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Zayn rips off the pieces of paper taped to his locker as quickly as he can. He doesn't bother reading them, he knows what they say. Racial slurs, pictures of Bin Laden, pictures of death. He thumps his head against the locker once, for just a second, and then straightens again, slides a mask back in place and opens his locker to stuff the pages inside and grab his books. Right on cue his phone goes off.

u ok? it's his sister Doniya, and he can almost hear the concern in her words. He curses under his breath in frustration, and then taps out a quick response.

yeah. wali and saaf?

just picked them up. it was a rough day for them zee. Zayn sighs, bites his lip. He doesn't understand how young kids can be so cruel.

what happened?

bombings, in the London rail. they think it was al quaeda. Zayn curses again. Of course. He runs a rough hand through his hair and is about to type out another response when Liam rests a hand on his shoulder.

"Hey," Liam smiles smally, and he already knows, of course he does, and Zayn can't. Not with Danielle hanging off his arm, looking up at Zayn with big pitying eyes.

"You've got rehearsal," Zayn says shortly by way of greeting, "And so do I." Liam's face falls slightly but he shrugs.

"Dani, start roll call? I'll be right there," he asks. She nods and smiles reassuringly at the both of them and with a quick squeeze to Zayn's arm she trounces off. Zayn hates that he likes her.

"You're gonna leave her alone to manage the entire group?" Zayn asks and it comes out harsher than it's meant to but Zayn thinks he's allowed. Liam raises an eyebrow. He still has the patience to sound amused.

"It's only 60 people, and she'll manage. The guard's very well behaved and besides, she wants the brownie points," Liam's captain of the school's color guard and Dani's vying for his spot after they graduate. Zayn thinks she's vying for other things as well, but he keeps that part to himself. Liam shoots him a worried glance then, and leans in closer, crowding in Zayn's space. "Are you alright?"

Zayn sighs, hands him the crumpled papers and watches as Liam's face falls and he bites his bottom lip.

"Zayn -" he begins, but Zayn rolls his eyes, expression frosty.

"Shut up, Li, I don't want to hear it," and his voice is icy and Liam flinches away from it and really it's Liam's fault for not seeing through the defense mechanism.

"Sorry," Liam mumbles finally, eyes averted, "I - " He's interrupted by the approach of Niall, Louis and Harry though. They bring with them a dizzying feeling of normalcy - Niall's got his bass slung low on his back, Louis's got one hand on his drumsticks and the other hand on his Harry, and they're really late to practice, just like Liam.


Niall catches on first.

"Something wrong, Liam?" he asks cautiously, eyeing the two of them. Liam hands Niall the threats Zayn's received and raises his hands in surrender.

"Ask Zayn. I'm going to practice," he mutters without looking at either of them and turns on his heel.

Louis sends Zayn a severe look.

"Bloody hell," Niall murmurs before Louis can get a word in."M'so sorry Zee. Any idea who -?" Zayn shakes his head.

"Go on," Zayn says softly. "You'll be unusually late. I'm fine. Really. I've got to get to rehearsal anyway."

"I'll walk you," Harry says, extricating himself from Louis after he kisses the side of his head. "Off with you two."


Harry waits until Zayn's lit his cigarette to scold him.

"He's just trying to help," he chides gently. Zayn sags slightly.

"Yeah. I know. I just. He looks at me and I - "

"Don't want him to know how hurt you are," Harry nods. "Yeah." Zayn sighs. "He cares about you a lot though, Zayn -"

"Too much, he sees right through me," Zayn mutters frustratedly. Harry rolls his eyes.

"He's not going to think any less of you, Zee. Everyone would be hurt by shit like that. It's rubbish." They've come to halt outside Zayn's studio, about two blocks away from campus, and Harry turns to Zayn. "You sure you're alright?"

Zayn looks towards the doors of the studio. "I will be," he says, smiling slightly. Harry gives him a grin and if Zayn's not mistaken he's sure he can trace the outline of a secret in it but Harry just says -

"I'm really looking forward to the performance in a couple weeks." Zayn grins back at him appreciatively.

"Me too, thanks Haz."

He lets himself into the studio with a copy of his key and with a final wave at Harry he toes off his shoes and enters the largest practice room. It's dark still and he takes a breath, watches his silhouette in the mirror for a moment before changing his kit. He feels at home here, the familiar feel of wood against his bare feet and air dank and sweaty even before they start rehearsing.

He leaves the lights off, does his namaskaram, a tribute to mother Earth for letting him hit her hard with his footwork, and yeah, he doesn't believe in it per se, but the routine brings his body to life. He puts himself through the paces of stretching - arches, calves, thighs, back, arms - cracking and creaking with the stiffness of the day, and he's about finishing up when the lights are switched on, snapping him out of his trance. He doesn't bother looking up at his co-teacher, partner and best friend Sailaja, just gives her the two fingered salute for flooding the room with brightness. She's a couple years older than him so she's already out of high school and into Uni, but Doniya must have updated her because she just plants a swift kiss to his cheek, something she wouldn't dare to do had their guru been around, and settles in front of him to join in the stretches. Occasionally Sailaja gets the hate too, but she's Hindu, not Muslim so it's different, and Zayn's grateful. His sisters are one thing, but Zayn feels ridiculously protective of this girl he's grown up on the stage with.

"Penny for your thoughts?" she asks. Zayn just wrinkles his nose at her so she laughs at him, rolls up gracefully.

"Fine. Wanna work on scene three?" and Zayn is constantly reminded of just how grateful he is for her. "I can't seem to get it to settle." Zayn rolls his eyes. He finds it hard to believe that Sailaja has trouble with any choreo, but it's a big show they've got coming up and he's nervous too so he indulges her. She does her namaskaram and then fishes in her bags for the CDs.

"God," Zayn whines, "When is she going to replace the orchestra. It's been weeks." Usually a live orchestra accompanies them during rehearsals, but a few weeks ago they packed up and went back to India to play for a few months. Zayn misses the excitement of live music, the CDs are already starting to feel stale and overused.

"I think she's already replaced them, she's just waiting for the right moment to bring the new group in," she says finally, pressing play and letting the interlude stream through. Zayn stares at her suspiciously.

"How come you know more than I do?" he asks. She shrugs.

"C'mon then," she says, placing herself into position. Zayn shakes his body out and moves to join her, slotting in close behind. This scene is particularly intimate - the honeymoon scene - and they leave hardly any room between them, movements perfectly in sync. They don't really touch exactly, just brush up against each other, but the way they contort their bodies produces a tension that Zayn loves to watch and loves to create. He remembers when it used to to elicit an embarrassing reaction. Remembers the countless rehearsals that ended with him sweaty and exhausted and achingly hard. Sailaja never says anything - there's a trust between them that Zayn knows needs no words - but Zayn would still end up mortified.

Today though Zayn is used to the closeness, almost wishes she produced the same reaction she did for him when he was fifteen. Might have made things a whole lot easier, he thinks bitterly. He shuts that thought down quickly enough though, pushes through the routine, losing himself in the intricate choreography and the song.

Their students start to trickle in and some of them sit silently in awe and some of them look bored and Zayn already knows which ones are worth teaching and which ones will quit before they get anywhere, and a part of him wishes he didn't have to waste his time on them. Sailaja would pull his hair if he said that outloud to her but he knows she secretly feels the same way.

When enough kids have joined, Sailaja switches the music off and the kids wordlessly file into rows, doing namaskarams and sitting silently. Zayn takes up the old stick and wooden block to keep time with their footwork and they start the sequence of steps, beginning very basic and turning complex and intricate quickly enough. Sailaja moves through the rows, correcting positions and footwork, mumbling advice and adjusting arms and hands. Boys aren't allowed to touch girls here so Zayn's forced to remain seated, but he shouts corrections when he sees something particularly egregious.

They make it halfway through the regimen when their guru comes in. She's a formidable woman, beautiful and intimidating, though the lack of continous training and performing has left her significantly rounder. The class stops and greets her in unison, and Zayn stands, abandons his position at the head of the studio so she can take hers. He and Sailaja slip into the back expecting to join the steps and it's tedious and he's done it a million times but there's always something to improve so he doesn't complain.

Their teacher takes one look around the classroom and then frowns.

"Class dismissed," she says firmly. The students look around at each other, unsure of whether she's joking about ending their usual three hour class two and a half hours early, but she just waves a hand distractedly at them and fiddles in her bag for something.

"You two," she calls out, and Zayn and Sailaja freeze, (Zayn discovered when he was sixteen that he would never grow out of his fear of her - even though he’s about six inches taller than her) "Scene six, please."

Sailaja and Zayn exchange wide-eyed glances.

"But Master Garu," Sailaja tries, "You've still got to cast - " But their teacher just waves away her words impatiently.

"I know. I want to see it." Sailaja shrugs helplessly at Zayn and he sighs in resignation of a yelling.

When the song turns on he takes his position, mutters a silent prayer to Allah and any Hindu gods that might be listening for some kind of muscle memory. Sailaja's memory never fails her, and she guides him through the choreo as best she can, but it's still a disaster for the most part, and they end up tripping over each other more often than not.

About halfway through, Sailaja exits, and Zayn takes a deep breath and does a quick turn, signifying his change into his opposing role, the role that his teacher has not yet cast. It's usually Sailaja and Zayn that go back to their teacher's house, stay late at night to help Master Garu choreograph, bodies pliant as they let her mold them into the picture she sees in her head. They learn all the parts this way, including their own, until she casts another dancer. Today, he plays both parts, switching from one to the other as effortlessly as he can manage, earning some giggles from the younger students who have stuck around to watch. He chances a glance at his teacher but her face is blank, like she's looking right through him, and Zayn wonders whether she might not just scrap this choreo and start from scratch. It's tricky, the routine she's created here, and it's meant for two dancers that will work together tirelessly to perfect it and if she hasn't cast it yet - . Zayn can't help but wonder if that means she hasn't been able to find someone suited to it.

When he finishes, she simply gives him a strange kind of nod.

"That'll be all for today," she says finally. Zayn and Sailaja shake their heads at each other. Even after almost fifteen years of being under her tutelage, they will never understand what goes on in her head.


"Mine?" Sailaja asks him when the last kid has been safely seen off to her parents. Zayn checks his watch and then glances down at her sheepishly.

"Actually, I think I need to apologize to Liam," he says. "If I hurry now I can catch him after practice." She frowns.

"What did you do now?" she asks sternly. Zayn rolls his eyes at her. Sailaja loves Liam. He's her favorite of Zayn's friends, has been since Zayn's tenth birthday party when Liam insisted that Sailaja get the first slice of the birthday cake because she was the only girl there. Zayn tells her what happened earlier today and she just shakes her head at him fondly.

"Oh Zayn. You are something else," Zayn laughs at her tone of voice, the way her accent lilts over his name.

"Love me anyways?" he asks, running a hand through her hair affectionately. She glances back nervously to make sure their teacher isn't watching and then smiles.

"Always." They do their ending namaskarams together as per tradition, and then Zayn slips into the bathroom to get his school kit back on so he can head back to intercept Liam at practice.


He's a couple minutes early so he lights a cigarette and steals looks at the marching band from behind the bleachers. Louis's got his quints strapped on and a look of concentration that Zayn rarely ever sees on him. Niall's in the pit, lounging around with his eyes closed and a hand on his guitar. And Liam - well. Liam's centerfield, going through a routine with a carelessly content expression, movements imprecise and passionate and beautiful and the dance is so different than Zayn's but it makes Liam come alive in much the same way and steals Zayn's breath away.

Zayn takes a long drag of his cigarette.

When practice is over Zayn toes out his fag and moves out from under the bleachers to watch as they take down the field. When Zayn moves up besides Liam and cups his elbow roughly, Liam gives him a surprised but pleased look.

"Hey. You got out early," Liam observes, and he's flushed from the recent exertion and the adrenaline makes him languid against Zayn. Zayn pulls away slightly but he can't keep the silly smile off his face. The way Liam's looking at him is contagious, ok?

"Yeah," Zayn mumbles. "Have no idea what was going on inside her head today."

"As per usual," Liam laughs and Zayn gives him a strange look.

"How would you know?" Zayn asks him confusedly. Something crosses Liam's face and then he shrugs and it's gone.

"From all your whining," he shoves at Zayn playfully and Zayn smiles back.

"Oh. Yeah. Anyway, listen. About before - " Liam waves a hand.

"I get it, Zayn. But you don't always have to be strong. You're strong for Sailu and your sisters and your mum. But. Not for me, ok?" He lets the last part out in a rush and Zayn raises an eyebrow at him. Liam blushes.

"And Niall and Lou and Haz," he adds quickly "You don't have to be strong for us, yeah?" Zayn shakes his head.

"You don't understand."

"Then help me to. We want to be there, but you shut us out because we're not the same as you or because you think we can't relate and. Maybe we can't, you know. Not exactly but. You know we've all got stories. And we can try. Try to help." and Liam's eyes are wide and earnest and his voice is soft and breathy and Zayn pulls him into a one armed hug, allowing himself to melt against Liam's neck for a moment.

"Thanks," Zayn mumbles. Liam mirrors his lopsided smile.

"You're not alone, Zayn, never," Liam soothes, and Zayn believes him, he does.


Louis ends up driving him home because he lives the closest and Zayn takes in his hands tense around the wheel and shoots him a concerned look.

"What's up, Lou?" Zayn asks carefully. Louis sighs, breathes out sharply through his nose.

"I think I know some of the guys who left those - those notes for you," he blurts out finally, "we uh. we used to play ball together," and he's got a look of self-disgust. Zayn raises an eyebrow. He forgets sometimes that Louis's the newest addition to their group. It's been so long since he's thought of Louis as Harry's plus one that he forgets that throughout their younger years he spent time with a different set of people.

"S'alright, Lou," Zayn says finally. "S'not like we can do anything about it," and yeah, ok, there's bitterness in his voice. Louis catches it, studies him while they're waiting in a red light.

"I'm sorry, Zayn. We all are. If we could do anything - " Zayn breathes out, offers Louis a shaky smile.

"Actually. Can we stop at the gas station? Let's pick up some candy for the girls." Louis shoots him a grin and Zayn leans back in the seat, knows he's done it right.


It only gets worse as the week goes on, and Saturday finds Zayn sitting in a pile of his two younger sisters, their warm bodies curled around him, small hands pulling at his t-shirt. Doniya and his mother are talking in hushed voices in the kitchen, and Zayn gives them the space to unwind, thinks maybe Doniya has had it worse than she's telling Zayn. It makes Zayn want to ram his fist against the wall a few times but he stays quiet, lets her be brave.

His mother appears in the doorway after a while, a worried look on her face, a piece of paper in her hands, and Zayn doesn't want to make her ask, swallows against the bile in his throat when he realizes she's afraid to go to the grocery store, feels guilty asking her only son. He kisses her on the cheek and takes the list from her hand.

"I'll go, Ma," he whispers reassuringly. "It'll be fine."


The list is longer than usual and the stares Zayn gets are worse, but overall his trip is uneventful and he returns safe and sound.


When he enters their house, he discovers his family room's been turned into a small musician's hall, red carpet laid out, and a mridungam, veena and flute positioned carefully. Zayn gulps, clears his throat.

"Ma?" he calls out.

"In here, soniya," she calls out from the kitchen. He walks in to find Harry and Louis sitting at the dining room table, Safaa sitting where their knees are knocked together. Niall's got Doniya in the corner of the room, his hands grasping her wrists delicately, whispering reassurances, and Zayn files that information away for later processing. Liam's helping his mum dry the dishes and -

"Master Garu? Is there - Did I forget a rehearsal or something?" he asks, scratching the back of his head in confusion. Sitting at their kitchen table she looks relaxed, less scary, but Zayn still feels off center.

Liam turns from the sink and Zayn realizes for the first time he's shirtless, wearing loose fitting trousers that his mum could have sewn and a shawl wrapped around his stomach to maintain his posture and he looks suspicious like he's about to -

"What's going on here?" Zayn demands. Waliyah giggles.

"C'mon, let's show him," she grins, tugging on Safaa's hand.

"We've uh - We've got a surprise for you," Liam says, and he's blushing red and Zayn can trace the flush down Liam's bare chest and it makes him blush too.

Harry stands and tugs Louis up too.

"Little something we've been working on," he says cheekily in a manner that suggests there's nothing little about what they're planning on showing him.

"Come," his teacher says, and his four friends incline their heads respectively and follow her out into the family room.

Harry, Niall and Louis settle on the floor in front of instruments and Zayn's eyes widen. Niall pulls the veena1 halfway into his lap and Zayn has seen him with a guitar in his hands for the majority of his life but this. This is bizarre. Louis thumps a gentle rhythm into the mridungam2 and settles into in, molding his hands together to the instrument like he's been doing it for years.

And Harry flashes Zayn a charming smile. Harry, Zayn's oldest friend, who Zayn has heard sing countless times throughout his life, at every choir performance and talent show, leans over and touches his guru's feet reverently and then settles besides her comfortably, feet barefoot and crossed. He hums the opening to a tune that's so familiar and turns his gaze away from Zayn to someone behind him. Zayn turns to see Liam's dropping gracefully into a namaskaram, and grinning sheepishly at Zayn, he too crosses the room to take his guru's blessing and settle in the space before them.

Without any preamble, his teacher begins, tapping out the introductory rhythm with her stick and block of wood and then Louis and Niall add in a drum beat and a melody and then Harry adds his voice and then.

And then, Liam begins to dance.

It's clear he's been working on this awhile, and it's rough and he adds his own twist to each movement, but he's beautiful - confident and careless, body thrown about in a way that can only be graceful. Zayn cannot look away, swallowing hard when he realizes Liam's dancing the routine he thought his teacher had not cast. He turns to find his teacher's watching him, small, amused expression on her face, and she nods her head at him so Zayn does a hurried namaskaram and joins Liam, melting into the duel choreography easily enough.

Zayn's not sure how well they look together - his movements purely classical, Liam's, a contrasting free for all, but when he sneaks another glance at his teacher, she's smiling a small satisfied smile so Zayn lets go, relaxes into the choreo, grateful that he can focus on his own role and not switch between the two.

Their eyes meet halfway through and Liam's've got an adoration in them that makes Zayn swallow - and then the moment passes and they're back in their roles, arms stretching and overlapping over each other. He's painfully aware of Liam's body next to him, moving to Harry's beautiful voice and Louis's rhythm and then he hears a new harmony and he looks over to see Niall's switched instruments, flute pressed against his lips, something Zayn hasn't seen him play since middle school and they're damn good, of course they are and suddenly Zayn stops short, breathing heavily, tears in his eyes.

The music fades out and Liam wraps an arm around him and pulls him close and Zayn rests against his sweaty chest, tries to get his feelings under control.

"Shh," Liam whispers, carding a hand through his hair, “You’re alright,” and Zayn takes a shuddering breath, tries to calm down. When he can pull away, he does, but Liam keeps a firm hand on his hip, warm and stabilizing. His mum's got a hand over her mouth hiding her smile and she's crying and his sisters are staring at him adoringly and ok, he has the best friends in the whole wide world, obviously, because.

"You guys are - "

"Perfect?" Louis asks, at the same time Harry says "Gods." His teacher chuckles.

"I hear they are excellent students. Bhavani Aunty and Prakash Uncle have their hands full with each them." Zayn grins through watery eyes.

"I don't know what to say - Just. How? Why?" Liam squeezes his arm gently.

"When we found out Master Garu was looking for an orchestra well - you know how these three like a challenge. And - we wanted to be a part of your world, yeah? And it's brilliant. I've only ever felt as alive on a football field." Zayn looks up at him and Liam gives him a small sincere smile and then looks to Zayn's - their - teacher.

"Shall we take it from the top?" he asks politely and she smiles and shakes her head.

"No. Zayn's not wearing the proper attire and it's distracting me," she says sternly, all sentimentality abandoned again in favor of her usual demeanor. "I'll expect you in rehearsal tomorrow."

She stands and takes her leave of them all.

"Namaskar, Divya garu," Zayn's mom bows slightly, hands folded in a traditional Hindu way that makes Zayn laugh a little breathlessly. His mum shoots him a wink and his teacher chuckles too.

"Salaam," his teacher returns, pleased. "Send the young ones in to me soon, ma3," she says fondly. The girls giggle and shriek and hide behind their mother's skirts and the room laughs lightly.


The boys herd into Zayn's room afterwards, settling on his bed and on the floor in a pile as naturally as if they've lived here as long as Zayn. Liam moves over slightly, gestures to the space next to him, so Zayn settles in the crook of Liam's arm gratefully.

"So," Niall begins, after a moment of silence. They look around at each other.

"You're happy right?" Liam asks anxiously after a beat of breathing. "You're not angry? That we went behind your back?" Niall rolls his eyes fondly and Zayn wants to smack him upside the head. Of course Liam would have doubts, even though Zayn's sure this is the most incredible thing anyone's ever done for him.

"Course not Liam," he says, moving closer into him. Liam's put his shirt back on but it's thin and Zayn can feel his steady warmth underneath it. "Just impressed that you could keep it under wraps for so long."

"It was difficult lying to you," Liam confesses, flushing slightly. "Every time she offered me even a small amount of praise I wanted to jump for joy and then run and tell you." Zayn offers him a lazy grin, eyes closing to the hum of Liam's words through his chest.

"She tends to have that effect. It never goes away," he informs Liam solemnly. Liam giggles.

"Well?" he asks expectantly, jostling Zayn slightly. Zayn pulls away to look up at him.


"Tell me how wonderful I was," Liam says cheekily. Zayn lets out a surprised laugh.

"You were wonderful. You must be, if she's agreed to teach you so late," he cocks his head to the side as the thought occurs to him. "How did you manage to convince her to take you on?" Liam shrugs.

"Didn't take no for an answer?" he says non-committally. Harry snorts, and Zayn jumps slightly.

"Oh look, they forgot we were here, the love birds," Louis says in his overly fond voice. Harry snickers and Liam blushes, biting his lip and offering Zayn a shy smile, but Zayn doesn't look at him, just flicks Louis off with a roll of his eyes and a desperate attempt at nonchalance. "That's not very nice," Louis protests. "Don't let him be modest, Zayn. Liam, tell him how you really got her to take you on."

Liam's already red but now he groans, buries his face in Zayn's neck and mumbles something indistinct.

"What's that?" chimes in Harry playfully, "You - auditioned?"

"Auditioned?" Zayn asks confusedly. "She normally doesn't do auditions - "

"She made an exception," Louis informs him gleefully.

"What did you audition on? Guard routine?" he asks skeptically. He highly doubts Master Garu would be very impressed with that choreo.

"No," mumbles Liam finally, pulling away but keeping his eyes downcast. "I uh. Might have borrowed a few of your videos, to uh. Watch. Awhile ago. And uh. I learned a piece or two? To show her."

Harry, Louis and Niall are laughing full by now.

"Tell him how many times you watched the videos to learn the routine," Niall wheezes between laughs.

"Tell him how many times you watched just to ogle him," Louis quips, and Zayn feels a strange kind of warmth flood his chest.

"You watch my videos?" Zayn asks quietly. Liam looks up at him, offers him a little shrug.

"When marching band interferes with your performances and we can't go," Liam says. Harry clears his throat and Liam glares at him but then continues "And maybe a few from performances I really liked," he admits reluctantly.

"I - " but Zayn doesn't know what to say because. Coming out to support him, braving the Indian masses and the foreign languages and long hours to watch him dance - that's one thing. But afterwards? Spending time pouring over his videos? Taking the time to watch him over and over again? That's - "Where did you get them?" he asks, just to say something. Liam shrugs.

"Sailu would pass them on to me," he says, and Zayn nods. That makes sense. Sailaja's dad has recorded almost every performance Zayn has ever done. He can only stare at Liam for a moment, twisted up in the small space between Liam and the wall so he can really look at him and just -

"Why didn't you just ask me?" he asks finally.

"Would you have given them to me?" he shoots back, eyebrow raised doubtfully.

"I - " and maybe Liam has a point but -

"They're ignoring us again," Harry stage whispers to Louis. Louis smirks at him.

"Well if they're not paying attention -" he tilts Harry's chin up to kiss him deeply, sucking on his bottom lip with intent, only stopping when Niall throws a pillow at them.

"Oi, m'still here you wankers," he shouts indignantly. Louis just laughs delightedly into Harry's mouth but Harry's flushed when he pulls away and Zayn chuckles despite himself. Only Louis can ever manage to embarrass Harry at all.

"You know, Liam's right though, Zee," Harry says thoughtfully, when the room's settled down again.

"What'd you mean?"

"You are very closed-lipped about all of it," Harry informs him seriously.

"Am not." Harry snorts.

"I met you what, when I was six? And it took you like. Four years to tell us you actually danced at all."

"Five, actually," Niall corrects him "We were eleven. I remember because there was that time you told us you were going to a wedding and then photos of you from your competition showed up in the newspaper. We thought you were a proper superstar."

"Oh yeah. And then it took you like what was it - "

"Four more years after that to actually invite us to a performance," Louis supplies. "My first performance was yours too," he reminds Harry, "Was one of our first dates."

"Right," Harry beams at Louis, "And you still haven't performed at any school talent show or performance, even though I know they ask you at least once a year. I'd say you've gotten right good at shutting us out."

"Sorry," says Zayn, and he is, he hadn't even realized - "I don't mean to. I mean."

"What?" Louis asks, and he's genuinely curious, they all are.

"I just. I thought you wouldn't be interested," Zayn mutters finally. Louis shakes his head and Niall guffaws like it's the most ridiculous thing he's ever heard in his life and Harry removes himself from Louis to plant himself in Zayn's lap and wrap his arms around Zayn's neck.

"Have we done enough to convince you otherwise then?" he asks gently. Zayn looks over Harry's shoulder to see that Liam's just smiling quietly at him, a gentle smile that has the corner of Zayn's mouth tugging upwards.

"Oh, I suppose," he says thoughtfully, as if he's actually considering it. Louis gives him an indignant snort and suddenly the rest of the boys have thrown themselves on top of him and Zayn's got an elbow in his eye and a tongue in his ear and he finds he can't stop laughing.

"Zayn?" Doniya calls, knocking once and then letting herself in. Niall disentangles himself from the group with a cough and Zayn shoots him a look that has him grinning sheepishly. Doniya blushes prettily, clears her throat.

"Ma wants to know if you lot will be joining us for dinner," she smiles at them. They all nod enthusiastically at her from their twisted up positions and Zayn shoves at them to get up. He stands up as they watch him with round, innocent eyes, and finally, with a show of exasperation, he relents, smiles at them.

"C'mon, you idiots," he says fondly.

When they get downstairs, his mum's still setting the table so she shoos them into the family room to put away their instruments. Zayn watches them for a moment before grabbing his pack and lighter and going outside for a smoke.

(It's a clear night, blanket warm around him and Zayn takes a minute to let himself feel like the luckiest boy in the world.)

When he comes back inside, they haven't made any headway with the instruments at all. Instead they've settled on the floor and they're jamming out. Harry's singing raagas to Louis' standard beat, while Niall compliments Harry's rough voice with the full sound of low chords on his veena. Liam's settled against the couch with his eyes closed, foot tapping and christ, but they really are unimaginably good.

"How did you have time for this?" Zayn asks, but his question is ignored.

"Oh, you know how obsessive they are," Liam answers him after a long moment, eyes still closed. "Once they start something, they hardly let up. And their teachers are really good apparently." Louis looks away from Harry long enough to nod his head.

"They are the dream team, Bhavani Aunty and Prakash Uncle," and he hardly trips over the foreign names. "The perfect husband and wife. That's gonna be me and Harry in ten years," Louis says confidently, a slight trip in his rhythm the only indication that it might not be a a sure thing. Harry's voice catches too and he blushes but doesn't say anything else, just continues to stare at Louis adoringly, voice curling in.

"They played my senior recital," Zayn says, to divert the weight of the exchange. Bhavani Aunty plays veena and flute and has an excellent voice, and Prakash Uncle is probably the best mridungasmist in the country. So naturally, they work closely with his dance teacher.

"We know," Niall says and Zayn almost laughs out loud at the way Niall moves with the instrument, his entire body going up and down with the pitch.

They continue to freestyle, their music drawing in the rest of Zayn's family until everyone's settled on the floor for the impromptu concert, enjoying the symphony in their own way. And, well. Yeah.

Zayn's the luckiest boy in the world right now.


If Zayn's being honest with himself, (and ok, he hardly ever is, but) he's been waiting for this all day, each class passing so bloody slowly, until finally last period's bell rings and he can pack his things and wait to walk with Liam and the rest of the boys to rehearsal. So when he looks up and sees Danielle too is making her way to Zayn's locker, arm nestled firmly in Liam's, talking to him furtively about something, well, yeah, his heart sinks a little.

"Hey," Liam grins at him, eyes crinkling. "You ready?" Zayn nods slowly.

"Sure," he mumbles, stuffing his books into his backpack with more force than necessary. Liam gives him a look and then turns his attention back to Danielle.

"You're going to be fine, just don't let them give you any shit." Zayn snaps his head up.

"You're skipping guard practice?" he asks, shocked. Liam shrugs.

"It's just a remedial class for a few people who are having trouble, and Danielle has much more patience than I do." Danielle beams proudly.

"Thanks Li," she practically bounces, and like, really? Who has this much energy for school? Other than, well. Liam. Who grins back at her just as enthusiastically. "Good luck today!" she gives him a look laced with intent and then heads out. Zayn follows her with his eyes for a moment before turning back to Liam.

"How are you going to manage both?" he asks Liam quietly. Liam shrugs it off.

"S'just two weeks until championships and then everything simmers down for the last couple games. I can do it. Are you -" he studies Zayn, "Are you trying to talk me out of this?"

"What? No," Zayn says hurriedly, and then, because Liam doesn't look entirely convinced, he adds, "Dancing with you's about all I can think about." Liam's entire face crinkles up again, creates a ripple in Zayn's stomach and a flush on his cheeks but god, does he have a beautiful smile.

"C'mon, let's meet up with the others," Liam tugs at Zayn's jacket until Zayn obliges him, trying to fight a matching smile.


Zayn smokes two cigarettes before the rest of their crew comes stumbling outside the school.

"Sorry, sorry," Harry says breathlessly, "I completely forgot to tell Wions I'd be out today."

"Harry," Zayn admonishes, "What - Is that -"

"S'just one rehearsal yeah? They'll manage without me." Zayn looks at him skeptically. Harry's lead tenor in the school choir, and basically the choir director's right hand man.

"Are you sure you want to -" Zayn tries. Harry narrows his eyes at him.

"Shut up," he says, voice low and borderline dangerous, and Zayn wonders why he's suddenly mad but Niall hooks an arm around his shoulders and just like that the tension diffuses.

"C'mon, we're already late," Niall says, steering them down the block.


They are late. Zayn sees his teacher's car already in the parking lot and the pile of shoes in the door is already substantial. Louis, Harry, Niall and Liam add their own shoes to the lot before Zayn can open his mouth, and then simply quirk their eyebrows at him, waiting for him to do the same.

It's the senior class today, and they walk in to find a bit of chaos, girls and a handful of boys stretching or practicing, chatting animatedly or in their own little worlds.

"Hey!" Sailaja coming out of nowhere. Liam holds out his arms and she runs into them so he can swing her around.

"Christ, Liam, not here," Zayn hisses, just as the noise levels simmers to a halt, "It's not allowed -"

"Zayn," their master clucks, voice rising. "They're new. They'll learn. Relax. Girls, meet our new orchestra. This is Harry Styles, our singer, Louis Tomlinson, on mridungam, and Niall Horan on veena and flute. And Liam Payne will be joining the boys group. He will be cast alongside Zayn in scene six." There are murmurs all around and then Sailaja steps back, and bows slightly to the new orchestra, paying her respects to the musicians that will provide their melodies.

"Welcome," she says, accent lilting. "We've set up your stage for you." and with a quick wink at Liam she leads them to the front of the classroom, where a set of instruments have been laid out next to their teacher. When they've settled she rejoins her closest dance sister in the far corner of the room, shooting Zayn a glare when she passes him. Nidhi, their other dance sister curls into Sailaja naturally, winding around her like a vine.

"Get changed," his teacher says sternly to Zayn and Liam. "You're late."


When they're alone Liam opens his mouth to apologize but Zayn shakes his head.

"Don't. She's right, you didn't know, and I shouldn't have yelled. M'sorry," he says firmly. Liam smiles, tugs off his shirt and changes his trousers.

"I'm nervous," he confesses after a moment, watching Zayn change. Zayn moves closer to him, and he means to be reassuring, tell him she'll go easy on him, but Liam is warm and shirtless and looks beautiful with his face flushed in insecurity and -

"Me too," Zayn blurts out. Liam tilts his head to the side curiously.

"I make you nervous?" he asks, clearly amused. Zayn rolls his eyes, gives him a wry smile.

"Guess you do," he admits.

"That - makes me feel better, actually," Liam smirks, "M'feeling pretty confident right now, in fact." Zayn laughs out loud.

"Fuck off," he mumbles, but he's smiling up at Liam through his lashes and he watches as Liam swallows hard, smirk fading just a little.

"Zayn -" he breathes, but he's cut off by a voice calling them back inside. Liam sighs and turns away and Zayn can only shoot a curious look at his retreating back.

Zayn settles down next to Sailaja and Nidhi and after a moment Liam does too.

"Liam this is Nidhi, brilliant dancer and the closest sister to our age," Zayn introduces them and Liam offers her a hand politely. She takes it after a moment's hesitation, glancing up at Sailaja for a moment and Zayn watches as words pass between them. Then she turns back to Liam and offers him a beautiful smile.

"Welcome, s'good to have you," she shakes Liam's hand strongly. Liam glances over his shoulder to make sure their teacher is busy with something else before turning back to her.

"How come we've never met before?" he asks her.

"I live like three hours away so I can rarely make it any of Zayn's parties. Also I'm his least favorite so -" Zayn grins.

"Oh definitely," Zayn agrees. "She's the worst."

"Hey!" Rashmi protests, letting Nidhi turn into her side in mock distress. "S'not nice, Zee." Zayn laughs.

"Li, this is Rashmi akka," he uses the word for older sister out of respect.

"We've met," Liam says, offering her his hand as well. "You got married recently right?" She raises her eyebrows at Zayn.

"I'm impressed, Zayn. He's a keeper." Zayn glares at her but she just bats her eyelashes at him innocently.

"And this is Rahul and Akshay, the only two other boys in the senior class," Zayn chooses to ignore her. "Bit young, but pretty damn good, yeah?" Rahul beams at him.

"Thanks anaya," he says, using the word for older brother. Zayn ruffles his hair.

Liam's about to shake their hands too when Master Garu calls their class into order. There's about twenty of them in the room, but it's pin-drop silent as they wait for her instructions.

"Let's run it," she says after a pause. They scramble to take their places.

Liam sticks close to Zayn's side, whispering questions in his ear about the storyline and the casting and the choreo, and Zayn does his best to answer them out of the corner of his mouth so they don’t get in trouble. When scene six comes along, he is nervous. Sailaja leads him out, lends him some of her calm, but he's tense regardless, movements stiffer than they've been in awhile.

"Relax, Zee," she hisses at him when she gets a chance. He takes a deep breath, forces the air to circulate through his body, focuses on the music instead of on his teacher's loaded gaze.

When Sailaja exits and Liam enters, they only have time to exchange shaky smiles before they have to focus on the choreo, but somehow it's enough. Zayn lets go, allows himself to become engrossed in his movements, feel the beauty of it run through his veins. They're messy, the two of them together, and Zayn wants to wince more often than not when he chances a glance at the studio mirror, but they've got a chemistry together, even Zayn can't deny that.

When they finish, the ballet is interrupted by applause, and Zayn notices Niall and Louis've got their mouths open, and Harry's beaming at him like he knew everything all along. Which, yeah. Accurate. He turns to their teacher and she offers him a small nod.

"Well done," she says, and Zayn knows she doesn't mean they don't have a lot of work ahead of them. They do. But it's an encouraging sign. "That's all for today, I think," she tells the company. "Next rehearsal we'll start from where we left off."


Nidhi, Sailaja, Zayn, Liam, Niall, Harry and Louis stay until everyone else has left, and then Zayn lights a cigarette and they stay a little longer.

"You're different here," Liam offers after a heart beat. Zayn's brow creases in confusion.

"Am I?"

"Tell us what he's like at school," Nidhi asks the four other boys. They grin at her.

"He's smart. A bit quiet, but he's always got witty things to say -" Liam begins

"Not the good stuff," Nidhi protests. "We want to hear about all the shit." Liam throws his head back with laughter and Zayn groans.

"I have the worst friends," he says despondently, hanging his head against Niall's collarbone, even letting him pet his quiff.

"Do you want to hear how I first met him, then?" Liam asks mischievously and Zayn perks his head up. He doesn't remember this story. "He was sitting at a table by himself during lunch, and I had just switched schools so I was new and I didn't know anybody. And he was reading The Great Gatsby and yeah ok, I've never read the book, but I’ve watched the movie, right? And I figured, it was a pretty good movie so I awkwardly tap him on the shoulder like. Hey can I sit here? And he rolls his eyes and says. Well. If you must." Sailaja and Nidhi burst out laughing.

"God, Zayn you're such a dick," Nidhi says affectionately. Zayn feels the tips of his ears heating up.

"That did not happen," he protests meekly.

"It did," Niall confirms solemnly. Liam nods.

"Luckily, Niall came right on time to save me. He cuffed you on the back of the head and told me I'd be welcome to join them."

"And the rest, is history," Louis sings fondly and Harry bursts out laughing.

"God, that’s our Zayn though. Always one step behind us,” Nidhi teases, pinching his side fondly, “Remember that time Swarna asked him to prom? And he just turned around and walked away?" she asks Sailaja, and it's the boys' turn to burst out laughing.

"You did not!" Harry says, scandalized.

"This was such a bad idea," moans Zayn.

"No, this, is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," Niall proclaims.

"Yeah, you should be ashamed you kept us apart for so long," Harry scolds him.

"Help," Zayn turns to Liam, wide-eyed. Liam chuckles, opens his mouth, but Louis cuts him off.

"Nope, even Li's against you on this Zayn, sorry babe."

Sailaja giggles and loops her arm through Zayn's sympathetically.

"C'mon then, let's go home. I'm in desperate need of a shower."


They leave rehearsal in high spirits but by Thursday Liam and Zayn are still struggling. On Thursday evening she sends the rest of the company packing and holds the pair back. They exchange nervous glances and sit cross legged in front of her, both fidgeting with the light material of their trousers.

"I do not want you to be discouraged Liam," she begins, accent catching on his name, "There is a reason I do not allow people to join so late. It is hard to get them to synchronize with the rest of the company if I have not begun to mold them from the time they are learning to walk itself. And it is not simply about the movements. Zayn will tell you that it is about - thinking together, breathing together, being together." She pauses for a moment, and Zayn sees her face grow wistful. "When I was studying in Chennai, the men and women I danced with were my family. I cared very deeply for them. Maybe even more so than my own flesh and blood." she chuckles to herself. "My husband would not be so happy to hear that, I think."

Zayn's not sure whether to laugh or cry. He tries to keep his features neutral as she studies them both.

"I was not wrong when I detected a strong connection between the two of you. I thought that since you were already Zayn's family, Liam, that you would meld right into Zayn in dance too. But I have underestimated Zayn's stubbornness. He keeps you at arm's length, does he not?" Zayn turns away against Liam's hesitant nod. "I would like to see if I can change that. I am not sure if Sailaja has told you, but awhile ago I challenged them with the choreography of a very beautiful, very famous song," Zayn snaps up. She can't mean - "It is much lighter than the usual classical dance Zayn is used to. In fact, it is much more up your alley."

Liam nods.

"I've seen it," he says. "At least I think I have." Master Garu beams at him.

"There's a small charity show going on this weekend. It is a Sunday, so it will not interfere with your marching band commitments. I would like you two to perform that song there."

Zayn's mouth drops open.

"That's. But that's - "

"A love song," Liam finishes faintly.

"We need one boy and one girl don't we?" Zayn asks desperately. "Surely we - "

"You will play the girl Zayn," she says firmly. Zayn blushes red and she gives him an amused smile. "Who do you think played the female characters when girls were not yet allowed to dance? And we have plenty of girls here who are forced to play male roles. You will manage, ma." Zayn cringes.

"I - " but he breaks off at her severe look.

"I've booked you studio time. Friday night, Saturday morning. People will be paying good money to watch you dance. Do not disappoint me." She fishes in her bag for a CD. "I've already given word to the orchestra. They will rehearse with you Saturday. Friday night is all yours. Good luck."

They stand when she stands but Zayn can't move any further than that. He watches her gather her things carefully, shifting his weight from right to left as he does.

"Lights off when you leave," is all she says before she exits the room.

Zayn turns to Liam finally, wants to know what he's thinking, but he just offers him a small smile.

"Can I hear the song?" he nods towards the CD in Zayn's hand. Zayn shrugs. Why not, right? He pops the CD in and Liam sinks to the floor, tucking his chin into his knees and closing his eyes. Zayn watches his features relax and his body move to the melody like it can't help itself and, god, he would love to see Liam in this, to be beside Liam in this. He pauses the song, jolting Liam out of his daze.

"Do you want to - I mean," he hesitates, blushing. What if Liam thinks this absolutely crazy? What if he doesn't want to dance next to Zayn at all? But Liam grins at him.

"Will you tell me the story? What the lyrics mean?" Liam asks shyly, eyes hopeful. Zayn swallows.

"Yeah, um," he clears his throat, "It's not my language but I know most of it." Liam's nodding at him eagerly, so Zayn continues, "Ok, so just a quick rundown of the basic mythology yeah? You'll need it for most of what we do here." Liam nods. "So in Hinduism - and I'm not an expert, yeah? You should ask Sailaja's mom, but um - there are three main gods, like a holy trinity kind of thing I guess. Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the protector, and Shiva, the destroyer. Vishnu, well he has um, ten reincarnations -"

"which you show in Dashavataram4," Liam supplies, butchering the pronunciation but impressing Zayn nonetheless, "That one you did as a group was one of my favorites," Liam adds.

"Oh. Um. Yeah, Sailaja's brilliant in that one," Zayn says, finding it hard to control his awe at Liam's knowledge.

"You are too," Liam tells him with a shy fondess and Zayn blushes. He was cast center stage in that dance, playing each of Vishnu's ten reincarnations one after another as his dance sisters changed characters around him, acting out each scene.

"Thanks," he mumbles, "Anyway, so. One of his reincarnations is Krishna, yeah? Who's a boy who grows up living simply in a beautiful village. The interesting thing about him, and my favorite part," Zayn can't help but add, "is that he knew he was a God, yeah? And yet he was constantly doing cheeky things, causing trouble, being a nuisance for his mother, and flirting with all the girls. There's this story where the girls from the village go to bathe in the nearby river and he steals all their clothes."

Liam chuckles, and Zayn smiles, pleased, "Anyway, so he and one girl, Radha were best friends, and maybe even lovers? I'm always unclear about that. Anyway, Krishna would always flirt with all the other girls too, gopikas, they were called, so Radha would get jealous," he takes a deep breath, "the song we're doing is from a movie called Lagaan, and in it the girl is singing to the guy about how Radha is jealous watching Krishna fawn over other girls. And um, the guy tells her," he blushes, "how beautiful Radha is, how um. If these other girls are stars then Radha is the moon, how he'll always be searching for her. How they could never compare to her, how he'll always love her."

"That's beautiful," Liam says sincerely after a moment.

"Yeah um. Have you seen the choreo?"

"S'been a while, but yeah, I think so. It's quite intimate, isn't it?" Liam asks carefully.

"Yeah. It's um. I mean Sailu and I choreographed it for the two of us, I never thought. I mean, you can always back out you know, if you don't want to -" Zayn breaks off. It's true, the choreo is definitely more amorous than his teacher would have done. He and Sailaja spent hours on it, trying to find a balance between the intimacy the lyrics called for and the rigid rules of classical dance. Zayn remembers being nervous to perform it in front of his teacher, afraid that they had taken it too far.

He clears his throat, looks up to find Liam is shaking his head in disbelief.

"You have no faith in me do you?" he asks softly, and Zayn frowns, not quite understanding.

"I don't - "

"I would never give up dancing with you," Liam tells him firmly. "And yes, I'm sure. Do you want to get started now or -?" The words settle in Zayn's skin and heart and stomach, making his pulse race and palms sweat. Liam wants to dance with him, wants to share breath and movements and a stage with him. And his teacher's choreography is one thing, but this song is Zayn's. The part he's about to teach Liam is all Zayn's hard work and late nights and Liam wants to learn it, wants to dance with Zayn. Christ, he's in trouble.


They end up spending hours in the studio that night, even with impending classes next morning and Liam's football game. Liam's determined and stubborn and he wants to learn everything tonight, is eager to keep going. They work slowly, not because Liam's slow, but because he's a perfectionist. He keeps Zayn on his toes, asking question after question about what a certain hand movement means, or what the rhythm of that step is and Zayn enjoys it. He complains about it more often than not but really, he likes teaching, and he's good at it, especially with a focused pupil.

When they reach the end and have run it a few times (not together, Zayn can't handle that tonight, instead, he watches Liam from his teacher's spot, and the choreo looks bare without the opposing girl's role, but Zayn tells himself it's necessary) Liam collapses onto the worn wooden floor, spread eagle and drained, panting hard. Zayn snorts, settles down next to him. There's silence except for the spinning of the CD where it stays paused in the player, and Liam's heartbeat made fast by the exercise.

"You did good," Zayn tells him softly.

"God, your praise is harder to come by than Master Garu's," Liam teases, and Zayn wrinkles his nose.

"Shut up. No I mean it. Really good. Tomorrow will be a breeze." He watches the lines in Liam's throat as he swallows.

"Tomorrow will be - interesting," Liam agrees after a moment, turning on his side to smile up at Zayn. Zayn can see beads of sweat threaten to spill over his short hair into his eyes, and without thinking he reaches out, swipes the drops away. Liam lets out a rush of air, looks up at him with an intent that Zayn can't place.

And then Liam shakes his hair out, splays Zayn with sweat, and Zayn yelps, indignant, and the moment passes.

"I hate you," Zayn mutters, half-heartedly wiping at his face.

"Yeah?" Liam asks innocently, turning to lay his head in Zayn's lap and look up at him with sparkling eyes. Zayn tries, he swears he does.

"No," he admits defeat finally, helping Liam up. Liam hums his delight, sinking into a namaskaram so beautifully that Zayn catches his breath. And it's stupid really. Zayn's watched Liam perform exquistely all night and yet.

"Zayn?" Liam arches an eyebrow. "You gonna - ?"

"What? Oh yeah," he mimics Liam's namaskaram and then rises.


"I'll see you at school tomorrow?" Liam asks him softly, once Zayn's finished stubbing his cig out on the pavement outside their studio. (Their studio. Christ.)

"Course, Li," Zayn tries for a charming smile. "Yeah."


"Expecting someone else?" Harry smirks, laughing at Zayn's frantic shake of head. So he'd grown used to Liam showing up at his locker after class, ready to drag him to rehearsal. Nothing to report, move along. "It's game day," Harry reminds him, hitting him rather unfairly on the head with a bleacher cushion he's carrying. Those were purchased after around the third game their freshman year, when Harry had announced that he and Zayn were going to attend every football game of the season, to ogle a certain drummer boy in the back. The spiked soda bottles Harry carries in his other hand were added on after Doniya graduated. Speaking of which -

Zayn slams his locker shut and grabs his backpack.

"Hey Haz, what's going on between Niall and Doniya?" Harry chuckles almost sheepishly.

"Uh, nothing? Not yet anyway. He's uh, waiting to ask for your permission," Harry teases. They move outside into the brisk autumn air, make their way towards Zayn's car.

"Christ," Zayn mutters, "How did that even happen?" Zayn shoves his books inside, then takes Harry's proffered cushion and drink.

"Who'dya think let us know that your teacher was looking for an orchestra?" Harry asks slowly, studying Zayn as he lights a cig. "You know, she could do a lot worse. Niall's one of the good ones -"

"No, I know that, I just - "

"And your mum probably already knows, they're both not exactly very subtle about it - "

"It's fine, Haz, really," Zayn interrupts, before Harry can get carried away. "You know how my mum is about this kind of stuff." Harry smiles sincerely, gives him a small nod. "I'm just surprised, yeah? I mean he's two years younger than her."

"He's really nervous about talking to you," Harry begins thoughtfully, "Every time we've almost got him convinced to just do it, he comes back like, bloody hell, it's his sister though," Harry makes a poor attempt at Niall's accent, and then a sly grin spreads out across his face, "You could play it out a little, make him sweat." Zayn barks out a surprised laugh.

"You're horrible," Zayn tells him fondly, "C'mon," he cups the back Harry's neck, stubs out his cig. "Let's go admire the arse on a certain man in uniform."


They find their usual corner, on the fifty and right by the box and Harry settles into Zayn, absentmindedly scanning the field where the football teams are warming up. They're early and the student body is trickling in slowly, laughter and the smell of fried food pervading the crowd in waves. It's one of the last home games of the season so it usually prompts a good turn out and today's no exception. Harry's constantly finding someone he knows among the hordes, waving two fingers or sending them a smile, even making the effort to strike up small conversation with a group that settles in front of him. Zayn remains quiet by his side, keeps his eyes to himself. He doesn't want to say that these four boys are his only friends at school, but they kind of are.

The thing is, Zayn's never been very good at making friends. He and Harry were kind of thrown together, because Anne was the first (and only) to ever bother welcoming the new family on the block. When she found out that Zayn and her son Harry were the same age she was thrilled, insisting that Zayn be allowed over for a play date. Now, she loves to tell a story (one that Harry will always claim is false) about how Zayn's the only reason Harry's ever managed to sit still.

They became fast friends because, well, it's kind of impossible not to like Harry. Even when he was younger he was charming and just the right amount of cheeky and he got Zayn to say more than a few words at once and suddenly they were best mates. And then Niall came along a short while later at Harry's insistence, noticed Zayn was different even at that young age and yet embraced it, insisting on being invited over for dinner often and allowing the rest of Zayn's family to fuss over his obnoxiously blonde head of hair.

Louis happened a bit differently. If Zayn closes his eyes he can remember the first time Louis set foot in the Malik household. Harry had tugged him through the front door and straight into the kitchen, cleared his throat. He had been nervous, like Zayn had never seen him before, shifting from foot to foot, waiting for Tricia to realize they were holding hands. When she'd looked up he had given her a shy smile.

"I'm gay," he'd said quietly, "And this is Louis, my boyfriend. And I really needed you to know because you're like a mum to me and - " Zayn’s mum had cut him off with a hug, pulling both of them into her dirty apron and kissing the tops of their heads.

"Stay for dinner?" is all she'd said. Zayn had let out a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding.

And Liam, well. Liam sort of snuck up on Zayn, settling quietly into any nooks and crannies he could find, borrowing comic books and bollywood movies and then perching at the edge of Zayn's bed to discuss them in earnest. He accompanied Zayn's sisters and mum to Zayn's dance competitions, often insisting on driving if it was far away, and he tried all the food, endured all the curious stares, watched all the performances, good and bad. It was Liam who realized how bad the bullying had gotten, Liam who always made sure he was on top of the latest news, Liam who spoke out fiercely against any attacks that came Zayn's way. And it was Liam, too, who first showed him the draw of other dance forms, lying on their stomachs and showing him video after video of jazz, modern, contemporary; when Zayn turned seventeen, Liam had bought him two tickets to the ballet, blushing and ducking his head to insist that he didn't have to take Liam, that he could go with anyone he wanted.

Obviously, Zayn had taken him. He still can't forget the way that boy filled out a suit.

"Zayn? You alright?" Harry waves a hand in front of his face, and Zayn catches it by the wrist, uses it to bring the other boy even closer into him. Harry giggles, obviously surprised at the affection, and Zayn feels a tinge of guilt.

"Love you, you know that right?" he mumbles, embarrassed but determined. The look on Harry's face is worth it. "Don't think I don't know who's the mastermind behind our gorra5 orchestra." he teases one of his curls. There's a hollering from below and out of the corner of his eye Zayn watches the cheerleaders enter, hears the distant build of the cadence, but Harry's eyes don't leave his.

"We worked it out together," Harry insists, but he turns his hand, interlaces their fingers. "Love you too." He uncaps his bottle of coke and rum and clinks the cheap plastic against Zayn's with a small smile. Zayn drinks obediently, relishing the slow burn and the warmth it provides them against the late afternoon chill. "Hey, it's Perrie," Harry points out after a moment, offering her a wave when she smiles up at him from the bottom of the bleachers. Zayn waves too and she smiles bigger at him and then turns back to her friends. "You know, you haven't seen anyone since her, and it's been awhile, hasn't it?" Harry points out, in a tone that Zayn knows he uses when he's too afraid to say something and mean it seriously. Zayn shrugs.

"You remember what happened when we started going out," he reminds Harry, not particularly bothered by the observation. They'd gone out a few times when Zayn was sixteen, but it'd only lasted a short while before Perrie started getting hate, bullshit about converting and the like. She'd been strong enough to take it but Zayn hadn't been, insisting they'd be better off as friends. They'd parted amicably enough, and besides, she wasn't who he'd really wanted, even then.

"It'd be different now," Harry insists, boyish and stubborn.

"Sure Harry," Zayn indulges him. Harry glares at him and Zayn laughs, pulls him closer in consolation. Luckily, Harry's distracted by the sudden hush that falls upon the bleachers.

People have begun to stand so Zayn and Harry stand too, stomping their feet to the beat the drumline lays out. Harry giggles when Louis points to where he knows they're sitting with a drumstick, and then slips right back into the lick, expression smug. Liam's marching in front with the drum majors, looking sharp, grin easy. Zayn's teased him about it before, but he looks unfairly good in a black skin tight suit, fabric rippling whenever he moves, clinging to taut muscle. He takes a swig of courage.

They arrange themselves on the track, respectfully watching the away team's marching band play pre-show. They're a lot smaller and they get Harry wincing every time there's a pitch problem, but their guard is pretty good. They choose to perform simple choreography well, rather than attempt an overly-complicated routine, and Zayn can appreciate the wisdom behind that, so he claps indulgently, cheering after the guard captain's solo.


"You're in a good mood," Harry observes during the coin toss.

"You're here aren't you?" Zayn quips, waving at Niall when he turns from his seat on the bleachers below them. He can hear the way Harry rolls his eyes happily.


By half time they're down two touchdowns and the stands are rowdy and buzzed, high off a shared adrenaline and a few daring plays. They're on their feet for the marching band, a low roll of anticipation hushing them as two hundred players take to the field. Zayn fights his instinct to search for where he knows Liam'll be on the fifty, instead he scans the other guard members, watches the way they remain poised, eyes trained on the hands of the drum major. It's a latin groove this year, and it's beautifully executed, the color guard incorporating bright red and orange flags into an edgy salsa routine. And then, a mournful ballad, and Liam's solo, graceful and tragic and powerful. Zayn knows Liam worked for ages on this to get it just right, humming the melody under his breath for about a month while he worked it out. And it shows in the way Liam performs, leaving everything he's made of on the field, easily the best solo Zayn's seen in his four years here.

No, he's not biased.

Dani joins him a moment later in a series of lifts, and Zayn bites the inside of his cheek, wonders about the drag of deft fingers against rib grooves. Beside him, Harry puts two fingers to his lips and whistles, loud and shrill.

They're back to flags and Zayn's forced to wonder about strong hands wrapped tightly, moved quickly, has to close his eyes when he thinks that tonight those hands will wrap around his own slight wrists, pull their bodies flush together to an entirely different beat.

The crowd brims with appreciation and Zayn can only watch and wonder, breath held.

Then there's the drum break, a feature Niall, Louis and a young prodigy on snare, Greg, share. Harry watches proudly, clapping in all the right places, and Zayn slips a hand into the small of Harry’s back, and leans his head on Harry’s shoulder, content to share in just a small piece of what Harry and Louis have together.


They win. It comes as a surprise, their football team gets to celebrate only a handful of wins each season, and the crowd goes giddy with it. Harry and Zayn hear promises of an after party and a whole lot of fuzzy heads as they make their way against the flow of people, back towards the band room where their mates are taking off uniforms and putting away instruments.

"Out of my way, paki," shoves someone from Zayn's right. On his right side, Harry practically growls, squeezing Zayn's forearm painfully.

"Fuck off, Samuels," Harry bites out, standing his ground. Andy's expression shifts into something akin to confusion; Harry's well liked by nearly everyone in school, picking a fight with him wouldn't be a wise move.

"C'mon," mutters Zayn, tugging at Harry. Harry glares at Andy stubbornly for about a second longer, but Zayn's looking at the way a crowd's gathering around them, notices the way they've drawn attention to themselves by blocking traffic in the middle of the walkway. Andy's a lot less dangerous without the rest of his gang but still, Zayn's not willing to take chances. Not with Harry's pretty face. He tugs harder. "Haz." Finally Harry relents, allows himself to be lead away.

"Should have let me deal with him," Harry says angrily, ignoring Cher, a pretty girl on guard a year younger than them when she waves as they enter the band room. Zayn shoots her an apologetic look.

"No I shouldn't have."

"He was fucking alone for once, the bastard. Could've handled him," Harry mutters fiercely, fingers curling into fists.

"Leave it, Haz, m'fine. Promise," Zayn says firmly.

Zayn turns his attention determinedly away from Harry's observant gaze, to the chaos of the huge room, searching for the other lads, until someone comes bowling into him, knocking the air out of him and nearly choking him with sweaty hair. Liam's changed out of his uniform into worn sweats that smell clean and fresh and Zayn kind of wants to bury his cold nose in the dip of Liam's collar bone for a moment. He resists.

"You were brilliant," he says when he can take a breath without Liam's arms squeezing at his lungs.

"Yeah yeah," Liam waves away the compliment, circles a wrist, "C'mon, we've got to go."

"No victory drinks?" Niall pouts, coming up from behind Liam and wrapping his arms around Liam's waist.

"We can't," Liam twists to inform him importantly, before the illusion is ruined by a childlike giggle. "We've got to rehearse."

"Liam, it's still early, we could - " Zayn tries, but Liam rounds on him.

"C'mon Zayn, please? I'm itching for it - "

"Are you," Louis drawls, managing to infuse enough smirk into his voice even as he presses an open mouthed kiss to Harry's cheek. Harry opens his mouth, a frown etched in the curve of his eyebrows, but Zayn shakes his head, shoots him a pleading look, and Harry snaps his mouth shut, kisses the top of Louis' forehead gently. He's still frowning but when Louis looks at him with soft blue eyes, the creases in Harry's forehead smooth out and Zayn knows he's in the clear.

"Shove it," Liam is saying happily, continuing to tug on Zayn. "No time to waste Zayn, let's go." Zayn laughs in spite himself, feels Liam's enthusiasm like a hook in his belly.

"Yeah alright," he shrugs helplessly at his three other mates, each with their own version of a fond smile, and allows himself to be dragged away.


The lights are on in the studio when they get there, and Zayn just shrugs at Liam and pushes through the door and - stops short.

Sailaja's there. Being pressed against a mirrored wall by -

"Nidhi?" The two girls jump apart, mouths separating with an obscene noise. "What are you - "

"You're not supposed to be here," Sailaja stammers out, pulling her dress back in place, and blowing her hair off her face. "It's not eight yet - "

"Didn't know anyone else had studio time," Zayn says distractedly, "What is going on here?" he demands. He watches as Nidhi wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, and then reaches for Sailaja, interlaces their fingers. Zayn's known they've been close, knows they can read each other's minds, watches them wrap around each other to keep the warmth in, sees the way they perform on stage together but -

"We know, Zayn," Nidhi says quiety, "We know about her parents and tradition and culture," she spits out the word, "I know she'll be promised to someone else, no matter what I have to say about it," and her voice is quiet and resigned, like the words are stale on her tongue, "We're just trying to enjoy what time we have, ok?"

Zayn forces a nod, every muscle stiff. She eyes him dangerously for a moment, catlike and deadly, and Zayn remembers how hard she fought to be here, how much she battled to prove to her parents that classes here were worth the drive and the money, that dancing was worth the commitment. Remembers the way the two girls had fought at first, often coming head to head against each other for the same roles, creating an ugly competition that broke suddenly into a fierce, protective love. He feels his muscles relax further. "C'mon," she says finally, when she can see the way the lines in Zayn's body have unfurled. She nods at Liam, "Let's give them a moment."

She takes Liam's hand and leads him out of the studio, and Zayn watches Sailaja, waits until the door clicks shut. Then he's moving to her, hugging her tightly.

"Oh Sailu," he murmurs. He feels the sigh of relief she presses to his chest and suddenly he's desperate to keep the pain out of their embrace. "What are you going to do?" She shakes her head against his chest.

"Never meant for you to find out this way," she shudders out, "We were rehearsing and things got. We got carried away." She bites her lip, pulls away to look at him. "Are you mad? You can be mad. I should have told you. Only it's so new and I -"

"I'm not mad," he says as gently as he can, cupping her chin. "I just. I don't understand -" She shrugs helplessly, looking small.

"I don't either," she confesses. Zayn closes his eyes for a moment. Sailaja's parents are a rarity nowadays. Most who immigrate here come with a resignation to the idea that their kids will grow up infused with different values, a different influence. Zayn hardly knows anyone who'll be expected to have an arranged marriage, with matching horoscopes and a soothsayer involved. But he's always known about Sailaja. Known that one day her marriage proposal would be drawn from a set of suitors her parents have picked out, who are of the same caste, who speak the same language, who practice the same religion. Who are most certainly not the same gender. He sighs heavily. He'd thought that's what she wanted.

Instead of asking her again what she's going to do, he pulls her firmly against him again, kisses her forehead.

"It's going to be alright," he says, and his words are meaningless, trite, but he knows she'll understand how much he wants them to be true. Thinks it'll have to be enough for now.


They come out a few minutes later to find Nidhi and Liam chatting aimlessly. Liam stops abruptly, arms halfway through a gesture when he spots them, gives Zayn a questioning smile.

"I need a cigarette," is Zayn's only suitable response. They wait for the girls to pull their shoes on and step outside. "What are you doing here anyway, Nidhs?" he asks after the first inhale. His tone is light and affectionate and he sees Nidhi visibly relax, curl further into Sailaja. The question's a valid one. She normally doesn't come on weekdays, can't because of how faraway she lives.

"We're performing on Sunday too," she says, "Dola Re," she answers his arched eyebrow.

"You're gonna drive back now?" Liam asks incredulously.

"No." And Zayn chuckles at the way she refuses to be embarrassed. "m'gonna stay at Sailu's."

"Oh," is all Liam says, dazed. Sailaja's laughing, wrapping her arm around Nidhi, and pressing a kiss to her neck, and Zayn can't even protest because this is all so normal for them, even before.

"C'mon," she tugs at Nidhi's hand, "Let's let these two get to it. They're gonna have to work hard if they want to perform after us." She waggles her eyebrows and Zayn throws her the two fingered salute but doesn't bother to mask his fondness.


"You ok?" Liam asks softly, when the girls have left and Liam and Zayn are getting their kits on. Zayn shrugs, tries to figure out how to explain it to Liam.

As usual, Liam is one step ahead of him.

"Sailaja told me about her family," he tries.

"Yeah?" Zayn asks, "What else did she tell you?" and he means it as a joke, but Liam tilts his head, considers the question.

"She told me that even you don't really understand it. That even though you use dance as an escape from all the shit at school, you sometimes feel like an outsider here too, because you're different than they are, raised different. She told me that sometimes you get shit about it here too. That some parents don't want their daughters dancing with a Muslim boy -" he trails off as Zayn shudders, takes a step closer, "She told me that even so, you've always fought to do right by her, you've done your best to learn about a culture that's not yours." Zayn's mouth is dry but he fights for words anyway.

"Fancy yourself an expert then?" he chokes out, trying to stay teasing. Liam doesn't bite.

"M'just scratching the surface," he says seriously, staring hard at Zayn. Zayn struggles for breath until Liam clears his throat and looks away and Zayn can be a normal person again. "Should we start?"

"Yeah uh," Zayn coughs. "Let's. Here." He puts the CD in, motions for Liam to take his place. "Let's just run it, yeah?"

It's a clumsy first run even though it's obvious that Liam's practiced in the short while they've had since yesterday. Zayn breaks it down, slowly running through each movement beside Liam so they can figure out how their bodies should slot together, arms overlapping, hips almost touching. Zayn's used to being the man, used to directing the formation, and he finds it hard to let go, relax into Liam's lead and Liam tries to laugh away the tension between them but the deeper they get into the choreography, the more intimate they get, and the more strained his laughter gets, the more flushed Zayn becomes.

"Here um," and by this time Zayn's scarlet, "You be me for a second yeah?" he refuses to look Liam in the eye as he takes position, then runs his hand down Liam's bare arm, until his fingers snag at his wrist. "I'm gonna put up a struggle," he murmurs to Liam, "I'm mad at you here. You're flirting with all these other girls and I'm jealous and I don't want to listen to your sweet talk but you. You don't let me go yeah. You can apply pressure, don't afraid to be rough," he tightens his grip to accentuate the point and then lets go, reverses their positions so Liam can try.

His heartbeat quickens when Liam trails fingers purposefully down his right arm and he wants to sink into the touch but he moves away, even as Liam wraps his hand around Zayn's wrist, stopping him. Liam tugs harder, pulls Zayn flush against him to palm his chin, and then he's twirling him out, arms strong enough that Zayn doesn't second guess him, just moves with him, until he can yank his hand away.

"Good," he says, breathless, pulse racing, "Really good um. So it's my verse now," he moves forward, away from Liam, "I tell you that Krishna's constantly with another girl, ask how Radha can not be jealous." And if his mind jumps fleetingly to Danielle, well, he’d never admit it.

"And I tell you," Liam continues softly, catching up with Zayn to circle around him, brushing up against him at every turn, "that Radha is the Queen of Krishna's heart, that no matter what it looks like, it'll only be you." He halts, lets their bodies overlap, and Zayn glances up into the mirror before he can help himself, breathes in sharply at what he sees. Liam's eyes meet his in their reflection and he offers a shaky smile at the beautiful picture they make, contrasting skin tones melting into each other. "Yeah?" Liam chokes out, and something in his voice has Zayn's stomach in knots.

"Yeah," he agrees hoarsely, when he's almost sure his voice won't shake. And he's normally not one to acknowledge how good he looks, but right now, he feels fucking beautiful, lined up next to Liam. "Yes, yeah."

"Alright then," Liam smiles, satisfied, moving away from Zayn. "So next we have -"

They mold and shape and tweak and improve until Zayn's so exhausted he can't even be turned on anymore.


"You're trying to kill me," he whines when the sticky wooden floor he's laying on offers him no respite. Liam only spares him an absentminded nod, focused more on the movement he's practicing the mirror. "How is it possible to have the amount of energy you do?"

"I'm the Batman," Liam offers, not even glancing away from the glass. Zayn snorts.

"Lee-yum. C'mon. One five minute break. Please?" Liam sighs, finishes off the step before settling cross-legged on the floor by Zayn's head. Zayn closes his eyes happily, choosing to carefully ignore the way his body automatically angles itself towards the other boy.

"I want it to be good," Liam whispers after a moment, and in the stillness of the studio, his words seem to echo anyway. "You heard Master Garu, it's an important performance. And I, unlike you, still have something to prove." Zayn sits up, mirrors the way Liam's positioned so he can look right into his eyes, try to discern how heavy those words were meant to be.

"I'm pretty sure this exercise was meant for me," Zayn says slowly, "So that I let you in more, or whatever." Liam shrugs awkwardly, ducking his head and mumbling something Zayn can't catch. "Liam," he coaxes, pressing a hand to his knee. Liam clears his throat, carefully avoids eye contact.

"Maybe," he says, a little louder, "She needs me to prove to you that I'm worth letting in." And that is probably the most ridiculous thing Zayn has ever heard and he counts Louis as one of his best friends so -

"Christ, Li, that's. That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," and Zayn is really bad with words, especially in front of Liam, but he has to do better, because Liam's sort of nodding at him like he doesn't look all that convinced and he really needs to fix this. "It's not you," wincing almost instantly, because Liam deserves better than a cliche.

He tries another approach, "Even Haz gets mad at me for this and he's, well. He's known me ages. And. I'm just bad at it, Liam, it has nothing to do with you," but it does because really i'm so fucking gone for you i can't dance with you for five minutes without getting a semi. Christ.

He gets up and then pulls Liam up too, "C'mon. Let's practice until our muscles bleed into our bones and then Master Garu will know you and I make a brilliant pair, because we do, I know we do." Hah. So Liam doesn't turn all his brains into mush.

Liam considers him thoughtfully and Zayn takes a moment to appreciate the swelling in Liam's lip where he worries it. When his eyes dart back up to Liam's they're amused and young.

"Will you be borrowing one of Sailaja's dresses then?" he asks. Zayn hits him.

"Tosser. I take everything back." Liam pouts.

"But you're the Queen of my heart," he protests, yelping when Zayn pinches the skin above his hipbone.

"And you're the bullet in mine," Zayn shoves back, "C'mon, back to the dance."


Their last run through, when they finally get to it, terrifies Zayn. Liam collapses to the floor when the CD spins to a halt, but Zayn paces, tries to persuade the blood that's rushed to his dick back to his lungs. He's never felt this way about a performance before, at least, not in a rehearsal, and even still. It's like in every slide of skin Zayn could feel the pulse of Liam's heart, patterned in between inhales and exhales, could feel the music in the way his bones shifted to every step.

Liam interrupts his thoughts with arms thrown around his neck and a nose in his ear and Zayn doesn't think his legs can hold up the extra weight but he accepts the hug, carefully slotting his hips away so Liam can't feel the way he's achingly hard.

"Thank you," Liam mumbles into Zayn's sweaty hair. Zayn pulls away almost regretfully.

"For what?"

"For letting me in? For, I don't even know Zayn, that last run was. I've never had that with anyone before," and his voice is hushed and awestruck and Zayn swallows hard because Liam felt it too. He doesn't trust himself to speak so he pulls Liam back in, hands fisting in his shirt fiercely.

"Thank you," he says back. He can feel Liam's smile impressed in the crook of his bare shoulder.


He finds himself in Sailaja's driveway on the opposite side of town, and it really doesn't surprise him all that much, or it shouldn't anymore. He sighs, puts the car in park and just sits for a moment. Inhale, exhale.

He's greeted by her mother, when he finally knocks. She offers him a warm smile.

"Hello," she says simply, "Sailu upstairs." Zayn offers her a grateful smile, laughing slightly when she pulls him into a hug. "Long time." she says cheekily, pulling away. Zayn rolls his eyes affectionately at her. It has been, at most, maybe two weeks since she's seen him last. They have a language barrier, Zayn and her. She speaks not a word of English, and Zayn doesn't know Sailaja's native tongue so it puts them at a loss. But they make up for it most of the time, Sailaja taking the time to translate or just communicating via simple facial expressions and hand gestures. And she feeds him a lot. A lot. Like right now, she's hollering for Sailaja, and tugging him into the kitchen.

It's late, like, 1:30 am, and downstairs it's quiet but Zayn knows the entire family's still up, and the kitchen light is still on and Zayn doesn't protest, knows it won't do him any good, when she piles a heap of rice, vegetable and spicy mango pickle onto his plate.

Sailaja comes down, alone, taking the stairs by two.

"Where's Nidhi?" Zayn asks.

"Asleep," Sailaja says with a wave of her hand, "Standing up to you takes more out of her than she can admit," she teases. Zayn flushes.

"She's know I'm sorry right?"

"Yeah yeah," Sailaja says unworriedly, "Anyway, I thought I'd be seeing you tonight. Made mum make a bit of extra rice for you just in case," she settles down by his feet on the floor, looking up at him as he eats, "How was it then?"

Zayn focuses on mixing his food carefully with his fingers and Sailaja jabs at him exasperatedly before finally giving up and opening her mouth. Zayn obliges her, rolling up a small amount of rice between his fingers and plopping it into her mouth. She chews thoughtfully, quiet for only as long as it takes her to swallow.

"What's she making you do?" Zayn sighs. She's going to find out eventually, anyway.

"Radha kaise na jale,10" he says, watching her eyes widen. "I'm to dance your part."

"Oh fudge. And how does Liam feel about it?"

"Liam? What about me?" Zayn asks, irrationally irritated. Sailaja gets up off the floor to settles next to him on the couch and tuck her feet underneath him.

"How do you feel about it?" she asks him kindly, and he sighs, vexation vanishing as quickly as it came on.

"Dunno," he says slowly. "I thought he'd be weirded out by the whole thing but he's not, he's. I don't know. He's enthusiastic, and focused and he works hard to remember everything and he asks why a lot like he understands how much we put into the choreo, and I'm. I mean, it's amazing, Sailu, to teach someone like him. He's wonderful."

Sailaja's just smiling warmly at him when he finishes and he blushes at her sincerity, looks down at his plate.

"C'mon," she says, tugging at his crooked elbow. "Let's go upstairs."

He obediently puts his plate in the sink and washes his hands and then lets Sailaja lead their way upstairs. Suddenly she's chuckling quietly and he raises an amused eyebrow at her.

"Sorry, just had a flashback to the first time you tried to come up to my room," she teases. Zayn grimaces.

"Nothing about that was funny," he mutters. Her dad had shouted at him, asked him what he thought he was doing following his youngest daughter up to her room. Zayn had blushed scarlet, fumbling about for a explanation against his flashing eyes and low dangerous tone of voice. In the end, Sailaja had had to beg him to understand their partnership, how they were brothers on the stage and how he could trust Zayn, how she trusted him with everything.

"Yeah yeah," she grins, "You're lucky mum's so fond of you." Her mum had helped his case a great deal, spoken softly to her father, coaxing him away from anger and into reason.


In her room, the lights are dim and Nidhi is asleep, wrapped tightly in Sailaja's warm blankets. She stirs when they enter, reaching out for Zayn who moves to her, replacing her pillow with the length of his torso and allowing her to relax against him. He looks up to see Sailaja smiling fondly at the two of them.

"My two favorite people," she smiles, sleepy content. Nidhi hums and Zayn grins and reaches over to settle his hand on her ankle. "You gonna stay the night?" He's practically got his own bed in this house. Well, truth be told it's a thin mattress pad with a set of blankets and a pillow kept underneath Sailaja's bed for nights like this, when they retreat, quiet and achy, into the solace of her room to whine about the strenuousness of rehearsal or the rigidness of Master Garu. Tonight though, Zayn shakes his head.

"I should head home, let you two get some sleep." Nidhi tightens her hold on him stubbornly.

"Stay," she mumbles, "We never get to have sleepovers, c'mon." Zayn has to laugh - and give her her way. No one should have as many sisters as he does, he realizes forlornly.

"Yeah alright," he moves to untangle his limbs but Sailaja shakes her head.

"Nah, c'mon, dad didn't see you come up and mum will think you've left. And we'll sneak you out tomorrow morning before we go to temple. Just sleep on the bed. I want cuddles." Behind her childish demand Zayn sees a spark of genuine need in her eyes so he doesn't protest, just toes off his socks and slides underneath the blankets, allowing Sailaja and Nidhi to settle in against his sides.

"Do you want - " But they both shake their heads against his chest, interlacing their fingers on the flat lines of his stomach. "Well this is something I hadn't considered before," injecting an innuendo into his words. Sailaja snorts a laugh.

"Only in your most satisfying of dreams, Zayn," she deadpans, snuggling closer. "Love you," she mumbles.

"Yeah yeah," he turns his smile into her hair and closes his eyes to exhaustion.


He wakes up in the middle of an empty bed, arms tingling slightly to remind him of the weight of two smaller bodies once pressed to his sides. He stretches, cracks his elbows and his hips and his knees in quick succession, checks his phone. There are three text messages there and he grimaces when he realizes they're all from his mum.

it's 2 am and youre still not home where are you??

it's 9 am and you're STILL not home zayn malik what's the point in having a cell if you don't call? WHERE ARE YOU?

thank god for Sailaja.

Shit. He shoots her back a quick sorry xxx be back home soon and then shakes out his hair and makes his way downstairs. It's quiet and he's cautious, fully aware that he shouldn't have spent the night in her bed.

And then he quickly realizes it's not necessary when he discovers Sailaja and Nidhi making out across the counter top in the kitchen, fingers curled into the cool granite and hair still mussed from sleep.

He coughs slightly and this time, they break apart slowly and reluctantly, Sailaja's gaze lingering a moment longer before she turns to Zayn.

"Breakfast?" she asks him, smile all too bright for so early on a Saturday morning. Part of "tradition" has her spending days glued to her mother's side in the kitchen, learning to make "full Indian dinner" as they call it. Zayn can't complain. This morning she's making dosas, the Indian version of pancakes, and they're absolutely divine - and the ultimate hangover cure.

"Yeah sure," he sits down on a barstool next to Nidhi, kisses the side of her forehead sloppily.

"So," Sailaja starts, brow furrowed cutely as she focuses on pouring the batter, "Final rehearsal tonight huh? Full orchestra and everything."


"Should be fun," Sailaja prompts, all fake casual. Zayn raises an eyebrow and next to him Nidhi groans in disbelief.

"Are we really not going to talk about this," she moans, palm of her hand going to her forehead. Sailaja's shooting her a warning glance that she purposefully ignores. "Zayn, c'mon."

"Talk about what?"

"You and Liam? The way you're stupid for him?"

"Nidhi" Sailaja scolds sternly, face sympathetic. "S'okay, Zee," she tries to console, "if you don't want to talk about it."

"Don't coddle him, Sailaja. He's a big boy. He can figure out what he wants, stop stringing Liam along."

"What?" Zayn asks sharply, at the same time Sailaja lets out a groan. Nidhi shuts her mouth with a snap, ducks her head. "What do you mean string Liam along?"

"Nothing," Sailaja says forcefully, "This is why I can't tell you anything, Nidhi. You and your big mouth I swear to god -"

"Nidhi -" Zayn's unable to keep the edge out of his voice. What did she mean, string Liam along? He can't possibly - "Just tell me."

"What do you think?" snaps Nidhi, guilt making her defensive. "He likes you, Zayn. Has for awhile now. And you're just puttering about, fucking oblivious, killing him with your stupid eyelashes. And I'm tired of watching the two of you literally dance yourselves around in circles like you're not half convinced he's hung the moon, Zee. Just sort yourself out."

Zayn almost falls off his barstool, feels like he might explode from the pressure in his chest anyway. Liam likes him. Holy shit, Liam likes him. It's like, fuck. Like everything he's ever wanted to hear and everything he's never wanted to hear because, fuck, it's not allowed, and what will his mum think, and fuck, Master Garu.

"It's not allowed," he says faintly. Sailaja and Nidhi exchange exasperated looks and then turn back to him, eyes dangerous. Zayn swallows. "Sorry," he mumbles. "I -"

"You've got to decide, Zayn, how brave you can be. That's on you."


He drives home to find his mother and Doniya on prayer rugs, heads bent slightly, lips forming the silent words of the Qur'ran. He smiles small at the beauty of the sight, takes off his shoes to sit cross legged next to his sister, waiting for them to finish. They're an unusual family, he knows that. His mother never forced her children into anything they didn't want, let them make their own decisions about their faith and what it meant. It wasn't until recently that Doniya began joining their mother in prayer. She looks beautiful like this, neck curved, hands cupped delicately, and he thinks suddenly that her and Niall are lucky to have found each other, to be able to afford balance and peace to each other. The thought leaves behind an itch, a ripple in the construct he's built around himself. He sighs, suddenly antsy, gets up to grab his cigs and lighter.


He smokes his way through almost a pack of cigarettes that day, walking aimlessly around their small neighborhood. It's deserted for a Saturday afternoon, the chill too pronounced and the skies too gray to tempt anyone. It's what Zayn needs at the moment, a quiet pause to sort his thoughts.

The thing is, he's always wanted Liam, has since the first moment he saw him dance at a school talent show with Danielle, head curling into Harry's shoulder to hide his honest desire. But it's always been like, like wanting a lamborghini or a first edition marvel comic, or a trip to Disney World on the weekend. Priceless and unattainable. And now, well.

He cups his hand around the lighter, protects the flame so it can lick at the end of his cigarette. Breaths in. Out.

He stops at the corner of a street, across from the playground he used to hang out around, take his sisters to. Until the attacks had started, the world view had shifted, fear had spread. And just like that it became too dangerous to take two little Muslim girls to the park. And it was painful anyway, to watch the rest of kids shun his beloved Walihya and Saaf, exclude them from a simple game of tag, shout slurs they'd probably picked up from their parents.

It was a couple years later before they found use for the old yard again, he muses, crossing the street to run his hands along the rusty old chains of the lone swing, before pushing past to a corner hidden from view of the streets by a few huge oaks. The sun's setting so it's hard to make out anything other than fuzzy detail, but Zayn knows what he'll find here, his old cigarette butts, empty bottles of Niall's stolen beer, maybe a few roaches if he looked hard enough. He trails his fingers along the bark of the center tree, unconsciously searching for where the five of them had carved their initials into the wood with Harry's pocket knife. It's been awhile since he's been back here, since the five of them have been back here, smoking dutches and sharing what beer Niall could nick from his dad's liquor cabinet. Here's where Louis first told Harry he loved him, slipped the words right into his mouth on an exhale, along with sweet smelling smoke. And where Niall had fallen on his bare bum, pants off on a dare, and gotten bitten by a spider or something, had to be taken to a hospital for the gigantic bump on his ass. S'also where Zayn'd had his first kiss, trying to give as good as he'd got, praying that the way he couldn't stop himself from staring at Liam in the boys' locker room had meant nothing at all.

Hadn't worked of course. And now.

He kicks at the dirt ground, lights another cigarette.

And now.

Liam and him can't be together. Zayn's. He's a Muslim in a town that hates Islam, gay in a culture that forbids it. And yeah ok, he's not blind. He knows the way he looks when he dances, knows he's good at it, that the symmetrical face doesn't hurt, that most of his dance sisters blush and giggle around him but, Liam's. Liam. And he deserves all the good in the world that Zayn can't possibly give him, can barely find for himself.

He just. He can't. He shouldn't.


He's late to rehearsal, so that by the time he gets there he can hear the lyrics filter through the studio, and it quickens his pulse almost immediately, has him stumbling to toe off his shoes and dip into a namaskaram. When he enters the studio, Harry's voice fades and then so do Louis and Niall and Liam turns sharply, a glint in his eye, panting with the exhilaration and Zayn wonders how he never noticed it before, the way Liam looks at him.

"Sorry," he mutters, thrown and unsure, "Should we -"

Harry picks off right where he left off and after a bit of stumbling so do Louis and Niall. Liam's gaze lingers on him a moment before he catches the upbeat, sinks into the next step, and Zayn joins him, allows Liam to run hands over his hips before pulling away, unconvinced of his loyalty.

It's beautiful, the way Harry sings it, more alive and rigorous than any CD and it has Zayn enraptured in the dance, like there's nothing but the step before him and the step after, and Liam's warm hands around his wrists.

When they're done, Harry, Louis and Niall burst into applause and even Liam's grinning satisfactorily, but Zayn just turns his back, positions himself to start from the beginning.

"Again," he demands. There's a moment where he feels them exchange glances around him, and then Louis's leading them into it, even though Zayn can feel the hesitation that strays to his fingers on the drum.

Zayn pauses them no less than twenty times throughout, criticizing both himself and Liam, and even the places they join together. At the first sign of unreasonableness Liam looks like he's about to protest, but then he shuts his mouth, simply accepts the disparagement, brow furrowed with focus.

When they're done, it's. Well it's perfect, the entire thing. It's not like it wasn't close to it at the start, but now. S'like something he's only felt with Sailaja before, and something he never wants to give up, wants to let soak into his skin and bones, color his blood. But he can't, he can't. He just nods at Liam, the orchestra, and does his namaskaram with his eyes averted. Liam reaches for him, but Zayn backs off, steps away.

It's Niall that connects them where there's no music, slinging a hand around each of their shoulders.

"Let's get ice cream, boys, I think we've earned it, yeah?"

"Aren't you guys tired though?" Zayn tries, "Didn't you have band practice this morning?"

Niall's shooting daggers at him and Liam has gone quiet but Harry and Louis just ignore him, shout out their excitement and drag Zayn along before he can object. They walk to the nearest ice cream parlor, a few blocks away, and Harry, bloody Harry's picked up on something because he detaches himself from Louis and glues himself to Zayn's side, interlacing their fingers. He doesn't say a word though, and that's probably worse.


The parlor's empty, tonight being decidedly too cold for ice cream.

"Your ice cream's on us today," Niall tells both Liam and Zayn, grin resembling a proud father's. Zayn watches as Liam's mouth tugs up in a reluctant smile. He can never stay sad when Niall's round.

"Yes!" Louis agrees enthusiastically, and Zayn recognizes his usual high after he plays a concert. "A french vanilla for Liam and a coffee for his lady." He winks lewdly, and Zayn refuses to blush, he's trying to preserve what dignity he has left, damn it. "Why don't the two of you sit out here and we'll be right back."

"Least we can do," Niall makes a point of gesturing wildly to a vacated picnic table, "For having the honor of watching you dance."

It's silly and wonderful and Zayn's surrounded by the best people on Earth but. Fuck. He just nods, quirks a pathetic excuse for a smile, and sits awkwardly as the rest of their friends trail into the shop, leaving Liam and Zayn in silence.

"Did I do something wrong?" Liam asks cautiously then.

"No, course not," Zayn tells him roughly, awkward and desperate.

"Oh. It's um," Liam's face has fallen and he looks sad and timid and Zayn is possibly the worst human being, "It's just that I thought we had. I mean, Friday's rehearsal went so well, so I thought -" he breaks off and Zayn raises an eyebrow.

"You thought -?" he prompts carefully.

"Thought you might've decided I was worth -"

"Liam," Zayn interrupts, voice breaking half through the middle of the name, because he can't allow Liam to finish that thought, can't bear to think that's the way he's making Liam feel. Liam stops abruptly, searches Zayn's eyes, his own eyes lost and empty and Zayn swallows against the dryness in his throat, drawn in despite himself. He wants to make it better, feels like he'll only be able to take full breaths again when Liam's eyes lose that look and he opens his mouth to say something, anything and -

"Hey! Paki boy. People're here for ice cream, not some fucking curry." It's Andy again, but this time he's got Aiden and Stan as well as a few other boys Zayn knows only by face. Together, they're notorious around these parts. A string of beatings and bullying is rumored to follow in their wake, but Andy's father's the chief of police and Stan's father works for the mayor and they never face consequences for their actions. They're a dangerous thing to be faced with on a Saturday night, booze and boredom turning them nasty.

Liam's on his feet instantly, but Zayn stays where he is, frozen.

"Didn't know terrorists had time for ice cream," Aiden sneers, lips curled up, face contorting.

"Go back to where you fucking came from, paki, don't dirty up our air," some boy shouts from behind, some boy who probably doesn't even know Zayn, who's just drunk off the rush of nasty words thrown from a safe distance.

"Fuck off," Liam growls, fists curled.

"Look what we have here," Andy says slowly, sauntering forward, rolling up his sleeves. "A fucking sympathizer. God what is that?" he waves a hand in front of his nose, "Don't know how you can breathe, Payne, what with the smell." The last words are tossed in Liam's face. Zayn winces in embarrassment despite himself, cheeks flushing.

"I said, fuck off," Liam doesn't seem fazed, but Zayn knows better. Knows that Liam is strong and brave, but that he doesn't stand a chance against these boys. That he'll probably get the brunt of the demolition for his betrayal. Bile fills Zayn's throat and he forces himself to swallow, forces his limbs back under his control and stands slowly with his hands out in front of him.

"Leave him out of this, this has nothing to do with him."

"Yeah?" Andy's eyes flash dangerously at Zayn and Liam makes a small noise. Andy's gaze flickers back to him to him, a kind of sick amusement brewing between him and his friends, "Well if you don't want any trouble for your boy over here, you'll come take a little drive with us."

Zayn's heart sinks. He doesn't look at Liam, just nods, moves towards Andy.

"Yeah," he mutters, "alright."

"What the fuck Zayn, no," Liam's begging, makes a grab for Zayn's hand, but Andy steps forward, cuts him off.

"Don't you move another inch, Payne, or you'll just make it worse for him," he warns, and Liam shrinks back. Zayn goes without a fight, allows Aiden and Stan to grab his arms and shove him into the back seat of Andy's car.

"Don't worry babe," Andy calls out through the window as they pull away, "We'll take out your garbage for you."


"Where are we going?" Zayn asks, finally allowing himself to feel a fear that threatens to drown him. The three of them snigger to each other, and Zayn panics. "C'mon, Andy, what the fuck."

"Don't you fucking say my name, you piece of filth," Andy spits back. "Just shut the fuck up."


Ironically they end up back at the old park, in the shadows that the trees leave behind. And after it's all over, Zayn counts himself lucky. They leave him curled up on himself with just a split lip and bruises down his ribs and arms, distracted by news of a house party and the promise of E.

"Right where you fucking belong," Andy spits on him before he leaves, "With the filth."

Zayn is too dizzy to wipe the saliva off his face.


It's Louis who finds him, attempting to limp back to his own place.

"Fuck, Zayn," Louis rushes to him, wraps an arm around and shifts him so that most of his weight falls on the smaller boy. "Are you -" but the rest of his words fade to black.


He wakes up from roughly vivid dreams with Liam on the backs of his eyelids and at the tip of his tongue.

"My curls are definitely prettier than Liam's," comes a whiny voice, followed by soft reassurances.

"Harry?" Zayn asks, mind foggy, voice raspy and quiet. He opens his eyes cautiously, finds three pairs of concern staring right back at him. Wait -

"Where is he? Fuck did they -" he chokes out, trying to sit up. Immediately there are firm hands enveloping his and warm pressure on his hips and forehead, encouraging him to lie back.

"Hey, Zayn, s'alright," Harry murmurs, "Liam's just outside talking to Sailaja about your performance tomorrow. Seeing if they can't cancel it. Here," Niall's leaving the room but Harry and Louis stay put, and Harry offers him two pills and a glass of water. "It'll help, yeah?" Louis is stretched out on Zayn's right hand side, stroking a small hand along Zayn's ribs and finally Zayn allows himself to relax into pillows that smell decidedly of Harry and carry a faint whiff of Louis too. He thanks silently whoever had the foresight not to bring him home.

The door opens again and Liam appears in the threshold, hovering. Without a word, and only a light, reassuring squeeze from Harry, the two other boys file out. Zayn shuts his eyes. There are soft whispers he can't make out and then -

"Your name was the first thing that came out of his mouth when he woke up, Li, course he wants to see you," Harry says a little louder. Zayn bites at the inside of his cheek, craves a cigarette.

Finally the door shuts again and they're alone. And when Zayn cracks his eyes open he finds that Liam continues to hover, uncertainty keeping him glued to the door frame. He's wearing Harry's shirt that stretches against his shoulders but reaches down past his fingertips and pajama bottoms that pool at his feet and he looks crumpled and impossibly small in the dim light of the room.

"Are you alright? Did they hurt you?" he croaks out. Liam's brows furrow and he takes a few steps closer.

"No. No, m'fine Zayn," Liam assures him, "After Andy and them left the rest of his friends dispersed quickly enough. We didn't have any trouble." He bites his lip, his arms hanging awkwardly at his sides. "Fuck, Zayn, I'm so sorry I didn't - fuck. I -"

"S'not your fault, Liam, fuck's sake, you didn't have a choice." He watches as Liam closes his eyes and nods, wrapping his arms around himself. He looks lost and so so sad and Zayn wants to pull him into bed with him and hold him close. He swallows against the feeling almost on instinct. "I’m fine, Liam, it’s just a few bruises. S’nothing. I want to dance with you tomorrow," he says instead, trying to keep his voice professional and business like. "Don't cancel it. I'll be fine after a good night's sleep." Liam looks up at him, startled.

"l was under the impression that you didn't want to dance with me at all even before this shit," he waves his hand between them. Zayn shrugs him off even as the words twist at his insides painfully.

"It's what Master Garu wants," he says, biting back the there isn't anything else i'd rather do or i'd do anything to have you look at me the way you did at rehearsal or i love you that have been sitting on the tip tongue since they started all this.

Liam stiffens, and the simple movement has Zayn feeling a little sick.

"Right. Of course," he says hollowly. "I'll just. I'll let you get that sleep then."

"No," Zayn reaches for him before he can stop himself and Liam stills, tilts back towards Zayn but keeps his eyes averted. "Stay," and the single word is choked in a desire that Zayn's held tied up inside of him for too long, has allowed to grow powerful and hungry and desperately selfish.

Liam just nods though, face blank, selfless to counter Zayn's greed, and moves to pull up a chair to Zayn's bedside. But it's not enough and Zayn stays the movement with a hand on his arm. "No. Here." He shifts to the side and pulls the blankets open and Liam's gaze keeps darting from the empty space to Zayn's face like he's not sure this isn't some big joke, and Zayn's not certain himself that it isn't but he throws in a barely there, "Please."

It's an entire lifetime before Liam's nodding his head again, settling into the space Zayn's left for him, leaving a very tangible gap between them, and Zayn doesn't move to close it, even though he wants to. He doesn't settle in the curved corners and sharp edges Liam's left for him when he lies on his back or move to throw an arm around his waist, he's not that cruel. But he does turn on his side to watch Liam, pretend he can feel the crests and troughs of his breath, and only when he's certain of the warmth of Liam's presence does he succumb to the pull of unconsciousness.


When he wakes up it's to wisps of curls in his nose and an arm clutching tightly at his t-shirt. He groans slightly, tries to spit out the hair that's by some jadoo6 worked it's way into his mouth.

"Fuck, Haz," he groans. "Does your boyfriend know you're pressing your hard-on against my stomach?" Harry shifts further into him shamelessly, not a trace of embarrassment tensing his relaxed features.

"Hear that Louis? M'hard," he mumbles out and only then does Zayn notice the warmth press against his back.

"Mm," Louis hums into Zayn's ear. "Should we take care of that," he asks sleepily, just the right amount of arousal to counter Harry's suggestiveness. Zayn groans indignantly, squirming between them.

"What'd I do to deserve you heathens," he asks, too grumpy to be entirely joking. Behind him Louis snorts.

"Ask Liam," he says darkly, and that's definitely not a joke. Zayn twists.

"What do you mean? Where is he?"

"He left. Couldn't handle all your fucking mixed signals." Zayn sits up suddenly and Harry does too, sleep leaving his limbs in a rush.

"Louis," Harry warns out, and Louis takes a moment to stretch out his limbs before glaring at Zayn.

"What?" Louis snaps at Harry, eyes not leaving Zayn's.

"It's just. It hasn't been easy for Zayn, alright? Let him alone."

"S'not exactly been a picnic for Liam either," Louis grounds out. Zayn ducks his head against the harshness of his words, unused to being the target of Louis' anger. "You've left him completely miserable, Zayn, s'not fair."

"He's," Zayn swallows, "He's completely miserable?" he whispers, dumbfounded. He knew he wasn't exactly making things easy for him but -

"Of course he is, you twat. You act like a complete shit at rehearsal and the next minute you want him in your bed?"

"Louis, c'mon -" Harry starts. He reaches for Zayn's hand but Zayn pulls away. The last thing he deserves right now is any kind of sympathy. He looks to Louis, who's mouth is set in a hard line, arms crossed across his chest.

"How do I make this right?" he asks and his desperation must be tangible because Louis goes soft.

"What do you want to do?" he asks him, "What do you want Zayn?" The question makes Zayn's mouth run dry. What does he want? Fuck, he wants everything.

"That's a dangerous question," he stammers out.

"No. No, Zayn, it's not. You're. No. Don't do this shit again, alright? C'mon. You know what you want. You know it and I know it and fuck, just. C'mon, Zayner," he takes a deep breath, and Zayn can see the way he forces a tenderness back into his features, "Just say it."

"I want him," the words tumble out of his mouth and he can't hold it in anymore, can't even turn away from Louis' searching gaze. Harry makes a soothing noise in his throat, rubs at the spot behind Zayn's ear with a large thumb, and if Zayn wasn't so distracted by the prospect of his life falling apart in the next few minutes he might've told Harry indignantly that he was not a cat. Instead he leans into the touch, tries to get a bearing on the way his world has just shifted with his confession. "I want him," he says again, "Of course I do he's Liam but. How can I. He's. He'll get hurt. I'm -. I'm no good for him."

"Martyrdom doesn't suit you," Louis tells him darkly and Zayn is suddenly angry.

"You don't understand. He'll. He'll be signing up for strange looks and cruel remarks and fuck. What about Andy's gang? I'm not about to lay out all my shit on him, he deserves better than that. Worlds better."

"You are so fucking good at selling yourself short, Zayn. Listen, I get that shit's not easy for you alright? I do. But, fuck. What if it's not up to you? What about Liam? What if he doesn't want worlds better? What if he wants you?"

There's silence for a moment, heavy with their mingled breathing and the weight of Louis' words. Zayn struggles to get his thoughts together. Louis' right of course. Zayn hasn't really been thinking about what Liam wants, because, well, he never really thought Liam could ever want him. The problem is that Liam doesn't know what he's getting himself into. Liam's had it pretty easy, Zayn thinks. He works hard yeah, and he's not as popular as Harry, say, but he's well liked, has a lot of friends, gets good grades, has a future. And he's not getting hate letters stuffed into his locker every week. He doesn't understand what it means to be different because he's never really been different himself.

That's not true, another part of him argues. Liam’s been by Zayn's side through all of the bullying, all of the hostility. He's not just another kid at Zayn's high school. He's Zayn's best friend, the kid who tries everything his mom makes for him, who listens to all different kinds of music, the kid who fucking auditioned in front of Master Garu in order to be a part of his world. He's -

"Zayn," Harry prods softly. Zayn turns to look into wide earnest eyes, his own eyebrows creased slightly in question, "What if the pain you're afraid he'll have later isn't worse than the pain he feels right now? Without you?"

"Fuck," Zayn chokes out, burying his face in his hands. Fuck fuck fuck. He clenches his hands tight into fists and in that moment makes a decision, makes himself a promise, "I've got to talk to him, haven't I? I've got to tell him - I've got to tell him how I feel."

Harry actually lets out a cheer, fist pumping the air. He grabs the side of Zayn's head and yanks him close to press a wet sloppy kiss to his hair. And Zayn finds he's smiling, can't help himself, Harry's excitement catching and spreading through Zayn's veins. He's gonna tell Liam. He's gonna tell him.

Louis for his part just slumps against the pillows, an emotion that looks a lot like relief relaxing his limbs. Harry leans over Zayn and kisses Louis sweetly.

"You did well, babe," Harry tells him, pulling away.

"What?" Zayn asks, smiling even in his confusion. Louis offers him a wan smile.

"Do you have any idea how hard it is to stay mad at you when you're looking me like that? You and your fucking. Eyes." Zayn lets out a laugh outlined with hysteria.

"What?" he asks again. He turns to Harry who's smirking at him. "Did you just. Did you just good cop bad cop me?" he asks incredulously.

"Someone had to talk some sense into you, Christ, Zee," Harry scolds, putting an arm around him. "You're driving everyone crazy." Zayn sticks his tongue out at him, but doesn't disagree. He probably deserves this, and a lot worse.

"I'm sorry for being a dick," he mumbles, ashamed of himself and the shit he's put his friends through, and after everything they did for him -

"You're just a bit thick is all," Louis reassures him.

"Really, really thick," Harry adds, tongue in cheek. And then he yawns, wide and low.

"Shit what time is it?" Zayn asks, suddenly remembering the rest of the world.

"Like, one am or so?" Harry guesses.

"Sleep now," Louis says, around a yawn, kissing Harry loosely on the lips and then pressing a kiss to the corner of Zayn's mouth too. They both settle in around Zayn and he's hot and sweaty and Harry's limbs are heavy but he doesn't complain, just settles into their solidity like a blessing.


"Zayn, honey, s'time to get up," calls a soft voice. His eyelids flutter open and he blinks until Anne's face focuses above him. She's smiling gently at him, smoothing down the comforters around him idly. "Harry's making breakfast for you downstairs. Just wanted to say hi before I went in to work."

"Morning, Anne, thanks," he says, voice scratchy and rough. She just smiles fondly at him, musses up his soft hair.

"I called your mum, just so she wouldn't worry. And your toothbrush is the blue one in the cupboard above the sink, same as always. Good luck today, alright? You'll be brilliant, I'm sorry I'm missing it."

"S'no problem Anne," Zayn blushes, ducking his head. "Next time."

"Yeah, I'll even drag Gemma down," she grins at him, kisses the top of his forehead. "Make sure Harry behaves," she calls out as she's leaving, winking playfully and closing the door shut. Zayn sits up in bed. How is it possible that there are so many people who love him, he wonders.


When he finally makes his way downstairs he finds Louis and Harry sitting at the dining table together, talking quietly, eyes only for each other. There's a hush in the room and Zayn has an itch to paint it suddenly, their bare feet pressing up against each other underneath the table, the way Harry tilts his head just so that he can be further in Louis' space, the crook of Harry's elbow and the way Louis' fingers press into the flesh there. Zayn silently settles into the seat in front of them. Harry's nodding at something Louis' saying and he squeezes Zayn's hand gently before bringing it back to trace over the blue veins that run under Louis' skin, bring blood back to the heart that he knows beats for him.

Zayn hasn't had this strong an urge to paint in years.

"So Roger wants to have dinner next Saturday night, says we haven't put in an appearance at his place in ages," Harry is saying.

"Can't, Haz, ‘ve got to babysit the girls that night, mum's got a late shift. You could go on your own -" Louis starts, but Harry wrinkles his nose, makes a noise of protest and Louis chuckles, so so very fond, "Fine, we could order in then. There's that new place we've been meaning to try - "

"Alice's? That's true. Or -" he trails off for a second, eyes lighting up and Louis laughs, presses a soft kiss to the inside of Harry’s fingertips.

"What?" he prods.

"We could cook?" Louis raises an eyebrow and Harry laughs, "I could cook," he amends. "There's this new mashed potato recipe I want to try and we could probably make it better than the restaurant could," Harry smirks.

Louis snorts, but kisses the tilt of Harry's mouth. "Probably," he indulges him. Harry beams.

It should be sickening, but Zayn finds he just feels very warm today. Warm and steady.

For the first time, he allows himself to think that maybe he could have this, too.


The grumbling of Zayn’s stomach startles Louis and Harry out of their orbit and they fall back into Zayn's with wide apologetic eyes.

"How do you want your eggs?" Harry asks, getting up to put heat under the skillet. Zayn shrugs so Harry turns back to the stove, cracks an egg over the pan with practiced ease.

He's scrolling through his phone with one hand, occasionally moving around the eggs in the pan when he looks up at Louis with a gleam in his eye.

"Hey Lou, guess what today is?" Louis throws Zayn a surreptitious wink before turning around to face Harry.

"Hmm?" he asks innocently.

"S'the 18th," Harry prods, a gleam in his eye. Louis' face is almost theatrically blank.

"So?" He asks.

"What do you mean, so," Harry pouts, "S'October 18th, Louis." Louis shrugs.

"Do you have any idea what he's talking about Zayn?" Louis asks him. Zayn shakes his head cautiously, too smart to take sides in whatever's going on here. Harry turns red suddenly, turns back to the oven.

“Nevermind,” Harry mumbles, embarrassment shaping the curve of his shoulders.

“Go on,” Louis says gently, “What’s up, Haz?”

“You’ll think I’m a girl, and it’s nothing anyway,” he sighs, "S'just our three year, six month anniversary, is all. But I guess it's pretty stupid, huh?" Louis' shaking his head, grinning at Zayn mischievously, and rummaging into the duffel sitting at the end of the dining table. He pulls out a crumpled up rose and Zayn's eyes go to the back of his head in disbelief. With a wink and a flourish he's standing behind where Harry's pouring Zayn's eggs on a plate on the countertop, stands on tiptoe to hook his chin on Harry's shoulder and wrap an arm around Harry to present the rose to him.

Zayn hears Harry's intake of breath, watches him spin around in Louis' arms.

"I didn't forget, you silly boy, how could I forget," Louis chides him gently and Harry blushes harder, their fingers colliding on the long stem. He kisses Louis with color in his cheeks and a hand in his t-shirt and Zayn can't look away from the sweetness of it. S'not long though before Louis' pressing him into the countertop, sliding a hand to where Harry's hair curls at the nape of his neck. Zayn grumbles but it's fond and anyway, no one pays him any mind. He manages to steal his plate from behind where Harry's leaning back into the counter and brings it back up Harry's room, figuring that they'll probably end up naked in the kitchen anyway.

He eats his eggs quickly, the lack of pepper making them a bit unappetizing, especially for Harry, but they do the trick, fill up his stomach. He texts his mum, lets her know he's ok, and then, when he realizes it's only ten am, he promptly slides back under the covers, orders his body back to sleep.


He wakes up to Niall's anxious tugging.

"We've gotta go, Zayn, c'mon mate," he roughs up Zayn's hair before pulling the comforters off of him.

"'Time is it?" he mutters crossly.


"Fuck, why're we going so early," His eyes widen as he takes in Niall's traditional desi attire. "You're dressed? The performance isn't for ages." Niall gives him a sheepish shrug.

"We wanna get there early, make sure we've got enough time to set up, you know."

"But can't I - "

"No. You've got to come with us, buffer against the rest of the Indian community. Or with Harry and Louis around people will definitely think we're mad." Zayn heaves a defeated sigh. Fuck Niall and his irrefutable logic.

"Yeah alright then, I'm coming," he grumbles.

"Perfect. We'll swing by your place, pick up Doniya and your kit and stuff." He hesitates at the door, "Zayn - " he starts, and it's still too early in the morning but Zayn is in a forgiving mood.

"S'alright, Niall, I know. Just try not to be a shit with her yeah?" he gives him what is probably a cross between a grimace and a smile but Niall seems reassured anyway.

"I really care about her," he tells him earnestly, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet, "And we'll be careful, promise," he adds with a shit eating grin.

"Fuck you, Niall," Zayn says, tossing a pillow at him. It falls like five feet short, "I don't want to know anything about it."


Zayn sleeps in the way to the venue, despite the fact that riding in a car with Niall and Harry fighting over the radio can never be quiet affair. It's a ritzy hotel they've pulled up to when Zayn opens his eyes, complete with valet parking and huge glass doors. They're ushered in quickly, out of the chill that seems to have set in, even in the early afternoon sunlight. Two bellboys try to reach for Louis and Niall's instruments but the boys shrug them off, clutching them protectively.

They have to explain to the manager twice that they're here to perform for the charity event going on the in main hall. He eyes Harry, Louis and Niall with ill-disguised confusion before letting them through.

People are still setting up when they arrive. Doniya stops by the tables, eyeing brochures and information about the charity they're hosting, waving idly when they move to head back stage to the green rooms. They're pretty dingy, given the condition of the actual stage but Zayn doesn't mind. They've got character to them, carvings made by past performers, chairs where the wood's been worn soft. He spends a few minutes running his hands along the dusty countertop, wondering who else has stared into these mirrors before sighing and dumping his bags on the table. He's got about four hours until he has to be ready, normally unheard of, so he takes his time dressing, fixing his hair, applying a bit of stage makeup. When he's finally satisfied with what he sees in the long mirror he still has an hour or so to kill. Sailaja's already texted, said Liam would be getting ready at hers so she could help him out. There's a bunch of ..... at the end of that message which means Liam hasn't told her what went on last night. Zayn doesn't respond, just tries to distract himself until Liam gets there and he can make it right.

He wanders out onto the stage where Harry, Louis and Niall are warming up. They don't look up at him when he sits down, cross-legged and barefoot in front of them, and Zayn gets a chance to remember exactly how talented they really are. They've undergone a transformation right here. Gone are the bad jokes and silly laughter. Here on this stage, with their instruments in hand, they are focused, dedicated, first class musicians. Niall is working through different scales as far as Zayn can tell. He's got his tongue between his teeth and his fingers thumb at the strings of the long instrument in his lap at an impressive speed. Harry's singing raagas, eyes closed, hand moving up and down as he mimics the pattern his voice makes in the traditional way for carnatic singers. He probably doesn't even realize it but he's singing to the rhythm Louis' laying out. Louis' got his drum on his lap as he works through each thalam, brow furrowed in concentration. Zayn sinks into it, feels the way the melodies melt into muscle, and he puts his body through the paces of stretching, lethargic and comfortable.

When Louis tapers off, Harry and Niall do too, and they take the moment to let out low whistles, appreciating the effort Zayn put into his costume and appearance. They get some stares from the older men working on set-up of the auditorium, but Zayn doesn't mind. He's well known on the dance circuit, for his talent, yeah, but also for his very Muslim name. And there are still many many people who think he doesn't belong here. It's not a pleasant feeling, but when he turns back to his orchestra, to Harry and Louis and Niall who are all watching him with fond eyes, he finds it doesn't bother him in the slightest.

Harry's helping Niall tune when they're interrupted by a small boy in a kurta that's too big for him and eyes that are the same. He trips over his words a few times before coughing slightly and mumbling something in an indiscernible voice. He's staring hard at Niall, fixed on the way he's moving his fingers up and down the instrument, so Niall smiles warmly up at him.

"What's up mate?" He asks him kindly. The boy moves closer, attempts to speak a little louder.

"You're really good," he says finally, and Niall blushes, the idiot, shakes his head.

"Nah, m'just starting. But hey, are you learning?" The boy gives him a hesitant nod. "Do you want to give it a go?" he holds the old instrument out to the boy but the boy shakes his head frantically and Niall lets out a hearty laugh. "Alright, well, I've got an idea, why don't you come sit with me yeah?" The boy approaches him like one would a stranger's dog, cautious and concentrating and Zayn wants to laugh out loud but he's afraid he'll scare him off. He settles next to Niall and his instrument on the platform they've set up for the musicians, and next to the massive thing he looks like a tiny thing, but eager nonetheless.

"Do you want to play the left hand and I'll play the right?" The kid's eyes light up like Niall's told him Santa Claus's making two trips this year or something. He scoots forward eagerly, settles his hand lightly against the instrument. Niall adjusts it slightly and then starts strumming slowly, allowing the kid to dictate the rhythm and pace. He's beaming, glancing up at Niall in awe every few seconds, even though it makes him fumble every time.

There are other kids gathering around, probably children of the organizers who had to come in early, drawn in by the music or by the foreigners, Zayn's not sure which. They sit and sway and make Zayn smile and Harry giggle, and he joins in, matching the pitches the little boy plays, occasionally dropping down to sing a counter harmony. Louis sets up a rhythm too and Zayn finds himself with a little girl in his lap and Louis' crinkly eyed smile when he looks up around her frizzy hair. Harry's got a few admirers lining up, younger uninhibited girls who step around him to tug at his curls and tumble into his lap and he ends up laughing more than singing, retaliating by tickling their bellies and grinning when they shriek and squirm. Zayn covers his mouth to hide a smile that feels too big for his face, glad that, at least with the kids, the orchestra's first introduction to the circuit has gone smoothly.

An older Aunty approaches him then, sitting with some difficulty beside him, and he leans up to help her with a grip at her elbow. She thanks him with a smile, closing her eyes when Niall takes over, playing a complicated rip and segueing into something that could be familiar if Zayn really thought hard about it.

"Friends of yours?" she asks him after a moment, thick accent coating her words. Zayn grins at her.

"The best of friends."

"They really are very good," she tells him and Zayn looks at her curiously, trying to figure out why she looks familiar. "You are too," she continues. "Really very good. I haven't seen as much passion even in the academies in India."

"Oh my god," Zayn says out loud when it hits him. "You're Archana Joglekar." The woman in question flashes him an amused smile, responds with a graceful incline of her head. She's an authority on Kathak, a style of Indian Classical dance very much unlike what Zayn learns himself.

"Let me know if you'd ever like to dabble," she tells him warmly. When she gets up, Zayn gets up too, bends down to touch her feet.

"Kush raho, mera beta7," she blesses him, touching his head lightly. "And good luck today. I hear Divya Garu has really challenged you this time." Zayn blushes. He knows his teacher and her are good friends and colleagues, but the idea that Master Garu has discussed her master plan with this woman is slightly disconcerting and very embarrassing.

"Thank you," he mumbles, straightening. She gives him a knowing look and then wanders off, and somehow even her steps seem wise.

Men are getting up on the stage, asking Harry, Louis and Niall about mics and other technical stuff so Zayn gets up and heads back to the green room. Liam's there already and Zayn stops short at the sight of him, the door banging shut behind. They must have taken some other route backstage; Sailaja knows most of the venues inside and out and backwards, she's performed so often.

"Hey," Liam's turned with the noise, and he makes his way to Zayn with a small smile. He's ready to perform, perfectly so. Zayn wouldn't expect anything less of Sailaja's work, but still her result leaves him dry mouthed. Liam's shirtless, a simple pearl chain identical to the one Zayn's wearing hanging around his neck, and he's got on identical maroon trousers too that hug the dip of his hips but billow out around his legs and they're really not supposed to look that sexy but somehow -

Sailaja's decorated his eyes with a small amount of kohl, painted his lips a darker red that Liam's currently eating off, white teeth a sharp contrast over the puff of his lower lip and he must be saying something else because his mouth's moving, but Zayn's too busy tracing the lines of muscles down Liam's body to notice.

"Zayn?" Liam clears his throat, and Zayn starts, gaze coming back to rest on Liam’s hesitant expression, "Is this - Do I look alright?" he tugs self consciously at the side of his costume, the material soft and flimsy between his strong fingers.

"Yeah you look um -" Christ. "You look great," Zayn manages, and Liam smiles a half smile, ducks his head.

"M'nervous," he says uncertainly, managing to look up at Zayn even with his extra inch or two, and the conversation feels oddly familiar. Fuck.

"Don't be," Zayn rushes to reassure him, "You'll be great. You've been great. I'm sorry I haven't said early but I -"

They're interrupted by the door flinging open and Sailaja and Nidhi bursting in, long gagras8 flying around their feet.

"Christ guys, what if we'd been changing -" Zayn whines.

Sailaja throws him a look of disdain, chooses to ignore him and turn to Liam instead.

"Ten minutes," she says. "We're on first and I think you're fifth." She glances between the two of them, obviously trying to figure out what's up, until Liam breaks the tension.

"Thought you'd be wearing her dress," he teases Zayn.

"He's too fat to fit into my clothes," Sailaja quips. Zayn glances down at his bare chest, cut by years of training, and then back at her with a smirk.

"Yeah?" he asks and she rolls her eyes.

"I miss when you had baby fat," she pouts and Liam laughs, hand clutching at the grooves of his own toned stomach. Zayn blushes.

"Me? Never," he waves a hand dismissively as Nidhi reaches up to pinch his cheeks.

"Wittle squishy" she coos. Zayn growls at her, swatting her hands away. She sticks her tongue at him in clever retaliation and then reaches for Sailaja's hand.

"We should get going, c'mon love."

"Is she here?" Zayn asks before they leave, and Sailaja nods grimly. Occasionally Master Garu will forget about a performance, get side tracked on another project or mix up the dates and they'll be left performing to a less critical audience, but luck is not on Zayn's side today. He returns Sailaja's expression with a sigh, waves them off.


When they leave, Zayn studies Liam. He doesn't look angry or sad, only a little wary in the way he keeps a carefully calculated space between their bodies, so that Zayn can't even feel the warmth of him.

"Do you want to um. Do you want to watch from the sides together?" Liam asks, then backtracks, continues hastily, "Or we could not watch together, I mean. You could watch from one side and I could watch from the other or. I could stay here -" he trails off helplessly, one hand rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. Zayn is forced to feel fond and he reaches out to make it right with a tug at Liam’s elbow.

"C'mon,” he says simply, “I’m excited.”

He can feel relief flow through the gesture and he wants to kick himself for ever making Liam doubt. He settles for staying close to the other boy, enjoying a comfortable Liam against his side.


Sailaja and Nidhi are really good. They're always a hit together, playing off each other in a natural way that's hard to find and even harder to teach, but tonight it's like any last walls they've had left standing between the two of them have been obliterated and now they melt into each other, light each other on fire and then douse out the flames in a series of intricate steps and twirls, eyes outlined in kohl and hooded, sultry and demure. It's breathtaking, the way they move, perfectly coordinated, overlapping images alight with energy. Zayn wonders whether they breath in synchrony too, whether their hearts beat in the same rhythm, whether their blood rushes at the same speed. He glances up at Liam who's watching with fond eyes, and when he turns to Zayn the expression holds. Zayn nudges into him gently, so Liam wraps an arm around him in an easy comfort they haven't had since they started working on this piece.

It feels as though Zayn's entire body's missed him.

The crowd goes crazy when they're finished and Zayn watches as they beam and bow. Sailaja takes Nidhi's hand and twirls her out so she can sink into a graceful bow and then they clutch hands, bowing once, twice, three times when the audience doesn't stop clapping. They make their way off the stage with fingers intertwined, right into the arms of Liam and Zayn who hug them tightly, clutch at the scratchy fabric of their clothes.

"You guys were brilliant," Liam tells them earnestly, "Wish we could have watched you from the audience."

"Don't worry, my dad taped it. I'll pass it along to you," Sailaja says with a wink. Liam glances at Zayn briefly, blushing.

"Thanks," he turns back to Sailaja, "Wish us luck?"

"You don't need it," Sailaja tells him firmly, but she glances around the room before leaning up on her toes to plant a swift kiss to his cheek. "Good luck, both of you. We'll be watching from the audience yeah?"

The curtains are starting to open again so the four of them fall silent, watching as a singer takes center stage to perform a few well known hits in Sailaja's language. Nidhi and Sailaja stand in front of the two boys to watch, and Zayn watches them, watches the way their heads tilt together and their fingers stay entangled. They're fearless, he thinks. They're fearless and they're so in love and Zayn wants that. Beside him, Zayn can only just make out the faint noise of a living person. Quiet inhales, the rearrangement of muscles with every slight shift, exhales. Liam. That's what Zayn wants. More than anything he's ever wanted before.

He reaches out (out of his comfort zone, out of his mind, out of everything he's ever known) and takes Liam's hand, interlaces their fingers together. Liam turns to him and Zayn can read shock even in the dim light of backstage. He tightens his grip, strokes a steady thumb over Liam's knuckle, watches as Liam relaxes. The corner of his mouth quirks up as he turns back to the stage and Zayn knows he's fighting a smile.

They stay like that through two more performances. There's sweat pooling in the valleys of their crooked fingers and Zayn has an itchy nose but he remains anchored in Liam, until the stage manager’s beckoning them over, telling them they’re on deck. They return to the green room in a silence that’s warm with anticipation. Zayn’s starting to dip back into his usual performance routine, welcomes the familiar butterflies, the lump in his throat. He shuffles around in his bag for his bells9 that he proceeds to wrap around his ankles. When he looks up, Liam’s watching him, clutching his own set of bells and flashing him a meek smile.

“Do you mind -” he holds them out for Zayn and Zayn smiles.

“Yeah, course. They can be a bit tricky.” He sits down on a stool and pats his lap. Liam looks at him hesitantly before lifting his foot onto Zayn’s lap, balancing with a hand on the table beside him. He hands Zayn the bells and Zayn wraps them around his ankle carefully, tongue between his teeth as he focuses on tying them properly so they won’t fall off when they perform. S’harder than it looks to put them on someone else.

When he’s done with one foot, Liam switches, wobbling slightly as he swings his leg up high.

“Do you still get nervous,” he asks then. Zayn shrugs.

“Yeah,” he admits, “Do you? When you’re performing in the guard I mean.”

“Nah. I can’t remember a time when performing made me nervous. Mum always said I was born for the stage or something, I dunno.”

Zayn looks up at him, confused.

“But you said -” he starts.

“Yeah well,” Liam makes a vague sort of gesture, and Zayn watches the way his pupils dilate, enjoying the way the kohl flushes them an even deeper brown,“S’not the performing that’s got me nervous.”

Zayn swallows.

“Liam -”

“Five minutes,” calls someone from outside their room. Zayn curses in frustration, but Liam just chuckles.

“C’mon, c’mon,” he moves impatiently as Zayn finishes tying his other bell. “We’re going to be brilliant,” he declares, enveloping Zayn’s wrist with a sure hand, thumbing over his pulse point. Zayn’s glad for his confidence.

Harry, Louis and Niall are setting up on stage, heavy curtains drawn, blocking out the gentle roar of the audience behind them. Zayn wonders what they’re talking about. Whether they’re waiting eagerly for the curtains to open, or fiddling with their phones. He wonders what it’d be like to sit on the other side, watch their performance with fresh eyes, without knowing what they’ve both put into it.

His three friends spare him brief nods before settling into themselves, and Liam squeezes his wrist before letting go and taking his place. Zayn waits. He watches from backstage as Liam slips flawlessly into character, mouth quirked in a mischievous smile until the music changes and he glances around for the intrusion.

Zayn enters, mouth pointed downward in a purposeful frown. How am I supposed to know how you feel? The way you act with other girls? How can I not be jealous. The lyrics are beautiful and Harry makes them even more so, singing like it’s all he breathes to do.

Liam’s laughing at him, reaching around to draw him close. You should know I’m only thinking of you. How can you be jealous if you don’t really understand?

Zayn shrugs him off and they continue, Liam rushing to persuade him and Zayn turning him down. It’s a beautiful push and pull, the way their bodies align and clash, and if Zayn allows himself to think about it, he’ll get caught up in it, dangerously so, so he focuses on the music surrounding them, allows it to carry him through the dance. It works pretty well, until there’s a flute melody that never comes. Zayn, who’s spent months rehearsing this, isn’t thrown, but Liam freezes ever so slightly, a blank fear flickering briefly between smiles, and suddenly he’s off choreo.

He tugs Zayn into him, guides him with a hand on his hip into a step they’ve never rehearsed, and Zayn finds himself drawn into it easily, understanding effortlessly what Liam wants from him. They segue almost flawlessly into a new routine, Liam never loosening his grip. He turns Zayn once, allows Zayn to pull away only slightly before tugging him back in. From dusk until dawn I yearn only for you, he soothes with a caress, and Zayn finds himself biting his lip, arching into it. He clears his mind, focuses only on the subtle directions Liam’s offering him, until Liam finally regains his footing, slips back into the original choreography.

Zayn can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when they finish with their planned ending. He can’t hear the applause for the buzzing that’s going on inside his own head. He probably bows here, holds a hand out for their orchestra, and for Liam but for the life of him he doesn’t know. He’s never been this turned on in his life.

Liam’s facade breaks the moment they’re safely off stage and he makes a run for the green room. Zayn follows him, barely resisting the urge to call out his name as the lights dim for the next performance.

He’s got his back to Zayn when Zayn enters the room and this time Liam doesn’t turn but Zayn knows he’s upset. He fiddles frantically with his stuff, spread out on the table.

“Fuck, Zayn, I’m so sorry. I just totally blanked. I’ve never - I mean. Fuck, I don’t know what happened, I -” he doesn’t get to finish though because Zayn’s turning him around, tugging him roughly down for a kiss.

Liam makes a sound that is hungry and raw that Zayn wants to bottle up and play on a loop, and then he’s wrapping his hands around Zayn’s waist, thumbing at the dips of hips and nipping hard at his lower lip. Zayn brings their bodies flush together, decides every bit of space between them is a horrible horrible thing. His skin stretches tight around him and arousal pools in his belly and suddenly everything is happening way too fast.

As usual, Liam’s one step ahead of him.

“Shh,” he soothes, and Zayn allows him to pull away only slightly before he’s darting in for another kiss, “Fuck Zayn,” he laughs breathlessly, “Let me catch up.”

“That was incredible, Li,” Zayn tells him, and he knows his eyes are comically wide with awe, and he probably looks ridiculously earnest, but, “You are incredible. I’ve never - We’re amazing together Li. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you ages ago, I should have. I just -” he tugs Liam closer, feels a rush at the way Liam’s cheeks heat up, and his smile goes shy. “We’re amazing together,” he says, quiet now, serious. “I want us to be together.”

Liam is breathtakingly beautiful when he’s happy, is the thing. And Zayn has to lean into kiss him, stay close even when they can only smile against each other.

“Finally,” Liam mumbles, nipping playfully at the corner of Zayn’s mouth. And his tone is teasing but his eyes have filled with tears and Zayn pulls away slightly in alarm, “No, no, don’t,” Liam pleads, “I’m - don’t pay attention to me, I’m just -”

Zayn’s stomach’s bottoming out though and he tries to swallow against the wave of sudden nausea. He takes one more step back.

“I’ve really hurt you,” he whispers, “I’ve,” his voice cracks, “I’ve been hurting you.”

“No,” Liam shakes his head frantically, “No,” he says firmly. “It’s complicated for you, Zayn, I know it is. That’s why I never pushed because I. I’d never want you to have to choose. But I’d wait forever, Zayn. I. Even if after all this you decided you didn’t want -” his eyes are colored desperate and fearful, but he continues, “I’d still wait, Zayn, I promise. S’only you.”

Zayn takes like a second before he’s pressing Liam up against the table again, tangling his hands in curls that lay at the nape of Liam’s neck and pulling him down for a kiss. He wants to tell Liam that he could never go back from this, that he’s wanted this for longer than he can remember, but Liam’s licking at his lower lip, curling his tongue into the back of Zayn’s teeth and Zayn can only make a soft noise, relent.

There’s the sound of the heavy green room door opening and then Niall’s frantic -

“Fuck, guys, I’m such an idiot, that was all my fault. I’m so -” Zayn and Liam break apart, breathing heavily, turning just in time to see Niall’s face split into the grin of a menace, “Sorry, what’s going on in here?”

“What’s going on in there?” Harry whines impatiently from behind Niall, shoving him lightly so him and and Louis can tumble in.

“Oh my god have you the two you been snogging,” Sailaja’s voice has turned shrill with incredulity as her and Nidhi stumble into the room as well, swinging the door shut behind them.

“Are we ever not going to be interrupted,” Zayn groans quietly against Liam’s lips. Liam just smiles softly, placates him with a chaste kiss.

“Well well well, look what we have here,” Harry sings.

“Hmm,” Nidhi tilts her head to the side in consideration, “it looks like Zayn and Liam have finally sorted their shit but -”

That would mean Zayn’s finally pulled his head out of his arse -” Louis chimes in, pulling a skeptical face.

“So, I definitely wouldn’t bet on it,” Niall finishes gleefully.

“Oh my god,” Zayn bemoans, but Liam’s laughing up a storm into Zayn’s neck, hot breath tickling him into a begrudging smile, and so he combs a hand through Liam’s sweaty hair and pulls him closer.

“S’just like Zayn, though,” Nidhi muses. She turns to Sailaja who tilts her head up for a kiss.

“Always one step behind us,” Sailaja grins.

1 a veena is a classical instrument that looks like this and is played on your lap
2 a mridungam is a kind of drum that looks like this and is also played in your lap with both hands
3 ma is an affectionate term for a loved one.
4 dashavataram is the name of dance that depicts the ten lives of Lord Vishnu. it usually involves complicated choreography, because Vishnu's lives include a snake, a tortoise, and more
5 gorra is a slang word for non-desi, or non-southeast asian. it can be used in a derogatory sense, but not here.
6 magic
7 be happy, my child
8 gagras are colorful outfits with long flowing skirts and blouses that look like this.
9 bells are probably the most important accessory for an indian classical dancer. they look like this and you tie them around your feet to accentuate any footwork!
10 for anyone interested, the song liam and zayn perform to is real and you can listen/watch it here!!!