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Only time will tell

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Ask Liam Payne about his life and he’d respond that he’s lucky, so lucky.  He’s got this idyllic life he can’t even begin to feel he deserves.  

Walk away from him at that moment and you won’t see the way his smile fades, how he absent-mindedly rubs at the scar that’s faded on the back of his neck.

How it’s guilt as much as a doubt that makes the smile fade.  

Guilt because how can he be sad about this and all he has?

So little he knows.  

**

Liam’s your average, twenty-nine-year-old from a small town by the sea.  On an island.

Well, the UK’s a big island of course but he’s out on a limb on an island just off that big island never having strayed from the tiny island he’s on.

He’s got it all, he really has.  

A loving family, loyal friends, well one anyway and a steady income.   Anything that hasn’t gone so well in Liam’s life, he pushes to the back of his mind with varying levels of success.

Every morning he gets up for work, kisses his wife who before she goes off to do her very responsible and important job makes him his favourite breakfast and then packs him his favourite lunch.

Then he leaves his house, the smart little detached house they live in on the most perfectly manicured road in his town, and he’s greeted by the milkman, the neighbours, and their children and the little yappy dog next door.

And then he’s alone in his car, just him and the radio where sometimes it feels like Mike the DJ is talking to him, and him alone.

There’s rarely any traffic and even if there is, people let him out onto junctions ahead of them first, they wave at him, they smile and then there’s the parking spot at work that surely the big boss wants and yet Liam gets into it every single day.  

It’s a charmed life alright.  

Except.

No,  come on Liam.  He shakes himself, actually properly shakes his head and admonishes himself for even putting a doubt right there in his own head.  

Except, indeed.  You can’t change the past Liam, no matter how many questions you’ve got, it upsets too many people.

Well, two.  The two most important people in his life.

He opens the car door but doesn’t get out yet as a face pops into his head and okay, make that two of the most important people in his life.

‘That any better’ he sends up somewhere just in case a miracle happens. He swears he hears a light giggle and a ‘yeah, that’s better’ and it dispels any negative thoughts just like someone clicked their fingers.  

He’s out the door and walking alongside the spotlessly clean pavement.  Everyone smiles at him. He wonders if it’s like this anywhere else in the world.  If, everywhere is this perfect.  

He really hopes it isn’t.  What he wouldn’t give sometimes to hear someone yelling, arguing, what he wouldn’t give for someone to beep their horns in anger. What he wouldn’t give for his feet to stick to the ground as the bottom of his shoes tread on a piece of chewing gum. What he wouldn’t give to not have his life feel this ordained and ordered to be ‘just so’.

As he reaches the door to his office building, he stops dead and looks around him and for a fraction of a second, it feels like everyone’s staring at him.

That it’s not what they expected till someone clears their throat and suddenly they move and Liam watches them.

Watches how suddenly no one says hello to him even as he takes a step away from his office building and normally at least one or two people would have said hello by now.

It's like they’re consciously ignoring him now and it’s too weird.  He pinches himself and he doesn’t disappear in a cloud of smoke.

He doesn’t appear on some alien ship or anything, he’s still there.

He murmurs, “It’s like I’m invisible,” and it’s like someone flicked a switch or it’s almost as if someone heard him which is impossible cause suddenly someone tips their hat at him.

And then a young woman smiles and he’s not sure whether to be relieved or even more freaked out.  

He settles for the former only because it’s a Monday and Monday’s aren’t for existential crises Liam James Payne okay?

Okay.

**

Today hasn't been so bad. Sometimes he thinks doing his job's a bit pointless. Boring too.

Its nothing like what he'd envisaged doing when he was a kid.

When he was a kid. When he even just thinks those words, it almost makes him laugh cause the way he thinks it, it's like he's 90 years old and not in his twenties still.

It's not that though, it's just that all the dreams he'd had, everything had gone straight out the window the moment his dad…

Which isn't strictly true anyway because the seeds had been sown long before that. It means it's another layer to the 'What if' part of his brain that's constantly whirring around that he tries to silence or at least quiet down.

Perhaps if he'd been allowed to travel the world, he'd be too busy doing rather than thinking.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

A word that taunts him.

He looks up from where he'd be staring blindly at the computer screen and shifts his chair a little bit so he can see around the office better.

Everyone's busy, everyone's talking. A couple of people are talking by the water machine, Jess from Accounts is by the photocopier being chatted up by Neil from Sales.

Just like last Monday, and the Monday before that and so on.

Do people really spend their entire lives working in a place like this? Surrounded by four walls and staring at a computer all day.

It scares him that he's been here for the last five years already. That he's never really questioned it, the job was there ready and waiting when he'd arrived at the job centre. He'd started work the next day.

Just two days before that he'd been told his eyesight wasn't good enough to train to be a pilot and that flying was a ridiculously dangerous idea anyway.

His mum had said that every other pilot that trained up was summoned to the Air Force died. When he'd tried to look into the latter fact in the library, there was only one book and it confirmed it.  Who the bloody hell would want to do the job knowing their fate was sealed almost?

The kudos, the pension probably and maybe they didn’t have anyone at home who cared so much.

Except, no, stop with the ‘except’ Liam.

He still wonders about it now though because his eyesight is brilliant, he can spot things that Jenny can't. He can see through anyone's lies better than anyone he knows.

Like when his mum tells him that his dad would be proud of him. Like when Jenny tells him there's no man she'd rather be with than him.

And the biggest, when he looks in the mirror each night and tells himself he's happy that’s made worse by the guilt he feels at not being grateful for what he has.

Life shouldn’t feel this hard, should it?  Not for someone in their twenties anyway.  

He looks closer at those around him, making sure they aren’t looking then he stands up from his desk, picks up a piece of paper and walks straight past the photocopier and Jess and Neil, and with a quick furtive look behind him, he walks into the gents loos, there are three and he goes to the one furthest from the door.

Just in case cause it gives him a chance to hide it before anyone sees him. 

He closes the lid and sits down, pulls the phone from his suit jacket inside pocket and turns it on. It’s on silent, it’s always on silent, he rarely even looks at it these days.   It was a stupid idea to use the phone anyway.

It’s better than the old paper files though, less chance of being found out unless he’s careless.

He unlocks the phone with the pin, 1201, can’t help the smile at the reason behind the pin, another thing that’s private.

Then he scrolls to the gallery and that’s when he relaxes.

It’s just one picture. A picture he’d found by chance one day from a paper at the newspaper’s archive library in town, no one else knows he has it. A picture taken with the camera on his phone the only version he has, better than paper cause it can’t be destroyed easily.  Over his dead body does this phone get destroyed.

It’s one person among what must be about 40 others, Liam’s never counted because anyway it doesn’t matter.

He’s all that matters, all that Liam sees anyway.  It could be the worst quality picture in the world ever and honestly, it’s close and Liam would think it’s the most beautiful thing he’s laid eyes on.

Not a thing though.  His everything.

The door creaks open and he resists the urge to kiss the phone though it’s close. Thing is he’s always had this fear that the company has CCTV all over and he’s never ever going to sabotage the company but the thought of the CCTV operators spotting this random bloke kissing his phone.

Yeah, not gonna happen.

Instead, he smiles at the phone and stands up, shoving it in the pocket again and he’s about to leave the cubicle.

“Liam, you alright mate?  Saw you come in here and don’t forget you’ve got your appraisal with me in 5 minutes.”

His boss,  Gary.  

And actually yes he had forgotten and actually come to think of it, he couldn’t remember such a date in his calendar. Especially something as important as his annual appraisal. So he leaves the cubicle without thinking any further to question him and Gary’s there all smiles till he frowns and waves his hand vaguely in the air.

“You not going to flush that Liam, mate, come on I don’t want to automatically downgrade you in your appraisal for not being a team player cause you don’t flush the khazi mate, ah don’t look so woebegone kiddo, now look sharp, get some blue sky thinking in that brain of yours and I’ll see you in my office in 5.”

He’s gone before Liam can say anything though he pokes his head back around the door into the toilets and gestures towards the toilet cubicle.

Still not flushed it, Payne, come on lad.”

Then he’s gone.

Sometimes Liam really wishes he’d taken the chance, the 50/50 option even if his eyesight was shit, even if he’d had to beg or something. It has to be better than this place.

**

“So why aren’t you happy then?”

Andy pulls himself out from underneath the car, looks up at the clock, pulls off the gloves and then slaps the back of his hand against Liam’s chest.

Liam frowns cause it’s a good question.

“Sorry Li, it’s just a promotion has to be the answer to all yours and Jen’s prayers right?  It’s why you’ve been stalling having kids innit?  This way, you’ve got enough money to counteract the loss of income if Jen takes maternity leave or leaves the job completely.”

“Suppose.”  

“Well, sound more happy about it mate, or erm,” Andy leans in closer to Liam as if there’s more than just him and Liam in the garage right now but there isn’t, “Are you and her having difficulties?”

Liam shakes his head.  

“No, I mean, definitely not, it’s just, do I really want to do this job for the rest of my life?”

“People’d kill for it Li, a job for life, the chance of having kids with someone like Jen, what else is there you need?”

Who more like, Liam thinks, but no maybe that’s cruel, maybe that’s a disservice to Jenny so he tries to put the who out of his mind and hums in agreement with Andy.

“You’re right, you’re right, I dunno. I just.”

“I get it Payno, this time of year is hard for you, the reflection, the memories, I get it.  Fucks with your perspective, but don’t let it overshadow everything you’ve got, maybe it’s your old man looking out for you after all this time.”

Liam looks down at his feet, rubs at the scar on his neck and mutters a quiet, “Maybe.”

Then he’s drawn into a one-armed hug from Andy and he hears a sigh then.

“Text her, tell her I’m taking you the pub for a drink, just one, I think you need it and we may as well pretend like you’re happy right?”

Liam can’t find it in him to argue.

**

The drink is okay, though he doesn’t finish it as he’s still got to drive home and he didn’t fancy leaving his car in the office car park all night either so he’d refused Andy’s offer to give him a lift home.

He blames the fact that his thoughts are all mixed up on what happens next.

On the fact that one minute the road is completely clear save for a car a couple of hundred metres ahead and the next moment, a body crashes into his car bonnet and he slams the brakes, his heart racing and it all happens so fast.

He jumps out of his car but someone’s there next to him, pushing him back onto the driver's seat while others appear from nowhere and shuffle the man or the woman who’s holding something and yelling something.

And he’s most grateful for the fact that the person is alive and he can’t properly make out what’s being said but the person’s upset at least.

He makes out what the person who’s shoving him back onto his seat is saying as they slam the door shut and tell him it’ll all be okay and to keep driving but he can’t.

“It’s me, Liam, it’s your Dad.”  That’s what they’d said. Who lies about that sort of thing?

He’s too shaken and upset and he runs his hands through his hair and shuts his eyes and says without looking at the person peering through the window at him that he’ll be okay.

Without ever truly believing it, or more to the point understanding what just happened.

It’s with shaking hands, and without even opening his eyes that the most natural thing to do, the only thing that can ever soothe him he thinks is there in his jacket pocket, and he pulls out the phone and then sniffing loudly he turns it on and opens his eyes and it’s just him.

Like the last however many minutes didn’t happen, and he types in the pin and then scrolls to the gallery and there it is.

There he is.   He’s the only thing that makes sense.  The only thing that has ever made sense in his entire life he thinks.

His phone, the one that Jenny actually knows about chooses that moment to ring and so he places the other one onto the passenger seat next to him and doesn’t take his fingertips away from it as he reaches into his trouser pocket and breathes out a shaky breath and musters a smile up from somewhere.

Not taking his eyes away from the phone next to him, he presses the green answer call button and hears her voice.

“Hey Jen, yeah I’m okay, just got caught up in a bit of heavy traffic, be home soon.”

The lie is so easy and he doesn’t even know why he didn't tell her about what just happened but she doesn’t question it and he ends the call after just thirty seconds and puts the phone back in his trouser pocket, starts the car again and then lightly touches the phone that’s on the passenger seat still and murmurs a quiet ‘Thank you’ for once again being there.

Even though the man in the picture doesn’t even know.

**

Sometimes Zayn thinks it’d be easier if he kicked in his tv, threw it out the window or something.  

Sometimes he wishes he’d never said yes to that job.

Sometimes he wishes he could break in and rescue Liam.  

Sometimes he wishes he could just hold him one more time, and tell him it’s going to be okay.

Sometimes he wishes he could tell himself the same, and that one day he’ll believe it.  

Sometimes he wishes time would go by faster and that Liam would realise sooner.

Sometimes he hopes Liam never realises and that it’s just him, Zayn, here alone in this apartment and the people online who are part of the campaign, who know the extent of everything and how bad it is. How immoral.  

He sometimes wishes they’d forget all about it.

Sometimes he knows Liam hears him respond when Liam’s talking to him or just a picture of him.

Then he realises he’s just as bad as everyone else for watching, for always watching.

He believes one day it’ll all be worth it.  

Except, sometimes when Liam’s all alone in there without anyone truly giving a shit about him, he thinks that’s further away than ever.

Like tonight.

**

Maybe what happened with the person and his car was the kick Liam needed.  

The push to get back to remembering how lucky he is with his life now.   That everything else, everything else, in this case, being Zayn is just a memory.

A couple of days later, the tiny hairline cracks in the windscreen are fixed as though nothing happened and he’s in the front room of his mum’s house.  Pictures of him and his mum and dad are on the wall, on the mantelpiece from when things were a whole lot less complicated.  

When his dad was here.

He hears Jenny and his mum chattering away in the kitchen as he idly flicks through a magazine.

There’s an article all about the safety record of planes and how ferries have recently been declared the second most dangerous form of travel behind planes. Then there are articles all about how having a child makes marriage better, more stable, how it completes a man.

He’s come to the conclusion they’re right.

“You’ll be a wonderful mother, won’t she Liam?”

Jenny’s carrying a tray as Liam’s mum walks on ahead of her and sits down next to Liam on the settee, patting his knee.

“Your dad would be so proud, and he will be even prouder when there’s a little Payne child running around here making it messy.”

Jenny smiles at Julia and then catching Liam’s eye as she pours the tea into the cups, she nods because she’d wanted to wait for Julia to say it was a perfect idea before they went full steam ahead.

His mum carries on talking. 

“If it’s a little boy then, of course, I’ve got some of Liam’s things, only the things we kept from when he was six months old and onwards cause oh boy, did our Liam like to vomit all over his baby clothes, yes he did.”

Julia and Jenny laugh.

It’s like he puts a pin in a balloon when Liam voices the idea that’s been brewing in his head for so long.

“You know if we’re planning to have kids perhaps we should have that holiday after all before we get caught up in all of that, I’d love to go on a road trip around America, love to go and see Thailand and the Far East in general.”

The laughter’s gone and the look his mum and Jenny give him, it’s a wonder he thinks that the plants and flowers in the room haven’t all withered away instantly.

Then Julia’s expression softens and she shakes her head at Liam, strokes his hair and to Jenny she says.

“He’s a boy, darling, don’t forget that and he doesn’t pay the same attention we do to magazines and the advice they give to anyone trying for a baby.”

“What advice is that then?”  Liam asks, certain that he isn’t going to like the answer.

Jenny exchanges a look with Julia and then to Liam, almost like she's talking to a child, she explains.

“Just that it’s a really bad idea for anyone planning to have a baby to fly, all the chemicals, all the air that you breathe in on a plane, it’s known to have detrimental side effects, we don’t want to harm our little baby to be surely Liam, I know you want to travel.  We’ll have that chance though, one day, you, me and our little family.”

She reaches for Liam’s hand and places it on her belly.

“Soon Liam, so soon, it’s not just going to be you, me and your mum, it’s going to be all of us so can we stay here, where we know we’re safe and no harm can come to us, please?”

He doesn’t really know why he feels so sick because it’s all so reasonable, and okay, he’s never heard of this before but they find out new medical things all the time and he really doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone’s health being affected.

Be it Jenny or his unborn child or children, it’s just he sometimes feels he’ll never get off this tiny island. And that should be okay, shouldn’t it?  If all he’s ever wanted is here, why would he want to be anywhere else?  

Ah yeah.  There’s the rub, again.

**

When Zayn was eight years old, he’d announced to his mum and dad in suitably dramatic terms that he was going to be an actor.

He didn’t even really understand what it meant, except that it seemed to mean that when you got older you could carry on dressing up as Spiderman or Batman and no one laughed at you for it.

Even as insecurity set in over the years as he entered his teenage years, even as he realised how hard it would be to make it, he never gave up.

He wanted to change people’s days, people’s moods with the way he acted.   He dreamed of being able to make people think, make people smile, make his mum and dad proud.

Never in a million years did he think that the moment he dropped his guard, the moment he let his head rule his heart and the act became all too much like a reality that it would change his life forever.

Zayn can remember each momentous day in his life as if they were yesterday.  From being the lead in the school play to getting straight A's in Sixth Form to t he day he got the phone call to tell him to be on set, to be in the uni library and just be someone else, just to assume a role and stay in the background.

Just a job to add to his CV.   Till it wasn’t.

Zayn’s dad had always hated the show. Zayn’s mum did too or so she said except each Friday when his dad went out, she’d put her fingers over her lips and wink at Zayn who’d be about to start his homework as if to say “Well it’s our little secret.”

And then watch the highlights.  The highlights of someone’s entire existence being played out for entertainment.  Liam never really made an impression on Zayn, even though Zayn knew by now that he was gay. His family knew too, accepted it and yet it never crossed his mind. Liam was just some bloke on the telly.  

Zayn never imagined he’d be part of the show, but needs outweighed principles.  The need to pay for food and rent outweighed pride.  And maybe somewhere along the line, an idea had formed too.

It didn’t even really look like a set, it was an actual uni library constructed just for this show.  For Liam’s show.

Liam had never intended to go to Uni, that much Zayn knew from the times he’d be sat next to his mum on the settee and Liam’s freedom of choice was limited to whatever the whims of the audience were, the advertisers and the man upstairs.

The man who controlled Liam’s destiny.  Marcus.

Liam had had all kinds of ambitions to be the next Indiana Jones, to travel the world until the day his dad had died.  Zayn had watched with a pretence of disinterest as one by one Liam’s hopes and ambitions had been taken away bit by bit and replaced by other people’s.

Till he got on set, till he got close to this world and felt this feeling creeping under this skin and nausea making him stop to breathe through it.

He was only supposed to be an extra on the uni set, then an idea had formed and what was the worst that could happen anyway?

He had to have Liam notice him though and how the hell could he do that when every person around the uni was picture perfect.  Like they’d just stepped out of a branch of Hollister and onto this set.

Till it happened.

Zayn caught Liam’s eye one Thursday on the way to lectures even though Liam’s were in a completely different building, even though fate doesn’t exist in Liam’s world really because everything’s so pre-ordained.

Maybe fate got frustrated and intervened anyway.

Zayn had smiled and he’d slowed down, aware of Liam’s eyes and then his footsteps following Zayn’s and aware too of momentary glimpses of surprise from those around him when the camera started to followed him.

It should have stopped there. It shouldn’t have meant anything else.

Liam had never given him or anyone watching any hint that he was anything but into girls.  In truth, Liam had never given a hint of being into anything except wanting to please others.

It could and should have all been so uncomplicated.

Could. Should.

**

A pair of hands cover Liam’s eyes as he places the Batman cup down from where he’d rinsed his mouth out after brushing his teeth and he smiles.

Places his own hands on top of the soft hands and then gently pulls them away and then whirls around to kiss his wife.

“It's been ages since you’ve used the Batman cup, almost forgot you were a nerd for a minute.  Don’t be getting any ideas on calling a little boy Bruce Wayne or Robin.”

“Would I?”

“Just saying, don’t be getting those ideas.  I have to work overtime tonight so don’t wait up for me, maybe go out with Andy tonight or watch some old Batman films.”

“I may just stare at an atlas and the promise of a world that fate seems to be single-handedly preventing me from exploring.”

Jenny sighs.  

“You’re not still on about that surely?  Liam, we’ve been through it a thousand times why it’s a bad idea, and that’s before we even talk about the elephant in the room, the reason for that scar on your neck.  To get anywhere involves water which you’re terrified of when it isn’t coming from out of our own plumbing system or the one in your work,  It can’t happen, one day it will I’m sure but it’s just not right, right now and honestly, the longer you go on about it, the more I worry you don’t want to.”

She pauses and looks away before she looks back at Liam blinking back tears and adds tearfully, “That you don’t want to be with me.”

Then she’s out of the bathroom and slamming doors, and maybe it’s all to get him to follow. Maybe he should.

He doesn’t.

**

The next time Zayn had seen Liam was at the disco the students union had run the following day.

A formal event for once had all the students or more like all the costume department breaking out the best suits and the best dresses, the hall was likely flammable from all the hairspray, the amount of aftershave and perfume floating around in the air.  

Zayn didn’t know why he was even here.  Dragged along by his ‘mates’, standing on the side while shitty generic pop music played and everyone danced too well to be real students.

Another way he felt out of place.  He could dance, really well actually, just not here, not when it was like a bunch of peacocks showing off to each other. 

He’d sipped at the ‘alcoholic’ drink which actually wasn’t vodka and lemonade at all, just fizzy water and he’d considered leaving when Liam had walked in.

He’d had a hair cut, a buzz cut, all the fluff in his hair gone. And yet somehow he looked softer.

Holding his hand tightly was Jenny.  Blonde hair tied up in a bun, blue eyes framed by false eyelashes and a pink dress.  Designed to look like the centre of attention them upstairs no doubt wanted her to be.

Zayn knew Jenny saw him, her smile had dimmed and she’d pulled Liam away from where they’d been stood just a few feet from him and onto the dance floor.

He’d watched as Liam and Jenny danced.  Liam’s face set in concentration, whirling Jenny around,  just caught up in their own world.

For all the world, looking like a couple till Liam had looked up and over towards Zayn for no apparent reason and had then frozen.

And smiled, mouthing something before Jenny had stopped too, looked where Liam was looking, grimaced and then dragged Liam away.

But not before Liam kept turning back to look at Zayn and mouthed the two words once more.

‘“It’s you.”

The music had changed then from upbeat to slow and it wasn’t even the end of the night and he couldn’t watch as Jenny had pressed her lips against Liam.

Couldn’t be here. He needed to quit.

Tomorrow.

Maybe.

**

The silent treatment goes on for more than 24 hours though that’s not strictly true as the next morning finds Jenny huffing a lot, sniffing even more as she’d held the box of tissues in a position that must have been uncomfortable the amount of time she’d held them for while staring unblinkingly at Liam as he ate his breakfast.

He’d not gone out the night before  He’d done nothing except stare at the four walls around him.

He can’t recall when Jenny had come home, can’t remember the door shutting, can’t remember any sign of her being here until she suddenly was this morning.

Doesn’t even know why it’s suddenly crossed his mind so he resolves not to think of it again.

He leaves before her, relieved to get out of the house.

It’s another bright day, barely a crack in the blue sky and Mr. Waite is next door, cleaning his car like he does every single morning.

His little fluffy dog yaps just like he does each morning and the kids across the road kick the football against the garage door. Every day.

It’s comforting.  The familiarity when everything else is starting to feel off-kilter grounds him.

The sight of everyone else’s wheelie bins reminds Liam it’s bin day today where they are so he steps away from the front garden and to the right of the house and drags the bin along.

He hears it before he sees it.

The crash is loud, and he hears someone gasp behind him, hears a squeal of brakes as he steps away from the bin and nearer to it. Where he’d just stood moments before,  it lies there in the front garden.

He approaches it, drops down into a crouch and tentatively reaches his fingertips out to touch it in case it’s hot.

It’s in pieces though whatever it was was blue in its main structure with the only thing that’s still intact a few inches away that’s black and round like something you’d mount whatever the thing that’s in pieces now onto.

It almost looks like, but no, that’s not possible.  He looks up towards the sky from where it came and tries to think of all the other things it could be, but still, his mind wonders if it could be what he doesn’t think it’s likely it is.

Some kind of lighting.

“Lucky escape there, son, I’d just throw it all away and get on with your day and maybe put the lottery on later.”

Liam turns towards Mr. Waite and nods.  He’s probably right and it’s probably nothing so he picks up the pieces bit by bit, putting them into the refuse sack Mr.Waite had given him and puts the bag in the bin when he’s done.

Drags the bin onto the pavement and then with a ‘Thank you,’ to the older man he gets in the car, turns on his radio to hear the familiar voice of Mike and starts the drive to work.

“Good morning everyone on this beautiful sunny day, this news just in, the European Space Agency and NASA are warning that following a collision in space this morning, some satellite equipment is finding its way straight back to Earth and there’s a risk it could crash down where we live. Imagine that?  If you do see something, don’t worry, dispose of it and get on with your days, okay, now that’s out the way, how about some nice relaxing music.”

Liam wonders if every news agency in the world is as good and quick at explaining everything that could and has just happened where they live.

**

Liam found him the next day. In the library at Uni, head poking around a column next to where Zayn was sitting.

He whispers, “It’s you,” as Zayn lifts his head up, grins and Zayn can’t help the grin he knows is on his face too.

“I haven’t seen you around here before, I mean before the other day and the disco that is.”

Liam gets bolder then, steps away from the column and crouches down next to Zayn whispering because they’re in a library but maybe also because he knows on some level that what he and they say has to be quiet.

“What you studying mate- I mean Sam is it? Sorry I can’t properly see what your name is on the front of your textbook?”

When Zayn had looked at Liam who was so close to him now,  he knew he was fucked.  For good and bad.    Somehow he’d found words, somehow he remembered his role, his name.

“Yeah Liam, I’m Sam, nice to meet you.”

Liam had grinned for all of about two seconds before his eyes narrowed and he’d tilted his head.

“Wait, how do you know my name?”

Fuck.  

“Everyone does mate.”

Wrong answer and a sharp intake of breath from behind Zayn had made that crystal clear. Bang went any chance of a long-term role on this show.  Bang went his chance to really help Liam.

“What do you mean?”  

Liam’s face was a picture of confusion.

“I mean - Everyone who knows Jenny you know, she talks about you all the time Liam.”

Just not the way you think she does Zayn wants to add.  Zayn wants to say so much which he’s not even sure Liam would be upset about.  Liam and Jenny don’t work, can’t work and he thinks the man in charge knows this but it’s what people want.  

Doesn’t matter if it’s not what Liam wants. A voice in Zayn’s head says ‘who are you to know what he wants.  Who are you to know that you could be what he wants?’

But Liam’s nodding in response to Zayn’s words as if it makes perfect sense.

“Jenny’s great,” he says it without any conviction before he brightens and adds, “Your tattoos are cool mate, and I love the bag you’ve got. I’m a bit of a Marvel nerd too.”

Zayn doesn’t take his eyes away from Liam’s.  

“Thanks, mate, I hear you’re a big Batman fan especially.”

Zayn practically kicks himself in the shin, he’s shit at this.

Liam doesn’t look troubled though, instead, he grins.

“Wow, Jen sure does say a lot about me but yeah, Liam is Batman.”

Zayn can’t help the way he giggles and he’s delighted that Liam’s eyes sparkle with delight, and maybe, no it’s Zayn’s imagination.  But what if it’s not, what if it’s something else?  

They say nothing and just stare at each other and Zayn imagines he looks like a goldfish because there’s suddenly so much to say.   Before he can stop himself, he’s leaping ahead.

“Yeah you are Liam, you are, braver and stronger than you can imagine and I think you need to know that and..”

The bell for the end of the lunch break is early but everyone moves anyway, just like they’re told, just like it’s normal.

Only Liam stands up then, staring down at Zayn and then glancing away and fuck it feels cold now that he doesn’t have Liam’s eyes making everything feel warm for him.  And apparently, Zayn even thinks in soppy cliches now. 

“That’s weird,” Liam’s frowning at his watch before he shrugs and seems to accept it, just like every other event that’s changed his whole world and his plans except that’s probably a bit arrogant on Zayn’s part to think that just minutes in his company changed Liam’s world no matter how much it feels like Zayn’s will never be the same again.

Two things happen next.

Liam’s attention is back on Zayn and he’s shrugging and saying something about, “Oh well timekeeping is weird in this uni anyway innit,” before he looks shy all of a sudden and takes a deep breath looking around him and says.

“I’d love to meet you again, love to talk about stuff, and Marvel and tattoos and that, Andy’s think they’re stupid, babyish you know and Sam, I dunno, it feels like you know me way more than I know you though also you're not unfamiliar, you really aren't, and I feel like you’re not telling me everything even then except somehow it feels like I’ve just been waiting for you all my life I think.”

Liam’ is portrayed sometimes as a bit simple, someone who doesn't think and yet here he is, with all the words, the emotion, the heart and Zayn’s full of wonder and also grimly sure that the love theme will play in the background of the highlights programme for this moment.

if they don’t cut it that is

Then the second thing happens and Andy’s there, all friendliness and laddy charm for Liam but as Liam bends down to pick up his bag, the glare he sends Zayn’s way is hard and cold.

Zayn’s not intimidated though and instead, he stands up, pushing his own chair back and a hand is reaching out for one of his and Zayn shakes it, maybe lingers over it a little too long, his thumb running small circles in between Liam’s thumb and forefinger.

“Pleasure to meet you, Liam.”

Liam smiles. “Same Sam same.”

And then he’s being pulled away by Andy and Zayn tries to remember how it felt to have Liam staring at him, to have those eyes focus on him alone just in case he never sees him again.

**

“How did you find me?”  Liam says quietly.

“I just followed the little Liam’s sad beacon that I always get and bam, here you are.”

Andy sits down next to him as Liam stares out at the sea.

“Also, for a lad that’s terrified of water, you don’t half spend a long time hanging around at the beach mate.”

“I’m 29, Andy, I’m hardly a lad.”

“We’re all worried about you mate.  You’re a bit too young to be having a mid-life crisis and it’s weird this. You were all happiness and so content and now, what’s going on?”

Liam opens his mouth but nothing comes out because truth is, he doesn’t know.

“Do you want to break up with her, is that it?”

Liam looks sharply at Andy at the question.  It’s unexpected just because no one has ever questioned him and Jenny before.  Not like this.

Okay, Jenny has but no one else and it’s like it’s making all the doubt real. He thinks of his phone, the secret one, and for a moment he thinks of telling Andy.

Andy who’s been his best mate, his only mate really, since he was 9.  He should be able to tell him that he's never stopped thinking about Zayn and how he’s confused.

He should be able to trust Andy enough to talk about how he loves Jenny or at least likes her but not in the way he should. Sure, she’s conventionally beautiful he supposes.’

Blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful, sweet and someone his mum adores.

But he never feels with her the way he felt with him.  It feels like she's more of a sister to him but how would he even know that? He's an only child. And maybe the thing with Zayn, maybe it’s one of those things that you build up, romanticise in your head to be something more than it was.

Some kind of first crush infatuation, the type of thing where you have what’s meant to be right in front of you but then you’re distracted by something that never could be.

That’s it. To a tee and maybe the answer to it all is not living in the past, the answer is to delete the picture on the phone, throw the phone into the sea and get building what he’s here for.

To build a family and a future that his dad would be proud of him for.

“No, that’s not what I want.”   

He’s impressed at the way he sounds so sure, somewhat surprised too given that he’s shivering and he’s not sure why then he stands up as Andy does too.

“Take me home to her, Andy, please?”

“Attaboy sunshine, attaboy.” Andy hugs him one-armed like always and then he’s following Andy to the car, casting one look behind at this beach, the memory of this beach so raw but it’s time to bid farewell to all that.

It’s what’s right.  And Liam always does that.  

**

The next time they meet, Zayn knows all eyes are on them even in the dingiest part of the library, he feels them.

Liam’s bright smile is too much almost.  It almost kids Zayn into thinking they’ll be okay.  It makes Zayn do stupid things like agree to meet again.

So they do, and they keep meeting even if it’s for five minutes, they promise each other things even though it’s only been days.

Even as Liam crumbles under the weight of what his mother expects of him and Jenny, even as Liam quietly says that they’re officially dating now.

Even though it messes with Zayn’s head and his heart is breaking, he agrees to see him over and over.

They plan for something Zayn knows can never happen, a life beyond all of this where Liam can let Jenny down as gently as possible and find Zayn and live what fate has in store for them.

Even though this is the last time.

Zayn's been given his marching orders and this is the official last time though he’s going to try to make sure it isn’t as Liam pops out from behind a column and waves brightly.

It’s worse than Zayn thought all this.

A thought crosses his mind, a chance to warn Liam now that Liam trusts him but it can’t happen like this so he pulls out a piece of paper from his exercise book and starts writing at the same time he listens and talks, not taking his eyes from Liam hoping against hope the camera won’t pan down to the words he writes.

Too soon,  Jenny’s there, smiling at Liam and then glaring at Zayn when Liam’s gaze is directed firmly at Zayn.

Zayn stops writing as soon as Liam points down, lying to Jenny about why he’s here that they’re working on something together, knows where the cameras will follow if they haven’t already and he screws the piece of paper into a ball as if he’s about to throw it away.

Then Jenny’s tugging at Liam and Liam doesn’t look happy but he allows it because he’s too good, too used to making everyone happy except himself and Zayn wants to do so much more, just in case.

But all he can do is grab Liam’s hand and force the piece of paper into it and hope that Liam reads it because if this is it, if this is the last time, he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

Hours later and Zayn trembles and not just from the cold of the beach and the sea breeze, but with nerves and fear that Liam won’t show.

“It’s the way you said Liam like Leeyum that first day that really made me stop cause it made me feel different,  I remembered that tonight and that’s what made me come here, that and the way I think you’re not telling me everything and I’m kinda scared of what you want to tell me but I’m also scared of what you may not get the chance to say.”

Zayn turns around and Liam’s there, a couple of steps away, shivering too as he’s only got a pair of shorts on and trainers and a running vest.

“Fucking hell Leeyum, you’ll catch your death just wearing that.”

“Only way I could get away from mum and Jenny was to say I needed to run and to leave me alone.”

Zayn looks around him, them.  Knows everything is short of time now, knows they are.  

“Liam, come with me a minute.”

He’s reaching his hand out and he shouldn’t expect that Liam will grasp it, but of course, by now, he does and Liam does.

Zayn pulls him down a sand dune and they run towards the sea and then Zayn stops.

What the fuck does he say now?  

“Liam - I.”

Liam’s shaking his head though and the hand that was holding onto Zayn’s lifts up and a finger touches Zayn’s lips gently to silence him.

“I dreamt of you, or someone like you before we met, someone who I was walking down a beach with holding hands, and this man had tattoos, even more than the ones you’ve got now, no actually we both had them, tattoos I mean, one of them on you said a few words ‘Only time will tell’ and for some reason I didn’t want to forget and I wrote it down and for some reason I want to give it to you,”

The piece of paper is small and it’s folded over neatly and Zayn takes it, opens it up and sees it says, ‘Only time will tell’ in Liam’s handwriting and he’s about to say something but then Liam carries on talking and so instead Zayn carefully places the piece of paper in the back pocket of his jeans and listens to Liam.

“Anyway yeah he felt like home, and do you know how rare that is Sam cause even though I’ve lived here all my life, this place doesn’t feel like home and nothing feels like it should, till the man with the tattoos.”

Quieter he adds, “Till you, it's you.”

Zayn needs to spend what little time they have talking, explaining and imploring but his heart rules his head just like it's been doing since all this started and he takes a step forward, lifts his hand up to take hold of Liam’s once more and then as though it’s the most natural thing in the world and without taking his eyes away from Liam, just in case there’s a hint he doesn’t want this, he leans forward and it’s so fleeting but it’s something Zayn knows he'll never forget as his lips meet Liam’s, and Liam doesn't pull away so Zayn shuts his eyes then to drink it in because this, it’s all he’s waited for all his life.

One - two - three.  The seconds' speed by and Zayn’s senses are only filled by Liam till a sound that isn’t waves or his own heartbeat intrudes and he pulls away.

And Liam’s smiling, and it tears at Zayn’s heart.

“Yeah, that feels like home too.”

Zayn wants to stop and agree and say so much more but then the car is speeding and coming closer and Liam turns around and sees it and his hand pulls away from Zayn’s.

“What’s going on Sam?”

“That’s just it Liam, I’m not Sam, I’m Zayn and you, you’re Liam and everyone knows you cause you’re the star of the show.”

A car door creaks open.

“Please listen to me Liam, people went along with it for so long but there are people who know it’s wrong and we don’t want it for you anymore. “

Liam’s face is a picture of confusion and fear.

“What?”

A hand grips Zayn’s arm then and starts to pull him away but Zayn tears himself from the grip spares a momentary glance at the man and almost chokes out a laugh.

It’s some ginger haired bloke they’ve thrust into crisis mode who starts to talk to Liam.

“Its okay Liam, Sam’s under the doctor and me and his mum are worried sick and you need to go home to Jenny, she’ll take care of you and you can forget about Sam.”

“Get off me,” Zayn yells, “I’m not fucking Sam, I’m Zayn, Li,  I’m Zayn and how the fuck does this guy know you when you’ve never met him, and I haven’t either, he’s ginger and I’m, well I’m not am I?”

The hand is back gripping onto Zayn and it’s stronger now and he feels himself being pulled away.

“Please help me Li, don’t let them do this.”

It’s not fair to Liam that Zayn says this and Zayn could cry at how distraught Liam looks right now.  

How Zayn’s powerless, the fight feeling like it’s left his body as he’s almost thrown into the passenger seat and then the door locked as the man runs around to the driver’s side.

It doesn’t stop Zayn from rolling down the window as Liam stands there, all the joy drained from him, and of course, Andy’s there suddenly, right on cue.  

Zayn can’t find the right words but he has a bash anyway even as the car reverses and he has to shout and Liam starts to stumble towards the car

“Never believe them, Liam, don’t believe a fucking word of anything they say whatever they say, you just say the word and I’ll be there, I’ll see you one day, don’t stop dreaming and I promise I won’t forget you.”

Then the car’s speeding away and the window closing and Zayn can’t do a single thing to stop it.

**

“You trying to seduce me, Jen?”  Liam slurs his words as he puts the wine glass back down on the table and looks across at Jenny.

Jenny starts to laugh before her expression turns serious.

“Well, they do say that the way to a man’s heart is food and well Rigatella’s pasta sauce, the best sauce there’s ever been as certified by all the top Italian chefs helps with that after all,” she pauses does that grin that’s sort of Stepford Wife-like almost and she isn’t looking at him, more through him and he’s about to comment on it when she adds.

“Then the doctors do say that to have a child, the man, and the woman have to have sex.”

The first sentence is so out of kilter with the second that Liam almost laughs but then Jenny’s second sentence is so...well, he’s commenting before he can think better of it.

“HAVE SEX.”  Liam mimics, “That’s not very romantic love, what about making love, what about taking our time?”

“If you had your way, Liam, then the taking time thing would mean that we’d wait till we were sixty and by then I wouldn’t be having a kid.”

“Not what I meant Jen.”

“Isn’t it?  Okay then, let’s go and do it then and we can make love, and maybe for once it’ll feel like you mean it, maybe for the first time in months it’ll feel like you do love me.”

Too many of their conversations are like this lately.  Too many times she changes from sarcastic to tears in one sentence and too many times when they see Liam’s mum, they pretend like everything’s perfect and not like everything is about to shatter and implode on them.

It’s only been a few days since him and Andy sat on the beach and already he’s let it slip and he needs to change and mean it for once.

He’s thirty in a few months and he wants kids, he does.  He wants to build a relationship with his kids and be there for them always and he wants to be a good husband.

So he screws up the napkin and stands up, walks over to where Jenny’s staring at her hands and then crouches and with his thumb, he gently tilts her chin upwards till she looks at him.

“I’m sorry I’ve been so screwed up.  Let’s go build a family.”

There’s a flicker of hope in her eyes that makes Liam almost certain that it’s worth what’s going to happen next. A smile that’s so wide and so full of joy that Liam feels it transfer onto him too.  It’s good to do what makes people happy.  

It’s good to do what will fill his wife’s world with joy and give his mum something to do other than stare at old pictures of the life she lost the moment they lost his dad.  

So why he’s making it sound like he’s doing a duty rather than doing something he’s longed for all his life?

Her lips press against his and he can do this.  He can.

**

Zayn thinks the only blessing about this show has been that the man in charge has always been a prude. Teasing love and romance but never showing anything other than the most chaste of kisses.

Everything else happens off-stage to the point where Zayn can almost convince himself nothing happens at all. The look on Liam’s face lately says that’s not true though, even though Zayn knows it's rare, and Zayn almost stops watching.

He feels this constant nausea bubbling under.  This rage that’s building inside of him and has no outlet. 

Sure he can rant to the people around him.  He’s preaching to the converted though and okay, the numbers of the converted are growing.

Rapidly.

Rumour has it that ratings are sliding hence the need for Liam to be a dad.  

In everything, he can’t believe she’s going along with it. He knows why Liam is because Liam wants to make people happy but what’s her excuse?

It’s a terrible unethical way to build a family and he’s powerless to help, powerless to save Liam from this life.

He just hopes something stops it, somehow.  

Even though Liam’s slipping away from him more than he ever has before.

**

Liam gets an early dart once during the week and he decides to surprise Jenny this time as he knows she’s been on an early shift with work and won’t be expecting him home till later.

She’s feeling down because so far she’s not pregnant. It’s been two months and no sign and every time she flashes the pregnancy test box at him, complete with that smile that’s so full of hope only to be dashed a few minutes later, Liam can feel his spirit deflate just a bit more.

She refuses to go to the doctor about it and Liam doesn’t want to go behind her back so he goes along with it.

In his mind, he thinks he should suggest that they actually do it more often but she’s calculated it all, turned it into some biology project and so there are only specific days or actually one specific day that it’s likely to work.

He’s inexplicably relieved that it’s not more often.

Today isn’t that day anyway and that’s okay Liam thinks because if he’d come home early on that day, they couldn’t relax, they couldn’t just be with each other.

He parks the car in the drive and doesn’t miss the look of surprise on Mr.Waite’s face but as he gets out the car and walks to the front door, turning the key in the lock, any wondering he has about why Mr. Waite looks surprised disappears from his mind as he hears Jenny shouting and sobbing and so he doesn’t step into the house, he just listens.

“DON’T I HAVE ANY SAY IN ANY OF THIS?  I DON’T WANT IT NOT NOW, NOT EVER NOT LIKE THIS,  WE CAN ADOPT IF WE HAVE TO BUT WHY DO I HAVE TO SABOTAGE MY OWN LIFE?”

Liam realises she must be on the phone when she’s quiet and he can’t hear another voice then he hears her again.

“Well then, if that’s the only option then maybe I just need to quit. Maybe this is the end of the road for me, money isn’t ev-.”

A few weeks ago Jenny had nagged Liam about oiling the front door, that the noise it made sometimes when it opened was excruciating. Trust Liam’s luck that the wind blows it slightly and it makes that whining sound and Jenny stops talking and he hears her swear and say something about needing to go and how Liam’s here.

And she’s there in front of him so fast, her face stained with tears and he doesn’t even know who he’s looking at anymore.

But somehow he musters up a smile and acts as if nothing ever happened even though every single word he’d overheard is whirring in his head.

Hours later and Jenny had looked like she was barely keeping herself together and had disappeared to their bedroom for a lie-down.

Liam can’t find words that aren’t ‘Why?’  or ‘What were you saying about sabotage?’ so he stays in the living room and watches old Batman cartoons and that brings up thoughts he’d tried to bury deep but are truthfully only ever just below the surface.

At some point, he falls asleep on the settee.  

**

“GERONIMO!”

Liam leaps from the side of the cliff and it’s only about 2 or 3 seconds but in that 2 or 3 seconds, he can barely catch his breath.

He does just about manage to remember to wrap his arms around his legs and make himself smaller.

Then he plunges into the water and feels it cover him.

It’s a beautiful feeling on a boiling hot day as he unwraps his arms from his legs and stretches out and then kicks himself upwards.

His head above the water as he looks around him and hears the sound of applause.

“Well done son.”

Liam grins as he stares at his Dad who looks so proud, so happy till there’s a crack of thunder and then he frowns, shakes his head and Liam can hear him yell out, “No, you can’t do this.”

And Liam doesn’t know what’s going on but whatever it is, he’s scared.

Liam tries to make it to land to where his dad looks ever more anxious, more distraught but instead he feels like he’s being pulled away, and he feels a branch tear at his neck but he’s too panicked to feel pain right now and it makes no sense because all the things dad had told him to do if he got into trouble in the water aren’t working.

It all happens so fast then, he’s being dragged closer to the edge of where if you go over without control then well….

But then a pair of strong arms reach for him and he’s secure and his dad’s saying.

“I’ve got you, son, I’ve got you Liam and I’m never letting go.”

Till the arms are no longer there and Liam screams and whirls around and his dad’s gone from view, he’s not on land, he’s not anywhere and just as quickly as the water was there, the rain torrential and the winds too strong, it’s all gone. Like someone pulled the plug out of a bath.

And Liam’s alone.

**

“Dad?”

Liam bolts upright and looks around him, expecting to be back there on that day but he’s at home on the settee.

The early morning sun is streaming through the windows but all Liam can stare at is the way his hands shake so he clenches them together and breathes in and out slowly. He can’t remember the last time he had a dream like that though he remembers how they always end like that.

Like he imagined the storm except he can’t have done cause he went home that day in a police car wrapped up in a blanket. Without his dad.

Sometimes it’s all so overwhelming, the sense of loss.  The way it was all so sudden, and the way that apart from his mum talking about how it’s affected her, how she has to have Liam close to her, Liam’s never been allowed to talk about it or dwell on it.

He’s always thought that it was with his feelings in mind, out of concern for him. He’s sure that’s the case, but perhaps not as sure as before now.

He gets up from the settee and walks to the bedroom but Jenny’s not there, a quick glance at the clock tells him that she’s probably already at work. And that he needs to get on his way too.  He half considers sending Jen a text but decides against it.

He has a quick shower, dresses quickly in a freshly laundered suit and then heads outside.

Mr.Waite’s there again, hand ready to wave at Liam but Liam doesn’t acknowledge it and just as the dog starts to bark, Mr.Waite shushes him and the kids across the road abruptly stop kicking the ball against the garage and simply stare. Liam ignores them.  He’s allowed a bad day once in a while surely?

The radio always has this knack of clearing away his bad mood, Mike’s familiar voice playing his favourite songs when he needs it.  

Lifting his spirits.  Thing is he’s not in the mood today, he wants to wallow for once.  Wants to process Jenny’s words, wants to remember his dad and remember what happened and not just ‘the good times’ his mum says he should concentrate on instead of the bad.

So he switches station from one to another to another though there’s static on the fourth one he chooses, static and voices like someone’s on a walkie-talkie and he’s about to switch when...

“Straight ahead on Poplar Street, should be turning left onto Cedar Road in 200 yards.”

Which would be nothing of note except that Liam’s on Poplar Street right now and left onto Cedar Road is where he should turn now.

He approaches the junction, makes a decision and expects to be disproved of whatever is going on on this radio station, expects nothing to happen.

And turns right.

“E’s turned right, he’s turned right, what’s he doing?”

Liam swallows.  Fuck.

“Eyes on the ground on Batman now, give me eyes on Batman.”

Another voice.  

Liam slows and looks out the window, notices how the few people on the pavements are all holding coffee cups at an awkward angle. The logo clear to see from where Liam sits behind the wheel.

Notices how one by one they subtly, or so they think probably, turn their heads towards the car.

All he can hear on the radio is static until one lone voice speaks hesitantly.

“I think he knows.”

Liam hits the brake.

“He’s stopped, Batman’s stopped. Alert! Alert!”

Liam lets out a sound like that’s halfway between a sob and a laugh, it's a wonder he doesn't scream. Then he releases the foot off the brake and slowly edges forward.

“He’s onto us, he can hear us, fuck, change frequency NO-.”

It’s too silent then in the car as Liam somehow doesn’t crash it, somehow keeps going, somehow finds his way the long way around towards work and tries not to have his brain explode.

Cause who the fuck is Batman?  Except it’s clear that he’s Batman and well yeah, duh but also it’s not funny.

Someone was watching him.  No, make that everyone in the street was watching him.

Why him though?  He’s so ordinary.  He’s so ordinary?  

The thought stays with him in the office as he does pretty much nothing all day.  He tries not to make eye contact with anyone. And everyone leaves him alone.  If you call leaving him alone, each person covertly sneaking glances at him and him being painfully aware of it.

Glances of concern he thinks as he looks through the reflection of his phone each time someone comes close by.  

Once or twice, the people he talks to step near to his desk but then once at least, they lift their fingers up to their ear and shake their heads and walk away. It’s like he’s diseased or something.  Like they’re afraid to come near.  As though he’s some kind of leper.

He’s had enough by 4 pm so he leaves the office.  Has no intention of going home yet. Doesn’t think he can get answers from his mum or Andy or anyone.

He’s almost at his car when he notices someone hovering nearby.  It wouldn’t normally be notable but today it is.

So he turns around to look at them, they look dirty, hair wild and unkempt, unshaven but Liam takes another step closer.

“You okay mate?” he asks.

The man had turned away but at Liam’s words, he half turns back to look at Liam and the smile is uncertain, it’s barely perceptible, to be honest. But it’s there nevertheless and it’s so familiar that Liam almost stumbles, then pinches himself and he’s not waking up on the settee trembling, he’s still in the car park.

Somehow he stays upright as he takes another step forward.

“Dad?”

Liam’s within touching distance when he hears the screech of tyres and he’s almost knocked over as he’s pushed out the way and four men grab hold of the man and pull him away.

“No, please no, you can’t do this.”

Liam’s brain tells his legs to move, Liam’s brain tells his mouth to yell, Liam’s brain tells him to do anything but he’s stuck in the middle of some nightmare where some man that resembles his dad is saying the words that are seared on Liam’s consciousness since the day his dad died and he’s being dragged away and out of his life before Liam can grab hold of him and shake him and tell him to stop fucking with his mind.

Why won’t people stop fucking with his mind lately?

When he finally moves, when he finally runs forward, the car park is empty and it’s as though nothing has happened. There’s a woman on the other side of the road with her hand lifted up against her mouth staring at him, but then a man grabs hold of her, stares too at Liam and then as he lifts a hand to his ear, Liam can see he nods and pulls her away.

“Dad?”

He says to nothing and no one before he drops to his knees in the car park and starts to sob because he’s never felt so alone.

So confused and he’s got nowhere to go.  Nowhere to turn.

**

With hindsight, it’s probably not as unexpected for Liam as he thinks, not as much of a bolt from the blue or in his case, Jenny’s words on that phone conversation, the radio station that followed his every move or someone who Liam can’t figure if he’s his dad or not but whatever it’s made him realise something he’s probably always known or suspected just below the surface.

It’s probably been coming for years, a waiting game before he figured it out.

Right now though, it honestly feels like one minute he was happy in the middle of suburbia.  Now it’s like he’s been awakened.  Now the mundanity, the ‘happiness’ feels like a creeping sense of claustrophobia that’s gnawing at him from under his skin.  

Now everything he ever came to know as being his life looks off.  

Now he’s starting to see beyond the veneer of a ‘perfect life’, picture postcard houses, the ‘perfect wife’ and remembered what he’d lost.

Who.

“Penny for ‘em.”

Liam doesn’t look up, just keeps staring out towards the water, he’s been here a few hours, his legs dangling over the bonnet of his car.

Andy jumps up onto the bonnet next to him anyway.

“Heard you had a bit of a day mate.”

Time was Liam would think it was Jenny looking out for him when Andy would show up next to him and offer words of comfort, time was he’d think his mum and Jenny would have been tearing up the town trying to find him.

Time was that he trusted Andy with everything.

He hears the sound of the top of a bottle top falling to the floor, then another and before he can blink, a bottle of beer’s placed in his hand. Time was, not even that long ago, he would have thanked Andy and they’d have talked for hours about Andy’s plans, Liam’s plans.

Liam’s plans.  The ones he always thought he made of his own accord but there’s a part of him, a big part that’s wondering about that. Is scared to wonder about all that really because unpicking that thread, those knots, and his life so far?

Too much.

“Haven’t laced this with some kind of drug to make sure that I’ll do exactly what you want me to do have you?  You or Jenny or mum that is?”

Thing is, Liam’s half-joking but he doesn’t miss the way Andy flinches, the way his eyes dart away, the way his finger flicks to his ear momentarily and fuck, why does Liam keep noticing the way people do that around him.  

Too late Andy starts to laugh and knocks his knee against Liam.  The sound is tinny, it’s fake and Liam really wants to down the drink all in one to take away the bitterness on the tip of his tongue right now.

“Was only joking Andy, fuck mate, anyone would think I hit the nail right on the head.”

Liam jumps off the bonnet then and hands the undrunk bottle back to Andy.

“Thanks but no thanks.”

If Andy’s got even half a degree of sense, he’ll know Liam’s not just talking about the bottle.

Liam doesn’t look back when Andy’s car pulls away, doesn’t wave and wonders how long he’s got before someone else comes to drag him home.

Decides it’s not worth it and with one last look out at the water that’s so forbidding and terrifying but holds the key to what he’s buried so far below the surface he reckons, he opens the car door, gets into the driver seat and finds his way home.

Could do it with his eyes shut.  

It’s only on the journey home that it strikes Liam that Andy couldn’t know about his dad or the radio station because he hadn’t spoken to anyone about it.

**

Liam doesn’t sleep much anymore, he’s plagued by nightmares anyway.  Of his dad.

Sometimes its dreams he has instead, they're painful though. Dreams of Zayn and those days where they mapped their future, the tattoos they’d promised each other they’d get the first day they’d arrive in paradise.  If you can call Dorset, a paradise that is. 

Dreams of days in uni, stealing time in the library.

Of their one kiss on the beach.The kiss that if he shuts his eyes he can feel Zayn’s lips against his like he’s here next to him.  He never is though.  

Haunted by the way they both exited his life so suddenly.

And the way Jenny was there, firmly entrenched from that moment. Almost like it was on cue.  

He watches her from the bedroom door, making sure she’s asleep and he knows his time’s limited even though he thinks she genuinely is.

He walks quickly but quietly through the house and opens the cellar door, the one he’d oiled months ago much to Jenny’s dismay and he’d thought nothing of it then, the door that no longer creaks. He steps lightly down the stairs and pulls the torch from his pocket, placing it in his mouth.

He’s not been down here for a while, except for one brief visit a couple of months back.

The toy chest is one he’s had since he can remember, in it are relics of days before he was ten, a toy boat, an action man, a football, and then at the bottom of it are two things that aren’t from then.

The first, the phone that he’d promised himself he’d throw into the sea but that was never realistically going to happen, he doesn’t turn it on this time, he doesn’t feel a need to because the picture is seared in his memory always.

The second, a men’s fitness magazine but it’s not really because within the inside covers it’s pages of coloured paper with pictures on them.

Dark hair.  Eyes that remind him but aren’t quite right but close enough, they have to be. Hands that have tattoos adorned on them.

There are drawings that Liam’s created.  Drawings of visions of the tattoos he could have had.  Will have.  One day.

There’s white sand and water that’s inviting even to Liam.  All his hopes and dreams are inside the covers.  Inside his head.

Sometimes it’s overwhelming how far away it all seems, how impossible and unlikely it is that they’ll find each other again and sometimes when Liam shuts his eyes, he can’t feel the way Zayn’s hand felt in his or that kiss anymore.

All he can remember is that night on the beach.  Zayn’s cries.

“Please help me Li, don’t let them do this.”

Liam had just stood there, frozen to the spot while Andy magically appeared to his right and Zayn had pulled the window down of the car that he was now in and called out.

“Never believe them, don’t believe a fucking word of anything they say whatever they say, you just say the word and I’ll be there, I’ll see you one day, don’t stop dreaming.”

It’s like a mantra in his head now.

Even though he thinks he stopped dreaming a long time ago, even though his brain told him to let go, his heart keeps to thoughts of Zayn only, even when he tells it to forget and hasn’t been down here for too long, to make sure he never forgets  

The light doesn’t startle him as it should,  and he’s prepared just like every single time before as he deftly and discreetly places the phone and the magazine back into the chest and picks up the toy boat instead just in time for Jenny’s face to appear.

She’s got this look of concern on her face that doesn’t meet her eyes and Liam wonders if it ever did and he just never noticed.

“You and your obsession with boats that go on the water when we know you’re too afraid of the latter to ever get in one.”

Liam doesn’t look at her like he normally would, doesn’t give her the sad smile and the “True,” like he usually would.

it’s like it’s a real deviation from what she expects, from the script almost and there’s a hand to the ear again before she laughs. The tinny sound that’s so fake.

Liam’s up and placing the boat back in the chest and closing it and walking past her on the stairs before she stops the sound, and he’s almost at the top of them before he turns around and says with a confidence he thinks he’ll struggle to find in the morning because while he’s starting to doubt everything else is real, the fear is.

“Oh Jen, I really wouldn’t be so sure about that, I wouldn’t be so sure about anything anymore if I were you.”

The door shuts behind him and if Liam were to listen close enough, he’d probably have heard the roof fall in on the world.

That or the sound of applause, or the shrieks of, “Finally.”

Instead, he finds himself in the bathroom and he’s surprised that Jenny’s not there already or within seconds of him being there, she’s not fidgeting with his collar but as he turns on the light and stares at himself in the mirror, it’s just him and he feels a bit stupid but he says it aloud anyway.

“If you’re out there Zaynie, I’m ready,  I think I get it or I’m starting to so please help me.”

It’s definitely his imagination he thinks, the first sign of madness maybe that from somewhere he thinks Zayn hears him.

Thinks he himself hears.

“Oh babe, I’m right there.”

It’s kind of fitting on this day, these past few days actually, that have been like no other that he hears it, that he feels so certain and he turns the light off even though in the darkness, he feels like there’s an audience and that Zayn will still see him as he nods at the mirror and says aloud, “Yeah, yeah you are.”

**

Somewhere not a million miles away though it may as well be right now,  Zayn sits in front of the TV, tattoos on his hands including the one he added all those years ago and new ones on his chest toot, a pendant around his neck with a note in it with Liam’s handwriting and ‘Only time will tell’ scrawled on it beams proudly at the screen.

“Keep going babe, keep going.”

Zayn knows he will, he’s got form for it after all because Liam had fallen to the ground as the car sped away that night on the beach Zayn learned that later on.

Till the next day when he got back up and carried on, just like every other day. Another memory brushed under the carpet.

And Zayn?

Zayn never acted again, Zayn is the thorn in the man in charge’s side. Has been the thorn until now, these past days when he knows Liam’s on the edge of realisation to the moment that Liam himself will be the biggest thorn in the man's side instead, the moment the world started to crash in on everyone but no one more important than Liam.

To Zayn anyway.

Fear comes with hope, fear comes with this sense that everything’s going to change.

But as Liam looks into the mirror and he doesn’t realise Zayn’s staring right at him, except maybe he does?

He’s saying the words Zayn’s longed to hear and Zayn can’t help the burst of pride as he shouts at the screen and urges Liam to keep going and he recognises that the hope, it overcomes the fear now.

“Soon be home Leeyum, you’ll soon be home.”

**

Zayn’s life is simple these days.

He lives frugally which is a good job given that running a campaign against the most popular reality show in the world doesn’t pay well.

He gets by from the revenue he makes on selling t-shirts, doing Youtube videos and writing articles.

He knows his mum worries about it, his dad too but his dad’s one of the biggest supporters. The campaign started with just him in the spare room at his mum and dad’s house in Bradford.  

He used to get mocked for what he said.

‘You need to let go of your infatuation with him’ they said.  

Which was rich given these people took days off, weeks off even in some cases to watch someone they’d never met eat, sleep and do his best every single day not knowing his every move was under the microscope.

Slowly but surely, Zayn’s campaign has grown. He moved down to London 18 months ago.because the campaign grew and he wanted to be nearer. His family following not long after.   People are wising up.   The latest business with the will she/will won’t she agree to get pregnant with Jenny being the catalyst for change.

It’ll never work though unless Liam starts to rebel because that might just force his hand.

His.

The man who Zayn detests above anyone.  The man who has held Liam’s life and future and plans in his hands from the day he was chosen.

The man who doesn’t give a flying one about the impact of the way he rolls the dice shuffles the pack and fucks around with Liam’s life every single moment of every single day.  

The man who doesn’t care about anything else other than getting richer, doing more outrageous things to Liam to keep this mess going. For the ratings. 

There’s a cost to Zayn of course.  He really had wanted to be an actor, he really had one day wished to study English and teach it at the best unis in the world.

The moment he met Liam and saw him for what he was, nothing changed in that ambition really at first, it was just an add-on though the most important one because he’d dreamt then of doing it with Liam by his side.  

He’s 30 now and he should be settled. Zayn’s beyond grateful that while his mum and dad are worried about him, they’ve never stood in his way and they know that Liam is all he wants, the man he’s fated to be with and now it’s closer than ever and yet just that bit too far away to touch.

Zayn does live his life, he’s got a wide circle of friends and he’s not got a shortage of people to update him when he is out and about. 

The opportunity when it first came up, he shied away from.  He’s got no interest in seeing him. No interest in talking to him.  It’s only that Zayn’s got some good people in the campaign who are lawyers that he’s not bankrupt from the legal action the man’s tried to take against him and the campaign.

He’s interested now though. Now all this has happened with Liam recently.  Now that Jenny’s started to lose it.

Now that cracks are appearing and widening, he half expects him to cancel and yet here Zayn is sat in one of the middle rows, laying low and trying to be inconspicuous for now.

Then he’s there in front of them, smaller than he remembers,  acknowledging the applause and cheers before he sits down, the pop-up advertising stands behind him showing the cover of the book. 

The cover that is Liam’s face and some cheesy book title that makes Zayn feel nauseous. That this man’s not tired of making enough money from Liam already, that he always wants more.

He thinks if Liam doesn’t figure it out or if something happens to distract Liam this time then the only thing that’ll end all this is this man’s death. Or Liam’s.

And Zayn won’t allow it.  He’s impatient to stand up, to question, to shout and yell but he bides his time.  His right leg bounces up and down as he barely listens to him reading excerpts from the book.

Then it’s Q&A time and it’s as predictable and boring as you can imagine. It’s this man answering questions about another man’s destiny. It’s ‘What do you think Liam will call his first child?’ ‘What do you think Liam would like his child to do when he grows up’.

Liam’s not even a dad yet and they’re already asking.

Zayn glances down at the ticket, grins at it then looks up and catches the eye of the woman in the row in front of him who gives a thumbs up and mouths ‘Good luck’.

He thinks her name is Lynne. She’s one of the campaign’s supporters, arriving here at the crack of dawn to be sure of being able to ask one of the questions.

Too risky for Zayn to do it in case he was recognised, she’d slipped the ticket to him earlier and his time’s coming up next.  He smiles at her and then hears the number, 1201 and a microphone is passed to him as he stands up.

“Yeah, my question to you Marcus, is what do you think gives you the right to subject a child then an adult to this emotional coercion and manipulation throughout his life, what makes you think it’s not illegal and when are you going to realise that he’s started to figure it out, that this isn’t forever?”

There are murmurs of disapproval around the room and he feels the microphone pulled away from him but he doesn’t need it.

Marcus remains impassive as the host of the Q&A and this whole event mutters something about ‘Clearly you have your detractors Marcus but this isn’t the right time for that’.

Then Marcus waves the man away and stands up.

“No, no, let’s not ignore the vocal minority because that’s what they want. They want to feel like we don’t listen or hear them. They want to spread this myth that Liam is subject to mental torture and that we or should I say, I do not care about the man who I consider to be as good as my son.”

Zayn clenches his fists.

“Let’s see, it’s Zayn isn’t it or Sam as those not aware of your activities these days may remember you best. I must say it’s impressive how you carry a torch for a man you spent just days with or a boy as he was then as were you.  I understand it’s hurtful to be written out in the way you were though I feel that your bitterness is misguided. I can sympathise.”

“Don’t need your sympathy or your words and nor does Liam.  We just need you to let him go.”

“He can leave tomorrow Zayn. No one is standing in his way.  As far as he's concerned, he could take a flight or a ferry to England and he could be with you in a moment and yet he stays where he is because he knows, even though he’s young and he has doubt sometimes, it’s normal, he knows where he belongs, he knows that he has to leave the past behind, something I hope you find within you.”

Zayn shakes his head, trembling.

“You are so wrong.”

Marcus just smiles and then with an exaggeratedly slow look at his watch, he looks up, his gaze no longer fixed on Zayn.

“Well, time is always the enemy so on that note, back to the studio.”

“You’re going to realise that you’re wrong, you know that right Marcus, your time’s running out so you’d better make that money while you can cause soon everyone is going to see you as I do.”

People are already leaving so they don’t all see it, they don’t see the way Marcus stops for a moment, how Marcus' head lowers and though he doesn’t look back at Zayn, it’s almost like an acknowledgement that Marcus knows Zayn’s right.

Or maybe Zayn’s as delusional as Marcus thinks or the stares Zayn had felt on him during his and Marcus’s exchange said they thought he was.

There’s a time not that long ago he’d have been certain of the latter though supporters would have tried to reassure of him of the former.

He’s starting to believe his supporters are right.

**

For the next few days, Liam reverts to type.  Dutiful, loyal.  He lays it on thick and buys his mum and Jenny flowers.

Insists on going out for drinks with Andy.  Listens with interest in how Andy’s really excited to be going on holiday to the other end of the island for a fortnight.

The island that’s 45 miles North to South and 65 West to East.  

He stops in at the main bookshop in town and buys a book of baby names and draws circles around a few and leaves it on the kitchen counter next to where Jenny’s left a massive box of washing up powder which when he watches her find the baby name book and when she calls him in and hugs him she shifts them both so they’re not obscuring the name.

He accepts it all, smiling and laughing and it’s so normal. As if he’d forgotten how normal felt.

**

The campaigners are growing restless and as Zayn watches Liam, he can’t help but agree.

All the hope that had been built up. It’s starting to fade because Liam’s not like the Liam of recent times lately.

It’s like he’s given up but not in the depressed sense.  He seems happy, content.  He’s not questioning the things he’d started to see were so false.

Zayn half wants to reach into the tv screen and shake him.  

The hope he’d built up that maybe just maybe this milestone birthday for Liam that’s around the corner would be the first one they spend together or at least be the last one Liam spent there.

It’s all fading and for the first time in a long time, people are leaving the campaign.  He’s lost for words and starting to lose hope.

**

Liam calls in sick to work for the first time in his life on a Wednesday.  He genuinely feels like a bit like shit which is unsurprising given he’d been outside in the freezing rain last night doing the jobs Jenny had asked him to do months or maybe even years ago.

Once upon a time, Andy had told him that ‘taking a sickie’ was the height of ‘living it large, mate’ so though he feels like boiled shit, he decides to do just that. 

Just Liam’s own version of it.

Mr.Waite isn’t around when he leaves the house and the kids across the road are already at school. His mum’s had a volunteer job at her local charity shop twice a week for years so he decides to surprise her and take her for lunch.

Okay, when he said ‘living it large’ he meant taking his mum out for lunch, so what?

When he arrives and parks up and looks through the window and there’s no sign of her and all he can see is a woman looking like she’s seen a ghost, he waves cheerfully, walks away and drives straight to his mother’s house.

She’s in the drive about to get in her car looking flustered when he parks alongside the pavement, blocking the driveway so she can’t get out. Her face reddens as he gets out the car, shuts the door behind him and then walks over to her.

“Thought I’d surprise you mum, took a day off sick and went to the charity shop and there was no sign of you.”  

“I, erm, I overslept, darling, also you sound awful my baby, why don’t you go home and tuck yourself in bed eh?.”

“I’m fine.”  Liam grins, “Why don’t we go inside and have a natter?”

She nods, uncertainty written all over her face hesitates a little and Liam would normally rush over to her and be swayed by whatever she has to say next.

Liam doesn’t move.

“Shall we mum? You don’t want my cold to get worse do you?”

“No, no, of course, darling, come on in.”

Twenty minutes later and they’re sat on the settee in her living room in silence.  A silence which Liam feels comfortable in while his mum’s hands tremble each time she picks up the teacup.

“A funny thing struck me when I was on my way back from the charity shop mum, how you live in a place like this and you don’t have a job except for a charity shop job which you don’t even turn up to sometimes and other times you turn up late when you feel like it and yet, you’re always wearing the best clothes and always have the finest china and the latest mod-cons, I dunno, it’s funny what you think of eh?”

Liam sips at his tea and then sets the teacup smiling at her. Unsurprisingly his mum has an answer.

“Well, that’s another thing you can thank your dad for, his money management.  He was always so good with money and he provided for us both, made sure we’d never have to work again.”

“But he’d only had his job for a couple of years and he was the lowest level or that’s what you always told me when you said I should strive for the best so I could make sure I provided for Jenny always.”

She says nothing, just sips at her cup and looks away.

“Oh, and another thing, did dad have a twin cause I’m sure you said once he was an only child and yet I saw the spitting image of dad in the car park at work recently, and it made me think of someone crashing into the bonnet of my car a while back too.”

The teacup tumbles out of his mum’s hand and onto the ground and she makes a gasping sound.

Liam sips at his tea.

“Liam, why are you behaving like this?  I understand if you’re feeling poorly but why be like this on a day like today?”

“What’s today mum?”

“You don’t remember?  It’s the anniversary of your dad and I’s first date.”

“Today is?  I thought that was February.”

“No, you’re mixing that up with Valentine’s da-.”

“Or no, wait, I thought the first date was November,” Liam interrupts then drops down to a crouch and reaches out for the cup his mum keeps fiddling with then grabs her hand firmly.

“Or no, that’ll be any date you pluck from the sky won’t it depending on the day it is that I ever question anything.  Like when I questioned why I was rejected to be a pilot and how you knew before me, or how I questioned about Sam or should I say Zayn, and how he was dragged away from me, it’s fine mum, I get it or at least I’m starting to.”

She pales at the mention of Zayn, of his real name, she only ever knew him as Sam because that's all Liam was supposed to know about him though even calling him Sam is so rare even though he's on Liam's mind every single day, he rarely mentioned him to his mum.

He picks up the cup, places it on the table, drops his hand from his mum’s and gives her one last glance, at the guilt that's written all over her face, though guilt from what except for years of lies he’s not sure yet, and walks out, pulling his phone from his pocket and sending a text just before he reaches his car.

**

Zayn’s at the supermarket with Doniya and her kids when a woman with a mobile phone in her hand and headphones on comes running over and starts yelling excitedly.

Doniya shrugs at him as the woman hugs Zayn.

“He’s confronted her, he’s sussed out his mum, he even said your name, he's coming home to you Zayn, I just know he is.”

Then she’s gone and Zayn pulls his phone from his pocket as Doniya pulls the trolley away from him.

There’s Whatsapp message after Whatsapp message and text after text and then his phone’s ringing so he presses the green accept button and presses the speaker button so Doni can hear too.

“Dad?”

“You need to get home I think Zayn, it’s finally happening. I think he’s sussed it out, get home son, get home.”

His dad rings off and Zayn stares at Doni who smiles.

“You heard him, go on, go home.”

She doesn’t need to say it again.

**

Liam’s feet dangle over the bonnet of his car and he’s sipping at a bottle of coke when he hears another car approach behind him, the engine turns off and the car door open and slam.

Footsteps start then stop, it doesn’t stop Liam though.

“We meet again," he half laughs and then,"In everything, it was honestly the death-knell and the real nail on the head of everything I’ve overlooked for years when you got excited about your stupid holiday for two weeks on an island this size where you always come back with the best tan a man could ever get when it’s been pissing down here the entire two weeks you’ve been away and there isn’t such a thing as a micro-climate on a different part of an island this size, mate.”

The footsteps start again but as Liam glances at him, Andy stops.

“You know there was a time when the fact that you were always there at my darkest times, always magically being there, it was comforting and like you knew me better than I knew myself.  That it didn’t matter what, you’d be there to support me, get me back on my feet.”

“You know I’ve got your back Payno.”

Andy’s voice is hoarse and Liam knows Andy well enough to know that its nerves, he always gets like this when he’s losing an argument when he’s lost for words or when he knows he’s fighting a losing battle.

Except Liam doesn’t know Andy that well really. He knows a version of Andy but he’s not sure he’s the real Andy.

“It’s you who’s pushed me to do all these things that I didn’t really want to do, it’s like you and mum were in collusion, you know what these past weeks when I’ve been adding things up at the start I wondered if you were shagging her.”

Liam slides off the car bonnet then and turns to face Andy.

“Then as I came to really think about things, I started to wish it was as simple as that. I’ve got no idea for certain what’s going on and I feel like you’re the tip of the iceberg, you and mum and Jen but I feel like everything that I entrusted to you, all the hopes, all the fears, the admission to you that the only person I’ve ever really loved in my life is a man though I never said who, I think you've always known and you’ve taken it back or you’ve used it and pushed me deeper into this world that I never wanted.”

“It’s not like that.”

Liam shakes his head.

“Save it mate, save it.  Cause even if I’m wrong about the specifics, I have a feeling I’m a lot closer to the truth than I’ve ever been and if I am wrong then you’ll stop me from walking away right now and you’ll tell me everything, and I mean everything and that includes the truth about Dad and Zayn and we can move on even if it’s not like it is now, we can so yeah stop me now from getting in that car if I’m wrong.”

The only sound for the next couple of minutes is the sea

Andy takes a step forward and Liam wants him to he thinks but then he’s shaking his head and turning away and Liam can’t help the tiny strangled sound that escapes him.

“Thank you.” he manages to get out somehow as he turns his head back slightly towards Andy and nods because he means it then he opens his car door, gets in and without a look back, he drives away.

**

Zayn’s wanted this for so long. Wanted Liam to realise the truth from the moment he met him.

Now it’s happening, he wants it to stop.  Who said logic came into emotions anyway?

He watches as Liam drives somewhere.  Watches the way Liam seems okay on the surface but there’s something in his eyes that’s tearing Zayn apart.

This realisation and knowledge that all he’s stood for, all he’s worked for is crumbling around him and Zayn wants more than ever to run to that studio and break down the doors and release him.

Yet he also realises he can’t do this for Liam, he has to do it for himself because nothing has been of his own free will till now. Till today and if Zayn even tried to take this from him then yes it’d be a new start but it still wouldn’t be on Liam’s terms.

So, he watches and he waits. He’s been doing it for long enough after all.

**

Liam half expects her to not leave on time.  To be here and waiting and then get home and be thrown off-kilter as she’d sob again and that would be the end of that.

Instead, just after 3 pm, she’s there, smiling and waving at him and try as he might he can’t see a crack in the way she’s behaving.

She kisses him and tells him what a wonderful surprise it is to see him and then places her palm against his forehead and says something about how she’s glad he doesn’t have a temperature and maybe he should take time off sick more often if it means he comes to collect her from work again.

And then she’s getting in the car and so does he and he’s driving home the usual way and she’s talking about her shift in work and the patients she treated today.

It’s all fine, till he turns right instead of left, and she’s instantly jumpy and full of questions.

“Where are we going?”

“Liam, what’s going on?”

And then having pulled out her phone.

“What on earth did you say to your mum today, and Andy?”

He says nothing, just smiles and then carries on driving while she frantically taps at her phone.  

“Here we are,” he says as he stops the car.

“But, you hate water?”

“Yeah maybe, but I’ve never hated here,” then he opens the car door and slams it shut and then without looking backward but knowing she’ll follow, he walks over the sand dunes and closer to the sea.

The water’s calm today as he stands a few feet away.

“What’s going on Liam?”  Jenny asks from behind him.

He doesn’t look back, carries on looking out to the sea.

“I should thank you for opening my eyes, well, first of all, I should thank someone else but he’s not here so you’ll have to do.”

She steps in front of him though he looks past her still, unable to bring himself to look,

“I just want to know if whatever this has been for you if it’s all been worth it?  If what you’ve done or been part of has set you up for life?  I also want you to know that I’m grateful for you in some ways. Grateful for you showing me that this isn’t what I want for my life. That this isn’t what I recognise as something I want.”

“Liam, I-.”

“No, you’ve said more than enough, just like her, just like him.  I don’t know what’s happened to me. Got a feeling it’s big and I think I hate you even though for the longest time I loved you, just not the way I thought I should, but I think I hate what’s happened more, what it’s prevented me from doing so go, get out and take the car and go wherever it is you’re meant to be next, somewhere away from where they’re telling us that kids are what we need but neither of us wants that.”

She at least doesn’t attempt to look broken and he’s grateful to her for that.

“At least let me drop you off somewhere.”

“And stop Andy from arriving like some he’s rescuing some damsel in distress again, the damsel being me of course, no thanks Jen, am good here, just gonna sit here for a bit and if all else fails I’ll walk home.”

“What will you do next?”

“Right now, I’m gonna take my shoes off and see what’s so dangerous about that water, beyond that, you know I think I’ll keep that to myself.”

“I’ll pick up my things, I’ll be gone from the house by the time you’re home.”

“Thanks.”

The kiss on the cheek is brief and the way her hand brushes against his fingertips is light.

“I’m sorry Liam, just remember that I’m so sorry.”

He hears her walk away and Liam shuts his eyes, knows she can’t see it. Know it’s not the absolution she needs but whatever’s gone on, he can’t say he can forgive. Doubts he ever will.

He doesn’t know quite how he feels or how he should feel when it’s just him on the beach. He’d expected more from her, more tears, more fight and it didn’t happen. Everything today feels like it’s happened to someone else.

He realises after an hour or so that Andy’s not arriving right on cue and that both scares and excites him.  Realises he hasn't taken his shoes and socks off but that's okay. 

What if he’s alone in the world now? What if this is all that there is and he’s just alienated the three people he could rely on.

Or what if his Dad is alive and waiting for him somewhere?  What if he’s not though?  What if Zayn’s waiting for him someplace?  But then what if Zayn’s as manipulative as the rest of them.

What if all those memories have been as wrong and misleading as his whole life has been?

At least he’d know, at least he’d have the closure of it all.  There are so many questions and not even today has really given him answers.

He shivers and realises that he’ll never get answers if he ends up with pneumonia and so he orders a taxi and it’s like one was waiting around the corner for his call as it beeps its horn within a minute.

Liam walks back over the sand dunes to the taxi and goes home.

**

Zayn’s aware that his mum’s looking at him like he’s made of glass and he’s going to break.

The whole family is in his tiny flat.  In the corner of the room is the box with balloons and signs saying 'Happy Birthday' because they do this each year even though he's never here to experience it himself.

His dad’s on food duty and Safaa and Waliyha are handling the WhatsApp group while Zayn stares at the tv as his mum comes and sit down next to him, resting her hand on his knee.

“I’m fine mum, it’s him you need to worry about.”

“I do love, but he’s not here right now, you are.”

“I’m fine,” he replies and then cause he knows she won’t believe it till she looks him in the eyes, he does just that and repeats it.

She doesn’t look convinced and maybe she’s got a point.  Tonight's not the night to think about that though, tonight really isn't the night to break down. 

“He’s back home,” exclaims Doni as she points at the TV and finds a space on the floor next to her sisters and as Trisha phones Yaser and tells him to forget the food and get back home asap.

**

Mr. Waite is holding the yappy dog in his arms when Liam walks up the driveway of his house and Liam half-heartedly waves.

Turns around and looks at the street he’s lived on for so long and then he pulls out his key and unlocks the door, it creaks open and Liam’s grateful for that little bit of familiarity.

As he walks in, even if he hadn’t been there with Jenny earlier, even if he hadn’t been the one to tell her to leave, he thinks he’d have known she was gone.

It doesn’t smell of her anymore and even as he walks from room to room, there’s no trace of her. Of this place being home anymore.

It’s as though the removal men have been already and taken it all away.

With that thought comes a sudden fear, and he’s opening the cellar door, turning on the light and running down the stairs but it’s still there, the toy chest and he opens it and rummages to the bottom, to the magazine and then the phone which he allows himself to turn on as he crouches down and unlocks the screen, scrolls to the gallery and stares.

“I hope I’m doing the right thing Zayn, I hope this gets me closer to you,” and then cause there’s no one there to look, no one there to catch him, he lifts the phone up to his mouth and kisses it lightly.

“Sentimental sod,” he giggles to himself then he’s placing the magazine and phone back where they lay, pulling out the small box that’s at the bottom of the toy chest and covering it all up and he’s back upstairs within a couple of minutes.

He’s got stuff to do.

Jenny and his mum and Andy had all frowned upon computers, saw them as a way of cutting the ancient art of talking to each other and anyway this island kept promising new ‘smartphones’ but never quite got round to it.

Liam had bought the small laptop a couple of years ago on a whim but had never found the right time to try and use it.

He was never left alone long enough to give himself the chance to try and use it. Tonight is different.

He unboxes the laptop and opens the lid, in the box with it is what’s called a ‘dongle’, he honestly thought the bloke in the shop was having a laugh with him when he called it that but apparently, that’s what it’s called.

He plugs in the laptop and even though it’s a couple of years, the laptop remembers the fact that the guy in the shop had set it all up for Liam and he can remember the password like yesterday.

12ZAYN01  

He’s a creature of habit that’s all okay?

The home screen comes up and Liam remembers what to do clicking on a button.  It always struck him as strange that the work computers never had access to the full internet but they said it was to protect the company from being hacked which made sense and anyway Liam had all that he needed for his job without it.

What to type first?

That’s the 6 million pound question.  He wants to type so much, find out so much and learn so much.

Everything and anything to get him closer to Zayn.  To the truth about his dad.

He thinks what he settles on is pointless, also ever so slightly egocentric but he does it anyway.

He expects it to come back with ‘0 results found’ and he’s already got in mind what he wants to type afterward. Then he hits the enter button, reaches for the glass of water next to the laptop and the search results come back after a second.

It’s a miracle he doesn’t spit the water out.  

It’s search results with his name on it, not just 1 page or 2 pages because, in reality, that’s to be expected, he’d lost his dad in a tragic accident so maybe there are reports about that.

Tens of thousands of pages of results apparently, and his face on a set of image results at the top of the page are not anything he expects.

He scrolls down and words spring out at him but just as he’s clicking on one of the search results, the screen cuts out and all the lights go out.

Liam blinks then stares at the screen because okay, the power’s gone out but the screen’s still turned on for now and he should be able to still use the laptop and access the internet without the power at least for a few minutes but as he presses what he thinks is the refresh button, a page comes up telling him he can’t connect to the internet.

He presses refresh again and again. Nothing.  It has to be a coincidence right?

He tries to recall the words.  Results like ‘Star of the most successful TV show ever, Liam Payne splits with wife’

Maybe there’s another Liam Payne who looks like him and just split with his wife?  

Then the question at the top of the screen underneath the number of search results found did you mean ‘Free Liam Payne’, click on this button to narrow your search results’

Free Liam from what he wonders.  Whoever this other Liam is then yeah, free him but not if he’s done a crime.

He carries on clicking refresh til there’s a knock on the door and with a glare at the screen, he pushes his chair back, puts his glass down and walks to the door opening it.

Mr. Waite stands there.

“Just checking you’re okay, son, I phoned the electricity company and they said everything’s down till to the morning. Internet, lights, and everything. You’re welcome to stay with us if you like.”

Figures, Liam thinks, and for a moment he considers saying yes but then a thought strikes him.

“No I’m good thanks Mr.Waite, gonna get an early night, shake off this cold and be right as rain tomorrow.  Thank you though, thanks for everything.”

The other man nods and Liam stares at the door as he shuts it, smiles, walks back to the table, presses refresh once cause Mr. Waite could be wrong then as he’s not, he walks away from the laptop to his bedroom and pulls the door to.

**

The flat’s quiet now.  His mum and dad are in his bedroom.  His sisters asleep in sleeping bags scattered around Zayn’s flat.

He watches the tv.  Watches as Liam breathes in and out.  The excitement earlier has faded. Had faded pretty much as soon as the power was cut.  Deliberately he’s sure as nowhere else reported power cuts. 

The excitement which had turned to fury and even that’s faded now.  Zayn’s so used to these tactics.  The manipulation.  He’ll always be angry but that always softens when Liam at least can rest, can sleep.

He’s just poured some coffee into a cup in the kitchen when Safaa yells.

“What?  They’ve stopped the programme?”

Zayn’s not even aware till his mum points it out half an hour later that he’s spilled his coffee down himself as all hell breaks loose.

**

Despite everything, Marcus had ever said, despite his protestations to the contrary over the years, he always knew this day would come.

He watches as everyone on the team around him panics.  Watches as the execs look like they’re about to collapse.

Watches as the house of cards falls around them.

Zooms in on the tunnel Liam had burrowed his way through then to the picture Liam had placed on the laptop screen.

He’s almost proud.

No, he is proud.  It’s just sad it has to end this way and that he can’t let Liam succeed. He’s ready for the consequences.  He doesn’t lose, can’t lose, will never lose, that’s all.

Just sucks that Liam’s the one to truly pay this time.

**

Liam read a lot of books, everyone knew that.  

Everyone knew that he loved spy thrillers and then books about action heroes, he loved, no, loves,  reading about Batman and let’s not forget according to that radio station, he is Batman.

All the best spies and superheroes have secrets.

Well so does Liam. His secret just so happens to be that within the books he read cover to cover, over and over were not the same old stories.

They were manuals on how to pilot planes. Seaplanes and ordinary planes.   The Air Force may not want his piloting skills to fight in conflict but he only has himself to harm if he flies one of his own right?

Well, okay, not strictly one of his own. One of the ones at the marina.  The seaplane he’d sat in when he was 8 years old and had imagined himself piloting one day.

He hopes Mr. Rankin will forgive him for borrowing it.  One day he’ll return it to him.  Assuming he doesn’t crash it that is.

Cause now he’s in the pilot seat and staring at the controls in front of him, and it’s still dark out, he feels the fear.

The fear of water, the fear of what if his eyesight means he crashes the plane the moment it flies in the air, what if it crashes on houses, what if he never gets the chance to say he’s sorry to his mum for the words he used and for not telling her he loves her.

What if he succeeds instead though?  What if his dad is dead?  What if Zayn’s moved on, it’s been so long, it’d make sense if he had.

It makes less sense that he’d wait for Liam.  

There was a poster at Uni that he remembers.  Feel the fear and do it anyway.

He assumes the person who came up with that never sat in a seaplane staring death or failure in the face.

He turns the master switch on, having prepped everything else the way the books said, then the throttle up and down several times and each step takes him closer, every single moment he expects the plane to upend itself or explode and Liam’ll either die in some fireball or drown.

But then the plane gets more power and the propellers rotate and the plane is moving slowly but surely across the water, the sound deafening to Liam but there’s no sign of anyone still trying to stop him.

Then a couple of minutes later, the plane leaves the water and it’s flying.

Liam is flying a plane and he yells with delight because he’s going to do this somehow.  He glances at the map, at the course he’d set and he can do this, he can.

Then a gust of wind buffets the plane and it loses altitude quickly before Liam adjusts and stabilises it.

Then another one gust stronger than the last comes and how can it suddenly be windy when he’s barely gone anywhere and when the weather had been so calm?

He adjusts everything in front of him when he sees it too late.

Birds and planes of any description are never a good match for each other and he could almost laugh at his misfortune as the engine cuts out, and he’s losing altitude fast, too fast though he tries to arrest it.

He tries to ease the speed, and he succeeds somewhat but he’s still going to brace and he tries to call ‘Mayday’ even though he hadn’t even reported to Air Traffic Control, doesn’t even know if Air Traffic Control even exists anymore on this island as he’s not seen a plane in the air for years.

Why he’s suddenly just remembered that?

The display and the robotic voice squawk at him and tell him how fast he’s losing altitude so he gets into the brace position, and wonders if the real reason for the brace position is true and waits for it to reach zero, for the lights to go out, for Zayn to be the last face he sees and the wind to be the last thing he hears.

He crashes alright.

But it’s not with the thud he expects though his head rebounds from the window to his right and he curses and rubs at his head as the plane comes to a sudden halt. No blood is on his fingertips so that's one thing. 

There’s a tearing sound which he thinks must be the fuselage breaking up but as he cracks one eye open, he’s confused.

The pain in his head isn’t as strong as he expected, any discomfort actually comes more from the fact that there’s a bright light shining in his face and he’s looking upwards towards the nose of the seaplane which is sticking through something.

Something that looks like fabric, that has cloud shapes on it.  The rest of the seaplane should be submerged, he should be starting to feel wet and cold but it’s resting on something and as the light gets brighter he peers out the window to see what looks like a staircase.

“What?”

He says to no one of course because clearly, heaven’s a bit weird.  That you land in heaven in whatever killed you and there are steps downwards to helpfully take you away from the danger and then scoop you up and hand you over to whoever.

There’s water as Liam looks out the window but and it’s probably just because Heaven’s like this.  It doesn’t like the marina or the sea because it drains it away like a plughole in a bath.

And where’s he thought of that before?  He rubs at the scar on the back of his neck.

Belatedly he realises that he can get out of the plane and onto the steps and not come into contact with water. It takes a bit of shoving but he manages to open the door and jumps out and he looks around him, feels for the object in his jacket pocket and breathes easier.  

Funny, he didn't think he'd breathe at all in heaven. 

The seaplane’s barely damaged. Just a few scratches, the material that the nose is poking through is more damaged. And as he nears it and warily, pokes a figure at the material, it’s a thin fabric and then what feels like hardboard.

So heaven’s made of hardboard and material made to look like dark or light clouds depending on the time of day?

The sound of a slow handclap fills the space where Liam is and he looks around him then upwards.

“Congratulations kiddo, only took you well pretty much exactly thirty years, it’s your birthday well right about now and for your birthday, you get to experience exactly how fucked up my world is compared to yours.”

Liam stares upwards and around him, confused, scared because maybe the fact that he didn’t do his biology homework when he was 12 because he wanted to read the latest Batman comic instead means he’s in hell.

“Oh don’t look so scared, but if you are scared, no one else is watching kid, it’s just you and me and a few execs who would be more than happy to rewind this and have you wrapped up safely in bed with the next girl of your dreams or hell, even the next guy of your dreams by the morning if you’d rather, they'll release in a day or two and make millions from all this if you go back, if you go back home.”

“Zayn was right then? This is all fake? And dad?”

“No, well, no, you aren’t fake Liam.  The sets and the houses may be manufactured, your relationships may have been manufactured, but you and your experiences, they were real.”

Liam takes note of the way he the voice ignored Liam’s question about his dad.

“As long as they fit in with your vision of what my life should be?”

The voice laughs.

“You’ve always had this attitude about you, Liam, that’s why we needed to curb it, to ease it down a little because if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have the almost thirty years we’ve had and we can still do wonderful things, even more so now.”

The voice pauses then adds.

“Out there in the world, you’ll have to fight tooth and nail to just live, here we’ll give you all you want. Money, love, adoration of those around you and the knowledge that everyone who watches you wants you to succeed.”

It’s Liam’s turn to laugh, bitterly, sadly.

“As long as it meets your needs.”

“But, of course, what more could a man want, what can the world out there give you except. loneliness, misery, and the regret of knowing you’ve turned your back on all of this?”

“You mean apart from hope, independence and the chance to think about what I want to do each day rather than be beholden to others?”

“That’s not all it’s cracked up to be Liam, trust me.”

“Trust you?”  Liam shakes his head.

He looks behind him, sees the Way Out sign above the door for the first time, and nudges it gently with his shoulder. It opens and he reaches his hand out, to where it’s dark and to what, he doesn’t know but his hand doesn’t get swallowed up and he’s not attacked by roaring dogs.

The voice sounds less calm now.

“Liam, stay, stay where you’re loved, stay with us, we will make your life the greatest it can be.”

Liam pulls his hand away from the dark, straightens up and looks around him at what he’s familiar with and then he smiles, happily, with a sense of certainty he’s never felt.

“The man I love even if he’s not out there waiting, he’s what’s sustained me when I think I’ve always known what’s on this side of the door is all for show, so yeah him he’s the what’s out there apart from those things and that’s all I’ve ever wanted, he is.”

“And what if he’s married, what if he gave up on the crush that was never realistic ever, what if you see him and it doesn’t work out, Liam, it’s not worth taking the risk.”

The man sounds more and more desperate and there was a time, not that long ago that Liam may have capitulated, may have softened, but there’s something through that open door, something that the man seems to know is waiting otherwise, why be so desperate?

Even if it’s not what he’s wanted all his life, he has to try right?

So he smiles up, looks around him for the last time and says, “Well then, I guess, only time will tell.”

**

Zayn could only ever afford a small flat in this part of town.  London’s prohibitively expensive anywhere but particularly here near to the studios of the most famous tv show in the world.

The moment the transmission had been cut, Zayn knew and he knew where he had to be.

He’s been waiting for four hours, his phone’s almost out of battery and he’d been ready to give up hope when a message had popped up from someone he’d lost contact with years ago. Someone who’d worked on the show for years and who sympathised with Zayn but could do no more.

Just three simple words that have Zayn as scared and nervous as well, actually he’s never been this nervous in his life.  There's a crowd growing larger on the other side of the studios, here it's just him. 

He’s stared at the reflection in his phone too many times, fiddled with the way his hair looks. The same hairstyle Liam knew him to have. Back then, all those years ago, that he’s never changed because when Liam was free he didn’t want that to be yet another change he’d have to cope with.

He’s added extra tattoos sure, including the one that matters the most.  

Time’s stood still these years and he’s scared of what time moving forward could bring but he’s about to get it.

Correction: they are.

He stares at the door across the road from him.  It’s half 3 in the morning on the 29th of August. Liam’s 30th.  His mum had sent him a photo an hour after he'd left, the flat covered in balloons. 

And he’s overwhelmed enough with that thought when the door opens, and a foot appears and then it’s a whole body. A body and face that Zayn could recognise in pitch black, never mind the dark of night illuminated by the street lights on that side of the road.

On the walls around the outside of studios are the remnants of posters that Zayn and the campaign had put up. Stuff from years ago before they were banned from doing it, threatened with legal action or even prison.

Zayn takes a step forward as the figure steps away from the door and walks under the street light, hesitant steps bringing him closer. 

Step after step after step until he’s there, inches from Zayn, shrouded in darkness now as the street lights nearest to Zayn are out.

“It’s you.”

Then

“I don’t understand anything at all except you’re here and I knew you would be.”

Zayn steps closer so he can see Liam better and he reaches his hands out to him, smiles, almost deliriously happy.

“Happy birthday babe.”

Liam stares at Zayn’s hands, shakes his head, chews his lips and then asks, his voice breaking with what sounds like fear. “What do you mean?  What? Where even are we?”

It almost breaks Zayn because what did he expect?  Did he really expect Liam to come bouncing out of there and into Zayn’s arms and they’d march into a new life together and live happily ever after?

No, he honestly didn’t, but he also hadn’t expected this.

“I’ll explain,” he says softly, “Just know you’re safe and where we are doesn’t matter, all that matters is that what we are right now is together, yeah, Leeyum, you’re safe and everything from now on is in your hands.”

Liam makes a sound, not an entirely unhappy one and then he steps closer to Zayn and goes to take another but then he curses and he has to pull his right foot away harder and he murmurs quietly.

“Chewing gum.” Liam chuckles.

The happy sound takes Zayn back years and he has to blink back the tears in his eyes but there’s this wider smile on Liam's face as his fingertips reach out and they trace the words on the side of Zayn’s arm.

“The way you said my name, and the fact that it’s dark but still I know you have the words I wrote on that piece of paper right there, the words from the dream."

Zayn brushes the tear away from his own cheeks but then a finger rubs at the tear and Liam's quiet voice.

"Don't cry Zayn, I'm here, I'm home."

Then quieter still, the smallest trace of uncertainty he adds, "So, take me home, please?

Chapter Text

Zayn never kidded himself it’d be easy.  You don’t go through what they’ve all been through and wake up the next day perfectly fine.

Especially not with all of the scrutiny.   

People are very good at saying what should happen before it happens like ‘Liam should never have to face a camera again’  or ‘I hope when it’s all over and the show ends, or if he finds out the truth, we’ll never see him’ but when it actually does happen, they forget those thoughts. .

It's really unsurprising as most people pretend like they want the best and that’s probably harsh but the truth hurts doesn’t it?

People want the best but they’d got so used to Liam being part of their lives.  Being a way of disguising and shielding themselves from the worst of their pain and so it’s sort of natural how they can’t let go.  

It makes a difficult situation even harder though.

Zayn hasn’t seen Liam for weeks.  It’s been nine months since he walked out of the studios and right now, he’s got no idea where he is.

Liam broke the golden rule between them, the promise, a couple of days ago that no matter where he was and it was fine, it was natural to want to just exist on his own, to keep in touch and just send a text saying where he was.

He hasn’t sent one for over two days and Zayn’s torn between demented worry and trying to be calm, trying to not have to know where Liam is.

It’s why he allows his mates to drag him out to the pub. Not his mates from the campaign, they’ve long since drifted out here and there.

Its Zayn’s real mates.  The ones from before .  Before he got the acting job, and his life revolved around Liam.

He gets that they’re trying to re-educate him, knows he needs it.  Knows that it’s become habitual, the staying at home and keeping himself shielded from the world. It’s what he expected of Liam more than himself.

Zayn’s got no excuse.  Zayn knows the world. Knows how fucked up it is and he’d expected to have to shield Liam from that.  

He hasn’t has to and instead, it’s like Zayn’s the toddler, finding his feet and place in the world and too nervous to do it.

It doesn’t help that people recognise Zayn now.  The storm of publicity when Liam came out of the studio made sure that happened.  Zayn had also wanted to act but he also wanted to write.

He’d secretly harboured dreams of writing some screenplay that’d turn into a massive film hit and he could choose that actor he’s always thought was fucking amazing to play the lead role.

Offers came in after Liam came out of the studio and not just for Liam. The only trouble was they were all centred on the experience that Zayn was desperate to get away from.  Figured Liam would be too.

Thinks Liam probably is desperate to get away from it but is keeping on going out of some irrational need to be polite to people who don’t deserve it.  

Or maybe just maybe, Zayn doesn’t know Liam as well as he thought.

A finger flicking at Zayn’s ear pulls him from his thoughts and he reflexively grabs at the finger and there’s a satisfying ‘Ow, get off you little shit,” from the owner of said finger.

“Well, next time don’t fucking do it it’s as simple as that Tommo,” Zayn huffs and folds his arms.

“‘Ere lads, he’s got a cob on again, shall we tickle him and see if we can make him laugh?” Tommo says to the other lads in the small bar of the local Labour club.

“If you do try and tickle me, know it’s the last thing you’ll ever do,”  Zayn warns.

It should be no surprise when his three best mates chorus a mock ‘OOHHHHHHHH’ and hold up imaginary handbags, and fuck them, honestly screw them from here to next Sunday and every Sunday after that.

For making him smile and then laugh and then forget about Liam Payne for all of about two minutes.

*

Two hours later and they’re walking home.  Danny and Louis halfway up the road while Ant and Zayn walk together.

“So, you’ve no idea where he is then?” Ant asks, his tone casual but the nervous glances he sends Zayn’s way as he asks giving away his anxiety at broaching the subject.

Zayn considers snapping at Ant, at saying he knows he doesn’t want to ask cause what the hell does he say anyway in response to the answer he knows he’s going to get. He doesn’t though, snap that is.

“Nope. I mean I think he’s still in this country which is something at least but where I don’t know.  I keep telling myself not to look on Twitter.”

“I did earlier, nothing for a couple of days so maybe he’s just lying low,” Ant suggests.

“Yeah maybe.  Or maybe he’s doing the thing he promised he wouldn’t do without me cause they said he shouldn’t try it alone.”

 “His dad?”

Zayn nods and then stops, raking his hands through his hair, surprised though god knows why at how shaky his hands are.

Ant grabs one of them, rubs it soothingly, just like he used to when Zayn was a kid and had been pushed over in the playground once too often.

Just like he did before he threw his arm around Zayn in the same playground, declared boldly that Zayn was his new best friend and that if anyone tried the same shit with Zayn again, they’d have him and Danny to deal with.

It worked then and it works now.  Sort of, at least it takes the edge off.

“I’m sorry I lost touch for so long, sorry I got so wrapped up in, well, you know.”

“Falling in love with a lad in an extraordinary situation and doing all you could to raise awareness don’t need an apology from anyone, least of all from you to me.  I knew that if I’d needed you like really needed you, you would have dropped anything but Liam needed you more.”

“Emphasis on past tense,”  Zayn says flatly.

Ant’s hand moves from where it was so soothing in Zayn’s to his face, cupping his jaw, just like his Dad does it sometimes or did when Zayn needed encouragement and love.

“I get why it’s hard mate, and it’s probably been harder on you I’d say than Liam, and hear me out on this before you get all lairy and argumentative on me.”

Ant pauses as though he’s waiting for Zayn to argue but maybe it’s just that Zayn’s too tired to argue or maybe he knows, knows Ant’s dead right.

“You had to watch while life went on as normal for Liam and okay normal was far from it, but he was living in that world, maybe with suspicions especially towards the end but it was his life and he was doing his best, didn’t know any different.  You did know different, you had to watch while the young lad you loved turned into a man you still loved and fought for with everything you had and each day knowing he might not come home to you.”

Ant pauses for a moment to wipe away a stray tear falling down Zayn’s cheek.

“You didn’t care, you had one goal and that was to make it so even if Liam didn’t get himself out of it, you would find a way to get him out of it.  You’d end that crazy fucker Marcus and even if things hadn’t turned out as they did in the end, you’d have still been there in thirty years or forty years right up to your dying day, that’s fucking brave mate, and yeah Liam’s going through it right now and I would never argue against that, but you went through it for all those years, put all your own dreams on hold so don’t act like it’s nothing and you’re a melodramatic so and so when it’s the furthest thing from the truth imaginable okay?”

Zayn opens his mouth, tries to find words, can’t even muster up a thank you and all that comes from his mouth is a sobbing sound.

He feels Ant pull him close, hugging him and then within about thirty seconds, two other bodies close in on him and there’s a voice in his head, tempted to do what he’d normally do to deflect, make some wisecrack about how he’d rather Louis flicked his ear.

That’d be a lie though and he drinks in the comfort, the love and the honesty he’d forgotten these lads give him without question or hesitation and he accepts it, beyond grateful that they understand him so well.

Silently hoping that wherever Liam is he’s getting the same right now.

**

Liam puffs at his cigarette, grimaces at the taste that’s not really a taste at all and then shakes his head, drops it to the floor and stubs it out with his left shoe.  

Pulls the collar up on his jacket and adjusts the hat he wears habitually now and stares at the doors of the pub on the opposite side of the road.

It’s an unseasonably cold night in May, and he should be wrapped up in a hotel room.   Or let’s be honest, a couple of hundred miles away from here but he’s not walking away now.

The doors open and he braces himself, hope building up, the nerves churning around in his stomach as he watches, waits.

It’s a group of women though so his shoulders slump and he leans back against the lamp post, ignores the curious glances of the lads racing up and down on their bikes and pulls the packet of chewing gum from his pocket, pulls a piece from the packet and shoves it in his mouth, putting the packet back where it was and resumes his watch on the doors.

He doesn’t have that long to wait in the end.  

Ten minutes later and the doors open, he’d recognise the way they walk immediately and even if he didn’t the greeting to them as they step outside and hold the door for the person walking into the pub confirms it.

Here goes nothing he thinks.  

He almost doesn’t take the steps he needs, he almost walks away, but he doesn’t do either. Instead, with a purpose and confidence he doesn’t feel, he walks forward and with a voice that’s confident and not as tremulous and scared as he was back when he was a kid or in that car park not that long ago, he says.

“Dad?  Geoff? It’s me, Liam.”

**

Zayn is dragged out, sort of, honestly, he goes along quite willingly to the pub for Sunday dinner the next day.

They sit and watch football and he could kid himself almost that he’s still the same lad he always was.

Without any of the scar tissue and damage caused by everything because they’re so easy to rub along with.

Louis and his tales of his siblings and how he’s got three border collies now who rule the roost from the dog rescue place where he lives, mainly on account of the lad there who Louis claims he just takes pity on but clearly fancies the pants off.

Ant and Danny who are running their own boxing club now, taking disenfranchised kids off the streets.  The effects of austerity had dragged everyone down in their part of Yorkshire and it’s a small dent in that, a small challenge to all the difficulties the kids face but it’s something, it’s real and he’s so proud of them.

At one stage while he’s watching them, listening to them, he half considers moving back home, all the while knowing it’s never a realistic possibility.  

They get back home about 7.30pm.  Ant and Louis arguing the toss about whether Everton are going to win the league finally this season or not with two games left to play and it being tighter at the top than it has been in years.

There’s £30 at stake hence the fierceness in their arguments.  

Zayn tosses his keys onto the kitchen counter and shrugs his jacket off.  He’s in a different flat, he and Liam had moved here together three months after Liam got out.

It’s bigger, comfier and yet so empty without Liam.  Even Ant, Danny, and Louis can’t change that.

“Brew, lads?” he calls out but there’s no response so he flicks the switch on the kettle anyway then heads into the corridor of the flat when he hears him.

He whirls around and then when he can’t see him, he pushes the door to the lounge open and sees his mates frozen, only Louis glances at him and there’s a look of concern on his face.

Liam’s still talking though so he pushes past Louis and Danny to pick it up.

“It’s just a message, Zed, he left an answerphone message,” Ant says quietly.

Two things cross Zayn’s mind immediately.  The first, Liam has his mobile number, why not text him?  And the second, why the fuck is he wasting his time worrying about that when he could be listening to his message so he rewinds it, replays it and listens.

“It’s me, it’s Liam, are you there Zed?  You’re not, well maybe that’s better.”

He sounds like he’s outside somewhere, the noise of traffic in the background and he sounds unsteady, unhappy, uncertain.

“I’m sorry I’ve gone so quiet, sorry I haven’t checked in like I promised but I’ve been pretty busy here.  Don’t worry I’m not on the other side of the world or anything like that. I did something I had to do and I had to do it on my own but now I’m here, now I’ve done it.”

He pauses and then quietly, so quiet Zayn thinks he’ll have to replay to be sure except really probably he’s sure already, he adds.

“I wish I wasn’t here alone, wish you were here,” he pauses once more and there’s a small sniffing sound, “I mean, it’s not the worst thing and he’s invited me to stay, says we have a lot to talk about but I realised that as much as I’ve so much to talk to him about, so do we, you and me and so I promise, just give me a bit more time. Please?”

Then he’s gone and the voice on the machine tells him that it’s the end of the message and he wants to crawl into the phone and find Liam.

A hand squeezes his shoulder and he looks up slightly, sees Louis’ face which is all too concerned, sympathetic.

He nods at the unspoken question cause he is okay, or as okay as he can be because at least Liam’s alive, at least he’s talking of them as a future conversation, not something he’s forgotten.

“Where do you think he is?” Ant asks.

Zayn thinks for a moment till the answer’s there, plain, obvious.

“His dad.”

There’s an exhale of breath from Louis next to him and then a quietly muttered ‘Fuck’ from Danny and well, yeah.

“That’s heavy,” says Ant which is probably the understatement of the century.

“Do we know where his dad lives? Fucking hell, ‘lives’ that’s. Like Liam thought he was dead till not that long ago and now he’s there, with his dad.”

Zayn turns around, Louis’ hand falling away and sits heavily down on the settee.

“I don’t have a clue. I mean I think Geoff came from Wolverhampton originally but whether he lives there now or not, God knows and maybe that’s the point of Liam phoning like that, to avoid having to say.”

There’s a murmur of agreement from the three of them and Zayn looks up at each of them, feeling stronger than he thought he would.

Liam sounded upset at one point sure, but he also sounded certain, more certain that Zayn thinks he’s sounded for months.  And he needed to do this on his own.

Maybe Zayn needed this too, needed time to reconnect with the people who’ve known him since he was a scruffy little sod prone to scuffing his knee playing football than fighting for the freedom of a man he doesn’t think he’ll ever get out of the habit of loving.

A hand ruffles his hair, he doesn’t jerk away though, instead, he looks up and shrugs, a ghost of a smile playing on his lips.

“I think we need some of Yorkshire’s finest brew to soothe us all, what you reckon Malik?” Louis smiles down at him.  

“Okay,” Zayn responds simply, turning his attention back towards the answering machine, pressing the play button and listening again to Liam’s voice.

**

Liam watches as Geoff goes up to the counter of the cafe they’re in and orders two breakfasts.

Notices as there’s a flicker of recognition on the woman’s face but as her eyes meet Liam’s she swiftly turns her attention back to Geoff.

Geoff cause thinking of him as his dad is too alien right now.  Impossible to comprehend he’s alive and a few feet away from him rather than Liam having to visit a grave in a cemetery or stare across some remote hill or at some football or sports ground or wherever they scatter ashes.

He doesn’t know when he’ll get used to the idea that he’s alive. Doesn’t know he ever will.

There are feelings inside of him too complex for him to understand.  Liam’s starting to realise that counselling could be a good thing and that walking away after the second session he’d been thrust into in the immediate aftermath probably wasn’t the best idea.

Or maybe it wasn’t then, perhaps it is now.

Geoff pulls the chair away from the table slightly, sits down and then pulls it closer again opposite Liam.

“They’ve run out of mushrooms but I told ‘em that’s okay, you’ve never liked them.”

Liam bristles at that.  Can’t help it. He’d tried them the way Zayn did them a month or two after he walked out the studio, now he loves them.

He’s about to say it when he catches Geoff’s eye, catches this look of what almost looks like a desperate need for approval like Liam’ll agree and Liam’s too in need for this to work between them to go against it so he smiles.

“Thank you, also well remembered.”

Too late he realises, of course, Geoff knows, he’d been watching Liam all these years. Watching Liam go through the grief, watching Liam shoulder the blame even though there was nothing to be blamed upon Liam.

He didn’t intend to bring it up here, even as the words form in his head, he thinks he’ll stop himself.

He doesn’t.

“Were you and her, mum, or whatever she was, did you love each other or was it just that you were thrown together?”

Geoff purses his lips looks downwards and then meets Liam’s gaze.

“She wasn’t a bad person was Julia, that was her real name too.  I think she grew to love you but even while I was still in the show she was bitter that it almost kiboshed her own family plans.”

“I didn’t ask about me,” Liam prods gently.

“No, you didn’t. Thing is Liam, there’s stuff that you don’t know, stuff that you need to know.  Stuff I discovered when you were still a toddler. The real reason why I was pulled from the show.”

“What was it?”

The waitress approaches slowly with their breakfasts as if she knows how weighty the conversation is, how much is at stake but Liam gestures her forward then as she lays the plates down Liam reverts his attention back to Geoff.

Back to what matters.

“Are you sure you want to talk about it now? I mean here, in public, are you sure?”

Liam isn’t especially at the intense look in Geoff’s eyes but he’s also afraid if they walk out of here now, walk the ten minutes it’d take to get back to Geoff’s and sit down with a cup of tea, he’ll lose his nerve and not to want to hear.

“Yeah, yeah I’m sure,” he replies.

**

Ant, Danny, and Louis' head back home the next morning and Zayn makes them promise to come down more often while they make him promise to visit Yorkshire too and to bring Liam.

He even manages a confident thumbs up then he turns away and starts the walk home.

He doesn’t know or even realise the direction he’s taking until he gets there.  There are ‘Danger - demolition site - keep out!’ signs all over.

Still there are the defaced signs from before, when Liam was still in there.

Life’s moved on for them all after a fashion but the demolition signs apart which Zayn suspects are there only to try and deter curious visitors and souvenir seekers, it’s like time stopped here and it’s light now but Zayn could shut his eyes for a moment and he swears he could relive Liam walking out into the dark night every time he shuts his eyes.

He thought if he came back here again, he’d want to throw rocks, drive a crane through the entire site but instead, he feels a sense of satisfaction that okay, Liam isn’t here right now but they’re both alive.

They’re both intact.  Liam’s doing something good, reconnecting and healing, maybe so far away from fully healed that he never will quite make it by the time he’s 80 cause Zayn suspects it’s not something you can ever overcome completely.

And there’ll always be this part missing from them. This time together that other couples have in their twenties that’s so innocent, this sense of adventure and fun and drama all at the same time.  

The way being in love so young can be.

They had it so briefly and it burned onwards even while apart but it’s never not going to be a barrier Zayn knows that Zayn followed Liam’s journey and yet Liam could never do that with Zayn.

And yet.

it seems silly to base confidence like Zayn has today on a one-sided voice message from Liam and particularly when he’d seemed distressed at one point but Zayn has known Liam for so long.

Still knows him despite the changes in him., them, cause Zayn’s changed too.

Somehow he knows. Always did he thinks and that’s fine, but it could take days, weeks, months even and Liam had said something when he left the show, that Zayn had to begin again, that Zayn had stalled for so long, he had to find a reason to carry on that wasn’t centred just around Liam.

Maybe now it’s time to do just that Zayn thinks. Maybe ideas form in the strangest places, at the strangest times.

Like now.

Zayn pulls out his phone, unlocks it, searches for a number and then before he can stop himself makes the call.   

**

Two days later and Liam’s fiddling with the new tie to go with his new suit.  He’s all fingers and thumbs today, his hands trembling with nerves.

“Need a hand?”

Liam turns his head back towards Geoff and nods, there’s a barely concealed look of relief and happiness that Liam agreed and he’s there in front of Liam, sorting out the tie in less than twenty seconds.

When he’s done, Liam expects Geoff to walk away but instead, Geoff lays his hand lightly on Liam’s arm.

“You don’t have to do this Liam, you’ve already done more, accepted more than I ever thought you would, this, I mean this is, fucking hell lad, it was a bombshell on you.”

Liam stares down at Geoff’s hand.

“I know, and I still don’t know how I feel.  Still feel like I may walk away but just like that night outside the pub I know if I don’t do this now,  I doubt I ever will,” then with a grin and looking at Geoff, meeting his eyes he adds, “Besides, I didn’t spend eighty quid at Marks and Sparks getting a new suit for me to run away like a baby so come on, let’s go before I change my mind.”

Forty minutes later and Geoff stops the car, pulls the handbrake on and turns off the engine.

It’s a relatively new housing estate, small neat looking houses, a mix of detached and semi-detached, well-kept lawns and then there’s the house they pulled up outside.

Plants hanging from a hook either side of the front door and a small front garden with a Skoda in the drive.

“You still sure you want to do this?”

No, Liam isn’t anymore.  He wants to reverse out of here and keep running, wants to be anywhere but here.  

Wants to wake up from all of this and be in a world of normality, a world where he’s not scared that it's too late to reclaim his life, be happy.

Then he spots a face looking out of the window, just for a moment and he’s out the door before he can think twice.

Opening the gate, dimly aware of Geoff shutting his own door, and the sound of the car alarm beeping once and then footsteps behind him as he approaches the front door.

Of the way the door opens and then Geoff’s hand steadying Liam gently as he wobbles then Geoff’s voice.

“Liam, this is Karen, this is your real mum.”

**

“Mr. Malik?”

Zayn looks up when his name’s called and sees the woman approach him, hand outstretched.

“So glad to meet you, we’ve got a lot to talk about, come with me.”

An hour later and Zayn clutches his briefcase tighter than before, practically bounces down the corridor and then into the lift and then as he exits the building, he clenches his fist and mutters a little ‘Yes’ and then checking the time on his watch, he hails a black cab.  

His mum and dad are waiting in the restaurant by the time he arrives and he hugs them. It’s the first time he’s seen them in a couple of months.

They’d moved back to Yorkshire a month or two after Liam had got out.  No longer needing to keep such a close eye on their son though Yaser had to stop Trisha from coming down again when it was clear Liam was gone for a while.

Hence the lads’ visiting Zayn wasn’t quite as out the blue as Zayn had first thought.  Zayn knows they have no clue why they’re here and he’s almost tempted to keep them in misery for a while longer but truth is, he’s bursting to do this.

Truth is he can barely contain his excitement, his joy.

He pulls the papers out of his briefcase as his dad orders a drink for him and says to bring an extra plate so Zayn can share the tapas they’re having.

“So, you know I’ve been a bit aimless lately. A bit lost in what to do next. Just fulfilling odd jobs.”

His parents nod cause of course they know.

“Well, I saw the lads off the other day, feels like forever ago in truth and I was going to walk home, I did actually, it’s just that I took a long way around and I found myself outside the studio and it was weird, it wasn’t how I thought it’d be and I was looking at it and thinking well, this is good, I can walk away from here and be alright and I can hopefully show that to Liam who can benefit from that but then I saw a sign, a phone number and it’s like everything suddenly made sense.”

Trisha and Yaser exchange a glance and then look back towards Zayn.

“Zayn, tell us before your mum reaches across the table and wrings your neck for teasing us.”

Zayn grins and then places the plans he’d had completed just yesterday on his parent’s side of the table.

“One good thing about the campaign and the group, well loads of good things but there were all kinds of people involved in it.   Including architects and people that know what you can do with good space.”

Then he places more papers in front of his parents, gives them time to read them, says nothing until his parents exchange a look and then stare at Zayn, open-mouthed.  

“Another good thing is that people who used to put money into the campaign, they had nothing they could use all that money for till I called them and they helped, like seriously helped but it wasn’t quite enough so I went to the bank today and we’re going to turn that studio into something amazing, something magical, a space for Ant and Danny to expand their boxing school and more into whatever they want and a place for acting, a theatre school, performing arts place with a particular emphasis on disadvantaged kids, kids that have been put into care, adopted, forgotten about.”

“Zayn,”

His mum can say Zayn’s name in all kinds of ways and it never fails to amaze Zayn how he knows her emotions with just his name.

He doesn’t have to look at her to know she’s about to cry but he does anyway.  It’s not devastated tears though. It’s different, like those days of devastation and worry are behind them now.

“Are you sure about this, Zayn? I mean, that place.” Yaser looks concerned and maybe he’s right to be, maybe Zayn’ll wake up tomorrow and regret it.

But then he’s sure he’ll wake up the following day and know it’s the best thing, the only thing to do.

“Yeah dad, yeah am sure,” he says confident, more confident than he remembers being in, well, his entire life really.

“And Liam?”

Oh yeah, Liam.

**

“Thanks mate,”  Liam picks up the tickets, the receipt and shoves the receipt in his jacket pocket but keeps hold of the ticket and then turns away from the window.

“Sure we can’t give you a lift home?”

Liam shakes his head.

“No, you’re alright.”

It’s hard to believe what’s happened over the last couple of weeks and yet, it’s there standing in front of him.

Correction. They’re there.

Two people who he thinks it’ll take him years to get to know fully, to be able to make up for the lost time.  Hopes he’ll have those years. Hopes if there is someone in charge of destiny and fate that it’s all kind to them all to make up for the years, it wasn’t kind.

Karen and Geoff.  Like two bloody peas in a pod.  

The moment Liam had laid eyes on Karen, he knew.  The moment he saw the way she looked at Geoff, and how he looked at her, he knew even more.

He’s learned more since.  The story of how Liam came to be adopted, how Karen had written to Geoff not long after Liam’s third birthday.

How it started a chain of events that led to Geoff being written off the show. How it led him to bankruptcy, despair and ultimately, finding salvation in Karen.

How everything and every action that Geoff took after came to know Karen had been all about reuniting mother and son.

Just like everything else in Liam’s journey, it’s not easy. Liam’s not sure it ever will be but it all made sense the moment he saw her whereas Julia never did.  Hindsight shows that in such stark reality and colours that Liam can’t fathom how he didn’t see it.

That way of how when you’re stuck in the middle of something, it’s hard to shift your mindset, hard to see beyond what’s there.

“Will you come back soon?” Karen asks uncertainty etched on her face.

“Yeah, yeah I will and like I said you come down to me, to us ,” then with a smile, he amends with, “Both of you that is.”

Geoff and Karen share a look of relief and delight that does good things to Liam.

“We will Liam, we will.”

Just then, the PA system announces the arrival of Liam’s train in a couple of minutes and suddenly it feels too soon, he doesn’t want to leave and yet what’s waiting for him in London, what he’s learned and how he thinks it’ll be easier now has him wanting to run down the track fast as he can.

It’s confusing and it’s heady and so he just takes a deep breath and embraces Geoff and Karen.  Not ready to even call them his mum and his dad or step-dad or whatever in his head never mind to their faces yet.

“Thank you for making so much sense. I feel clearer. I feel more at peace than I think I’ve felt in my entire life.”

He turns away then, thinks he hears Karen let out a small sob and hears Geoff murmur, “Come on you daftie, let’s go get you a nice scone and you’ll better soon.”

And Liam turns slightly, catches Geoff’s eye and they both wink at each other, or at least try to. They may not be blood but neither can wink to save their lives.

Liam takes anything as a step closer on the road to the familiarity of the new and closure on his old life.

**  

Zayn’s on the phone to the architect when he hears the intercom buzz and he almost leaves it, it’s probably her from downstairs again forgetting her key and he’s busy right now so she can bother someone in one of the other flats.

Then it buzzes again and again so he rolls his eyes, apologises to Matt the architect on the end of the line and presses the button to let whoever it is into the building.

He carries on the conversation, peering at his laptop as they discuss the plans that Matt’s just emailed across, the first stages of planning permission or the application about to go in if Zayn agrees to it.

Then the door knocks and Zayn curses under his breath, says quietly to Matt that he’ll back and then puts the phone down next to his laptop and walks to the door, ready to unleash a mouthful.

“Can you not maybe interrupt someone when they’re on a ca-.”

Zayn only looks at the person on the other side of the door when he’s almost at the end of his complaint.

“Hiya Zayn.”

Zayn takes a step forward, reaches out tentatively, afraid that Liam will step back, out of reach but instead Liam moves forward, grasps Zayn’s hand and interlocks his fingers with Zayn’s.

“You’re back,” he manages to say, taking in the way Liam looks so different and not just the way his hair’s grown to the point it’s got the natural curl, to the way he stands taller than he did before he left.

The easy smile on his face and the twinkle back in his eyes as he says.

“Well spotted, now you gonna let me in and you can get on with your important call or whatever it is and then we can catch up?”

Liam doesn’t need to ask twice.

**

Zayn looks great even with a bright yellow hard hat on his head.  Liam hates him.

“After you fellas,” the site manager says urging them to open the door and step into the building site.

The building site that was once the place that Liam called home.  Now the place Liam is watching take a different shape.

And all down to Zayn’s vision. All down to Zayn’s ability to see beyond the pain, to see a light and a way forward and really it’s pretty bloody fucking inspirational, fantastic and Liam couldn’t be prouder.

The site is every bit as vast as the plans suggested and even that’s only a third of the old town, where Liam lived the first 30 years of his life.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor is Zayn’s vision.   Constructed in five phases, the first now with the theatre school, and the place for Ant and Danny’s first boxing gym.  The other phases including housing for kids and young adults, a sanctuary for when times are hard for those who aren’t living there is the second stage.

The fifth will be in a few years time, maybe ten, when maybe Liam’ll feel able to contribute to it.  A small museum, a small act of remembrance of Liam’s hometown, his life before all this.  That’s far enough in the future that Liam can forget about it even though everything about here smells like it used to.

Not like the outside world, with all the smell of industry, of Subway and McDonalds, of cigarette smoke and dog shit, it's too neat, not like the chewing gum outside that Liam's the only one in the world he's sure who still gets excited when he steps on some.  

It’s cloying being here even though it’s changing and Liam starts to unravel, feels himself being moved, led somewhere, hears that soft steady calming voice and then fresh air, beautiful fresh London air and the hat being removed from his head and then eyes searching his own as he finally feels more with it.

“You okay, babe?”

No’s the most honest answer but he manages a nod and there’s a grunt of disapproval from Zayn at the lie, but he lets it go and removes his own hard hat, tossing it absently behind him and Liam grins at him.

All thoughts of panic gone mercifully quickly and helped by the sight of Zayn’s hair standing up all in directions from having being squashed under the weight of the hat for so long.

He rolls his eyes good-naturedly at Liam and says.

“You ought to get a mirror mate and then we’ll see who’s laughing.”

Then he reaches out his hand which Liam gladly links his own into and they start the walk home together, quietly at first.

Liam is aware of covert glances from Zayn in his direction until finally, he speaks.

“You sure about this?  You’re so supportive, so positive but how you reacted Li, that’s- nothing is as important as you being okay.”

“Is it easy? This whole thing,” Liam gestures vaguely behind them with his free hand, “No, no it’s not but fucking hell, it’s not as though the words ‘giving up’ are our middle names is it? So am I sure about it and that I’ll be okay about it anytime soon and being back there?  No, I’m not but reframe those questions and ask me if I’m sure about you and what you have planned and your passion for it and the fact that this is as much about you being healed as it is me and yeah I’m so fucking sure I can’t even explain it.”

Zayn’s searching Liam’s face, his eyes in particular, again and Liam doesn’t flinch, doesn’t blink.

“Okay then, I believe you but promise me if you ever start to doubt, if you ever think it’s not worth it, that it’s not working, you have to say, it’s never gonna succeed, it’s never going to work if we’re not honest, deal?.”

You don’t have to be Einstein thinks Liam to realise Zayn’s not just talking about the grand plan for Liam’s old home and he’s grateful.  

It’s been the elephant in the room since Liam got back.  So full of thoughts from Wolverhampton, so full of hope for them and that hope had got caught up in amongst Zayn’s new hope, new drive but it’s going to run out someday and they have to be honest to stand a chance.

Liam knows that.  Zayn knows that.

“Deal,” Liam says with a smile and then pulls Zayn forward into an embrace, and then a kiss to seal it maybe.

Well, it’s a good an excuse as any.  As if they needed one.

**

3 years later

A lot can happen in three years.  

Friends come and go, with new partners, new dogs, new jobs like a revolving door at times but they remain happy, steadfast and loyal.

Sisters become parents, get married and start treating you like you’re the baby of the family. as a result, even though you’re the second oldest.

Parents start reliving their youth, start showing you up at parties like you used to back in the day.

And you take one step forward, then three steps back with the person you love the most in the world.

Zayn and Liam split up twice more, the second time felt like forever even though it was just four months.  Just for four months when therapy which they’d both admitted finally that they needed had created a hurricane out of the perfect storm as they went on their journeys separately but living in each other’s pockets.

Till one night,  Liam had left his last appointment and found his way to the building site, peered up at the lamppost and waited, for just twenty minutes as it turned out as Zayn stepped across the road, the same part of the road from all that time ago.

Zayn hadn’t needed to see Liam’s eyes to know, this time was different.

It’s been nine months since that night, nine months in which time Liam’s finally started his tattoo collection and Zayn added one more to his own.  Two tattoos for Liam in total, a step along the road in the right direction towards today.

Today being the day the site manager hands over the keys to Zayn who can hand over the keys of the boxing gym to Ant and Danny and then to the person who’s going to be setting up the theatre school. It's perfect how it's turned out this place, and over in the corner sitting unobtrusively in a frame on the wall is a phone. Not just any phone. A phone that had been discarded in a box, forgotten about till Zayn found it one day. People may think it's odd but Zayn had seen Liam earlier, running his fingertips over the metal of the frame then feeling Zayn's eyes on him, he'd turned around and nodded.

Everyone is there, Louis and the curly haired fella from the dogs trust rescue centre who Louis still refuses to name and some bleached blond Irish bloke who looks far too young to be the same age and to ever be included as one of Zayn’s friends.

There's Zayn’s mum and dad and sisters and their families, kids milling around now it’s safe to be here without a hard hat.  

The sound of excited children playing echoes around the mainly empty spaces.  

Then there’s Liam’s friends from his running club.  The book agent he’s working with, finally agreeing to put pen to paper on his experiences.  The exploited person finally getting the chance to voice what he went through.

Zayn couldn’t be prouder.

As for himself, he’s taking the first tentative steps back towards acting all backed by Liam.  On stage rather than on TV.  They don’t even own a TV anymore.  No one’s surprised, least of all them. 

Oh and they're moving, the one part of life Liam missed from the old was the fresh air of the sea, especially now they've seen it for real, experienced it for real and they move next week, not a million miles from here but it's a distance they think will help. A place with sand dunes just like the place that's etched in their memories but not similar enough that they feel like history's repeating itself.

Sometimes Zayn forgets he's in his thirties still finding his feet in the world rather than some twenty-something doing it instead.  

Zayn’s distracted from his reverie by Liam’s hand waving and the delighted smile on his face. Oh yeah, the final, well maybe not the final, but one of the last pieces of the jigsaw.

He watches as Liam embraces them and then he’s gesturing for Zayn to join him, it hits him as he nears her, even though he’d seen pictures of them, he’s never met her till now.   How they're so similar, how it's so obvious. 

He walks over to them both, and they smile at him.

“Zayn, this is Karen, and you already know Geoff, oh sod it, let me start again,” he pauses and Zayn can see the moisture there in the corners of his eyes but doesn’t say a word as Liam takes a calming breath and then starts again.

“Zayn, this is my mum Karen and this is my step, no he’s not, this is my dad, Geoff.”

As Zayn leans forward it’s like Liam just stepped out of the old studio, slammed that open door shut behind him and now it’s locked forever where it can’t hurt them, or if it does, it’ll leave a bruise for days rather than the scar it’s felt like it would be for life so far.

It’s like the tattoos they both have now say, one the broken clock face with the time on it being the moment Liam had stepped out of the studio, the first minute of freedom.  

The first step along this long road to today.  

The other Liam had got, the same as Zayn’s...those words.

Only time will tell.

And time?  It tells Zayn that it’s going to be fine this time, no, better than fine.