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we can take the darkness

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The air is colder than it has any right to be in early November. Zayn’s cheeks feel frost bitten as soon as he hits street level from the subway station below. The temperature on Zayn’s phone indicates it is well below freezing and the grey clouds in the sky above him look heavy with the threat of snow. With a sigh, he shoves his phone back into his pocket and tugs his mitten back onto his now-stiff hand. Keeping the George Washington Bridge to his left, he sets off quickly down the street.

Around him, the other residents of Hudson Heights don’t seem to be as concerned with the polar temperatures. Most of the people he passes are wearing lighter jackets than the blue puffy one that he has on. It makes him look like someone dunked the Michelin Man in a vat of navy paint but he doesn’t mind when it keeps his arms and torso cozy warm. It doesn’t matter much, anyway, as his co-op isn’t too far from the 181st Street station and he’s soon using his keys to enter the building and escape the frigid air.

The cold has stolen some of his breath but Zayn doesn’t pause, too eager to get to his flat. He rushes up the stairs, knowing the elevator is never the fastest route, and vows to quit smoking this time for good when he hears the ragged way he’s breathing when he gets to his door on the fourth floor. He sounds a bit like Darth Vader being strangled but he turns his second key anyway, holding his breath in a last-ditch effort to slow his pulse.

“I’m home!” he calls out, kicking the door closed before either of the cats can slip out. Only Sawyer is around, though, weaving between Zayn’s feet and leaving orange hair behind on the hems of his skinnies before he darts away, deeper into the apartment. “Anyone want to say hello?”

“Baba’s home, guys!” he hears someone say in a loud stage-whisper. Zayn can’t fight the huge grin that he breaks out into, would never even think to try. Seconds after the whisper, the sound of heavy feet hitting bare tile can be heard. Zayn slings his coat onto the hook by the door, stepping into the hallway just as two little boys come barreling around the corner from the kitchen.

“Baba’s home!” almost four year old Trev repeats, arms already up for Zayn to lift him into a hug. Zayn obliges, crouching into a squat and pulling his older son into his arms. Trevor’s tall for his age- where the height comes from, Zayn has no idea- and his dark blonde corkscrew curls tickle at Zayn’s jaw before he ducks down for a kiss. Though he takes after his mother mostly, the main resemblance between him and Zayn is found in their eyes: the shape and color are identical, as are the lenses that frame their faces. Trev pulls out of the hug only so long as to push his glasses more firmly on his face, both palms pressing to the lenses.

Nineteen month old Tariq isn’t far behind his big brother, his balance still a bit shaky as he runs full speed into them, sending Zayn sprawling out on his bum. “Ow, baba,” Tariq says in sympathy, though he doesn’t pause as he climbs over Trevor to give Zayn his kisses hello. “Hi,” he chirps, showing off his toothy grin.

His younger boy, on the other hand, looks like an almost carbon copy of Zayn. His skin holds the same olive tone and his hair is the same dark brown, soft curls. Tariq has his father’s smaller frame, though it’s hard to say if that will change. His pudgy belly hangs over his nappy still, the air inside the apartment warm enough that his uncle has obviously let him be nearly naked like he typically prefers.

“Hi, boys,” Zayn responds, hugging them both. “Did you guys have fun with Uncle Harry?”

Trev’s smile falls a little while Tar’s grows. “We finger painted,” Trev says.

Zayn twists his face in a sympathetic grimace. While Tariq loves playing with anything that involves getting his hands dirty, Trevor has always preferred less messy activities. Zayn can only imagine how many times he made Harry stop so he could wash his hands. “Let’s see what you guys made,” he says, getting to his feet before taking one of their hands in each of his own.

When they enter the kitchen, Zayn pushing his arms forward to guide his sons through the doorway first, he doesn’t even blink at the semi-organized tidiness of the counter and shelves. He’s used to Harry cleaning up a bit when it’s his turn to babysit. It’s preferable to the way Louis always has the place trashed when Zayn comes home, though he never hesitates to stay and help clean. It’s even preferable to the way Niall always tidies to the point where it doesn’t even look like Zayn or the two boys even live there. The three Maliks seem to be in an unspoken competition to be messier than the other two at all times. After Niall’s Friday mornings, the flat looks like it could belong to the Queen.

On the other hand, Harry always seems to strike the perfect balance. He doesn’t ever attempt to hide any of the mismatched knickknacks on the shelves, just wipes things down a bit more than Zayn has time to and always tries to keep the mess the boys create to a contained level.

Harry’s sitting at the dining room table when they enter, twisting the lids back on paint tubes and gathering the messy sponges and scrunched up napkins.

“Hey, babe,” Zayn says, grinning when he sees his best friend. “How were the boys?”

“Oh, terrible as usual,” Harry jokes, eyes growing comically wide as he dramatically looks down. “I didn’t see the little munchkins there,” he says. “Do you think they heard me?”

“Uncle Harry, we heard you,” Trev says, giggling when Harry drops what he’s holding to swoop him up and drop him on his hip, tickling his tummy with one hand.

Tariq is tugging at Zayn’s hand, pulling him unsteadily to the table. “Baba, see,” he says, reaching up to the spot on the table right in front of his usual seat. “I drawed.”

“You really did,” Zayn agrees, picking up the picture. He sees six distinct blobs on the page. Two are clearly the cats, Sawyer a splotch of orange and Jasper a circle of what might be an attempt at creating gray. The other four, though, he isn’t sure. “Wanna tell me about it?” he tries, determined to bluff his way through this.

“Me, Sawver, Japper, Tev, baba n’ unc’ Arry,” he says, pointing at the blobs and naming them.

“I’m in it?” Harry asks, dimples deep as his smile shifts into something softer.

Tar nods, pointing them all out again and telling Harry the names as Harry shifts closer, Trev still on his hip.

“Thanks, buddy,” Harry says, reaching his free hand up to mess with Tariq’s brown curls. “You did really well. Trev, do you want to show your baba what you drew?”

“I didn’t have time to finish,” Trevor says, pouting a bit again.

Zayn presses his lips together to resist smiling. He’s always pleased when he sees himself in his boys, though he would have been okay with Trevor not inheriting some of his perfectionist tendencies.

He takes the picture when Harry passes it over, this time recognizing instantly what it’s meant to be of. His older son has been fascinated with the George Washington Bridge ever since Zayn moved into this co-op when Trev was about the age Tar is now. His bedtime story choice is always The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge and it’s no surprise that his latest drawing is of the same subject. It’s well done, like most of Trev’s art is. The red is nearly a perfect shade match, the shape distinctive and there are even a couple swoops of black near the corner of the paper that might be birds. It’s a three year old’s finger painting, for sure, but it’s good enough for the Smithsonian in Zayn’s perfectly unbiased opinion.

“This is perfect, Trevor,” Zayn says.

Trevor grins and buries his face in Harry’s shoulder, arms tight around Harry’s neck. Zayn grabs both paintings and crosses the small kitchen to the fridge, using two spare magnets to stick them up. “Wanna show me yours, Haz?” he asks, smirking when he looks over his shoulder.

“Only if you show me yours first,” Harry teases right back, setting Trev down and letting him run off, probably to look for one of the cats. “You got a bunch of mail, though. The postman dropped it at the door, said one of the envelopes was too big to fit in the slot.”

Zayn looks over at the pile on the counter Harry indicates with a nod, deciding to go through it later. It’s never anything more thrilling than bills, ones that Zayn is finally able to pay in full and even early every single month instead of scrapping by like he had been doing since deciding to move to the city.

Tar sticks close as Zayn helps Harry finish cleaning up, going between the two of them. He’s a handsy baby, always has been, and he keeps a hold of the hem of Zayn’s jumper as they shuffle around together. When he’s by Harry, he’s clinging to the pockets of his skinnies or pinching the fold of fabric when it gathers near his knees.

“Thanks again, Harry,” Zayn says as they near the finish line. “For everything, always.”

“It’s honestly no trouble at all, you know that,” Harry says, shrugging off the thanks. “The boys are so easy to watch.”

Zayn pulls a disbelieving face to Tar, breaking into a smirk when his baby giggles. He’s definitely lucked out with two mostly even-tempered children, but it’s hard, sometimes, having two kids so close in age. Though they always love seeing their “uncles” when they babysit, Zayn knows his two little angels have probably thrown their fair share of tantrums for Harry, though he’s never complained.

“You’re staying for dinner?” Zayn asks, though he’s already grabbing four plates down.

“Can’t tonight,” Harry says, spraying the table before wiping it down. His smile’s gone, Zayn can tell just from the sound of his words.

“Oh?” Zayn says, refusing to examine why he’s suddenly pouting. He slips one plate back on the shelf quietly.

“I, erm, I’ve got a date,” Harry says.

His voice sounds off but Zayn doesn’t know if what he’s hearing is accurate or if he’s just listening through the hazy cloud of jealousy that settles over him at Harry’s words. It’s been ages since he’s gotten off with anyone, all of his time going either to his boys or to his job. He’s thrown himself into work wholeheartedly, rising in the company quickly, and he’s stable enough now that he can put away a little money for his sons’ future schooling after their current bills are paid. He tells himself that he isn’t jealous, not at all, but if he is, then he’s jealous of the idea of dating. If he’s jealous, it’s of Harry and not the nameless, faceless person who gets to take him out tonight.

“Oh?” Zayn repeats, his voice a bit softer this time. He clears his throat quietly.

“A guy from class set me up with his mate. I felt too awkward to say no.”

“Have fun. Us lads will miss you.”

When he turns around, Harry’s smiling again. It’s the soft, subtle one that somehow makes his dimple stand out in stark relief. It’s his special smile just for Zayn, Zayn’s always thought. He only sees Harry direct it at him or his boys, never at anyone else. It eases some of Zayn’s discomfort at the thought of Harry’s date, knowing that this part of his best mate is just his and won’t be shared with anyone else any time soon.

“I’ll miss you guys, too. Save me some leftovers?”

“We make no promises,” Zayn says, the corners of his lips rising in a smirk. “Tar eats like a horse.”

“Tar eats horses?” Harry exclaims, green eyes wide again.

“No, I don’t!” Tariq laughs, toddling away when Harry makes to grab him. Zayn helps Harry give chase, the two of them jostling each other as they follow Tariq down the hallway. He shrieks when he looks over and sees them following, his bare feet pounding the tile as he rounds the farthest corner for the living room.

They hear a hissing sound and then Jasper runs out a second later. He’s never been fond of Tariq or Harry, and he keeps close to the wall as he passes them for the sanctuary of the now-empty kitchen. “Damn cat,” Harry says under his breath before they slip through the doorframe.

Tar stands between the sofa and the coffee table, eyeing them warily. Trev and Sawyer are playing with a line of string in the corner. Harry and Zayn share a look before splitting up, rounding the sofa from either side.

“No!” Tar shouts, laughing as he tries to scramble up onto the furniture. Harry’s too quick, diving forward suddenly and picking him up.

“I got him!” he yells. “I got the horse thief!”

“I thought he was a horse eater?” Zayn giggles, slumping down onto the sofa next to them, Tar wiggling half-heartedly in Harry’s hold until finally giving up and going limp, giggles shaking his small frame.

“Same thing,” Harry dismisses.

Zayn hums but doesn’t protest, sitting in silence for a moment before the clock above the stove chimes seven o’clock.

“I should go,” Harry says, though he doesn’t move.

“Yeah,” Zayn agrees. “You’ve got your date,” he says, keeping his gaze forward. He doesn’t need Harry to read anything in his eyes.

After another moment, Harry finally shifts. Tar goes to Zayn’s side willingly, tucking himself half between Zayn’s shoulder and the back of the sofa. Harry stands, back cracking as he stretches. He walks across the room to Trev, who is still playing with Sawyer and trying to entice a nervous Jasper closer, though he flees the room again when Harry starts moving.

Harry crouches down next to him, taking a knee after a few seconds. Zayn knows it’s because his back’s been bothering him again lately. Even if he hadn’t heard the worrying sound his back had just made, he would have still known. He sees it in the way Harry carries himself, posture stiff and arms hanging heavily. He had seen it when Harry had lifted Trev to his hip, the hint of a frown tugging the corners of his mouth down. He watches now as Harry hugs and kisses Trev goodbye, tucking an errant blonde strand behind his ear before he stands again and shuffles back over to them. Tar is curled around Zayn in a knot, one baby leg behind the small of Zayn’s back with the other draped over his arm and both of his chubby arms twisted around Zayn’s neck, hands barely able to meet in a circle.

“Thanks for painting with me today, Tar,” Harry says, leaning down.

“Bye bye, Unc’Arry,” Tar says around a yawn. He tilts his cheek up for a kiss, pressing one to Harry’s jaw a second later.

Harry lifts his hand, brushing through Tar’s curls as well as he makes eye contact with Zayn. “See you tomorrow,” he whispers.

“Okay,” Zayn says around an inhale, almost holding his breath as he holds Harry’s gaze. Harry leans in a little closer, just enough to press his dry, chapped lips to the cut of Zayn’s cheekbone.

“Have a good night,” he says before straightening and walking out of the room.

Zayn tells himself it didn’t mean anything, that he and the lads all kiss each other all the time and in more intimate ways then quickly and on the cheek. Even knowing this, he still finds himself aware of the spot where Harry’s lips had been for the rest of the night. He catches himself touching the tips of his fingers to his cheek as he makes dinner, as he eats with the boys and even while he reads them their bedtime story before lights out.

He thinks about the kiss when he tosses in a load of laundry.

He thinks about the kiss when he makes the boys’ lunches for daycare tomorrow.

He thinks about the kiss when he pulls on his own pajamas for bed.

He thinks about the kiss when he closes his eyes and drifts off to sleep.

 

 

The next morning, the kiss is nearly forgotten. Zayn had let himself bask in it the night before but he puts his mental foot down when he wakes up. Harry is one of his best mates- his very best mate if he ever had to choose- and there is no way Zayn is going to risk that on some stupid matter like a crush.

He sorts through the mail while the boys eat their breakfasts. His coffee mug is next to his elbow, steam still visibly rising as he makes a pile for junk, a pile for bills and a pile for everything else.

One envelope in particular stands out. It must be the reason the postman had to bring it up to them. It’s manila material, as wide as a standard envelope but much longer. Zayn frowns, sipping his coffee before he undoes the clasp and slips out the paperwork that is inside.

He doesn’t cough on his just-swallowed sip but it’s a close call, his eyes growing wide as he scans the documents. A lot of it is legal mumbo jumbo but Zayn understands enough of it that he’s instantly upset.

“Boys, can you go get dressed?” he says, not looking up from what’s in his hands.

“Brekki, baba,” Tar says, mouth sounding full.

“It’ll keep for a minute. Baba needs to make a quick call.”

He doesn’t hear them moving so he looks up, eyebrow raised. “Trev, please take your brother and go get dressed for day care. Baba will keep your breakfast for you.”

Trev nods, looking over at Zayn with a quizzical look, but he scoots his chair out carefully before crossing over and helping Tar down. They walk out of the room hand-in-hand, stride in unison as their feet thud in sync.

Zayn grabs his mobile, typing out one of the only numbers he knows by heart and bringing it to his ear.

“Hey, Zayn,” Harry says when he picks up, his voice scratchy like he was still sleeping.

“Haz, hey. I- I’ve got something I’m going to leave on the counter for you to look at while you’re here, if you’ve got time.”

“You sound upset; are you and the boys okay?”

“Yes, we’re fine,” Zayn reassures him. “The letter that got dropped off yesterday, it’s from one of Cassie’s lawyers. I don’t understand a lot of it but it sounds like she’s trying to sue for custody of the boys.”

“Oh, shit,” Harry says, voice clearer now.

“I need you to read it over and tell me it’s not what I think it is,” Zayn pleads.

“Of course I will,” Harry says. “Just leave it out for me and I’ll look it over. I’ll give it to my TA to look at if I can’t make sense of it.”

Zayn’s quiet for a long moment, sucking in a ragged breath and desperate for a smoke.

“It’s going to be okay, Zee.”

“I’m not letting her take them from me.”

“I know. We’re going to figure this out, okay?”

“It doesn’t make sense!” Zayn says, getting frustrated. “She doesn’t see them, doesn’t even call on their birthdays or holidays or anything.”

“Do you have a formal custody agreement on file with the courts?” Harry asks, tone serious.

“I think so,” Zayn says, sucking his bottom lip between his teeth and biting at the dead skin there as he tries to remember. “Yes, I’m sure we did. We had an agreement for split custody when Trevor was born but I had full custody of him by the time we had Tariq. She signed away her rights for both boys.”

“Okay, just making sure,” Harry says. “Listen, babe, I’ve got to get going to class in a minute. Do you need me to skip? I can come look at that paperwork now. Just say the word.”

Zayn closes his eyes, letting his head hang as he exhales. “No,” he says, finally. “No, Harry. Thank you. I’m going to take the boys to day care and then just head into work. I can’t do anything about this right now.”

“Okay. If you change your mind-“

“I know, babe. Thanks. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Love you, Zayn.”

“Love you, too.”

He sets his mobile down on the counter and grabs his mug, gulping the coffee down quickly. It’s the next best thing to being able to shoot the caffeine directly into his veins.

By the time he has rinsed his mug and stacked the rest of the mail in its corner by the bread bin, Trev and Tar come back out.

“Tar didn’t have a shirt so I gave him mine,” Trev says, his tone one heavy with disappointment.

Hmm… Zayn’s sure he had left a shirt laid out for Tar. He glances over to see Tariq flap his arms in his brother’s oversized jumper. There’s a duck stitched on the front and Tar starts quacking when he sees Zayn watching. It brings a smile to Zayn’s face, his sons unknowingly offering a solid source of comfort.

“Thank you, jaan,” Zayn says, crossing over to the table. He helps Tar get situated again in his booster seat, dragging him close enough to the table that he can reach the rest of his breakfast. Trev is already finishing his, eyeing the fruit with distaste and eating around the strawberries specifically. “You’re not going to eat those, are you?” Zayn asks.

Trevor shakes his head, his blonde curls bouncing. Zayn twirls one around his finger before smoothing his hand around the curve of Trev’s skull.

“Try one for baba, please?” he asks, keeping his voice gentle.

“I don’t like them.”

“Have you tried one before?”

Trev shrugs, a full pout on his small face. “I don’t know.”

“I’d like if you try one but it’s okay if you don’t,” Zayn says, knowing when he’s come upon a battle that isn’t worth fighting. He leaves them alone in the kitchen for a minute, ducking into Tariq’s room and grabbing a more suitable shirt. While he loves seeing his baby quack in his big brother’s ducky shirt, he can’t let him out of the house in something that fits so poorly.

He catches Trev spooning a few strawberry pieces onto his brother’s plate, a guilty expression striking across his face when he sees Zayn. “He likes them,” Trev protests.

“I asked you to try them, though,” Zayn says. “I’m not upset but I wish you would have listened to me.”

“Sorry,” Trevor says.

Tar is oblivious to the shift in the mood, pinching the strawberries between his chubby fingers and opening his mouth wide, pressing one piece in at a time and gurgling.

“Told you he likes them,” Trev says under his breath, which Zayn ignores.

“Finish up what you’re eating and we’ll head across the street to see Miss Julie.”

Trev hesitates for a second, looking between Zayn and his plate. With the care of a SWAT police officer handling a bomb, he carefully picks up a quartered slice of strawberry and puts it in his mouth. Zayn watches him chew and swallow, a grimace on his face the entire time.

When it looks like he might force himself to eat another one, Zayn swoops in and pushes his plate forward. “You don’t have to, jaan,” he says, leaning down and pressing a kiss to the back of his head. “Thank you for trying them.”

“Sorry, baba,” he says, looking up and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, pursing his lips. Zayn gives him another kiss and ruffles through his hair again. “Am I done?”

“You’re done,” Zayn confirms, letting him scoot his chair back and jump down.

Tariq sees his brother leaving and lifts his arms. “Up, baba,” he demands.

“Baba has to clear the dishes,” Zayn says in apology. “Do you think you can change your shirt while Trev helps you? Go put on this shirt?” he simplifies, placing it on the chair.

“I wanted to find Jasper,” Trev says but he comes closer to them, gripping the back of his chair as he watches Zayn set down the folded jumper. He helps Tar pull the ducky shirt off as Zayn grabs their plates and takes them to wash off in the sink. When he’s done and has stacked them in the drying rack, he turns back around.

The boys have made a good effort, but Tar’s jumper is somehow inside out and backwards at the same time. He’s biting the tag as he laughs, his dark eyes in a crease from the force of his smile.

“How’d this happen?” Zayn asks, laughing himself as he helps set Tar to rights. “Can’t let Miss Julie see you like that, she’ll be mad at baba.”

“Unc’ ‘Arry?” Tar asks.

“Uncle Harry is going to pick you boys up from Miss Julie’s house,” Zayn confirms. “And then you get to see your Uncle Niall tomorrow. Let’s go get our coats on now, though. It’s cold outside.”

Zayn herds them towards the front door, losing Trev for a fraction of a moment when he catches sight of Jasper’s tail and goes chasing after him. “Trev, c’mon,” Zayn coaxes. There’s no answer. He sighs, kneeling to help Tar into his boots, mittens and then his puffy parka, just like Zayn’s blue jacket except his is olive green and baby-sized. He pulls Tar’s hood over his head, tucking his brown hair back.

“There, all snug up,” Zayn says, echoing the smile his baby gives him. “Trevor Amir,” Zayn calls as he stands. “You have five seconds.”

With an apology and red cheeks, Trev comes running out of the living room, skidding to a stop in his socks by the front mat. “But I-,” he starts before taking a breath. “But I had to say goodbye to the cats,” he protests. “They miss me when I’m gone.”

“You’re only gone a couple of hours every day,” Zayn says, squatting down and fitting his gloves on his hands. He helps Trev slip into his peacoat, a birthday gift from his Uncle Harry, and tucks a scarf around his neck. “This coat isn’t very warm,” he says, biting his lip and looking his son over. “I don’t know what Harry was thinking.”

“Mine is just like his,” Trev says, chest puffed out proudly.

“Yeah, I know,” Zayn assures him with a grin. “I’ve heard.” He pulls a knit beanie over Trev’s hair, making sure his ears are covered and fixing his glasses after shifting them. It’s hard for Zayn to begrudge the bond Harry and Trev share; Harry has been a part of Trev’s life since he first came home from the hospital, after all. Zayn double-checks that they’re both bundled up before slipping on his own puffy coat and shoving his feet into his boots. He shepherds them through the door, using his foot to keep Sawyer from escaping, and locks up behind him. “Alright, let’s go next door and see Miss Julie.”

 

 

“I don’t understand why you don’t want Harry to go on this date.”

Zayn glares over his cubicle wall to his right where Griff stands in the hallway, armpits over the wall and hands waving wildly in the air. Griff holds a straight face for all of four seconds before he’s breaking out in a grin and letting his hands fall. His arms are long enough they reach halfway down the wall of Zayn’s cube.

“C’mon, Zayn. Get it in, or whatever you Brits are always saying.”

“What?”

“Just fuck him, man. Or, have him fuck you: whatever your preference.”

Zayn looks around in a panic. “Can you keep your voice down?” he hisses.

“No one’s listening,” Griff dismisses. “If they were, they’d agree with me.”

“That’s true,” Zayn hears.

He turns to face forward again, groaning when he sees Ned standing up at his own desk, only the top inch of his forehead and his quiff visible. Nonetheless, Zayn can tell just how big his shit-eating grin is.

“Who asked you guys, anyway?” he grumbles.

“Don’t be like that,” Ned says, his quiff traveling as he rounds the wall separating their workspaces. He perches his bony arse on the edge of Zayn’s desk, nearly knocking a stack of papers off it. “I used to think you and Harry were together when you first started.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, bro. You guys lived together, you talked about how good he was with Trevor. Sounded like your roundabout way of coming out, to me.”

“Me, too.”

“Well, it wasn’t.”

“Yeah,” Griff laughs, the sound too loud for an office as usual. “We caught on when you got back together with Cass and made another Malik.”

“Though, I have to admit: if I was into dudes, I’d be down to fuck Harry,” Ned admits, as if it was a question Zayn would ever have asked him.

Zayn rolls his eyes. “I hate you both,” he says. “And you’re not Harry’s type.”

“I’d hit it.”

Zayn turns to face Griff again, feeling like he’s caught in the middle of their attack. “No one says they’d ‘hit it’ anymore,” he says. “And you’re not his type, either.”

“What’s his type, then?” Griff asks, teeth a startling white against the dark of his beard. There’s a challenge hidden in his grin.

Zayn’s never been one to recognise when to back down. “Harry likes lads who are gangly, thin like him. Not beefed up like you two meatheads.”

“I’ve slimmed down,” Ned protests at the same time Griff asks, “Skinny guys like you?”

“No.” Zayn’s flushed, he can feel it on his cheeks. “He likes, I dunno, indie rock hipster types, I guess.”

“Ah, little white dudes.”

“No,” Zayn tries again. He tries to roll his chair closer to his desk but Ned kicks out a foot and stops him. “Not ‘little white dudes’ just not lads like me,” Zayn expands. “I wouldn’t be right for him, anyway; ‘m too opinionated about things.”

“Doesn’t sound like you,” Ned says, tone dripping with sarcasm.

“Do either of you actually work around here or is this project all on me?” he asks, getting uncomfortable as his flush colours his jaw and neck.

“Alright, alright, cool it, Zee,” Griff teases, pushing off from the wall. “We’re just saying: if you don’t want Harry dating other boys then that means you probably want him to be dating you.”

Zayn rolls his eyes but doesn’t say anything further, keeping his head down and flicking his eyes from side to side to watch them both walk away in turn. He stands and shifts his position, tucking a leg under his bum before rolling back to his desk and trying to lose himself in his latest design instead of thinking about the legal notice waiting for him at home or the way Harry’s voice had sounded rough when he’d picked up the phone, as if he’d been out all night with some lad who wasn’t Zayn.

 

 

When Cassie had found out she was expecting late in the October of the year they had started dating, Zayn had honestly been over the moon. He was making some money with his paintings and short stories, had a freelance deal with a couple of local magazines, and had thought he and Cassie were in love. He had called his parents with only the slightest hesitation, knowing they weren’t going to be completely thrilled that he and Cassie were only twenty-two and hadn’t been together very long.

His mum had reacted just as expected: happiness and worry intermixed into one. His dad was quiet for a long time, letting his wife air her emotions, before he had said in his gentle voice that he loved Zayn and was looking forward to meeting Cassie when they flew over for Christmas.

For something that hadn’t been planned and could have been a nightmare to navigate, everything had kind of fallen into place perfectly.

Robert Frost knew what he was talking about when he wrote ‘nothing gold can stay´ and Zayn soon found out that life wasn’t ready to let him have his happily ever after so easily.

A phone call came mid-December, when Cassie was twenty weeks into her high risk pregnancy. It was early evening for Zayn, which meant that it was already the next day for Doniya. Her voice sounded unnatural on the phone, Zayn always remembered afterwards. From the moment he picked up the line and heard her first word, she sounded different. Her voice was cold and the words she used were said in a brisk, short manner as if she was on the verge of losing control and would cross over the edge if she indulged in any emotion at all.

Fearing the worst, he had forced his mind to stay focused and not wander into any ‘what-if’ scenarios. He had listened while she told him that their parents had been in an accident driving home from a friend’s holiday party. They had been driving at night and the road was slippery from the sudden drop in temperature. Doniya said, hesitating only once between words, that their father had lost control and their car had struck a tree. They were both still alive- and, here, Zayn began to breathe again- but they had sustained major injuries in the crash and were in an intensive care unit.

Acting in a daze once they hung up, Zayn had immediately booked a flight to Manchester and then a coach into Bradford, paying for them using almost all of the money he had been saving for his son and for his next school semester. He didn’t even think about what he was doing, just knew he would deal with whatever consequences came. He needed to be with his family.

It was only when he had walked into the room he shared with Cassie, accidentally waking her from a nap, that he realised he hadn’t even told her he was going.

“What’s going on?” she had asked around a yawn, rubbing at her eyes. “Are you packing?”

Zayn had looked down at the duffle bag he was holding and clenched his jaw against the sting of tears, setting it on the edge of the bed softly and walking away to the dresser they shared. He grabbed a few changes of pants, tucking them into a corner of his bag before he answered, finally able to keep his emotions at bay.

“My parents were in an accident.”

“Shit,” she had said, sitting up so the comforter from their bed pooled around her slight belly instead. “Are they okay?”

“Yes- no- I’m not really sure,” Zayn had admitted, grabbing a pair of jeans from their closet and throwing them in with the pants. He began packing other odds and ends quickly, not really paying attention to what he was selecting.

“I don’t understand. Zayn, talk to me. What are you doing?”

He had thought it was obvious. “I have to fly out to see them.”

Cassie had been silent for a long moment, he realised later, but his back had been turned at the time as he rushed into the toilet next to the bedroom, grabbing his toothbrush. “I can’t fly, though,” she had called out.

Zayn had paused, leaning on the doorframe and looking at her. “I didn’t- expect you to come?”

Her pout caught him even further off-guard. “What are you trying to say?”

“I don’t understand what’s happening right now.” He had shuffled away to get a plastic bag for his toothbrush from their cramped kitchen.

“You’re just going to fly to England and leave me here?”

“I- yes,” Zayn said, his temper flaring as he walked back into the room. “I need to see my parents.”

Cassie stood up, tugging at her joggers and t-shirt where they’d bunched around her middle during sleep. “How are you paying for this?” she asked, crossing her arms.

“Well, I tried to give the airline Monopoly money but they didn’t take it.” Her expression didn’t change and he bit his lip against his own frustration. “I used my savings, Cassie, what else was I supposed to do?”

“You already bought the ticket? Zayn, that was money we were going to use for the baby’s nursery.”

“I know but this is more important.” He fought a wince as soon as the words left his mouth. He knew what he had said was true but he also knew Cassie wouldn’t take it well.

“More important? More important than our child?”

“It’s my parents, Cassie, what the fuck.”

“I can’t believe you used that money without talking with me!”

“It’s bloody mine!” Zayn had shouted. He wasn’t usually one to raise his voice but he had been pushed too far on top of his already high stress level from his sister’s phone call. “And I can’t believe you’re arguing with me about it! My parents- my mum, Cassie- might be bloody dead by the time I even get there and you’re being selfish about me going to see them? Fuck, I might be arriving for their burials, I don’t even know.”

Like a puppet with its strings cut, Cassie had suddenly deflated. “I- shit, I know, Zayn.” She took a breath and he copied her. “I’m sorry, fuck, I’m sorry. I just- you know me: I’m complete shit when I wake up and I don’t handle emotions well on top of that. I’m sorry about your parents. Really.”

Zayn had nodded, though he was still on edge from the conversation. Something in his gut was uneasy, even after her seemingly sincere apology. He returned the hug and kiss she gave him, continuing to pack while she shuffled out of the room. When he finally tugged the zipper to his bag closed, he was still feeling out-of-sorts.

“I’m heading out,” he had said.

“I made you a sandwich,” Cassie had replied, turning around and holding out her offering. He took it from her, leaning in to press a kiss to her cheek. “Call me when you land, if you can remember. I can’t imagine how freaked out you are right now.”

“I will,” he had promised.

“I love you.”

He wrapped her up in a hug. “I love you, too,” he said. He pulled back and pressed his palm to her bump. “Love you, too, little guy.”

 

 

“You never really told us why you and Cassie broke up,” Ned says over lunch. They’re at a diner around the corner from their office, Zayn digging into a vegetarian omelette while Griff and Ned both opt for cheeseburgers.

Zayn coughs on a bite of green pepper, taking a long sip from his water glass to soothe his throat. “You guys were there for it,” he says. “Don’t you remember: ‘I can’t be a mum to them the way you can be a dad’?”

“Yeah, no, I meant the first time.”

Zayn grimaces, taking a bite from his plate again. “I fucked up,” he says. “My parents had just been in an accident because my dad had suffered a stroke. He wasn’t talking anymore and was having trouble walking. I fucking-,” Zayn breaks off, avoiding eye contact and taking another bite for some extra time. “My dad has always been my hero, my entire life. He was strong and smart and funny and it seemed like that just disappeared overnight. I had a nervous breakdown. It was like a break from reality almost.”

  

 

In a late spurt of teenage rebellion coupled with anger at the entire world for what had happened to his father, Zayn had somehow decided that he would raze every part of his life to the ground. Even though Yaser was expected to make a full recovery, the reminder that his dad could be taken from him at any moment sparked an anger in Zayn that he didn’t like seeing.

He started blowing off school and his freelance commitments. He didn’t complete assignments, didn’t attend lectures and didn’t respond to his boss’ many emails. He pulled out of an art show even though he had been prepared for weeks. Day after day, Zayn didn’t see his friends or even leave his apartment. He ignored calls from everyone but his mum and, even with her, was short and relatively distant. He didn’t want to hear about his father’s progress because he didn’t want the reminder that he had almost been lost forever.

Cassie was, unfortunately, a lightning rod for his own personal storms. They had been growing apart even before his parents’ accident and she didn’t have the patience or compassion for his mood shifts that came afterwards. He couldn’t even blame her for it, knew he was being impossible. Knowledge didn’t help, though, because he couldn’t stop. He picked stupid little arguments over everything and Cassie would roll her eyes and dismiss him every time. He needed to release his frustration and becoming a hermit had limited his potential outlets.

Seeking out new targets finally motivated him to leave their flat and he’d started running off every time he recognised the signs of a pending blowout. There was no shortage of clubs or parties open and active in their neighbourhood at any time, and Zayn soon fell in with a crowd that was rougher than he was used to. He meddled with drugs and drank all night, blowing the last of his paychecks and savings on his new-found user friends. He hooked up with strangers and people on the fringe of his new crowd, not even attempting to hide his cheating from Cassie. He would stumble home in the late mornings, when it was closer to noon than midnight, with his hair and clothes smelling of gutters and bad decisions, and lipstick and hickies in obvious places on his jaw and neck.

Finally, Cassie had gotten fed up with his actions. No longer dismissing him so easily, she’d bicker and bitch right back at him when he’d figuratively poke at her to see how far he could push. The fought over every ridiculous thing they found to be unhappy about, though they never argued over important issues like money, respect or fidelity. Cassie never attacked Zayn for his sudden lack of motivation or sudden desire to party and cheat. Instead, she’d argue until they were both red in the face over the names they had picked out for their son or the colours of the nursery Zayn had painted months before. They fought to the point of screaming about Zayn painting his nails or about Cassie vaping while pregnant. They ignored each other for hours or even days at a time because Cassie had been chewing loudly or because Zayn hummed while he had been trimming his toenails.

It only took about two weeks of their new willingness to argue for them both to throw in the metaphorical towel. The foundation of their relationship had already been flimsy and weak, had cracked when they began realising their priorities weren’t in line and had crumbled to dust by the middle of February.

 

 

“That’s when you met Harry?” Griff asks, dipping his burger in a disgusting blend of ketchup, pepper and hot sauce.

Zayn nods, holding back an urge to gag. “I had been taking undergrad classes at community college the semester before. I would haunt campus every so often instead of going home and found a flyer in a coffee shop a day or two after we decided to separate. Harry was looking for a roommate and I’d had an English class with him before, so I didn’t think he could turn out to be too much of a creep.”

“Shows what you knew,” Ned jokes, though his smile fades when neither Zayn nor Griff acknowledge him. He scowls and throws some of his chips at them, which Zayn flicks off his omelette disinterestedly and Griff accepts with a shit eating grin.

 

 

Harry had inherited a cramped loft apartment in the Bronx, only a couple of streets away from the Fordham Road shopping district. The flat was rent-controlled and was therefore surprisingly dirt cheap and the neighbors were much quieter than the ones that had lived near Zayn and Cassie.

During the quasi-interview they’d conducted at the very same coffee shop where Zayn had found Harry’s flyer, Zayn had been upfront with Harry about everything. Harry had frowned- a lot- when Zayn had admitted to his recent foray into certain bad habits but had smiled with compassion when Zayn expressed the desire to get himself back on track in order to be better for his son.

Zayn had thought the news of a screaming infant would put Harry off but the lad had just grinned wide when Zayn had asked if he was sure his son wouldn’t be a problem. “I love babies,” Harry had said before shaking Zayn’s hand and offering to show him around the apartment after his shift was over.

“You work here?” Zayn had asked. “How do you afford- you know what? It isn’t my business.”

“You shared with me,” Harry had reasoned. “My parents are… well-off and are paying my rent for now until I find a roommate to split it with. They agreed to pay for the first year but I’m hoping not to let it go that long.”

Though nice and well out of Zayn’s budget, there was no way around the fact that the flat was dreadfully small for two grown men and an incoming baby. Possibly sensing Zayn’s threatening feeling of dread and lost hope, Harry had started pointing out how they could creatively arrange the space. There was a loft, a small kitchen, a toilet and an extra-large living room area. Harry walked through each room, drawing imaginary furniture and especially room dividers through the air to paint the picture for Zayn. His enthusiasm had been contagious and Zayn had soon gotten into it, even picking out some colours they could paint the walls to make the spaces seem even bigger.

They agreed that Zayn would have the entire loft to himself and pay a little more, and Harry would split off part of the main room for his bedroom. They’d share the toilet and kitchen down the middle and take turns cooking and shopping, Harry promising to make a pasta that would rival any Zayn had ever tasted and Zayn promising in return to teach Harry how to make his mum’s recipes.

The promise of starting fresh in the city was the trigger that pulled Zayn entirely from his destructive funk. It was hard to be miserable in the face of Harry’s constant positivity. They signed an eighteen month-long lease agreement on a bar napkin after a round of beers. Harry, who was undergrad with plans of law school in his future, assured Zayn it was a totally legit lease. Zayn had laughed around the mouth of his drink, figuring he had hit rock bottom at that point in his life and could only climb back to the surface from there.

When he had called home to tell his mum about his recent changes, he had ended up on the phone with her for two long hours. They had cried when Zayn confessed how he had behaved since his father’s stroke and accident, Zayn’s mum berating him for his actions and then forgiving him in the next breath for every truth he told her. It felt like being absolved of sin, he had thought, especially when his mum had taken several long breaths to calm herself before moving into another room and putting his dad on.

“Hi, dad, it’s Zayn,” he had said into the phone, trying to keep the sound of his sniffles from carrying through.

“Of course it is,” his father said. “Who else would be making your mother cry like this? Only us lads do that.”

Zayn had laughed, struck with relief at the way his father sounded so much like he always had. His words were a bit slower in coming and there was a hint of a lisp that hadn’t been present before. He had made a remarkable recovery, though, considering he had woken from surgery with almost no ability to enunciate or decide upon his word choices.

“I’m done making mum cry,” Zayn had promised. “You, too, baba.”

“Just be a good boy,” Yaser had said. “And tell us when we can fly out to meet my pota, my grandson.”

“I’ll tell you, I promise.”

 

 

“I just don’t understand why you and Harry didn’t just fuck it out of your systems right in the beginning,” Griff says as he pulls cash out of his wallet to settle their bill. “I’ve met the guy and he’s always making eyes at you when you’re not looking.”

“No, he isn’t,” Zayn dismisses, finishing off his second glass of water. “I would have noticed if Harry ‘made eyes’ at me,” he says, using the air quotes. “We’ve been best mates for over three years.”

“That’s why I said: when you’re not looking,” Griff repeats. “It’s like you’ve never seen a Sandra Bullock movie.”

Zayn rolls his eyes and stands up. “Harry Styles and I are best friends,” he says, loudly and clearly. “Nothing more.”

 

  

Moving in with Harry had been a turning point in many ways but the most surprising change had to have been when Zayn finally acquiesced to Harry’s repeated requests to do yoga together.

“It’ll change your life,” Harry had promised.

Zayn had doubted him but was game to try it anyway. He sat through a DVD in the small section of their living room that was leftover from Harry’s bedroom, learning how to breathe the ‘proper way’ and focus his thoughts. He had tried to take it seriously, knew how much faith Harry put into the science, but he hadn’t been able to stop his giggles through most of the meditation parts. Harry had just cracked an eye and glanced over at Zayn, a hint of a dimple poking in his cheek as he bit down on his own smile.

Having failed two classes and gotten himself on administrative notice, Zayn started feeling a healthy form of jealousy of Harry when he would be in class and Zayn would be left to his own thoughts in his loft. His parents had repaid him for his travel expenses when he had flown to see them after the accident and had given him a loan to buy himself out of his lease with Cassie. Zayn didn’t want to waste the second chance he’d been given and had- so far- not signed up to retake any classes until he made some more changes.

He had realised quickly in the pregnancy that what he was bringing in wouldn’t cover any but the barest expenses. What had seemed like plenty of money before was quickly turning out to be pittance compared to what he would need to keep his son in diapers. He had been playing around with the idea of going to school for architecture, turning his creative passion into something that would be more practical but still interest him. He needed a job he could count on to bring in a paycheck, and writing and painting weren’t paying the baby bills just yet. Architects flocked to New York City in droves and Zayn became determined to learn from and be the best of them all.

Having made the decision, he had contacted his financial aid advisor at the college, declared his new major and submitted applications for every form of aid for which he qualified. He rearranged his loft space, shoving his twin-sized bed into the corner next to the nursery area; a crib, a small dresser that would double as a changing table, and a rocking chair that he had splurged on when he saw it at a flea market he’d gone to with Harry when the latter had been looking for room dividers. The new space that was left behind he began using for sketches and homework assignments. He found a drafting table at a consignment store and Harry had even helped him DIY a stool for it.

Even with how prepared he had become in the short months since the breakup with Cass right before Trev was born, bringing his son home was still nerve wracking. Cassie and he had decided on joint custody, trading off one week at a time. The judge had recommended Trevor stay with one of them or the other until he was older, in order to have a more stable environment, but the lawyer Zayn’s mum was paying for was adamant that he could find himself at a disadvantage if he didn’t fight for more time. Cassie hadn’t objected and the judge had finally agreed.

Harry, who had quickly become Zayn’s very best mate, was so great with Trev. He’d stay up with him when he was colicky, would sing lullabies to him when Zayn couldn’t get him to go down, and loved measuring all of Trev’s milestones in the baby book Zayn had purchased but had never taken the time to complete. It’s up in a glass cabinet in Zayn’s new flat, pages upon pages filled in with Harry’s neat scrawl. Trev had, in turn, loved being around his Uncle Harry. He never smiled for anyone more, except maybe Zayn.

His parents, who flew in to meet their grandson when he was two months old, were quick to point out his connection with Harry.

“I like your new lad quite a lot,” Yaser had said to Zayn one evening. Harry had braved downtown New York City so close to Independence Day with his mum and the girls to take them to see the touristy sites, leaving Zayn and his dad home with Trev.

“Harry isn’t- we’re not like that,” Zayn had quickly pointed out. It was true; there was some mutual attraction that had expressed itself after a few drunken nights when they’d had a quick snog mainly to take comfort in another warm body, but they had always fallen asleep before anything further could happen and the next morning always brought no mention of the night before. It was better this way. Zayn had glanced over at his father, wanting to impress the words upon him to be sure he was listening. His parents always wanted him to find someone, be as happy as they are, and he couldn’t let his father think anything would happen with Harry.

The stroke had aged Yaser remarkably, his previously speckled hair now almost completely gray. Zayn had teased him about it when he’d first seen it on Skype before heading to a beauty supply store around the street from his house and getting the exact instructions and products he’d need to dye his whole head silver himself. Yaser had laughed like before his accident when he had seen it, loud and uncontrollable. It’s a memory that always makes Zayn smile.

“Are you sure?” Yaser asked. “The boy looks at you and Trev, here, like you’re the two most important things in his world.”

Something in the assuredness of his dad’s words had scared Zayn. He could admit to his crush on Harry- not a person alive who knew him had ever been able to resist his certain brand of sincere charm and Zayn was no exception- but he knew then that nothing could be worth losing him over. Not even if his father thought he saw a spark of something. Harry was officially placed on an ‘off-limits’ list that Zayn kept in the back of his brain.

 

 

“So you two have been together?” Ned accuses, his words muffled with his thick scarf.

“No?”

“You just told us!”

“We’d make out a bit,” Zayn defends himself. “It didn’t mean anything.”

“Yeah, because I routinely make out with my friends just for funsies.”

Zayn rounds on Griff, hoping for a show of support but he just shrugs. “Man, don’t look at me. I’ve never been friends like that with someone after a night together.”

“Harry’s just that way, though. He doesn’t mean anything by it- he kisses and cuddles everyone.”

“But you don’t,” Ned points out.

“Zayn’s feelings aren’t the ones in question,” Griff reasons.

“Doesn’t matter anyway,” Zayn interjects before Ned can answer back. “After that visit, things changed.”

 

 

Once his parents had returned home, Zayn had started avoiding Harry in what he thought were subtle ways at the time. He’d beg off doing yoga together and skip morning breakfast, finding a hole-in-the-wall diner that wouldn’t leave him completely broke if he bought a to-go coffee from them every morning.

He started hanging out with Cassie again, apologizing repeatedly to her for the mess he had been in and the way he had treated her and himself. They would grab dinner together with Trev and meetup for walks and playtime in the park. Quickly, they’d find their hands intertwined at their sides while Zayn pushed Trev on the swings, Cassie leaning her head on his shoulder and telling him she’d missed being his friend.

The draw of having a family started already was the catalyst that brought them even closer, Zayn being unable to resist telling Cassie all his plans for them if they could find their way back to each other again. Less heat and less passion came with their second go-around but Zayn told himself he didn’t need that, didn’t need love- he was with the mother of his child and they were a family.

Though his parents warned him against it and even Harry attempted to stage an intervention with the help of Louis and Niall, Zayn informally moved back into the flat he’d once shared with Cassie. He proposed to her on Trevor’s first birthday, the three of them blowing out the candles of a maple cake Harry had made for the occasion. None of Zayn’s friends or family were there, just Cassie’s parents making the drive in from Jersey, but he ignored the little voice in his head telling him there was something still wrong about the entire arrangement.

It didn’t take long for the relationship to crumble again- the two of them quickly realising that they couldn’t force themselves to fit together anymore. As with all things, Zayn should have listened to his family and friends, especially his mum. The whole ordeal had lasted only a couple of months and Trev wasn’t yet walking on his own when Zayn packed his things again and went back to the flat he still paid partial rent for.

Two weeks later, Cassie took a pregnancy test and called Zayn in tears when it came back positive.

Zayn couldn’t help the pang of regret he felt when he and Cassie had sat down together to have a serious conversation about terminating before she hit the second trimester. Zayn held her hand while they spoke and hugged her when she said she would have the baby, kissing her warm cheeks and promising he would do so much better at co-parenting this time and would never let her be the subject of his frustration again.

This pregnancy was harder to announce to his parents than the first had been. He had been doing really well with balancing Trevor, school and even a mild social life with Harry, Louis and Niall. Having another child- an infant right when Trev would be entering the toddler stage and still in diapers of his own- would set him back in every area. But he held his son in his arms when he placed the call to his parents, looking down at the wisps of blonde curls he’d inherited from his mother and realising he would have given up anything in the world to have another little boy made just the same way.

Cassie seemed to withdraw as the weeks went on. She looked tired every time Zayn came by to drop Trevor off and looked even worse when she’d come by the flat to return him. Zayn offered to help her find a counselor or take her to the one he’d seen briefly after his father’s stroke but she brushed him off and refused, eventually moving back to Tenafly to live with her parents. She started showing up later and later for their trade-off with Trev and eventually began calling last minute to ask Zayn to keep him another night.

It somehow still came as a shock when Cassie told him she didn’t think she could do it anymore- didn’t think she could be a mother to two little boys. She loved them- she promised and Zayn believed her- but she couldn’t make herself do the right things to keep herself healthy and take care of Trev at the same time.

Zayn offered to help her more financially- would take on a larger burden to help ease her mind and lift some of her worries- but she was adamant about her wants and so she signed away her rights to custody of both Trevor and their unborn child, a son Zayn named after the morning star.

After a quick labour, Cassie held Tariq Asad for a long time. Zayn settled in an armchair in her room, pushing it against the wall to give her the illusion of privacy as she cried a little and promised the bundle in her arms that she loved him so much even if she wouldn’t be seeing him for awhile. It broke Zayn’s heart.

“Just call me if you ever want to see them,” he had promised when she had announced she was done. Zayn took him from her arms gently and leaned in to kiss her goodbye, whispering his promise again. “No questions asked,” he said.

He could never forget how fragile she had looked the moment she shook her head no, a burst blood vessel in her eye from the delivery and her face splotchy red from her crying. Her skin was pale under the flush and shiny with sweat, her hair limp and her lips white from the pressure of her biting into them. Her eyes, though, her blue eyes were bright from her tears and somehow resolved when she told Zayn she couldn’t be a mother to the boys. Not the way he could be a father to them.

 

 

“I brought Tariq home to my flat with Harry and Trev, our co-op not ready for a few more weeks, and we found a good balance between us all. Harry tried to get us to not go- because he loves the boys,” Zayn quickly adds, stomping snow from his shoes as he walks into the lobby of his office building. “But the co-op was in a nicer neighbourhood, my parents had already paid my way into the unit, and the rent was unbelievably affordable. We had all just been promoted here and it just… made sense to have a house separate from Harry.”

“Even though he’s over almost every day.”

“He watches the boys in the afternoons some days so I don’t have to pay a full day rate at Miss Julie’s for just a couple hours. Louis and Niall do the same.”

“But they’re not the same with the boys as Harry is.”

“He lived with them when they were little. They’re, like, bonded I dunno. It isn’t a thing.”

“Okay,” Griff says, slinging an arm around Zayn’s shoulders and leading him into the elevator. “We’ll let this go. But we’re both going to be smug as fuck if it turns out we were right.”

Zayn rolls his eyes and doesn’t respond further.

 

 

The rest of his afternoon passes in a haze, his mind half on work and half on the paperwork he’d left out for Harry to look over. He had gone through a lot of trial-and-error to establish a rhythm with the two boys. His classes at the NIYT- the New York Institute of Technology- in their architecture and design college were easy to schedule for weekends or online so he could spend the maximum amount of time at home.

Everything has settled well and now something is threatening to disrupt his carefully balanced life.

With thirty minutes before he can clock out and go home, he gives up on his blueprints and meticulously dusts down his desk area until everything is clean and he has finally hit five o’clock so he can bolt for the first train that will get him home.

Praying that Harry has found something, a special clause or loophole that will expose the whole thing as a farce, Zayn unlocks his door and steps into his flat.

Jasper and Sawyer are playing in the living room, Trev watching them in fascination.

“Hey, jaan,” Zayn says, hanging his coat and slipping off his boots. He can just see into the room from the front door but he moves into the doorframe to get a better view. “What is that they’re playing with?”

“Hi, baba!” Trev said in excitement, jumping up from the floor to run and hug Zayn around the middle. “Uncle Harry bought Jasper a new toy to make him like him but Jasper just took it and runned away from him.”

“Ran away,” Zayn corrects automatically.

“Ran away,” Trev repeats.

“Do you know where your uncle is, jaan? And where’s Tariq?”

“Sleeping. Uncle Harry said he was crabby and needed a nap because he was being a brat.”

“That’s not nice of you to call your little brother names,” Zayn scolds gently, running a palm along the top of Trev’s thick mess of blonde curls.

“Sorry, baba.”

“Is Uncle Harry napping, too?”

Trev shrugs. “I dunno. I think he’s making dinner.”

“I’ll go check in on them, you stay here with the cats, okay? Do you want the telly on?”

Zayn walks away after Trev shakes his head. “What’d you buy for the cat, Haz?” Zayn asks as he enters the kitchen, finding Harry combing over the legal paperwork with a notepad open near him, hand flying across the page as he scribbles down notes. “Oh, shit,” Zayn says, stopping and staring. There’s several pages already flipped over and a glass of water sits nearly untouched next to Harry’s elbow, the ice all melted down. “Is it that complicated?”

“No,” Harry assures, turning to look at him. He grins but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “I just do better when I parse it down to the bare bones of it.” He caps his pen and sets it down.

Zayn nods and turns to the fridge, pulling it open and staring inside. He can’t remember what he’d wanted but he isn’t sure he’s ready to face the music. Taking a breath and deciding to bite the bullet, he asks, “What are they looking like? The bones.”

“I don’t…”

Zayn looks back at Harry over his shoulder. Harry’s biting his fingernail nervously and blinking slowly up at him. “If you need more time to look it over-” Zayn starts but Harry cuts him off.

“No, I just… I don’t know how to say it, I guess.”

Zayn grabs two beers, the fuck it loud in his head as he lets the refrigerator door close with a click, and uncaps them before handing one over to Harry and taking a seat at the kitchen island. “So it’s bad,” Zayn says, surmising enough from Harry’s hesitance. Harry’s near the top of his class at Columbia; if he’s got notes that extensive, there’s probably a lot of shit heading Zayn’s way.

“She isn’t very nice about you in her motion.”

“Me?” Zayn asks, the liquid bitter on his tongue. “Why is she talking about me at all? I thought this was about her wanting her custody rights restored.”

“It is but. She’s kind of tearing you down to make herself look better.”

Surprise floods Zayn’s mind and he takes another sip. “I don’t get it.”

“It happens sometimes.”

“I know, I guess, but I just thought that… I mean, I know I’m not the best dad out there-”

“Yes you fucking are,” Harry interjects angrily.

“-but I’ve been good to these boys. I’ve done literally everything I could do for them and, I know I rely on you and the lads for a lot-”

“We love helping you and hanging out with them. It’s not exactly a hardship, hanging out with two of the sweetest little boys literally ever,” Harry says.

“I just can’t believe she’s saying I’ve messed up. What- how could she even know anything about how I’m doing? She’s never even seen us since Tar was born.”

Harry moves on to nip at his index finger’s nail instead, the skin already red and raw. He looks down at his paper instead of meeting Zayn’s eye and Zayn follows his gaze, watching as Harry not-so-subtly moves his arm to hide the writing from Zayn’s view.

“Haz, I need you. You’re the only one I trust with this- with them. You have to tell me what they say. They’re gibberish to me.”

With clear resignation, Harry lifts his arm and picks up his notepad and puts the turned pages back down. He drags his pen along the words, recalling what he’d previously written. “Um,” he hums, eyes scanning until they start blinking rapidly and he glances nervously at Zayn, looking for something in his expression. Zayn has no idea what his face looks like right now, can’t feel it if he’s honest, but Harry just nods and clears his throat again. “Well, Cassie mentions that, when she was pregnant with Trevor, you started using drugs heavily.”

“I did,” Zayn says, feeling his skin flush in remembered shame. “I’m not proud of it.”

“Cassie says that a drug user can’t be capable of raising children and asks that you be subjected to random drug tests in order to maintain custody.”

The colour that floods Zayn’s face has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with boiling hot rage. “I don’t- does she even have the right to make that a requirement?”

Harry shakes his head quickly. “No,” he says with emphasis. “This is just her throwing everything she can think of into this motion in order to find what will stick.”

Zayn sighs, letting his head drop and running his fingers through his hair, the strands greasy and messy from him tugging at it all day. “I haven’t touched that shit in years. I barely even smoke up with Louis anymore. Some wine split with you and a few cigarettes are my vices currently. I can’t even remember that atmosphere I was in, I was there for such a short time. It just- it had a big impact on our relationship, of course. And on me.”

“Babe, I know,” Harry says, his voice gentle in a way that would make Zayn bristle were it to come from anyone else. “She’s just playing the game.”

“What else?”

Harry frowns at his short tone but doesn’t protest the redirect, probably understanding how Zayn is feeling. He glances at his notes again but answers quicker this time. “Cass is saying that you have trouble staying in work and lose motivation to complete goals. She mentions something about you failing a couple of classes.”

“That’s-”

“It’s stupid and easy to disprove,” Harry cuts in quickly. “It gets, erm, a little worse, though.”

“How can it possibly?”

“She says, well, she implies that you are the type to… the type to go through a string of partners without caring who you let in your bed. That raising children in an environment like that would stunt their emotional growth. That she’s recently married and would set a better example for the boys.”

“I- she- I-” Zayn makes several starts to speak but he has too many thoughts running through his head and doesn’t know which to focus on. “I am not some hard-partying Lothario, hell-bent on destroying my life.”

“I know you’re not.”

“And, you know what? Let’s pretend for, like, five seconds that I am, somehow, this terrible example for our boys. Why did she leave them with me for the last nineteen months? Tar’s been held by his mum one time- once- his entire life. If I’m so awful then where has she been?”

“She does mention-” Harry starts before Tariq comes into the room, rubbing at his eyes and frowning.

“Baba roud,” he scolds. He lifts his arms in the air. “Up.”

“Say ‘please’,” Harry reminds him before Zayn can.

“‘Prease,” Tar repeats and Zayn smiles and lifts him to his hip.

“Baba was loud, huh?” he asks. Tar nods and rests his head on Zayn’s shoulder, one hand fisting a fold of Zayn’s jumper. “Are you hungry, jaan?” Another nod. “Ask Uncle Harry if he’s staying for dinner.”

Tar lifts his head, looking over at Harry with big, doe eyes. “Unc’ Arry stay?” he says.

Harry grins and reaches out a hand, letting his finger trace the chubby curve of Tar’s jaw. “Of course, baby. Thank you.”

Tar smiles, bringing his fist up so he can mouth at it.

“Stop eating your hands,” Zayn chides him, getting his own finger around the baby’s pudgy arm and tugging his fist away gently.

“Well, we’re starving, baba,” Harry teases. “What choice do we have?” He stands and guides the papers and his notepad into a neat pile, slipping them into a folder and then into his bag before hanging it over the back of his abandoned chair.

“Don’t encourage this behavior.”

Harry glances up at him, his eyes dragging over Tar for a moment before meeting Zayn’s. His curls are falling into his face, his own locks greasy-looking like Zayn’s are, and Zayn’s fingers itch to reach out and press them back. He hesitates and Harry beats him to it, his long, skinny, ring-adorned fingers tucking his hair behind his ear as he blows a raspberry to make Tar giggle. It cuts the tension in the air and makes Zayn smile.

“You guys go play,” Zayn says, handing an eager Tar off to Harry. “I’ll get dinner going.”

“You want any help? We can finish going through the papers after the rugrats are asleep.”

“Not rugrat!” Tar protests even as Zayn shoos them away.

“Consider dinner a ‘thank you’ for looking everything over for me. You go above and beyond the call of friendship, every time.”

“Like you wouldn’t do the same,” Harry says, walking from the room quickly so Zayn can’t respond any further.

Shaking his head, he tucks the bar stools back under the island’s overhang, picking up Harry’s bag and setting it on the flat of the chair so the cats aren’t tempted to scratch it up. He crosses over to the fridge, opening the door and checking the shelves for dinner ideas. He spots a package of ground turkey and figures it’s time for spag bol to make an appearance in their dinner rotation.

He tries his best to shake off his thoughts of Cassie and the legal paperwork. His burden is slightly lifted knowing that Harry’s looked at the paperwork, at least. He’s had Harry next to him every step of the way since he brought Trevor home and he knows Harry will do everything that needs to be done to keep Zayn and his boys protected.

He can’t entirely rid himself of the nagging self-doubt that tells him he isn’t a good father, though.

Somehow, though he nearly nicks his fingers twice as he chops an onion and some mushrooms for the sauce, dinner comes together without delay or injury. The cats circle Zayn’s feet as he shuffles around the kitchen, clearly ready for their own suppers, and Zayn dishes them out two bowls of dry food before calling out for Harry and his sons to come eat.

“What is it?” Trev asks.

“Spag bol,” Zayn answers. He barely resists rolling his eyes when Trev frowns. “It’s with turkey, not beef, just the way you like it,” he promises as he turns back to the stove. He gets Tar’s bowl ready first, running a knife through his pasta a few times to make it easier to help Tar eat if needed. The noodles aren’t too long and a spoonful of sauce goes over the top with a quick spin to mix it- a self-preservation thing Zayn picked up a long time ago: it will still taste good but, if Tar ‘isn’t feeling’ spaghetti tonight, he won’t be able to make the world’s largest mess.

Zayn hopes he won’t be able to, at least.

“Are you sure?” Trev asks. Zayn hears him scooting his chair out so he can climb onto the seat.

“Baba made it differently this time, just for you.”

“Thank you, baba,” he hears Harry whisper before Trev repeats him.

“You’re welcome,” he says as he finishes plating the rest of their dinner bowls. He picks out some of the chunkier pieces of meat from Trev’s bowl, knowing his son will balk at anything that catches his attention. If he makes sure Trev’s dinner looks as uniform as possible, there’s a chance he might finish the entire meal.

Though he doesn’t hear Harry approach, the warm hand on the small of his back is less startling than it should be. Harry keeps him still with a push of his palm as he slides up next to Zayn, their hips brushing. “Smells amazing,” Harry says, voice carrying the same warmth Zayn’s used to. “Let me help, I’ll take a plate.”

Zayn grabs two bowls at random, lifting his arms and letting Harry snatch the other two from underneath. Harry moves forward first, setting down Tariq’s bowl in front of the baby and then the second in front of his own seat, not needing to ask which bowl was which. Zayn sets down the bowls in his hands and turns back to the kitchen but Harry’s already pulling down cups and glasses.

“What is everyone drinking?” Harry asks, turning and smiling. “I can help,” he mouths and Zayn rolls his eyes but smiles back.

“Can I have juice?” Trev asks politely, Tar echoing his brother with excitement. Harry swaps out one of the cups for Trev’s frog sippy cup, the only thing he’ll use when drinking apple juice. It’s one of his boy’s many weird quirks and seeing Harry appease it so easily makes Zayn feel more confident that he and Harry are going to be successful in beating Cassie’s motion- nobody is better for these boys than they are.

“Our juice, baba?” Harry asks, winking with exaggeration when he looks back to Zayn. Zayn nods, grabbing down two wine glasses and passing them over. He doesn’t protest when Harry fills them over what they’d typically drink.

It’s just that kind of night.

Harry takes the drinks for the boys and Zayn carries their wine, the two of them settling around the small table and digging in to their food with enthusiasm. Tar satisfies himself with eating his noodles, pinching pieces between his fingers and bringing them to his mouth. Harry and Zayn take turns wiping at his face and keeping his mind on his dinner, knowing his concentration will wander if they let it.

“Is there more?” Harry asks once he’s halfway through his glass of wine.

“I think there’s another bottle of white.”

“Didn’t we finish it when El and Lou brought Evie over?”

Zayn can’t remember but he frowns at his glass, trusting Harry. “I don’t think this will be enough, then.”

“I don’t think a tanker could hold enough for us tonight.”

 

 

“I don’t think this is something we’re going to solve in one sitting,” Harry says.

His voice is quiet and scratchy in the dark after hours of them talking through the custody case and drinking a bottle of disgustingly cheap wine Zayn had found hidden away in a cupboard. Though the taste was almost impossibly bad, Harry had made a legal argument for alcohol so persuasively that alcohol had eventually won. “You’ll make a great attorney,” Zayn had said, earning himself a full-blown smile in response and an extra half-serving of the vile liquor.

The boys have been down for quite some time, the baby monitor set down next to Zayn on the table. It’s a ridiculous purchase, since the flat is tiny in its own right, but there’s some comfort in having it that makes Zayn feel more secure. He rubs his left eye with his fist, silently agreeing with Harry that there isn’t anything further the two of them are going to be able to do.

“You need to get some sleep,” Harry says quietly.

You need to get some sleep,” Zayn returns, his attempted sass broken by an unexpected yawn.

“Hmm, somebody sounds cranky. Just like a certain toddler I know,” Harry teases. “But with an edge of a buzz I’ve certainly never heard from the baby.”

Zayn sticks out his tongue.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. C’mon, champ, let’s get you to bed.” Harry stands and reaches out for Zayn’s hand, using his grip to pull Zayn to his feet.

“Grumble, grumble,” Zayn says with a grin, giggling when Harry rolls his eyes.

“So that’s where your boys get their hatred for bedtime from,” he teases. “When we lived together, you used to love sleep.”

Zayn shrugs as Harry pushes him down the hall, guiding him around the corners gently until they’re in his bedroom. He yawns again around a confession, “I don’t want to miss anything, now. Feel like I closed my eyes and Trev suddenly had another birthday. Don’t want to blink and miss Tar, too.”

“I know, I can’t believe how big your boy is,” Harry says as he pulls out a soft pair of joggers. Zayn doesn’t think about how Harry seems to inherently know that they’re his favorites. “He’s half your size already, shrimp.”

“What’s with all the nicknames?” Zayn asks, grumbling for real. “Champ, shrimp… M’name is Zayn.”

“That’s interesting,” Harry drawls. “I hadn’t been aware of that.”

Zayn smiles as he pulls his jumper over his head. He tugs at the bottom of his undershirt to smooth it back down, sleepily unbuttoning his trousers and letting them fall to the floor before stepping into the joggers. “Get undressed,” he says.

“Come again?”

“You’re not gonna sleep in skinnies, are you?”

“I’m not staying.”

Zayn scoffs. “It’s too late for you to go home; the subway’s almost stopped for the night and a cab would be ridiculously expensive. Just get in and leave from here in the morning.”

Harry stands still for a long moment while Zayn shuffles over to his bed, placing the baby monitor on his nightstand and folding back the comforter before sliding in on his side of choice. He peers over the edge of the blankets after pulling them up to his nose. “Harry? C’mere.”

With a shake of his head, his curls bouncing with the motion, Harry starts moving again. He undoes his trousers quickly and pulls them down his legs. Zayn doesn’t let himself watch too closely, doesn’t feel comfortable with the thoughts he would have, but he does turn to face Harry once he climbs into bed next to him.

“Can I have a cuddle?” he asks, eyes already watering from how tired he is.

Harry grins, a smile that is easy to see in the light shining in from the streetlamps outside. “Always,” he says, shifting onto his back and letting Zayn curl into his side. They shared countless naps curled up together on a sofa or one of their beds while they lived together but it’s been a long time since Zayn has been able to rest his head over the soothing beat of Harry’s heart. It’s an inherently familiar pattern and it relaxes him into a lull.

“I don’t deserve a friend like you,” he whispers, groaning when Harry immediately starts humming Aladdin. “Harry,” he whines, dragging out his vowels. “You’re being a dork.”

Harry laughs, running a large palm down Zayn’s back, feeling out the bumps of his spine through his thin vest. “You deserve a lot more than friends, Zee. You’re a good one.”

Zayn tries to respond, opens his mouth to say something, but he loses his train of thought before he can speak. He noses into the strip of skin above Harry’s t-shirt, his lips just teasing at the edge of the fabric. He lets his body settle the rest of the way, feeling how heavily he’s laying against Harry’s chest. Harry doesn’t complain, just shifts a bit under Zayn and gets an arm tighter around him.

Zayn drifts off quickly. Right before he does, he thinks he feels the pressure of Harry’s lips at the edge of his hairline.