It’s half past three in the morning when Zayn first starts to wonder when Liam stopped loving him.
Doubt started creeping in slowly at first. It was in the way that Liam looks at Zayn, or more accurately how Liam doesn't look at Zayn. It was the way Liam held his breath just a bit when Zayn went out for a smoke. It was the way Liam had to count to ten when Zayn accidentally poured him milk instead of orange juice because ‘who drinks milk with their eggs’ and clearly Zayn should have known. It’s the way that Liam wasn’t at Zayn’s birthday celebration even though he was home on leave and had promised he’d be there.
Zayn can’t help but lie awake most nights wondering how many more days there will be with Liam before he finds someone he loves more. He wonders if Liam knows something is wrong. Could Liam sense that Zayn is scared and nervous and maybe a little insomnia plagued with anxiety? Did he realize that every time his fist clenched with a spurt of rage he sent Zayn into a nervous hysteria? Probably not.
One night, when Zayn can’t stand lying awake any longer, he takes a drive. He does his best thinking when he’s just cruising around. He lets himself think of that first deployment. He lets himself wander down memory lane and be happy with the things he and Liam survived together.
~ | ~
“You listen to me,” he says his lips pressed delicately against Liam’s collar bone as they’re laid draped over Liam’s bed. “You come back to me. You make it home, Liam Payne. You make it home in one piece and breathing.”
He smiles down at Zayn his arm wrapped around his body holding him close, “you’re asking an awful lot there, Zayn.”
“I will never ask you for anything so long as I live if you just come home in one piece and breathing. I swear.”
He chuckles and Zayn can almost see the glint in his eyes. If he arches his head back and looks more directly at his face he’s certain he’d actually see the glint but from this angle he mostly just sees that Liam could do with a shave and can tell that he bites his lip just off the left side corner. His hand is pressed against Liam’s chest right above his rib cage where the delicate ink marking ‘one four three’ written in his messy scrawl is permanently etched across Liam’s skin. When he’s really thinking about Liam being gone, he traces the lettering slowly drawing out each curve and each shaky slant. Liam does the same on Zayn’s tattoo of those same three words written in Liam’s hand writing scrawled across his own rib cage in much the same area as Liam’s.
They’ve traced the words more this week than in the previous month. Liam even started tracing it when Zayn still had his shirt on. His finger curved gently with memory as he wrote over and over the three words against Zayn’s sides and he pretends not to feel the least bit scared or nervous because Liam needs him to be strong right now. He can do that, he tells himself, he can do at least that for Liam if nothing else.
“I need to get ready.”
Zayn nods but doesn’t get up. He tells himself the longer he lays on Liam the longer he can keep him and if he lays on him long enough maybe Liam doesn’t have to go. He knows this is silly and that even if he laid on Liam until he really needed to go, Liam would still get up and go because Liam is nothing if not reliable. So when Liam pushes back his hair slowly and makes him look into his eyes instead of at the stubble filled chin, he sighs, and starts to get up. “Do you want breakfast before you leave?”
“I’m actually not hungry.”
He nods slowly and lets Liam get ready. He fights the urge to go shower with Liam because he’ll want to do anything and everything to stall him and keep Liam just a little bit longer. Instead he makes his way to the kitchen and even though Liam says he isn’t hungry, he makes a little sandwich for the two of them. He sets half of it where Liam will sit and read the morning comics, and takes half for himself.
By the time Liam is out of the shower and dressed, Zayn is remembering all the reasons he fell in love with Liam in the first place and, at the same time, is wondering why he ever got involved with a soldier because this is just too much for him. He misses the days he could count on his boyfriend to be home when he came in late at night after an awful night class. They had been replaced by nights of worry as he agonized over the knowledge that Liam was being deployed. He has to wonder how Mrs. Payne can even breathe knowing where her son is going, but she seems to be handling things a lot better than Zayn. Then Zayn has to remember that she’s lived through a deployment already and this is Zayn’s first one. Maybe they get better?
But he’s staring down the clock wishing time would go by slower so he can spend as much time with Liam as possible. It’s a losing battle, always is, and before he can count the numbers on the clock it’s time for Liam to go.
“Don’t cry,” he says quietly his voice just loud enough for Zayn to understand what he’s saying. “I’ll be back in one piece and breathing. I promise.”
Zayn doesn’t sleep that night. He imagines Liam spends the night sleepless as well. He imagines the thoughts running through Liam’s head and hopes that he graces at least one of them. He tries to imagine what Liam might be scared of.
The next day passes in a blur of lights and colors and he tries to remember if he paid his rent or if he’s now a homeless bum, but he can’t. He calls his mom and they talk about something stupid, but he can’t really concentrate on anything. He supposes he’s lucky that schools on break at the moment or he’d be in a world of hurt.
People start asking questions when they notice that Liam isn’t in their usual duo for their Wednesday lunch date or their Saturday morning coffee stop. “When does he come home?” “How long has he been gone?” These questions bother him more than he wants to admit. They’re a reminder that he’s not at home where Zayn wants Liam to be and he’s not in the safety of Zayn’s arms (even if Liam’s the one who generally wraps his protective arms around Zayn). So he tries to ignore them and answer politely like his mom raised him to. “About four months. He’ll be home around January.”
That’s how most of the deployment goes actually. One day after another. In and out of concentration and wondering where he was and if he was safe. They wrote letters, Zayn more than Liam. Liam said it was because Zayn had a way with words that Liam would never quite grasp but Zayn knew it was because the only thing Liam wanted to write about was how much he missed Zayn and there were only so many ways to write that before he started being repetitive. There were only so many ways to try and assure someone you were safe before they stopped believing you.
Still when Liam comes home 1 year 3 months and 2 weeks later, Zayn swears he doesn’t care that the letters were few and far between because Liam came home in one piece and was breathing.
Zayn has never seen such a showing of people before. He imagines this must be what celebrities feel like when they arrive at an event because he’s standing in a crowd of hundreds of people all wearing similar ‘red white and blue’ outfits carrying signs and looking as if they were going to burst into tears at any moment. Then again, Zayn is fairly certain that no celebrity has ever landed in a crowd of waiting military families and lived to tell the tale. He sticks close to mama Payne as she slides through the crowds a smile on her face looking over at Zayn as they walk past a mother and her newborn baby.
“Exciting isn’t it?”
She looks about as excited as he’s ever seen her. But he can only assume he looks more excited than he has in weeks. He just nods and side steps a roaming child as she bounces one foot to the next her little bundle of energy too high for his liking.
“Just a few more minutes and he’ll be here. Just you wait.”
So he does. He waits as one family after another bursts into screams and runs at their given military person. He watches child after child run into the arms of their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and whatever other family relations that disembarked the plane. He watches as mothers and fathers greet their children and welcome them back to safety. And he’s almost thinking that Liam played hooky and isn’t coming home today but some other day, when he catches sight of the goofy grin and his two day shadow filled face. He’s crying before Liam can wrap his arms around him. He’s crying before he even gets past the fence separating civilians from soldiers. He has to wonder how anyone has the energy or ability to run at their military person because he’s planted roots in the concrete beneath his feet and he’s not sure if he knows how to walk anymore.
It doesn’t matter though, Liam gets to him just fine and wraps him in a hug pressing a light and gentle kiss against his temple. “Hi.” He says it right against Zayn’s temple humming his lips against the tan skin.
He’s not sure if he managed to say it without tears drenching his words but his message gets across just fine so he doesn’t think it matters. Liam is patient and kind and gentle and everything he remembers about him. He holds him close and lets him cry until he’s pretty sure he’s dried all the tears in his ducts.
“I’m gonna hug my mom, okay? Then I’ll be back for more. Promise.”
He nods and steps back wiping the tears from his eyes so Liam can hug his mother. He might have been selfish in wrapping Liam in a hug before letting his mother hug him, but he doesn’t care. And Liam hugged him first so maybe it wasn’t his fault either. Besides, Liam is safe and home and Zayn thinks that’s all that really matters.
~ | ~
He drives past their spot a few times looping around the block and circling like he was looking for something. He might have looked lost or crazy or maybe just a little bit strange, but he doesn’t mind. It’s the middle of the night, who’s going to judge him? He tries to remember the days they’d come and sit in the park in their spot and just talk.
They talked about everything here. It was here that Liam first told Zayn he was deploying. It was in that spot where Zayn first told Liam he loved him. It’s where they talked about moving in together and getting a dog. It’s where Liam told Zayn he wanted four kids: two boys and two girls and where Zayn told Liam he was crazy if he thought they were responsible enough for themselves let alone a child (or four). And then Liam had assured him he wanted to wait until Zayn matured enough to raise a family (and yes Zayn took offense to that but it was okay because Liam kissed him, told him he loved him, and asked him out for ice cream).
Now the spot looked empty. He didn’t even get out of the car to go sit down. He just kept driving.
~ | ~
Liam’s second deployment is easier than the first. It’s easier in that Zayn now knows how to write him letters without sounding like he’s really missing him (even when he’s missing him like you’d miss your left lung). It’s easier because Zayn knowns how to play the distraction when Liam Skypes him and he no longer cries when they have to say their goodbyes. It’s easier because Liam writes more. Somewhere in the span of his deployments, he’s learned a better way to express himself with Zayn and gets more out in letters so Zayn hears from him more often and that puts him a little more at east.
It’s harder because it’s longer. He’s more buried into the world of war and sometimes he forgets that Zayn doesn’t want to hear all about what’s going on over there. It’s harder because Mrs. Payne isn’t close enough since they relocated per Liam’s stationing. It’s harder because Zayn actually feels alone and scared the second time around.
He comes home tanner than he left. He looks wiser too. His eyes have a darkening in them that Zayn’s not used to. But he’s in one piece and he’s breathing so Zayn supposes he can’t really complain. He has to just push on and let Liam come back to him one day at a time.
The first nightmare scares Zayn more than it does Liam. He’s screaming into his pillow when Zayn wakes up. His hand is formed in the shape of a gun and he’s waving it around like a madman. When Zayn finally gets him to wake up and settle down, he just cries. He apologizes and says he must look crazy. Zayn assures Liam that he doesn’t because that’s what Zayn is supposed to do. It’s what he’s been training himself to do since the man left nearly a year ago.
They decide (or really Zayn decides) to lock all the guns away to be safe until Liam stops having the nightmares. He explains it like this: “I’d rather die by an intruder with their gun than by an accident with your gun.” (Of course Liam retaliates with: “I’ve been trained to fight in a war, Zayn. I’m not going to kill us here in an accident.”) But in the end Liam agrees to lock them away until he’s not having nightmares.
Zayn takes one of the lock keys and they mail the second to Liam’s mother three states away. He’s not certain if he’s reading too far into it but he’s fairly certain that Liam seems happy that Zayn’s not letting him keep hold of his guns. It’s like Liam knows he’s a danger to himself and maybe that’s why he’s okay with letting Zayn take control. Either way, Zayn feels safer knowing Liam can’t hurt either of them in that way.
It’s not just the nightmares that remind Zayn that Liam’s a little different. It’s the way he loves Zayn and makes love to Zayn that show him the same thing. Zayn isn’t as acclimated to the rough and demanding Liam who wants to have sex more than he wants to have conversations. He’s not accustomed to Liam’s rough paces that leave Zayn shaking with fatigue. He’s not used to a Liam who doesn’t as often cuddle after sex as before. He misses that Liam more than he’d care to admit. He suspects this is because he’s tired of feeling sore every morning and he’s tired of limping a little in his walk and he’s tired of Liam not seeming to care about his feelings or his physical well-being. He’s just tired. But he loves Liam, so he tries to hold on to distant fading memories.
“What do you want from me, Z? Huh?! You’re being unreasonable!”
“I just asked when the the last time we had a night where we just talked instead of you fucking me into the mattress or the wall or whatever surface you see fit to have sex on top of or against! We’re so physical and I can’t take it, Li!”
“You said you liked it rough, Zayn, not me! I’m just trying to give you what you want!
“I have bruises on top of my bruises, Liam! People are asking me where I’m getting them! Don’t you get it?! This isn’t healthy whatever is going on with you isn’t healthy!”
He looks confused and clearly doesn't know what to say to the boy after that response. “Baby…” it’s a good start and Zayn understands that sometimes there’s nothing good to say even as hard as Liam tries to find one. “I’m sorry.”
It’s not perfect and it’s not what Zayn really wants, but he takes it. He let’s Liam wrap him in his arms, gentle and soft like before the first deployment, and press delicate rose petal kisses against his neck. He let’s Liam make it up to him slowly and gently.
The first time Liam sees him without a shirt, after that argument, he’s quiet. His eyes don’t leave Zayn’s skin as he traces lines from one bruise to the next. Zayn can see it in his eyes that he’s calling himself a monster. So logically Zayn reaches out for Liam and tells him everything will be alright. He reminds Liam how much he loves him and how happy he is to be with him. Liam promptly traps Zayn on the bed and trails a line of kisses from one bruise to the next an invisible line of ‘never again’ and Zayn’s really happy about it. Liam promises to never hurt Zayn like that again. He writes a silly notebook paper contract swearing to never hurt him again (he even made Zayn co-sign it before he hung it on the refrigerator like some school assignment to be displayed).
“I love you.” He says it like he used to as if it was the first time ever uttering the three little words. His lips press against Zayn’s in a sweet and gentle smooth that turns into a long and tender embrace.
“I love you, too.”
~ | ~
The house is quiet when he returns an hour or so after he left. He wasn’t expecting Liam to have roused himself from his slumber. In fact he’s pretty shocked when he walks into the kitchen and flips the light on to find that Liam’s sitting there stone still waiting for him. Zayn can’t lie, he jumps back like he’s been shocked and presses his hand over his heart. “Christ, you scared me.”
“Where’ve you been?”
“Couldn’t sleep. I just went for a drive. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Well you did.”
“You can’t just leave like that! We are at war! If you want to leave base you have to gain permission from a superior officer!”
“That is Sergeant Payne to you, Private!”
Zayn doesn’t know what to say. Liam’s never been this out of it. He’s never mixed his two worlds so effectively. He’s never let his soldier reality bleed so effortlessly into his civilian lifestyle. Zayn wonders what Liam is seeing. The wild fire in his eyes tells Zayn clearly that they are most definitely not seeing the same thing.
“What are you waiting for? Grab your gun, Private! Now!”
His orders are crisp and sharp and Zayn looks at the two guns sitting on the table. He tries to remember what Liam showed him for safety. The weapon is foreign in his hand and heavy weight he’s not happy to cary. He wonders if this is what Liam thought every time he picked up a rifle overseas. He watches Liam as he too reaches for a gun. “Liam,” he says as calmly as he can, “baby, what’s going on?”
He whispers it quietly and starts around the back of the kitchen heading towards the living room. He creeps along the cabinets like he’s hiding from someone and, because he’s afraid not to, Zayn follows suit. As he passes the telephone, Zayn has some sense of mind to pluck the hand-held and dial 9-1-1.
“Shh, Private,” Liam hisses through the dark. Zayn grips the phone and hopes Liam can’t hear it but his head whips around as the operator announces she’s there listening and is asking for his emergency. “What are you doing? You’ll give away our location!” He hits Zayn’s hand and send the phone crashing to the ground. “Fucking idiot,” he curses as he kicks the device away. Zayn can still hear the lady on the other end so he’s hopeful help will arrive before Liam can do any real damage to anyone.
“Liam, he tries again to encourage the boy to not do whatever he’s doing. “Baby, put down the gun,” he pleads his hands shaking a bit as he’s still carrying the too heavy weapon with too many live rounds in it.
“Scared of guns, Private?”
“Yea. I’m fucking terrified. Please just put it down. We don’t need it. We’re safe here!”
He looks back at him his finger trained on the trigger. “Private, pick your gun up, and get ready…” he trails off and holds the gun up quickly, “GET DOWN PRIVATE NOW!”
It’s quieter than Zayn had imagined. He’d envisioned some loud explosion that would ripple through just about everything. But it’s not. It’s a pop, almost like the popping of bubble wrap but louder. It’s a crisp bang that he’s not expecting but it’s what he’s greeted with. He is also not expecting the light explosion when the bang erupts. Mostly he’s just not expecting Liam to have fired and he’s not expecting the bullet to have hit him.
It’s quiet now. Liam’s not yelling, or if he is, Zayn can’t hear him. There’s a soft ringing in his ears and he wonders if this is what it’s like to die because surely it wouldn’t be so peaceful if he was going to be fine. He’s vaguely aware that someone is shouting in the background. He’s vaguely aware that someone is cradling him in their arms as he lies on the floor. And then it hits him like a speeding train.
“Baby! Baby, hold on, please!” Liam’s begging because he doesn’t know how else to express he desire. He presses his shaky hand against Zayn’s stomach and against the large hole that’s made a home against his skin. “Oh my god, Zayn, I’m so sorry!”
“S’okay, Liam. Doesn’t even hurt,” he mumbles. He wonders if being shot makes you tired because he’s never had a desire to sleep more in his life.
“Baby, please hold on! Please! Help is on the way!” Tears run down Liam’s face inching over the etched lines of aging he’d gained from his many tours of duty. He wonders how he’d gotten so far away from being healthy and happy that he’d wound up shooting Zayn. “Please just hold on.”
“Know what I love the most about you?”
“Shh. Baby save your strength,” he urges softly begging him to just hang in there.
“I love how brave you are. You willingly put yourself in danger. You protect us all. I really like that.”
“Zayn, please, stay with me. I’m begging you,” he whines softly into Zayn’s ear as the blood starts to trickle out of his mouth. “Please don’t leave me. I need you so bad. I can’t do this without you. Please, baby, don’t go.”
“You’re so kind and gentle, Liam. S’okay, Liam, it doesn’t hurt. I’m just going to rest.”
The way his voice tapers off into a soft whisper doesn’t sit right with Liam and he’s shaking the black haired boy before he can stop himself. “Please, Zayn, open your eyes. Help is almost here, baby. You’ll be alright!” But his eyes stay closed. “Please, baby, please don’t leave me.”
They say when you’re about to die your life flashes before your eyes. Liam’s goes like this:
He first met Zayn when he took his younger sister on a tour of a college campus. Zayn was their tour guide with a smile wider than could possibly occur naturally. And he’s right. He sees Zayn again at a cafe when they’re finished with the tour. Zayn has a hot chocolate, even though it’s hotter than hades outside, and sits in the corner reading a book.
Two months later when he’s dropping his sister off for move in he sees Zayn again. He’s a little thinner now and Liam wonders if it’s because he was trying to shed a few pounds or because that’s just how the boy works. He later finds out it’s because he broke up with his boyfriend and had been since living on Ramen and Mac&Cheese.
He asked him out just before Thanksgiving break. Zayn was a stubborn one and hadn’t wanted to go on a date with the Army boy citing that he would probably get attached and nothing in the Army ever seemed to end well.
Two weeks later Zayn agreed to a date. They had hot chocolate in the same little cafe and Zayn told Liam he liked reading more than he liked breathing but less than he liked doodling.
His deployments pass in a blur and he wonders if he was a monster after each of them. He tries to remember but in the split second he can’t.
Two weeks ago he woke to Zayn crying on the phone. He doesn’t make a sound just lays in bed listening to the boy wonder if he’s done something wrong. He kept repeating that something was wrong, Liam didn’t love him anymore. Liam doesn’t figure he’s ever heard a heart break but the creaking in his chest is probably as close as he’ll get.
Yesterday he bought a ring.
Now he sits holding Zayn cradled in his arms the paling boy looked so peaceful despite the chaos that put him here. He cries a little as he reaches for the gun. It’s a foreign feel as he weighs it in his hand. He wonders if this is what Zayn felt like holding the other pistol he’d forced upon him. He wonders if Zayn had felt this clumsy with a gun (because even though Liam’s been raised shooting and seen four deployments, he’s never felt more novice with a weapon).
“I’m so sorry.”
- bang -