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When we tried it, we were a fire with no smoke

When Zayn was 18 he fell in love with a beautiful boy with warm eyes and caramel curls. With all the confidence of youth, he was sure they would last forever. It would be them against the world, safe behind the bulwark of their love. Zayn used to be a romantic.

In reality, they barely made it to 20 before breaking up. At the time it was the most traumatic thing Zayn had ever been through and it took years to get over his feelings of anger and betrayal. At 33 he doesn’t think about it often, but sometimes he gets wistful and feels the ache like an old injury flaring up.

Unfortunately, Liam’s new single is everywhere right now. It’s a sentimental ballad about lost love and Zayn isn’t quite vain enough to assume it’s about him. All the same, Liam’s voice is even more exquisite now than it was then and Zayn can’t hear it without it dredging up old memories better left forgotten.

Zayn isn’t where he thought he would be when he was a kid, but he’s content with his life. He’s making a living with his art and the occasional freelance article. He owns his loft and gets to spend his days how he chooses, which is a freedom not many of his fellow artists have.

He also has a Louis, which is something he could have used as a teenager.

“Oi! Where did your kettle go?” Louis yells from the kitchenette. Zayn is literally ten feet away.

“The handle broke off. I haven’t replaced it yet,” Zayn tells him.

Louis gives him a look of abject horror. “How have you been making tea?”

“I’ve gone without for a few days. Not all of us are addicts, Lou.”

“I need my tea, Malik.” Louis stares at him like Zayn can just make a cuppa appear out of thin air.

“You know,” Zayn says snarkily. “If you had gone home to your husband last night instead of getting too pissed to see and snoring on my couch, you would have tea right now.”

“I don’t understand a word that is coming out of your mouth,” Louis sniffs derisively. “But I am a paragon of friendship and I will go get us tea.”

He sails out of the flat in high dudgeon, as he is wont to do. Louis lives out loud. He enjoys the drama of it all and Zayn is entertained by it most of the time. It plays well with his own laid back nature. Also, Louis sasses back instead of looking wounded when Zayn gets in a mood and lashes out.

It only takes ten minutes before Louis is back in the flat. The shop is literally downstairs. Which is another reason Zayn hasn’t gone shopping for a tea kettle. Louis hands Zayn a cardboard cup, humming Liam’s latest song. Zayn winces.

“What’s with you?” Louis asks.

“Nothing. That song. Reminds me of an ex,” Zayn tries for breezy and unaffected but ends up somewhere around constipated.

Louis arches an eyebrow. “Your ex? The first love? The one you’re still hung up on?”

“I am not hung up on him,” Zayn protests. “I just haven’t met anyone that worked out. All relationships fail until one doesn’t.”

“Uh huh,” Louis says skeptically. “Name one actual relationship you’ve had.”

“Scott,” Zayn says confidently.

“Slept over one time and stayed for three weeks. You didn’t even notice he’d moved himself in.”

“I was in the middle of prepping for a show,” Zayn mutters. “Okay. Um. Gwen.”

“Lasted two months. You slept with her once and decided you missed cock.” Louis puts a hand on his hip and gives Zayn a look that says he knows he’s grasping at straws.

Zayn winces. Louis has had a front row seat for all of his dating disasters. This is definitely a battle he’s going to lose. “What about Alex? We were together for 6 months.”

“Only because you didn’t realize he thought you were dating instead of hooking up on the regular. Once he started demanding actual dates you bailed.” Louis sighs and flops down in Zayn’s recliner, taking up far more space than his compact frame would suggest possible. “Look, you have commitment issues. Whoever this guy is he did your head in. And if he was so special, why don’t you look him up? Maybe you’ll realize he’s not really all that great so you can move on.”

Zayn suppresses a harsh laugh. Louis doesn’t actually know that his ex is Liam Payne. He doesn’t know about the record contract that hinged on Liam appearing straight. He doesn’t know that at 19 they thought they could handle the closeting, until Liam was an ocean away and getting close with his beard. He doesn’t know how Zayn took one look at the photos and burned it all down.

“I know where he is. He’s in L.A. right now,” Zayn says tersely. At least that's where the last press articles put him. “We don’t have anything in common these days.”

That’s an understatement. Liam is a world renowned pop star with a closet so deep Zayn isn’t even sure it’s fake anymore. They haven’t spoken in over a decade and Liam is bi so maybe he actually is dating the latest starlet. Who knows.

“Okay. If you’re over it, make an effort, man.” Louis is looking sorry for him. It’s awful.

“I just haven’t met anyone I’ve felt a connection with,” Zayn explains. “It’s all surface.”

“You have to be looking for more than a hookup if you want a deeper connection,” Louis points out.

He’s right and it’s annoying. “I don’t know why I’m taking dating advice from you. You and Harry have been married since you met. The actual ceremony was just a formality. It’s disgusting.”

Louis shrugs. “I got lucky. You didn’t so you’ll have to put in the work.”

“We’ll see,” Zayn says noncommittally. “Go home to your husband and quit bothering me.”

“Harry is at the gallery until five so you’re stuck with me. I’m going to watch footie on your flatscreen,” Louis announces imperiously. “You can join if you want.”

Zayn sighs and heads to the kitchen to grab a couple beers and some crisps. At least this hellish conversation is over. For now.

---

Louis, to Zayn’s complete lack of surprise, does not let the issue go. Instead he sets Zayn up on a date. It’s a good thing Zayn loves him or he’d kill him.

The date isn’t bad per se. Zayn can’t remember his name and he’s as interesting as dry toast, but it’s not bad. The problem is that Zayn has experienced love at first sight and it’s difficult to remember that most people fall in love slowly. He’s bad at it. So even if the completely forgettable man across the table from him were a prospect, Zayn wouldn’t know how to proceed.

After an hour and a half of pretending to be riveted, the date finally, mercifully ends with a handshake. Zayn pretends he will be in touch and heads home to wallow in his solitude. Except Louis is there on his couch with a bottle of vodka and an expectant expression. Zayn groans.

“Is the fact that you didn’t bring him home good or bad?” Louis asks, handing the bottle over.

Zayn takes a swig. “I’m not seeing him again, Lou. He talked about tax law for half an hour. I will never get that time back.”

“Okay, clearly I went in the wrong direction,” Louis says, mostly to himself. “I thought since all your past disasters were artsy types that maybe a businessy type would be better. Obviously not.”

“Obviously,” Zayn says dryly.

“I can do better next time,” Louis states decisively.

“There won’t be a next time,” Zayn replies.

There is a next time.

And a time after that.

It’s the fourth date that Louis kind of gets it right. Niall is sweet and funny and interesting and politically aware and Zayn kind of adores him. Unfortunately, he kind of adores him in a strictly platonic way.

They tried, once, after a couple weeks of enjoying each other’s company. The making out wasn’t bad and Niall was a great kisser, but after kissing for long enough that his lips were starting to burn Zayn wasn’t even half-hard.

Niall had pulled away with a laugh and said, “This isn’t really working for us, is it?”

Then he’d pulled Zayn up and dragged him out for food to bitch about Louis with him.

So now Zayn has another friend but still no romantic prospects which means Louis isn’t going to stop any time soon. He’s had to endure countless meals at pretentious restaurants and one of Harry’s dinner parties. He usually swerves on those unless it’s work related. Although he did go home with a model after, so it wasn’t all bad.

Blaze (not his real name Zayn is 100% sure) was gorgeous and flexible and lacked a gag reflex. He was also self-obsessed and shallow and Zayn didn’t even let him spend the night. Louis and Harry were not impressed.

“You’re back sliding,” Louis chides the morning after.

“Celibacy doesn’t work for me,” Zayn shoots back. “Why are you here?”

“I’m here to collect you and get you to the gallery. Harry says you have a big client.”

Zayn waves his hand around dismissively and pulls the covers over his head. “Harry can deal with it. That’s what his commission is for.”

Louis rips the covers off and throws them across the room. “Not this one. He won’t deal with anyone but you. Big deal or summat. Harry is all hush hush about it.” Louis pouts like he’s not the one fully clothed and caffeinated.

Zayn groans with feeling. “Fine. I’m not wearing a suit.”

“It’s your funeral.” Louis shrugs.

Zayn stomps his way into the shower. The last thing he wants to do this morning is talk to some self-important pillock who thinks he can command other people’s time just because he’s got money. He throws on a black on black ensemble and doesn’t bother to style his hair. It’ll dry all poofy but whatever.

“Let’s go,” he snarls in Louis’ direction, storming out the door.

There’s a big black Mercedes waiting for them and Zayn assumes it’s courtesy of the mystery client. Harry would have sent an Uber. If that. The leather seat cradles his body and there’s coffee with his name on it and Zayn starts to calm a little. He can play nice and make a sale and then he’ll come back home. It’ll be fine.

Harry’s gallery used to be a warehouse before gentrification. Now it’s prime real estate filled with tastefully expensive decor and people with more money than sense. Those people pay Zayn’s bills though, so he should probably be grateful they like his art.

“Zayn!” Harry greets as soon as they walk in the door. He seems frazzled, which is not a look Zayn sees on him very often.

“Where am I going?” Zayn asks flatly.

“The lounge. I didn’t know where else to put him. Be nice!”

Zayn waves off the suggestion. He’ll be polite and professional. Nice isn’t part of the package. The lounge is technically for employees, but it’s just as fancy as the rest of the space. Harry doesn’t do things halfway. Zayn takes a deep breath, puts on his dealing with the public face and opens the door.

“Hello, Zayn,” Liam fucking Payne says from his perch on the edge of an overstuffed chair. “How are you?”

It takes all of Zayn’s will power not to bolt back out the door. He can do this. He’s going to hyperventilate after, but he can do this.

“Liam,” Zayn replies in an even tone, proud of himself for managing. “I’m well. And you?”

“I’m good,” Liam says softly. His gaze is tender and Zayn cannot deal.

“Good. Harry said you wanted to talk about art?” Zayn is determined to keep his professional demeanor, even though he feels shredded inside.

“Yeah. I was hoping I could commission art for my next album cover. You know I’ve always loved your work.”

Liam’s eyes are limpid. He’s pulling the puppy dog eyes. Fuck. Zayn never had an ounce of defense against that look. He steels his nerves.

“I’m quite busy and I’ve never done that type of work before. I don’t know that we can do business,” Zayn says in clipped tones.

“Please, Zayn. It would mean a lot to me.” Liam is the picture of sincerity.

Zayn caves. “Fine. Yes. Tell Harry when and where and we’ll talk details.”

With that Zayn turns and exits the room as quickly as he can without running.

---

“Your ex, your love of your life ruined you for all others ex, is LIAM PAYNE?!” Louis is screeching. The veins in his neck are standing out and he’s all red.

At any other time it would be funny, but Zayn is still shocky from his encounter. “That’s what I said.”

“Now. That’s what you said now. How many times have we talked about him? And you never once thought to mention that he was LIAM PAYNE?”

“Please stop yelling his name like that.” Zayn winces. “Telling you would have outed him. That wasn’t mine to tell.”

Louis rolls his eyes exaggeratedly. “I would not have been surprised to learn that Liam Payne likes dick. Have you seen him?”

“Tried not to,” Zayn says dryly. “And do you have to use his full name like that? It’s weird.”

“He’s a celebrity. That’s how you say celebrity names. Oh my god you’ve fucked a celebrity.” Louis’ eyes get wide.

“He wasn’t a celebrity at the time.” Zayn is very, very tired suddenly. “We were both kids. We were young and naive and we thought loving each other was enough. We were wrong.”

“And now he wants to put your art on an album that millions of people are going to buy.”

Zayn closes his eyes. “Yeah.”

“Are you going to be able to do it?” Louis asks gently.

He must look really terrible. Louis is rarely gentle with anyone but Harry. “I don’t know,” Zayn sighs.

“If you don’t, Harry will make both of us very miserable for a very long time,” Louis warns. “But if you can’t, then don’t.”

Zayn understands exactly how much what Louis just said means. Under all the entertaining bullshit, Louis is a really excellent friend. Zayn isn’t going to say so because it’s too maudlin, but he appreciates it deeply.

“I have to meet with him regardless,” Zayn says. He’s dreading it.

“No you don’t. Cancel if you need to.”

“If I cancel, he’ll know that I still feel things. For him. I need to pretend I’m over it, okay? Because I fucking should be.” Zayn is furious with himself and Liam both.

“You were getting there,” Louis soothes. “It’s not your fault he came back in and opened it all up again.”

“I’m shit at acting,” Zayn says miserably. “He’s gonna know.”

“No, he won’t,” Louis assures. “He hasn’t seen you in ages. There’s no way he’ll be able to read you. Just do that inscrutable thing you do when you get hit on.”

Zayn laughs, surprised that he’s capable of it. “Right. I can do that.”

“Excellent. Now go put on your jeans with the sexy rips all over and a tight t-shirt. We’re grabbing Niall and going dancing.” Force of nature Louis is back.

“I don’t know, Lou, I don’t really feel like going out,” Zayn protests.

“And that is exactly why you should,” Louis argues. “Don’t make me dress you. I’ll do it.”

There’s no point in arguing when Louis is like this. He’s not going to let Zayn wallow in self-pity the way he wants to. Who knows, maybe getting drunk and dancing with randoms will be good for him and not a reason to loathe himself in the morning. If Liam can wander back into his life after more than a decade out of it, anything’s possible.

Louis does not get a chance to dress Zayn, but he does stretch out the neck of his shirt so it drapes low under his collarbones and showcases his tattoos. Once he proclaims Zayn slutty enough, they head out.

Niall, who does not know what is going on at all, ends up being an utter blessing. He’s a slice of sunshine wandering around and it’s almost impossible to be miserable in his presence. Plus, he’s a terrible dancer and ends up with Zayn in the middle of the dance floor giggling like idiots and holding each other up.

It goes well until one of Liam’s dance tracks comes on and Zayn freezes, anxiety crowding out the breath in his lungs. Niall ushers him out of the club into the cool night air and rubs his back while he works through it.

“I hate that song too,” Niall says solemnly, eyes twinkling.

Zayn hiccups a giggle. “Yeah?”

“Absolutely,” Niall replies. “You ready to head home? I texted Louis.”

“More than ready,” Zayn says.

The events of the day catch up to Zayn in the cab and he dozes on Louis’ shoulder until they reach his flat. Louis and Niall help him upstairs and force some water into him before they let him crawl into bed.

Exhaustion drags Zayn under and he doesn’t dream of warm brown eyes at all.

---

Zayn ends up having three full days to freak out about his meeting with Liam. He throws himself into creating art, the most effective way he knows of getting out of his own head. It’s been months since he’s been this productive.

The day of, Zayn has a crisis about his outfit even though Louis helped him pick it out and made him swear not to change it. It’s not quite a pulling outfit, but it’s definitely tighter than he would normally wear for a client meeting. He does not want to ‘make him jealous’ as Louis suggested. All Zayn wants is to make it through unscathed and then never see Liam in person ever again.

Zayn ends up unable to make a decision and has to wear the outfit Louis picked out anyway. Liam sent another Mercedes to pick him up. He stares out the window, watching the world pass without seeing any of it and chews on the skin around his thumbnail. It’s a terrible habit that he’d trained himself out of years ago, but it’s a day for old bad habits it seems.

The car pulls up in front of a fucking mansion. An honest to god mansion. Zayn blinks slowly. It’s not like he didn’t know that Liam was insanely wealthy, but it hadn’t quite clicked in his head that he would live in a mansion. Some part of him really does still see Liam as the kid who broke his heart.

Liam is waiting at the door in a white t-shirt and worn jeans that are barely hanging onto his hips. His feet are bare and his hair is soft and unstyled. He looks approachable and cuddly. Zayn practically slaps himself. He needs to get a grip.

“I’m so glad you could come,” Liam greets with a sweet smile.

Zayn doesn’t really know how to respond to that. “Yeah. Here I am.”

“Come in. Do you want something to drink?”

“Water would be nice, thanks.”

“Of course. Have a seat, I’ll be right back,” Liam tells him.

Liam’s all but had the Brummy trained out of his voice and Zayn hates himself for noticing. He hates himself even more for feeling sad about it. Zayn takes a seat on the giant ostentatious leather couch and tries his damnedest not to fidget. He is a professional and an adult and he can handle his shit.

“I’m not sure how to do this,” Liam confesses. He hands over a bottle of water and sits down far too close to Zayn. “I’ve never worked with an artist for an album cover. It’s always just been picking out photos but this one is different. It needed to be you.”

Zayn fiddles with the label of the bottle. “Why me?”

Liam bites his lip. “It would be easier to show you?”

He reaches across Zayn to grab a large envelope from the coffee table. Liam’s shoulder brushes his chest and Zayn bites back a whimper. He’s warm and solid and he still smells the same. It’s messing with his head.

Liam hands the envelope over to Zayn. “That’s my album. There’s a copy in there and lyrics.”

Zayn’s hands shake as he opens it and pulls out sheets of paper. The one on top is the current single and he’s well aware of the lyrics. He reads over the others, breath getting more shallow with every song. There’s no denying it, these are all very much about him. Every single word. Zayn looks up at Liam, stunned.

“It’s not how it looks,” Liam says quickly, cheeks flushing. “I know it was a long time ago, but I needed to get it out. I’ve been writing about it for years and I just. Needed to exorcise it.”

“Why?” Zayn asks in a cracked voice.

“Because I still don’t understand what happened,” Liam says with frustration.

“What do you mean you don’t know what happened?” Zayn demands. “You were there for it.”

“I was homesick and missing you like a limb and you called up crying and told me to go fuck myself and then blocked my number.” Liam looks hurt.

“They sent me photos, Liam,” Zayn hisses, suddenly just as furious as he was 13 years ago. “She was half dressed and you were all over her.”

Liam clenches his jaw. “They shouldn’t have done that. They were manipulative bastards and I was too naive to realize it. But we talked about me needing to sell the beard.”

Tears prick Zayn’s eyes and he’s vibrating with pain and anger. “You were touching her like you touched me. You were looking at her like you looked at me. Like you were in love with her.”

“Because I was pretending she was you!” Liam cries. “How the fuck else was I going to make it believable?”

Zayn stands up, dumping the lyrics to the floor. “I can’t. I need to. I have to go.”

This time he doesn’t worry about appearances and leaves the house in a dead run. He all but throws himself in the back seat of the car and demands to be taken home. To his credit, the driver makes no comment on the tears streaming down Zayn’s face. He just nods and pulls out of the driveway.

Zayn sends an ‘I need you’ text to Louis and he’s waiting with Harry in Zayn’s flat when Zayn arrives. They’re both standing around nervously when Zayn opens the door and are at his side a second later.

“What happened?” Louis asks in a dangerous tone. “What did he do?”

“I shouldn’t have made you go,” Harry says apologetically.

“You didn’t make me do anything,” Zayn assures him, voice thick. “I needed to do it. And Liam didn’t do anything, really. I did. And I don’t want to talk about it yet.”

“That’s okay,” Harry soothes, in full on mother hen mode. “Let’s get you in bed.”

It’s far too early for bed, but Zayn doesn’t protest. He’s weary down to his bones. In tandem, Harry and Louis take off his jeans and shoes and settle him in the center of the mattress. They crawl in after him, one on either side, and wrap their arms around him. Zayn doesn’t think he deserves them, but he’s grateful anyway.

Louis pets his hair and says nothing when Zayn soaks his shirt with tears.

It’s twilight when Zayn wakes up. He’s alone on the bed and can hear Harry and Louis cheerfully arguing in the other room. It’s comforting, like being home. He slips out of bed and pads out to the living room, eyes sandy and hot from crying.

“You’re up!” Harry announces with a smile. “I brought biscuits and Lou made tea.”

Zayn wraps the throw from the back of the couch around himself and curls into the corner of the cushions. “I’d like some, thanks.”

“Are you ready to talk about it?” Louis asks softly, handing over a mug and a biscuit.

“I don’t know that there’s much to talk about. Found out some information I didn’t know. Realized I fucked up the best thing in my life by being jealous and insecure.” Zayn takes a bite to shut himself up. His bitterness is overwhelming.

Louis and Harry communicate solely in loaded looks and eyebrow waggles. It usually drives Zayn nuts. Right now it’s just making him realize what he could have had.

“What do you mean?” Louis asks cautiously.

Zayn has told him about the photos and the whole saga so he assumes Harry knows as well. “His management wanted me gone from the start. I was a liability. I should have asked why they would have sent me the photos in the first place, but I was so angry.”

“There were still photos. That happened,” Harry points out.

Zayn shakes his head. “They were staged. And he should have talked to me before taking them, but I should have asked questions. Let him explain.”

“Okay,” Louis says slowly. “Mistakes were made. What now?”

“I don’t know,” Zayn replies miserably.

---

Two days later the large envelope shows up in the post. It’s addressed to Zayn in Liam’s careful scrawl. Zayn’s heart skips a beat in his chest. He stares at it for a long time before opening it. The CD slides out first with a post it note on the case that simply says, ‘I’m sorry.’

Zayn takes it to his bedroom and puts it into the stereo. Liam’s voice surrounds him, crisp and clear and aching. Zayn crawls into bed and cries some more for everything he’s lost.

Once the crying is done, Zayn gets to work. Liam’s album is an elaborate love letter and it deserves a response at the very least. He lets the music wash over him and pours everything he’s feeling onto the canvas.

Harry agrees to set up the meeting for him. After asking Zayn if he's sure a hundred times, Harry offers the employee lounge. Zayn thinks it’s neutral ground and he’ll feel better not doing this in Liam’s home. He sits on the overstuffed chair, exactly where Liam sat last time and waits, leg bouncing nervously.

He doesn’t have to wait long and it’s gratifying that Liam looks as nervous as he feels.

“Hi,” Liam greets in a small voice.

Zayn stands and crosses the room to meet him. “Hi. I need to give you this and then I need to say some things.”

Liam takes the proffered painting and gently unwraps it. He stares down at it for a long moment and then looks up at Zayn, eyes bright with unshed tears. “Oh my god. This is perfect, Z.”

“Good.” Zayn licks his lips and takes a deep breath. “I was unfair to you and I fucked things up. I didn’t know and I’m sorry I didn’t give you a chance to explain.”

“Why didn’t you?” Liam asks.

It’s a fair question, but it’s a tough one to answer honestly. Liam deserves the truth. “Because I was insecure. You were on your way to being everything I knew you were going to be and I was a first year undergrad who still went home to Bradford on break.”

Liam gives him a pained look. “You were my entire world. None of it meant anything without you. I had to figure out how to make it matter after.”

“I knew you were too good for me so when it looked like you’d moved on to someone more famous, more socially acceptable, I believed it.” Zayn feels like there’s glass in his throat.

“Jesus Christ, Zayn,” Liam swears. “If I’d known you felt that way I would have come home.”

“And be responsible for ruining your dream? I would have hated myself.”

Liam gestures helplessly. “I don’t know how to do this.”

“Do what?” Zayn asks hoarsely.

“Tell you that I’m still in love with you.”

It hangs heavy in the air between them and breaks Zayn’s heart. “You don’t know me anymore,” he whispers.

Liam steps closer and cups Zayn’s face in his palms. “Then let me get to know you again. Let me see if we can be what we were supposed to be.”

Zayn closes his eyes to gather the strength to tell him no. “I can’t go through the bearding situation again. I can’t.”

Instead of stepping away like Zayn expects, Liam grins. “I take it you didn’t listen to the pronouns on my album. No ‘she’, no ambiguous ‘you’ all over the place. I very clearly said ‘he’ over and over.”

“What?” Zayn stares at him.

“I want out,” Liam says plainly.

“Out?” Zayn is being deliberately obtuse but he needs Liam to be very, very clear.

“Of my closet. I’m done with it. The last contract ended a month ago and I refused to sign another one.”

Zayn opens his mouth to protest that he can’t be responsible for that but Liam shakes his head firmly.

“It’s not for you. It’s for me. Even if you say no, this is happening. It’s already set in motion.”

“Are you sure?” is all Zayn can think to say.

Liam rolls his eyes. “I’ve been thinking about it for years. I’m sure. What I need to know is if you’re willing to handle all the bullshit press if we do this. You’ll be a public figure. I won’t be able to keep you a secret forever. And I don’t want to.”

“I haven’t said I’d date you yet, Leeyum,” Zayn drawls.

“But you’re thinking about it,” Liam says assuredly. “I can tell.”

Zayn arches a brow. “Didn’t I tell you that you don’t know me now?”

Liam grins and presses a soft kiss to Zayn’s mouth that makes him lightheaded. “You did. But I don’t think that’s true. All your tells are still the same.”

“Okay,” Zayn says shakily. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

“Really?” Liam’s face lights up like a kid on Christmas morning. “You’re sure? Because the paps really suck. I mean, most of the time they’re paid and it’s scheduled and that's bad enough, but when they’re not and they follow you? It’s terrible. And the articles are probably going to be really mean.”

Zayn laughs. “Are you trying to scare me off already? They’ll probably say I’m the filthy homosexual who turned their golden boy. It’s fine. It’s not like it’s untrue.”

“You didn’t turn me. You just gave me reason to start telling myself the truth about what I wanted and who I was.” Liam is staring at him fondly and it’s been so long since he’s seen that look directed his way, Zayn can’t handle the emotions threatening to burst out of him.

“This is why you write songs and I throw paint around,” Zayn teases instead of attempting to say all the sappy things that want to spill from his mouth.

Liam drags him in for a long, needy kiss that will never be long enough to make up for all the lost time. “You write poetry too, Z. I found your notebook. They were really good. I was going to ask if I could use some of it.”

“You were blinded by love,” Zayn scoffs. “I was an emo teenage poet.”

“Maybe,” Liam says. He tenderly traces Zayn’s cheekbones with his thumbs. “Let me make you dinner at my place. I want to show you where I live.”

Zayn frowns, confused. “Haven’t I already been to yours?”

Liam laughs. “The mansion? I don’t live there. I let people think I live there. You thought I lived in a mansion?”

“You made me meet you at your stunt house?” Zayn means to smack Liam playfully but his hand lands on Liam’s left pec and wow. He’s filled out a lot. His boyfriend has lots of muscles. And he gets to call Liam his boyfriend and it’s making his brain explode like fireworks.

“If it went badly I didn’t want that memory where I live,” Liam explains gently.

“Oh. Yeah, I get that. So. Dinner at your real house?” Zayn can tell he’s starting to lose coherence. That happens when he’s overwhelmed.

Liam kisses him again, gently, and steps back. “Tomorrow night? That’ll give you time to decompress.”

Maybe Liam actually does still know him.

“Okay.” Zayn nods. “You’ll send a driver?”

“I’ll come pick you up myself,” Liam promises. “I’m not trying to keep my distance anymore.”

---

“So?” Louis asks eagerly before Zayn’s all the way through the door.

“Oh my god why are you always here?”

Louis pouts. “I’m a bored housewife. You’re my primary source of entertainment.”

“You’re a terrible housewife,” Zayn points out. “You don’t cook and you’re pants at housekeeping.”

“That would hurt if it weren’t true. But I’m excellent at ordering in and even better in bed,” Louis claims. “Also I’m pretty.”

Zayn rolls his eyes. “So you’re here because Harry’s at work.”

“He’s always at work,” Louis grumbles. “‘Oh we’ll own our own business, Lou. We’ll be able to set our own hours! And spend all our time together!’ Except I never see him and I have to go down to the gallery just to get a blowie.”

Zayn knows way too much about Louis and Harry’s sex life. “Please tell me you don’t use the lounge.”

“Of course not,” Louis scoffs. “That’s what Harry’s office is for.”

Zayn rubs his eyes in an attempt to scrub that image from his brain. “Of course. And Harry’s interviewing for the open position today so hopefully that will free up some of his time.”

“It better,” Louis mutters. “I’m the only open position he should have.”

Zayn groans loudly. “Please, I’m begging you, stop.”

Louis grins unrepentantly. “So. What happened with Liam Payne?”

“You’re really going to have to stop calling my boyfriend by his full name.” Zayn smirks.

“I’m sorry, your what? Aren’t you moving rather fast, young Malik?”

“Or really, really slowly,” Zayn offers. “It depends on how you look at it.”

Louis breaks camp and sits down next to Zayn. “Seriously, though, this seems fast. Have you thought this through?”

“We’re getting to know each other again,” Zayn says. “But he’s planning on coming out soon and it’s probably going to get ugly.”

“Again, have you thought this through?”

“It’s Liam,” Zayn explains, hoping Louis gets it. “I don’t think there’s anything to think through. I mean, we probably need to work on our communication skills, but it’s Liam. I’m all in.”

Louis nods slowly. “If he hurts you again, I’m going to murder him.”

“I hurt him just as badly,” Zayn protests. “Maybe more.”

“And I’m your friend, not his, so. I don’t really understand your point.”

Zayn laughs. “Okay, fair. But, honestly, I’m still in love with him and I don’t think I’m ever going to not be. I might as well be happy, right?”

“You deserve to be happy,” Louis agrees with a solemn nod. “And if getting back together with your one true love instead of going on lots of blind dates with tossers is your path then I’ll just have to accept that.”

Zayn shoves him. “At least half of those were deliberately bad! Admit it!”

Louis laughs. “More like 25%?”

“Arsehole,” Zayn says with feeling. “I am never getting those hours of my life back.”

“You weren’t using them productively anyway,” Louis points out with a shrug.

“I might have! We’ll never know now, will we?”

Louis grins. “Wanna go for a pint to celebrate?”

“Text Niall. I can’t trust myself not to strangle you if it’s just us,” Zayn agrees.

Zayn feels lighter than he has in years, the weight he’s been carrying lifted. He’s a little in love with the world right now and it must show. Niall gives him a long, speculative look when they reach the pub.

“Did you meet someone?” he asks.

Zayn hedges his answer. “I...sort of reconnected with someone.”

“Oh! That bloke from high school you’ve been hung up on?” Niall guesses.

Zayn gives Louis a dirty look. “Do you tell everyone that story?”

“Just the ones you aren’t going to hook up with.” Louis shrugs. “It’s very tragic. But! Now with a new and improved happier ending!”

“I hate you,” Zayn informs him solemnly.

“Let’s get a drink in you,” Louis suggests. He gestures at Greg behind the bar and beers appear promptly.

Moments later chips also appear and Zayn successfully moves the topic from his love life to sport. It’s a topic he himself does not care overly much about, but one that Louis and Niall will argue about for hours. They try to drag him in every once in a while but he waves them off and tries to figure out what he’s going to wear tomorrow night.

---

Liam rolls up to the curb in front of Zayn’s flat in a goddamn Lamborghini. Zayn almost has a heart attack.

“What are you doing?” Zayn hisses, sliding into the passenger seat.

“Picking you up?” Liam answers, confused.

“In a Lamborghini. You might as well put up a banner saying you’re a massive popstar.”

“Maybe I wanted to impress my boyfriend?” Liam offers.

Zayn huffs. “Maybe your boyfriend isn’t impressed by material goods.” He looks around as they take off. “Although it kind of looks like the Batmobile which is pretty sick.”

Liam’s lips quirk suspiciously and he keeps his eyes firmly fixed to the road.

“That’s why you bought it, isn’t it?” Zayn guesses.

“Guilty,” Liam replies. “Wanna drive?”

“Never learned,” Zayn admits.

“Wanna learn?”

“Not in a car that costs more than my life,” Zayn scoffs.

Liam reaches over to rest a hand on Zayn’s knee. “That’s dumb. You’re priceless.”

“Were you this cheesy in high school? I don’t remember,” Zayn teases.

“You were worse,” Liam replies. “I remember you being much easier to please than this, though.”

“I’m still pretty easy to please,” Zayn says with a smirk. “You’re just doing it wrong.”

“Guess I’ll have to try harder,” Liam purrs, sliding his hand up slightly and squeezing Zayn’s thigh.

Zayn shivers. He wants to sass him back but every muscle in his body just went liquid. From a thigh squeeze. He’s fucked. Also they have stopped in front of a house that, while large, is indeed not a mansion. It’s mostly hidden behind a row of trees.

Liam insists on getting his door for him which is sweet, like their first date all over again. He seems nervous as he ushers Zayn into the house. Zayn doesn’t know why. The interior is pure, unfiltered Liam and Zayn loves it. They talked a lot about what kind of house they would live in and this is exactly what Zayn always imagined.

It’s cozy without being cramped and, to be honest, there’s nerd shit everywhere. Liam is still Liam and that’s comforting in way he hadn’t realized he needed. Speaking of, Liam is still waiting for his response.

“I love it, Li,” Zayn says softly, squeezing his hand. “It’s perfect.”

Liam lets out the breath he’s been holding. “Thank god. Have a seat at the table and I’ll grab the lasagna.”

Zayn settles himself at the dark wooden table that’s perfect for two and nothing like the enormous glass monstrosity at the mansion. Liam carries in a tray of lasagna followed by a salad and a bottle of wine. Zayn is impressed. He’s even more impressed when he takes a bite.

“When did you learn to cook? This is delicious.”

Liam ducks his head shyly and smiles. “After the last tour I hid out and watched a lot of cooking shows. And then I paid a chef to teach me.”

Zayn laughs. Liam’s life is so strange. “Of course you did. Well, they did an excellent job.”

Liam looks pensive. “Is this going to be a thing? The money issue? It’s just. You seem uncomfortable with it.”

Zayn takes a sip of really excellent wine and considers. “I’m not well off, but I’m comfortable and I have friends that I would consider rich, but this. Li, this is another level. You have things and do things that are not regular people things. It’s going to take some getting used to.”

“We didn’t really have any idea did we?” Liam asks wistfully.

“None,” Zayn agrees. “I always knew you would smash it, but Li, this is bigger than either of us had imagination for. The entire world knows how amazing and talented you are. And I’m still a little mad that I made myself watch it from a distance.”

“I’m sorry.”

“We’ve made our apologies, babe. No need to revisit them over again. I’m fine. I just need you to understand that there will be an adjustment period.” Zayn watches Liam process this.

Liam nods. “Okay. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I can try to tone down the flash?”

“God, no,” Zayn negates. “If this is going to work, neither of us can be anything but who we are. This is part of who you are now. Even if it all went away tomorrow, you’d still be someone who’s travelled the world multiple times over. And I’d still be someone who’s never been out of Europe.”

“So that’s an invitation to take you on holiday, yeah?” Liam teases.

Zayn lets out a sigh of relief. Communication. They can do this. Like adults and not rash teenagers.

“I’m partial to tropical locale,” Zayn replies, only half joking.

“You’d look so good on a beach,” Liam sighs. “Let me take you someday?”

“Any time you would like,” Zayn promises, reaching out to brush Liam’s fingers with his own.

“No arguing about spending money on you?” Liam asks skeptically.

“I’m not opposed to you spending money on me. You did that when you didn’t have any and if I remember correctly, arguing with you about it got me nowhere,” Zayn replies dryly.

Liam shrugs. “It’s part of how I show you I love you.”

Seriously, Liam needs to tone down the adorable because he is completely destroying the cynical shell that Zayn has wrapped himself in. Zayn takes his last bite of lasagna and the last swallow of wine and gets up to stand in front of Liam. He reaches out to cup Liam's jaw, stubble catching on his fingertips. Liam stares up at him with wide, trusting eyes.

“You’ve said that a couple times. I know you’re not going to ask so I’m going to tell you.” Zayn takes a breath. “I’m in love with you too. Still. Always.”

Liam swallows hard and pulls him down into a tight hug, burying his face in Zayn’s neck. “Let me show you something.”

Zayn pulls back and nods. “Okay.”

Liam leads him upstairs. Zayn thinks for a moment he’s taking him to the bedroom, but he bypasses it to enter a large, empty room. There’s nothing in it, just high ceilings and large windows and, strangely, no carpet. It takes Zayn a moment to figure out what he's looking at until he realizes what the space would look like in daytime with the sun brightening every corner.

“Is this…” Zayn trails off, emotion closing his throat.

“Your art studio,” Liam confirms.

“I’m not moving in with you,” Zayn blurts out. “It’s too soon.”

Liam wraps strong arms around his waist. “I’m not asking you to. I’m letting you know that I’ve kept a space for you. Even if you never use it, there’s space for you here.”

Zayn hears all the truth behind the words and it shakes him to his core. Liam has kept a space open in his life, regardless of whether or not Zayn would ever fill it again. The enormity of that statement is hard to grasp. While Zayn spent years trying to fill the gaping hole in his life, Liam just worked around it.

Zayn turns in Liam’s embrace and meets his warm, careful gaze. “Thank you,” he says sincerely, knowing that there are no words to truly express how he’s feeling. He hopes Liam understands what he means.

Liam rests his forehead against Zayn’s. “I love you.”

“I love you,” Zayn replies.

He knows this won’t be easy, not like he thought it was before. But he also knows what life is like without Liam and he thinks they’ll both be more careful not to lose what they have this time around.