Everything was blurry.
Liam blinked slowly, trying to make out his surroundings. A slow, steady beat was thrumming through his body, white noise cancelling out every thought on his mind.
A warm body pressed against his and he was hit by the most perfect scent. Lime, a sunny, frosty winter day. His cheek was pressed to soft, platinum blonde hair, while determined fingers pulled at his clothes.
Then there was heat, his skin burning, his body restless, every fibre of his being begging for release. Only that gentle scent could sooth it. Only the touch of those fingers could ground him.
Everything turned, Liam's stomach twisting with it, to the point that he felt sick. His limbs got heavy, his breathing ragged, and darkness engulfed him completely. There was regret running through his veins; fear, loneliness, and then a bitter longing.
They weren't his feelings, though. He was alone in that hotel room, confused and worn-out, and those feelings weren't his. They still felt as real, still hurt and made his heart bleed with how they crashed over him. Stabbed him from behind, where he couldn’t see them coming.
A streak of pain ripped through Liam's body and he jolted out of his sleep. Sitting up, he groaned and ran a shaking hand through his hair, adjusting to the darkness in the room. His heart was stammering in his chest, he was panting, and his skin was cold.
Liam frowned, wondering if he had imagined it. He had never before remembered any detail about his mate, other than the memory of his scent. It was hard to tell whether it even was a memory, or if his mind was playing tricks on him.
He didn’t know why it happened now. Liam had not dreamed of that night in a while, and he hadn't even thought too much about it anymore. For a long time, the dreams had stopped, and for a long time, Liam hadn’t been able to feel his mate through their bond. He had learned to mute the bond, had managed to ignore each emotion that had run through him. Except for heats -- he couldn’t escape those.
That’s how he knew that his mate suppressed his heats. It had struck him several times a year in the beginning, but in the past five years, it had only happened twice every year. It had been a relief for Liam, but he was still attuned to them that he could feel them coming on.
This didn’t happen because his mate was going into heat. There hadn’t been any signs, and it simply wasn’t scheduled for another few months. There was something else to it.
Getting up, Liam opened the blinds, letting the bleak morning light in. A brief glance at his mobile told him that it was barely six in the morning.
To clear his mind, he decided to take a run. Sports usually helped when he had these kinds of episodes. It gave him a feeling of wiping the page and starting fresh.
After all, today was an important day. They would record the final version of his first single and talk through the details for the music video shoot.
It was only a week now until promotion for the single was going to start. With that, Liam would go into the public eye, too. There were a lot of media training sessions arranged for the upcoming week.
Leaving his flat, Liam put in his airpods, choosing some uptempo music and started jogging down the street. The morning air was crisp, his skin sensitive to the cold. He inhaled deeply and let it pierce his lungs, to override the numb pain still throbbing beneath. The pain that wasn't his, and yet, felt like an integral part of him.
The streets were empty this morning. Some taxis were passing him, and a few people walked on the pavements with dull expressions and tired eyes, but other than that, the city was still relatively quiet. As quiet as London could ever be.
He had just decided to take a turn soon to get back to his flat, when someone touched his back. On instinct, Liam tensed up, turning around quickly to grab the intruder's hand.
Niall stumbled back with an expression that was half confusion and half fear.
Liam immediately let go. "Niall. Sorry."
Niall pointed at one of his ears, body relaxing. "I didn't see you were listening to music."
Liam took the airpods out, slipping them into a pocket. "What are you doing here?"
"Getting coffee before uni." Niall nodded to a shop behind Liam. "They make really good breakfast smoothies, too, so I sometimes stop by when there's time to."
Liam turned to look at the shop. "Sounds good."
"Did you run all the way here?" Niall buried his hands in the pockets of his coat. "From your flat?"
"Yeah, I was just about to turn around." Liam shrugged. "Couldn't sleep anymore."
"Exciting day today?" Niall asked.
"We're finishing up the single today," Liam replied. "It's all starting to become real now."
Niall grinned. "Wanna join me for breakfast?"
Liam put his hands on his thighs. "I don't have any money on me."
"It's on me." Niall gestured to the shop. "You've really run enough, mate. It's, what? Two stops from your flat?"
Liam looked around. "At least, yeah."
"Time to get some food into you." Niall went ahead, opening the door. "You can invite me next time."
Smiling, Liam followed, walking in. He had started getting cold again after he had stopped running and the warmth inside the shop hit him pleasantly. It had a shabby vibe to it. The tables and chairs were mismatched as though they had been collected from flea markets, and the walls weren’t painted. Instead the paint was crumbling, revealing patches of old wallpapers underneath.
“You gotta try the green smoothie,” Niall said as they stood in front of the counter. “What kind of coffee do you want with that?”
Liam scanned the menu. “Flat White.”
“Perfect.” Niall gestured to the sitting area. “Get us a table. I’ll be with you in a sec.”
There weren’t many tables taken. Liam chose one at the window, taking the seat with his back to the room. He took out his mobile to turn off the music and saw that he had a few text messages. He replied to the ones from his sister, smiling at the pictures she had sent of his nephew.
“That’s cute,” Niall said as he passed Liam and dropped down into the chair across from him. He set a tray down on the table with their smoothies and coffees. “Who’s the kid?”
Liam put his mobile down. “My nephew, Ashton. He's just turned three."
Taking one of the green smoothies, Niall set the other in front of Liam. "You see him often?"
"Not often enough," Liam shrugged, adding sugar to his coffee. "My family lives in Wolverhampton."
Niall hummed. "Is that where you're from?"
Liam nodded. "Not quite glamorous. Probably the ugliest town in all of England."
"Mate, have you ever been to Plymouth?"
"Didn't have the pleasure yet." Liam smiled. "Is it that bad?"
"The worst." Niall laughed and gestured to Liam's smoothie. "Try it!"
Liam did as he was told, raising his brows afterwards. He couldn't even pinpoint what exactly the thick drink tasted like. "What exactly is this?"
"Spinach, kale, bananas and lime. Good, eh?"
"Yeah, not bad," Liam agreed. He didn't have the heart to tell Niall that he liked his breakfast to be a bit more solid. Like eggs on avocado toast. "What's planned today? You're up early."
Niall leaned back in his chair. "Got a long day at uni today. I've got the introductions to cultural studies this year. Hate it."
"You hate it?" Liam frowned.
"No one likes giving the lectures for first semesters, Liam." Niall rolled his eyes. "They just don't get it."
"Now I feel stupid for what I've wanted to ask."
Niall gestured with his hand. "No. Go ahead."
"What exactly is your subject?" Liam wanted to know.
"Well, cultural studies is about analysing how culture influences and shapes societies and individuals in society." With a smooth motion, Niall crossed his legs. Liam noticed a change in his demeanour. He suddenly appeared quite professional. "There's a lot of history, of course. Like, how did cultures evolve, and did they all start out the same? Is culture tied to aspects like geography, race, gender - first and secondary - or language? Those are questions that are being explored."
Liam nodded. "In order to help us understand humankind better?"
"Right," Niall affirmed. "And that way, we're able to evolve and understand why people or societies act a certain way."
"Sounds interesting." Liam sipped from his coffee that was still too hot. He meant it. He'd never been the academic type, but lately, it seemed a lot more interesting to him than it had when he had been younger.
"My field, specifically, is modern culture, though." Niall shrugged a little. "History is interesting, and I certainly need it to understand recent cultural developments, but in general, it bores me a bit."
Liam tilted his head. "What are you working on, then?"
"Pop culture, mainly." Niall grinned as he leaned his arms on the table. "That means I'm looking at how contemporary pop culture, like music, telly, and social media shapes our culture. What kind of impact people like you have."
"Like me?" Liam raised a brow.
Laughing, Liam looked at his coffee. "I'm not a popstar."
"In the making," Niall amended.
Liam couldn't quite believe it yet. He knew that it was happening, but it all seemed a little surreal to him. He had gone through these processes before, and nothing had come of it.
"Well, Liam," Niall said, voice cheerful. "You have to believe in yourself first before anyone else does it."
Liam looked up at him, grateful for Niall's attempt to lighten the mood. "I've done this before you know? Sign with a label, record a single."
Niall frowned. "Really?"
"Yeah." Liam lifted one shoulder. "The label was shit, though. They did nothing to promote me, so nothing came off it. I was signed to them for two years, but they didn't even let me release more songs because that first one had flopped so spectacularly."
Until Zayn and Louis had paid quite some money to buy him out of that contract. Liam hoped they'd still show that kind of commitment after the first single.
"That's a bit shit," Niall murmured.
"I just don't believe that this will be different until it happens, you know?"
Niall nodded, the look on his face sincere. "I get that. But I'm sure Louis won't let you down. They're not that kind of label."
"Well, it's not up to Louis." Liam thought of the conversation he'd had with Louis and Zayn not even a week ago, and of Zayn's cold reaction. "He only filled in for Zayn in Dublin. It's actually Zayn who's gonna work with me."
Niall seemed to need a moment to remember Zayn. "He's cool. Even better than Louis."
Liam laughed at that. He understood why Niall would say that. He himself could not really form an opinion on Zayn. At Liam's party last week, they hadn't exchanged a single word apart from greeting each other. Zayn had disappeared without saying goodbye, too.
"Probably. I just…" looking for the right words, Liam finished his smoothie. "He doesn't seem to like me that much."
"You personally?" Niall asked.
Liam nodded. "Yeah. I think I'm the kind of alpha he truly despises."
Niall looked affronted. "How can he despise someone like you as an alpha when his best friend is the biggest alpha dickhead on earth?"
For a moment, Liam considered telling Niall. He had made the mistake of telling Harry, believing that as Louis' mate, he'd know about it sooner or later anyways. And he had been spectacularly off about that, too.
"Louis' not a dickhead," he deflected instead.
The way Niall looked at him made it clear that he saw right through it, and Liam was grateful that he didn't call Liam out on it.
"What even happened with those two?" Liam asked. "What did Louis do?"
All Liam knew was that Harry had texted him one day after his party that he was sorry for leaving the party without saying goodbye. Since both Louis and Zayn had disappeared without a word, too, Liam had suspected that something between Harry and Louis had happened that hadn't gone too well. Seeing Louis at the label's offices a few days later had confirmed it. Louis had looked like shit, had been snappy, and had withdrawn from any conversations that hadn't been about business.
Niall groaned, shaking his head. "Well. It's a long story, and Harry certainly isn't innocent, either. But the short version is that Louis wanted to pay Harry for their time in Dublin. And for spending his upcoming rut with Louis."
Liam almost choked on his coffee. "What?"
"Yeah." Niall sighed. "Harry is furious."
"How did Louis get the idea Harry wanted money from him?" Liam frowned. As far as he had observed it, Harry had fought Louis on paying anything for him in Dublin.
Niall's expression changed, and Liam realised that just like he hadn't wanted to enclose everything before, Niall held something back now.
"I thought they'd work out," Liam said instead to steer the conversation back onto safer grounds.
Niall nodded. "To be honest, I did, too."
Grinning, Liam tapped a finger against the tabletop. "Because you don't think so lowly of Louis as you pretend to do, after all."
"He's an idiot." Nial rolled his eyes. "But, generally, he's a nice lad. Got the right spirit. Just tends to make really stupid decisions."
"Maybe he'll be able to fix it." Liam smiled. "I'm quite sure they're meant to be, so."
Niall hummed. "It's not that easy. At least Harry won't take a path that easy."
"You both seem pretty strong-willed," Liam remarked. "That doesn't name it easy for an alpha to approach you."
Grinning, Niall met Liam's eye. "Well, I'm not grazing the earth to make it easy for alphas. They've already got it easy enough."
Liam laughed, feeling his chest go a little tougher with the realisation that Niall was right. "I'm curious to meet your bondmate. They'll have their hands full."
"I just hope I'll have my hands full, too." Niall shrugged with a smile that didn't seem all that genuine. "What's your dramatic bondmate story, then?" His expression turned softer even Liam made a choked off noise. "Sorry, but it's quite clear you've bonded. No unbonded alpha would act and talk the way you do."
Liam pressed his lips together, shrugging. "It's a long story, really. None I'm ready to share."
Niall hummed quietly. "All right."
"But I guess, I act and talk the way I do, because losing them was the worst thing that's ever happened to me."
"I'm sorry," Niall offered.
"I've learned to deal with it." Liam put their glasses and mugs back onto the tray. "It's been a long time."
Silence settled between them and Liam felt heavy and drained, maybe from his run, or maybe from the memory of the dream he'd had. The connection he hadn't felt in so long that had suddenly flared up this morning.
"I gotta get going," he said with a glance at his mobile. "Need to be at the studio at nine."
Niall grinned, his usual cheek coming back to his expression. "Looks like even popstars work nine to five."
Laughing, Liam got up. "Thanks for the treat, mate. Next time's on me."
"I'll hold you to it." Nial got into his coat. "Hey, by the way. There's a pub around here that Harry and I go to most fridays. You up for it?"
Liam pursed his lips, trying to remember what he was up to on Friday. "Sure. Text me?"
Niall nodded as they left the shop. He waved at Liam when they parted ways. "See you Friday!"
Waving back, Liam turned and fell back into a slow jog. Rain had started drizzling, and Liam shivered slightly. He sped up to shake the cold, but it didn’t work. Instead, the wet chill crept under his skin and into his bones, making him stumble slightly.
Abruptly, Liam stopped, grabbing his t-shirt over his chest and bending forwards. A sudden pain stroke, seizing Liam’s whole body. He gasped, trying to get air into his lungs. His surroundings blurred, and all noises turned into a flat hissing.
The feeling passed as quickly as it had come. Liam released his breath, exhaling loudly. A hollow emptiness gaped in his chest, only a dull throbbing left as the reminder of the intense emotion that had run through Liam’s body just seconds ago.
It hadn’t been his own. Liam had known the feeling; had gone through it so many times before. But that one hadn’t been his own. It had never been that prominent before. Palpable, strong, running deep -- so intense Liam felt as though he could have touched it.
Longing. The feeling had been his mate desperately longing for him.