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Zayn doesn't sleep a wink that night.

They're in Harry's cramped bedroom in the loft, glued together, still naked. But Zayn can't sleep, he won't let himself.

It works in his favor because it gives him time to disconnect, to remove himself, to shut down the part of his brain that wants Harry Styles. He allows himself the seconds that turn into minutes, to stare at Harry as he sleeps. He allows himself to see and appreciate, before he has to close his eyes and forget.

Harry sleeps beautifully. Zayn's not sure when he first realized it, over the past few weeks, that "beautiful when he sleeps" is something he admires about Harry, but it's clear as anything now as he props his head on his hand and looks at Harry's gentle face. His hair across his forehead, the little breaths breezing across Zayn's cheek, the twitch to his eyelids. He's so peaceful and serene, like everything is fine, like the world is fair. Zayn runs a finger down Harry's nose, to the top of his mouth, just to touch the skin he had tasted only a few hours before.

Their night had been amazing, drunkenly eating pizza in Harry's bed, before Zayn tasted every inch of him. It was like he couldn't stop, after he heard the news that afternoon, after he knew it had to end. Zayn tasted Harry's chest, his stomach, even his ankles as he slammed into Harry over and over, and it didn't seem like enough.

Harry crowds against Zayn closer, his face in the curve of Zayn's neck. Eventually Zayn settles for drawing across Harry's bare back, making figure eights with his finger, over and over, light as anything. It's something he's done since he was a child, when sitting idle or still, making the same motion. Eights. Zayn realized the day before when they were eating dinner on the couch that he was doing it across Harry's shoulder. Harry must've felt it, must've liked the monotony of it, must've recognized that Zayn felt truly and utterly comfortable with him. So he smiled at Zayn.

The night they met, it was a night out, just a night at the club for Harry and his roommate. Harry told Zayn, when they sipped beers at the bar after Harry's shift, that he and his best friend had been working there for six months. They got cheap drinks if their cash drawers weren't short, danced with random people because it was harmless, kissed whoever needed a warm mouth to feel good. They wanted to live it up, wanted to live away from home, be impulsive and stupid. Zayn nodded, not because he was the same or wanted to be impulsive too, but because his body couldn't help but react to Harry, even then.

Zayn couldn't keep his eyes off Harry, the more he talked, the slower his speech became as the lights lowered. Zayn wanted him, knew it already, that Harry was someone he could want in the long run. Maybe Harry could tell, maybe Harry felt the same, when their eyes locked and suddenly their mouths slid together.

It's been five weeks since that first night, and ever since, Harry has been texting Zayn's phone, asking him to stay the night, or to eat dinner with him and Niall. It's been night after night in the loft they rent, Zayn on his back, Harry riding him until the sun came up. It's been sex in the shower, holding hands as they walked down Michigan Avenue, shared ice cream when Zayn dropped his. They don't waste time talking about anything heavy, or what they mean to each other. Sometimes they bicker, and other times they fuck silently. They stick together like glue whenever they're in the same room. They drink and party the nights away, the nights Zayn doesn't spend with his roommate and friends from school. Zayn couldn't help but have the time of his life, doing something so outside of who he is, being wild and carefree. With Harry.

As Zayn draws more eights into Harry's skin, as he thinks it over, it sounds like a fucking story, like a book he read once about two kids who fell in love, that ended with a slow dance at the prom. If Zayn hadn't've lived it himself, maybe he'd find it stupid or childish, sappy or embellished. But Zayn knows he'll want this as soon as he walks out the door, so he bites his lip and moves closer to Harry. He wants to feel the warmth from his body, to really savor the last few minutes of them, of their story, their little chunk of time within the book.

That's what he hopes Harry remembers, whenever he wakes up and realizes that Zayn is gone for good. Just a few weeks with a guy. Some guy he met who fucked him good those few times, and that's all. Nothing more, nothing deeper. A chapter in his book, a little chunk of time when they shared Harry's bed for a month, when they were young and reckless. Zayn kisses Harry's forehead and tries to will it into being, for Harry to remember him, but not dwell.

Zayn's not sure where he'll fit in Harry's story, if he'll be a passing fad, "a guy I knew once," just a good lay. Maybe Zayn will be remembered as Harry's first whirlwind romance, who will speak of the time they spent together fondly. Or maybe Zayn will be a villain, a guy who left in the middle of the night with his shoes in his hands, the asshole Harry tells his work friends about years later, still living it up in Chicago, when he's drunk on wine and remembering his early twenties.

Zayn tells himself not to think about it either way. Because he has to leave and he has to forget. He got himself into his current situation and as a man, as an adult, he has to figure out how to handle it. Alone. Harry's amazing, probably the most amazing boy Zayn's ever met. But he can't do this, can't be who he needs to be, with his mind and body completely wrapped up in Harry Styles. He can't be responsible when Harry just wants to have fun, to be young and reckless, forever.

That's not how it works.

They both need to move on and forget. He knows, because even though he might've wanted Harry in the long run, Harry wanted a life Zayn can no longer have.

So Zayn slowly slips out from under the blanket, as Harry flexes his hands in his sleep, almost like he's grabbing for something. Zayn has to look away as he puts on his clothes, afraid of what he might say out into the open if he keeps staring.

As he quietly steps into the hall, he turns back. He doesn't speak, but he does have one last thought.

I'm sorry.


***

 

"A man never tells you anything until you contradict him." - George Bernard Shaw

 


***



SIX YEARS LATER

 


***



Harry is a very smell-oriented man, he's found. He enjoys smells more than the average person, or so he likes to say at parties, when people throw out random facts about themselves. He really enjoys the smell of gasoline, never minding to be the one to step out of the car to fill up the gas tanks of his friends. He thinks the smell of jasmine is heavenly. Library books are God's gift, the first light of a match never lets him down, the musk of his dad's office always brings a smile to his face.

So every morning when he unlocks the front door of the hardware store his uncle owns, he finds himself taking in lungfuls of air.

Hardware stores are a special breed of retail. His dad used to tell him that every time they parked at the store, whenever a weekend project took up all their time. It's a special mix of fertilizer, motor oil, and PVC plastic. It's just on the right side of pleasant, almost off-putting, but not. Completely overwhelming for the senses. The smell smacks you across the face the second you cross the threshold of any hardware store, every single time, every one the same.

It's a place where things happen, where things get made, get done, get fixed. Harry loved the smell as a kid and he loves it even more now that he's the one helping people find ways to fix their problems.

Harry makes his way to the back of the store where the lockers are, where the schedule sits tacked next to the punch clock. Soon the boys will be in, and Greta who keeps the books, so Harry knows he needs to get the coffee on. He needs to throw on his vest, grab his measuring tape and pliers, get the computers running, flip the sign to OPEN. Uncle David's too old to open the store these days, and luckily Harry enjoys it to no end, the first few minutes of quiet before the day starts.

Harry loves opening the store, loves seeing Mr. Cromwell every morning when he comes in with a new project, something he needs to putter around his old house, to fix up something for his wife. He loves helping little old ladies find just the right size nail to hang up pictures of their grandkids. He especially loves helping hot boys with plumbing questions, the ones in tank tops and ill fitting jeans who get sent to the store by their parents, stuck at home in ankle-deep water, desperate for the right pipe fitting.

Harry's just turned on the lights above the key cutting machine, when the bell over the door chimes.

As if on cue, Mr. Cromwell shuffles in the front door in his old Oxfords with the holes near the toes. He wordlessly waves around a piece of wood, something he grabbed from his garage most likely, and heads towards the lumber aisle. Harry waves back with a smile and watches him go, since Mr. Cromwell likes to think he knows everything. He tends to walk his way around the store for a few minutes, before calling to Harry for help.

So Harry sips his coffee and leans against the counter, the sun coming in through the grimy windows, hitting the shitty linoleum floor just right. The rows of hammers and screw drivers make a reflection on the wall, across the cans of paint, spray paint, and rollers. Soon it'll be a little too warm, but still pleasant. Harry counts it down in his head, the beats it takes for Mr. Cromwell to call out for him.

"Harry," Mr. Cromwell comes up to the counter, shaking his head. "I coulda sworn I knew the right type of wood for my shelves. Wrote it down somewhere."

He hands Harry the piece of wood and sighs.

"No worries, I'm sure we'll find the right kind to match this," Harry smiles as they head towards the lumber.

Harry's right in his element then, as he helps fix something. It's the place he feels most at home. It's the slowness and monotony that he didn't realize he missed, after living for those few years in the city. It's not like Beverly is far from downtown, it's still technically Chicago, but it's slower, full of parks and families and dogs on leashes. It's home. The place Harry grew up, the place he knows he still needs. Chicago was fun, the loft with Niall was even better, but it was expensive and Harry knew it wouldn't be a place he'd stay forever.

Harry tried it, he can always say that he tried it, that excitement and craziness that only a big city can bring. Harry and his friends spent those years working mindlessly, drunk out of their minds, had the time of their lives. But it was too much. Harry did it for too long. He'll never regret it because he met Zayn Malik there, but it's a wound he learned was easier to keep closed, to keep from ripping open, when he was back home and not walking past their favorite lunch place every day.

Excitement and craziness can't last forever, like most things can't last forever. Harry learned that while in Chicago. Harry learned that from Zayn.

Once Harry helps Mr. Cromwell with his newest adventure into home maintenance, the day passes as slowly as every other day. A woman needs help with her leaf blower, a couple with their baby in a stroller come in to look at the grills, PJ's dad stops by to feed them. Harry cuts pieces of glass in the back window room, he makes keys for a janitor from the middle school up the road, he mixes paint for various customers.

It's an easy day. The easiest, really.

It's peaceful and quiet, the type of day Harry enjoys now that he's older, now that he's settled.

Harry ends up closing the store that night, well after his shift should've ended. But PJ and Jeremy had a concert to go to, and Harry didn't mind. So just as he was the one to turn on the lights and flip the OPEN sign, he's the one to shut them off and flip the sign to CLOSED.

The day passed slow and easy, just like Harry's come to expect.



***



Harry woke up that morning with a smile on his face. It was the permanent grin he carried like a badge of honor, ever since he met Zayn that night in the club. It was goofy and stupid, toothy like his old school pictures, lazy and content. Harry just couldn't help it. He stretched his limbs, reaching up, pointing his toes, feeling the bed for Zayn. The loft was small, but the exposed brick and bright windows made it seem bigger, greater. Harry grunted as he stretched further.

The bed around him was cold though, no Zayn to be felt or touched or kissed.

Bathroom. That was Harry's first thought, that Zayn was in the bathroom, showering or brushing his teeth, something domestic and boring, something Harry could go join him for.

Harry Styles didn't know he wanted domestic until he reached his hands out and felt nothing but cold sheets, aching to find Zayn and touch him. He hadn't thought about going home to Beverly in months, until suddenly he thought about Zayn meeting his mom, seeing his old fort in the garage, drinking with his dad, touring Harry's favorite place, his uncle's hardware store, showing Zayn the layout he drew of his dream house.

Harry smiled even bigger.

But Zayn wasn't in the bathroom. There wasn't fog on the mirror from a shower, the toothbrush Harry gave Zayn sat on the counter from the night before, untouched.

His shoes were gone. His clothes weren't in a pile on the chair in the corner.

Harry didn't quite understand it, as he stood there that morning, eyes bouncing around his tiny bedroom in their loft. The traces of Zayn weren't there. If he didn't have the bite mark on his neck from Zayn's sharp teeth to prove it, maybe Zayn had never been there at all.

Harry texted him then, after he searched the loft. He texted him all day. And the next day. He sent texts to Zayn's phone for two weeks, reaching for him, wondering where he went, if Harry did anything wrong. He said over and over that he could fix it, because Harry thought he could fix anything, he always has. He asked if it meant nothing, if Zayn cared about him at all. He left drunken messages every so often, for three months, pleading for Zayn to tell him what happened.

Do you hate me? I think I hate you.

He threw Zayn's toothbrush away. He let Niall wrap him up in his down comforter on the couch, an entire bottle of wine shoved into his hand, as he wallowed. He deleted Zayn's number. Pretended like it didn't happen. It was only five weeks anyways. Just a guy I knew once.

He kept trying though, after the Zayn incident, to be happy. He worked at the club, and then in an office, wearing a tie and everything, still drinking his weekends away to forget brown eyes and strong grips. He tried until he couldn't think straight.

Eventually the days became boring, the city lost its luster, Harry forgot why he came in the first place.

Eventually Harry moved home.

Excitement and craziness can't last forever, like most things can't last forever. Harry learned that while in Chicago. Harry learned that from Zayn. And now that he's settled, in a place where people settle, it's okay. He doesn't dwell or wonder why or ask himself the slew of questions about what happened.

Now that Harry's older and wiser, he doesn't think about Zayn at all.



***



It's about mid September when the leaves start to change. The weather is as pleasant as can be, which Harry makes himself appreciate every time he walks to work. Soon enough, it'll be bitingly cold, bitter and relentless all winter long, their little city so close to the lake.

Harry waves at a few neighbors as he walks, his boots scuffing the concrete quietly in the early morning, before the school buses drive past with laughter filling the air. He brings Mrs. Marley the mail from the day before, like he does every morning, ever since it got too hard on her bad knees for her to walk to the street.

He opens the store. Turns on the lights, flips the sign, starts the coffee.

The day could be as normal as any other day, any old Saturday when the store gets slightly busier as dads and their kids come in for leaf bags and bird feeders. Harry doesn't think much of it, honestly.

And then suddenly, he's there.

Zayn Malik.

Harry's breath catches in his throat right as he looks up from the counter. He had been shoving his work gloves and rope into the drawer there, after helping two of the regular construction workers from the neighborhood load bags of silica sand into their truck, when he stops breathing. It's like a fever dream, like everything washes out around him except for Zayn.

He walks in the door as beautiful as always. But taller. Leaner. His hair's no longer cropped on the sides, but long and loose, curling at his neck and around his ears. Same black jeans and boots, a plaid shirt hanging off his shoulders. A list in his hand. A bounce to his step. A gleam in his eye.

Suddenly Zayn Malik is a real person again, and not some figment of Harry's imagination. He's happy and there, walking down the main aisle aimlessly, glancing at the signs over each smaller aisle, grasping his list. Harry's not sure if anyone has spoken to him since Zayn walked in, but he's afraid to look away, afraid of what he'll do if Zayn sees him back.

His lungs don't start working again until Zayn's out of sight, back towards the spackle and grout, tucked away in an aisle. A woman physically reaches for his arm to shake him, to ring her up, and he feels faint.

Zayn existed for five weeks and that's it. When he left, after he ignored his phone and let Harry figure out on his own what happened, Harry pretended he wasn't real, tangible, a living being. He was a breath of air, a piece of paper floating by in the wind, a stranger Harry passed like it was nothing. Maybe Zayn was a character in a movie Harry half paid attention to, or was just a guy he lent a lighter to outside a bar. A stranger. No one. Zayn's not supposed to exist in Beverly, he's not supposed to exist at all. He doesn't belong in Harry's store.

At some point, PJ comes to the front counter and shoves Harry from behind it, clearly thinking he's sick. His concerned eyes say as much, as Harry stumbles away, his hand in his hair. He's just about to run to the back room, is halfway down the main aisle, when Zayn walks out of one with his arms full.

He stops. Harry stops. They stare at each other. Caught.

"You," Zayn stupidly mutters.

"You," Harry's face falls.

"How… how are you?"

"I'm fine."

Zayn steps closer. Just one.

Harry backs away.

"Do you… I forgot you were from Beverly. I didn't realize… you'd be here," Zayn furrows his brow.

Harry doesn't know what to do with his hands, so he busies himself with grabbing for his pliers, the set of keys in his pocket. He fumbles with them, looking down, looking away.

"Yeah, well. I'm here. I live here, so."

He meets Zayn's eyes again, Zayn even closer.

"For how long?"

"Few years. I moved back after… everything."

"Oh, well that's…" Zayn tries to smile, but instead shakes his head, his face contorting. "I mean… I didn't know you… I mean, I bought a house just a few blocks from here."

Harry's mind flashes to the little brick house he passes on his way to the store, the house with the SOLD sign in the yard. Harry knows it's Zayn's bungalow, it has to be, with its little shrubs in front of the main windows, the crumbling driveway, the upstairs window busted. It had been on the market for months, a fixer upper once owned by the science teacher from Harry's high school. Now it's Zayn's house.

"I should…" Zayn gestures to his arms, the spackle, tubes of caulk, a face mask, a putty knife, all threatening to fall to the floor. Harry almost calls him an idiot for not getting a basket to put it in.

"Okay," Harry steps around him, away from the interaction entirely.

"Harry… I…"

Harry keeps walking, waving over his shoulder.

"All good, Zayn. Have a good one."

Harry busies himself the rest of the day, tucked in the window room. He slaps on a mask and goggles and hunches over the work table, cutting screen and glass, fitting it into window frames with one of Jeremy's metal CDs blasting at full volume. He flies through orders at a breakneck speed and doesn't even look up until Jeremy is there, shaking his shoulder.



***



Harry's brain betrays him that night, when he dreams about Zayn.

It was in the club, days after the first night they met, when Harry ducked under the bar and popped out on the other side, laughing into Zayn's face. Zayn pulled him close, his fingers grasping Harry's shirt, wrinkling it even more, slotting their mouths together. Zayn smelled like cigarettes, tasted like orange Tic Tacs. He let Zayn steer him to the men's room, let them crash into a stall, let Zayn suck him off with all those people around. Harry bruised his hand, from hitting it against the wall when he came, in Zayn's mouth, across his cheek, down his chin. Zayn still tasted like Tic Tacs after, just a little, the scent of his cigarette sticking to them both, as they clung together in that stall.

Harry swears when he wakes up, when his eyes snap open, that he can taste it, can smell it. Harry remembers that night so vividly because he has a habit of picking up the habits of others.

He carried orange Tic Tacs in his pocket for weeks after Zayn left.

It's just as pathetic as it sounds.



***



Zayn's standing against the wall of the hardware store the next day, one leg perched against the brick, a hand over his eyes to keep the sun at bay. Harry's surprised he's not sucking on a cigarette like he used to, when waiting for Harry, or a cab, or another drink.

Harry pretends not to notice the way his sweater clings to his chest, the perfect shape to his thighs in those jeans, the new tattoos peaking out around his wrists. In fact, he pretends not to notice Zayn at all, walking past him to unlock the door.

"Hey," Zayn tries, kicking off from the wall, to stand next to him.

"Can I help you find something today?" Harry sighs, flipping on the lights.

He heads towards the back room without a backwards glance, not waiting for an answer. But he senses Zayn behind him, following him, their steps in sync like they were six years ago whenever they went for walks that spring. It was a great spring.

"So…" Zayn tries, following Harry all the way to the lockers, behind the Employees Only door.

"So?"

Harry still won't look at him, not trusting his eyes from darting back and forth from Zayn's eyes, to his mouth, his beard, the skin under his jaw that Harry used to suck on like a Tic Tac.

"I bought a house."

"You told me. Yesterday."

"Yeah, that's right. I… It's a lot of work. It's going to be a bitch to fix up. But I guess," Zayn comes around to get in Harry's line of sight. "I don't know, I guess I sort of like that I have to work for it, you know?"

Harry does know, actually. It's why he wants a house of his own to fix, from the ground up. Not that he'll be able to afford it anytime soon. So he looks away and goes back to the floor, heading towards the counter.

"So I guess I'll be seeing a lot of you, huh," Zayn follows him, keeping up.

"I guess."

"Yeah."

Harry settles behind the counter, straightening his vest, still looking away from Zayn. If Zayn thinks they're friends, or even just strangers on friendly terms, he must've had a brain injury some time over the last six years.

"Harry."

Harry stares at his shoes.

"I'm really sorry," Zayn says low, looking at his own shoes. "I… I'm sorry for leaving you like that. The way I did."

Harry stares at his shoes.

"It just seemed… easier. A clean cut, you know? A swift break. You… you didn't deserve it, and I should've talked to you, but I just couldn't."

"Why?"

Harry surprises himself as his head pops up, as they look into each others' eyes. He doesn't even know why he says it, why he gives a shit anymore, until suddenly he does.

Zayn licks his lips nervously.

"I had some shit going on," Zayn shoves his hands in his pockets. "Shit you didn't need, or ask for. So I just… I had to go."

"Well that must've been really nice for you," Harry nods, angry now. "To know the full story, to have all the answers right in front of you. Must've been really fucking nice. For you."

"Harry."

"Fuck 'em and leave 'em, right?" Harry smiles, viciously.

"It wasn't like that."

"I wouldn't know. You disappeared into thin fucking air."

"I know, and I am trying to say I'm sorry. I'm trying to… to be decent. To be your friend. Maybe."

Harry stands up and leans against the other end of the counter, putting as much distance between himself and Zayn as he can. Because Harry can smell his cologne or his soap, some new scent Harry never experienced up close, can see the sweat on his upper lip, the curve of his finger nails that used to dig into his hips until it hurt.

Harry crosses his arms, praying that Zayn leaves.

"I guess," Zayn backs away, finally. "I guess I'll be around, if you… want to talk or something."

He's all the way to the door when he turns around again.

"You should come to the house some time. I'd like that. For you to see it. If you want."

Zayn leaves, the bell over the door ringing loudly, as another customer walks in. In another two minutes, Mr. Cromwell will come in with a piece of pipe or a stray nail, and Harry needs to help him. So Harry counts to ten and slaps a smile on his face.



***



That night, laying in bed in his apartment blocks from the store, with its white walls and shitty floor, Harry plays with his hair and stares at the ceiling.

Zayn Malik is ticklish behind his knees. He eats the crust from his sandwiches first, all the way around, in a full square, before eating the rest. He has a scar on his leg from hot oil, some deep fried turkey incident as a kid, where hair can't grow to this day.

He's ambidextrous. He thinks Harry's worst jokes are his best jokes. He openly admits he'd be the first person murdered in a slasher movie. "Rudy" makes him cry, every single time. He knows all the words to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album. He dances when he's drunk. He's allergic to strawberries.

He sounds like he's choking when he comes. He likes to wrap one of his hands around Harry's throat when he fucks him, not hard or constricting, not even threatening. Just a place to hold, a warm patch of skin to ground his hand, when he grunts into Harry's ear.

These are the things that Harry pieces together, the things he let himself forget, when he convinced himself that Zayn was a figment of his imagination. It comes back slowly, but Harry knows he held onto them somehow, somewhere in his mind.

Harry can't sleep.

Zayn used to hold Harry against his chest, when they slept in Harry's bed for those five weeks. He'd whisper in Harry's ear that he was having the best time, that whatever they were doing, seemed good. Seems right, you know?

Zayn told Harry he admired how he could let himself go, could turn his brain off, something Zayn could never do. Harry didn't tell Zayn what he admired, but he told Zayn he was beautiful, way too beautiful to be fucking around with an idiot with a moth on his chest. Zayn laughed for ages and Harry loved to make Zayn laugh.

Harry used to bite Zayn's knuckles whenever he got up to leave, when he would leave Harry in the morning to go back to his place where his roommates and friends congregated. Harry never bit him too hard, and towards the end, it took Zayn longer and longer to get out of bed to head out.

The last night they were together, the night Harry almost told Zayn he wanted him, for real, for as long as he could hold him, Zayn seemed farther away. He was there, but not. It still seemed right, but Harry should've realized that it wasn't the same, that Zayn was pulling away. He fucked Harry slower, kissed him deeper, held him like he was fragile.

It all slowly trickles back into Harry's mind.

Harry can't sleep.



***



Zayn comes into the store almost every day for two weeks.

He fills basket upon basket of the essentials: tools, a power drill, more spackle, nails, wood.

Sometimes he asks Harry a question, which washers to get for the screws, which drill bits fit his drill, the right kind of shears for his shrubs. Harry answers each time, always helpful, always polite. Zayn stares at him when he speaks, Harry can sense it, but he ignores it. If they're going to be cordial, Harry can't really look at Zayn too long or too intensely.

Somewhere around the tenth visit in one day, for more random items to fix his house, this time for electrical wires and a cart full of galvanized pipe, Harry realizes something.

"So… you do know what you're doing, right?"

He hands Zayn a can of WD-40, careful not to touch Zayn's fingers.

"I mean… I can google, can't I?" Zayn smiles.

"Zayn, I'm serious. Fixing the cabinets in your kitchen is one thing. Trying to rewire a house, or fix an entire plumbing system, is not something to just google," Harry crosses his arms.

"I'll figure it out."

"Since when did you want a house in the suburbs anyways," Harry walks with him to the counter.

"Since always."

Harry can't help the skeptical look from crossing his face, as he wraps the pipe up with rope.

"Sure."

"It's true," Zayn shrugs. "Always wanted a house. Of my own, one day. Luckily my dad helped me out, helped me with the loan for it. Not much more to do now. I need everything done by this time next week, so."

Zayn doesn't say why he's on a schedule to fix up the house and Harry resolutely does not ask. It's none of his business anyways.

Harry hands the bag full of stuff to Zayn, slides the bundle of pipes under his arm. It's heavy, too heavy to walk home on his own. Harry hates himself for it, but he gestures for PJ to watch the store, as he walks around and grabs an end of the pipes, leading Zayn out the door.

They walk in silence towards Zayn's new house, the house Harry tries not to glance at as he walks to work each morning. The front yard is small, close to the street like all the houses in this stretch of neighborhood. But once it's cleaned up, once Zayn paints the outside trim, it'll look perfect. A perfect starter house overlooking a park, the front windows gleaming.

Zayn ends up swinging around Harry, almost dropping the pipes, as he walks up the three brick stairs to the front door. It's homey already, Harry decides, following close behind, smelling like new plaster and wood varnish. Zayn bought wood stain the week before and Harry's pleasantly surprised to see that the floor looks brand new, the old wooden planks leading in from the living room to the dining room, slick and rich.

"Floor's good."

"Thanks," Zayn sets his end of the pipes against the wall with the fire place. "Was a bitch to do alone. But I figured it's the worst part, the floors, so now everything else should be easy enough."

Harry wanders the main floor, taking more detail in, with his hands behind his back. He's wearing his vest from the store. He can smell himself, like he always can right after work, the fertilizer and paint fumes practically swarming around him like smoke, keeping him from smelling Zayn's new house entirely.

The front entry holds a small bench, something refurbished and painted, with hooks on the wall above it. Harry sees the nails he helped Zayn buy holding them in place, the new lock on the door, the potted plant in the corner leading up a small flight of stairs. Judging by the general layout, Harry bets it leads to a small bedroom. He goes down the short hall past the door to the basement and the other hall to the master bedroom, into the kitchen and attached dining room, both empty of furniture.

The kitchen's small, but quaint. Harry notices the faucet isn't dripping like Zayn said it had been when he first moved in. The cabinets have the new fixtures Harry pointed Zayn towards days before, the tiled floor clean and gleaming, the dining room just big enough for a family-sized table. Harry wonders briefly what sort of meals Zayn will eat in there, if it'll be big family gatherings, Thanksgiving feasts, dinner parties.

He makes his way back into the living room, near the front windows overlooking the park. Harry almost reminds Zayn to get the good blinds he suggested, the ones that would compliment dark curtains quite nicely. But then he remembers that Zayn didn't ask his opinion, that this isn't his starter house, that Harry's ideas are still tucked in a file folder in his desk, the blue prints for his dream house folded over, waiting.

Harry shakes his head, as Zayn watches him.

"What color?" Harry gestures to the walls, plain white and boring.

"I'm not sure yet. I was thinking blue. Something light, nothing too overpowering, right?" Zayn looks around.

"That's a good call," Harry nods. "The trim, see? It's the house's original crown molding. Honey oak. It'd be a shame to flush it out with bright paint."

Harry turns to see Zayn staring at him intently.

"What? I'm just saying, you gotta respect the space," Harry says, stepping towards the fire place. "Always respect the space, and above all else, respect the wood. Real wood's hard to come by these days."

Harry thinks Zayn will smile at that. But Zayn frowns.

Harry doesn't know what to do with his hands again, which is infuriating, because Harry's always prided himself on being good with his hands. He can fix anything. He can right wrongs and tighten bolts, fix microwaves, patch holes in walls. But when Zayn stares at him, whenever Zayn's near him, he fiddles. Harry hates himself in that moment, as he nervously cracks his knuckles.

Zayn scratches his head, moving towards the front windows.

"How do you know all this stuff?"

He nods to the walls, the crown molding, the various bags and piles of hardware supplies strewn across the empty floor.

"I always have," Harry shrugs.

"You never told me that."

"You never asked."

Zayn's closer now, the circle he's walking in getting nearer to Harry. Harry can't help it, the way his body reacts, the way he steps closer to Zayn. It's like the first night years ago at the club, when they were crowded against the bar with sweaty beers, lips against each others' ears. The closer they got, the more they couldn't stop.

Harry remembers how they touched almost constantly over those five weeks, the endless brushes of fingers, fingers in hair, feet intertwined. They were barely twenty two, stupid and restless, laughing every time Niall fell down the stairs wasted out of his mind.

They were supposed to stay together, until it stopped, when Zayn left.

So Harry stops now, forces himself back, away from the forward momentum into Zayn's space.

"Why did you leave?"

Zayn's face twitches, like he's been electrocuted, his momentum stopping as well.

"Harry."

"Don't bullshit me, don't give me a vague answer," Harry turns away. "Tell me. Exactly why. I need to hear it."

"I didn't have a choice."

"What does that mean?"

Harry hears Zayn shuffle behind him, moving away, moving back, as Harry takes a step forward. They used to drift together, back and forth, like a waltz. Always in sync, their steps, breaths, sighs, smiles. An odd sort of current that ebbed and flowed. The two of them always seemed like they were on the same wavelength, even Niall said so. But they don't know each other anymore and they don't need to move the same way. Harry thinks about dueling forces, opposite ends of batteries, plugs that don't fit. That's what they're supposed to be now.

Harry's just about to leave and give up entirely. He's shaking his head and straightening his vest, moving towards the old oak front door, when Zayn touches his arm. Their eyes lock and Harry's afraid of what he'll say, of what Zayn could pull out of him.

But Zayn just stares at him, intensely and unwavering, like he's calculating a math problem written across Harry's face. He's questioning, asking, searching, but Harry doesn't know what for.

"Can you come by tomorrow?"

"What?"

"After your shift. Just… please?"

Harry doesn't say yes, he doesn't even nod or acknowledge the question. But he doesn't say no, so when he's walking down the street two minutes later, he hates himself in that moment, as well.



***



It's an odd day for Harry, the day after he sees the inside of Zayn's house. It passes slowly, like most days, and for the first time in a long time, Harry wishes time would speed up. He mixes a can of paint incorrectly, accidentally puts in too much red tint, turning it an odd shade of purple, when he thinks about what kind of paint Zayn should use for his bathroom. He could kick himself for the mistake. He hasn't fucked up a can of paint in a long time. The guy buying it was nice enough, when Harry had to mix a new one, and wouldn't even take it for free.

But then Harry gets distracted as he puts inventory on the overstock shelves, when his mind wanders to Zayn's dining room, to the far wall where a mirror would probably look really good. Then he thinks about what sort of wood finish the perfect dining table should have, and he ends up dropping a box of key hooks on his foot.

Soon enough, the end of his shift rolls around and he's waving to PJ at the front counter. Harry's not sure why he's nervous, or why he's even doing as Zayn asked, but his feet lead him towards the house.

Time's a tricky thing, the way it can speed up and slow down easy as anything, when the moment's just right. Harry wanted time to speed up all day, until he's only half a block from Zayn's house, wishing he could have a few more minutes to collect himself.

Time's even trickier when he's closer, when a car pulls into Zayn's cracked driveway. Harry watches it like a scene from a movie, the woman with brown hair and kind eyes, getting out to open the back door of the car, Zayn coming down the three stairs, to kiss her cheek.

Zayn smiles at her, their words too hushed for Harry to hear from so many yards away, but it's clear she's Zayn's mom, tugging on the long hair around his neck. The car door opens further, and Harry stops in his tracks.

A miniature Zayn Malik emerges from the car, in a pair of black jeans and a Spider-Man tshirt, his hair a mess. He throws himself into Zayn's waiting arms. They hug as Zayn picks him up, holding him so close, their temples touching. The woman tugs on both their hair now, the three of them laughing together. Harry can't breathe, he can't move, as she says goodbye and gets back in the car. The two of them wave at her as she drives down the block.

Harry can't stop staring. Zayn ends up pulling at the little boy's arms, until he's quite literally draped across Zayn's back, their hands clasped over Zayn's chest. Zayn starts running in a circle, the boy's laughter filling the air, as he holds tighter, as his body flies behind Zayn. Harry understands then, that Zayn's wearing this kid as a cape, flying around the yard.

Harry doesn't know if he should turn around, or walk into oncoming traffic, or stay where he is for the next twelve hours, when Zayn's head snaps over to him. Their eyes lock, the little boy's face hidden behind Zayn's head. He lets the boy's hands go, crouching slightly, so he can land on his feet behind him.

Harry walks closer, he has to, now that he's been seen. Zayn smiles a little and waves to him, just as the little boy's arms wind around Zayn's knees, his face hidden in the back of Zayn's thighs.

"Hey H," Zayn smiles again, a small one, nervously.

"Hi."

"Well," Zayn shrugs, his hands coming behind himself to touch the top of the boy's head. "Harry, this… This is Max."

The boy's fingers tighten in Zayn's jeans, still hidden.

Harry's breath catches in his throat, at hearing Zayn's son's name for the first time.

"You wanna say hi?" Zayn looks down at Max and smiles, trying to move him, in vain.

Harry sees the telltale shake of a head from behind Zayn's thighs. Harry was never a shy kid, and Gemma certainly wasn't either. But he knows how it can be hard, to meet new people, when you're young. So he looks at Zayn's face, the face he used to smother with open mouthed kisses and bites, the face he tried to forget for so many years, and steels himself. He crouches down on the sidewalk.

"Hey Max," he says soothingly, trying to get a peek of his face. "I'm Harry."

Max moves slightly, half his face coming from behind Zayn, to look at Harry with one beautiful hazel eye. His little fingers grasp Zayn's jeans as he blinks a few times.

"I like your name," Harry tries again. "Sounds like a super hero name. Max Malik. Mad Max Malik, huh?"

Harry sees it then, the minuscule half smile, the bite of a lip, from Max. He moves another inch, revealing more of himself, as Harry smiles warmly at him.

"If I shake your hand, you won't break my fingers off, will you? If you really are a super hero, you might have super human strength, right?"

He holds his hand out, as Max shifts from behind Zayn entirely, coming around his left leg, still holding on. Zayn's hand hasn't left his hair, which Harry notices when he glances up and sees Zayn biting back a grin. Slow as anything, Max unwinds a small hand from Zayn's jeans and reaches out, shaking Harry's hand. Harry smiles at him again, as he holds his little hand, and Max smiles back.

"What do you say?" Zayn says in a low voice, hand smoothing the hair near Max's face.

Harry lets his hand go, but stays crouched on the ground.

Max blushes and moves to stand behind Zayn once more, still nervous. But he looks at Harry with one big eye again, trying his best to trust him.

"Very nice to meet you, Harry," Max's muffled voice comes from behind Zayn's leg, cordially, Zayn tugging at his ear for a job well done.

It's beautiful, Max's voice. He's beautiful in general, Harry decides as he stands up to face Zayn, their eyes level. He tries to do that thing with his face, when he wants to ease tension, or get his way, or make someone fall in love with him. He wants to tell Zayn that he's okay. Zayn must see right through it because he blushes and nods.

"How about we go inside," Zayn moves away, reaching for Max's hand to follow. Max holds on tight, scurrying with Zayn up the steps into the house, turning slightly to see if Harry will follow.

It's all about trust now, so Harry keeps up, only a few steps behind them. He crosses his eyes at Max, right as they get into the kitchen, and Harry's not surprised at all, how warm he feels, when Max giggles at him.

Zayn busies himself with getting an apple from the almost empty fridge to slice up, and three juice boxes, as Harry settles near the floating counter separating the room from the dining room. Max initially kept close to Zayn, on the other side of the counter, until Zayn whispers for him to sit on a stool next to Harry. Harry pretends not to hear it, instead focusing out on the backyard where a swing set sits fresh and new, something Zayn must've gotten from a massive hardware store, not his small little family shop down the street. He must've put it together himself, with the tools Harry sold him. It stands tall and sturdy.

Max eventually huffs and puffs his way up onto the bar stool next to Harry, his little hands on the tile once he's sitting on his feet. He looks at Harry a few times, shy and sweet, so Harry tries to keep his distance, only looking back at Max once. Harry's always been good with kids, has always been the one to watch his cousins at family gatherings, and this is no different. Max Malik needs to see Harry for who he is, not loud and in his face, to get him to "open up." Max needs to trust him first, quietly, in his own time.

"Do you want to tell Harry about school?" Zayn shrugs, leaving it up to Max, to say what he wants to say.

Harry turns in his stool slightly, opening his body up more.

"I'm in kindergarten," Max rubs one of his eyes. "Miss DiSalvo is my teacher."

"She was my teacher too," Harry nods "She's nice, huh."

Max blinks at him. Zayn sets the cut up apple in between Max's hands, holding out a napkin.

"She's pretty," Max blushes, not unlike Zayn does sometimes. "And she lets me read books when the other kids play in the toy room."

"You like books," Zayn crosses his arms, leaning against the counter, smiling. "Because you're so smart."

Max nods like it's obvious, reaching for his apple. His body language seems easier now, as he shifts on his stool and chomps at his snack. He screws up his eyes and tells Harry about a few days before, when his "gramma" dropped him off at school and he ran all the way to the classroom, because he's fast, too.

Harry listens, even steals one of his apple slices, and shows Max how interested he is. Max smiles at him, tells him about his favorite books, and Zayn doesn't say a word. He just watches. Harry knows because he always knows when Zayn's looking at him.

But Harry doesn't stare back at Zayn, because he's too busy taking in the child in front of him, half of Zayn's perfect DNA sitting there with sticky fingers. It's like Max is an exact replica of Zayn, their movements the same, their eyes deep and bright all at once. When Max laughs, his eyes squint, just like Zayn's. In a word, he's perfect.

Harry doesn't let himself think about how Max came to be, not yet. Because if he's about to hear about Zayn's wife or girlfriend, if Max is about to tell Harry all about his mom, he doesn't know how he'll come back from it. So he focuses, tells himself to listen and hear, as Max sucks at his juice box and taps his palm on the counter.

Eventually Max jumps down from his stool, more animated than Harry thought possible. Clearly it takes him a minute to warm up to strangers, and then he's off like a tornado. Because he runs around the counter to where Zayn's still standing, and tugs on his hand.

"Can I go play in my room?"

"It's still empty, little man," Zayn picks him up, Max's legs curling around his waist.

Max's arms go around his shoulders, the two of them wrapped together, faces close, whispering. Harry can still hear it though.

"I wanna play up there."

"You can go play, just be careful," Zayn bounces him slightly. "No running on the stairs, I don't want you to slip again."

"I won't," he huffs.

As Zayn puts him down, he whispers something right in his ear so Harry can't hear. Harry balls up the napkin near his hand, into his fist.

"It was very nice to meet you, Harry," Max nods, hands behind his back. "Bye!"

And then he's gone, his little feet carrying him through the small hallway and up the wooden staircase, to the bedroom Harry now knows must be his. Zayn's head moves to the side as he cocks it, listening for a fall or a slip, afraid for the little body he just had in his arms, safe and sound, now careening down the stairs. But they hear Max stomp above them, the sounds of a make-believe game floating down, and all is good. He's safe. Still perfect.

Harry grips the napkin in his hand tighter, quietly, to collect his thoughts.

Zayn Malik is not only a real person again, but he lives by Harry's store, by Harry's apartment. He has a house. And a child. He has a house that will soon enough be the place he raises said child, by Harry's store, by Harry's apartment. He might have a wife or a girlfriend, some pretty thing about to flit through the door to take care of her kid, the person from whence the other half of Max's DNA comes from, and it all starts to make Harry's head hurt.

"He's five," Zayn steps to the counter, leaning on it, near Harry.

"Thought so."

Harry rubs at his temples, still reeling.

"He's five, Harry."

Harry brings his eyes up to meet Zayn's, all wide and open, nervous and questioning. Harry's not sure what his face is doing, if it looks just as bewildered as Zayn's. But it must be, because they both blink, as Harry comes to the correct conclusion.

"He's five," he whispers. "You… he's five. We were together and then you…"

Zayn's chin shakes, just once, as he nods.

"It was us. You and me. And then… Cam called me. Remember Cameron, remember how I told you about her?"

Harry nods. He vaguely remembers Zayn talking about one of his best friends from high school, one of the girls living with Zayn in Chicago. She was nice, Zayn always said Harry should meet her. But they spent those five weeks practically naked in Harry's apartment, tucked away, fucking, laughing. They spent their time with Niall or by the lake, always together, but never with other people.

"That afternoon, she called me and said we needed to talk. We… we used to mess around sometimes, when we were bored, or just wanted to have fun, I guess," Zayn shrugs, cheeks pink, embarrassed. "And it hadn't happened in weeks. I met you and it was like… It was us."

Harry nods again. He can't say anything yet.

"She took about five tests. And then when I got to the apartment, I sat with her as she took a few more. And that was it, there we were. I knew everything was going to change, that I wouldn't be able to…"

"So we had that last night together. And then you left," Harry offers, no anger to his voice, just honesty.

"I couldn't leave her alone. I couldn't… I wouldn't be the guy who gets a girl pregnant and then fucks with someone else, I couldn't do that to her. Or you."

Harry rubs his temples again, the headache coming on strong and quick. If Zayn disappeared and left Harry alone to go be an asshole, to fuck different people, to detach himself, then fine. Harry hated it, but he got over it. Knowing Zayn left for his friend, for his family, is more than Harry ever bargained for. It's more than he knows what to do with.

If he left Harry reluctantly, on the cusp of something huge, only hours away from those three little words, Harry might start crying right then and there.

"I'm really sorry," Zayn looks at the floor. "I really am."

"I know."

Harry can't stop himself in that moment, as he gets up and walks to Zayn, his arms closing in on him before he can ask permission. Zayn's quick though and his arms wrap around Harry just as fast, just as hurried. They hold tight, Zayn's face in Harry's neck. They haven't been this close in six years, Harry realizes, biting his lip. He smells different and the same all at once, fresh and not a hint of cigarette smoke. Harry's mouth waters and he suddenly craves a Tic Tac.

Zayn sniffs, just a small one, his arms tightening around Harry's torso.

"I'm proud of you," Harry whispers.

Zayn doesn't say anything back, but his hands tighten in Harry's sweater, like Max did to Zayn's jeans to calm himself. Harry thinks about dueling forces, opposite ends of batteries, plugs that don't fit. And even though they haven't talked about everything, and even though Zayn's wife might pull into the driveway any minute, Harry knows they're not dueling forces at all.

They never were.



***



Zayn: Thanks for today. For stopping over and meeting him. He likes you, I can tell.

Harry: No problem. It was nice to meet him. He's amazing.

Zayn: He is, huh.

Harry: :)

Zayn: Can I ask you a favor?

Harry: Okay…

Zayn: I still need to fix the pipes in the basement and master bathroom. And redo the wiring in the kitchen. And paint every room. If you're interested in helping me out, I'd be very grateful?

Harry: I expect to be paid in food and beer.

Zayn: Deal.



***



"You're a lifesaver," Zayn exhales, as he opens the door for Harry, two days later.

Harry steps across the threshold with his arms full, bags of supplies from the store, half off and everything. Zayn told him over the phone that morning that Harry didn't have to buy it all himself, that his dad's loan for the house included extra money to fix the essentials. But Harry wouldn't hear any of it. If he was going to help, to fix problems like he always has, he certainly won't let it be on Zayn's dime.

"You just remember that," Harry calls over his shoulder, heading to the kitchen, "when I'm bossing you around. I know what I'm doing, Zayn. So just do as I say."

Zayn laughs at that, clutches his stomach even, holding his hand up as a promise.

"Are we expecting anyone else?" Harry wonders, turning away from Zayn entirely, still wondering if Cam will be around.

Zayn doesn't understand the question, clearly.

"Max is with my mom and sisters," he grabs for the paint rollers. "I don't want him in the house while I'm fixing it up. But he'll be back soon."

"When do you actually move in, anyways? When does the rest of your stuff get here?"

"About a week. Max needs his routine back, needs his room," Zayn says, scratching his head.

Clearly he's stressed, trying to finish everything. Harry almost reaches over to poke at the crease between Zayn's eyebrows. But instead he tells himself to shut up, to shut his brain off, to do what he does best: use his hands. He doesn't ask where Zayn's currently staying, where Cam is, what Zayn's thinking about, having Harry back in his life when he has a family now. He instead grabs his dad's tool box, the extra pipe fittings he brought over, and heads to the master bathroom.

Harry spends the next hour with his face under the sink, working away, Zayn handing him the wrench every so often. Harry's pleasantly surprised to see that the plumbing itself, throughout the whole house, is up to par. He ends up replacing some of the bigger pipes in the basement and then redoing the sink in the kitchen, seeing as how Zayn installed the faucet backwards.

Zayn tells Harry about Max as they do the wiring near the dining room. Max is insanely smart, very sharp, quick witted for his age. He found a box of Zayn's old comics and he's been obsessed with Spider-Man ever since. He has a crush on his teacher, has told his class about his new house, is the fastest reader of all the kids. He wants a dog, a companion he can play with, but Zayn's afraid of what it'll do to the new floor he just stained.

"The wood won't scratch easy," Harry offers, climbing down from the counter, after reworking the pendant lights hanging from the ceiling. Zayn didn't tighten them enough when he installed them. "So if you get a dog, his paws should be fine. And wood's easy to clean up messes."

Zayn shrugs at that, but his face softens. He holds Harry's arm as Harry straightens himself, tripping slightly.

Harry pretends not to feel the heat from Zayn's hand, the way their bodies can't stop leaning forward.

As he leaves that afternoon, with a wave and backwards glance, he pretends not to see Zayn looking at him like he used to. And he definitely pretends like he doesn't look at Zayn the same way.



***



Sometimes after they fucked in Harry's bed, on the nights when the city seemed especially loud, they'd talk for hours.

Zayn worked with his dad, at the management company he owned. He knew he wanted to expand the company, eventually. Maybe open up an office "outside of Chicago." But he wanted to live in the city for a few months, to sow his wild oats, just like Harry and Niall always said. Harry told Zayn about not knowing exactly what he wanted, how he felt like a rolling stone, a speck of dust in the wind. Zayn nodded into Harry's neck, agreeing. I feel the same way. I'll land eventually, somewhere.

Harry didn't give up as much information about himself. He didn't tell Zayn much about his family, or his lack of schooling, instead choosing to be a different person in Chicago. He always knew he'd move home, would be the son his parents wanted him to be, close by, a family man, keeping up the store when his uncle couldn't any longer. But to the world then, to his friends and Zayn, he was going places, to the fucking moon if he could, his hands in the air. I don't want to land just yet, but maybe I will, too.

They were so young then, Harry thinks that night, as he tosses and turns yet again.

There's a photo on his desk of him and Niall in the club they worked at, when they were younger and their faces a little chubbier. They have their arms around each other, hair sticking out every which way, their jeans baggy and awkward. Harry remembers that night because somewhere off in the background, Zayn was drinking with two of his own friends, crying from laughter.

Harry sucked the laugh right out of Zayn, right there on the dance floor, their lips hungry and insistent, their drinks forgotten in their booth. And later that night, Zayn spread Harry out so good, so thoroughly, Harry ached for days afterward. It was fucking beautiful, to watch Zayn hovering over him, lip between his teeth, three fingers deep, concentrating on getting Harry where he needed to go.

Harry has a habit of picking up the habits of others. So even to this day, when he jerks off, hushed and alone in his apartment, thinking about Zayn, about them, he does so with his lip between his teeth.



***



They spend three days painting the house.

Harry makes them tape up each room first, around the doorways, windows, and floorboards. Zayn insisted they'd be careful, that taping the edges would take forever, but he relented once Harry gave him a stern look. Respect the wood, Zayn. What did I tell you? Then they cover the floor with drop cloths, Zayn all but smacking himself for doing the floor before the walls.

"I could've told you that," Harry bites off the plastic of the paint roller, smiling, "if you had asked."

Zayn doesn't smile back, as he turns away so Harry can't see his face.

Next they spackle the few holes Zayn missed the first time, Harry having more of a keen eye for imperfections in the plaster, in the living room and hallway, and a few in Max's room, just one in Zayn's master bedroom on the main floor.

Once the walls are primed and dry, Harry steps back with his hands on his hips, staring at the main living room wall.

"Utah Sky," he nods to the paint on the floor, waiting for Zayn to pop open a can.

"You said not to overpower the space," Zayn lifts the lid, revealing the light blue shade. "I figure it's a good blue."

"Agreed."

The living room takes the longest, with its walls the most expansive. The dining room and kitchen, both a light yellow, instantly brighten with the fresh paint. Zayn's room becomes a soft grey, the bathroom a dark grey, and the front entryway and hallway a soft white. They decide to leave Max's room last, for when he can join them and help. He'll want to give input on the color.

It's exhausting work, the days they spend with their backs arched, reaching each corner with brushes, but in the end, it's perfect. Harry can't help but wander around the main floor, in and out of each room, admiring the work put in. If he let himself think about it too hard, he'd realize that this is what he's always wanted, to fix up a house. A place he can live, a place that's his, to grow in.

But it's Zayn's. And he's not part of Zayn's family.

Harry can feel himself wanting to ask questions, about Zayn's life, what he wants this house to be, if he missed Harry at all. But he keeps his mouth shut, breathing deeply, tossing the paint brush back into the paint tray.



***



"Harry!"

That voice brings him out of the reverie he's in the next day at work, his face up close and personal with Mr. Cromwell's circular saw. It stopped working the day before and Harry was much too afraid to ask him how it broke, what exactly he was sawing at the time, or if any appendages were removed in the process. Luckily when he dropped it off earlier, he had all ten fingers still attached. Harry considers that a win.

But Harry snaps out of it, his eyes focusing on Zayn and Max coming through the front door. They're in matching dark jeans and red shirts, Zayn's henley hugging him in all the right places, Max's tshirt a little too big in the arms.

He runs the last few steps to Harry, a smile on his face. Harry's thrilled to see that Max remembers him, knows him, likes him. He's a friend now, someone he can be silly with. Harry feels that warm feeling again, the one in his stomach that he wants more than anything to kick rocks.

"Hey Mad Max," Harry crouches down, shaking his hand again. "How you been?"

"Good," he smiles bigger, showing off a missing tooth. "Look!"

He moves his head side to side, even hisses a breath through the hole in his bottom row of teeth, proud. Harry can't help but laugh, matching Zayn's, who reaches a hand out to mess up Max's hair even more.

"How much cash did you get from the Tooth Fairy?"

"So many," Max touches his teeth. "Dad said I need to save it, though."

"He's very smart, you should listen to him."

Harry stands up, setting circular saw down on the counter, rubbing the grease on the rag he keeps in his back pocket. Max rolls his eyes and bounces to the end of an aisle to poke at the rows of fishing line.

"So what brings the Malik men in today?"

Zayn grabs Max's shoulders to bring him back to the conversation, to focus, and clears his throat.

"Harry, I want to paint my room. Green, please," he nods.

Harry messes his hair up, like Zayn did, and starts towards the paint.

"Green it is."

Harry gets down on his knees then and explains how to paint a room, much the same way he explained it to Zayn just days before, and Max listens to every word. Zayn hangs back as Harry holds out various shades of green, for Max to poke at one, choosing Spring Leaf.

"Solid choice, little man," Zayn ruffles his hair.

Harry picks Max up to set him on the paint counter, shows him how he uses the computer to tell him which tints to add to the base color, how it mixes really fast in the mixer.

"Want to hear something cool?" Harry wiggles his eyebrows, helping Max hop down.

"Yes," Max nods like Harry holds all the secrets to the universe.

"Most things, most liquids, when they dry, they dry darker," he says, dipping a finger into the paint. "But paint dries lighter. So when you look in the can and see this? It'll be lighter on the walls."

Harry puts the paint onto a blank card, for paint samples, and waves it around in the air. He has Max hold a new paint tray in his little arms, as Harry sets in a child-sized paint brush, a new roll of painter's tape. He even sets in a face mask, one of the flimsy white ones that keep the fumes out. Harry usually just opens a window when he paints, but some people like to cover their mouths. He figures it's best, if Max wants to help.

"Why do we need masks?"

"Paint can be heavy on your lungs. Better safe than sorry."

"Do you wear one?" he looks up at Harry, his eyes big.

"Of course," Harry lies. "Dad, too."

Zayn nods, grabs two more masks.

"Yeah, bud. We'll all wear one."

Harry looks to Zayn then, a question in his eye.

"You're helping, right?" Zayn smiles. "I mean, you know the ropes. We need you."

Harry clears his throat and leads them to the counter, to check them out. Max jumps around, tells Harry how he can't wait to have his new room in his new house, so close to his new school, and Harry nods in all the right places. But he can't focus, can't hear anything other than the we need you from before. He hands Zayn the full bag and agrees to come over the next day, to help.

He spends the rest of the day fixing Mr. Cromwell's saw, in the back room, alone.



***



It's one of the best days Harry's ever had. And he's had some great ones, like his cousin's wedding, the day Gemma graduated, the first night he lived in the Chicago loft, the night he met Zayn.

Max gets more paint on himself than he does the walls, but it's no matter. Zayn thinks it's cute, and Harry thinks they're both cute. The drop cloth catches all the paint anyways, the three of them singing along to the radio for hours, breath hot behind their white masks. Max pretends he's a Stormtrooper and makes light saber noises for about two hours straight. Harry can't help but smile.

The green looks great in Max's room, the only bedroom upstairs. He has a great view of the park, the windows open and inviting to the neighborhood. Harry loves it, if he's honest, the way the green lights up, the feel of the room.

He has a great time, spending time with the Maliks, and it's damn near perfect. Harry doesn't wonder, or linger on old questions. He looks at Zayn and wants to kiss him, like he always does when they're in the same room, but it doesn't overpower him.

Harry's close then, to thinking he can do this, be a friend of the family, a person they rely on. He loves being relied on, fixing things, working with his hands. Maybe when they move in officially, with Cam in tow, Harry will be invited over for Sunday barbecues, Friday game nights, Super Bowl parties. Maybe Harry can invite Niall. Maybe he can do it.

And then suddenly, he can't.

It happens with something small, when Zayn goes downstairs to get them water. Harry's putting the lid back on the paint can, when Max says his name. He looks up right as Max reaches for his hand and grips his fingers. He wants to show Harry the little built-in drawers in his closet, a special hiding place he won't ever show any of his friends from school.

"See? It's my secret hiding place. I can put treasures here!" he whispers, face near the drawers, tightening his grasp on Harry's hand. "Only I know, and dad, and you. It's a secret."

Harry stares at him, at his little face, the freckle near his nose, the excited look of wonderment only a child can pull off. He wants Harry to be part of his secret. He wants to hold Harry's hand.

"That's… that's really cool, bud," Harry bites his lip, feeling like he might fucking lose it entirely.

Max smiles at him, excited and sweet, tugging Harry's hand again.

Harry knows then, that he has to get out of there, that he needs to leave like Zayn once did, six years ago. He can't do it after all, be a family friend. He can't do it at all. So he hugs Max, a big one, picking him up even. He leaves him in his room, running around in a circle, flying in the open space, and bounds down the stairs.

He almost runs into Zayn as takes the last step, as he heads for the front door.

"You're leaving?" Zayn smiles, holding three bottles of water.

"I have to."

"Well, okay. Thanks then. For your help."

Harry can't look at him, faces the door, his hand on the handle. It gives him a second to appreciate the wood again, the classic stain, the history and marks indented in it slightly, reminding him that this was someone else's house before it ever became Zayn's. And then just like that, it bursts out of him.

"Does Cam know about me? Did you… would you have stayed? With me? If things were different?"

Zayn doesn't speak, doesn't say anything, so Harry saves him the trouble and leaves. The door shuts behind him and Zayn doesn't come after him, to answer, or correct him. He let's Harry leave just like he left all those years ago, quietly and without a fuss.

Harry runs all the way home, figuring he needed the exercise anyways.



***



Niall finds him on his couch, tucked under the blanket his grandma knitted years ago, his feet covered in two pairs of socks. He won't admit that he wants the heat on at night, won't admit that fall's arrived, which Niall rolls his eyes at.

"You don't even have to say anything," Niall shoves him over, climbing under the blanket. "I talked to Peej at the store earlier, he said 'Zayn Something' kept coming in to see you, and that he had a kid."

Harry turns his head, face scratching against the rough fabric of the blanket, eyes wide.

"So," Niall huffs, annoyed. "Here I am. Unannounced. To get drunk."

Which is exactly what they do. They get so drunk, polishing off a rather large bottle of whiskey, in no time at all. Harry's been good at the pull ever since high school, tossing bottles back like water, mouthful after mouthful. Niall tries to keep up, bless him, and they watch a movie on a low volume. They don't talk about Zayn, or the fact that he's a real person. They don't discuss Zayn's house or the family he's built, the life Harry always wanted, with someone like Zayn, had he ever been asked. Zayn doesn't exist that night, is hardly a name Harry even knows, except for when Niall puts Harry to bed and Harry cries out that Zayn's hair is longer.

Niall pats at his cheek before stumbling back into the hallway.

"It's so long, Ni," Harry says on an exhale, burying his face in his pillow. "Long hair and long eyelashes, remember?"

"I remember."

"And he's a dad. He has a little person who looks at him like he made the universe."

Niall shuts off the light and almost has the door closed, letting Harry finish his night like he did those few weeks after Zayn left him: alone and crying, his face red, and his stomach full of booze.

"I don't want to be in love with him again," Harry sighs, turning away towards the window.

"Again?" Niall whispers with a small chuckle. "Come on, Haz. Get real. I'll see you in the morning."

Harry's asleep before the door clicks shut.



***



For the next three days, every time Harry walks past Zayn's house, they wave to each other cordially. Harry can't put into words why he won't be visiting the Malik house again, or how awful he feels deep down, but he can wave. Zayn steps to him a few times, like he wants to get close to talk, until Harry walks away faster.

The first day, in the morning and then after his shift, when he walks past, Zayn's fixing the driveway. He's filling holes in the concrete, patching the cracks near the curb and back by the garage, on his hands and knees. Harry's hands itch to go help.

The second day, Zayn's on the roof. Patching a hole. Fixing a few rogue shingles near Max's window. Harry notices as he heads home that night that there are lights on in the house, even though it's still empty of furniture, even though Zayn's not technically living there yet. But Harry doesn't stop. He doesn't question it. He goes home.

The third day, Zayn's painting the white trim near the gutters, around the front windows, near the front door. He has white paint covering his jeans, in his hair, across his cheek, and if Harry could laugh, if his body still allowed that sensation, he swears he would.

They wave. That's all.



***



"Harry!"

That same little voice brings him out of the reverie he's in, the next day at work, his head buried in a manual for the new line of snowblowers that just came in. He wants to make sure he knows the individual parts, so he can order it all correctly, so he can fix them when they eventually break. Everything breaks, Harry. Doesn't mean it's a bad tool, or faulty manufacturing. It's what objects do, after so many uses, after wear and tear. They break. So we fix them.

That's what Uncle David said the first time he let Harry help him fix a lawn mower in the back room.

Harry's not sure why that thought pops into his head, as he brings his eyes up, to see Zayn and Max coming in the front door. They're matching again, in jeans and black coats, both smiling.

"Hey Mad Max," Harry tosses the manual to the counter, coming around it to stand with them.

He can't help it, the way he lights up when Max is around, even if he feels closed up tight like a safe.

"Harry," Max steps to him, hands behind his back. "We move into our house today. And dad says we're going to have dinner and eat it on the floor in the living room, before we have to eat at the table forever."

Max rolls his eyes, at the ridiculous idea of having to eat at a table for the rest of his life, and Harry laughs. He distinctly remembers wanting to eat in his bed as a kid. He also remembers eating pizza in his old loft, with Zayn, in their underwear. They used to toss their crusts into the box on the floor, before scrambling up towards the pillows, to suck marks into skin.

Tables are pretty shitty, now that Harry nods to Max.

"And?" Zayn offers, with another smile.

"Oh," Max steps forward, grabbing Harry's hand. "We want you to come over. To see our new house with all the stuff in it. And have dinner."

Harry hates himself then, all over again, as he crouches down to get on Max's level. Max still has his little hand wrapped around Harry's fingers, tugging him slightly, excited. Harry can't be around them, he can't do this, he just can't.

"I can't," Harry frowns. "But maybe another night?"

"Please?" Max's face curls into the most pathetic expression, sad and beautiful and questioning, all at once.

Harry's about to open his mouth and let him down easy, as best as he can, praying that Max doesn't keep looking at him like that. But Zayn pulls at Max's shoulders, tugging him back against his legs, and whispers to him. Max lights up, bounces over to the counter, and starts rifling through the candy on the bottom shelves.

Harry stands up and exhales, now that they have a moment alone.

"Why are you avoiding me?" Zayn furrows his brow, stepping closer, much too close. "What's wrong?"

"I'm not."

"You forget I know your tells," Zayn scowls. "Your eyebrow does this thing when you lie."

"Stop looking at my eyebrows," Harry pulls him further away from Max, closer to the key machine. "And I just can't, okay? I can't… do this. I can't be around you like it's normal, like we're not looking at each other like we used to."

"Shut up," Zayn hisses. "Come to dinner tonight. We can talk. Like really talk, not just dance around each other in my house, fixing stuff. You… drop a bomb on me, ask questions that I need a minute to answer, and then you leave. Stop leaving, okay?"

"You taught me how," Harry hisses back, pissed.

"Please?" Zayn ignores him. "Just tonight and then I'll stop asking you to come over. I'll stop… all of it."

Harry has the distinct feeling that if Max weren't standing near them, he'd pull Zayn's stupidly angular face against his own, to bite and tear into him like they used to. Some of their best nights were after stupid disagreements about politics and foreign affairs, over who got the first shower, who gave a better blow job. Zayn must have the same thought because his eyes darken and his fingers twitch, like he's about to grab Harry's shirt.

But then Max bounces back over to them, babbling about getting two candy bars instead of one, because honestly, they're not that big anyways, so two should be okay. Zayn argues with him, his face falling back into easy amusement, and maybe he doesn't realize it, that Max has grabbed both of their hands, swinging their arms slightly.

Harry sees it though.



***



It's all a little surreal that night, by the fire in Zayn's living room, their eyes locked.

They're sitting across from each other on the floor, after Max fell asleep in his little bed, and they can't look away.

Now that Harry knows everything.

Harry had been pulled into the house by Max, when he arrived for dinner, his scarf flapping around him as Max tugged his arm around the house. Most everything was still in boxes, the furniture haphazardly put into rooms, stacks of bags thrown into every corner. But it's definitely full now, they're officially moved in. It smells different as well, like people inhabit the place, with laundry detergent and candles and old books, swirling together to make it Zayn's. Max showed him around and he could barely suppress his excitement. Harry eyed it all, now that it was a real home, instead of a shell of one.

He tried to find traces of a woman, of Cam, a pair of shoes, a jewelry box, a flowery vase. His eyes bounced around, as Max gripped him harder, and he came up empty.

Max showed Harry his new room, with its fresh green paint and furniture right where he wants it. His little bed with blue sheets had end tables on either side of it, all new, a desk in the corner, a few paper airplanes hung from the ceiling. Clearly Zayn wanted Max's room done first, with pictures on the walls, a Marvel poster above the bed. He even put the curtains up, the ones Harry mentioned one afternoon would look good.

And as promised, they ate dinner on the floor, on a blanket near the roaring fire. The couch was shoved back from it aways, still covered in boxes, the coffee table had stacks of books across it, everything sending odd shadows on the walls as the fire burned on. Max laid on his stomach, propped his chin on his hand, as he ate his chicken fingers and broccoli. Zayn and Harry each snorted into their pasta, whenever Max happened to bring up his pretty teacher again. He's become a tad obsessive.

They don't snort as hard when he asks about babies. Harry sees Zayn stop mid chew, right as Max wonders where they come from. Harry can't help but smile.

"They live in bellies, I know that… but why do they look so wrinkly when they're brand new?" he scrunched his nose.

"Because they grow in pretty tight living quarters, bud," Zayn smiled, seemingly happy that the conversation didn't get into the physical mechanics of where babies come from, moving his food away.

"In bellies," Max nodded, understanding. "That's where I was, right? In mom's?"

Harry felt himself stop mid chew as well. Suddenly he had no appetite, setting his food closer to the chair in the corner, the one with a box full of pictures frames on it. It hadn't happened before, any mention of Max's mom. It's been driving Harry crazy, the story there, and then suddenly it was being thrust in his face by a five year old.

"That's right," Zayn cleared his throat, lifting a hand to motion for Max to sit on his lap, eyes drifting to Harry.

Harry knew to pay attention. That this was important. That Zayn was trying to tell him something, something Harry sprung on him days before when he felt overwhelmed and anxious. So he sat up straighter and nodded.

Max crawled up onto his thighs and settled in. The fire sent light bouncing off the Malik boys, curled up together against the couch, and Harry wished he could crowd up next to Zayn, to steal his other arm, the arm not wrapped around his son. For all the excitement and loudness Max brings, he can sure be quiet when he wants to be, like that first day Harry met him. He's a Malik through and through.

"Was I in there for a long time?" Max blinked slower, getting tired.

"Not too long," Zayn nuzzled his hair. "We were glad, too. We couldn't wait to meet you."

"Did I cry lots? When I got here?"

"Just a little. All babies cry when they arrive. Probably scared. It's a new place, I suppose," Zayn sighed.

Harry noticed then, the eights Max drew with his little forefinger, on Zayn's forearm. Over and over, that soothing motion Zayn always did into Harry's skin.

"Did you cry, dad? Mom did a bunch, right?" he yawned, the eights moving slower and slower.

Zayn looked up to Harry then, eyes full and bright, as Harry stared back.

"I cried," Zayn kissed his temple. "I cried a whole bunch. We were so happy. And yeah, mom cried, she cried over and over, when they brought you to her. She kept kissing your fingers. Said you were perfect."

Max smiled then, a small one, as Zayn hugged him tighter. They looked about ready to fall asleep right then and there. Harry wondered if he should disturb them, if he should leave them be. He thought their talk could wait, the talk they've been gearing to have since Zayn walked into Harry's store with a spring in his step and a list in his hand.

But then Zayn sat up a little and shifted Max, before he could shut his eyes fully.

"How about," he nudged him, smoothing his hair, "you go brush your teeth. And then maybe you can tell Harry your favorite story before bed. He's never heard it, remember?"

Max, like the puppy he practically is, suddenly had some energy again. He scrambled up off Zayn's lap, hollering over his shoulder about reading books every night before bed, and he has the best one, he'll show Harry, until they could hardly hear him over the sink in the bathroom.

"Seems like he's been telling me stories for months now, instead of the other way around," Zayn rubbed at his neck, cracking it. "You should let him show you his book. It might… help. I guess."

Harry didn't know what to do with that, as Zayn gave him a pointed look as he got up to clear their food. Harry let the warmth of the fire wash over him again, before getting up, to follow Max upstairs to his room.

As Harry thinks back on it now, as he stares at Zayn in the living room, hot from the fire, it's like he knew all along, the story. Like maybe he had the idea formed in his mind, like he had read an outline of it years ago and just forgot it. Because it's been there, right there, since that first day.

When Harry walked into Max's room, it was to see his bare feet sticking out of his closet. He pulled a large brown book out of his hiding place, in one of the drawers he showed Harry, and bounced onto his bed with a smile on his face. Harry couldn't help but smile at his polka dot pajamas clinging to his tiny frame, his black hair every which way around his face. The Spider-Man lamp on one of the bedside tables illuminated their faces with a slight blue tinge, and Harry had to, had to ruffle Max's hair.

"So this is your favorite, huh," Harry settled next to him on the bed, feet kicked up and crossed at the ankle.

Max saw him do it and crossed his own ankles under his blanket. Wanting to match.

"Yep," he said, popping the P on the end, flipping open the cover. "Dad made it for me. See?"

Harry realized it wasn't a book after all, but a scrapbook. The first page nearly took his breath away. It was a baby picture, of a small Max, wrapped in a white blanket with a blue newborn hat on his head. His skin was red and wrinkled, his hands in fists near his cheeks, asleep. And in block letters above it, glued in place by Zayn's steady hands, was written THE STORY OF MAX MALIK.

"It's about me, see?" Max smiled up at Harry, his missing tooth on full display, as Harry nodded.

Max flipped the first page, and then the next few, revealing a gorgeous girl with long brown hair. She had her nose pierced, a huge smile, chipped nail polish in most of them. She had her arms around her parents, linked pinkies with a sister, blew kisses at the camera. Graduating high school, in a red cap and gown, holding a surf board under her arm on a vacation, braiding a boy's hair with her eyes crossed.

"This is my mom," Max whispered, finger poking at her face. "She's pretty, see?"

"I see," Harry coughed into his fist, almost in tears. Because he knew then, for sure, concretely, that Max's mom wasn't here anymore.

"Cameron Marx. That's her name," Max flipped the page, more serious now. "And here's my dad."

Zayn stared at them from various pictures, his arm around a few of the friends Harry remembers seeing pictures of from Zayn's phone. He also had on a red cap and gown in a few, singing into a microphone, kissing his mom's cheek. A man Harry bets is his dad holds up a fist in one, next to Zayn holding up his own, silly scowls to the camera.

"They went to school together. They were best friends. And then they loved each other a lot," Max flipped the next page.

Then they're together. On a graduation stage. Intertwined arms, silly faces, bunny ears behind their heads. They laugh in groups of friends, the Chicago skyline behind them, holding red cups up from house parties. They danced. She put his hair in pigtails once, as he frowned at her. They really were best friends.

"When people love each other, sometimes babies come along," Max looked up at Harry, pointing to a photo of Cam with her pregnant belly. "And that's where I came from. Right in there."

Harry's chin shakes. This is a story Zayn must have rehearsed, must have told Max a million times, on a million nights like this, tucked together in his bed, a Spider-Man light sending shadows through their long Malik eyelashes. Harry knew then, that it'd be selfish of him, from here on out, to ever be mad at Zayn again, for leaving him behind, when he had so much life ahead, full of important people who needed him.

More photos of a pregnant Cam, of Zayn's hands holding onto her for dear life. Zayn, bewildered in most, overwhelmed probably, but happy. Cam's cheeks became rosier, her body swelling slightly, but happy.

A delivery room. Cameron yelling at the camera, probably at Zayn taking the photo. Then the two of them holding hands, Cam's sweaty face plastered with her hair, breathing. Their foreheads together, crying.

Max in her arms, Zayn's face buried in her neck. A copy of a birth certificate. A baby bracelet. An imprint of feet.

"I'm small here," Max nodded. "But mom and dad were so happy because I came safe and sound. We were a family."

Zayn smiling from the backseat of a car, hand over Max's tiny belly in a carseat, leaving the hospital. Cam holding Max in a rocking chair in a cramped nursery. Zayn's mom giving Max a bath.

Harry's afraid he'll start crying, so he bites his lip.

"Dad said we lived in Chicago so he could work with grampa. We had a tiny house," Max points to a photo of a random apartment building. "Mom never wanted to leave me, because I was small and small babies need to be held a lot, I guess."

Cam holding Max on a couch. Zayn pushing a stroller. A group of friends gathered together, blue balloons around them, celebrating Max's first birthday.

"I like cake," Max giggled, showing Harry a photo of him in a high chair with cake in his hair, over his face, clumped in his fists.

"Me too," Harry pulled him closer, tucking Max under his arm.

Max on random laps. Zayn hugging friends. Cam throwing peace signs, Max on her hip. Family gatherings. Parties. A Christmas tree. Max crawling. A girl who looked eerily like Zayn with Max on her shoulders.

"My mom loved me very much," Max frowned, sad now. "Dad said she used to kiss my cheeks so hard sometimes, I got fussy. She loved me so much, she couldn't even stand it. She told the whole world that I was the best baby, that I was the cutest. She was a good mom."

Harry did cry then, right as Zayn rounded the corner of Max's room and leaned on the door frame. Harry tried to wipe his face, but he couldn't do it fast enough. Zayn saw. And Zayn could only shrug, at a loss.

Max didn't notice, as he scooted down slightly, to lay his head on his pillow, Harry's arm above him. Harry knew he was falling asleep, so he gingerly grabbed the book from him to hold it, to turn the pages. Max snuggled closer.

"Some moms don't get to stay, though," Max yawned. "She had to go to work one day and didn't come home. She had a accident, in the car. So the angels took her to heaven and dad says we're lucky because we were a good family. The best family. And we have so many pictures of her. A whole book of them."

"Dad's right," Harry sniffed, a wreck. "You have great pictures. This is a great book."

The last few pages feature a few more of Cam and Zayn, cuddling Max between them. Max in Zayn's arms. Max holding Cam's face between his hands, telling her gibberish.

Then it's just Zayn and Max, when he looks about three. In a park. Max's first day of pre school. Max holding a kitten, the pure and utter glee on his face shining through. Max laughing and laughing and laughing, in picture after picture, so happy and beautiful. Zayn smiles from a few, a little sadder than before, but holding Max's hand in most.

"This is how much mom and dad loved each other to make me. It's my favorite story," Max closed his eyes finally, his little hand finding Harry's forearm, to make his eights, sighing. "It's my story."

Harry focused on the eights for a few more seconds, still too emotional to look back up to Zayn, until Max slowed down to a complete stop. His hand went limp against Harry's arm.

He was asleep before Harry could move, before he knew what to do with himself. It's Zayn who had to reach over and take the book, to put back in Max's closet drawer. Zayn had to grab Harry's hand, to pull him back down the stairs, to settle him against the wall near the fire place.

That was earlier. When Harry could still hold a grudge over Zayn leaving, could still pretend like the universe hated him, when Max had a mom. That was earlier when Harry couldn't be around Zayn, for fear of wanting him, for fear of falling in love with him all over again.

And now, as they stare at each other, just the clock in the entryway making noise alongside the dwindling fire, Harry wonders if he ever fell out of love with Zayn in the first place.



***



Zayn tosses another log in the fireplace, only a few steps away from Harry, and pokes the embers with the poker he bought at the store exactly six days before. They still haven't said anything, Zayn settling back against the couch across from Harry. They both cross their ankles at the same time.

Harry has a million questions and yet can't voice any of them. He wants to know everything about Cam, who she was, inside and out, because she had to be amazing, to produce such a great kid. She had to be lovely, to be Zayn's best friend, to hold his hand in those photos when he looked scared, to be silly when she herself probably felt the same way. She kissed Max's fingers over and over the day he was born, because she was the best mom Harry's ever heard about, besides his own.

Zayn scratches at his chin, running his fingers along the stubble there, and looks down.

"Can I be honest with you?" he offers, sounding tired.

Harry just nods.

"When we were in Chicago, you and me," he looks up at Harry. "It was like… magic or something. Like a fucking spell. It was like I couldn't see beyond it, beyond you, beyond the late nights and the parties. We stuck like glue."

Harry nods.

"But then I found out Max was on the way. And I knew I had to grow up. I couldn't party and do stupid shit anymore. And maybe I was an asshole to think it, but I just thought you wanted the fun. That you'd only ever want the wild Zayn who could suck someone off in a toilet."

"You could've told me. And then you would've known," Harry sighs.

"We barely knew each other. A month, Harry. We were fucking kids, fucking in a loft you rented with tip money from a club. You never said, you never mentioned, that you wanted anything more than that."

"You never asked."

Harry looks down at his hands.

"Do you know what I woke up that next morning thinking about?" Harry leans forward, insistent now. "Do you?"

Zayn won't look at him, just shakes his head.

"Before I realized you left, I reached for you. I tried to find you, in my bed, to pull you closer. And it was like I had this vision of introducing you to my parents. Bringing you to Beverly. Showing you the layout of my house, the house I want to build some day. I… wanted you. Long term. And I was going to tell you."

"I didn't even know you saw yourself in Beverly. I thought you wanted Chicago, I thought you'd stay forever."

"You said it yourself, Zayn. We were kids. But we weren't going to be kids forever, we were going to grow up. And it could've been together."

Harry catches himself then, wants to suck the words right back into his mouth. He just heard the story of Cam and Zayn, of how Max came to be, and he knows himself, that he'd never ask Zayn to choose him over the life he has.

"I just mean," he course corrects, when Zayn glares at him, "that I could've been apart of it. I wouldn't have run away."

"I didn't know," Zayn whispers.

"You know now," Harry shrugs.

Zayn nods then, looking back down at his hands, the heat from the fire curling around them. Harry wipes the sweat from his upper lip, not sure what else to say, if now that they've laid it all out, what they officially mean to each other.

"She'd laugh at us, you know," Zayn mumbles around a smile, Harry snapping his eyes up to Zayn. He travels with Zayn's eye line, to the box of picture frames on the chair.

Harry reaches for it, pulls it down and close to him, to shift the frames around. He sees Zayn's family, a family that must be Cam's, baby photos of Max. There are a few of Zayn and Cam, young and bright eyed, as kids in school. One of the three of them giggling on a trampoline, Max gripping onto their hands for dear life.

Harry pulls out a large 5x10 of Cam, just Cam, smiling at the camera, her brown hair and olive skin slick from ocean water.

"She knew about you, of course," Zayn shrugs. "Knew I was fucked for a guy I met drunk in a club. She saw me coming and going, always to see you, for those few weeks. She actually… she actually almost didn't tell me, right away. Thought she'd ruin it."

Harry pulls out another picture, of Zayn and Cam with their arms around a few friends, in the restaurant Harry recognizes as the one near the lake, the one Zayn took him to once, to get gelato.

"And she always said I was stupid, for not explaining it to you. I remember right before she died, just a few months before, we were laying in bed talking and she brought you up. Said you were out there somewhere, hopefully not hating me, waiting for me. Maybe."

Harry doesn't say anything, because he never waited for Zayn. Except he sort of did.

"After the accident, everything was different. I was a mess. Our families helped, of course. But it was just me. And Max. I couldn't focus on anything but Max, and some days it still feels that way. But… I'm trying to be better now," he gazes at Harry, eyes full and weighted. "Cam was my best friend, Haz. And she knew, she said so. Said we were supposed to be in love."

"We were," Harry blinks. "We are, I think."

"We are," Zayn says on an exhale, finally crawling across the floor.

He takes the photos from Harry's hands and shoves them back in the box, shoves it to the side. Harry lets out a breath, smacking Zayn right in the face with it, inches apart now, Zayn on hands and knees hovering over him. When Zayn places a kiss on Harry's mouth, it's like a rush of blood to the head, like two wires connecting, like coming home after a long day at work.

Zayn's hands come up to Harry's face, cradling him gently, their tongues sliding together, gasping. Harry reaches for him, tugs on his arms, until Zayn gets it. Harry lays down on the blanket near the fire, Zayn following after, their mouths hot. It's too hot near the open flame, out in the open on the living room floor, no blinds on the windows yet. And if Harry cared about any of that, maybe he wouldn't have reached for Zayn's shirt, tugging it off. As it is, he doesn't care at all, really.

Zayn tosses his shirt to the couch, pulling Harry's off in one swift motion. He leans right back in, to suck a mark into Harry's clavicle like he used to when they were stupid and drunk on vodka sodas Harry got half off.

"I'm sorry," he says into his skin, biting. "I'm really sorry."

"I don't even care anymore," Harry whines, widening his legs, Zayn settling further against him. "I swear, Zayn. I just… I'm proud of you."

"I shouldn't have left you," Zayn says moving south, his tongue curling around Harry's nipple, pulling a gasp from his lungs. He knew, he always knew, that Harry could go from zero to sixty, the second his nipples hardened.

"No, you shouldn't have left. And you should've answered your fucking phone, you dick," Harry arches his back, grinning, as Zayn sucks on his other nipple.

"Never again, promise. I won't run, if you don't either, yeah?" he brings his head up, to look Harry in the eye.

"Swear."

"Seriously, Harry," Zayn frowns. "I fucking love you. But so does my kid. I know it. And if you leave, or bail, or decide that you don't want this after all, I'll beat the shit out of you."

Harry laughs, a big belly laugh, as he pulls Zayn by the shoulders, up to his eye level again.

"I fucking love you back," Harry kisses his mouth, hard. "I'm not a kid in a loft, lost and wandering. I'm here. I've been here. And if you keep me around, I'll stay here."

Zayn bites his lip, for only a second, before surging forward and biting Harry's. It's insistent and rough, just the way they like it, their cocks aching in their jeans. Zayn pops the button and zipper on Harry first, tugging them down just enough to get a hand in his briefs. Harry hisses when the hot air around them touches his cock, wet at the tip, flushed and ready.

Zayn mumbles into his neck, words like finally and I missed you and just like old times, and Harry thinks of them all as dessert. He eats them, smiles, runs his hands through Zayn's long hair against his neck, as Zayn pulls him off.

His toes curl right as Zayn's thumb catches on his slit, groans into Zayn's ear, tries to push him off.

"No," he whispers, turning Zayn over so he's on top. "Not yet."

Harry forgot how fluid Zayn moves when he's aching for it, when Harry's got him by the balls. So he rolls easy as anything, puts his hands up by his ears as Harry grinds down against him. It's Harry's turn to bite and taste, his tongue along Zayn's ear, across his jaw, down his neck. His nipples don't perk quite like Harry's, but they feel amazing against the tip of his tongue.

"You want my mouth?" Harry huffs, working his way down Zayn's stomach, across his ribs, over his belly button, to the spare hair peaking out from his jeans and briefs.

He doesn't wait for an answer, Zayn never being the most vocal when he's under Harry's hands, so Harry undoes his jeans since he already had his dessert full of sweet nothings. He tugs them off with his briefs, tossing them towards their shirts, and kisses the base of his cut dick, the one that used to bring him to his knees.

Harry sucks him down hard and fast, Zayn's hands in his hair, begging for it with his nails and breath and jumping stomach muscles. Harry moves his hands from Zayn's hips, up his chest, feeling and exploring the skin he tried to forget. He keeps his wandering hands away from Zayn's knees, remembering how ticklish he is there, and maybe Zayn recognizes it. Because he pushes up into Harry's mouth a little harder, when Harry's hands end up on his thighs, ready for it.

Zayn pulls his hair, hard. Harry's body curls in, chasing after that wince of pain, letting Zayn slip out of his mouth. He has spit down his chin, panting, lips red raw. Zayn's irises burn into him, taking it in, the mess he's made before he's even come yet.

"Lay down," Zayn grunts, pulling Harry up again.

Harry goes, turns fluid just like Zayn, and flops down on his back. Zayn kneels over him looks down at his face and chest, across his broad shoulders, past his stomach, to his cock. He tugs Harry's tight jeans off, the black briefs catching on his cock, as he hisses at the sensation. Zayn looks so intense, so masculine and hard, older and wiser, an adult with a house, and Harry almost comes just from his gaze.

It's like clockwork, the way they can get right where they need to go, Zayn reaching for him to tug on his cock a few times. Harry nods frantically, wants it so bad, needs it, needs it like he hasn't needed anything in so long.

Zayn nods along with him, finally spitting into his palm. Harry spreads his legs and waits, relaxed and at ease from the fire and Zayn and the pent up emotions he's been carrying like a fucking albatross around his neck for six years. And when Zayn's fingers slide into him, rough and insistent, he cries out. Zayn slaps a hand over his mouth, them giggling at the same time.

Harry realizes that this time will be the first of many, when he'll have to shut his mouth, to not wake up the child upstairs.

Zayn leans down on top of him, mouth at Harry's ear, licking at it, as his fingers slide in again. And again. And again. It's too rough, not enough slick, and yet Harry bears down, clenches, chases Zayn to hell and back.

"M'gonna fuck you, babe," Zayn groans into his ear, hand still over his mouth. "Remember the last time? When I held your ankles up on my shoulders and you came so hard, you blacked out?"

Harry groans into Zayn's hand, his eyes snapping shut, overwhelmed. Zayn never used to talk like this, never needed to, until now, when he wants Harry to hear it, to feel it. It's too hot by the fire, Zayn's heavy on top of him, his fingers widen, then curl up, hitting him just right.

"Fuck," he yells into Zayn's fingers, muffled.

"Lost you for a few seconds," Zayn bites his ear. "I had to bring you back, yeah? Remember that?"

Harry nods, Zayn's fingers brushing his prostate again.

He removes his hand eventually, Harry huffing deep breaths to oxygenate his body once more, as Zayn removes his fingers. He spits again, tries to get as much around Harry's open entrance, and then spits again. It's all they have, and it feels oddly right, to do it like this, again after all these years, like they can't wait another second.

He slips into Harry, breeching him swiftly, the head of his cock shoving in with a force Harry hasn't felt since he was reckless and stupid in the city. Zayn nods into his neck, feels it, the way they open up to each other, in every way, going deeper and deeper until their skin touches, when Harry gasps again.

"Never wanted to leave," Zayn snaps his hips forward, shoving Harry and the blanket they're on closer to the fire. "Never did."

"Babe," Harry whines, nails digging into the base of Zayn's spine.

And then, because Zayn's still Zayn, and Harry can read him like a road map, Zayn leans back to prop himself on his knees, to bring a hand to Harry's throat. It's not hard or constricting, never to hurt Harry, not threatening. It's just a place to hold, Harry's warm skin to ground him.

That's how Harry comes, with Zayn's fingers wrapped around him twice, his throat and his cock, tugging and grasping and pulling and holding. That's how he sees stars again, like when they'd lay on the rooftop of the building Harry lived in, when they'd eat chicken wings and listen to the Cubs games, watching the sky.

Zayn follows soon after, making the sound Harry's dreamt about, the one where he sounds like he's choking, almost pained and angry. Harry has to pull at his shoulders, pull him close, as Zayn's lungs heave.

They don't move for a long time, just enough for Zayn to slip out of Harry, their chests together, Zayn's face in Harry's neck. Breathing. Coming down.

Harry makes eights in Zayn's skin, before the fire burns down and they need to clean up.

Eights, over and over, Zayn's smile against his pulse point.



***



"Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste." - Charlotte Bronte



***



The house is bursting with people, when Harry finally comes through the door. Zayn catches his eye before any of his aunts do, thankfully, so he walks to him and grabs him for a quick kiss.

Harry always smells like the hardware store after a shift, even now when he's mostly sat up in the office doing his official manager duties, now that he's in transition to take over the business from his uncle. So he shrugs his shoulders a little, smiling at Zayn, as he kisses him a second time. He could shower and change, but he knows Zayn doesn't mind, the scent of motor oil and grass seed stuck to him.

"How's it going?" Harry shrugs off his coat, throwing it over the banister with everyone else's. "Did the cake get delivered?"

"Yeah, and the food," Zayn smooths his wild hair from walking in the blustery January cold. "He's showing everyone his new suit."

Harry smiles at him, like he always does, when they talk about Max. He had asked for a suit for his birthday, with new slacks, a vest, a crisp shirt, and a fitted jacket. He even requested a striped tie, so he could look like a true Clark Kent before turning into Superman.

Zayn crosses his arms to lean against the door frame, as Harry eventually side steps him to go into the living room, to scoop Max up into his arms. Max squeals with delight to have Harry home, presses a kiss to his cheek, hangs onto Harry's frame as he walks around the room to greet everyone. Harry's parents kiss him, and Max, as they fuss over the food.

Zayn's dad and Cam's mom, both with rosy cheeks from the wine Harry special ordered for the adults, hug Harry as well. Mr. Cromwell and his wife ruffle Max's hair and give him a compliment to his suit, respectively.

The music is a little too loud, mixed with the voices of their families and Max's friends from school, running in circles to the dining room, to play with the laser guns Doniya gifted him with. And if Zayn didn't know any better, it might be the best birthday party Max has ever had. The room bursts with life and laughter, Cam's smiling face from the pictures on the mantle above them, and Zayn sends a little smile up to her. Wherever she is, the girl who gave him Max, the girl he used to laugh with until five in the morning over Chinese food, the girl who made him stop smoking, eventually.

Maybe she's proud of him. Wherever she is.

He feels the blustery wind hit his back, the front door opening again, as Niall finally breezes in, his nose red. Zayn tries to help grab the large box he's holding, until Niall tuts at him.

"Surprise for you too, dad," Niall winks at him, moving into the living room to get Harry's attention.

Zayn watches, amused, as Harry catches Niall's eye. He holds Max closer against his chest and whispers in his ear, Max's little legs flailing as he tries to get down. He's so good, always such a good listener, as he claps his hands and moves in front of the fire place to wait. Harry must've told him he had a surprise, so he jumps at Niall, to hug him, around the box.

Harry looks at Zayn then, shrugs, as Max tugs at the red bow on the box. And because Harry Styles is a menace who thinks he knows everything, who thinks he can fix every leaky pipe of every neighbor they have, who assumes Zayn can't hang a damn shelf by himself, he smiles at Zayn wickedly.

It's the small bark that grabs Zayn's attention, before the laughter and awwws start up. A golden retriever puppy, with another bow around its neck, jumps at Max, trying to bite at his tie.

Zayn can only roll his eyes and smile from the entryway, already thinking about the scratches sure to come to his beautiful wood floors.

The room of people, of all the important people in their lives, all look on as Max hugs the puppy to his chest, happy and perfect and safe. Harry winks at Zayn, as he gets on the floor to sit with him, to pet their new dog.

Zayn thinks it again, how lucky he is after all this time, to have Harry. To have their life. They ended up not having just a little chunk of time within the book, instead being lucky enough to have chapters and chapters together, intertwined, in the house they made a home, together.

They're lucky.

They hang up the blue prints of Harry's dream house in their bedroom, until they need to take it out of the frame and give to contractors. Whenever that day may be. They make a fort in the garage. They add extra pictures to the end of Max's scrapbook, for the continuation of THE STORY OF MAX MALIK, of the three of them. Eventually they make their own story, their own book, full of pictures and memories.

Because all things considered, their story is a pretty good one.

 

 

 

 

 

THE END