pouting and sleeping just outside of Zayn’s bedroom, refusing to set a paw into the room he’s slept in every night of his life so far. It’s pitiful.

“Come on, buddy,” Zayn pleads. He’s lying on his belly in the bedroom, chin down on the floor with his face a few inches away from Stitch’s. Lady is climbing all over Zayn’s back, her tiny claws pricking into his t-shirt before she settles herself along the back of Zayn’s neck and lies down. He’s happy at least one of them is comfortable.

“Oh my god, this is insane,” Zayn says around a chuckle. If someone had asked Zayn six months ago - six minutes ago even - what the most ridiculous moment of his life has been so far, he’d have been hard pressed to think of an answer. Now, lying on his own bedroom floor trying to reason with his dog while a kitten sleeps on the back of his neck is definitely going to top the list.

“Stitch, you know I still love you, yeah?” Zayn bangs his head against the floor as Stitch huffs and stares past his shoulder and into the distance. He’s been glaring at Zayn for days, eyes dark with betrayal. If Zayn weren’t so frustrated and feeling so guilty he’d be impressed.

Lady bats her paw against Zayn’s ear, and Zayn sighs. He’s about to give up and put his head back down when he hears his mobile buzzing from the bedroom behind him, and oh. This could be good.

“You hear that?” Zayn says. His lips twitch as Stitch glances at him before staring back past Zayn’s shoulder. “That’s probably Uncle Louis,” Zayn says sternly. He can swear Stitch’s ears twitch before he looks at him guiltily.

Zayn might be crazy but he takes the guilty look and runs with it. He’s not above anything at this point. “It’s not good, buddy,” Zayn says, voice as despondent as he can make it sound. “He’s going to be so disappointed when I tell him how you’re acting.”

The mobile is quiet, then picks up a moment later with another text. Zayn keeps his eyes level with Stitch and after a long, intense moment of staring, Stitch stands up on his stubby legs, takes a step forward and leans down to lick directly over Zayn’s right eyebrow.

Zayn is thrilled. Dog spit be damned, he grins and scratches behind Stitch’s neck and ears, putting a hand over Lady’s back where she’s fallen asleep on his shoulder as he sits up. Stitch barks and jumps to sit between Zayn’s crossed legs where he’s sat in the middle of his doorway.

“Aww, good job, my guy,” Zayn says. Stitch leans his chin on Zayn’s thigh and sneezes against him and Zayn laughs. Lady is settled into her favorite spot - her body slumped over the curve of Zayn’s shoulder and her face tucked against his neck - when his mobile buzzes again and Jesus Christ, what’s Lou gotten his pants into a twist over this time.

“Come on,” Zayn says, as he pushes to his feet. He leans back down to scoop Stitch under one arm with Lady still snoozing over his opposite shoulder. Louis would absolutely take the piss if he could see Zayn now. “Let’s see what Uncle Lou wants before he births a kitten of his own because we’re not answering him quick enough.”

He makes his way to the bed, kicking a small pile of dirty t-shirts and socks out of the way. He’s definitely got to get some laundry done at some point soon. Zayn never realized how much of the house type things Gigi kept up on until he’s wound up with no clean pants and dust an inch thick on every surface in his living room. Apparently he’s got to ring the cleaners to let them know he’s in town and he needs them to come take care of things. Zayn had no idea.

He drops Stitch into the tangle of sheets on his mattress and plucks Lady off his shirt, placing her on the extra pillow no one sleeps on anymore. Zayn’s not thinking about it. He watches Lady take a bunch of steps in a circle, her claws pricking into the pillowcase and tugging on it until she flings herself back into the sheets over and over again. Stitch watches her, then looks to Zayn like he’s seriously doubting Zayn’s mental state by bringing Lady into their family.

Zayn can’t be concerned about that. If he was worried every time Stitch stared at him like he was crazy he’d never leave the house. As it is he’s smiling to himself as he grabs his mobile off the bedside table, ready for whatever sarcastic and ridiculous things Louis has been texting him all morning.

The number on the screen isn’t Louis’ though. It takes Zayn’s eyes a few seconds to register what he’s seeing and when he does he sits down hard on the edge of the bed, his stomach plummeting into his gut the same as it did when he saw it a few weeks ago.

Hey zayn haven’t heard from you

Still wondering how you are. Still hope you’re doing well

Hopefully I’ll hear from you soon

“God fucking dammit,” Zayn mumbles. His insides twist up instantly, and he can’t parse out how he feels all at once. He’s angry Harry texted him again, because Zayn thinks the fact that he never answered Harry the first time should have been answer enough. He’s sad because of the bone deep sadness he feels whenever he thinks of Harry, and him and Harry, and the way everything’s so fucked up between them.

He’s also weirdly nervous, his stomach twisting tight and his palms going clammy, and that’s the feeling Zayn finds hardest to deal with. The feeling that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. The unsure footing of it all. He knows it’s probably just shock - the fact that it’s been so long since he’s heard from Harry that to see words on a screen and instantly hear Harry’s voice in his head after all this time is a lot to deal with.

Part of him though - part of him feels the back of his throat go tight. His eyes prick and his chest hurts and it makes him sad and angry all at once that even just thinking about Harry after all this time still affects him like this. It’s been forever now. There’s no reason why he still gets like this just from seeing some words on a screen.

Stitch must be able to tell something’s wrong because he makes his way across the mess of sheets and noses under Zayn’s arm, laying his head on Zayn’s thigh. Zayn stares at the screen long enough that his eyes burn and the letters all start to blur together. He scratches Stitch’s nose and behind his ears and watches his mobile until the screen goes dark, clicking it off after another minute. He doesn’t erase the message, though. Not this time.

*

The messages sit in Zayn’s mobile for days. He talks to his mum and Doniya. He sends pictures of Lady to Safaa and has a three day long argument with Louis via text about spoiling his pets with the tremendous crate of dog and kitten toys Louis had sent to Zayn’s house. He sleeps in late and smokes too many fags and gets food delivered and drinks nothing but tea and whiskey. He still needs to call in the cleaners but he’s getting used to the dust in the living room, and the film over everything in the kitchen.

He does get in touch with his assistant to try and work out some dates to head back into the studio at least, and that’s good. That’s making progress. He flicks open a notebook to try and maybe write something, but the cover is brown and it reminds him of Harry’s stupid journal and he slams it closed without ever making a mark in it.

He gets drunk on Jameson one night and jerks off in the shower and forces himself to sleep in the dead center of the bed, trying to take up the space Gigi left behind. He makes it until four am when he reaches to the side to feel her hair and comes up with nothing but air, his fingers brushing against the edge of the now empty side table. He rolls back over to his own side after that and never tries it again.

He doesn’t sleep well; he never did. When he wakes up in the morning he can feel the press of whatever he was dreaming right there on the edge of his mind. It had been Gigi for so long after she left. Dreams every night about her still being there, Zayn walking up to her in the kitchen, leaning against the bathroom door and talking to her when she did her hair and makeup.

Now though, it’s like Harry’s texts spark something because he starts to dream of the lads for the first time in ages. The bump and rumble of the tour bus, the way the lights would feel so hot on his skin when he was signing that sometimes he felt like he was burning up from the inside out. It’s been so long since he’s dreamed of performing; of the music and the shows and whispered conversations from one hotel bed to the other in the dark of night, and he wakes up every morning restless and short of breath.

Harry has shows in LA that come and go - his first shows ever - and Zayn ignores them all. He knows he could call Harry or text him back but he doesn’t. He doesn’t even think about him; not much, anyway. Not any more than he thinks about Louis and how he somehow managed to keep him, or Niall and Liam and how sometimes he wishes he’d kept them too.

It’s well over a week since Zayn’s brought Lady home, and he’s sat on his sofa that night watching some stupid sitcom with the volume pitched low. Lady is on his shoulder and Stitch has his head on Zayn’s lap. Zayn’s tucked into a huge blue hoodie and a pair of sweatpants that belonged to Liam once upon a time, and he’s turning his mobile over and over in his hands, staring at the blank screen and trying to forget what’s hidden behind the glass.

He can’t, though. That’s the bitch of it all. Harry’s texted him - repeatedly at this point - and there’s only so long Zayn can ignore him until Harry’s texts him again. He knows how Harry works. He’s quiet about the things that matter. The kind of person who can talk all the time without ever really saying anything at all. He’s persistent, too. If he has something to say he’s going to say it, and if you’re not listening he’s going to repeat it until you do.

So Zayn knows he’s not got all that much time before Harry decides to text him again. Maybe if Zayn texts Harry instead he can end this. He clicks the mobile on and goes to his messages, finding the last ones Harry had sent. He reads them again and again and his stomach does that horrible swooping thing every time he does. He can practically hear Harry’s voice, can almost picture Harry with his lip tucked between his teeth as he carefully typed out each message.

Hours go by, Stitch finally falling asleep and Lady moving down to the pillow next to Zayn’s hip to snooze on. Zayn’s eyes are half closed, his chest tight and he’s so close to sleep when he finally does it. He opens the reply box and lets his thumb hover over the keys while he decides what he wants to say.

I’m fine, he finally types. He pauses then adds, Please don’t text me again

*

Zayn wakes up to a crick in his neck and an incessant pounding on his front door. His mouth tastes foul and his pets have left him in the middle of the night, probably gone off to sleep in his bed even though he’s nowhere near it. He shakes his head and sits up, running a hand over his hair and scratching the back of his neck.

The TV is still on, an infomercial for some kind of fruit juicer playing low. The knocking stops and for a second Zayn thinks he imagined it all. It’s early, he had a night filled with fucked up dreams like usual, and maybe he was just hearing things when he first woke up.

The knocking starts again, though, louder than the last time. “All right, Lou. Calm the fuck down,” Zayn mutters. Louis had said he was going to stop by one day this week to make sure Zayn’s not hidden the five thousand toys he sent to the pets, and lucky for Zayn today must be that day. He’s fine about it, though. When Louis comes over he sometimes brings food and he always makes Zayn’s tea for him and Zayn’s had worse mornings than that to be sure.

“Coming,” Zayn calls as he shoves the mobile in the pocket of his sweats. He whistles up the stairs for Stitch and cracks his back before punching in the alarm code and unlocking the door. “Can you settle the fuck down, man? I said I was--”

Zayn’s not sure who’s more surprised when he swings the door open: him or Harry. As it is it takes Zayn’s brain a second to catch up with what his eyes are seeing. He feels his mouth drop open and he blinks, but no matter how hard he tries to tell himself he’s seeing things, there Harry remains, standing right in front of him on his front stoop.

Harry looks shocked on his own, which doesn’t make any sense because he’s the one who’s come for Zayn, but that sums Harry up right there. A human body with green eyes and ridiculous hair who does nothing Zayn ever wants or expects him to do when he does it. Zayn knows what Harry looks like these days; he’s not been under a rock since he last saw him, but it’s still different to see him stood there with the sunlight shining behind him instead of him staring back from the glossy pages of a magazine.

He looks bigger, is what Zayn notices first. Broader across the shoulders and back. His hair is shorter than the last time Zayn saw him in person, but he remembers it this length too, just a bit too long over the ears and the back of his neck. He’s in the same old Britney t-shirt Zayn has seen a thousand times before, and a pair of jeans that look almost too big and rolled up at the ankles. He looks different and the same all at once. Like someone Zayn knows better than anyone, and a perfect stranger at the same time.

His eyes are the same, though. As much as Zayn tries to pretend they’re not, they’re the same clear green, still watching Zayn like he knows all of Zayn’s secrets, all the parts of him that he keeps hidden from the rest of the world.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Zayn’s mouth moves before he even knows what he’s going to say, but after it’s out Zayn has no regrets. If he had time to think about it he’d probably say the same thing again anyway.

“Uhm,” Harry licks his lips, a flash of bright pink tongue and Zayn’s stomach twists. He can smell Harry’s cologne, is the thing. In just a split second Zayn can see him and can smell him and it’s like everything is coming back to him at once. “Hi?” Harry says. His lips twitch and the smallest smile touches his mouth. He lifts his hand to wave and his rings glint in the sun.

“What are you doing here,” Zayn says again. He scratches a hand over his head, disappointed for the first time since he shaved his hair off that he’s got nothing to dig his fingers into. He settles for curling his hands into fists and banging one against his thigh. This is ridiculous. “What do you think you--”

“You said not to text you anymore,” Harry interrupts. His words are still so carefully picked and slow. Everything measured and spoken probably exactly how Harry wants to say it. Zayn wants to put his hands around Harry’s throat and choke him until his face turns blue. “So--”

“So you decided to show up here instead?” Zayn steps back but Harry hovers outside the door, not coming inside. Zayn is glad for it. He knows he can’t leave Harry stood outside forever but part of him wonders if they can end this conversation fast enough that he can just slam the door shut in a minute from now and then spend the rest of the day trying to forget this morning ever happened.

“That’s brilliant, Haz,” Zayn says flatly. Harry’s eyes flash at the nickname but Zayn ignores it. If he acknowledges it, if he stops to think about what he feels like seeing Harry again, and what it’s doing to him to smell him, to have him close enough to touch, Zayn won’t be able to stop. “I tell you to stop texting me so your next logical move is to come here the next morning. Amazing. You’re a genius. Now if you’ll excuse me,” Zayn says, and starts to close the door.

“Zayn, wait.”

Harry’s hand shoots out, fingers curling around the doorframe and keeping it from swinging shut. Zayn feels his jaw go tight. Who the fuck does Harry think he is, exactly.

“Wait. I mean--” The way Harry rakes his fingers through his hair takes Zayn back a hundred years to a thousand different places. It’s Harry smiling and bumbling at the X Factor house when they barely knew each other. It’s Harry hanging his head down from the top bunk on the tour bus so he could see if Zayn was sleeping, his fingers pushing the hair back from his eyes.

It’s Harry pulling his hair back after the first time Zayn kissed him, braver than he’s ever been in his life. Zayn remembers the way Harry blinked that day, and the twist of Zayn’s stomach. They were outside in Houston, Harry’s back pressed against the wall of the venue and he scooped his hair back and smiled in the sunlight and made everything settle inside Zayn for the first time in what felt like forever.

“I heard about Gigi,” Harry says, which is absolutely not what Zayn wants to be talking about right now. Or ever again, really. “‘M’sorry.”

“Not your fault, mate,” Zayn says shortly. They’re still stood in the doorway but Zayn steps back a little, silently inviting Harry inside. He doesn’t want to be talking to Harry and he doesn’t want to be talking about Gigi but since it seems like he’s got no say in either the least he could do is go to his kitchen and make a cup of tea.

Harry follows him a little hesitantly, and Zayn can feel the way Harry is trying to take in his surroundings without being obvious about it. Zayn doesn’t give him much time to do it, though. He makes his way quickly from the foyer down the hall and into the kitchen, banging the kettle into the sink and filling it with water.

“Tea good?” Zayn asks not really caring if it’s good or not. He knows Harry likes tea and coffee equally. Or he did, at least. Zayn’s actually got no clue what the hell Harry likes these days. Sometimes he thinks he never really did.

“Tea’s fine,” Harry says quietly. His voice is still a shock to Zayn’s system but he’s trying to force himself to get over it. He can feel Harry’s eyes on him and he makes the most efficient moves possible to get their tea ready. Mugs from the cupboard, bags from the caddy. This is fine. It’s just making tea. Zayn can do this.

“How did you hear, anyway,” Zayn surprises himself by asking, because the first time Harry had texted him it was just after Gigi had left. Almost no one had known at that point. Zayn would be fooling himself to think that no one knows by now, but it’s been a while already. The gossip rags have been eating this up for weeks.

Zayn had actually seen a flash of Gigi in a magazine just the other day. She’s in New York now, which Zayn figured. The picture Zayn had seen showed her walking down a busy street in Manhattan, her hair tied up high on the top of her head, tight jeans, a short black motorcycle jacket and a tremendous pair of mirrored sunglasses. “Not really one to be inconspicuous, are you, babe?” Zayn would always tease. Gigi would toss her head and laugh. “Why be inconspicuous when I like being seen?” she would say back. Maybe that was the root of all their problems right there.

“Jeff,” Harry says in answer. Zayn turns around to hand Harry his cup of tea, and Harry nods his thanks before blowing across the top and taking a sip. If he notices that Zayn made it the way Harry always used to take it it doesn’t show on his face. Maybe Zayn got it right and Harry doesn’t remember. Maybe Zayn had never had it right and Harry had been faking it all along. These days Zayn would believe anything, since just about nothing he had ever thought was true after all.

“Jeff,” Zayn repeats, and scrunches his nose. It makes sense, in a convoluted way. Jeff probably heard from Glenne, who heard from Kendall who heard from Taylor who heard from Gigi. Something along those lines. It definitely explains how Harry knew to text Zayn so soon after it had happened.

“I think he heard from Glenne who heard from--”

“I don’t need the chain of events, H,” Zayn says, cutting him off. Harry manages to look sheepish at least, leaning back against Zayn’s kitchen counter and sipping his tea.

He looks like he belongs, though, and that’s the thing that’s killing Zayn. After all this time and everything that’s happened, having Harry stood in his kitchen first thing in the morning with the muffled sounds of Stitch chasing Lady around upstairs isn’t all that strange. Zayn’s chest hurts. He doesn’t know how things wound up this way but he thinks he needs it to stop.

Harry cocks his head toward the stairs and listens. “You’ve got a dog?”

Zayn nods. “And a cat,” he says. Harry’s face brightens and his eyes go wide. “Kitten, actually,” Zayn adds and Jesus, why does his mouth keep moving?

“Yeah?” Harry says. He licks his lips and puts his mug down, reaching back to rest the palms of his hands against the edge of the counter. His eyes are bright. His mouth parted slightly, and it seems normal even when he says, “So cute. What kind of cat?”

And that’s - Zayn opens his mouth to answer on instinct, but honestly, what is he even doing right now?

“No, you know what?” Zayn scratches his hand over his head and rubs the back of his neck. He’s not doing this. This is nothing he signed up for, nothing he wants. “I appreciate you checking on me, Harry, but how I’m doing and my pets and everything else is just. It’s none of your business.”

“Zayn, I--”

Zayn cuts him off with a quick shake of his head. Harry’s face has gone pale and he’s biting his lip and watching Zayn with wide eyes. Zayn would feel bad, but it’s not the first time he’s hurt Harry and it’s not the first time Harry’s tried to make amends way too fucking late. They’re pros at this by now. By the end it felt like that’s all they ever did.

“I’m heading upstairs to shower and by the time I’m done I want you gone,” Zayn says softly. He keeps his voice steady; doesn’t let it break no matter how much it feels like it might. He didn’t ask for this. He doesn’t have to feel guilty for sending Harry away. “You can show yourself out, I’m sure,” he says, and he waits until Harry breathes out, and nods, and then Zayn walks away.

*

The second time One Direction played Texas, Zayn could barely think straight. He was dead tired from already being on the road for months, with nothing but tour buses and hotels with shit air conditioning in the throes of summer to keep looking forward to. He was trying to get used to America and its fast ways of moving - the way people’s voices were too loud, their laughs too forced and grating - but it was a lot all at once. They were touring for their second album - world touring - and Zayn should have been thrilled about that. He was, to a point, but he was also tired and homesick.

Harry found him outside the venue before the show that day, trying to find a shady spot to stand and smoke in peace before they had to sound check.

“Hiding?” Harry said. His hair was starting to grow out, the curls licking around the edges of the bandanas he’d just started tying around his head. Zayn wasn’t sure what Harry was trying to accomplish with his hair, but most days he wasn’t sure about anything Harry did at all. Today’s bandana was bright blue with stars on it, and he was wearing a black t-shirt of Louis’ that was so faded it looked nearly grey. His jeans were tight and his thighs were solid. Zayn bit his lip and forced himself to look away.

“Trying to,” Zayn said quietly, as he took a long pull from his fag. Harry didn’t apologize for interrupting him or try to leave. He’d already known by then that when Zayn said he was hiding it wasn’t ever from Harry.

“Hot out today,” Zayn added needlessly. They were all sweating from morning until night, none of them used to the kind of oppressing heat that was America in the dead of summer. Zayn had never experienced waking up hot, then working through the day with it getting hotter and hotter, and then finishing a show and still not having the weather break, sweat pouring down his back the same at half eleven at night as it did half eleven in the morning.

That day was no different. The spot they were both crowded into was shady, but the air was still thick and wet. Every breath he tried to pull into his lungs felt heavy, and the fag wasn’t doing anything to help it. Zayn tossed it on the ground but before he could step on it Harry’s foot came out, crushing the butt under the toe of his boot.

“What are you up to tonight?” Harry asked, innocently enough. Zayn leaned back against the brick of the building, and turned his head. He could hear the sounds of the techs moving around, setting things up for the show later on. Could hear Niall’s sharp laugh and someone he thinks might have been Josh calling after him.

Harry’s face was shiny with sweat, his cheeks and mouth pink. His eyes were bright green and Zayn knew without a second guess what Harry was asking. It wouldn’t be the first time the two of them went out after a show, finding a couple of girls in a club and bringing them back to one of their rooms. They’d done it enough times by now that it was easy as breathing. They knew who the other one liked, and what they would say to set it up, and everything else that would happen after.

Zayn licked his lips and looked down at Harry’s mouth. Sure they could go out and find some girls like they usually do, or they could-- Zayn shook his head and tried to shove the thoughts back. He felt the same tug in his belly that he’d been feeling for weeks around Harry - months even, if he were being honest - and he had no idea what to do about them.

“Not sure,” Zayn said instead. “Want to do something?”

Harry shifted so his back was against the wall mirroring Zayn’s stance. Their shoulders brushed and Harry leaned into him the slightest bit.

“Yeah,” Harry breathed. He turned in, body shielding Zayn from view until all Zayn could see was Harry. His face and his mouth and the way his eyes locked with Zayn’s. Zayn felt his breath catch as Harry’s fingers touched his waist, his hand trembling as it curved over Zayn’s hip, and in a split second everything was different. Zayn knew they weren’t talking about doing the same thing tonight that they’d been doing, that they’d always done.

Zayn’s skin was hot, burning up from the temperature outside and the feel of Harry’s palm curling under the hem of Zayn’s shirt to rest on his skin.

He flicked his tongue out, bright pink against his lips and said, “Do you--” And Zayn will never know what Harry was going to say next, because Harry’s fingers on Zayn’s bare skin set something loose inside him that day that he’s never been able to fully get back. In a split second Zayn reached out and grabbed Harry at the waist, dragging him in until their bodies were lined up, Harry’s leg slotted between Zayn’s own.

“All right?” Zayn asked, looking down at Harry’s mouth and then back up again. Harry nodded, whining desperately in his throat when Zayn reached up and slid his fingers into the back of Harry’s sweat damp hair, tugging him down, pulling him closer and closer until their mouths touched.

It wasn’t planned, but it definitely wasn’t unexpected. Neither of them were surprised when Zayn kissed him, but the bone deep longing, the sweet ache and the feeling that this wasn’t enough, that it was never going to be enough, was.

“‘This ok?” Zayn gasped when he finally managed to pull back. Harry’s eyes were blown wide and green, the tops of his cheeks flushed a hot red. He bit his bottom lip and surged against Zayn, dragging their dicks together through their jeans, and holy fuck, was that good.

“Yeah,” Harry said, voice broken open. He tipped his head back and Zayn wanted to bite his throat, wanted to mark every inch of his skin so everyone knew Zayn’s teeth had been there. He wanted to hold Harry’s hand and kiss his mouth and touch his skin and his chest and his dick.

“Do it again,” Harry said. “Kiss me.”

So Zayn did. Over and over and over again for days and months and years. Again and again until the day he decided he needed to leave them all, leave everything. The band and the tour and Harry - and then he did that too.

*

Zayn’s sitting in the garden two days later when he hears the gate swing open and then shut. He’s stretched out on a lounge chair, a bottle of beer dangling from his fingers, watching Stitch and Lady jump around on the grass to chase a butterfly. Stitch stops when he hears the gate and his ear perk. He stares directly over Zayn’s shoulder and from the way he barks and tears across the lawn there’s only one possible person who could be stood there.

“Hey, Lou,” Zayn calls without even looking behind him. He tips his beer back and finishes it before putting the empty bottle down next to him. There’s two other empties there already. Zayn didn’t actually plan to sit outside and get drunk all day, but that’s apparently what’s happening.

The grass crunches under Louis’ feet and then he’s dragging a chair over next to Zayn’s and dropping a plastic bag holding a six pack on the ground, and oh good. More beer. Louis whistles sharply as he digs around in his pocket, and Stitch nearly vibrates out of his own fur when he sees Louis has got a brand new ball for him.

“Haven’t heard from you in a few days,” Louis says. He kicks his feet out and crosses them at the ankles, then tosses the ball and Stitch takes off. Lady must be jealous of the attention he’s getting, because the next thing Zayn knows she’s jumped onto his own lap and curling her head up against Zayn’s thigh. Zayn loves how mellow she can be. She’ll jump around and play with Stitch whenever they’re outside, but most of the time when they’re all together she spends her time curled over the curve of Zayn’s shoulder, or sleeping in his lap.

Zayn grabs a new beer from the ones Louis brought and twists the top off. “Been busy,” he lies. If the way Louis cocks his head in Zayn’s direction is any indication, he doesn’t believe Zayn one bit.

“Really.” Louis’ eyebrows poke up from under his sunglasses.

Zayn shrugs one shoulder and looks back out into the garden. “Something like that.”

They don’t say anything for a while and it’s good. For as much as Louis and Zayn talk, they’re both content to just be around each other as well. It’s sunny and warm out, the air moving around the slightest bit. His beer is cold. Lady is a warm weight in his lap. She’s gotten a bit bigger since Zayn adopted her, but she’s still tiny and Zayn scratches her neck gently.

“So Harry came by.”

Zayn surprises himself by announcing it completely out of nowhere. Louis looks like he’s about to fall out of his chair.

What?”

“Yep. About two days ago, I guess?” Zayn sips his drink and stares straight ahead. He tries not to feel the weight of Louis’ eyes on him.

“What did he want?”

“To see if I was ok,” Zayn tells him. Part of him can’t believe he’s even telling Louis this, but the other part realizes he was going to tell Louis no matter what. He’s got no fucking clue what to do about Harry himself. If Louis has any idea at all it might help.

“And what did - I mean.” Louis turns in his seat and kicks at Zayn’s leg until Zayn looks at him. “Honestly, Malik. Can you fucking look at me and tell me what the bloody hell is going on?”

“I don’t know, Lou, alright?” Zayn shifts around suddenly and it startles Lady. She arches her back and lets out a disgruntled meow. Zayn scratches the back of her neck again until she settles back down. “He texted me a while ago--”

“More news I haven’t heard until now, thanks so much--”

“And I didn’t answer,” Zayn says, speaking loudly over him. “Because I’m done with that.”

“Done with what, exactly?” Louis’ lips are curved in a sharp smirk. Zayn wants to put his hand over Louis’ mouth so he doesn’t have to see it.

“Done with all of it,” Zayn clarifies. “Harry. Talking to Harry. Just. Harry in general.”

“Mmhmm.” Zayn waits for Louis to say something else but he doesn’t. Just stays frustratingly silent.

“What?” Zayn snaps. Louis is petting Stitch on the head, the ball Stitch retrieved and dropped in his lap covered in dog slobber. His eyebrows quirk up and he shrugs one shoulder, feigning nonchalance.

“I just think it’s funny, yeah? How like, after everything that happened the one person to never contact you was Harry. And you were so cross about it, as if all you wanted was for Harry to get in touch with you.”

“That’s absolutely not true,” Zayn says.

“And now here Harry is, trying to talk to you,” Louis goes on as if Zayn’s not spoken at all. “And you’re not even curious as to what he has to say?” He’s quiet after that and Zayn waits for something else, the point of what Louis was getting to, to come out maybe, but it seems like he’s done. He’s just...stopped talking. Zayn would happily murder him right now if given the chance.

“That’s it?” Zayn asks when it’s clear Louis is just going to continue sitting there, sipping his beer and staring at Zayn with cool, blue eyes. “That’s your big take on it? That I should be curious about what he wants to say?”

Louis shrugs and looks away, finally. “I’m not saying you should be anything,” Louis tells him. “I just know that I’d be curious.”

Zayn clenches his teeth and stares down at his lap. “Well you’re wrong,” Zayn says quietly.

Louis doesn’t answer and Zayn is glad for it. Louis doesn’t know what he’s talking about anyway.

*

Zayn pulls his car up in front of the restaurant he and Harry agreed to meet at and wonders for the thousandth time today if he’s completely lost his mind.

He wasn’t planning on texting Harry. He was just going to let the whole thing die. Harry contacted him and came to see him and that’s not what Zayn wants, Zayn’s done with that, and he was just going to ignore Harry and Zayn would move on and that would be that. Exactly like he’s been doing. Exactly like he was planning on doing for the rest of his life.

And then Louis had to show up with his, don’t you want to know and his I’d be curious what he wants to say, and bam. It’s like no matter how hard Zayn tried he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

So he texted Harry and told him to meet him at an Italian restaurant near Zayn’s house. Zayn goes there all the time so the staff knows to not say anything when he’s around and they’ve got a small table set up all the way in the back of the restaurant just for him when he goes there.

The restaurant is quiet when Zayn walks in. They agreed to meet around four o’clock, so the lunch crowd is done but dinner hasn’t officially started yet. Zayn’s a few minutes early, but as he walks back toward the table he spots Harry sat down already, flicking through the wine list with his long legs stretched out in front of him.

He looks good, is the thought that floats unbidden into Zayn’s brain. His hair is swept back from his face and his black shirt is opened the first few buttons to show a flash of skin Zayn’s not seen in so long. Silver rings glint on his fingers, and as he’s watching Harry pulls on his bottom lip in thought and it’s so familiar it startles him. Makes Zayn’s feet get stuck in their tracks.

It must be the sudden stopping of movement that gets Harry’s attention, because he finally looks up and sees Zayn standing there. He smiles and goes to stand up, but Zayn shakes his head and pulls his own chair out quickly, sitting down before Harry can do something ridiculous like try and pull it out for him.

“Hiya,” Harry says.

Zayn nods. “Hi.”

The silence is thick and definitely not comfortable. He can hear the clink of glasses by the bar and one of the cooks shouting to the someone else in the kitchen. There’s music playing quietly over the speakers - some kind of light piano version of an old Madonna song it sounds like - and Zayn fiddles with his napkin and silverware while Harry opens and closes his mouth about ten times before he manages to speak.

“So, uh. You come here a lot?” he finally asks. Zayn almost rolls his eyes but catches himself in time. This whole situation is terrible but maybe he should at least try a bit.

“Yeah,” Zayn says. He drums his fingers on the table and stares at the beach landscape painting hung directly behind Harry’s head. It’s a terrible painting, actually. The water is completely the wrong color and the shells scattering the beach are not even close to scale. “Pretty frequently.”

“Yeah, I figured,” Harry says lamely. “It’s so close to your house and all.”

“Close. Yeah,” Zayn says, looking away from Harry and up at their server who’s making her way over to their table. Thank fuck someone else is coming, Zayn thinks to himself. Zayn needs a drink and he needs it now.

She gawks a little bit when she looks over and sees who’s sat across from Zayn today, but he gives her credit. She manages to reign it in quickly and asks them if they’d like to order any drinks.

“I’ll have a Macallan, neat,” Zayn says. Harry had been fumbling with the wine list but he puts it down, awkwardly folding his hands together on top of it.

“Macallan is fine,” he says, and flashes the waitress a smile. “Thank you.”

It’s quiet again after she bustles away, and Zayn feels himself smile before he even realizes what he’s doing. “Scotch, eh?” he says. Harry quirks his head and Zayn chuckles. “Figured you were still an appletini kind of person.”

Harry’s lips twitch. “Well, we all have to grow up sometime I suppose.”

Zayn nods but that’s just - he’s got no idea what to do with that, really. We all grow up and what?? he wants to shout. We all grow up and start drinking fancy scotch on a random Tuesday in LA? Or we all grow up and finally decide to contact someone who you stopped talking to years before, even when they tried to reach out to you before anyone else.

He doesn’t ask any of those things. Instead he fidgets. He pulls his mobile from his pocket and lays it down on top of the tablecloth so it’s lined up straight against the edge of his knife. He folds his hands in his lap. He thinks briefly about stabbing himself in the throat to make this meal end quicker. All sorts of things.

“So. Uhm. You look great,” Harry says awkwardly to break the silence.

His voice is different; lower somehow, maybe even a little deeper, and it startles Zayn. He wonders what he sounds like to Harry. Wonders if it feels as strange to Harry to be sat across from Zayn as Zayn feels sitting across from him.

“I like the, uh…” Harry trails off and Zayn looks up to find him waving his hand around the general area of his head. “The new look.”

Zayn reaches up and scratches the back of his neck self consciously. He wishes he still had hair to pull in front of his eyes right now. Anything, really, to keep Harry from staring at him so directly.

“Thanks,” Zayn says shortly. The waitress drops off their drinks just then, but she must realize they haven’t even opened their menus because she murmurs something quietly and walks off just as quickly.

“So,” Harry says after another beat of silence. “I’ve got to be honest--”

Zayn scoffs under his breath. “That’d be a nice change.”

Harry snaps his mouth shut. His face goes hard and his mouth flattens into a thin line. Zayn holds a hand up and nods a little, because fine. If Harry wants to speak Zayn should probably let him. It why he called Harry to come meet him here in the first place.

“Anyway,” Harry starts again. “I was going to say I’ve got to be honest: I didn’t expect to hear from you after last time.”

“Yeah, well,” Zayn slouches down his seat and kicks his legs out under the table. He crosses his arms tightly across his chest and shrugs. “I’m full of surprises, aren’t I.”

Harry snorts and his mouth twists in an ugly grin. “That’s one way of putting it.”

And Zayn’s just - he’s not in the mood for this, not really. Sure, he texted Harry to meet him to talk, but honestly, what did Zayn think was going to happen? It’s been years. Too much has happened. Too much bad blood and too many feelings. There’s no way he and Harry are going to manage to work anything out so why are they even trying? What are they trying to prove?

“Actually, you know what? This isn’t going to work for me,” Zayn says. He shoves his seat back and makes to stand up, but Harry snickering and shaking his head keeps him rooted to his seat.

“Should have figured,” Harry says, snarky and bitter. Zayn wants to punch him in the mouth. His fingers itch with the desire to knock the smirk right off Harry’s pretty mouth. “Things start getting uncomfortable so why not just leave.”

Zayn’s laugh rolls out of him, bitter and loud. Oh, that’s great. “Yep. You know it all, Haz,” he says. “You’ve got me all figured out.”

“I’m not saying that,” Harry says, but Zayn’s done. He’s not in the mood to hear Harry talk after all.

“Harry’s so smart,” Zayn mimics. “Harry’s so calm. Harry’s so nice.” He leans over the table, watching as Harry’s cheeks and the tips of his ears go pink. His jaw is twitching but he’s still not saying anything. Of fucking course not.

“Harry never messes up,” Zayn reels out. It’s like once he’s started he can’t stop, the words he’s kept shoved down for so long bubbling up and out. “Harry always does the right thing.”

“At least I know what the right thing is,” Harry hisses.

“Oh, do you!” Zayn leans back and spreads his arms out wide. They’re the only ones in this section of the restaurant, the waitress long since run away. In all the places Zayn thought about confronting Harry in, the back table of an Italian restaurant ten minutes from his house was never really on the list, but life’s got a funny way of working sometimes, he’s come to realize. “So why don’t you tell me all about the right thing, Saint Harry.”

“Jesus, Zayn, watch your voice,” Harry hisses. He closes his eyes and takes a visible breath, holding it before breathing out slowly. When he opens his eyes again they’re cool and calm, and it’s almost impressive how he can manage to totally change his attitude just because he remembered they’re in public. Sadly, it doesn’t make Zayn want to kill him any less.

“Oh, right. Of course,” Zayn says snidely. He can feel his mouth twist in an ugly grin. “Can’t let anyone see you have an emotion. Got to make sure you look proper and nice to everyone else in the world.”

“Give me a break, Zayn,” Harry whispers, and that’s it, really. Zayn’s had enough.

He stands up and shoves his chair back under his seat, the legs rattling against the floor. He digs money out of his wallet to cover their drinks, and that’s going to be it for Zayn. He thought he could do this, he thought he could try, but Harry and everything about him still makes Zayn so angry it’s just not worth it.

“I’m done with this,” Zayn says, and steps away from the table. He expects Harry to stay sat there, maybe order a plate of pasta or do some yoga in the middle of the room or something else ridiculous. What he doesn’t expect is to hear Harry’s chair echo his, or the click of the heels of his boots on the floor coming up behind him when Zayn tries to walk away.

“Well I’m not,” Harry says darkly, as he brushes past him and out the door.

Zayn slips on his sunglasses when he gets outside. He can hear the roar of a car engine from the street behind him and he figures it’s Harry. It has to be Harry, the way the car pulls out and takes off, wheels spinning angrily down the road towards Zayn’s house.

Instead of finding his own car, though, Zayn leans his back against the building and rests one foot against the stone behind him. He digs a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lights one, taking a long pull and letting the smoke hit him, harsh and directly into his lungs. Harry is probably close to Zayn’s house already given how close they are and the way Harry was driving, but Zayn just stares off into the street and enjoys his smoke.

Harry can wait.

*

Harry’s already stood on Zayn’s doorstep by the time he gets to his house. He’s leaned back against the brick next to Zayn’s front door, his arms folded tightly over is chest.

Zayn can think of about a thousand things he’d rather do than get out of his car right now. He’d go through Gigi breaking up with him all over again. He’d repeat the first conversation he had with Louis after he left the band. He’d replay the last few months of being in One Direction, knowing on his end that he wasn’t going to have this for much longer. He’d redo that last night in the hotel with Harry, holding onto him with fingers digging sharp into Harry’s shoulders. Biting down against Harry’s skin as he fucked Zayn against the sweaty sheets, trying to remember how it felt. Knowing he was never going to feel it again.

Sadly, none of those things are actual, real options, and there’s only so long he can stay sat in the car before Harry comes over to get him anyway. He kills the ignition and breathes out heavily. Time to do this.

Harry looks to be practically vibrating when Zayn meets him on the stoop. Zayn’s calm when he punches in the alarm code, but he can feel Harry right against his back. Harry never used his height to his advantage before, but it’s been a long time. As much as they argued at the restaurant they barely scratched the surface of all the things that have gone wrong between them.

Zayn pushes open the door and Harry shoves past him and into the house before Zayn can even invite him in. “Welcome back,” Zayn says sarcastically. He swings the door shut behind him and tosses his keys in the little dinosaur bowl on the table by the door. “Can I get you a tea, or--”

“When you left, it was unprofessional,” Harry spits. He spins on his heel and points at Zayn’s face. His entire body is rigid and he looks like he’s about to lean in and choke Zayn to death. Finally, Zayn thinks. Maybe they’re actually getting somewhere.

“Really,” Zayn drones. “So that’s why you’re angry.”

“Really,” Harry says. “Yes. You left and you left us all fucking floundering. And then - then, when it was time - like really actually time for it all to be over- everyone was so fucked up because you were gone so no one would say it.”

And this is… Zayn has no idea what this is all about.

“Say what?” Zayn asks. “What are you even--”

I had to be the one to call the hiatus,” Harry shouts, finally laying it all out. “Me. I had to be the shit one and make Niall fucking cry and be the bad guy, all because you took the easy way out and left us all months before that.”

“The easy way out?” Zayn can’t even believe this. Of all things he expected Harry to say, telling Zayn he took the easy way out definitely wasn’t one of them. “Do you have any idea--”

“No, Zayn, I don’t,” Harry interrupts. He’s pacing in circles around Zayn’s kitchen, the heels of his boots clicking angrily against the floor. “I don’t have any idea because how could I when you--”

“Oh my god will you get the fuck--”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Harry says now, throwing his hands in the air. Zayn’s trying to keep track of the thread of the conversation, but then Harry stops pacing and Stitch comes tearing down the stairs and Zayn just - he needs a minute. He crouches down to scratch Stitch’s head, and pulls the bucket of treats out of the bottom cabinet. He feeds Stitch three - two more than he’s used to getting - and Stitch looks at him suspiciously before gobbling them all into his mouth and running away before Zayn comes to his senses.

Harry’s quiet when Zayn stands back up, his emotions fully in check again. Zayn can’t say he’s happy to see it, but he definitely doesn’t want to stand here yelling at Harry all day. He doesn’t know what he wants, actually.

“Tell you what?” Zayn asks.

“When you left,” Harry says flatly. He starts pacing now, from one end of the kitchen to the other. His hair is a mess where he’s running his hand through it and his shirt is half pulled out at the bottom from his jeans. Every time he moves Zayn sees a bright, flash of skin and he has to bite his lip and force himself to look away.

“After you left I found out that everyone knew. Everyone knew but me and I want to know why.”

Zayn blinks because he can’t believe what he’s hearing.

“Wait,” Zayn says, as the words Harry’s saying actually connect in his brain. It takes a minute, but now that they have he can’t even believe it. “That’s what you’re mad at? Out of every fucking thing you could have had an actual, real feeling about, you pick the fact that people knew things before you? Because you lost some kind of...some kind of popularity contest?”

“Niall knew,” Harry says, ignoring Zayn’s comment and ticking names and facts off on his fingers. His eyes flash a bright, angry green. “Louis knew, which means Liam knew. Everybody knew but me, Zayn.” Harry abruptly stops pacing and rubs his hands over his face. Zayn can hear him take a deep breath, and then it breaks on a low, guttural groan.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Harry’s voice wobbles. It’s like the anger fizzles out of him as fast as it came, and Zayn remembers this too. How Harry is so good at being calm and keeping everything in, but then when he breaks he finally lets go. He’s so different from Zayn and the way every one of Zayn’s emotions comes out of his skin whether he wants them to or not. Neither is better than the other, Zayn knows by now. It’s just the way they are.

Fuck,” Harry says, but this time it holds no heat. He sounds defeated and sad all at once and Zayn’s chest feels like it’s starting to cave in on itself.

Harry’s leaning with his back against Zayn’s counter, the mug Zayn used for his tea that morning still dirty and sitting next to Harry’s hip. Zayn walks closer, and Harry rubs the back of his wrist over his eyes and blinks up at the ceiling.

“I just don’t understand,” he whispers. His voice is so small. “I’ve never understood.”

Zayn closes his eyes, the truth hurting more than he expected it to.

“Because you’d have asked me to stay,” Zayn says quietly. Harry looks at him sharply, like he’s surprised Zayn’s actually giving him a real answer. Zayn’s almost surprised himself, but it’s time. Long past, if he’s being honest.

“If you knew you would have asked me to stay and I wouldn’t have been able to tell you no.”

“And would that have been so bad?” Harry’s whispers. “Fuck, Zayn,” he says, but this time it just sounds tired and sad. Confused too, but maybe Zayn can get him to understand. Maybe after all this time he can finally make Harry see.

“Why didn’t you answer me?” Zayn asks. Louis is right; he’s always wanted to know why Harry ignored him, deleted every message Zayn sent even after months had passed. “After I left I texted you and you shut me out time after time.”

Harry lifts his shoulder in a shrug. “I was hurt,” he finally admits. His voice is so low Zayn can barely hear him. “You left and I didn’t know why and I--”

“You didn’t answer me because your feelings were hurt?” Zayn feels himself starting to get angry again because honestly. “Harry, that’s--”

“I didn’t answer you because I loved you,” Harry says quietly. He meets Zayn’s gaze head on and Zayn feels the breath catch hard in his chest. He’d forgotten how paralyzed he could get from Harry’s honesty; from having the full focus on his gaze and attention on him. It feels like old times but it also feels new. Like a memory that hurts even more than he remembers.

Harry looks down then and starts twisting the rings on his right hand with the fingers of his left.

“Like, I always knew I was second,” he says. His voice is the softest thing Zayn’s ever heard. “I understood that. There were girls, and then there was Perrie, and I got that, I did. No matter what happened though, we still had us too - you and me - and I guess I just. I thought at the end it would be me.” He takes a deep breath and his voice gives the tiniest shake when he says, “I thought it would be us at the end.”

The house is silent under the weight of Harry’s words. Zayn can hear Stitch and Lady thumping around upstairs, but he can’t look away from Harry’s face. His cheeks are blotchy, an angry red flush crawling up the back of Harry’s neck.

“Harry,” Zayn whispers, but he doesn’t know what else to say. After all this time and all these years passed by in which he’d been prepared to argue with Harry, to fight with him over the fact that Harry never answered him when he finally tried to call. He’d been so hung up with his own anger that he never even thought that Harry might not be angry. That he might be hurt.

Harry’s eyes are wet and Zayn steps closer to him. He reaches out to touch Harry’s arm but Harry flinches away, dropping his head and dragging a hand through his hair. It’s been years since Zayn has been this unsure of him. His heart breaks at how Harry isn’t even looking at him anymore.

“Don’t, Zayn.” Harry’s voice is rough. He sniffs again and pushes off the counter, walking past Zayn and out into the hall. The sun is starting to set outside the windows. Zayn feels like he’s lived a thousand lives since the day he picked up his mobile and saw Harry’s text sitting there.

“Sorry, you were right I suppose,” Harry says. He’s got the heels of his hands pressed against his eyes. Zayn’s never felt so helpless. “I thought it would be ok to text you, to see how you were, but you’re right.”

Harry stops at the door and pauses with his hand on the doorknob. Zayn wants to touch the curve of Harry’s spine. Wants to settle his fingers at Harry’s waist and tell him to wait, that Zayn was wrong, maybe. That he wants him to stay.

“We should be done with this by now,” Harry says. His voice is so quiet Zayn doesn’t know if Harry’s talking to him or just saying things out loud to himself. He shakes his head and chuckles sadly. When he looks up again his eyes are blank. “It was stupid of me to try.”

Zayn opens his mouth but nothing comes out. No protests, no arguments. Nothing that’s anything that will make Harry stay.

“Bye, Zayn,” Harry says finally, and then he opens the door, and he’s gone.

*

Harry doesn’t text Zayn again.

Not that Zayn expected him to, because by the time Harry left his house that day it was pretty clear he had said everything he wanted to say to Zayn. Zayn was kind of hoping he would though, and that surprises him more than anything else.

He spends one last day lying on his sofa, eating takeout and watching Impractical Jokers while Stitch and Lady take turns sleeping on his lap. It’s like a final send off to this terrible funk he’s landed himself in, but he allows himself one last day to enjoy it. One last day with zero responsibilities and zero fucks and letting the day just go on, not much of anything actually happening.

He eats a bag full of Indian food and smokes until the ashtray on the side table is overflowing. He only gets up to piss or let the animals out or get more tea. He naps all day on and off, his mobile clutched tightly in his hand, and then he falls into a deep sleep for the first time in weeks.

Louis texts him the day after Harry had been by; a simple how did things go? but Zayn ignores him. Louis is used to Zayn ignoring him anyway, so he doesn’t even feel bad about it. Zayn barely feels bad about anything anymore, since most of his energy is spent feeling bad for how fucked up things are with Harry.

He should have thought about Harry’s side more, he realizes now. Harry is patient and tolerant, but everyone has their limits. Zayn was so focused on himself, on how hurt and angry and betrayed he felt, that he never stopped to think about Harry, or anyone else for that matter. It was stupid. Stupid and selfish and Zayn needs to be done with it.

So he gives himself one last day, and then he moves on.

He calls in the cleaners, and gets the house cleaned from top to bottom, every sheet stripped and every surface dusted. He tosses all the food that’s gone bad in the fridge and orders in fruits and veggies and almond milk. He digs the juicer out of the closet where he’d stuffed it after Gigi come home with it one day, made three smoothies and never used it again. It wouldn’t kill him to try and put something in his body other than tea and toast and cigarettes.

He shaves his face and trims where stubble is growing in over his ears and the back of his neck. It’s coming in dark - he hasn’t colored it at all since he shaved it all off - and he’s going to just let it go. See what happens.

He’s got music to write and appearances to book. He calls his manager and actually speaks to her, over the phone like an actual human, and it’s good. The sun is bright and he throws open the windows; he sings at the top of his lungs so loud Stitch starts yelping along with him and Lady jumps under the bed and hides there until Zayn stops to take a breath, laughing his first real laugh in ages.

Harry doesn’t text, and doesn’t text and doesn’t text, and Zayn’s ok with that. He doesn’t need Harry to text him. Zayn figures he owes it to himself to work on his own life now anyway.

*

The sun is just starting to set when Zayn decides to take Stitch and Lady outside for a walk. It takes him forever to get Stitch’s lead on him, and then Lady takes one look at the pet stroller Zayn ordered for her online and tears off, away from the room.

“Oh, come on,” Zayn chides when he finally finds her hiding underneath his bed. Her grey eyes flash in the darkness and she bats him on the nose with her paw when he scoops her up and carries her back down the stairs. “It’s not so bad.”

Lady clearly disagrees, with the way she’s mewling at the top of her lungs from inside the carrier, but Zayn just tsks quietly and locks the front door behind him after he gets them both outside.

The air is cool. It’s not cold at all but he can actually breathe, not like it’s going to be in a few months from now. Zayn walks down his drive with the leash wrapped around his wrist and pushing the stroller calmly, letting Stitch bound off and bury his nose in every flower and blade of grass they come across.

He thinks about the summer again, thinks about when the air gets sticky and the sun shines hot no matter where you go. He wonders what he’ll be doing then. Six months ago he thought he had it all figured out, but then Gigi left and Harry called and Zayn decided to bury himself in a cave of despair for a while. He’s picked himself up, though, he’s decided to move on and now he has to wonder where he’ll be then. In six months or a year, what his life will be like.

Maybe it’s time to stop thinking, Zayn thinks. Maybe he needs to not wonder so much about what’s going to happen and start doing things to actually make them happen. He keeps walking, turning the corner to loop Stitch around the block and thinks about doing just that. What could he do right now to make himself happy. He’s started to take care of himself again, and he’s got the pets. He’s going to be making music and making some appearances and it’s all so good.

He’s making progress. He’s making things happen. There’s just one thing left he needs to do.

*

Zayn’s never actually been to Harry’s house, but he’s seen pictures and he got the address from Louis, which is good enough. He had to give his name at the gate, and for a minute he honestly thought he wasn’t going to be allowed in. That the security guard would ring inside the house and tell Harry that Zayn is here and Harry just - wouldn’t let him in. That he’d tell the guard sorry, tell Zayn he’s not welcome here. Or even worse, ask him, Zayn who?

Harry doesn’t do that, of course. Zayn had said it in anger when they were together last, but the facts are still the same: Harry is nice, and proper, and polite. He’d never flat out turn Zayn away. He’d at least let him in, and let Zayn say whatever he’s there to say. After that, Zayn’s got no idea. Harry might speak to him, or he might listen with a blank look on his face and then tell him sorry, that’s it’s too late. That it’s not enough.

Either way, Zayn will have tried. He has to at least try.

Zayn parks out front of the house, taking a last deep breath and pocketing his keys when he steps out of the car. Harry’s already at the front door, shoulder leaned in the doorframe. He’s dressed in workout clothes, a ripped grey t-shirt and black gym shorts. His hair is pulled back with a bright green headband and there’s sweat still glistening on his temples and soaking the collar of his shirt. Zayn feels oddly overdressed in his white t-shirt and black jeans. He hates how everything always feels so off with them. They used to be so in sync, all the time. He misses it.

“Cheers,” Zayn says. His voice breaks a little and he clears his throat. Harry is still watching him, eyes narrowed and lips pursed. He nods his head and a muscle ticks in his jaw.

“Hey, Zayn.”

Zayn waits for Harry to say something else but he doesn’t. The sun is warm against the back of Zayn’s neck. He feels a bead of sweat slide down his spine and he clears his throat awkwardly.

“I. Uhm. Can I come in?”

Harry’s eyes flash with something unreadable. His body stiffens the slightest bit and Zayn can almost see the way Harry is struggling. He knows he should let Zayn inside, but he doesn’t want to. He knows the right thing to do, but his instincts are telling him no. It’s almost impressive to watch the way he physically forces himself to step back and let Zayn pass over the threshold.

“Sure,” Harry says tightly, then closes the door behind them.

Harry’s house is exactly what Zayn had always pictured it would be. Bright and open, with wall to wall windows looking out onto a huge pool and garden in the back. The ceilings are pitched high with skylights slotted into them, casting the house in bright, natural light. The furniture is white, the floors light wood and gleaming. It smells like vanilla candles and there’s some kind of soft, swishy ocean music playing in the background.

Zayn stands there, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot while Harry bustles around into the kitchen and then back out with two water bottles. One he hands to Zayn and the other he cracks open himself, before taking a long sip. Zayn watches the way Harry’s throat moves as he swallows, then has to look away.

“Sorry,” Harry says. He’s wiping the back of his wrist over his mouth. “Was running before you came by.”

“No worries.” Zayn opens his water just to give his hands something to do. He takes a sip, pretending not to notice the way Harry is watching him. When he’s done he caps the bottle and holds onto it awkwardly. This is definitely not going as smooth as he’d hoped it would.

“So, is there something that you--”

“My cat’s a stray,” Zayn blurts out.

Harry stares at him, one eyebrow raising slightly. He’s looking at Zayn like Zayn’s gone insane. Who knows, maybe he has.

“Uhm…”

“When you came over, that first time,” Zayn barrels on. He’s got no idea what his mouth is doing. Apparently it’s just going to spit out words while Zayn is just here for the ride. Good to know. “I said I had a dog and a cat and you said, cute. What kind? And I asked you to leave. But I just - she’s a stray. Just got her pretty recently.”

“Oh,” Harry says carefully. He licks his lips and Zayn’s belly clenches. “Um. Ok.”

“Yeah,” Zayn says. He finds a side table to put his water down on and twists his hands together. There’s a spot on the floor, a short scuff where the veneer is dull and Zayn wonders how it got there. Did Harry make it or did someone else? Does Harry even remember, and will he tell Zayn if Zayn asks him. Zayn realizes he wants to know everything. Every single thing that he’s missed.

“Zayn,” Harry says, almost gently. He’s finished his water and tosses the empty bottle onto the sofa. He takes one step forward, and it’s as if everything Zayn has ever wanted to say to Harry comes tumbling out, all at once.

“Her name is Lady and I got her after Gigi moved out.” His lips quirk in a tiny smile. “Louis said not to get another dog, so I didn’t. Don’t think a kitten was exactly what he meant, though.”

“Wait, you--”

“I talk to Louis, yeah,” Zayn barrels on. Harry’s mouth snaps shut and his eyes flash. Zayn thinks maybe Harry didn’t know that. Maybe there’s a lot Zayn took for granted that Harry knew. “But he’s - he’s the only one. I don’t talk to Niall or Liam, or. Or you, I suppose, but that’s because. That’s different.”

Harry frowns. “Different.”

“I should have told you,” Zayn blurts. Harry’s head snaps up, but Zayn can’t look at him right now. He needs to concentrate and focus or he’ll never get through this. He twists the rings on his fingers, then curls his hands into fists.

“I should have talked to you and told you what I was thinking but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t figure out what I would do if you asked me to stay.”

Zayn glances up and Harry’s watching him, arms folded tight across his chest.

“I don’t think I realized until recently how much you took the brunt for me,” Zayn says softly. Harry cocks his head and his eyebrows crinkle. Zayn wants to run his fingers over Harry’s face and smooth them out. “For all of us, actually. What you said about you being made into the bad guy really sucked because. Well, because it was true.”

“It’s not true,” Harry says, shaking his head. “I was wrong. I was angry that day and--”

“No, it is true, because you did it all the time,” Zayn insists. “With everything. You let the magazines and the radio and the press kill you - they ate you alive about who you were with and who you were dating and what you were doing every night. They followed you and dogged you and you just - you let them, H. You let them torture you and you put yourself out there every day and I just realized now that you did it because if they were watching you, and busy looking at you, then they were letting the rest of us go.”

Harry’s face is pale. He sniffs and looks down and away. “Zayn, I--”

“You did that for us, for me, and I just.” Zayn scrubs a hand over his head and laughs quietly. “I never saw it until recently. I’m sorry I didn’t realize.”

Zayn wonders if Harry is going to deny it. He could, is the thing. He could tell Zayn that Zayn’s making it all up, that it wasn’t as big as Zayn is making it into. That it didn’t matter as much.

He doesn’t deny it, though, and that’s when Zayn finally realizes how much it must have hurt Harry. How hard it probably was for him. There Harry was, trying to do the right thing by all of them and what thanks did he get? Zayn sneaking out in the middle of the night. Running away and not saying a word and then texting months later, not even picking up the phone so Harry could hear his voice.

No wonder Harry didn’t text him back. If the roles were reversed Zayn sure as fuck wouldn’t.

“It’s all good, Zayn.” Harry finally says. His eyes are wet but his smile is genuine. It’s the first real one Zayn’s seen from Harry in so long, years probably. He clears his throat and runs a hand through his hair, fingers catching on the headband and yanking it out. When he looks at Zayn again he looks almost nervous, feet pointing toward each other on the floor.

“So, a stray, huh?” Harry says. He starts walking into the living room, glancing at Zayn quick over his shoulder to make sure Zayn’s following. It feels like a thousand pound weight has been lifted from Zayn’s shoulders. His chest feels lighter than it has in ages. “How’d you wind up with a stray?”

“It was funny, actually,” Zayn says, following Harry over to the sofa. “A really funny story.”

*

Harry makes them dinner. Chicken and rice and vegetables that they eat out of bowls while sat on the sofa with the TV playing low. It’s comfortable but it’s not. It’s not that they don’t have anything to talk about. If anything, they almost have too much. Apparently it’s hard to make small talk with the person you were in love with but haven’t seen for over two years. It’s difficult to talk about the weather with someone who used to know you inside and out, who knew every one of your secrets and all the places you kept them hidden.

Zayn’s having a hard time reconciling the Harry who’s sat next to him now, which his broad chest and strong arms, with the skinny lad who tripped over his own feet for years and had a mop of hair that barely fit on the top of his head. It’s hard to imagine that this Harry was that Harry. That the Harry who’s been asking Zayn question after question about his life right now, almost greedy to know everything new about him, was the same boy who Zayn kissed in the dark corners of venues, and cried to when he was scared, and told almost every one of his secrets to.

Even if it’s different, though, it’s nice. Oddly comfortable. Relaxing, in a way.

“I missed this,” Harry says, after the silence has stretched for almost a beat too long. The sun has set outside, making the glass panes of the windows gleam a shining black. Zayn puts his empty bowl down on Harry’s coffee table and tucks one leg under him, turning so he and Harry are facing each other.

“Missed what?”

Harry shrugs. “I don’t know. Just this, I guess.”

“What, a quiet dinner at home?” Zayn snorts. “Not sure we ever really had that, H.”

“No, I mean.” Harry’s cheeks are pink but he keeps his chin tipped up, meeting Zayn’s gaze head on. “This. Being with you.” He does drop his head now, and Zayn feels his insides flip around. “Just you, really.”

Zayn thinks about how hard he tried to convince himself for all this time that it didn’t matter that Harry wasn’t speaking to him. And it’s true, to a point. Zayn’s had a good few years. He’s got his friends and he made some music and, even as fucked as everything got at the end, he and Gigi really did love each other, at least for a little while. That’s all real. Those things all really happened, and none of them are any less valid because Harry wasn’t involved. It’s not like everything’s been bad.

But everything could have been better. Zayn can accept that now. He could have tried harder, could have made amends with Harry and who knows what could have happened. Not that Zayn thinks Harry feels the same, because how could he. It’s been so long and it’s too much; Zayn knows that. But still. This is good now. This can be something really good.

“Yeah,” Zayn says. He feels braver than he has in years. “Missed you too.”

It’s quiet again after that, but it’s not uncomfortable at all. Things feel settled between them finally. Zayn can take what he’s got with Harry now and work from here. This is a good place to start.

“Anyway,” Zayn says. Harry’s still sat on the sofa, head tilted to the side, watching Zayn with careful eyes. Zayn doesn’t want to push it. He stands up and runs a hand over the back of his head, cracking his back and heading toward the foyer. “This was good. Thanks, you know, for dinner.”

Harry stands up and follows Zayn through the living room and out towards the front door. Zayn doesn’t want to leave really, but he doesn’t think he can ask to stay much longer. Harry’s already given him more than Zayn expected.

He gets to the door and stops, shoving a hand in his jeans to dig out his keys. It’s better he gets home anyway. He left food out for Stitch and Lady but they’re probably missing him. Zayn pretends not to think about how Lady has a littler box and Stitch uses the doggie door from the kitchen out into the garden. Or about how as long as they have food neither of them seem to care much whether he’s there or not lately, unless he’s got treats or Louis with him.

He finds his keys and turns around and Harry is right behind him. He’s chewing on his lip and his eyebrows are furrowed like he’s deep in thought. Zayn smiles. Harry’s hair is hanging loose around his forehead and temples, and the black t-shirt and plaid sleep pants he changed into before dinner look soft and worn.

“Thanks again, H, I really--”

“I never stopped, you know.”

Harry’s voice is thick. Zayn watches him as he swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing slowly.

“Stopped what?”

Harry smiles then, a tiny, soft thing that just touches the corners of his mouth. “Loving you.”

Zayn’s heart flutters. His chest goes tight and his hands start to shake. He shoves the keys back in his pocket and leans so his back is against the door. Harry’s given him so much already tonight that this is almost too much.

“Haz,” he whispers.

“Not like. It’s not like I’ve been sitting around waiting for you or something,” Harry says, voice coming out in a rush. His words tangle together like they always do whenever Harry tries to talk in anything quicker than a slow drawl. “And I know you had Gigi and I had-- well I’ve not been pining away for you or anything, let’s just say.”

Zayn chuckles and Harry’s cheeks go pink. Zayn wants to touch him. He wants to put his hands on Harry - on his waist or his chest and touch his skin - but he holds back. He needs to know whatever Harry wants to tell him first.

“But I did,” Harry says quietly. He looks up and meets Zayn’s eyes. The flick of his tongue is pink and wet against his lips. “I do. Don’t think that’s ever going to change, really,” he finishes with a small shrug.

“Harry.”

Zayn doesn’t know what to say. He never thought, in the thousand different scenarios he’s played out in his head over the years, he never let himself think that this could happen. That Harry could still love him.

“‘M’sorry,” Harry apologizes.

Zayn wants to scream and yell and tear his hair out, tell Harry not to apologize, not to say sorry. That it’s fine, that Zayn loves him too.

Harry’s barely looking at him, his eyes unfocused and dark. He steps forward and touches Zayn’s waist with one hand, his fingers curling over Zayn’s hip. “‘M’sorry,” he mumbles again. “I just - can I--”

“Yeah,” Zayn whispers. His voice is so rough he can barely speak. Harry’s stepped in closer, his body leaned over Zayn and it’s making Zayn crazy. He can smell Harry, and hear him breathing, and when Harry holds him tighter, his fingers digging into Zayn’s sides, Zayn’s never wanted anyone more. “Harry, come on.”

Harry leans in and kisses him then, and it’s like every nerve in Zayn’s body short circuits.

It’s not new, is the thing. It’s not the first or the second or the hundredth time they’ve kissed. Zayn kissed Harry when they were young, scared and hopeful and so overwhelmed at their lives they needed someone else who understood, someone else who knew exactly what they were going through. He’s kissed him when they were older, fingers shaking and mouths wet and teeth and tongues biting and sucking on each other’s skin.

They kissed when they were scared and they kissed when they were happy and they kissed when they were sad. Harry’s was the first dick Zayn ever touched, the first boy to touch Zayn. Harry’s the only one who’s ever licked him open, fucked him with his fingers and tongue and then laid him back on the bed, eyes hazy and body taut above him.

Zayn kissed Harry when he was crying. He kissed him to remember. He kissed him because it was so much better kissing him than anyone else. He kissed him with his throat tight and his chest aching the night he knew he was kissing him goodbye.

This kiss isn’t like any of those. This is the same but different. This kiss is new. Harry is the same but different. His hands still shake, but they’re bigger where they hold Zayn, and they pull him in easily; Zayn feels like he’s floating off the ground. Harry turns them around, walks Zayn backwards back into the living room where they’ve been sat all night and only lets go to toss all the throw pillows from the back of the sofa onto the floor.

“This is good, yeah?” Harry grunts. He leans in again and kisses Zayn hard, then puts his hand on Zayn’s chest and shoves him back. Zayn trips and stumbles and falls onto the cushions, his breath coming out in a short burst. “I don’t think I can make it to the bedroom.”

“This is good, it’s perfect,” Zayn says, and reaches up to pull Harry onto him.

Harry’s legs settle next to Zayn’s thighs on the sofa, and Zayn sinks his fingers into Harry’s hair like he’s been thinking about doing all night. It’s like once he’s started touching Harry, he can’t stop. He can’t believe he’s gone so long without this. Harry feels the same; he has the same hands and chest and waist. He’s bigger - more lean muscle, more tattoos - but he’s still the same Harry. His mouth is the same and his heart. Zayn can’t believe he’s gone without him for so long.

“Zayn,” Harry groans. His voice is broken and when he looks up from Zayn’s mouth his eyes are wild. “Zayn, I can’t--”

“C’mere,” Zayn says and pulls him closer.

It’s not easy, trying to get his own jeans undone, the belt and the buckle and everything else, while trying to shove Harry’s sleep pants down at the same time. Zayn nearly laughs; they’re both fumbling, their hands banging into each other and knocking together. It’s so much like the past, all the good things about Harry that he remembers, and Zayn’s heart feels so, so full.

“Harry,” Zayn huffs out. He can feel himself smile as Harry whines pitifully in his throat. He flaps his hands away and leans back onto Zayn’s knees. “Haz, wait.”

“‘M’trying,” Harry huffs. He takes in a deep breath and Zayn uses the break to get his zipper down, and yank Harry’s pants down his hips. Harry’s eyes flicker dark, and he leans in again, setting his teeth against the curve of Zayn’s neck. “Fuck, Zayn. I need--”

“I got you,” Zayn whispers, as he tilts his hips up and curls his fingers around both of them.

It’s barely even good, is the thing. They need lube or spit or something to make Zayn’s hand slide quicker. He takes his hand away long enough to lick his palm, and Harry groans like he’s dying, his head coming down hard on Zayn’s shoulder. When Zayn reaches down again, Harry’s fingers tangle with his, and they curl their fists around their dicks together.

“I’m going to come so soon,” Harry whines. “We have to do this again later.”

Zayn laughs, because that’s so like Harry. Always thinking ahead, always planning. When they were young, Zayn saw it as a negative. He couldn’t understand why Harry couldn’t just be, why he couldn’t live in the present. Now that he’s older he can appreciate it. Harry’s not planning ahead because he’s not interested in what’s happening now; he’s planning ahead to make sure what he has now, he can still have in the future. If it’s important, Harry wants to keep it, and keep it safe. Zayn gets that now.

“We can do it as many times as you want,” Zayn says. He’s not going to last long either, if he’s being honest. His dick is so hard, wet at the head, and his balls pull tight the more Harry touches him. Harry’s mouth is against Zayn’s neck, his teeth dragging over the thin skin at the base of his throat, and when he bites down Zayn comes, covering their fingers and Harry’s fist and where their dicks are still pressed together.

“Come on, Harry,” Zayn whispers. Harry keeps rutting against him harder, faster. His dick is pressed against Zayn’s belly, sliding through Zayn’s come and up against his hip. Zayn wants to make him come now, and then come again later. He wants Harry to come from his mouth, and then with his fingers buried deep in Harry’s ass. He wants to lay Harry out on his bed, tie his wrists to the bedposts and lick him out until he’s shaking and crying. He wants Harry to remember how good it was with them, and then he wants Harry to want it more and more and more.

“Babe, please,” Zayn says, and that does it. Harry goes still, his dick a hard weight in Zayn’s hand as he shoots all over Zayn’s skin. He seems to come forever, his body shaking in Zayn’s lap, and when he picks his head up from Zayn’s neck his face his flushed and his eyes are wet.

“Zayn,” Harry’s voice wobbles. It makes Zayn’s throat go tight because he gets it, he knows how Harry feels. “Zayn, I--”

Zayn doesn’t let him finish. He just tilts Harry’s head down and kisses him softly, again and again and again.

*

Two weeks go by. Two weeks that Zayn spends in Harry’s living room listening to music, and Harry spends sitting in Zayn’s garden playing with the pets. The two of them go out at night to quiet restaurants or tiny little pubs and they talk and laugh and remember how much they genuinely enjoy being together.

They meet one night for dinner at the Italian place of their first failed meetup. Harry gets there first and orders a bottle of red wine that they split before ordering another. They share a spicy pasta and drink until their lips are stained red, Zayn’s head buzzing and foggy from too many drinks. Harry calls them a car and they go to Zayn’s house, locking the pets out and fucking in the bed so hard the bedposts rattle against the wall.

They talk about everything and nothing. Zayn doesn’t think they’re making up for lost time as much as enjoying the time they have together now. He knows he never expected this to happen, to have this again, and from the way Harry smiles at him with his eyes crinkling at the corners and his smile soft, he thinks Harry never expected this either.

It’s a sunny morning when the doorbell rings, and Zayn’s belly quivers. Harry didn’t tell him he was stopping over but it’s a nice surprise. Zayn's got on an old Van’s t-shirt from one of their tours and a pair of terrible grey jogging shorts he’s had since he lived at his mum’s house. His face is scratchy and he needs to shave, but he’s grinning widely when Harry leans on the bell again, ringing the doorbell for a second time.

“Oi, hold your dick, Haz,” Zayn calls out. He throws the locks and pulls the door open with a grin. “Or don’t actually. Let me do that for you.”

Except it’s not Harry stood on his stoop, it’s Louis.

“Zap, I never had to hear you talking about holding Harry’s knob,” Louis says. He rolls his eyes and pushes his way past Zayn, whistling sharply up the steps for Stitch and Lady. “Christ, the things I have to put up with with you, Malik.”

“Erm,” Zayn coughs into his fist, his mouth tugging into a grin no matter how hard he tries to stop it. “Sorry?”

“Lies,” Louis says, pointing an accusing finger in his direction. “Lies and fallacies. I know how you work, you dirty fucker.” Zayn tries to protest but decides against it. Louis did just hear him telling Harry he was going to hold his dick for him. That’s not really a thing he can go back on.

“Ah, here are my little loves,” Louis says, crouching down when Stitch and Lady finally get to the bottom of the stairs. He’s got a soft, squishy blue ball in his pocket that he gives to Stitch, and a bright pink glittery collar with a fucking bell on it that he slips over Lady’s neck. Zayn’s been trying to get her to wear a collar for ages, but every time he tries to get one on her she hisses at him and runs from the room. Louis shows up with one and she stares at him adoringly and climbs onto his leg, curling herself into a ball and purring.

“Well that’s total bullshit,” Zayn says. His pets hate him. They’re complete traitors. He should be used to it by now.

“All right then,” Louis says, scratching Lady’s head and settling her on the floor before he stands up. He claps his hands together and heads into the kitchen, not even looking to see if Zayn’s following or not. Not that Zayn minds. He figures Louis can do pretty much whatever he wants these days. Not that he’d ever tell Louis, but he’s pretty happy Louis put the idea into his head to call Harry that day. Zayn doesn’t even want to think about what would have happened if he hadn’t.

“Tea?” Louis asks. He’s washing his hands at the sink, drying them on a tea towel and grabbing two mugs from the cupboards. Zayn nods and grins. He might as well have a seat, since Louis seems pretty intent on taking charge.

“Tea’s good, Lou,” Zayn says happily. He stretches his legs out under the table, kicking aside a bright red hot dog toy of Stitch’s and a pouch of catnip. “You want to make me some breakfast too while you’re over there?”

“You can fuck the hell off,” Louis says swiftly. He busies himself with the kettle then turns around, leaning his back against the countertop and crossing his arms over his chest. He’s watching Zayn carefully, his eyes narrowed and mouth pursed. Zayn rolls his eyes. He’s seen Louis with this face before.

“All right, Lou. Out with it.”

“Why were you trying to hold my dick when you thought I was Harry before?”

Zayn cringes. “Well there’s an image I never needed in my head, thanks.”

Louis throws a towel at his head. “You know what I meant.” The kettle whistles and Louis thankfully turns around, giving Zayn a second to breathe. “It’s like that now, is it? We go from you not wanting to speak to him to holding his dick in sixty seconds.”

“It’s been weeks, Lou,” Zayn says, rolling his eyes. “Actual weeks since we first started talking again.”

“Hmm.” Louis busies himself making their teas, placing Zayn’s in front of him when it’s ready. Zayn blows across the top before taking a small sip. It’s hotter than lava but the other option is talking to Louis about Harry. Drinking lava seems preferable.

Louis watches him. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask him any questions. His face is open and his eyes are a bright, clear blue. Zayn meets his gaze head on. Sometimes it’s unfortunate how well Louis knows him, like when Zayn is trying to keep something from him, or when he doesn’t want every one of his feelings to be laid out in the open. Other times it’s the most perfect blessing. Louis knows him, he gets him, and whatever he sees in Zayn’s eyes must be enough.

“All right then,” Louis finally says, voice quiet and soft. “I’m glad you’re happy.”

Zayn swallows hard. His throat has gone tight and he looks away, busying himself with setting his mug straight on the table. “Thanks.” It’s quiet save for the animals jumping around in the bedroom above them, and Zayn feels like it’s not enough, really. To not actually say anything to Louis about what’s happened.

“It was rough, you know?” Zayn explains.

Louis’s eyes narrow and he purses his lips. “Rough how?”

“Because of. Well, you know,” Zayn hedges.

Louis tilts his head to the side. “What do I know, exactly?”

“Because,” Zayn says with a shrug. And it’s ok, really. He can say it now. “Because of me and what I did and--”

“No,” Louis says, cutting him off. His eyes flash and he looks angrier than Zayn remembers seeing him. “No, you know what? You weren’t the only one to blame, Zayn.”

Zayn shakes his head. “Come on, Lou.”

“You weren’t, all right? There were five of us there. Five of us who knew what was happening, what was going on.” It makes Zayn’s chest hurt to think of the five of them. Sometimes he remembers all of it, every second with the lads like it was just yesterday, and other times it seems like an entirely different life. “Stop taking all the blame for it, yeah?”

Zayn huffs. “I don’t know.”

“Who would you say was the one who was the most important to the band?” Louis asks swiftly, changing tacks so quickly Zayn can hardly keep track. “Right now you have to pick one. Who was the most important of the five of us.”

Zayn purses his lips and thinks. He would say Louis, because Louis was in charge, Louis took care of them and made sure everything they got was fair. But there was also Liam, who always made sure everyone was all right, that they were all doing well. Niall was everyone’s light. If they didn’t have Niall and his laugh sometimes Zayn thinks they all would have gone mad. And Harry...well, Harry was the face. Harry sucked everyone in with his dimples and his charm and then never let them go.

“You can’t do it, can you,” Louis says softly, and Zayn shakes his head. “Because we were all in it, we were five and we were equal, yeah?”

Zayn nods. “I suppose.”

“So what makes you think that it was all five of us that made the band, but it only took one of us to end it,” Louis says softly.

Zayn doesn’t know what to say to that. He opens his mouth but closes it when no words come out.

“We were all responsible, Zayn. We all knew what was happening and we all fucked up. If you can’t take credit for the good of the band yourself, you can’t take all the blame for ending it.”

Zayn never thought of it that way. He’s not sure he agrees entirely, but he also can’t argue with it either. That seems to be enough for Louis, though. He finishes his tea and puts the mug in the sink.

“Have you spoken to Niall or Liam?” he asks, and Zayn shakes his head. He hasn’t yet, but he’s been thinking about it. He’s been thinking that he wants to. That maybe things with Harry are the beginning, and that maybe they don’t have to stop here.

It might be too much, though. Zayn isn’t sure.

“I think you should,” Louis says confidently. Zayn loves and hates how sure Louis is about things. He hates it even more when Louis is always right. “I think they’d like that.”

“Maybe,” Zayn says. Louis puts his mug in the sink and smiles at Zayn, the same crooked grin Zayn’s been seeing for years. They’re all so much older now. Their faces more lined, their hair longer or shorter or a different color entirely. Deep down they’re all the same, though. They’re the same five lads who met on a show, and lived in each other’s pockets, and loved each other so fiercely it had no chance except to burn out in the end.

“Maybe,” Louis repeats, as he heads for the door. “You’ll let me know how it goes then, yeah?” he says, but he doesn’t wait for an answer, just lifts his hand in a wave and leaves.

*

Harry does come by the next day and Zayn’s glad for it. It’s only been two days but he’s missed Harry. He’s missed his smile and his laugh and the way his insides seem to settle when Harry is around. It’s like every cell in his body knows that Harry’s back, and it wants to keep him close.

Harry’s dressed to go out for the day, sharp dark jeans and a black button down opened halfway down his chest. His hair is combed back and his necklaces glint around his throat. He smiles when he walks in, sunlight streaming in from behind him, and Zayn thinks, Fuck, I love him before he even realizes he’s doing it.

“Hiya,” Harry says. He shuffles in closer and tips his head down, kissing Zayn sweetly on the mouth. They haven’t talked about what they’re doing between them, but they’re together all the time and they see each other more days than not and whenever they say hello or goodbye they kiss and Harry’s eyes crinkle at the corners. Zayn thinks talking can suck it. Who needs words when he can have this.

Still though, Harry should know. He should hear it sometimes too. Even though he’s clearly dressed to go out and Zayn’s still in his sleep pants with no shirt on and two days worth of stubble covering his face. When Harry moves to lean away from the kiss, Zayn pulls him back in, touching the corner of Harry’s mouth with his and whispering. “Hey. Love you,” into Harry’s skin.

Harry’s fingers curl around Zayn’s hips and he drags him closer. His cheeks are pink and his mouth is wet. “Zayn,” he says happily, then leans in to kiss him again.

They only make it another minute before Stitch comes bounding down the stairs, barking happily until he gets to the kitchen and realizes that it’s Harry stood there with Zayn and not Louis. He skids to a stop on the tile, his nails clicking against the floor as he lets out a pitiful little yelp.

Harry’s eyebrows furrow and Zayn laughs. “You’re rude,” Harry says, as Zayn laughs harder. “Your dog hates me and you think it’s hilarious.”

“He doesn’t hate you, Haz,” Zayn explains. Harry rolls his eyes. Zayn’s been telling him this same thing for days but he still doesn’t believe it. “He just likes Louis better.”

“Horrible,” Harry mutters. “A travesty, really.”

Zayn kisses him quickly on the mouth one last time, then heads to the fridge to grab them each a bottle of water. Harry takes his and cracks the cap open, taking a long sip before putting it down on the kitchen table.

“So where you headed today?” Zayn asks. He nods towards Harry’s outfit, and the way his hair is more gelled back then Zayn’s seen it in ages.

“Actually going out to see Niall,” Harry says. “He’s back in town for a bit so we agreed to meet up for lunch.”

Zayn nods. He didn’t know Niall was in town. He realizes now that Louis must have known when he left yesterday, that that was what all the loaded questions were about. Cheeky fucker, Zayn thinks to himself.

Harry’s not like Louis, though. He doesn’t say anything. He just watches Zayn with the same, quiet, steady look he’s been giving him since they started to work things out between them. Zayn knows Harry won’t push. He’ll let Zayn take his time and he won’t ask and he won’t try to get him to do anything he doesn’t want to do.

That’s the thing, though. Maybe this time it is something he wants to do.

“Do you think--” Zayn’s voice cracks. He clears his throat and looks up, meeting Harry’s gaze head on. Harry’s watching him patiently. Giving Zayn his space. Maybe it’s time, though. Maybe Zayn is tired of all the space.

“You think he’d be ok if I came with?” Zayn finally asks.

Harry’s quiet, but his face is the brightest thing Zayn’s ever seen. When he smiles Zayn feels every nerve ending in his body light up. He wants to make Harry look at him like that all the time. He wants that forever, he thinks.

“I think he’d like that,” Harry tells him. “I think it’s good.”

Harry slots their hands together and it’s not like it was. Zayn realizes now it’ll never be how it was. They’re not young and believing they’re invincible. They’re not on top of the world, thinking that they’ll never fall off and not being ready for the fall for when they did. They’re not so naive as to think that the fact that they love each other will somehow be enough.

They’re older now, and they both know that things will be hard. It will take a lot of work, and none of it will come easy, but it will be worth it. All the heartbreak over the years has led him and Harry right back to where they were, but this time Zayn thinks they understand how fragile it is, and how hard they need to work to protect it.

Zayn knows they can do it. He’s sure of it this time.

“Yeah,” Zayn says. Even though it’s new, their hands still fit together. They’re older now, but it’s still the same bones underneath their skin. Still the same heartbeat pulsing under their skin. Harry rubs his thumb over Zayn’s knuckles and squeezes. “Yeah, it’s good.”

 

-END-