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 ***

 

“For children, childhood is timeless. It is always the present. Everything is in the present tense. Of course, they have memories. Of course, time shifts a little for them and Christmas comes round in the end. But they don’t feel it. Today is what they feel, and when they say, ‘When I grow up,’ there is always an edge of disbelief—how could they ever be other than what they are?”

― Ian McEwan, The Child in Time

 

***

 

 

September

 

For about the hundredth time that morning, Zayn has the vague thought that if his mother could see him now, she’d curse at him for his nervous feet. She’d see him pacing with his hands in his hair, his anxious huffing and puffing, and say something like, “You’re going to burn a hole right through the floor if you keep that up.” Zayn, undeterred by the nonexistent scolding, continues to pace back and forth in his new living room.

The wood floor itself isn’t exactly new and the scuffs all along the baseboards make the place feel especially lived in, even in its open, empty glory. It’s a rather boring space, with its off-white walls and an off-white kitchen bathed in laminate pretending to be tile. The longer Zayn paces, cracking his knuckles, the longer he has to look at the walls and built-in shelves around him. Empty. Blank.

He also notices the indents and slight discoloration in the wooden slats that lead his path, towards the front window and then away from it. It gives him a rather sad idea: maybe he’s not the first man to walk this living room.

For all Zayn knows, tens of thousands of men just like him have lived in this shitty apartment, waiting and walking.

Or well, maybe not in this living room specifically. But living rooms all over the world, just like this. Newly single men, the ones who either left or got kicked out, and now have to wait for the precious hours they’re allowed with their kids.

Zayn has to close his eyes then, too uncomfortable with that slightly philosophical melancholy thought, that as a human being he’s completely unoriginal, that his life now is just a series of Lifetime Original Movie scenes.

You got someone pregnant. You married her because it was the right thing to do. You had a kid. You became a father. You weren’t very good at it. Your wife wised up and told you to leave. You moved into the cheapest apartment you could find. Your ex now holds all the cards. You get your daughter every other weekend and specific nationally recognized holidays. You will never go a day, ever again, where you don’t miss her.

Zayn exhales and cracks his neck, before finally opening his eyes to glance out the front window. It’s useless because it only leads into the small grassy courtyard of this new place further inland, into the other open windows of his neighbors. The complex is small, only eight units total, and all facing inward. He can’t see the street from here. He won’t find any early reprieve beyond the glass, no excited anticipation from seeing Rachel’s car pull up. He won’t get to watch Ev run to his door, her long hair flying, her little coat flapping in the wind. Maybe she won’t even want to run. Maybe she’s already forgotten him.

Just then, a man crosses in front of his window and makes his way to the door directly across from Zayn’s. He’s tall, lean, with wild hair Zayn once tried for. He had a disheveled phase towards the end of college, before he got married. Zayn doesn’t see his face, which is good, because he probably looks like a lunatic pacing there in his living room, in nothing but a pair of old ripped jeans. Zayn’s been told that he doesn’t make a good first impression, that his scowl and lip twitch and tattoos are “unbecoming.” Whatever the fuck that means. Rachel is an asshole.

Zayn notices the two paper bags in the man’s arms, the green leafy vegetables sticking out of the top of them. Milk. The tip of a bread bag. Groceries.

“Fuck,” Zayn hisses to himself, angry, looking away.

If Rachel walks in and sees not only an empty apartment, but an empty fridge, she’ll most definitely grab Ev’s hand and take her right back home.

Before he can stress himself out about it further, another thing to add to his list of failures, a quick knock comes from the other side of the front door. Zayn turns and literally runs to it, throwing it open, the hinges whining.

“Daddy!”

Zayn doesn’t waste another second, grabbing for Evie before taking another breath. He doesn’t even take anything in, beyond the feel of her in his arms, the smell of her hair. Zayn hugs her close, squeezes her until she giggles into his neck, her little fingers at the base of his hair.

“Hi baby,” Zayn whispers to her. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too,” she says like it’s obvious, trying to push away a bit.

Evelyn Naadirah Malik. Born five years ago on July 11th just after sunrise, with a full head of hair and (Zayn swears it on his life) an honest to God smile. Seven pounds, five ounces. 20.5 inches long. Sometimes Zayn can’t help but rattle the stats off in his head, the bigger she gets. He just can’t get over it, that she was once a baby, his baby, so small he thought he’d break her.

Ev squirms a bit, as she looks over Zayn’s shoulder with her wide brown eyes, to see the empty room. Zayn won’t let her down though, holds her close, as he steps back and realizes that Rachel waits to be let in.

“Hey,” Zayn nods to his almost-ex-wife, holding the door.

“Hi,” Rachel says tightly with a nod.

Rachel follows Zayn into the room as he holds his one free arm out, to the wood floors and bright window, the cramped ceiling. It’s so different from their house, the house Rachel bought off her parents right after the wedding. They weren’t rich by any means, but they did all right for two stupid kids fresh out of college. A writer and an almost-lawyer. Ev hasn’t known anything other than that house. Zayn sees the pinch to Rachel’s eyebrows, at the change of scenery for her child.

Zayn has to bite his tongue, to keep himself from reminding her that she was the one who asked him to move out. At first they had agreed for Zayn to stay in the house for the months it could take to settle everything in the divorce, to sleep in the small guest room that Zayn now knows has already been converted into an office. But in the end, Rach said it was too hard, to have him there. To see their failures sitting with them at the dinner table, imposing on every half conversation they tried at.

So this is his new home. This is the best he can do at the moment, and on such short notice. The look he gives her says as much.

They’ve learned over the years, as Evie has gotten older, to say nothing and say everything at once, with their eyes. They won’t let her hear them fight. Ever.

“Daddy, is this your new house?” Ev asks, head swiveling to take it in.

“Sure is,” Zayn nods with a smile, their faces close. “It’s yours too, remember?”

“Because I have two houses now,” she nods back, before looking to Rachel.

“Two houses and two rooms,” Rachel says with an excited smile and a clap to her hands. “And you can bring whichever toys you want to daddy’s, remember?”

Suddenly Evie must remember, because her eyes light up and she squirms to fully get out of Zayn’s arms. She lands on her feet and rushes the few steps to Rachel to grab for her purple bag, the one with the stars and planets all over it. Zayn’s parents bought it for her birthday a few weeks back. She babbles about her new doctor’s kit, and how she has bandages in it now, for “injawries.”

Zayn can’t help but smile down at her, nodding and praising in all the right places as she pulls out all the fake medical supplies. Rachel knows their daughter and can always distract her in the right way. It’s actually a sight to behold, how quick and how often she can divert Ev’s attention to something fun or important. To get the focus away from the tension her parents often carry around like luggage.

The first fights they used to have, the ones where Rachel would be in tears and Zayn would pace their kitchen for hours, were the most productive time in Ev’s early development. It’s the main reason she knows all her colors and shapes.

Zayn tells Ev to explore a bit, to look around, so she hauls her bag on her little shoulder, as Zayn reaches for her long curly hair, so it doesn’t get caught. She smiles at him and then runs off. They hear her calling out from each new room, about how “big” it is.

“Is her room done?” Rachel levels him with a look.

“Almost.”

“How almost is almost?”

“I painted. And have the furniture set up,” Zayn frowns.

“Do you have sheets on the bed? You need sheets.”

“I know I need sheets, Jesus,” Zayn crosses his arms and steps away. He decorated Ev’s room the way he knew she’d like it, and the squeal he hears from down the hall indicates she’s seen it. Sure, there are a few things to still get, and okay, he needs to buy sheets. He’ll go to Target or something. That was on his list for the day.

“Car seat?” Rachel practically reads his mind, anticipating the shopping he’ll have to get done. He had to get a car, now that he couldn’t just have a motorcycle and Rach’s car to fall back on when he needed to take Ev somewhere.

“Yes, Rachel. I have a car seat,” Zayn says with a grit to his teeth. “I have everything necessary to keep my kid alive, okay? A car, a car seat. Bed, dishes, groceries, doctor numbers, medicine. No tree nuts, no smoke in the house.”

Rachel knows he’s lying for about half of those things, but she just shakes her head and lets it go. Zayn realizes she’s wearing one of her favorite tops today, the black one that’s sheer over the top of her chest. Suddenly Zayn is reminded of her wedding dress, how it was sheer at the top as well, to highlight the beautiful plane of skin there. She made sure to wear her long brown hair up in a loose bun, so Zayn could see her “décolletage” as she called it, his favorite body part on a woman, there below delicate collarbones. “You’re marrying into a French family, Zayn. That’s what you have to call it! I’m wearing it for you!” she said.

Zayn suspects it wasn’t ever for him though, and was instead there to call attention up and away from her swelling belly.

Zayn shakes his head. Why the fuck is he remembering her wedding dress now?

“I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon. I want her home for dinner, and she needs to get ready for school Monday.”

Zayn nods and looks to his bare feet. Suddenly it feels chilly in the apartment, his bare chest exposed and prickling. He hates that this big life change has happened right before her first year of school, the first weekend before kindergarten. He hates that “home for dinner” won’t be here, with him, ever again. He also begrudgingly knows it must kill Rachel to not have her daughter home and safe with her. Zayn would feel sorry for her, if he didn’t have to live without Ev almost every day himself.

Zayn almost maliciously says something like, “See, it’s not so fun to face the day without your kid. Thanks a fucking lot.”

But he doesn’t. Because Rachel is a good parent. The better parent, really. And he can barely hold a candle to her. If Rach can even get out the door without Evie crying for her, it’ll be a miracle. Zayn frowns as they both anticipate that reaction, and brace for it.

Just then, Evie runs back into the living room, now empty handed.

“Momma, it’s purple!” she says with a smile, leaping into Rachel’s arms. “It’s purple and there are stars on the ceiling, big blue ones!”

“Oh I’m so happy,” Rachel bounces her a few times, their noses touching. “Your daddy loves you so much, doesn’t he?”

Evie nods and smiles.

“He made your room so pretty. Are you excited to sleep in it tonight?”

“Yes,” she nods harder, her hair flying. “You should sleep here too. Let’s sleep in there together, and tell stories.”

Zayn steps away and looks towards the front window, as Rachel starts whispering to her. Zayn read a book once that said parents need to make sure to create their own safe spaces with their children, separately. He promptly tries to ignore the sniffles and crying coming from the girls, and looks out through the glass to the courtyard. The man in the identical living room across from his has lit a few candles. It looks cozy. Safe. Like a real home.

“Tell mommy bye,” Rachel says a bit louder, hugging Ev to her chest.

“Bye mommy,” Ev says pathetically, her voice laced with pure sorrow, an emotion Zayn is convinced only children can achieve. It rips something resembling a crater in Zayn’s heart, maybe in one of his lungs, to hear his daughter so sad.

It feels like it’s his fault, like he’s the bad guy for taking Ev away from her mother. It feels unnatural and unfair.

“Go tell daddy you love him, yeah? How about you go give him a big hug? And make sure to remind him to button your coat, right? Go hug him,” Rachel whispers as she steps away.

For a brief moment, Zayn looks up and anticipates the gut-wrenching sight of his daughter shaking her head, saying no, and begging to go back to her real home. Maybe it’s too soon, maybe she’s too young to have this sort of disruption to her life. Maybe Zayn was never good at this to begin with, not by himself, and maybe she deserves to be happy in her rightful bedroom. She should be tucked into her mother’s embrace, far away from Zayn who doesn’t even know what sheets to buy her.

But Evie wipes her nose on the sleeve of her black coat and walks to him, her arms already opening for the hug. He can’t help the exhale he lets out, as he picks her up and hugs her tightly against his chest. She wraps her legs around him and he suspects it’s more so for his sake. She whispers she loves him, does as she’s told, and reminds him about the buttons. He always has to be reminded about the buttons.

“Bye baby,” Rachel says with a smile/wince combo. “You can call me whenever you want, remember?”

“How about we call mom tonight before bed?” Zayn says to Ev, nodding so she’ll follow along.

“Okay.”

Rachel kisses her own fingers and waves to them both, before quickly exiting the apartment. She rarely lets Evie see her get emotional. They silently watch her go, until it’s just the two of them in that empty space, staring at a door with cracked white paint.

They’re officially alone. Evelyn officially has almost-divorced parents. Two bedrooms. Two beds. A dad without a clue.

Zayn eventually feels the tiny nudge to his cheek, as he comes back to himself and looks down at his daughter’s heart shaped face.

“Don’t be sad, daddy,” Evie frowns at him.

“I’m not sad,” Zayn smiles big and bright. “I’m so happy you’re here. I’ve missed you so much.”

Evie pokes at his upper lip, like she doesn’t quite believe the smile he’s slapped on. Maybe in her mind, it’s only been a few days since he’s seen her, hours even, and her expression is almost pitying. If that’s even possible for a five year old. But she doesn’t realize that it’s been three weeks, three full fucking weeks since Zayn has seen her, and it’s been the hardest three weeks of his life. They didn’t want her to see him packing, or leaving, or signing paperwork that says she’ll primarily live with her mom now. So she and Rachel stayed with Rachel’s sister for a bit, up in Connecticut for a little vacation. Must’ve been beautiful this time of year.

Three weeks is too long. He can’t go that long again, he refuses. He tightens his grip and smiles again.

“What do you want to do today? Let’s do whatever you want,” Zayn says.

Ev blows the hair out of her face and hugs him around the neck.

“Let’s get some blankets and pillows,” she replies with a smile, because her father is an idiot. “And maybe a snack.”

Zayn almost laughs, at how fucking smart his kid is.

“Alright, alright,” he sets her down, ready to go into his bedroom to grab a shirt and shoes. “Let’s do that.”

 

***

 

Evelyn Malik isn’t one to be sad for long. It’s just not how she’s wired, bless her. Once Zayn gets her in the car and they’re on their way to the mall, she forgets all about being sad without her mom, and babbles about her new room.

Even without the finishing touches, Zayn knows she loves her room. Never let it be said that Zayn doesn’t know his daughter, because he knows her better than he knows anyone. He knows her likes and dislikes. Her favorite color is purple. She won’t eat anything green. Her favorite foods are yellow: corn, bananas, vanilla frosting. She wants to be a doctor. Or a singer. “Maybe both.” She knows how to spell her name, and she knows Zayn has the letters E and V tattooed on two of his left knuckles.

But there are some things Zayn doesn’t know about her, and it’s terrifying. He definitely didn’t know how often she likes to run off when in crowded shopping centers, for one. Zayn almost had a coronary when he looked up from the towels in Macy’s, and couldn’t find her. He ended up holding her hand so tightly after that, she whined about not being a baby. The woman who helped Zayn buy the bed sheets, with a knowing look in her eye, winked at Ev and told her how grown up she looked, so that helped.

He also didn’t know how restless she gets when Zayn can’t get the key in the door once they get back to the apartment. He tries to hold all the bags in his hands, full of bedding, towels, and toiletries. The grocery bag in his left arm almost topples right over, all the ingredients for his mom’s chicken tikka masala mere seconds from spilling onto the bricks beneath them. Zayn isn’t used to having Evie entirely on his own, without a wife to hold her hand, or assist with the door. It’s almost unbelievable that this is the first time Zayn’s ever done it alone, and more than anything else, it bums him out. Zayn needs about six arms now, doesn’t he.

“Daddy, watch me!”

“Hold on,” Zayn tries to say, his voice muffled by the wallet currently between his teeth. The lock refuses to turn, so he jiggles the key harder.

Ev goes around him in a circle, her little shoes clicking in such a way so he knows she’s skipping.

“Do you need some help?” says a voice over Zayn’s shoulder, coming from the walkway that leads from the parking stalls behind their building.

Just then, a phantom hand reaches up and makes Zayn go cross-eyed, as it removes the wallet from his mouth. Zayn steps back and tries to lick his lips, so he doesn’t drool all over himself, as the man comes into view.

Neighbor man, with his long hair and green eyes. He smiles at Zayn and maneuvers around him, so he can reach for the set of keys Zayn almost drops. Evelyn, to her credit, runs right over to Zayn and grips his leg. They look at the stranger with matching expressions, slight awe and wonderment, their almond Malik eyes assessing him. He opens Zayn’s door and gestures inside, so Zayn does as directed and shuffles past him.

“Your door must be like mine: sticks a tad, whenever it’s least convenient.”

“Oh, yeah. Thanks,” Zayn says, dropping the bags down to his feet, grabbing for his wallet. Ev stays close and stares at the handsome stranger in her new house.

“Hello,” the man says to her with a slight smile, easy as anything. “I’m Harry.”

Zayn doesn’t have all the parental instincts Rachel seems to have been born with, but he’s not stupid. This he knows, this he understands, deep in his gut. He shakes his head and fully steps in front of his daughter, purposefully drawing the stranger’s eyes up to his own. I didn’t invite you in. Don’t talk to my kid.

“Zayn Malik,” he says, dropping his name like it weighs something, face serious.

This stranger, Harry, must get it. He steps back as his cheeks go pink, at his own presumptuousness.

“Sorry, I’m Harry Styles,” he nods politely, offering his hand. “I live across from you, just over there. I’m pretty new here too, actually.”

Zayn just nods.

“Freshly here from San Diego. Thought it might be nice to live on the east coast again for a while. Have seasons again, you know. Rain. Snow.”

Zayn nods again politely.

“Snow is too cold,” Ev says from behind Zayn, in that firm “it’s a fact” way she has. She steps around him, bored at being left out. She’s Rachel’s daughter, through and through. “I’m Evelyn.”

“Well Evelyn, I like snow,” Harry says to her, hands behind his back. His shirt must be missing a few buttons, with the way his chest practically explodes out of it. Zayn catches the ink here and there, the birds and faint lines creeping up from his sternum, like antennae or whiskers.

“I don’t,” Ev says.

“But it’s so fun to play in.”

“No. It’s too cold.”

“But what about ‘Frozen?’” Harry scoffs.

“Still. Too cold,” Ev shrugs. She liked the movie, but she didn’t shit her pants over it. She eyes Harry like the grown ass man he is, and very nearly rolls her eyes.

Zayn has to bite his lip to keep from laughing. He loves how sure Ev can be, when it comes to things she loves or hates. It shows gumption. Decisiveness. He envies that quality, the way she can decide something for herself so quickly. All Rachel.

“Alright. That’s fair. It is very cold and you seem smart. You’re probably way smarter than me, so maybe you’re right.”

He smiles at her and Ev just blinks a few times, surprised at the praise.

Another quality she certainly didn’t get from Zayn, is her ability to befriend people. Quickly. Resolutely.

She steps closer to Harry, even when Zayn puts his hand on her shoulder to keep her close.

“I like fall, because fall has leaves that crunch. And you get to jump in big piles of them.”

“Fall is good. Fall means football. But spring has leaves too, only they’re brand new and green again,” Harry offers, like he’s some sort of teacher. “And the flowers come back.”

“And summer has the beach!” Ev says excitedly, getting closer. “I like sand and making castles.”

“Sand castles are my favorite,” Harry slaps his hands to his chest, like he’s eating his favorite dessert right there in front of them. “And crabbing! That’s always fun.”

“What’s crabbing?” Ev steps closer, eyes wide.

Harry crouches down and gapes at her.

“You’ve never been crabbing? Oh, you have to go crabbing. You go on a boat and you drop a net, to catch all the crabs you want, and you eat them for days.”

Harry mimics with his hand, a couple of crabs crawling around on the floor, as Ev watches.

“I’ve never had one of those.”

“Well that just won’t do,” Harry shakes his head. “You live in Maryland, you should have crabs coming out of your ears.”

Evelyn giggles so hard at that, she almost falls against Harry. He catches her just in time and sets her up straight, before getting to his feet. Zayn doesn’t have any alarm bells going off, not anymore, but Harry must sense it’s time for him to go.

“Next time I buy some crabs, you can have one,” Harry nods to her complacently as he stands up. “They’re delicious.”

“Okay!”

Zayn reaches for her and picks her up, as Harry steps to the door. If Zayn knew it was that easy to get his kid excited to try a new food, he would’ve pretended to be a lamb years ago.

“Daddy, can Harry stay for dinner?” Ev asks with excited eyes, not ready for her new friend to leave yet.

Zayn’s mind flashes to but you just got here, I want you all to myself, this is my time with you, not Harry’s. And then it dips even more diplomatically to I don’t even have a table for us to sit at, this isn’t a home yet, I’m failing, aren’t I.

Zayn frowns.

“Ah, I wish I could,” Harry says like a saint. “But I actually have to go to work.”

“Next time,” Zayn says more to Evie than to Harry.

“Next time,” Harry agrees.

Harry is halfway across the courtyard, his own keys in his hand for his front door, when Zayn remembers. As he shuts his door, he calls out to Harry the stranger.

“Thanks for your help!”

Harry half-smiles, with a dimple the size of a crater to show off, and waves.

Later, as they eat their mostly burned dinner on the kitchen floor, another thing Zayn isn’t used to doing on his own, Ev asks Zayn if he too likes the snow or if he thinks it’s too cold.

Zayn admits that even though snow is cold and wet, it is fun to play in. Ev shrugs at that, like she needs more time to think it over.

But then in the bathtub an hour after that, she says a snowman might be nice, or a snow fort to play in. She’d need a bigger coat, and maybe some boots, if she ever decided to play in the snow. She hasn’t decided for sure yet, but as she splashes around in the lavender scented bubbles, she asks Zayn if he likes to make snow angels.

Zayn has to bite back his smile. He rinses her hair with an old plastic cup he found in a box he haphazardly packed. She babbles more, and he can’t help but smile.

Because his kid may be like Rachel in so many important ways. She knows what she wants. She makes hard and fast decisions. But she’s his daughter right then, in that bathtub, as she wonders about the wintertime and how pretty snowflakes are.

“Snow is pretty, isn’t it, daddy?”

She doesn’t seem as against snow as she did earlier that day.

And that right there, the way Ev can change her mind and open up to new possibilities even when it’s hard to grasp at first, that’s all Zayn.

He looks around at his almost empty bathroom, in his empty apartment, and sighs. He takes in the new towels hanging on the hook by the door, the new pink rug near the toilet, and smiles.

Zayn can’t help it, so he leans over his daughter and kisses her nose.

 

***

 

They have a great fucking Sunday, if Zayn does say so himself. He made sure to get Ev’s favorite cereal the day before, so they eat Lucky Charms on her bedroom floor in their pajamas (nightgown for her, sweats for him). In between bites, Ev explains how she’s going to take his temperature so Zayn doesn’t get sick, and puts a bandage on his upper arm, over his tiger tattoo because Mr. Tiger looked a little sick already.

Zayn also shows her how he bought special paint for one of her bedroom walls, for her to do whatever she wants with it, any scene she’d like. Ev loves to be outside so she chooses a “pretty park,” with grass, flowers, and trees. Zayn puts her on his shoulders so she can reach the top corners of the room, for the swirling green leaves, and paints a few birds in the sky while he’s there. The cleanup is a mess, which Ev revels in, and Zayn’s pretty sure they’ll both have paint in their hair for weeks.

He feeds her a banana for a snack, cut up because she likes eating with utensils, and then ends up with his nails sloppily painted. Bright red, because according to Ev, “red means fire and mommy says we’re fiery.”

Rachel knocks on the door promptly at four, right as Zayn comes skidding around the corner into the living room. He figured since his place was furniture-less, besides for Ev’s room and the blow-up mattress in his, they might as well utilize the space for now. So Rach walks in right as Ev sends a soccer ball flying precariously towards her. She ducks right in time, with an annoyed smile meant only for Zayn.

Ev shows Rach her room again, with its new bedding and paint, and Rach actually smiles at Zayn. He did good. And even when they used to fight all the time, she never hesitated to admit when he did good.

And then Zayn gets thrown for a loop, as he hands Rach the purple bag with stars on it, all of Ev’s clothes and belongings tucked in safe. He doesn’t really know what to do with himself, when Ev tugs on his jeans and looks up at him with big eyes.

He sees it happening, the tug of emotions on her little face. She likes this new place because it’s fun. She loves her new room, the way Zayn got a nightlight that sent fairies dancing across the ceiling, and the paint and the little pink rug shaped like a heart. But she loves her other room, her real room, where she’s always safe with her mom, and Zayn isn’t going with her.

“Daddy,” she says, confused, not understanding her feelings.

Zayn’s heart cracks down the center as he lifts her up into his arms.

“I know, baby,” he mumbles against her temple. He expected her to be sad when Rachel left her the day before, but maybe he didn’t expect the same emotion in return.

“Are you gonna come home soon?” Ev asks, her fingers playing with his hoodie strings.

“This is my house now, yeah?” Zayn tries to smile. “You have a mommy house and a daddy house now.”

“But why can’t you be at both houses?” she says, her lip quivering.

Zayn doesn’t know what to say. He looks to Rachel for help. Rach is good with help.

“Daddy can come to the house whenever he wants, Evie,” Rach comes up behind her, to kiss her cheek. They stand together, Zayn and Rach holding on for dear life, to their little tether. “How about dinner this week, hmm?”

“Dinner, yes. Any night you want,” Zayn nods, kissing Ev’s other cheek.

“Okay,” she sniffs sadly.

“And I’m gonna see you at school tomorrow! First thing! I’ll be there and we’ll go see your new classroom together.”

“And then you’ll come home for dinner?” Ev rubs at her eye.

“Yes.”

“And mommy eats with us too, right?”

“Of course,” Rachel kisses her cheek again.

Rachel ends up peeling her out of Zayn’s arms. Evie’s a good girl; she doesn’t put up a fight, and goes willingly. But as the two of them walk out of Zayn’s front door, she looks back at him over Rachel’s shoulder. And she doesn’t smile. Zayn stands in the courtyard and tries to wave, to give her a silly grin, but it doesn’t work.

And then they’re gone.

Zayn loses it a bit, kicking at the door frame with angry tears in his eyes.

“Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he hisses to himself. He hits his forehead against it, twice, so fucking angry that Ev is sad and he’s the reason and he can’t stop it.

He can’t even see her. All he wants is her, to be near her, to keep her safe, and now he lives six miles from her real house. It’s not fucking fair.

This isn’t where Zayn envisioned himself at all. This isn’t what he saw, when he held up a Magic Eight Ball in the second grade and asked with all his might. He was supposed to be successful by now, twenty-seven and living the life. Single, maybe with a hot girl on his arm, writing for some new website that paid him per word, in some hipster office he’d make fun of, but secretly love.

He wasn’t supposed to be broke and working from home now since the breakup, so he could be close to the house. He shouldn’t be scrambling to write for about eight different websites to make ends meet. Divorced. If he’s honest with himself, he never really saw himself as a dad at all, and certainly not one without a fucking mattress, miserable over his custody rights, or lack thereof.

But now he is a dad, and it’s fucking awful and beautiful at the same time, dueling forces of I love you so much it aches and I can never truly keep you in my eyesight and safe and that’s terrifying.

Zayn has the itch for a cigarette. No, he has the itch for a bottle of Jack, actually. He bangs his head against the door frame a few more times, to really make it hurt, when he hears a throat being cleared.

He looks up and there’s Harry, in a mirrored position in his own doorway, a few feet from Zayn.

“You okay?” he gestures to the walkway leading towards the front of the building. He must’ve heard the end of it, Ev’s sad little goodbye and Zayn’s harsh words for himself.

“Yeah, I’m good,” Zayn croaks out, with a harsh nod that gives all of his emotions away. He tries to wipe at his face quickly, so Harry can’t see.

Harry just tilts his head.

“It’s just, uh like… this is the first time," Zayn says wetly, picking at the red polish on his thumb angrily. "Like, for us to share her. For her to come here, and then have to leave.”

Zayn looks down at his bare feet, his voice cracking.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says quietly.

“Yeah.”

“I’m making food,” Harry offers, pushing off his door frame to open up the space. “And I have beer?”

Zayn sniffs one last time and tries to smile. Beer is good.

Zayn can do beer.

 

***

 

It doesn’t get easier after that. Ev was so happy to see Zayn the next morning as he rode up to her new school on his motorcycle. She hugged him like she hadn’t seen him in weeks, and walked into her new school like she owned the place, her hands held by both of her parents. Zayn couldn’t help but be thrilled for her, not at all shy or nervous.

But then he went to the house for dinner that night, and after some lasagna, Ev wouldn’t let him go. She clung to him so hard, and cried into his shoulder so softly, Zayn had to close his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see it.

They tried dinner a few more times throughout the week, and it never got better. Ev didn’t understand why Zayn had to keep leaving. And in a quiet fit of rage, over Ev’s perfect head of hair, Zayn hissed to Rachel, “I’m not doing this again.”

So instead of leaving right after dinner, he gave her a bath and read her a story. He put Ev to bed alone that night, kissed her cheeks over and over so she wouldn’t cry herself to sleep, and slipped out of the room as soon as her breathing leveled.

“I’ll sleep on your fucking couch for the rest of my fucking life,” Zayn spat out at Rachel, anger licking at his heels as he stomped through the main floor of the house. If he didn’t know any better, he was that asshole freshmen again, the one Rachel met one night after he punched a wall and told some racist moron to go fuck himself. “I’ll fucking live here in the basement if I have to, and you can’t make me leave.”

It was, admittedly, irrational and uncalled for.

He cooled off the next night, and over dinner, they tried to explain to Ev again that just because Zayn didn’t live in the house anymore, didn’t mean he was going away forever. Ev nodded like she understood, but she still stomped her way up the stairs afterwards, angry with the both of them.

So Zayn shouldn’t be surprised when it’s Friday and he gets a call from Rachel. She informs him that it’s not right for Evelyn to be as upset as she’s been. It’s not healthy for her to be crying all over him every night of the week, and that they need to stick to the arranged custody agreement. Zayn gets her every other weekend. That’s their plan.

Ev needs to learn how life works, without Zayn showing up day after day on his bike, only to leave a few hours later. She needs a routine. She needs to get used to it.

Zayn hangs up on her and almost throws his phone against the bare wall to his left.

He drops his head to his hands on his new secondhand couch, because as ass-backwards as it sounds, it’s only fair. The more he tries to cling to her, and the old routine, the harder it’s going to get. He can’t let his daughter cry anymore. If he keeps going over to the house for dinner and bedtime, it won’t prevent Ev from forgetting him. It’ll just make her sad when he leaves, or worse, when he can’t go at all.

But Zayn is still stubborn and a dick and selfish, so he gets up and grabs his phone, keys, and helmet.

He goes for a long ride around the neighborhood, before it gets too crisp to enjoy it, and then comes home. He knocks on Harry’s door before he can question it further.

 

***

 

Harry the stranger is a good host. The night Zayn had to let Ev go for the first time, it was mostly just the two of them sitting around, drinking beer, and watching Netflix. Zayn couldn’t help but be polite, and ate the salad Harry made, even though his appetite was shot to shit. Harry told Zayn some more about himself, to fill the awkward silences. He’s from LA, a health nut, and a weirdo with a Peter Pan complex (which he knows, because he was a therapy kid from the time he could process puberty and his step-daddy issues). That got a laugh out of Zayn, which Harry preened over. He’s funny, albeit a bit of a slow-talker, with kind eyes.

Zayn listened and tried to keep up. But in the end, he drank six beers in quick succession, while Harry only had two. He thanked Harry profusely as he stumbled home an hour later.

But tonight, the night leading into his first Evie-less weekend, Zayn doesn’t want to watch a documentary on the horrors of the dairy industry. He wants to be the one to lay his life out, the one to fill the silences and talk.

“She’s my kid, you know?” Zayn laments drunkenly, his head propped in one hand there at Harry’s kitchen table. Zayn still doesn’t have a table. He needs one. Ev needs somewhere to eat her breakfast.

“Yeah,” Harry frowns, even though he doesn’t know.

“Like, how is it fair that I only get her four fucking days out of the month? How is that right? It’s not like I’m a fucking alcoholic, or smuggling cocaine across the border. I’m a good person.”

“You are,” Harry nods, clinking his beer against Zayn’s. “I can tell.”

“Ugh, I’m sorry,” Zayn hangs his head, as the cigarette tucked behind his ear falls near his hand. He should eat something. “I’m not your problem. You don’t even know me. I should go.”

He should absolutely go call one of his friends, or his mom back home in Delaware, or even his little cousin who has no idea what it means to be an adult yet. Lucky bastard. What he really should do is call Rachel back and apologize. But that’s neither here nor there.

“You became my problem the second I let you in here, my friend,” Harry says like he never had a choice. “And I’m good for this kind of thing, you’ll see. Let’s get your mind off it.”

Zayn looks up at him, at the green eyes a few inches from his own, slightly watery from the drinks they’ve had. But they’re clear and open and really pretty, actually. Zayn’s never thought a man had pretty features before. Zayn doesn’t really describe anything as “pretty” but he has a little girl who calls everything pretty, so maybe it’s part of his vocabulary now, whether he likes it or not.

Harry is pretty. Attractive. And he’s really nice, to let Zayn come over like this, to eat and talk and listen to the music Harry’s been producing, so Zayn can forget about his miserable life for a few hours.

Zayn blinks, realizing he hasn’t responded to Harry yet.

“How?”

Harry smiles at him, slowly like they have a secret between them.

“You’re going to laugh at me,” Harry warns him. “And it’ll take us some time. We’re really going to have to work at it. Put some hours in. But I swear it works.”

It’s a bit startling, but Zayn enjoys a challenge.

“Alright,” Zayn levels him, ready for it. “Try me.”

And that’s how, for almost the entire weekend, Zayn and Harry work on a massive 1,000 piece puzzle there on Harry’s dining table. Apparently Harry collects puzzles and board games. He says they relieve stress. And wouldn’t you know it, he has a new one that’s perfect for Zayn’s shitty situation. It’s a city landscape of Seattle, a place Harry lived for a year right out of school, and it’s all greens, blues, and greys. Zayn doesn’t have anything else to do, no work or pieces to write over the weekend, so he throws his hands up and vows to forget it all.

That’s also how, through hours of vaguely torturous, monotonous puzzle piece searching, Zayn comes to terms with his situation. Without even realizing the Jedi Mind Trick Harry uses on him, Zayn tells Harry the whole story. How he got married and why. Ev and her birth. How fucking hard it was at first. How he really, truly never understood how hard it could be. He tells Harry, as they search for the corner pieces, that they never tell you how hard it is those first few weeks, the lack of sleep, the near-daily freak outs of, “Holy shit, I’m responsible for another human being, how could anyone think I’m qualified for this?”

Harry laughs at that like he can’t help it, since it’s not something he’d ever wish for himself, “because I love kids, I swear, but hell no. No offense.”

“None taken,” Zayn snorts. He loves Ev. He’d literally die for her. But he wouldn’t wish this shit on his worst enemy, now that he’s lived it.

They have some vodka well into the night, and he gets a little misty when he tells Harry about the little life they had, when it was good. Zayn shows him some of his favorite pictures of Ev, since he has about a million on his phone. The two of them eating peas before she could talk and refused to eat them. Her walking, running, jumping into Zayn’s arms. A video of her singing an old Styx song. A few from Monday, of her first day of school, holding his hand. Rachel putting lipstick on her for the first time, red because the Maliks are fiery.

But that can’t save a marriage, the mutual love of two people for their child. It can’t change the fact that at the end of the day, they aren’t compatible and they were never in love, not really, not deep down where it counts. Zayn tells Harry how they ended up being so unhappy. And for Ev’s sake, it had to be fixed.

No one prepares you for divorce either, taking the ring off, what it means to go from married to single in a day’s time, once your wife says, “I can’t do this anymore.”

No one prepares you for the separation from your child. How much it fucking hurts, how it feels some mornings when Zayn wakes up and eats breakfast alone now, only to remember he won’t see Evelyn for days upon days. How some nights it feels like he’s literally bleeding, it hurts so bad.

But then after a few more beers on Saturday afternoon, Harry leads Zayn to water, asking about where Zayn sees himself now that he’s on his own. Zayn knows he can do this, eventually, once they get the mechanics of the shitty schedule down.

And he admits that Rachel is a good person, a good mother. She’s not always an asshole, or the evil witch keeping Zayn’s daughter away from him. She’s trying her best, the same as Zayn. She just wants what she’s always wanted: for Zayn to try harder.

Zayn wants Ev to be so happy, she bursts with it. So with Harry’s quiet insistence, Zayn calls Rach and says he’s sorry for the outburst. He hears the telltale click of the closet door, Rach’s hiding place so Ev won’t hear their conversations. Zayn hates that, that he’s the one who forces Rachel to hide away, lest his daughter hear his anger over the line. Harry smiles at him and gives a thumbs up, as Zayn apologizes a second time.

And it’s with a swallow to his pride as he agrees to the routine. He says he’ll try to get his shit together. She sighs, with a hand probably over her forehead, and tells him she sure hopes so. Zayn rolls his eyes at that, because Rachel can still sort of be an asshole when she wants to be.

That Sunday night, Harry and Zayn drunkenly finish the puzzle. Harry lifts up the last piece and holds it above them like they’re in “The Lion King.” Zayn even sings the opening song, “Circle of Life’s” them as Harry punches in the final jagged edge of the city sky.

In celebration of Seattle’s skyline finished there on the table, Harry insists they look up the weather forecast, to pray for rain. They end up in a Google spiral, watching videos of weather bloopers, and laugh so loudly, their neighbors must hate them for it. But Harry was right: it gets Zayn’s mind off of the crippling fear that he’s ruining his daughter’s life, and over the hump.

And wouldn’t you know, the next morning, Zayn rolls over on his air mattress and looks out of his bedroom window to see it cloudy with moisture.

Zayn texts Harry a string of umbrellas.

 

***

 

October

 

Zayn wakes up with a low groan. His back aches and as he stretches his arms over his head, he hears a few distinct cracks. If this were a few years ago, he’d probably be piecing together the night before. Where was I, how did I get home, did I fall and hurt myself, am I still drunk?

And if it were a few months ago, maybe he’d still be piecing the night before together, but with a much tamer thought process. Did I lift Evie and throw my back out, did I pull something putting up a picture in her room, did I fall over during a game?

But like every morning lately, it’s simple.

“I need a fucking mattress,” Zayn grumbles to himself, as he squirms and feels the hardwood under his tailbone. The air mattress he’s been sleeping on slowly deflates overnight, from air pressure and weight, so by the time he slaps at his alarm, he’s always ass-to-floor. His back is sure to be fucked.

From there, Zayn runs through the motions. In no time at all, he takes a piss, brushes his teeth, and showers. Then it’s a quick wash to a bowl and a spoon from his overflowing sink to eat some Lucky Charms, before settling at his desk.

Evie’s room takes up the second bedroom of the apartment, so Zayn’s makeshift office had to be shoved in the living room. It’s pleasant enough though, to have the light streaming in from the open window leading to the courtyard, and truthfully, it’s nice to be near a TV when he needs a break. It still sits awkwardly on the floor, in the corner, until he can get something to set it on. But that’s for another day.

He has two daily deadlines, for ARJ.com and The Breakneck, and a few assignments coming up for The Baltimore Sun. It’s taken him a few weeks to get used to working from home instead of in an office or newsroom. So he tries to answer emails quickly, to get his head on straight. He used to work so well in crowded spaces, with white noise buzzing around him. Now he works in almost complete silence, and it’s still a bit unsettling.

But he has to power through. He gets Evie tomorrow, for the whole weekend, finally. And he has to be ready for her. He has to work and clean up a bit, pick up the chairs for the new kitchen table, and a rug for the hallway.

As if by some retched miracle, his phone buzzes with a text from Rach, reminding him that he has Evie until Sunday night.

Zayn grits his teeth and replies politely, that yes, he knows what time the girls will be there tomorrow. As if he could forget. He shoves his phone in his pocket and cracks his neck, before opening his laptop.

Just power through.

It’s Zayn’s new mantra.

 

***

 

Zayn and Drake sing a rather loud duet in the kitchen the next morning, as Zayn works his way around the kitchen with a wet paper towel. It’s his go-to music when he’s feeling especially happy or excited about something. Not even cleaning his tiny kitchen can get him down.

The bass booms from his iPod dock in the living room, as he scrubs near the sink. He can’t help but wiggle his hips a bit, his jeans riding a little low, his chest on full display. Zayn’s too adult and mature now to imagine what it’d be like to be a rapper, of course. He’s not some lame sixteen year old with a hairbrush. He does not project his voice any louder to the wall over the sink, or smile as if it’s to a crowd, to pretend.

And yet, when he feels a hand on his shoulder, he almost has a heart attack.

“Mother fucker,” Zayn exhales, knees practically buckling from surprise. He drops the paper towel and turns around, to see Rachel there in his kitchen, with Evie in her arms. Evie laughs wildly, but Rach just shakes her head.

“Shit,” he mumbles, hurrying for the remote to turn off the explicit lyrics. And then he says shit in his head, for saying shit out loud with Evie near, and he can practically feel his face heating up.

“Your music was too loud,” Rach says without blinking. “Didn’t hear us knock. And the door was open. Completely unlocked.”

Zayn almost says shit again, but catches himself just in time.

“Daddy, I want to sing too!” Evie yells delightedly, launching herself from Rachel’s arms right into Zayn’s.

“Hi baby,” he laughs with her, overwhelmed to have her there in the flesh, his mind racing from the adrenaline kick and the joy to have her to himself. “I missed you so much.”

Thank God you’re here. Baby Evelyn, little Evie, my baby, my Ev, Evelyn Naadirah Malik. Born five years ago on July 11th just after sunrise, with a head of hair and a smile. Seven pounds, five ounces. 20.5 inches long. Mine mine mine.

It’s a quick exchange this time, something else they agreed upon, to not drag it out. It’s another thing Ev needs to get used to. So Rachel kisses her five times in a row, little smacks to her mouth, and says about thirty I love yous. Then there’s a promise to talk on the phone before bed, finished with the reminder to tell daddy to button her coat. Because Zayn always needs to be reminded to button her coat.

Rach doesn’t say much to Zayn, once he drops Ev and she goes running off to her new room. But she does eye the chairs still in boxes, the ones he still needs to put together in the kitchen, and the pile of books next to them, that he has to stack away.

It’s better when they don’t say much.

Once she’s gone, Zayn heads to Ev’s room, to see what toys she’s brought with her and to find out about her week at school. He listens and watches her talk, as she skips and plays and kisses his cheek over and over, like she’s missed him just as much. It’s like all of her tears and sadness over Zayn not being at the house are both forgotten. Kids really are resilient. Zayn has to keep tickling her, just to hear her laugh ringing through the apartment.

It ends up being one of the best Saturdays Zayn has ever had.

 

***

 

Evie wakes Zayn up by jumping right onto his chest, completely knocking the wind out of him. Apparently the air mattress looks like a trampoline, which Zayn has to half-heartedly scold her for. But then he tickles her, pulling her to his side, so he can blow raspberries across her cheeks.

Zayn isn’t exactly good at waking up early, which Rach and Ev both know and were so used to. So he asks for five more minutes, to rest his eyes. Ev allows him to doze for a solid twelve seconds before demanding breakfast.

They eat cereal and toast at the kitchen table, since Zayn stayed up for hours after Ev went to bed, putting the fucking chairs together. One wobbles a bit, but they’ll do. He also stacked the books onto the high hanging shelf that covers three of the four living room walls. Slowly but surely, the apartment has started to feel homier. It feels like a place he can be proud of, eventually. Once he gets some more furniture. And hangs a picture or two.

It doesn’t run as smoothly once Zayn picks up the call from Adam at the Sun, for a quick blurb to run first thing in the morning. It doesn’t happen often, Zayn having to work on Sundays, and of fucking course it happens during an Ev weekend.

Zayn runs a hand through his hair and watches Ev crawl around the floor near his desk, a Barbie car zooming up onto the rug and then under the armchair. She’s great at playing on her own, but he knows it won’t last much longer. She’ll start to pull on his hand, demand his attention, beg for him to color on her bedroom wall again.

“Zayn,” Adam tries to get his attention, sensing it waning. “I can give you three hours. Does that work?”

“Three?” Zayn winces. That’s not a lot of time, and Ev needs a snack and is supposed to learn a song for her music class the next morning. Zayn wanted to sing “Come Sail Away” with her, since it used to be her favorite, and now…

“That’s all I got,” Adam huffs, fingers probably hovering over the phone to make his next few calls to other always-on-call-because-they’re-broke freelancers.

“No, I can do it. Send me the info.”

About ten minutes later, as Zayn frantically tries to type away at his laptop, Ev calls for him. She stands with her little hands on her hips, her ponytail completely fallen out and cheeks pink.

“Daddy.”

“Ev, I need a few more minutes, then we can play,” Zayn tries, eyes flying from his screen, up to her little face. His glasses are smudged, he needs to clean them.

“But daddy…” she starts to whine.

“Just a few minutes.”

“Daddy.”

“Evelyn,” he looks at her sternly. “Sing me a song. Let’s practice.”

She sighs dramatically like her mother, and then flings herself onto the couch. Without a good prompt from Zayn, she sings her ABC’s and Twinkle Twinkle, before coming up with her own lyrics.

“I want to plaaay,” she yells out, her little voice carrying through the entire apartment. “I want to siiing my sooongs, daaad.”

Zayn tries to concentrate, to get through the stupid article he should’ve turned down. Sure, now he has rent and child support to cover every month, but it’s Ev’s day and it isn’t fair. The more she sings about him working and not playing with her, the worse he feels.

It must be the song that beckons Harry, because Ev doesn’t stop singing until she hears the knock at the door. Before Zayn can stop her, she’s off the couch and throwing the door open excitedly. Her yellow dress flaps around her from the crisp fall wind, so she does what Rach taught her and holds it in her little fingers down at her sides.

“Harry!”

“Hey toots,” Harry smiles at her, before meeting Zayn’s eyes.

“What’s a toots?” she scoffs.

“Comes from ‘The Three Stooges,’ I think,” Harry says, thinking it over.

“What?”

Harry thinks for a second longer.

“It’s another word for Evelyn.”

“Oh, okay,” she shrugs, grabbing for Harry’s hand and pulling him inside.

“I heard some singing and thought it might’ve been you.”

“Because somebody won’t sing with me,” Ev looks over her shoulder at Zayn, like she’s disappointed. It’s a look Zayn decides then and there that he hates. It makes his stomach drop a bit, his shoulders fall, his mouth pinch. He knows he’s a disappointment, but he never wanted Ev to know.

“I just gotta finish this,” Zayn says more to himself, but loud enough for Harry to hear. “It’s last minute, I didn’t – I wouldn’t have volunteered to work today.”

Harry hears the I wouldn’t be working with Ev here if I had a choice, I swear. And he nods like he understands. They’ve hung out a few more times since the great Seattle Puzzle Weekend, just a few drinks here and there, but they have an understanding. They’re friends, sort of.

Harry looks at Zayn and must remember how Zayn phrased it once, that Ev was his Number One. He told Harry how once you have a kid, everything else becomes secondary. Less than. Minuscule by default. So when Zayn shoves his glasses further up his nose, sweating, typing away faster, he gets it.

“Hey Ev, how about we go play while dad works.”

Zayn’s head snaps up.

“I need a snack and I need a song for music class,” she says, eyes big as she looks up at the giraffe known as Harry Styles.

“Snack and a song,” Harry nods, with a clap to his hands. “We’re on it.”

Zayn mouths thank you so much, and stands up. He gestures to his laptop like he’d enjoy nothing more than to pick it up and toss it over his shoulder. Harry actually giggles at that. Zayn’s stomach does something weird again.

“Shoes,” Zayn points to her Chuck Taylors by the door.

Ev always listens and starts to tug them on.

“Can you like,” Zayn steps closer to Harry as he scratches at the hair on his chin, “Can you leave your blinds and curtains open? So I can see her from my desk?”

“Absolutely,” Harry says.

“The song doesn’t have to be fancy or anything. Just something she can name to her teacher, and sing a few lines of to the class.”

“Got it.”

“Can we eat two snacks, Harry?” Evelyn interrupts, stumbling over to them. This is only the second time she’s ever been around Harry, and as a five year old genius, she knows it’s the right time to see just how far she can push him, how many spoils she can collect. Zayn almost laughs. She’s so fucking smart.

“Sure, toots,” Harry grabs for her to pick her up. It’s a good thing too, since she can’t tie her shoelaces and they hang limply there alongside her pink shoes.

But then Zayn remembers.

“No tree nuts,” he warns, serious as hell. “Right, Ev? What do we say? No walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios.”

It’s their list. Zayn knows it by heart. He could say The List in his sleep. He gives Harry a look that tells him to take it seriously. She won’t die or go into anaphylactic shock if she has a tree nut, but it can cause a pretty nasty rash. Or hives. And Ev with hives all over her tiny little body is probably the worst sight Zayn can imagine at the moment. Not to mention, Rachel would murder him and bury him in her manicured back garden before anyone even knew he was missing.

“Got it,” Harry nods, also serious.

Ev does a little dance in Harry’s arms as they head towards the front door, and waves to Zayn with both hands over Harry’s broad shoulders

“Be good,” Zayn whispers. “Say please and thank you. Tell Harry if you want to come home.”

“Bye daddy!” she ignores him.

Zayn waves, but they don’t notice it. Harry skips across the courtyard and jostles Ev like he’s about to drop her until she’s crying with laughter.

And then Zayn sits at his desk, typing away for the next three hours, in full view of his daughter there in Harry’s living room.

 

***

 

“Just had to show me up then, didn’t you,” Zayn muses, crossing his arms.

Harry nudges him with his elbow, as they sit on Zayn’s couch and wait patiently for Ev to be ready “in costume.” They can hear her banging around in her room down the short hallway to their left, yelling out random gibberish because she’s too excited for words.

“You said to teach her a song,” Harry bites his lip with a smile.

“And by that I meant like, a nursery rhyme or something. Not a full song with a fucking performance to go with it.”

“She’s theatrical. I’m theatrical. What can I say? Go big or go home.”

He shrugs, the cocky little shit, and strums the beat up-ukulele he brought with him. Zayn should’ve known that while he worked away at his desk, that the soft music drifting through the courtyard was from Harry himself. Zayn knew he played a few instruments for work, as a small-time producer for random indie labels. And apparently he has a knack for little kids who want to be singers someday, because Ev ran into the apartment ten minutes ago, yelling about putting on a concert for him.

“Thanks again, for your help,” Zayn nudges Harry elbow this time.

“No worries.”

“Was she good? Bratty at all?”

“She’s not bratty,” Harry frowns, like he’s offended on her behalf. “She was great.”

“All kids are bratty sometimes.”

“That’s not true.”

“You’ve never had to tell her no, then,” Zayn snorts.

Harry shoves at him, unconvinced, while Zayn cracks up. Zayn wouldn’t ordinarily wish for an Epic Meltdown from Ev, but they happen, and if Harry continues to be around, he should probably see one sooner rather than later. Prepare him a bit.

Zayn finds himself watching Harry play the ukulele next to him on the couch, his socked feet tucked inward a bit on the rug. It’s like he’s trying to grip the rug fibers under his toes, and Zayn sort of likes that. He sort of likes a lot about Harry, he thinks. His cheeks flare.

“Daddy, are you ready?” Ev says seriously, skidding into the room and catching herself on the arm of the couch.

“Babe, you can’t run inside, you’ll fall,” Zayn says, even though she doesn’t listen.

She situates herself in front of them, wearing one of Rachel’s skirts over her clothes. It’s way too big and pools all around her, as she tries to hold it up under her armpits. She has a bit of wobbly red lipstick on her lips and teeth, which Zayn stares her down for. She must’ve taken that from Rach as well, the little sneak.

Ev smiles sheepishly.

“Alright, toots. Let’s sit on the floor over here,” Harry says as she slips down from the couch to the rug, to walk on his knees towards the window. It must hurt his knees, Zayn thinks, with his jeans ripped to shreds over his kneecaps. His shirt also ripples as he shifts and moves his body to the floor, his tits out for the world to see, which Zayn looks away from. Ev complies and skips to Harry, throwing herself down to his right, so they can sit by side.

“Do you remember the words?” Harry whispers to her.

“Yes.”

Harry mouths to Zayn no she doesn’t, and they share a smile.

“Daddy, you sing too,” Ev says, pulling up her skirt-dress.

“Tonight You Belong To Me,” Harry supplies the song title, with a nod to Zayn, to sing along if he knows the words. “The Eddie Vedder version.”

Zayn doesn’t have a clue, but he tells Ev, “I’ll try.”

And then Harry begins to play their duet on his shitty ukulele, his voice soft and insistent all at once, to egg Ev on. She watches him at first, just mouthing at nothing since the words are so new to her, and like Zayn, she’s a bit transfixed to listen to Harry sing. He nods to her, to help him,

“I know you belong

to somebody new.

But tonight,

you belong to me.”

Ev remembers the end words the most, and gets louder and smiles her way through each, “you belong to meee!” with a flourish.

When they get to the second verse, she watches Harry again, until he then dips into making trumpet noises with his mouth for a little coda.

Zayn can’t help it, he finds himself bouncing his eyes back and forth from Evie to Harry, the two of them two peas in a pod, singing side by side and swaying a bit. If Zayn didn’t know any better, they practiced this for days instead of only a few hours. His kid is a natural. And Harry is a good teacher.

“My honey I know

by the dawn,

that you will be gone.

And tonight

you belong to me.”

Harry plays a few more chords and nudges Ev a bit, with a big wink, which she must understand. Because suddenly she’s up and off the floor, to sway and hold her arms out for the finale.

They finish the song with one final, “And tonight, you belong to me… just a’little… old… meee.”

Evelyn drops into a huge bow as Harry strums the last chord, with her skirt still in her hands. Zayn claps so loudly, gives them a standing ovation, and even whistles like his dad used to do at his school plays.

“Bravo,” Zayn bows to Ev. “Sensational. Beautiful. Five stars.”

“Daddy, you didn’t sing!” Ev laughs, dropping the skirt and leaping into his arms.

“I’ll teach him the words so he can join us next time,” Harry stands up, to high five her. “Good job, kid. You’re gonna be famous.”

“I know!”

Zayn snorts, as he bounces her and kisses her cheek. Harry, tucked close, rubs at her hair a bit, which has gone frizzy and wild from the day’s excitement. Zayn can smell him up close: a little sweaty, a little clean, a lot sandalwood. The three of them stand there for a few seconds, in a little circle, when a knock comes at the door.

Rachel walks in right as Harry steps away from Zayn, with a smile on her face, the same smile Zayn gets when he’s about to see Ev again.

“Mommy!” Ev squeals, wiggling from Zayn’s grip to run to her.

“Look at you,” Rachel giggles, tucking her fingers under Ev’s chin, to inspect the lipstick smeared all over her mouth.

“Somebody must’ve brought makeup with them,” Zayn says, not at all mad, even though he should pretend like he is.

“Evelyn, I swear,” Rach shakes her head, not mad either.

Zayn, like an idiot, just stands there and admires his kid again. The lipstick, the ponytail he had attempted that morning that is all but gone now, her hair falling onto her shoulders haphazardly. She’s so fucking cute. And then Rachel clears her throat, to get his attention.

“I’m Harry,” Harry supplies for himself, rolling his eyes at Zayn. He reaches a hand out to Rachel and says, “I live across the courtyard.”

“Rachel,” she smiles, a little. Harry must have that effect on people, getting them to smile before they can help it. “This one’s mom.”

“Harry, let’s sing our song!” Ev wiggles down to the floor from Rachel’s arms, reaching for Harry’s hand not holding the ukulele. “Listen to my song, mommy. It’s for school. I’m really good.”

“She is,” Harry and Zayn say together.

“I work in music,” Harry settles on the floor again, Ev right alongside him, to explain. “Thought I could help out.”

“How nice of you,” Rach says as she perches on the arm of the couch, before eyeing Zayn. She looks at him like she knows something he doesn’t. It’s a look Zayn hates, because it makes him feel about as big as Ev, so he glares at her.

Harry, still as much of a saint as ever, begins to play the song. It’s even better the second time. Ev gets into it, more confident with the words. She sings about half of the song this time, hell-bent on being good for her captivated audience.

The round of applause from Zayn and Rach is so loud, the neighbors above them can probably hear it.

Ev smiles so big and bright, Zayn has to grab his phone to snap a picture.

 

***

 

That night, over a rousing game of Yahtzee, Harry tells Zayn all about the book he’s reading. They sit at Zayn’s kitchen table, the entire apartment dark except for the small lamp above them. They drink beer because Zayn feels that sadness creeping in, at the tail end of an Evie weekend. At the thought of spending the next two weeks alone, with Evie living her life without her dad to watch from the sidelines.

She’s getting more used to it, the routine, and barely even pouted when Rachel carried her down the walkway to the car. She kissed Harry’s cheek, and then hugged Zayn for a solid three minutes in the courtyard beforehand, though. Zayn found it hard to let her go. He didn’t get the full day with her and it wasn’t fair.

Harry tries his best, to describe the book’s plot, to keep Zayn engaged. But Zayn can only half-heartedly nod here and there. Even in the haze of his thoughts, Zayn sort of feels like reaching for Harry’s arm, to silently say thank you for being around him even when he’s miserable. Harry really might become a good friend, if he keeps this up. Zayn should hold his hand.

He slouches at the table, shaking his head to rid the thought.

“Rachel seems really nice,” Harry gives up, to bring the conversation back to Zayn’s current situation.

“Yeah.”

“And she didn’t seem so… critical.”

Zayn realizes he doesn’t always speak so highly of his ex, now that he sees the look on Harry’s face. He must’ve been expecting a monster. Zayn knows they had a chat in the living room while Zayn helped Ev clean the lipstick off her face and pack up her stuff. The two of them had a few minutes alone in her room, where Zayn gave her butterfly kisses for the road, their long Malik eyelashes catching once or twice to make her giggle. When they got back into the living room, Rachel seemed just as taken with Harry as Zayn and Ev were. Still a little cautious of the stranger in close proximity to her kid, but enamored nonetheless.

“She seemed really happy when she left with Ev,” Harry smiles, like it’s a victory for Zayn. “Like she was glad that the weekend went well.”

“She saw that I had built the chairs, probably. And that Ev actually had a song for school. I’m sure that was a surprise,” Zayn sighs, taking a pull from his beer.

“But didn’t she ask you to get a song together? Did she think you would forget?”

“I’m not very reliable,” Zayn admits, standing to move to the couch.

Their game was practically over anyways, Harry would’ve won like he always does. They sit side by side and stare out the window towards the courtyard. They can see into Harry’s apartment, where he accidentally left his TV on.

“I know you’ve said it was hard, being married…” Harry treads lightly, his foot brushing against Zayn’s ankle. “But… what was it? That finally made you guys pull the plug?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“I don’t know. Just… trying to understand… better.”

Zayn tries to think about it, about the final few weeks. The way they danced around each other during the day, or whenever Ev was present. Quiet. Civil. And then the nights after she went to sleep, the fighting. The vicious things they said, to purposefully cut deep. The unrelenting shake to Zayn’s hands, the closer they teetered to the edge.

“I think,” Zayn nods, “that in the end, we really just didn’t like each other. We got married for the wrong reasons, we stayed for even worse reasons. Not compatible. Not… in it. And when you don’t like the person next to you, you fight over nothing and everything.”

Harry snorts like he knows that well enough, probably thinking about his own parents, but lets Zayn continue.

“I’m not a natural at this, you know? The being-a-parent thing. I love Ev, you know I do, but it’s not second nature for me the way it is for Rach. I’m not good at it.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is. I need a lot of help at this. Rach has to keep me in check constantly. And maybe that’s what did it. I always felt like she was telling me what to do, and she always hated having to be the one to tell me at all. Like I should already know how. And I should know. Which is why I can never really blame her for kicking me out. For telling me to grow up and get my shit together.”

Harry takes a drink of his beer.

“I forgot her in the car once,” Zayn admits, his cheeks flaring red. “When she was a few months old.”

Harry doesn’t respond.

“It was only for a few minutes, I swear,” Zayn barrels on, admitting his biggest mistake to date. The mistake he silently beats himself up over every few days when he’s feeling especially low. “It was in our garage. It was after a long day, and I had to take groceries inside. I was just so exhausted. I started to boil a pot of water, for pasta or something. And then I checked the mail. And I think I even went upstairs to change, and shave. And then… I don’t even know why it hit me, but then I was flying down the stairs and into the garage. She was asleep in her car seat. Fast asleep, not a care in the world. It… it was a really bad day.”

It’s then that Zayn feels it. Harry leans closer and rests his head on Zayn’s shoulder. It’s a comforting gesture, something Harry seems to do whenever Zayn talks badly about himself or his abilities. Zayn tends to do that a lot lately, since he moved out of the house.

“Just because you had that bad day… or even if you need help, it doesn’t mean you’re not good at being a dad,” Harry says quietly, voice dipping to soothe him. Maybe to calm him down.

“Maybe.”

“She can’t get enough of you, Zayn. She adores you.”

“She had to remind me to buy her sheets for her own bed.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

Zayn sighs and leans his head to rest it on Harry’s.

“Why are you so nice to me? Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be off living in the city, hanging out with rock stars?”

“I’ve lived in plenty of cities. And I've met enough rock stars.”

“Still.”

“I like it here. I like you better than rock stars.”

Zayn doesn’t know how to respond to that. He also doesn’t know what to do with the hand Harry put on his thigh, whenever that was, when did that get there? But he doesn’t tense up or move away from it. He just looks down at the rings on Harry’s fingers, and thinks over how Harry procured them all.

One from my mom. One from a trip to Thailand. A symbol for good health. A cool looking stone in this one, yeah?

Zayn realizes, that even though he feels like they talk about him a lot, or his problems, Harry has given Zayn just as much about himself. Zayn knows the small details about Harry, like his rings. The good stuff. The facts he’d write on a questionnaire about himself. But Zayn also knows the bigger details, the ways Harry’s parents fucked him up, the drive and determination he has to flee conflict, the girls and boys he topples into bed with because he craves the detached intimacy. He’s compassionate and ridiculous and a little bit of a dork. They’re alike, in that way.

And that’s when Zayn knows they really are good friends. Real friends. The kind of friends who can sit around and put together puzzles, to pretend they don’t have to talk it out, and yet all the while spend their time peeling back the layers.

Harry shifts slightly closer. Zayn lets him.

“I should go soon. We both have to work tomorrow,” Harry says quietly, without moving.

“Yeah.”

“Jenga tomorrow night, though?”

“I’ll wipe the floor with your ass,” Zayn warns. “I’m a Jenga ninja.”

“We’ll see.”

They don’t move from the couch. They stay right where they are, to finish their beers, and sit in the silence instead.

 

***

 

As it always seems to go in Zayn’s life, it’s two steps forward and one step back. Just because he can see why Rachel is sometimes a bitch, doesn’t mean he enjoys or can take Rachel being a bitch.

She ends up calling him the next night in the middle of Jenga, with the news that Ev’s teacher loved the song she presented to class. And over dinner, Ev raved about how daddy had to work, how she had some “Harry time.” She now wants a ukulele of her own.

“Harry time? Really?” Rachel levels him with the question, her voice firm. She sounds like she’s in her closet again. Zayn moves out of Harry’s kitchen so he can’t hear, and heads outside to the courtyard to light a cigarette.

“Yeah, so?” Zayn gets defensive immediately, his go-to reaction.

“So you have her for the weekend, and you call a babysitter?”

“Rachel, I swear to fucking god…” Zayn practically grunts, not giving her the satisfaction of explaining himself. He flicks his lighter angrily.

She ignores him and he hears the closet door open, like she’s already finished with their conversation. She knows he won’t admit to a thing.

“Good job with getting the chairs built. Finally.”

“Fuck you, too.”

He hangs up on her.

 

***

 

Zayn meets up with a few of the guys he used to work with at ARJ during their early newsroom days when all they did was fact check and compile shitty local news reports. Liam and Andy, just as stupid as they used to be, both a little rounder. Jacob, Dustin, Tom with the slight lisp. Good guys.

None of them are married or divorced. Only Dustin has a kid, not that Zayn discusses fatherhood with him. They just drink at the bar closest to Tom’s house so he doesn’t try to drive home again, and it’s fine, to be out of the house and away from the thoughts clouding his vision.

Zayn gets home at around two in the morning and knocks on Harry’s door.

“Your couch is better than the floor of my bedroom,” Zayn slurs to him pathetically.

Harry frowns and lets him in.

 

***

 

November

 

Zayn pulls up to the house quickly and efficiently, since he’s running a few minutes late. He tries to slick the sides of his hair down with spit, and button the top of his shirt all in one fluid motion. It doesn’t look great on either front. He feels disheveled, sloppy, wrong. Like he shouldn’t be stepping back into his old house now, after the few months he’s been away from it.

But then he sees Evie in the doorway, smiling at him, her little palms on the glass. She’s beautiful as always, in a new plaid dress and black tights, her hair in pigtails. She waves, yells something over her shoulder. And that’s all there is to it, really. In no time at all, Zayn’s out of the car and scooping her up into his arms.

“Hi baby,” he says quietly, the sounds and smells of Thanksgiving swirling around them.

“Daddy, what did you bring?” she says, looking at the Tupperware in his hand.

“Cookies for you,” he kisses her cheek. “Homemade and everything.”

She squeals and grabs for the plastic container, before jumping down to run off and play with her cousins. She thinks she can take it with her, bless her.

“You made cookies?” Rachel asks, as she steps out of the kitchen drying her hands on a towel, grabbing the container from Ev before she flies off again.

“Yeah.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

Well, Harry did. Thank God.

It’s not so bad after that, once Zayn walks away from her and into the living room. Divorce doesn’t mean divorcing the family, clearly. He’s there for Ev, so she can have both parents together for the holiday. So he tries to be cordial, to sit with the thin, mostly blond family. Keeps quiet. He always got along well enough with Rach’s family. They’re fine. White and boring, the type of family to absolutely need a football game on so they don’t have to discuss much amongst themselves.

So Zayn busies himself with the Packers and texting Harry random taunts when they go fourth and down every other goddamn possession. Zayn’s not sure where Harry is. He once mentioned some friends coming into town, random people he met in Palm Springs the summer before. So maybe that’s Zayn’s answer. He doesn’t ask.

Zayn takes it upon himself to grab Evelyn by the hand when dinner is served, to get her a plate and make sure she eats it. It’s something Rachel always gets to do first, to fuss over their kid in family settings. It also gives her the oh-so-lovely task of asking Zayn later why he “didn’t help enough.” So it’s selfish of course, to want Ev close, but also a big Fuck You to Rachel.

“No green beans,” Ev says, rubbing her eyes, already getting tired.

“Corn then,” Zayn agrees, spooning some on to a plate for her.

She eats on his lap, the two of them tucked in the corner of the dining room as Rachel’s family talk and laugh about politics. Her dad Roger, the one who always makes sure to keep everyone’s wine glasses full and never knows what to say to Zayn most of the time, actually calls out to him over dessert.

“So Zayn,” he says politely, sipping a rather large glass of his “specially ordered Domaine Leroy Musigny pinot noir from the homeland.”

Zayn lets go of the fork he was holding with Ev, so they each could take a bite of pie one after the other, and looks up surprised. Rachel swirls her own wine across the table, with a small frown.

“How are things going for you?” Roger tries. “We haven’t seen you in ages.”

Because we’re getting divorced, Rog. You can say it.

Zayn clears his throat, leaning around Ev’s head.

“Good,” he says with an awkward smile. “All good. Still writing, you know. The Sun mostly. Just… you know, working. Trucking along.”

“That’s what Rachel said. That’s great.”

“Yeah, thanks. And you?” Zayn tries.

See, I can be polite too. And social. I have my kid on my lap and I’m talking to the in-laws. Fuck You again, Rach.

“We’re good,” he nods happily, nodding to his wife Maureen. “The firm is doing well. Still trying to convince Rachel to come work for us, as always.”

Zayn just nods. Still polite. Ev nudges his hand to cut through the apple pie on their plate, to fork a piece for her. He starts to, when Roger fucking Perrault, lights a match to Zayn’s entire little house of cards he’s been building for himself since September.

“It was good to have Evie with us last weekend, as well,” he says, clinking a glass with one of his other relatives, as other conversations start up around them. Once the awkwardness of addressing Zayn directly is out of the way, the rest of the clan moves right along. No one pays attention as Zayn stills entirely, his body frozen. Ev must notice, because she fusses for a second in his lap and turns to him.

“Excuse me?” Zayn says, his voice as level as he can make it.

“Last weekend. While Rach went to D.C. for the wedding,” Roger says nonchalantly between sips. He sees Zayn’s face and adds, confused, “For… Leslie Ann’s wedding.”

Zayn looks at Roger. Blinks. And then looks down at Evie still in his lap.

“Are you done, babe?” he whispers.

“Yep,” she says with a pop to her p sound. “Can I go play?”

“Go wash your hands with Mackenzie,” he says, gesturing to a random cousin, not even sure if that’s her name, and certainly not caring.

Ev hops off his lap and runs away, her hair still in pigtails, and then it’s just the adults in the room, all chatting idly, content and full. Zayn gives Rachel a leveling look, that look thing they’ve perfected so well, and then they’re both off to find a quiet room to themselves.

It ends up being their goddamn bedroom. Or Rachel’s bedroom now. Just hers. His bedside table, once littered with books and his iPad, his glasses, a bottle of aspirin, it’s empty now. Now it just holds a lamp and a photo of Rachel with her two best friends.

Zayn pulls at his hair, completely fucking it up beyond repair, as Rachel quietly shuts the door.

“Are you fucking serious?” he hisses first thing.

“Can you please not yell right now? We have company.”

You have company.”

“Zayn, please,” she sighs, like she’s speaking to a child.

“I seriously can’t believe you,” he turns to her, eyes full of fire. “You… I get her four fucking days a month, Rach. You let me have her for four fucking days. And you go out of town, and take her to your parents? You don’t even tell me? You… why couldn’t she stay with me? I’m right fucking here!”

Somewhere downstairs, a door shuts loudly. A warning that says they can be heard, and to maybe keep it down. Rachel touches a finger to her forehead, her sweater bunched up in the other hand.

“She hasn’t seem them lately,” she says quietly.

“No. Fuck that. That’s so fucking unfair. And you know it.”

Rachel walks past him, to face the closet. She probably wishes this could be over the phone, so she could go hide in it to mask their voices.

“You still don’t have a bed,” she hisses, angry then too. “I know you don’t.”

“Oh really, and how do you know that?”

“Well, do you?” she looks at him.

Zayn almost picks up the lamp from his old bedside table and throws it at the wall, he swears it. He has to walk away from it entirely.

“I’ll get one. Is that what you want? You want me to furnish my bedroom, and then I can have my kid more? Is that it?”

“I want what I always want, Zayn. I want you to try harder.”

“I am! I’m trying so fucking hard!”

“You never button her coat,” Rachel throws her hands up, fed up with him entirely. “You don’t have a bed. You showed up to her school on Halloween reeking of cigarette smoke, even though you swore you were going to quit. You have your neighbor babysit for you, when you have to work. You forget to help her with her letters and you didn’t sign the school form. You lost the first form!”

Zayn takes a step back, his face blank.

“So yeah, I took her to my parents’ house when I had to go to D.C. It wasn’t your weekend, so it wasn’t your choice. And for all I know, on your weekends without Ev, you’re out, god only knows where. You’re… you’re single now, so… I don’t know what you do.”

Zayn gapes at her. Does she know him at all?

But before he can drive the car right off the cliff, and really lay into her, for being a judgmental asshole, he just… stops. He actually drops his head then, exhausted. He doesn’t want to yell anymore. He doesn’t want to hate the mother of his child. He doesn’t want to be the shitty dad who can’t button a coat.

“You wanna know what I do? When I don’t have Ev?” he says to his shoes, the black ones he grabbed from Harry’s closet because he didn’t have any nice ones.

She doesn’t say anything.

“I’m fucking miserable, Rach. I don’t do anything. I quit my fucking job so I could freelance and be closer to home. I don’t go anywhere. I’m not like, living it up as a bachelor. I just sit around and miss her. That’s it.”

“Zayn,” she says quietly.

“I can’t be without my kid,” he finally looks up at her, his eyes cloudy. “Keeping her away from me is making it worse. I… I need her. I do better with her around. I’ll get a bed, I’ll… I won’t lose the forms. You can count on me, I promise. I promise, Rach. You just have to let me have her. I’ll try harder.”

“I… I don’t know what you want me to say,” she stares at him. “I’m not a bitch for wanting my child to be in a good home. A real one. Not some apartment you can barely bother to fix up. I’m not a terrible person for craving peace of mind, instead of worrying while she’s with you.”

“You don’t have to worry.”

“I…”

“Can I have her after school?” he steps to her, palms out in surrender. “Please?”

Rachel pinches her lip, just as exhausted.

“You have Mrs. Nelson pick her up, right? When she picks up Kaius? And then she’s at their house next door until you’re home from work, right? Let me have her. I’ll pick her up. I’ll take her to my place, and help her do homework, and eat a snack, and play with her. And then… you come get her after work.”

“Zayn.”

“I won’t fuck it up. I won’t forget anything, I’ll make sure she’s picked up every day at three. I’ll prove it. I just… I need her. I need her, Rach.”

A small knock comes from the other side of the door, and then a little hand reaches in.

“Mommy?” Ev says, peeking around the wood.

“Hi baby,” Rach drops down to her knees, for Ev to come hug her.

Ev walks over and crawls into her lap, holding on tight. Zayn doesn’t know if he should invade the space. If he’s wanted. But Rachel helps him out, as always, and waves at him behind Ev’s back. In three seconds, he’s on the floor too.

“Why are you sad?” Evie asks them both, her face muffled in Rachel’s shoulder, fingers holding Zayn’s wrist.

“We’re not sad,” Zayn assured her, kissing her cheek, smoothing her hair.

“You sounded sad,” she sniffs. “Or mad.”

Zayn almost smacks himself in the face. Evie isn’t supposed to hear them fighting. That was their rule. They were always so careful. But the look in her eyes says otherwise, that this isn’t the first time she’s caught them. It’s just the first time she’s made it known.

“We’re never sad when we’re with you,” Zayn says honestly, his chest expanding a little too quickly.

Evie reaches for him, and crawls into his lap then. Rach takes her turn to smooth her hair, and wipe her little face with the back of her hand.

“Do you want to sing your song? Let’s sing daddy your bedtime song,” Rach whispers, as they rock her a bit. It’s been a long day, full of people fussing over her, playing in the backyard, eating all that food. She didn’t even have a nap, poor thing.

Zayn looks at Rachel, confused.

“Will you sing it with us, daddy?”

“Yeah, I’ll sing,” he says, still unsure of what to do.

They take her to her room and crowd on either side of her on the bed. They don’t even bother to undress her, besides her tights, shoes, and hair bows. She nuzzles into Zayn’s chest and wraps her fingers around his thumb.

Rachel leans her shoulder against his a bit and suddenly it feels like two years ago, when they did this as a family all the time, before they stopped to instead take turns. So they didn’t have to be close if they could help it.

She looks at him and sighs.

And then she starts to sing, completely off key as always. Ev follows along, since she knows every word now, apparently.

“I know you belong

to somebody new…

But tonight,

you belong to me…”

Zayn can hardly believe his ears. Apparently this is Ev’s song. The song she sings before bed now, to relax and soothe herself. It’s the song she must ask Rachel for night after night. And fast as anything, Zayn thinks of Harry. Ev sings the song she learned at Zayn’s house, with Zayn’s friend, during Zayn’s weekend. A time and place where she was happy. A happy memory.

He looks at Rachel and she looks at him, and they have a whole conversation without a word.

You can pick her up from school.

Thank you.

Don’t let me down, Zayn.

I won’t.

And?

Yeah, yeah. I’ll make sure to button her coat.

Rachel even smiles a little, right before they both look away. Zayn cuddles closer to his daughter, as her grip on his thumb goes slack, and she drifts off. He hopes she has good dreams, full of beauty and magic, free of pain and screaming parents.

When he drops onto his own couch later that night, he wishes the same for himself.

 

***

 

December

 

Zayn catches himself staring. Again. It’s just that sometimes he can’t help it, in quiet moments with Harry, the way his eyes linger. Harry stands in front of him stock still, his arms folded across his chest, in that long black expensive-looking coat he said he’s had for years. His hair in a messy bun Zayn sort of wants to tug at with numb fingers. Zayn can’t see his face yet, but he’d bet his life savings that Harry is frowning.

As he finally gets a grip and approaches, Harry must hear his feet in the gravel.

“I think the one on the left,” Harry says with a sure nod. “The one on the right is too round at the top.”

Zayn lands next to him and tries to weigh his options, as he grips the beanie on his head to pull it down over his ears. He’s absolutely freezing his dick off. Thankfully it hasn’t snowed yet, otherwise he’d definitely be waiting in the car.

It’s officially December. They’ve been perusing the Christmas tree lot across from Harry’s studio for almost thirty minutes, and at this point, a good tree isn’t even worth it. He only needs one because he gets Ev for Christmas Eve. And even though he himself doesn’t celebrate the holiday, he needs to participate for Ev’s sake.

In all honesty, Zayn doesn’t really give a shit what the tree looks like. To him, it’s just a dead plant to randomly prop up in his living room.

But Harry gives a shit, so Zayn keeps that particular train of thought to himself.

“You think?” he says with a sniff, not wanting to rain on Harry’s parade.

“Left one. For sure.”

“Whatever you say, Father Christmas. Load it up,” Zayn shrugs. “We have lots more to do today. Chop chop.”

Zayn tries to playfully pinch Harry’s arm, to get him to move. But Harry ends up squirming away from it, sidestepping him, to grab for Zayn’s neck. They laugh as Harry walks them towards the cashier, with Zayn in a headlock, his beanie falling right off towards the frozen ground.

 

***

 

“You’re practically skipping,” Harry smirks towards him later that afternoon, as they wheel a shopping cart down the aisle of their local Safeway.

Zayn doesn’t dignify that with a response, even as his cheeks warm up a bit. He can’t help the excitement flooding through him, the anticipation of getting Ev every day after school now. He officially gets to pick her up the next day, at exactly three, as promised. She’ll spend two hours with him, until Rachel or one of her parents picks her up, and it’s perfect.

Rachel said she wasn’t going to officially go on record, legally, as saying that Zayn gets more or extra time with Ev. Zayn knows she wants to see how the routine goes first, if Zayn can keep up his end of the bargain. It all boils down to seeing if he’ll fuck it up somehow.

Which is why he’s officially getting his shit together.

Zayn looks down at his list and bites at his pen. His mom always said to never go to the store without a list and a pen. So he chomps the plastic cap between his teeth and crosses off sliced cheese. Ev likes cheese. And Zayn needs to get all the food Ev loves, to stock the fridge and have on hand. He almost texted Rach, to prove that he can grocery shop when necessary.

Harry nudges his arm, as they pass the cream cheese.

“I’m not making fun of you, I promise,” Harry says, taking Zayn’s silence for annoyance. “I know you’re excited to have her more. It’s an exciting time. Sorry.”

“You need to stop apologizing so much,” Zayn says, like he’s in dad-mode and giving a lesson. He reaches for a bag of shredded cheese.

“So I’ve been told, sadly.”

Zayn smiles at him, to let him know it’s okay. And then he does skip, to make Harry laugh, as they turn the corner away from the dairy section.

They head towards the bread aisle next. Zayn needs bread. And maybe bagels. And Pop-Tarts. Ev likes those. Who am I kidding, I’ll end up eating most of them myself.

It’s while they peruse the aisle for a few minutes in silence, when Zayn has to stop. He looks down into the cart Harry’s been pushing for him, perplexed.

“When did I grab hand soap?”

Harry leans onto the cart handle, his chest exploding out of his shirt yet again, and smiles at him, waiting for Zayn to catch up.

“And I didn’t have sponges or Febreeze candles on here either.”

In fact, as he looks through the contents further, he sees a whole mess of stuff he himself didn’t reach for.

Harry gingerly touches Zayn’s hand, like maybe he wants to hold it. Zayn’s breath catches in his throat, until Harry instead grabs the list and pen from him.

“You need soap for your bathroom,” Harry says gently, writing it all down, the smart ass. “Ev’s good, she never forgets to wash her hands after she goes potty, so she’ll need soap. And sponges, because come on, Zayn. How the hell do you expect to wash your dishes without a sponge?”

Zayn stares at him.

“Candles so it can smell more like home. You needed a better can opener,” he rattles it off, writing each new item down onto Zayn’s list. “A cake mix, because you never know when you’ll need to bake one on short notice. Frosting. And since you insist on Pop-Tarts, you also need raisins and dried mango, for healthy snack options.”

Zayn stares at him.

“Nicorette gum. To finally kick the smoking habit,” Harry levels him with a serious look, before jotting it down.

Zayn looks down into his cart.

“And last but not least, milk,” Harry finishes, handing back Zayn’s list and pen.

“I forgot to write milk?”

“You forgot to write milk.”

“Jesus,” Zayn says with a small smile. “Well thank God for you, then.”

“Thank God for me!” Harry yells out like a maniac, his arms in the air like he won the friend lottery. Zayn laughs at him, his stupid, childish friend. But then he notices Harry’s shirt has gotten caught on the top of his jeans, so he can see a sliver of skin and wild hair above his groin.

Zayn looks away, even as Harry sings his own praises louder and louder to embarrass him.

Zayn shoves at him, so they can hurry up and get home. They ran errands all day, to get the tree, some frames for the living room, and a few rugs Harry insisted on. But they need to be home for the big delivery. Zayn kept asking Harry why he even wanted to be there, to do the errands in the first place when he didn’t have to. “Don’t you have more interesting people to spend your time with?” But Harry just ignored him, time after time, with a flick of his hand like the question was ridiculous. Now, with a cart full of the necessities Harry knew he needed before he did, Zayn’s rather glad he has Harry with him.

Harry shoves back at him and as Zayn almost falls, he grabs onto Harry’s hips to steady himself. It’s then that he notices a little old lady at the end of the aisle giving them a dirty look. Zayn suddenly feels his palms burning, so he quickly lets Harry go and reaches for the cart, to turn them the other direction. But the universe must hate him, because a second later, Harry notices the woman staring too.

Harry touches his wrist to stop him.

“Let’s have some fun, yeah?” he whispers with a wink.

“Okay,” Zayn nods dumbly.

Harry grips the cart handle in his big hands and pushes them towards the old lady with the stink eye. She doesn’t even pretend like she wasn’t watching them, and literally scoffs, as she turns back to her choice of hamburger buns.

Harry stops their cart near hers, and drifts to the hotdog buns instead, his finger tapping his lip like it’s a huge decision. Zayn has to bite his tongue to stop himself from smiling.

“Babe, what kind do you want?” Harry asks, reaching a hand out to pull Zayn close to him. Like a boyfriend would.

And then Zayn is flush against Harry’s side, their fingers laced together, his dick pressed into Harry’s hip. Zayn thinks he left his stomach and brain over near the bagels, because he feels very discombobulated.

“Um.”

“This one,” Harry says, reaching for a random brand.

“Okay.”

“And did you grab the lube?” Harry asks innocently, loud enough for the woman to hear. “The flavored kind? You know I like that fruity taste when I have my mouth in your ass.”

The woman actually shrieks a bit, completely horrified. She moves away from them so quickly, like they’re infectious, their filthy mouths too contagious to be near.

“And then I’ll fuck you!” Harry yells after her, pulling Zayn's arm as she scurries as fast as her little old legs can take her. “Twice!”

Zayn smacks him and tries to laugh, even though his face reddens. Sometimes it feels like Harry brings out this side of him, like he’s fourteen and nervous around a girl, and not a grown ass man who only likes girls. In turn, he thinks it’s good for Harry to have some family ties, even if it’s just to his neighbor and his kid. Harry needs some family, Zayn thinks.

He realizes as he scratches at the hair on his chin that he’s kept his beard long and wild ever since Thanksgiving. He needs to shave before he picks Ev up tomorrow. He also needs to not think about the fact that he’s just held Harry’s hips, and hand, within the same five minutes. He shouldn’t think about the feel of either sensation.

“Come on,” Harry says with a flourish, as he begins to push their cart away. “I want to decorate the tree before the delivery.”

“But why,” Zayn says quietly, more to himself than to Harry, following him. Harry has so many interesting friends, people who he can go off and adventure with. They have their cameras and their seemingly unlimited plane tickets, yachts and ski lodges and trips to the Cape. Harry could be with any number of them, and yet he spends huge portions of his time with Zayn.

Zayn even shakes his head a bit, at a loss.

Harry stops. He clears his throat and forces Zayn to look at him.

“If you ask me one more time, why I want to spend time with you or your kid, I swear.”

“Sorry.”

“You need to stop apologizing so much, Zayn!” Harry calls over his shoulder, now making his way to the front of the store.

Zayn doesn’t move from the bread aisle for a few seconds, trying to catch up to his thoughts.

 

***

 

For the next day or so, everything moves very fast.

Zayn’s bed gets delivered that night, after they decorate the tree and right in the middle of Harry cooking dinner in Zayn’s kitchen. Two large men shuffle their way through the living room, with supplies to set up the frame, and then with a mattress in tow. Harry insists that they “try it out” while his chicken parm bakes, so they flail around on it a bit to break it in. Once they’re breathless and still, side by side staring at the ceiling, Harry says it’s a little too firm for his tastes. But Zayn quietly reminds him he won’t be the one sleeping in it, that he likes a firm mattress, and that shuts him up pretty quickly.

Then it’s midnight and Zayn can’t sleep. His thoughts stray to the grocery store, to that lady and Harry’s comment about flavored lube, and then he’s jerking himself off roughly on top of new sheets.

Then it’s four in the morning and he still can’t sleep, so he jerks off again.

Then it’s noon and he can’t concentrate on his article, so he looks out his window to see if Harry’s around. He’s not.

Then it’s three in the afternoon, and he’s standing outside of Ev’s school, nervous as hell. He met Ev’s teacher on the first day, but hasn’t interacted with her since. He hopes she remembers him, and doesn’t think he’s some creep about to abduct a child or something. He should’ve called ahead.

Zayn picks at the scab on his freshly shaved chin, and almost texts Rachel, to make sure the school knows he’s allowed to pick Ev up. He could even add, “And see, I’m on time, I told you so,” but he’s trying to be better about being a dick to Rach for no reason. She doesn’t deserve it.

But then it’s five minutes after three, and all his nerves are forgotten, when Ev comes running at him full speed. Zayn doesn’t think he’s ever seen her so happy, as her little backpack bobs up and down, her pink Chucks slapping the pavement to get to him faster.

“Daddy!” she squeals, leaping into his arms.

“Evelyn, is that you?” he teases her, lifting her almost above his head. “You’re huge.”

“I’m not that much bigger!” she giggles.

“You grew about a foot since I saw you last.”

“No way.”

“Yes way.”

She laughs again, as he settles her on his hip. He looks up and sees Ev’s teacher, who waves at him graciously, and then they’re off. Zayn carries her to the car and begins to strap her into her car seat. It’s freezing out, one of the coldest days of winter so far, but still no snow.

“Daddy, where are we going?” she asks as Zayn pulls out of the parking lot.

“You’re coming home with me, remember? You get to come play at my house after school now.”

“All the time?”

“Yep.”

“And Harry’s gonna play too?”

“Maybe. Not every afternoon, but maybe sometimes.”

Zayn has gotten used to Harry coming and going. On the nights they don’t spend together, Zayn can’t help but notice that Harry’s apartment sits dark and empty. Zayn doesn’t really ask where he’s gone.

“I like Harry," Ev says.

“Me too.”

Ev goes quiet, as Zayn gets closer and closer to home. If he didn’t know any better, she must’ve fallen asleep. She’s hardly ever this quiet when they’re together. She must save her quiet moments for other days of the week.

He glances in the rear view to see her face. She watches the world pass by through her window. Not asleep, but eyes looking up at the clouds. Just being a Malik, he supposes. Taking a minute of silence for herself. He sort of loves the fact that now that he gets her more often, he’ll see these other sides of her. He gets to be apart of it, as she grows up and shapes into a real person, with personality traits and flaws and questions.

“Daddy, is it gonna snow?” she wonders as they pull up to the apartment.

“Looks like it might.”

“Oh.”

“Still don’t like it, huh?”

“It’s too cold,” she says, grabbing onto his hand as they cross in front of Harry’s front window looking into the courtyard.

“I’m going to get you out into the snow, Evelyn Malik,” comes Harry’s voice exactly three seconds later, the sneak. Zayn shoves his key into his door and chuckles, at Harry being a creep and listening in on their conversation.

He’s supposed to be at work, now that Zayn thinks about it. Harry always works late on Mondays and Tuesdays, when most bands tend to put in the hours. “Not fun to party on Mondays and Tuesdays, see?” But there he is, strolling into Zayn’s apartment right after them, in all his tall, lanky glory.

The apartment looks and feels so different now, Zayn thinks, pleased with himself. Harry and Ev start babbling about school and snow, kicking their shoes off at the same time, and heading towards the kitchen for a snack. He looks around at his furniture, the books he has placed above his head on the wrap around shelf. The plant in the corner, the TV now on a stand Harry found for him, the black and white pictures of Ev all over the walls. Among them are a few of Zayn in college, with friends he mostly only talks to through Facebook now. A painting Ev did the summer before, that was supposed to be of her little family. Zayn’s hair is red in it, and he genuinely contemplated dying it red for a while, to make Ev happy. To fit the scene.

It came together quite nicely, once Rachel kicked his ass into gear and made him appreciate the space for his daughter’s sake, and once Harry told him what color rug to buy. It’s home now. It feels like home, with his kid’s voice coming from the kitchen, and her belongings flung across the floor, proving how comfortable she is. How she knows it’s her home, too.

It’s exactly where Zayn wants to be, and it’s a feeling he hasn’t had in a very long time.

He walks into the kitchen, to see Ev up on the counter with her legs crossed, her chin in her hands as she watches Harry. Harry has his back to Zayn as he chops up an apple on a cutting board. Zayn can only lean against the door frame to watch. Why does he love to watch them so much?

“Apple sandwiches,” Harry explains to Ev, slicing it into rings. “Two slices for ‘bread,’ and then we put peanut butter between them. A few raisins stuck into the peanut butter, and you’re good to go.”

“I don’t like raisins,” Ev says, unconvinced.

“Have you ever tried raisins?”

“No.”

“Then how would you know you don’t like them?” Harry tuts at her, tickling her under her chin.

Ev giggles and Zayn is struck, yet again, with the thought that it’s the most beautiful sound on the planet. He could listen to Ev laugh all fucking day.

“And what do you say?” Zayn says in a soft voice, as he finally steps into the kitchen. He leans on the counter next to Harry, but looks over at Ev. Harry hands him an apple sandwich of his own. He smiles in lieu of a thank you.

“Thank you, Harry,” Ev says with a little dance, distracted as she excitedly licks at the peanut butter all over her fingers. Zayn worries she’ll mostly just eat that, and leave the apple and raisins on the counter.

“No problem, toots,” Harry responds easily, licking at the peanut butter from his own fingers.

A few minutes later, after they’ve helped Ev eat her snack and wash her hands, she runs off to put on a new dress, yelling over her shoulder about singing songs with Harry. “Before homework, I know, daddy.” Zayn sees Harry flinch a bit, when Ev calls out to him from her room, to go grab his ukulele.

Harry doesn’t move to get it, though. They instead stand side by side at the sink. Harry washes the knife he cut the apple with, and Zayn wipes down the counter next to them. Ev ate her whole snack, raisins and all. He almost can’t believe it.

“I can go,” Harry says, his face blank, looking down at the wet knife in his hand. “I sort of just barged in here before. I feel like… I probably do that to you a lot. Just show up and play with Ev. And I know… like, you should have alone time with her. I can go.”

It’s odd how just the day before, Zayn had the thought that everything seemed to be rushing around him at breakneck speed. One minute he was in a tree lot standing beside Harry, and then the next he was holding his dick in his hand in the darkness of his bedroom. Their errands, Harry scoffing at Zayn for thinking he’d want to be anywhere else, Ev’s little face as she watched the sky for signs of falling snow. It was like a film reel, a quick succession of moments that Zayn grappled to hold onto and understand, for various reasons.

And then it slows down. It’s like all the thoughts in Zayn’s head, the worries and inadequacies and questions, could all dance on the head of a pin. It all goes quiet, when Zayn comes to a conclusion about Harry. Or rather, about himself.

“You should stay,” Zayn nods, not looking at Harry either. “We like it when you’re here.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Zayn sees Harry smile.

“Okay.”

 

***

 

Zayn is good at compartmentalizing. He can compartmentalize his actions, his emotions, himself. It makes it easier, since he lives his life in a constant state of, “Who do I need to be today?”

Some days, he feels like Zayn Malik the writer, the young-ish man who can string a hefty sentence together for profit. He’s a hard worker, striving to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He’s beautiful, a rogue, the guy who always carries a pen and a pad of paper, the one on the motorcycle who can light a cigarette and blow it in your face with a smirk.

Other days, he’s daddy. Zayn Malik the father, someone on the tail end of his twenties, with a few lines around his eyes, and his mother on speed dial for important child rearing questions. He’s quiet and sturdy, an old oak tree like Yaser, with recipes and kitchen life hacks saved as bookmarks on his phone. He’s too busy for his old friends, too wrapped up in his daughter, fighting tooth and nail for her to be happy. Passionate, sometimes angry, his temper getting the best of him when it comes to Rachel.

And then there are days where he’s just Zayn. Simple, blank slate Zayn. We all have those days, when we’re not so much an amalgamation of personality traits, and instead just a living, breathing organism without much thought or cognition. It’s how Zayn gets when he’s bored or tired, when he just sits there and tries not to think. Mindless in front of the TV with a bag of Doritos. A dork who builds Lego sets because he lied once, and told his cousins to buy Ev Legos because she liked them. (She doesn’t. They’re for him.)

But now there’s another part of himself that he has to set to the side when necessary, a part he never realized was there before. It’s the part that Harry sees more often than anyone else ever has, when they’re getting drunk or solving a puzzle. It’s a side of himself that Harry brings out in him, when he touches Zayn’s back or lifts up a branch so Zayn can walk under it unobstructed. A new part. The gay part.

So I’m gay now.

Zayn says it in his head a few times here and there, when he’s waiting in line at Target or ordering coffee at Starbucks. It doesn’t feel right, or like him at all, because he’s pretty sure if he was gay, he’d already know it. But there it is, the nagging thought that he can’t get rid of. Like it’s something he should’ve figured out by now, like it’s another piece to his puzzle.

But isn't that just like Zayn, to be unprepared. Behind. Off-beat and misstepping his way through adulthood, until someone like Harry wrote it down on his shopping list and handed it back, so he wouldn't forget.

He catches himself looking at other men now. Tall ones, men who tower over him in public places. Short men. Men with beards that match his own, men with baby faces, muscles, thick thighs, big feet. He wonders about their dicks. All of their dicks.

Maybe I was gay before. Or gay always.

He thinks that one night, after he falls back into bed with damp fingers. He’d just come rather quickly into his fist, so he washed his hands with the coconut soap Harry insisted he buy. He thinks maybe he’s always had some gay to him, because he looks up at his blank ceiling and remembers his old posters from his childhood bedroom. He had football players tacked up there, some of dad’s favorites. Barry Sanders, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman. Handsome and stoic, their arms bulged out and imposing. It hits him that he had massive athletes on top of him for years, and he never even liked football all that much!

The gay quite literally stared him in the face for years and he never even realized it.

Or maybe he did know, on some level. Maybe it’s not a new revelation, to be looking at men now, later in life. He’s always been looking. He’s just gotten good at hiding it from himself. He did get pretty angry with his childhood friend Danny, when he fucked a girl for the first time in junior high. He thought it was jealousy for a while, at not having a girl of his own. But it was Danny who always made Zayn feel safe and protected, let him ride his skateboard that first time, never made Zayn sleep on the shitty couch whenever Zayn slept over. Maybe his first crush wasn’t Allie up the street, but Danny.

And maybe the reason he was always so enamored with his high school English teacher wasn’t just for his brain, but for the way he sat in his desk chair. Mr. Rickert used to spread his legs a bit, to get comfortable, and now that Zayn has the time to think back on it, he definitely used to watch.

But Zayn was into girls. He had girlfriends. He touched them and they touched him. He had hookups and one night stands. He had Rachel in college, swept her right off her feet, always told her she was beautiful and meant it every single time.

And really, he hasn’t had sex in a very long time now. So maybe it’s just his brain supplying him with the next closest thing: Harry Styles. Harry, with his long legs and broad shoulders, big hands attached to thin wrists. Harry, who bends over when he drops something, instead of crouching down to get it.

But that doesn’t seem fair, to only think of Harry in a physical sense. Zayn knows too much about him to dumb him down to just that. Zayn knows him. He knows he’s funny and smart, a genius when it comes to music composition, a master of the stringed instruments. He loves his mom and hates his dad. He never wants to have a kid of his own, and yet he knew how to make an apple sandwich for Zayn’s. He’s probably Zayn’s best friend now, ever since Zayn moved into his apartment and away from every part of himself that he once knew.

It all comes down to the fact that Zayn is good at compartmentalizing. He can be a writer, a dad, a loner, and a gay guy. But he can’t be all of them at once. So for the time being, he takes the part of his brain that wants to stare at Harry’s bare back when he comes over after a shower, and he sets that box aside until he can delve into it further. He doesn’t have a clue what to do when it comes to the Harry situation, so he decides to ignore it until the answer comes to him organically. Naturally.

So Zayn spends the rest of the month writing pieces as quickly and efficiently as he can. He can’t give any of his sites a reason to look elsewhere, to other freelancers, because he had to take into account buying numerous holiday presents. He cuts back on cigarettes almost entirely, and only indulges on the rare nights out he spends with his old ARJ coworkers. Liam smokes like a chimney, so you can’t exactly blame Zayn for taking a pull here and there.

He picks Evelyn up after school, every single day, as promised. He’s never late. He’s never behind or in traffic. Ev runs to him, sometimes with artwork in her hands, or her lunchbox, or a form for him to sign. They laugh and talk about the interesting things she’s learning. Blue and yellow make green. Sea otters hold hands so they don’t drift away from each other. The biggest living structure in the world is the Great Barrier Reef, so now Ev wants to be a scuba diver when she grows up.

She waves to Harry sometimes, from their front window. Then like clockwork, Harry comes over and sings with her, their harmonies and melodies getting almost too good for Zayn to handle. One Saturday, when Zayn gets another frantic call to write a last-minute story, Harry shows up by some magical force, to grab Ev’s hand and take her to his place. They come back a few hours later, with a homemade chocolate cake doused in vanilla frosting, wearing party hats and everything. Harry even throws up a bit of makeshift confetti, made from ripped up receipts.

Evelyn, the genius that she is, told Harry it was her daddy’s birthday. And wasn’t it so sad that daddy had to work on his birthday? Harry fell for it, the sucker. Even after they both scolded her a bit for the white lie, they had quite the fake birthday celebration. Ev and Harry even sang him a new song as Zayn stuffed his face with cake.

But Zayn tries to keep the last and newest part of himself locked away, the Zayn is he when it's just the two of them, alone. They’re friends. He sees Harry on a few Ev-less nights and weekends, laughs with him, enjoys his company as much as ever. They play Scrabble and dominoes. Zayn hears all about Harry’s upcoming project with a band from Florida. He watches the way Harry’s mouth moves when he says words like “eloquent” and “cadence.” It does something to Zayn, good vocabulary and pretty lips. In fact, Harry offhandedly calls someone “loquacious” one night over pad Thai, and Zayn almost nuts off in his jeans.

Zayn tries his best. He pushes. He separates into the different versions of himself, depending on the day.

 

***

 

It snows the Saturday before Harry is due to fly back home to California for the holidays, just a few days before Christmas. Zayn is awoken at four in the morning, when his phone starts buzzing next to his face. He shoots up like a fucking rocket, the adrenaline surging, where is Evie, is she okay, what’s wrong? He quickly remembers that it’s not a late night emergency involving Ev, because he has Ev. She’s asleep in the next room.

“Harry?” he mumbles into the phone, rubbing at his eyes.

“Hey,” Harry says in a whisper, even though they’re talking on the phone and not next to each other in bed. Zayn bets Harry would be lovely to sleep next to. Warm.

“What’s going on? What is it?”

“It’s snowing.”

“Okay…”

Zayn waits, listening for Harry’s breathing.

“I told Ev I’d take her out in the snow.”

“It’s late though.”

“Technically it’s early.”

“Harry,” Zayn sighs, resigned and already shifting the blankets.

“I can be there in ten minutes?” Harry says, probably smiling ear to ear. Zayn can hear it. Harry’s smile makes a sound.

“You want me to wake her up? To play in the snow?”

“I knew you’d come around,” Harry says with a laugh. “Unlock the door.”

He hangs up the phone before Zayn can fight him on it. Zayn should honestly go back to sleep and send Harry a text in a few hours, when he’s boarding the plane, to not be a twat in the middle of the night next time.

But because Zayn is a fucking push over, and completely wrapped around Harry’s fucking finger, he quietly gets up and heads to the living room. He unlocks the door with a scowl on his face.

Then he goes to Ev. She’s tucked in her little bed under a mound of blankets, her thumb in her mouth. She likes to say she doesn’t suck on it anymore, since she’s not a baby. But she’s never seen herself sleep. She still does it anytime she naps, too.

“Baby,” Zayn whispers, kneeling on the floor next to her bed. “Evie, wake up.”

She begins to stir. Like a true Malik, it’ll take a few seconds.

“Ev, wake up.”

“Daddy?” she mumbles, rubbing her eyes.

“Babe, it’s snowing,” he smiles to her, running a finger along her nose and cheek. Perfect. Safe. Mine mine mine.

“Snowing now?”

“There’s already a few inches outside,” Zayn whispers, his hand running through her hair. “You wanna go see it?”

Ev’s a big girl now, but she’s a baby again when like this. Kids always are, in those moments between sleep and awake. No matter how old a child gets, they’re back to being six months old when roused out of a deep sleep, back to an age when sleep comes and goes as easy as breathing. She blinks her eyes, still trying to adjust to the intrusion, trying to see Zayn in the dancing light of her fairy lamp.

A moment later, Zayn feels Harry’s hand on the back of his neck. Zayn shivers from head to toe, his entire body lighting up from the inside out. Harry’s here. He’s back. He only left a few hours before, but he’s finally back. We missed you.

“Let’s go play in it,” Harry whispers, sitting on Ev’s bed. If Zayn shifted just right, he could lay his cheek down on Harry’s thigh. He’s so tempted. It’s right there. They lock eyes and Harry winks at him.

“It’s dark outside,” Ev says with a little stretch, before sitting up fully. Still only about half awake.

“It’s fun when it’s dark out, I promise,” Harry assures her, reaching for her hand. “We’ll get bundled up and go make a snow man. You want to?”

Ev looks at Harry and then at Zayn. She blinks a few times, before nodding. She smiles. Zayn goes to grab her winter clothes from her closet: her down coat, snow pants, boots. When he turns back around, Ev now sits on Harry’s lap, her head tucked against his chest. He’s tying her long chocolate curls up into pigtails, whispering about all the fun parts of snow, and how it’s only cold for a little bit. Ev listens and nods, her face serious, ready for it. He then tells Ev, very seriously, that they need to make sure to button her coat.

Zayn genuinely puts a hand to his chest, like a fucking thirteen-year-old girl with a crush.

Zayn likes Harry. He knows it. He recognizes it. And he can’t keep pretending like this part of himself can be put away for safe keeping until he can process it. He’s processed enough in the quiet confines of his bedroom, when he should be asleep. He’ll have to figure something out, a new plan of action, the right thing to say.

Ten minutes later, out in the little courtyard in between their apartments, Zayn and Harry each hold one of Ev’s hands. They tell her to look up. A dark sky, glittering with white specks. It’s like the entire city is still and silent. It’s just the three of them awake, looking up as the snow lightly falls around them. Ev shivers a bit, but she doesn’t look anywhere but towards the sky.

“See, it’s not so bad, is it,” Harry reaches for her, to hold her in his arms. “A little cold, but pretty.”

“Pretty,” she agrees, clinging to Harry, her mittened hands clasped tightly around his neck.

Zayn reaches for his phone so he can take a picture. He snaps one before they can see him do it: Harry and Ev, bundled up like two fluffy marshmallows, with snowflakes in their eyelashes, their cheeks pink.

He has the thought, as Harry holds his daughter close and whispers about snowflakes, that she’s happy. She looks truly happy. Taken care of, safe, growing up to be a smart, strong woman. Zayn knows he still doesn’t quite have the parental instincts Rachel has. He knows he has to work extra hard, to remember the right way to do things. He’s not always good with the details, or with calming her down when she’s upset or angry. He couldn’t navigate her Terrible Twos well, or keep the negative thoughts about her mother entirely away. He’s not a natural.

But at the end of the day, he’s her dad. And he is good at making her happy. He smiles to himself and walks over to take her from Harry’s arms, to bury his cold nose in her neck. She laughs and then smacks at his cheek.

After a bit of work, their snowman comes out perfectly. An old hat of Harry’s on his head, a stick for a nose. They name him Roger, after Ev’s silly grandpa. She says because it has a round belly like he does, and a mustache Harry makes out of rocks. They make sure it faces the front walkway so it can be enjoyed by all their neighbors, when they awaken from their deep slumbers in a few hours’ time.

Zayn looks up at Harry over Evelyn’s head, where she kneels in the snow and draws shapes in it with her mitten. Harry sniffs a bit, his nose running, but he smiles at him. And it’s then that Zayn knows, without any semblance of a doubt.

You like me, too.

Harry must realize he’s been caught, because the smile slides right off his face. He stares at Zayn, unsure of what to say.

Zayn reaches for him with a swift arm, to loop it around his neck and pull him close. Harry goes willingly, falls against Zayn’s side, their temples touching. They stay close, they don’t pull apart. They don’t speak. They just watch Ev play in the snow. She looks like she fits right in, now that she’s given it a chance.

A few minutes later, Harry convinces Zayn and Ev to lay back in it, so they can make angels. It gets all down the back of Zayn’s sweater and coat, and he almost curses. But Ev seems to enjoy it, giggling as she flaps her arms and legs around in it.

“Daddy, I like the snow!” she says finally, catching her breath.

“Me too,” he agrees.

To his left, Harry reaches for his hand and squeezes. Zayn doesn’t look over at him, and keeps his eyes up towards the sky. But he squeezes back.

 

***

 

Once Ev is back in her bed, sound asleep once more, Zayn and Harry stand outside her bedroom door and watch her. They had helped her remove her coat and snow pants, her little toes too cold, as she jumped back into her bed. Harry actually grabbed her feet and pretended to bite her toes off, one by one, and she laughed so hard she kicked him in the face twice. They then each grabbed a foot, and rubbed at them to warm them up, and she kicked them both in the face.

But now she’s back asleep, to get some more rest before the sun comes up. Rachel will be by in a few hours, since Zayn doesn’t get her for the full day. She has to go with Rachel to Christmas shop for various family members. Zayn should soak up as much time as he can with her now.

He just wishes he could focus.

“Are we going to talk about this?” he whispers, facing Harry.

Harry looks away from Ev, to meet his eye.

“About what?”

Zayn levels him with a look. God, Harry is a dick sometimes. Zayn stalks past him and back into the darkened living room. The only light comes from the tree, red and white and green strings of them. Zayn can’t help but stare at the ornament Ev made in school the week before: a little reindeer face, with a squiggly red nose. It hits him that she brought it home to him, to hang on his tree, and not the one at her real house. Something explodes in his chest, like an old cherry bomb shoved into a mailbox.

Harry settles next to him.

“About what, Zayn?” he asks, voice firm.

“About… this. You. And me.”

“Us?”

“Yeah.”

Harry crosses his arms and tilts his head a bit, taking in Zayn’s red cheeks and tousled hair. The sleep he probably didn’t rub from his eyes. The wrinkles in his shirt and shitty sweatpants he can’t seem to get rid of. He probably looks like a mess, standing next to Harry in his tight jeans and open shirt even in the dead of winter.

“There’s an us?” Harry asks.

“Yeah,” Zayn exhales, readying himself. “There is.”

“But you’re straight.”

“Maybe I’m not.”

“You have an ex-wife.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m straight. I’m… in the middle somewhere. I’m… maybe I’m everything all at once.”

Harry loses his cool a bit, becoming flustered. He steps away from Zayn and fucks his hair up even more, it flying around him to the left, and then to the right. He can’t decide how it should sit. He mumbles something to himself, pacing.

“I… You were straight. I didn’t… We don’t…”

Zayn, ever the problem solver and one to get what he wants, reaches for Harry’s wrist. He pulls him close, Harry’s feet stumbling and then knocking into his own, until suddenly they’re sharing the same air. Zayn can smell Harry’s breath. He looks down and realizes that Harry has his nails painted. Purple. He smiles and looks up. He sees the piece of hair fall from behind his ear, the tight little braid there. Ev's been practicing. They'll probably have to cut it out with scissors. Zayn bites his lip and touches a light finger to it. Harry just watches the movement with tired eyes.

They don’t say anything else, thank fucking god for that. Zayn just grips Harry’s wide-open face between his palms and kisses him. It’s like a fucking nuclear bomb goes off in Zayn’s chest, as he tastes Harry for the first time. Lips and tongue, wet heat, Harry’s hands finding Zayn’s face and neck.

It’s delicious, kissing another man. It’s rougher as they pull at each other, hair scratching his chin, Harry’s chest hair between his fingers. I’m so fucking gay, Zayn thinks, almost laughing to himself.

“Jesus,” Harry says in a harsh whisper. “I swear…”

“Yeah,” Zayn pants against his mouth.

“I still have to pack,” Harry says with a slight smile, before quickly pecking Zayn’s upper lip, his cupid’s bow, the highest point of his cheekbone. “Shit.”

Zayn laughs at Harry being the unprepared one. For once.

“You should go do that then,” he says, hands on Harry’s hips. He pulls him closer though, not able to let him go just yet, and feels Harry’s dick against his own. It’s hot. It feels like they’re standing next to a raging fireplace, instead of an uneven Christmas tree with twinkling lights.

“Give me a minute,” Harry shakes his head, kissing him again.

Harry bites at him then, makes this sound into Zayn’s mouth that he swears goes straight to his growing erection. Zayn pushes back, reveling in the feeling of another human being in his grasp again. He doesn’t have to be careful or sweet with it. He doesn’t remember the last time he kissed Rachel, but it was probably when he felt like he had to. This is a thousand times better than any girl he’s made out with, and yep, very, very gay.

“Sort of wish you could stay,” Zayn admits, finally breaking them apart. The sun has started to come up, slowly over the roof of their little building.

Harry kisses him one last time, before stepping towards the front door. He rubs at his chin, from the friction, and wipes his mouth. His cheeks, pink from the snow and the blood rush, look beautiful in this light.

“Tell Ev I’ll miss her,” Harry smiles at him. “And that I hope she likes her present.”

Zayn whips his head around to the tree, where a new box sits. God, Harry can be such a sneak. There it sits, black wrapping paper and a black bow, because Harry is ridiculous and pretentious, his present having to be edgy and distinct next to the “boring” red and green paper.

“What about my present?” Zayn asks, crossing his arms.

“You’ll get your present when I’m back next month. A Christmas-slash-birthday combo. A real two-fer.”

“Is it big?” Zayn says with a slow, wicked grin.

“Very.”

“How big?”

“You’re disgusting. Go to sleep. Have good dreams.”

“Oh I will,” Zayn nods. “I definitely will.”

Harry looks like he wants to laugh. He looks like he wants to turn back around and smack Zayn’s arm, or maybe kiss him, or maybe shove at him. But he doesn’t, he just glares at Zayn and then walks out of the door. In the few steps it takes him to get to his front door, his coat is already covered in small, delicate snowflakes.

At the last second, he turns around. They lock eyes through Zayn’s open window. Zayn waves. Harry waves. And frowns. Zayn has the vague thought that he might not see Harry again for a while, and it aches somewhere deep down.

Harry tries to smile, but his face goes all twitchy and bewildered, and then fast as anything, he’s back inside.

 

***

 

Christmas Eve with Ev is perfect. Zayn’s family can’t make it into town at all over their winter breaks, so they spend it just the two of them. Chinese take-out. Hot chocolate in their jammies. Presents.

Zayn can’t buy her much, but he gets her a few great gifts. A dollhouse. A book about the Great Barrier Reef. Art supplies. A stuffed monkey like the one he used to have as a kid.

But the biggest hit is Harry’s gift: a pink ukulele with her name etched on the front.

When he hands her off to Rachel later that night, Ev is fast asleep. Rach takes a look around his little apartment, at the decorations and the lit candle that smells like sugar cookies, and she smiles. She even kisses him on the cheek for a job well done.

Then they’re gone, leaving Zayn alone for the next few weeks.

He signs the finalized divorce papers on New Year’s Eve.

He drinks a few glasses of whiskey there on his couch, watching old episodes of “Master Chef” in nothing but his boxers.

He texts Harry over and over, but doesn’t get a reply.

And then the clock strikes midnight and it’s no longer December. It’s a new year entirely.

Maybe it’s another new beginning.