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living love in slow motion

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Looking back, Liam is certain it all starts like this –

 

[#]

 

Zayn is his first real mate when they’re five years old –

 

On his very first day of primary school, Liam is an awkward supernova of nervous energy.

In the car before the first bell, he’s picking at frayed threads on his jeans and squeezing the straps of his backpack repeatedly while his mum hums along to Fleetwood Mac over the radio.  His sisters have already noisily escaped the confines of their rusted Volkswagen, jumping into the arms of all of their old friends and teasing Liam from outside of the window.

Liam makes a face from the passenger seat and tries to bury his frown in the sleeve of his denim jacket.

He knows he’s red faced and embarrassed but he’s spent the whole summer trying to stitch the term ‘big boy’ to all of his oversized wardrobe and hasn’t quite got it down.  Not yet.

But almost.

“It’ll be fine, my little lion,” Karen smiles, scratching through his dodgy buzz cut – the one his dad gave him, he groans to himself – while grinning.  “Just be brave like Superman – “

Liam groans out loud this time, wrinkling his face while pulling away.

“Batman, mum,” he sighs.  He half-turns in the seat, the seatbelt tangling around him, to show off his backpack.  “See!  I like Batman.”

Karen smirks, nodding.  “Of course, love.  How could I forget, right?”

Liam slumps into the seat, kicking his feet back and forth.

They still don’t reach the floor mats, just another reminder that he’s smaller than the other boys his age.  His cheeks are so round, constantly trimmed in pink.  His eyes are squished by his smile and he can’t run as fast as everyone else.  One of his kidneys is poorly and he can’t quite keep up when the neighborhood kids play footy.

He’s just – he’s not normal, he thinks.

An old Springsteen tune comes on and Karen taps her hands along the steering wheel to the background music.  She smiles down at Liam and his cheeks heat up immediately.

There’s something about her soft voice and the way her eyes crinkle that always makes him smile.

“Ready?”

Liam bites down on his bottom lip.  He remembers, just after dawn, staring in his bedroom mirror with ‘I’m a big boy’ repeated quietly in his mind and the words rusted to his tongue after an hour of chanting them.

He nods slowly, shrugging.

Karen grins and reaches to undo his seatbelt.  He huffs, small hands beating her to it with a mumbled ‘I can do it’ shuttled out of his mouth.  He struggles and tangles himself up but he manages to get out, knocking open the car door.

“Don’t forget Woody,” she smiles.

Liam purposely leaves the Woody doll behind in the seat with slumped shoulders and a forced grin.  Nicola and Ruth told him boys his age don’t play with dolls.

He’s a big boy.

Except, his shoes are too big and he stumbles all the way towards the front of the school.  He’s got wide brown eyes as he wanders the halls and the weight of his comic books in his backpack make him walk awkwardly all the way to his classroom.  He stands in the doorway for minutes, quick glances over his shoulder to make sure his mum didn’t follow him all the way inside.

Liam doesn’t know anyone here.

No one looks familiar.  Andy moved away during the summer and he was the only kid in the neighborhood who drug Liam around like a sidekick.  Like Robin from the comics.  Andy’s backyard, where they’d practice footy and try to climb the massive oak tree near the fence, was their own Gotham City.

Here, with all of the noisy kids and the large tables with coloring books in the middle and juice-stained carpet, Liam feels nothing like a hero.

He feels a bit, well, lost.  And that awkward, nervous energy just won’t go away.

Liam closes his eyes tightly, squeezing so hard that all he can see is starbursts of neon red and electric yellow, but the feeling doesn’t seem to leave him.

All of the tables are filled with funny faces, children laughing and already making friends and his palms are sticky with sweat as he tugs at the straps of his backpack.

He just wants to go home.  He wants to crawl back beneath his Toy Story sheets and wiggle his toes in a comfy pair of socks and stare up at all of the glow in the dark stars his father pasted to the ceiling of his bedroom.

“Have a seat anywhere, Liam,” Mrs. Byrne, the teacher with the wrinkly smile and lightning bolts of grey streaking through her brown hair, offers after gently shoving a sticker with his name scrawled across it on his chest.  “They’re all such wonderful boys and girls, I promise.”

Liam thinks she’s a liar.  His mum told him lying is an awful thing.  Ruth was once sat in a corner for an hour with no telly time for telling a lie.

He thinks Mrs. Byrne should be sat in a corner for the same thing.

His feet trip along the carpet, a few of the kids giggling in their hands at him, and his head hangs low all the way up to a table in the corner.

A table that’s mostly empty except for one boy.

Liam tilts his head curiously to look at the boy and it takes him a moment for his head to catch up with his heart because –

Wow.

He’s got soft skin, a smooth gold like the flames of those candles his mum loves to light on quiet evenings.  Dark hair that falls over his forehead.  Tiny fingers squeezed around a marker, a pink tongue peeking through his teeth as he colors.  There’s a concentration in his mouth, little teeth nibbling his cotton candy bottom lip.  When he looks up, Liam swears his eyes remind him of his father’s morning coffee after his mum adds the cream and a heap of sugar.  They’re brown but like those fancy coins at the arcade – shiny and gold under the sun.

Liam can’t quite read the name on his sticker but he tries, mouthing out each letter like his mum taught him until –

“Oh, Zayn,” Mrs. Byrne grins, nudging Liam closer to the table.  “This is Liam.  Make a little room for him, yeah?”

Zayn wrinkles his small nose, a sticky pout over his lips.  He shrugs, scooting over even though the table is empty.

Mrs. Byrne helps Liam into a chair and his face scrunches up with this abashed shade of pink when his elbow knocks with Zayn’s.

Zayn is quiet.  It’s the first thing Liam notices other than his kind eyes and his pink tongue and spidery eyelashes.  He’s a little smaller than Liam – something Liam grins at because finally – but he stays in the lines while coloring, another thing Liam hasn’t managed yet.

But he’s been trying.  He’s a big boy, remember?

“C’mon,” Zayn says when they’re both too soft for too long.  His accent is different, thicker, weird.  But Liam likes it.  He likes the way Zayn’s mouth looks crooked and slightly funny when he talks.

Zayn shoves a book at Liam, making a face.  “Draw wit’me.”

Liam swallows and nods.

Their fingers collide over the red marker and Liam jolts away but Zayn –

He grins up at Liam, eyes turning into small slits of copper.  He flicks the marker at Liam and snatches up the blue one instead.

“Y’can use it,” Zayn shrugs, licking his tongue over his lips.

They remind Liam of bubblegum, Nicola’s favorite kind.  Original.  Just like Liam thinks Zayn is.

“Thanks,” Liam mumbles, ducking his head to scribble onto a picture.  He can’t stay in the lines and his hand keeps trembling when he tries.

He shakes out his hand, flicks his wrist until the bones scream when they crack and tries again.

A long streak right across the page this time.

Zayn giggles beside him and their ankles knock under the table.  Zayn’s feet don’t touch the ground either and Liam doesn’t know what to call this feeling that keeps bursting into his blood.  He will learn, later, its dopamine.  Its endorphins.

It’s a fuzzy feeling of relief that spreads like an electrical fire through his nervous system.

“C’mon, Li,” Zayn huffs, smiling crookedly while reaching out to steady Liam’s hand.  He folds their small hands together around the crimson marker and, together with shallows breaths and stupid grins, Zayn teaches him how to stay inside of the lines.

Zayn doesn’t tug away until Liam manages to shade in a fire engine without blotting the page with shaky streaks.

“Better,” Zayn grins.

Liam raises his brow, his eyebrows shooting up.  “M’good?”

Zayn shrugs, looking down, tongue between white teeth again.  “Good.”

Something warm like a blanket coats Liam’s cheeks.  He scrunches his nose, drops his head to shake off the blush but he can’t.

He keeps coloring and tries even harder to stay inside of the lines.  But not for himself.  He wants to impress Zayn this time.

Liam wants Zayn to like him enough to –

Well, he doesn’t know.  But he wants Zayn to like him.

The quiet bleeds between them but Zayn scoots his chair closer.  He passes Liam all of the markers after he uses them, even if the colors don’t quite fit in Liam’s picture of a puppy and a big sun.  But Liam takes all of the markers and colors his sun blue and his puppy is a kaleidoscope of greens and oranges when he’s done.

Zayn giggles at him, rubs their elbows together, swipes away the red marker before Liam can streak the sky the color of his blood.

“Wanna be a superhero when I grow up,” Zayn mumbles when he lowers his head.

The sun reaches into the big window behind them, painting Zayn’s skin and he looks like he’s on fire.  Liam sort of likes that too but it’s just another thing he won’t say to Zayn.

He doesn’t want to look daft in front of this boy who keeps smiling at him.  So Liam keeps it like a secret, buries it in his chest, squeezes it until it bursts into his blood.

It makes him dizzy like spinning on the merry-go-round and he stumbles through the next page he tries to color.

“Like Batman?” he asks, nervously biting his lip, looking up through his eyelashes.

The light in the background is an illusion.  It shines off Zayn’s eyes and his sticky smile and Liam swallows quickly.

This feeling is too new and he appreciates the way Zayn scrunches his nose when he smiles.  It makes him look different.  Not bad but different.

Like Liam feels.

“Or Spider-Man,” Zayn shrugs, dropping his eyes.  He rests his head on his shoulder while he colors and they stay quiet again.

It’s the best kind of quiet Liam’s ever had.

(Honestly, he tells his mum all about it on the ride home after school.  He goes on and on about the boy whose name he still can’t quite pronounce, so he halves it to ‘Zee’ and his mum giggles while his sisters whine from the backseat.  Those little bubbles in his tummy keep him from eating all of his dinner and he picks out all of his best clothes for school the next day.  Because he thinks Zayn will like them.  He hopes, truthfully, Zayn will still like Liam too.  He doesn’t quite understand why but he still hopes it when he snuggles beneath those silly sheets and cuddles up to Woody.)

 

[#]

 

Zayn is his first real life superhero when they’re just eight years old –

 

Liam has been sat in the same chair, kicking his feet back and forth lazily, since six o’clock.

It’s half seven and he still hasn’t moved.

He keeps looking out the window from his favorite view in their small living room.  He’s been watching the sky go from a chalky pink to this deep maroon color, scattered bits of navy indicating the late hour.  The street lamps outside paint the roads tangerine like a sunburst.  He can hear endless laughter from all of the kids through the windowpane and all he does is sigh.

And bite his bottom lip ruthlessly until it’s red like a fresh cherry and sore.

He’s a bit warm in his costume, dew drops of sweat along his temple.  He twists his mask in his lap.  Liam keeps kicking his feet and watching loud children dash past the window, roaring from house to house while he waits

Liam is too nervous to do anything else.

“Love,” Karen smiles, bending down to re-tie Liam’s shoes.  It’s a bad habit he hasn’t quite fixed yet.  She gives his knee a small squeeze, smiling harder when he frowns down at her.  “Liam James, you’re being moody.”

“M’not,” he mumbles, still twisting his lip between his teeth.

He’s trying to slow the pout sliding across his mouth but it just happens.  He groans and looks away when his mum giggles.

“Quit being nervous,” she admonishes sweetly.  She uses her thumb to free his bottom lip from ravenous teeth.

Liam sighs softly while pulling on the ears of his mask.  His stupid Batman mask that he wears even when it’s not Halloween.  It’s a comfort thing, obviously, but even Bruce Wayne doesn’t hide behind it as much as Liam does.

Even Bruce Wayne knows how to be brave without the silly cape, right?

“They’re gonna make fun of me,” Liam whispers, dropping his chin.

“What’s that love?”

Liam shrugs, lips systematically sliding into another pout.

“The kids, like,” he swallows quickly, all of his breath roaming through the wrong pipes, “Like, they’re gonna make fun of me, mum.  Again.  I’ve got on – I can’t.  I’ve got on the same, like, fancy dress from last year.”

There’s a wobbly laugh that kicks back like that loud, loud thunder that shakes him during storms.

His mum reaches out, scrubs a hand over his buzzed down hair.  She squeezes gently at the back of his skull, leans up to press a messy kiss to his cheek.

Liam scrubs it off with his knuckles but his cheeks are already a signal flare pink.  He grumbles under his breath, feet still kicking back and forth.  Lazy swings, shoelaces coming undone again.

“Well,” Karen huffs, grinning, “you could be Woody again?  I’ve still got the costume upstairs in the cupboards.”

Liam jerks his chin up, rolls his eyes with a sloppy smile.  “Mum,” he whines, still smirking and his cheeks hurt from the stretch of it, “No.  That’s silly.  I’m almost a man – “

Karen snorts into her hand, flicking an eyebrow up at him.

“ – and I’ll look, like.  I’ll look daft in that kids’ dress.”

Karen fixes her glasses with a raised brow.  She’s still half-laughing, her cheeks pink and warm.

“Too late,” Nicola calls from the couch, curled up with a bowl of popcorn and the lights dimmed.  She’s watching some horror film marathon, snuggled beneath a heavy afghan, feet covered in thick knit socks from their nan.

“Oh hush you,” Karen scolds but her voice is light.  It’s carefree like a mother’s voice is when she’s only slightly annoyed.  “And stop watching those scary films.  You’re not crawling into me and your dad’s bed tonight.”

Nicola yelps mockingly, most of her lazy words muffled by the handful of popcorn she crowds into her mouth.

Liam keeps chewing his bottom lip.  It aches but he ignores it.  It keeps his mind occupied.

“They won’t like me,” he says with a frown, a lowered chin, his bottom lip poking out.  “They never like me.”

A patient hand grazes the back of his head, lands softly on the nape of his neck.  Bony fingers press into the skin and muscle, rubbing idle circles.  Karen makes soothing noises that Liam gravitates towards.  He can hear an old Cranberries tune on the radio in the kitchen, just a dull buzz of ‘you know I’m such a fool for you, you’ve got me wrapped around your finger’ that Karen patterns her voice to.

“Liam James, d’you know how absolutely wonderful you are?” she starts and Liam’s old enough to know it’s something she always says when he’s like this.

When he’s, well, moody.  Broody.  Other words he can pronounce that his sisters use against him.

“You don’t know, d’you?” she smiles, stroking the top of his spine.  “The world is gonna one day see what I see in you, my little lion.”

He leans into her touch, a frown-smile on his lips.  His fuzzy eyebrows lift when he looks up.

“One day you’re gonna fall in love with someone,” she continues, tilting her head to line up with his, “And what the world thinks of you won’t matter, love.  What matters is the person you’ll be in love with.  All of the time.  It’s magical.”

Liam makes a face, everything wrinkling and scrunching.  “That’s gross, mum.”

She laughs, something flighty like embers off a bonfire.  It raises a little higher than the next stream of ‘do you have to let it linger?’ that he can faintly hear.

“That’s fairy tale stuff, mum,” he scowls but the neat row he creates in his forehead smoothes out for his lopsided smile.  He squeezes the mask in his lap to the same rhythm of his kicking feet.

“It’s not – “

Liam wrinkles his nose.  “It is.  That kinda stuff is for Ruthie and Nic.  Not me, mum.  It’s – like, gross.”

Her sigh comes out like a gentle siren.  She pats his knee before standing.  Her hands are on her hips when she looks down at him, her mouth crinkling into a quiet smile.

“One day, Liam James,” she huffs.  “One day, you’ll see.”

There’s a loud series of knocks at the door that stop Liam from arguing.  It’s not anonymous.  He knows that rattling knock without thinking and he quickly leaps from his chair.  He feels a finally deep in his chest, curving his mouth as he nearly trips over his shoe laces towards the door.

“Okay, okay, calm down, love,” Karen laughs behind him but he’s already there.

He’s already standing on the tips of his toes to unlock the bolt, using both hands to twist the knob, hauling the heavy wooden door open with all of his strength.

There’s a galaxy of kids with their parents up the yard, roaming the streets like navigating meteors.  He can see their rusted old mailbox and the poorly trimmed grass – his mum always complains to his dad about hiring someone to do the lawn work but he swears he’s more than capable – and the collection of children dressed for Halloween but all he really sees is Louis rocking on his heels on the welcome mat.

He really likes Louis.

Ever since that first day on the playground with those loud, wide starlight mint-blue eyes and fringe falling in his eyes and a mouthful of big words.  He’s two years older and Liam promises Louis is so much smarter than anyone he’s ever met.  Except, Louis doesn’t know when to be quiet and he’s nothing but a ball of chaos.

He’s dirt stains on clean denim and rounds of bloody knuckles and snogging girls older than him behind the swing set just because he can.

But Liam really likes Louis Tomlinson – most days.

“You look daft,” Louis says immediately, dragging his eyes up and down Liam with a careless lift to his shoulders.

Liam flushes, staggers back into his mum.  His own small shoulders drop and he wants to retreat.  He wants to run all the way up the stairs until he’s breathless and can hide out in his Batcave.

Well, his bedroom.

“Shut it,” Liam mumbles, flinching when his mum pinches his shoulder.  He knows better but still.

It’s Louis.

“What’re you s’ppose t’be?” Liam wonders, his face scrunching into a frown.

Louis smirks like a devil, wriggling his eyebrows.  He does a wobbly spin, hands out, bowing like he’s won an award afterwards.  Thick flecks of fringe fall right into those seaweed blue eyes and his lips curl up happily.

Liam scoffs while Karen chuckles behind him.

“I’m Jack,” Louis announces, tugging his braces out until they snap back against his wrinkled white Oxford.  He pulls at the wooly trousers and stretches out his smile until his cheeks push at his eyes.

“Jack?” Liam asks.

Louis sighs, the noise sounding annoyed.  “Yes, Jack,” he says with a whiff of frustration but there’s no real malice in his voice.  Just a singsong tone and that wicked smile.

Louis Tomlinson is wholly dramatic in every significant definition of the word and he’s definitely smug about it.

“Jack from Titanic,” he sighs while Liam pouts, his mum gasping happily in the background.

“That’s so – “

“Incredible?” Louis offers.

“Dumb,” Liam inserts instead and the pinch to his other shoulder makes him shake.

“Don’t be rude,” his mum warns quietly.

Liam wants to retort that things like that are impossible with someone like Louis around but he swallows it all down like a large gulp of fizzy Cola and nods.  He shoots Louis his best stern expression but it doesn’t last.

Nothing ever does with a friend like Louis around.

Louis tilts his head, craning his neck, dragging up his smooth eyebrows.  “You should change,” he suggests.

Liam doesn’t flail but he’s seconds from pouting.  He’s going to have a proper strop and his mum is going to scold him but –

“Shove off, Lou.”

It’s probably the accent that gives him away, the way his tongue lifts and licks at all of his words.  Maybe it’s the smile in his voice like he’s teasing.  He’s a serious lad, most of the time, but not with Louis nearby.

Or it could be his scent – always clean, always like woody brilliance, always so addictive – that gives him away before Zayn steps into the warm flood of fuzzy white light provided by the deck light.

It doesn’t matter, really.  It’s Zayn.  It’s an immediate drag of Liam’s mouth into this crooked smile that matches the one on Zayn’s mouth.

It’s like those fireflies he chases during summer evenings, except it’s in his tummy.  They keep lighting up and moving about and he trembles a little while leaning in the doorway.

Zayn nudges Louis out of the way and they start a fit of playful shoves and smacks, laughing at each other.

Liam hates the way they trade smug little smiles before Louis steps back.  Honestly, he’s not jealous.  Zayn is his best mate.  Louis is just, well, he’s like Alfred.  He’s just there.  A background.

He doesn’t fit at Zayn’s side like Liam does, like he has for three years now.  Three whole years.  Liam counts them on his hand every September, after his birthday, on the first day of school when he charges up to Zayn and hugs him so tight that Zayn goes a bit blue from the lack of oxygen.

It’s just – everything is so easy with Zayn.

He can’t describe it.  He hasn’t really tried.  Except sometimes he stands in the mirror, smiling, thankful for simple things like Zayn’s smile and his laugh and the way he always stops Liam after lunch to tie Liam’s shoes before he trips down the hallway.

Because they’re best mates.  There’s nothing like them in this massively big world.

“Hey,” Liam grins and he sounds breathless.  His chest keeps moving rapidly and he’s dizzy looking at the way the light falls on Zayn.

On his red mouth from the paint.  The pale color of his face smudged a bleached white.  His silly purple suit and a flower on the lapel and his dark hair makes the green spray painted on it look like the ivy from his backyard.

“You’re, um, well – “

Zayn grins wider, nodding.  His burst of laugh makes his eyes crinkle, his nose scrunch, his red mouth sliding open.

“The Joker?”

Zayn nods quickly, tilting his head, shrugging.

Liam smiles back.  His cheeks light up with blush.  He chews his bottom lip to contain the embarrassment but it doesn’t stay.

It never does with Zayn this close.

“I knew, like, you were talking ‘bout,” Zayn sighs, lips still quirked happily upward, “Like, you’d been chatting about it.  Being Batman, right?  And, like, I wanted to – is this okay?”

Liam sucks in a sharp breath.  His tiny lungs can’t hold it all in but he tries.  He tries until he’s lightheaded and nodding at Zayn.

“Yeah,” he stammers.

Zayn shoots him this proud grin, lips curving with messy red paint all around them.

“Wanna make you, like, its better, right?” Zayn wonders, rocking back on his heels.

Liam’s knees shake and he doesn’t understand what this is deep under his skin.  He doesn’t quite get the goosebumps along his arms or the way his brow is glossy with sweat.

He just keeps nodding and trying not to stumble closer.

His pulse is loud in his ears, his lungs tangled around each breath so he makes a helpless noise that Zayn raises his brow at.  Liam looks down, dragging his feet on the floor.

Hide away.  He can run upstairs and hide in the dark and close his eyes and all of this will go away when Woody is in his arms.  The world will stop spinning so bloody fast.

“You look ace, Li,” Zayn smiles, his words soft and balanced unevenly on his tongue.

Liam hauls in another long breath, noisy in his throat.

“Bloody idiots,” Louis mumbles, leaning in the shadows.

Zayn turns a little, stretching his arm to ruffle Louis’ product-drenched hair with a hand.  Louis groans, swatting him away, stumbling off the stoop into the yard.  Zayn laughs into his shoulder, spinning to face Liam.

He doesn’t know what uncanny means or why it’s written at the top of all of his favorite X-Men comics but he wants it to mean Zayn Malik.

Liam wants to press his tongue all over the word and make Zayn understand how it relates to them.

“C’mon Li,” Zayn cheers, wrapping tiny fingers around Liam’s hand.  Their fingers naturally fit into the open spaces.  He tugs impatiently and Liam grins.  He stumbles forward with Zayn and their momentum launches them into the yard, tripping over their own feet and laughing.

It’s like fumbling through the clouds and Liam’s lungs fill with all of the fog of the night.

“Oh, those two,” Trisha grins, climbing out of the shadows onto the small porch.

Karen grins, tilting her head to watch them spin in the grass.  “Oh, I know,” she sighs happily, hugging herself.  “Inseparable, right?”

“Always,” Trisha smirks.

Liam can only half-hear them – Zayn’s giggles and humming loud in his ear – but he knows their mums are teasing them.  They’re making those silly jokes that Liam doesn’t understand and cooing over the way Zayn squeezes Liam’s hand under the street lamp but –

He’s too high.  There’s no gravity around them.  He feels like Superman and Zayn clings to him like –

Not Lois Lane, right?  That doesn’t sound right but –

Actually, it’s more like Jimmy Olsen.  The kind of mate that keeps all of your secrets and watches you like you’re something incredible.

Liam’s never felt incredible.  Only when Zayn is looking at him under those long, long eyelashes and smiling so wide that it should hurt.

“What would they do without each other?” Karen preens, squinting behind her glasses.

“Probably cry until they find each other again,” Trisha snorts.

“Probably,” Karen laughs with her.

“C’mon mum,” Zayn whines from the sidewalk, Liam pressed to his side, Louis howling, loudly, ‘I’m the king of the world’ while spinning around a lamp post.

“Okay, okay, sunshine,” Trisha smirks, nudging Karen with an elbow.  “Have ‘im in before nine, dear.”

Karen sighs again, biting at her lip, still watching the way Liam stays so close to Zayn’s side.  He blushes under the light and he swears she’s wiping something from her eyes but – no.

It’s just a trick.  It’s the magic of the light.

“Take your time,” Karen waves, pressing into the doorway.  “They’ll both probably beg for a sleepover by the time you’ve finished.”

“Probably,” Trisha calls over her shoulder and their shared laughter almost sings louder than all of the children still mucking about the streets.

Liam ignores it because Zayn is right there – right next to him.

“Ready?”

The fizzy tickle across his lips from his smile prevents Liam from talking.  Zayn gives his hand a soft squeeze that jolts him from a hazy vision.  He blinks a few times at Zayn before nodding.

His mum used to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to him when he was a wee bit younger.  Almost every night as he yawned and stretched under the sheets.  She would fluff his pillow, kiss the top of his head, dim the lights until the room is nestled in gold and shadows and read to him.

Even now, Liam thinks all he wants to do is follow Zayn down the rabbit hole.  Wherever it leads –

Just as long as Zayn keeps holding his hand the entire time.

Louis leads their little march down the road.  Their street is too big and so far from empty but Liam feels like it’s a tunnel towards something bigger when he’s next to Zayn.  He feels Zayn’s fingers tighten around his and he stumbles with Zayn up to every house, banging on the door together, laughing.  Louis sighs at them but keeps smiling when Liam leans in to choke out a laugh in Zayn’s shoulder.

Zayn doesn’t let go of his hand from house to house, through every yard.

Later, when he’s restless in his bed and still unable to come down from a sugar high –

Liam’s hand feels a little numb and warm.  He yawns at the moon, still half-dressed as Batman and watches the pale shine of light over his palm.  He imagines Zayn’s soft hand pressed there and feels all of the weight between his fingers until his eyes get too heavy.

He licks a smile over his lips and falls asleep thinking of Zayn’s mouth smeared in red lipstick, his green hair, the crackle of gold in his brown eyes.

Liam thinks about his best mate and it calms the mad flutter of his heart enough that he finally falls asleep with his little hand still mostly numb.

 

[#]

 

Zayn is an almost when he’s almost nine years old –

 

It’s a few days past Valentine’s Day and Zayn’s bedroom is mostly swallowed up by the soft purple shadows from the night.

The thick beam of moonlight outside of his window cleans the walls with bars of silver glow.  The nightlight in a corner of the room bursts like a cool little blue flame.  They’re sprawled on Zayn’s bed and the quiet music from Doniya’s room almost drowns out the noise of Louis’ snoring from the floor.

But Liam counts the thump the beats of his heart make rather than trying to memorize anything the radio plays.

They’re wriggling their bare feet back and forth on the sheets, facing each other, smiling like their heavy eyes aren’t seconds from giving in.  They fight it.  They’re little rebels at half midnight with soft yawns and crinkled eyes and dazed looks on their faces when the other blinks for look long.

This little cocoon of blankets and cold winter sticking to the window, their breaths still minty from brushing their teeth two hours ago.

Liam looks away from Zayn for a moment – because it hurts to stare at someone that long, despite what he keeps telling himself and no Liam this is not a contest – to glance over his shoulder at Louis.  He looks like a dead starfish on the carpet, lying on his back, snoring at the ceiling in a massive pile of pillows stolen from every room in the house.

(Louis is a little like Zayn – he can fall asleep almost everywhere.  But even in his sleep, he’s loud.  Some things just refuse to change.)

Liam giggles into his shoulder at him.  He feels Zayn picking at the lint along the sleeve of the blood red holiday jumper Liam nicked from Zayn’s pile of clothes at the end of the bed.

He swears he only likes it because it’s comfortable.  It’s definitely not because it smells like Zayn or the way it stretches around Liam when it’s loose around Zayn or because Zayn was wearing it when he passed Liam all of his Valentine’s candy in class.

It’s comfortable, that’s all.

(Or maybe a bit more but Liam doesn’t like to think about that.  His mum is always telling him his head is in the clouds and Zayn makes everything foggy and clear at the same time.)

Zayn brushes a few fingers under the sleeve and taps them to Liam’s wrist while Liam reaches out to press a finger to the slit in Zayn’s eyebrow.  He thinks it looks funny on Zayn but he gets it.  Zayn is floating in that in-between of being a cool nine year old and still hanging around wankers like Louis.

Liam doesn’t think he’ll ever quite be as smooth at is as Zayn is but he knows he’ll try.  For Zayn, he’ll definitely try.

“Hey,” Zayn says, grinning under the strobe light the moon and dark sky creates.  “Got this sick new Iron Man comic, right?  My baba – “

Liam smiles immediately.

He can’t help himself.  He loves how Zayn never hides who is in front of Liam.  Not that he’s ashamed of who he is or the Pakistani half of him but Liam’s noticed the way some of their classmates take the piss at Zayn.  He hears their whispers, the mumbled things they say that Zayn tries so hard to ignore.

His teeth bite at his lip and he blinks at Zayn until Zayn’s smile tilts crookedly.

“My baba,” he repeats, prouder, “took me by the comic shop, yeah?  Used all of the pounds I saved up for it.  They say it’s, like, massively important or summat.  I just like the drawings.”

Liam nods along, struggling with a yawn, feeling that familiar race of his heart.  It always start like this with Zayn –

Except tonight is a Friday and it means he won’t drift off to sleep as quickly to numb the way he still loves the thickness of Zayn’s accent or the casual brush of their cold feet over the sheets.

He rolls onto his back to blink up at the ceiling.  Zayn yawns loudly next to him and he grins something thick like cough syrup at the noise.

“There’s this new Batman comic out,” Liam whispers shyly.  Zayn’s icy toes nudge his bare ankle and he can’t stop the smirk on his lips.  He flutters his eyelashes to knock away the sleep.

“You want it?”

Liam snorts, shrugs offhandedly.  He hates looking eager in front of Zayn but –

He sighs loudly before nodding.  “Massively.”

“I can help me mum with the dishes and maybe help me baba with the gutters?  We can buy it together,” Zayn offers.

His pulse is louder than Louis’ snores and the music from Doniya’s room and the rush of blood under his skin.

A loose smile presses over his mouth and Zayn sneaks a few fingers under the jumper to touch Liam’s hip.  A small pinch to get his attention but Liam doesn’t really need convincing.  He rolls to face Zayn instantly.

“Didn’t Emma ask you to be her Valentine?” Zayn wonders, his voice soft, heavy with the sleep they’re avoiding.

Liam tucks his frown into the shadows.  He bites ruthlessly at his lip until it aches.  Until he tears all of the skin away.  Red like an apple.

He swallows while tucking his chin.  “Yeah,” he exhales, blinking down at all of the space between them on the bed.  He wants to fill it with whatever he can’t say.

“But she asked like, I dunno, five lads to be her Valentine,” he adds, trying to shake the sadness out of his voice.

It’s not disappointment because she’s nice.  But she’s not really the kind of girl he thinks about between breaths.

(And Liam is not at that stage yet – not like Louis who has already had four girlfriends in three weeks.  Liam just doesn’t get why boys would fancy girls like that.)

Liam shifts his hand into the gap of the bed and Zayn’s meets him halfway.  They tickle each other’s knuckles in-between rough inhales.  Still fighting sleep, still staying awake just for the looks they can share in the dark.

“She didn’t ask me to be her Valentine.”

“She’s a bloody idiot,” Liam blurts out and he wants to swallow all of the words back down.

He looks abashed, pinker than spun sugar but Zayn smiles at him in the fuzzy square of moonlight shining down on him.

“I mean,” he stammers but the rest of the words clutter his throat before he can finish.

His teeth find his lip again but their fingers keep brushing in the empty space.

“I think it’s ‘cause, like, the way I look?” Zayn mumbles and Liam doesn’t have to look at him to know he’s frowning.  He tenses but doesn’t stop listening.  “Like, I don’t think – people don’t look at me like they do Tommo.  Or you, right.”

He can’t quite stop the noise of discontent his body makes at the suggestion.  He wraps his fingers around Zayn’s and gives a calm squeeze.

“But it’s okay ‘cause, like,” Zayn says with a half-smile, “My mum tells me I’m special.  It’s silly, innit?  But it makes me feel massively better, like.  I’m different.”

“Different,” Liam repeats.  He watches Zayn nod with him.

“S’good, right?” Zayn inquires, his voice raspy from the lack of sleep.

“Right,” Liam giggles.

“You like different?”

“I love different,” Liam says a little too gleefully but Zayn doesn’t roll away from him.  He knocks their ankles over the sheets and his laugh isn’t mocking.

It shakes all through Zayn and Liam sucks in a quick breath.

He loves the way those two noises echo in the room minutes after they’ve quieted.

“She tried to, like,” Liam wrinkles his nose and looks away, “She tried to snog me in the hallway.  I didn’t like that much.”

“Snogging?” Zayn yawns.

“Snogging,” Liam grumbles.

Zayn’s laugh is lighter, a pale ghost of all the other noises he makes.  “Scared?” he wonders.

Liam huffs a breath before shaking his head.  “Kissing girls will be – like, it’s gonna be awful.  I dunno how Louis does it.”

Zayn snickers.  “He’s the Tommo.”

Liam doesn’t argue with that.  His eyes blink rapidly and Zayn’s look glassy like a mirror.  He’s shooting Liam this half-lidded look and his skin looks cool like that velvet duvet his mum hauls out every winter to keep him warm.

“Awful,” Liam mumbles with his lip still twisted between his teeth.

“It won’t be,” Zayn half-giggles.  The moon spills silver over his eyelashes when he blinks.  “It’ll be like Peter and Mary Jane in Spider-Man, remember?  Like, not bad?”

Liam makes a face at him that Zayn laughs at.

(He doesn’t intentionally think about them being bundled up in blankets on that old ratty couch in Liam’s house with bowls of ice cream and Zayn cheering on the Green Goblin while Liam smacked his shoulder.  He doesn’t mean to think of the way Zayn fell asleep on his shoulder or the gagging noises they made when Spider-Man hung upside down to snog Mary Jane.

He definitely doesn’t mean to think about the sloppy kiss Zayn pressed to his cheek before they climbed the noisy wooden steps all the way up to Liam’s bedroom just to pass out before brushing their teeth.)

He kicks back the exhaustion in his bones, in his voice, in all of his limbs and half-grins into the sheets when Zayn reaches under a mountain of pillows for the stash of sour candies he hides from his sisters.

So,” Zayn smirks and Liam automatically opens his mouth wide for the handful of stringing sour worms Zayn feeds him, “I’ve got this new Green Lantern comic too, right?”

“Your favorite,” Liam tells him rather than asks, wincing at the bitter candies in his cheek.

Zayn nods and they fall to quiet whispers about all of their favorite comic book characters.  He knows all of Zayn’s – the original Iron Man and Kyle Rayner and Dick Grayson and – and Zayn repeats Liam’s favorite ones softly, between candies and sweet breaths.

He listens close for Zayn’s soft breathing and the bass of his own heart, the way the noises mix tenderly under the pale moon.

His tongue licks the sour off of Zayn’s fingertips every time Zayn feeds him more candy.  Zayn makes a face every time like he’s annoyed or frustrated but he keeps scooting closer.  He keeps brushing their feet and Liam keeps losing the rhythm of his heart.  It’s stupid, really, but he likes it.

He likes being out of control as long as Zayn is right there.

They whisper and yawn and he doesn’t realize Zayn is too close until those long eyelashes look fuzzy in his vision.  Until Zayn’s half-lidded eyes look like the start of a campfire.

Zayn’s thumb is on Liam’s bottom lip, dragging on it and Liam’s licking the last of sourness from his teeth after Zayn’s deposited a few more worms in his mouth.  Giggles buzz in their chests like freshly opened Cola bottles.  The red jumper is uncomfortably hot now but he stretches enough that the hem rides up and cold night air brushes his tummy.

They blink for a long time because words aren’t necessary.

“You’re mental,” Zayn huffs with a scrunched nose but his laugh doesn’t come until Liam starts it.

He’s so unaware and Zayn’s breath is sweet mint when he knocks their foreheads together.  Zayn carefully brushes their noses together like they did when they were five years old, up too late and scared to fall asleep too quickly.  Liam nuzzles back, grinning, the cold skim of Zayn’s nose tickling him.

It’s a collision of their giggles and their noses scrubbing together until they’re breathless.  It’s then, unwillingly, that Liam gets caught in the moment

(the moment being this close, the moment being this long stare he doesn’t shy away from, the moment he realizes he’s been gazing at Zayn’s mouth and all of the pink and the sugary-sour stain from the candy, the moment when he can’t really breathe but that’s alright because Zayn breathes hard enough for them)

and he feels something tighten in his stomach.

Because he wouldn’t mind – the snogging bit.  He wouldn’t be opposed to kissing Zayn because Zayn is his best mate.  Zayn makes him comfortable.  Zayn wouldn’t make it so scary and overwhelming.

Zayn would probably laugh at him afterwards because Liam would be horrible at it.  But Zayn would call him a ‘twat’ and kiss him back and it wouldn’t be awful.

It’s almost tragic how he leans in a little while Zayn flutters his eyes with this embarrassingly confused smile and Liam hovers in that almost until –

Louis coughs and snorts and rolls around on the floor, mumbling in his sleep.

Liam startles back with a wheeze in his throat.  He chews his lip while Zayn shoots him a crooked smile that’s almost believable except Liam knows Zayn is doing it for his sake.  He’s trying to make Liam feel better about it all but –

Zayn yawns loudly with droopy eyes.  He shoves the bag of candy away and –

Wow.

His smooth cheek is flushed by the moon and he burrows in close to Liam.  He doesn’t tug away like any lad would when your best friend, another lad, almost kissed –

Zayn finds the gap under Liam’s jaw and grins.  “G’night Peter Parker,” he whispers in this horrible imitation of an American accent.

Liam swallows and his attempts to calm his breathing barely work.  He’s shaking and Zayn’s nuzzling to his neck like he doesn’t even notice.  Like all of this – it’s nameless but so massive – doesn’t matter.

“Li,” Zayn whines, tugging at the collar of his jumper.

It takes him a few stalled breaths but Liam remembers.  He knows what Zayn wants.

Liam brings trembling arms around Zayn and hugs him close and this moment feels familiar.  It’s something they’ve done for nearly four whole years now and the chemicals in his system react instantly.  He lets Zayn tangle their legs together and they forget Louis and the big, big world and that almost just to breathe together.

“G’night MJ,” he says softly into Zayn’s hair and all of his thoughts burn up into the dew of the night.

He forgets the almost and falls asleep while holding Zayn close.

 

[#]

 

They’re each other’s escape when they’re twelve –

 

“C’mon you bloody tosser, get in.  The night’s almost over and you’re gonna miss your chance with her.”

It’s just some pre-holiday formal dance.  All of his classmates are dressed sharply, the girls in pretty dresses and skirts while all of the blokes wear button-downs they wrinkle up before the first song is over.  It’s low lighting with cheap candles on neatly pressed linen tablecloths illuminating most of the cafeteria.  Small spotlights spin like stars chasing the dark sky.  It’s the same Kanye West and Coldplay tunes repeated for hours and it’s all a bit dreadful but Liam dances to the same six songs until he’s sweaty and exhausted.

But Louis keeps shoving at his shoulder between sips of fizzy punch and Liam really just wants Louis to bugger off.  He knows he won’t and maybe it’s one of the things he likes best about Louis.

He never leaves Liam lonely.

Not like Zayn, who has spent most of the evening laughing with Harry in a corner of the large room, mostly avoiding the crowd.  Zayn who tosses an arm around Harry’s broad shoulders between songs, makes quiet jokes, leans into Harry like he’s a –

He doesn’t hate Harry.  Not in the least but he feels like a cheap imitation of Liam.  Some younger bloke who tries to fit into all of the small spaces of Zayn’s life Liam already occupies.  With his eyes like mint and dimples and bloody curls all over.

But Liam’s not jealous.  He tells himself that repeatedly every time a clumsy Harry slides into his peripheral and he has to remind himself Zayn is still his best mate when Zayn stumbles off with Harry.

“Liam?  Focus, man.”

Louis is still shoving at his shoulder and Liam sighs under his breath.

He can’t rid himself of the tension in his shoulders, the way his fingers shake when he doesn’t curl them into a fist.  There’s sweat all along his palms and he’s loosened the first button of his shirt but the collar still feels too tight.  His stupid tie – courtesy of his mum, of course – hangs loose, his trousers itchy, his skin flushed from everything.

“C’mon Payno,” Louis whines, his voice three-fourths dramatic like always, “Y’think she’s ace, right?  She’s fit, man.  I’d snog her.”

Liam grins with this uncertain affection suddenly buzzing under his skin.  “You’d snog anyone who chats you up, mate.”

Louis hums with a raised brow.  “Probably,” he concedes and they laugh together under some old Oasis tune.

“But still – “

“Tommo,” Liam groans, slumping in an uncomfortably hard plastic chair along the wall.  He blows out an annoyed breath, thumping his head.

Louis scowls to his left.  “Are you quite finished?”

“Nope,” Liam grins, dragging the word over his tongue.

“Wanker,” Louis huffs, punching Liam’s shoulder.

It tickles more than hurts but Liam doesn’t tell Louis that.  He resigns to watching the spotlights twirl, creating constellations all over the dance floor that’s mostly empty now.  It’s the sixth time the same crowd of kids have started up the Macarena in the middle of the floor but he doesn’t join them this time.

Liam just stares and waits out the last few songs.

“You fancy her, don’t you man?”

He shrugs.  He sort of does.  She’s gorgeous, really.  She’s got round cheeks, a constant flush of pink without the blush, large eyes.  Soft lips and dark copper hair and she’s the right height if he wanted to snog her.  The ‘if’ always tastes a bit bitter along his tongue but he doesn’t tell Louis about that either.

Liam figures that’ll go away once he actually kisses her.  Well, ‘if’ he ever does.

“It’s just a dance.”

Liam wants to argue.  It’s a bit more than that.  It’s a dance that might lead to a snog that could lead to him asking her out and maybe his heart will quit mucking about in his chest if

There’s sweat on his brow, on his palms, down his chest at the thought.

He bites his lip, drops his chin, and squeezes his hands tightly in his lap.  He wants to duck his head between his knees just to breathe but Louis keeps poking an incessant finger into his shoulder.

“She says you’ve been asking about,” Louis groans.  “I reckon quit dicking about with her friends and go for it.”

Liam rolls his eyes, still gnawing at his lip.  “You would.”

“Well,” Louis huffs, waving his hands about.  It’s meant to explain something but it only makes Liam snicker at Louis’ failed attempt.

Louis gives him a frown that’s unconvincing because Louis Tomlinson is an evil boy without a soul Liam swears.

“You’ve been staring at her all night.”

He hasn’t.

“And your boner has been showing – “

It’s a lie and his cock only half-twitched when that one girl with the curly hair squeezed in close and grinded a little too roughly and Zayn tells him these things are natural now even if Liam was terrified the first time he woke up with a morning stiffy.

“And just think,” Louis sings, nudging his temple onto Liam’s shoulder, “your mum would be so proud if you brought home a pretty – “

It’s a cheap tactic on Louis’ part and Liam frowns at him.  He shakes off the scowl when Louis gives him this put upon look, budging Louis off of his shoulder to slouch further in his chair.

“She won’t even like me,” Liam mumbles into his shoulder.

He deliberately fiddles with the cuffs of his shirt to avoid the harsh glare Louis shoots him afterwards.  He thinks it’s partially true – none of the girls in his class really look at him.  He doesn’t have broad shoulders or captivating eyes or sharp cheekbones or anything particularly exotic to look at.

(Nothing but thick hair that curls at the ends, dull brown eyes, a fleck of caramel birthmark on his neck, too skinny for his clothes and a horrible squeak to his voice when he tries too hard while singing.)

“Pathetic,” Louis teases but it’s not coarse and rough like he expects.

It’s completely fond and Louis hauls an arm around Liam’s tight shoulders to tug him closer.

“I could go with you,” Louis offers, low and kind.  It’s another thing Liam loves about him – he’s unlike himself when it comes to Liam and Zayn.

Liam scrunches his face, laughs into the collar of Louis’ shirt.  He stinks of boy, this musky scent buried beneath his step-father’s cologne.

“Don’t laugh,” Louis chides, pressing his grin to Liam’s temple.  “I’ve sort of been chatting at her friend and – “

Liam rolls his eyes.  Another easy win for Louis, he knows.  He doesn’t comment though.

“You don’t have to,” he lies.

He wants Louis to.  He needs Louis to use his charm and that sinful tongue and those stunning blue eyes to help Liam win her over but –

“We could sing to them,” Louis suggests, snickering.  “Like we tried with the Thomas twins.”

Liam groans, shaking his head.

“Better not,” Liam argues.

“Yeah,” Louis cackles.  “You were off-key.  Ruined it, completely.  You’re shit.”

“M’not,” Liam bites off, elbowing Louis.

Louis hums approvingly and they sit through another song, bouncing their shoulders and smiling at each other but not making much of an effort to leave their seats.

“Maybe we could, like,” Liam starts and he can already see the disapproving look Louis is giving him from the corner of his eye.  The same look Louis always gives him when Liam’s backing out of one of Louis’ ideas but –

“We could like write her a poem?  Or something?  Zayn could help and,” Liam grins nervously, the words losing steam in his throat, fumbling off his tongue.

Louis scrunches his brow and Liam wants to crawl inside of himself.  He drags the heels of his hands over his eyes and groans.

“Just, like, we could give it to her in class or summat,” Liam continues even though he doesn’t have to.

He knows Louis is not convinced by the stiffness of his spine, the square set to his shoulders, the scowl on his face.

“Pathetic,” Louis repeats with a sigh.  He pats Liam’s knee condescendingly before standing.  Louis quickly straightens his clothes, pushing back his already soft hair – the product has faded from too much sweat – before adding, “Y’know you’re pretty horrible at this.”

This?”

Louis nods and all of the flicks of spotlight focus in on the small frown he gives Liam.  “Pretending you’re not good enough f’anyone.  You are, mate.”

He watches Louis stroll away and he doesn’t as much sulk as he just deflates.  His limbs go slack and he huffs at the ceiling for a few breaths.  He tries not to hate himself in all of the spaces between inhales and exhales.  He hides the shame and disappointment in his loose sleeve while Louis escorts some beautiful girl towards the dance floor, offering an apologetic smile to Liam over his shoulder.

“This is the last song kiddies so – “

The DJ is some student’s cheaply paid uncle and his voice reminds Liam of dripping taps in the middle of the night – annoyingly loud.  He’s cheesy and prattling on about ‘make it count, boys and girls’ and Liam’s lost on all of it when Mario floods over the speakers.

Momentarily, he thinks it’s all dreadfully predictable how most of the boys, even the shy ones, partner up with blushing girls and lead them to the middle of the dance floor.  They sway under a fuzzy spotlight and he sighs remorsefully just before –

He’s seen Dirty Dancing enough times – because Nicola adores it and Ruth still fancies Patrick Swayze for some weird reason – to know this is supposed to be some horribly sentimental moment.  It’s incredibly insane is what it is but he thinks this moment drags in slow motion.  The whole room looks like a cobalt sky and the spotlights are spinning around their heads like falling stars and Zayn emerges so casually from the crowd that Liam’s breath hitches in the middle of his chest.

There’s a pink tongue slowly rolling over a crooked grin that distracts Liam fleetingly.  His Oxford is done up lazily, half hanging out of his trousers, sleeves shoved up to his elbows.  His hair is different – all spikes and product and buzzed around the sides.  His eyebrow – the one with the purposely placed cut in it – lifts immediately at Liam and the hot flood of blush all along Liam’s skin is so unpredictable.

“You alright?” Zayn asks, hands shoved in his pockets.

The laugh that follows Zayn’s words is so relaxed that it’s contagious.  It settles all of the tension out of Liam’s bones and he slouches down in his chair with a half-arse lift to his shoulders.

Zayn bites along the corner of his bottom lip, giggling.

“Li,” he pleads, groans in this intensely obscene way that distracts from the nervous energy all in his limbs.

“M’good,” Liam lies.  He drops his chin a little, bobs his head to the ‘baby I just don’t get it do you enjoy being hurt?’ in the background.

Zayn carelessly kicks at Liam’s foot until he looks up.  His brow wrinkles when he raises it at Liam.

It’s daft, honestly.  The way he immediately looks out towards the dance floor.  His eyes drag over the scramble of couples dancing awkwardly, just a back and forth little two-step that Liam actually hates but –

The warm laugh nearby steals his attention and he blinks up at Zayn, closer now, standing over him.  There’s a wriggle to Zayn’s eyebrows, this amused smile that melts into Liam’s core.

(it’s like stupid cheesy romantic films his sisters watch with a tub of ice cream and tears in their eyes)

Zayn is humming along to the ‘you should let me love you let me be the one to give you everything you want and need’ while trading gazes between the crowded space on the dance floor and Liam.

“You don’t want to, maybe – “

Liam squawks out a noise, shaking his head.  His cheeks pulse with a cherry blush.  He drags his sweaty palms over his trousers until they’re wrinkled and damp.

“Babe,” Zayn grins, nudging Liam’s foot again.

“M’good,” Liam repeats.

Zayn snorts, careful teeth finding his lip again.  The flesh twists from pink to crimson and Liam’s certain it’s sore from the attention but –

“We could,” Zayn offers.

“We?”

Zayn’s head tips back with his laugh.  It’s sticky with this vibrato Zayn reserves for singing under his breath.  It separates Liam’s cells and floods his blood with this intoxicate pulse of dopamine that he’ll never quite forget.

“Yeah, man,” Zayn says with that sideways smile that Liam feels before he actually sees it.  “C’mon, babe.”

He tugs a hand out of his pockets, stretching it towards Liam, wiggling his fingers like an invitation.

Like c’mon babe is just a start.

Liam raises his brow, flushing all over when Zayn quirks his own eyebrow at him.  He’s got heavy oxygen in his lungs when Zayn reaches out, swipes his hand and drags him to his feet.  They almost collide, Zayn’s laugh brushing against his neck and a spare hand grabbing his hip to steady him.  Their chests flutter in this weirdly synchronized way that leaves Liam more than lightheaded before Zayn leads them all the way to the blue of the dance floor.

“Idiot,” Zayn giggles but without the cruelty.

Liam tries not to flinch when Zayn pulls his hands off of him – because Zayn’s touch does not burn but the warmth is a little intoxicating – and his muscles relax when he takes in the width of Zayn’s crooked little smile.

Zayn steps into his space, cocking his head to the side before carefully lacing his fingers over the nape of Liam’s neck.  He lifts an eyebrow, daring Liam with his half-lidded eyes and Liam knows what to do here.

He shakes off all of the insecurity, briefly, inching in and carefully squeezing Zayn’s narrow waist with his trembling fingers.  He keeps just enough distance – because this is not weird but – and holds Zayn’s waist like he’s seen in the films.  They find a clumsy rhythm and fall into it and Liam stares down at their feet to make sure he doesn’t step all over Zayn’s.

It’s a cautious sway, something amateurish and embarrassingly plain but Liam likes it.  He likes how Zayn hums under his breath and the way they move back and forth and how this dance floor feels so empty around them.

Like some neatly written scene in a cheesy film and he blushes an uneven pink when he finally looks up at Zayn.

“M’sorry,” Zayn mumbles, fumbling a dopey grin for Liam.  “I’m horrible at dancing but – “

Liam squeaks out a disapproving noise.  He ducks his head a little but tightens his fingers around Zayn’s waist like ‘don’t be silly this is brilliant’ but the words never quite lift off of his tongue.

(he doesn’t think he would survive the humiliation if he managed to spit them out anyway.)

He tips with Zayn and follows all of Zayn’s awkward footsteps around the floor.  They step on each other’s feet but they don’t say anything about it.  They keep swaying.  Liam’s thumbs keeping drawing odd shapes across Zayn’s hips and Zayn keeps smiling.

They keep dancing.

“Hey,” Zayn whispers, after the ‘baby good love and protection’ slips past those chapped lips, “You alright?”

Liam blinks up, nods quickly.  There’s sweat along his brow, a throb in his muscles, something tight and knotted in his stomach but – he feels incredible.

“They’re sort of looking at us,” Zayn snorts.

Liam freezes.  An iron-hot bind wraps around his muscles and his breath hitches so loudly.  His eyes dart around and, under the warm glowing spotlights, there’s at least two dozen sets of eyes on them as they spin sloppily around the floor.

“Should we,” Liam swallows, his shoulders tightening up and nearly knocking Zayn’s arms away, “Maybe – like should we stop?  I don’t want – “

Zayn leans in, skims a laugh to the shell of Liam’s ear while shaking his head.  “S’cool, man.  They can stare.  It’s just stupid laddy stuff, right?”

Liam chokes on his next breath but Zayn’s thumb presses deep into the tendons at the back of his neck and he falters.

He grins stupidly and nods.

“Let ‘em look, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Zayn laughs softly, still stumbling into his next step with Liam’s fingers tight around his waist.  With long fingers leaving soft bruises that Liam’s certain he’ll apologize later for when Zayn teases him about it.

He won’t mind at all.

“Do we look horrible?” Zayn wonders with the spotlight fading off and the lights slowly blinking alive around the room.

Liam snickers, his smile pushing at his eyes, little crinkles forming.  He shrugs before replying, “A little but – like, s’nice.”

“Nice,” Zayn repeats, his smile pushing little wrinkles into the bridge of his nose.

Liam nods slowly, biting his lip at the same moment Zayn chews on his.

And it’s just that – nice.

The music starts to fade, all of the white lights in the cafeteria stealing the deep blues from the walls just as one of his hands drifts up to the dip in Zayn’s spine, resting comfortably, and he never wants to move from this moment until –

“Hey,” Zayn says, soft with a smile, and they keep swaying for a few more seconds.  “I better go.  Promised Harry my mum would drop him off.  Can’t be late tonight.”

Liam blinks for a few seconds, the room still a hazy madness behind his eyelids.

“Oh, right,” he chokes out, dropping his hands to his sides, scooting back nervously.  He sniffs while Zayn fixes his hair and the divide is so noticeable now.

“Thanks,” he mumbles, shoulders pulling up tightly into a shrug.

Zayn grins, punches his shoulder tenderly.  He rocks back on his heels while whispering, “Anything for you, babe.”

Liam swallows everything down because he doesn’t want to ruin this moment.  He feels – awkward.  Something is still tight, too hot in his belly.  He knows – fuck – he knows this isn’t right.  His tongue brushes over his dry lips and he shouldn’t look at his best mate like this.

Like the world is crashing around them but all he wants is to stare a little longer at that curved smile.

He stays quiet, looking around, watching most of his classmates pile off into the corners to grab their scarfs and heavy coats.  He pretends his breathing is normal.  His palms are not sweating and his heart isn’t hammering loudly behind his ribcage.

Zayn snorts, shaking his head.  He ducks in so quickly that he’s nothing but a flash in Liam’s vision.  He presses a quick, off-center kiss that smacks to the corner of Liam’s mouth.  He thumps Liam’s shoulder one more time when he draws back and Liam barely feels it.

The kiss, though – it lingers.

(He’ll remember, years and years from this moment, how the tickle right at the corner of his lips lasted for hours afterwards)

Zayn jogs off, snatches Harry’s hand into his own and tugs him out of the double doors before Liam can take his next breath.  But he watches.  He waits until his skin stops burning pink before he spins on his heels.

“You little shit,” Louis huffs, punching Liam roughly in the shoulder – the one not already bruised by Zayn’s loose fist.  “You didn’t dance with her.”

Liam shakes his head, looking down at his feet.

“Fucking bullshit, Payno,” Louis hisses but Liam can hear the smile in his voice without looking.  “Next time, right?”

Liam gives him a lazy shrug, keeping his chin tucked.  He hides his smile from Louis and next time he thinks.

Next time he’ll bail Zayn out because it’s what best mates do.

And Zayn is just that – his best mate.  Nothing else.

 

[#]

 

He is Zayn’s inspiration when they’re thirteen –

 

Liam loves Zayn’s bedroom.

He loves all of the posters pinned to the walls – half of the space is his favorite Marvel characters, the other half little quotes written to inspire – and how Zayn tries to hide all of his Power Rangers figurines even though Liam’s own room is mostly made up of Toy Story stuff.  His mum calls it nostalgia.  His sisters call it childish.

Liam doesn’t care either way because Zayn doesn’t tease him about any of it.

And his room, with the little doodles and sketches taped to corners of the walls, the desk lamp that shines over Zayn’s barely used glasses, the soft bed and clothes piled up everywhere and this familiar scent that is just so Zayn.

The pile of trainers always kicked into a corner and his favorite Green Lantern hoodie hanging off a chair and their names carved into a wood panel by Zayn’s bed from a night of too much caffeine and Zayn’s favorite sour candies.

It’s completely Zayn but, somehow, it’s distinctively them also.

He doesn’t attempt to explain that last part but it lingers in the back of his mind every time he stands in the middle of this hurricane for too long.

Liam just breathes, frowning a little in the mirror, pulling at all the thick material of his crimson jumper.

“I look a bit silly,” Liam complains, soft and lazy.  There’s a thump of Kanye in the background and his feet still feel cold on the hardwood floor, even with socks on.

Zayn hums something from his bed.  He’s lying on his back, knees pulled up, a sketchpad pressed to his thighs, a casual hand dragging the tip of a pen to paper.  He looks weirdly comfortable with his shirt undone, the material a rather common tartan pattern of red and blue, and his skin is this glazed caramel under the yellowy light above.  He wiggles his toes to the beat, shredded jeans giving Liam peeks at his bruised knees.

(He’s taken up skateboarding because of Harry and the wear on his skin shows – small bruises, noticeable cuts, skin still pink and healing in hidden parts)

“This jumper,” Liam whines quietly, tugging at the collar.  “Me mum bought it for Christmas photos.  She likes me to wear it all of the time, though.  Says I look quite smart in it.”

Oh.”

Liam scrunches his brow, the little wrinkles making him look petulant.  He can see Zayn in the reflection – cool copper eyes like a shiny coin still tracing over his sketchpad.  He doesn’t bother looking up and Liam makes a face at him in the mirror even though he knows Zayn will never see it.

He keeps picking at the sweater, searching for lint, tugging the scratchy material away from his skin.

“I look daft.”

“You don’t,” Zayn replies, his eyes still lowered.

“Bloody pathetic.”

“You listen to Lou too much,” Zayn teases, half a smile almost unnoticeable because his chin is still tucked.  He keeps his eyes on his sketch.

“What normal lad – “

“You’re not normal, Li,” Zayn chuckles.  His fingertips shine metallic from the pencil he was using early.  His toes keep time when the song changes in the background.

“Shut it,” Liam says a little too fondly, his skin a blistering pink.  He’s grateful Zayn can’t see.

“M’jus’ sayin’ bro,” Zayn adds, shrugging halfheartedly with his eyelashes fanning over his cheeks, his bottom lips chewed between his teeth.

“Well,” Liam huffs, spinning on his heels.  He thumps over to the bed, scratching a few fingers beneath the denim to touch Zayn’s knee.

He doesn’t finish his sentence and Zayn doesn’t flinch and, instantly, their space is filled with a familiar sort of fondness that Liam can’t ever replicate.

Not with Louis or some of his other mates at school or any girl who corners him to whisper affectionately about how fit he’s becoming.

“You don’t look awful, dude,” Zayn mumbles with his lip still twisted in his teeth.

Liam sighs, rolling his eyes.  He can’t stop his smile.  Or the blush.  “You’re not even giving me a proper look,” he argues and he doesn’t know why.

He honestly wants to digest those last few words because Zayn blinks up – a full blown smile, crinkled eyes, a twitching nose, the dull variations of artificial sunlight provided by the overhead light skimming his skin.  He hauls in a deep breath when Zayn lazily spreads his legs, balancing the sketchbook on one thigh now, dragging his eyes over Liam.

“I’m always looking at you, Li.”

Liam blushes this ugly stain of carnation.  He’s not meant to be so – he’s flustered.  He drags a hand through his shaggy hair and raises his shoulder like all of this is just careless conversation between lads.

Like his heart doesn’t rap a little louder at his chest when Zayn’s smile stretches.

“Really?” he chokes out.

Zayn snorts, nodding.  “Course, man,” he shrugs.  “Yeah, yeah.  I mean, like.  You’re my best mate.”

He doesn’t expect it to sting – no, wait.  Bite.  It bites and gnaws and his shoulders fall just a little because –

Best mates, right?

They’re simply bros, he thinks.  Always have been.  Five year olds coloring at a table all by themselves and it’s all he ever needs.  Just Zayn and the quiet.

It’s a beautifully sentimental sort of thing he knows you find in those trashy daytime television shows his mum secretly watches with a bag of chocolate biscuits.

He feels Zayn’s toes nudging at his thigh when all of his thoughts slow down.  He twitches out a small smile before flopping onto the bed next to Zayn.  He burrows in swiftly, pressing into Zayn’s side, stealing a pillow from behind Zayn’s head.

His fingers instinctively crawl under Zayn’s shirt to poke his side and something tickles a smile from the corners of Zayn’s mouth.  It’s small and insignificant but it’s there.

It warms Liam’s blood and he slowly syncs his breathing with Zayn’s while the sky outside drags from a calm blue to an early evening grey.

“What are you drawing this time?” Liam wonders.

Zayn hums gently, biting down on his smile.  “S’nothing.”

“Liar,” Liam snickers.  He pokes Zayn’s hip again and they squirm together on the sheets.

Zayn gives him a casual shrug.  He lowers his legs so Liam can sneak a view of the rough sketch.  It’s half-filled in comic book panels, a bunch of characters Liam doesn’t recognize except for a lad with exaggerated muscles and a spotty birthmark on his throat and –

Oh.

“S’that me?” he asks, sheepishly.

Zayn snorts before he nods.  He trades the pen to his left hand – even though they both know Zayn’s awful at drawing with that hand but – and scratches his fingers into Liam’s thick hair.

“Sort of,” Zayn sighs, smiling down at the sketch.  “Just some doodle, really.  It’s shit.  Been trying to get it down for hours but, like – “

There’s a soft breath caught in Liam’s larynx and his eyes keep scanning the panels.  He keeps looking at another character who looks oddly like Zayn with the sharp jaw and spiky hair and another bloke with wild eyes and a massive amount of dialogue bubbles over his head –

“And Louis?” Liam asks.

Zayn nods again.  The skin around his cheek is pink and his eyes stay on the paper.

“Harry too,” Zayn adds, dragging his fingers slower over Liam’s scalp.  “The whole lot.  We’re like, well, a superhero team, right?  It’s stupid, but – like, we save the city.  Fight bad guys.  Sort of like the X-Men but, like, different?  It’s – “

Liam nudges into Zayn’s touch, crawls closer to brush his index finger over the page.  He outlines himself, Zayn too.  He studies the panel of just the two of them, standing closely, almost touching but not quite.

They’re always an almost but not quite.

“It’s cool, man,” Liam swears, his eager voice giving himself away.

He shifts in closer to bury the flush in his cheeks, thumbing at Zayn’s hair until the pad of his thumb is a metallic color.

“It’s silly, innit?”

Liam’s laugh catches right in his chest.  He tries to disguise it by nuzzling his cheek to Zayn’s stomach while Zayn’s fingers tickle behind his ear.  Comfortably pressed together and it’s so them.

It’s raw and terrifying.  But he doesn’t move away automatically.

“And like,” Zayn starts, his smile curved into the softness of his voice, “You’ve got super strength.  It’s – like you’re invulnerable to almost everything.  Sort of like Superman, right?”

“Or Colossus?” Liam offers, lowering his voice to listen to Zayn’s gentle breathing.

“Yeah, like him,” Zayn grins and Liam looks up into wide, astonished eyes.  He flutters his eyelashes and cheats his instincts to stare back down at the drawings.  “And I’m like – like, I’m really fast.  And I can change things around, like, you remember Jean Grey?”

Liam nods slowly, smirking at another panel of Zayn’s character smacking the back of Louis’ head.

“And sort of super brainy – “

“Obviously,” Liam laughs and Zayn retaliates by tugging his hair softly.  A deep, heavy groan escapes from his chest and it’s embarrassingly dirty like that really bad porn Louis showed him two weeks ago and –

Zayn snorts and does it again.  He tugs a little firmer and Liam’s head snaps back and there is this rawness in Zayn’s eyes he doesn’t understand

(not yet but, one day, he thinks he will and he might want it all of the time)

but he dismisses it almost instantly when Zayn smacks his round cheek playfully.

“You dolt,” he grins.

Liam shoots him an uneven smile because he’s so flustered and something twitches from his belly all the way to his cock and he still doesn’t understand that.  The way just a noise or the soft breeze under his gym shorts or a look makes his cock quickly fatten up.

“So, like,” Liam breathes a little too harshly, looking away, “do like – do I get the girl in the end like the comics?  Like Superman and Lois Lane or – “

“Peter Parker and MJ?” Zayn interrupts, his lips shifting crookedly for a smile.

Liam swallows and doesn’t bother looking up.  He casually and discreetly grinds into the mattress because it’s a little trick he’s learned from too many mornings waking up with a stiff willy.  The friction is usually enough.

“Yeah, like – um, like them?” he stutters.

He can feel Zayn move when he shrugs absently.  He pulls his hand from Liam’s hair and starts to sketch again.

“He can,” Zayn offers, quietly.  “D’you want ‘im to?”

It takes Liam a moment.  It feels like its seconds but it tastes like a lifetime.  He gives the sketch a considering look, breathing slowly.  He submerges himself in the sheets, Zayn’s warm body, the gentle nudge of Zayn’s toes against his knee.  He hums along to John Mayer and he can hear Zayn sucking on his bottom lip.

Just Zayn and the quiet.

“Nah,” he finally laughs and it’s less than seconds before Zayn joins him, their eyes crinkling and their mouths stretching and they roll lazily on the bed while a loud hymn of thunder groans outside of the window.

Zayn slouches down and punches at Liam’s shoulder.  He barely feels it.  He spent all of last summer learning how of box.  He knows how to throw a punch.  He’s taught Zayn how to one too even though they don’t discuss why.  They don’t talk about all of the boys who bully Liam because of his hair or his round face or his fuzzy eyebrows or his dodgy clothes.  They don’t discuss the ones that call Zayn names, push him against lockers, whisper filthy words about his skin color and his heritage and the way he leaves class sometimes to march off to a quiet room for his afternoon prayer.

(Liam only brushes away frustrated tears when Zayn gets into a fight because he knows Zayn has a temper.  He knows Zayn didn’t want to.  He knows Zayn has no self-control when someone tries to shame his mum or insults his father’s culture.)

They refuse to look at each other in the eye but, in the dark, they link fingers and Liam listens to Zayn recite a soft prayer.

He clears out a space in his bedroom on late nights when they’re meant to be studying instead of watching Iron Man.  He closes his eyes and listens to Zayn repeat his maghrib salat softly from the floor.  Liam listens and this calm settles into his bones.

In the quiet, he lets Zayn be himself.

Zayn smears silver to the tip of Liam’s nose, giggling.  Liam drags fingers over Zayn’s ribs and they turn to face each other, breathing erratically.  They stretch out on their sides, feet unconsciously brushing.  They stare and waste away for a few minutes.

It’s the sort of peace of mind Liam can never really latch onto without Zayn – right here.

“Sunshine?”

Trisha is smiling, propped against the doorway when they lift their heads.  Her hair is still messily pulled up, strands falling in her face, cheeks flushed from her late shift in the halal kitchen.  There’s a smudged happiness in Zayn’s grin when he looks at her and Liam always feels like he’s intruding on moments like this.

He shouldn’t because this is how it’s always been – his own mum dragging Zayn with them to McDonald’s after school, Liam sat next to Zayn’s dad while they watch football, Liam’s mum picking out a jumper she’ll end up giving to Zayn instead of Liam, Zayn’s mum singing along with Liam to the radio.

(and Liam’s mum setting out an extra sleeping bag for Zayn when they’re too drowsy on the weekend, even though she knows Zayn will just crawl into bed next to Liam but still)

“Dinner is about ready, love,” she sighs, the drag of exhaustion in her voice.

Zayn bites down on half of his smile and nods.  His eyes are still affectionately crinkled and Liam tries hard not to stare.

He looks down at his fingers picking at the sheets, their feet still nearly tangled at the foot of the bed.

Liam stretches and rolls away.  The world outside is grey and washed out of color and he can almost sniff the rain even though the window is closed.  It’s comforting if not intimidating.

There’s a little smile tugging at his lips when Zayn blinks up at him anxiously.  It’s a reserved look but Liam wants to peel away the layers to see if there’s a ‘stay a bit longer’ underneath.  Instead, he thumps off the bed, fixes his clothes and grins sheepishly at Trisha.

“Always good to see you, Mrs. Malik,” he says, politely.  She gives him a wink and a look he knows better than to question.  The edge of her smile says it all.

“I should probably go,” he adds, under his breath, trying to stretch under the itchy jumper.

He ignores the small frown he can see from the corner of his eye and shuffles his feet along the cold floor.  Trisha quickly holds up an open palm and he falters on his way towards the door.

“Liam – “

Her voice is soft, inviting.  Just like Zayn’s bedroom.  Like he fits into this oddly shaped puzzle with all the center pieces missing.

She grins at him when his skin goes from tan to pink.  “I already have a spot saved for you at the dinner table, love.  It’s just samosas and chutney.  Don’t know if you like – “

“I love it.”  He knows he sounds too enthusiastic and his cheeks are still burning from earlier but something fizzles right down to his center.  It sticks like taffy but melts like heated gold and his grin is inescapable.  He folds into it.

Liam half-turns when Zayn crawls up to his knees, grinning back at him.  He reaches out, sneaking fingers underneath the thick sleeve of Liam’s jumper to scratch at his wrist.  There’s something wholly fond in his smile that Liam latches onto.

He grips it tight like a four-leaf clover and it’s all a bit ridiculous.

“Sit next to me?” Zayn whispers when his mum spins out of the doorway, giggling all the way down the hall.

Liam can’t press the words fast enough to his lips so he nods instead.

He feels fingers dragging on his wrist and the thunder outside doesn’t seem to throb as loud as his heart does.  And he doesn’t comprehend any of it but –

(and none of this makes sense later, before they go downstairs, with Zayn pulling at the sleeve of his jumper.  When Zayn whispers into his ear ‘you look fine, babe’ while quietly passing over one of his old hoodies because he knows Liam.  He knows Liam needs to be comfortable and they share a smile when Liam’s head gets caught in the collar of his jumper, exchanging laughs while Zayn helps him into the hoodie.  While Zayn fixes his hair and they play fight all the way to the stairs and hold hands all the way to the dining room entry)

Liam knows he’s too young to understand any of this.

 

[#]

 

Zayn is his first kiss when they’re fourteen – well, sort of –

 

Liam is hiding.

If anyone, including that bastard Louis Tomlinson with his too wide grin and ridiculously alive blue eyes and his constant ‘it’s called flirting mate chat her up’ in Liam’s ear, ever asks, he’ll simply say he was lost.

It’s a late evening, early into the autumn chill, and he reckons it’s an easy explanation.  He got lost walking from that big, pale yellow house on the corner all the way over to a familiar playground he remembers from being a kid.

A playground two whole streets over from that house where he can still hear the dull thud of music and the childish giggles of girls being chased by overeager boys.

It’s his first real teenage party with a basement stuffed with classmates, people grinding to the same buzz of Katy Perry on repeat, kids snogging in the closet and someone’s parents pretending that rank scent of smoke is just nicotine rather than a cheeky cigarette huffed by a group of boys out back.  He’s too anxious and too overwhelmed to last more than an hour between a pretty redhead and some kind girl from one of his Lit classes snapping cherry gum between her teeth.

And maybe it’s the keen hand that crawled up his thigh during that one Sean Kingston song or the way Louis kept whispering in a girl’s ear – Lily?  Rose? – during ‘Hey There Delilah’ that made him itch.

There wasn’t enough root beer in his system and the pair of hands that scratch up his hips while he was dancing made something cold stretch over his skin.  He ducked out through a back door afterwards, stumbling through empty streets.

He swings lazily back and forth on a swing with rusted chains, dragging his super white Converse – his mum is going to murder him – in the dirt.  He keeps repeating ‘stupid, stupid dumb boy who can’t kiss a girl’ in his head while watching his feet.

The sky is a dense lavender and maroon above his head, a pale orange street lamp shining down on half of the playground and he swears he can hear Louis yelling for him somewhere in the distance.

Liam keeps rocking slowly on the swing.

He’s softly chanting that Good Charlotte tune he can never remember all of the words to in his head when a familiar pair of scuffed Nike’s shuffle into his vision.

Liam looks up, chewing his lip, still humming.  The corners of his mouth immediately want to curl upward but he hesitates.  The sky is a poor background for the orangey light shining down on Zayn but he still looks so –

Zayn is the closest thing he can relate to home and comfy and that feeling of never being alone.

Liam breathes something heavy out of his nose and Zayn’s lips quirk into a lopsided grin just for him.

“Y’look happy,” Zayn smiles, taking a quick swig from a bottled Coke.  He scrubs the back of his wrist over his mouth to wipe away the excess.

“I do?” Liam wonders with a crumpled brow.

“No,” Zayn laughs, nudging Liam’s foot with his own.  Liam doesn’t even care about the extra dirt spotting the white rubber.  The touch is enough.

Liam shrugs, still rocking on the swing.  “M’fine.”

“You’re shit at lying, Li,” Zayn snorts, passing the Coke towards him.

Liam takes a swift gulp, letting the fizz coat his throat before he swallows. “I am.”

Zayn nods, rocking on his heels.  He tugs his denim jacket close to his chest to hide from the uncomfortable breeze that passes by them.

It’s that lull between autumn and winter that Liam loves – the heart of September where the leaves spin from the limbs like large fireflies and the sky gets dark just after sunset.  When it’s almost cold enough for a heavy coat and his morning tea burns just enough to warm his bones.  Where everything is quiet for hours, the world nothing but a globe of bright orange and harsh gold.

He loves how, out here, everything smells like a roaring bonfire.

“I hate that shirt,” Zayn mentions when Liam passes the Coke back.

Liam glares down – it’s some silly plaid shirt with all of the buttons done up to the collar – before frowning.

“Really?”

“Nope,” Zayn grins, kicking Liam’s foot again.  “But remind me to nick it off of you the next time ‘m at yours.”

Liam sighs happily – his first real smile in too long – before rolling his eyes.  He’s certain half of his wardrobe is wrinkled at the end of Zayn’s bed now but he never complains.  He likes the way, when Zayn bothers to return anything, his shirts smell distractingly like Liam but mostly Zayn.

Entirely Zayn.

A dull quiet falls between them, Liam swinging close enough to almost bump Zayn’s knees.  He stares down at their feet, all of the scattered leaves tumbling by like a sea of fire.

“Where’s Harry?” Liam asks because even the silence is too loud in his head.

He doesn’t mean to sound rough or coarse because he’s not – Liam is not jealous.

(but there’s a moment, or a few, where he does sort of hate Harry for managing to keep Zayn’s attention for this long)

Zayn sniffs, biting his lip, ruining all of the pink with the pressure.  He wiggles his eyebrows at Liam and Liam can’t stop the breathy laugh that lights up his lungs.  Zayn is like that scalding tea in the morning –

He doesn’t know why he feels it bone-deep or why it keeps burning long after Zayn leaves.

“Don’t be cross,” Zayn warns with a grin.

“M’not.”  He’s pouting and looking down immediately because –

“Just asking,” Liam shrugs, trying to sound indifferent.

Zayn hums at him, rocking on the balls of his feet.  “Left him with some bird.  She was pretty.  He seemed interested.”

Liam snorts, nodding, lifting his brow at nothing because he’s still not looking at Zayn.  Not fully.

“You don’t like him?” Zayn inquires after a small swallow of Coke.

“I do,” Liam mumbles.

He really does – most days.  When he’s not attached to Zayn.  When he’s just some kid with mangled curls and bright eyes and this loose smile that comes with dimples and a deep, dragging voice.

It’s just sometimes –

“He’s cool,” Liam adds because it sounds convincing, even if his voice is choppy and dull.

“Cool,” Zayn repeats, scratching his head.

Liam nods and doesn’t bother to elaborate.  It’s enough.  He hopes it is.

“Wanna talk about it?” Zayn offers, plopping down into the empty swing next to Liam.  He passes the Coke back, dragging the swing awkwardly sideways to get closer to Liam.

The sugary taste on his tongue soothes.  He lets the carbonation sit in his chest, waits until the caffeine rewires the nerves connected to his heart before sighing.  His head tilts when he stares at Zayn and Zayn looks attentive with a small smile, wide eyes.

“Emily,” he whispers, his voice scratched from the soda.  “I was – I am just a bit nervous, okay?  She kept trying to chat with me.  Think she wanted a snog and – “

The curious lift of Zayn’s eyebrows makes him stumble a little but he tries to cover it up with a twitchy smile.

“Like, I dunno, man.  I can but,” he’s trying to chase the words in his throat but his mind can’t keep up when Zayn tilts his head.  He scrunches his eyebrows, dragging white teeth along his lip.  “I got a bit nervy, alright?  I’ve never properly – well, y’know, I just haven’t and.  Fuck.”

Zayn snorts, stealing the Coke back.  He tips his head back, his throat working so smoothly for a long swallow.  It steals the last half of oxygen in Liam’s lungs and that feels inaccurate.

He’s thinking about Emily, right?

Liam sighs, turning his eyes away.  His fingers squeeze around the rusted chains before he whispers, “They were starting up a game of Seven Minutes in Heaven, mate.  Like, Lou kept bothering me about it all.  Snogging her, right?  Because I should.”

“But you didn’t,” Zayn hums.

“I didn’t.”

Zayn hums again, softer this time, still stretching the chains to get closer to Liam.

A hand – a familiar one, a tender one – slides up his thigh and gives it a squeeze halfway.  Liam jumps and giggles at the touch but Zayn doesn’t let go and Liam is so, so grateful.

He tucks his grin into his shoulder, looks up through his eyelashes to watch the slow spread of Zayn’s insistent smile.

Leeyum,” Zayn drags out, purposely, with that rich accent, “Just chill.  Just – chill, alright?”

Liam nods.  He nearly covers Zayn’s hand with his own because it’s warm and the breeze is harsh but his nerves tell him otherwise.  But he tenses his thigh under Zayn’s grip and the dense coat of blush on his cheeks can be blamed on the cold.

It’s simply just – fuck.

“C’mere,” Zayn whispers, pleads really but Liam is so distracted by the hand on his thigh abandoning his jeans to curl slowly behind his head.  Long, warm fingers threading into his hair.  A palm cupping his skull and pulling.

It doesn’t take much – Liam naturally follows the momentum.

It’s all slow motion.  It’s like a scene in those horror films Nicola loves where the killer is close on the heels of his victim.  The pulse of blood in his system, the adrenaline, the pinch around his nerves.  His breath is a little loud, sped up but Zayn’s eyes flutter and the chains on his swing groan when he gets close enough.

Liam watches a pink tongue wet chapped lips and he’ll blame everything after this on the pale moon in the sky and the sugary caffeine in their blood.

His first kiss is nothing like a horror film or a slow-motion close-up like in those predictable romantic films.  It’s a quiet, awkward brush of lips.  It’s warm and Zayn’s fingers tighten in his hair just before he applies the pressure.  Just before Liam’s throat tightens around an unexpected moan while Zayn hums softly.  Their noses bump, Zayn’s eyelashes tickling his cheek, their mouths sliding into an uncomfortable slot before it’s –

He hates dumb words like magical or amazing because it’s not really.

It’s weird.

He’s kissing a boy.  He’s kissing his best mate.  Actually, he’s resting his lips against Zayn’s and letting Zayn soften everything from there.

And it’s so quick – a blink-and-you-missed-it moment.  He’s barely adjusted to the sugary flavor on Zayn’s lips and the way he smells like citrus and warm spices and fresh autumn air before Zayn’s dragging back.

Zayn swipes the back of his hand over his mouth, grinning.  He shrugs, scooting back and Liam stares at him for a long beat.

He forgets where his inhales start and his exhales end.

“There,” Zayn sniffs, washing down whatever taste Liam has left in his mouth with Coke.  He chokes out a giggle, looking down, bruising his lip with his teeth.  “Now you can go snog that bird, right babe?”

Liam swallows.  It’s bitter now.  The last of Zayn and the strong breeze through the thin material of his shirt.  He smiles messily, his tongue pressing against his teeth, his eyes almost crinkling.

He pushes off the swing with relaxed shoulders and he feels insane.  He’s absolutely mad and there’s still a hint of adrenaline in his blood.  It’s the only excuse he has for ducking in to press a loud, sloppy kiss to Zayn’s mouth.

It’s supposed to taste like gratitude but it slips and slides and Zayn moan sounds more shocked than pleased but Liam doesn’t care.

“Thanks, babe,” Liam whispers, his voice anxious as he presses their foreheads together.

His shaking hands cup Zayn’s cheeks and he stays there.  He just – Liam stays pressed right there.

His vision is blurred because they’re too close but he can see the crooked quirk of Zayn’s lips and he presses it to his memory.  He keeps the imprint while they breathe softly under the wind.

Later, in a dark closet with Emily’s hand in his hair and her chest pressed to his, he squeezes his eyes tightly shut.  He kisses her while holding his breath.  He feels her other hand on his thigh and he keeps his around her waist.

She tastes like cherry chapstick and ginger ale and she bites roughly at his bottom lip before licking at his teeth.  She squeals when his fingers find the small of her back, stumbling them into a wall and giggling through the next few kisses.

There’s not enough light for him to see her face so he keeps his eyes closed.  He keeps imaging dark hair, eyes like splintered sunsets along the Mediterranean, soft gold skin, chapped pink lips.  He thinks, for a long while, about the taste of Coke instead of ginger ale and a shaky laugh and the scent of citrus in his lungs.

He doesn’t come down from that high even after Emily wipes her mouth and giggles all the way back into the party.

 

[#]

 

Zayn is his first crush –

 

He can’t help himself, honestly.  Whatever this is bleeds into his lungs.  It burns away all of his excess oxygen.  He can’t stop staring at Zayn, sat in a corner of the library just two chairs away from Liam, sketching lazily in a notebook with glasses and a Mickey Mouse jumper and his pink tongue between his teeth.

Liam’s still not certain when he woke up to this feeling – he’s pretty certain it was a Sunday with Zayn snoring on his shoulder and their bare arms brushing under the duvet – but it keeps sinking into his thoughts.

Even after he repeats ‘we’re just mates’ and just before he frowns in the mirror every morning, jogging downstairs to kiss his mum on the cheek before school.

But every moment is like this – watching Zayn.  Studying him.  Thinking about their fingers curled together.  He grinds into his mattress, unconsciously, daydreaming about Zayn’s chapped lips and the hum of his voice, his crooked grin.  He saturates his briefs, unconsciously, squeezes his hardening cock to the thought of Zayn decorating his skin in bruises.

He wants Zayn to use his thighs for a canvas and his wide shoulders were meant for pink lips and his fingers want to discover Zayn’s spine on purpose.

It’s an infatuation, he tells himself.  It’ll depart.  These things always do.

Except, Liam keeps watching Zayn.  He keeps wondering – don’t because it will hurt and he will hate you – if those goosebumps along his skin can be transferred into words meant just for Zayn.

It makes him sick and when Louis asks about it, he faults it on trashy cafeteria food.

And these feelings will leave him.  They always do.

 

[#]

 

Zayn is his first heartbreak when he’s fifteen –

 

“Alright?”

Liam nods quickly with nervous teeth wrecking his lip, with this unwanted sting in his eyes.  He refuses to blink.  He keeps his back to the sharp January wind, squeezes himself tight while lifting his chin.

The sky above them is a newspaper grey and Liam hides half of his face from Louis.  His nose is a bright pink, his cheeks flushed, this constant burn from unshed tears biting at his eyes.  They stick to his eyelashes, thick and heavy.  He still won’t let them fall.

At least, not while Louis is watching.

“You’re crying,” Louis mentions, trying to peak around Liam’s shoulder.

Liam half-turns away.  “M’not,” he sniffs, his voice wobbly.  He knows he’s giving himself away but he’s strong.  That knot in his chest is nothing.  He hasn’t a reason for this overwhelming weight on his shoulders but –

He doesn’t mean to watch.  Something sick spreads all through his body.  Thicker tears catch on his eyelashes this time.  He doesn’t mean to stare.

Zayn is smiling a half a field away.  He’s got wiry arms wrapped around her, giggling into her neck, peppering kisses along her jaw.  He flicks ash off of his cigarette, blows bluish smoke into the wind.  She’s got a hand curled into the collar of his jacket, a grin over his ear, dark hair mixing with his in the breeze.  The stain from her lipstick is on his neck and –

The weight shifts to his chest, pressing firmly to his ribs.  His blood feels like acid.

Liam blinks down at his trembling hands.  He curls them into fists, hugs himself against the howling wind.  He swears he doesn’t mean to glare at them.

Zayn’s hand on the small of her back – where Liam wants it on his – and his lips whispering into her ear – words he wants tickling him – and their foreheads press together – like on the swings after a kiss too long ago – for another laugh.

It’s too heavy, the weight.  The sun is hiding behind the clouds and its better this way.  It won’t make the tears burn as ferociously as they do right now.

“Payno,” Louis whispers, a hand squeezing at Liam’s shoulder.

He jerks away.  It’s an absent move but he doesn’t want to be touched.  He doesn’t want anything to steal this cold feeling from his bones.

Liam doesn’t deserve sympathy.

“I’m fine,” he repeats with a little more confidence.  The first few tears are scalding when they tumble down his cheeks.

“But – “

Liam sniffs, shrugging.  “It’s just – it’s cold, Tommo,” he insists.  The wind shakes bare tree limbs and the grey from Zayn’s smoke almost fogs the view of them kissing.

Slow, tepid, anxious kisses.  It’s bitter in his own mouth.

“It’s not,” Louis sighs, knocking their shoulders.  The metal bleachers beneath their feet ring when Louis drags closer.  “It’s alright, mate.  Like – I know, man.  Can’t hide everything from your other best mate.”

Only best mate, Liam thinks, briefly.  It’s a lie but the anger helps.

He lets it swell in his lungs and he hates Zayn Malik.  He hates that he knows what this feels like now.

Not the regret.  The splintered heart.  The infatuation singed into something ashy and dark.

“I’m not,” Liam coughs into a loose fist, lowering his chin.  The next slide of tears are colder.  “I’m okay.”

“I know,” Louis whispers, shrugging an arm around Liam’s shoulders.

He doesn’t tug away this time but he flinches.  He feels the weight piling up.

She’s giggling louder while Zayn flicks away the cigarette.  He presses lips still hot from the filter to her cheek, pulls her in to shield her from the winter.  To protect her.  He smiles against her temple and Liam starts to shiver.

Louis’ warmth isn’t quite enough.

“Did you,” Louis starts and Liam tenses.  He knows what’s coming but he can’t evade it.  Not like he’s done since he was fourteen and recklessly staring at his best mate from across the room like –

Like he was incredible.  The Bruce Banner kind.

“Did you, like, have you – you want him, right?”

“Wanted,” Liam corrects and it’s another lie.  It’s dishonest but he lets it press over his tongue.

Louis nods, squeezing around Liam.  “I’m sorry.”

Liam snorts.  Frustrated tears stain his cheeks and he wants to laugh.  He wants to fucking scream how much Zayn has never been anything more than just an infatuation.

He was just a moment and Liam doesn’t live in moments.  They’re too fickle.  They don’t last.

These feelings weren’t supposed to last, remember?

His eyes crinkle just enough to squeeze the last of the tears out when he smiles at Louis.  He sniffs softer this time and Louis gives him an honestly heartbreaking look before grinning back.

“Fuck Zayn,” Louis huffs.

“Fuck him,” Liam agrees, chasing that miserable wobble in his voice with an aching laugh.

He presses his cold nose, his wet eyes, his shaking hand into Louis’ shoulder and waits until Louis’ small hand presses to the small of his back before he finally sobs.  Before he finally shatters because all of the cracks are too deep now.

Liam keeps chanting a mantra of ‘fuck Zayn’ into Louis’ shoulder until the cold is too harsh and the foggy afternoon hides the way that girl looks at Zayn from his vision.

(It doesn’t wipe it from his memory but it’s enough for right now.)

Louis doesn’t tug away until they’re hidden in an empty school bathroom and he watches through the mirror as Liam tries to scrub away the evidence.

He’s silent and doesn’t leave Liam’s side and it’s not the first time Liam’s thankful for this side of Louis Tomlinson.

(it’s the first time Liam prefers Louis tucked to his side rather than Zayn and he knows he’ll never forget this moment)

 

[#]

 

He can feel it in his bloodstream – the alcohol.

It’s dumb, really, because he’s fifteen and pissed off of cheap beer and fizzy, fruity Bacardi breezers and ready to take on the world.

Or stumble into someone’s lawn, trying not to get sick on the pavement.

Louis is still somewhere at the party Liam wasn’t invited to, snogging a girl, leaving Liam to his destructive devices –

Which isn’t really anything.  He takes all of his exhausted energy from a broken heart – which, technically you can’t have if you’ve never been in love and Liam hasn’t – out on boxing, playing footy with neighbors, joining the cross country team.

But he’s still fumbling on his feet, in the middle of March on a late evening where the sun has already spiked into the ocean but the air outside is still comfortably warm.  He’s tripping around a lawn chair and smiling at trees and the world is this hazy vision of tangerine purples that he falls in love with.

Liam wants to howl at the hazy moon in the distance and all of these chemicals underneath his skin feel light and bright like fireworks.

Instead, he slumps against a tree trunk.  He slips down into the grass, everything fading and rolling like in neon waves.  He picks at the grass with heavy eyes.

“Li?”

He laughs to himself.  Itchy grass is between his fingers, his bottom lip sucked between his teeth, the world more than a little lopsided.  He swears it’s the voices in the back of his mind.  It’s a bad dream.

They say too much alcohol can cause hallucinations.  And that’s what this is.  He’s buzzing on a tidal wave of breezers and he really shouldn’t drink – one poorly kidney, of course.  He shouldn’t have tilted his head back too quickly because the world sort of swirls around Zayn when Liam focuses on him long enough.

(he thinks of that one Robyn song and keeps humming off ‘no you never were and you never will be mine’ quietly in this slurring, off-key whisper)

“Arshole,” Liam snorts, tilting his head.

It’s like a ship in a bottle, capsizing the moment Zayn frowns down at him.

Liam swallows back bile and cracks an awful grin when Zayn slowly kneels in front of him, one hand on Liam’s knee for balance.

“You alright?”

“Beautiful,” Liam hiccups with heavy eyes.  His laugh chokes and reverberates in his chest.  He’s a disaster when he reaches out for Zayn, giving up midway to cover Zayn’s hand on his knee.

“Yeah?”

Liam hums, nodding weakly.  “Not you, though,” he giggles, everything feeling lazy and gossamer at once.  “You my dear, sweet, incredibly taken best mate are – “

He pauses.  He knows the words he shouldn’t say.  His vocabulary is just a mash of ‘what-would-Louis-Tomlinson-do?’ because Louis wouldn’t need alcohol to finally say it.  He wouldn’t need to rediscover what being brave meant.

Liam has never been quite good at being anything like Louis.

“You’re incredible,” Liam whispers, a sad fondness still slicking his tongue.  He wrinkles his nose, looking down at their hands.

Zayn’s fingers twitch under his palm.  He hates that.

“Li,” Zayn mumbles, tucking a spare hand into Liam’s hair.  “Liam – “

Liam groans, yanking his hand away.  “Shove off, mate.”

“What’s – what did I do, man?”

“Nothing,” Liam says after a beat.  After a swallow and after his heart beats so fucking loud that the music from that stupid party sounds like white noise.

That dumb, shitty party he wasn’t even invited to.  Just a constant string of introductions that start with ‘this is Louis’ best mate’ and always ended with ‘you know, the daft lad that sits in the back of class, the funny, weird looking one’ and Liam won’t ever quite escape those sort of titles, will he?

He will never be anything other than just Liam Payne.

“Hey,” Zayn says, his voice tight but a few of his fingers brush along that soft spot behind Liam’s ear and he can’t help it.

Liam nudges into the touch.

“Remember primary school?  Coloring fire engines?” Zayn asks and Liam can hear the smile in his voice even if he can’t see it.

His hazy vision focusing on the green, green grass between his loose fist and the trail of leaves around their feet.

“No,” he lies, stubbornly.

“Yeah,” Zayn whispers, teasingly.  He squeezes Liam’s knee and hums quietly.  “You do, don’t you Li?”

“Yeah,” Liam breathes.  His eyes flutter shut involuntarily.

“And every Halloween,” Zayn starts, still grinning.

Liam grunts, biting his lip.  “I dressed up as a Power Ranger for you.  Dumbest costume, mate.”

“The blue Ranger,” Zayn snorts with fingers back in Liam’s hair, along his scalp.  “It was sick, dude.  Thanks.”

“Fuck off,” Liam mumbles with so little venom in his voice.  With so much affection that the alcohol stings rather than buzzes.

He blinks his eyes open, fights the weight on his lids.  It’s all still a little dreamy, the halos of orange around Zayn’s shoulders and his messy hair.  There’s a cigarette tucked behind his ear and Liam hates that Zayn smokes now.

He hates that he knows Zayn’s favorite brand – Marlboro Reds – and how Zayn is so different now.  A different set of friends.  A different air about himself.  But underneath all of the fresh layers, he’s still that bloke with the glass-stained olive eyes, pink mouth, this kid with a love for comic books and tucking into Liam’s side at night.

“I miss you.”

Liam promises he doesn’t mean to say it.  It scratches like shards of glass in his throat but he can’t stop it.

He bites down on the tip of his tongue afterwards and looks up at Zayn’s curious eyes with a pair of wide, wide ones of his own.

“But I’m right here,” Zayn says, soft, a half-smile quirking his lips.

Liam nods, even though it makes him sick.  It makes everything in the background spin.  His eyes can’t focus on anything but the tongue licking Zayn’s lips, the furrowed eyebrows, the hint of a frown.

“I know,” he says with a careless one-shouldered shrug.

“Li – “

“I can’t go home,” he says, panicked, sudden.  He’s choking down something awful with a heavy tongue, fingers scrambling to wrap tightly around Zayn’s wrist.  “My mum can’t – I’m gonna die, man.  I can’t, like, if she sees me pissed off my arse and – “

Liam is heaving for breaths and his skin is feverish.  He’s sweaty.  He stinks of cheap beer and the sky keeps glowing like a dying ember behind Zayn.

“S’okay,” Zayn whispers, ducking in.  He presses his forehead to Liam’s and drags a few casual fingers down the nape of Liam’s neck until he’s calm, calm, calm.

His sigh rests deep in his chest and Zayn waits until he’s quiet.

“I’ve got you, babe,” he promises, giving Liam’s knee another small squeeze.  “Y’can come back to mine.  Sneak you in, okay?  You can have a proper lie-in.  Sleep it off.”

“Sleep,” Liam repeats slowly and it sounds beautiful.

(Liam ignores the lurch in his stomach because the world is still spinning and he can’t sleep next to Zayn – not this Zayn with the cigarettes and the girls marking his neck with red lips and they’re so different.)

“Yeah, babe,” Zayn giggles, palming the back of Liam’s neck.  “Got you, okay?”

Liam swallows it all down.  His pulse is weaker and he can almost see clarity.  Almost.  The heat surrounding him is absent of alcohol because it’s all Zayn.

“Can you like – quite hard to stand when you’re hammered, innit?” Zayn teases, sliding his hands under Liam’s arms.  They circle his back and they struggle together for a moment.

“It’s awful,” Liam groans.  He lets Zayn do most of the work.  He fumbles to his feet and knocks into Zayn.

They groan loudly, laughing into the dizzying night.

“What about – well, um,” Liam stammers, clinging to Zayn, resting his chin on a smooth shoulder.

“About?”

Her,” Liam mumbles, pressing his mouth into the soft fabric of Zayn’s shirt.

He doesn’t really remember her name – that’s a lie – but he can remember her pinkish gloss, the scent of her perfume on Zayn’s clothes, the big imprint she keeps leaving on his

(Zayn is not property and he most certainly doesn’t belong to Liam but it’s the only thing that sticks to his mind when he thinks about coloring books and a best mate)

Liam chokes while Zayn rakes clumsy fingers down his spine.  It squeezes the edge off of this sick feeling in his bloodstream.

“Don’t worry ‘bout it, babe,” Zayn laughs and the fingers under the thick hair on the back of Liam’s head are a little reminder –

They’re different but they’re still so them.

“She’s with friends,” Zayn offers, squeezing Liam a little tighter.  Unguided fingers smooth beneath the collar of Liam’s shirt, all over his hot skin.  A small comfort.

Zayn mumbles something else into Liam’s hair but he can’t hear it.  He listens for the white noise in the background, the quiet howl of the night rising.

“C’mon,” Zayn adds with a raspy voice that’s wet with an accidental sadness.  “Let’s go home.”

“Yours?” Liam stutters.  It’s another thing he doesn’t mean to say.  He doesn’t mean to pull back just enough to see a hint of a frown on Zayn’s mouth.

Zayn wipes it away quickly, tricking a counterfeit smile over his lips before nodding.

“Yeah, right,” he snorts, keeping an arm curled around Liam’s back.  “To mine, dude.”

There’s a heavy silence between them, one that screams and shouts and echoes as they stumble down the road.  Zayn keeps him up and he leans in to him the whole way.  He sniffs at Zayn’s cologne and cigarettes and bits of her while biting along his lip.

(he doesn’t think about sugary Cola lips and a rusty swing set and a sunset a lifetime ago)

And later, when they’re under Zayn’s sheets with bare chests and the alcohol slowly bleeding out of his system, he curls into Zayn.  He blames it on nostalgia but Zayn doesn’t shove him away.  He scratches fingers through Liam’s hair until he’s too exhausted to think about how Zayn feels foreign for a moment.

Liam’s too drunk and sick to his stomach to think about how loud Zayn’s heart gets in the dark.

But just before he falls asleep, he swears Zayn whispers a tender ‘I miss you too’ but it’s just white noise.  Another moment of static between them because they’re so different now.

 

[#]

 

Liam thinks he figures it out when he’s sixteen –

 

No one shows up for his party.

It’s not that he expected them to.  He’s just weird Liam Payne, right?  He’s still that bloke no one really notices until they have to.  When he’s in the way in the school hallways or when he wins a trophy for the cross country team or when he’s next to Louis.

But he’s still just a nameless lad to most of them, even though they’ve shared the same classes for a decade or so now.

Still, he’s sat at a round table with a massive cake shaped like a sixteen and sparkling candles and his sisters on either side of him.  His mum is snapping off pictures, grinning, proud tears smearing her make-up while his dad sneaks the DJ another tenner to play all of Liam’s favorite tunes.  A few classmates, some older lads from the team are scattered around the room looking incredibly bored while sipping on Colas.

And Liam, with pink ears and cheeks, a stupid grin just for his mum, feels empty.

“You oughta feel lucky,” Nicola teases, scrubbing her knuckles through his thick hair.

He flicks the fringe out of his eyes, scowling at her.

(and he certainly did not spend two hours in front of a bathroom mirror speckled with toothpaste stains, fixing the fringe, straightening his hair, trying to mimic some washed out teen pop star)

“Blessed,” Ruth adds, squeezing in to kiss his cheek.  “Honestly, we didn’t have to come.”

“Oi, I have uni courses to study for,” Nicola points out.

“And boys to chat up,” Ruth giggles, still tugging at Liam’s hair.

He groans and grimaces while his mum cheers happily in the background.  He is not six years old and this is not another dumb family Christmas with a shaggy tree and wall-sized portraits in their smartest clothes.

“I hate you both,” he huffs but he can’t stop his grin when they coo over him.

“We’re all you’ve got, you dolt,” Ruth smirks.

Nicola nods, pinching his cheek and he hates how true it is.

They’re all he’s ever had, besides Louis and Zayn.  The same Louis and Zayn who haven’t even bothered to show up.

But Louis keeps texting him.  He keeps apologizing about working an extra shift waiting tables or stocking at the toy store or whatever job he’ll no doubt be fired from by the end of the week.  Liam keeps frowning down at the phone squeezed between his fingers but he never bothers responding.

He knows Louis intentions are heartfelt – for the most part.

And Zayn –

Liam blinks at the candle wax melting into the icing and his mum’s anticipating eyes and he thinks, for the first time, a birthday wish won’t cure anything.  Still, he leans in with a lazy breath and watches the flames flicker away while his mum claps and his sisters give him sympathetic smiles.

“Need air,” he huffs halfway through his dad singing old Elvis tunes in the background, a few of his classmates already abandoning this cheap, greasy pizza joint for something else.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Ruth calls but Liam grins nervously.

“You don’t have to – “

He pushes out of his chair, smacks a quiet kiss to Nicola’s cheek and shoves his hands into his jeans.

(and every discernable yard of feeling beneath his skin that he can’t shove away beats loudly)

His lip is tucked between his teeth when he skims past his mum, waving off another picture, a put upon smile just for her before he pushes out into the night air.

Before he lets the thick warmth of a dying summer night wrap around him.

He’s not suffocating but his lungs can’t wrap around his first few breaths.  He frowns down at the watch his parents bought him – some vintage piece where the second hand ticks a little too slowly and the face is the size of the moon – while the city dances like fairy lights in the distance.

A walk.  A walk and some clean air and maybe he can stumble upon a place that doesn’t remind him he’s still a nothing here.

Just Liam Payne.

He checks his phone, another message from Louis – broooo, i’m sorry. make it up to u. beers on me this wknd. don’t hate me… or I will hate u more!! bless – that he quickly deletes.  He shuts his phone off and thinks he should’ve wished for a way to shut the world off too.

Instead, he clears his throat roughly, sucks in a quick breath and trips all over his feet to disappear into the city.

He doesn’t make it far.

There’s a set of diplomatic fingers wrapping loosely around his wrist, shocking a small gasp from him and then –

Oh wow yes.

Liam watches a dizzy curl of grey smoke escape Zayn’s teeth, somewhere between his genuine smile and slow breath.  His dark hair is mostly flat, thick fringe on his forehead, almost in his eyelashes.  Zayn’s skin is like thick raw honey under the city’s swirl of white light.  It’s that crooked grin and loose clothes and cigarette pinched between his thumb and index finger that ignites relief into Liam’s chest even though –

He wants to be angry with Zayn.  He wants to shove him away.  He wants to ink all of his disappointed words across Zayn’s skin like dark tattoos.

But he relaxes, his pulse picking up under Zayn’s fingers.  He smiles weakly for him.

“You’re late,” Liam says for the fuck of it.

Because all of those other words drag hotly back down his throat, into his chest, just ashes now.

Zayn half-snorts, lips quirking further sideways.  He nods, huffing another breath of smoke.  Those fingers pinch a little tighter around Liam’s wrist but he doesn’t flinch at all.

“Sorry,” Zayn mumbles with a fog of smoke.  He looks down, Liam’s trainers scuffing on the pavement.  “Like – I’m really sorry, babe.”

He shouldn’t melt but he does.  He swore he was over this – not their friendship but that spot in-between – but all of his reflexes want to brush that fringe off of Zayn’s head and punch his shoulder teasingly.

“But you’re here,” Liam adds, under a shaky breath.

Zayn blinks up, smirking.  “Wouldn’t miss it.  Wouldn’t want to miss my – “

“Best mate,” Liam whispers, even if he imagines something else.

Zayn nods, laughing.  “It’s my best mate’s birthday.  Sixteen, even.  I can’t miss that moment.”

Something carefree spreads over Liam’s face, the hue of the night somehow golden.  He rotates his wrist just enough between Zayn’s fingers that he can find his pulse.  Zayn can feel it slow, slow, this soft wave finally teetering out.

“I was just,” Liam pauses, glances over his shoulder.  The pizzeria is mostly empty and he wonders how long Zayn has been standing here, so close, watching no one they know push through the doors.  He frowns at the ground.  “Just gonna go for a small walk.”

Zayn leans into his vision, nodding, smiling.  He doesn’t comment on the emptiness in Liam’s stare.  He flicks the cigarette away, clearing the last of the smoke from his throat.

“Want me to leave you be?”

Liam shrugs carelessly but a heavy ‘no’ waits between his teeth.  Another thing he can’t say.

“You could,” Liam hums, still watching the cracked sidewalk beneath their feet.  “Like, I mean – um, could you – “

Zayn giggles, already nodding.  “I’d like that,” he whispers into the wine-colored night.

“Cool.”

“Cool,” Zayn repeats, already tugging them towards an emptier street.

They thump down quiet roads, synchronized feet and a calm silence.  A calming silence.  Liam feels – he doesn’t know the word.  He’s not fantastic with things like that the way Zayn is and he swallows his words rather than shouting them out like Louis but –

His lips twitch into a loose smile, his legs keeping time with Zayn.

The city is noisy and silent at the same time as they walk.

Somewhere and halfway to nowhere, Zayn’s fingers slip off of his wrist and instead of tugging out another cigarette, they slide between Liam’s.  They find these empty space and brush over Liam’s knuckles while they walk.  Liam squeezes back without looking, avoiding eyes with everyone they pass.

It’s like when they were twelve and the world watched as they danced slowly through a Mario song.  They hold hands and Zayn looks a bit smug like he doesn’t give a fuck.  Like the world can stare but he’s not freeing Liam’s hand.

Liam absorbs it all – their sweaty palms from the heat, loose fingers twined, noiseless smiles, a burgundy night like blood staining white linen all around them.

“This is nice,” Liam murmurs, mostly to himself, and he doesn’t know if he’s referring to the sky or the pulsing city or the way Zayn’s index finger keeps scratching lazy lines over the back of Liam’s hand.

“Nice,” Zayn agrees with a wide smile.

Their stares don’t fade as they stumble further into the abyss.

Zayn drags them all the way down to a place so familiar.  An old playground with a sandbox, a twirling metal slide, rusted swings.  Liam squeezes anxiously at Zayn’s hand and he eyes the long, vulnerable stretch of Zayn’s neck when his head tips back to laugh.

They avoid the swings hesitantly, tripping towards a circle of trees, hiding beneath the leaves overhead.

“Lou didn’t make it,” Liam says with a scratchy voice, waiting for the sky to open up for the stars.  “He tried but – “

“Of course,” Zayn interrupts, rolling his eyes, half-smiling.

“Yeah,” Liam huffs, struggling with a natural frown.

“M’sure he wanted to,” Zayn adds, pulling Liam with him into the shadows.

Liam swallows, blinks down to look at the grass under them.  It’s a sobering moment when he finally whispers, “No one showed up.  Invited half the school, I think.  But like – a few, right?  But I was alone, really.  Just.”

He can’t finish.  Liam bites his lip while the words flatline in his mouth.

Zayn shoots him a guilty smile.  He crowds closer, swaying like he shouldn’t.

Liam pulls on his hand to erase the doubt.  He wants Zayn this close, the flood of something awful leaking into his arteries.  It’s nice.

“Doesn’t fucking matter, man,” Zayn insists, his voice still raspy from the smoke.  “You don’t need any of ‘em.”

Or you, Liam thinks.  It’s just a reminder.  They’re too different for him to think otherwise.

He’s seconds from saying it out loud when Zayn pulls back enough to use his auxiliary hand to reach into his back pocket.  He tugs out a rolled up piece of paper Liam hadn’t noticed before now, passes it over with a shy smile, eyes lit brighter than blue newborn stars.  They crinkle a little at the edges, a laugh in Zayn’s throat while Liam spreads the paper between them.

“It’s just, like – it’s just, um,” Zayn stammers, his voice young and soft, “I didn’t know what t’get ya, okay?  Like – I wanted to get you so much and give you so much, man.  Because you’re my – “

“Best mate?” Liam offers, not looking up.

There’s a pause, a hitch in someone’s breathing, before Zayn whispers, “Sure.  Like.  That’s right.”

Liam stares down at the wrinkled sheet of paper.  It’s that thick sort of artsy paper Zayn rarely uses to sketch on.  It’s a rough sketch in colored pencils, lazy brushes of lead.  All of the features are almost familiar, the costume too but it’s all of the neatly stitched details Liam notices.  The same bloke from Zayn’s comics and –

“It’s you,” Zayn breathes more than he speaks, squeezing in close.

Liam’s fingers tighten around Zayn’s to cover the gasp he lets out.  He whistles softly without his eyes leaving the drawing.

“I know it’s pathetic, right, but – “

He blinks a few more times while Zayn rambles in his ear.  His fingers get reckless with the paper, his heart lurching, this hunger rising in all the empty spaces.  He’s never been good at taming raging waters and he swears Zayn lives everything with his heart stitched into his sleeve so –

Liam lowers the paper, grins up at Zayn for a moment.  He curls the paper into his back pocket, reaches out to finally brush all of that messy, inky hair from Zayn’s forehead and blindly follows instinct.

He jolts forward and ditches caution while pressing his lips to Zayn’s.  His eyes stay open, Zayn’s too, but he kisses Zayn like this is enough.  The words won’t fit on his tongue but the kiss screams louder than New Year’s fireworks over London.

They stay with slow, soft moving lips before Liam jerks back.  He blinks back the daze and Zayn’s lifting an eyebrow at him.

It’s a sick feeling he’s awful at hiding but Zayn snickers quietly into their void.

“Nice,” Zayn says, crinkled eyes and loose shoulders.  “That was – you’re welcome?”

Liam swallows, grinning nervously.  “Didn’t mean to – “

“S’cool,” Zayn shrugs.  “Just a kiss between mates, yeah?  Nothing to worry about.  It’s not that massive, is it?”

He doesn’t jolt but this electric shock lights up in his blood.  He scoots back some, their hands fitting looser, a stain of blush all over his face.  He sniffs, nodding.

“That’s it,” he agrees.  A pitying lie.

Zayn grins sideways.  “Nothing major.”

“Not at all,” Liam grunts, looking away.

His view of the empty sky between the leaves keeps him from staring at the rusty swings.  Zayn tries to re-tangle their fingers but Liam carefully slips his free.  He casually steps further away, biting at his lip.

He can taste the nicotine, the sweet after-flavor Zayn leaves behind.  Acid.  It’s toxic.

(but it’s the kind of memory Liam is a complete fool for so he savors it)

“Just between mates,” he whispers, refusing to share a glance with Zayn.

 

[#]

 

His mum knows.

She doesn’t say anything to him about it.  But it’s the subtle looks from across a room.  It’s her patient smiles when he gets anxious, the calm hand brushing through his thick hair when he frowns.  It’s this weight between them that can’t be named and he’s so desperate to let it all out.

It’s crawling beneath his skin and he just wants to shout from the rooftop of this shabby old house how he feels.

Or maybe just whisper to his mum how much he doesn’t want to feel this way all of the time.

Maybe that’s why he’s here, in the kitchen, trying not to have a strop.  Trying to breathe normally.  Trying to stop his hand from shaking one evening, at the breakfast table, over a cup of hot tea and soothing milk.

“Mum,” he says nervously, his lip already scratched from his teeth.  “Can we have a chat?”

She hums across from him, flipping through the evening newspaper, sipping her tea.  “Sweetheart?”

She hasn’t looked up in thirty minutes and even the whistle of the kettle barely startles her.  He thinks this is an awful idea but –

“I like.  Like, I think I like boys, mum,” he stammers, trembling hand holding his tea and trying not to splash it over his wrist.  “Like blokes.  I sort of – no, I fancy them.  Honestly.  Girls too, but mainly lads and – “

Karen hums again, softer, still looking down.  She turns another page.

“But I mean, mum,” he whines.  Liam hisses when the tea burns his mouth and it draws Karen’s attention.

She smiles softly, reaching out, patting his wrist.  “Careful, love.  It’ll hurt.”

“But it does,” Liam strangles out, trying to keep his voice low but he can’t.  Everything echoes so loud on the inside and it’s this dirty secret.  This one thing he keeps to himself and only Louis knows.  It’s too heavy and too thick and too deep like muddy sea water.

“Liam James – “

He sighs, shaking his head.  He stares down at the stain of tea along the tablecloth.  He sniffs and taps impatient knuckles on the table.

“I’ve just been so,” he stops with a numb tongue.  “I don’t know how it happened – “

“How?” she inquires, confused.

He nods and she breathes quietly, rubbing at his wrist until his fingers stop pounding out an uneven rhythm.

“There’s not a how and it really doesn’t matter when, love,” she swears, the crinkles around her eyes just as deep from age as they are from her warm smile.  “It’s just this feeling, Liam.  It’s not horrible.  Nothing to be ashamed of.  Nothing to question.”

“But,” he pauses again, frowning.  “Do you think it’s wrong?”

She hisses out a noise, pinching his wrist.  “Do you think it’s wrong, darling?”

Liam chews the inside of his mouth.  There’s a weighted ‘no’ at the back of his throat but it doesn’t feel convincing enough.  It’s not loud enough to keep him from curling around himself at night, in bed, watching the walls.

“I dunno,” he shrugs carelessly, thumbing the rim of his cup.  “Sometimes?  I just – “

Karen hums happily.  She takes a slow sip of tea, tilting her head.  “What’s wrong with knowing who you are, Liam James?  What’s wrong with fancying lads or girls or just wanting to be sat around watching cartoons all day?”

“Mum,” he groans but it’s the first genuine laugh to tickle his chest in a lifetime.

She snorts with him, kicking his ankle under the table.  “I don’t see the difference,” she adds with a carefree thrum to her tone.  “It’s just being yourself, innit?”

“Maybe,” he replies, his voice still so little.  “And what about dad – “

Another laugh, this time sweeter like a splash of vanilla in his hot chocolate.  It strangles the discomfort from his lungs.

“Liam James,” she sighs, rubbing the skin around his wrist now, “your dad couldn’t be happier.  You’re his son.  The only man in the family.  He’s been waiting for you to put it all together for months.”

His jaw goes slack for a long moment.  There’s something enormous tucked into her words that he latches onto.  It wades on the surface – his dad knows.  They both know.  This little supernova of a secret he’s been trying to cup between his palms has bled out and he doesn’t know when but it feels –

Nice, he thinks.  A relief.  A sudden breath of air when you’ve been trapped in the cabin of an airplane for too many hours.

“I mean,” Karen giggles into her tea, waggling her eyebrows, “it was pretty obvious, love, once Ruth and Nicola – “

Liam groans loudly.  He wants to thump his head onto the table but instead he slumps down in his chair.  He cocks his head back to stare at the ceiling, sighing.

They all know.

“Why didn’t you, like,” he scrambles for words, still staring up.

His mum nudges his ankle with her foot, still snickering.  “Because,” she sings, exhaling a calm breath, “it wouldn’t be fair.  To make you think something you hadn’t realized, love.  To make you tell us something you hadn’t quite discovered.  You needed time.”

“Time,” he mumbles, frowning.

It’s all he’s ever had to think.  To waste away.  To wish and hope and cry over something he hasn’t quite had.

Liam doesn’t want time.

“It’s a bad thing, innit?” he asks, biting on his lip.

Karen wrenches up an eyebrow and he thinks it’s so fitting the Cranberries play quietly from the stereo.  He supposes it’s quite manic and serendipitous because all he hears is ‘was it just a game to you but I’m in so deep’ in the background when he finally looks at his mum.

Champagne blonde hair, the same old glasses sitting on her nose, a confused smile, cheeks pink from her tea.

He twitches his mouth into a small smirk.  “That I didn’t think enough just to tell you.  That I was – ashamed, I s’ppose.”

Liam watches the small frown slide over her lips and his hand immediately reaches to cup hers.

“One day, Liam James,” she sighs, her voice dimmer, “you’re gonna be in love.  With a bloke.  With someone wonderful.”

He ducks his head to hide the way he winces.

“And you’ll be proud enough to come to us,” she continues, squeezing his hand back, “and tell your poor mum how wrong you were about y’self.  You’ll see my little lion.”

He doesn’t argue with her about it.  Liam watches her clear the table, dropping their empty cups into the sink, wiping down the stain his clumsiness left behind.  She hums softly to the radio, shifting about the kitchen, and he catches her mid-step.

Liam fastens shaking fingers around her wrist, thumbing at her pulse, tugging her quickly into his arms.  He’s taller now, his chin on her head, her temple to the center of his chest.  He squeezes until she exhales a trembling breath and he swears her tears dampen his shirt before he can ever pull away.

His eyelashes flick stubborn tears down his cheeks, his nose pressed into her hair.  He sniffs, remembers this same floral headiness from his childhood and silly Halloween costumes.  He refuses to forget that feeling.

(And he’s still holding her when his sisters stumble into the kitchen for dinner.  He laughs wetly when Nicola and Ruth curl around them and they’re swaying, giggling, trying to brush all of his secrets from his shoulders while his dad grins from the doorway.  He watches them and that proud smile on his lips finally calms Liam in their small huddle.)

 

[#]

 

He doesn’t sleep.  Liam doesn’t watch the walls either but he keeps his eyes closed, watching all of the Technicolor sadness swirl behind his lids.  He’s curled in his bed, in a ratty pair of plaid pajama bottoms, missing one sock, his old Hulk t-shirt riding up his belly while the sleeves stretch high on his biceps.

His fingers fist around Woody and he hums quietly to the thunder outside of his window.

No one bothers him when he skips out on afters to go to bed early.  He begs off a Doctor Who marathon, yawns loudly, stumbles up the steps and hides in the dark.  Just the blue from the stormy sky outside stretching over his bedroom and his uneven breathing in his ears.

His old door creaks when it opens and he can feel the sunburst of white light from the hallway across his eyelids.  He’s half-expecting his mum to sneak in with a cup of warm milk, a hand to his forehead, a whispered ‘I love you’ tucked into his ear.

He doesn’t move.

Liam tries synchronizing his breathing with the thud of thunder outside and waits for his mum to sneak out.  Except, it’s not her.

The bed dips, the sheets shifting and he knows it’s Zayn without opening his eyes.  It’s that familiar smell of citrus body scrub and cigarettes and this addictive peppermint from his toothpaste.  There’s an undercurrent of metallic rain there too when Zayn scoots closer, his damp forehead pressed against Liam’s.

He struggles not to let the hitch in his breath slip past his lips but Zayn curls smooth fingers around his hip, squeezing gently, their legs tangling.  His other hand slips under Liam’s waist, curls low on his spine, gentles him closer.

“Look at me,” Zayn whispers.

Liam squeezes his eyes tighter – blots of neon orange and acidic green behind his lids – before finally blinking them open.

It’s too dark to really make out Zayn’s face but he can see the soft pink lips, the streaks of rain on his skin, the crooked line of his grin.

(He sees it almost every night too, when he dreams.  When he doesn’t mean to.)

“Alright?”

He shudders a breath this time.  He tries to clench his jaw to keep the noises in but Zayn’s fingers drag beneath the waistband of his bottoms and the brush over his skin is too much.

“Your mum rung me up.  She told me to – “

“I’m sorry,” Liam interrupts with a tremble caught in his throat.  He doesn’t even bother to hide it.

The lightning streaks fluorescent lines into the sky and lights up half of his room.  He can see Zayn’s smile, the fond crinkles around his eyes.

“S’not necessary, babe,” Zayn promises.  His voice is still scratchy from cigarettes but it’s raw in a way Liam loves.

“But – “

“Shut up, Li,” Zayn huffs, still smiling.  Their noses nuzzle, unintentionally, in the dark when Liam shifts to get a better look at him.

“Just fucking shut it,” he whispers with a cough.  “You haven’t done anything wrong, man.  You’re – c’mere, man.  You’re perfect.”

Liam’s mouth quirks absently at the affection in Zayn’s voice.  That little reminder, written out in loud colors and a huge font and graffiti paint on the walls, that Zayn will always be right here.  Next to him.  Tucked into his side.

He presses a warm breath to Zayn’s throat, nuzzling to the hollow under Zayn’s jaw.  He laughs when Zayn squirms from the ticklish breath, hugging Woody closer to his chest.

“It’s a pretty massive thing, Li,” Zayn whispers when they quiet down.

Liam knows Zayn can’t see the lift of his eyebrow, the way his lips pull into a straight line to hide his expression.  He frees a hand to trace the rungs of Zayn’s ribs, counting his breaths.

“Being you,” Zayn adds, softer.  “Always being so fucking strong.  You’re like – you’re better than Thor, babe.  Like better than Superman.”

“Spider-Man too?” Liam mumbles into Zayn’s skin.

“Fuck yeah,” Zayn giggles, soothing his hand down Liam’s spine.  It hovers over the curve of Liam’s arse, his fingers drawing small circles into the dimples of his back.

“And you’re not, like, it doesn’t bother you?”

Zayn nudges him roughly with a knee.  He shoves his scowl into Liam’s forehead and all of the stubble that’s start to come in because he’s older, maturing, scratches his skin.

“You’re my best mate,” Zayn huffs.

Liam flinches.  Nothing but a best mate.

“And you’re like,” Zayn sighs, his fingers growing impatient.  His heart speeds up under his ribs, fluttering into Liam’s fingertips.  “You’re just this – I can’t imagine life without you, okay?  Like.  I just can’t, Li.  I’d love you no matter what.”

Liam snorts, nodding.  He sniffs, dragging his nose over Zayn’s neck.  “No matter what,” he repeats quietly.

“Yeah, like,” Zayn bumps his chin to Liam’s forehead, replacing the itch of his stubble with a kiss.  “Everything to me, man.  I can’t really put into words – “

Liam laughs and trembles when Zayn pouts.

“Asshole,” Zayn mumbles.

“I can’t,” Liam whispers, shutting his eyes.  The sleep finally cocoons around him, spooning comfortably around his body like Zayn’s arms.  “I can’t think of anyone else I love more, man.”

“Yeah?”

Liam nods again, yawning.

“I’d do, like, anything for you, babe,” Zayn says softly into his hair.

Liam gives him half a nod.  Exhaustion and this warm feeling freckle over him.  He presses a careful kiss to Zayn’s collarbone.

“It doesn’t bother me.  I’m happy.  I’m fucking,” Zayn sighs when Liam yawns again.  “All I want is to be right with you, babe.”

He’s too tired to read between the layers.  There’s fine print and footnotes and an entire annotated version of Zayn’s words somewhere in this dark.  But he knows it’s daft.  It’s silly to think – again – Zayn is anything other than just this.

His best mate.

Just that nice, comfortable knit jumper to keep him warm when this world is too cold.

Liam falls asleep with his chapped lips pressing to Zayn’s collarbone.  With their legs twisted over the sheets, Woody squished between them, Zayn humming into his ear and a hand gently cupping his bum.

He thinks nothing of it.  Honestly, he doesn’t want to think for a long time.

 

[#]

 

Zayn is his first real kiss when they’re seventeen –

(and the first boy to make him come and a little bit more too)

 

It’s a week before Christmas.

The world outside of Liam’s bedroom window is a snowdrift of fairy lights and mountains of ivory powder and salted streets.  The house is empty, just echoes of their giggles down the hollow hallways.  Their boots are kicked by the front door, ice melting off the sleeves of their heavy coats, scarfs on the banister, knit jumpers piled messily on his bedroom floor.

They’re lazily lying on his bed, bare toes wiggling between the sheets to stay warm.  He can see thick clumps of snowy flakes starting to fall outside, their afternoon sorted.  Nothing but buttered toast, sugar-soaked breakfast tea, an old heater warming their feet and Kanye West buzzing from the stereo.

He half-turns to face Zayn, his back to the snowglobe outside, his smile tucked against Zayn’s shoulder.

Zayn automatically nudges him in the ribs, snickering, staring down at some half-arse sketch he’s been working on for a week.  It’s just grey lines, smudged contours, another comic book he’s been working out between classes and playing video games with Liam.

“That’s ace,” Liam grins even though he can’t quite make out who Zayn’s shadowing into a panel.

“Liar,” Zayn snorts, tucking his chin.  His white teeth shine behind his crooked grin as he taps the eraser on the paper.  “But thanks.”

Liam hums, cuddles in closer.  He sniffs and the wet scent of snow melts into that familiar grind of orangey ginger body wash and warm spices and Zayn.

He drifts into this feeling with ‘run away as fast as you can run away from me baby runaway’ thudding from the stereo and filling in their empty spaces.

Zayn bobs his head leisurely to the music, sparing a hand to tug through Liam’s curls.  His fingers tangle in the knots, his thumb along Liam’s scalp.

Liam can’t help it – he snuggles into Zayn.

“This is nice,” Zayn whispers, his smile widening, going a bit lopsided.  “This tune.”

“Yeah,” Liam sighs.  He smirks over Zayn’s ribs.  His curious fingers brush over the soft cotton of Zayn’s joggers, mouthing ‘baby I’ve got a plan run away as fast as you can’ to Zayn’s chest.

“And this too,” Zayn says with a shyer smile.  His fingers loop through Liam’s curls and Liam still hasn’t quite decided on whether he wants to decode all of Zayn’s words or let them drift like the flurries coating the city.

He doesn’t want to know how heavy this is or how far down the rabbit hole he should go.

Liam likes this nameless space they’ve been dragging through for months.  This vividly bright memory of two boys navigating this big world like it’s just theirs.

He hasn’t bothered to ask what happened to the girl Zayn was dating.  He doesn’t complain when Zayn begs off time with Harry to fall asleep in Liam’s bed.  He hasn’t thought about – not entirely – the way Zayn always touches him now

(this hot little ember always seconds from burning out when they shift around too much but there’s always a connection – their feet brushing, hands over a nervous spine, thighs skimming, warm breaths over a neck, fingers tangling between Batman film marathons)

and the way Zayn kisses his forehead, tucks a duvet around his shoulders when Liam’s too lazy and exhausted to go home.  He wakes up on Sundays to a family breakfast at Zayn’s and a pair of wiry arms curled around him between wrinkled sheets.

“We should eat,” Liam suggests, reaching up to snatch Zayn’s beanie off of his head.  He laughs when Zayn whines, tossing it into the tornado of their discarded clothes.  “Have some tea.”

“Later,” Zayn groans, curving an arm around Liam’s wide shoulders, skimming his chapped lips to Liam’s temple.  “Much later.”

“You’ll starve,” Liam warns, smiling.

“You’re here, boy scout.  I reckon I can manage just fine,” Zayn teases.

His still young stubble drags along Liam’s forehead but Liam doesn’t tug away.  He flops an arm over Zayn’s sternum and nuzzles up to frown into Zayn’s throat.

“Can’t stay here forever.”

“Sort of mad, innit?” Zayn sighs, wriggling his toes to the bare arch of Liam’s foot.  “Be sort of cool, though.”

Liam hums his approval rather than speaking.  He’s nosing at Zayn’s neck and breathing in his scent and his mind drifts just enough –

He doesn’t think best mates do this.  It’s not normal.  But it’s still so beautiful that he refuses to tell Zayn.

An index finger crooks under his chin, a thumb along his jaw and Liam blinks up at Zayn with a wrinkled brow.  Zayn smiles down at him with crinkled eyes, a stretched smile.  It all makes Liam a bit lightheaded and he’s too caught in the clouds to realize it when Zayn leans down to press his mouth over Liam’s.

The kiss should taste so familiar but it doesn’t.  Zayn slides a hand under Liam’s head, fingers catching in curls, lifting Liam up enough that the kiss feels more permanent.

It’s shy, their lips so tentative.  Zayn hesitates and Liam feels it over his lips, an anxious moan in his throat.  He thinks it’s encouraging because Zayn pushes in firmer, dragging his lips over Liam’s.  Slow and lazy.

It keeps going, Zayn’s lips parting, Liam sneaking in a tongue because –

This feels like one of those ‘fuck it’ moments Louis tells him about.  It’s double or nothing.  One of those small scraps of time you never really get back and Liam’s so tired of wasting his moments.

Their noses brush to change the angle.  Zayn’s soft gasp pushes into his mouth and Liam’s eyelashes flutter along his cheek.  He hisses playfully when Zayn gnaws at his thick bottom lip, cranes his neck to chase every one of Zayn’s kisses.  He thinks, somewhere, life is taking the piss at him.  It’s all one big dumb joke because Zayn hasn’t pulled away and Liam hasn’t considered what that means either.

Zayn laughs against his mouth, easing Liam back down onto a pillow.  He keeps a hand in his hair with squinty eyes, his nose wrinkling from his grin.

Liam huffs a deep breath.  There’s still stupid stars behind his eyes.  Zayn’s mouth is shiny and swollen when he draws back completely and – he’s done that.  He’s wrecked Zayn’s breathing and bruised his mouth and –

“Why – “

Zayn groans instantly.  “Shut up, Li,” he chuckles, reaching for his sketchbook again.  “I just – I wanted to, y’know?  I just did.  ‘s all.”

He doesn’t look down at Liam, focusing on his sketch, but his little smug smile stays lifted over his lips for minutes.

Liam stares up at him for a moment with a raised brow.  Zayn keeps sketching and –

It’s enough.  He’s mucked enough things with or without words.

His tongue flicks over his lips and he can taste Zayn’s cigarettes, that morning coffee on their walk over to Liam’s, stolen chocolate from his mum’s stash in the cupboards.  It’s all of his favorite things now and he wonders if Zayn thinks the same thing when he licks his own lips between doodles.

“There’s this bloke,” Liam mumbles, snuggling up to Zayn when the song changes.  “I quite fancy him.”

Zayn freezes, momentarily, all of the air in his lungs stiff in his chest.

Liam buries a small laugh into Zayn’s shoulder.  He squeezes his fingers into a sharp hipbone and tangles their legs.

He’s nervous and his throat isn’t working properly but he manages to softly add, “I’ve known him practically my whole life.  Good lad.  Smokes too much but – “

It’s then that Zayn relaxes, all of his muscles warming again, nudging his shoulder to Liam’s chin.

“Fuck off,” he grumbles with a grin.

“And so,” Liam continues, watching Zayn’s lead-stained fingers curling around a pencil, “He’s just – fuck, man, he’s bloody incredible, really.  He likes the things I like.  Talks to me even when no one wants to.  Nice hair.”

Sick hair,” Zayn retorts, keeping his eyes lowered but his smile gives him away.

Liam nuzzles his nose to the space between Zayn’s neck and shoulder.  “Been thinking,” he says with as much casual as he can force into his stuttered tone, “that, like, I dunno.  He means quite a bit to me.”

“You sound like a bloody sap,” Zayn teases.

“Fuck off,” Liam whines, tickling a few fingers under the hem of Zayn’s shirt.  “You’re s’pposed to be my best mate.  Listen to me.”

“I am.”

“Twat,” Liam huffs but that warm feeling soaks his blood.  The knot in his stomach tightens but he’s so sick of not being brave.

It’s exhausting is what it is and he feels like he hasn’t slept for his whole life.

“Alright, babe,” Zayn whispers, tossing his sketchpad.  He curves towards Liam, scoots down the bed until they’re level.  “Tell me about this wanker whose taking up all of me best mate’s bloody time.”

Liam grins.  His cheeks flush neon pink, his skin prickling but he nudges forward until they’re too close not to whisper.

“Don’t be a dick,” he moans, punching roughly at Zayn’s bicep.  His fingers are quick to soothe the ache, even if Zayn doesn’t budge.

“But you want his dick – “

Liam whines, buries half of his face in the fluff of his pillow while Zayn laughs.  Their feet brush intermediately between Usher and the familiar thump of ‘but you’ve got the love I need to see me through’ while the snow twirls outside.

“Fucking twat,” Liam grins into the cotton, his cheeks still a blood crimson.

Zayn twists to smirk at him, dragging lazy fingers through Liam’s curls.  He draws silly shapes along Liam’s scalp while saying, “Sorry.  Right, right.  We must be serious, yeah?”

“Yes,” Liam hisses, knocking their knees.

The bed shakes like an aftershock as Zayn scoots closer.  Their noses almost brush and their lips are so close but –

“So tell me,” Zayn says while rolling his eyes, his own cheeks flushed.  “What’s so massive about this Prince Charming?  Besides his dick.”

Liam pinches him in retaliation.  “He’s not a prince,” he argues.

Zayn frowns playfully but something wide and smug flits in his eyes.  “An emir?”

Liam snorts, shaking his head, puffing a breath along the soft pillow.  He chews a corner of his lip while staring up at Zayn’s untamed hair – an inky cloud of tangled fluff he prefers to all of the product and quiff Zayn insists upon lately.

“Does he know?” Zayn asks, his voice low and a little dark.  “How you feel about ‘im, I mean.”

Liam shrugs leisurely.  His hand fits between them, rumpling Zayn’s soft shirt, tugging at the hem.

“He wouldn’t feel the same about me,” he whispers, tucking his chin just enough to watch the lift and fall of Zayn’s chest rather than his eyes.

“You’re an idiot,” Zayn sighs with a thumb learning the indents of Liam’s hip and a spare hand cupping the back of his head.

Liam gives his shoulders and eyebrows a careless lift.  His fingers skim over Zayn’s bare stomach, his feet still warming to Zayn’s skin.

Their foreheads knock when Zayn leans in, their noses brushing, to whisper from the back of his throat, “Are you gonna tell him?”

“I might,” Liam smirks.  His eyelashes flutter when he looks up through them.

“Should I?”

A pink tongue wets Zayn’s lips before he wriggles his eyebrows.  “Probably.”

“Reckon I’ll consider it,” Liam hums teasingly.

“Thought you had it all sorted?”

Liam wrinkles his nose with a small, breathless laugh.  “A bit,” he exhales, tilting his head into the pillow.  He’s close enough that their noses rub, his chapped lips scraping over Zayn’s soft ones.  “But mostly been thinking about, like – I sort of wonder if he’ll let me do other things.  Besides, y’know, chatting with him.”

Zayn’s eyebrows shoot up, his shy bottom lip pulled between his teeth now.

“Like what, mate?”

Liam shrugs again with a little more enthusiasm.  “Never blown a bloke before.”

Thick eyelashes sweep over strong cheeks.  Zayn sucks in a harsh breath but he nudges in.  Another brush of lips, careful, bashful.

“So you wanna suck him off?”

The rough, scratchy tone of Zayn’s voice flusters him.  He feels the blood wash out from his chest and spread up his neck, freckle along his cheeks.  He squirms a little but not to get away.

His thumb drags along that thick fuzz of hair under Zayn’s navel and his senses feel so alive when he nods.

“It’s sort of scary,” Liam mumbles with wide eyes on Zayn’s mouth.  “Not like – it’s intimidating?  S’that the right word?”

Zayn laughs softly.  “If you’re talking about the size of his cock, maybe.”

Liam tenses up with a wrinkled grin.  He shakes his head but inclines just enough that it’s not a quick, nervous brush of clumsy lips this time.  It’s not accidental.

It’s a slow, hazy kiss with Liam’s teeth working at Zayn’s bottom lip and his tongue chasing the flavors and his hand pulling Zayn’s shirt up.  It’s only timid because Liam’s still uncertain but Zayn

The echo of his moan in Liam’s mouth is just enough.

They wrestle a little for positioning.  Zayn shoves and Liam pulls and they laugh into each other’s mouths.  They kick away the sheets, scramble to get closer.  He feels Zayn’s half-hard cock for the first time – through the soft cotton, the material stretched, the damp grey where the head spurts out precome.

Their rough breaths mix with the music.  Zayn’s fingers keep tangling in his curls and his lips part for a hiss that Zayn kisses quiet.  He sighs happily over Zayn’s lips.  Their stupid hands don’t know where to start or where to finish so they kiss until it doesn’t matter.

“I just think,” Liam mumbles through a kiss, “Like, he wouldn’t like me?  And I’d probably be awful at it ‘cause I’ve like – like I’ve never done that.”

Zayn groans, shifts his hips, rocks right into Liam’s knuckles.  Liam grinds onto his thigh and tugs at the drawstring in this absently needy way.

So,” Zayn hums, tipping his head back and Liam doesn’t waste a moment.  He fastens his mouth to Zayn’s neck while his fingers stroke the skin under Zayn’s belly.  “You’d like need practice then?”

It sounds so rushed, so feverish.  Liam finds a spot along soft skin and sucks instead of answering.

“For research?”

His lips blot kisses around the sore skin and the breathless ‘fuck’ Zayn groans makes him tug the waistband down to Zayn’s thighs.

“Are you offering, mate?” Liam wonders.  His lips wander down to Zayn’s collarbones until Zayn tugs at the collar of his shirt.

“For science purposes,” Zayn laughs but it stretches like an obscene groan when Liam adds more pressure with his lips, with his hand palming at Zayn’s bare cock.

“It’s a fair plan, innit?”

He pulls away enough for them to work him out of his shirt.  It wrecks his curls, the collar catching around his chin, all of his muscles stretching out.  He blinks at Zayn when he catches him fondly admiring his chest and his stomach and lower.

Much lower, he thinks, unconsciously reaching down to adjust his cock in his sweats.

Zayn groans, bites down on his lip to mute most of it.  Liam laughs and ducks in to smack a clumsy kiss to the corner of Zayn’s mouth.  He feels rough hands drag him in so Zayn can grind their hips, so he can feel Zayn’s bare hard cock rolling against his covered erection.

It’s fucking fireworks and film-worthy explosions and Zayn’s husky, dark whispers next to his ear.

He pulls back enough to watch the way the grey sky outside shadows some of Zayn’s face.  His eyes are shiny, incredibly self-conscious in this light.

“Lemme – “

Zayn whimpers, biting his bottom lip red like Valentine’s hearts.  He breathes deep through his nose, nodding.

“Just for practice, right?” Zayn teases but he keeps grinding against Liam like that’s not accurate.

Maybe it’s a little more but that’s far too massive for Liam to think about.

“So I won’t be so horrible,” Liam laughs, shoving Zayn’s shirt up, spreading messy kisses over his chest.  A tongue swiping over a nipple, teeth pulling it firm and swollen.

Zayn moans with a hand in Liam’s fuzzy hair.  It doesn’t push and it settles like he’s trying to maintain balance.

“Sorry, you’re like – I’ll probably be awful with you,” Liam says, breathy, still mouthing down Zayn’s chest.

“S’okay.”

Liam bites along Zayn’s sternum, softer kisses down the rigid pattern of his stomach muscles.

“You’ll forgive me?”

Zayn blurts out a noise that’s broken and cracked and Liam loves that he’s done this to Zayn.

“Fucking idiot,” Zayn half-mumbles but it turns into a pale gasp when Liam finally ducks down to suck wetly at the head of Zayn’s dick.

He’s never done this.  He’s never thought he’d be amazing or unforgettable at it because, well, he’s never been any of those things.  But he adores the hiss from Zayn’s clenched jaw.  He absorbs the way Zayn’s fingers start to scramble in his shaggy hair again.  He curls his tongue around the head, mouths the soft and firm skin, feels the pulse over the flat of his tongue.

Zayn is different here.  His scent is sharp, musky, boyish.  His precome is tangy, almost sour like grapefruit but Liam can’t resist the way it floods his mouth.  He doesn’t want to stop swirling his tongue or testing the pressure until Zayn yelps.

His fingers curl around Zayn’s thigh and hip as he gently works his mouth lower.  He flutters his eyes shut on the image of Zayn’s skin turning a furious pink, waits until the head almost nudges the back of his throat before dragging off.

The gasp from his mouth echoes in the room.  He swallows all of the bitter, the sugary flavor he’s starting to love.

Liam pants, groans filthily at the sight of Zayn’s pulsing cock immediately smacking against his belly.  Zayn’s skin is pale around his hips but dark at the root of his cock and all of the contrasts in hues mesmerizes him for a few moments.

“Li,” Zayn gasps, thumbing through the curls.

“Tastes so good, mate,” Liam groans, fisting trembling fingers around the shaft.

He’s buzzing and Zayn sounds so lost in the background when Liam inclines to swallow him again.  His tongue spreads over the shaft.  He pulls back, tentative, when Zayn whines and ‘teeth, Li, babe, careful’ is all he needs to hear before he folds his lips over his canines and takes Zayn back in.

It takes him a few attempts – an embarrassing flush to his skin, a wrinkled brow, a coughing apology too – before he manages to swallow Zayn down to the root.  He breathes roughly through his nose, blinks away the tears, feels Zayn’s cautious fingers stroking his scalp.

“So good,” Zayn whimpers.

He can’t smile around the thickness but he taps out a ‘you’re that and more’ in Morse code to Zayn’s thigh.  He drags his fingers over the soft hairs there and flutters his throat the way he does when he tries to sing falsetto.

“Fucking – shit, babe, don’t stop,” Zayn shivers, his head thrashing, his thighs tensing.

He curls his fingers loosely around the shaft when he flicks his tongue over the head.  His jaw goes sore and his lips are swollen but there’s not a hint of surrender in his bones.

“So fucking hard,” he whispers, his voice raw and scratched from Zayn’s dick resting in his throat, “Do you like – you’re just.  I could stay down here forever, man.”

“Shut up,” Zayn groans and there’s no sign of frustration.  His hips work against Liam’s hand, his lip between his teeth.  “Can’t say shit like that.”

“But Zayn, man,” Liam whimpers.  He suckles around the head, licks the beads of precome from the slit.

“You’ll make me come.”

Liam groans, flicking his tongue all around the shiny head.  The excess saliva slides down onto his knuckles, between his fingers, makes the slow strokes glide rather than stick.

He thumbs the head, watches the precome gather again at the tip.  It’s different – Zayn being circumcised.  There’s no extra skin, Zayn incredibly sensitive under the head rather than at the slit like Liam is.  There’s no excess soft with the firmness.  Nothing but Zayn’s throbbing cock between his fingers and Liam’s swollen lips catching around the head.

Liam is a little too eager this time, chokes when Zayn’s cock bumps at his throat, pulls off quickly with tears smearing his cheeks.  He whispers apologies over Zayn’s taut belly and Zayn –

He curls his fingers into Liam’s hair, brushes a thumb behind his ear, softly says, “I don’t need that, babe.  You don’t need to show off.  You’re really good.”

It’s not emasculating.  It’s not sympathetic.  It comes out so genuine that Liam dots tiny kisses down Zayn’s hip and curls his lips around the crown before he can even bother to think.

Liam rests a palm on Zayn’s hip, reaches down to tug the waistband of his own joggers down.  He grips his cock rather than strokes it, the sweaty friction perfect as Zayn gently pistons his hips to fuck shallowly into Liam’s mouth.

Zayn brushes sweaty curls from Liam’s forehead and he blinks up at that awe in Zayn’s slack mouth before thumbing furiously at his own cock.  He pulls the foreskin over the tip, fucks into it, groans breathlessly like an expensive porn star.

“Li.”

He hums, eyes flicking shut.  His jaw stretches and accommodates for Zayn’s thickness.  The euphoria and silly affectionate words in his throat spread like a forest fire.

“Liam,” Zayn whimpers, still thrusting.

Spit dribbles over his chin, slick precome on his lips, his cheeks hollowing.  He can’t bob with Zayn from this angle so he swallows the salty taste of Zayn’s cock and keeps breathing.

He keeps moaning and jerking his cock and wriggling his toes over the sheets.

“Oh shit,” Zayn groans, head tossed back, a gentle hand holding Liam.  It’s not pushing, it’s not demanding.  It’s cradling.

Liam feels so fucked over that concept alone.

“Close, close,” Zayn warns with jerky hips.  He’s out of rhythm and Liam’s mouth is wet and anxious, his throat constricting.

It’s like an erotic section of bass music in the back of his mind.  He squeezes around his shaft, drags the foreskin back to spread the slippery precome around the head, teases himself until he’s moaning with his mouth already stretched around Zayn’s shaft.

He feels so helpless and so in love with this moment.  Just some boyish moment he’s supposed to forget when he’s older.  Sucking off his best mate.  The first time he wrapped his lips and his tongue and his throat around a lad’s cock.

His eyes bat open and –

Wow.

Zayn is staring down at him.  Underneath the spidery black eyes and the loose jaw, the pale pink skin, there’s a fondness.  An awe he’ll never get rid of.  A harshly breathing Zayn, chewing on his bottom lip, cursing softly in Urdu, brushing his fingers affectionately through Liam’s damp curls.

“Oh fuck, fuck,” Zayn shudders, eyes slipping closed, stomach muscles tightening.

Liam doesn’t pull off.  He squeezes his own eyes shut and rests the head of Zayn’s cock on the center of his tongue and swallows.

Zayn comes with shivers and a trembling hand and this slow, slow rock of his hips.  There’s a gathering of sweat under his belly button and Liam’s room is fresh with the scent of bullocks and boy and sex.  It shoves the cold, piney aroma of winter outside.

Liam keeps suckling when Zayn goes sensitive, groaning around his half-hard dick.  He fists himself and feels Zayn’s hand along his cheek.  He can hear the encouraging, breathy noises above him –

“Come on, babe.  Lemme see it.  Come on and come for me,” Zayn whispers, smiling.  “Y’get off on it, babe?  Making me come?  You look so – fuck Liam, keep going.  I wanna – “

He doesn’t need Zayn to finish.  He whines with his mouth full of cock and his thumb spreading the thick come all over the head of his dick.  It spreads along the sheets and squirts up Zayn’s thigh and Liam can’t corner a single breath to come down from this high.

Liam rolls onto his back, wincing.  There’s a wet spot under his spine and his softening cock in his fingers and Zayn’s taste over his tongue.  He blinks at the ceiling until all of the fluorescent spots fade from his vision.

It’s unexpected when Zayn crawls down the bed, flopping a hand over Liam’s racing chest.  He giggles into Liam’s ear before brushing his lips over Liam’s.  They share the sour flavor of Zayn’s come and Liam’s clean hand cards through Zayn’s thick hair.

They stay like that – on their backs, staring at Liam’s stupid ceiling full of glow in the dark stars, curling their fingers over Liam’s chest.  They wait until their breathing settles but their smiles never fade off.

“Ready to tell him?” Zayn wonders in the softness of their greyish winter igloo.

“Not really,” Liam admits, shyly with tempered blush.

Zayn shrugs with his sweats still around his ankles and Liam’s tacky come on his thigh.

“Maybe he already knows?” Zayn offers with a hint of something sweet in his voice.

Liam grins, still a bit dizzy.  He squeezes around Zayn’s fingers while they breathe slowly.

“I hope.”

It’s all he thinks to say.  Sometimes, he thinks, all of the other massive words trapped in his chest don’t really matter.

“I think he does,” Zayn mumbles, curling towards Liam.  He presses a messy kiss under Liam’s jaw and –

All of those other words seem so insignificant with Zayn tucked into his side.

 

[#]

 

They’re incredibly in love, he’s certain, when they’re just eighteen –

 

This isn’t their first time

(No, that was sloppy in the best sort of way.  It was lazy blowjobs because they could and too much lube and their hands twisted between the sheets.  It was that sweet bruise Zayn’s headboard left at the top of Liam’s skull and the crack it created from knocking against the wall.  It was fast and frantic and Liam was so sore days later.  Their kisses were messy, their embarrassed laughs pressed to sweaty skin every time Zayn accidentally slipped out of Liam’s hole and Liam came with a yelp, on his knees.  With a husky chant of ‘fuck me babe please just fuck’ all over his lips.)

(and an almost ‘I love you’ attached to his tongue when they were in the shower afterwards.)

Or their second time

(Zayn stretched over Liam’s desk on a Thursday night when they should be studying.  Bruises on his hips from Liam’s anxious fingers and cheap artificial drugstore cherry lube sticky on Liam’s lips from using his tongue to spread it all over Zayn’s hole.  Stiff hisses and muffled whines each time Liam went too deep because Zayn was nervous and brand new and still incredibly tight around Liam.  Whimpered apologies over Zayn’s shoulder, his mouth on the nape of Zayn’s neck, his nose in Zayn’s damp hair.  A collection of thrusts that echoed a little too loudly and he came a little too quickly.)

(and Zayn’s strangled moan when Liam flipped him over, swallowed him whole and fluttered his throat around the head of Zayn’s cock until he came.)

But it’s just as fresh.  It’s somewhere near their sixteenth time – he’s not counting, honestly – and it’s so slow.  It’s tender.  It’s eager with their kisses but fragile like he’s not expecting.

It’s too early, the sun still a faraway star in a pinkish sky.  The cold sticks to the windows and seeps through the cracks in the floor and the mountain of duvets on Zayn’s bed keep them warm.  It feels like an alternate world with Zayn above him and pushing inside of him and –

Oh.

He gasps even though all of his muscles aren’t fully awake.  Zayn smiles sleepily over him with half-lidded eyes, morning stubble, mangled bedhair.  He rocks his hips gently between Liam’s spread thighs, shoves a pillow under Liam for the right angle and then –

Yes.

He turns his head to smile into a pillow, to dull an aching moan.  Zayn’s parents are down the hall, his sisters a few yards away, the world outside still slumbering.  His thighs tremble and Zayn rocks up instead of deep and Liam scrambles to grab Zayn’s shoulder for leverage.

“Jesus, mate, do that again,” he whines, abashed and shaking.

Zayn complies with a throaty laugh.  He twists, fucks in a little rougher, drags his chapped lips over Liam’s birthmark.

“Tight, babe,” he whispers, biting along Liam’s earlobe.  “You feel so good but – tight, fuck, you’re squeezing me.”

The sun spikes through the thin curtains and burns out all of the blush along Liam’s skin.  He cocks his legs up and over Zayn’s shoulders and Zayn goes slower.

(and deeper – much deeper)

“Faster.”

Zayn giggles, alternating, dragging until just the head of his bare cock rests inside of Liam.

(and they’ve forgotten the condom somewhere in Zayn’s dresser and there’s just enough lube where the sting along Liam’s muscles doesn’t last entirely too long and it’s incredibly filthy in the best way)

There’s ink in new places now.  Liam’s fingers brush over the red on Zayn’s forearm and up to the Arabic along his collars and back down to the Chinese symbol blotted over his hip.  He sucks in a deep breath, holds it, waits for Zayn to fuck it out of his lungs.

“Be quiet,” Zayn chuckles, the sound vibrating in his chest.  He snaps his hips and Liam thinks he’s nothing but a contradiction, the asshole.

“Can’t.  Christ, you’re right on my – “

A hovering moan trembles over his lips and Zayn swoops down to kiss the noise away.  He curls a hand beneath Liam’s head and keeps their foreheads pressed while thrusting.

“I wanna take a kip after,” Zayn smirks.

Liam rolls his eyes – almost from the pleasure – and tangles fingers into Zayn’s wrecked hair.

“You promised me Weetabix and cartoons today,” Liam argues with a quirk to his lips.

“Twat,” Zayn teases, smoothing another quick kiss to Liam’s mouth.

His words catch in a whimper and Zayn noses along Liam’s bare ankle as a distraction.  He nudges right onto Liam’s prostate and stays there, pulsing, while Liam fists the sheets.

Zayn smothers soft kisses along his heel, down to his calf, breathing warm breath along Liam’s shin while Liam contorts to grind back onto Zayn’s dick.  It’s new – so brand new.  It’s so enthralling that he forgets about his cock leaking over his belly and this need to relax in the hazy feel of the morning.

“Harder,” he whispers, unaware.

Zayn is crowding in closer, pinning him to the mattress, finding an unfamiliar rhythm.  He’s biting his lip like he’s trying so hard to hold back and Liam can’t take the sunlight over Zayn’s shoulder or the way their bodies move together.

“Please, Zayn, harder,” he begs, intentionally.  It’s a whisper against Zayn’s lips and an unsaid ‘thank you’ when Zayn nods.

Zayn traps Liam’s hands above his head so Liam can watch the muscles in Zayn’s shoulders, the arrogant flick of a smile on his lips and the vulnerable shyness in his eyes.  They’re drowsy but alive, the bed shaking, their moans suffocated through scattered kisses.

“Yes,” Liam whimpers.

“Want me to go deep?” Zayn wonders, licking Liam’s bottom lip.

“So deep, man.”

“Will you be quiet if I do?” Zayn inquires.

Liam nods but he’s lying.  He fastens his teeth to Zayn’s throat and shoves a harsh groan to his skin when Zayn grinds without dragging back.  He thrusts deep, their hips bruising, and Liam’s fingers flex for something to hold onto.

“So fucking good,” Zayn moans softly, thumbing at Liam’s veins, searching for his erratic pulse.  “I just – I’m so in – “

Liam whines, tries to hide it in Zayn’s collarbone.

“Do you, like, feel the same?”

Liam thinks Zayn is mad.  He’s absolutely mental right now.  His body is trembling, Zayn is dicking right along his prostate, and proper forms of communication when the room is seconds from catching on fire seems incredibly daft.

Still, Liam tips his head back with a lazy smile to whisper, “Yeah, man.  I – like, I don’t know how to say it.  I mean, I do.  But – Christ, quit going so deep.”

Zayn giggles and his thrusts turn shallow.  He nuzzles Liam’s nose and it’s too intense.

It’s too intimate is what it is.

“I’m sort of in love with you, mate,” Zayn whispers like a warning.

He tenses above Liam, stomach muscles going tight, fingers pinching harshly around Liam’s wrists.

Liam relaxes under him and crosses his ankles along the small of Zayn’s back to keep him inside and he comes with his lip between his teeth and his hands still trapped above his head.

It’s never – he’s never done that

(and the list of things that start with ‘Zayn is the first boy to’ keeps growing)

but his world tips and his fluttering eyes barely focus enough to watch Zayn grin proudly before he stiffens, brushing breathless kisses to Liam’s sweaty forehead as he comes inside of him.

It’s a moment too long where they strain for breaths.  Zayn hovers above him, propped on his elbows, staring down at Liam expectantly.  He cocks an eyebrow that Liam laughs at.

“Me too, babe,” he finally says.  “In love.  Madly, man.  Been in love with you before I knew what it meant.”

Zayn scrunches his nose like moments like this where Liam is a sappy sod and the world is quiet around them bothers him.  But all of that reserved cool that comes with cigarettes, letter jackets, product-stiff quiff fades off when their noses touch.

“Good,” Zayn huffs.  “Didn’t wanna, like, be in this by me’self.”

Liam nods, shoving his heart back down into his chest.

(He refuses to tell Zayn how dark and uncomfortable and empty that can be because this is different.  They’re not, but this is)

Zayn rolls off of him with a casual smack to Liam’s cheek, a grin rubbed along Liam’s bare shoulder.  Liam uses the sheets to wipe away the come sticking to his stomach, grinning when Zayn frowns.

“Gross, man,” Zayn whines.

Liam shrugs before pressing a messy kiss to Zayn’s cheek just to fluster him.

“Need a shower,” Zayn whispers, glaring at the ceiling.

“You’re not the one with your mate’s come squishing between – “

They can hear movement outside of Zayn’s door, the tell-tale sign of socked feet thumping over the ground as his sisters pound down the steps.  Trisha is humming down the hall and Zayn winces with a growl.

“They’re up,” he groans, nuzzling his nose to the crook under Liam’s jaw.

Liam grins.  He lets the sunlight blind him while scooting an arm around Zayn’s tight shoulders.  They kiss because they can and freeze when –

“Breakfast in a few, beta,” Yaser calls through the door with a steady rap of knuckles on the wood.  “Brush your teeth.  And drag that lovely Liam out of bed too.  He should stick around for a good meal.”

“Yes, abbu,” Zayn sighs, throwing an ink-smeared forearm over his eyes.

“He’s a good lad.  You should be more like him,” Yaser calls as he moves away from the door.

Baba,” Zayn whines, kicking his feet in the sheets.

Liam giggles into his shoulder, shutting his eyes.  He’s too lazy and knackered to remind himself that Zayn’s family hasn’t a clue.  No one does.  This little hot secret just between them, burning through their fingers, a firefly dancing in a glass jar.

They’re still too nervous and too afraid to shout it out from a rooftop.  It’s just this quiet thing between them – except the kisses are longer, the affection in their eyes louder, their hands barely able to stay apart.

“Hey,” Zayn whispers, nudging his forehead to Liam’s temple.  “Can we like – um, I was hoping – “

Liam turns a little.  His lips quirk immediately at the shyness in Zayn’s raspy voice.

“Vas happenin’,” he teases for the groan-laugh Zayn releases.

“Just get dressed, asshole,” Zayn smirks, rolling away.

They slip into whatever wrinkled pieces of Zayn’s clothes they can find – Liam sliding into a soft, vintage X-Men shirt and loose joggers and a thick pair of Christmas socks – and stumble to the bathroom to brush their teeth.

(Liam ignores the way Zayn keeps nervously smiling at him, a foamy white grin in the reflection, their shoulders constantly brushing when they rinse out the toothpaste)

Zayn stops him at the top of the stairs, biting his lip.  The aroma from the kitchen makes Liam’s stomach rumble and there’s laughter, unfamiliar music, and this aching sense of family below that Liam wants to drown in.

“Just,” Zayn sighs with a heavy frustration.  “Can we – “

Liam teases up an eyebrow before frowning.  Zayn looks bothered and his teeth are mauling his bottom lip.  He looks nine years old and terrified to show Liam his newest sketches.

It’s a moment he’s not ready for – Zayn slipping the hand by his side into Liam’s.  Fingers squeezing around Liam’s knuckles.  Careful eyes asking a question Zayn can’t quite get out.

“You mean – “

Zayn groans before nodding.  But he tangles their fingers, a hopeful grin on his lips and Liam swears this is just a stupid teenage dream.  It’s some trashy storybook nonsense but his sweaty palm fits in Zayn’s and his unwarranted shaky breath sounds like ‘yes’ when Zayn cautiously leads them down the stairs towards the kitchen.

(He’ll remember the shock on Trisha’s face, the soft smile on Yaser’s over the newspaper, the way Doniya teases them for hours afterwards.  He’ll imprint the way his breath hitches when Zayn snuggles to him on the couch later on, in front of his sisters, the way they fit around each other without the anxiety anymore.  He’ll still feel the burn of afternoon tea when Trisha rings up his mum and they giggle together over the phone – like they’ve always known – while Zayn is blushing furiously from across him at the table.)

 

[#]

 

When he is nearly nineteen, Liam breaks Zayn’s heart –

 

“Who’s gonna look after me when you’re gone?”

Liam shoots Louis a small, grateful smile.  His fingers keep habitually squeezing around the strap of his backpack.  Most of his bags are stuffed onto a baggage carousel on the tarmac, his plane ticket shoved into the back pocket of his jeans, his snapback itching along his forehead every time his brow wrinkles.

“Oh shut up,” Ruth scolds, smacking Louis’ arm with a huff.  “You’re not a child.”

Louis scowls at her and they stick their tongues out like toddlers and Liam swears he missed it when Louis started to fit into his family like an extra brother.  An extension, really, something so incredibly tangible that he keeps hoping Louis will squeeze his hand on the entire plane ride across the Atlantic.

He won’t and that’s almost as devastating as –

Liam keeps staring out the oversized windows at Heathrow rather than looking at Zayn.  The sky is a grey overcast from the morning storm, a hazy silver with the blinking lights from the plane’s wings taunting him.

Months ago, he avoided the acceptance invitation from some university in the States.  In New York for fuck’s sake.  Some posh campus with a music technology program and a scholarship just for Liam James Payne and he kept the letter tucked between his clean socks and boxers until his mum started asking about.

Until he realized his parents couldn’t afford a London education on their own and Zayn was starting at a local art school in the fall and –

His teeth ruin his bottom lip when his shoulders brush with Zayn’s.  It’s the eighth time in an hour and he just can’t.

Liam can’t look at him.

Zayn swore they would be fine when he found out.  He kissed Liam stupidly with a dumb grin and cupped Liam’s cheeks, whispering ‘I love you’ until their tongues went numb.  He promised he’d visit Liam once a month

(Liam likes to forget, to pulverize his memory of the hot tears slithering down his cheeks when he begged Zayn to come with him and Zayn, politely with a smile and tender kisses, declined because he couldn’t handle being away from his family)

(and angrily, Liam wondered if that meant Zayn would be just brilliant without him around)

It took him a month before he could write his new flatmate – some peroxide-blonde kid with a thick Irish accent and electric blue eyes when they spoke over Skype – and even longer to visit the campus with his father.

It was hours, a fortnight ago, before he fell asleep with Zayn pressed into his arms.   His lips were raw from kissing and his skin was bleached with Zayn’s scent – Marlboro Reds and warm spices and citrus body wash – while their foreheads rubbed softly.  Zayn didn’t cry – even if Liam did – and their fingers went numb from holding on too tightly for too long.

“You’ve packed enough clothes, right?” Geoff asks with a heavy hand on Liam’s other shoulder.

He nods slowly, looking down at his feet.  Zayn tenses next to him and he wants nothing more than to tug him away, shove him into a bathroom stall, and plead with Zayn to reconsider.

“You’ll do smashingly, bro,” Harry says, reaching past Zayn to pat his arm.

Liam presses his mouth into a wry smile for him.

He’s there for Zayn, not Liam.  A silent, curly-haired breath of encouragement.  Because Zayn is not brave enough to beg Liam to stay and Liam is too stubborn to tell Zayn he would if he asked.

“Hey,” Liam whispers, his voice cracked when the loud speaker makes a call for first class.  “Look out for me mum, yeah?  She’s probably a mess in the taxi right now.”

White teeth drag on a pink bottom lip when Zayn nods.  The corners of his mouth quirk just enough for a smile but it’s just a distraction from the lightning streaks of red around Zayn’s glassy irises.  Long eyelashes finally flutter and flick thick tears down Zayn’s sharp cheeks.

Liam rubs them away with his thumbs, his soft palms holding Zayn’s face.

“We’ll be fine,” Zayn mumbles.

It’s the same exhausting mantra he’s been whispering for weeks when Liam tenses, when he won’t stop staring at Zayn when they shag, when Liam curls around a pillow in Zayn’s bed.

Liam catches another salty tear and looks away.  The world outside is washed pale from the clouds and empty, he thinks.  He’s in this alone and it feels completely, ridiculously empty.

“Back home for Christmas,” he coughs, tilting his head to smile at Zayn.  It’s not meant to be placating but it wrinkles over his lips like he’s trying harder to be strong.

“Yours for Halloween,” Zayn offers with a dull smile.

Helpless, he thinks a few seconds before his fingers twist into the belt loops of Zayn’s jeans to tug him forward.  They stumble into each other just to shove their foreheads together, noses brushing.

The world is absent around them as they start to sway together.  It’s like being twelve again and nervously wrapped in your best mate’s arms.

And Liam is so lost on the madness when they announce the final boarding call.

“New York is not that far away,” Zayn says with a grin but he sounds so nervous.

And Liam keeps thinking of being brave and that comic book character Zayn sketches him as with the invulnerability and strength.  He cups Zayn’s damp cheeks, skims his thumbs under his eyelids to catch the last few tears and he silences that monster deep in his chest.  He quiets the roar of ‘please don’t let me leave’ while smiling at Zayn.

“Call you when I get in,” he proposes.

“In the cab after you get your luggage,” Zayn argues with a wrinkled smirk.

“When I touch down,” Liam laughs but the noise is wet.  It sticks to the back of his throat.

“When they turn off the seat buckle sign,” Zayn demands, hovering, swaying still.

The world around them still doesn’t seem to exist when he brushes a laugh over Zayn’s lips before closing the gap.  Zayn tastes like the ocean with sea salt tears and warm breaths and a tongue that stings like jellyfish.  They sniff together and it’s a little less dramatic then all of those cheesy television shows his sister watches but –

(“If I’m the Rachel,” Zayn whispered one night, between comfy sheets with a bowl of popcorn and a rerun of Friends on the telly, “then you’re like that knob Ross.  You’re so nerdy, man.”  Liam didn’t argue with his face buried in Zayn’s neck and the laugh that vibrated through Zayn’s throat tickled Liam’s lips.  It took him hours and this sudden need for a wee in the toilets to abandon Zayn’s side.)

Zayn has wide eyes when they pull apart.  They’re still glassy but a little more alive – hopeful, he thinks.  His bottom lip is scratched and red and Liam dives in quickly just to soothe the ache with his mouth.

“If I tell you I love you – “

Zayn aborts a choked noise to cup his palm around the back of Liam’s head.

“Not necessary,” he whispers with a crooked smile.

(and all Liam can think about is being eight years old on Halloween and that stupid, boyish smirk lighting up the night as they held hands while walking house to house)

Zayn keeps a hand on the back of Liam’s head as he pulls back, his bottom lip shaking.  “You’re my Batman,” he whispers, blinking at the ground.

A pulse teases Liam’s lips into a massive smile.  This cold, selfish world filters back into his vision when Zayn’s hand drops away but he catches a few of Zayn’s fingers to whisper back, “You’re my Spider-Man, my MJ.”

Zayn laughs at the ground, stumbles backwards into Harry and turns away before Liam can lift his bag over his shoulder.

But Liam can’t let go – a final call for all passengers echoes in his head – so he crosses the few yards between them, crowds into Zayn’s back to whisper ‘you’re my best mate’ while keeping a hand over Zayn’s chest until his heart slows down.

It’s not the three words he should say but, for them, it’s enough.

(He barely has the strength to carry his backpack or wipe away Ruth’s tears or punch Louis in the arm when he stares at Liam with big, wide, wet eyes.  He shakes when his father hugs him too tightly and drags his feet all the way up the terminal to the plane.  He can’t find his seat and can’t quite get comfortable before take-off.  He just keeps staring out the window at the hazy grey of London.)

(and he can’t fall asleep for the first few hours and he can’t unknot that feeling in his stomach that this sort of distance is the kind of different he and Zayn are not ready for)

 

[#]

 

A week later, after too many sad phone calls and learning new time zones and hating how empty his new bed is now, Liam breaks up with Zayn.

It’s a fair decision.  Zayn is horrible at hiding how miserable he is over phone conversations.  Liam can’t stop staring at one of the black and white sketches Zayn did of them as superheroes, tacked to his mostly empty feature wall in his flat.  Their texts are just sewn together words with no filling.

And Liam can’t stand the shake in Zayn’s voice when he’s drowsy and the world on Zayn’s side of the earth is just waking up.

It’s an ‘I love you’ attached to a ‘but this won’t work and I can’t handle missing your stupid cigarettes and awful accent’ and Zayn is too quiet on the other end of the phone while Liam brushes away stubborn tears with his thumb.

“I won’t hate you,” Zayn tells him with a clear, steady voice.

“I figured you would,” Liam sighs.

A flatline of silence.  It’s all just dead air before Zayn clears his throat roughly to whisper, “You’re my best mate, Li.  You’re my – always will be.”

Liam rolls over, buries his face into his pillow to muffle a scream and ignores Niall’s constant thumping on the door afterwards.  He drowns in Kanye West, curling around his stupid Woody doll and one of Zayn’s jumpers he nicked before he left.

It’s just a constant loop of ‘run away from me baby runaway’ in his head and in his room and across his lips until he’s too exhausted to keep squeezing his phone, waiting for Zayn to call back.

(He doesn’t and Liam hasn’t felt this sober since being fourteen and watching Zayn kiss someone with cherry lips who wasn’t Liam.)

 

[#]

 

New York is cold in January.

It’s a bitter breeze with thick clumps of snow everywhere.  The sidewalks are nothing but salty rocks and all of the landscape is a pale grey-white pattern.  There’s long lines of cabs everywhere and it’s just so different from England.

(he’s starting to hate that word and what it means and how it still fits when he thinks of Zayn)

It’s still so foreign and nothing like home but, right here, he feels clean and sober.

It takes him months to sleep properly, to adjust to the constant noise of the city through the night and the empty bed – except those moments when Niall stumbles in, pissed on American ale and fruity shooters after a week of studying – he still hates.

It takes months before he can wake up without dry tears on his cheeks and Zayn’s scent replaced by citrusy washing powder over all of his clothes.  A whole term of studying and heavy books and a Christmas without seeing Zayn back home.

(He doesn’t ask and when he sees Doniya at the market, they hug instead of whimpering and talk about Manhattan in the frozen food aisle)

He doesn’t count the days since their last phone call or text or silly e-mail because they’re those kind of idiot friends but it’s long enough.

Too long.

Liam barely notices now.

Except when Niall shoves him into dating again –

Holly is nice.  She’s got soft hands and eyes that remind him of the Thames and watermelon chapstick that smears on his lips when they kiss.  She likes dumb, laddish comedies and star gazing and quiet nights reading old novels.  She offers him a handjob he refuses politely but lets her grind off on his thigh with his hand in her chunky sweater until she comes quietly.

It lasts two weeks before Christmas when she tells him he’s a little too heartbroken for her to fix and he doesn’t quite know what that means but her condescending smile after dinner, with a loud kiss on his cheek and a pat to his shoulder speaks louder than what she doesn’t say in between.

“Oi, lad,” Niall whines from their box-sized kitchenette, propped against the counter with a backwards snapback fluffing out his blonde hair, a pair of Ray-Bans, an acoustic guitar and a cup of insta coffee.

Liam rolls his eyes from their ratty couch, bare feet on the lopsided coffee table and a heavy textbook in his lap.  He grins down at musical theory, dragging a highlighter over all of the important words.

“Niall, don’t – “

“She was a good bird, bro,” Niall huffs, strumming some out of place chords, “and you mucked it up.  Royally fucked it instead of fucking her.”

Liam smirks.  Niall has a craving for foul words and Liam never calls him on it.  It reminds him of Louis.

“It wouldn’t’ve worked,” Liam sighs, leaning over his pile of books to steal a sip of breakfast tea.  “She didn’t like me much.”

He doesn’t add the ‘they never do’ because he hasn’t had to swallow those words since he was seventeen and Zayn

“You’re daft.  A real asshole, Leeymo,” Niall groans but the noise is chased by a thick laugh.  “I mean, c’mon mate, get in.  I’d shag you if I wasn’t – “

“Already shagging Josh?” Liam offers, looking over his shoulder.

Niall looks affronted with a scowl half-hidden by his sunglasses.

“That was one night,” Niall argues.

“Three times,” Liam corrects, snickering.  “And I think once in the loo?  In the shower?”

“Morning blowjobs are sick, bro,” Niall smiles but he quickly wipes it off to pout at Liam.  “It was for my engineering course.  We were experimenting – “

“Shagging,” Liam hums.

“ – on new uses for treble and bass.  The acoustics were brilliant.  Don’t ye judge me.”

Liam’s nose wrinkles and his eyes crinkle with his smile.  He shrugs, taking another long sip of tea.

“It was a one-off,” Niall frowns.

“Didn’t you take him out for Starbucks and those yummy pastries from the bakery?” Liam wonders, tipping his head back to look at Niall upside down.

“Fuck you Leeymo.”

The laugh in his belly reverberates through his whole body and his face goes red a little from the blood but mostly from the way Niall flips him off.

He shifts his feet and barely moves when Niall flops down next to him, a pale arm thrown around Liam’s loose shoulders, a pink cheek pressed to Liam’s.

“You’ll try again, right?” Niall wonders, humming.  “I mean, ‘cause like, you have’ta, mate.  I know ye still miss him – “

He doesn’t mean to tense or for his muscles to squeeze around his bones.  His head drops a little when he tries to breathe.

“ – but this is good f’ya, Leeymo.  Date a bird.  Get some head from a lad.  Just don’t stay like t’is, ‘kay?”

Liam doesn’t reply but he carefully squeezes Niall’s thigh and breathes a little softer.

He tries for Niall and –

Collin is actually quite brilliant.  He studies western philosophy and has lazy hair always falling in his brown eyes.  His smile is a bit wide, his hands rough and calloused, his shirts always pressed.  He teases Liam about his accent and kisses like he’s studying the art behind it rather than the emotion.

(They don’t shag but they trade off casual blowjobs between classes and Collin absolutely hates cuddling afterwards, which Liam is fine with.  He doesn’t need it either.)

They date for almost a month – well, twenty-four days and, yes, Liam is counting this time – and it takes Liam nearly three weeks to see why.

Collin thinks comic books are cheap art.  He hates hip hop music and he always makes a face when Liam casually lights up a cigarette on late evenings –

(he smokes Marlboro Reds in those weak moments and he’s not lost on how awful that is)

Their kisses are brief and they quietly end it when Collin starts dating an accounting student and Liam calls him less and less between days.

Niall doesn’t hover about or bother him about it and Liam rings up Louis the night after just for –

He needs a piece of home and that grey skyline and the way all of the buildings look nothing like the massively tall ones in New York.

Louis is sleepy and hungover but they talk about nothing and fuck about over the white noise for an hour before Louis finally sighs and Liam freezes on his bed.

“He talks about you loads, man,” Louis says because they keep tiptoeing around it.  “He just – he misses you, Payno.”

Liam doesn’t scoff.  He doesn’t berate Louis because Zayn hasn’t bothered to call in months.  He hasn’t replied to Liam’s senseless texts when he’s pissed on cheap vodka and cranberry shooters.

He didn’t even stopover his parents’ house for the holidays, even if Trisha did.  Even if Liam kept watching his salted driveway for a cloud of smoke and a boy with a spiky quiff to walk up.

Liam presses the phone between his shoulder and ear, blindly finds the crinkled drawing Zayn gave him.  He doesn’t look at it but his hands trace lines he can see from memory alone.  He closes his eyes, breathing deep.  His room is stale without the scent of cigarettes and dumb hair product.

“We don’t even chat,” he whispers.

“I know,” Louis sighs.  “Says he can’t really – he’s a bit stubborn.”

“Like you?” Liam wonders, smiling.

“Are you quite finished?”

Liam smirks and presses out all of the wrinkles in the sketch over his chest.

“You still think about him, yeah?”

“Lou,” Liam breathes, squeezing all of the neon circles behind his eyelids.  “I don’t – “

“You do, Payno,” Louis cheers.  “You can’t lie, bro.  He’s hardly forgettable.”

Liam bites his lip to stop from arguing otherwise.  He’s done a remarkable job of lasting this long without waking up missing the warmth in his bed.

He’s not fucked over some boy he’s known longer than he’s known himself.

“D’you wanna like – I can tell him you’re thinking about him,” Louis offers.

Liam shakes his head even though Louis can’t see him.  The sky outside is so dark and wintry and Louis sounds exhausted on the other end of the phone.  He pinches the bridge of his nose and exhales a loud breath.

“It’s good, Lou,” he swears.  “He and I – we’re fine.  He’s still my best mate.”

“I hate you,” Louis grumbles, trying to sound offended but there’s not enough layers to hide the affection in his tone.

(Or the way he knows it.  He’s always known it.  That connection between Liam and Zayn that he’s never been able to fit himself properly between.)

They shit talk about their favorite footy teams and Louis tells him all about some drunken hook up with Harry and some gorgeous girl down in Leeds before their yawns echo over everything else.

Liam rolls onto his stomach, blinking down at the light from his phone.  It’s the only thing shining in his room.  He thumbs through a few contacts and he knows better.

He knows that this vindictive feeling when he stares down at his phone, hovering over Zayn’s name, is because he shouldn’t.  But it’s after midnight and it’s the twelfth of January so he can’t help himself.

His thumb types out a quick ‘happppyy biiirthdayy Z! youre stilll the bestest!! ur batman :) aha’ before shoving his phone between the sheets.  He bites down on his lip and squeezes his eyes shut.  The noisy city outside gentles him asleep, even if it’s in an empty bed.

Liam wakes up to Niall burning toast in the kitchen and an unfamiliar song on the radio and an almost dead phone between his fingers.

There’s a picture message glowing on his screen and he fumbles a grin at it.

It’s just a dumb photo of a sleepy Zayn, half-hidden in sheets and pillows with a stupidily crooked smirk.  There’s dark stubble and chapped lips and crinkled eyes and Liam holds his breath.  His thumb drags over the screen and he scrolls down enough to see the message attached: ‘you’re my peter parker xx’

He presses his forehead to the screen and finally exhales.  He hums softly to the ‘I think I am finally clean’ from the kitchen with a stretched smile.

 

[#]

 

He’s almost twenty-one and still so uncertain about everything and still so madly in love with Zayn –

 

Ruth is getting married.

Liam is in-between terms and considering late summer classes and standing over his half-packed luggage on his bed when Niall peeks his head in.

“Don’t forget your boxers,” Niall teases, sliding in sock-covered feet all over their hardwoods.  He crashes onto the bed, onto the messy pile of shirts Liam can’t choose from, with a huff and a laugh.  “No free-balling in a tux, mate.  S’not proper etiquette or summat.”

“Didn’t you go commando in that suit you stole – “

Borrowed,” Niall corrects, grinning into a wrinkled flannel.

“ – from me for Josh’s first orchestra gig at the Met?” Liam asks, quirking up an eyebrow when Niall blushes uncontrollably into the clothes.

Niall nudges Liam’s crotch with a foot, giggling.  “We both knew he was getting shagged that night, bro.  Easy access.”

“You’re gross,” Liam laughs, swatting his foot away.

Niall sighs, rolling around in the clothes, knocking away Liam’s boots from the sheets.  He smirks up at the ceiling for a long minute before shooting Liam a considering look.

“Think he’ll be there?”

Liam shrugs because he’s done a fair enough job not thinking about Zayn.  Or England.  Or the small texts they’ve been sending each other once a month, the unintentional ‘I miss you’ disguised as chats about home and school and picture messages of all the new comic books they’ve been collecting a huge ocean apart.

Liam keeps reminding himself that best mates means ‘they’re different’ but it gets lost in translation whenever his phone buzzes.

“Didn’t exactly ask me sister for the entire guest list,” he teases, tickling fingers over the arch of Niall’s foot.  He thrashes and almost nicks Liam in the dick before turning red-faced with wide blue eyes.

“But you think – “

“I try not to,” Liam sighs, scrunching his nose.  “I mean – me sister is getting married, yeah?  I’m a groomsmen.  Can’t quite worry about – “

“So you’re worried?” Niall sneers with too much insinuation in his tone.

Liam rolls his eyes and flicks at Niall’s bare knee through his ripped jeans.  “Not really.”

“Sometimes?”

“Maybe,” Liam shrugs and he’s not certain when this playful brotherhood they started the moment Niall came crashing into their flat with punk rock hair and a noisy guitar turned into an interrogation in the disguise of helping Liam get over Zayn but –

“Whatever,” he scoffs, folding up a few shirts and dropping them in his bag.  “I’m worried about me sister going mad over her dress.  Not him.”

“Zayn,” Niall interrupts.  “Y’can say his name.”

“I know I can,” Liam scowls, yanking an old pair of jeans from under Niall’s bum.  “For fuck’s sake, Nialler, he’s my best mate.  I remember him.”

“But you never talk about him,” Niall notes with a half-frown.  “Like, s’okay ta talk ‘bout it, mate.  How ye still miss ‘im.”

Liam considers tossing Niall out.  He thinks about kicking the door closed, crumpling up that stupid drawing of Zayn’s he still keeps and blaring old Coldplay songs in spite of all of this rubbish.

(because he definitely does not still miss Zayn madly)

“I’m good, Nialler,” he drags out, balling up socks and bouncing on his feet like a basketball player to toss them into his bag.  “Don’t miss that twat at all.”

Niall shoots him a doubtful grimace with rosy cheeks and squinted eyes.  “But you haven’t dated anyone since Arsehole Face,” he mutters with emphasis on the last two words.

“Collin,” Liam corrects him, frowning.

“He was an arsehole and I hated his face,” Niall says sharply and, well, Liam won’t argue with him on that.  He scowls and tickles at Niall’s belly when he makes a cheap imitation of one of Collin’s facial expressions.

He’s a dumb twat, just like Louis.

“I’m jus’sayin’,” Niall chews out, rolling into pillows and an actually pressed white Oxford, wrinkling the sleeve.  “He might be there.”

“Might,” Liam repeats, low and the word stalls at the back of his throat.  He shrugs, piling in more pants than necessary.  “Dunno.  I mean – Lou is going, so – “

He whistles quietly, rocking on his heels, picking through a pile of clothes for something clean.

“Are you gonna tell ‘im?” Niall wonders, grinning behind a thick winter jumper.

Liam quirks a curious eyebrow, his mouth already wrinkling into a frown.  Niall shoots him this mischievous grin with wickedly neon blue eyes.  He wiggles a toe into Liam’s hip, already laughing too loudly.

“How much you wanna snog his face off, mate?  C’mon.  Get lucky while ye back home.  Have a proper post break-up shag or summat,” Niall teases.

Liam abandons packing to leap onto the bed, throwing weak punches and scrambling hands up Niall’s ribs until he’s pleading and crying and threatening to wee all over Liam’s favorite trousers.

 

[#]

 

It’s late May and the sky just outside of Heathrow is a taupe grey, the tarmac still wet and the color of gunmetal from the morning storm.  The early afternoon traffic inside of the airport bustles around him like a meteor shower of faceless passengers running to their next terminal.  It’s a bit dizzying but all Liam can think is –

He’s home.

“Oi, let Louis grab your bags.”

“Excuse me?” Louis scowls at Ruth, an eyebrow arched insanely high with arms crossed over his chest.

“Christ, Louis, be a gentleman,” Nicola sighs, smacking his arm as she pulls out of her sideways half-hug from Liam.

“Yeah,” Ruth grins, smug and challenging, “don’t be a twat to the future bride.”

Louis groans but he’s already reaching for Liam’s luggage, swinging a duffle bag over one shoulder while dragging Liam’s suitcase over the shiny tiles of the airport.

“You’ve been horrible for months,” Louis complains, grimacing at Ruth.  “And your husband will be miserable with you.”

Ruth winks at Liam, smiling.  “I know.  It’s gonna be fantastic.”

Liam laughs and traces an enthusiastic arm around his sister’s back, Nicola fitting into his side as they walk through the airport.  His mum has left them – an unwise decision, he knows – to bring the car around and Louis keeps grumbling five feet behind them, struggling with the weight of Liam’s luggage.

“You’d think England would have proper weather the weekend I’m getting married,” Ruth whines, stomping her feet, pouting like a three year old.

Liam grins into Nicola’s hair, rolling his eyes.  Even now, his sisters are able to maintain better strops than he’s ever had.

“It’ll be fine,” Liam promises, smoothing a quick kiss to her temple.

“Liar,” she sighs but she sounds so affectionate that he has to look halfway across the terminal to a Starbucks to hide his blushing grin.

“I hope the suit fits,” Louis calls, still struggling, still mumbling half of his words in the distance.  “I tried it on before – “

Liam makes a face over his shoulder – wrinkled brow and wide eyes and fuzzy eyebrows arching.

“Oh fuck off, you weren’t here and I – “

“Refused to be an usher in the ceremony,” Nicola reminds him.

“I’m far too important – “

“Bloody prick is what you are,” Ruth corrects with a pinched face.

Liam grins into the collar of his denim jacket and he’s missed this.  Every stinging word and awful face and all of the fondness between Louis and his sisters.

He’s missed every bloody bit of this.

“Hurry, hurry, children,” Karen sighs, her voice that light, dreamy coddling she reserves for the three of them – and Louis too – as she jerks open all of the car’s doors.  She’s rushing Nicola and fixing Ruth’s hair and inching on her toes to smack a wet peck to Louis’ cheek.

Liam is so distracted by her anxiousness and all of the unabashed affection in her voice that he misses the trunk opening and someone curving the corner of the car until –

“I’ve got it, Tommo,” Zayn offers when Louis drops the bags by the curb.

He startles.  Liam sucks in a sharp breath that’s too loud because Zayn looks up through his eyelashes, smiling crookedly over Louis’ shoulder, cocking his head like ‘hello’ and ‘you look incredible’ is seconds from stumbling off of his lips but –

“Oh, brilliant.  Like you’ve got the muscles I haven’t,” Louis teases, punching Zayn’s shoulder.

“You’re a weak twat and y’know it, Tommo,” Zayn laughs, barely straining to toss one of Liam’s bags into the trunk.

“I’ve merely perfected the skill of persuasion, Malik,” Louis counters, propping against the side of the car.  “There’s always some dolt willing to help someone as dashing – “

“You don’t even know the meaning,” Zayn snorts, flicking all of the shaggy fringe out of Louis’ eyes.

“Go fuck yourself,” Louis hisses too low for Karen to hear and his lips quirk into something arrogant before he adds, “of go fuck him – “

“Boys, boys,” Karen huffs, rearranging things in the running car, shoving a giggling Nicola into the backseat.  “Rehearsal dinner at six.  Early morning for the bridal party.  Liam needs to be fitted and, no, Louis there will not be a stag do.”

“But I promised Tommy,” Louis starts and Ruth yelps from the passenger seat.

Thomas, you idiot,” she frowns.

Louis flips her off when Karen isn’t looking, grinning.  “He’ll be gutted.”

“And you lot will be sober for the wedding tomorrow,” Karen quips back and Louis slumps against the car with arms crossed, a pout, and his Vans scuffing along the curb.

Karen swats his arm with a sweet smile before rounding all of the madness to tug Liam into another hug.  It’s their fourth since he got off the plane but each one feels brand new – her scent, her hair tickling his nose, her small arms trying to reach all around his wide shoulders.

“He’s been hanging around quite a bit since after Christmas,” she whispers, cupping the back of his head.  She goes quiet for a moment and he knows

She doesn’t need to add the ‘since you went back to New York and weren’t around’ and he tightens his jaw to stop the frown.

Karen pulls back, her eyes crinkled without the smile.  She brushes a hand over his cheek, his neatly unshaven stubble.  “He comes by the house.  Helps your father with the lawn.  He even brought his sisters ‘round to show me how to prepare kebabs with roti and lentils,” she gushes, blinking over her shoulder while Zayn and Louis trade playful punches and laughs.

Liam watches from over her head, biting his lip.  He stares just a little too long and that lurch in his heart when Zayn looks up is so familiar –

Twelve years old and Mario in the background.  Fourteen and Zayn teaching him how to kiss someone properly.  Eighteen and being in love –

Almost twenty-one and still so madly, undeniably, frustratingly in love with –

“He hasn’t dated anyone,” Karen adds, trying to sound casual but her lifting smile gives her away.

(Liam is certain his blush gives him away too but he ducks in to hug her again to hide it.)

“No one since you, my little lion,” she sighs, her voice a little broken.  He squeezes around her until he’s certain he’ll never forget her scent and what home feels like.

Liam lets her pull back, sharing smiles and crinkly eyes before she’s exhaling a hard, happy breath.  She tugs Louis from the car, admonishing him while laughing all the way to the driver’s seat and –

“Hey.”

He blinks a second too late before Zayn is so close.  He’s hazy from the breaking sun lighting his back and his dark hair is thicker, longer, falling mostly in his eyes and brushing the edge of his cheekbones.  There’s a shadow of morning stubble all over his jaw, a white shirt with a collar too loose – Liam doesn’t stare because that’s inappropriate but his eyes linger on all of the new tattoos over his skin.

Careful fingers reach and reflexively scratch the ink on Liam’s wrist, under the sleeve to touch four thick chevrons and –

“Hey,” Liam says, refusing to hold back the relaxed happiness in his voice.

“Hey,” Zayn repeats, laughing softly.

It’s almost an unrecognizable instinct now.  He crowds into Zayn’s space, their feet kicking, their hips touching.

“It’s long,” Liam says, awed, sinking his fingers into the thickness of Zayn’s hair.

Zayn tilts his head into the touch, snorting.  “Yeah,” he breathes while his stubble pricks Liam’s palm.  “Awful, innit?”

He can’t react to the words in his throat fast enough so he makes a choked, disapproving noise and scowls and shoves his fingers further into Zayn’s hair as a response.  Ruth and Nicola are harmonizing awfully to ‘here comes the sun’ and Louis is wolf-whistling at them but all Liam thinks is –

“You’re here,” he whispers with a blank expression.

“Should I not be?” Zayn shrugs, looking down shyly.  He stares at Liam’s mouth for a second.

He’s not certain how to form the words or how long his fingers card through Zayn’s hair but the slow climb of something beautiful in his chest silences the monster he’s been hiding from for nearly a year.

“You should,” Liam finally replies.

Zayn smiles at the concrete, his nose wrinkling.

“I’ve missed you,” Liam admits as Zayn whispers ‘you’re my best mate’ and they’re in perfect synchronization with their embarrassed smiles and it’s not exactly the three or four words he’s sure they wanted to say but it fits.

He tips Zayn’s head and ignores his mum honking the horn to slowly lean in.  He waits for a bit of hesitation or a ‘we’re not like that anymore’ from Zayn’s mouth but it never comes.  Zayn merely shoots him a crooked grin and flutters his eyes shut and –

It’s the sort of kiss that’s wildly off-center from the euphoria of the thought.  It’s a little clumsy, partially mistimed but they adjust.

They kiss like the whole world around them stopped existing nearly twenty-one years ago.

 

[#]

 

He wakes up the day after the wedding in a barely warm foreign bed with unfamiliar cotton sheets but a scent he knows from mornings just like this.

The bright sun spills in from a massive window and creates gold calligraphy all over the walls.  It burns over his eyelids, etching orange into his vision, and he grins into a soft pillow.  His hand shifts through the mountain of sheets, blindly looking for something – someone.

Liam finds an empty bed in a flat he doesn’t know and his breath hitches so quickly when he props himself on his elbows before –

Zayn smiles at him from the windowsill, flicking ash off his cigarette with the window cracked.

Something warm and relaxing blossoms in Liam’s chest to counteract the panic and his shoulders slump with relief.

He watches Zayn blink at him, puffing a careful breath of blue smoke into the sunlight.  The dust from outside filters down like specks of glitter.  Thick sections of dark hair falls in Zayn’s face and he’s wearing a pair of loose pajama bottoms, his bare chest expanding for more smoke.

Liam grins into the sheets, blush regrettably bright on his cheeks.

Zayn looks sort of uncanny – he hates that word attached to anything other than the X-Men and Zayn – in all of the gold glow.  His stubble his thicker.  There’s fading bruises near his collarbone, peeking from the waistband on his trousers.

Liam huffs and scrubs his nose along the sheets because he created those.  He made his own little marks to compliment all of the tattoos.

He inhales their scent all along the cotton – from the sex and the kissing and the frantic handjobs in the middle of the night because shagging on Zayn’s couch and sucking him off in the shower wasn’t quite enough – and flushes at the way Zayn drags his eyes over Liam’s naked back, his bare arse lifted with a pillow under his hips.

(the lube isn’t close enough and the absent look of ‘want another round?’ in Zayn’s eyes mocks him, but he doesn’t want to abandon this silent reverie anyway, not when it’s been too long since they just existed together)

“I thought you hated mornings,” Liam mumbles, his chapped lips running over the hair on his forearm.

“I do,” Zayn snorts, crushing out the cigarette, the last bits of smoke escaping through his teeth.  “It’s just – not when you’re ‘round, I guess.”

“Liar,” Liam snorts and Zayn quickly raises his hands like he’s surrendering.

Zayn bites along his raw bottom lip and gives Liam this massive, crooked grin that Liam remembers –

Last night, under a galaxy of fairy lights and soft music while Zayn carefully danced with Ruth in the middle of the floor, trying not to step on her white dress.  Ruth’s laugh pressed into Zayn’s suit jacket and his hand on the small of her back.  A thick line of fringe falling in his eyes and this familiar smile he gave Liam over her shoulder.

This moment just between them.

(That same smile in the cab over to Zayn’s, their fingers twitching to touch, their ties undone, their eyes meeting shyly in the doorway of Zayn’s flat like that first time when they were eighteen)

Liam rolls into the sheets to stop staring, scrunching his nose at the ceiling.

“You haven’t even given me a proper tour,” he sighs.

“Tried to,” Zayn chuckles.  “Always so fucking horny.  Y’almost shagged me in the kitchen last night.”

Liam grins at the memory.  The spilled red wine on the counter and their lips meeting in the dark and the buttons torn off of his shirt trying to free himself.

He can hear Zayn’s bare feet padding over the shiny cedar wood floor, Zayn’s shadow casting over him, an upside view of an anxious little smile.

“C’mon,” Zayn says, his voice raw and scratchy from smoke and the lack of sleep.  “I wanna – can I show you something?”

“Your dick?” Liam suggests, wriggling his eyebrows.  “Wouldn’t mind riding you in this nice new – “

Zayn groans, a hand disappearing beneath the loose waistband to adjust himself before he flicks Liam’s forehead.

“Just, like – shut up, Li,” Zayn says with a reaction that’s so endearing with the blush and the abashed laugh.  He reaches down to twist fingers around Liam’s wrist and maintains all of the strength Liam didn’t know he had before to jerk Liam out of the sheets.

They stumble and whine about being knackered while thumping over the cold floors all the way to the longue area and Zayn grabs his shoulders to twist him towards a wall and –

Wow and fuck.

There’s empty tins of paint and dirty brushes and a speckled sheet on the floor.  Colorful charcoal stumps smearing between the cracks.  The whole wall is finished in a dozen different art mediums that Liam can’t describe but it’s all him.

It’s Liam.  It’s half of his profile with a fuzzy eyebrow, thick pink lips, a strong jaw.  It’s another version of himself – the superhero from Zayn’s comics.

It covers most of the wall and there’s an empty white space already marked by black charcoal next to it.  He can make out the sharp jaw and spiky quiff and the way Zayn’s mouth looks when he’s being intense about something.

“It’s like,” Zayn sighs, sounding flustered, curling around Liam’s naked spine.  “I just wanted – it’s like we’re merging, I guess?  Two heroes who aren’t really successful without the other one?  Like, it makes sense in my head but I can’t quite describe it.”

“Like a team?” Liam offers, his words breathless still.

“Yeah, yeah,” Zayn grins over his shoulder, folding his hand over Liam’s belly.  “Like a Batman and Robin thing but – it’s deeper.”

Liam exhales roughly.  He stares at the section where their faces will connect – this blank space but it’s far from empty now.

“Like Peter Parker and MJ,” he whispers.  He can’t figure out how to dull his smile so he spins in Zayn’s arms, circles his forearms around Zayn when he lets out this shocked noise and he doesn’t think for a second.

He kisses Zayn because there’s nothing else he bothers considering.

“So stupid,” Liam mumbles against Zayn’s lips, too scared and too excited to pull away, “I was so stupid and I love you and, fuck, it just never went away – “

Zayn brushes a laugh to his mouth, sucks his bottom lip, thumping their foreheads together.  He curls his arms around Liam’s neck.

“Shut up,” he smirks, rubbing it over Liam’s next kiss.  “S’not like I haven’t fucked up or mucked about f’too long.  Since we’ve sorta been doing this since – “

“Sixteen?” Liam offers, nuzzling their noses, sighing into another kiss.

“Before then, mate,” Zayn counters, groaning when Liam’s tongue licks over his teeth.  “Much longer.”

And it’s such a calm feeling – because Zayn has known it too.  He’s known how dizzy Liam gets over him and the way their eyes always met when they’re too nervous to speak.

He’s feeling incredibly brave and drunk on the way Zayn’s stubble bites at his skin, the way he kisses with a laugh, attaches a groan whenever Liam bites along his lip.  He scoops his hands under Zayn’s thighs, lifts him, waits until Zayn cradles his thighs around Liam’s hips for an anchor before stumbling them all the way back to the bedroom.

“So there’s this bloke I’m sort of in love with,” Liam starts, smirking at the way Zayn immediately groans in his ear.

They stop in the archway, Liam’s muscles barely straining to hold Zayn up, Zayn’s head pressed into the frame of the door.

Zayn’s nose wrinkles when he grins, fingers caught in Liam’s hair.  “You sound like a bloody – “

Liam pouts, sneaks a hand under the waistband to poke at the dimples in Zayn’s back.  “Asshole.”

Zayn rolls his eyes before letting out an impatient breath.  “Okay,” he smiles, leaning in, “tell me about this smug bastard that’s stolen me best mate’s heart.”

(it’s so familiar, even the kiss they share between words, and Liam’s heart swells three sizes in one breath)

“I love him, right?  I’ve loved him for a long time and,” Liam swallows, his cheeks hot, his eyes wide and shiny, “I think he quite knows about it.  I think.”

“Are you gonna tell him?” Zayn teases, his voice mocking but so nostalgic.

“I might.”

Zayn snorts, skimming his fingers behind Liam’s pink ears.  “And what about New York?” he asks, lips sliding down into this aching frown that Liam has to look away from.

He stares down at the wings inked over Zayn’s chest, the bright stain of red lips.  He blinks at the pink bruises his mouth left hours ago over the ink.

“I’ve thought maybe, like,” he stammers.  “Maybe if I asked him – I’ve thought about taking him back with me.  Y’know, if he’s that madly in love with me too.”

“You’re not that loveable, mate,” Zayn snickers.

It’s the sort of loose tongue and lazy smile and breathy words that Liam still hasn’t gotten used to with Zayn.  Not when it’s directed at him instead of some pretty girl.

“I dunno,” Liam sighs, still keeping his eyes low.  “Zayn, it’s mental but, like – “

“I think he’d go,” Zayn whispers, snuffling his nose to Liam’s hairline.  Liam tips his head up and Zayn smears his smile to Liam’s cheek.  “If you’d, like – just ask him, okay?  I think he’d go if you asked him to.”

The sun filters into his vision and blinds him to the rest of the flat.  Just this warm cocoon they’re on the verge of falling into and Zayn’s familiar soft smile and their fingers mapping out little trail marks over their skin.

He surges up to kiss Zayn and whispers ‘you’re my best mate’ because ‘come with me babe’ hasn’t registered in his throat just yet.  But he’s thinking it.

He’s hoping Zayn can feel it when he stays too long in the kiss, smiling, fumbling them all the way to the bed.

(honestly, he holds the words all the way through the morning – after they scrabble through the sheets for the lube and Liam gasps into Zayn’s mouth when he finally slides into Liam from behind, cradling him with his thighs as he thrusts deep like Liam loves.  After they brush their teeth, laughing in the mirror at their foamy mouths.  After they trip all the way into the kitchen, Zayn propped on the counter next to the wine stain, sharing a carton of orange juice with Liam standing between Zayn’s knees, tickling up his bare thighs until Zayn squirms away.)

(after they mix colorful paint and start on the drawing of Zayn on the wall, together)

(after they spread out over the couch with paint smeared over their skin and the sunlight from the window scratching their corneas)

He lets Zayn press their foreheads close, hovering over him, breathing softly and it comes so easy like everything with them always has.

“Come with me,” he whispers, blinking down at Zayn’s lazy smile.

Zayn licks at his lips and doesn’t answer immediately.  He drags colorful fingers into Liam’s hair, exhaling something calming.

“You’re my best mate.”

It’s the only answer Liam’s ever cared for.

 

[#]

 

When they’re twenty-eight, Liam is almost certain it all starts again like this –

 

He’s been watching from the archway of the kitchen as small feet kick back and forth in a chair by the window for thirty minutes.

The world outside is somewhere between twilight and dark and New York is still wet from the afternoon rain, still lit up like a constellation of lazy stars from the house lights and street lamps and glow in the dark Halloween decorations.  Liam can hear children outside of the window, their careless giggles and feet stomping in the puddles and their howls as they chase each other down the sidewalks.

But he watches that chair next to the window with a smile, his teeth twisting his lip, his heart too large for his chest.

His small feet keep kicking back and forth, tiny and nervous hands gripping a plastic mask in his lap.  He’s dressed like Spider-Man and Liam still thinks Zayn is to blame for that.  Four years old, picking out his very first costume from a row of mutant turtles and Captain America and Superman, and the way his face instantly lights up at the Spider-Man one.

(and the way Zayn knelt down next to him, beamed at Liam, half-pleading with his own crinkled eyes)

“Em,” Liam calls, slipping over their hardwood floors in socks, bending down until he’s eye level.  “Vas happenin’ babe?”

There’s a soft sigh, an automatic frown that Liam brushes his fingers to.  “They’re gonna hate me,” he pouts, looking down at his mask.  “Baba – they’re gonna, like, they won’t like me.”

(that heart too big for his chest stretches up into his throat and Liam remembers this and he’s certain, if he called his mum all the way back in London, she would too)

“Oh, babe,” Liam says, biting down on his laugh, pushing his fingers over spiky dark hair.  “Emir, love, they won’t.”

Emir blinks up, still frowning.  There’s a soft crinkle between his fuzzy eyebrows that reminds Liam of Zayn.  He drags his palm over quietly tan skin and knocks their foreheads together.

“You jus’ say that, baba,” Emir whines.

Liam shakes his head, still resting his forehead to Emir’s.  “Not true,” he counters.

Emir lifts his small shoulders for a lazy shrug

(He’s so much like Zayn but partially like him too – he has been since that first week after the adoption documents were inked, two years old and a mouthful of happiness when they brought him to this modest little row house a breath away from the city.)

“I look silly, baba,” Emir groans, reaching up to cup his small hands over Liam’s stubbly cheeks.  “Awful.”

Liam smirks, leans up to brush a wet kiss to Emir’s forehead.  “You’ve spent too much time chatting with Uncle Lou on Skype.”

Emir giggles.  “Auntie Ruth!”

“The whole lot of them,” Liam snickers, scrubbing his unshaven scruff to Emir’s cheek.

Too many years here and he hasn’t lost his accent, his love for steamy breakfast tea when the sun is still lifting, frowning at instant coffee at any given chance.

“You look brilliant, babe,” Liam swears, softening another quick peck to Emir’s nose, ignoring the way he sputters and quickly wipes it off with the back of his small hand.

“Looking pretty sick, Em.”

He feels like it’s been stops and starts for too long.  His smile, the hammering heart behind his ribs, the shake in his hands, the completely blithe feeling that surrounds him when Zayn is too close.

His stubbly cheek scratches along Emir’s when he turns his head to look up at Zayn looking casual and lazy as he walks up.  His Wolverine shirt is too small, the hem rucking up to show strips of skin and a thin line of fuzzy hair sinking into the waistband.  Inky hair is freshly damp from a shower, pinned back in a sloppy bun.  Clean cheeks and a sleeve of ink on one arm and bare toes along the cold floor.

(Liam studies the big bookcase behind him, stuffed with novels and the vintage piano in a corner of the room for his late afternoon songwriting sessions and Emir’s toys scattered by the television and all of Zayn’s artwork along the walls and that thick throw rug his mum bought them from Harrods and this home is so completely them.)

“How’s mum?” Liam wonders, grinning.

He never tires of the way Zayn lights up, the way Liam instinctively calls Trisha mum and Zayn refers to Ruth and Nicola as his sisters and how it’s sort of always been like this.

They’ve always sort of been – here.

“She’s cool,” Zayn says, casual and with that rich accent.  He bites the edge of his lip, kneeling down, letting Liam tuck falling bits of hair behind his ear.

“She keeps asking about this little bugger,” Zayn laughs, brushing a thumb over Emir’s untamed eyebrows.

Dad,” Emir sighs dramatically.  He rolls his eyes with a playful smirk.

(Emir’s a little bit like Louis too, even if he’s an ocean away from New York.)

“Pretty sick kit, Em,” Zayn adds, laughing under his breath when Liam nudges his hip.

Emir cocks his head, running a quick hand over his face, confused.  “Am I too hot, dad?  Do I have, um, a fevah?” he asks.

Zayn’s eyes squint and crinkle with his giggle and Liam half-hides most of his own in Zayn’s shoulder.  He bites at Zayn’s neck, kissing away the sting, before whispering, “You’re gonna explain that to him before bed.”

“S’ppose so,” Zayn replies, biting down on his smile, licking at his lips.

Their noses nuzzle unconsciously, a habit they refuse to break.  Liam watches the night cast bluish squares along Zayn’s skin and the world outside doesn’t seem to exist –

It never has, he thinks, grinning.

“I look daft, daddy,” Emir huffs.

Zayn turns his smirk on Emir, blindly finding Liam’s hand to twist their fingers together.

(They’ll ban Louis from alone time with Emir on his next visit and they’re silently grateful Emir isn’t quite as loud as Niall or daydream-y like Harry, but still.)

“They’ll love you, babe,” Zayn promises, leaning in to blow sloppily loud kisses all over Emir’s cheek until he’s a fit of giggles and flailing limbs.

“And one day,” Liam whispers, crowding in until it’s the three of them, foreheads forming a misshaped triangle, “the world is gonna see how amazing you are, babe.  Somebody’s gonna fall in love with you and nothing else is gonna matter.  Not one bit.”

His smile pushes at his eyes, his blush high on his cheeks and it’s so incredibly nostalgic that he almost misses the massive grin Zayn shoots him from the corner of his eye.

“Oh baba,” Emir sighs, scrunching his tiny nose.  “S’like in those kids’ stowies!  ‘m a big boy now!”

Zayn’s laugh skims Liam’s cheek and their lips meet clumsily next to Emir’s nose.

“Horrible,” he brushes against Liam’s mouth, “and he’s your son when he acts like this.”

“And yours when he wets the bed,” Liam teases, their noses wrinkled with laughter when they pull away.

“Are you two’s quite fin – “

Zayn’s spare hand quickly cups over Emir’s mouth to muffle his last word and his eyes are huge, his crooked smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Liam blushes, ducks in to sniff at Zayn’s skin – citrus wash and warm spices and Liam now – before mumbling, “Alright.  No more chatting with Louis over Skype.”

Zayn’s mouth quirks, words on his tongue, fingers dragging away from Emir’s giggling lips to skim over Liam’s hip but –

There’s a thudding at the door and Emir kicks out of the chair, climbs under and over them to scramble over the rug.  Zayn tips back with a laugh, falling on his arse and Liam trades glances between the doorway and Zayn and –

It’s like homemade soup.  It’s like that one blanket you drag around your whole childhood.  That Christmas jumper you never grow out of.  A warm pair of hands on your spine when it’s too early and the tea is not ready yet.

He reaches down to tangle their hands, helping Zayn up.  They knock each other about on the way to the door, playful shoves and lingering kisses and Zayn’s fingers in his hair.

“Baba – look!  ‘s Johnny!”

Liam smirks over Zayn’s shoulder, arms circling his narrow waist, looking through the door to watch Emir throw his arms around John’s small frame.  They collide like supernovas and John is dressed up like a vintage Batman with the blue cowl and cape and loose grey under a yellow emblem and –

Oh.

Zayn twists just enough to kiss at Liam’s cheek, to shove a grin right there.

(because he knows and it’s a warm memory they share silently with just their eyes)

John’s bag is already half-full of candy and he dumps most of it into Emir’s empty grocery bag before leaning on his toes to smack a loud kiss to Emir’s already pink cheek.

“F’r my bestest friend!” John cheers and Emir’s dragging a foot along the stoop, smiling at the ground.

John’s parents wave from the curb and Zayn’s face scrunches happily when they wave back.

“We’ll have him in before nine,” John’s mum calls, grinning.

“Keep him,” Zayn teases and Liam pinches his hip with a frown.

“Promised him we’d watch Toy Story tonight,” he murmurs.

“Again?”

“Shut it,” Liam snickers, chewing on his lip when Emir looks up at them with huge moon-sized eyes.

There’s something a little hopeful and half worried and three-fifths uncertain in his brown eyes that Liam remembers –

(and he remembers his first real superhero was a tiny Joker with a Zayn-sized smile and he knows his heart is too big for his chest now)

“Go ‘head, love,” Liam smiles, squeezing around Zayn, nodding towards John.  “He’s your best mate.  You only get one real one.”

Emir nods, giggling, reaching out to twine his fingers with John’s and they trip all the way down the concrete steps into the wild of the early night.  Their pinkies stay linked, their hands swinging, their laughs tiny and unforced all the way down the street.

“This is mental, man,” Zayn sighs with a goofy smirk fixing to his lips.  “If our son falls for his best mate like – “

Liam smothers his smile into Zayn’s shoulder, kissing the cotton.  He doesn’t tell Zayn the way he hopes

(or the ways he thinks it’s not such an awful idea, really)

“Such a sappy lad,” Zayn teases with a whisper.

(Liam wants to remind Zayn of a few years ago, dragging Liam all the way down to those rusted swings on an abandon playground just to fall on one knee in the sand and ‘you’re my best mate’ tasted a lot like ‘will you marry me?’ that day when Zayn pulled out a shiny silver ring to slip on Liam’s finger)

(he keeps all of that to himself, though.)

Liam makes a face, twists Zayn in his arms and shoves him against the doorway and he doesn’t wait for Zayn to regain his balance before he slots their lips together.

He steadies a hand to the back of Zayn’s head and kisses him like all of the words in his mouth aren’t brilliant enough.  He smears them over Zayn’s lips and hopes every single one of them reminds Zayn that Liam’s been in love with him since they were teenage hurricanes.  Just before they were eighteen.

(and before then too)

(much longer.)

 

[#]

 

And Liam is certain it starts all over again just like this.