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It's a Little Bit Too Late to Take Care of Me (But You Could Still)

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I.

You're a diamond out the rough or somethin'
You need to give love to someone
Before you end up like -

When the blue fluorescence of Niall’s phone screen cuts through the dark of his room, followed by the deep rattling sound the case makes as it vibrates against his nightstand, for a split second Niall thinks he’s back in Ireland.

In his defense, he’s three beers past drunk, and it’s the middle of the night. But when his bleary eyes cut at the alarm clock reading “3:30AM” in bright white font, thoughts of his mum enter swiftly into his addled mind.

Even as Niall reaches out to check who sent the message, his dry and exhausted eyes close again on their own accord. As he drifts into a half-sleep he can practically hear his mother’s voice, scolding a 17 year old Greg for staying out all night, brandishing a wooden spoon and saying “Nothing good happens after midnight.”

When his phone screen flashes to life once more, startling him awake and causing his pupils to constrict so swiftly that for a moment he thinks he’s gone blind, Niall feels the phantom ghost of his mother’s spoon whacking his skull. Niall’s not entirely sure if the pain is a late onset concussion from the spoon or an early onset hangover from the beer. Either way, the throbbing of his brain means he’s awake for the time being.

He pulls himself up and out of the bed, groaning all the way, in the hopes that one or perhaps seven glasses of water and a few paracetamol will ease the relentless horde of elephants parading through his head. Niall spends longer than necessary stumbling through his flat, no doubt making a mess that Sober Niall will curse Hungover Niall for.

It’s only when he’s back in bed and flopping into the still-warm sheets, that the blinking blue notification light reminds him why he was awake in the first place. His hand is steader this time when he reaches for the phone, and he remembers to flick the brightness down to 0% before he unlocks it.

Niall can’t deny the little skip his heart does as his phone notifies him that he has three unread messages from Shawn. He’s nervous when he taps them open, heart speeding up for reasons his sloshed brain can barely comprehend.

Hey, hope you made it home safe. I had a gr8 time, we shud hang out again soon

Lmk if ur still alive 2morrow lol. Maybe we can do breakfast?

I promise I’ll be gentle with you ;)

It’s forward. More forward than Niall expected Shawn to be, or maybe Niall just doesn’t know him as well as he thought. There’s less reading between the lines with these messages. This isn’t the way they usually do things, with touches that last a second too long, or carefully leaning into each other to whisper things that don’t require secrecy.

This, however, is following through. Niall didn’t get drunk enough to forget the way Shawn’s hands had always managed to find their way to Niall’s arm, his cheeks rosy from shots that tasted like cinnamon sticks and the promise of hangovers.

Niall remembers exactly how he looked down at those fingers, clutching at Niall’s shirt so tightly that it wrinkled, but Niall didn’t even mind. Not when Shawn was smiling like he had 10 more teeth than any other human, laughing at Niall’s jokes like they were good enough to headline a comedy tour, looking down at Niall with his bright eyes. Focused on Niall in a way that made him feel huge and invisible in equal measure.

Niall bites at the skin on his thumb, chewing his way to answers that his bloodshot eyes can’t see. He sits up, sighing down at his phone and working his way through what many people would consider a “non-issue”.

Shawn’s fun. They get along. They share interests. They hang out semi-frequently, not with the explicit purpose of seeing each other, but not not with the explicit purpose of seeing each other. And they’ve never hung out in the hanging out sense. It’s coy and unspoken and unbreached. It’s restrained, and Niall had liked it that way.

But Niall’s been working his way through “things”. Things that he and Shawn had never talked about. They weren’t exactly there yet, but it was obvious from Niall’s album that he was (still is) muddling his way out of something too complicated to explain in words that weren’t song lyrics.

Niall remembers one night, when a party at his flat was winding down, no one left but Niall and Shawn, casting glances at each other as they chucked away empty bottles and disposable plates. He remembers the way Shawn had shuffled his feet at the door, fiddling with his hands as his driver waited for him. He remembers knowing that Shawn was looking for a reason to stay - wanting Niall to ask him to stay.

Niall remembers thinking ‘Not right now. It’s not the right time. Maybe one day, when I’m not constantly looking over my shoulder, looking for a ghost or a stranger or some lovelorn combination of both.’

A tightness wells up in Niall’s chest, the same familiar horribleness that splits him open whenever his thoughts stray too far past what Niall deems safe and easy. He flicks the screen back to his received messages, scrolling down through weeks and weeks of correspondence, both business and personal.

The message he’s looking for is nestled innocuously between an update from management about an appearance, and a question from his cousin about buying ties. But it’s what he’s searching for in that moment, whatever that really is, and when Niall taps Zayn’s contact picture so it fills up the whole screen, the ache in Niall’s chest gets immeasurably worse.

For one blissfully self-pitying moment, Niall lets himself pretend that they’re okay. Zayn’s just got a new number. That’s why the most recent message is from weeks ago, congratulating Niall on the start of the Flicker Sessions tour. He can call Zayn any time he wants to, he’s still allowed - of course he’s allowed. Everything is fine, he and Zayn are fine, and Niall doesn’t feel like there’s a hole where his heart used to be, threatening to sink him into a bottomless pit of grief.

And then the moment passes. Zayn’s contact picture stares back at him, eyes crinkled with laughter, head cushioned against a patterned carpet, captured in a moment of unfiltered joy. This is all Niall has left, he thinks miserably, blinking until the wetness on his lashes dries.

Niall thought that putting a name to the pain, penning it in songs and debuting his private mourning for a public world - he thought maybe time and acknowledgement would make it better. But apparently it’s still fresh enough, even after all this time, still red enough and hot enough and searing enough that encountering it still leaves Niall’s body stinging.

A sudden urge to pitch his phone at the wall hard as he can swims through him, but he manages to bypass it. Niall’s phone isn’t backed up to any storage, and while the contacts are easy enough to recover, the pictures and messages -

Niall considers whether it’s healthy or even productive to stare at texts from his ex-whatever at 4 o’clock in the morning, but then decides it doesn’t matter. “Healthy and productive” wouldn’t go very far in describing what he and Zayn had anyway.

Except it felt good, a voice in Niall’s head croaks, unbidden and unwanted. It was better than anything you ever felt. And that’s why you’ve been finding nothing but excuses to not move on, because you know there’s no point. You’ll never have anything better, and you know it.

Niall still doesn’t throw his phone, but he lets it drop out of his hand and clatter to the hardwood as he presses his face into the cool fabric of his pillowcase. An incessant beat pounds through his skull, but he thinks maybe it has less to do with the liquor from hours ago and more to do with how what’s left of his heart feels split in two.

Niall just wants there to be a right answer. There’s always supposed to be a correct solution. No matter how shitty the situation is, there’s always supposed to be a better way of doing things. But Niall can’t seem to find any way to do anything besides sing his sad fucking songs and think his sadder fucking thoughts at a time of night that even dawn forgot about.

He doesn’t know what the rational choice is, and Niall decides that maybe irrationality is the way to go. His hand is clumsy, fumbling over the edge of the bed to grab at his phone, and a sudden boost of adrenaline gives him tunnel vision when he looks at the screen now.

Cant promise i’ll be awake for brekkie but if ur offering to nurse me back to health i’ll hav 2 take u up on that

If u havent come 2 ur senses by then u can come take care of me lol

Niall hits send before the regret can sink in, muting his phone and setting it face down on the nightstand. He pulls a pillow over his head, pressing it down to try and block out the ringing in his ears and the stinging behind his eyes and the aching in his heart.

There’s no relief in the dark, not when Niall knows that the rational choice was turning back over in bed, not bringing anyone else into this fucked up mess he’s made for himself. Especially not an actual friend, someone good and genuine that he doesn’t want to lose when he inevitably ruins whatever he’s just set into motion.

But Niall knows very acutely that a ball can’t stop after it’s started rolling. All Niall’s been doing is tumbling arse over tit for months and months and months, and there’s no solace in his tear-damp pillowcase, no matter how hard he grips it.

There’s nothing else in the world besides Niall and his bad decisions. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

II.

If I could begin to do
Something that does right by you
I would do about anything
I would even learn how to love

“You know,” Shawn starts, voice quiet after the comfortable silence they’d let build as they ate dinner, “I was really nervous about tonight.” He says it so matter of factly, and only the light flush across his cheeks and the overly nonchalant shrug that follows belie his casual tone. It still startles a laugh out of Niall, quick and with a smile so that Shawn knows Niall isn’t laughing at him.

“From what I remember, you were the one that texted me at 3 in the morning about ‘lunch’,” Niall shoots back, delighting in the redness spreads down Shawn’s neck and disappears below his unbuttoned collar. “If anything, I should be the one swoonin’ over a fit lad like you.”

“Yeah, well,” Shawn lets out a breathy laugh and runs a hand through his hair, “I spent hours picking out an outfit that would live up to that ‘fit lad’ in your head, so you better appreciate it.”

“Don’t worry, the reality’s better than my imagination anyway. You got nothin’ to worry about.” Niall takes a sip of his beer, something pale and slightly sweet, and doesn’t realize what he’s said until he sees Shawn’s raised eyebrows and the smile splitting his face so wild Niall’s liable to think it actually hurts.

“And what exactly am I doing in that imagination of yours? I hope nothing impure, because I’m a respectable guy, Niall, and I definitely don’t kiss on the first date.” There’s a glint in Shawn’s eyes, mischievous and bright, and Niall feels himself smirking back.

“Hey, what me and Imaginary Shawn do in the privacy of my own mind is none of your business.” Niall watches as Shawn’s head tips back in laughter, the long line of his neck porcelain perfect under the dim restaurant lighting.

In a moment of brief insanity, Niall links their ankles together underneath the table. He revels in the softness that overtakes Shawn’s face, and the way he looks at Niall like he sees something worth smiling for. Niall forgot how nice it was to enjoy the company of someone who only knows the good parts of you.

They end up staying for dessert, and Niall decides that he’s missed the tentative intimacy of just talking to someone over dinner. Not for business or social obligations, but with the express purpose of trying to build a romantic connection with someone. It’s feels like such a natural progression, similar in a lot of ways to how they normally hang out.

Except now Niall doesn’t have to pretend that he isn’t staring at Shawn’s lips, and he’s allowed to bring their chairs closer together so they can share the slice of chocolate cake and double scoop of sorbet Shawn insisted they order. Their knees knock together under the table, and Niall is mesmerized by the flick of a pink tongue that darts out to catch a drip of fudge sauce from his lip.

Later, when Niall kisses Shawn for the first time, his lips still taste like chocolate sauce and strawberry sorbet. Shawn has to lean down to kiss him, which is new but not unpleasant for Niall, and when they pull away his lips tingle and his head sounds like static. Shawn’s still smiling softly, his face overtaken by a sweetness that makes Niall’s stomach flutter.

Shawn invites Niall inside for a “Nightcap,”, and he says it with a smirk like it’s an inside joke. Niall supposes that it is, since they’re still pressed so closely together that Niall can feel the brush of Shawn’s lips when he speaks. Niall considers saying no, begging off and citing the show he has to play tomorrow. But for better or worse he accepts the invitation, and stepping into Shawn’s hotel room feels like a point of no return.

They’ve been dancing around this moment for a long while, perhaps too long judging by the way Shawn presses Niall’s back against the door when they get into his room. Warm hands roam up his sides, and Niall discovers how well their bodies fit together. Niall starts undoing Shawn’s belt, running on instinct and desire, and manages to get a hand inside Shawn’s pants. The noise he makes when Niall’s dry hand wraps around his cock is needy and prolonged and high in his throat, and it sends Niall into a frenzy of urgency.

He’s tempted to stay like this just to see the face Shawn would make if Niall made him come in his pants. But Shawn pulls back, and unbuttons his shirt with quick fingers. He leans in to whisper “Bed” against Niall’s lips before walking backwards, never breaking eye contact. Niall used to wonder if the smirking, cocksure way Shawn tackled everything in life carried over to the bedroom, and it’s exhilarating to know that it does.

Niall wants to kiss that smirk off his face.

Their clothes come off as an afterthought, shoes tossed in opposite directions and pants thrown over chairs. Niall manages to get Shawn off-balance enough to send him tumbling to the bed, and he’s rewarded with a breathless gasp as he climbs over Shawn’s body. They haven’t talked about boundaries or expectations, but as he kisses his way down the hard planes of Shawn’s stomach he thinks that blowjobs are always a safe bet.

Niall fits his hands on Shawn’s thighs, gripping at the tight muscles there and relishing in the way Shawn’s body rolls and tenses in anticipation. Their eyes meet, and Niall knows he looks good like this, with his lips red and swollen from kissing and his face flushed with arousal. When he gets his lips around the head of Shawn’s cock, his fist tight around the base, Niall wishes, not for the first time, that he could feel as good as he looks.

Shawn is reactive, sensitive in the best way and grabbing at Niall’s hair when he sucks at the tip and then lowers down. The rumbling moans start low in Shawn’s chest at first, but they go high and reedy when Niall takes him down to the base and doesn’t let up. Shawn’s body starts rolling again, long and sensuous thrusts that have Niall reach downing at his own cock and moaning.

It’s not long before Shawn is muttering out a warning, and Niall pulls back slow. His fist pulls tight and quick over Shawn’s cock, tonguing at the head until Shawn spills over his lips and hand. The muscles in Shawn’s abs tense together so tautly it looks almost painful, and Niall doesn’t let up as Shawn groans loudly through his orgasm, lapping at the small pulses of cum that coincide with short bursts of aftershocks.

“Oh fuck,” Shawn murmurs, running a hand through Niall’s hair. The now familiar smirk still plays at the edges of his lips, even as his chest heaves for air and his cock is still in Niall’s mouth. He looks blissful. Utterly at peace and completely content. Niall wants to feel like that too.

I can make this work, Niall thinks to himself, pressing kisses to Shawn’s hipbones as he pants through aftershocks. I can make this work. I can make this work. Shawn pulls him up, fitting one hand around Niall’s length and the other pressing at the small of Niall’s back, guiding him over the edge until he’s groaning into Shawn’s shoulder and spilling over Shawn’s hand. Their breaths begin to even out, and Niall can feel the curve of Shawn’s lingering smile against his cheek.  

I can make this work. I can make this work. I can make this work.

He repeats it to himself over and over, letting the words engrave into his eyelids in the hopes that they stick.

III.

I ain't been there -
Tell me everything you think I wanna hear
I'll take care of you, I will
(Even if I got a man now)

When Niall sees the pictures of himself and Shawn at the VMAs, he doesn’t know what to feel. The pictures are cute. It’s mostly innocuous shots of them sat together in their seats, or congratulating each other after their respective wins. They had mutually agreed not to walk the red carpet together, though Niall could tell it wasn’t the answer Shawn was hoping for.

Niall bites at his bottom lip, scrolling through the various photos taken with and without his knowledge. He lands on one with their faces turned away from the camera, and Niall’s eyes are immediately drawn to the casual way Shawn’s hand fits over his thigh. Niall wonders if they look like two people in a relationship.

He thinks that’s what they are, at least. They’re exclusive now, managing to find time to have a “What are we?” talk even in the midst of both their tours. But Niall hadn’t realized that a private admission of exclusivity and sitting together at one awards show would mean a non-stop speculative invasion of every time he looked at Shawn.

Or rather he’d done everything to ignore the reality of what was coming, and now finds himself staring down the barrel of gossip columns and headlines on The Sun, and he fucking hates it. He hates people wondering about what he’s doing, and digging around into his personal life for something, anything to make a story out of.

All of it irritates him, and it claws at his throat like an impending scream. It makes him restless, makes him want to pack a bag and disappear for weeks and weeks until people forget there was ever anything interesting about what Niall Horan and Shawn Mendes may or may not be doing behind closed doors.

Niall thinks of calling Shawn, but he doesn’t even know what he’d say. It’s late in New Zealand, and Shawn’s still getting acclimated before the next leg of his tour. He’s probably jetlagged and exhausted, and his phone is probably muted.

Niall figures those are all good enough excuses not to call him.

He thinks next of calling Louis, because he’s the one of them who’s somehow simultaneously the best and the worst at relationships. But if Niall is honest with himself for once in his life, it’s not really Louis’s opinion that he’s looking for.

Niall tells himself that it’s not weird for him to call Zayn about this. They’re on good terms, for real this time, and are actually managing to keep in touch. Zayn’s contact picture is still the same. They haven’t met up long enough for Niall to take a new one.

Niall’s phone is connecting the call before he even realizes that he’s pressed the button. During the long seconds that drag on as Zayn’s phone rings, Niall understands that this is probably not the best choice he could have made. There’s a dozen people he could have called, all of whom aren’t his Ex That’s Not His Ex.

But Zayn is the only who knows Niall in the way that Shawn doesn’t yet. He’s the only one who’s been with Niall in that way, the only one who’s had Niall’s heart in that way, and Niall just wants to hear his voice. The voice that used to whisper in Niall’s ear at night, warm and familiar present, but now only exists through five minute phone calls every other week.

“Did you see the pictures?” The words are out as soon as Niall hears the phone connect, quick like pulling off a band-aid, and Niall can hear Zayn shifting on the other end.

“Hello to you too,” Zayn says back, voice slow and gravelly like Niall’s just woken him up from a deep sleep. And it’s very possible that Niall has. He doesn’t even know what country Zayn is in right now. He starts to feel horrible about the whole thing, and is ready to stutter out an apology when Zayn answers, saying “Yeah, I saw the pics.”

There’s silence, then more shifting like Zayn’s sitting up, and Niall wonders if his breathing sounds as ragged as it feels. Niall doesn’t say anything, just waits for Zayn to continue like Niall knows he will.

“He’s cute. Looks at you like you hung the moon. It’s… cute.” Zayn goes quiet again, and Niall can already feel why this was a huge mistake. “I’m happy for you. You deserve someone good.”

The ‘You were good. You were good for me. We were good. I didn’t deserve you, but we were good.’ sticks in Niall’s throat, but he feels like Zayn can still hear it in his mind all the same. And Niall is used to these feelings now, which means he’s become a pro at stamping them back down.

“I -” Niall tries to organize the mess inside his head and put together a coherent sentence, continuing with “I don’t know how to do this, Zed. He’s… he wants to hold my hand in public, and feed me off his place, and the only questions people wanna ask are about our fuckin’ sex life, and I swear to God if one more person writes an article about him being my fuckin’ muse I’m gonna -”

Niall’s tirade is cut off by the wheezing sound of Zayn’s laughter, warm even through the tinny speaker of Zayn’s phone. Hearing it eases some of the tension in Niall’s chest, lightens some of the weight. Niall doesn’t have to sugarcoat any of it with Zayn. He can be an unfiltered version of himself, foul-mouthed and sarcastic and just this side of mean, and Zayn will understand. Zayn always understands.

“You’ll get used to it. I definitely won’t say it’ll get better, but, it’s easier when they’re worth it…” The sentence trails off, hanging in the air between them, and Niall instantly feels how much that wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

Niall doesn’t even know what he does want to hear Zayn say. Maybe a “He isn’t right for you” or “This is gonna crash and burn, you aren’t made for relationships” or “I’m still in love with you, let’s go elope.”

He knows how unlikely all of those responses are from Zayn. Even-keeled Zayn. Easy-going Zayn. “Always wants the best for people” Zayn. Niall’s Zayn, but not Niall’s Zayn anymore. Gone in all the ways that hurt, but still around in ways that somehow managed to hurt even worse.

“He used to have a picture of you on his wall. Above his bed.” Niall says it apropos of nothing, just something to fill the silence and have some kind of normal interaction with Zayn for the first time in forever.

“He what?” Zayn’s laugh is higher this time, genuine and loud and hysterical, and Niall can’t help but smile. It wasn’t too long ago when Niall would spend hours and hours making Zayn laugh like that until he gripping at belly and gasped for air. Even now Niall can picture the way Zayn’s head is tossed back, eyes squinted, not unlike the contact picture on Niall’s phone that he hasn’t changed in two and a half years.

“Yeah, right above his bed. I’m pretty sure he jerked off to it, but I haven’t caught up the nerve to ask him yet.” Niall doesn’t question whether maybe it’s inappropriate to be gossiping about his boyfriend to his - to his Zayn. It’s making Zayn laugh, and Niall loves Zayn’s laugh, and so he does it.

“I don’t know how I feel about that, Nialler. Your boyfriend is part of the Zquad.” And Zayn is dissolving into breathy giggles again, phone pressed to his mouth so Niall can hear every brush of his lips against the microphone.

Niall scoff in disgusts at Zayn’s “Zquad” comment, but he can’t cover up the laugh that bursts out of him, and this just feels so good. Just talking to Zayn about something other than the weather or singles or tours. Swapping secrets and emotions back like they used to. Talking just for the sake of it. Just to know each other.

They talk like that for a while, about all the nonsense and nothing that Niall doesn’t get the chance to rattle on about anymore. The conversation eventually hits a lull, and the quiet is so soft and easy that Niall wants to do nothing but listen to the steadiness of Zayn’s breaths. Niall could fall asleep like this - both of them could. They have before. Niall can picture Zayn reclined in his bed, one hand under his head while the other holds his phone.

But even in this brief moment of peace, Niall is still hit with a horrid pang of loss more acute than he’s felt in a long time. He can really picture Zayn, even this His/Not His Zayn. Niall can practically feel the tempo of his heartbeat and the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest as he breathes. He’d always held out hope that he’d have that back again. Have this back again. The quiet moments.

Even in his worst nightmares Niall had never considered that they’d manage to stray so far from each other that only their smudged outlines would be recognizable. It throbs in him still, that weak part that always thought it would be them together in the end. Maybe Niall’s just too stupid to realize that the worst has already happened. Too dumb to understand that “over” really means over.

Niall knows he should have hung the phone up five minutes ago. He should have ended things cordially, gotten off the phone to reformat his thoughts, and collected himself before he did or said something he would regret.

And yet he says it anyway.

“I miss you.” It’s not like that should be news to Zayn. They’ve written songs, entire albums about each other. But they don’t say it. Not like this, in the middle of the night with real words.

“What are you doin’, Niall?” Zayn sighs in that all-knowing way he does, like he saw Niall speeding towards doom and destruction, and is now doing Niall the courtesy of helping him pick up the wreckage afterwards.

“Dunno. Just sayin’. I miss you. Aren’t I allowed to say that?” There’s petulance in Niall’s voice, but exhaustion too. The kind of bone-deep tiredness that seeps into your soul and makes your body feel heavy.

“You can, it’s just - I’m -” Zayn signs again, resigned this time. “Why don’t you get some sleep and call me in the morning? You’re out of it right now and -”

Zayn cuts himself off, but Niall can still hear the words he doesn’t say clear as ever. ‘And I don’t want you to say something that you don’t mean. Or worse, something that you do mean but can’t follow through on - something you want to give me, but isn’t mine to take.”

Niall understands that he’s being a fucking asshole about this. It’s cruel to put this on Zayn. What they had wasn’t normal. It wasn’t regular. But it was visceral and all-encompassing, and there’s a piece of Niall in everything Zayn writes, just like there’s pieces of Zayn strewn across every track on Flicker.

Niall doesn’t know if it’ll always be this way, but he feels so sure that he won’t - can’t - ever stop loving Zayn. His Zayn and The Zayn That Got Away. The idea of him and the reality. The memories of what they were and the fantasies of what they could have been. The past when he gave Niall a place to lay his heart at night and the present when it’s been almost three fucking years and yet he still can’t stop calling Zayn, asking to be missed and wanted and loved.

But Zayn, His Zayn, always His Zayn, just tries to stop Niall from fucking up his own life, even when he seems so desperate to do it.

So Niall takes the out. Call it cowardice, call it pathetic - it doesn’t matter. Niall can’t pretend there wasn’t time for them. A place for them. They’d both made choices, back when choices were both too abundant and too scare, and it’s not fair to either of them to keep doing whatever this is.

Niall says goodnight, and Zayn’s presence lingers like static after a lightning storm. He promises to call in the morning, ignores the Zayn-sized hole gaping inside of him, and tries to convince himself that this is all for the best.

Later, when Niall should definitely but asleep but isn’t, his phone lights up with an incoming message. His alarm clock reads “3:31AM”, and Zayn’s name flashes in the notification. He doesn’t know what time it is where Zayn is, didn’t even get around to asking, but Niall has a feeling he should be sleeping too.

I miss you too.

There’s ice running through Niall’s veins, burning and freezing and setting his nerves alight. He takes in a sharp breath, and is surprised that his lungs still work at all.

You don’t owe me anything

Niall sends the reply with shaking fingers, because he truly doesn’t want to put Zayn through this. Niall was always selfish when it came to Zayn, wanted as much of him as Zayn was willing to give. But he never wanted to hurt him, or burden him with even a quarter of the baggage Niall’s been lugging around.

Do you love him? Zayn replies, and Niall wonders if he’s high. If maybe he needed to smoke up before he was able to type the words he couldn’t say out loud.

Dunno. Maybe. I could I guess. It’s a non-answer, but It’s the only one Niall has.

I don’t want you to have to miss him like you miss me. That’s why I want this to work for you. I just want you to try.

Niall tries to swallow past the lump in his throat, and wishes desperately for a world, any world, any universe or point in existence where he didn’t feel like the love of his fucking life was telling him to move on.

He doesn’t know what else to say, and he doesn’t feel like it’s his place anymore to do the talking in this conversation. Maybe he gave up that right when he called Zayn and put them in this position to begin with.

Call me in the morning? Zayn sends, not waiting for a reply from Niall. Not giving him room to do any more damage.

Yeah I will. Thanks Zed. Night.

Night.

IV.

I want you to myself
I know you just left someone else
I know you did - they did a number on you
That must be why you move so icy

When Niall calls Zayn, it tends to be when Shawn isn’t around. It’s not intentional at first. Shawn’s still recuperating from his tour, and is already stuck in the studio for long hours putting together his next album. It’s not like they need to be completely dependent on each other, Niall often defends to himself. So what if they go days without talking? So what if Niall talks to his Ex more than he talks to his boyfriend?

In the beginning, it’s not on purpose. And then it’s on purpose.

Niall and Shawn spend most of their time in different countries, with Niall rarely making the trip to Shawn’s home in Toronto. Even now, almost five months since their first date, Niall prefers when they meet up at Shawn’s hotel room. It’s safe, and gives Niall a reason to leave in the mornings.

That wasn’t intentional in the beginning either.

But sharing his space with Shawn is different now than when they were friends. Shawn’s presence lingering around Niall’s house in the form of left behind items was cute then, and the attention he paid to Niall was flattering. But a change in their relationship status led to a change in how those small things made Niall feel.

Shawn cutting in when Niall was ordering a drink and getting him a lite beer instead of a dark stout, citing Niall’s reflux, raises his hackles. More items get left at Niall’s place - a jacket, a hat, workout gear for them to go hiking in. Niall takes it in silently, feels unwanted irritation spike through him, and the desire to ask why Shawn feels the need to leave his shit all over Niall’s house, the urge to defend his one space that’s really his own from an intruder and -

Now they just meet at Shawn’s hotel room.

There’s restlessness brewing in Niall. He starts getting snappy, not just with Shawn but friends and acquaintances who ask him about Shawn. Everyone’s in his fucking business even more now since someone sold a pic of him and Shawn kissing at a party to the tabloids. The (credible) rumors had been confirmed, and though it wasn’t necessarily a secret the whole thing still annoys the absolute fuck out of him.

He feels cornered, backed up into a position that’s got him lashing out and on the defensive. Everyone just wants a goddamn piece of him, and Niall knows that it’s fucked up to include his own boyfriend on the list of people that are annoying the absolute bollocks off him. He knows it probably makes him a shit boyfriend, but it doesn’t stop him from wanting to be left the fuck alone.

And then Niall, and subsequently the rest of the world, are treated to dozens upon dozens of bright and bold headlines about Zayn and Gigi breaking up. It’s splashed across every possible publication, with the more popular ones calling it an amicable split and the less reputable ones citing “anonymous sources” who claimed to have heard from the friend of a cousin’s hairdresser that Zayn was fucking around on Gigi.

There’s no hesitation after Niall closes out the articles when he calls Zayn’s phone. He’s expecting it to go to voicemail - Zayn and his team must be buried under the weight of all this shit - and Niall is surprised when Zayn’s voice croaks out a “Hello?”

“Hey,” Niall says, suddenly breathless. “I just, uh, wanted to check in with you. I woke up and there were stories everywhere. I - are you okay?”

“Okay as I can be, I guess.” Zayn’s voice is slow and craggy, and Niall can imagine how many fingers of whisky and chainsmoked blunts he’s gone through. “She’s moving to Barcelona. Something about not wanting to do what people wanted her to anymore.”

“Are you - are you going with her? Or is it -” Niall cuts himself off, and he hears Zayn take a drag of something, and whether it’s a cigarette or a blunt Niall doesn’t know. The shifting of fabric makes Niall think that Zayn’s shrugging, but he can’t see it to verify.

“No, I’m not going with her, and yes, it’s over.” Zayn says it flatly and without inflection, like he’s giving the time or the weather. Not like he’s explaining that his girlfriend of 2 years is moving halfway across the world. “I know she loved me, I know we were happy. But I guess when a person decides they want to stop living under their mother’s thumb, the mum-approved boyfriend gets chucked too.”

“Zayn,” Niall starts, but he doesn’t know how to continue. While Niall and Zayn never really talked about Zayn’s relationship, it’s easy to understand why it’s been two years and he’s never met her. Niall doesn’t know how much Gigi knew, but there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that Zayn and Niall’s relationship, both past and present, existed in a space separate and detached from everything else. Niall had kind of liked it that way, personal and private just to them, but this sudden mixing is volatile and unsturdy.

“And I get it, like. She never got to do any of the shit that the rest of us did when we were rich and dicking around, doing what we wanted. But I didn’t - I didn’t know leaving everything behind meant me too?” Zayn’s voice cracks, and so does Niall’s heart.

“Where are you right now?” Niall asks, rolling out of bed and heading to his closet. His “To Go Bag” is sitting where it always does, a quick-and-ready duffel containing a week’s worth of necessities. Niall had learned early on to always have one ready in this life he lived. He leans down to grab it with one hand, and turns on the speakerphone with the other. He double-checks the time, and it’s almost 9pm. “Are you still in New York?”

“Yeah, I’m at a fucking hotel. Me and all the shit I had at her place.” There’s a steeliness in Zayn’s voice, and Niall thinks anger is a step above sadness in the grief chart or whatever, so he takes it as a good sign.

“Listen,” Niall says, already jogging downstairs to slip on a hair of shoes, “There’s a flight from LAX to JFK leaving in two hours. Don’t bother telling me not to come, I already bought the ticket.” He says it partly to try and staunch Zayn’s inevitable protests, and also because he really does have an email confirmation. Google works wonders in a hurry. “I’m only telling you so that when I come to your hotel at 8:30 in the fuckin’ morning that you don’t leave me standing outside your room like an arsehole.”

“Niall, you really don’t have to -” Zayn starts, but Niall is quick to cut him off.

“If you don’t want me to come, I won’t. I’m not gonna bug you if you really don’t want me there. But if you’re gonna give me some shit about how I’ve got my own life to live, then you can save it. Cause I don’t want you to be alone right now, and if you want me to come I’m coming.”

There’s silence, and for a brief panic-stricken moment Niall knows, just knows in every part of his being, that Zayn’s going to tell him not to come, and it’s going to be the end of Niall’s existence as he knows it.

“What time’s your flight getting in again?” Zayn’s voice is hesitant, but a yes is a yes. Niall lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and grabs his keys. He should probably let someone know that he’s going to New York, but that can wait.

“7:30, but I probably won’t be at your hotel till about an hour after.” Niall’s already on his way out the door, afraid that if he stops moving for one minute he’ll start second-guessing himself.

“Okay, I’ll - I’ll see you then, I guess. Call me when you land?” There’s a soft lilt to Zayn’s voice.

“Yeah, I’ll call you. Try and get some rest, yeah?”

“Yeah sure.” Zayn sounds very unconvincing, but at least Niall tried.

Niall’s fight and arrival are both fairly uneventful. There’s no fanfare, and it seems that even paps don’t want to be up this early in the morning. The only stress is in his own head, questioning what the fuck he’s doing right now.

He does call Zayn when he lands, to let him know he’s really in New York and to get Zayn’s room number. When Niall gets there the smell of smoke is acrid in Zayn’s hotel room. It’s clinging to the walls and clogging the air, and as Niall slips off his shoes he wonders if Zayn’s going to get a charge on his card for a cleaning bill after he leaves.

There’s purple bruises under Zayn’s eyes, the ones he gets when he’s only running on fumes of coffee and liquor. He’s quiet, only murmuring a hey to Niall when letting him in, and Niall has to step around bags and boxes that are presumably filled with what used to be Zayn’s life in New York with Gigi.

Niall tosses his duffel into a rare unoccupied space of the room, and steps over a few more bags of Zayn’s stuff to get close and pull him into a hug. Niall hopes that it isn’t completely obvious his heart aches at the sight Zayn in person again, even while his stomach churns at the circumstances.

“You look like shit,” Niall says. His arms are tight around Zayn’s shoulders, and Zayn’s face is pressed so closely to Niall’s neck that he can feel the scoff Zayn lets out against his skin. “You need to sleep.”

“Not tired.” Zayn’s fingers tighten their grip on Niall’s jumper, and Niall wonders how long they can stay like this. Just the two of them, no one else in the world but Niall and Zayn.

“Well now I know you’re full of shit, cause even I’m tired and also you’re you.” Niall pulls back, heart skipping at the groan of discontent Zayn lets out, and surveys the hotel room again. He can see a chair tucked in the corner but no couch. “You’ve got no sofa.”

“It was the only room I could get, on short notice. Apparently there’s a fuckin’ convention in town or whatever, I dunno. And it’s not like I was planning on having company.” Zayn steps back, and Niall’s hands travel up from Zayn’s shoulders to either side of his neck. Zayn obediently tilts his head as Niall maneuvers him this way and that, studying the overgrown stubble on Zayn’s face and neck.

“When’s the last time you ate? And no, liquor doesn’t count as food.” Niall’s lips purse when Zayn turns his head away from Niall, staring at the wall while Niall stares at him in return. Niall drops his hands and sighs, and Zayn keeps looking at the wall. “You need to sleep.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” Zayn shoots back, and a familiar fondness wells up in Niall at the petulant frown on Zayn’s face. Niall may be lost in a lot of aspects of life, but dealing with a cranky and sleep-deprived Zayn will always be his specialty.

“Good thing I didn’t ask what you wanted,” Niall replies, walking backwards toward the bed. He pulls off his jumper, and tries not to dwell too much on the way Zayn’s eyes linger on the strip of skin that’s briefly revealed when Niall’s shirt gets ruched up. Even with his sweatpants and shirt on, Zayn’s bed still feels cold from vacancy when Niall slides in under the covers. “Come on then. Just like old times.”

Zayn just stands there staring, arms hanging at his sides and face blank, but head cocked like he’s trying to figure Niall out. Niall can pretend that this whole encounter is altruistic - as long as Zayn lets him. As long as neither of them pops the rose-colored bubble smudging the outlines of the facade they’re existing in right now.

“You really gonna deny me my nap when I just flew 6 hours to come see you? I’m jetlagged to all hell -  come nap with me, and at least I won’t bug you when I’m unconscious.” Niall holds out a hand, foregoing for just a moment both his pride and the desire to not seem so desperate for anything, absolutely anything that Zayn is willing to give him.

Zayn sighs and shuffles over, climbing in on the left side (his side) and presses his ear to Niall’s chest. Niall could never understand how Zayn could possibly get even a wink of sleep with Niall’s heartbeat thumping through his ears, but be would always just shrug and smile. Niall runs a hand up and down Zayn’s back, and Zayn’s fingers and toes are freezing cold when they press against him. Niall never wants to move.

“I’m sorry, Zayn. I’m so fucking sorry.” Niall wishes he had something better to offer. Something poetic and inspiring. But he doesn’t. All Niall’s got is a hand on Zayn’s back, Zayn’s ear to Niall’s chest, and Niall’s heart in Zayn’s hands.

“Yeah, me too.” Zayn’s words are muffled against Niall’s shirt, voice drowsy and words dragging. He sighs again, deep and loud, and then settles. Niall leaves it at that, and lets the silence and the stillness stretch between them in the darkness of the hotel room.

Some time passes, long enough for Zayn to have dozed off properly, when Niall’s phone lights up with an incoming call. Shawn’s contact picture and name flash across the screen, and the first thing Niall feels is immense relief that he’d thought to mute his phone after Zayn had laid down. He gazes down at Zayn, whose head is still pillowed against Niall’s chest, eyelashes fanned out dark and delicate against his cheeks.

Niall lets the call go to voicemail.

They both sleep for a while after that It could be for an hour or ten - he can’t really tell when he wakes up. Zayn is groggy beside him and suffering from a horrific of bedhead. Niall pats Zayn’s hair down with a clumsy sleepdrunk hand, and delights when Zayn pouts in Niall’s general direction and half-heartedly attempts to bat Niall’s hand away.

Niall reaches for his phone to check the time, and ruffles Zayn’s hair back into its previous state of messiness when he groans out his displeasure at Niall shifting them around. It’s almost 2 in the afternoon, and just knowing that it’s past lunchtime makes Niall acutely aware of how empty his stomach is. Zayn becomes aware of it too, when Niall’s stomach breaks the silence by growling loudly. He snorts out a laugh against Niall’s shirt, and Niall jostles him in retaliation.

“We need to eat.” Niall says it matter of factly - a statement, not a question. The less wiggle-room the better, when it comes to Zayn. He still makes a noise of opposition, and Niall knows it’s partly from exhaustion and partly just to be contrary. “You want Thai? I passed a place on the way here.”

Zayn moans, sitting up and peering at Niall blearily, eyes squinted against an invisible light. Or perhaps they’re squinted against a hangover compounded from daydrinking, chainsmoking and not eating or sleeping. Probably the latter, actually. In any case, Niall takes his response as a yes.

“You want your usual?” Niall is asking mostly rhetorically, because Zayn is a creature of habit if anything - and it’s not like he’s coherent enough to change his mind. Curry noodles, side of chicken dumplings and veggie spring rolls - extra black ginger sauce, Niall recites silently in his head. He assumes that the jerky, uncoordinated shaking of Zayn’s head is supposed to be a nod of acceptance.

Niall forces himself to ignore Zayn’s wordless complaints as he gets out of bed to call the Thai place. It’s only a ten-minute walk from Zayn’s hotel, but it’s not the length of time Niall will be Zayn’s protesting, rather the fact that he’s the bed at all. If it was up to Zayn they’d just stay in bed all day sleeping. And while Niall isn’t actually adverse to that idea, he really is starving and he wants to Zayn to eat something before it gets any later.

He’s quoted 25 minutes for both their orders, which gives Niall enough time to get dressed and head out without having to rush. Zayn’s actually sitting up in the bed when Niall grabs a pair of pants from his duffel and pulls them on. He watches silently, saying nothing as Niall tugs on a clean jumper, eyes tracking Niall as he collects his wallet and Zayn’s hotel key for good measure. It’s a safe bet that Zayn will fall asleep before Niall is back with the food, and he’s been through this exact scenario enough times to know that it’s not worth it to tempt the fates and get locked out of the room.

“I’ll be back soon then,” Niall says. It’s so domestic, Zayn with his ruffled hair, Niall running out to grab them lunch. Niall has to physically resist the urge to run back over to Zayn and press a kiss to the top of his head. He’s not sure how that would go over, but he knows he’s not brave enough to try.

“Thanks - I owe you.” Zayn’s voice sounds better but still craggy, and Niall waves him off. He isn’t looking for anything in return. He’s just here to make sure that Zayn’s getting through the day, and Niall will continue to fetch Zayn’s meals and share his bed for as long as Zayn will let him.

This time of early afternoon in Manhattan means that Niall can walk freely down Lexington Avenue with his hat pulled low and encounter minimal engagement from people. It’s still New York, and everyone has some place to be very quickly, so no one pays much attention to the white guy strolling down the block to the nearest Thai place.

When Niall gets to the restaurant there’s a small crowd milling around, but he knows it’s not for him and decides to slip by with his the brim of his hat pulled just a bit lower. They’re less than 15 minutes from Gramercy Park, so there’s bound to be some well-to-do and famous types milling around here.

What Niall isn’t expecting, however, is the feel of long arms wrapping around his midsection while he waits to pick up his to-go order, and a familiar raspy voice whispering in his ear.

“Hey stranger, fancy meeting you here.” Niall turns halfway to look over his shoulder at Shawn, and he’s sure the horror that’s creeping in around his heart must show on his face. But Shawn just continues, saying “I’m sorry if I ruined your surprise, but in my defense if you’re gonna fly to New York just to see me you shouldn’t fall off the face of the Earth first.”

‘Surprise’ doesn’t even begin to explain what’s going on right now. Niall’s wracking his brain, dread still flowing sluggishly through his bloodstream, and he honestly can’t believe this is his life. Of course Niall hasn’t checked Shawn’s portion of their shared calendar in days, and of course Niall didn’t know that Shawn was going to be in New York, probably at the same hotel, getting food at the same fucking restaurant.

Of course, because these things could only happen to Niall.

Shawn leans in to kiss Niall on the cheek, and it’s chaste but attention-grabbing for the patrons inside the restaurant that recognize one or both of them, and for Shawn’s fans waiting diligently outside. Someone comes over with Niall’s to-go bag, and Shawn’s smile widens.

“Is that for us? Great minds really do think alike. Good thing I haven’t ordered yet, it looks like you got plenty.” Shawn’s voice is so sure, so confident in his boyfriend’s ability to give a damn and be spontaneous and caring. He’s right about the spontaneity and the caring, but dangerously wrong about who it’s for.

Niall remains quiet, even as he wriggles out of Shawn’s arms to grab their food. ‘Their’ in this situation being ‘Niall and Zayn’ not ‘Niall and Shawn’, which is the crux of the problem. His brain refuses to cooperate, and so Niall finds himself unable to conjure any words except a “Thank you” and a “Keep the change” when he pays for the order. He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing right now, and has no idea how to get out of this unscathed.

“Are you seriously upset with me for messing up your grand entrance? If you want I can go sit in my hotel room and act surprised when you show up? If it really means that much to you, but - I mean, I was just happy to see you, I couldn’t not come over.” Uncertainty is creeping into Shawn’s voice now, as he stares at the tense outline of Niall’s back.

“I was actually grabbing lunch for a friend that’s feeling a bit poorly,” Niall says back. He forces the words out quickly, because he always heard that things are less painful that way. He’s not entirely sure if that really applies to telling your boyfriend you flew cross-country for someone other than him, but Niall figures it’s worth a shot. “Do you mind if I call you later? I just wanna run this back up to my friend.” Niall gestures to the to-go back, and he can tell by the way Shawn’s eyes narrow that this is already a lost battle.

“What do you mean ‘call me later’, I’ve been calling you - I called you a few hours ago, actually, and you haven’t been answering.” Shawn’s affection from just moments ago is gone now that it’s clear he misread the situation. And no matter how much Niall tries to sugarcoat things, this is still very clearly a brushoff.

Niall doesn’t want to make a scene, and it’s the feeling of the impending hysteria on both their sides that has him grabbing Shawn by the elbow and trying to steer them away from peering eyes. Niall wrestles back the aggravation he feels at this whole fucking situation - the coincidence to top all coincidences. He doesn’t know how to explain that Zayn is waiting in his hotel room for lunch, and he doesn’t want to explain it. What Niall really wants is for this moment to not be happening.

Shock covers Shawn’s face, and he looks down in bewilderment at Niall’s hand on his elbow, leading them towards a back entrance that Niall knows from personal experience is frequently used by incognito celebs just trying to get a peaceful lunch.

“I promise I’ll call you later, I just - I really have to get back to my friend.” Niall tries, in a last-ditch effort, to make this go well. He’s not hopeful, but goddamnit he still has to try.

“Well why can’t I just come with you? I’m not doing anything right now, and if your friend needs company -”

“He’s not up for company.” Niall cuts him off, and he doesn’t bother to soften the steeliness in his voice. This isn’t a date night, this is ‘Niall making sure that Zayn eats and sleep and doesn’t fall off the deep-end in the next 72 hours’ night.

“He who? Who are you even talking about, and what is with all this secretive bullshit?” Shawn’s eyes narrow, tugging his arm free of Niall’s hold, and Niall can actually see the suspicion clouding over Shawn’s mind. Niall rubs his free hand roughly over his face, and exasperation sears through his brain.

“If you want to fight about me helping a friend then I’ll fuckin’ call you tomorrow and you can yell at me then. But right now I have to go, okay?” There’s no room for disagreement in the way Niall says it, eyes looking expectedly at Shawn and then nodding when Shawn stares blankly at him.

Niall takes that as his cue to turn and leave through the back exit, the feeling of Shawn’s eyes piercing into into his spine. The brisk January air does nothing to loosen the tightness in Niall’s chest, and his unforgiving grip on the handles of the take out bag has his fingers aching. The walk back to the hotel is quick, and he’s panting when he lets himself back into Zayn’s room.

Zayn is sleeping as predicted, and Niall runs a shaking hand through his hair. He allows himself one deep breath before kicking off his shoes and setting the food on the table, then heading over to Zayn to wake him. He sits on the edge of the bed, unsurprised when the movement doesn’t cause Zayn to stir, and just watches him.

Zayn’s chest falls rhythmically, arms splayed across the bed like he was reaching out for something (or someone, Niall’s brain supplies unhelpfully), and Niall thinks he looks peaceful like this. Unburdened and at ease, and Niall is considering letting him sleep for a little longer - they can reheat the food, and Niall can just lay down next to Zayn again and pretend it’s where he’s meant to be.

But as if on cue, Zayn’s eyes flutter open, ‘Full on Disney Magic Style’ as Niall used to call it, and the moment passes. Zayn offers Niall a smile, and being able to wake up at his own pace has always done wonders for Zayn. Niall returns the smile, reaching over to rub a hand gently over Zayn’s back.

“Ready to eat?” Niall lets his fingertips bump-bump-bump over the notches of Zayn’s spine, until Zayn’s eyes are fully open and he’s sitting up with a stretch.

Lunch is a quiet occasion, pleasant but by no means energetic, even if the mood is definitely lighter than it was before. It does some good for both of them, getting food on their stomachs and settling into a comfortable silence to ease their minds.

“So,” Zayn starts, picking at what remains of his curry noodles, “I don’t think I’m stayin’ in New York much longer.” He keeps his eyes down, focused on his food, and Niall bites at his lip.

“Where d’you think you’re headed? London?” Niall’s asking half out of curiosity and half because he wants to be able to gauge how pathetic he’d look if he were to randomly drop in at Zayn’s next location.

“Um, probably LA, I guess. Sarah’s gonna get everything sorted with gettin’ all this shit here back to my house there,” Zayn gestures around the room with one hand to his bags that litter the floor.

Niall nods, not really sure what to say. He’s happy he came, and he of course doesn’t expect Zayn to want to stay in the city where he got his heart broken. Niall couldn’t put down roots in any city for months after he and Zayn were Officially Off, and the waywardness had felt more appropriate at the time. It feels wrong, almost, to stay in one spot when your heart feels scattered in a million places. Suffice to say, Niall can relate.

“You could, like, come with me? If you wanted? I booked two seats, but if you had plans or summat I get it.” Hesitancy drips from Zayn’s voice, and Niall is gripping his fork so tightly that he’s afraid it might snap.

“Uh, yeah, I could - I mean, if you’re not sick of me yet, yeah, I can fly back with you. Stick around for a bit.” Niall nods, trying to inject some nonchalance into his demeanor even though his mind is racing 50 miles per minute.

Zayn nods and mutters out a “Cool”, and a small smile plays at the edges of his lips. It’s soft with trepidation, and more than anything Niall wants to kiss him and tell him that Niall will follow him wherever, whenever, forever. But Niall’s not allowed to say that anymore, or do that anymore, so they finish their lunch with smiles and no declarations of love.

The room doesn’t require much packing, as Zayn and Sarah have already coordinated for someone to gather everything Zayn won’t be taking with him on the plane and having it shipped to LA. ‘The perks of being famous’, they joke to each other. There’s time enough for both of them to take much-needed showers, separately, before they head out, and Niall resolutely spends his shower time thinking about absolutely nothing and no one.

There’s a car waiting for them when they go downstairs, and they spend the beginning of the ride making easy conversation about nothing in particular. But any car ride longer than five minutes still has a tendency to send Zayn straight to sleep, Niall finds out, and so Niall spends the remainder of the ride with Zayn’s head on his shoulder. Zayn breathes softly as Niall looks out the window and takes in the angles of Zayn’s face.

Niall had thought that his return flight with Zayn had been just as uneventful as his entry. Both of them fell asleep during parts of the 6 hour flight, something about the day wearing on them equally but for drastically different reasons.

It’s only when they step out of the terminal to dozens of photogs waiting for them outside of LAX, with bulbs flashing and questions being shouted as they walk to the car waiting for them, that Niall considers the ramifications of them walking through airports together. Most likely a fan or onlooker snapped a picture of them at JFK, and judging by the turnout it’s most likely already spread across the internet like wildfire.

These photos will be everywhere tomorrow too. Speculations and theories will outweigh anything remotely close to the truth 50 to 1, and management will have their own slew of questions for him.

But sitting in the backseat of the town car, pulling Zayn’s beanie down over his ears where it’s ridden up and rubbing his knuckles over the flush riding high on Zayn’s cheeks, Niall finds that he doesn’t much care.

V.

Did I lose you?
Did I? Did I?

Niall doesn't call Shawn the next day. Or the day after that, or the day after that, or the day after that. It's complete radio silence from both ends until Niall hears through the grapevine that Shawn is in LA for some appearance or another, and like clockwork the void is breached and Shawn's text message comes chiming in.

We need to talk.

Blunt and to the point, and giving no actual insight as to what the outcome might be. But Niall has some ideas about how things are going to go. It’s been over a week since they’ve talked, with Niall spending most (all) of his time at Zayn’s dodging questions about Shawn and giving vague non-answers when pressed. It raises Zayn’s suspicions after a while, but Niall is always quick to distract him with a game of Uno or the promise of food.

Niall ends up agreeing to meet Shawn at his hotel, downstairs in a secluded back area of the restaurant that’s probably meant for staff only. Shawn looks at Niall like he’s unrecognizable, and maybe that’s accurate. Shawn’s never met this version of Niall before, the one whose universe revolves around Zayn, and doesn’t have much time or space or care for people outside of that.

“So? Do you have anything to say for yourself?” Shawn’s arms are crossed, posture tense like he’s gearing up for a fight. “I saw the pictures of you at LAX, and to me it seems like the only reason you’d act so fucking shady about meeting a ‘friend’ is if you thought your little meetup was something you needed to hide.”

There are implications in Shawn’s voice, and at this point Niall know if the truth is any better than the suspicions. Niall knows what he came here expecting tonight, and he isn’t delusional enough to think this is going to end well.

“It was a spur of the moment thing, Shawn - I didn’t tell anyone I was going. He was in a bad way, I’m not gonna make excuses for feeling like I needed to be there for him.” That part is true, at least. He doesn’t have any intentions of leading Shawn to believe that he regrets flying to see Zayn and only Zayn. Niall can acknowledge that the way he did things was shitty, but that doesn’t change that it was the choice he wanted to make.

“So you mean to tell me that your spontaneous cross-country meet and greet with your ex-bandmate doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that you were obviously  screening my calls? Or that you were in the same city as me, and I didn’t even warrant so much as a hello?” Incredulity coats Shawn’s every word, but anger is starting to creep in too. “But your only response is ‘Zayn needed me’?” There’s mocking in Shawn’s tone when he says it, cold and cruel and hurt-sounding, and Niall tries not to take it personally.

“It’s what happened, and I’m sorry it went down that way - I didn’t meant for it to. It was all really short notice, and I didn’t mean to -” Niall cuts himself off before the ‘didn’t meant to hurt you’ can slip out. “This wasn’t how I wanted it to end.”

“End?” Shock turns Shawn’s face peculiarly blank, like his brain isn’t processing what Niall’s saying. “Are you breaking up with me?” The words are clunky in Shawn’s mouth, like they’re strange and don’t belong. Niall thinks that might actually be true.

Niall’s mouth works open and closed, but all he can do his shake his head and hunch his shoulders in a facsimile of a shrug. He doesn’t meant to act so detached - he likes to think he’s not a complete knobhead. But Niall doesn’t know what Shawn wants him to say right now. That in the moment, Niall hadn’t chosen Zayn over Shawn so easily and completely, without even a second thought? Even now when he’s staring down the end of their relationship, there’s a thought in the back of Niall’s mind reminding him to pick up his and Zayn’s dinner.

He can see that Shawn had expected him to fight for it. This isn’t like it went in the movies, or in the types of songs Shawn writes. Shawn is supposed to rake Niall over the coals while he begs for forgiveness, and then be taken back after an appropriate amount of restitution has been paid. Niall supposes that is how regular relationships work.

But Shawn’s expectations fall far short of the reality. Outside of Shawn’s imagination, in this real world they occupy, Niall’s phone is buzzing in his pocket with a notification that’s most likely telling him that his take out order is ready for pickup. Chicken tikka masala for Niall, butter chicken for Zayn, and a nonexistent spot for Shawn that he wasn’t even aware was closed to him.

In the face of Niall’s silence, Shawn scoffs and runs a hand through his hair. The scowl on his face is strange and unfamiliar, and Niall feels a slight sickness in his stomach knowing that he’s the one who put it there.

“Lose my number. Don’t call me.” Shawn’s voice is tight, and there’s a redness spreading down from his cheeks and below his unbuttoned collar. “And I know you weren’t going to, but for the sake of my dignity I’m gonna say it anyway - don’t fucking follow me.” Shawn’s eyes are dark shards of flint, cutting at Niall unblinkingly as he walks past. There’s plenty of space in the hallway for both of them, but Shawn makes sure their shoulders crash violently together as he leaves.

Niall doesn’t follow him.

VI.

Can't have everything
Want a lot, can't have everything
But I want everything

The clock reads “3:32AM:, and Niall wishes he weren’t at home in his bed. He’s full off of masala and too many slices of butter cake from a 24 hour bakery, and the silence of his bedroom taunts him. He hadn’t left Zayn’s too long ago, but the streets of LA had still been bustling while he drove home.

Leaving Zayn’s place made sense at the time - Niall had a studio session booked in the morning, and his place was closer. But the death-quiet of Niall’s house and the utter lack of ambient noise feels like a tangible weight in the air. Quiet With Zayn is very different from Quiet Without Zayn - one feels like belonging, and the other feels like loneliness. Now Niall just wishes he’d stayed, and braved the traffic in the morning.

He startles when his phone rings, even though he’s gotten into the rare habit of leaving the ringer on, or at least on vibrate. There’s no point in pretending it wasn’t based solely on the compulsion to answer whenever Zayn called.

Zayn’s contact picture smiles up from Niall’s phone - a new one now, of Zayn in paint-splattered clothes, outlining a mural on the garden wall of his home. It’s been months of regular contact between them, on top of the time since Zayn’s breakup when they’ve been inseparable, yet Niall still isn’t used to the way his heart constricts when Zayn calls.

“Hello?” Niall’s voice doesn’t shake during the greeting, thankfully. But it’s so quiet on the other end that Niall can hear Zayn breathing, and apprehension begins to bubble up.

“Can we talk?” Zayn’s voice is strained, like he’s physically holding words back, and Niall sits up. His heart is still thudding against his ribcage, trying to break free and nestle next to Zayn’s where it belongs.

“Yeah, what’s - uh, what’s going on?” Niall reaches over to his nightstand and turns his bedside lamp on, if only to give his hands something to do.

“You broke up with Shawn. It’s all over Twitter, and he’s already slagging you off to everyone.” Zayn’s voice isn’t quite accusatory, but there’s still a distinct sharpness in his tone.

It’s not like Niall doesn’t deserve it, but he’d never thought that the snarky attitude which had drawn him to Shawn in the first place would ever be directed at him.

“Uh, yeah, I didn’t really mention it earlier, but, yeah. I think it’s a safe bet that we’re over.” Niall scratches at the stubble on his face, and braces himself. There’s a reason he hadn’t mentioned his little rendezvous with Shawn during dinner with Zayn. He’d wanted to put off this exact moment for as long as possible.

“Why would you do that, Niall? And you were just here, why didn’t you tell me? Why would you -” Zayn cuts himself off with an irritated sigh. He sounds genuinely upset with Niall, angry in a way that Zayn doesn’t typically get with people he’s close to. Niall wonders what that means about their relationship, whether it’s a good or bad sign.

“It just - it wasn’t working out, I dunno.”

“Really? ‘It wasn’t working out?’ Did you even try, Niall? You told me you were really going to try this time, what happened?” Zayn sounds scandalized, and Niall’s not sure on whose behalf. He knew that news would spread quickly about the end of him and Shawn, but he has no intention on reading the reports on it. God knows how much of an arsehole he’s been made out to be.

“Well maybe I’m not fuckin’ ready for a relationship Zayn, and what does it matter anyway? Why are you so fuckin’ hung up on making sure I have someone in my bed at night?” Niall doesn’t mean to snap, but there’s an undercurrent of irritation that springs up in him every time Zayn brings up how much he wants Niall to move on and get past everything they were.

“Because I want you to be happy.” Zayn’s voice cracks, and the dam inside Niall’s chest that’s been holding him together cracks too.

“Well I can’t be. I’m never happy. Is that what you want to hear? I can’t try because my fuckin’ heart’s not in it, Zayn.” Niall buries his face in one hand, and feels a headache start to bloom behind his eyes.

“But why? Why can’t you just try to be happy?” The ‘without me’ goes unsaid, and lingers between them, toxic and nauseating.

“Because I can’t!” Niall shouts, his voice rattling off the walls of his house and making his ears ring. “Because I don’t want to! Because I did try, and it’s fuckin’ pointless and impossible. Because what I want I can’t have, and I’m sick to death of everyone tellin’ me what I already fuckin’ know.” Niall’s panting, unloading everything that’s been stuck inside of him for damn near three years. “I know that I’m a miserable, lonely fuck. I know. I know that I spend more time missing you than I do anything else. I know that I wrote an entire fucking album about missing you. But I don’t want to stop missing you. Because missing you is all I have left, and if I stop doing that then you’re gone for real.” Niall’s throat feels tight, and tears blur his vision but he refuses to let them fall.

“Why do you keep loving me if it hurts so bad?” Zayn says it quietly, whisper soft like he’s talking to a startled animal, and that’s basically what Niall is. “I don’t want you to love me if it hurts. That’s never what I wanted.”

“Loving you doesn’t hurt, Zayn.” Niall rubs at his face roughly. “Not being able to love you properly is what hurts.”

“I want you to love me proper.” Niall’s heart skips a beat, simultaneously jumping into his throat and sinking into his stomach. “I know I'm not supposed to want that, but I do. I want you. But I just wanted you to be okay, and I thought -”

“You thought I'd be better off without you,” Niall interrupts. Zayn goes quiet, and Niall finds that he doesn’t want to sugarcoat this anymore. He wants to tell Zayn exactly how wrong all of this has felt for the longest time. “Only problem is, I'm never gettin’ over you. There's no ‘better’ on the other side of this, because I'm pretty sure you're the love of my life. You're fuckin’ it for me, Zayn. And you keep telling my to try, but I don't got room in my heart for no one else. It's just you. It's only gonna ever be you. I know it in every single fuckin’ part of me, that I'm only gonna ever feel this way about you.”

“Niall -” But Niall cuts him off again, because he’s got to get this out. He’s got to say it, if it’s his last shot, his last chance, to ever make something of this love that’s sitting inside of him, waiting to be given and taken.

“And if you want me to love you - if you want me to love you proper, and give you all the space in my heart that I've been holding onto, I'll come over there right now. But I'm never fucking leaving afterwards, so.” Niall shrugs on the other end, even though Zayn can't see it. He's not breathing. Neither of them are. They're on the precipice of forever and forgotten, somewhere between eternity and an epilogue, and Niall waits for Zayn to tell him which way their story's going to end.

“I want you - I want you to come over.”

Niall goes (of fucking course he does).

VII.

You know, we don't have to be dramatic
Just romantic
Do all the little things… little things… little things…
That excite me

(Kiss me goodnight)

Lately, Niall has been less prone to staying up in the wee hours of the night staring at the clock  and knowing very acutely what was missing. That may have something to do with the solid weight of Zayn’s presence that occupies the previously empty spaces. A physical presence, as well as in some deep invisible space inside Niall that always longed for Zayn the most.

So Niall sleeps better with Zayn by his side or in his arms or draped across his chest. But just because Niall can sleep doesn’t always mean he chooses to. The clock reads “3:33AM” as Niall presses a kiss to the back of Zayn’s neck, warm and ticklish enough that Zayn stirs. He groans at being woken up, but still shifts back into Niall’s embrace.

“I thought we were sleeping,” Zayn murmurs, one arm reaching up to aim clumsily for Niall’s head. His fingers dig into the soft hairs at the base of Niall’s neck, and Zayn hums low in his throat when Niall’s hips begin a soft rhythm against him.

“No, I said we were resting. Rest over.” Niall’s hand runs over the lithe muscle of Zayn’s stomach, and Zayn links their fingers together to drag Niall’s hand down to wrap around Zayn’s hardening cock. He lets out a soft moan, still sensitive from earlier when Niall had sucked him to completion, then kept him hard and begging until Niall fucked another orgasm out of him.

“My brain’s gonna turn to mush,” Zayn moans, his hips moving in time with Niall’s. His breath hitches every time Niall’s hardness presses against him, and Niall hums with satisfaction. More kisses are littered across the back of Zayn’s neck, and Niall sucks softly at the dark lines of the fantail until Zayn’s keening.

Zayn turns his body, guiding Niall by the neck until they’re connecting in a kiss. It’s long and deep and unhurried, and their bodies shift together so naturally and so perfectly until Niall’s over top Zayn. The hot press of Zayn’s length against Niall’s hip has them both groaning, and Zayn hitches a thigh up around Niall’s waist to bring them just that much closer together.

“What do you want?” Niall asks against Zayn’s lips, so quiet against the blood rushing through his ears. “You want me to get you off just like this,” he continues, reaching down to fist both of their cocks in one hand, pulling them off in slow, long tugs. “Just like this, just my hand on you?”

Zayn nods, head tossed back against the pillow and biting at his lower lip, and Niall is entranced by his face. He could keep Zayn like this forever, whining and moaning underneath Niall, locked in a never-ending moment of ecstasy, eternally riding a wave of pleasure. But of course, Niall thinks as he fits his mouth over Zayn’s pulse and sucks at the warm skin there, he wouldn’t get to experience that pinnacle moment where Zayn tumbles over the cliff and falls into the euphoria that Niall brings his body to.

It doesn’t take long for either of them. The sensitivity and exhaustion blend together and have them spilling over each other in what seems like no time at all. Niall feels like the orgasm is being dragged out of him, yanked from every cell of his body, as he whispers against Zayn’s lips.

“I love you, fuck I love you, I love you -” Zayn’s nails grip into Niall’s shoulder, a sharp point of contact that’s in counterpoint with the way Zayn’s entire body is tensed in pleasure. They pant through it, rocking against each other and so slow with the comedown, and Zayn surges up that last final bit to press their lips together again.

“I love you too,” Zayn breathes out, and it feels like reverence against Niall’s lips. Soft and divine and held to the highest esteem. It feels like the taste of rain after a drought, or the touch of dry land after an eternity at sea. It feels like everything he’s ever hoped for, and everything he’s ever feared, and everything he could possibly want need.

“Kiss me again,” Niall says. Because he can. Because he’s allowed to ask for that from Zayn, anytime he wants. Zayn smiles fondly and humors him. It’s chaste compared to what they just did, compared to what they’ve been doing all night, but the sweetness of it could probably power Niall’s heart for a million years. “Okay, now say it.” And Zayn huffs out a laugh, but he says it again anyway, because Niall wants to hear it.

“Happy anniversary, Niall.” And Niall doesn’t bother stopping the grin that overtakes his face, burying his face into Zayn’s neck and moaning. “Don’t you start that, I might actually die if we go again.” Niall’s sits up, grin turning rakish and completely unabashed.

“I like to think that my God-tier sexual prowess is just a part of my unparalleled charm.” Niall sits up, dodging the swat from Zayn that he knew would be aimed at him. Zayn’s smile has already gone a bit sleepy, eyes drooping as he’s preparing to drift back off. Niall grabs the edge of a bedsheet and wipes off their stomachs, and then kicks it off the bed - he figures it’s been through enough tonight.

Niall settles back down behind Zayn’s who is already falling into a half-sleep. He maneuvers them onto their sides, legs tangled together and his arms wrapped around Zayn’s middle.

“I love you,” he whispers again, when he’s sure that Zayn’s in a deep enough sleep. He likes the way the words feel, the way his mouth shapes around the sounds, the way his lips tingle when he says it against Zayn’s neck. After going so long without, carrying around a void waiting to be filled back up with what had been lost, Niall is able to easily identify the feeling that’s welled up inside of him. It’s mixture of contentment and hope and happiness and love, so much love he’s fit to burst with it.

Niall finally feels at home.