“Oh God, break it up,” Louis complains, as if he and Liam haven’t given all of them constant eyefuls for the last year and a half. “You act like you won’t see each other again for ages.”
Niall and Justin ignore him, huddled up to each other despite the late-spring heat with their luggage forgotten on the sidewalk. They’re talking so low only that they can only hear each other and they keep planting little kisses all over each other’s faces mid-sentence. Louis rolls his eyes and makes retching noises.
Zayn doesn't say it out loud, but he's kind of on Louis' side. He loves love and everything, but he hit his limit on disney-esque romance around the same time as Justin and Niall's third date.
They're a rom-com montage in real life, always curling up together on Justin’s bed during group hangouts and looking like they don’t even know other humans exist. They whisper in their own little world until they fall asleep in each other’s arms. They fight are over silly things like the merits of various action movies and what counts as a pizza topping abomination and they're always half-laughing when they do.
They make it hard not to wish for what they have, which is something he's been trying very hard not to do. But of course, he does. Suddenly, and with the force of a freight train coming through his window, he realizes that he wants that.
Maybe not all the corny jokes and public groping, but it would be nice if someone to clung to him the way they do to each other on move-out day. It’s only time to go home for the summer but they’re holding each other like they’ll be separated for a decade.
“Ah, leave them alone,” Harry says, a little more patient. Caroline isn’t there and none of them ask why, only because his eyes have been perpetually red for the last few days and none of them wants to be the one to make him break down. Zayn gives him an awkward side hug though, just to show his support.
Louis doesn’t take the chance to argue about his right to constantly roast people because Liam comes up behind him to wrap him in a surprise hug. Then they’re the ones causing retching noises because they have their tongues down each other’s throats.
“How did they find that,” Harry says, nodding to the two revoltingly lovely couples in front of them. He speaks so low only Zayn can hear. “I thought I found it, but I don’t think I did. Or if I did, I fucked it up and I’m losing it. I don’t know if I’ll find it again.”
Zayn doesn’t know what to say to that. He can’t say that he thinks Harry deserves someone who doesn't make him cry nearly as much, or at least someone who understands his jokes and doesn’t want to him to change who he is to fit their plan. That won’t help anything, it’ll just push over the tears that have been sitting on the edge of his eyes, so he searches for something else.
“Tell you what,” Zayn says as the taxis they called pull up. “You find a potential soulmate, bring em to me. I’ll hook up with them like I did with Justin, work my magic. Few weeks of drama and then you’ll be professing your love on stage and living happily ever after.”
Harry snickers at this lame attempt to lighten the mood, but it sounds a wet. Liam starts piling things into the backs of the cabs and Zayn thinks fuck it and pulls Harry in for a full hug.
“It’ll be okay,” he says into Harry’s curls, a sudden, bone-deep certainty coming over him. Harry just hugs him back, clinging for a brief moment. When he pulls away that redness is still there but his eyes are dry and he scrapes up a smile from somewhere.
They all go their separate ways. As they do, Zayn sends up a little prayer to whoever is listening that his best friends will be okay.
“It’s fine,” Harry is saying two weeks later. He’s off in some exotic local because that’s what his family does on break and Zayn is staring up at the ceiling of his childhood room, waiting for Harry to say what he really wants to say. “I mean, I’ve had a great time at home. Ate good food, caught up with the family.”
Zayn waits some more.
“Haven’t really talked to Caroline though,” he finally says. “She’s flying me back out next week. We’re supposed spend a month together and then I’m coming home for a bit before school starts up again.”
“Huh,” Zayn says, only because he knows Harry and Caroline haven’t spent longer than five hours together without a fight in at least six months.
Harry sighs. “Yeah,” he says.
Once again, Zayn bites his tongue. “You don’t have to worry about it yet,” he says. “Tell me about the island.”
“Oh, it’s lovely!” Zayn can practically hear Harry’s brain hop, skip and run away from the mopey, heartbreak path it was on. He smiles at his ceiling and settles in for one of Harry’s famous rambling stories. “It was funny, we were at this market-”
Three weeks later there’s a ping on Zayn’s phone as he’s starting to fall asleep. It’s the group chat, Harry’s name, and We broke up .
Harry picks up, but at first there’s just stuffy, panicked breathing from his end. When he can speak, his voice is heavy and quiet and exhausted. “She says it’s over, for good this time."
“Did she say why?” Zayn asks, just as quiet.
There’s a whoosh like Harry’s pushing all the air he possesses out of his body. “She just...she gave up. Her whole family’s been saying I’m too young, I’m unrealistic, she needs a man with a real job...they’ve said it for ages, but it didn’t matter because we-.” His voice starts to get choked up again and Zayn clutches his phone as if his touch could transfer down the line. “...I guess she finally decided love wasn’t enough. Or maybe she decided she doesn’t love me. Just, it’s just over now.”
“What can I do?” Zayn asks in the hollow silence that follows.
“Just stay with me?” Harry asks.
Zayn nods even though Harry can’t see it. “Yeah, 'course.”
He and Harry talk on the phone every night, first so Harry can sleep and then just out of habit. As June becomes July becomes August, he starts to wait for those calls. Against his better judgement, he gets used to falling asleep with Harry's voice in his ears.
One night Harry doesn't call.
Zayn waits, like he always does, but his phone only buzzes with game notifications and the boys sending memes in the group chat. He doesn't want to care, but his sisters teasing about how he's usually off talking to his "secret admirer" by this time hits a spot he didn't know was tender. He ignores them and turns his phone over so he can't see it but he's painfully aware of how he jumps every time it vibrates.
Around one in the morning he starts to feel stupid.
He extracts himself from where his sleeping sisters have curled around him on the couch and heads into the kitchen. He can call Harry, he reasons. They're mates. If he wants to talk to him, he can call. Can't he?
He does, drumming his fingers on the counter top and not quite sure why he feels so jittery.
Harry's phone rings twice and goes to voicemail. Zayn hangs up as the message plays and feels even stupider.
It's no big deal, he tells himself as he heads up the stairs. He and Harry never said they would call each other every night all summer. Maybe Harry's completely over the breakup. Or maybe Harry's just tired of talking to him. Sick of laughing with him and talking about the things they believe in and what they think the universe is made of.
By the time he gets to the top of the stairs he's stomping. He throws himself onto his bed face first and admits to himself that, really, he isn't angry at Harry. Really, he's angry at himself. Angry at himself for expecting things, and wanting what he can't have. And, apparently, only being able to fall for his friends.
It takes him longer than usual to fall asleep, and when he finally does it's fitful and unsatisfying.
Hey Zayn, it's Harry. I'm sorry mate. I went out last night and drank...a lot. Maybe the whole pub dry. Feelin' like shit right now. And um, these Australian lads I met, they took my phone, thought I'd call Caroline I guess. They might come to school with us, actually! I’ll introduce you. Oh, and Michael - you don't know Michael, great guy- he's the one that saw your call. Said to tell you you're fit. And he said...well. Anyway, I um, I wanted to call you, promise. So, I'll definitely call tonight. Let me know if you've got this. Okay. Bye.
Zayn talks to the other boys too. He alternatively teases and comforts Niall when he freaks out about the possibility of meeting Justin’s grandparents. He and Louis stay up on Skype writing songs and sniping about word choice. Sometimes Liam joins them for this, but really it’s better if he doesn’t because of their inability to behave normally in front of other people. He even talks to Justin a little, bit by bit moving past the leftover awkwardness from the semester.
As August comes to a close he finds himself feeling settled and at peace. Harry is doing a lot better now, relieving him of his biggest source of worry. He knows he must look less stressed because his mother does too. He leaves for school with a feeling that the powers that be have answered the prayer he sent up back when summer started.
And if he's a little in love with someone who doesn't feel the same way, that's fine. He's dealt with it once this year, he can do it again.
* * * * *
Move in day is always Harry's favorite. The campus green is full of friends hugging and clubs recruiting. There's a general spirit of community that fills his chest with warmth and promise.
He spots Justin and Niall first. Of course, they’re adorable, greeting each other with a long, tight hug. Liam braces himself as Louis drops all of his luggage and lunges for him, despite the fact that they’ve only been two hours away from each other this whole time.
He turns away from their reunions because even though he’s doing better, it still hurts a little. He waits for them to detach before asking "Where's Zayn?"
"Oh, off somewhere being complicated and anti-social," Louis says. Harry follows the finger he's pointing past a family that doesn't know how to let go of their freshman. He sees him, amid the people hugging and lugging bags, smoking against the side of the hall with a book in hand and somehow, paint already on his jeans.
Harry never went through that whole "big-fat-crush-on-zayn" phase that the other boys did. He's always known Zayn is pretty, but it’s never really knocked him off of his feet and dragged him to crazy town the way it has for everyone else. But maybe it’s the memory of his voice on all those late night calls or the echoes of Michael's drooling that night at the pub. Maybe just old fashion absence making the heart grow fonder, but as he takes Zayn in now he finally understands it.
The wind has yanked one strand of hair from his perfectly coiffed style that he probably spent an hour in the mirror on. He isn't bothering to push it out of his eyes because he's so intent on the words in front of him. Or, illustrations. Because he's reading a comic book.
Of course he is.
He’s a giant dork in cool guys clothing and the kind of absolutely beautiful that makes people crash into things while they're trying to move.
And Harry, for the life of him, can't understand how he hasn't seen it before now.