When Zayn throws a pebble at Niall's window at ten past three in the morning, tells Niall to pack a bag and come with him, Niall doesn't ask. He stuffs a backpack with trousers, jumpers and a clean pair of pants and fishes the crumple of bills from the trainers he outgrew in year eight. He whispers "Oi catch!" and tosses the bag to Zayn, and then clambers down the tree that grows close to the side of the house and doesn't bother to pull the window closed behind him.
Zayn's parked around the block because his car makes too much of a racket for him to safely stop it outside Niall's house. Zayn steps into the light that is pooling from the street lamps and Niall can see his breath puffing in dense clouds and he's struck by how tired Zayn looks and how quiet the neighborhood is except for the buzzing of the sodium lights.
Zayn's car's got manual locks so Niall taps his fingers on the passenger side window, waits for Zayn to crawl across the seat and shove the door open, and then he climbs in and tosses his bag into the backseat.
It's colder in the car than outside and Niall tucks his hands under his legs, watches Zayn start the car and crank the heat, glances at the dash and sees that it's only fueled up about halfway, tries to calculate how far they'll make it before they need to stop for petrol. He's still not fully awake though and maths was never his strong suit, so he just tips his head back against the seat and looks over when he feels Zayn's eyes on him, smiles and sees Zayn return it tentatively. Niall feels himself nod off and the clock on the radio glows a green 3:23 and it's finally warmed up enough to be comfortable and he trusts Zayn to wake him when he needs him.
- - -
Zayn's hand is touching the side of his neck, his pinky just brushing underneath Niall's collar. Niall opens his eyes and the clock reads five minutes to seven.
When Niall shakes himself awake fully, Zayn is hovering next to him, his leg tucked underneath him and this unreadable expression on his face. It's a soft look but it's got an edge to it that Niall can't understand, and Niall thinks he might still be too sleepy to parse out exactly how Zayn is feeling.
Niall pushes a hand across his mouth, stretches his arms above his head, and when he looks back, Zayn isn't looking at him anymore but out the window at the field of tall grass across the road from where they're parked.
Zayn pulls a handful of notes out of his pocket and presses them flat to Niall's leg, says, "Do you think you could fill the tank? I need a smoke."
He jerks a thumb over his shoulder and then swings the door open and steps out. When he slams the door behind him Niall feels the cold settle under his pullover, and he gets out of the car too, taking the keys with him, and heads into the station where he pays the teller for the petrol and buys two cups of coffee.
- - -
It's another several hours before Niall realizes they're making a run for the coast. Zayn had taken the coffee from Niall, brushing his fingers over Niall's in the process, and thanked him, but he wouldn't let Niall drive.
So Niall had buckled himself back into the passenger seat and watched Zayn get behind the wheel. Zayn's been fiddling with the radio, humming along tunelessly to the snatches of music that it occasionally picks up, but mostly flipping past station after station of white noise. Niall's too tense now to fall back asleep and by the time they stop again, this time at a rest stop, he's got an itch under his skin to do something besides just sit there and look at Zayn's hands where they wrap around the wheel and the way the sun through the driver's side window makes Zayn's eyelashes gleam almost gold.
Zayn finishes washing his hands and shakes the water off, wipes them on his trousers and hands off the keys easy enough. Niall knows he won't fall asleep though, knows that he wants to keep an eye out and direct where Niall goes and Niall's okay with that.
He finds a station that's picking up transmission and leaves it there, even though it's swing and he know Zayn hates that. Niall bats away Zayn's hand when he reaches for the knob, slides a glance at him and says, "Hey, who's driving?"
- - -
They don't stop to sleep the first night out. Niall pulls over as it's getting dark because Zayn's started chewing his cuticles in the passenger seat and he knows that means Zayn needs a cigarette, even though he won't ask, and Niall won't let him smoke in the car.
He gets off the motorway at a convenience store, just on the edge of the nearest town, and Niall goes inside to buy some crisps and more coffee to get them through the night. He makes small talk with the cashier as he checks out, laughs brightly and says, "You know, we're not sure yet," when the guys asks where he and Zayn are headed. The cashier nods at Niall, tells him, "Have a nice evening now," and Niall grins in response, says, "You too," as he pushes his way out the door.
Zayn is sitting on the curb with his legs folded up smoking his third cigarette if the crushed butts at his feet are anything to go by. Niall drops down next to him gracelessly and passes him the larger coffee, tells Zayn, "I figured you'd need it since you're driving next." Zayn smiles at him and tucks his face into the curve of Niall's shoulder, muffles a "thanks" there.
Zayn takes a final drag of his cigarette and pushes himself to his feet. His fingers go to the collar of Niall's shirt when Niall moves to stand, and he fusses with it for a second, before stroking his fingers over it and making sure it lies neatly. Niall's hand comes up to touch Zayn's just briefly, and then Zayn is palming the keys out of Niall's front trouser pocket and making for the driver's side door.
- - -
They do stop to sleep the second night though. It's too much work to look for a hotel and it's a warm night, so they find a dirt road that's virtually invisible from the main, thick with weeds sprouting up in the tracks. They follow it until they reach the end, a square plot where a house used to be but now only a foundation remains, and Zayn turns off the engine, lets the dust they kicked up settle around the car.
They haven't got sleeping bags but Zayn had the forethought to bring a few blankets, so they open the back hatch of the car and curl up there, their feet hanging out the edge and the space cramped to the point of discomfort. Niall rolls over on top of Zayn's left arm and ends up sleeping with it underneath him and his own draped over Zayn's hip.
- - -
Niall's sure they've reached their endpoint when they run out of land just as it's going dusk on the third day.
They park in a lot next to the beach and pile out of the car, Zayn pulling a beanie over hair that's finally gone flat and soft-looking, and it's quiet but for the sound of the waves and gulls calling.
There's not much around, a line of shops across the street with weathered fronts and big glass windows, all of them closed up for the night. Further down the beach is a cluster of houses in faded colors and with wide front porches that look out on the ocean. It doesn't look much like a tourist spot, more of a town that just happens to sit right on the edge of the ocean than anything else.
It's too late to wander around but Niall leaves Zayn alone long enough to find a pay phone and leave a message on his parent's voicemail, says, "I don't know when we'll be back but we're okay. I haven't got my mobile but I'll try to call you again in a coupla days. I love you and I'm staying safe."
When he gets back to the car Zayn is laying across the backseat, a blanket pulled over him, and he gestures for Niall to crawl in with him. Niall does, and it's nearly as uncomfortable as the previous night's arrangements, but this time Niall falls asleep with Zayn curved around his back and Zayn's breath hot on his neck.
- - -
Niall untangles from Zayn and climbs out through the passenger side door when the sun is just coming up and the air is chilly and thick with salt from the ocean crashing on the beach just meters away. He slips his feet into his shoes and pulls Zayn's jacket over his jumper. It's a touch too long in the sleeves, the cuffs falling halfway down his fingers, and it smells like Zayn, like tobacco smoke and soap, faintly like roll-on deodorant and sweat. Niall hunches his shoulders to keep the jacket from slipping down his arms and steps off the smooth pavement of the parking lot, walking down the beach towards the ocean, stopping short of where the sand has been packed hard by the water rolling up on the shore.
He's standing there watching the tide come in and fingering the pack of cigarettes in the jacket's right hand pocket when Zayn shuffles up next to him. He doesn't say anything but Niall sees Zayn shivering in his peripheral vision, loose necked sweater falling down his left shoulder and arms crossed over his chest.
They're walking back to the car when Zayn does a double take and wraps a hand around Niall's wrist, stopping him short and plucking at the front of the jacket that Niall's wearing, says, "Huh I should've known where this disappeared to."
Niall's hands go to the jacket's lapels, just barely brushing Zayn's fingers, he says, "Oh did you want it back?"
Zayn just meets Niall's eyes and shakes his head, smoothing a hand down Niall's front before stepping away, towards the car.
"Come on," he calls back over his shoulder, "My socks are getting wet and I'm hungry."
- - -
The shops aren't open yet so Zayn has to make do with a green apple and a flat can of Coke. Niall eats the rest of a sleeve of saltines and steals sips from Zayn's drink, keeps an eye on his watch. They sit on the pavement with their backs against the car and their knees pulled to their chests and watch the sun come up the rest of the way. Zayn nods off on Niall's shoulder for nearly half an hour and Niall shakes him awake at a quarter to seven. Zayn drags another pullover on and shakes his hair out of his eyes. He rubs his hands together briskly and says, "Wish I had some gloves or something," and then he blinks when Niall grabs his hands between his own and blows hot air on them.
They're standing there with Niall breathing out on Zayn's fingers and Zayn's forehead crinkling in confusion and amusement, and then Niall stops, drops Zayns hands, says "Um."
But Zayn just smiles, this slow quiet thing, and then puts a jog in his step when Niall turns and walks away. He matches his stride to Niall's and stuffs his right hand in Niall's left jacket pocket, curls it around Niall's. Niall ducks his head to hide the way his mouth is curling and lets his fingers tangle with Zayn's.
They buy soft doughnuts rolled in white sugar, still hot from the oven, and they eat them as they walk the length of the town.
There's a kite shop right where they pulled off the motorway and one selling homemade candy next door to it. Neither are open yet, but there's a grocers a little way down that's got its door propped outwards and a list of hours scribbled in white paint on the window that says they're open.
Niall's picking through a bin of oranges when Zayn presses up beside him. Niall startles but Zayn just reaches past him to grab a plastic bag and hold it open for Niall to fill with oranges. Zayn puts it into the basket he's got hooked into the crook of the arm and then he asks, "D'ya think there's anything else we need?"
Niall bites his lip and takes a quick glance around, then turns back to Zayn, shakes his head no.
He follows Zayn out of the store after they've paid and doesn't blink when Zayn brushes their hands together and then slips his fingers through Niall's.
- - -
They hazard staying another night in the parking lot. They'd spent the day on the beach, sprawled out with a blanket underneath them, watching as the rest of the town woke up around them. Niall guesses it's not summer holiday yet for the schools here because there aren't any children on the beach, mostly older couples walking along the waterline, sometimes with dogs that they let run around without leashes.
It hadn't been that sunny but Niall can tell he's gotten a little pink, the skin of his face feeling tight and hot.
He and Zayn sleep tucked together in the backseat again, and Zayn's fingers feel cold when he touches them gingerly to the bridge of Niall's nose and the corner of his mouth, and Zayn's lips are chapped when he brushes them over the curve of Niall's cheek.
- - -
Zayn's awake before Niall the next morning, his eyelashes a dark curve against his cheek when Niall blinks his eyes open. Zayn says, "Good morning," before he says, "I think we should go further down the coast today."
Niall bites back a yawn and says, "Sounds good to me," groans when Zayn rolls on top of him to climb over the front seat and out of the car.
He manages to call, "We need to find somewhere so I can get a shower soon," before Zayn slams the door behind him, and he knows that Zayn heard by the way he knocks Niall a half-assed salute, even as he's shaking a cigarette out of the pack.
- - -
They follow the motorway down the coast for over an hour and pull off when they hit a tourist town that Zayn reckons'll have cheap lodging. He's right and they check into a hotel that looks like it's about to fall down in the middle.
The man behind the desk eyes them when they come in, rumpled and probably smelling terrible from too much time in the car, and his expression goes sort of sharp when Zayn asks for one bed. Niall doesn't know what to make of it but he's not at all surprised when Zayn purposely grabs for his hand and pulls Niall through the door, throwing a pointed look over his shoulder.
The room is a manageable sort of disgusting and what Niall was expecting so it's easy enough to shrug off how it looks when they get inside.
Niall calls first shower and slings his bag into the middle of the bed, has to break into a run to beat Zayn to the bathroom, but it's worth it to ensure that he gets hot water.
Zayn comes in when Niall is done in the shower, and he takes the toothpaste from him when Niall offers it, knocks their hips together when he leans over the sink to spit. Zayn straightens up and wipes his hand across his face and Niall's just in his towel, toothbrush still hanging out of the corner of his mouth, and he can't stop looking at Zayn.
Zayn's face is prickly with stubble when Niall thumbs over his jaw and Niall glances up, sees Zayn watching him intently and suddenly wonders what it'd be like to kiss Zayn like this, until his face is rubbed raw and sore from it, what it might feel like other places. He flushes and licks out to wet his lips, feels rather than sees Zayn track the movement, drops his hand and steps away.
- - -
When Zayn's done cleaning up some fifteen minutes later, Niall's laying on the bed in a pair of jogging bottoms and a t-shirt, the television on and tuned to a local access station. Niall watches as Zayn unzips his bag and pulls a pair of pants on under the towel he's got wrapped around his waist, and then a pair of shorts over those. Niall's still watching him when he drops his towel and forgoes a shirt, walks over to the bed and climbs up next to Niall. Niall's looking at Zayn through his eyelashes when Zayn rolls over so he's pressed against Niall, and he hooks a leg over Niall's, places a gentle hand on his hip, and then glances a kiss to the edge of Niall's mouth.
Zayn barely pulls away, breathing out steadily, before Niall turns his face to kiss Zayn more thoroughly, shifts a little so their legs slot together, and wraps a hand around the back of Zayn's neck.
Zayn's fingers come up to stroke at the thin skin behind Niall's ear, and Niall makes a pleased sound at the back of his throat when Zayn bites down on his bottom lip. Niall opens his mouth, kisses Zayn deeper, and spares a thought to hope they've got awhile to go before the money runs out.