Actions

Work Header

The Fear of Reality

Chapter Text

“Is Harry coming today?” 

Niall looked up from behind the bar where he was drying glasses and was surprised to see Liam plop down on the stool across from him.

“I think so, Louis will probably know.”  He answered, placing the newly cleaned glass on the counter-top and filling it with club soda and lime, sliding it in front of the older boy. 

Liam nodded his head appreciatively before taking a sip. 

“You here for the meeting?”  Niall asked, not knowing any other reason why Liam would be dropping by the bar on a Friday at four in the afternoon. 

“Yeah, Louis asked if I could come.  I couldn’t originally because I had a couple meetings earlier today, but then yesterday he texted me that it was at five and I didn’t have a lot going on then, so I figured I’d show up – not that I really know a lot about this sort of thing.”  Liam explained, sweeping his arm over the pub. 

“Maybe not, but you know about contracts from the consulting stuff you used to do before you started your own gig.  You can help Louis with all the legal rubbish.”  Niall stated, as he began drying the next glass. 

“I guess.”  Liam shrugged, taking another sip of his drink.  “He asked me to come at three, so we could discuss the meeting beforehand, but earliest I could make it was four.  I hope he didn’t change the time for me?”  He asked after a moment.

Niall shook his head.  “No, he changed it so he could take Zayn to chemo this morning.” 

Liam frowned.  “I wish Harry would have told me; I could have taken him.” 

“You just said you had meeting earlier today.”  Niall pointed out with a smirk. 

“I could have rescheduled.” 

“I don’t know, mate, you know how Zayn is – doesn’t want to make a fuss.”  Niall’s attempt to rid of the downturned expression on his friend’s face did not work in the least, in fact Liam’s scowl only intensified. 

“I don’t know how many times I’ve told them to let me know when they need something.” 

“They obviously do, you’ve taken Zayn a few times this week and last week, haven’t you?” 

“Couple times last week, just once this week.” 

“So they do ask you when they need help.” 

“Yeah, but I think they don’t ask a lot because they think I’m busy or something.”  Liam mumbled. 

“You are busy.”  Niall stated. 

Liam pinched his lips and took another drink. 

“Hey, at least you help-out at all.  I haven’t taken Zayn to a single appointment.”  Niall confessed, his insides twisting with guilt at the announcement. 

Liam immediately shook his head.  “You’re running this place.  You’re in here dealing with shipments in the morning and you don’t get off until the sun sets.” 

Niall shook his head, not because the explanation wasn’t accurate, but because it was an excuse.  And a poor one at that.  Sure, he was busy, and he was responsible for the day-to-day work that kept the pub running – but that wasn’t the reason he hadn’t offered to take Zayn to chemo, not the real reason.  The real reason was that Niall was a coward.  He was terrified of seeing Zayn in the hospital, hooked up to a bunch of medical shit.  He was terrified of something dreadful happening.  He was terrified of losing one of his best friends – or all of his friends.  Because if they lost Zayn it wouldn’t just be that the group of five was missing a crucial member; no, losing Zayn would destroy every one of them both individually and collectively.  Liam, being the big brother, would be forever burdened by the weight of Zayn’s death.  Louis would never be the same – Zayn was his best friend, had been long before any of the other boys were in the picture, and he had always been very protective of him.  The two boys had been through more together than even Niall knew of, and the loss of Zayn would wreck Louis in ways that made Niall anxious just to think about.  And Harry, well, if this fucking disease was to steal Zayn from them, it would eviscerate Harry from the inside out.

Niall had never had to deal with that kind of loss and he really didn’t think he would ever be able to.  He wasn’t strong enough.  He couldn’t stand the thought of losing Zayn and he didn’t want to ever have to face the fact that it was a possibility.  He didn’t avoid his friend, not by any means.  Since Niall had known him, Zayn had often looked overtired and it wasn’t rare for the young man to fall ill, so when he saw the boy looking exhausted and unwell Niall could convince himself it was nothing too serious, nothing lethal.  But when Zayn was in the hospital hooked up to a bunch of rubbish – well, that was when denial became difficult.  Niall didn’t avoid his friend, he simply avoided the treatments so that he could keep his head buried in the sand. 

He knew it was stupid and childish, and so fucking unfair, but he just couldn’t handle the fear that threatened to overwhelm him every time he was faced with the reality of Zayn’s illness. 

“Louis in the office?” 

Niall was pulled from his dark thoughts by the question.  “Uh, yeah.”  He answered distractedly.  Liam nodded at the information, but made no move to stand, even though his drink was finished.

“How’s he doing?”  Liam asked, his voice hushed. 

“Sounds like something you should ask him.”  Niall responded with raised eyebrows. 

“I’ll get a more honest answer from you.” 

Niall smirked, because that was probably true.

“Besides, you’re with him everyday, you’d know better than anyone.” 

“No, Eleanor would know better than anyone, but I guess I’d be your second-best bet.” 

Liam twitched a smile.  “Well, I’ll take what I can get.  So, how is he?”

Niall put all the newly dried glasses on the shelf where they always went as he considered the inquiry.  “He’s angry.”  He answered honestly after a moment’s thought. 

Liam’s eyebrows raised at the comment. 

“I mean, he’s worried, which for Louis means he acts like a bit of a prat.”

“Is he stressed out?” 

“Nah, I mean there’s a lot going on here, this place is always keeping us both busy – but that’s not new and it’s not what has him so wound-up.”  

“Zayn.”  Liam surmised with a sigh. 

“Zayn.”  Niall confirmed. 

Liam’s phone buzzed and as the older boy looked down to see what was going on, Niall took a glance around the pub.  It was pretty slow, a few people scattered here and there but they all looked content, and Stefanie was floating about the room making sure everyone was satisfied, so there wasn’t anything demanding Niall’s immediate attention.

“How was he today, after the appointment?”  Liam asked.

Niall was about to say that he didn’t know how Zayn was because he hadn’t seen him, when he realized Liam was talking about Louis. 

He shrugged, elaborating only after Liam levelled him with one of those ‘big brother’ looks he always kept in his back-pocket.

“Grumpy.  He came in here a little after twelve, grumbled a couple instructions, barked on the phone at somebody, and then pretty much locked himself in the office.”  Niall relayed, trying not to allow himself to ponder what Louis’ bad mood insinuated about Zayn’s chemo session.

Liam nodded, his eyes tracking back down to his buzzing phone. 

Niall stood there a moment, fiddling with the towel in his hands before he spoke softly.  “Is it that bad?  The treatment?”  He queried. He didn’t want to know, he really didn’t want to know, and at the same time – he had to know. 

Liam looked up, a concentrated expression on his face as he appeared to be considering the question.  “It’s, umm, it’s a little worse than it used to be – the treatments.  It’s not different; same drugs, same situation – it’s, I don’t know, last week I just saw how much more it took out of him.” 

Niall swallowed, trying not to let the fear of what could happen get to him, before he nodded, the motion feeling shaky even to him. 

“But he’ll be alright, Niall, yeah?” 

Niall was pretty positive that Liam was trying to reassure him, but it sounded strained to say the least.

“Yeah, ‘course.”  He agreed with a nod. 

Liam mimicked the motion before returning his attention to his phone and Niall occupied himself with getting the remainder of the glasses put away.

“Niall!  Did you do inventory this morning?”  Louis barked as he burst out of the back hallway. 

Niall sighed, watching as Liam’s head popped up, a frown on his face. 

“Yeah, I did.”  He replied. 

“Then where the fuck are the papers?”  Louis growled as he approached the bar. 

Niall took a glance around the room, relieved to see that the few customers there didn’t appear to have been distracted by the older boy’s abrasive entrance. 

“On the desk, where they always go once they’ve been completed.”  Niall responded, trying not to sound as annoyed as he was. 

“I would have fucking seen them if they’d been on the desk.”  He argued, sounding irate.

“Did you check the folder?  Because that’s where I usually put them.”  Niall responded calmly. 

Louis grumbled as he turned away and stocked off. 

“He been like that all day?”  Liam asked softly once the miserable man had disappeared from sight. 

“Since he got back from hospital.”  Niall responded. 

“That’s not fair to you.”  Liam mentioned, giving the blonde boy a sympathetic look.

“It’s not personal.”  Niall commented with a shrug.

“No, it’s not.  But you have to deal with it the most, and that’s not fair.”

“It’s not easy, but it’s fine.  It’s just how he gets sometimes when he’s going through stuff.  You know that.  Anytime there’s something going on with his sisters or when him and Eleanor aren’t getting on well – he gets … wound up.” 

Liam nodded, because of course Niall knew that he understood that.  All of the boys did – though Zayn probably knew best because he had known Louis the longest.  But all the boys understood to some degree the way Louis worked, him and Eleanor had a strong relationship now but had been very on and off for the first few years, so all the boys had seen how emotional turmoil always tended to put Louis in a very agitated state. 

“He’s not usually this bad though.”  Liam stated. 

Niall shrugged once more.  “It’s Zayn.”  He supplied simply, not needing or wanting to elaborate on the fact that Louis was reacting more intensely because he was bloody terrified of losing his best friend. 

It took a couple seconds, but soon Liam nodded in understanding.

Niall didn’t enjoy working with his friend when the older boy was so high-strung, but he knew that Louis was just scared for Zayn – so he could yell at Niall all day long if it made him feel better – there wasn’t a damn thing else the blonde boy could do for his frustrated friend. 

“Let me know if you ever need me to talk to him.” 

Niall quirked a smile and nodded at his self-designated big brother.  “Just try to keep him from biting any heads off in that meeting, yeah?” 

Liam smirked.  “I’ll do my best.  It’d help if Harry was here – he is good at keep things light.” 

That was true, Harry tended to bring out the more rambunctious side of Louis, and though the pair could be annoying on occasion, Niall would happily take the obnoxious behaviour over the agitated ways the older boy had adopted as of late. 

Louis wandered back towards the bar, his demeanor no longer as irate as before, but he was still exuding misery. 

“Found the inventory sheets in the folder.”  He mumbled as he plopped down onto a stool at the bar. 

Niall simply nodded, not bothering to point out that of course they were there because that was where he always put them – the last thing he wanted to do was start pushing Louis’ buttons.

“You know if Harry is coming tonight?”  Liam asked. 

“He said he would come by right after school – which would have been like an hour ago.  But it’ll depend how Zayn is doing.  He wasn’t feeling good after treatment this morning.”  Louis said, his voice strained as though the words physically hurt to say.

“Was he just exhausted?  Or is something else going on?”  Liam queried.  Niall was able to hear the concern in his tone before he glanced over to see it written all over the older boy’s face. 

“He was exhausted as fuck.”  Louis commented.  “And sure, that was all he would fess-up to, because he’s an idiot - but I could tell he was in pain too.”  He croaked, propping his elbows onto the counter top and dropping his head into his hands.

Niall pinched his lips, leaning against the bar as his mind was assaulted by terrible images of his friend in pain.  He watched as Liam placed a grounding hand on Louis’ back – the agitated man frowned at the contact, but he didn’t shrug it off, so that was something. 

Niall looked up at the squeak of the door opening, squinting across the room to see who was entering, keeping an eye out for the potential suppliers that were arriving for the meeting.

“It’s Harry.”  He announced, recognizing that familiar bright green shirt even in the dimmed environment.  Liam shifted, sitting straighter as he looked towards the door.

“Bout damn time.”  Louis mumbled, head still in his hands. 

“And Zayn.” Niall added, that thin frame and raven-hair defining enough on their own to ensure the new arrival’s identity. 

“What the fuck?”  Louis exclaimed, his head snapping up as his eyes tracked to the entrance.  Niall watched as the older boy popped up out of his seat once he caught sight of the two approaching figures, his hands on his hips and scowl in place as Harry and Zayn arrived at the bar. 

“Hey guys.”  Harry greeted, a smile on his face, bright yellow bandana in his hair and his hand resting on his boyfriend’s back, Zayn looking weary enough to be needing the support.  The pale boy was wearing black jeans and a burgundy jumper that practically draped off of him, and looked a lot like the one Louis had been wearing when he dropped by the pub early for shipment that morning.  At the realization Niall glanced over at the older boy and noticed that he was just in a long-sleeve shirt now. He quirked a smile at that – because for all of Louis’ frustrated ways, he was still such a softy.

Liam and Niall both responded with smiles and waves– Louis took another route entirely. 

“What the fuck are you doing here?”  He snapped.

Niall nearly rolled his eyes as he watched Harry frown in time with Zayn.

“Umm, you asked me to come.”  The younger boy replied, his face creased in confusion. 

“Yeah, I told you to be here an hour ago – but I was talking to him.”  Louis responded as he nodded over at Zayn. 

“Nice to see you too, Lou.”  Zayn greeted with a smirk.

“I already saw you, this morning.  Which is why I know you should be at home resting.” 

Zayn rolled his eyes, turning to press a kiss to Harry’s cheek before making his way through the group of boys and over towards the bathrooms.  They all watched him go, except for Louis who proceeded to glare at Harry – hands still placed parentally on his hips. 

“What are you thinking, dragging him around after the morning he had?”  Louis growled, stepping closer to the taller lad.

“Take it easy, Lou.”  Liam warned calmly, only to receive a glare from the aggravated man. 

Harry released a long-suffering sigh, that had Niall twitching an understanding smirk. 

“I can’t tell him what to do any more than you can, Louis.”  Harry exclaimed, leveling the older boy with a knowing look. 

“Well, you at least need to try!”  Louis hissed. 

“Why do you think we’re an hour late!?”  Harry replied, tossing his hands up in exasperation. 

Louis huffed, finally dropping his arms down to his sides as he glanced back towards the bathroom.  Niall’s heart clenched at the helpless expression the flitted across Louis’ face.  The blonde boy looked over at Harry, who was still scowling in frustration, when Harry returned his stare Niall twitched his head toward Louis with a sympathetic look.  Harry sighed before giving the young man behind the bar an understanding nod, some of the irritation fading from his expression as directed his focus back at the agitated older boy. 

“Louis.”

All three boys watched as Louis turned back to face Harry.

“I tried to get him to stay home and rest, you know that I did.  But it isn’t that easy.  He feels like he sleeps all the time – like all he does anymore is go to chemo, so he wanted to get out and do something to feel like he’s still living some sort of normal life.  I couldn’t deny him that, even if I wanted to.”  Harry explained, a sad smile playing on his lips.  “You of all people know how stubborn he is.”

Louis grunted an irritated sound, his mouth pressed in a thin line, but Niall could see that his glare had lost some of its accusatory fire.

“Does he want to sit-in on the meeting?”  He asked, his tone finally losing the bite it had possessed since the two boys had entered.

Niall watched Harry shake his head, the taller boy’s shoulders relaxing as he appeared to no longer be on the defensive.  “Nah, doesn’t care much for that – just wanted to get out of the flat.” 

Louis nodded, absorbing the information he had been railing against just a moment ago.  “Well, then we can get him settled in the booth nearest to the bar – that way Niall can keep an eye on him, and he’ll have room to stretch out when he falls asleep, because that’s definitely what’s going to happen.”

“Know-it-all.”

All four boys turned to see Zayn standing behind them, Niall winced – knowing how strong-willed Zayn was and worried how he would react to his friends standing around planning his evening.  Although the raven-haired boy did appear to be vaguely irritated, he mostly just looked really fucking exhausted. 

“Hey mate, if you’re still awake when we get out of the meeting, I’ll owe ya’ 20 pounds.”  Louis declared. 

“As if.  You cheapskate.”  Zayn snorted with a headshake.  “I’m pretty sure you still owe me 50 quid from when we were fifteen.” 

Niall grinned in amusement and watched as Louis did the same, before the older boy’s expression turned more serious and he stepped towards Zayn, reaching out and gripping just above the slender lad’s elbow. 

“You alright though, yeah?”  He asked, his voice hushed. 

“I’m alright, Lou.”  Zayn responded, an easy smile on his face, but even Niall could still see the dark circles beneath those brown eyes – and wasn’t entirely convinced by Zayn’s soft reassurance. 

“Alright, good.  We’ll get you set up in the booth then, yeah?  And if you need anything you can just holler over at Niall, who will be eager to wait on you hand-and-foot.”   Louis stated. 

“Mhmm, I’m sure.”  Zayn hummed, winking over Louis’ shoulder at the blonde boy behind the bar.

“I will be the perfect host.”  Niall confirmed with a wide smile.

Liam chuckled in amusement, Niall smacking him playfully in the arm for insinuating with his laugh that the bartender was anything but accommodating.  Both boys then watched as Zayn was ushered to the closest booth by both Harry and Louis, who stayed to hover as the slim young man got himself settled on the cushioned bench. 

“It’s a wonder Zayn doesn’t smack them both upside the head.”  Niall mused with a smirk, knowing how the stubbornly independent man lad to be fussed over. 

“I think he would if he had the energy.”  Liam commented with a smirk.  “That and he knows they’re both just worried.”  He added soberly as they watched Harry set a novel in front of his boyfriend while Louis cleared space on the table-top by shoving the condiments out of the way. 

Niall swallowed, trying to will away the dark thoughts that entered his head, and pasted a smile on his face as Harry made his way over.  He stood next to Liam, patting the man on the back as his gaze fell on Niall. 

“Hey, Ni, how you doing?  Louis’ been a treat today, I’m sure.”  Harry commented with a knowing smirk. 

“He always is.”  Niall quipped. 

“I uuh, I was hoping…” Harry faded off as he glanced over his shoulder, presumably at Zayn who was still being fussed over by Louis.

“I’ll keep an eye on him.”  Niall supplied, assuming that was what his friend was getting at. 

Harry’s eyes tracked back across the bar, softening once they landed on the blonde boy.  “I know.”  He said.  “It’s not that.  I was just wondering if you could get him to eat something?  I haven’t had any luck with that today and thought maybe you’d have a better chance.” 

“Why would you think that?”  Niall asked, genuinely curious.  Harry obviously had the best chance at convincing Zayn to do anything – and Louis would be a close second because of all the history those two shared, Niall and Liam probably both tied for third, but Liam did have that whole ‘big-brother’ vibe going for him. 

“You just have a different way with him than the rest of us – a calmer one, you know?”  Harry tried to explain.

Niall couldn’t help but feel warmed by that.  All five boys were close and so very connected, but they all had different dynamics with one another.  Niall and Zayn had always had a quieter way about them, never quite as outgoing with each other as they were with other people, but always comfortable with one another.  Niall and Zayn maybe weren’t the closest pair in the group, but they always got on well, even back in college on days when Zayn was in a mood; because Niall never pushed and he never demanded anything of the olive-skinned lad, they had no passionate arguments or squabbles, they had always just existed peacefully together.

“I’ll give it a shot.”   Niall stated, not wanting to make promises he couldn’t keep, because everybody knew that if Zayn had his mind set about something, it didn’t matter what anyone said – the boy would not be swayed. 

Harry gave Niall a relieved smile.  “Thanks.”  

“No problem, you can return the favour by making sure Louis doesn’t bite anyone’s head off in that meeting.  The pub could really use some new suppliers.”  Niall stated.

Both Liam and Harry nodded at the request, the long-haired boy opening his mouth to say something – but being interrupted by Louis’ arrival. 

“Alright, let’s head to the office and try and go over some of this shit before these guys show up in like fifteen minutes.”  The older boy declared, glancing down at his watch with a scowl. 

Liam nodded, standing from his seat. 

“I told Zayn to holler if he needs anything, but you know that the idiot won’t – so make sure to take him some tea or whatever, and heaven knows the bugger won’t say if anything is wrong, so you’ll have to keep a close eye.”  Louis instructed.  

Niall nodded along.  “I will.”  He confirmed.

He received a half-smile from the older boy and a pat on the shoulder, before the three men walked back into the hallway and towards the office. 

Niall took care of business, topping up some drinks for the customers that were still hanging around, before he made his way over to the booth Zayn was occupying.  The slim frame was curled up on the corner of the bench seat, the book he was reading open on his lap – though Niall didn’t know how he managed to turn the pages with his hands completely covered by the long jumper sleeves.

“What can I get you, Zayn?”  Niall asked with a smile as he leaned across the table toward his friend. 

The thin man looked up from his novel, twitching a smile at the blonde boy.  “Just water would be fine.” 

Niall shook his head.  “Can’t do that, mate.  Promised I’d be a good host, remember?” 

Zayn snorted at the response.  “Fine, how about some tea then?” 

“Sure thing, what kind?” 

“Ginger?” 

Niall frowned, Zayn usually liked the blueberry pomegranate or the apple cinnamon – he was actually the main reason they kept such flavors in-stock.  Ginger was so dull by comparison, and Niall really only ever kept it around because it was sometimes what he would recommend for hangovers.

“Sure.  What else?”  He queried. 

 Zayn pinched his lips, but at least appeared to be considering the inquiry.  “Do you have any of those biscuits?  I know they are usually only available—

“We got’em!  Blueberry jam?”  Niall asked, knowing that Harry always liked peach and mango, but Zayn was partial to the blueberry. 

“Sure, that’d be great.”  Zayn stated.

Niall nodded and got right to it.  Sure, biscuits were hardly a meal, they certainly didn’t provide any sort of nutrients, but it was better the ill boy was eating something than nothing at all.  Besides, Zayn wanted biscuits, so he was getting biscuits and anything else he requested.

Niall returned to the table with a glass of water, a mug of ginger tea – with some honey and a slice of lemon on the side because he was pretty certain Zayn always added either one of both of those to his tea – and a plate full of biscuits smothered in blueberry jam. 

“Thanks, Ni.”  Zayn said, looking up from his book with a smile. 

Niall couldn’t help but respond with a grin – there was no other way to react after being on the receiving end of one of Zayn’s smiles, they may have not been the most common things around (especially lately) but they always warmed Niall up from the inside-out. 

“Holler if you need anything else, I’ll be back to check on you in a bit?”  He assured. 

Zayn nodded as he sipped his tea. 

Niall ended up getting relatively busy, the pub tended to pick up in the evenings, but he always kept at least one eye on Zayn – which was why he noticed the moment the slim frame stood from the booth and moved rapidly across the floor towards the bathrooms. 

Niall frowned, immediately alarmed, he hadn’t seen Zayn move that quickly in months. He knew there was something wrong.  Zayn had gone to the loo as soon as he’d arrived less than an hour ago – and last time Niall had walked by the booth the raven-haired lad had still had almost a full cup of tea.  No, Zayn wasn’t just taking a piss. 

Niall finished mixing the drink he was making, and then called Zach out from the kitchen to cover the bar until he came back, swiftly making his way towards the bathroom the moment he was able. 

There were only two washrooms in the pub and they were both stand-alone rooms – something customers tended to complain about, especially late on weekends when the place was busy.  Eventually, they were planning to expand the bathrooms adding stalls so they could each be used by more than one person at a time, but they hadn’t gathered the funds for that renovation just yet. 

Niall arrived at the washrooms, seeing that one was empty and immediately knocking on the door of the other. 

“Zayn?”  He called out, tapping his knuckles once more against the door. 

The absence of a response only raised his concern, and it only took one more unanswered knock for him to dig his key ring out of his pocket, sifting through it until he found the key for the bathroom and slid it into the lock. 

“Zayn?  It’s just me, Niall, I’m coming in, okay?”  He called out before opening the door. 

He was nervous to walk in on his friend taking a piss – knowing that he would never hear the end of it if he did, but he would have preferred that scenario to the one he had just entered. 

The raven-haired lad was on his knees in front of the loo, his back bent over the seat as the sound of vomiting echoed dully through the small space. 

“Fuck.”  Niall cursed, his stomach twisting as he relocked the door behind him and quickly approached the other boy. 

Zayn glanced up at him for a moment, tears streaming down his olive skin as his wide-eyes stared up at Niall.  “M’sorry.”  Zayn mumbled before another bought of heaving overtook him and he turned his face back down into the toilet bowl. 

Niall shook his head, dismissing the absurd apology as he moved closer, placing his hand on the curved back and gently rubbing up and down. 

“You’re alright, mate.  Just get it all out.  You’re alright.”  He encouraged uselessly, having nothing else to offer in that moment – but needing to do something.  Niall stayed squatted in place, his hand sliding up and down the trembling back until the heaving finally came to an end.   

He gave Zayn a moment to spit what had to be a terrible taste from his mouth, before he lightly tugged on the skinny arm, until the young man began to respond.  Niall stood as he gently guided the slender frame back away from the toilet to rest up against the wall– inwardly thankful that the bathrooms were cleaned on a nearly obsessive basis. 

“Just rest here a moment, I’m going to grab Harry.”  He instructed, patting his friend on the shoulder before making to move away, but he didn’t get far before thin fingers snagged his wrist. 

“No, Niall, leave him.” 

“But—

“I’ve been throwing-up all day, it can happen sometimes – cause of the chemo, it’s no big deal.” 

“Zayn, he would—

“He can’t do anything about it.”  Zayn declared, his stubbornness in place as he levelled Niall with a stern look that was so different from the apologetic expression he had been sporting before, that the blonde boy didn’t know how the two could come from the same person. 

“Okay.”  The younger man sighed, knowing better than to argue with the headstrong lad, Zayn gave him a grateful nod before releasing his wrist as he closed his eyes and rested his head back against the wall. 

Niall moved toward the sink, grabbing some paper towel, folding it up and wetting it with cold water before returning to the boy seated on the floor.  He squatted back down in front of his friend, swallowing the concern that threatened to overwhelm him as he got a good look at the too-pale, too-thin, too-fucking-sick lad curled up on the bathroom tiles.

Niall tried to reign in his emotions as he reached out and ran the damp paper towel over the weary face.  Zayn cracked his eyes open at the contact, squinting up at Niall for a moment before reaching shaky hand out for the towel.  Niall relinquished it, shifting back on his heels a bit to give Zayn a little more space as he got himself cleaned up. 

“You want to go finish your tea?”  Niall asked after another minute or two had passed in silence. 

Zayn nodded, placing the used paper towel into Niall’s waiting palm, and then allowing the blonde boy to haul him to his feet. 

“You sure you don’t want me to get Harry?  The meeting is probably almost through, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”  Niall offered, trying not to hover as Zayn shuffled unsteadily over to the sink and washed up a little more thoroughly. 

“I’m sure he wouldn’t.  But there’s nothing he can do except worry and he does enough of that.  Which is why I don’t need to tell him every time I puke – and neither do you.”  Zayn added, giving Niall some serious side-eye to further get his point across.   

“Yeah, alright.”  Niall agreed reluctantly, not feeling good about keeping anything pertaining to Zayn – specifically his health – a secret from Harry…or Louis for that matter.  But it was what Zayn wanted and he was the one dealing with this stupid fucking disease, so Niall figured it was only fair the ill-lad called the shots. 

Once Zayn was finished at the sink, Niall opened the door for him, giving a nervous smile at the glare he received for doing so.  It didn’t escape the blonde boy how shaky his friend was on his feet or how slowly he moved on the return to his booth. 

Niall cleared the biscuits from the table, leaving the water and nudging the tea a bit closer to the spot Zayn was getting himself situated in. 

Niall stood next to the booth, he was frozen, trapped in his mind and struggling to shake the reality he had just been forced to face.  He knew Zayn was sick, he had known it for months – but he’d never seen it, not like that.  He’d never seen Zayn reduced to tears from the violence of his illness, he had never witnessed the degree to which cancer was ravaging his friend’s body. 

Zayn having a disease had been information Niall was well aware, something he worried about regularly – but now it was more than that.  Now it was so very real and so terribly frightening – Niall couldn’t seem to think of anything else.  Just hours ago he had mentally acknowledged the fact that he had been avoiding anything having to do with Zayn’s illness because he couldn’t bear to be around the fear incorporated with a diagnosis like cancer. But now Niall didn’t ever want to leave Zayn’s side again.  He didn’t want to let the frail boy from his sight, lest something horrible happen to him. 

Fuck.

He understood Louis’ fury now, he knew why the older boy came storming into the pub that afternoon -- because his best friend was suffering and he wasn’t there to help, he wasn’t there to make sure cancer didn’t win. Niall didn’t have a bloody clue how Harry went to work every morning, and all the fussing and hovering no longer seemed excessive – it was perfectly reasonable. 

“I’m good, now, Niall.”

Zayn’s rasped comment distracted the blonde lad from the storm raging inside of his head.  He knew the other boy wasn’t just stating facts, Zayn couldn’t hear Niall’s thoughts – thank God – but he was giving the young man the go-ahead to return to his job. 

“Yeah, I know. Mind if I sit for a bit, though?”  Niall questioned. 

Zayn squinted, clearly suspicious as to his friend’s motives. 

“Just trained Zach on the bar awhile ago, spends most of his time doing food-prep in the kitchen, I want to see how he handles things out front.”  Niall explained, it was only a partial lie, Zach was newly trained on the bar, but Niall had trained the lad and was pretty confident in his abilities (not that Zayn needed to know that). 

Zayn smirked, giving the blonde boy a disbelieving look, even as he nodded his consent.  Niall released a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, glad he was being permitted to sit, which he did promptly before Zayn could change his mind.

The booth was a semi-circle and actually a great vantage point to view everything that was happening in the pub.  Niall kept his eye on Zach for a bit, mostly so that Zayn wouldn’t be able to call his bluff, before surveying the rest of the room and returning to the boy at his side.

Zayn was leaning back against the cushioned bench seat, his book propped up on the edge of the table as he appeared to be reading – though his eyes looked to be drooping closed. 

“Whatcha reading?”  Niall asked, nudging the novel.

It took nearly a minute for Zayn to register the question, the delay long enough to rouse Niall’s concern, but not so long he had to sound any alarms. 

In response the boy simply shifted his book, displaying the cover.

The Count of Monte Cristo

“Is it any good?”  He asked. 

The question rewarding him with a twitch of a smile.  “It’s a classic.” 

Niall nodded, he was pretty sure he had known that at one point in his life.

“Here.”  Zayn said, handing over the novel. 

Niall raised an eyebrow. 

“You can borrow it, I’ve read it like a hundred times already – besides, I’m too tried now.”  Zayn elaborated, pulling his legs up onto the booth as he slid down to lay on his back. 

Niall accepted the book and shifted closer to his friend.  He reached down and gently picked up Zayn’s head, meeting the dark gaze that opened to stare questioningly up at him.  He smiled reassuringly, as he slid his leg beneath the raven hair and placed Zayn’s head down to rest on his thigh.  The slim boy shifted a bit, wiggling on the bench, before settling and smiling up at Niall – the soft expression easing some of the fear that had been burning its way into the mind of the younger man.

Niall rested back against the booth, opening the book up to the first page with one hand as his other hand moved down the rest lightly on Zayn’s chest.  The feel of the slim chest rising and falling was the assurance Niall required before allowing himself to get lost in the world painted for him by the classic novel. 

Within the pages he hoped to find a world that wasn’t tainted by things like cancer.

A world where brilliant boys weren’t attacked by diseases that had no right to be anywhere near them. 

A world that wasn’t darkened by the constant fear of forever losing one of your best friends.

A world where problems had solutions and loved ones could be protected.

That was the world Niall wished to exist in. 

Unfortunately, life didn’t work that way, it wasn’t fair or just or safe. 

It just was. 

And you were left to figure out how to survive on your own.

Or rather, with your four mates.

Because at the very least, none of them would ever be alone.

Not ever.

Chapter Text

The meeting only lasted a couple hours, but it seemed to drag on forever.

There were so many little details to be discussed, so many angles to be covered and papers to be signed – Harry didn’t imagine it would have been quite as torturous if he had been able to take his mind off his boyfriend for just one fucking minute.  But he hadn’t managed to accomplish such a task for months, so it was hardly shocking that he was struggling with it now.

Zayn was fine

He knew that.  He knew Niall was looking out for the unwell lad.  And even though he could tell that Zayn’s illness seemed to make the blonde boy fairly uncomfortable, he knew that regardless of that fact that Niall would still look after Zayn with just as much focus and care as any of them.  Harry was well aware of that fact, but it didn’t stop him from breathing a sigh of relief when the meeting finally came to an end. 

He shook hands with the new suppliers and even stuck around the office a bit to chat with the boys, before making his way back out into the heart of the pub and searching for the piece of his own heart that he had left there. 

He made his way to the booth Zayn had been set up in, frowning when he couldn’t see the young man, but Niall appeared to be seated there alone, Zayn’s book in his hand. 

“Hey, where—

Before he even had the chance to finish his question, Harry spotted the mess of raven hair atop Niall’s beige pantleg.  Harry couldn’t hold back a smile at the site of his bird sleeping stretched across the bench-seat with his head in Niall’s lap. 

“I guess Louis’ pocket book has been saved.”  Liam remarked as he peered over Harry’s shoulder. 

“It was never in a lick of danger.”  Louis clarified, his confident comment missing the usual volume that accompanied the older boy’s gusto – clearly as to not disturb Zayn’s rest. 

Harry’s smirk of amusement faded as his eyes travelled up to meet Niall’s. 

The blonde boy looked weary and scared – his expression very similar to the one Harry had seen on Liam only a week ago, the same expression Louis had sported after he had spent the day with the ill boy back in the summer, it was the exact expression Harry had seen in the mirror not long after Zayn’s diagnosis. 

It was the face of harsh reality.

“Everything alright, Ni?”  Harry queried quietly, pretty sure that his friend’s distress had more to do with the cruel introduction to the affects of cancer that he had received, but unsure if there was more behind it. 

“Yeah, he’s fine – tired, but fine.”  Niall assured, the smile that pulled at his lips not holding anywhere near the joy that it usually did. 

“Good, thanks for keeping an eye on him.” 

“Yeah, ‘course.”  The Irish boy drawled.  His mouth opening a time or two, but nothing coming out as he simply stared up at Harry, looking absolutely lost. 

Harry nodded slightly as he smiled, hoping that his grin was as reassuring as he intended it to be.  He knew the fears that Niall was unable to voice and he wanted the young man to know that he understood the things he was unable to say. 

It took a moment, but eventually Niall appeared to find his bearings and gather himself, looking a little less gutted when he next spoke. 

“Well, I kept my half of the deal, how’d you do with yours?”  He asked, a hint of amusement twinkling in his eyes as he cocked his head towards Louis. 

“Everyone left with their heads intact.”  Harry vowed, his hand in the air as though he were taking an oath. 

Liam chuckled in time with Niall as Louis glared at all of them, clearly not comprehending the comment completely, but enough to know that it was him they were poking fun at. 

“I’ll let Louis let you in on the details.  I best get sleeping beauty home.”  Harry stated, nodding down at his slumbering boyfriend. 

“Beauty is bit of a stretch.”  Louis mocked. 

“It’s really not.”  Harry responded without thought as he leaned over Niall to slide some of the thick black locks off the pale forehead. 

Liam snorted and Harry could practically hear the older boy roll his eyes as he mumbled something under his breath before moving back towards the bar and hollering at the poor new kid, Zach, for ‘trashing the joint’.

“I best get going to, I have to go look after Bear. Cheryle wanted to go out with her friends tonight, and she’ll kill me if I make her late again.” 

Niall and Harry chuckled at the remark, both knowing that Cheryle was many wonderful things – but patient was not one of them.

“See you and Zayn on Monday?”  Liam asked as he slid into his jacket.

Harry nodded, clapping Liam on the back. 

“Bye, boys.”  Liam stated, squeezing Niall’s shoulder before heading out of the pub. 

“See-ya.”  Niall replied distractedly as he stared down at his lap – and very likely, the boy who was still fast asleep on top of it. 

“You sure everything went okay, Ni?”  Harry asked, leaning towards the blonde boy, his voice hushed. 

Niall frowned, fiddling with a corner of one of the pages in the novel, Harry bit his lip to keep from informing the young lad about how pissed Zayn would be if he caused any damage to that book. 

“It wasn’t a big deal or anything, he just – uh – he ate a couple biscuits with jam.” 

“That’s great!”  Harry celebrated quietly, because he hadn’t been able to get his boyfriend to eat anything. 

“Yeah, but he – uh – he threw them up.”

Harry sobered as he nodded, he wasn’t alarmed by any means.  Some days after chemo Zayn couldn’t keep down a damn thing, but it was still important that he try because his body needed the nutrients, even the very little it managed to extract from the food before it was purged from his system.

“That happens sometimes.”  Harry commented. 

“Yeah, he said that.  I just – I…”  Niall faded off, giving a helpless shrug as the proper words seemed to evade him. 

“It’s okay, Niall.  He’ll be alright.”  Harry vowed.   

“Yeah.”  Niall whispered, his gaze falling back down to the boy on the bench. 

“He drink much after he got sick?”  Harry asked as he glanced at the half-empty mug. 

Niall opened his mouth to reply, but was cut-off. 

“Traitor.” 

Harry snickered at the accusation that came from his boyfriend, entertained by the guilty look on the blonde boy’s face as he saw Zayn staring up at him. 

“Sorry, Zee.”  Niall mumbled, his hand rubbing the other man’s chest in apology. 

“Don’t be too hard on Niall, babe, I forced it out of him.”  Harry claimed, moving in closer to stare down at the adorably sleepy lad. 

Zayn hummed an unimpressed sound as he began to shift about.  “Sure, you’re real scary.”  He muttered sarcastically, wiggling a bit more before settling - acting just like the kitten Harry always compared him to. 

Harry chuckled fondly, glad to see a genuine smile on Niall’s lips as he looked up at him. 

“It’s time to get up now, darlin.  Niall has work to do and we’ve got to get home.”  Harry prompted softly.

Zayn grunted a grumpy sound before cracking those beautiful eyes back open and slowly leveraging himself up into a seated position.  He blinked wide and owlishly before swallowing thickly.

“Haz.”  The dark-haired boy croaked. 

Harry knew that tone of voice, that was his boyfriend’s something-isn’t-right tone, as calm as it sounded to other people, Harry recognized it for the alarm that it was.  

He moved into the booth, sliding in next to Zayn, catching Niall’s worried look from the other side of the slim frame. 

“What is it, Zayn?  You going to be sick again?”  He asked quietly, head bent close to the other boy.

“Dizzy.”  Zayn whispered, his fingers appearing from beneath the long sleeves and latching onto Harry, as he closed his eyes a moment. 

Harry frowned, the pallor of his boyfriend’s face indicating that he was about to be sick and having him planning a path to the bathroom.  Zayn would be mortified if he hurled right there at the table. 

“Okay, Zee, just keep your eyes shut and let me slide you over a bit.”  Harry narrated as he wrapped his hands around the too-bony hips – Zayn’s thin fingers on his arms – as he slowly slid the slender figure across the cushioned bench seat until the twig legs were hanging off the end. 

Harry squatted down in front of him, his hand sliding to rest against the side of the long neck, frowning at the clammy skin he found there. 

“Talk to me, babe.”  He requested. 

He watched as Zayn’s lips moved, but couldn’t hear a thing, the noise in the pub having escalated as the evening progressed.  Harry frowned, moving up closer, asking Zayn to repeat himself.

“Jus’ dizzy.”  The boy mumbled, his shaky grip moving from Harry’s arms to the front of his shirt, weakly tugging him closer until he was able to burry his head against the younger man’s chest. 

“You’re alright. I’ve got you.”  He vowed into his boyfriend’s ear, pulling him close, his hand sliding into the mess of black hair as his eyes met Niall’s wide, worried gaze.  He was trying to think of something reassuring to say to ease the fears that he could see shining so clearly through the blonde boy’s eyes, but was swiftly interrupted by the feeling of a none-too-gentle tug at the back of his shirt. 

“Move.”  Louis ordered, giving Harry no time to argue as he nudged him back and wedged himself between the boys, squatting down to get closer to Zayn.  Harry watched as the older boy grabbed those bony fingers and wrapped them around the cup he had in his hands. 

“Ginger-ale.  Partially flat.  Cool but not cold.  Drink it.”  He instructed, pulling a straw out of his back pocket, opening it with his teeth and dropping it into the beverage. 

Harry couldn’t hear what Zayn’s response was, but the scowl had him thinking it had something to do with the boy’s aversion to bubbly beverages. 

“That’s why I opened it when your stupid skinny ass showed up here, it’ll be mostly flat by now.  So stop bitching and drink it.”  Louis declared. 

“He had tea—

Niall was swiftly cut off by his business partner.

“The tea bag would have fucking disintegrated by now.”

“I could make him another—

“And then he’ll drink it too damn slow for it to do any good.  He needs to be hydrated – and the ginger should help settle his stomach.  So drink it.”  Louis ordered. 

Zayn glanced up at Harry, who nodded down at the drink in his hands.  Because as rudely as Louis went about it, the bugger was right.  Dehydration could be the reason for the dizziness, the clammy skin, and the nausea. 

“Don’t want to throw up again.”  Zayn mumbled miserably, just barely loud enough to be heard over the noise of the pub. 

“Babe, if your going to be sick it’s going to happen regardless, you might as well have something to bring up – that’s better than dry-heaving.  And if you’re just dehydrated the ginger-ale will help.”  Harry explained, his tone sympathetic.  Because he knew how much Zayn hated getting sick like that and how violent it could be at times. 

“See?  Not even Harry can save you from logic.  Now drink.”  Louis demanded. 

Harry had to bite back a smile as he watched the two best friends glare each other down for nearly a minute before Zayn finally brought the straw to his lips – right after muttering some rather uncharitable words to the older boy, of course.

“You’re just as bitchy as my sisters.”  Louis responded, giving his head an exasperated shake as he stood. 

“Fuck off.”  Zayn muttered around the straw in his mouth. 

Harry couldn’t hold back a laugh at the exchange.  Louis rolled his eyes, turning his attention to Harry. 

“He doesn’t go anywhere until that glass is empty.”  Louis decreed.

Harry gave the older boy a mock salute, which rewarded him an irritated glare in return, but the smirk he got from Zayn made it worth it. 

“It’s probably that shirt that made him nauseous to begin with.”  Louis remarked, plucking at the green material Harry was wearing.

Niall barked a laugh at that as Harry pouted in offense, glancing down at Zayn who looked up at him with amusement shining in his dark eyes as he proceeded to sip innocently at his beverage.

“You planning to come back to work sometime today, Horan?  Or should I tell Zach that he just got a promotion?”  Louis called over his shoulder as he began to make his way back towards the bar.

Harry chuckled as Niall scrambled out of the booth. 

“You laugh, mate, but he would do it.”  The Irish boy claimed. 

“He can’t, you own this place just as much as he does.”  Harry pointed out, rubbing his hand distractedly up and down Zayn’s back.  

“Wouldn’t stop him from trying.”  Niall commented, snagging the novel off the table and stopping in front of Zayn.  “Thanks for letting me borrow your book.  I’ll bring it back to you soon, yeah?”  He said – such a simple comment spoken so softly had Zayn twitching a smile and reaching out to gently ruffle Niall’s hair. 

If Harry was perfectly honest with himself, he would admit that there were moments he found himself envying the calm nature that Niall exuded and – more specifically – the peaceful effect it had on Zayn.  But more than anything, Harry was just glad for their friendship, because Zayn needed all the peace and positivity he could find right about now. 

“I’ll – uh, I’ll see you lads soon.”  Niall announced, the statement sounding oddly like a promise. 

“Yeah, sure thing, Ni.”  Harry responded with a smile. 

Niall took another step or two before he stalled, clearly hesitant to leave.  “And if you need anything, just –

“Holy hell, Niall!  Just go before Louis loses his shit.”  Zayn whined, letting the straw fall from between his lips as he stared up at Niall, the exasperation on his expression just as easy to spot as the fondness.

Niall twitched a small smile before nodding and practically jogging towards the bar.

“Feeling better?”  Harry questioned with a knowing smirk – if Zayn had the energy to be sassing people, that was usually a pretty good sign. 

“Yeah, but don’t be telling Louis, he’s insufferable whenever he’s right about something.”  Zayn remarked with an eyeroll as he scooted back on the seat, tugging Harry to sit down in the space he had created between his legs.

Harry hummed in agreement, because yes, he was well aware of that fact.  He heard Zayn place the glass on the table and then felt those thin arms snake their way around his waist from behind, as a forehead thumped gently onto his shoulder blade.  Harry intertwined his fingers with the ones splayed across his chest, bringing them up to his lips to press a kiss on the back of Zayn’s hand. 

He felt more than heard Zayn hum a soft sound and smiled at the kiss that was placed on the back of his neck. 

“Meeting go well?”  The raven-haired lad asked, the question muffled against Harry’s back.

“Yeah, I think so.  We negotiated terms that everyone agreed with enough to sign off on.  So that’s good.”  Harry summarised, his soul settled by the feel of Zayn’s chest rising and falling against his back and his eyes staring in amusement at the sight of Niall and Louis bickering behind the bar.

“Mhmm, not an easy thing to achieve, I’d imagine.” 

“It certainly took some time.  Glad Liam came though, he’s a clever lad.” 

“So are you.”  Zayn insisted.  

Harry nearly rolled his eyes as the unnecessary praise, but he couldn’t help the way the words warmed his insides.  He certainly didn’t have Liam’s brains, but he still got butterflies anytime Zayn sent a compliment his way.  He imagined he always would. 

It was one of the many things about them that would never change.

“Can we go home now, Haz?”  Zayn asked through a yawn a couple moments later, his breath warm against Harry’s back.

The younger man glanced to his right, spotting the cup of ginger-ale mostly empty, but not entirely. 

“Sure thing, babe, but we best sneak out before Louis notices.” 

“He doesn’t scare me.”  Zayn stated, the weight of his head no longer pressing against Harry’s shoulder blade. 

Harry quirked a smile, not mentioning that when it came to Zayn (and only then) – the younger man always found Louis had the power to be terribly intimidating. 

The boys slipped out of the pub – One Direction, was the official name, an odd one for a bar but it was titled after the band the boys had formed in college. 

The drive back to the flat was a short one, long enough for Zayn to nod off of course, but still only a few blocks away.  Zayn insisted on showering when they returned home, even though Harry was worried the weary lad would fall asleep standing up and end up slipping and getting himself hurt.  Zayn had rolled his eyes at the concern and declared he would be ‘just fine, thank you’.  So Harry re-heated some leftover lasagna for dinner and ate at the kitchen table, his ear out for any noise that would indicate a tumble.

He was in his sleep clothes stretched out on the bed marking quizzes when Zayn finally exited the bathroom.  Harry looked up from correcting a poorly formed treble clef and raked his eyes over the thin frame standing before him. 

“Still in one piece, Haz.”  Zayn whined, not even glancing at his boyfriend as he made his way across the room to the closet. 

“Just checking.”  Harry defended light-heartedly, even as his insides ached at what he saw.  Zayn was wearing soft cotton sleep-pants, but had not yet slipped into a top, which left his bare chest on display.  Zayn had always been thin, since college and long before that according to Louis, but this was different.  His figure was no longer just slim, it was nearly emaciated – as if it the boy himself was fading away pound by pound.  Harry could easily count every one of Zayn’s ribs and each notch of his spine, and it made it so much more difficult to stifle the concern that had taken up residence in the younger man’s mind since the diagnosis.   

He tried to shake the fear from his thoughts as Zayn slipped into bed next to him, wearing a hoodie as he slid beneath the blankets. 

“I can turn the heat up.”  Harry offered, making a move to get up from the bed.

Zayn shook his head, grabbing the other boy’s arm to keep him in place.  “No, it’s fine.  I’ve just got the chills, they’ll pass.”  He assured, likely because he knew Harry would be too warm if the heat went up any higher.  He had always run hot, while Zayn had always run far too cold; Harry wished he could give his warm-bloodedness to his boyfriend, at least until the lad got better. 

But he couldn’t. 

So he did the next best thing. 

Harry piled the scattered papers and placed them on the side table, switching off the lamp before he laid down on top of the covers and reached out, pulling the slim frame towards him.

Zayn released a squawk of surprise as Harry tugged him over into the center of the mattress, but he quickly quieted when a pair of arms wrapped around him.  Harry smiled as his boyfriend sighed softly, nuzzling against the wider frame before settling into the hold. 

“You’re such a cat.”  Harry whispered, feeling the black hair tickling his nose as Zayn’s head moved.  Suddenly, a warm tongue dragged its way up Harry’s bare arm.

“Ewe!”  He complained after a surprised laugh, as he jerked his arm away from his boyfriend. 

“Just playing the part.”  Zayn claimed cheekily. 

“You’re gross.”  Harry accused, even as another laugh bubbled through him. 

“You asked for it.” 

Harry didn’t much have a defense for that – he did compare Zayn’s behaviour quite often to that of a cat, which annoyed the boy, he was more of a dog person after all. 

“Bring your arm back.”  Zayn pouted after a moment, blindly reaching out behind himself in search of the desired limb. 

“No way!  You licked it!”  Harry replied through a giggle. 

“I had to make a point, I won’t do it again.” 

“I don’t trust you, you little minx.” 

“Thought I was a cat.” 

“Same family.”  Harry shrugged. 

Zayn twisted himself around, his bottom lip pushed out as he looked at Harry with those big brown eyes.  “Hazza.”  The name was a plea paired with one of the most miserable pouts Harry had ever seen. 

He didn’t stand a chance.

He released a put-upon sigh as he returned his arm to where it had been wrapped around the slim frame before it was assaulted by saliva.  Zayn twitched a satisfied little grin before squirming back into his original position and relaxing right into place. 

“Thank you.”  The raven-haired lad whispered. 

“As if I had a choice with you looking like bloody Bambi.”  Harry muttered, even as he secured his arms a little tighter around the beautiful boy in his arms.

“Now I’m a deer?  This is getting a bit ridiculous, Styles.”  Zayn mumbled through a yawn.

“You are a great many things, my sweet creature.”  He confessed, flirtatious but honest as he pressed a kiss to one of those God-given cheekbones, before relaxing back into the mattress. 

Zayn hummed a happy sound as his narrow back shifted impossibly closer to the broad chest, his breathing slowing as he drifted off to sleep.

 Harry’s faith and hope were completely restored by the simple act of having the one he loved most in the world content and at peace in his arms. 

Sleep came upon him swiftly and pleasantly.  Unfortunately, he did not come out of it in the same manor. 

Harry woke alone in bed, his arms empty of the slim frame they had become so accustomed to holding over the past few years. 

The long-haired boy frowned, picking his head off the pillow and blearily scanning the dark room, he reached over and lit up his phone, the clock on the screen informing him that it was four in the morning.  Harry sat up on the mattress, alarm setting in.  Since the diagnosis, it wasn’t rare for Zayn to rise before Harry in the mornings – his need for his pain meds often pulling him from sleep – but it was too early for that.  It was then that Harry heard that sound he had begun to dread. 

The faint echo of his boyfriend being sick in the bathroom. 

“Fuck.”  Harry cursed under his breath as he climbed off the bed, stumbling towards the closed bathroom door and the crack of light glowing out from beneath it.

He entered the ensuite, squinting at the light – even though the dimmer must have been on the lowest possible setting.  He easily spotted his boyfriend at the other end of the small space, kneeling in front of the toilet, his back curved over the edge of the bowl as heaved into it. 

Harry detoured to the sink to wet a face cloth with cool water before squatting down next to the ill young man. 

“Hey, babe.”  He greeted softly, once there was a pause in the hurling.

Zayn groaned in response, spitting out remnants of what was likely nothing more than stomach acid before sitting back on his heels and dropping his forehead onto the arm he had propped up on the toilet seat. 

“Been in here long?”  Harry asked, rubbing his hand up and down the trembling back, trying to gauge how much he had missed. 

Zayn’s shoulders lifted and dropped in a slight shrug as he continued to pant - working to catch his breath. 

“You think it’s winding down?”  Harry prodded quietly.

“Don’t know. ‘nothin’s comin’ up.”  Zayn croaked – his wrecked voice evidence of how aggressive this bout of sickness had been. 

Harry nodded, clenching his jaw at the information, knowing that Zayn had been there alone just dry-heaving for heaven knows how long, while Harry’s useless backside had been fast asleep.

“Look up for me, Zee.  Just for a second.”

Zayn did as requested, lifting his head up off his arm as though it weighed a million pounds and angling towards the other man. 

Harry twitched a soft smile.  “Hey.”

“Hi.”  Zayn responded, his expression exhausted even as he made an attempt at a twisted little grin. 

Harry folded the cloth in his hands and used it to gently wipe away the tear tracks from the perfect face, softly scrubbing at a smear of moisture on Zayn’s chin, before refolding the cloth inside out and spreading it across the back of the sweaty neck. 

He was about to ask if Zayn was ready to go back to bed, when he watched the dark-haired boy swallow sickly, his eyes getting wide as his entire body tensed. 

“Fuck.”  Zayn croaked, barely able to get back up onto his knees before the heaving began. 

Harry stayed by his boyfriend’s side, rubbing his back, waiting for the bout of nausea to come to an end – but it didn’t.  Zayn continued to dry-heave, even as nothing but the occasional dribble of stomach acid came out of his mouth.  His knuckles were white as they clutched the rim of the toilet, his entire body shaking under the force of each violent heave, so much so that he nearly collapsed into the porcelain fixture.  Harry quickly moved around behind the young man, wrapping a hand around his chest, helping to support the thin frame as he held it up over the toilet-bowl. 

“Haz.”  Zayn gasped out between heave’s, blindly reaching back and grasping Harry’s pantleg. 

“I’m right here, babe.  I’ve got you.  I’m right here.”  Harry promised, Zayn only having time to nod before he was overcome once again with another aggressive wave of illness. 

“Why won’t it stop?”  Zayn sobbed between heaves, his arm moving around so he could grip the hand Harry had splayed across his chest – the long fingers digging painfully into the younger lad’s skin, but he paid the discomfort no mind. 

“It will.  I promise it will.  It always does.”  Harry vowed, even as his words were drowned out by another noisy dry-heave. 

Harry prayed that his promise was true, prayed that the sickness would stop, that the cancer would give Zayn a break just for the night – even just enough so that he could get some rest.

It took a long time.

Too fucking long. 

But eventually the dry-heaving came to an end, and Zayn was left panting and shaking in Harry’s arms. 

“M’sorry.”  He croaked, his voice absolutely wrecked. 

“Don’t.  None of that.”  Harry chastised, pulling the boy further from the commode as he wrapped him in his arms.

“No, might be sick.”  Zayn murmured, pulling away from his boyfriend’s hold. 

Harry shook his head, tightening his grip, wrapping his arms around the legs Zayn had curled up towards his chest. 

“Don’t wanna get sick on you.”

“You won’t.”  Harry dismissed, both because by this point he knew the tell-tale signs of Zayn getting sick and as soon as he heard him swallowing convulsively he would hold him up above the loo – and because he didn’t give a fuck if the boy threw-up on him, it would be worth the few minutes he would be able to provide Zayn just a sliver of comfort.

Zayn stopped resisting and instead huddled closer, still quaking from the after-math of the violent sickness, curling into the broad chest. 

“It’ll get better.”  Zayn whispered, as Harry felt a hand on his chest, long fingers splayed gently over his pounding heart.  “Right, Haz?”   The weary boy rasped, an edge of distress to his tone. 

“Of course it will, darlin’.  It’ll get better.”  Harry reassured, pulling the slender frame impossibly closer, pressing a kiss against his boyfriend’s clammy forehead before resting his chin atop the raven hair.

He felt the head nod against him, both boys seeming to accept the statement as the truth they hoped it would be. 

As Harry sat on the tile floor, leaning against the bathroom wall with his love resting fitfully against him, trembling in his arms – he begged and prayed for all that he was worth that Zayn would be okay. 

That cancer wouldn’t tear this beautiful boy away from him

That the light of his universe wouldn’t be snuffed out. 

Because there would be no joy after that.

There would be no hope. 

Harry’s world would go dark.

But he pushed those thoughts away, denying them a foothold in his mind.

Zayn would be safe.

Because Harry was never letting go of him.

Neither were the boys.

Not ever.