Actions

Work Header

The Way It Is

Work Text:

 

 

His body arches off the bed as warm lips whisper against that spot on his throat, just below his ear, followed closely by teeth. Just a gentle little nip, maybe enough to leave a mark that'll fade by the end of this, but not hard enough to actually hurt. He can't help it, the way his body responds to that. The soft moan that escapes him, or the way his hips jerk up, desperately searching for some kind of friction.

"You like that?" The words are whispered in his ear, rough and low, and they leave him shivering almost as much as the love bite.

"You know I do," Zayn says, and it's supposed to sound snapped, a little irritated, but instead it comes out breathless and needy.

"I do." And then those lips find their way to his neck again.

It isn't until he's panting, almost begging for this to go somewhere more than just sloppy kisses and bodies grinding together through too many layers of clothing, that he finally manages to flip them over so he's on top. He likes it better this way, being the one in control. It lets him speed things up, dictate where they go next. And he starts by unbuttoning the soft blue shirt under his hands. It's a nice colour, nice material, but he wants to rip it off and burn it; anything, really, just to get it off. When he does, neither of them pay attention to where it goes, discarded to the ground, not given another thought.

Finally he's got smooth, hard muscle under his fingertips, and he takes a moment to really appreciate it. Appreciate the planes of his chest, the coarse hair there, the nipples that harden after just a brush of his hands. The dips between each of the abs and the way the skin there strains over them, all taut and tan and wonderful. The line of hair that leads from his bellybutton, down down down. He follows that with his tongue until he's tracing the waistband of his boxers. 

"Please."

Zayn really isn't one to deny him anything, and despite the slight shake in his fingers, it doesn't take long for the jeans to disappear, and then those boxers, and this is what he needs. Nothing between them and a chance to really admire the body beneath him, the one that he's only gotten to see glimpses of, that he never allowed himself to stare at for too long in fear of getting caught. And he wants to stare now, memorize every little inch of skin that he can, but he rationalizes that that can wait. That he can do all that later. Right now, there's a more pressing issue at hand.

As payback for earlier, he starts by kissing along his hips, and slowly moving his lips down to the muscular thighs that part so easily for him.

"Zayn." It's a whimper, a plea, and it sounds so fucking lovely it nearly destroys him.

"I love it when you say my name," Zayn admits, whispers, like a confession against the insides of his thighs. "Fuck, Liam, I—"

"Zayn, come on. Wake up. Wake up."

Slowly, Zayn blinks open his eyes. It's dark in the room, the only light coming from the lamp on the bedside table, but it would be impossible not to recognize the brown eyes that stare down at him, even if his own are foggy from sleep. And as soon as they register, he bolts upright and tries his best to discreetly cover his crotch.

It's not the first time he's woken up with a boner after having a not-so-innocent dream about Liam, but this is the first time that Liam's actually been there afterwards. And — shit. "Liam, what the fu—?"

"Sorry," Liam giggles, and Zayn realizes that it doesn't matter if he's hard right now. It wouldn't matter if he wrote in big, bold letters right on his forehead 'I'M IN LOVE WITH YOU' because Liam is too drunk to notice anything right now, if the smell of alcohol that clings to him is any indication. "I just— I just needed to talk to you. Really badly. It's important. Really, really, really important."

"Okay." Zayn runs a hand through his hair, wondering how shitty he looks right now. But then, he reminds himself, Liam has seen every part of him; at his worst or at his best, Liam's been there. If he looks rumpled and tired after sleeping for about four hours, Liam isn't going to care. "It can't wait until morning?"

Liam shakes his head fiercely and then he literally climbs over Zayn to get to the empty side of the large, comfortable hotel bed, which really doesn't help the erection, honestly. "It can't wait," Liam says seriously, with the kind of conviction only a five year old or an extremely drunk person can manage. "Super important, Zayn."

And maybe it is, Zayn thinks, but that doesn't mean it can't wait until morning. He's tired, they had a show last night and he doesn't have any energy left over to deal with anyone, especially not drunk anyone's. "How did you even get in here?" He specifically remembers locking the door to his room.

"Girl at the front desk gave me a key," Liam explains. "And she offered me a blowjob but I wasn't really interested. I needed to talk to you, like I said."

"How nice of her." Zayn wonders if he can pull some strings and get her fired. He also wonders why the fuck everyone feels the need to proposition sex to Liam.

"It was, wasn't it?" Liam covers his mouth with a yawn. "But can we talk now? 's that okay?"

"It's going to have to be, isn't it?" Zayn says. Liam pouts. "Yeah, we can talk. I'm already awake anyway."

Liam grins at him. There aren't many things in the world that he wouldn't agree to in order to get that grin, and waking up in the middle of the night isn't so terrible. "I'm very drunk," Liam states.

"I'm aware."

A giggle. "Sorry." A yawn. "I just —" Another yawn "— really needed to tell you this. Before I tell everyone else, 'cause you're my favourite and you should know before I tell everyone because… um… there was another reason but I forgot."

"Liam." If Zayn allows it, Liam will continue on like this forever, never actually getting to the point.

Liam shifts in the bed, and Zayn feels his body settle in next to his own, under the covers, a little too warm but somehow still perfect. "I just wanted to tell you that…" Liam says sleepily. Zayn waits. And waits. And then the sound of snoring fills the room, and he flicks on the lamp again.

Liam is out cold, mouth hanging open, one arm flung over his eyes. Dead asleep. If it were anyone else in the entire world, he knows he'd get annoyed. He'd shake the body beside his awake and demand to know what the hell was so important that he got woken up in the middle of the night, but it's Liam. So he turns the lamp back off, pulls the covers up a little higher, and slowly falls back asleep, comforted by the body beside his own.

This time he wakes to the opening lines of Call Me Maybe. God, he hates that fucking song, and now it's going to be stuck in his head all damn day. Groaning, he rolls over and blindly searches around on the bedside table for his phone, which is now blaring "Hot night, wind was blowin'; where you think you're going, baby?" and vibrating across the wood top of the table. Seriously, if a song could be stabbed, he would take the biggest, sharpest knife to this one. After Harry's two-month long obsession with it a few months back, he can't stand it. But it wasn't his choice to make it his ringtone.

As soon as he presses talk, he gets a loud, "Hey, baby!"

"Hey," Zayn mumbles back.

There's a pause. "I didn't wake you, did I? Shit, I'm so lost when it comes to time zones. What time is it there?"

Zayn pulls the phone away from his ear. "Just after nine." They have an interview scheduled for three, which means that, for the first time in two weeks, he gets to sleep in, uninterrupted, in his own bed (not on the tour bus) without someone screaming outside the window. Or he did, but now that he's awake he has a feeling he won't get back to sleep.

"Sorry," Perrie says, and he knows she means it because she gets it. "I'll call you back. You get some—"

"'s that Perrie?" Liam asks from beside him.

Zayn tenses and closes his eyes. Liam. He forgot Liam was here, somehow. He kind of chalked last night up to a dream, something he'd invented that didn't really happen. But Liam is right there, his ankle brushing against Zayn, his left cheek red from his pillow and his eyes all droopy with sleep. Shit.

"Who's that?" Perrie demands, and the words chill him to the bone. She doesn't get testy often, Perrie —that's one of the reasons Zayn likes her, how laid back and relaxed she always is— but when she does, she's like the arctic. So cold it's actually painful. And, in a clipped, calm tone, she asks, "Is that Liam?"

"Tell her I said hello," Liam offers with an almost pinched look on his face, and Zayn wants to tell him that he's so not helping the situation, but he knows that doing so will only bring a lot of unwelcome questions that he can't really answer, so he doesn't.

"God," Perrie practically shouts, "I just wanted to talk to you for, like, five minutes but — no, you know what, forget it. Call me back when you're not in bed with someone else, okay?" The line goes dead.

The thing is, it'd be different if it were one of the others. In fact, the two of them have had lengthy, in-depth conversations while Zayn was lying in Niall's bed, or Harry's (not Louis', but only because Louis gets annoyed when anyone is on the phone around him because "It's rude, Zayn, call her back.") and it's never a problem. But it's Liam and, as always in Zayn's life, things are just different when it comes to Liam. And Perrie seems to get that, the way she gets everything else. Only for once that's not a good thing.

"That was a short call," Liam comments as he stretches, head rolling back, mouth falling open in a yawn. When he straightens himself, he asks, "What'd she want?"

"She just called to say good morning," Zayn lies, the words slipping out of his mouth easily, believably, leaving Liam none the wiser.

"Oh." Liam swings his legs out of bed. "I should probably get out of here. Shower. I feel like shit."

"Hungover," Zayn guesses. Liam nods. "Speaking of, last night you said you had to tell me something important."

Liam frowns at him. "I did?"

"That was apparently the reason for you even being here right now," Zayn adds.

"Huh." Liam shrugs. "I can't remember. Guess it wasn't that important." He winces. "I really do need to shower though, so I'll see you later."

And then he's out of the room, shutting the door on Zayn's quiet, "See you later," without an inkling of the mess he'd just made of Zayn's life. That's how it always is with Liam, though. He makes Zayn a mess, and he's the only one who doesn't seem to notice.

"I'm thinking we'll leave it down today," the girl standing behind his chair says, and Zayn shrugs. He doesn't give a shit about his hair most of the time. In fact, he rarely bothers when he's not working, opting to just stuff it all into a beanie when he can. Unless he's meeting someone important.

That thought reminds him of that time he met up with Liam to hang out, and (stupidly) he'd gone all out, doing his hair and picking out the right outfit, only to have them go to the gym, where he'd stood beside Liam most of the time, spotting him on the weights, holding his water bottle and towel, looking like a fucking idiot.

Ugh.

The hairdresser/stylist/whatever that works for the show they're being interviewed on is unaware of what's going through his head, and she ruffles his hair, considering, and adds, "Down is definitely better, I think. Not that the up-style doesn't look great on you. I mean, you could shave it all off and paint your head purple and you'd look great, obviously, look at you, but, um… what was I saying?"

"Wearing it down," Zayn reminds her.

"Oh, right, yeah. Definitely down." And she spends the next fifteen minutes running her hands thoroughly through his hair. He's pretty sure she's applying product to it, but she could just be, you know, touching him. It happens. Some people are more professional than others.

In the seat next to him, Liam is slumped over while some tiny red-haired thing smudges cream under his eyes. "Rough night?" she asks, and Liam laughs.

"Maybe. I like rough nights, though," he says. "More fun."

"Oh, I bet," the redhead says, and Zayn tries not to glare at her, while the girl working on him starts caressing his cheek ("Just a bit of concealer, not that you need it, gosh, look at your skin, it's so soft.") and Liam gives the redhead a considering look.

"You could always see for yourself," Liam says slowly. "If you're not busy tonight, that is?"

She's not even that pretty, Zayn thinks.

"My boss would kill me," she says. "Um. Shit. I really shouldn't." But she's reaching over for one of the napkins in the box on the table in front of her, the one littered with all sorts of make-up and hair product and brushes and scissors. She grabs an eyeliner, too, and scribbles something on it quickly before shoving it at Liam. "If anyone asks, I didn't just do that, okay?"

Liam grins up at her. "Our secret."

There's a blush in her cheeks that matches her hair until she's finally done working on Liam. She walks away, tossing him a look over her shoulder that Liam definitely does not meet. He probably doesn't even notice it, the way his eyes are glued to her ass.

"Seriously?" Zayn snaps, patience gone.

Liam turns to him, and there's a sweet hand-in-the-cookie-jar grin on his face. "You can't blame me," he says. "Did you see her ass?"

And Zayn wishes he could say this is out of character, and maybe it would have been a couple months ago, but recently… recently this is the norm for Liam. Right around the time of his recent (and final, Liam claims) break-up with Danielle that he refuses to talk about. Not a word is mentioned about it ever, not after that initial "Yeah, we're over. For good. I don't want to talk about it," despite Louis' protesting and pressing for details (which he'd gone so far as to beg Zayn for, but Zayn doesn't know either).

It's been excessive drinking and overtly flirting with everything in sight for Liam, and it's worrying. And annoying, the jealous part of him adds, but the part that is just Liam's best friend sticks to worrying. Not that Liam listens to him whenever he brings it up, because, as Liam is always quick to point out, the rest of them do it. Niall and Louis always go out, and Harry's the type of person that would get too friendly with your hairy, forty year-old uncle without even meaning to because that's just how he is. But it's just not how Liam is. Or it wasn't. Zayn's not even sure anymore. The whole thing gives him a migraine.

"I'm not actually going to call her," Liam says a beat later, voice lowered, sounding reluctantly apologetic. "I was just having a bit of fun."

"Maybe you should have fun when we're not working," Zayn snaps, and he wants to take the words back as soon as they're out there but he can't.

"We're always working," Liam snaps back. Zayn can't even argue with that, and he hates arguing with Liam anyway.

He's grateful when a harassed-looking man with a headset and a clipboard barrels into the room and says frantically, "Ten minutes until we're live. Everyone ready?"

"No," Louis says loudly. "I seem to have misplaced my trousers."

He's standing in the middle of the room in a t-shirt and boxers. Suddenly every working person in the room turns to gape at him, and then they're all bustling around nervously in search of a replacement pair of pants, while Niall laughs and Harry leans over to whisper something in his ear that only makes him go off even more.

"Give them back," Liam says, scolding, sounding not unlike a parent, and not unlike normal Liam. "Harry, I know you have them."

With a roll of his eyes, Harry tugs a pair of jeans out from where he was sitting on them. "I don't think they'd even fit his ass, anyway," Niall says.

Louis snatches the jeans from Harry and pulls them on. "Fuck you. And they fit fine, fucker."

"We found the pants!" someone shouts, and everyone lets out a collective sigh of relief. For just a moment, Zayn and Liam's eyes meet, and they both sigh, too, and there's a soft smile on each of their lips, one that's so common. It's like standing on the beach in the middle of a storm. Their lives are crashing waves hitting the shore, but Liam is like standing barefoot in the sand: warm and relaxing in spite of the rest of it.

"So how are you liking the city?" the interviewer asks. "You didn't stop here on your last tour, right?"

A microphone is shoved fairly close to his face, which isn't even necessary, given the tiny one taped to the inside of his shirt. "It's great here," Harry answers, and the interviewer's face lights up when he starts going on and on about where he ate dinner last night, and what he ordered. Harry could spout on about the last shit he'd taken and interviewers would let him go, eating up every word.

Okay, that's not really fair to Harry. He's just irritated. It's really freaking hot on set, whatever makeup that girl had put on him practically melting off his face; there's a bright light that seems to hit just the corner of his right eye, no matter how many times he shuffles in his seat and adjusts his position; Louis is irritated too, jiggling his leg, and since he's right beside Zayn, it's jiggling Zayn's leg. Oh, and a group of girls in the far left corner of the audience keep shrieking every time Niall says anything.

So it's just a typical daytime TV appearance, and he hates it. Not that he doesn't love his job; he loves being on stage, singing his heart out. God, that's all he wants. Just to sing. The rest of it — sometimes it's not as enjoyable.

"Do you see that?" Louis whispers in his ear as Niall and Harry relay some story from their outing last night. "To the right, third row, holding the sign." Zayn looks, reads the words… he doesn't really want to even think them. "I swear to god, if one more twelve-year-old asks me to do unmentionable things to her, I'm going to quit. I didn't even know what a threesome was when I was twelve."

"Liar," Zayn says, but he agrees.

"Okay, but it wasn't like I was going to Spice Girls concerts and begging them all to have an orgy with me," Louis hisses, hand discreetly covering his mic.

"Spice Girls? Really?"

"What? Scary Spice is hot, don't even tell me you wouldn't go there."

Zayn rolls his eyes but he's smirking anyway. That's the usual response to Louis. He's exhausting, but lovably so. Even if sometimes Zayn wants to punch him in his sarcastic-looking face.

"Okay, boys, I have to ask," the interviewer says, and they all groan before she even gets it out. "Oh, come on, play along. Which of you are still on the market, and which of you are breaking hearts and settling down at the moment?"

Louis, bless him, fields the question. "Zayn and I," he points between them, "are in pretty serious relationships. Our girlfriends are really great." There are both boos and awing from the crowd. "The rest of the lads are on the market, though. We should have a dating show, actually. The Direction of Love or something."

The interviewer laughs. "So you three," she says to Niall, Harry and Liam, "are single. But are any of you actively looking for a relationship at the moment, or are you just enjoying the single life?"

"I think I'm just, um, you know, a little busy with work and everything right now," Harry says. "Definitely not looking for anything in the near future, not until my life settles down a bit, you know? Until then, I've got all our lovely fans to stop me from being lonely."

Louis snorts loudly, so loud that all the camera focus on him for a moment. Quickly, Niall says, "Yeah, me too." And then he goes on to spout a bunch of bullshit, while Louis glares at nothing in particular.

"I'm sort of dating," Liam says, and Zayn sits up straighter, tuning back into the conversation. He almost blurts a loud "What?" but he stops himself as Liam continues, "Nothing serious yet, but who knows, right?"

Who knows, right? Zayn sneers before he catches himself, remembers that millions of people watching this show right now will catch it, too. He smoothes his features back into a bored look and picks at the material of the couch they're all crammed into. It's meant to sit, like, three. Why are they always crammed into a tiny little space? They're like sardines, always piled on top of each other; a package deal, no room for individuality, not really. Not even when it comes to seating, apparently.

"Anything coming up any time soon?" the interviewer asks, and Zayn wonders if he can change the subject. He racks his brain for something interesting to talk about, but he can't think of anything.

Liam shrugs, and Zayn catches the smile on his face, all mystery and 'Wouldn't you like to know?' "Maybe," he says.

"Details, details!" the interviewer begs, and the crowd roars.

"I might have something coming up in a few days," Liam admits, playing it up. "A friend set us up, actually, and we've talked a few times on the phone. He seems like a really cool guy, so maybe we'll hit it off."

Louis catches it first, if the way he stiffens is any indication. Zayn is a little slower, not catching on until it's too late, and the interviewer is leaning forward, eyes wide, saying, "You said he. Are you—?"

"Pronoun slip," Harry says quickly. "Happens all the time." Which is true, but usually it's easy to play off, blame on their accents, never really caught by anyone. This time — no, Liam explicitly said heGuy. Definitely talking about a male.

"No, it wasn't," Liam says firmly.

"Wait, just a second," the interviewer says. "Are you saying that you're going out with a guy? On a date?"

"Yes, that's what I said," Liam confirms, sounding a bit off. "Don't see why it's a big deal. I'm just exploring all my options at the moment." He leans back in his seat, arms crossing behind his head, the picture of ease. As if he hadn't just dropped a fucking bomb.

"I've got a new tattoo!" Harry practically shouts, getting out of his seat. But the crowd doesn't care; they're loud, screaming and words being called out and Zayn can't even distinguish it over the ringing in his ears. "It's on my bum, see," Harry's saying, and he's literally pulling down his pants, " of a toaster. Get it? Toasty buns, right? Niall bet me fifty quid that I wouldn't do it, and—"

"We're going to take a commercial break," the interviewer says with her finger pressed to the piece in her ear, no doubt getting the signal from her boss to cut this short right now before things get any more out of hand, "We'll be back in—"

They're shuffled off stage quickly, and everyone is running around like chickens with their heads cut off. It's quieter back here, behind the set where the screaming fans are separated from them by a wall, but there's still noise. People are shouting, freaking out, and Zayn wants to join them, he really does, but he's too busy mechanically walking behind Louis into the room where they'd gotten their wardrobe from. He's ushered into a chair by a panicked-looking dude, and then the door is closed and they're locked in (he's pretty sure, anyway) for the time being.

Finally there's silence, but it's not a nice one. It's the deafening kind, the kind that's painful and tries to hide all of the things that everyone knows needs to be said without quite managing.

Louis gets out of his seat. He paces the small room for a moment, hands balled into fists at his sides, and then he shouts, "What the actual fuck just happened out there?"

Niall clears his throat. "Well," he says, "Liam just admitted on live television that he's — what, bisexual? Or gay? You weren't really specific but, hey, I called it. Five guys in one band, chances are one of us is playing for the other team. Harry flashed his ass on live camera to about ten million preteen girls all around the world. Oh, and everyone flipped their shit and then we got locked in this room."

Louis pinches the bridge of his nose. "Thank you, Niall."

"That was a really good summary," Harry says. "You left out the part about my toasty buns tattoo, though."

"Forget about your stupid tattoo," Louis hisses. He turns, his eyes narrowing, and Zayn is grateful not to be on the receiving end of that look. "Liam, what the fuck?"

Liam tilts his chin defiantly. "What?"

"You— you can't just go and drop the sexuality bomb without talking to us about it first! God, what were you thinking? This affects all of us! Are you crazy? I thought you were smarter than that!"

"Louis," Harry says lowly. "Back off."

"Don't tell me to back off," Louis snaps. "How dare—"

"How dare I what?" Liam demands. "Grow enough balls to do something that the rest of you are too afraid of doing?" And that shuts everyone, even Louis, up. "It's my life, Louis. And I'm really fucking sick of everyone acting like they own me. Like I'm a puppet and they can dictate who I am. Because they can't. And if I want to go on live television and honestly say that, yeah, maybe I'm into guys, I don't know, it's something I'm working on, then I want you to support me, not get mad at me."

Louis deflates. "Li," he says softly, but whatever he was going to add is cut off because Zayn can't take it anymore.

"So you meant it?" he asks. "You really — you are— I mean—?"

Liam meets his eyes, and he still looks defiant, like he's daring any of them to question him again, but his eyes… He gets what Liam wanted to tell him last night, now. What he'd been trying to confess. And he looks vulnerable, like he's begging Zayn for — for what, acceptance?

But Zayn can't give it to him because his mind is too busy whirling at a mile a minute. Liam is into guys. Liam. Is. Into. Guys. Liam is into guys. Maybe not definitely, or exclusively, but— he's into guys.

Zayn's been in love with him for years. It's just a fact of his life. Like — Zayn Malik, member of One Direction, born in January, likes relaxing nights on the couch watching movies and eating popcorn, hates romantic comedies, doesn't like mustard, is in love with Liam Payne. It's just this normal part of his life that he accepted years ago and hasn't questioned since then. It doesn't even bother him, not anymore, because along with that acceptance he's also accepted the fact that nothing will ever happen there. Liam is his best friend. His best friend who also happens to be 100% straight and incapable of ever returning those feelings. And that was cool with him. Friendship with Liam is something he's more than happy to take; he doesn't even consider it settling. That's just — the way it was.

But now. Now that's not the way it is. Now there's this big hole of uncertainty because Liam could return those feelings. Maybe he doesn't, but he could, something that Zayn never thought was possible. Liam is into guys; Zayn happens to be a guy.

Not that this actually changes anything, really, he realizes. Sure, they all get weirdly touchy feely with each other, but Liam isn't any different with him than he is with Niall or Harry or Louis. And if Zayn had a chance, if Liam could be interested, he would have shown that interest before, right? Sexuality isn't just a switch you can flick in one direction or another. If Liam's into guys, he's probably been into them for a while. And Zayn isn't one of them.

Fuck, he needs a drink.

"You know," Harry says, finally breaking the silence, "I can just see the headlines now: 'Liam Payne — One Direction, or Both?' and 'Harry Styles — Toasty Buns!' They'll be everywhere." Louis snorts first, and then Zayn can't help but do the same, and Liam does it, too, and Niall, and finally Harry says, "Okay, fine, I'll let the toasty buns thing go," and then they're laughing.

"Oh, God," Louis says breathlessly, "no wonder adults hate us."

"We are adults," Zayn reminds him.

"No, we're really not," Niall says. "I can't even legally drink in this country."

"Like that stops you," Louis says.

Slowly, as the others start going on talking, Liam shuffles his way closer to Zayn until they're side by side. Their arms brush, Liam ducks his head, and Zayn wraps an arm around his waist. It's not much, not saying all the things that need to be said, but it does say that they're okay. In response, Liam's chin brushes his shoulder. "Thanks," he adds, soft and almost inaudible.

"I didn't do anything," Zayn says, confused.

Liam shakes his head. "Yeah, you did."

It's exhausting, his life. Giving up privacy. Always on the road, or in the studio, or fielding questions from another pushy interviewer. But here, right now, this is worth it. He's standing on stage, Louis to his left, Liam inches to his right. He's got a microphone in hand, and the stage lights are blinding but he can still see the crowd, clear as day. Thousands of people, all transfixed on him, screaming and crying and singing along as he delivers that last line, as his throat gets tight and he strains to get that last breath out. He holds the note until he can't any longer, and then he's lowering the mic, gasping in a breath, and the crowd gets louder, but it's drowned out by Liam's, "Another breathtaking performance from Mr. Zayn Malik!" and Zayn's grinning so wide it's dopey. "Isn't he wonderful?"

Louis' hand slaps his back, and there's a flush in his cheeks now, as there always is when Liam does this. He hasn't quite worked it out, why Liam always feels the need to praise him, but it never gets old. None of this does. They can — and will— perform the same songs for months, over and over again, but it's never tiring. Being on stage, doing this is never tiring.

Another song starts up, more upbeat and Liam opens it, until Harry's taking over and Louis and Niall are making up the chorus. Zayn reaches for a water bottle, tosses the lid somewhere and tilts the bottle until the luke-warm water is sliding down his parched throat. And then it's sliding down his back, too, and he's turning, eyes wide, a shiver going through him.

Liam laughs and jumps out of the way before he can retaliate, a half-empty bottle of water in his hands. "Oh, it's on," Zayn says, and Liam waggles his eyebrows in reply.

Louis ducks as Zayn flings the last of his water in Liam's direction, but Liam's already moving away, avoiding all of it. Zayn reaches for another water bottle and takes off, careful to avoid the wet spot. The crowd eats it up, always does, and it's fun. The way Harry tries to stay professional with his solo even when Liam's grabbing his shoulders and using him as a shield. Even when Zayn accidentally knocks into him as he chases Liam around the stage. Liam's laughing, tossing him grins over his shoulders, and Zayn's sweating and panting when he finally gets his arms around Liam's waist.

And then Liam's pushing back, circling his hips against Zayn's groin, and Zayn lets out a surprised, accidental gasp. "You got me," Liam says, not trying to get out of his grip at all. "Now what are you going to do to me?"

He's a guy, okay? He thinks with his dick, like, 80% of the time, he can't even help it. And right now is one of those times. His brain goes foggy, slow, and his eyes go out of focus as his arms tighten on Liam's waist. He's got a hand splayed on Liam's stomach, and for a second he doesn't even think, he just inches it down and —

Everything comes back to him. The crowd, Louis gaping at them, the fact that Niall and Harry are trying to look casual while attempting to steal all the attention away from their little show. And it's Liam in his arms. It's not his girlfriend, or some random person at a club that he got too close to after a few too many drinks. As if burned, Zayn releases Liam and shuffles backwards, eyes wide.

Liam turns, a smirk playing on those ridiculously, offensively pink lips of his. His gaze drops to Zayn's crotch, where it's got to be painfully obvious, at least this close up, that he's definitely sporting a semi. That smirk gets wider before Liam winks at him, and then he's slinking across the stage again, turning every few feet to give Zayn a daring look, trying to pick up where they'd left off. Like a mischievous mouse, taunting the cat. And Zayn's the cat.

So why does Zayn feel like he's the one that's about to get eaten alive?

Zayn is still awake this time when Liam stumbles into his room. It's a little after two and he's on the balcony, one that thankfully faces the back parking lot of the building. It's not an ideal view by a long shot, but it's one he's learned to request. Less screaming girls out front, but more garbage bins. It's privacy, though. Or as close as he's ever going to get.

There's a bang on his door first, one that he ignores as he blows out another cloud of smoke. Then there's the jiggling of the door handle, and his eyes narrow as he leans against the banister. The door opens, and worry bubbles up inside of him for a just a moment before he recognizes the body, silhouetted in the dark room by the light from the hallway. The door closes and plunges them back into darkness as he relaxes back against the banister again.

"Zayn," Liam calls out, and he sighs at that single word, the way the 'a' is dragged out and the 'n' slips away into nothing.

"Out here," he calls, and he hears Liam shuffle through the spacious hotel room, letting out a sharp hiss when he trips or walks into something. Somehow he manages to get to the open doorway of the balcony, and he leans heavily on it. "Drunk again?"

"Uh-huh," Liam admits, face shinning silver in the moonlight. "Went a little overboard. Didn't mean to. Gonna regret it in the morning."

"Second night in a row," Zayn comments, trying not to sound like a mother chastising a child.

"Fourth, actually," Liam corrects. "Not that we're keeping score."

"Are we going to talk about that?" Zayn wonders.

"Nothing to talk about," Liam says with a shrug. He yawns, not covering his mouth. "You coming to bed?"

"Is that what you're here for?"

Another shrug. "My room's cold. Your bed's more comfortable."

"It's literally the exact same bed," Zayn argues.

"If you don't want me here, then—"

Zayn flicks his cigarette over the balcony and steps past Liam, into the room. He flops into the bed, still dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. "I never said that," he says, softer, face stuffed into his pillow.

The bed dips as Liam climbs on, under the covers, and then an arm's thrown over his waist and Liam sighs against his shoulder, "Good. I don't wanna sleep anywhere else. Night, Zayn."

Zayn stays perfectly still, not giving into the temptation to lean back and suck up more of Liam's warmth, to get more of them pressed tightly together. And he ignores the logical part of his brain that says he should move further away, disentangle that arm from around him and put a respectable distance between their bodies. He falls asleep in that exact position, with Liam snoring softly behind him and a thumb pressed against his hipbone.

It's an early morning the next day, yet again because of a cell phone going off. At least it's not his cell phone, and he's allotted a few groggy, half-asleep moments of bliss before he has to talk to anyone. Unlike Liam, who moans in pain while reaching for his phone, and swears that he'll never drink again as he presses Talk and says a weak, "Hello?"

The change that comes over him is instantaneous. He sits upright, eyes widening, back straight. The phone is clamped to his ear, and he's turning away from Zayn, like he's trying to get some privacy but is unwilling to get out of bed.

"I'm aware," Liam says. "And I'm also aware that I should have maybe talked to everyone about it first, but — yeah, okay I know that, and I'm sorry— I didn't realize so much damage had been caused," he says flatly. "Oh, right, Twitter. Oh, it was trending. And that's bad … why? It's still press. I thought any press was good press, that we should be worried when our scandals aren't on the front page of—" Liam takes a deep breath, face going red, and he's angry.

It's not something that happens… ever, really. But on the off chance that you do manage to really rile him up, really piss him off, Liam is sort of scary. His face gets blotchy red, and this vein sticks out in his neck, and for some reason his arm muscles are bulging under his t-shirt, and he looks lethal. Hungover, exhausted, but lethal.

"What are you going to do?" he snaps. "Fire me? You can't fire me. You know you can't. Right. Right, I know. Yeah, okay. Okay. Got it. I'll be there."

When he finally lowers the phone and lets out a sigh, Zayn asks, "You in shit for yesterday?"

"I've got a meeting," Liam says with a sneer. "We're going to 'discuss my options'. Whatever that means."

Zayn chews his lip. One side of him wants to wrap his arms around Liam's shoulders, somehow take the brunt of this all because he's used to it. He's used to being the black sheep, the one doing things he's not supposed to, going directly against whatever their management needed of them at the time. He's used to the long, drawn out phone calls; the meetings where he gets sighed at for minutes on end. Liam isn't. But, at the same time, he knows that it's sort of called for right now. What Liam did yesterday, now that the initial shock has worn off for him, wasn't smart. Or cool. He agrees that it's Liam's life, and it's up to him if he wants to share those parts of it with everyone else, but there should have been some warning for the rest of them. It could have been handled better.

And he thinks that yesterday, along with the drinking and the flirting, are all problems with the same root cause. He just can't figure out what it is.

"Whatever," Liam says again. "I don't even care." He gets out of bed, and immediately his body tips sideways. "Oh, God. Tequila."

"What?"

"I shouldn't drink tequila," Liam explains, eyes closing, face going white. "I'm gonna throw up," he announces, and then he sprints across the room and manages to just get into the bathroom before the sound of retching reaches Zayn's ears.

Automatically, he grabs a bottle of water from the mini fridge and makes his way to the bathroom. Liam is on his knees, hugging the toilet, head tilted down as he continues to throw up probably everything he's eaten in the last 24 hours. Ignoring the smell and the disgusting sounds, which make his own stomach churn, he rubs soothing circles on Liam's back and waits for it to pass.

Eventually Liam straightens and wipes at his mouth, and then he flushes the toilet and runs the sink, washing out his mouth with one of those cheap, disposable toothbrushes they find in the bathroom of almost all the hotels the stay at. When he's done, he takes the bottle from Zayn, uncaps it, and downs it all in one sip. "Thanks," he adds.

Zayn shrugs. "Anytime."

Liam's face softens — still pale, ashen, sickly looking, but the features are all wide and thankful. "I know," he says. He clears his throat. "Uh, anyway, I should probably get back to my room. Need to pack up. We've got about two hours before we're heading out."

Zayn glances down at the watch on Liam's wrist, reading the hands — 9:36. By noon they'll be out of here, heading to another town, another hotel, somehow exactly the same as the one before it.

The first thing Harry does when he gets on the tour bus is crash in his bed. He's got a lower bunk, and a pillow from home is stashed in the corner, hidden by the newer, fluffier ones they were provided with. Zayn only knows about it because he'd gone to steal an extra from Harry a few days ago, and he'd found the flat, ratty old pillow during his search. He didn't say anything, didn't ask. They all cope in their weird ways, and an old pillow that smells like home isn't really that odd.

"Me too," Liam groans, falling right into Niall's bunk. His own is on top, and he apparently doesn't have the energy to climb up into it. "I feel like I didn't sleep at all last night."

Louis, beside Zayn on the couch, snorts. "Did you? Because I checked your room last night at, like, four in the morning. You weren't there. So where did you sleep? Or did you just come in late?"

It's not surprising, the fact that Louis knows this. He can act aloof all he wants, but Louis keeps better tabs on them than their actual security. He's like the kind of parent that uses phrases like 'tough love', not the kind to hug you and make you hot chocolate when you cry, but he still loves you just as dearly. He just has a more discreet way of showing it. But he always, somehow, seems to know where they are when one of them needs help. It's almost scary how good he is at that, actually.

"I stayed out," Liam says from Niall's bunk. "And it's none of your business. You're not my mother."

Zayn's not sure who looks more surprised; Louis from the harsh tone of Liam's words, or himself, from Liam's lie. Why not just tell the truth? He'd found his way to Zayn's room, and he'd slept there. It's not the first time. Hell, it's the second that week. And it's something that happens increasingly more lately.

"Whatever," Louis snaps. "And Niall, seriously, do you have to do that?"

Niall is sitting at the small foldaway table in the middle of the bus, headphones in, singing along loudly to whatever plays on his iPod (currently Maroon 5) without a care in the world. He turns to Louis, eyebrows raised, and shouts, "What?"

"Do you have to do that?" Louis shouts back.

"What?!"

"Oh, for fuck sake." Louis stomps across the bus, snatches the headphones out of his ears, and then leans down close to them and yells, "STOP FUCKING SINGING."

Zayn settles back in his seat and tilts his head back, closing his eyes. Just another typical day.

They have just enough time, when they arrive, to get their stuff moved into the hotel before they have to leave to get ready for tonight's show. Somehow it's calm when they arrive, no one realizing yet that they're staying here. He gives it another hour, maybe two, before the hordes show up.

After that nap he had on the bus, one he'd woken up to with a blanket thrown over him (no doubt done by Louis), he feels in a better mood. Some days he feels like he can't handle any of this without falling apart, but some days he knows he can, with a smile on his face and a warmth in his stomach.

He's just dropping his bag onto his bed (they're sharing tonight, and somehow he's always rooming with Niall, not that he minds at all because Niall is great to room with), the one closest to the window and the door to the balcony, when Louis barges into his room.

"You really should lock your door," Louis says, falling onto Niall's bed. Niall's in the shower, steam creeping through the cracks in the door. "Remember that time—"

"I remember all of the times," Zayn says lowly. Though the first time he'd walked into his room, only to find someone hiding in his bathroom, still remains the clearest memory. Somehow he doubts he'll ever forget that.

"Guess you do," Louis says. He sinks down onto Zayn's bed and digs around in his pocket. Eventually he produces a piece of paper, and he hands it over. "Here. What do you think?"

Zayn unfolds it, something that has been done about a hundred times, judging by the creases in the paper. On it is a small doodle, nothing special. "It's a shoe."

"It's a pair of shoes," Louis corrects. "With the laces all tied together. Like the kind you find hanging from telephone wires."

"Okay," Zayn says slowly, folding the paper back up. He hands it to Louis. "So what does it mean?"

Louis scoffs. "As if all of my tattoos mean something," he says, but Zayn knows that they do. Every single one, some that Zayn knows, some that he doesn't. Louis' a selective sharer. If he wants you to know, you will. If he doesn't… "I was thinking we could go after the show. Maybe get some drinks afterwards. I found this place online, open 24/7, apparently."

Zayn shrugs. "Sure."

Louis gets off the bed and starts towards the door. He stops with his hand on the knob and chances a look at the bathroom door before saying, unnecessarily quietly, "Don't invite Liam."

Zayn's defences go up. "Why not?"

"Oh, stop getting all protective boyfriend," Louis snaps. "Just don't, okay? Just us tonight, yeah?"

It takes him a minute, but eventually Zayn says, "Yeah." He doesn't get why, and he knows Louis won't tell him. And it throws him off, given the fact that, technically, Liam would be considered Louis' best friend, out of all of them. But, then again, Louis has always had his reasons for doing what he does. He just rarely relays them to anyone else.

It's not the greatest neighbourhood, for sure, but that doesn't really bother him. He's still reeling, buzzing, high on adrenaline from tonight's show, and he will be for hours. That's how it works; either a show wears him out, and it's all he can to do get into an actual bed before he crashes, or his energy is jacked up so high that he can't sit still. Later, when that crash finally does come, it'll be worse. But totally worth it.

There's a bell above the door that chimes as Louis pushes it open, and their one security guard (mandatory, they keep pretty close tabs on him and Louis… for good reason, admittedly) takes up the rear, leaning against the far wall with his arms crossed over his chest. It'd be a threatening move, if they were anywhere else. But for some reason the stocky man behind the desk at the back of the room, body covered in swirling art, is way more intimidating.

"This place is great," Zayn says, taking it all in. There's a certain air to tattoo shops, the grittier ones, that he loves. The walls, just like the man, are covered. There's black paint underneath, but you can only see cracks of it through all the framed artwork, the tacked up pieces of paper with drawings on them.

"You sure you're not getting anything?" Louis asks for the third time that night.

Zayn shakes his head. "Not tonight."

Louis shrugs and makes his way to the counter, his paper with the shoes on it clutched in his hand. Zayn makes his way around the room, careful to stay away from the equipment and chairs. He knows his boundaries in these places, and while he could definitely afford to pay if he accidentally broke anything, he doesn't want to risk it. Money can't replace sentimentality, and this place is practically glowing with it.

"The ones on the wall are all personal designs," says a voice to his right, and Zayn jumps. He chances a glance at his security, but the guy just blinks at him. "One use only. As soon as they're paid for, we take 'em off the wall. Keeps 'em original, special, you know. Drew them myself."

The voice belongs to an old woman. She's got greying hair and a map of wrinkles on her face. She's also got so much ink that it looks like she bathes in it, and there's a row of studs in her left ear, going all the way up the cartilage.

"Really," Zayn says, eyebrows raising. It's not meant to sound so incredulous, but it does.

"What? Thought a man drew 'em?" she asks, looking more amused than offended.

"Maybe," Zayn admits, because he did. The art on the wall is a similar style to a lot of stuff he's seen, a bit more edgy than anything he's personally gotten. Bleeding roses, daggers, anatomically correct hearts. He stops on one, a little high up. It's a fish, drawn in extreme detail. Something big, vibrantly coloured, each scale made up of a different colour so they all blend together in a rainbow sort of effect. Each of its fins are wrapped in barbed wire. "So what's this one mean, then?" he asks, tapping the picture. "If you drew it, I mean, then what was it supposed to represent? Or did you just think it looked cool?"

"What's it mean?" the woman repeats. She shrugs. "'s up to you, isn't it? Beauty's in the eye of the beholder and all that crap, right? Doesn't matter what it means to me. Matters what it means to you."

"How much?" Zayn wonders.

Another shrug. "Depends on where you want it. How big."

He chews his lip for a moment and turns his gaze to Louis, who's already in a chair with that burly man prepping his arm for the tattoo. Not somewhere that obvious, he thinks. Not too big, either. The ankle seems too girly, for some reason, and he's already got tattoos on his hips. Definitely not his back or shoulders. He taps the back of his thigh. "Here?"

The woman laughs and honest to god she waggles her eyebrows. "Two hundred," she says. "That's including the fifty bucks we charge for anything on the wall. And I'll even do it myself."

There's a fleeting moment of indecision. He hadn't planned on getting anything, and he isn't even sure why he wants it. But why not? Why not? It's something he thinks a lot, honestly. And maybe that's what's gotten into Liam lately. Maybe he's got that same voice in the back of his mind, whispering it over and over, and he's giving into it the way Zayn has so many times.

Why not, he thinks. Out loud he says, "You've got a deal."

The woman reaches up onto the tips of her toes and tears down the picture. She leads him towards a back room (thankfully, because he doesn't really want to get photographed by someone who happens to stumble upon them with his pants off and an old lady tattooing him near his ass), but Louis reaches out and stops him. "Thought you weren't getting anything," he teases, a knowing look on his face. "What is it?" Zayn hands over the drawing, and Louis' eyebrows screw up. "It's a fish," he says.

"Yours is a pair of shoes," Zayn reminds him.

"Yeah, okay, but it's wrapped in barbed wire," Louis says, confused. "What's the point of a fish that can't even swim?"

"Exactly."

Louis still looks confused, but Zayn takes the paper back and continues on towards the back room. Louis isn't the only one who can keep secrets when he wants to, and Zayn doesn't really want to elaborate when he's not quite sure himself why he wants the damn fish tattoo anyway.

It's all so familiar, the chair, the sounds, the burning sting. When they're done (Louis in about half an hour, Zayn's takes two full ones) they pay, Zayn handing over three hundred and refusing to take the change, and leave. It wasn't the smartest spot to get a tattoo, he realizes when they get back into the car that they drove in. It hurts like a bitch to sit, and he has to perch way on the edge of his seat to even manage it.

Louis straps on his seatbelt, grins wickedly, and says, "Now let's go get shitfaced."

Partying with Louis is always either the best or very worst idea. Sometimes it's fun, bordering on crazy; sometimes it's crazy, bordering on illegal and/or deathly. Right now it's illegal, since he can't legally drink here, but for once they're staying on the fun side of crazy.

The club they're in is the kind of place he loves; it's too dark, too crowded, perfectly anonymous. The flashing lights illuminate faces only momentarily, and by the time anyone could even think to recognize them, they'd already be far in the crowd, out of sight and no doubt out of mind within moments.

"I'll get drinks," Louis shouts over the music. "You just — stay in this general area and try not to get lost."

Zayn nods and carefully circles his way through the crowd, always returning to the same spot but never standing still for too long. He gets looks, ones from pretty girls in short dresses or even shorter shorts. From the occasional guy, too, but they're not 'Hey, aren't you from that boyband?' looks. They're 'Hey, want to come back to mine and fuck my brains out?' looks that he's just as used to. Not to be cocky, but facts are facts.

He's just ducking away from a thin pair of arms, draped in some kind of glittery lotion that sticks to his clothes the second they touch him, when Louis returns with two drinks. "I didn't even get carded!" he shouts over the music. "I don't know if that's because this place is sketchy, or if it's because I look old enough that they didn't need to card me. I'm kind of offended."

Zayn rolls his eyes and takes the outstretched drink. "What is this?"

"Does it matter? It's blue. Just drink it."

And Zayn just drinks it. And the next drink, which is neon pink and tastes sickeningly like roses, so he downs it in two sips. And then a green one, and seriously, can't he just get a coke and vodka? But by the orange drink, he's too far gone to care anymore. He's dancing with Louis, mostly, but occasionally someone else will push into his personal space, or Louis will get caught up in the wave of limbs and the pounding, electrifying music. Sweat has layered itself on every inch of his skin, and he feels light headed and great; really, really great.

Until Louis sighs and holds out his phone. Zayn squints, trying to make out the pixilated picture on it. It's so fuzzy, either from the shitty quality or how drunk he is, and it takes a moment to work it out. When he does, he recognizes Liam's profile, illuminated by flashy lights in another club, just like this one, only he's got his arms around the waist of a pretty girl with her ass pressed against his crotch, and then he's got the arms of a tall, incredibly muscular guy around his waist and they're all dancing in a sort of provocative, awkward conga or something.

"What is with him?" Louis screams right in his ear. "The boy has lost his mind!"

"Not my problem right now," Zayn says dismissively. The alcohol in his system almost convinces him that it's true, but the worry scratching away at his chest says otherwise.

"Of course it's our problem!" Louis screeches at him. "It reflects on all of us!"

Zayn rolls his eyes and tries to duck away, escape into the mass of bodies. It doesn't work. "We all do dumb shit sometimes," he reminds Louis. "Let it go."

"I'd let it go," Louis hisses, "if it didn't freak me out so much. And don't tell me that it doesn't freak you out too, because I know it does. It's concerning. And I love that stupid bastard, and I don't know what to do because it's scaring me. At first, I blew it off. He just got over a breakup. He was letting loose. All the power to him. But it's been months, Zayn, and it's getting worse. The other day, at that interview—"

"Is that what tonight was?" Zayn demands. "Did you bring me out so you could try to weasel information out of me? Because I don't know anything. He doesn't tell me anything, so your efforts were wasted, Louis."

"That's what I'm talking about!" Louis insists. "He doesn't tell anyone anything! He's just — doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and that is not the Liam I know."

"People change."

"Not this drastically!"

Zayn really, really wishes he'd let it go. First of all, it's irritating. Second, he's too drunk to want to care right now. Third— what was the third? Oh, right, he isn't Liam's fucking keeper, okay? And lastly, a part of him knows that he feels the same way. That Louis hasn't said a single thing that he hasn't thought countless times recently. "Let it go," he says lowly anyway. He doesn't want to talk about it.

"Oh, really mature," Louis sneers. "Just blow it off because you don't want to talk about it. Real nice, Zayn. Glad to see you care so much."

Zayn heads off in search of another colourful, sickly sweet drink. By the time they leave, he's wasted enough that he needs help getting to and from the car. And into the hotel. And the elevator. And his room…. And his bed.

Somehow he does get there, though, and Louis tucks him in all tight ("Like a little burrito. A Zayn burrito. Burrito Zayn. They could sell you at Taco Bell and make a killing. …. I'm so drunk, I'm sorry.") and even, ridiculously, kisses his head. It reminds of his mum, and back home, and that's what he's thinking about when he door creaks open.

It's not even a surprise anymore. He just shifts over a bit, moans out, "Too drunk to talk. Goodnight," and doesn't even attempt to question Liam's presence this time. And Liam, of course, doesn't offer an explanation. He just gets into bed, pulls up the covers, and within moments the sound of his snoring fills the room.

It's stupidly comforting.

It's easier and somehow harder with Niall than it is with Louis. Niall doesn't push; if you're not going to tell him something, he gets over it. But, at the same time, Niall has this look. It's piercing, his blue eyes narrowed, and honestly it's terrifying. It reminds Zayn so much of his father. He was never the parent who yelled; his mum did that enough. When his dad was mad, he was scary quiet. And when he wanted you to tell him something, he gave you this look that said you better own up to it, because he knows exactly what happened and the punishment is going to be a million times worse if you lie about it. It's a look that's gotten him to fess up to drinking, or sneaking out, more than a few times.

"We going to talk about it?" Niall asks over lunch.

It's just the two of them. Niall wanted to go shopping and everyone knows that, if they don't stop him, he'll buy the exact same shirt, in the exact same colour, five different times and claim that it's smart to bulk up when you like something, which is really just an excuse to wear the same white t-shirt for two weeks straight. So Zayn offered to go with him. He needed to get out anyway.

"Talk about what?" Zayn asks through a mouthful of a spicy chicken sandwich. A camera flash goes off, and he wonders how flattering that picture is, his mouth stuffed and hanging open. Great.

"I don't know," Niall says cryptically. "Do you think there's anything to talk about?"

Zayn swallows and frowns at him. "Given the fact that we spend practically every minute of every day together, I'm going to say no, probably not."

Niall shrugs and eats a bite of his salad ("I'm trying to be healthy," he said, ordering it on the side of his double bacon cheeseburger.) before saying, all casual, "Nothing about, you know, yourself. Or Liam, or something."

Zayn puts down his sandwich. "Seriously? Did Louis put you up to this? Because I told him, I don't know anything, okay?"

"Hey, whoa." Niall lifts his hands defensively. "I'm not asking like that. I know you don't know what's going on with him. I'm asking about you. How it's affecting you." He goes back to eating, like this is such a comfortable, pleasant conversation to have, even though it's taken away all of Zayn's desire to even touch the food in front of him. "I know that he spends every night we're in a hotel in your room, you know."

Zayn startles, eyes widening. "You do?"

"We shared a room together a few nights ago, remember. I wasn't as asleep as you two thought I was when he snuck out. And I didn't think it was a secret," Niall says. "Not until Li denied it. And then I was like, well why would he lie? Unless there's something to hide. So is there?"

"No," Zayn says instantly. Niall gives him that look. "No, okay?"

"So you're not —?"

"He just comes in drunk and passes out in my bed," Zayn admits with his eyes on the table and his voice lowered. He doesn't want someone somehow overhearing, though there's a window and a bunch of security between them and everyone who's trying to hear (and take pictures). "And then he leaves in the morning as soon as we get up. That's it."

"Oh."

"What'd you think was happening?"

Niall makes a face. "I don't really want to talk about butt sex while I'm eating." Zayn throws a balled up napkin at him. "I'm kidding, I'm kidding. But why is he lying about it, if you're just sleeping? I don't get it."

"I don't think anyone gets what Liam does anymore," Zayn says honestly. "I sure as fuck don't."

"Does that bother you?"

"It's just a phase," Zayn tells him. "He'll get over it soon enough."

"Do you want him to, though?" Niall questions. "I mean, you've gotta like the fact that he comes to you, not the rest of us."

Zayn… hadn't really thought of it like that before. Now that Niall's brought it up, why does Liam come to him, and not Louis? The two have gotten really close lately, and it'd make just as much sense for him to sneak into Louis' room instead. But every night he's in Zayn's, without fail. Why?

And why did Niall have to bring that up and make him think about it? He glares at Niall for this. "For someone who I've literally watched try to perfect the art of burping and farting at the same time, you sound an awful lot like a therapist right now."

"Okay, fair enough," Niall chuckles. "I was just making sure you're good. You are good, right?"

"I'm good," Zayn confirms. And he decides that maybe he needs to spend more time with Harry, unless Louis and Niall stop with the twenty questions every time they're alone together.

While it annoys and pisses him off to no end, he has to admit that Niall and Louis are justified in their concern. And he's justified in his own, right? Drinking sometimes is fine. Drinking until you're belligerently drunk sometimes, even, is okay. But when it's a daily thing, four, five times a week, it stops being as okay. Right?

"What are you doing tonight?" Zayn asks Liam. They're in a smaller town, though that doesn't mean it's actually small. They don't really do small anymore. "Going out?"

Liam shrugs at him as he pulls on the jeans he's wearing on stage tonight. "I was thinking about it." He sounds wary. "Why?"

"Can I come?"

Liam looks more than a little surprised, but happily so. "Sure. I'm probably leaving at midnight. Just meet me in my room."

"Meet me in mine," Zayn offers instead. "Okay?"

Liam's body brushes extremely, unnecessarily, close to his own as he reaches for his shirt. His whole side rubs against Zayn's front, and he smells clean, like body wash, deodorant and just a hint of cologne. "Okay," Liam says. Why his voice is pitched that low, why his teeth catch on his bottom lip after he's spoken, why his eyes are heavily lidded, Zayn has no idea. But it makes his pulse race. "Looking forward to it."

That's only the beginning, apparently. Every time Zayn moves, whether it's when they're still backstage, getting ready, or when they're moving around during a number, Liam is right there. And Liam's body is right there, touching his own, be it the brush of their shoulders or a hand sliding across the small of his back or fingers on the back of his neck. Somehow it only escalates from there.

"If the person to your left was a car, what kind of car would they be?" Liam reads, eyes moving from the screen to Zayn's. "I guess I'll go first. If Zayn were a car, he'd be… hmm, something sleek and sexy, but able to handle a good, hard riding."

Zayn's mouth falls open. Did he really just say that? Even Louis coughs awkwardly and looks around like he's expecting someone to come out and yell at them. Before anyone else can react to that 'Good, hard riding' part, Zayn barrels on with, "Louis would be — I don't know. A moped."

"A moped?" Louis demands, playing along, thankfully. "Out of all of the— I'll get you back for that, Malik. But on to Harry. If he were a car…."

"What the hell was that?" Zayn hisses at Liam, careful to keep his mic lowered and too far away to pick up on his words.

Liam smiles at him, like he doesn't understand Zayn's accusatory tone. "What was wrong with that?"

There's a fine line, Zayn thinks, between a joke and actual flirting. Between the way Harry wiggles his hips and winks at him during Rock Me, and the way Liam licks his lips and very obviously checks Zayn out. Between Niall slapping Louis' ass briefly and the way Liam squeezes Zayn's. There's this energy on stage, or maybe it's just between him and Liam (Zayn tells himself that the looks Louis keeps giving him prove that it's not all in his head) that crackles, like the air before a thunderstorm.

When they get off stage, his forehead, back, chest sheathed in sweat, he's turned roughly around and pulled into a tight hug. So tight that his feet lift off the ground. "God, I love performing," Liam says, with that same hyper energy that only comes from a good show.

"Me too," Zayn mumbles out. He tries not to grab at Liam and pull him back in when he takes a step back, but he doesn't fully manage to extract his arms from where they'd habitually wrapped themselves around Liam's neck.

When Zayn doesn't let him go, Liam's hands fall to his waist, fingers digging in a bit. He leans forward, and Zayn stupidly thinks he's going to be kissed until Liam's forehead rests against his own. Liam's eyes close, and he breathes deeply with a gentle smile on his face.

Abruptly he pulls back, and this time Zayn's smart enough to drop his arms. Liam shakes his head, eyebrows scrunched up, and mutters, "Need a drink. Sorry."

As soon as he's gone, someone knocks into his shoulder. Harry eyes him as he downs the last of his drink. "Swooning," he says.

Zayn frowns at him. "What?"

"'To feel faint or overwhelmed by adoration or infatuation,'" Harry elaborates. "As in, what you just did: Swooning."

At that moment, going solo seems like a really good idea.

At exactly midnight, there are three quick, sharp knocks on his door. Zayn looks around the room, lip caught between his teeth, then strides towards the door. At the last second he stops to straighten his shirt, until he realizes what he's doing. He untucks it and grabs handfuls of the material and makes a fist with both of his hands so it doesn't look like he'd gone so far as to raid Harry's wardrobe for something to wear, and he'd decided on the freshly pressed button-up. The shirt wrinkles, and it could definitely pass for something that he'd found stuffed at the bottom of his own bag.

Liam smiles at him from the other side of the threshold when he opens the door. He's wearing a pair of dark wash jeans and a leather jacket over a low-necked shirt. The hair on his chest is clearly visible, and it shouldn't be as hot as it is, but… well. "Hey," he says. "Ready to go?"

Zayn shakes his head and clears his throat. "I kind of don't feel well, actually."

Concern flickers in Liam's eyes. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing major," Zayn assures him. He hates lying to Liam. "Just a headache. My stomach, too, a bit. I don't think I can go out tonight."

"Oh." Liam's face falls. "Okay, that's fine, I—"

"Stay with me instead?" Zayn suggests. "We could watch a movie, get some room service." Liam looks unsure, so Zayn makes a pitiful sound and adds, "I'd rather not be alone."

Liam nods slowly. "Okay, just let me change. I'll be right back."

"I'll leave the door unlocked."

When he's gone, Zayn flits through the small hotel room, straightening the blankets, throwing the four outfits he'd tried on earlier back into his bags. He sets up his computer, too, so they can watch something. And then he waits.

Obviously Liam's partying isn't as much of a problem as Louis makes it out to be. If it were, he would have put up more of a fight, right? He would have found some excuse not to hang out in Zayn's room just watching a movie. Instead, it had only taken a little bit of persuading to get him to agree.

Twenty minutes later, he pulls his phone out and turns it impatiently in his hands for a while before he gives in and sends a text to Liam, asking him what's taking so long.

Something came up. Be only ten more mins promise x — LP

Ten minutes pass in no time, though it seems to drag on for Zayn, who spends the whole time on the tiny little balcony, his second cigarette since Liam left dangling from his fingers. He takes a deep drag as his phone vibrates in his pocket.

Come out with us? — Tommo

Can't, Zayn sends back, hanging out with Liam.

The next three texts he gets in succession, one immediately after the other. The same Liam that left the building in a car fifteen minutes ago? and if you don't want to come just say so. and finally, you didn't have to lie about it.

I wasn't the one who lied, Zayn thinks. He doesn't actually answer. He shuts his phone off instead and paces the room for a bit, trying to clear his head. It doesn't work. Liam left. He said he was changing and coming back, but instead he left. To do what?

He should have expected this, Zayn realizes. Liam obviously didn't want to stay in, and why would Zayn pretending to be sick keep him from doing what he wants? Maybe the old Liam would have stayed in, but things are different.

Anger weighs out over the worry, and he finds his hands balling into fists as he continues wearing down a trail in the carpet as he goes over the whole night. Liam had been excited to go out with him. Not just in general, but he'd seemed genuinely pleased that Zayn was going out with him tonight. And when Zayn bailed, he seemed a little upset. But couldn't he at least have owned up to the fact that he was going out? Why would he tell Zayn he was coming back?

And what's he doing now, anyway? In Zayn's mind, he's probably already at another club, on his second drink of the night. He's probably dancing with some faceless, pretty girl that no doubt has her hands all over him, happy to be the object of his affection for the night, even if she knows it's just for the night. Or maybe, Zayn thinks, it's a guy, not a girl. That, for some reason, grates him even more.

There's a knock at his door, and he's tempted to just ignore it. He figures it's Louis, coming to give him a good chewing out for not only lying to him, but ignoring his texts as well. What he gets instead is a flushed, breathless Liam with a bunch of bags in his arms.

"Sorry," he says as he pushes into the room. "Last time we were here you got sandwiches at that place, remember, the one with the great beef dip or whatever? And I swear I stood in line for, like, half an hour. And then the pharmacy didn't carry anything that I recognized, so I had to ask the guy who worked there what would be best for a headache and an upset stomach, and traffic was shit on the way back here."

Zayn blinks in surprise. "You—"

"Got food, drinks, and medicine," Liam says. "Oh, and I changed into sweats. Everything we need for a night in."

Liam drops the bags on his bed and starts pulling things out. There's a bottle of Coke, two juices, a grease-stained paper bag with the logo for the exact sandwich shop Liam was talking about, a bottle of Advil, and a bottle of Tums. He looks so damn pleased with himself, too, every time he looks up and smiles at Zayn.

And Zayn? Zayn feels like shit. Not because he's actually sick or anything. Because he'd expected the worst from Liam when he hadn't come back, and instead he'd gotten the best. Because that boy grinning back at him is the one he'd fallen in love with before he could even stop himself, and he can't believe that he ever even considered that Liam would ditch him off for a night on the town when he thought Zayn was sick.

"Those sandwiches smell great," Zayn says quietly.

"They do," Liam agrees. He locates two of those plastic cups that come with the stocked mini fridge, and he pours a bit of the coke into both before uncapping the Advil. He dumps two into his hand and holds it out to Zayn. "Take these now, and another two in four hours if you still have a headache."

"Right." Zayn grabs the cup first, takes a big sip. He holds the liquid in his mouth and tilts his head up to drop the pills in. He swallows, winces (he really hates taking medication, any kind) and wipes at his mouth.

Liam is shaking his head at him. "You always do it backwards," he says. "My mum taught me to take the pills first, and swallow them down with the drink. Not drink, then pills. Anyway, you need to get in bed."

Zayn tries not to roll his eyes, or look as amused as he feels. It's like he washed the guilt down with the pills, and he can just enjoy this right now. Liam taking care of him, as he's prone to do when someone's sick. Not that he actually knows what he's doing, they learned last year when Harry got the flu. Louis is much better in that department, but Liam does his best. "Yes, Dr. Payne," he says.

Liam chuckles. "Imagine? All my patients would be terrified of me. Dr. Payne." He pulls two paper wrapped sandwiches from one of the bags. "I think I would have liked to be an EMT, though."

"I wouldn't have the stomach for it," Zayn says.

"That's why you'd be a teacher instead, right? If it weren't for this."

"Yeah," Zayn admits, and he isn't at all surprised that Liam remembers that, even though he's only ever mentioned it casually, throw-away like.

Liam pushes everything away so Zayn can settle into the bed, pillows fluffed up against the headboard, and then he crawls in beside him, handing over one of the sandwiches. Zayn sits with his legs crossed, food in front of him, and unwraps it. For a while they sit like that, silently eating. It's great. One of the best sandwiches he's ever had, and he's eaten at five star restaurants all over the world, so that's saying something.

"Do you think about it ever?" Liam asks, breaking the silence finally.

"What?"

"What it'd be like," he elaborates. "If we weren't us. If we'd of gone on to university, or work, or something."

"I don't know," Zayn says. "It seems sort of greedy, don't you think? Most people dream about lives like ours. Sort of selfish to have all this and still dream of the perfect life, right?"

Liam shrugs. "I think about it, sometimes." He makes a considering face. "I think I would have gone on to construction, or something. Not school. I'd probably never leave the town I grew up in, live a few minutes away from my parents' house. Settle down like everyone, you know? Family, modest house, nine-to-five job: the works. What about you?"

Honestly, he does think about it sometimes, and he knows the answer to that. "I'd be a teacher," Zayn starts. "And I'd hate my job sometimes, but I'd still love it because, I don't know, it'd be worth it? Shaping the minds of the future and all that shit."

Liam laughs before asking, "What else?"

"I'd want to live close to my parents. Not too close, but close enough that my kids would grow up surrounded by family."

"So you'd have kids," Liam confirms. "How many?"

"Three," Zayn says immediately. "A boy first, and two girls. That way he could beat up their boyfriends when they're older."

"What about marriage?"

He pictures it, for a moment. Some faceless woman walking down the aisle towards him, adorned in a white dress, face covered by a veil. And then the fantasy changes, and it's Liam in front of him, reading his vows, grinning with tear-rimmed eyes. Flash-forward to that perfect house with the huge lawn and a porch and Liam, holding a tiny little bundle in his arms that blinks up at Zayn when he looks at it, with the same brown eyes that he meets when he looks at Liam again.

"Yeah." It sounds choked, strangled, and he takes a bite of his sandwich to cover that up.

Liam's voice is level, cool, collected — everything Zayn wasn't— when he asks, "Would I have a place in this dream life of yours?"

Right beside him, during all of it. "I don't know."

Liam nods, and it gets quiet again. "I'm glad we don't live there, then," he mumbles eventually.

Zayn looks at him, tries to gauge what he means by that, but Liam is turned away from him, reaching for Zayn's laptop on top of the side table. He doesn't even ask before he opens it and taps away at the keys, and it's not long before the opening credits of the movie start up. Liam pushes the laptop to the middle of the bed, and Zayn leans back, eyes on the screen.

When the title of the movie comes up, Zayn groans. "Independence DayAgain?"

"It's a good movie," Liam says defensively.

"You're not even American."

"It's better than that thing Harry made us watch on the bus the other day!" Liam argues. "Plus, this has Will Smith in it."

"John Tucker Must Die," Zayn remembers. "And it wasn't that bad."

"He quoted it, word for word," Liam reminisces. "And it was that bad."

Okay, it was, but for argument's sake Zayn refuses to admit that. He likes bickering with Liam too much. It's fun. Actually, the whole night is. The movie plays, and they don't really talk, but as soon as they're done eating Liam clears away their wrappers, and then he stretches out on the bed with the laptop resting in his lap. It gives Zayn an excuse to curl up right next to him, head on Liam's shoulder so he can see the screen without a glare on it. An arm finds its way around his shoulders by the time they get to the big fight scene, and by the time the good guys win, Zayn is fast asleep.

He jolts awake when Liam moves. One minute he's comfortably sleeping with Liam's chin resting on his head, and the next he's the only one in the bed.

Liam is looking around the room like a caged animal. He stumbles backwards a step and regards Zayn with wide eyes. "I'm sorry," he blurts. "I just — I can't."

"What?" He sounds sleepy, his voice slow, like his still half-asleep brain.

"This is too…" He waves a hand. "I can't do this. I'm sorry."

"Liam—" But he's already out the door, and it's closing loudly behind him. Zayn sits up and rubs at his face, wondering what just happened. And wondering if there's anything he can do to fix it.

It takes him a while to get out of bed, and he can't remember exactly what room Liam's in. He thinks it's 703, but that could be Louis, and he really doesn't want to risk knocking on it and having Louis ask him what he's doing. But, at the same time, he can't not check on Liam.

Softly, he knocks on the door. And knocks. He calls out Liam's name, too, until the door across the hall opens and Harry gives him a questioning look. "He left, like, twenty minutes ago," Harry tells him.

"Where did he go?" Zayn demands.

"I don't know," Harry answers quickly. "I asked and he just said 'out' all snappy, like he was pissed off."

"Out where?"

"I don't know," Harry repeats. "I'm not his parent. It's not like I gave him a curfew and made him explicitly tell me where he was going first. Why does it matter?"

Zayn tugs a hand through his hair and sighs. "It doesn't," he finally says. "It doesn't matter at all, I guess."

Harry doesn't buy it. He looks concerned, and he steps into the hall in just a pair of boxers and socked feet. "What happened?" he asks. "Are you—?"

"Don't worry about it," Zayn tells him. "Get back inside before someone comes out and snaps a picture of you, okay?"

It's like Harry is only then realizing how he's dressed. "Would look a bit questionable on the cover of every magazine, huh?" he says. "At least my socks match."

Zayn rolls his eyes. "Goodnight, Harry," he says before making his way back to his room.

Unlike earlier, he doesn't bother pacing the room with anger or worry. He shuts his laptop, puts it away, and shucks his clothes before climbing into bed. It's the first night in a while that he's slept alone. Usually Liam's there, or he's with one of the other lads. It's odd, not hearing the sounds of someone else breathing around him.

It takes him forever to fall asleep, and although he eventually does, he wakes up feeling like he hadn't.

"I miss you."

Zayn blinks up at the bottom of the bunk above him. "I miss you, too."

"How much?" Perrie asks.

Zayn laughs. "A lot, obviously."

Someone snorts. He looks over at the couch, where Louis and Liam are playing video games. Neither of them is looking in his direction, but there's no way the snort came from Harry or Niall, since Niall's asleep and Harry's at the table, eating.

"Then I have good news for you," Perrie says happily. "Guess who's meeting you in New York?"

Zayn sits up. "New York," he repeats. "That's in—"

"A week," Perrie confirms. She squeals and it pierces his ears, but he doesn't even mind because a flood of relief goes through him. He could use this right now; a break from everything else, a distraction. And Perrie's always been a good distraction. "I have so many plans, and I can't wait to see you. I'm so excited."

"Me— me too," Zayn says quickly. "I… wow."

"I was planning on surprising you," Perrie admits. "Just showing up, but I figured you'd like a bit of warning first. And this way we can make plans. I was thinking dinner, and of course I'd room with you, and I have a few friends down there that I have to have a few drinks with, just to catch up. And—" she cuts off. "Sorry. I'm making this all about me. What do you want to do?"

"I just want to see you."

The other end of the line is quiet for a moment. "I love you," Perrie says. "So much."

"I love you too," Zayn says back, because he does. Has for a long time. But there's a difference between loving someone and being in love with someone. A difference in the aching longing when you're away from one, and that feeling of being incomplete and lost when you're away from the other. A difference between the way a hug from a person you love is all comforting and warmth, while the touch of someone you're in love with can set you on fire without even trying.

You can't make yourself fall in love with someone any more than you can make yourself fall out of love with someone, but he hates thinking about that when he's with her, or talking to her. It's not fair, and this is more than enough for him.

"Oh, shit, I have to call you back," Perrie says suddenly. "But I will call, I promise! Miss you, love you, bye."

Zayn pockets his phone and folds his hands over his chest. It'll be nice to see her; to get lost in the sweet smell of her perfume, such a drastic contrast to the sharp cologne that — no, he's not going there. And he can't deny the fact that he's been more than a little horny lately, and getting off in the shower isn't cutting it anymore (if it ever did). In fact, now that he's let his mind wander to that place, he realizes how desperate he is for that feeling of skin on skin; for someone's nails scratching at his back and soft lips wrapped around him, and—

"What's happening in New York?" Harry asks.

Zayn jumps and nearly bangs his head on the top of the bunk. "Fuck, don't just sneak up on me like that," he snaps while rearranging himself as discreetly as he can.

Harry sits on the edge of the bunk and raises his eyebrows. "So? What's happening in New York?"

"Um." Zayn wonders why he feels guilty. "Perrie's coming for a visit."

There's another snort. "We should stop and get you some cold medicine," Harry says to Liam. "That doesn't sound healthy." Liam glares at him. "Anyway, how long is she staying for?"

Zayn shrugs. "I don't know?"

"Huh."

"What?"

"Nothing," Harry says quickly. "Nothing at all."

Zayn sighs. Harry likes to think he's cryptic and mysterious; in reality he's just weird and a little annoying. Not that Zayn wouldn't give his life for Harry, because he would. It's hard to have a best friend in the band, given the fact that they're all so close, but a lot of the time Harry would be considered his. When he needs relaxing, calm, he goes for Niall. When he needs someone to take his mind off things, Louis is definitely his go-to. But when he needs someone to talk to who will patiently listen and actually give good, usable advice, he goes to Harry.

Not that he'd ever admit that.

"I'm taking a nap," Zayn says pointedly.

"Oh, right." Harry ruffles his hair and gets up.

"Fucking Christ, Liam, you're going to break the controller!" Louis shouts.

Liam's glaring at the screen, hands wrapped tightly around the controller. He's pressing the buttons so hard that it's a surprise they don't get stuck. Abruptly the controller hits the ground and Liam jumps up. "Whatever, this game sucks anyway," he spits before crossing the small space of the bus and ducking into the bathroom.

That bathroom is barely used. It's small, and if someone really uses it, the whole bus is like a biohazard zone, so there's a rule against it. If you can hold it, you do.

Instead of wondering what the hell Liam's doing, Zayn tugs over the curtain that closes him into his bunk, blocking out everyone else. He hasn't even spoken to Liam since the other night, not really. Sure, they've exchanged a few words, but nothing was really said. Neither of them brought up what happened, and neither of them stayed alone with the other long enough for the other one to have a chance.

Zayn doesn't even know what he would say to Liam, which is why he hasn't. Does he get angry? Demand answers? Or try to figure out what he meant when he said he couldn't — what was it? "I can't do this," Liam had said. But Zayn can't even figure out what this is, let alone why he can't. So he let it go.

And maybe it's all for the best anyway.

There are two shows, one interview, endless driving and finally, finally, finally they get to New York. It's one of his favourite cities, honestly, even if he couldn't ever imagine himself permanently living here. It's too big, too loud, and he hates apartments (he currently lives in one, but that's more out of convenience than anything else), and if he had to chose somewhere to really settle down, permanently, it'd be far, far away from everyone else. Maybe in the middle of nowhere.

Still, New York is one of those places that you have to visit in your lifetime. There's so much to do, to see, and it's a great place to visit. It's so alive, even though they arrive late at night. The streets are still packed, everything's still open.

Niall crawls up front and pops open one of the windows to shout, "Hello NYC!" at the unsuspecting crowd on the streets. Zayn isn't the only one who rolls his eyes; Niall is such a tourist, everywhere they go.

Harry leans against him on the couch while they wait in traffic. They're all getting antsy now that they're almost there. For some reason they can all last for hours on end in this stupid bus, but make them wait an extra ten minutes until they get to the hotel and they all get cabin fever.

"He's jealous, you know," Harry says lowly, eyes on the bunks.

Zayn follows his line of sight to where Liam's lying on one of the bottom bunks, a pair of headphones in his ears, his eyes closed. "He's what?"

"Jealous," Harry repeats. "Of you and Perrie. He's been moody all week, and he gets this pinched look on his face every time someone mentions her name."

"He's not," Zayn says firmly.

"Okay, sure," Harry says haughtily. "Believe whatever you want. But Liam? He's jealous. And you're in love with him. And I think it's only a matter of time before all this shit hits the fan, especially with Perrie coming to visit. But hey, what do I know, right?"

Zayn shoves him away, eyes narrowed. "What is wrong with you?"

"I'm not the one with the crazy relationship drama," Harry mocks, all sing-songy.

"You don't have any drama," Zayn grumbles. "Ever."

"Except in the tabloids," Harry grumbles right back. "I can't even be in the same room as a woman and not be sleeping with her."

"At least you're not constantly cheating on your girlfriend," Zayn says.

"Who was the one who apparently got caught violently masturbating?" Niall shouts from the front of the bus. "Yeah, that would be me."

Neither of them can argue with that, can they?

Finally they pull up to the back of the hotel. Niall is the first off the bus, practically throwing himself through the door. Louis quickly follows him, and Zayn is right behind them. Liam's the last one out. He takes the last step and raises his arms above his head, stretching. He yawns, too, apparently not noticing the way his shirt hikes way, way up. Not that Zayn notices, either.

The first thing Zayn does when he gets upstairs is shower. Perrie won't be getting there for at least an hour, her flight not set to land until eleven. That gives him a bit of time to change and shave and put his stuff away before she arrives.

He's just buttoning his shirt when the knock comes at the door. He checks the time on his phone and frowns at the door before pulling it open. It's too early, and he's expecting one of the guys, but the second the door opens he's jumped. Thin arms wrap around his neck, and the smell of floral perfume clogs his senses. Automatically, he wraps his arms around her waist to keep her from falling, and he buries his face in her hair.

"Carry me to the bed, darling," Perrie purrs, all dramatic, and he laughs before obliging.

"What about your stuff?" he asks as he drops her onto the king sized bed.

"In the hallway. We can worry about that later." She pulls him down on top of her. "Right now, I really want to kiss my boyfriend."

Once again, Zayn gives her exactly what she wants. It's so easy to shut his brain off and get lost in it, enjoy it, the sticky sweetness of her lip gloss and her deft fingers carding through his hair; her soft sighs and soft body under his own; the way her legs wrap around him and her eyelashes sweep low.

"Zayn, seriously."

He pulls back, eyes popping open. "Mm? What, babe?"

"The door," Perrie says pointedly. "Someone's been knocking for about two minutes."

How didn't he notice that? It's like going on autopilot sometimes, and he doesn't even mean to. And now that she's pulled him out of it, he hears the soft knock on the door. Groaning, he rolls off the bed and heads to the door.

"Sorry to bother you, sir." It's a hotel employee, dressed in khakis with a nametag and everything. "We've gotten a few complaints about the luggage in the hallway. Would you like us to send someone up to help you move it, or would you like to take care of it yourself?"

"Someone complained?" Zayn asks. "Who? It's only been there for, like, ten minutes."

The employee gives him a regretful look. "I'm not at liberty to say." He bites his lip. "But, um, between just us, room 209. If anyone asks, I didn't tell you that."

Zayn nods. "Alright. I'll move it right now."

"Enjoy your stay! Feel free to call the front desk if you need absolutely anything."

"I'll keep that in mind."

When he's gone, Zayn grabs the first bag and tries to lift it, but it's like there are bricks in it. Perrie stands in the doorway and giggles at him. "What? I carried that all the way up here. Are you telling me you can't handle it?"

Zayn glares at her. "This weighs more than you do. There's no way you carried this."

"Okay, I'll admit: I had someone carry it for me. Just give me a minute, I'll call down to the front desk and have them send someone up."

Zayn tries to tell her not to, that he's fully capable of handling it, even though he's only managed to get the first bag just inside the door. She ignores him, and he continues trying to move her stuff until Liam comes out of his room. "Need help?" he asks.

Zayn releases the closest bag and nods. "If you want. Perrie's getting someone up here to help, so you don't have to."

"I don't mind," Liam assures him. He takes the bag from Zayn and hauls it into the room, just as Zayn catches the number on the door he'd just come out of: 209. "Are you two staying in tonight?"

Zayn grabs the last bag, a smaller one, and carries it into the room. "Probably," he says.

"No," Perrie interjects. "I made plans, actually. We're going out for drinks with my friends, I told you already. Twice."

Zayn blinks at her. "You did?"

"Yeah, Zayn," Liam says with a smirk. "Twice."

Perrie gives him a look. "Thank you for carrying my bags in for me, Liam. We appreciate it."

There's a tone in her voice, sharp and unpleasant, that grates him. It's the same one she uses whenever they argue, and he doesn't know what the hell warranted it. Except for forgetting the fact that they had plans, he hasn't done anything wrong, and she's not the type to get that upset over something so small. Only she's not upset with him, he realizes. Her narrowed gaze is on Liam. Huh.

"Where are you going?" Liam asks, unaware. "We should all get together, actually. I was planning on going out with Lou and Niall anyway."

Perrie smiles faintly. "Thanks for the offer, but we already made reservations."

Liam pulls out his phone. "Cool. Just give me the name of the place. I'm sure we can get in."

"It's very exclusive."

"There's a billboard with my face on it downtown. I think we're good."

Zayn looks between the two of them. He can literally feel the tension, and he has no idea why it's coming from both sides. Perrie is understandable; it's not that she dislikes Liam. She dislikes the fact that Zayn likes Liam more than he probably should, not that they've ever actually spoken about it. He just knows her well, and she knows him well, which is kind of the reason why this is even a problem. But Liam looks just as haughty as she does, his chin tilted up and his lips curled unpleasantly. His shoulders are tensed, too, and he's holding his phone tightly in his hands.

"I don't think that's the best idea," Zayn says slowly.

It's the first thing he's said in minutes, but apparently it was the wrong one. Both of them look at him sharply, and Perrie snaps, "No, it'll be fun," and Liam adds, "Yeah, let us all get to know each other. Isn't that what you always say you want, Zayn?"

Maybe he would like for everyone in his life to be as close with each other as he is with them. Which sounds great in theory, but right now he thinks that he'd like for Liam and Perrie to be not close at all. Like, far, far away from each other, actually. "Okay," he says anyway, knowing that any arguing he does will just make this worse, not better. "If that's what you guys want to do."

"Sounds great," Perrie says with emphasis.

"Awesome," Liam agrees.

"Meet us in the lobby in twenty?"

"I'll make sure the others are ready."

Zayn lets out a held breath when the door finally shuts behind Liam on his way out. His relief is short-lived. "You need to change," Perrie tells him. "Quickly, before we go."

Zayn looks down at himself. "What's wrong with what I'm wearing?" He actually took time to pick this out. He didn't just pull it out of his bags and throw it on. He pulls up the collar of the shirt and sniffs it, even, but it's actually clean, too.

"Aside from the fact that Liam just peed all over it like a dog marking its territory? Nothing." She wrinkles her nose and unzips one of her bags. "Fuck, it's like he thinks you belong to him. I've been here for not even half an hour and he's already pushing his way into our relationship." She stands up quickly, a shirt fisted in her hand. "You need to do something about it, Zayn. At first, I could let it go. The way he looked at you— but it didn't matter because he had a girlfriend. But now that he's single it's like he expects you to just… up and leave me for him, or something."

Zayn gapes at her. "What?" He shakes his head. "You're crazy, he doesn't—"

"I am not crazy," she growls.

She kind of looks it, honestly, with her blue eyes bulging angrily like that. For some reason he thinks saying so might make her more upset, though, so he doesn't say it out loud. "I didn't mean it like that," he assures her. "I just meant — Liam isn't— it's not like that."

Perrie rolls her eyes. "You always say that, and I used to think that it was only because you didn't want to upset me, but maybe you genuinely don't notice it. Are you really that blind?"

"Blind to what?"

"The fact that he's in love with you!"

Why is everyone saying that? First Harry, now this? "Liam is not in love with me," he says calmly. "Trust me, I would know if he was. But he's not, and you're my girlfriend. I love you. You have nothing to worry about, so I'm begging you, stop acting like I'm going to run out on you or something, okay?"

"Zayn." Her face softens, and a gentle hand cups his cheek. "Zayn, Zayn, Zayn. I'm sorry."

He lifts his hand to cover hers. "Don't be, just have some faith in me, okay? And in Liam. He's not like that. And I think you two might actually get along, if you really got to know each other."

"Oh, I highly doubt that," Perrie scoffs. "But I'm willing to try, for you. Okay? So I'll be on my best behaviour tonight. Just promise me that you won't forget who you come home to. Not just tonight, but every night. I might not always be here, but I'm going to be the one there when you go home. Not him."

Zayn doesn't even know what that means, but he does know that she's wrong about this. "I promise," he says. "Happy?"

"Yes. Now change your shirt."

He isn't carded at all the whole night, but there's always a fresh bottle of something on the table they're sitting at. A table that's sort of more than a little cramped. Perrie's friends (two girls that he's never met before, but apparently moved to New York a year ago or something) seemed more than happy to have them all, though, and Louis only complained once about the fact that the seven of them are squeezed into a booth meant for six, which is definitely surprising.

Not that Zayn drinks at all, unlike everyone else. Everyone else except Liam. It's like they're the only two sober at the table. One of Perrie's friends is flirting shamelessly with Niall, who is more than happy to reciprocate. Louis hit his limit two drinks ago, and he disappeared somewhere into the club almost as long ago. And Perrie…

"He's just hot, isn't he?" she's asking her other friend, the one not flirting with Niall. And she's waving a hand at Liam, not Zayn. "Like, totally fit, right?"

"Definitely," her friend agrees.

"God, I hate him. Why can't he be ugly?"

"Okay," Zayn says loudly. "I think we should go. It's getting late."

Because of the small booth, Zayn's stuck trapped between Niall and Liam. So he feels it when Liam laughs, and he definitely feels it when Liam drops his hand onto Zayn's thigh. "Once a train's gone off the tracks, you can't stop it from crashing," he says. "No matter how hard you hit the brakes."

Perrie grabs Zayn's hands. "Can— can you, um, pour me another drink, babe? And one for Meredith, too. You want one, right, Mer?"

Zayn's pretty sure that this train already crashed, but that doesn't mean he can't try to clean up the mess. He shoves at Niall until he gets out of the booth, and then he bends low to be heard over the music to ask, "You good to get your own way home?"

Niall waves him off. "Sure, sure."

"Come on, Per," Zayn says.

Perrie pouts at him. "But it's still early!"

"It's three in the morning."

"Is it?" She lets Zayn help her out of the booth, and she nearly slips out of his arms until Liam grabs her arm. "Oh, thank you, Liam. You're so wonderful. Why do you have to be wonderful?"

"Hot and wonderful," Liam says. "You know, she's growing on me."

"Just help me get her to a cab," Zayn snaps at him.

Liam looks more than happy to help, weirdly enough. He carries the brunt of her weight through the club, even though she's wobbling on her feet and trying to clutch Zayn as close to her as she can. He wishes he'd cut her off earlier. Not because he cares about her sloppy behaviour, but because he knows she's going to be horribly sick in the morning. Some people (Niall) never get hangovers, but Perrie is the kind that seems to always wake up with a serious headache after a night of drinking, even if she's only had a single drink.

"How're you feeling?" he asks her when they get in the cab. She leans her head against the window and closes her eyes. "Perrie?"

"'m good," she mumbles. "Totally— good."

He's brushing back her hair when Liam gets in beside him. He didn't expect that. "I thought you were staying."

Liam shrugs and pulls on his seatbelt. He gives the driver the address and grins at Zayn. "Decided not to."

Perrie turns, her head lolling onto Zayn's shoulder. "I'm tired," she yawns. "And you smell really good."

Liam leans into him, and Zayn feels the cold tip of Liam's nose against his neck. "You really do," he murmurs.

Zayn suddenly feels trapped between them. Part of him desperately wants to lean closer to Liam, as he always does, but the moral part of him says that he shouldn't even think that, let alone actually do it. Not with his girlfriend right there, completely trashed, trusting in him even though she shouldn't. Even if he never really deserved her trust or her love or her at all, really.

Perrie isn't the only one who's going to have a headache in the morning. Zayn's head is killing him right now, and he has a feeling it's not going to stop until she goes back home.

The hotel is a whole other problem. There are people out front, cameras flashing, and he doesn't have to try to see through the crowd to know that Harry's either just going out or just coming home. "Take it around back," Liam instructs the driver, and Zayn continues to pet Perrie's hair because it's really all he can do for her, at this point.

"Can't walk," she insists when Zayn tries to help her towards the back door, which is being held open by a member of their security. Back doors are very convenient, he's learned.

"I can't carry you," Zayn says pathetically. He tried, and she might be incredibly tiny, Perrie, but somehow she weighs a lot.

Liam sighs and scoops her right up into his arms, fireman-style. Perrie giggles, delighted, and Liam mouths 'lightweight' at him. Zayn ignores it, pretending to be busy searching his pockets for the keycard to their room.

Just like earlier, Perrie is dropped onto the bed. Only this time it's Liam who does it, and she flops down onto it, her head hitting the pillow and eyes closing immediately. She'll deny it adamantly, but she snores, her mouth hanging open and everything. Her makeup is smudged under her eyes, and she looks about fifteen like that. It makes him incredibly sad, though he doesn't know why.

"I do like her," Liam says quietly. He steps back until he and Zayn are side by side. "She's very pretty. I see the appeal, I do."

"Hey," Zayn teases, "that's my girlfriend you're talking about."

Liam cuts him a look. "I didn't mean it like that."

"I know," Zayn says, though he doesn't exactly know how Liam does mean it. "Thanks for the help."

"No problem." Liam pats his shoulder. "Later."

Zayn locks the door behind him and turns off the lights, leaving just the lamp beside the bed on. Perrie is fast asleep, though, and she sleeps like the dead — kind of like him. Unless a tornado hits the building or something, she's not getting up. He changes into sweats and checks his phone for texts (just one from Louis, asking why he left, and then complaining about being responsible for getting Niall home) when a new one comes in.

Perrie still sleeping?— LP

Zayn frowns before typing out a short 'yes'.

Come 2 my room?— LP

Again, Zayn sends back a short, one-worded answer. Why?

Need you —LP he gets in response, followed almost instantly by Pls?

Zayn considers saying no, but after he checks to make sure Perrie's still asleep, he heads for the door. Maybe he still has hard feelings over what happened the other day, and not getting an explanation for it, but Liam had been nothing but great tonight, for the most part. And if he says he needs Zayn, it's not like Zayn can say no.

As he's tiptoeing across the hall (he's not sure why he's sneaking, but it feels fitting) he remembers that Liam had called down to the front desk to complain about Perrie's luggage. There's no way he could have mistaken it for someone else's.

Instead of knocking on the door, he turns the handle and pushes it open, striding right into the room. "You know, I meant to ask you earlier why you—"

Lips come down hard on his own. It's dark in the room, and he can't see anything, really, but there's no doubt that it's Liam. It's Liam kissing him. It has to be. All he can smell is Liam's cologne, and the hands roughly gripping his arms can't be anyone's but Liam's. His mouth is demanding on Zayn's, no hesitancy at all. But his lips are soft and just the right amount of wet, and Zayn can't even think. He's too stunned.

"You taste good," Liam says into his mouth, and that's what it takes for this all to settle in Zayn's mind. Liam's voice, familiar and lovely and lowered, the way it sometimes gets when he whispers in Zayn's ear.

"What— what?" He shoves at Liam's shoulders, eyes wide. He hears more than sees Liam stumble backwards, and he instantly regrets it, but it can't be helped. Even if he'd like to just shut his brain off and finally, finally, kiss Liam the way he's been wanting to for so long. He just can't. "Are you drunk?"

The light flicks on, and he sees Liam wipe at his mouth with the back of his hand. "No," he says with his eyebrows furrowed.

"Are you sure?"

Now he looks annoyed. "Do you want me to take a breathalyser test? I didn't have anything to drink tonight."

"Then… then why would you—?"

Liam cocks his head to the side, and he looks at Zayn for a long time before a slow smile spreads onto his face. He steps forward, and Zayn can't help but remember that day on stage; it's like they're constantly playing a game of Cat and Mouse, him and Liam, and for some reason he's always stuck being the prey. "Because you're hot," Liam says slowly, "and I'm really, really horny."

"Oh, okay," Zayn says, dazed, as if this makes complete sense and excuses everything that's happened since he walked through the door.

Liam grins and then, just like the first time, he kisses Zayn again without any warning. Zayn's back hits the door, and it's all he can do to grab at Liam's back and try to hold himself up. His knees feel weak and his brain isn't working at all.

Teeth tug on his bottom lip, and a sound slips out of Zayn's mouth that he's pretty sure he's never even made before as Liam's hips grind him against the door. It's like going from zero to sixty in no time at all. His heart is pounding in his chest, and it feels like there's something in his veins, burning him up in the best possible way. Liam's breath pants into his mouth, and he's so unbearably hard it's making his head swim.

"Bed?" Liam suggests.

Zayn can't pull his eyes away from Liam's lips; they're red and slick and fucking obscene. "What?"

Liam laughs at him, but it's not at all mean. His hands slide up Zayn's waist, under his shirt, one tracing his spine and the other one brushing over his nipples. "I want you," he says, "on the bed."

Zayn finally looks up into his eyes, and they're heavily lidded, endlessly black with just a ring of brown around the outside. It's a look he's seen before, only fleetingly when they fool around on stage, or maybe sometimes when they're alone on one of their couches, watching a movie and his head falls into Liam's lap. That look, more than anything, lights him on fire. He shoves at Liam's shoulders, pushing against him with the rest of his body until Liam backs up, and up, and up until they hit the bed. He has enough sense to grab at Zayn before they're falling; Zayn never wants to get up again.

He lifts his arms when Liam pushes up his shirt, and he wants Liam's off just as soon. "Calm down," Liam chuckles, one hand supporting Zayn's back as he sits up. He manages to pull his own shirt off like that, too, and it's impressive, not that Zayn is really focusing on that. He's too busy sliding a hand down Liam's chest and connecting their lips again. "Zayn, I'm not going anywhere. You don't have to rush."

Zayn nods and tries to get out, "Need to… just…" while trying to memorize the way Liam's skin feels underneath his fingertips.

The world flips suddenly, and it doesn't register that Liam turned them over until he blinks up into brown eyes. "Sorry," Liam says. "My turn."

"Okay," Zayn says. No, swoons. That's the word Harry used the other day, right? Swooning. He's totally fucking swooning. "You— yeah. Okay."

Those lips move to his neck, and he feels a slight stab of pain when Liam sucks just a bit too hard. Before he can protest, or moan embarrassingly loud, Liam moves down, lips and teeth grazing his collarbone, and then his chest. He sucks playfully at one of Zayn's nipples before moving down again, and his hands fumble with Zayn's jeans until they come undone.

He wants that, he really does, but he sort of wants Liam naked instead. Or first, at least. "Up," he urges, trying to grab at Liam's shoulders, or hair. "Need to kiss you. Liam—"

Liam slowly makes his way back up Zayn's body, and once again they roll when Zayn tries to push Liam to the side and crawl on top of him. Except this time they don't stop with one of them on the bottom. Liam's eyes go wide, and the wind knocks out of Zayn's lungs when they keep going, rolling right off the bed. Liam tries to take the brunt of the fall, pulling Zayn securely against him.

When they hit the ground, there's a moment of suspended silence where they both just lie there, shocked, and then Liam lets out a quiet, single bark of laughter, and Zayn starts laughing impossibly loud until Liam joins him. "Did we just—?"

Liam kisses him, sloppy and brief between, "Yeah, we did."

"Oh my god," Zayn says breathlessly. "Are you okay?"

"Totally—" a kiss "and completely" another one "perfect." He grabs at Zayn's ass. "Can we get these off now?"

"Definitely," Zayn chuckles.

There's a lot of practicality to being on the floor, Zayn notes. They can roll around all they want without worrying, which is good when they're trying to get their clothes off. It's a little uncomfortable once the clothes are actually off, though, and he isn't exactly looking forward to the rug burn on his ass. At the same time, he isn't about to stop this. Not when he hasn't felt this — perfect, like Liam said, in a long time. If ever.

The first touch of Liam's hand around him throws him off balance more than falling off the bed had. He can't breathe for a moment, and he feels completely frozen, disjointed, disconnected until Liam kisses him and slowly, so fucking slowly, gives his cock a few hesitant strokes.

It doesn't take long for that hesitancy to wear off, or for Zayn to tuck his head into the crook of Liam's neck so he can try to muffle all his pitiful sounds against Liam's skin. They still come out, and he knows Liam's hears them, but he can't help it. Liam grinds against him, too, like he needs to get off as badly as Zayn does, and eventually stops and clumsily wraps a hand around both of them. "Is this okay?"

"Yeah," Zayn assures him. "As long as you don't—"

"Stop?" Liam supplies. Zayn nods, and Liam kisses his cheek. "Definitely not stopping. Not unless you ask me to."

Someone could hold him at gunpoint and Zayn is fairly certain he still wouldn't ask for that. Not when it feels this good. Not when Liam is mumbling his name over and over like he can't remember how to say anything else; not when they're slick with sweat everywhere they touch, from their chests to Liam's thigh between both of his own, to his lips at Liam's neck and Liam's just pressed to his hairline.

Liam's hand tightens around them, and that familiar feeling slips into him; that impatience to finish, now that he's so close, yet that need to drag it on and suspend this feeling for as long as he can. He reaches down and bats Liam's hand away and manages to climb on top of him without issue this time. "You first," Zayn explains, and Liam's nodding like this is the most wonderful idea he's ever heard.

It's fascinating, the way Liam's body moves. His stomach tightens and his chest heaves, and he's got one hand trying to curl into the carpet while the other grabs at Zayn's arm, or rubs up his back, or reaches to teasingly slide between his thighs. Zayn watches all this and notes the way Liam's breath hitches when he speeds up his movements, or the way his eyebrows knit together when he slows down. When his thumb swipes over the tip, Liam throws his head back and lets out a strangled sound that Zayn will likely never forget, and will most definitely replay over and over in his mind the next time he's alone in the shower.

He stays like that, even when Zayn goes faster, tightening his grip, and it's not long before Liam holds his breath and a shudder goes through him. At the last second he reaches up and tugs Zayn down to connect their lips again, just as he comes over Zayn's fingers.

When Liam's breathing evens out, Zayn leans up a bit, looking into his eyes. "My turn?" he asks, and Liam laughs.

By the time they're done, Zayn is spent. They're still on the floor, only now they're both lying flat on their backs. One of Liam's thighs is thrown over his own, and their hands are connected, but other than that they're not touching. They're both sweaty, and Zayn still can't catch his breath. Can't stop replaying it all in his mind, the way Liam had looked at him and touched him and the way it felt to have Liam whispering "I've got you" just before he came. He feels high, almost. Or drunk, maybe. Lost in the sensations and unable to find his way back to himself.

"You look fucked out," Liam tells him, looking more than a little pleased himself.

Zayn smiles, ridiculously happy. He probably looks like an idiot, but he doesn't even care. "And whose fault is that?"

Liam leans over and kisses him. "We need to get cleaned up," he says. "I'll be right back."

Somehow he's capable of getting to his feet and getting into the bathroom. Zayn definitely isn't. He stays there, sprawled out on the floor as he listens to the sound of the tap in the bathroom running. Eventually Liam comes back up and he has to sit up, take the damp towel from him and wipe away the mess that they've both made. Liam helps him stand afterwards, seats him on the bed, and then he carefully, calmly moves through the room, gathering up Zayn's clothes. When he's done, he swaps them for the towel and says, "You should go."

Zayn frowns. "You… want me to leave?" he says, the words not making sense.

Liam raises his eyebrows and crosses his arms over his chest. He's still pretty much naked, nothing but his boxers on, and that's not helping Zayn's mind work at all. "Your girlfriend is back in your room," Liam reminds him. "She's going to be wondering where you are if she wakes up. And I'm tired. So yeah, you should go."

There's something off in his tone, but Zayn tries not to notice it as he stands up. Suddenly he can't be naked anymore, and he tugs his clothes on, not caring that his shirt is backwards. Liam walks him to the door, not touching him at all, and just before he shuts the door he says, "Thanks."

Thanks? Like Zayn had done him a favour or something. You don't have sex with someone and say thanks. But it's not like Zayn gets a chance to tell him that. The door shuts, and he hears Liam walk away from it. Stupidly, he waits for him to come back and open the door and say he was joking. It never happens.

Dejectedly, he makes his way back to his room.

It isn't until he opens his door, locks it, finds Perrie still in the exact same position that he'd left her that it hits him. That he fully realizes what just happened. He hooked up with Liam. That wasn't a fantasy, or a dream. That happened. Holy shit, what did he do? What did they do?

It's like a wave of guilt hits him, all at once. It threatens to knock him off his feet, and never let him up again. He heaves, like he's going to throw up, but nothing comes out. It just burns his throat and his stomach and makes goosebumps break out on his skin. It feels like he's dying; he feels like he's dead.

Stumbling, Zayn makes his way to the bathroom. He can't look at the bed, not when Perrie's still sleeping on top of it. He shuts the door between them, like that can somehow make the truth of what happened a little more bearable, but it really doesn't.

He can't breathe. Somehow he manages to turn the sink on, and he splashes cold water onto his face. He wipes at his eyes afterwards and looks in the mirror. His eyes are shock-wide, and his face is pale. With shaking fingers, he reaches up and presses just the tips to the dark red and purple mark on his neck. It hurts. He tilts his head to get a better look, and it's huge.

Okay, it's not that big, but it's big enough that everyone will notice it, without a doubt. Perrie, at least, will see it. And what's he supposed to say? Sorry, I kind of hooked up with my bandmate who I'm in love with while you were passed out drunk down the hall? Because that'll go over so well.

How did this even happen? It doesn't make any sense. In what universe would Liam ever want him? It just — doesn't make sense. But he presses his fingers to his neck again, feels that spot that Liam left on him, and obviously it does. Just not to Zayn.

It feels like forever before he can finally leave the bathroom. Perrie is curled up on her side now, legs tucked up, and she looks so tiny and he can't believe what he just did. He can't make himself get into bed beside her, either. Instead he falls into the recliner in the corner and pulls up his legs, knowing he's going to be cramped and in pain the next morning. And knowing that he deserves it.

"I'm seriously not in the mood," Zayn says the next day.

Harry glares at him. "Well get in the mood," he says angrily. "You all ditched me off last night to go drinking, not one of you thought to invite me. The least you can all do is go out to brunch with me. All of us. As a group."

"Harry…"

"No," Harry snaps. "Get ready. You have an hour."

He pulls the door closed between them before Zayn can protest again. When he's gone, Perrie comes up behind him and presses her lips to his neck, right above the hickey. "Got a little carried away last night, I see," she laughs. "Oops."

"I guess," Zayn mumbles. He knows he shouldn't, that he's just digging his own grave a little bit deeper, assuring that one-way ticket to hell, but he can't seem to stop himself. Nor can he look into her eyes at all, hasn't been able to since the moment she woke up begging for a glass of water and something for her head, which he'd quickly gotten for her.

"So we're doing lunch with the guys?" Perrie guesses. "That sounds nice."

"I guess."

"Zayn." She grabs his arm lightly and stops him from walking around her. Just like last night, she lifts a hand and cups his cheek, and he has no choice but to look into her eyes. Doing so only makes it that much worse. "Did something happen last night?"

He flinches, like she slapped him or something. "What? No! No. Why— why would you ask that?"

Perrie frowns and steps away from him, shoulders hunched and small-looking. "I know how I get when I drink," she says softly. "I'm sorry if I embarrassed you, or something."

He is literally the worst person in the entire world, at that moment. "No, no, babe, you didn't do anything wrong," he says quickly. "Never— you never do anything wrong. Okay? Don't think that. Ever."

Perrie sniffles and wipes at her nose before straightening up. "Okay," she says firmly. "I need a shower. Do you want to go first, or… you could always join me?"

"Another time?" Zayn bargains. "I'm still beat from last night."

She kisses him briefly. "Sure."

Once he hears the water running, he pulls on a semi-clean shirt and heads for the door. At the last second he turns around and knocks on the one to the bathroom. "What?" Perrie shouts through the sound of running water.

"Louis needs me," Zayn shouts back. "I'll be just next door. Won't be long."

"Okay!"

He ducks into the hallway and stands there for a moment, unsure. Then, before he can think of a million reasons not to, he knocks on the door to Louis and Niall's room.

"Come in!" Louis yells. Zayn turns the door handle and steps inside. Louis, still in bed, sits up. "I thought you were room service."

Niall comes out of the bathroom with just a towel wrapped around his waist. He passes Zayn and tries to poke the spot on his neck, but Zayn swats his hand away and steps backwards. "Damn, Perrie got you good."

"Never mind," Zayn says, heading for the door.

Louis jumps up and stops him. "Wait, what happened? You look like hell."

"Thanks," Zayn sneers. "Real nice, Lou."

"Zayn," Louis says quietly. "What's wrong?"

"Forget about it," he says. "It doesn't even matter."

"Zayn. Zayn!" But Zayn's already heading back to his room, locking the door and falling into that same chair from last night.

It's a nice restaurant, at least. The table is a large, family-style circular affair, all of them comfortably seated around it. Or, it would be comfortable, but he's got Perrie on his left and Liam on his right, and while everyone else looks pleased, Zayn feels like he's being suffocated.

"Would you like fries, the house salad, or the fruit medley?" the waitress asks him.

"Um." Zayn looks down at the menu. He can't even remember what he ordered. "Surprise me."

"Zayn likes fruit," Perrie says pointedly.

"Zayn like fries better," Liam argues in.

"Zayn," Zayn says while pushing away from the table, "needs a cigarette." He looks at the waitress. "Do you have a back door I could use to get out of here for a moment?"

"Sure thing!" the waitress says brightly. "I'll show you the way!"

Why does everyone have to be so damn perky? "Thanks." Perrie gives him a look as he follows the waitress, asking if he wants her to come. He shakes his head and pulls out his cigarettes. He's trying to get away from the overwhelming guilt, not bring it everywhere with him.

Thinking that makes him feel even more guilty.

The waitress leads him through the kitchen to the back door. "When you're done, just make your way back through the restaurant," she adds, and Zayn smiles at her. Sometimes being famous is great.

There's no instant relief when he takes a drag of his cigarette, like he was expecting. The smoke fills his lungs, he closes his eyes, and he sees Liam imprinted on the back of his lids, the way he'd looked last night with his head thrown back. And then he sees Perrie this morning, laughing at the hickey on his neck, thinking she was the one who put it there.

He blows out the smoke with a groan, just as a hand tugs the cigarette from his fingers. Zayn jumps, eyes opening, and Harry laughs at him as he takes a drag. "Thought you only smoked at parties and special occasions," Zayn says.

Harry's eyebrows raise. "Who says this isn't a special occasion?"

Zayn takes his cigarette back with a glare. "Why are you here? I kind of wanted to be alone."

"I figured," Harry admits. "That's why I'm here. You've been jumpy all day, not to mention the fact that you practically ripped my head off for suggesting this lunch."

"I told you I wasn't in the mood," Zayn reminds him.

"Yeah, I know." Harry crosses his arms over his chest. "So what happened? And don't lie about it, either. We've spent almost every waking minute together for the last three years, Zayn, you can't lie to me, and I can tell when something's up. Right now? Something's up."

Zayn takes another drag of his cigarette, tilting his head towards the fittingly gray skies. He touches the spot on his neck and says, "Perrie didn't give me this."

When he looks back down, Harry is frowning at him. "What do you mean?"

"I mean I have a hickey and it's not from my girlfriend, okay?"

Harry's mouth gapes open. "But— but then who? Come on, Zayn, you're better than some random trashed girl at a club. Tell me you didn't."

"I didn't," Zayn says. "You're right, I am better than that. But not by much."

"Then who?" Zayn gives him a look, and Harry's eyes go so wide they practically fall out of his skull. "No way. No. Are you— seriously?"

"Seriously."

"Just so we're clear," Harry says, "we're talking about you and Liam, right? Because that's the conclusion I jumped to, and I just want to make sure we're on the same page here."

"Yes, Harry. We're talking about me and Liam."

"Fuck," Harry breathes. "I mean— shit. How did that even happen?"

That's a fairly good question, actually. "Um. Perrie got drunk, fell asleep, and Liam asked me to come to his room. And then he just kissed me, without any warning, and I couldn't tell him not to. I mean, I should have, I know I should have, but I couldn't. I couldn't do it, Harry." He covers his eyes and shakes his head. "I hate myself for it so if you're going to tell me I'm a horrible person, be my guest, but I've already done it a million times."

Silence falls over them. Not completely. He can hear cars going past on the road out front of the restaurant, cars honking and people yelling and the normal, typical sounds of a big city.

Harry hugs him. It throws him off so much that he nearly burns Harry's hair with the cherry of his cigarette before he has the sense to drop it and hug him back. "No fucking wonder you look like something someone ran over with a truck. A big truck. A transport, maybe."

Zayn ignores that. "You're not going to yell at me?"

"I tend not to yell at people who are going through a crisis," Harry says with a shrug. "It's just a rule of mine."

"Who said this was a crisis?"

The look Harry gives him finally holds all that judgment that Zayn's been waiting for. "Have you even talked to Liam about this?"

Now Zayn gives him a look. "When would I have a chance? For some reason I feel like 'Hey, remember last night how we gave each other hand jobs while my girlfriend was passed out and you let me come on your chest? Let's talk about that' isn't exactly appropriate brunch conversation."

Harry slaps his arm. "Some things should not be shared between friends."

"Yeah, well." Zayn stomps on his cigarette, twisting his foot to make sure it goes out. "You're the one who wants me to talk about my feelings."

"I just don't want you to make a huge mistake," Harry says softly. "Or— any more of a mistake than you already have."

"Writing costumers instead of customers is a mistake," Zayn says. "Putting your shirt on backwards is a mistake. Adding sugar to someone's coffee when they said not to is a mistake. Cheating on your girlfriend isn't a mistake. It's not something that just accidentally happens. I knew what I was doing. I just didn't stop myself."

"Then forcing yourself to feel things for someone when you obviously don't isn't a mistake either," Harry replies. "And you know something else? When you lie all the time, the truth stops mattering and the lie becomes your life. Maybe you should stop lying before even you don't know the truth anymore."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"It means that you're lying to both of them," Harry explains. "And everyone else. And I think that soon enough, you have to come clean about it all. Or else you're going to risk losing all of it."

He pats Zayn's shoulder before heading in through the door they'd both come out of. Zayn watches him go and takes a deep, not at all calming breath before following him.

There's a plate of food waiting for him at the table, as well as two creepily identical worried smiles, one from Perrie and one from Liam. He ignores both and stabs at his salad with his fork. It tastes like grass without enough dressing to disguise it, and he wishes he'd gotten fries instead.

"You okay?"

Zayn blinks at Liam. "I'm fine."

Liam's eyes fall to the hickey on his neck, and suddenly it feels like a brand. Like a fucking sign that screams 'LIAM WAS HERE' and he hates it as much as he loves it. Liam looks like he can't quite decide how he feels about it. He bites his lip and looks away, and Zayn sighs. Harry was wrong; there is no possible way that talking about this could ever help the situation. Not when Liam looks like he already regrets the whole thing.

The best thing they can all do is pretend like it never happened. And if the guilt kills him, so be it.

"Okay," Perrie says happily. "I've ordered room service, we have that movie ready to watch on TV, and I even managed to get us a bottle of Cabernet."

"Sounds great," Zayn says honestly. He could use a night in with nothing but food, shitty movies and wine.

"Is it okay if I wear these?" Perrie asks, pulling a pair of sweatpants out of his bag.

"Uh— sure, yeah, go ahead," Zayn says with a shake of his head.

She pauses. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine."

"Okay, sorry for asking."

Zayn groans to himself. He wishes she would stop apologizing. It makes him feel worse because he should be apologizing. Over and over and begging her for forgiveness that he doesn't even really want, not when he knows he doesn't deserve it. Instead of doing that he sits on the bed, perched on the edge. He eyes his chair, the one he claimed last night as his bed, and he wishes he could sit there without her asking him about it. It's just easier when he distances himself; when he has a reason not to touch her because he shouldn't be touching her. She sure as shit wouldn't let him if she knew.

Perrie, unlike him, stretches out on the bed, the picture of comfort. She pats the spot closest to her with a come hither look on her face that he can't say no to. She tilts her head onto his shoulder, eyes on the TV; Zayn hadn't even noticed that the movie started.

Room service arrives, and Zayn barely tastes the ravioli Perrie ordered. What he does taste doesn't taste all that good, honestly, but he clears the plate so quickly you'd think he was starving. He drinks the wine in the same fashion, only for different reasons. Having a buzz right now sounds like a great idea.

"Do you like the movie?" Perrie asks.

Zayn shrugs. "It's good."

"What's it about?"

"Um. The one guy… and the, uh, girl are in love? And, um…"

"Where has your mind been all day?" Perrie asks. It's not accusatory or demanding. She just sounds worried.

"I'm just— tired," Zayn tries.

"Probably because you slept on the chair."

Zayn looks at her, alarmed. "I didn't think you noticed."

Perrie shrugs. "I didn't say anything because I'm kind of used to sleeping alone."

Zayn winces. "I—"

"I'm not trying to make you feel bad," she says quickly. "I'm just trying to work out what's wrong with you…. Or with us. Is it us?"

"It's not—"

Both of them look up sharply at the door. The same loud, pounding knock that had their attention the first time sounds again, and Perrie reaches for the phone, looking almost scared. "Should I call the front desk?"

Zayn goes to tell her she's overreacting, but the voice comes through the door before he can. "Zayn."

It actually hurts, how torn he feels in that moment. Perrie is gaping at the door, and Liam's still knocking, and he doesn't know what to do.

"Of course it's him," Perrie snaps. "Of course."

"I think he's drunk," Zayn admits. "I should—"

"No," she says firmly, swinging her legs off the bed. "I'll get it."

Zayn tries to race her to the door, but she gets there before him and pulls it wide open. Liam is leaning against the doorframe. Or— swaying against it. He doesn't look good. His face is blotchy-red and sweaty, and his eyes are so out of focus that it's like he doesn't even see them. He smells like a bar. Like he'd taken a freaking bath in something strong, like vodka or rum or— something.

"Jesus," Perrie breathes. "Liam, how much have you had to drink?"

"Just… a little… tiny bit," Liam says, pinching his thumb and forefinger together. He stumbles into the room, and Perrie takes a careful step back that Zayn doubles by grabbing her shoulders and moving her behind him. "Nice sweatpants, by the way. Those're mine, d'you know that? I lent them to him, um… when — when was that, Zayn? A while ago. He never gives 'em back. Borrows all my clothes and never gives them back."

His words are barely intelligible, but somehow Perrie understands them immediately. She gives Zayn an upset look before saying, "Liam, you should go."

Liam shakes his head and walks towards Zayn. Or he tries to. Mostly he just stumbles and nearly falls until Zayn grabs him around the waist to keep him from falling on his face. "Thanks, babe," Liam slurs. "And I'll leave when… when Zayn asks me to. Not you. Just him."

"Zayn," Perrie says angrily.

"Um. Liam, I think that…"

"I gave him this," Liam says happily. He pokes at Zayn's neck and grins at Perrie. "The hickey. Did he tell you? Last night. You were so wasted and I have rug burn on my ass."

Zayn's heart sinks into his stomach. He looks at Perrie, shaking his head. "Perrie, it's not — I mean, I was— I should have—"

Perrie shakes her head, too. "Deny it," she says. Pleads. "I'm begging you, Zayn, deny it. Tell me he's lying."

"Tell her I'm lying, Zayn," Liam mocks. "Go ahead."

"I… I can't," Zayn says quietly. He tries to move Liam's weight, but the both of them are falling quickly. He's too heavy, and Zayn feels brittle all of a sudden, like all his bones are going to crack and break under the pressure. "I'm so sorry."

Perrie closes her eyes, and he can see her counting to ten silently. "Okay," she says. "Get him out of here, Zayn. Now."

Suddenly he's not holding Liam up, Liam's holding him up. Roughly gripping his biceps in his hands, eyes wide. "Don't," he says. "Don't kick me out. Don't make me sleep alone. Zayn, please, please. I didn't— I didn't mean to ruin it. I didn't mean to ruin this for you. I'm sorry. Please—"

"Now," Perrie says shrilly.

He wants to curl up in a ball. He wants to be at home, in his own bed. Not the one at his apartment. The one in his parents' house, with the stupid Batman sheets and the old pillow, just like the one Harry has on the bus, all flat and old and in need of replacing. He wants to cry and tug his hair out and scream.

Instead, very calmly, he says, "Liam, I'll take you to your room, okay?"

Liam slumps against him. "Okay," he says dejectedly, like Zayn had physically thrown him out of the room.

"I'll be back," Zayn adds to Perrie, but she's got her back to him and her arms wrapped around her middle. He can see her shoulders shaking, and he needs to go to comfort her, he does, but he needs to comfort Liam first. "We'll talk."

That's what it always comes down to, isn't it? It's not that he doesn't care about her; it's just that Liam comes first. He always comes first, no matter how much it fucks with everything else in Zayn's life.

In the hallway, Liam lets Zayn guide him for a few steps, and then he stops abruptly. He extracts himself from Zayn's arms and looks at Zayn with those horribly unfocused eyes. "Go," he says. "You already made your choice, and you picked her. So go."

"What?" Zayn tries to grab his arm, but Liam flinches away from him. "I didn't pick anyone."

"Whatever," Liam snaps. "Just… leave me alone, okay? I'm not your problem, and my problems aren't your problems. You have enough of your own. Go back to your girlfriend. Tell her you're sorry, tell her you shouldn't have done it, tell her it didn't mean anything, and—"

"But it did," Zayn erupts. All that pressure, all that tension, has to find an outlet eventually. "It meant everything. And I wish it didn't! I wish I could tell her that it didn't. That it was an accident and I never meant for it to happen, that I wasn't praying for it every single day. I wish I could tell her I'm sorry for doing it, but I'm not! I'm sorry for hurting her, but that's it. What happened — I can't be sorry about that. I want to be, but I can't."

Tears well in Liam's eyes. "Why would you say that?"

God, he practically just told Liam that he was in love with him, and Liam's too drunk to even notice. "Because it's the truth, Liam, alright?"

"No. No, not alright," Liam gasps. "No. No, that was supposed to be— it was supposed to be fun. It wasn't supposed to— to mean— no."

"Liam," Zayn says, patience wearing thin. "Come on. You're drunk, okay? Just let me bring you to your room so you can sleep it off."

But Liam's not having any of that. He backs up until he hits the hallway wall, and then he slides down it, legs coming up to his chest. He wraps his arms around them and ducks his head. Before Zayn can try to help him, the door beside where they're standing opens, and Louis rubs at his eyes before glaring at them.

"Are you two daft?" he demands. "You realize you're in public, right? Am I seriously the only person in this band that cares about bad publicity?"

Liam lifts his head and looks up at Louis with wet eyes. "Lou," he moans.

An instant change comes over Louis. The annoyed look slips away, and he looks down at Liam in concern, then up at Zayn with anger. "What did you do to him?"

"I didn't do anything," Zayn denies.

Liam reaches for Louis, and Louis quickly grasps his hand and helps Liam up onto shaky feet. "Come on, babe," Louis says softly. "You can sleep in my room, okay?" He glares at Zayn again. "You're not invited."

"He said that… meant… everything, Lou," Liam says into Louis' neck. "And he… she was… my sweatpants… and…"

"Aw," Louis coos at he helps Liam to his room. "Your sweatpants?"

"Yeah," Liam mumbles. "Mine. Zayn."

"I'll get them back, okay?" Louis promises. "Don't worry about it."

Liam sniffles, Louis opens the door, and Zayn gets flipped off before they step inside the room and shut the door between them. Zayn rubs a hand over his face, needing as much to drink as Liam had. Or more.

"Everyone wants to know," the interviewer says, "about your recent breakup with Perrie Edwards from the up-and-coming, all girl group, Little Mix."

Yeah, Zayn's sure they do. Hell, he's still trying to sort out the details himself, and he has no idea how everyone's already heard about it. Perrie only got on the plane back home a week ago (after a particularly nasty fight where she'd called Zayn every colourful word she could think of before breaking down into tears that, frankly, hurt him a lot more than the shouting) and they haven't spoken since then. But they're definitely over. She made that quite clear when she slapped him and called him a asshole and said she wanted nothing to do with him ever again. Though afterwards she'd retracted that by saying that she still needed him in her life, and maybe they could be friends, but their relationship is definitely done. Over. In the blink of an eye it was done, and that's just… the way it is.

Maybe he should have fought harder for it, tried to apologize more, better, begged her not to leave so they could have more time to work it out. He just — couldn't. Maybe some things are meant to stay broken, even if they could be fixed. And maybe fixing it would be too exhausting for both of them anyway. He really doesn't know if it was for the best or worst; all he does know is that he doesn't want to think about it, let alone talk about it.

"Different question," Zayn mutters with his eyes on his shoes.

More than one hand rubs at his back, but he wants to shake them off. He doesn't need consoling, okay? He just needs time. Despite what everyone thinks, he's not completely broken over this whole thing. He's just a little shell-shocked still, and he's trying his best to adjust. If everyone would just leave him alone for a fucking minute, he could probably manage that.

"We've taken a vow of silence," Louis adds. "No girlfriend/relationship related questions for the indefinite future."

Zayn sinks farther into his seat and prays that he doesn't get asked any direct questions for the rest of the interview. He's happier to just sit here in silence.

Thankfully he gets his wish, for once, and the interviewer is careful not to mention anything related to relationships for the next half an hour. When they're finally ushered out of the room, someone grabs his arm and pulls him into what appears to be a closet. It's too dark to actually be sure, but he thinks he just stepped in a bucket.

He thinks it's Louis, for a minute, coming to badger him once again about his feelings. Or Harry, ready to give him a big I Told You So while simultaneously offering him a shoulder to cry on… again. Only Niall seems to realize that he needs his space. Liam is giving it to him, too, but that probably has more to do with him avoiding Zayn than him trying to make Zayn feel better.

"I don't know what to say to you," Liam blurts.

Zayn carefully pulls his leg out of the thankfully empty bucket. He crosses his arms over his chest and tries to make out Liam's figure in the dark. He can't. "You're the one who pulled me into a closet."

"Not right now," Liam says. "I mean in general. I don't know what to say to you."

Zayn knows this. He's known it for days. Whenever he can, Liam avoids him. And when he can't, he's completely silent, unless Zayn outright addresses him. When he does, Liam makes the smallest amount of conversation that he can, and then he finds an excuse to get away. Maybe what happened with his girlfriend would be a little easier to deal with if he had his best friend still, but it's like he lost both of them that night.

"That makes two of us, I guess."

Liam sighs. "Just so you know, I wasn't drunk. I was almost every other night, but not that one."

"I know."

"Louis thinks I was," Liam admits. "He keeps asking me 'Are you sure you didn't have anything to drink, Liam? How else could you possibly do something so stupid?'" Liam mocks in a fairly accurate impression of Louis.

"So you told Louis," Zayn realizes. He had a feeling, but he wasn't sure.

"You told Harry," Liam points out.

"Did anyone tell Niall?"

Liam laughs. The sound of it fills the darkness, and a little of the tension, the awkwardness, seems to seep out of the room. "I think Niall knew before it even happened."

"True enough." Zayn uncrosses his arms, crosses them again, and finally lets them hang at his sides. "Is that all you wanted? To tell me that you weren't drunk, and you have no idea what to say to me?"

"No," Liam says quickly, and Zayn feels him move around the tiny little closet. He's pretty sure Liam's blocking the door. "That wasn't it. I just— I don't know how to get it out. I don't know what I'm supposed to say."

For a second, Zayn lets his mind wander back to when he said these exact same words to Liam. Back when everything first started, and he couldn't get through an interview without getting tongue-tied and embarrassed. When he and Liam lay side by side in a small, single bed and Liam reassuringly squeezed his hand and promised, "Don't worry. I'll cover for you whenever you need me to. If you can't think of anything to say, or if you feel stupid saying something, just find a way to let me know and I'll handle it."

Is that what Zayn's supposed to do here? Tell Liam exactly what he wants to hear to make this easier on the both of them? Because he can't do it. "Well you better figure it out before someone realizes we're missing and sends out a search party."

"Okay." Liam takes a deep breath. "I wasn't thinking. I'm not saying I regret it, because I don't. I wanted to, and I think you wanted to. But I think that we both got caught up in it without thinking about the consequences. Or— I've been getting caught up in everything without thinking about the consequences, and I dragged you down with me. I just wanted to have fun. That's all. The rest of it…. None of that was supposed to happen."

"You mean the part where you got shitfaced and told my girlfriend," Zayn clarifies, no emotion in his words.

"That's part of it," Liam concedes. "A big part. But that's not just it. I mean the rest of it. And it freaked me out at first, okay? That's why I got all weird. It threw me off, and I was trying so hard to avoid anything like that for a long, long time because I couldn't handle it, but I can. I can handle it with you, if you'd just give me a chance to."

Zayn closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. He wants to hear Liam out, he really does. He wants to be just his friend, for one damn minute, but he can't ever seem to turn off that part of him that wants more than that. And he can't deal with this right now. He can't listen to Liam go on and on about how it shouldn't have happened and how it didn't mean anything because it was just supposed to be fun and he just wants them to go back to being friends or something, or whatever he's trying to say right now.

"I get it," Zayn says. Years of pretending to not be in love with someone makes it pretty easy to lie to them believably. "It was a mistake, we both know it shouldn't have happened but we've got to deal with the consequences. Whatever. It's fine. We're fine. Can I go now?"

"A mistake," Liam repeats.

"Yes. Now let me out of this freaking closet, Liam."

The door opens, and Zayn takes in a breath of fresh, not closet-ey air before stepping around Liam and out of the small space. Behind him, so softly Zayn thinks he might have imagined it, he hears, "You really don't get it." Real or imaginary, Zayn ignores it.

Later that night, when he leaves Harry's room and heads back to his own, he stops in front of Liam's door. He thinks about knocking, about asking what he really meant today, maybe apologizing for not being cooperative when Liam was at least making an effort (which Zayn had yet to do). And then he hears the soft, feminine giggle, and Liam's responsive moan.

He decides to ignore this, too.

Only he can't. It's like he's a sucker for punishment, or something. He has to knock on the door, so he does. Inside, he hears a girl ask something quietly, and Liam say, "Shh, just a second."

When Liam opens the door, he has the decency to at least look surprised. The colour drains out of his face, or— maybe it was already like that, and Zayn's imagining things. He's not imagining the smell of alcohol, though, or the bloodshot tinge to Liam's eyes. "Drinking again," Zayn realizes. He pushes on the door, though Liam tries to stop him. The half-naked girl on the bed pulls the covers over herself and glares at him. "And with company."

"Zayn," Liam says quietly.

"No, it's cool," Zayn says. "Just fun, right? You're just having fun. It's not a big deal. Go— have fun, Liam."

He can't resist pushing Liam back into the room, and in his drunken state he stumbles backwards, something Zayn doubts he'd manage to accomplish if Liam was sober. He slams the door between them, and hears Liam's, "You need to go. Now. Right now," but this time he's smart enough to ignore what he hears when he has his back turned.

Four times. Liam knocks on his door four times that night. Every single fucking time Zayn is about to finally sleep, finally get a little break from the world, the knocking starts again. He's murderous, at this point. At first he just felt sick to his stomach, listening to Liam gently knock on his door and call his name. And then he started getting annoyed when Liam started yelling at him through the door. After the last round of "Zayn, please, just… just an—answer the door, please, just talk to me. Just talk to me, I need you to just…" he swore to himself that he would answer the next time.

So he gets out of bed, fire burning in his veins, and throws open the door. The security guy on the other side looks mildly surprised. Zayn recognizes him instantly. Jordan, or Jeff, or Jason, or something with a J. The only distinguishing thing about him is the fact that he's one of the only bodyguards Liam ever lets accompany him when he goes out alone. In fact, he's the one Liam usually requests, though Zayn has no idea why. He's never really had a decent conversation with the guy.

"Can I help you?" Zayn asks, going from pissed to surprised, defensive, and just a little worried, all in about ten seconds.

"Come with me, kid," Jake/Jack/Jesse says.

Zayn blinks at him. "Um, mind telling me where to, first?"

The guy sighs at him. "I'm not having this conversation in the hallway where anyone could be listening in," he says pointedly. "And I don't have time for you to invite me in for tea, okay? So get your shoes and come on."

Zayn chews the inside of his lip. "It's five-thirty in the morning."

"I'm aware. Get. Your. Shoes."

He considers the fact that he may very well be getting kidnapped, but this guy is about twice Zayn's size (maybe more), he's tired, and right now getting kidnapped seems a lot easier than putting up a fight. So he gets his shoes and finds his room key and steps into the hallway. Once he's locked his door, J— the security guy starts walking, leading him down the hall.

Zayn jogs after him, and he holds the door open before continuing briskly down the back stairwell. "I have to warn you not to be alarmed, a'right?"

"Alarmed about what?" Zayn demands. He's more than a little breathless from hurrying down the stairs, and they still have about three flights before they get to the bottom.

"I should tell you in the car," the guy says. "That might make the blow easier. When you're sitting down."

Something breaks and sinks inside him. He's been treated like this before, but it was by family members. Ones who didn't want to give him unpleasant information until they thought he could handle it. "What happened? To who? Tell me."

"Nobody's dead, if that's what you're worried about," he gets (insensitively) in response. "And I said I'll tell ya in the car, didn't I?"

When they get to the bottom of the stairs, the door leading outside is held out for him. The cool air makes his too-hot skin tingle, and he takes burning gulps of breath, trying to remind his lungs that he's not dying, even though those stairs made him feel like he was.

There's a car waiting just outside; sleek, black and indistinguishable, it's the typical car they use when they want to get around a city without being noticed or tailed or photographed. The back door is opened for him, and Zayn figures that if he is getting kidnapped, at least his kidnappers are courteous. And who said chivalry was dead, anyway?

Jonathan (Zayn decides that's the body guards name, and he will continue to refer to him as that until told otherwise) takes the other window seat in the back. He doesn't do up his seatbelt, the way Zayn does, before he leans forward and tells the driver, "Back to the hospital."

Zayn's eyes go wide. He pinches his arm, just to be sure that he isn't still asleep, back in his room. It hurts, and nothing happens, so apparently this is real. "Hospital?" he asks, shaken. "Why are we going to the hospital?"

"Liam had a bit of an accident."

"An accident," Zayn repeats. He can't get any air into his lungs. His head starts pounding, probably from lack of oxygen. He has to roll down his window and let the cool air wash over him or the nausea going through him might bring up everything he'd had for dinner.

Jon gives him a pitying look. "Now don't go getting all worried over this," he says, and how could Zayn not? "He's fine. Just had a bit too much to drink. He passed out, hit his head pretty hard. They think he might have a concussion, so they're keeping him for a few more tests. They thought he might have alcohol poisoning, damn near close, too, but he's okay."

Zayn takes a slow, shaking breath. It doesn't help. "Oh my god." Liam. Why didn't he just open his freaking door? It could have prevented this. "So he's— he's definitely…?" Zayn can't even make himself ask the full question, just in case Jon was lying and he should be worried.

"He'll be fine," Jon assures him. "Left up here, Pat. Gonna have a nasty headache in the morning, not to mention a few bruises, but he's okay. Just an idiot."

"Idiot," Zayn repeats. "I'm going to kill him."

"Good thing he's already in the hospital," Jon chuckles. Zayn feels like this is the wrong time for jokes.

The rest of the drive Zayn spends with his head hanging out the window and his hands gripping the seat tightly. It's a miracle he doesn't throw up, honestly, because he doesn't remember feeling this sick in his whole life. It feels like someone reached inside his stomach and grabbed his intestines and twisted. It feels like he hasn't eaten in a week and his stomach is trying to eat itself. It's like a little part of himself died the moment he realized something was wrong with Liam, and he knows it won't get better until he sees for himself that Liam's okay.

Which is just completely fucking pathetic, honestly, but that's just the way it is.

Jon leads him through the hospital with the kind of ease that says he's been down these halls more than once. "When did it happen?" Zayn asks as they walk.

"Two hours ago, 'bout."

Zayn stops. "Two hours? Why didn't someone call me? Get me sooner?!"

"My job is to keep you lot out of trouble and in one piece. Not to inform each of you when one of you does something stupid. Plus, he asked me not to until they fixed him up."

Zayn's eyes narrow, and he'd fire Jon right there if he had the energy. Instead he starts walking again, slowing just enough for Jon to get ahead of him again so he can follow. They take an elevator, then walk down another long, winding hallway that smells like, well, a hospital. It's a smell he hates. In fact, he hates hospitals in general, but then, most people probably do.

Finally Jon stops in front of a closed door. He leans against the wall and crosses his arms over his chest. Zayn takes this as his cue to go inside, and no one stops him.

Liam's in the tiny hospital bed. His head is bandaged, and he's sitting up but definitely asleep. Zayn walks up to him and considers slapping him on the side of the head, but given the fact that he might have a concussion, he decides not to. Instead he takes one of Liam's limp hands tightly in his and lifts it to his lips. It feels cold, which makes Zayn shiver sympathetically, but his fingers twitch and grab onto Zayn's.

"You're here," Liam mumbles sleepily. "Told them not to get you."

"You're lucky they did," Zayn snaps at him. "I'm going to kill you, just so you know."

He's so pissed right now, but worry weighs out over the anger. Later, when Liam's out of the hospital, he's going to have nothing but the anger left, and Liam better prepare himself. Until then, Zayn rubs his thumb against the back of Liam's hand.

"What happened?" he has to ask.

Liam sighs. He still looks drunk, somehow. Or maybe they gave him some pain medicine. Either way, his words are slow and his eyes won't focus. "Drank too much. Fell. Now I'm here."

"God," Zayn groans. "Why didn't someone cut you off?"

Liam winces. "I think they tried. I wasn't really in a listening mood." He looks guilty; he should be. "I was upset."

"So cry about it in the shower like the rest of us," Zayn says sharply. "You're not stupid, Liam. Which is why I don't understand all this stupid shit you've been doing."

"Like hooking up with you?" Liam spits, tugging his hand away from Zayn.

Zayn releases him instantly anyway. He actually lifts a hand to his cheek, expecting it to feel red hot from Liam's palm but Liam didn't actually slap him. It just feels like he did.

"Whatever," Liam sighs. "This is why I told them not to get you. I knew you'd overreact and, just so you know, you're not my dad, okay? Or my mum. So back off, Zayn."

"No, I'm just someone who cares about you!" Zayn shouts. "Fuck, Liam, come on."

"Maybe that's just another mistake you've made," Liam says, dangerously quiet. "You make a lot of those, apparently."

"Fuck you," Zayn grits out. He hears the hurt an anger in his voice, and he hopes Liam hears it, too. Hopes it makes him feel bad, if he's even capable of feeling bad, at this point.

"Just go away," Liam says tiredly. "I don't want you here if you're just going to yell at me."

"Would you rather I coddle you?" Zayn asks. "Because you know I'm not going to. If you're going to act like a fucking idiot, I'm not going to treat you any differently."

Instead of getting angry this time, Liam closes his eyes. "I'm tired," he says. "I don't want to do this right now. Can you please just go?"

Zayn plops himself into the visitor's chair. "I'm not going anywhere until you do. So deal with it."

He means it, and he stays rooted in that spot even as Liam passes in and out of consciousness. A nurse comes in to check on him, then a doctor, and Zayn listens silently as they talk about Liam like he's not there. He's fine, they said, but he's got a mild concussion, which Jon had already told him.

"Are you going to be with him for the foreseeable future?" the doctor asks him.

"Yes," Zayn answers automatically.

"Good. He's fine to be released, at the moment, but in these situations we encourage a family member or friend to keep watch over the patient. Someone needs to wake him up every couple hours, if he sleeps, and if he has an issue waking up, or if there's any more vomiting or if he seems confused, he'll need to come in for a few more tests."

"I can wake him," Zayn says. "I can do that."

The doctor nods. "Alright, then. We'll fill out the paperwork for his release. Someone will need to help him to and from the car, and he'll probably want to sleep off the alcohol that's still in his system. He had a blood alcohol level of 0.28 when he came in here. I've seen higher, but that's damn close to alcohol poisoning. You should mention that to him when he wakes up."

"I will," Zayn promises.

It's another forty minutes before they finally get back to the hotel. Liam falls asleep on the ride, and he needs assistance to get inside and up the back stairs. Jon handles this, for the most part, but Liam keeps giving Zayn looks like he'd rather have Zayn's arm around his waist.

"I'll stay with him," Zayn says when they get to the door. "Do you think you could wait outside while I bring him in?"

Jon's eyebrows furrow, but he nods and leans against the wall, like he had at the hospital. "I'll be right here."

Liam heavily leans on him as Jon unlocks the door for them. They stumble over the threshold, and Liam grips Zayn's waist a bit too hard. Hard enough to leave tiny marks from his fingertips that Zayn knows he'd find if he lifted up his shirt.

"Sorry," Liam says.

"Don't worry about it," Zayn says.

"I need to sleep," Liam says quietly. "Could you just walk me to the bed? Then you can go back to your room and do whatever it is you were doing before this. I know you don't want to be with me. You made that obvious when you didn't open your door, and I don't want to inconvenience you."

Zayn licks at his dry lips and guides Liam to the bed, feeling both furious and guilty. "I'm not going anywhere," he says. "I'm worried fucking sick about you, to be honest, and the doctor told me someone needed to wake you up every few hours. So it doesn't even matter if you want me here, or if I want to be here. I'm going to stay. That's that."

Liam laughs bitterly. "So that's all it takes, then? I just have to get a concussion and you'll stay the night with me?"

Zayn chooses to ignore that. He holds Liam in one arm and reaches for the bedspread with his free hand. He pulls it back and turns them, and Liam willingly falls onto the bed, head cushioned by his pillows. He turns, looking straight at Zayn, but he doesn't say anything. Zayn doesn't either. Anything that comes out of his mouth now will sound either angry, or pathetic, so he'd rather just stay quiet.

"If you're going to stay the rest of the night, you might as well sleep in my bed," Liam offers.

It's a tempting offer, or it would be under different circumstances. "Later," Zayn says. "Maybe. I need to talk to Jon."

"About what?" Zayn doesn't answer as he makes his way towards the door. Liam lets out an annoyed huff of breath. "Fine, whatever. I'll just lie here, concussed, by myself."

Zayn almost walks out the door without saying anything, but he can't help the, "I'll be right back," that he throws over his shoulder. He shuts the door tightly behind himself and turns to face Jon. He gets an expectant look in return, so he rushes out, "You can't tell anyone."

Jon laughs. "That's part of the job, kid. Do my duty and keep my mouth shut."

Zayn shakes his head. "Not just the public, I mean you can't tell anyone. None of the other guys. Don't tell them. They'll blow it out of proportion, and he doesn't need people yelling at him right now."

Jon raises his eyebrows. "So you want me to lie to your bandmates?"

"I want you to omit the truth," Zayn corrects. "For the time being."

"How do you plan on hiding that bandage on his head?"

Zayn didn't think of that. "I don't know, I'll come up with something. Just promise me you won't tell them."

Jon shrugs. "Alright, I won't tell anyone." Zayn nods, grateful. He bites on his bottom lip and looks at the door, wondering if Liam's asleep already. Also wondering how often he needs to shake him awake, and how long it'll take for him to get better. "You really worry about him, eh?"

Zayn looks up at Jon, surprised. "Of course I do. He's one of my best friends."

"It's more than that," Jon argues. "I can tell these things, you know." Zayn goes to deny it, but Jon digs into his pocket and Zayn stops himself, eyes on Jon's hand. "I shouldn't be mentioning this, considering the fact that it could single-handedly ruin his career if this got out to anyone, but… I don't want to see anything bad happen to him. He's a good kid, Liam, he's just a little lost right now."

"What are you talking about?" Zayn asks.

Jon shakes his head. "You boys aren't the first I've worked for. Seen plenty of impressionable people lose themselves in this world, this lifestyle. If I can do my part to stop it, I'd like to know that I tried. So here." He holds out his hand, and Zayn obediently sticks his own out. Jon drops something light into it and says, "I carried him out of the bar. This fell out of one of his pockets in the car. I didn't want to mention it, in case someone thought I was accusing him of something and decided to fire me over it, but. You should know."

He pats Zayn's shoulder once, briefly, and starts down the hall. Zayn has no idea where they sleep, the members of their security guard. He never thought to ask, or to wonder.

Carefully, quietly, Zayn slips back into the room, hand fisted tightly around whatever Jon gave him. Liam is already asleep. He's a loud sleeper, Liam, and his snores fill the room. Zayn doesn't worry about waking him as he makes his way to the bathroom and turns on the light when he shuts the door.

He pinches the small baggie in his hand between his fingers. He's seen them before, often enough when he decides to pick up a gram of weed for himself when he needs to just relax and take a break from it all, but there's not the usual bud inside it. Instead it's a plain white powder that he shakes a bit to move it around, just to be sure.

He's not sure if he wants to kill Liam, or cry.

He wakes Liam up twice and manages to fall asleep for a bit before his alarm goes off. Both times, he makes Liam get out of bed and walk around for a moment, just to make sure he's okay, and then Liam falls back into the bed and is asleep almost instantly.

It's late in the afternoon by the time Liam finally gets up on his own, and Zayn wonders why the hell they haven't been bothered yet. Why no one's come by the door, or called. But he has a feeling that Jon has something to do with it; he must have mentioned something about Liam's accident and Liam needing rest, or else the rest of the boys would no doubt be here, demanding an explanation, or they'd be ushered out of the hotel and onto the tour bus, ready to head out to the next town for another appearance before their show.

"I feel like shit," Liam says groggily, running a hand over his face.

Zayn chews his lip and stays quiet. He slept in the armchair in Liam's room last night, and his neck is killing him. The bed didn't feel right, though, and he's the kind of person that can sleep anywhere, if he tries hard enough.

"Are you not talking to me, then?" Liam asks. He sounds both exasperated and disappointed. "Are we really going to be that immature?"

"Mature," Zayn repeats slowly. "Mature." He stands up and digs into his pocket. He flings that tiny little baggie at Liam, and it bounces off his chest before it lands without a sound on the carpeted floor. "Do you think that's mature?"

Silently, Liam bends down and picks up the baggie. He holds it in his fingers for a while, eyes on it, like it's the most interesting thing in the world. When he finally lifts his eyes to Zayn again, they're wide and panicked. "It's not what you think."

"Because it's not yours," Zayn says, sarcastic and angry, all at once. "You're holding it for a 'friend', right?"

"It's not as big of a deal as you're making it," Liam says lowly. "Everyone—"

"Everyone does it?" Zayn snaps. "Is that really the line you're going to give me?"

"Do you even hear how you sound right now?" Liam shouts back at him. "You're not my parent, Zayn."

Zayn steps close to him; so close that he can smell the sweat and alcohol and smoke clinging to his skin and clothes from last night. Their noses almost brush, but it's not in any way romantic, or even friendly. "You're lucky you're hurt," Zayn tells Liam. "Because I am so close to punching you right now, you have no idea."

Liam pushes him. He wasn't expecting it at all. One second he's standing right in front of Liam, their chests touching when they both inhale at the same time, and the next there's a pressure on his shoulders and he's stumbling backwards, arms pin wheeling, trying to find something to grab onto. Somehow he stops himself from falling, but all he can do is stand there, mouth hanging open.

"Do it, then," Liam urges. "If you want to hit me, do it."

Silence used to seem deafening to him. When he was younger, Zayn couldn't sleep without sound. A fan, or the TV on in the background, or his headphones in his ears. He needed something because without it, the silence used to be almost painful, the way it would distract him and all he could focus on was the fact that he couldn't hear anything but a rushing sound in his ears. But after all this, with the constant sound and never enough time to take a break and rest, he started to like the silence. He started to crave it, need it. But in this moment, he feels like that little kid again, needing something, anything to distract him from the silence.

"I don't need this," he decides. "I don't need to constantly worry about you. I don't need to be your fucking babysitter. I don't need any of this."

Just before he opens the door to the room, he turns and gives Liam one last look. And finds him sitting on the floor by the end of the bed. His back is resting against it, and his legs are pulled up to his chest. "I didn't do any of it," he says softly. He blinks up at Zayn with pleading eyes. "I wouldn't. You should know that. You should know that I wouldn't."

"Then why did you have it?"

Liam shrugs. "Some girl, at the club. She gave it to me, said it would be fun, so I took it. I was pissed at everyone; at you, at me, at the world, so I thought, you know, whatever. What's it going to hurt? But I didn't actually touch it. I put it in my pocket, and that was it."

Zayn lets out a breath of relief. "And that was the first time? You've never… before?" Because he's sure Liam's been offered it before, knows he's been offered stuff like that hundreds of times. Pills, powders, things in little baggies and the promise of a good time.

"No," Liam answers. "I haven't. And I wouldn't have even taken it last night if I hadn't been so out of it. I'm not that stupid. I know what that shit does to people, and I know that if anyone found out that I even had it, it'd come down on all of us, not just me."

Zayn nods, satisfied. He's still not happy about it, but Liam's right; it's not his job to dictate what Liam can and can't do, and he's not Liam's dad. "That still doesn't make it okay, though," Zayn says. "You pushed me."

Liam rubs at his brow and winces. "I know," he admits. "I'm getting tired of saying sorry, but I truly am."

"I'm getting tired of needing to hear it."

Liam picks at an invisible loose thread in his jeans. "I guess you are." Zayn twists the door handle. He's almost opening the door when Liam says, "When she broke up with me, I turned my phone off for three days and locked my door. I didn't want to see anyone, at first. I just wanted to be upset. But then I realized I didn't want to be alone. And I waited. We had time off, no interviews or time in the studio, so I didn't have to be anywhere. The only people who have my home phone number are the ones that matter the most to me, you know? And no one called. Three fucking days, Zayn, and I felt like I was dying. Like I was already dead. I just needed someone to call first, someone to come over first, not because I asked them to, but because they wanted to. Wanted to know why they hadn't heard from me, or seen me. And no one did."

Zayn lets his hand fall from the doorknob, but he doesn't turn around.

"I just needed one person to make that effort," Liam continues. "Just one fucking person to wonder about me, not because of work, or because they had their own problems and needed someone to lean on. I needed one person to realize I wasn't okay, and no one did."

"Is that… is that was all this shit lately has been about?" Zayn asks, lowering his voice the way Liam had. "Because of the breakup."

Liam actually glares at him for this. "It's not the breakup. That had been coming for a while, we all knew it. I got over it. It's just the fact that… that it sucks caring about everyone and realizing they don't care about you the same way. So I figured, why can't I do that, too? Why can't I just stop giving a shit about everything? And if I wanted to get drunk every night, who cares if I'm going to be tired and hungover during the interview next day. Or — who cares if I want to hook up with a different person every night? Everyone else does what they want, and so can I."

Selfishly, Zayn has to ask, "And where do I fit into all this?"

Liam shrugs again. "You didn't, is the thing. But a few drinks, a little less common sense, and going to your room seemed like a brilliant idea. I hate sleeping alone, and I think you're the only person in the entire world that I want to be with when I feel broken. Like — I don't know. You won't judge. And I just wanted to be with you, so badly, all the time. So I'd, I don't know, find my way to your room. And then in the morning, when I woke up, I'd realize what I'd done and I'd get out of there, and I acted like it never happened because I was kind of hoping it didn't, that it was just a reoccurring dream or something."

'I just wanted to be with you, so badly, all the time' replays itself over and over on a loop in Zayn's mind for a moment. He pushes it away, though, tries to focus. Liam is opening up to him right now, and he hasn't done that in a while. Who knows if it'll ever happen again. "What about the other… thing, that happened."

"When we hooked up," Liam clarifies. Zayn nods. "That was an accident, but not in the way you think. I don't regret it because it was you. I regret it because it proved right there that I can tell myself I don't care about anything all I want, but clearly I do." He laughs to himself. "I was so freaking jealous of her. I couldn't help it. I couldn't stand knowing that she could have you and I couldn't, so I just… I made a move. I tried, and you responded. I didn't expect that. You weren't supposed to. You were supposed to push me away, tell me I was crazy or something, but instead you… you reciprocated. It threw me off, and I couldn't help myself. And I asked myself, why would I stop anyway? Two people can have sex and it doesn't have to mean anything. That we could do that and it could just be fun, just something that happened that felt good at the moment and it didn't really matter outside of it."

"But it— it did?"

"Of course it did," Liam says, sounding fondly exasperated. "And it freaked me out, for a while. And then yesterday, you just… you wouldn't even talk to me, and it felt like those three days all over again. I just needed you to answer the door. Maybe I didn't deserve it at the time, and you had every right to ignore me and be mad at me, but I just… I needed you to still care anyway. But you ignored me, so I… I don't know, figured that I'd already fucked things up irreparably, might as well enjoy myself while doing it. Only I didn't, and things got out of hand, and then… here we are."

"Here we are."

"Are you happy now?" Liam wonders. "Now that you know? Does it make you feel better that you have an explanation for everything?"

Zayn sucks his bottom lip into his mouth and shakes his head. He crosses the room in two long strides and kneels in front of Liam, both hands resting on the end of the bed, on either side of Liam's head. "No. God, no," Zayn says desperately. He needs Liam to get this. "And I'm so fucking sorry that you ever thought I wouldn't be there for you if you needed me, I am. I wish I could fix that, go back and be everything you needed, but I didn't know. I had no way of knowing, and I'm sorry for that. I'm so sorry that I ever made you think that I don't need you a million times more than you could ever need me."

Liam reaches up a hand, like he's going to touch Zayn, but then he drops it. "You look like you're about to cry."

"Maybe I am," Zayn admits.

"It wasn't just you, you know," Liam says with a soft uplift to his lips. "It was everything, that's all. Harry would call it a crisis."

Zayn laughs thickly. "That would explain why he hasn't yelled at you the way the rest of us have. Claims he has a rule not to yell at people in a crisis."

"I'll have to remember that."

Zayn sucks in a breath. "Can we make this okay?" he asks. Liam looks confused. "You. Can we find a way to fix your crisis?"

Liam smiles at him, sunny and warm even though he's still kinda pale and his eyes are red-rimmed. "Does this mean you forgive me?"

"Not even close," Zayn says. "But that doesn't mean I won't still be here for you. But maybe we could cut out the drinking for a few days? And no more illegal substances, ever."

"I can agree to that."

Zayn offers Liam a hand up, and Liam brushes off his ass from sitting on the floor before collapsing back onto his bed. Zayn wants to stay with him for a little while longer, live in this moment before it ends, but he knows he's got to end it himself. "I need a shower," he says regretfully. "And a change of clothes."

"Okay," Liam says. He follows Zayn to the door, probably to lock it behind him. "Do you think that the next time we spend the night together, maybe we could spend the morning together, too? Instead of one of us sneaking back to our rooms, I mean."

"I can agree to that."

"You know what the best thing about the tour bus is?" Niall asks.

"Cool bunk beds?" Harry supplies.

"The fact that we have a tour bus, in general," Louis puts in.

"No. The fact that we're going over one hundred miles an hour down a highway, and we're all trapped in here. Which means no one can run from their problems," Niall says, answering himself.

Louis frowns. "Is this your way of threatening to fart and trap us all in here? Because you know my stands on biological warfare."

Niall sticks out his tongue, and Zayn shifts a little closer to Liam on the couch, just because he can. They're playing video games, and Liam is kicking his ass, not that he's letting Liam win. He's trying, really freaking hard, but Liam keeps waving a hand in front of his face and knocking his controller out of his hands, the cheater.

He doesn't even mind. It's just nice to have them back to this. Where there's no worry bubbling up inside of him every time he looks at Liam, where neither of them is getting upset with the other. Back to just Liam and Zayn, best friends. And if he keeps replaying that night in the hotel, rolling on the floor together, over and over in his mind, well, they're back at square one, then. He's used to pining ridiculously after Liam. That's just the way it is, and maybe he's happier like this anyway.

"That's not what I was talking about," Niall says, pulling all their attention back to him. "I'm talking about the Liam and Zayn Issue. With a capital I."

Zayn looks up sharply, but Liam literally drops his controller. It tumbles from his hands and hits the floor with a concerning cracking sound. "What are you talking about?" Zayn demands.

Louis nods slowly. "No, this is a brilliant idea. I agree. We should address this now, while they can't run from it."

Liam gives Zayn a blank look, and Zayn has no idea what Niall has planned, but this isn't going to be good. He's happier to just pretend that none of that other stuff happened, and Liam seems on board. Maybe they are avoiding their problems, but isn't that better than screwing everything up again by attempting to fix them?

"I'm staying out of this," Harry says abruptly. "I think we should let them deal with their problems on their own."

"You can't force us to talk about anything," Liam adds. "And I agree with Harry, I think everyone should just stay out of it."

Zayn nods his agreement. He's happier to keep his pining to himself, thanks. And maybe the others are aware of it, but he'd rather Liam not be.

"You know what," Louis says slowly, eyes on Liam, "I think this is a really good time for everyone to watch that video I have from New Year's Eve."

Zayn frowns. What video? Louis made a video of that night? Though it's really not surprising that he doesn't remember. All he really does remember of that night is all of them together at a party, and taking so many shots in these glasses that lit up until he couldn't see straight. And then he'd woken up the next morning in a trashed apartment with the worst hangover of his life.

Liam knows what he's talking about, apparently. He stands up, eyes narrowing. "You promised that you deleted that."

Louis waves his hand dismissively. "Like I would delete perfect blackmailing material." He gets out of his own seat. "I have my laptop on my bunk, actually. I'll just go get that."

Zayn hears Harry whisper to Niall, "What's on the video?" and Niall shakes his head in confusion. But Liam looks both murderous and defeated. He sinks back onto the couch next to Zayn and picks up his controller.

He turns the controller in his hands over and over, and Zayn puts his down, the fact that they're not playing again becoming obvious. "Any chance you'd be willing to close your eyes and cover your ears when he puts it on?" Liam asks.

"What's on the video?" Zayn counters. "Why do you look like you just got a death sentence?"

Liam winces. "I still can't believe you remember nothing from that night."

A pinched look comes over Zayn's face as he tries to do just that. It almost hurts, the intensity of which he tries to put together the blurred bits and pieces of that night. Nothing really comes to mind, though. Nothing stands out that should have been remembered. Too many drinks that made his stomach hurt? He doesn't want to remember that. A snapshot of Liam grinding with some girl? He could do without that memory, too. Harry throwing up in a potted plant? Yep, he'd rather forget that one.

Before Zayn can admit that, really, he can't, Louis' ass is in his face, coming closer with every second as he attempts to sit right in the middle of Liam and Zayn without giving them much time to move over. Zayn punches his ass, just because, but Liam reluctantly scoots over and Louis nestles in between them.

"It's exactly seven minutes and thirty-six seconds long," Louis announces. "Are you two joining us?"

Niall jumps onto the couch beside Liam, but Harry shakes his head. "I'm having no part in this."

Louis shrugs and turns to Liam. "I'll give you one chance to just come out and admit it out loud, and I won't press play. It's up to you."

Liam sighs and shakes his head. "Just— just do it."

Grinning mischievously, Louis presses play. Zayn tilts his head to see the screen better. The quality of the video is really shitty. Louis must have been pretty drunk when he recorded it, because the angle keeps changing, and he keeps zooming in and out on things. And then he lets out a loud laugh on screen, making everyone on the couch but Louis jump.

"Well, well, well," Video-Louis slurs. "What do we have here? Is that our resident boy next door Liam Payne, making drunken googly eyes across the room?"

The camera spans in on Liam's face as he turns to look right into the camera, eyes narrowing. His cheeks are red with either alcohol, or a blush. "I wasn't making eyes at anyone."

"Someone's a big fat liar," Video-Louis sings. He turns the camera, facing a crowd of people dancing. "Let's see who it was that had our Liam's affections tonight. Oh, was it the girl in the red dress? Look at those legs. Or maybe it was the one with the pixie cut. Or — wait, is— was it—?"

For just a short, barely there moment, the camera focuses on Zayn. He recalls that outfit, the low-necked black t-shirt and the tight jeans. Remembers not having that shirt when he woke up the next morning. Before the camera can focus on his face, someone grabs it and everything gets jumbled for a minute, but in the background you can hear Louis yelling "UNHAND ME LIAM!" and Liam's annoyed, "I wasn't making googly eyes at him, okay?!"

"Okay, okay," Video-Louis agrees when the camera stops shaking. It's pointing directly at the ground now. "I'm sorry. Let me get you another drink, okay?"

"Only if you put the freaking camera down," Video-Liam grumbles.

"No can do, my friend," Video-Louis says reluctantly. "Capturing the moment and all that."

Louis plays around with the mouse and skips ahead a bit, zooming past Liam and Harry doing shots, stopping finally when Liam walks away from him. He's heading in Zayn's direction, clearly, but the him-that's-on-screen is too busy dancing with some random guy to notice. "Uh-oh," says Video-Louis. "This is going to be good."

"Can I talk to you?" Liam asks as Louis sneaks around the crowd, taping him over someone's shoulder.

Zayn — it's always weird to see himself on camera, he thinks— turns and nods. He grins so stupidly, his eyes crinkling and his nose scrunching up. He's so drunk at this point, he knows. He doesn't remember Liam approaching him that night.

In the video, Liam grabs Zayn's hand and tugs him through the crowd, and Louis shoves people out of the way as he continues his stalking. They don't stop until they're in a secluded hallway, and Louis peeks around the corner to capture them.

"You're really drunk," Video-Liam says to Zayn, who's leaning against the wall not inches from him.

"You're really hot," Zayn says on camera.

Oh, God, Zayn thinks. That's what this video is? Him making an ass of himself around Liam while totally trashed? Fucking lovely. "Can we turn this off?"

"Shh, it's just getting good," Louis hisses.

The camera catches Zayn grabbing at Liam's shirt, pulling him closer, mumbling, "Can't stand. Need to hold onto you."

Liam, on camera, sighs and shakes his head. He carefully pushes Zayn away and takes a step back, back rod straight. "I need to say something to you first. Before I chicken out or my blood alcohol level lowers enough that I'll realize how crazy it all sounds."

Zayn laughs. "Okay, Liam. You use your pretty mouth to say whatever you want, babe."

Fuck, did he really say that? This is why he doesn't drink all that often; it's embarrassing.

Liam-on-screen takes a deep breath. "I think I'm in love with you."

It's a shocking contrast between Zayn's reaction in the video and his one in real life. On screen, he lets out a dopey laugh. On the couch in the tour bus, he cuts his gaze to Liam and reminds himself that breathing is a thing that's required if he wants to live. Instead of returning the look, Liam sinks farther into the couch so Louis' completely blocking him.

"Funny," Zayn says on screen. "Good joke, Li. Tell another."

Liam shakes his head. "No, you don't understand. I love you. Like, stupidly. It's — fuck, Zayn, it's always been you, hasn't it? It took me forever to realize, but it's always been there. I know you better than I know anyone else in this entire world, and you know me better than I know myself. And I love that. I love that I know how to make you laugh, without fail, and how you say my name. I love that I've spent almost every minute of the last two years of my life with you, and I know that I'd never want to do it with anyone else."

"Liam, you're not making sense."

"And you don't even see it!" Liam says bitterly. "It hurts, how much I care about you. And you don't even notice, but sometimes you look at me like you feel it to."

This time, Zayn on screen reacts the same way he does. They both make a surprised sound, eyes widening impossibly. Before either of them can say or do anything though (not that Zayn has any idea what to do, since he's having a hard time processing everything that he'd just heard), onscreen people start shouting. It isn't until they get down to seven that Zayn realizes they're counting down the New Year.

"Oh, shit," Video-Louis says. He turns the camera towards himself. "Do I go out into the party or wait and see if they kiss? … I think I'm gonna wait and see if they kiss. One day I'm going to use this video to blackmail Liam into doing everything I've ever wanted." He literally starts cackling as he turns the camera back around.

Just as Liam leans in and Zayn pushes away from the wall, Actual-Liam reaches for the computer. He wrestles it from Louis' lap and slams it shut, cutting the sound off not only on the computer, but in the bus. Everyone is silent, though Zayn can hear his own ragged breathing.

Abruptly, Liam gets off the couch and stomps towards the bathroom. The door slams behind him, and Zayn is stuck, blankly staring at the wall across from him.

"See?" Louis says quietly. He bumps into Zayn's shoulder. "That boy loves the fuck out of you, idiot."

"I've been trying to tell him that for months," Harry chimes in. "But I did it with way more tact than that."

"Yes, well, I was sick of Liam pining after him. It had to be done," Louis snaps, and Niall nods his agreement.

Zayn barely hears them.

It doesn't make sense, a world where Liam was pining after him. Where Liam was the one watching Zayn across the room. Where Liam was the one who thought Zayn didn't feel anything for him. Where Liam was the one who looked pained because of how much he felt.

Just as Liam had, Zayn gets off the couch without a word. He takes a jerky step towards the bathroom before he stops himself and runs a hand through his hair. He chances a look at the others, and creepily enough, they're all looking at him expectantly. Harry nods and Louis actually waves his hand in the direction of the bathroom, as if to say 'Go, you idiot.'

Zayn goes.

He knocks on the door to the bathroom, and Liam shouts, "Go away."

Chewing the inside of his lip (he needs to stop doing that, because the skin there is always chewed to shit), Zayn tries the door handle. It's locked, of course, and he has no choice but to say, "Li, open the door."

"I'd rather not."

Zayn leans his forehead against the door. "I didn't know you felt that way," he whispers as loudly as he dares to make sure that Liam stills hears him, while trying to keep the others from doing the same. He has a feeling Niall, Louis and Harry are all staring at him.

"I know you didn't," Liam says, equally quiet. "It's fine. Don't worry about it."

Zayn groans and smiles, he can't help it. He can't help it because it really sinks in, at that moment, that it's true. That Liam actually… feels that way about him. Sure, they hooked up, but despite popular belief, two people can actually have sex without being in love with each other. Hell, you don't even have to like someone to be attracted to them enough to sleep with them.

"Are you really going to make me do this from the other side of the door?" he asks. "Because I'd rather not."

"I'm not coming out," Liam says.

"Fine." Just like Liam had in that video, Zayn takes a deep breath before he speaks. "I've spent the last three years of my life being in love with you while thinking I never had a chance. I didn't know, Liam, or I would have told you a million times. I would have done something about it, but I thought it was impossible. I was happy to spend the rest of my life pretending that I didn't feel that way because I'd be happier lying to myself with you by my side, than admitting the truth and not having you in my life. If I'd of known, I— I would have—"

The door opens and Liam blinks at him with a steady, blank look on his face. "You would have what?"

Zayn considers this. "Everything," finally comes out of his mouth.

"But that's not true," Liam insists. "If it was, you would have left Perrie, but instead she left you, remember? If it was, I would have known. I'd have been able to tell. You're just… trying to make me feel better."

Louis, in the background, groans and says, "Oh, for Christ sake, you stubborn fuckers."

Zayn ignores him. "Perrie had nothing to do with you, Liam," he argues. "That relationship never had anything to do with how I felt about you, because it couldn't ever matter the way it was supposed to. I tried everything to feel for her what I felt for you, but I couldn't. But it was better to have second best than to have nothing at all, so no, I didn't break up with her. Why would I, when I thought you thought that what happened with us was a mistake?"

"I never said it was a mistake," Liam points out. "You did."

"Because I thought that's what you wanted to hear! If I thought for even a second that you felt anything, I—"

Liam's lips cut him off. It's not one of those perfect, romantic kisses that happen in all those stupid, cheesy movies that Harry likes. Liam's mouth lands on the left side of Zayn's, half kissing his lips, half kissing his cheek. Their noses bump almost painfully, and Zayn stumbles backwards while trying to grab at Liam's shirt to hold himself up.

As quickly as it came, the kiss ends. Liam breathes heavily but doesn't say anything, so Zayn blurts, "Where did that come from?"

Liam must realize that there's no anger or rejection in Zayn, because he lifts his gaze and grins. "Sorry, was I supposed to wait for the dramatic, romantic speech before I kissed you? Because I couldn't wait another second."

Zayn lifts his fingers to his lips before dropping his hand back to his side. And then Liam kisses him again, this time differently. He grabs the side of Zayn's face and it's like he's trying to implant the shape of his lips on Zayn's. It's like he's trying to seal them together with the sheer force of his mouth as he lets his hands drop down to Zayn's neck, one of them reaching up to fist in Zayn's short hair.

Zayn, for his part, sort of melts. He can't keep his eyes open, and he can't find it in himself to do anything but kiss Liam back with everything in him. Liam's tongue slips into his mouth, and Zayn lets it with a soft moan and a hand grabbing at Liam's ass to pull them closer together.

Someone coughs, but they don't break apart. In fact, Liam tilts his head and kisses him more thoroughly, a hand sliding down Zayn's waist now. "Lost time," he explains breathlessly, breaking the kiss for only a second. His lips are back on Zayn's instantly, until he pulls back again and says, "Should have been kissing you for years."

And all Zayn can do is pull him back in because, yeah, the really do have a lot to make up for. Later, when he feels like he can breathe without needing Liam to be touching him, he'll laugh at how blind they both were. How both apparently danced around each other, thinking that what they felt wasn't reciprocated. Right now he's sort of busy.

Lips ghost over his neck, and Zayn lets out a content sigh when that familiar body settles on top of his, warm and perfectly muscular and everything he wants right now. Ever, actually.

"Need your clothes off," Liam says urgently, hips grinding down against Zayn's. "Please. Please."

Chuckling, Zayn caresses Liam's cheek, thumb brushing over his stubble. "You're so impatient."

Liam whimpers into his neck and continues to rut against Zayn in abandon, and all Zayn can do is scratch at his back and hold on, really. Liam's lips go back to his neck, and he sucks hard enough to leave a semi-permanent mark. Zayn snakes a hand between them and gropes the bulge in Liam's pants with a sinful grin on his face.

"Zayn," Liam whines. "Zayn, come on, please."

"Please what?"

"Wake up."

Zayn bats his eyes open, confusion ringing inside of him. It takes him a moment to sort out what's reality and what was his dream. "What—?"

Liam rolls on top of him. "I forgot to tell you," he explains.

Zayn rubs at his eyes and tries to think. Liam was supposed to be sleeping in Louis' room for … some reason, he can't remember. Louis needed him for something, moral support or whatever, not that he explained the entire situation because, as usual, Louis is a selective sharer, and Liam had been sworn to secrecy.

"How'd you get in here?" Zany mumbles.

Liam grins down at him. If he wasn't so tired, he'd take advantage of this position. As it is, he's grateful that Liam's holding himself up on his arms and knees, keeping as much of his weight off Zayn as possible. "It's pretty easy to get people to give me whatever I want," Liam explains. "Plus, like I said, I forgot to tell you."

Zayn closes his eyes and smiles fondly. "Forgot to tell me what?" he asks, playing along.

Liam's lips press to his. "That I love you."

Zayn chuckles. "And it couldn't have waited until tomorrow?"

"Couldn't wait another minute, actually."

This time Zayn initiates the kiss, and they stay like that for a while, lazily licking into each other's mouths until Zayn pulls back and yawns. "Sorry," he says quickly afterwards.

Liam shakes his head. "No, I'm sorry." He rolls off Zayn and climbs out of the bed. "Shouldn't have woken you up."

Silently, Zayn pulls back the covers and scoots over, leaving a Liam sized spot on the bed empty. He raises his eyebrows pointedly, and adds, "I don't like sleeping without you."

Grinning, Liam slides in beside him. He reaches over and shuts off the lamp, and tangles his limbs with Zayn's. Just before Zayn drifts back off to sleep, Liam says, "See you in the morning."

And Zayn knows he will. And Liam will stay, even when they're both fully awake and ready to face the day. Even when one of them slips into the shower and the other orders them something to eat. Because Zayn isn't a bad decision Liam made in the dark anymore, and neither of them is all that willing to leave the other in the morning, ever. That's just the way they are.