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Twelve Fic Outtakes/Deleted Scenes

Chapter Text

“You know the reason I bought you so many hoodies of your own is so you can stop stealing mine,” Liam says with a teasing smile when he walks into their bedroom to find Zayn sprawled out on the floor in the space between the door and the bed in one of Liam's own too-big hoodies.

“But I like wearing your clothes,” Zayn says without even bothering to open his eyes.

Liam drops down to the floor across from him with furrowed brows even though Zayn can’t see him. “Really? I mean I get wearing them occasionally, but...wouldn’t you rather have something of your own?”

Zayn shrugs against the floor, blinking his eyes open. “I dunno, I guess it’s just…the fact that they’ve been lived in and they have a history. I mean, the clothes they gave us always looked brand new and freshly starched, you saw that. But…I like the fact that yours look and feel like they’ve been worn, like they belong to you. I mean, they have holes and stains and they’re soft from too many washes, they look and feel like they’ve been lived in and I like that. Makes me feel…real. And plus isn’t that what couples do? Wear each other’s clothes? Makes us official, I reckon.” Zayn smiles, head lolling to the side on the carpet to look at him.

Liam laughs softly as he flops down on his back on the floor beside Zayn and smiles back at him, loving the way the sunlight filters over Zayn’s face and makes his eyes look golden and he can’t help thinking to himself for possibly the millionth time how lucky he is. Leans in to press a kiss to Zayn’s stubbled jaw and twine fingers through his long hair just because he can.

“Yeah…yeah, I guess it does,” he says with a smile because they never got to do the typical cheesy, cliché couply stuff like this that they should’ve been able to do. Stuff like cutting class to make out under the bleachers at school or carving each other’s initials into a tree or declaring themselves facebook official.

And it’s funny how he can picture it all in his head—a sixteen-year-old Zayn knocking on his window in the middle of the night, sneaking in for a late night make-out session and a cuddle, maybe a little more. An exasperated Doniya rolling her eyes at them as they cuddle up for a movie on Zayn’s living room couch, Waliyha and Safaa throwing popcorn at them every time they try to sneak a kiss. The two of them laughing and sharing cigarettes and a stolen bottle of rum from Liam's dad's liquor stash, maybe even a spliff or two, late at night in Liam’s backyard as they gaze up at the stars and talk about nothing in particular. Furtive looks from the other kids at school when they share a quick kiss at their lockers in the corridor, too lost in their own little world to care about anyone else or what they think. Zayn wearing Liam’s track jersey to school and cheering him on at meets while Liam wears Zayn’s cut up band t-shirts and sports silly tattoo doodles drawn in pen and marker during boring lectures. Years at uni sharing a cramped little flat together, shuffling back and forth from classes, making dinners of tea and pot noodles, getting distracted kissing instead of studying for exams like they’re supposed to be. Going out drinking with mates and getting teased for being the boring old married couple. Holidays spent with both their families all crowded into one house, Christmas and Eid and birthdays and too much food. All the moments they never had that could’ve been.

They never got a chance to have that life. But they can still make their own moments. Moments like these. And anyway Liam would be lying to himself if he said he didn’t love the way Zayn looked in his clothes.

Chapter Text



twelve: *three police light emojis*

liam: whats wrong???

twelve: the television will not turn on

liam: ok but are YOU ok?

twelve: i am fine

liam: then wahts wrong?

twelve: the television will not turn on

liam: right but wats th e signal for?

twelve: the television will not turn on

twelve…that signal is for emregencies…thats not an emergncy

harry: *cry-laughing emoji*

liam: shut up haz. an emergency meanss its urgent do you undrtsand?

twelve: yes

liam: ok so your ok right? everythins good?

twelve: yes

liam: nd theres no other emergency?

twelve: yes

liam: yes theres still an emergncy?

twelve: yes

liam: ok wats wrong?

twelve: the television will not turn on

liam: ok haz can help wiht that in a bit but we just went ovr this thats nt an emergency

twelve: permission to ask a question?

liam: sure

twelve: if an obstacle hinders one’s ability to learn is this not considered urgent to civilians?

harry: i mean…he’s not wrong

liam: great. thnks. are u gunna help or just keep on leaving unhelpful comentrary?

harry: i might when you turn back on your autocorrect

liam: *expressionless face emoji*

harry: t, does it turn on when you press the power button on the telly itself?

twelve: yes

harry: ok then it’s probably just the remote, batteries are probably dead. take off the little panel on the back of the remote, chuck the batteries in the bin and put in some new ones from the junk drawer in the same position the old ones were in and you should be good to go. let me know what happens after you’ve got them in

twelve: it is working now

harry: great! emergency solved, crisis averted!

liam: *rolled eyes emoji*

twelve: *fire emoji*


[separate convo with just harry and liam:]

liam: that was jst a random emoji choice right? he’d use actuaal words if the flat was really on fire rihgt?

harry: probably…i think 

Chapter Text

“So,” Sarah says, once she’s properly sat down with Twelve on the couch, knowing from what Niall’s told her there’s no point in beating around the bush with small talk and indirect questions when she likely won’t get a straight answer anyway, and instead deciding to just launch headfirst into it. “Tell me about the bunker. What your typical schedule was like, the hierarchy, the layout, the rules, all of it.”

Twelve seems to regard her quizzically for a moment, head tilted but face impassive, giving nothing away, simply watching her with a calculating gaze. And had this been a few years ago she might have been just as freaked out as anyone else but these days it’s par for the course for her. Catatonic patients, depressed patients, patients in the middle of an episode, she’s dealt with it all. Granted she’s still technically in the training stage but not for much longer after all the years and time she’s put in. So she’s not the least bit put off by the way his eyes bore into hers like she’s a maths problem he can solve if he studies her hard enough.

She is a bit surprised though by how striking he is up close like this, chiseled jaw and razor sharp cheekbones, big almond eyes, and lashes for days. His eyes have shifted from the color of chocolate to the color of honey with the change in light from the doorway to here, golden line of his jaw covered in light stubble, his dark hair falling just below his ears and he’s beautiful. Like coming face to face with a GQ model, right down to the emotionless thousand yard stare. But that’s not what she’s supposed to be focusing on right now, though she is a bit peeved no one had the decency to warn her.

After his momentary sizing up of her, Twelve launches into a list of what he refers to as “protocols,” followed by a list of all the bunker personnel and a brief description of their duties; and then a narration of the usual day-to-day routines, even going so far as to point out the variations for each day of the week or for special circumstances. He describes all the different rooms and their uses—Discipline Rooms, Procedure Rooms, Sparring Rooms, Indoctrination Rooms, and more—the operative teams and the ranking levels and the sparring sessions and discipline sessions, Sarah interjecting questions every so often as he goes. And when he’s described all that he can recall in its entirety he goes quiet again, sits with that calculating gaze waiting for the next question or order, as he’s been so thoroughly ingrained to do.

Sarah watches him watch her for a few moments as she mulls over everything he’s told her so far in her head. Already, just from his rote listing off of the roles and interworkings of the program, she’s got a better grasp on who he is as a person. Or rather, who he is now, who’ve they’ve shaped him to be in the time they’ve had him. It’s easier to see now what lies behind the robotic speech and use of overly formal language, the calculating gaze and lack of overt expressions of emotion, the off-putting mannerisms like staring.

His world, or the only one he’s known up till now, is one of rigid order. He’s been trained so thoroughly to present a certain way, despite the fact that she’s sure there’s a lot more going on inside his head than he lets on, because any deviation from what was expected would have been met with what’s sure to have been a horrific punishment. And not only that but he’s been trained to believe that there is no other path for him, that for him this is the way it is and the way it must be. All he knows are rules and punishment, no kindness and compassion. And so he speaks and acts in the way that is expected of him, the way that he’s been taught and the only way he knows; and it may be partly intentional, a means of avoiding punishment, but the main thing is that without the inflections of emotion or the use of common speech that most people adopt, it comes off sounding robotic and overly formal. Unsettling for most, but not for her. If she can deal with a patient in the middle of an emotional rage she can certainly deal with someone with none. Or almost none. Because it’s clear in the way that he behaves that the fear is still there, buried as it may be under notions of duty and obedience.

It’s a smart move to be honest, if she looks at it objectively. To make someone believe they’re incapable of an emotion they very clearly still have by masking it in tenements of indoctrination, making them believe that it’s not fear they’re experiencing but rather failure to adhere to their duty. It’s not quite clear to Sarah yet how they managed to block out or suppress all the operatives’ other emotions, but try as they might they couldn’t stomp that one out, or more likely hadn’t wanted to since it was one that worked in their favor. But it only serves to further explain all the other behaviors because none of that training or indoctrination or those “protocols” would be effective without the underlying fear of punishment keeping them in check.

Which is why for Twelve each new thing or new person presented to him is something to be studied, a constant weighing of pros and cons to determine a possible threat or uncover someone’s true motives. In the world he’s accustomed to, being able to analyze and gauge a person’s expression or the meaning behind their words and in turn tailor his own responses appropriately meant the difference between torture and no torture, or possibly even life and death in certain situations. Which explains why the staring is something that he continues to rely on even now because despite the lack of any kind of immediate or obvious threat, he’s probably all too used to being in situations where one wrong reaction or one wrongly-timed response could land him in danger, whether that meant a mission gone wrong or a particularly gruesome “discipline session.”

“Tell me about your earliest memory,” she says once she’s taken a few moments to fully process everything else he’s said thus far.

Once again Twelve’s gaze is calculating, but he answers immediately, clearly taking it as an order even though Sarah hadn’t meant it to be, although she understands. He’s used to things being black and white, to being treated and spoken to a certain way, probably still feels a bit unsettled by the way the lads speak to him despite having been here a few months already. So she can see how it might be comforting to be spoken to every now and then in the way he’s used to even if she also knows how important it is for him to be spoken to like an equal now that he’s no longer an operative. It might take longer for him to fully understand or appreciate why, but she has every confidence that he will eventually. Right now though what’s most important is understanding as best she can just what they did to him to make him like this in the first place.

“There was great pain,” he starts in that monotone voice of his. Already though she’s become a bit accustomed to his speech patterns and so when he pauses and seems to trail off briefly she notices. He doesn’t break off or hesitate in his speech often, or at least he hasn’t much in the time she’s been speaking to him, but the moments he has have all been ones that could be seen as particularly emotional. Like when he was relaying what would happen if an operative broke protocol, or describing the Discipline Rooms and some of the instruments there and seemed to drift off a bit, like he was somewhere else, gaze going distant and a little unfocused for the briefest of moments. It’s something she’s seen all too often and from the first time it had happened she’d recognized it immediately for what it was even if the others likely haven’t.

This one lasts a bit longer and is a bit more noticeable than the others though, possibly because it’s one of, if not the most, traumatic of them. Twelve’s breathing goes the slightest bit erratic, his eyes a bit bigger, but the changes are so slight, almost as if he’s trying to control his reaction even now, involuntary as it is, and that’s something new she hasn’t seen before. But again, as fascinating as it might be, that’s not her focus right now.

His gaze comes backs into focus a moment later and he still seems a bit out of it for another moment before he appears to fully come back to himself.

“And then?” Sarah prompts.

“I woke.”

“And what did you see when you woke?”

“A room with white walls, a machine above me, a metal a table beneath, a window on one side, and a man in the opposite corner.”

“And you knew all these things without being told? Knew what was a window and what was a wall and a table and that without anyone telling you that’s what it was?”

Another pause, though not because of an episode this time. He’s fully present and reveals nothing of what might be going through his head but Sarah has a feeling it might be something along the lines of surprise or confusion, having been suddenly confronted with a notion that quite possibly forces him to question much of what he’s been made to believe about himself. Not that the knowledge that he had a life before all this, with Liam and a family of his own, hasn’t already started him on that questioning path. But her question likely only gives more fodder to what she’s sure must already be an extremely confusing ordeal for him.

“Yes,” he says finally.

“And what about the man? Did you know who he was?” Sarah asks.

“No. Not at that time. But I later came to know him as the Director.”

Sarah nods, filing that away to ask more about later. “What about your name? Did you remember that?”

“No. I was told by the Director that my designation was Twelve.”

“And then?”

“Then…” And here his gaze goes far away again for a moment before it refocuses once more and he continues, “Then I was escorted to another room for continued integration.”

“And what did that involve?”

“Injections. More pain.”

He says it so plainly, devoid of any emotion of course, but it’s clear in the simple fact that it caused yet another episode, however brief, that it was yet another particularly traumatic experience.

“What kinds of injections?” Sarah probes.

“Serums. Made by the Doctors to give us heightened abilities in order to make us better fighters and aid us in fulfilling our duties.”

More company lines, but still plenty revealing all the same.

“And after that?”

“Indoctrination Sessions and combat training.”

Sarah nods, finally starting to see how all of the dots connect. The erasure of the most vital memories and information while still maintaining the peripheral for maximum independent function; the physical alterations and modifications that helped shape them all into the most agile and capable fighting machines; and finally the brainwashing and psychological conditioning in the form of indoctrination that that helped make them into the perfect little obedient soldiers. Cut off access to almost all emotions but one on top of all that, while figuring out a clever way to mask that remaining one, throw in the threat of torture to boot, and you have a perfectly malleable subject willing to accept and follow whatever you say and capable of doing pretty much anything without being stopped. Except by you of course.

But the fact that he’s even experiencing PTSD symptoms at all is a good sign, even if it’s not a good thing in and of itself, because it means that a part of him still recognizes that those experiences were traumatic. That they weren’t just normal, everyday occurrences like he’s clearly been conditioned to believe. And given what he’d described earlier, about the Procedure being something that needed to be repeated every year or so and the effects that signaled when an operative was due for another one—which also sound a lot like PTSD symptoms to her—it’s clear that despite all that was done to them their brains still have the capacity to recover. If they didn’t it wouldn’t have needed to be repeated so frequently.

Twelve hasn’t reached anywhere near the one year mark yet obviously. But Sarah’s pretty sure a large part of that can be put down to the fact that he’s being surrounded by constant reminders of his past, in both Liam and more recently his family, that his brain is struggling to process and reconcile with. It’s clearly gonna take time, how long she can’t say for sure. But based on what she’s gathered just in the hour or so she’s spoken with him, on top of what Niall and the others have already told her of how he’s progressed just in the few short months he’s been here, she has every confidence that he will get better and eventually regain most, if not all, of his memories. Whatever they did clearly wasn’t permanent and arguably not even very long-lasting, despite its brutal effectiveness. But if her understanding of everything is right and it’s true that Twelve really can withstand more and heal faster than the average person, then it would seem that in this case their own experimentation may have worked against them. Because in the long run it only makes it easier for him to get back everything they tried to take from him. If nothing else he’s got that.

Never mind that he shouldn’t have needed to get anything back or had anything taken away from him in the first place because he was just an innocent child who didn’t deserve any of what happened to him. None of them did. But there’s nothing that he can done about that now. He is where he is and the upside is he’s out now and with people who actually care about him beyond the difference he makes to their bottom dollar. People who love him and treat him like the actual human being he is and not some subhuman slave to do with as they please.

But God, does she need a beer after all this. And a cuddle. Because as much as she may be used to dealing with things like this it doesn’t mean it doesn’t still get to her. And this whole situation especially is absolutely mental. She’d known that even from what Niall and Liam and the others were willing to tell her going into this but it’s still a whole different thing facing it head on, hearing Twelve describe it all in vivid detail and seeing the effects for herself. The scars and tattoos peeking out from the sleeves and collar of his shirt, his intense stare and emotionless eyes. She understands it all better now but it’s still hard to swallow/digest, taking in everything he’s been through, and that’s the hard part about all this. Because she loves what she does. She loves getting to know people on that intimate level, being able to peek inside people’s heads and break things down and get to the bottom of things, and most of all she loves helping people. But at the end of the day she can’t take away their suffering, she can’t undo what was done to them no matter how much she wishes she could. She can only take some of the weight off their shoulders by helping them work through it and sometimes it feels like that’s not enough, like she should be able to do more, but she can’t. She can only listen and guide and advise and hope that she’s making a meaningful difference.

When she feels like she’s asked all she needed to ask, for now at least, she leaves Twelve to his own devices while she heads to the kitchen for that much needed cuddle and beer. And it’s easy to turn the professional mode back off, to slip right back into friend mode while she quips with Louis and teases Niall and has a good word with them all about the lack of proper warning about Twelve’s face. Only to slip back into that professional mode again briefly to relay her analysis to Liam and the others while Twelve is engrossed in a program on the telly.

Somewhere along the line between beers and crisps quick retorts she realizes that this is probably gonna be her life now. Finding that fine balance between professional mode and friend mode. At least until Twelve starts to get better and they get to point where she hopefully doesn’t need to be the doctor so much as she does the friend. But for now she doesn’t mind straddling the line a bit. Finds herself looking forward to watching him heal and grow and find his way back to himself like she already knows he will.

Chapter Text

Liam’s sat by the edge of the school building behind some bushes waiting for Zayn when they find him. He’d hoped they wouldn’t think to look over here, past the steps and the row of bushes that would’ve blocked their view coming from the direction of the secondary school, but here they are and Liam’s all alone.

Ms. Lanham always makes Zayn stay late for “extra lessons” even though he’s practically at the top of the class and doesn’t even need them. She claims she’s just trying to “refine” what he already knows with an extra revision period to make sure he maintains his top marks. But really she just doesn’t like his accent and spends most of the time trying her hardest to train it out of him to no avail. That’s a word he learned from Zayn—avail: help or benefit, or to take advantage of an opportunity. He’s got a new one every week, likes to collect words like other people collect coins or stamps or rocks. Last week it was fastidious, meaning very concerned about accuracy and detail, or about cleanliness. Next week it’ll be a new one. If Liam’s still here next week to find out, that is.

Right now his chances aren’t looking good. The Year 10’s that like to come down this way to torment them are closing in and Liam folds himself into a ball to try and make himself smaller, hunching over his bent knees, head tucked down low.

They find him anyway.

And to make matters worse by the time they get there he’s already worked himself halfway into one of his panic attacks. He’s shaking and heaving for breath, and his cheeks are wet though they can’t see it, thank Christ, with the way he’s still hunched over. They’re laughing at him though and that only makes it worse. He grips his arms around his legs even tighter and tries to hunch down even further even though it’s physically impossible with how much he’s already curled in over himself.

“Christ, look at him,” one of them says with a snicker and Liam recognizes his voice as the leader of their little gang as he kicks at Liam’s side with the toe of his trainer and it’s not a friendly kick. There’ll surely be a bruise blossoming there within the hour but that’s the least of his worries right now because he’s cornered and alone and they could do a hell of a lot worse between the lot of them if they want. There’s four of them in all, but sometimes the fourth one isn’t with them for reasons unknown to Liam, but which, when it happens, is a blessing because he’s usually the most violent of the lot. He’ll keep kicking and punching even after the leader and all of the others have stopped, usually only out of boredom, and the three of them’ll just stand back and watch him carry on with sadistic smiles like it’s a boxing match instead of someone getting pummeled to a pulp. Sadistic, that’s another word he learned from Zayn, meaning deriving pleasure from inflicting pain on others. Liam’s too afraid at the moment to look up though to find out if the most sadistic one of the bunch is with them today.

He’s not even really sure why they come here. Surely they’ve got better things to do, like or smoking or getting drunk or hooking up or going to some cool Year 10 house party or something. Or at least kids at their own school they can torment. What’s the use in coming all the way down here just to beat up on the younger kids? He doesn’t understand it. But then he’s not a sadist so he supposes he wouldn’t even if he tried.

“What the fuck’s wrong with him? Why’s he breathing like that?” says another of them whose voice Liam recognizes as the second-in-command.

Another snicker, this time from a third person, “Probably got asthma or one of those geeky fat kid diseases or summat.” Another kick, this time from a boot, a bit harsher than the first. “Oi, fucktard, you got asthma?”

“Oh shit, he got louder,” second-in-command says excitedly, like Liam’s some sort of captivating science experiment. “Oi, mate, do it again, do it again!”

Another harsh kick from the boot, this time into his shoulder and he’s full-on crying now but it’s mostly being covered by the fact that his heaving breaths keep him from making any sob-like noises. There’s no fourth voice though, so that’s good. Means there’s just the three of them today and he only has to wait it out long enough for them to get bored before they move on to something or someone else. He thinks of the time the fourth one pulled a knife on him and Zayn and nearly slit their throats. Probably would’ve if it hadn’t been for the passerby that had interrupted them, demanding to know what was going on, sending the older boys scurrying.

The woman hadn’t seen the knife and neither Liam nor Zayn said a word about it in case any of the boys somehow found out and came after them for snitching. But she’d been kind enough to walk with them the rest of the way home to make sure the other boys didn’t come back and even gave them some sweets from her purse.

A glob of spit landing in Liam’s hair jolts him abruptly from the memory and he tries very hard to restrain himself from reaching up to wipe it out with the sleeve of his cardigan, though he can’t stop himself from jerking in surprise and disgust. Even though really he shouldn’t be all that surprised. It’s not as if it’s the first time it’s happened, it’s just been a while since one of them’s done it so he hadn’t really been expecting it.

Another comes and this time it’s from a slightly different angle so he’s pretty sure it’s from a different person, though he can’t be sure which of them it was. There’s some more snickering and Liam tenses, waiting for the third one but it doesn’t come so he guesses maybe they’ve gotten bored with that particular game and just two was enough.

By the smell of it one of them’s got a cigarette though, probably the third one since he seems to be pretty much always smoking, and he must flick it at Liam or something because in the next second something’s landing over the exposed bit of skin on Liam’s arms and the side of his face and it stings. But he doesn’t dare move to wipe it off either because he knows it’ll only spur them on more. Especially if they happen to catch a glimpse of his tear-streaked face.

“Christ, look at him, he’s shaking like a fucking chihuahua, probably gonna piss himself,” second-in-command says with a laugh.

“How the fuck d’you know what a chihuahua looks like when it shakes?” the third says, almost like an insult. “That’s one of them pansy dogs, innit? You a pansy now? You got one of them pansy dogs?”

“Man, fuck off, brov, my aunt’s got one. ‘Sides, if anyone’s a pansy, it’s this little fucker.” He kicks up a bit of dirt and mulch at Liam from under the nearest bush to make his point. “Bet him and his little friend are batty boys, they are. Ain’t ya?” he kicks more dirt and mulch chips at Liam but Liam of course doesn’t answer, couldn’t even if he’d wanted to as he continues to desperately gulp in air and silently pray to whoever’s listening for this to be over.

There’s a bit of laughter and then a few more swift kicks from the leader’s trainer. And then another trainer joins the fray, the toe of it a bit firmer than the leader’s, probably the Jordans the second-in-command likes so much, which pack more of a punch than the Chucks the leader likes to wear. They take turns going at him, all three of them, laughing all the while before there’s suddenly the sharp sound of something hard clattering and skidding across the ground a few feet away.

“The fuck?” the leader says in confusion, pausing, and Liam hears him step back momentarily, the other two going quiet. He chances the briefest of glances up and sees them all looking back towards the direction they came from in bewilderment—Zayn’s word of the week two weeks before this one—as another set of rocks come flying through the air and land with a heavy clatter and skid at their feet again.

“It’s that skinny Indian motherfucker!” the second-in-command says in clear outrage and then they all take off running the direction the rocks came from, curses flying.

Liam jumps to his feet, ignoring the pain in his ribs for the moment as he peers past the bushes to spot a tuft of dark hair peeking out from the other side of the concrete stairwell. After a moment Zayn’s forehead appears and then his face as he pops back up briefly to launch more rocks and give Liam the secret signal and then he’s ducking back down again.

Liam drops back down behind the bushes and waits like Zayn had signaled for him to do, hoping against hope that Zayn can make it away in time before they catch him. Zayn’s always got tricks up his sleeve though and sure enough Liam hears the pissed off exclamations of the Year 10’s as they likely reach the spot Zayn should’ve been and find it empty.

There’s a crawlspace at the very back of the bottom of the staircase—or not so much a crawlspace as it is a loose slab of concrete that leads to a little tunnel of sorts where the foundation at the back has started to crumble and erode a bit. Erode, that’s another word he learned from Zayn. But anyway the space is tiny, really only big enough for Zayn to fit through now. Liam used to be able to fit just barely last year, if he sucked in his breath and squeezed himself through and it really came in handy because it was a great hiding spot from the bullies. But he’s gotten a bit chubbier since they started Year 6 and can’t make himself fit anymore without getting some pretty nasty scrapes for his efforts. Which is why he’d been sitting out in the open instead, trying to use the cover of the bushes to his advantage even though it clearly hadn’t done him any good.

Liam hears a soft rustle and peers down the narrow space behind the bushes to see Zayn worming his way out of the little opening on the bottom of this side of the staircase. There’s no concrete slab to cover back up this side like there is on the other so when he slides the rest of the way out, covered in a light film of chalky concrete dust and stray pebbles he hops to his feet. Making sure to stay hunched behind the shrubbery he quickly scampers down the tiny space behind the bushes over to Liam and drops to his knees beside Liam, eyes big and worried.

Liam still can’t seem to get his breathing under control even though the immediate threat is gone for the moment, but he manages a weak thumbs up to Zayn, for his ace scheming, through his desperate pants and gasps for air.

Zayn smiles and snorts at him briefly but in the next moment his expression goes right back to concerned and he takes Liam’s face between his hands.

“Hey, Liam, look at me, okay? Breathe with me,” he says, making sure to keep his voice low so they’re not overheard and discovered. “Breathe with me.”

Zayn locks eyes with him and takes a deep breath before exhaling it again slowly. Repeats it over and over, eyes never Liam’s as Liam follows suit until his breathing is in sync with Zayn’s.

“Okay?” Zayn says once Liam’s fully calmed down and Liam nods, wiping at his still wet cheeks with his arm.

They can still hear the distant shouts and curses of the Year 10’s looking in vain for Zayn but they’re starting to get closer again, circling back this way and Zayn grabs Liam’s hand.

“Come on, we’ve got to go.”

Liam shakes his head. “We’ll never make it. They’ll catch us.”

And then they really will kill us, or close to it.

He doesn’t say it out loud but they both know it’s true.

Zayn squeezes Liam’s hand in his, long fingers wrapping tight around his in a way that should be uncomfortable but instead makes him feel safe and grounded.

“We will,” Zayn says. “It’s not that far, we can make it. Just hold on to my hand and don’t let go, yeah?”

And Liam’s not sure if it’s the conviction in his voice or the way he’s gripping Liam’s hand so surely or just the fact that it’s Zayn but before he knows it he’s nodding.

Zayn pulls him up and they take off across the short patch of lawn and down the pavement.

It’s not long before they hear more heavy footfalls echoing behind them, angry jeers shouted at them from afar and Liam grips at Zayn’s hand a little tighter in desperation, Zayn squeezing back, though whether it's meant to be comforting or out of tamped down fear of his own Liam’s not sure.

Block after block passes by in a blur, houses and cars and trees nothing more than colored blobs as they bound down the pavement, sweaty hands clinging to each other for dear life.

“Don’t let go!” Zayn yells when Liam’s clammy hand starts to slip out of his. He grips his fingers around Liam’s palm with renewed strength and tugs him forward from where he’d been lagging a little behind until Liam’s footfalls are even with his and when they reach the block that's one before theirs Zayn grins, wide and triumphant.

Liam glances back behind them, realizing the echo of trainers padding against the concrete has faded away and the other boys are nearly a block and half behind them now. Liam sends a silent prayer of thanks up to whoever decided to add all those extra carcinogenics—another word from Zayn—to cigarettes. Whoever it was may have just saved their lives.

They make it across the last block with ease now that they’re back in an area of relative safety and no longer in a mad dash for their lives and the two of them skid to a halt in front of Zayn’s house, which is closer to this end of the block, Liam dropping heavily down to the grassy front yard. Zayn’s hand is still in his so he ends up inadvertently pulling Zayn down with him but he goes easily, flopping onto his back beside Liam and gazing up at the sky.

“The rain in Spain falls mostly on the plains,” Zayn says in an overdone impression of Ms. Lanham’s haughty accent, making a snooty face to go with it. It’s one of the dumb phrases she’s had him repeating since the beginning of term in those afterschool revision periods to try to train him into a more “proper” way of speaking.

It hasn’t a worked a lick, much to her frustrations, but it certainly does make for a good laugh and after everything that just happened it’s exactly what Liam needs right now. He laughs and it’s a deep belly laugh that makes his now sore, bruised ribs ache. But right now, with the blue sky and fluffy white clouds drifting aimlessly through the sky above them and Zayn’s echoing laughter in his ear and his warm hand in Liam’s he doesn’t much care.

Chapter Text



Liam’s sat next to Wali in court a couple of days later and she squeezes his hand as Moira clicks through photos of some of the operatives, taken shortly after the raid when they were first brought into police custody and photographed for evidence. Scores of them, some children, some teenagers, some young men and women around his and Zayn’s age, stare out from the photos with empty eyes, emaciated, wasted away to almost nothing just like Zayn was when he first came to Liam. Their faces are sunken in and hollowed out, bones protruding, so visible they may as well be skeletons, bodies lined with scars and even open wounds in some cases. Moira lets each photo sit for a while before she clicks to the next one, likely wanting to take time for each one to be fully seen and absorbed and Liam has no doubt that she’s chosen the most extreme cases to display to make her point. But even so it’s still not far off from the average based on what he’d experienced with Zayn and seen throughout the files back at HQ.

For most everyone else though this is their first time seeing the harsh truth of it and a good portion of the jury and the audience turn away at most of them, too horrified to look for very long.

Good, Liam thinks, because the more horrified they are now, the harder it’ll be to forget even when the defense is trying everything they can to paint Zayn and all of the others as nothing more than monsters, like they just finished doing a short while ago in their cross-exam. She ends the slideshow with a panel of photos of Zayn, some of the only ones they have on record from how he looked before; full-body photos from what was left of his program file, taken from every angle so all of his scars and tattoos are on full display, with his privates blocked out in these versions for decency of course just like the rest. They’re each watermarked with a date at the bottom from just a couple of months before the bank heist so it’s safe to say it’s a pretty accurate depiction of what he looked like when he first came to Liam, or close to it anyway. He’d been a little worse for ware given the circumstances, surviving on his own—just barely—for as long as he had up on the roof of that abandoned building, but still. He’s nearly skin and bones, eyes dead and sunken in like his cheeks, the same as all the others, his head seeming like it should be too heavy for his frail body to even support, though not quite as thin there as Liam remembers. By the time he’d come to Liam the bones of his spine and ribs, and even his shoulders and hips, were poking out from skin so thin it almost might as well have not been there at all. Here at least he just looks severely malnourished; rail thin with outlines of a bit of bone visible, but not quite like the walking skeleton he was after two months on his own. Not that that makes the sight of it any easier.

Liam can hear Wali and Doniya’s muffled sobs beside him and even more from behind. He can’t hear Trisha or Yaser but he’s not sure if that’s down to the distance or just them being quiet about it, or both. He can’t look at them though because he’s afraid if he does he’ll start crying too.

Moira leaves the photo up while she speaks, letting it resonate, letting the jury take in the version of Zayn pictured in the photos compared to the version of him they see sitting before them today. His hair is slicked back in a neat bun at the nape of his neck, pristine white shirt buttoned all the way up to the collar and topped with a black tie. He’s still on the stand from when she was questioning him earlier as a segue into the presentation of this particular set of evidence; all a part of her redirect to counter the defense’s cross-exam where they’d showed footage captured from program facilities during the raids. Operatives training, sparring each other with knives and bare hands, shooting at fake targets with guns, which eventually and inevitably led to footage from the field—likely taken from eye cams—of operatives killing people in real time, mowing them down like nothing. Snapped necks, gruesome shootings and stabbings, taking down people two and even three times their size in a single move all while looking as cold, calculated, and emotionless as they were made to be.

“…victims were kept near starving, given only the barest minimum of nourishment to keep them going, partly to save money and resources, partly to further serve towards the ultimate goal of dehumanization and dependence, leading the operatives to believe they weren’t worthy of real food nor capable of surviving on anything but what they were given. And is if that wasn’t already enough, many of the scars you see are from punishments inflicted upon them by program Doctors in what was known as ‘Discipline Sessions,’ a rather innocuous sounding name for what were really torture sessions, meant to ensure that operatives would continue to remain obedient. Others are from fights with fellow operatives—sparring sessions as they called them—which they were forced to participate in like animals in a fighting pit. Often they were encouraged to go so far as to break their opponent’s bones simply for sport, for the enjoyment of onlookers like the Handlers and the Director, or even to prove their obedience, for which any failure to comply would have them sent away to be ‘disciplined.’ Salt in open wounds, waterboarding, electric shock therapy while awake, castration and female circumcision, and special serums meant to mimic the feeling of being burnt alive from the inside, among many others, are just a few of the methods used to keep the children in their care in line…”

Moira’s talking yet again about the trauma they all endured. Reminding the jury of the near starvation and the punishments they were subjected to, the reasons for all the scars and wounds that they’ll have to live with for the rest of their lives, the awful pain and guilt of the memories that will forever haunt them, but Liam’s not really listening. Or rather he is, but only halfway. He’s heard it all before, has thought it all before. He’s more focused on the way Zayn’s shoulders have gone stiff, eyes downcast, staring at nothing on the wooden platform beneath his neatly folded hands because he couldn’t stand to look at any of the photos, nor the video footage the defense had played earlier.

Liam’s been keeping an eye on both Zayn and the jury throughout the trial whenever he can. He knows that at least some of them have noticed the way Zayn always goes tense and looks away whenever they show any of the evidence, whether it’s the defense or the prosecution showing it, but Liam can’t ever gage any of their expressions. Can’t figure out if it’s a good or a bad thing that they’ve noticed, if it’s being taken as the rare moment of vulnerability it is or taken as a sign that Zayn’s as cold and heartless as the defense is making him out to be. But for Zayn’s sake Liam hopes against hope that it’s the former.

Moira’s going through the list of injuries and symptoms now, all the different effects of the trauma the victims exhibited upon initial examination after the raids and Liam tunes back in for a moment.

“…severe malnutrition and dehydration, stunted growth, organ failure in some cases, severe PTSD, severe chemical imbalance and hormone imbalance, heightened cortisol levels, infertility and sterility in a few, severe rectal and vaginal trauma, evidence of multiple broken bones—many improperly healed—limited independent functioning, limited social functioning and social skills, lack of reaction or decreased reactions to basic stimuli…and that’s just tapping the surface, shall I go on?”

Moira pauses, just for effect, knowing she won’t really get an answer but her delivery is just as effective all the same. And again, it’s nothing that Liam hasn’t seen or heard a million times by now, from the doctors they work with at the Foundation to the stacks of files he peruses nearly everyday, but still every time it astounds him. It’s like some part of him somehow still expects to hear something different, and every time he’s amazed all over again at just how much they’ve all endured. How much they still have to endure. How much they’ll reap the effects of for the rest of their lives. Whether it’s something as minor as a limp or the phantom pain of a scar, or as severe as infertility or the feel and memory of someone else forcing themselves on them that might never go away. He can only hope that the jury will come to see it that way too in the end, or at least enough of them to convince the others who might not.









“Zayn,” Moira starts, after another long morning of testimony and badgering from the defense, “if you don’t mind, I’d like to go back to a particular topic the defense brought up this morning that I know may be…difficult for you to talk about, especially for a second time today, but there’s just one thing that I’d like to briefly go back to. Earlier Reynolds asked if you had ever harmed a child, asked you to describe the instances you had in graphic detail. But I’m rather curious as to what he didn’t ask. In fact, what he’s seemed to want to avoid any direct mention of or question about throughout the duration of this trial, which is that you didn’t choose to do what you did, did you? None of you did?”


“In fact you were ordered to by the very people he and his team are defending, isn’t that right?”

“Objection, leading.”

“I’ll rephrase,” Moira counters, directing her next words back to Zayn. “Were you or were you not, at any point during your time in the program, given orders by any of the accused?”

“I was.”

“Were you or were you not ‘punished,’ or tortured rather, by some of the accused?”

“I was.”

“Were you or were not physically and sexually abused by some of the accused?”

“I was.”

“Did the orders they gave you ever include causing physical harm to others?”


“To fellow operatives or to civilians?”


“And what would have happened to you had you disobeyed those orders?”


Moira nods. “The horrors of which you’ve already described to us in great detail on numerous occasions. Now my memory’s not always the best but didn’t you say once in your earliest days of testimony that you spent quite a bit of time in the Discipline Rooms, more than most? Because you were quite…rebellious, was it?”


“Meaning you disobeyed orders often?”

“I did, yes.”

“So what did you do the very first time you were ordered to hurt someone?”


“Nothing? So you disobeyed a direct order knowing full well what would happen to you as a result?”

Zayn nods. “I couldn’t have explained it to you at the time but it just…felt like something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, so I didn’t.”

“And what happened then?”

“I was punished for it.”

“And what about the second time?”

“Same thing. I didn’t listen.”

“And the third?”

“Same again.”

“So you willingly subjected yourself to torture over and over rather than cause harm to another child?”

Zayn shrugs, looks down at his hands. “I guess.”

“That doesn’t sound the like the actions of a monster hell-bent on killing to me. In fact, it sounds like the exact opposite. Were the other operatives like this too in the early stages or were you the only one?”

“No. It was pretty common among new operatives. Most of them resisted at first. But, like I’ve said before, in there everyone eventually breaks. It didn’t matter how many times you disobeyed them, they’d just keep going until they found your breaking point, until you were willing to do anything they told you without question or hesitation, anything to get them to finally leave you alone. If things were different, if we’d had a choice about it, none of us would ever have done the things we did. What we’ve done is on us and we have to live with that and if...if I could take it all back, I would. In a heartbeat. All of us would. But we can’t. All we can do is own up to it and try to atone for it in only the way we know how, which is to be better than what they made us.”

“What they made you…” Moira repeats, musing. “That’s an interesting choice of words. Would you mind explaining what you mean by that? Why you choose to put it that way?”

“Just that…it’s not who I am. It’s not who any of us are. I did those things because I believed I didn’t have any other choice and that if I didn’t I would be punished for it. But…I had a life before that. This whole other life that I knew nothing about, people that loved me that I didn’t even know existed because they took all that away from me. I was just…a regular kid, you know? I liked reading comics and riding my bike and spending time with my sisters and Liam, my best friend at the time. I even liked school, which is rare for a kid, but that was me, and they took all that away. Made me into something else. All those years spent being forced to do things I never would have done, turned into something that was the complete opposite of who I was before, those are years of my life I won’t ever get back. That innocent, happy version of me is something I won’t ever get back. They stole that from me. They stole everything.”

“And not just you but from your family as well. And from the families of all the others out there like you, still healing. And still you have no idea why it was they took you, or how they chose their victims, is that right?”


“Like you said you were a regular kid with a normal life, a fairly happy childhood. And yet, according to reports that have surfaced in the news recently you weren’t the only one taken from a happy home. It seems they took kids from all over—middle class families, lower class families, orphans and kids off the street. They seemed not to discriminate when it came to who they took, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Objection, speculation,” Reynolds cuts in.

“Your Honor, the witness is the head of an organization that personally deals with these cases on a daily basis, I think it’s fair to say that he would have a decent idea of any patterns or connections or lack thereof between the victims that were taken,” Zara argues.

“Overruled. You may answer, Mr. Malik,” says the judge, nodding his head in Zayn’s direction.

“Yes, I agree.”

“Would you also agree then that this is something that could happen to anyone?”

“Absolutely. If the people on trial today were to be let off I have no doubt that they would try it again. Maybe not here, maybe in another country with less checks and balances and more lenient laws, but the fact remains that as long as they remain free this could all happen again and thousands more kids could be in danger, kids that should never have to even fathom going through what me and all the others like me had to.”

And his reasons for wanting them sentenced may be double-pronged. Because besides just wanting them to pay for all they’ve done, they’re also pretty much the only ones left who can still bring charges against them. The only ones who know for certain which operatives did what and could testify to it, outside of the few remaining Handlers left in hiding who are surely smart enough not to risk their own safety by coming forward. But he also knows firsthand what they’re capable of, knows there’s no limit to their will and determination to keep their fucked up experiments going. Knows without a doubt that if they’re let off none of this will stop them from doing it all again somewhere else, and he won’t let them do it again. Not if he can help it.

“And they would have no way of knowing what was coming, isn’t that right? No warning?”

“No. If it’s anything like it how it was for us it wouldn’t matter if it was the middle of the night or broad daylight, once they set their sights on you you’re as good as theirs and you can kiss any memory of your old life goodbye.”

Moira nods, pacing a bit in speculation before she moves on to her next question. “And what about you? Do you remember anything from the night you were taken?”

“Bits and pieces. A lot of things from before I woke up in the bunker are still sort of fuzzy, especially the days just before, but I remember a little. I remember hanging out with Liam after school. We were in my room reading over a new Batman comic he’d gotten.” Zayn smiles absently at the memory. “We used to like to act out the scenes and argue about what we thought was gonna happen next. That was a typical Thursday for us, nothing out of the ordinary, you know? Nothing hinting at what was to come, or that that would be my last night as…myself, my last happy memory. I remember wishing my sisters good night, my mum trying to tuck me in and me insisting I was too old for that. And then I remember being in my bed and all of a sudden there was an older boy over me, pressing a cloth to my face. The next thing I remember after that is waking up strapped to an operating table in unbearable pain. I’m not sure if there was more that happened in between then and I just don’t remember it but so far that’s all I’ve been able to get back.”

“And you didn’t recognize the older boy that took you?”

“No. Not at the time. He had a muzzle over his face like operatives typically wear but I didn’t know him then.”

“But you do now?”

Zayn nods. “We were on the same team for most of my time in the bunker. I didn’t remember him then either of course because I didn’t remember anything from before the Procedure, but during the program I knew him as Twenty-two. Although he goes by Alec now.”

“Now, you were a part of what was called the second iteration of the program—that is to say the second orchestrated attempt at this whole immoral experiment that was sanctioned by the government after the first one was shut down for having too many ‘problems,’ correct?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“But it was the first iteration that your former teammate, Alec, was a part of?”


“Of which he’s only one of less than a handful of survivors, is that right?”

“Yes. Most of the others were terminated—killed—for insubordination.”

“And Alec, along with a few others remaining, was a witness to this?”


“Which would mean he’s been in the program even longer than you?”

Zayn nods. “Almost seventeen years. He was only ten when they took him, in 2001, and unlike me he wasn’t lucky enough to be on a solo mission when the second iteration got shut down.”

“Do you get to see him at all now or talk to him?”

“I do. I went to see him as often as I could when he was still in police custody, and I try to go and see him and the others from my team as often as I can manage now that they’ve been transferred to the Foundation. I try to make it a point to visit and talk to as many former operatives as I can, especially the ones from my bunker.”

“And how would you describe their recovery?”

“Pretty much the same as mine. Lots of ups and downs and confusion. It takes a while for everything to start coming back so the first few months tend to be kind of uneventful, it’s mostly just learning about ‘civilian’ customs and manners of speaking, undoing all the training they’ve been ingrained with. Until their memories and emotions start to come back and they start the process of…re-acclimating with themselves, I guess you could call it.”

“Can you describe in a little bit more detail, what it’s like?

Zayn hesitates for a little while, trying to figure out how best to explain, put it all into words, before finally just letting it all tumble out. “At first it’s like…you feel lost. The program is all any of us never knew, so imagine the bunker as like…your home and the other operatives and the Handlers as your family and then all of a sudden one day that’s all gone and you’re on your own. You don’t feel sad or afraid because they took that out of you but there’s this feeling…or realization maybe is a better word…like your existence means nothing without all of that. Doing what you’re told, following orders, it’s all you know. You’re not even capable of functioning on your own because you literally don’t know what to do if it hasn’t been told to you so you do nothing. Or you keep doing the last thing you were told because it’s the only order you have left. Everything is confusing. Everything. You’ve got people telling you things that go against all the things you thought you knew or believed about yourself. All the structure and routine you knew is gone. All of a sudden people are treating you different, kind, and you don’t know what to do with that, can’t understand why when all you’ve ever known is cruelty. You don’t know what it means to make a single decision for yourself because for so long you’ve been told—been made to believe—that you’re not even capable of that.”

Zayn sighs, shaking his head. “There’s just so much that’s it’s…it’s difficult to explain it all, and so much of it are things that I think a lot of people just can’t or wouldn’t be able to understand because they’ve never known what’s it’s like to live your whole life believing that you’re not even a person, that you’re something less than human, that the only reason you exist is to serve and to follow orders and without that you’re nothing. So you feel lost and confused and you don’t understand a lot of what’s happening or why and all of sudden you’ve got all these emotions that you don’t know how to deal with because you can’t remember a time when you even had emotions or how to cope with them. And I mean, my case may be a little different than most of the other operatives since I was out on my own at first and I don’t know how much easier it is going through everything in the facilities, but either way you’re suddenly finding yourself in this foreign environment with new rules that you don’t understand, people talking to you and asking you questions you don’t know how to answer because all you know how to do is say yes or no, strangers telling you they’re your friends and family, and then on top of all of that you’re also dealing with flashbacks and a flood of new memories you don’t understand.

You feel depressed and you don’t know why but you can’t stop crying, or you feel scared of everything and also nothing in particular and you can’t make it stop. All of that’s happening at once and you don’t understand any of it or why your body is reacting the way it is and you can’t ask because that’s another thing you don’t think you’re allowed to do but now everyone’s telling you it is even though you’ve been trained not to ask and not to think and not to say anything at all unless you’ve already been spoken to. And you spend months in this constant limbo state, not sure who you are or where you are or what you are or even what’s happening most of the time and everything feels like too much and too little all at once. But…eventually you start to remember who you were, or pieces of it, and you realize how horrible all the things you did were. That’s the best and the worst part I think, starting to remember yourself, because all of a sudden you don’t feel as lost anymore, but…realizing what a monster you’ve become, what they’ve turned you into. Having to face that. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

Moira nods in understanding, flashing a brief small, proud smile that’s only for him to see before she turns back to the jury.


“You’re doing amazing, sweetie,” Zara says to him when they’re packing up to leave the courtroom later that afternoon and it’s half a joke, half-serious. According to her and Moira they’re nearing the end of his testimony and unless the defense has much more questions for him, which at the moment it’s looking like they don’t, they should be finally moving on to the other witnesses within the next couple of days.

Zayn flashes her a grin as he waves goodbye and then heads up the aisle to where Liam and his family are waiting for him.







 Some people might be wondering, Zayn, given all you were forced endure in the program, why it is none of you ever attempted to run away or rebel,” Moira starts. “Didn’t you ever think about it or perhaps even make plans to escape from the horrors you faced there?


“No?” Moira repeats.


“Why not?”

“That was…all we knew. We didn’t know how to exist any other way. They made it so we were completely dependent on them for survival, made us believe everything that happened to us we deserved, that there was nothing else for us but that life, that that was all we were meant for. Asking why we never tried to escape is like asking someone who’s never heard of spaceships why they haven’t tried to fly to the moon. The thought of running away never even crossed our minds, it was such an impossible thought to have in that state. Rebelling maybe, but even that was stamped out fairly quickly.”

“What do you mean?”

“Any act of rebellion, no matter how small, meant punishment. Torture. Speak out of turn, disobey an order, even so much as step the wrong way in line or not move quick enough or slow enough for someone’s liking, and you risked being sent to the Discipline Rooms. And when you’ve been subjected to the kinds of ‘punishments’ they doled out enough times eventually you start to censor yourself before they can do it for you, or try to punish you for it.”

“Is that something you experienced firsthand?

Zayn nods. “When…when I first started out…I was one of ones they’d often refer to as ‘problematic,’ ‘disobedient,’ ‘insubordinate,’ whatever they wanted to call it. Those first few years I think I spent more time in the Discipline Rooms than I did in actual training. But in there…everyone breaks…even the most rebellious ones and eventually…so did I. I started following every order without question, even if I didn’t understand it. Started anticipating what would be expected of me even, going above and beyond to stay as much off their radar as possible. The second I’d catch myself having any kind of thoughts I knew I shouldn’t be having, questioning an order, or considering not following, or thinking about anything at all that wasn’t related to a mission or the best way I could serve I’d immediately shut it down, stop myself from thinking about it at all. Because thinking about it was the first step to acting on it and acting on it meant more punishment. Even just thinking it alone could warrant punishment. Because if at any point someone were to ask what I was thinking—which they often did at random just to check up on us, make sure we weren’t thinking rebellious thoughts—I would have to tell them the truth and by that time I’d already been caught that way too many times, I didn’t want to risk another if I could avoid it.”

“Why not just lie?”

Zayn shakes his head. “Lying was…it’s weird to explain because it’s not quite like it was a foreign concept to us, we understood it, why other people did it and that, it’s just…it’s sort of like the emotions thing I guess where we were made to believe we weren’t capable of lying, that we had no reason to because we had nothing to hide, or we shouldn’t have anyway because privacy wasn’t really a thing either, and it wasn’t in an operative’s ‘nature’ to hide things or lie. So if anyone asked what I was thinking I had to tell them the truth and if it was something I wasn’t supposed to be thinking then that meant more time in the Discipline Rooms. I know it’s not an easy thing to understand when you haven’t lived it but the level of control was just…I mean, they controlled everything. Our beliefs, our thoughts, what we did, when we did it, how we did it. Our entire world was shaped only by what they told us and what they let us have. So to even think of ever leaving, especially believing that that was all we deserved and all we were meant for, was just unfathomable.”

“You’ve talked a lot about what you believe you deserved and how you believed your only purpose was to serve. But that wasn’t only exclusive to program personnel, was it?”

“No. Program personnel took priority obviously, the Director’s orders most of all, but…pretty much anyone could give us an order and as long as it didn’t contradict the Director’s orders or the orders of someone of a higher position we were expected to follow, or risk punishment.”

“And that included people you referred to as ‘visitors?’”


“Now…we’re all familiar here I’m sure with what the word ’visitor’ generally means, but it’s my understanding that in the program it had a bit more of a…specific meaning. Do you think you could elaborate a little further on what exactly that word meant to you all in program?”

Zayn nods. “Visitors were…people who paid to come visit us in the bunker for, um…for sexual favors.”

“‘Us’ meaning operatives?”


“And given the circumstances as you’ve described them so far, I’m assuming your consent was never asked for at any point?”

“No. It was either comply or be punished.”

“So anything these ‘visitors’ asked of you, no matter how horrid, you had to follow?”


“And were the ‘visitors’ aware of these rules? That you had to follow or you would be punished?”

“Yes. For most of them it was…part of the allure. If we disobeyed or resisted at any point or didn’t do something quite to their liking they could have us sent to the Discipline Rooms and then brought right back to them to keep going. Some of them even liked to shove in your face, threaten you with it, anything to flaunt their complete control over you. They…got off on it.”

“So it’s safe to say that no one was under the delusion that this was all consensual?”


“So, just for clarification, these are people who knew about the program and what you all were being trained and used for, who failed not only to report what was going on but in fact took full advantage of it, of you, all while helping to fund it with the money they paid to be with you all?”

“Objection, speculation,” one of the defense lawyers argues.

“Given the circumstances, Your Honor, I think it’s clear the witness would have had enough information to answer the question confidently without speculating,” Moira counters.

“Agreed. Overruled.” The judge nods, gesturing for Moira to continue.

Moira turns to Zayn, waiting patiently for his answer.


“And how exactly did the process work? Could anyone just walk in, say take my money, and be sent off with an operative? And were operatives paired with visitors randomly or was there some sort of selection process?”

“There was a vetting process and a selection process.” Zayn nods. “New visitors were vetted rigorously. Background checks, STD screenings, that sort of thing. The whole process usually took a few weeks. I only know because they would often complain about it and how long it took during the sessions..”


“The, um, the time they spent with us.”

“And what about the selection process? How did that work?”

“I’m not entirely sure about the first round of it. My guess is that they must’ve showed them photos of us beforehand and let them narrow it down from there before they saw us in person because they only ever brought us in in small groups. But basically whenever new visitors got approved they would  call out a few of us at random from whatever we were doing at the time, line us all up, and let the visitors pick which ones of us they wanted.”

“And how old were you when you were assigned to your first visitor?”

Zayn hesitates. This is the part not even Liam knows. Not because Zayn had purposefully kept it from him, it’s just that he’s never asked and it’s not exactly the kind of thing you just bring up out of the blue. He knows it started when Zayn was still underage from what Zayn has told him. But he doesn’t know just how underage, how soon it was after he woke up that that particular horror started, only a few months into his training. Not to mention his whole family’s watching and this is not going to be easy for them to hear on the very first day.

“Zayn?” Moira prompts when he’s taken too long to answer.

“Sorry,” Zayn says, forcing himself out of his momentary daze.

“It’s alright, take your time.”

Zayn swallows. Looks out at the sea of eyes staring back at him, the jury and his family, Liam, and the others. “Twelve,” he finally blurts. “I was twelve. Just a few months into my training, a few months after first waking up in the bunker. I didn’t, um…I didn’t really know yet, at the time, what having a visitor meant. I knew what the word meant, but not the…not the program meaning, and I didn’t know—um.” He stops, his voice cracking, chews anxiously at his lip.

“It’s okay,” Moira says gently. “Take all the time you need.”

Zayn nods, looks down at the polished wood of the stand underneath his arms. Memories flood his mind and he shares them as they come to him before he can freeze up or get lost in one. He remembers them calling his designation in the middle of training. He’d been in the middle of sparring with another operative and his first thought was that he’d done something wrong and he was being sent to the Discipline Rooms again. He’d been tense the whole walk through the corridors until they’d passed right by the Discipline Rooms and he’d finally relaxed, thinking he was in the clear. They’d brought him to some side room he’d never been in before and lined him up with a few other boys to be surveyed by men and women he’d never seen but who clearly weren’t bunker personnel since they didn’t appear to be in any kind of uniform that he could tell. And then one of the men had pointed at him and the next thing he knew he was being led to another room and ordered to undress, and then he was alone with the man. He hadn’t recognized the fear for what it was at the time but he does now.

There was so much pain, like he was being split in half and he couldn’t understand why any of it was happening. He couldn’t figure out what he’d done wrong to deserve this kind of punishment. He’d started to mumble I’ll comply, I’ll comply, I’ll comply at some point during because he thought maybe if he showed he was willing to cooperate and be obedient it would stop but it only made it worse. When it was finally over he could barely move and he was left alone on bloody sheets until a Nurse came to clean him up and help him back to his bunk. The next day he was expected to go right back to training as usual and every week that same man came back for years on end. Until Zayn got too old for his liking and he moved on to someone else younger and newer.

Zayn doesn’t stop there though. He talks about what each of the people on trial who didn’t bother to show did to him. The ones who were frequent visitors, the Doctors, even the higher-ups and other financial contributors  who may not have directly played a part in what he went through but kept it going all the same, kept it quiet, kept it funded.

When he finally finishes speaking the entire room is deathly silent and every single pair of eyes in the room are zeroed in on him, has him feeling like he wants to bolt and throw up at the same time. It’s a hell of a first day.






“Objection, is there a point to this line of questioning?” Zara cuts in.

“I’m wondering the same, Mr. Reynolds,” the judge adds.

“Permission to approach the bench, Your Honor?”

“You may approach.”

“Your Honor,” Reynolds says once he’s close enough, “I’m simply trying to determine the scope of the witness’s knowledge about the other operatives and the inner workings of the program. A large part of the defense’s argument is based solely on his testimony alone, I’m simply trying to provide the jury with as much adequate information on the other operatives and their proposed skillsets as I can so they can have enough information to make an informed decision. If there are more operatives out there who are as skilled and as highly-ranked as he is and have made as many kills as he has the jury deserves to know about it.

The judge sighs, but nods. “Alright, I’ll allow it.”

Reynolds turns back to Zayn. “How often were ranking sessions usually held, Mr. Malik?”

“Twice a year.”

“So, you would only spar with operatives who you knew you were evenly ranked with twice a year?”


“And in these sparring sessions if you…bested them you/the person who won would always move on to the next rank?”


“What about the person who lost?”

“Their rank would remain the same.”

“So, on average, if you were to win most of your sparring sessions, you would potentially reach the highest rank within five years, maybe a little more if you lost a match or two?”

“Yes, although most operatives usually took closer to eight.”

Reynolds raises his eyebrows. “Another statistic shared by the Director in confidence?”

“No, we would all be brought in to watch the sparring sessions. Lower-ranked operatives were expected to study the techniques of all those who won so that they would perform better in their next assessment, while higher-ranked operatives gave their critiques to the ones who lost for the same reason.”

“I thought you said you didn’t know what rank the other operatives in your bunker were?”

“I didn’t.”

“But surely you must’ve been able to tell by who was watching and who was critiquing?”

“No. I only knew who was higher and who was lower, not their specific ranks.”

“So what was considered a ‘high’ enough rank to get promoted to critiquing?”

“Anywhere from six to ten.”

“Are you saying they had operatives ranked at six critiquing operatives ranked at ten without even knowing it?”

“No, only the lower-ranked operatives got critiqued since they were still in the early stages of their training, the ones below level six. Everyone else in attendance above that was still made to spar, they just didn’t get critiqued.”

“So other than knowing the range you weren’t able to identify any of the other operatives’ ranks? Say, based on their level of skill while fighting?”

“Like I said before, that wasn’t the only factor that determined your rank, and at the time I wasn’t really concerned with figuring it out since they’d taken away my ability to care about that sort of thing.”

Reynolds looks frustrated and a bit peeved if the red of his face is anything to go by but he turns back to the defense table anyway, muttering, “No further questions at this time, Your Honor.”






“No. If it’s anything like it how it was for us it wouldn’t matter if it was the middle of the night or broad daylight, once they set their sights on you you’re as good as theirs and you can kiss any memory of your old life goodbye.”

Moira nods, pacing a bit in speculation before she moves on to her next question. “And what about you? Do you remember anything from the night you were taken?”

“Bits and pieces. A lot of things from before I woke up in the bunker are still sort of fuzzy, especially the days just before, but I remember a little. I remember hanging out with Liam after school. We were in my room reading over a new Batman he’d gotten.” Zayn smiles absently at the memory. “We used to like to act out the scenes and argue about what we thought was gonna happen next. That was a typical Thursday for us, nothing out of the ordinary, you know? Nothing hinting at what was to come, or that that would be my last night as…myself, my last happy memory. I remember wishing my sisters good night, my mum trying to tuck me in and me insisting I was too old for that. And then I remember being in my bed and all of a sudden there was an older boy over me, pressing a cloth to my face. The next thing I remember after that is waking up strapped to an operating table in unbearable pain. I’m not sure if there was more that happened in between then and I just don’t remember it but so far that’s all I’ve been able to get back.”

“And you didn’t recognize the older boy that took you?”

“No. Not at the time. He had a muzzle over his face like operatives typically wear but I didn’t know him then.”

“But you do now?”

Zayn nods. “We were on the same team for most of my time in the bunker. I didn’t remember him then either of course because I didn’t remember anything from before the Procedure, but during the program I knew him as Twenty-two. Although he goes by Alec now.”


“Was it normal for operatives to be sent out to take children that would later become operatives?”

“Objection, Your Honor, there doesn’t seem to be a point to this questioning.”

“Goes to further stand against the argument of kidnapping and harming minors that the defense has attempted to make, Your Honor, and whether or not operatives were aware of the consequences of their actions in those instances.”

The judge nods. “I’ll allow it.”

Moira turns to Zayn expectantly.

“I don’t think so,” Zayn says. “At least not by the time I came along. I’m not entirely sure but I think maybe having operatives take kids were potential candidates for the program might have been like an older way of doing things, before they got smarter about it and realized it would cause too much confusion for the operatives doing the taking. I think they probably realized it messed with the narratives they tried to feed us about only having been made to be an operative and only ever having lived in the bunker. If too many of them started thinking about the fact that the kids they took that were now operatives like them had once lived in a house with a family instead of always in the bunker it probably would’ve started causing a lot of problems and I actually wouldn’t be surprised if that was the main reason they had so many ‘problems’ with the operatives in the first iteration.”

“And that was the iteration that your former teammate, Alec, was a part of?”


“Of which he’s only one of less than a handful of survivors, is that right?”

“Yes. Most of the others were terminated—killed—for insubordination.”


Chapter Text

"The prosecution claims that there not as bad as they seem, that they have the potential for recovery but they showed you one case. Again one. Who’s to say that they’re all going to be as successful as Mr. Malik in their recovery? Who’s to say that any of them will? And if they don’t all recover in the way the prosecution claims they will, then what? What happens if one of them suddenly decides to go on a killing spree? Or if a few of them decide to organize and terrorize the city?

They should somewhere where they can be monitored constantly and where they can [be held accountable for the crimes they’ve committed.

If someone were under the influence of drugs or alcohol and in a highly suggestible state, like the prosecution claims these people were, and they were to then go out and kill a bunch of people would you simply blame the drugs and let them walk free? Just because they were following orders doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for what they’ve done. If I were to get one of you drunk and tell you to go shoot someone and you did it, that doesn’t mean you don’t get to be held accountable for it. In this country if you commit a crime, even if you try to claim God himself told you to do it, you’re still held accountable because that’s justice. Hundreds of people lost their lives at the hands of these so-called operatives. Hundreds. That’s hundreds of people who won’t ever get their loved ones back. Hundreds of people who won’t ever see their mothers, fathers, daughters, or sons again. Don’t they deserve justice? Don’t their deceased loved ones deserve justice? I urge you to think of them as you consider your verdict…

If you let these people walk free today you’ll be sending a very powerful message. A message that the lives of those murdered at the hands of these operatives don’t matter. That Frank Johnson’s life doesn’t matter. That his wife Karen doesn’t deserve justice for what happened to him or that the lives of [insert a bunch of other names/witnesses here] don't matter. Let these people walk free today and that is the message you’ll be sending, that the lives of people like Fred Johnson and [etc.] and their families mean nothing, mean less than the lives of cold-blooded murderers’ in your eyes."

Chapter Text


"There’s one thing I still don’t get…why lie? Why pretend like you didn’t know him when we could have helped him? Could’ve put an end to all this much sooner?" Hannon says.

"If I had told you the truth I would’ve immediately become suspect number one in your investigation. You would’ve interrogated me non-stop for information I didn’t have and probably tried to charge me with something just to get me to talk when I knew just as much as you did. And if you’d found him without knowing the whole story…” Liam trails off, shaking his head before he starts to speak again, “who knows what could have happened. Maybe it would’ve ended it sooner, or maybe it would have made things worse, or maybe you would’ve gotten nowhere and he’d still be stuck there, all of them would. Look, I don’t have the greatest track record when it comes to trusting the police, okay? After everything that happened when I was younger…I don’t know, it made me bitter I guess, mistrustful, and it felt like if I had told you the truth I would have just been risking the same shit happening all over again. And, I don’t know, even now who’s to say that it isn’t exactly what would have happened anyway? I mean, even with the petrol station thing they stumped you guys for weeks and that was on limited resources after a complete and total cock-up on their parts. Didn’t exactly help your case. Besides, doesn’t really matter now does it?

"That’s not—"

Liam holds up a hand to stop him before he can continue. "With all due respect, Inspector, I’ve had enough lies at this point to last me a lifetime so I would really appreciate it if you would show me the decency of not lying to my face and pretending like that isn’t exactly what would have happened.

Hannon sighs. "I wasn’t planning on lying to you, Liam. I can’t promise you that something like that wouldn’t have happened, and I don’t blame you for feeling the way you do about law enforcement, especially after everything you’ve been through, both in the past and more recently. But you have to know that we’re not all bad. We’re human, too, and unfortunately that means sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes we make bad decisions. Like closing a case when we shouldn’t have or going after the wrong person…lots of people make mistakes on the job and it’s no big deal, but unfortunately for us as cops a simple mistake or one bad decision could be the difference between life or death…

Chapter Text

"We kissed once," Rory reveals, late one night after a sparring session down in their "secret lair" as Sam likes to call it. Sometimes when they're just tired enough but not quite ready to go home yet, they end up spread out on the mat having late night introspective talks. About their memories and life now and how hard it is still is sometimes, transitioning, getting re-acclimated to how things are in this world, dealing with the nightmares and the painful memories. Kind of like group therapy, Zayn supposes. Or like the OA sessions but more private, just for them. Kira's sat beside Rory, both of them with their their knees tucked up to their chests, but still pressed shoulder to shoulder. "We caught a Handler and a guard doing it once and we didn't really understand it but for some reason we both knew we wanted to try it even though we also both knew somehow that we weren't supposed to be doing it. That we had to keep it secret. We made this whole elaborate plan." She smiles fondly thinking of it now, Kira doing the same beside her. "We got up extra early, before anyone came to get us for feeding time since it was the only time we knew we could truly be alone and without fear of being watched, with our eye cams still off and none of you guys or the Handlers seeing us. We snuck into the supply closet in the corner of our barracks. The one everyone used to use hide in when they did the random checks." Zayn remembers it vividly. They all do, he's sure. "We kept the light off just in case, to be safe, and then we just did it, just a quick peck, just the once. And then we went back to our bunks and never did it again."

None of them has to ask why. Too dangerous. Too risky. Too many unknown variables. Once was dangerous enough, but to risk it twice? More? No way in hell. Too many opportunities to get caught. Too many chances for things to go horribly wrong. It was enough for them to know that they risked it just the once. That had to be enough. No matter how much they may have wanted to try it again.

"Sometimes...sometimes I used to think about...trying to get caught wanking on purpose," Sam says softly, like he's still too nervous to even speak the words aloud. He doesn't talk about it much. Is still getting used to the idea that there's even a word now for what he is. Genderqueer. He still mostly uses he/him pronouns, though occasionally he'll have days where he prefers they/them. And though he may be bubbly and outgoing ninety percent of the time Zayn knows he's still going through a lot of inner turmoil, with himself and with his family and trying to come to terms with it all. "I would have days where...I wanted that part of myself gone and I didn't know why. I just knew it felt wrong to have it, like it shouldn't be a part of me and I would fantasize about it. About letting them find me in that... 'condition.' About me being the one on that operating table. About finally having it gone. How at peace I would feel after. But then I'd think of the days when I already felt at peace and like nothing was wrong with me at all and I just could never bring myself to go through with it."

There's heavy silence for a while as everyone lets Sam's words just kind of hang in the air, mixing with their own feelings and unpleasant memories.

It's Alec that finally breaks the silence.

"Well...I don't have any super traumatic stories to share about it or anything other than, you know the general stuff, but...I'm asexual."

Zayn takes a rather contemplative look around the group. Thinks of all those years they spent together not really even knowing each other. Years of sleeping just feet away each other, sitting packed liked sardines in a dark van, training together, fighting together, killing together, and yet each of them carrying the massive weight of all the lies and anguish and confusion and turmoil they were experiencing and having to hide it all behind masks of impassiveness and feigned cluelessness, all pretending there was nothing more going on in their heads than what they were told. "Guess we all had secrets, huh?" he says, mostly serious, but still with a hint of sarcasm.

"Funny how they took all the queer ones and put us together," Rory smirks and quirks her eyebrows, "…you think they knew?"

Zayn hums in contemplation. “Mmmm. Maybe. Probably...I mean, they were looking for fighters right? And they must’ve been watching us for a while before they took us. I don’t know about you guys but before, when the bullies came after us, after me and Liam, I fought back…as much as I could anyway. Could be they saw that and took it as, like, potential or something. Maybe even looked for outsiders who were fighters. Kids that wouldn’t be missed too much cause no one besides their families would ask too many questions, if that.”

"Yeah, that makes some amount of sense," Sam agrees. "I mean, when I was a kid I ran away a lot. Didn’t have too many friends and my parents didn’t understand me. They’re religious so their form of therapy was taking me to priests. Thought they could pray away the gay, I guess.” He  chuckles a bit bitterly. “At the time they thought I was just gay. Anyway, I got sick of it. Every time I’d overhear them talking about taking me to another new priest, I’d pack my things up and run. So when it happened…well, they still won’t admit it now, too ashamed I think, but my brother told me that for a while they just assumed I ran away again. Didn’t bother looking for me for almost two weeks even though I’d never stayed away for more than a couple of days at the time.

“They’d never say it to my face but I think they were kind of glad, for a time, to be honest. To be rid of the burden that was me, you know? I think maybe that’s why they waited so long. They’re better now though. The occasional pronoun change thing is still a bit hard for them of course, but I think having me gone and then finding out all the details about everything that happened to me has made them…I don’t know, grateful, I guess? Like, more willing to accept me and whatever comes with that even if they don’t agree. A good part of it’s probably guilt to be honest, for not looking for me sooner and for not accepting me before cause I think they think that if they had maybe none of this would happened. Like this was God’s punishment or something to force us to accept each other and appreciate each other more and love each other more or whatever bullshit. I don’t know, as long as they’re not trying to force the ‘demons’ out of me anymore I’m good.”

“What about you?” Alec says to Zayn. “Your family’s really all okay with you and Liam?”

“Yeah…” Zayn shrugs. “Funnily enough they actually knew all along even when we were little. Both our families did, was kind of a running joke. They were just waiting on us to be ready to tell them.”

They all laugh at that.

“Yeah, my parents guessed as much, too,” Rory says. “They’re a bit hippy-dippy though so it wasn’t as much of a surprise. And of course, as you all know, when they found out about us and…her situation they were willing to take her in too.”

Kira ducks her head bashfully and Rory wraps an arm around her pulling her in closer to her side.

“I’ve got no other testimony to prove the point further,” Kira says a little drowsily, head now pillowed on Rory’s shoulder. “I mean you all know my story so if anyone were to agree with the outsider-no-one’ll-miss theory it’s me.”

Zayn nods a bit sympathetically.

And really none of this should come as a surprise. He should have known that they would have gone for the most obvious targets. The kids alone and forgotten on the streets or in overcrowded group homes that no one would notice or blink an eye at if they went missing. The outsiders and troublemakers that people were secretly glad to be rid of, whether they had families or not. The ones that people wouldn’t question too much. The weird loners, like Alec, or the misunderstood kids, like Sam. Or the smart-alecky Pakistani kid that stuck up for those that couldn’t stick up for themselves but who never quite fit in everyone else’s idea of their perfect little suburban world. And he's in no way glad or thankful for how they ended up here together, but he is thankful that they have each other now, regardless of all the things that may have led them here. These are his brothers, his sisters, maybe not by blood, but bound in blood all the same, bound in war and darkness and pain. But more than that, bound now in trust and camaraderie, and most importantly, love.

Chapter Text

They're in the middle of a mission when Zayn comms into Danny, but surprisingly it's Louis who answers.

"I—Louis? Where’s Danny?" Zayn says as he punches out one guy, kicks back a woman, and shoves another woman unsteadily toward Alec. 

"Pregnant fiancée emergency. Something about an urgent pickles and peanut butter run? Anyway he called and asked me to take over for the night."

"Hey, babe!" calls Liam's voice from the background.

"Wha—is Liam there with you?" Zayn says in even more surprise as he twists a man into a headlock, fending off another while he chokes the first one out.

Sam just snickers beside him at the whole developing conversation playing out over all their comms as he sweep-kicks a woman and, while he's still low enough, uses another guy's own shank to stab him in the kneecap.

The man's anguished shouts and wails echo out loudly over all their comms and surely back in the van too but Louis just keeps talking casually as if there hasn't even been a lull in the conversation, much less a screaming man interrupting them.

"And Haz," he adds. "And Niall and Sarah. They were all at the pub with me when I got the call from Danny so we figured why not just all come man the getaway van together. It'll be fun, like a mini-roadtrip but with lots of  group bonding and a little bit of blood."

Zayn just grunts and shakes his head as he takes out the last few gang members they're fighting.

Later when they're all back at the van, Harry looks between himself, Louis, Liam, Niall, and Sarah and then at their team, half of whom are still outside but quickly moving to pile into the van too and says belatedly, "We didn’t really think this through, did we? There’s no way we’re all gonna fit in here."

Alec just shrugs as he pulls himself inside. "Hey, if we can pack twenty-five operatives in a truck not much bigger than this, we can certainly squeeze ten of us in here."

"Just gonna have to get a bit more cozy with each other, that's all," Sam says, winking cheekily at Harry even whilst half-soaked in knee blood.

Four of them packed together on the little bench, Niall and Sarah up front, Louis in the computer chair and the rest of them spread around the van floor, they take off. Liam's pressed tightly to his side as Zayn sits with half an arse cheek on his lap on the edge of the bench and he leans in to tuck his chin over Zayn's shoulder and whisper into his ear, " know sign language?"

Clearly Louis and the others had been here watching the monitors for longer than he thought cause that was back at the beginning of the mission. The gang's secret rendezvous hadn't quite been where they'd expected—they had thought the gang would be meeting in an alley a bit further away where they usually met up but instead had come up on them in another alley sooner than they thought and they'd needed to change up their plans a bit at the last minute but still be quiet about their approach so as not to be overhead. Alec wanted to re-direct and come at them from the alley on the other side, but Sam wanted to just push ahead from where they were and Rory and Kira wanted to make use of the building they were next to and come at them from above—mostly because they just loved any excuse to use the grappling hooks and make a dramatic entrance—and there'd been an ensuing and rather forceful and expletive-filled signing argument over it all, until Zayn got frustrated with all the back and forth and eventually got them all to just settle on letting everyone do whatever they want and just making sure to all coordinate properly so they all came in at the same time.

Now Zayn just shrugs in answer. "Not everyone we got sent out to interrogate was hearing so. Plus it came in handy on group missions if we were in a position where talking wasn't the best option or where we needed to get a message across quickly and quietly and not everyone on the group necessarily had voice mods."

"Huh," Liam says speculatively.

And that's how he ends up spending the rest of his night teaching Liam how to curse in ASL and BSL and every iteration of sign language he knows.


Chapter Text

Liam’s still asleep when Zayn wakes up and normally he’d kiss him awake but Liam had had trouble sleeping last night, tossing and turning anxiously, and he looks so peaceful now Zayn doesn’t wanna disturb him. He’s had a stressful few weeks with the opening of the operative group homes for the orphaned ops not quite going as smoothly as he’d hoped, in addition to now spending most nights going out on missions with them. He’s still got a faint bruise visible on his side where his sleep shirt has ridden up from where a guy had gotten in a mean punch to his ribs the other night and Zayn desperately wants to press his lips to it and kiss it better but he resists. Instead gingerly pushing himself up from the bed with as much quiet and as little movement as possible and padding his way to the kitchen.

There’s a mug still sitting in the middle of the counter from where Liam must have gotten up to make himself a cuppa in the middle of the night last night. Zayn had heard him get up, bumbling softly around in the kitchen, trying to be as quiet as possible and then slipping quietly back into bed again not too much later. He smiles when he looks at it now because it’s the cracked one, the same one he’d accidentally broken all that time ago when he’d still been trying and miserably failing at hiding his feelings, the same one Liam had taped The Note to to ask if Zayn wanted to be with him. Ever the pragmatic one Zayn figures he may as well just go ahead and re-use it, contribute to recycling and all. Not to mention it always gives him a little thrill, and not just the general thrill he gets from knowing he’s sharing Liam’s things, but a particular thrill at using this specific mug, with its history and what it means to the both to them.

He bounces a little on his toes, smiling and humming softly to himself as he heats up the kettle and pulls out the sugar and milk, the tea bag and a spoon. When the water boils he reaches for the mug, sliding it across the counter toward the stove and himself and starting to pour without even really paying attention. Except that he just so happens to glance down briefly and freezes when he sees what's inside.

Half distracted and lost in his own thoughts he hadn’t even thought to look down into the cup, had just started pouring on instinct, but now he slams the kettle back down to the stove in harried surprise and quickly reaches into the boiling water at the bottom of the cup to pull out a folded up piece of paper.

“Shit,” he mutters, shaking as much water off as he can even thoroughly soaked through as it already is.

Slowly and gingerly he unfolds it, hoping whatever might have been on it isn’t completely ruined or smudged from the water. Thank God he hadn’t put the tea bag or anything else in it yet or it really would have been ruined.

As it is he lays it carefully over a spread out dish rag on the counter, smoothing his hands over it to flatten out any folds or wrinkles and wring out what excess water he can, squinting to try and make out the words printed out in Liam’s distinctive scrawl in now slightly smudged ink:


You’ve always had my heart, from the very first moment we met. And I’ve wanted to ask this pretty much since the moment we first kissed, but I thought it might be better to wait instead until I knew for sure we really did have forever, and that you felt as safe and as free as you possibly could before I asked something this big of you.

I’ve loved you since we were twelve years old. I love everything about you, from your devastatingly beautiful smile and the freckle in your eye to your dumb double entendres and your penchant for food fights (and always managing to stay annoyingly pristine to boot) and so much more. Now that I know what it is to live without you I can’t imagine going another day without knowing you’ll be by my side—my partner in crime, my teammate, messed up together—forever. Here’s to food fights and double entendres and crazy sex for the rest of our lives. Here’s to superhero cupcakes and broken mugs and jumping off buildings and taking a leap of faith. I really, really hope you check yes and I really, really hope you don’t pour tea into this before you see it, but:

Will you marry me?

Check yes or no

– Liam

A stray drop of water lands on the already-drenched page before him and it takes him a moment to realize that it’s not actually a stray drop of water but his own tears that he hadn’t even realized were streaming down his cheeks.

“Guess it was too much to hope you wouldn’t pour tea into it, huh?”

Zayn looks up sharply and finds Liam looking fondly over at him from their bedroom doorway, sleep rumpled and adorable.

“Aww, babe,” Liam says, ambling over in a rush of arms when he sees Zayn’s face, and enveloping him in a tight hug. “Really hoping these are happy tears and you’re still planning to check yes, but, you know, no pressure or anything. Just my heart on the line.”

Zayn lets out a watery chuckle even through his tears and just hugs Liam tighter.

“Of course it’s a yes. I’m always gonna check yes,” he says firmly into Liam’s shoulder and he feels Liam visibly relax a little against him.

Lifting his face from Liam’s now tear-stained shirt he presses his lips to Liam’s and then pulls back to look him in the eyes as Liam thumbs away the tears from his cheeks.

“It’s always been you, it’s always gonna be you, and it’s always gonna be yes,” Zayn says sincerely. “I love you.”

Liam smiles. The crinkly-eyed smile that he loves so much. “I love you, too. So much. Although, y'know, maybe don't burn yourself next time just to get to a piece of paper, even if it is a super important piece of paper with a life-altering question on it.” He nods pointedly at Zayn's red fingers, pressing a quick kiss to them. Then, rummaging in his joggers pocket he suddenly pulls out two rings, slipping one over Zayn’s left ring finger, and the other on his own and then twining their fingers together between them. Zayn can’t stop staring. Almost can’t believe any of this is even real and not just some fever dream, but he can feel the cool metal solid against his skin and Liam warm and real against him, around him, and he tears his gaze away to look back up into Liam’s eyes.

“Messed up together, yeah?” he says.

Liam smiles the crinkly-eyed smile again and kisses him, then pulls back with his lips still against Zayn’s and nods, still smiling. “Messed up together. Forever.”