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driving down a one way road (to something better)

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Zayn’s boyfriend is a dick.

Louis knows that he should be happy for him and all, because Zayn obviously loves him, and Zayn usually has excellent taste in people, but in this case, Louis firmly believes that Zayn has made a terrible mistake and that his boyfriend doesn’t deserve to even have Zayn breathe in his direction.

Let alone move all the way to fucking New York for him.

It has nothing to do with the fact that Louis has been borderline in love with Zayn for almost two years now, of course. That’d be ridiculous. No, Louis is just a good friend who is looking out for Zayn, and who knows that New York is the kind of place that will gobble him up and spit him back out without so much as a ‘sorry’.

Zayn is .. Louis doesn’t want to say fragile, because Zayn can handle himself, can probably handle himself just fine in New York too. But Zayn is soft, and it’s a kind of softness that Louis likes, that he worries a big city like New York will take away.

He knows this was bound to happen, of course, but it’s like a car accident. You can see it coming, but there’s nothing you can do to change it. Nothing except stare in horror as everything you’ve ever loved is irrevocably changed.

So Louis is dramatic. Sue him. His best friend is moving to New York, all because Jordan just happens to be from the city in the first place and wants to go back. Had a great job offer, Zayn says, and anyway, his entire life is there, and Louis tries so hard to bite his tongue and not ask Zayn why that matters more than the fact that his life is right here. Louis had never been good at biting his tongue but he’d fought his nature, knowing that once Zayn made up his mind there was really no changing it, no matter how badly he’d wanted to.

And it makes sense. Jordan had come to the UK for an internship, he was never meant to stay beyond a year. But he had. For Zayn. Louis can’t exactly blame him for it. And he supposes he can’t blame him for wanting to go back when it had proven to be so difficult to get a job here in his chosen field. Just … did he have to take his best friend with him?

He’s going to fucking miss him. Miss the Sundays that they’d curl up together on the couch, pretending to watch something on Netflix while they smoked and had some of the most interesting, deeply personal conversations Louis has ever had with anyone in his life. He’s going to miss tricking him into playing football with him and absolutely destroying him on the pitch. He’s even going to miss the way Zayn would whine at him afterwards and make Louis buy him food, miss how they’d pretend that Zayn hadn’t known he would all along and how that was why he let Louis ‘trick’ him in the first place.

He knows they’ll still talk - even if they both abhor phone calls and neither of them can keep their focus long enough to have a proper Skype call - but it’ll be different. Zayn will have a life that’s entirely separate from Louis’, and how long will it be until he makes other friends?

Until he forgets about him?

But Louis is Louis and he keeps that to himself (though he has a good cry about it, probably more times than he’d like to admit) and Zayn is Zayn and Louis would never do anything to hold him back. So he helps him pack up his apartment and he drives him to the airport and he hugs him goodbye and he never, ever, not once, tells him to stay.

*

He also doesn’t tell him to come back. He would never.

But in the end he doesn't have to.

It’s five months later and it’s 9 P.M. in New York which means it’s two in the fucking morning in London when his phone rings. Louis really hates when people call him and he especially hates when they call him in the middle of the night, and he’s about to give an earful to whoever’s interrupted a proper nice dream when he sees the name on the caller I.D.

His heart does something, and he swallows, brings the phone to his ear. “Zaynie?”

There’s silence on the other end of the line, and Louis would think that Zayn’s pocket dialed him but the silence feels wrong somehow, feels too heavy. And then he hears it, a soft sniff, so soft that Louis is sure that Zayn tried to keep him from hearing it. It’s there though, loud in the silence, louder even in the shaky timbre of his voice. “Hey Lou.”

His mind starts racing almost immediately. What happened? Are you okay? Who do I gotta hurt? He swallows it all back. “Hi babe,” it’s soft, and fond, and Louis knows he’s shit at hiding his feelings but he doesn’t even try right now, lets them bleed out and travel over the phone line like maybe they’ll comfort Zayn somehow. He wants to ask what’s wrong but he doesn’t, because sometimes Zayn will retreat when he’s being asked about his feelings before he’s ready, and just because he called him doesn’t mean that he wants to talk. Maybe he just wants a distraction. Louis tries to wrack his brain to come up with something, but all he can register is his desperate desire to make things okay.

“Um,” Zayn says, but he doesn’t immediately follow it up with anything, just reverts back to silence. Eventually, after the longest minute of Louis’ life, one in which he had to bite down on his lip to keep from speaking up, he tacks on a quiet “I know it’s late.”

It is late and Louis hates being woken up, knows that Zayn knows that, though he doesn’t hate it quite as much as Zayn always does. “It’s alright,” he says, and this time the sound Zayn makes is less of a sniff and more of a humorless huff. “Did you want to talk?” It’s gentle, a stark contrast to the tight grip he has on his phone.

“I’m at the airport.” It’s followed by a bitter laugh. “I’m - I’m literally at the airport, hiding away in the toilets to make a phone call. They’re probably going to barge in here in a minute, thinking I’m doing something illegal, but I didn’t know what else to do Lou.” He sounds desperate, wild, nothing that Louis is used to associating with Zayn. “My flight leaves in an hour, and I wasn’t gonna do this, but, I didn’t know what else to do.”

Louis frowns. “What do you mean, love?”

“Can I - Can I please come and stay with you?” It’s barely more than a whisper, and Louis honestly isn’t sure if he’s heard it right, but the lack of an immediate response on his part makes Zayn’s breath come out all shaky and Louis won’t stand for that.

“Yes,” he decides, repeats it, in a softer but no less certain voice, when he knows Zayn is about to protest. “Yes. Of course. I’ll be there, yeah? I’ll come pick you up. When will you get here? What airport?” He focuses on that, rather than on the way he can tell Zayn is clearly seconds away from crying, because once he starts wondering about what happened he’s going to want to race over there and hug him, and there’s hours and miles between them yet. “I’ll be there, okay?”

“Okay,” Zayn doesn’t sound better but at least he doesn’t sound worse, and Louis knows it’s the best he can hope for right now. “Lou, I-” he lets out another of those shaky breaths, doesn’t quite manage to cover up his sniff this time. “Thank you.”

Louis would bend over backwards for this boy, but all he does is hold onto his phone like he wants to hold onto Zayn, and quietly, truthfully, tells him “Of course. Anything.”

*

Louis doesn’t sleep much that night. He tries to, but after an hour or so of tossing and turning, he gives up, knowing that there’s no way he’s going to be able to relax until he knows exactly what’s going on. But he can’t ask Zayn. Not just because he’s boarded his flight (Louis knows because Zayn sent him his tracking info and the flight’s status says it’s about to depart) but because he doesn’t want to do anything that will make Zayn reconsider asking him for help.

He wants to be Zayn’s safe place.

Like he always used to be, tried his hardest to be even when it was clear that he didn’t think too much of Zayn’s boyfriend. He had never said anything about it, but Louis had never been good at biting his tongue or hiding his feelings, and sometimes, in the darkest hours of the night, he’d wonder if that was why Zayn left. Because he knew Louis had feelings for him and needed some distance.

If that’s true, he wonders just how badly things could’ve gone if Zayn was willing to not just come back but stay with him.

Of course, it might just be for a few days. Until things sort themselves back out and Zayn either went back or went up North to stay with his parents. Louis tries not to think about how much that will hurt, having his best friend back but not really.

He tries to remind himself that he’s had a life before Zayn. They didn’t meet until they were in their third year at uni, working the same shift at the on-campus diner, but despite the fact that they’ve only been best mates for around four years, they just click. In a lot of ways, Zayn is Louis’ person. The one that gets him, the one that he knows will always have his back. The one that, apparently, can come back into his life in the middle of the night and Louis won’t even ask for an explanation, will just be his ride or die.

It’s not like Zayn’s ever fully left his life anyway, let alone his thoughts. They’ve been in touch. Just, it’s been different, like Louis knew it would be. Louis’ job as well as timezones and a mutual hatred for phone calls meant that they hadn’t kept in touch as often or as intensively as Louis would’ve liked.

It has given him a bit of time to get over Zayn though, so at least that’s been good. He’s almost to a point where his heart doesn’t jump and sink at the thought of having Zayn in his apartment for an indefinite amount of time.

It’s three thirty in the morning and Louis is making space for Zayn in his apartment, popping a load of laundry in the washer so the bed in the guestroom will have clean sheets on it, dusting and vacuuming the room before emptying a few drawers so Zayn will have somewhere to put his stuff. He’s got all this nervous energy to get rid of, feels the kind of jittery that he’s used to associating with too many cans of RedBull in his highschool days. Sitting down to play Fifa doesn’t help, and when he’s scrolled through Netflix’s recommendations only to come up empty he gives up on that too.

His house is pretty neat, but he still goes through it, waters the plants and dusts off the books on his bookshelf, like Zayn will give any fucks about the state of his apartment. He’s probably going to pass out the moment he gets within distance of the bed, because Louis knows that Zayn’s never really been able to sleep on flights and he doubts it will be any easier when he’s upset.

He hates that thought, that Zayn’s just sat there on a plane, knowing he’s got hours ahead of him in which he can’t move, can’t draw, can’t do anything to distract himself from the thoughts running through his brain. Louis just wants to be there already, wants to hug him and ward off any negativity that threatens to cling to one of the best people Louis has ever had the pleasure to meet.

But he can’t, so he stays busy, and watches the hands on the clock move slower than they ever have before.

*

Zayn’s plane lands a little after ten thirty in the morning, but Louis is at the airport at eight, because he couldn’t stand being cooped up in his apartment anymore. He settles down with a hot cup of coffee - not the best thing on an empty stomach, but with nothing to do and his nervous energy running out he’s feeling the lack of sleep now - in a small overpriced café, trying to resist the urge to check on Zayn’s flight info for the millionth time this morning.

Time creeps by ever so slowly, but the good thing about being at an airport is that there’s always people around, and watching them gives him something to do, something besides wondering about what happened and how he’s going to fix things for Zayn. There’s still a lot of that going on in his head, but it’s almost muted, like a program running in the background on a computer.

With just a couple of minutes to spare until Zayn’s plane finally lands, Louis pays for his drink and wanders over to the giant doors separating him (and a handful of other people) from the baggage claim area. He’s not sure if the feeling in his stomach is from the lack of food and too much coffee, or if it’s nerves, but there’s a part of him that definitely feels like throwing up.

It’s only made worse when he stands there and finally sees people starting to come through the doors to get to the baggage claim area, searching out their suitcases from the belt that Louis knows Zayn’s stuff will be on - assuming he’s brought more than just a carry on. He doesn’t immediately see Zayn, and despite knowing that he would’ve heard something, there’s a moment where he can’t help but worry: what if Zayn hasn’t boarded the flight? What if he’s reconsidered and Louis has spent his entire night agonizing over nothing? Or what if he’s broken down so completely that he wasn’t able to make it onto the plane? Louis knows about Zayn’s anxiety, knows that he’s always been a nervous flyer. What if he was too stressed, after everything, to make his way back home?

It feels like time slows down when he finally sees him. His dark hair, partially hidden behind a beanie. His features, that are striking even from a distance, even through glass that blurs out half of the perfect imperfections that make up his face. Louis can tell that he’s tired even without that though, it’s there in the set of his shoulders, in the way that other people push their way in front of him to collect their bags, and he just lets them. Even when he gets jostled, he just makes space for them, and Louis feels his nails digging into his palms, forces himself to unclench his fists and breathe slowly before he tries something as stupid as running through the door and giving them all a piece of his mind. It’s not going to help Zayn, he tells himself, but seeing him and not being able to hold him, help him, takes every bit of self control that he has left. Which isn’t much, when he’s running on coffee and no more than an hour or two of sleep.

He waits, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, trying not to block the view of any of the other people waiting. He knows that they’re excited too, to pick up their loved ones, and even though Louis doesn’t think he can stand to wait for another second, he can’t be completely selfish.

All bets are off, however, the moment Zayn steps through those doors. Louis doesn’t even give him time to look around - never wanting him to have to find him, to have that millisecond of wondering if he’s even there - rushing to his side immediately, giving into the months long urge to wrap him up in his arms.

Zayn tenses, but only for a moment, and then he sinks into his embrace, his hands dropping the bags in favor of finding their place on Louis’ back. It’s odd how that makes Louis feel like crying. “Hi Zaynie,” he murmurs, his nose pressed against Zayn’s throat, and he knows best mates don’t hug like this, but with everything that’s happened, with all the time he’s spent without him, he thinks he’ll get away with it just this one time. Zayn certainly doesn’t seem to mind, in fact, he presses closer.

“Hi Lou.” He sounds tired, weary in a way that doesn’t fit his age, and Louis bites his tongue to keep from asking. There’s time, he doesn’t need to know right now. And even if he does, it’s not what Zayn needs right this minute. He just needs a safe place, maybe a cup of tea, and a long nap.

So Louis doesn’t ask, he just pulls back and picks up Zayn’s bags and gives him a smile that aims for reassuring. “C’mon,” he tells him. “I’m taking you home.”

(Zayn’s eyes look suspiciously watery after the mention of that word, but Louis pretends not to notice. He’s a good friend like that.)

*

True to expectation, Zayn looks about dead on his feet by the time they’ve made it to Louis’ apartment. Louis doesn’t even bother with tea, just takes his bags into the guestroom and fluffs up the pillow one last time. “Get some rest,” he says softly, and Zayn looks like he wants to say something, but he just reaches out and rests a hand on Louis’ shoulder instead. Louis squeezes his arm in response, before shifting up just enough to brush his lips over the stubble on Zayn’s jaw. “I’ll be here when you wake up. Everything can wait until then, yeah?”

Zayn hesitates but nods, and Louis moves around him towards the door, is about to give him some privacy, when Zayn turns towards him and reaches out for him, his fingertips brushing over the inside of Louis’ wrist. “Lou-”

“You’re grateful. I know.” Louis gives him a little lopsided smirk, hoping to coax Zayn into smiling back at him. “It’s alright, Z. You don’t have to keep telling me. It’s what mates do, yeah?”

Zayn doesn’t quite smile, but he does seem to relax a little bit at Louis’ reassurance. “I know.” He says quietly, his eyes flicking down to where he’s holding Louis’ wrist and back up to his eyes. Louis tracks the movement with his own eyes, trying not to feel breathless when their eyes meet. “I wasn’t - that wasn’t what I was going to say,” Zayn says, and it sounds more like a whisper.

Louis’ mouth suddenly feels a little dry, and he’s pretty sure that it’s not just the coffee that’s responsible for the way his heart is jackhammering in his chest. “Oh?” He hates how breathless it sounds, how naked he feels, is sure that whatever Zayn was about to say he’s going to withdraw now, because this moment feels too heavy and he’s quite sure that wasn’t intentional on Zayn’s part. He’s cursing himself in his head, but Zayn just shrugs, and something about the movement is so self deprecating that Louis stops focusing on how awkward he is potentially making this situation and goes for broke, putting Zayn’s needs above his own even when he knows how vulnerable that leaves him. “Did you want - I can stay, if you want.” It sounds tentative, and Zayn’s eyes stop moving through the room and focus on him again instead. Louis swallows.

The way Zayn whispers “Please” almost breaks his heart.

*

They’ve shared a bed before, it isn’t something that Louis usually thinks twice about. Sure, when he first figured out he had feelings for Zayn - two years into their friendship, and it felt like he’d just woken up in love with him from one morning to the next - he had felt a bit awkward about it, sure that Zayn would notice or even if he didn’t, sure that he would be upset once he knew.

Even if Louis was never going to do anything. By the time he’d accepted the fact that yes, apparently he was seriously in love with his best mate, Zayn had already started dating Jordan, and Louis had been so set on never doing anything that would fuck up his friendship that he hadn’t even considered telling him. Let alone beg him to leave his boyfriend. Because Zayn was happy and that was all that mattered.

It’s always been a comfort thing. Even when they both had apartments of their own, or that brief period of time when they were roommates (Zayn’s lease running out before he could move into another place), they gravitated towards sharing a bed after a couple of pints. At first it was accidental, falling asleep after chatting about their night, but eventually it became the new normal, Zayn bringing his pillow into Louis’ room and cuddling into his side.

It’s even happened when Zayn was already with his boyfriend (possibly his ex now?), all the way up to the last night before he left for New York. So Louis doesn’t hesitate in crawling into bed with Zayn, pulling him against his chest so he can hold him while he tries to fall asleep. Zayn is tense this time though, at least for the first minute or so, and Louis isn’t quite sure why until he hears the soft sob that Zayn must have been trying so hard to hold back. He can feel the way he stills when he realises Louis has heard, but rather than saying anything Louis just reaches for his hand and threads their fingers. Zayn lets out a shivery breath, but he squeezes back, and with that, the tension in his body eases. “I love you,” he murmurs, not quite drowsy but still a little slurred, and Louis knows that he doesn’t mean it the way that part of him wishes he did, but he also knows that it’s enough. That getting to be here for Zayn, getting to be his best friend, his shoulder to cry on in times of need, is always going to be enough.

“I love you too,” he murmurs, and he means it in that all encompassing way he always does. He loves Zayn, as a person, as his best friend, as the someone that got away. It feels like it should be more difficult, but loving Zayn’s always been the easiest thing in the world, even when it’s hurt sometimes. “Get some rest, babes.”

Zayn barely even nods, just burrows in closer, and they fall asleep pressed close like that, Louis’ worries not quite eased but feeling a little more manageable now that he’s got Zayn in his arms. Whatever’s wrong, it’s going to be a hell of a lot easier to fix now that they’re on the same continent.

*

For a moment, when he wakes up, Louis doesn’t know where he is or what time it is. It’s not quite dark out, but it’s not quite light either, and it takes him a moment before he makes sense of his surroundings, realizes he’s in his guest bedroom and the darkness is due to the thick curtains that filter out most of the sunlight.

He wakes up with Zayn next to him, his face pressed to Louis’ chest, and even through the material of his shirt he can feel the way his breath fans out against his skin. He’s still dead to the world, mouth slightly slack and drooling a little bit, and it should be the least attractive thing in the world, but Louis can only take stock of the way his eyelashes fan out across his cheeks and feel his heart ache. Zayn looks calm, in sleep, such a difference from how he’d looked when he’d picked him up from the airport this morning, and Louis doesn’t want to disturb his peace, not sure how long it’s been since Zayn’s last felt this relaxed.

He does kind of need to piss though, and his arm’s numb, Zayn’s bony shoulder practically crushing it to the bed, but there’s no way in hell Louis is moving anytime soon. Even if staring at Zayn while he’s sleeping could be considered as somewhat creepy. He wonders if he’ll be able to reach for his phone, but the first sign of movement on his part causes Zayn’s eyelids to flutter, a delicate frown appearing on his face, and Louis gives up. He settles back in, closes his eyes, and thinks of nothing.

Louis isn’t great at thinking about nothing though, and soon enough his thoughts drift to the current situation. Will Zayn stay for long? Is he going to go back to New York? Does what happened have anything to do with his boyfriend? If not, why isn’t he here? Why isn’t he the one to comfort Zayn? Does he even know something’s wrong? As much as Louis despises the man (and he has reasons, it isn’t just that Louis thinks the world of Zayn and doesn’t think anyone’s really good enough for him), the thought of him coming home to an empty apartment, not knowing where his boyfriend is, makes him feel somewhat sad for him. But he shrugs it off, tells himself that of course he’d know. Zayn wouldn’t just run away over nothing. Whatever’s happened, Louis is willing to bet his left kidney it has something to do with Jordan.

He wonders how long he’ll have to wait for answers. Zayn’s here, yes, but Louis knows as well as anyone that there’s really no making Zayn talk until he’s ready. He doesn’t fully freeze people out, he’s too kind for that, but he’s about as stubborn as Louis is, and no amount of trying will get him to open up until he’s ready to let Louis in.

Patience isn’t one of Louis’ virtues, but he will try his hardest, knows that whatever else Zayn needs right now, the one thing Louis can provide is time. A safe place to be, without judgment or pressure.

It’ll be a challenge, but Louis has never shied away from challenges, especially when it comes to Zayn. He’s worth it. He’s worth everything.

*

He ends up managing to escape the bed without waking Zayn, and by the time he’s had a shower he feels marginally more human. It’s almost dinner time, and he can feel the effects of not having had a proper meal in almost twenty four hours. The thought of cooking is a bit too daunting though, so he rifles through the drawer with menus from nearby restaurants, wondering if Zayn would prefer Indian over Mexican. He’d go and ask him, but the last thing he wants to do is wake Zayn, even if it means that Zayn will be awake in the middle of the night.

Thank God it’s Saturday. It’ll give Louis at least one more day to unfuck his schedule.

He ends up ordering Indian food because he himself prefers it over Mexican right now, makes himself a cup of tea while he’s on hold with the place. He makes one for Zayn too, just in case, before migrating towards the couch, putting the tv on low and letting the background noises soothe him as he drinks his tea.

And zones out a little, apparently, because he startles when there’s suddenly a shoulder pressed to his, Zayn curling up against his side with a soft, albeit tired looking, smile. Louis blinks, absently brushes a few drops of spilled tea from his joggers, finds himself smiling back at Zayn without even meaning to. He wants to ask if he’s okay, but the words stay stuck in his throat. He thinks maybe he’s scared to hear the answer.

“Thanks,” Zayn says softly, and Louis isn’t sure what he’s referring to until he lifts the mug of tea he’s been holding in his hands. Louis watches them, the way his fingers curl delicately around the mug. Zayn’s got strong hands, ones Louis is used to seeing covered in paint. They’re bare of anything now, except the tiniest sliver of red underneath his fingernails. He’s reminded of watching him paint, of seeing how delicate he could be with his brush strokes, or the way he would use his fingers to accentuate whatever inner world he was allowing to come out onto canvas.

“You’re welcome,” he says belatedly, glancing up at him, at his face. Zayn looks tired, still, the kind of tired that isn’t just fixed by a good night’s sleep. This kind of fatigue goes right down to the bone, and Louis finds his heart aching. “Are you-”

Zayn shakes his head, almost imperceptibly, and the way he tenses is enough for Louis to swallow back the question on his tongue, change it for something else instead.

“I was going to ask if you’re in the mood for Indian,” he lies, and he knows Zayn knows he’s lying, but Zayn doesn’t call him out on it, not even with his infamous eyebrow quirk. “I mean. I hope you are,” he continues, glad to see that Zayn’s relaxing, fraction by fraction, like every word that falls from Louis’ lips (as long as it’s not about what’s going on) is a balsam onto his many wounds. “Because I already ordered some. But if you’d rather have pizza, or Mexican, or anything, we could always go for something else too.”

The quirk of Zayn’s lips is small, and quick, and gone before Louis can savor it. “You’re good to me,” he says, and Louis hates that there’s a small part of Zayn that sounds surprised, or like he might’ve forgotten it. The way that Zayn glances down after he says it makes it clear that it hasn’t been lost on him, either.

To combat the slight droop of his shoulders, Louis wraps an arm around him, presses a kiss to the side of his head. “Mum’s always said nothing’s quite as bad as it seems on an empty stomach.” And while he supposes that isn’t technically true, he does understand the comfort of some good food.

Zayn hums, staying pressed close against Louis as he sips his tea, the both of them pretending to watch the telly until the doorbell rings, signaling the arrival of their food.

They spend much of the night that way. Quiet, not really talking beyond little things, like pass me the chicken curry and do you want another cup of tea. It’s not uncomfortable though. They move around one another like it’s second nature, muscle memory of a time where nothing made as much sense as being right in each other’s space.

Despite the fact that he’s slept practically until dinner time, Louis can feel the effects of spending so much of the night before worrying about Zayn, and by the time the clock strikes midnight he’s fighting against sleep. His eyelids feel so heavy, but he’s putting off the moment where he’s going to need to head to bed, because he isn’t sure if Zayn will stay with him again and Louis doesn’t like the prospect of leaving him alone. It seems though, that every minute that passes makes it harder to fight his fatigue, and for a brief moment he considers falling asleep on the couch, avoiding a potentially awkward moment. But he’s not in his teens anymore, and sleeping on the couch will just fuck up his back.

In the end, it turns out that he shouldn’t have worried. When Louis eventually turns off the TV with a sheepish and almost apologetic look; Zayn, who doesn’t look too sleepy, simply shrugs a shoulder and wordlessly follows Louis into his bedroom.

*

They wake up around six in the morning on Sunday, which is awful, but at the same time, it’s sorta nice. Louis hears the birds, sees that dawn is approaching, and while he’s all for staying inside on his days off he feels the urge to go somewhere. Maybe a bit of fresh air will help Zayn too, or maybe that’s just Louis’ mum in his brain again, trying to come up with solutions when Louis’ own brain is failing to think up anything that might make this better.

He knows he has work tomorrow, and he wonders what that means, wonders if Zayn will be staying, or if he’s headed somewhere else. He knows that maybe he should make Zayn talk to him, but he also knows that he doesn’t want to make him feel rushed. Or, even, like he owes him an explanation. Knowing Zayn, there’s already enough guilt.

His fingers are cold from where they’ve been curled around the blanket - the one downside of sharing a bed with Zayn, he’s an absolute blanket hoarder and Louis doesn’t take well to the cold - so he pulls them down under the covers. Then, because he can, he sticks them under Zayn’s top, tickling his sides. It’s an awful way to wake anyone up, but Louis knows Zayn hadn’t been sleeping. He’s spent enough nights with him to know when he’s faking it.

Zayn doesn’t shriek, doesn’t hit him in the face, but he does squirm and huff and say something very impolite in Urdu, Louis is sure. He does also slip his own hands under Louis’ soft grey shirt and pinch his nipple, but Louis isn’t sure that has quite the effect that Zayn had hoped for.

He still pinches his side, before making a quick retreat, resisting the urge to thunk his head against the bathroom door when he closes it behind him. Taking a few, deep, presumably calming breaths, he ends up dunking his head under the faucet, letting cold water envelop his senses for a minute or so.

It’s not that he’s naive. It’s not that he thought he was properly over Zayn, or anything. Feelings didn’t just magically go away, but Louis thought he had at least some immunity. He thought that distance would’ve made it easier, would’ve settled his feelings some. But here Zayn is, in his bed, pinching his nipple, and Louis is half hard in his boxers.

Fuck his life, honestly.

Scrubbing his hair dry with a towel that might or might not need a wash, Louis finally reemerges from the bathroom, fondly watching the bed, where Zayn has sprawled out in the middle like some content house cat. “Comfy?” he teases, and all he gets in response is a low, rumbling sound, almost like a purr. Louis rolls his eyes. “So, we’re not going out to breakfast then?”

Zayn doesn’t even dignify that with a response, and Louis is contemplating whether it’s worth another inappropriately timed boner to jump onto the bed and tickle him until Zayn cries uncle. He stays near the bathroom door instead.

“Zayn.”

The lump under the covers stills, and for a moment, Louis is wondering why, until Zayn sits up in bed, the covers still pulled up high like he needs some protection from him. “It’s okay if you’ve changed your mind,” is what he says, but he doesn’t really look at Louis. Misses the frown that Louis can just feel on his own face.

He bites back an impatient sigh, knows that Zayn is fragile right now, and that he is probably genuinely worried about being a nuisance to him. He just wishes Zayn would know how ridiculous that thought is. “Darling, no.” He shakes his head, takes a few steps forward, to sit on the edge of the bed, his hand finding a blanket covered ankle that he squeezes gently. “What, you think that I’ve reconsidered letting you stay here?” He shakes his head even as Zayn nods, watches as he picks at the threads of the blanket. “First off, it’s been like, not even a day. I’m not that much of a wanker, and you’re grossly overestimating how annoying you are if you think I can’t even stand to have you around for a day.” He starts, trying to make Zayn smile, but when it only makes him frown instead he’s filled with a sudden murderous rage, because something’s obviously happened to give Zayn that idea, and Louis is pretty fucking sure it’s not him. “Z. I fucking missed you, you moron. I hate that you’re sad, but God, I’m so glad that you’re here. I’m so glad that you’re back.”

Zayn glances up at that, bites his lip, and all Louis wants to do is wrap him up in his arms, protect him from anything that’s hurting him right now. But how does he do that when what’s hurting him is his own mind? “Are you-” Zayn starts, and this time Louis does huff.

“Don’t even ask me if I’m sure.” He interrupts, and this time Zayn does grace him with a small smile. It doesn’t quite reach his eyes, but it’s there nonetheless. “You’re my best mate. You’re hurting, and I know that there’s probably fuck all that I can do to fix it, and I hate that, you know I’m no good with not being able to help, but. If all I can do is offer you a safe place, somewhere to stay while you figure out whatever you need to, then, fuck, what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t?” He reaches out towards him, hand covering the slender fingers still picking at loose threads. “You stay as long as you want to, yeah? I’m here for you. If you want to talk, we’ll talk. If you want to pretend nothing’s wrong and do fun things, then we’ll do exactly that. And if you need a cuddle now and again and you want me to act like you’re not a second from crying, then, honestly, I’m gonna want to brush away your tears and tell you not to cry but I also know that sometimes you just gotta let it out. Sometimes shit is just so bad that you gotta cry, and that’s okay. You can cry here. You can fall apart. I’m not gonna look at you any different.” He gives his hand a gentle squeeze. “You know me. I cry at sappy movies. There’s zero judgment here, alright?”

Zayn seems to appreciate the lighter note that Louis has chosen to end his monologue on, because he nods, and when he exhales it feels like some weight has dropped off of his shoulders. He’s the one to reach out then, pulling Louis in until they’re practically on top of one another, Zayn’s slender arms tight around him like he wants to merge into one being, maybe take some of Louis’ strength and light for himself. Louis lets him, wishes it were actually possible, that he could infuse Zayn’s being with all the things that he seems to need right now. “I love you, you know,” he murmurs, and when that’s answered with another shaky exhale he presses a kiss to Zayn’s shoulder. “You just tell me what you need, yeah? And if you’re not able to, then, we’ll figure it out as we go along.”

Zayn nods again, buries his face in Louis’ hair, but Louis can still hear the quiet, barely there “I love you too.”

*

They don’t end up going out to breakfast. Instead Zayn makes him a breakfast burrito, and they eat it on the couch, cuddled up under a blanket. After breakfast, Zayn goes for a shower, and when he comes back Louis has the decency not to remark on the fact that he’s obviously been crying. He just opens his arms for him, and Zayn eagerly presses close, stays close for most of the day.

It’s not until dinnertime that he speaks up, and even then, it’s with his nose practically pressed to Louis’ throat.

(Louis hadn’t expected it to be this easy. Hadn’t expected to be able to deal so well with the fact that Zayn was close. But the fact that Zayn is hurting overrides anything else, even his hopeless crush)

“I can’t go back,” Zayn murmurs, and Louis’ fingers tighten a little bit in Zayn’s hair because this is not the right time to be happy, but he can’t help but feel such immense relief at knowing he doesn’t have to lose Zayn all over again.

“Oh,” is all he says, quiet, wanting to give Zayn space to talk, but also knowing that he needs a little encouragement to keep going. Oh seems like a safe choice. Just in case, he pairs it with a soft kiss brushed over Zayn’s dark hair.

“I don’t want to go to my parents though,” Zayn continues, and from the way his hair tickles at Louis’ skin Louis can tell that he’s looking up at him, without actually moving away to do so. “I know you said I could stay, but, if that’s only for a couple days, then, you need to know that’s alright yeah? I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I don’t want-” his voice wobbles and Louis’ heart hurts. “You’re so important to me. I can’t lose you too.”

“You won’t.” Louis knows that Zayn wants him to think about this, truly, fully think about this, and all the possible consequences, but he can’t fathom a world in which Zayn isn’t in his life. It’s impossible. “You won’t,” he repeats after a short silence. It’s soft, but it still makes Zayn shiver a bit in his arms. “You’re not gonna lose me, even if you’re staying for a year. Why are you so worried, babes? We’ve lived together before.” His fingertips are gentle on Zayn’s chin, coaxing him into looking up at him. “Did you hate it that much?” It’s only half a joke, half subconscious worry that Zayn really was only staying here because he had nowhere else to go. If that’s the case, Louis knows he will do whatever’s in his power to make sure Zayn has somewhere else to go as quickly as possible. Thankfully, Zayn shakes his head, and Louis smiles. “I loved it. I loved having you here. And yeah, I know it’s different this time. I know that you’re hurting and that you might not be the most fun to be around for a while. But I don’t care, babes. Because having you here, any version of you, is still a hell of a lot better than not having you at all.” His smile turns softer, a little bit sad. “The thought of not being able to reach you, when you’re upset - it kills me. I want to help. So let me, yeah? Let me help you.”

Zayn shifts his head, presses a kiss to the pad of Louis’ thumb. “You don’t know what you’re in for,” he murmurs, but he doesn’t sound like he’s going to argue, so Louis will take it. “I was lonely,” he admits, his fingers curled in Louis’ shirt. “New York was - there were a million other people around, people like me, even, but I just felt lonely.”

Louis bites his lip, tries not to ask. “And Jordan?” It’s soft, almost apologetic.

Zayn swallows. “It got to a point where I was lonely even when he was right there.” He sounds so hurt, that Louis sort of wants to take it back. Wants to tell him they don’t have to talk about it now. But at the same time, he wants to know what happened. Wants to know if he’s in danger of losing his best friend to Jordan a second time. “Do you know the feeling,” Zayn continues quietly, going back to being curled up under Louis’ chin so he can’t look at him. “That feeling of being in bed with someone, so close that you can feel their body heat, but it’s like there might as well be miles between you, or like, a glass wall, because you can see them, they’re right there, but you can’t reach them? And you can talk and talk and talk but none of it reaches the other person. Or maybe they just stopped listening, and maybe there’s not a glass wall but it’s something, and it’s like - you want to try and reach out, but at some point, what’s the point anymore?” He lets out a soft huff, something so defeated that all Louis can think to do is hold him tighter. “Knowing that love isn’t enough? That the way I felt about him - I loved him, Lou. I love him. With everything I have, and am, and it isn’t enough, and I would’ve stayed a million times over, I would’ve done whatever it takes, but it broke me.” His voice wavers. “And I hate it, and I hate myself for wanting to go back, because I know that it wasn’t working, and I know that nothing will change, but I still want him back so badly that I can’t breathe.”

Louis has changed his mind. He doesn’t want to know all this. He doesn’t want to know that Zayn thinks of himself as broken. There’s a selfish part of him, one that he shoves down so deep that he doesn’t immediately feel disgusted with himself for being so insensitive, that feels jealous, and angry with Jordan, for having Zayn’s love and not treasuring it, not realizing just how fucking special he was for having him even look at him. It’s that part that feels broken now too, because Zayn doesn’t love him that way, and it’s not like Louis thought he had a chance, now that Jordan wasn’t in the way, but there’s a tiny part of him that had thought maybe, in time.. He hates himself for it, for being selfish in a time like this, and he hopes that by burying it deep enough he won’t have to worry that he’s not trying to make Zayn feel better because he deserves it but because he’s hoping to be rewarded for it in the end. He knows it’s not that, knows that whatever he’s feeling for Zayn isn’t tainted, that he’d still do everything he’s doing and planning on doing even if he knew for a fact that Zayn would never like him back - or if Louis just loved him the way a best friend is supposed to.

But it still feels ugly, and for a moment, Louis just holds him, tries not to overthink about the kiss he presses to his hair. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, choosing not to comment on the way he can hear Zayn sniff, the way small teardrops sink through his shirt and dampen his skin. He promised him that much, after all. “I’m sorry that you felt that way, and I’m sorry that love wasn’t enough. But you are, Zayn. You are always enough. I know that you don’t want to hear it, but maybe not being enough for Jordan wasn’t a you thing. Maybe it was a both of you thing. Maybe the reason you weren’t enough for Jordan isn’t because you’re lacking as a person but because the relationship wasn’t going to work, no matter how hard you tried. And that doesn’t make it better, I know. But God, please, Zayn, please don’t think that you’re not enough. Because you’re-” everything, his brain supplies, but he swallows back those words. It’s too much. “You’re wonderful. And anyone would be lucky to have you.”

He knows, as he’s saying it, that none of it will reach Zayn right now. None of it will erase the doubts he’s had, the soul destroying hurt that he’s feeling. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not true, and it doesn’t mean that he will keep from saying it. He’ll say it a million times over, just in the hope that one of those times it’ll stick, even just a little. “You’re not alone anymore,” he adds on, after Zayn’s just started crying a little bit more at his words. “I can’t make it all okay, but I can promise you that. You don’t have to be lonely. You’ve got me, and you’ll always have me. Through the tears and the heartbreak, and everything else. It hurts like hell, and I wish there was an easy fix. I wish that I would have something better to give you than those stupid old cliches that it takes time. That it’ll get better. But it will. I promise you it will, and you don’t have to believe that right now. But just believe that I believe it, yeah? And that I’m gonna do whatever it takes to make sure that you’re gonna be okay. Because I love you. I love you even when you can’t love yourself right now. Which is okay. Just - let me love you for the both of us, alright? Let me-” he’s not sure what he’s saying anymore, is teetering on that edge of too much and not enough, the urge to comfort without saying something that will give Zayn the wrong idea. “Let me help.” He breathes out shakily, resists the urge to hold Zayn even tighter, knowing he’d crush him if he did. “Please.”

Zayn’s voice is thick, laced with tears, but he nods, and his own “Please” both breaks and heals Louis’ heart.

*

It’s only awkward when Zayn follows him into his bedroom that night, and Louis is reminded of the fact that there’s an outside world that exists, and that expects him to go into work tomorrow morning. He knows Zayn hates waking up early, and the thought of switching off his alarm and calling in sick is a little too tempting. But Louis knows he can’t do that. What’s he gonna do, call in sick for months on end as long as Zayn is staying? He needs his job now more than ever, what with an extra mouth to feed.

So he reluctantly switches on his alarm, pouts at Zayn when he snuggles under the covers before Louis has even brushed his teeth. “I got work tomorrow,” he says, when Zayn just arches an eyebrow up at him. He hates how Zayn’s face falls, even for just a second.

“Oh,” he says, and wraps the duvet a bit tighter around him. “That’s - yeah. I mean, that makes sense. You have a life, obviously.”

“Barely,” Louis says, but it doesn’t make Zayn laugh. Louis wonders if it brings it all back up for him. The loneliness he must’ve felt in New York. “Hey, maybe you could call Ni? He’s got Monday’s off. I know he’d love to hear from you.” He wonders if anyone knows that Zayn’s back, or if his family and friends still believe he’s in New York, possibly even happy.

“Maybe,” Zayn mumbles, and he doesn’t have to add that he doesn’t need a babysitter, it’s clear in the petulant tone of his voice.

Louis foregoes brushing his teeth for another minute, sneaking his hands under the covers instead, to give Zayn’s ribs a quick tickle. “It’s gonna be alright, you know,” he says, with a bravado he doesn’t quite feel. But Zayn looks up at him like every word dropping from Louis’ lips is gospel and Louis will take it, will be strong and brave and confident for the both of them, even if it’s not wholly real. “It’s just gonna take a little bit, to get settled in. But soon everything will be back to normal. You’ll reconnect with your friends, because, not a weeknight out goes by that we don’t toast to you and reminisce, and you’ll get a job, and you’re gonna be okay. Maybe it won’t be the life you’re used to, but it’ll be the new normal, and sometimes that’s good. Sometimes the new normal is better than the old one, even.”

(And sometimes Louis is full of shit and is just trying his hardest to keep Zayn’s face from falling, but even if he doesn’t fully believe everything he’s saying he believes that they’re possible, and that Zayn deserves nothing less. And he wasn’t lying about his friends missing him, though no one has missed him quite in the way that Louis had.)

“What if it takes months?” Zayn whispers, ten minutes later when they’re both in bed (Louis now with minty fresh teeth) and the lights are off. “What if I’m going to feel like this for months? Lost, out of place, heartbroken?”

Louis strokes the arm that Zayn’s wrapped around his waist, bites his lip. “I don’t know, babe.” He doesn’t want to lie to Zayn, knows he’s already blurred the lines enough with his optimism. “I just know that, whatever happens, you won’t have to do it alone, yeah? You’ve been together for over two years. You’ve moved to another continent with him. It makes sense that you’d be hurting for a while. If anyone holds that against you, they deserve a swift kick in the arse.”

“What if I’m holding it against me?” Zayn mumbles, and Louis snorts.

“Then I’ll give you a swift kick in the arse. The little that you got, anyway.” He teases, his fingertips stroking over Zayn’s knuckles. “There’s no time frame for this sort of thing, Z. Yeah, some people might be insensitive gits and tell you to knock it off, to forget about that boy and get back into the swing of things, but that’s about their comfort, not yours. You don’t owe it to anyone to change your feelings. If you’re not okay, you’re not okay, and people are going to have to deal with that. And if they can’t, well, then maybe they’re not the right friends for you in this moment.” Some people didn’t deal well with grief, which was understandable, but no one had the right to tell anyone else how to feel or how to deal with the situation they were in.

“As for me - ‘course I hate that you’re upset. It kills me, seeing you so miserable. But I’d never tell you to cut it out, because you’ve a right to your emotions, and a right to taking your time to deal with it all. Grief’s like - at the start it’s all encompassing. But years can go by and something can take you right back. It’s not linear, and there’s no standard way to deal with it, so we’re just going to take it as it comes, yeah?”

Zayn hums. “Don’t you hate it though? Having to comfort me? Having to do these big monologues about how it’s okay to not be okay? You’re gonna be doing them a while. Aren’t you gonna get to a point where you want to tell me to just cut it out or at least shut up about it?”

It’s a fair question. Louis isn’t the most patient man in the world, he’s well aware. “I might,” he tells him, because lying isn’t going to make this any better. “I mean, not hate you, or hate comforting you. But hate hearing about it, when I’ve heard it all before. Maybe, yeah. But that’s my problem, not yours. I’d never want you to hold back because you’re worried I won’t want to hear it.” He turns around, faces Zayn. “And babe, even if I did. Even if it frustrated me, it’d be frustrating me because I’d want you to stop feeling that way. It all comes from a place of love. From wanting you to make progress, because you’re a wonderful person and you deserve your happy ending.”

He gives him a faint smile, just about visible in the darkness. “But if we can’t get a happy ending without some crappy middles, that’s alright. I’ll listen to you whenever you want to talk about it, I promise. And I also promise that I won’t take it personally. I won’t be miserable just because you are. Because I know you, and I know that you’re entirely the kind of person who wouldn’t want to saddle me with all this pain. So I’m telling you now. I’m hurting for you, yes, but I’m not hurting.”

Zayn’s eyes are bright, and Louis worries for a moment that he’s upset him, that he should’ve lied after all. “I love you a lot, you know?” Zayn whispers then, and Louis can breathe again. “I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”

Louis smiles, brushes a kiss over Zayn’s forehead. “I do,” he whispers back. “You’re you.”

*

It takes a week before Zayn is even up to going outside.

And another week before he calls up his friends, lets them know that he’s back in England.

Louis has tried his best to cheer Zayn up, while also giving him space to express his feelings. The last thing he wants is for Zayn to feel like he isn’t allowed to be sad, because that’s not going to do either of them any favours in the long run. So sometimes Zayn cries and Louis holds him, and sometimes Zayn watches the same movie three times in a day and Louis sits with him and pets his hair.

He’s not sure if Zayn is really getting any better, but he doesn’t want to ask, doesn’t want to hear that whatever he’s doing isn’t making any difference, because he already feels so helpless. He also doesn’t want to hear that Zayn’s thinking of going back, because despite the fact that Jordan doesn’t seem to have contacted him, Louis can see Zayn looking at pictures of them at least once a day.

So he does the best he can. He buys Zayn art supplies, even when all he gets is a sad smile and a ‘I haven’t painted anything in months’. He cooks him his favorite meals - doesn’t always get it right but Zayn seems to appreciate the effort, or at least he pretends to. He goes to work and spends most of his day worried about Zayn, and rather than going anywhere at night he stays indoors, even when the room feels heavy with so much heartache.

It’s not until three weeks in that Zayn says anything about it though. They’re sat on the couch, rewatching Titanic for the second time that week, Zayn’s shoulder pressed up to Louis’ arm, when he suddenly sighs. “Did you have a life, before I came back?”

Louis frowns, watching as Rose tries to cut through Jack’s handcuffs with an axe. He sort of feels like that could be a fitting metaphor for his own situation. It’s pure luck that she manages. “Are you saying I don’t have a life now?” He asks, aiming for a light tone. It just makes Zayn scoff. He doesn’t move though, but Louis can feel that he tenses a little more.

“I mean, do you? Really? Because you go to work, yes, and then you come home, and you sit here with me, and the next day you do it all over again.” He sounds a little aggravated, and Louis knows better than to think he’s cross with him, but it still stings.

“Okay,” he says quietly, not bothering to pause the movie or face Zayn, though he could care less about what happens onscreen right now. It’s not like he hasn’t seen the movie a million times anyway. “Your point is?”

Zayn lets out another sigh. “The point is, you can’t put your life on hold for me. It’s not fair of me to expect that from you.”

Louis hums. “But you’re not.” He points out, and that does make Zayn move. Not far, Louis can still feel the warmth of his body, but just enough to look at him.

“I’m not.” He says, and Louis isn’t quite sure why that sounds so upset. “I’m not asking you to.”

Louis shifts too, tries to read any kind of cue from his face. He fails. “You don’t have to,” he says softly, wondering why it feels like he’s in the middle of a fight when he can’t even recall starting one. “I’d do anything for you.”

Zayn looks away, and Louis knows he’s said the wrong thing even before he can hear the way Zayn’s voice trembles. “But that’s not fair. Because it makes me feel like I did ask you to. It makes me feel like you’re doing all this because I’m too pathetic to even take care of myself. I don’t - I don’t want your pity, Louis. I don’t want you to put your entire life on hold, I’m not, I can’t, this isn’t fair.”

“Okay,” Louis says again, but he’s not quite sure where to go from there. “Then, what do you want? Do you want me to just go and live my life and pretend like you’re not here, sitting at home, miserable?” He fights to keep his voice from sounding frustrated, because it’s not Zayn’s he’s frustrated with, not really. “What do you want me to do, Zayn?”

“I want you to stop making me feel like I’m a burden.”

Louis swallows. “I wasn’t aware I was,” he says, and he knows the words are coming out flat. “I was just trying to be a good friend.”

There’s silence for a minute, Zayn’s bottom lip jutting out into a pout, and Louis can tell even before he speaks that his anger has faded, that he’s probably well aware of how on edge he is and how silly this conversation is. “Well stop it,” he says, and he sounds petulant. Louis just stares at him, and for a moment there is silence, before Zayn lets out a soft, at least half genuine laugh. There’s a little too much self deprecation in it for Louis’ tastes, but it’s better than nothing. “I just-” he starts, then sighs. “I don’t know, Lou. I hate how I’m dragging you into this. I hate how everything feels so heavy and dark and miserable all the time, and I know that it’s because of me, but I don’t know how to change it. I don’t know how to have fun, anymore, it feels like, but I don’t want that to be your life. I made that mistake with Jordan and I-” he stops himself, swallows. “I feel like, breaking up, like that was my fault. I was too -- I know you said that maybe it was just us, as people, that didn’t work, but what if you’re wrong? What if it was just me? And what if I do the same to you and you’re going to hate me because I’m not enough?”

“I won’t,” Louis interrupts him, because he’s trying to listen to Zayn, trying to let him get it all out, but he can’t stop himself. “You don’t understand, that’s literally not a possibility.”

“You don’t know that.” Zayn retorts, and there’s that bitterness again. That all overwhelming sadness that Louis just wants to fight. “You don’t know what it was like. You don’t know what I was like.”

Louis shakes his head. “You don’t get it. Zayn, I love you.”

Zayn looks like he’s about to argue, when the words sink in, and then there’s silence, one that lasts for just a few seconds but feels deafening. Louis swallows. He wants to pretend like the words mean the same thing they’ve always meant, like he hasn’t just accidentally infused them with the more that was always lingering behind it, but he can’t even make himself believe that. He knows Zayn knows too. It might’ve taken him a few to catch on, but it’s clear in the way he looks at Louis now, something careful in his gaze that Louis hates. “Oh.” Zayn whispers, and Louis can’t pretend Zayn doesn’t get it but he can at least pretend his heart isn’t breaking.

“Yeah.” He manages a smile, one that feels too bright and too fake. “So. Y’know. The hating thing - not gonna happen.” He swallows. “At least, not from my side.” It’s soft, a mumble that he isn’t sure he even intends for Zayn to hear, but of course he does.

Zayn moves, but rather than moving away he shifts closer, wrapping his arms around Louis and pressing his face against his neck. “I could never hate you either.” He whispers, and Louis’ fingers feel numb as they curl around Zayn’s arm. “I love you far too much for that. But-”

Louis swallows again. “It’s alright,” he whispers, “you don’t have to say it. I know.”

Zayn’s arms tighten around him. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, and Louis can tell that he means it.

“I know,” he says quietly. “Me too.” He’s not sure he is sorry for feeling the way that he does, but he’s sorry for saying it. Sorry for adding that onto Zayn’s shit. Because he doesn’t need to be dealing with anything other than his own heartbreak. The last thing Louis wants is for Zayn to feel like he needs to take his feelings into account. “Just - don’t worry about it, okay? I’m here for you. Same as I’ve always been. I’m not, you can still come and cuddle with me, it doesn’t, please don’t let it change anything.”

“It won’t. I won’t.” Zayn promises him, and God, Louis hopes that’s a promise he can keep.

*

Louis doesn’t mean to be, but over the next couple of days he is careful. He told Zayn that he didn’t want anything to change, and yet he’s the one who is more aware of how cuddly he is, who doesn’t necessarily hesitate but at least thinks about what he’s doing before he wraps an arm around Zayn and presses a kiss to his temple.

Not much else changes. Louis still comes home after work, to spend most of his nights with Zayn. He doesn’t ‘get a life’ like Zayn had wanted him to, but Zayn doesn’t call him out on it again, just like Louis doesn’t call him out on not painting, not doing anything besides occasionally eating and watching TV. He knows that it’s going to take time, that he can’t just magically make Zayn be okay simply because he wants him to be.

There is a part, tiny but there, that is slowly growing frustrated though. He wants to be able to do more. Wants to help, wants to fix him, and make Zayn happy again. It’s worse now that Zayn knows he’s in love with him, because it causes him to be critical of himself, his own motives. Is he only telling himself that he can’t do more? Would there be something else he could do, and is he only not doing it, or even thinking about it, because he’s scared of what will happen once Zayn does move on? Scared that Zayn will leave him, and Louis won’t get to come home to him?

But although he knows it’s true that Zayn will leave, he also knows that he’d much rather not come home to Zayn than to come home to a sad and broken Zayn for the rest of his life.

It marks a month since Zayn’s come back when things finally start to change a little bit.

Louis comes home to find Zayn not on the couch but in the spare bedroom (that was meant to be Zayn’s bedroom but that has been collecting dust over the past couple of weeks, since Zayn has yet to sleep anywhere other than Louis’ bed), covered in paint and looking lighter, somehow. There’s a lot of dark colours on the canvas, too many angry swirls for Louis’ liking, but there’s a calm emanating from him that Louis hasn’t felt in a long time.

He leans against the doorframe, smiles a bit when Zayn turns to greet him, a spark in his eyes that Louis has definitely been missing. He blinks, once, twice, determined not to tear up and cry over the fact that those storm clouds in Zayn’s eyes seem to have subsided for the moment. “Hi,” Zayn says, and Louis is probably overreacting but he can swear he hears calm in Zayn’s voice.

“Hi,” he says back, resisting the urge to go over and burrow himself in Zayn’s arms, not because he’s covered in paint but because Louis isn’t sure he would be able to let him go if he did. And he doesn’t want to make a big deal out of this, even if it is.

Zayn can tell though, Louis knows, it’s clear in the way his eyebrow quirks and the corner of his mouth tugs up just the littlest bit. “I missed painting,” he confesses, and he looks so pleased with himself, though there’s an underlying layer of insecurity that throws Louis for a loop. “I forgot,” Zayn continues, paint from his brush slowly dripping onto the floor, though thankfully Zayn had thought ahead and covered much of the space in plastic. “I forgot how much I love it. How much it helps.”

Louis swallows. He sounds sad about it, and he knows Zayn well enough to know that he’s wondering what if. What if he hadn’t forgotten? What if he’d had this outlet, back in New York? Would things have been different? Would he have been able to make things work? It’s there, clear as day in Zayn’s expression, and Louis stops holding himself back, just heads into the room and wraps him up in a hug. Zayn’s tense for a moment, before relaxing into it. “I’m glad,” Louis says quietly, “that you’ve found something that helps. I’m glad to see you doing better.” Moving on. He doesn’t say that, because he’s not sure that’s what’s happening. It’s too early to tell. Too early to expect him to, even.

“Am I?” Zayn asks, returning Louis’ embrace with a light one of his own, one that makes Louis step back because he can tell Zayn’s focus is on something else, and he feels weird, hugging him when he’s not sure if it’s for his own benefit rather than Zayn’s. “Is that what’s happening?”

It’s an odd question, one Louis doesn’t know how to answer. He’s not sure if there is a right answer, not when getting better, when it implies moving on, is something he can imagine Zayn’s not really ready for. As much as Louis wants it to be, Jordan isn’t yet in Zayn’s past. He’s still very much part of his present. So he shrugs a shoulder, fingers briefly touching Zayn’s face, attempting to brush a bit of paint off his skin. It’s still wet, so he ends up smearing it out over his cheek instead. The corner of Zayn’s mouth twitches again. “I think you’re getting there.” He says softly. “I hope so, at least. You deserve it. To smile again. To find love again,” his voice falters, “not with, I don’t mean - just. Rediscovering your love, for things. That’s, it’s a good thing.” It’s far too early to hope that Zayn will open his heart to someone new, but at least he’d been able to reconnect with something that made him happy. At least he’d been able to feel something besides sadness and heartbreak.

Louis can only hope that things will get better from here on out.

*

It does get a little better.

On Monday, Louis comes home to Zayn painting again.

On Tuesday, he’s cooked dinner. That is a feat in itself, and Louis is about to compliment him on the pasta sauce when he catches on to the fact that there’s fresh produce in it. Fresh produce that he hasn’t bought over the weekend. There’s a lump in his throat when he looks at Zayn, who only smiles shyly in response, ducking his head down and taking another bite of his food. It’s the only acknowledgement either of them give to the situation, but Louis has to swallow down tears; it’s the first time in over a month that Zayn’s gone outside on his own, and Louis is about bursting with pride (and relief).

Wednesday is pure shit. Louis comes home, expecting - he’s not sure. Some new milestone, something that previously wouldn’t have even been worth mentioning but that is apparently huge when it comes to healing from a broken heart. But he only has to set foot inside the house to see it. The curtains are drawn, and Zayn is lying on the couch in his pajamas, a Marvel movie playing on the TV. Louis feels his heart clench. Marvel movies are Zayn’s go to when he needs comforting, he’s learned.

“Hey babe,” it’s soft, almost cautious, as is the way he shuffles closer, runs a hand through Zayn’s hair. It’s greasy, and Louis tries not to think of the fact that Zayn had told him he’d shower in the morning, he’d been too comfortable cuddled up with Louis last night. “Bad day?”

For a moment it seems like Zayn isn’t going to answer him, but then he finally lets out a soft sighed breath, pushing up into Louis’ touch. “Jordan called,” he says quietly, and Louis only barely manages not to tighten his hand and actually pull out strands of Zayn’s hair. Zayn can tell, it’s clear by the soft huff he lets out.

He doesn’t say anything else though, and Louis shifts to sit on the couch, tugging Zayn’s legs over his lap so he doesn’t have to sit up. “Oh?” He says, fingers absently picking at a loose strand on the blanket Zayn’s wrapped himself in. He wants to ask him what Jordan wanted, but he doubts he’ll be able to word it nicely, so he holds it back, just strokes a comforting hand over Zayn’s ankle. He figures it’s nothing good, because if it were, if Jordan had had a change of heart and wanted Zayn back, well, Zayn wouldn’t be looking this miserable and broken. He’d probably be over the moon, if he’d even still be here. In that sense, it’s almost a relief that Zayn’s miserable, as much as Louis hates to admit it.

“He packed up the things I left. Asked me what address he should ship it to.” Zayn informs him, and his voice is flat, but his hand is shaking when he searches out Louis’, tangling their fingers as though he just needs something to hold onto. “I felt so stupid.” It’s hollow, which is somehow even worse than the flat tone he’d spoken in before. “He called and for a minute I just thought-” he doesn’t finish his sentence. He doesn’t really have to.

Louis squeezes his hand, wishes there was something, anything, he could say that would make Zayn feel better. He also sort of wants to cry. Zayn was finally doing a little better, and now here they are again, back at square one. All because that asshole had the nerve to call, rub it in his face that they were well and truly over. He’s seething, honestly, but he has no outlet for it, knows that if he tries to trash talk Jordan Zayn will probably just get even more upset. “I’m sorry,” he says softly, because he is. It doesn’t change anything, but he is. “What can I do?” Louis is the type to want to help, to want to do something, channel his anger and fear and hurt into something constructive, but he’ll settle for just holding Zayn’s hand until the darkness becomes a little less intense.

Zayn shrugs a shoulder. “Dunno,” he says softly, then, after a slight pause. “This helps.”

It doesn’t feel like it’s enough, but Louis will take it. Will gladly stay right here, in this darkened room, cuddling Zayn until he feels a bit more ready to face the world again. He pulls Zayn close, for once not worrying about how it’ll be perceived - because Zayn’s never given him any indication that he doesn’t welcome Louis’ hugs or that he doubts their intention - just offering silent comfort, his fingers carding through Zayn’s hair.

“I didn’t shower,” Zayn says, and Louis just hums. “Sorry.”

Louis shrugs. “There’s worse things in the world than petting your greasy hair, love,” he reminds him gently, and although Zayn huffs he doesn’t make a move to pull away. They sit in silence for a moment, Zayn’s hand light on Louis’ thigh, like he’s not even aware of it. “It’s alright to have setbacks. You’re doing alright, considering.”

Zayn glances up at him. “Considering?”

Louis shrugs again, a little helpless. “Considering the fact that the love of your life just called you today, for the first time since you broke up. If not showering is the worst that’s happened, you’re doing okay I reckon.”

There’s silence for a moment, one that doesn’t necessarily feel uncomfortable but that feels heavy, somehow. Like there’s more to be said but neither of them have found the right words yet. It’s Zayn who ends up finding them first. “Do you really think that? That Jordan’s the love of my life?”

Does he? Louis isn’t sure. He doesn’t want him to be. Not because he wants to be the love of Zayn’s life, he doesn’t have any great expectations for them in that regard. But Zayn deserves nothing less than to have that happy ending. The kind of love movies are made about. But simply wishing for something to not be so doesn’t make it true. “I don’t know,” he says earnestly. “I thought you felt that way though. You said as much. That you love him so much you can’t breathe, and that you still want him back so much that it hurts.” He hates bringing it up, all those sad, broken words Zayn had confided in him with, and even more so when he can feel Zayn wince against him.

“I do.” Zayn says quietly, and Louis watches him as he frowns. “I mean. I did. I think I did? I don’t know if I do, anymore.” A wisp of sadness travels across his face, leaving something wistful in its place. “I feel like I should, because why else would I be so miserable. Like, it has to mean something for it to mean anything.” He frowns again, deeper this time, and Louis just gently squeezes his shoulder. “But it’s been a month, and he hasn’t even tried to reach me. Regardless of how I feel, that’s pretty definitive, isn’t it? So maybe it’s just wishful thinking. Maybe it’s not that I don’t love him, but that I don’t want to.” He glances up at Louis, the desperation in his eyes so vivid that it almost takes Louis’ breath away. “I don’t want him to be the love of my life, Lou. Because if he is, then, we blew it. I can’t - he’s not going to want me back. We’re not going to magically make everything okay again.”

“But do you want to?” Louis whispers, and he’s not sure he won’t regret asking. “Do you want him back? If he realized that you’re it for him, would you go back and try and fix things?”

Zayn, true to his nature, takes some time to think about it. The frown on his face deepens, to the point where Louis has the inane thought that perhaps he’s never going to fully be able to get rid of the crease on his forehead. “I don’t know,” he says eventually. “I mean. If there was a guarantee that everything could be fixed, then-” he breathes out shakily. “I don’t know.” It sounds like that’s just as much a revelation to Zayn as it is to Louis. “I thought, if he called, if he asked me to come back, I thought I would. But now - I don’t know. He’s - I don’t think that we can fix who we are. I mean, yeah, I could work on it. I could try and be less needy, try and nag him less about going out with his friends all the time, and maybe he could try and be a little more understanding about the fact that I gave up everything to come to New York with him, but even then. I don’t know if we would ever be able to move on, from this. I think, maybe, sometimes things that are broken are just not ever going to be able to be fixed. No matter how much we want to.”

They haven’t outright talked about it before. About what had caused Zayn to leave New York. About the struggles he’d gone through. Zayn had only told him that he was lonely, even when Jordan was right there, but to hear it now, it was more than that. “Did he really do that? Go out with his friends all the time?” He’s careful, not wanting to push Zayn into explaining, but also wanting to finally fully understand what had caused the situation to escalate to a point where a breakup was inevitable.

Zayn sighs. “I mean, I got it, at first. Like, he’d not seen them for years. He’d missed them. Of course he’d want to hang out with them. I would’ve done the same thing.” Louis doesn’t like how it sounds like he’s making excuses for Jordan while not allowing himself the same reprieve, but he bites his tongue in an effort to stay quiet. “It’s just. I was just there, all the time. I had no friends, no job, nowhere to really go on my own. Jordan kept saying he’d show me around and let me know where I’d be safe to go on my own, but, he was busy. With work, with friends, with family. It felt like he sort of forgot about me, for a while. Or took me for granted, at least.”

Louis bites his tongue harder. He knows Zayn’s got more to say.

“I got clingy.” Zayn lets out a humorless laugh. “Like, really clingy. It got to a point where I barely recognized myself. It changed our relationship, of course. The fights - they weren’t even the bad parts. It was the times where we didn’t even bother. Where I kept quiet because no matter what I said he wasn’t going to stay home, and he didn’t even kiss me goodnight when he came in at night, even though he knew I was awake. We barely spoke, for the last month and a half. But I still didn’t see it coming. I always thought, it was just a question of how we’d get through it. Not if. I just thought, it’s gonna take time. I need to adjust, Jordan needs to adjust. We’ll get back to the way things were before. I’d get a job, we’d figure it out. I didn’t, I couldn’t allow myself to believe that we would fail. Because we loved each other. And he was right in saying I’d changed and I was right in saying he had, but if we knew that, then, it was just a matter of changing back, right? Love was, it’s supposed to be enough.”

Zayn looks at him, and Louis is surprised to see that his eyes are dry. He still reaches out and squeezes his hand, leaves his own on top of Zayn’s. “The thought that love in itself isn’t enough, it’s terrifying Lou. And maybe I’m fooling myself, maybe I just think that whatever we had wasn’t true love because that makes it easier to accept that it’s over. I don’t know. I did love him. I think I still do. And it still hurts, that it wasn’t enough. That I changed so much, to a point where I hated the sound of my own voice because all I did was nag at him. I hate how everything changed me, and how that changed us. I hate how even now, with you, I’m worried about being too clingy. How there’s this voice in my head that tells me to pull back before I mess this up too.”

He shakes his head, as though he knows Louis is about to cut in and reassure him. “But at the same time, this past month, I’ve been able to breathe.” He admits, voice quiet, but the way he looks at Louis speaks volumes. Of regret, and relief. “I’ve been able to grieve, and be heartbroken, and it’s like, it’s put some things into perspective. And right now, where I’m at, is that it doesn’t really matter whether or not I love him.” He pauses, swallows. “Because I can’t be with him. Not because he doesn’t want me, but because I can’t do that to myself again. To either of us. We both, we deserve better.”

Louis swallows too, gives Zayn’s hand another squeeze. It’s all he can do, as Zayn continues. “It still hurts,” he says, and for a moment Louis thinks he can see tears in Zayn’s eyes, but he blinks and then it’s gone. “It hurts that I hurt the man that I love, and that I hurt myself, and that I wasn’t able to make it work. I’d give anything to go back to the moment before we left. Because it feels like these past few months, like they didn’t just break us, they broke the memories too. Like our entire relationship will forever be defined by the way it ended. We both said things we didn’t mean. That last night - I’ve never been in a fight like that before, Lou, and I don’t ever want to be again. I was mean. He was mean right back, of course, but it’d be too easy to put all the blame on him.”

Louis can’t help but snort at that. Zayn glances at him, the corner of his mouth lifting up. “Maybe not for you. But then, you never liked him, did you?” He nods before Louis can even answer, shifts, so he can look at him. “Why was that?”

Louis has asked himself that question numerous times. And he never got close to an answer. Even this time, the most he does at first is shrug. Then: “I don’t know. I mean, you started dating him right around the time I’d worked up the courage to tell you how I feel, so, that doesn’t help, but, it was more than that.” At least, he’d like to think so.

If Zayn is surprised by the revelation of just how long Louis has liked him he doesn’t show it. He just listens to Louis, like he had listened to Zayn. Albeit with probably a bit more patience. Louis needs it, struggling to find his words, for once in his life. “We just never got on. It wasn’t that I thought he wasn’t good enough for you - I mean, no one’s really good enough for you, in my opinion, but I know that he was good to you. It’d certainly have been easier to dislike him if he’d been an asshole, but it wasn’t like that.” At least, not back then. Louis certainly would have a few choice words for Jordan right now. “Sometimes people just don’t mesh well, and I guess that was the case for me and Jordan. I tried to like him, for your sake. Like, I never wanted you to feel like you’d have to choose between us-”

“I would’ve chosen you,” Zayn interrupts. Louis pauses, looks at him.

“Would you?”

Zayn frowns. “Of course I would’ve. You’re my best mate.”

Louis nods. He’ll give him that. “But he was the one for you, or so you thought at the time. There’s not much that can stand in the way of true love. But anyway, that wasn’t, I wasn’t going to ask that of you. I didn’t need to love Jordan. You did. And you did. And that - he made you happy, and I loved that. I saw it, and it was, I mean, it hurt, but, I was genuinely happy for you.” He’s still struggling to find the right words, always balancing between too much and not enough. Between holding back and laying it all out on the table. “It was never anything that Jordan did. We just didn’t click. But as long as he made you happy, I would’ve supported you in anything.”

Zayn nods. “You did.” He says softly. “It must’ve been hard, letting me go to New York with him.”

“It was,” Louis concedes. “And it wasn’t, at the same time. I mean, I hated it. I hated him and I hated New York and some nights I even hated you, for going and being selfish enough to leave me behind. But I knew that that wasn’t fair. I just felt abandoned, I guess, and stupid, for feeling that way. Because I always knew I wouldn’t get to keep you.” He shrugs, self deprecating. “That also was why it made sense, that you went. It gave me a chance to let you go.”

“Did you?” It’s quiet, barely more than a whisper. Louis still flinches as though he’s just gotten yelled at. But Zayn’s hand in still in his, and it holds on, and that, it’s sort of reassuring.

“I tried.” He really did. Distance made it easier to get over someone but absence also made the heart grow fonder, or some kind of equally cliche bullshit. “It got a little easier, with time. I started missing you more as my best friend. Which, I never want you to think that I was expecting more from you, or that I had some ulterior motive in hanging out with you, because I never did, Zayn. I was - I’d give the world to you, if I could, yeah, but ultimately, I was so happy to just be your friend. It wasn’t like I was waiting for you to wake up and see me in a different light. I never - us being friends, for the rest of our lives, that’s always going to be enough.” He needs to stress that, needs Zayn to know that even now, that hasn’t changed. “But am I over you? No.” He can’t lie about that. Not to himself, and not to Zayn. “That’s alright though. As much as unrequited love sucks, I know my heart’s pretty safe with you. You’d never do anything to hurt me.”

Zayn gives him a small smile. “Not on purpose.”

Louis smiles back. “That’s enough, Z. You can’t live your life trying to take my feelings into account. I’d never want you to. I want you happy. Whether that’s with Jordan, in New York, or in London with some wonderful guy you’ve yet to meet, all I want is for you to be happy.”

“Me too.” Zayn whispers back, his fingers tightening around Louis’. “But I want that for you too. Is it - if it ever gets to be too much, promise you’ll tell me? If you need me to be...I don’t know. Less. Less affectionate, less around.”

Louis’ first instinct is to shake his head. Tell Zayn that that’s never going to happen. He’s a bit of a masochist, he’d rather have too much of Zayn than not enough. But Zayn looks so sweetly insistent that Louis can’t find it in himself to tell him no. So he just nods, gives him another smile. “I promise.”

Zayn looks relieved, for a moment, but then his face falls again, and Louis frowns. “Hey,” he asks, gently. “What else? What’s wrong?”

He watches as Zayn bites his lip, glances down, his eyelashes fluttering in a way that would be appealing in any other circumstance. Right now it just adds to the slight discomfort that’s creeping back up Louis’ spine.

“I um,” he starts, withdraws his hand to fidget with his sleeves. Louis determinedly does not mourn the lack of contact. “I told Jordan to ship my stuff to my parents.”

*

It’s not, Zayn explains, that he plans to leave anytime soon. It’s just, Louis’ apartment isn’t that big, and there’s more space at his parents’ house, even with Saf and Wali still living there. It makes sense. Louis has to admit it does, though he’s not sure why Zayn’s so upset over something that’s just the logical choice. Is it because he doesn’t want him to think he’s leaving?

“I - haven’t exactly told them I’m back yet,” Zayn admits, glancing down again, and Louis is thankful for it, because he’s not sure exactly what the expression on his face would’ve shown. Surprise, there’s that, yes, but it’s not just that. Zayn’s been back a month, and he hasn’t talked to his parents. It’s painful to hear, and he’s sure it must have been even more painful to admit.

“Do they know anything?” He asks softly. “Did you tell them about how you felt, being in New York? About the fights and the loneliness, any of it?”

Zayn shakes his head.

“Why?” There’s no judgment in his voice, but Zayn still shrinks in on himself, and for a moment it’s almost as though he’s not going to answer.

He shrugs then, continues fidgeting with his sleeves, and the blanket, until Louis rests his hand on top of Zayn’s, making them still. “They weren’t all that enthusiastic, about me going to New York. Telling them - I know it’s stupid, but it just sort of made me feel like I was proving them right. I figured, it was easier telling them everything was fine, so they didn’t worry, and it wouldn’t really be a lie if it all ended up okay?” He scoffs. “And now I just feel stupid, because once I tell them it’ll be obvious that I wasn’t honest with them, and I know that I can’t keep pretending everything’s fine indefinitely, but, whenever I think of picking up the phone to call them - it’s just easier, in the end, not to.”

Louis understands that. Sort of. “Then why tell Jordan to ship your stuff there?” Sure, it was practical, but they could’ve found a place to stash most of Zayn’s stuff. If they had tried, he’s sure it would’ve worked. He knows Zayn knows that too.

“I mean. I can’t avoid it forever, can I?” Zayn sighs. “I guess I was just giving myself an ultimatum.” He pauses. “I’m thinking of going up there this weekend.” It sounds tentative, like he’s just trying out the words, hasn’t made up his mind yet. “If I - will you come with?”

He sounds sheepish, and worse, unsure, when he asks, and Louis sighs, shifts to press a kiss to Zayn’s temple. “Of course, you daft boy. We’re in this together. Even though I’m sure you’ve got nothing to worry about. It’ll all be fine, just wait and see.”

Zayn’s parents love him. They might feel hurt, that Zayn’s lied to them, but he’s sure they’ll feel worse about the fact that Zayn’s been so miserable. Louis knows them, well enough to know that the problem isn’t going to be getting Zayn’s parents to forgive him. It’s convincing them to let Zayn come back to London with him.

*

It’s only about three and a half hours from London to Bradford, depending on traffic, so Louis takes advantage of his Saturday to have a bit of a lie in. He’s also taking advantage of the fact that he’s got the bed all to himself, though after over a month of sleeping with Zayn it takes a bit of getting used to. But Zayn had been up painting most of Friday night (undoubtedly nervous about seeing his parents again), and he’d been nowhere near ready for bed when Louis was.

Louis wouldn’t have minded if Zayn had snuck into his bedroom in the middle of the night, but he figures Zayn was trying to be considerate, in staying in the guestroom. It’s a little weird, how lonely he feels, and it makes him think of the future. Of what will happen, once Zayn moves out.

Maybe he won’t, Louis knows that. Zayn has had job opportunities in London in the past, Louis is sure he could find another job here. They might just keep living together, be roommates. But sooner or later, the sleeping together is going to end, Louis is sure of it. Not because it’s awkward, but because it’s anything but.

Zayn had told him to wake him around ten, and Louis glances absently at his phone, wondering if perhaps he should get a head start on trying to wake him up. There’s few things Zayn likes more than sleeping, and if he’s been up until the middle of the night, Louis isn’t sure that he’ll get out of the room unscathed. He might lose a couple of hairs in the process, and while Louis is blessed with a full head of hair he’d quite like to keep it that way past twenty five.

He groans, rolls over and contemplates going for a shower first, or maybe a wank, but it all really seems too much of an effort.

(There’s a reason Zayn and Louis are best friends. They both like to sleep in as long as possible)

In the end, two minutes before ten, Louis manages to drag himself out of bed, makes sure to put on the kettle for his breakfast tea before venturing towards the guest room.

True to expectation, Zayn is dead to the world, the room in a state of chaos, plastic on the floor and half finished paintings left out to dry throughout the room. Zayn’s in the middle of the bed, mouth opened and snoring, hair fanning out over the pillows, and the sight of it makes Louis’ heart clench. It’s ridiculous, how much he loves him, how much part of him wants to crawl under the covers with him and leave Bradford for another day.

He stays by the door, just in case. “Zayn.”

No response. Louis honestly hadn’t expected one.

He could’ve come with a bottle of water, dumped it on Zayn’s head. He could’ve brought a wooden spoon and the lid of a pan. But he wants to wake Zayn up, not give him a heart attack or risk actual bodily harm. He’d hate being woken up this way, and he knows Zayn isn’t any different. He responds better (though only marginally) to a more gentle approach.

So he caves, moves up to the bed, sitting down on the side of it and resting a hand on Zayn’s shoulder. “Zayn,” he tries again, giving him the tiniest of shakes. “C’mon babe, it’s time to get up.” Zayn’s skin is warm under his touch, Louis notices absently, before he gives him another, slightly harder shake. “C’mon, Zayn.”

There’s a groan, a drawn out “Louis,” that sounds adorable and threatening at the same time in Zayn’s thick morning accent. Lou-ee, he drawls, and huffs, snuggling deeper under the covers. Louis does not smile, he doesn’t.

“You’re the one that requested the ten a.m. wake up call, princess,” he teases, resisting the urge to slide his hands under the covers and tickle Zayn’s ribs. “What time did you go to bed anyway?”

Silence. Then, “Five-” after which Zayn huffs out another yawn. “Five more minutes.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “If I give you five minutes we’re not getting anywhere today. C’mon. Get up. I’ll make you breakfast, and the shower’s all yours. We’re leaving in an hour, and if you’re not ready I’m just going to throw you over my shoulder and drop you in the car half naked.”

Zayn makes a feeble attempt at pushing himself up on his elbows, but it’s only to give Louis a half hearted glare, his eyes bleary. “You wouldn’t,” he says, but Louis just arches an eyebrow in response.

“Try me.”

He wouldn’t, Zayn knows it as well as Louis does, but that’s not the point. The point is that talking, even if it’s just meaningless banter like this, requires a bit of brain power, just enough to keep Zayn from slipping back into a sleep induced coma. They’ve had this conversation, or variations of it, close to a hundred times over the years that they’ve been friends. It’s comforting, in a way. How some things never change. Even if they have, even if Zayn’s not nearly as fussed about his hair and outfit as he had been in uni. Even if they’ve both - grudgingly - gotten used to getting up early.

“Fine,” Zayn concedes, and he only gives Louis’ shoulder a gentle shove. Louis smiles, gives in to the urge to ruffle Zayn’s hair.

“I’ll be in the kitchen. D’you want toast or an omelette?”

That earns him a smile. “Omelette please,” Zayn rubs at his eyes, finally manages to sit up, looking only slightly sheepish when he notices the state of the room. He meets Louis’ eyes, gives him a smaller, but more private grin. “Thanks, Lou.”

Louis resists the urge to lean in and press a kiss to his cheek. Just smiles back at him, something soft and fond. “You’re welcome.” And, because it was audible in Zayn’s voice even if he didn’t say the words, “I love you too.”

*

The first two hours of the drive are more or less fine. Zayn’s hiding behind sunglasses despite the fact that the sun isn’t too bright yet, and Louis is pretty sure he’s only put them on to hide the fact that he’s napping. The music’s on low, and once they’re out of the city and onto the M1, he relaxes a bit behind the wheel, enjoys the drive. It’s a route he knows well. Traveling up to Doncaster he’s often preferred this route over the A1, and even the part from Doncaster to Bradford is familiar to him. He’s visited Zayn’s family a bunch of times, the two families even getting together for New Years one year. It’s four years of memories, of driving up to see their parents, families entangling to the point where Louis’ and Zayn’s mums keep in touch almost as much as Zayn and Louis do.

It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to come from a relationship, not so much a friendship, but Louis and Zayn have always had something special. That once in a lifetime thing, the knowledge that this is your person, the one that you’re meant to have in your life, in some form or other. Louis can’t really explain it. He just feels it, whenever he’s in the same room as Zayn. The contentment, the solidity of something that feels permanent. He doesn’t just hope that they’ll still be friends when they’re eighty and in a nursing home. He knows they will be.

He’s known that long before he realized he was in love with Zayn.

*

It’s round about the time they’re driving past Nottingham that Zayn seems to lose some of the calm that’s been hanging around him. It starts slowly, him tapping his foot, which could just be because he is listening to the music. But then he starts fidgeting, loud enough that Louis can hear it over the music. He resists the urge to reach out and take Zayn’s hand, knows Zayn would just lecture him about safe driving. It’d be a distraction, but not one Louis is keen on, so instead he just shoots him a look from the corner of his eyes, wishing he had anything to say that would make Zayn feel better.

Louis knows Zayn’s parents will never stop loving him, even if he messes up. Zayn knows that too. But Louis also knows that sometimes parents express the complete right sentiments in completely the wrong way. Worrying about their son is all well and good, but not when it leads to trying to tell him how to live his life, making him feel embarrassed about going after what he wanted and having it turn out to be a mistake. He knows they don’t mean to. Knows that they only want what’s best for Zayn, and privately at least, Louis agrees that New York wasn’t it. But he also knows that Zayn is actually worried about facing his family, and things should never get to a point where you feel scared to come home and own up to your failures.

(Despite knowing all that, Louis knows that he’s guilty of it too, with some of his younger siblings. He’s come to understand his own mum so much more in the last couple of years. It’s funny, how despite feeling young there’s a part of him that is irrefutably an adult these days.)

“Hey,” he says, when they’re near Sheffield, only an hour away from Bradford and the disappointed stares of Zayn’s parents. “You wanna do that stupid thing we used to do?”

Zayn arches an eyebrow as if he’s about to bring up a number of stupid things that Louis and him have done over the years. Louis really doesn’t need a reminder. “I’m sure that whatever you’re thinking of, it’d be really stupid and possibly even illegal to do in a car,” he notes, grinning at Zayn. “I meant the Great Diva Sing-Off, of course.”

The Great Diva Sing-Off (TGDSO for short, though that’s still a mouthful and impossible to pronounce) is something that had started ages ago, during one of their trips up North to see their family. They’d been listening to music, singing along as they usually did - both of them were actually quite alright singers, though Zayn was definitely in a league of his own, doing riffs and falsettos that Louis could honestly never even come up with on his own.

Zayn had been in one of his moods though, upset about something or another that was long forgotten now. At the time it’d been important though. Important enough that when Louis saw Zayn’s face fall at All I Want For Christmas Is You he did the only thing that seemed to make sense in the moment.

He went completely and utterly offkey, practically screeching out Santa won’t you bring me the one I really need. There was a beat, a sudden and sharp laugh, then Zayn joined in, the two of them absolutely butchering won’t you please bring my baby to me.

 

And so the Great Diva Sing-Off had been born, and whenever one of them needed cheering up, or was simply bored, they would put on one of The Great Divas (Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Gloria Gaynor, to name a few) and proceed to sing as loudly and off-key as they could.

You haven’t lived if you haven’t completely and intentionally wrecked I Will Always Love You.

Louis sees the corner of Zayn’s mouth tugging up into an involuntary grin even before he hands him his phone.

The rest of the drive to Bradford is possibly the loudest and most out of tune it’s ever been. And Zayn doesn’t stop smiling once.

*

The gravel of the Malik driveway sounds loud underneath the tires of the car, and with the music switched off, the silence in the car is suddenly deafening. Zayn’s looking up at the house as though he’s expecting Michael Meyers to come out of it rather than his parents or siblings, and Louis kills the engine, slides his fingers in between Zayn’s for a moment of support. “Hey,” he says softly, “it’s gonna be alright, yeah?”

Zayn nods but doesn’t really relax, and Louis squeezes his hand. “If all else fails, we’re out of here in an hour. But they love you. They haven’t seen you in six months, love. Regardless of anything else, they’re gonna be so happy to see you.”

“You reckon?” Zayn doesn’t sound too sure, but all Louis has to do is nod towards the front door, which has opened to reveal a very shocked Trisha Malik. He barely manages to pull his hand away before Zayn’s booked it out of the car, and by the time Louis has taken off his seatbelt and opened up his door, mother and son are already hugging and crying.

It’s a bit awkward, for Louis to be standing there, intruding on a moment that feels too private, but it isn’t long until Yaser comes to the door, and while he joins in on the hug he also pulls his wife and son inside, and Louis follows easily.

The Malik house has always been one of his favorite places in the world. Nothing beats his own house, of course, or rather the house he grew up in, but there’s just something so soft and homey about this place that Louis can’t ever feel anything other than completely comfortable. Even now, when Trisha and Yaser are still hugging Zayn, he feels at ease enough to head into the kitchen, figuring a nice cup of tea would probably do everyone some good in these circumstances.

He gives Safaa a little wave when he encounters her in the kitchen, speaking to a friend on the phone. Her eyes widen, and this time Louis is the lucky recipient of a hug, though it comes with sticky chapstick kisses pressed to his cheeks and an amount of hair in his mouth that he’s not eager to repeat anytime soon. Still, he laughs, returns the hug with a light “Hi Saf.”

Saf nods towards the door. “Is he?” She asks, and her eyes light up at his nod. Off she goes, not that Louis can blame her, and he smiles to himself as he makes tea, his heart filled with love for Zayn’s family. He knew Zayn had nothing to worry about.

*

Admittedly, things do get a little different once Zayn admits that he isn’t just in England for a visit, but that he’s actually broken up with Jordan. Louis can see the quick flash of something on Trisha’s face, the way that Yaser reaches out to hold her hand in response. Zayn doesn’t seem to be seeing any of it, mostly because he’s too busy staring at the floor and explaining everything in a quiet, almost mumbled voice.

Louis sort of wants to wrap Zayn up in a hug of his own now, but instead he rests his hand on the small of Zayn’s back, rubs it gently whenever there’s a pause in the explanation.

Zayn lays it out the way he does most things. Practically, with just enough detail to get the point across. Sometimes Louis thinks it’s the only way he can really talk about these things, because he’s an emotionally driven person that would get overtaken by the way he’s feeling otherwise. But then he’s reminded of all the times they’ve talked in the past months and he’s not sure if that’s true anymore. The thought that he might be Zayn’s exception in this sets up shop in his heart, making him feel warm and sort of fluttery.

Once Zayn finishes explaining, there’s silence, in as much as there’s ever silence in a room filled with five people. Safaa is jiggling her leg, Trisha is sipping from her tea, and Yaser scrapes his throat, once, twice. Zayn keeps staring at the carpet.

There’s nothing Louis wants more than to break the silence, but he knows it’s not his place. He does send Trisha an imploring look, however.

“Are you alright, beta?” It’s soft, sort of like the feeling of a hug if it was translated into sound. Zayn glances up at that, looks from his mother to Louis and back.

“Yeah,” he sits up a little straighter too, tries for a smile that Louis knows is at least half genuine. “I mean. It’s getting better. I’m getting there, I think. I’d like to think so, anyway.” His eyes flicker to Louis again, and his smile grows a bit softer, more genuine. “Louis helped, tremendously.”

Louis can only smile at that, feels a bit hopeless, caught up in his gaze. He’s almost relieved when Zayn looks away, towards his mother again. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without him, to be honest. He helped me work up the courage to come here too. I was so ashamed,” his voice trembles, and Louis’ hand goes back to rubbing circles into Zayn’s back, an immediate and instinctive response. “Because I’d let you down. Because you’d kept trying to warn me and I was so sure it’d work out, and then - well, I just proved you right, didn’t I? It was embarrassing.”

The tone of his voice is soft, but the words are harsh, directed at himself, and Louis automatically shifts away when he sees Trisha get up, knows before she’s even taken a single step that she’s going to wrap her son up in the biggest, most important hug he’s ever had in his life.

“I’m sorry,” Zayn whispers, and Trisha makes a soft noise. A mum noise.

I’m sorry,” she whispers back, shifting to sit next to him, Louis automatically making room for her. She rests a gentle hand on his knee in response, only for a moment but it’s enough to make Louis feel warm inside. “Zayn, you should never feel embarrassed to come home. Life is made of mistakes, and that’s okay. I was worried about you, all this time that you were in New York, because that’s my privilege as your mother. But I was also so proud of you, for taking this chance. For going after what you wanted. It’s okay that it turned out to be nothing like what you expected. At least you had the guts to take a chance.” She shifts, cupping Zayn’s face, tears in her own that Louis is sure are mirrored in Zayn’s - and he might be close to tears himself. “I’m so very proud of you. Always. And I’m so sorry that you’ve been hurting and that you felt like you couldn’t come to us.” She looks at Louis then. “Thank you, for being there for him when we couldn’t be.”

Louis just gives her an embarrassed sort of nod, but she’s already looking back at Zayn, brushing away his tears. “You can always come to us, beta. This is always going to be your home, and we’re always going to be here for you, no matter what, alright? Because we’re family. And we love you.”

Zayn nods, leans into his mother’s embrace, his own I love you muffled by Trisha’s shoulder.

*

They accept the invitation to stay for dinner, and while Trisha is cooking and the girls are setting the table, Louis heads outside for a minute, wanting to give Zayn some time to himself. There’s a lot to catch up on, and now that he knows Zayn will be alright, he wants to give him some privacy. The chance to maybe say some things to his parents that he doesn’t feel comfortable saying in front of Louis - even though Louis is pretty sure that Zayn’s already told him everything. He just wants him to have this moment, to feel like he belongs, because even though Louis has welcomed him into his home he knows that Zayn still feels like a visitor.

He’s surprised when - only a cigarette and a half into being outside - Zayn joins him. He doesn’t say anything at first, just takes a seat next to Louis on the old wooden bench in the backyard, close enough that their thighs are touching. Louis offers him his cigarette and Zayn accepts with a grateful smile, takes a few drags in silence, both of them watching the way the tendrils of smoke curl up and then dissolve in the air.

“They want me to stay,” Zayn says eventually, and Louis frowns down at his shoes. He’d known this was coming, but it still stings. He knows that it’s not that they don’t trust Louis to take care of Zayn - Trisha had been heartfelt in her compliment earlier - but that they likely feel like no one can do it better than family. And maybe they’re right.

He takes the cigarette from Zayn’s hand, takes a drag, letting it linger in his lungs for so long that it becomes nearly unpleasant. “And you?” He asks on an exhale.

Zayn shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says quietly, and Louis looks up at him. Tries to read his profile, because Zayn is staring stoically ahead.

“I’d understand,” he passes the cigarette back to Zayn, resists the urge to light a new one. “This is your home.”

“It hasn’t been for years,” Zayn looks at him now, briefly, before extinguishing the cigarette underneath his foot and getting up to toss it in the bin. “I mean. It is, of course it is, but it’s a home.”

Louis nods, even though he’s not sure he quite gets it. “It’s your family,” he supplies, and Zayn sits back down next to him with a sigh.

“Do you want me to stay?” Now that he no longer has a cigarette to occupy his hands, Zayn goes back to fidgeting. Louis resists the urge to stop him, to take his hand in his. Somehow, it feels more weighted when they’re not in the safety of his own apartment.

“I want what’s best for you,” he says honestly. “If you’d rather stay here, then, like I said, I’d understand. I don’t want you to feel like you, I don’t know, owe me anything, or whatever.”

Zayn nods at that, stays quiet for a moment. “I don’t. Feel like that. I know that you, that taking me in, that that isn’t something you’re expecting anything for in return.” He looks at Louis again, and Louis gives him a soft smile. He’s glad, for that. That Zayn knows that. “Would it be okay, if I came with you? I don’t - I’m trying not to be clingy, or anything, but-”

“I’m not Jordan,” Louis reminds him softly. “Nothing about this situation is anything like it was with Jordan, love.”

Zayn swallows, and Louis watches his Adam's apple bob with a sort of quiet fascination. “I’m sorry you have to remind me of that all the time,” is all he says, and this time Louis does take his hand.

“I’m not,” he says simply. “I’ll remind you a thousand times over. You’ll believe it someday. You’re not clingy. And if you were, and it bothered me - which it doesn’t, even if you are clingy, but when it does, if it does, then I need you to have faith in me and believe that I’ll tell you, yeah? We’re going to have all those conversations that you didn’t have with Jordan, because communication’s important.” He smiles, is glad to find Zayn smiling back at him. “So, just tell me, Z. Do you want to come back with me?”

Zayn’s quiet for a moment, giving Louis’ hand a little squeeze, but there’s no hesitation in his voice when he replies. “Yeah,” it’s soft, but certain. “I do.”

Louis squeezes his hand back. “Good,” he tells him. “Because I’d love to have you around for a little while longer.”

*

Louis can tell Trisha isn’t too happy about the prospect of letting her only son go back to London, but although her mouth briefly turns into one of those unhappy lines, she doesn’t say anything all throughout dinner. And even when they’re getting ready to leave she doesn’t try to change Zayn’s mind, just hugs him tight, then moves in to do the same to Louis.

With her arms around him, it’s easy to understand how grateful she is to him, and how worried she must feel. He feels almost bad about it, but ultimately, the decision is up to Zayn, and neither Louis nor Trisha seems to want to take that away from him.

“I’ll call,” Zayn promises, wrapped up tightly in his father’s arms. “And visit.”

Trisha smiles, presses a kiss to Louis’ cheek. “At least it’s only three and a half hours to come see you,” Zayn continues. It’s still a lot, but it’s infinitely better than oceans and plane rides and time zones away.

“I’ll take good care of him, I promise,” Louis whispers to Trisha. Zayn might overhear, but he doesn’t respond, and Trisha just gives his wrist a soft and grateful squeeze.

“We love you,” she just reminds Zayn, but her eyes are on Louis and he knows, even before she adds. “We love both of you.”

The drive back is quiet, but a different sort of quiet than the journey out had been. It’s calmer, no tension in the air for the time being. There’s still so many miles and hurdles to come, but for once, Louis is tentatively hopeful.

*

The next week has its ups and downs. Zayn does well some days, not so great on others. In general, though, it feels like he’s taking a few steps in the right direction. There’s increasingly fewer days that he spends on the couch in his pajamas, and he’s branched out from painting to cooking and going outside.

On Thursday, he isn’t there when Louis comes home from work. There’s a note, on the table in the kitchen, Zayn’s messy handwriting letting him know that he’s met up with Niall for dinner. It’s short, simple, and Louis cries only a little bit.

It’s strange though. How Zayn’s not there. How the apartment suddenly feels empty, and Louis doesn’t really know what to do with himself on the one night he’s been alone in ages. Nothing on the telly really holds his interest, and when the clock strikes nine and Zayn’s still not home he ends up going to bed early. He’s not moping, far from it, he’s incredibly grateful that Zayn’s doing well enough that he felt like catching up with friends, but he still can’t help feeling a little lonely.

Determined to stay up until Zayn’s back, he ends up falling asleep around ten thirty after all, only to wake up with an arm around his waist, and a warm body pressed to his back. “Mm?” he murmurs, opening his eyes at a slant to see that it’s 1:14 in the morning.

“Ssh,” Zayn whispers, but the sound comes out more like a giggle, and Louis doesn’t even have to smell the beer on his breath to know that he’s been drinking. “Go sleep,” he murmurs, breath ghosting over Louis’ bare shoulder - because he hadn’t bothered to wear pajamas, seeing as how he’d been expecting to sleep alone.

“Mkay,” Louis agrees sleepily, shifting just enough to give Zayn a bit more space, though he seems perfectly content in plastering himself against Louis’ back. “Had fun?” Judging by the time and the scent of alcohol clouding Zayn, he did, and Louis smiles, feeling so grateful for Niall and the ease with which he maintains his friendships.

Zayn wriggles a bit, and then there’s soft, warm skin against his, the sound of Zayn’s shirt hitting the floor. “I did,” he sounds half asleep already, his nose finding a spot at the back of Louis’ neck that sort of tickles but not enough to make him pull away. “Was nice.”

Louis smiles again. “Good,” he murmurs, though it’s an exhale more than anything, and he’s already halfway under again. With the added warmth, the arm around his waist, and Zayn’s breath coming out in gentle puffs against his skin, Louis is rapidly losing the battle against sleep.

Zayn’s in a similar state, Louis can tell. He just lets out a soft ‘hmm’ in response to Louis’ words, cuddles impossibly closer. “Missed you,” he whispers, and Louis falls asleep to those words, to the soft fluttering of his heart.

*

Louis takes Friday off. It has nothing to do with the fact that Zayn is still cuddled against him, and everything with the fact that Louis has been so busy for the past month and a half that he just wants some time to himself.

He stays in bed for an hour longer than he’d usually be able to on a workday, then manages to escape from the warmth of the bed, from Zayn’s arms that find a pillow instead of Louis’ body to pull close.

It’s a nice morning, and Louis spends much of it outside, taking his breakfast to go and ending up in the park, enjoying the sunshine and peace that comes from not having anywhere to go when the entire world seems to be hurrying ahead. He’s listening to music, watching joggers and old ladies with dogs, young mums with kids who are feeding the ducks. It’s all sorts of soft and lovely, and Louis can breathe again.

He hadn’t known, really, just how badly he needed to be alone for a bit, and it’s funny because last night he was just sort of waiting for Zayn to come back home. But it’s nice, in its way, to just do something for himself. To be in a place in time where he doesn’t feel like he has to worry about Zayn too much anymore. He still thinks about him, of course, but it’s different. It feels like he can exhale now, like he can be the focal point of his own existence again.

It’s also nice to notice that he still misses Zayn. Misses his best friend, his companionship, the way he makes him laugh. He’s excited to go back home, in a way that he hadn’t been in those first few weeks when he knew that Zayn was miserable. As much as Louis is loath to admit it, it’s taken a toll on him. He’s only realizing that now, when it feels like things are slowly getting to a more steady, happier place. What happened hadn’t just affected Zayn, it’s impacted Louis too, and though he wouldn’t change any of it, he has to acknowledge that he’s exhausted.

Self care is important, Louis knows, but he’s never not the kind of person to put someone else first. Especially Zayn.

It’s noon when he comes back to the apartment, expecting Zayn to still be in bed. He’s not. Instead he’s practically sprinting into the hallway, pointing a finger at Louis when he’s barely shut the door. “You,” he starts, and Louis arches an eyebrow. “Where were you?”

Louis toes off his shoes, holds up a bag from the bakery a block over. “Hello to you too. I brought lunch. Well, brunch, in your case.”

Zayn falters a bit at that, but his eyebrows are still firmly knitted into a frown. “You were gone for hours,” he points out, though his words sound unsure now, like he’s run all out of righteous indignation.

Patience. Being with Zayn is definitely a lesson in patience. “I needed some time to myself,” Louis admits, even when he knows that will make Zayn’s face fall. “I’m exhausted.”

He was right. Zayn’s face does fall. His shoulders sag too, and Louis wants to wrap him up in a hug and reassure him, but something in the way Zayn stands feels closed off. Tense. “You told me it was okay if I came back with you,” he mumbles, and Louis’ heart aches.

“It was. It is.” He tells him softly. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m not tired, Z. I’m not used to spending all my time with someone else. I just needed some space. That doesn’t mean that I want you to leave. It just means that I needed an hour or two to just be me, and not my boss’s employee or my mum’s son or your best friend.” He puts the bag onto the small cabinet in the hallway. “Doesn’t mean that I don’t love being your best friend, or that I’m suddenly fed up with having you here. I was actually excited to come back home. Figured we could do something tonight, maybe. Go see a movie, or play a bit of footie.”

Zayn doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t step back when Louis moves forward, and he feels a little less tense when Louis rests a hand on his waist. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you where I was going. I thought you’d still be asleep after the night out you had.”

There’s a soft sighed exhale, and then Zayn relaxes, shifts so that he’s able to wrap his arms around Louis’ shoulders. “I’m sorry. I woke up alone, and I remembered how I’d snuck into your bed last night, and then you weren’t there and I just thought-”

“I’m not Jordan. I don’t mind if you’re clingy.” Louis reminds him.

Zayn huffs. “I didn’t think that,” he mumbles, and Louis is about to call him out on what feels like an obvious lie when he sighs again. “I really didn’t. I just thought, maybe, with the way you feel about me, it’s just kind of too much? Or unfair? I don’t know. It felt like maybe I’d crossed a line without meaning to, and you wanted to put some kind of distance between us. Which, you have every right to, and I shouldn’t have jumped down your throat the moment you got back, but, I was worried.” He holds Louis a little closer, and Louis returns the embrace, his hands on the small of Zayn’s back. “I can’t lose you.”

“You won’t,” Louis tells him, just as softly. “I promised you I’d tell you if things would get too much. They haven’t. Me needing a bit of space doesn’t mean that they have.” He looks at Zayn, who doesn’t seem completely convinced, and Louis can’t blame him. It’s hard to explain it for himself, let alone put it into words so that Zayn understands. He gives him a reassuring squeeze. “It just means that I needed some time to myself. Like, you paint. That’s a you thing, something that you do when you want to be alone, have some time to think about things. I just needed some time to myself, that wasn’t spent in an office with people breathing down my neck every second. So I called in sick, made myself breakfast, and sat in the park for a couple hours.”

He smiles. “And then I missed you so I came home. And I figured, after a night out with Niall, you’re probably hungover, so I brought you your favorite pastry, and I thought maybe we could have a cuddle on the couch and watch a movie.”

Zayn has all but melted into his embrace, and at Louis’ last words he lets out a soft chuckle. “Man, do I feel like an idiot now.” He mumbles, his face still pressed against Louis’ neck. “I’m sorry. I’m trying, I really am.”

“I know you are,” Louis reassures him. “And you’re doing so much better, babe. Like, when you first came back, I wouldn’t have left your side. You wouldn’t have gone out to meet up with Niall in the first place, but even if you had, I wouldn’t have just gone to the park and taken some time to myself. You’ve improved so much. I see it. I see you getting better every day.”

“I remember when you told me that, a while ago. That I was getting better. I didn’t notice it back then.” Zayn admits, shifting back enough to look at Louis. “I do now. Sometimes. I mean, most of the time. But then stuff like this happens, and it feels like I’m right back where I started.”

Louis shakes his head. “You’re not. Taking a step back occasionally doesn’t mean that all those steps you’ve taken forward suddenly don’t matter anymore. They’re still there, Z. And going through this, moving on, that doesn’t have to be a linear thing. You can have shitty days. Hell, it could be a year from when you broke up with him and you’d still be allowed to have days where you feel fucked up about it. Just don’t lose sight of the progress you’ve made. There’s no reason to be so hard on yourself,” he reminds him. “You’re only human. You’re bound to make mistakes.”

Zayn smiles, and Louis notices with relief that it’s genuine this time. He reaches out, brushes his thumb over Zayn’s bottom lip before he can second guess himself. “I missed your smile. The real one. It’s nice, seeing it come back.”

The tiniest kiss gets pressed to his thumb, and Zayn looks almost sheepish when he does it, as though it’s as much instinct as Louis’ action had been. “Thank you for giving me a reason to smile,” he says, so soft that Louis can barely hear it.

Louis smiles back at him. “Always.”

*

It’s midway through the third week that Zayn gets a call from his parents, to say that his stuff’s been delivered. He’s kept in touch with them, practically to the point where Louis is now used to coming home to see Zayn on the phone, pacing through the apartment or sitting on the couch with a cup of tea that almost always proves to be cold. It makes him smile. They’d both hated phone calls before, but now, whenever Zayn gets off the phone he looks soft and happy, and Louis thinks if he’d ask he might admit that he doesn’t quite abhor it as much anymore.

It’s why it’s such a surprise to see him frowning when he says goodbye to his mum, and Louis doesn’t even have to ask, just arches an eyebrow before Zayn sighs. “My stuff’s gotten dropped off today.”

Louis nods. “Did you want to go up there this weekend?” Despite the fact that most of the things would stay at the Malik house, they did want to head up there just to check out everything that’s been dropped off. Possibly pick up a couple things that Zayn would like to bring to London with him. Niall’s offered to lend them his truck, and while Louis was looking forward to a calm weekend he can understand wanting to get this particular task over with.

“I guess.” Zayn says absently. He takes a sip from his tea, then makes a face when he realizes it’s cold. Louis takes it from him automatically, puts it back down on the table. He’ll make more tea later. “I know I should. It just feels, I don’t know. It’s sort of a last thing, a last connection with Jordan, a final full goodbye? Does that make sense?”

Louis nods again, shifts to sit next to Zayn. “It does. Once this is over, there’s no reason to even contact each other anymore. Unless he’s forgotten something important.”

Zayn nods too. “It’s weird. Like, I want it to be over with. I’m sort of ready for it. It’s been two months, give or take. I’m not in a space where I would even know what to say to him anymore. But it still feels weird. Like it wasn’t supposed to end this way. Like, we were meant to have some closure?”

That makes sense. Everything about the end of the relationship had been volatile, so full of emotion that the end of it seems almost anticlimactic. It’s pragmatic, and sensible, and the adult way to handle it, but Louis can understand how it also feels empty, like none of this ever meant anything. “Nothing’s stopping you from having closure,” he says pensively. “You could always, I dunno, write him a letter. You wouldn’t even have to send it, if you don’t want to.”

“I wouldn’t know what to say.” Zayn pauses. “Except, maybe, that I hope he’ll be happy. I don’t know if he’d think I’m being sarcastic though. Which I’m not. I truly hope that he’ll be happy, that he finds someone who can love him the way he wants and deserves to be loved. Because he was a good guy. Just because it didn’t work out between us doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve to find someone with which it does.”

Louis feels his heart ache. Zayn had never wished ill on Jordan, not even when he was so hurt and betrayed and heartbroken. But hearing him say these things now, it’s another small clue of just how much difference a few months had made. “I’m sure he would say the same to you,” as much as he had never cared for Jordan, he doesn’t believe that Jordan would want anything other than happiness for Zayn.

He hopes one day both of them will be able to look back on their relationship and remember the good times.

*

This time, on Saturday, they get up around eight, and Zayn doesn’t even complain. Much. He also doesn’t seem very awake, once they’re in the car, but Louis lets it slide. It’s quiet, as it had been the first time, but there’s none of the tension that he’d felt back then. There’s no Great Diva Sing-Off either, just Louis humming along with the radio, Zayn’s voice sometimes blending in and creating a lovely harmony. It’s comfortable.

There’s not an awful lot of traffic, and despite a small stop midway to get some coffee and breakfast, they arrive around noon. This time, the person opening the door isn’t Trisha, or Yaser, but it’s Doniya, who must have taken time off from the beauty salon to come see her long lost brother. For the second time in three weeks, Zayn’s practically out of the car before Louis has had a chance to park it.

It makes him laugh, shake his head as he gets out of the car, greeting Trisha with a warm hug. “How’s he doing?” she whispers, and Louis hugs her tighter.

“Good.” He assures her, and he can feel the tension in her body melt before she brings her hands up to his face, presses a kiss to his cheek.

“And you?” She checks him over, much the same way his mum had done when he’d last seen her. It warms his soul. “How are you doing, beta?”

Louis rests a hand against the one on his cheek. “Good,” he repeats, smiling at her. “Better, lately.”

“This must’ve been hard on you,” she muses, and Louis almost wants to look away, feels a little too close to tears for comfort, because it had been hard. Well worth it, but still, it’d been hard, and he’d been far more worried than he’d wanted to admit to Zayn or anyone else. Trisha must notice, because her thumb brushes over his cheekbone, before she shifts, wrapping him up in another hug. “You’re such a wonderful boy. Zayn’s so very lucky to have you in his life.”

Louis twitches when it becomes apparent that Zayn’s overheard at least the last part of their conversation, because he’s suddenly there, his voice soft and warm, the same way his hand is on Louis’ back. “I am.”

He can’t help it. He makes a face at Zayn, to divert attention from the shine in his eyes. “Sap.”

Zayn just shrugs, completely unbothered. “Says you.” He teases back, and Louis resists the urge to flip him off, just pinches his side instead.

Trisha looks happy, seeing the two of them interact, and where Louis would usually feel self conscious - because Zayn’s snuck his fingers under his tee to tickle him, and Louis has got his hands around Zayn’s wrists in an attempt to stop him - he just shares a look with her now, knows that they’re feeling the same relief, the same happy thrill at seeing just how much Zayn is coming back to himself.

*

Jordan’s left a letter, and though Louis is worried at first, about what it will do to Zayn to read it, he’s relieved when all it does is make Zayn smile a soft, somewhat bittersweet smile. They’re sat in the garage, where all of Zayn’s stuff has been reduced to boxes and bags, and it’s less, somehow, than what Louis expected. Less than what Zayn expected too, he told him, the moment they first went inside. It’s odd, he’d remarked, I thought there’d be more. I thought - it was a bigger part of my life than it seems when you look at this.

“He said that he wishes things had been different,” Zayn says softly, eyes scanning the paper. “That he wishes it hadn’t ended the way that it did. Because, ‘you never deserved to feel the way that I made you feel’.”

Louis bites his tongue. Too late, he wants to snap, too late and too little, but he doesn’t say that. Just hums. “That’s good,” he says instead, aiming for a neutral tone. Then, because he’s never been too good at keeping his thoughts to himself, “He’s right about something, for a change.”

Zayn snorts at that, folds the letter up and tucks it into a box of books that he plans to bring with him to Louis’ apartment. “I know it doesn’t count for much, after everything, but I guess it’s still nice to get some sort of apology. Some sort of closure.”

Louis feels like an asshole. Of course Jordan's words matter to Zayn. After spending so much time together, how can it not? “It’s okay if it means something to you. I get it. It’s nice to know that he cares about you. Just-” he shrugs. “You do deserve better.”

There’s silence for a moment, before Zayn gets up from the box he’s been sat on, heads on over to Louis to wrap his arms around him and press his lips to his hair. Louis moves to wrap his own arms around Zayn’s middle before he’s even aware of it. “What’s that for?” He asks softly.

“I’m starting to believe it, thanks to you.”

*

They take a break for lunch, and afterwards, Louis takes a moment to freshen up while Zayn helps his mother clear away the plates. He’s on his way back from the bathroom when he hears their soft voices, and although he can’t pick up on their conversation at first he can tell by the tone of their voices that the conversation is serious, not something he should want to disturb.

He lingers for a moment, awkwardly, not sure whether to retreat back into the bathroom or pass them by, head into the garage to start bringing boxes to the car. The last thing he wants to do is make it seem like he’s listening in on a conversation that isn’t meant for his ears. It would feel like a betrayal to Zayn, and yet he can’t make himself known, the subtle cough meant to alert them to his presence dying in his throat at Trisha’s words.

“I liked Jordan, but somehow I always thought that you and Louis would end up together.” Her voice is soft, contemplative, and Louis is fully expecting Zayn to laugh it off, but he doesn’t.

“You did?” He doesn’t sound that surprised, which makes one of them. Louis can feel his heart beating so loudly that he’s almost convinced mother and son should be able to pick up on it from the kitchen.

Trisha laughs, and there’s a soft rustling sound, one that Louis’ imagination fills in easily: her putting down the dish towel to step closer and rest a hand against her son’s cheek. “Well, it might have something to do with that time you had that crush on him, and he looked at you as though you’d personally hung the stars in the sky.” It’s soft, teasing, and Louis can hear Zayn laugh in response. His cheeks feel warm, because he knows he hadn’t been able to fully hide his feelings, but he didn’t think he’d been that obvious about it. Blood’s rushing in his ears too, because did she just say that Zayn used to have a crush on him?

Not that it matters. If that was true, then, it was firmly in the past.

“Do you think now that-” Trisha starts, and Zayn must have given her a look because she doesn’t finish her question, just sighs softly. “He’d be good to you.” She says instead.

Zayn sighs too. He mumbles something that sounds vaguely like “I know.” There’s silence for a moment, before he speaks up again, a little louder this time. Louis is thankful for it, even though he knows that he should back away, that Zayn would feel embarrassed and even hurt if he found out Louis had been listening in. Sure, he could account for the first few seconds, because he’d stumbled upon their conversation, but at this point, he’s staying despite the fact that he knows better.

It’s just. His heart, for once, is stronger than his mind.

“He would be. But, right now, I’m not even in a place where I’m ready to think about a new relationship. And Louis - he’s my best friend, mum. I’m not - I can’t risk that. I mean yeah, I liked him, but that was ages ago. Now, after everything, even if I got to a point where I felt that way about him again-” he exhales a shaky sigh. “I’d be too scared, that I’d fuck it up, and then I wouldn’t even have my best friend anymore.”

Trisha hums. “It wouldn’t be like it was with Jordan, love,” she reminds him, and Zayn sighs.

“I know. Lou keeps telling me. I know that he’s not Jordan. But - I’m still me.”

Louis sort of wants to interrupt them. Tell Trisha to stop pushing Zayn, because it’s not fair, on either of them. Not on Zayn, who doesn’t love him that way and shouldn’t be shoehorned into something that doesn’t feel right. And not on him either, because he knows himself well enough to know that he’d wait for him, if there was even the smallest sign that it would one day work out. But he can’t make himself move, can only stand there and hope that the conversation will switch to another topic, one that’ll make it safe for him to come in.

“Yes, you are. But you’ve learned from what happened. I’m not saying start a relationship now.” Trisha says gently. “I’m not even saying you should consider a relationship with Louis at all. Just - you deserve good things, yeah? No matter what mistakes you think you made, or what fears you have about the future, you can never let that stop you from trying to be happy. All I’m saying is, if you want something, then, never let yourself stand in the way of that.” She pauses. “That, and, we love Louis. If you ever chose to bring him home as your boyfriend, we’d be delighted.”

There’s the sound of a kiss, rustling that could possibly signal an embrace and hopefully the end of this conversation. Louis is about to announce himself, make enough noise to alert the two of them, when Zayn’s words stop him dead in his tracks, heart pounding and palms sweaty. “Who knows. Maybe I will.”

*

Louis is sure that once he comes in to face Zayn, he will only have to take one look at Louis to know that he’s overheard something he shouldn’t have, because it feels like his ears are burning and his heart is beating so loudly in his throat that it must be visible. His legs feel shaky too, but once he manages to convince himself to head inside, no one really pays him any mind.

They’re not ignoring him, obviously, but the world still turns and people still address him as though nothing has changed. As though who knows isn’t running on a loop in Louis’ head.

For the next hour or so they sort between stuff that Zayn will leave in Bradford and things that he swears he needs in London. It’s almost three thirty by the time Louis’ backseat and trunk are stacked with boxes, and the prospect of having to do it all over again (except in reverse) once they’re back home sounds as unappealing as anything. But Zayn looks pleased, and Louis is a sucker for that look, and even though his knees will curse him for having to lift so many boxes up the stairs to his apartment, at least by tonight it’ll be over.

For a while, anyway. Until Zayn decides to move out.

Louis doesn’t want to think about that though. For now, both of them seem content to live with each other, and, to quote someone, who knows what might happen in the future.

It’s a conversation they should probably have, at some point, at least the fact that Louis has overheard, but he’s not planning on saying anything while they’re still at the Malik house. He’d rather Zayn yell at him in the privacy of his car. Preferably while they’re on the M1 and Zayn can’t get out.

They drink a glass of lemonade, all seven of them together, before Louis reluctantly - though not as reluctant as Zayn - says his goodbyes, not looking forward to the three and a half hour drive, let alone carrying all those boxes inside when his arms and back are already aching. He exchanges hugs with the Malik clan, promises to keep in touch, his stomach warming when Trisha makes a point to tell him that she doesn’t just expect to hear from Zayn, she wants to hear from him too.

We love Louis. If you ever chose to bring him home as your boyfriend, we’d be delighted.

He’s the quiet one this time, as they make their way out of Bradford and onto the M62. Not that Zayn is chatting his ear off, quite the contrary, but usually Louis isn’t so aware of his own silence. Even if Zayn isn’t. He doesn’t seem to notice anything’s different, not even when Louis parts his lips once, twice, to start a conversation he’s not sure he’s ready to have.

He should, he thinks, but then the next thought, inevitably, is, should he? Zayn had said it himself, he wasn’t ready for a relationship. He didn’t have those feelings right now. Was there a point in talking about it, when it might never happen? Sure, maybe it’s a copout, maybe it’s just Louis not wanting Zayn mad at him, but can they separate that conversation from the one about their feelings? Their future?

God, just the thought that he might have a future with Zayn makes his head feel a little fuzzy. He has to consciously stop his brain from going there, from imagining a time in which they weren’t just best friends. The thing is, he can see it. So easily. Can see it being a seamless transition, even.

He feels so hopeful that it’s almost scary, that part of him almost wants to start the conversation because he needs Zayn to call him back to reality, to cement the fact that it might never happen, before his heart runs off with him and his head follows in stupid daydreams.

But something keeps holding him back, and he’s not sure what it is. Whether it’s fear, or the knowledge that Zayn still has healing to do, or the simple fact that right now, Zayn’s sitting next to him in the car, sunglasses on and a soft smile on his face, looking happier than Louis has seen him in a long time.

Louis knows, whatever will happen between them in the future, it’ll be enough.

==epilogue==

Louis finally tells him, six months later.

It’s not necessarily a burden that he’s carried with him all this time, but it’s something that weighs on his conscience nonetheless, until it finally gets to a point where he knows he needs to tell him. What’s more, he knows Zayn is ready now.

He’s been doing so well. He’s found a job, teaching art to little kids, and when he comes home - more often covered in paint than not - he is almost always smiling.

He goes to the gym with Louis and to the pub with Niall, he’s made new friends at work. He cooks, he sings, and Louis swears he’s caught him dancing in the kitchen once or twice.

His cups of tea barely ever go cold anymore, except when he’s on the phone to his parents.

Sure, he’s moved out of Louis’ bedroom, but that was just a matter of time, and it’s practical, because some nights Zayn stays up until three in the morning, and though he inevitably regrets it when he’s at breakfast at seven thirty, there’s a light in his eyes that Louis has gotten accustomed to. It’s a shock, when he first realizes that. That he's getting used to the fact that Zayn is happy.

It’s during one of those breakfasts - except at ten o’clock on a Saturday - that Louis glances up at him, sees Zayn instinctively smiling back at him the moment their eyes meet. He’s barely consciously registered that maybe the right time is right now, before he opens his mouth. “You remember that Saturday that we went up to your parents to pick up your stuff?”

Zayn frowns, dips his toast in his egg. “Yeah?”

Louis swallows. “You remember the conversation you had with your mum?”

It’s clear that, while it takes him a moment, Zayn does. Because while his frown deepens at first, a small blush starts to creep up his face, and Louis bites his lip, breaks eye contact like the coward that he is. “I, um,” he starts, before Zayn can even confirm that he remembers. “I might’ve overheard a couple of things that were said that day.”

Zayn’s blush grows a bit more pronounced. “Oh,” he says, and while he goes back to his eggs and soldiers, Louis can tell his focus is somewhere else. Probably reliving the conversation, remembering exactly what was said. “Oh.” There it is.

Louis bites his lip. “I was going to tell you.” He says, but then stops himself, because he can’t really come up with any credible excuse as to why he hadn’t. Or why he’s chosen to say it now.

“Right.” Zayn glances up at him, though his eyes only meet Louis’ for a second. “Did you overhear? Or were you listening in?”

The question makes Louis grimace. “I mean,” he starts, sighs. “I was planning to announce myself, and then your mum said that she thought we’d end up together, and that you had a crush on me in the past.” He’s a bit flustered now too, and oddly enough, that calms Zayn.

“Right,” he says again, shrugs his shoulder. “Well, I mean, you knew that though.”

Louis blinks. “I did?”

Zayn pins him with a look. “I mean, didn’t you?” He gives him a small, sheepish smile. “It was pretty obvious. Mum used to tease me about it all the time, let alone the girls. I thought, once or twice, that maybe you felt the same way, but you never said anything. So I figured, it was probably for the best. Because our friendship meant the world to me as it was, and I didn’t want to lose that.” He takes a sip from his tea, licks the crumbs off of his bottom lip. “And then I met Jordan.”

Jordan. “And then you realized that what you felt for me didn’t compare to how you felt about him?”

Zayn takes another sip from his tea. “That’s not really a fair comparison, I think,” he says contemplatively. “I mean, for one, we were actually together. The way I felt about Jordan in the end was nothing like how I felt for him at the start. Who knows what would’ve happened if we’d have ended up going out instead.”

Who knows.

“I could’ve spared you the heartache,” Louis says softly. He can’t be certain that things would’ve worked out, of course, but he thinks they might have been great. He can’t imagine them being anything else.

“Maybe.” Zayn allows. “But then, I learned from it. I’m not saying that it was something I’d want to do again. But I don’t think, if I could go back in time, I don’t think I’d change it. Because - well, it’s life, isn’t it? We don’t get a guarantee. We don’t know, when we get into something, whether it’s gonna last.” He frowns. “I thought it would, with Jordan. But maybe he was just a lesson that I needed to learn. And I’ll take that into my next relationship, whenever that will be. I’m not saying - I’m not ready, right now, to start dating again. But I like to think that I will be, in a while.”

Louis nods. Doesn’t want to ask the next question, but the words form despite his reluctance to actually hear the answer. “Did you mean it? What you told your mum? That it could be me?”

Zayn shrugs, and such a small motion shouldn’t have the devastating effect it does on Louis. “I don’t know,” he says softly, and for what it’s worth, it sounds like he’s genuinely sorry. “Is it something I can say for a fact will never happen? No. But it’s also not something I can guarantee will happen. I know that’s not the answer you’d like to hear, but-”

“All I’ll ever ask is for you to be honest,” Louis interrupts gently. He smiles at Zayn. “I’m not, you’re not shortchanging me if all you’ll ever be to me is my best friend. I’m not here, wasting away, pining over you for the rest of my life.” His words make Zayn laugh, and Louis’ smile grows a bit wider. “I love you, yeah. And your mum’s right. I’d be good to you. But you don’t ever owe me anything, and if you never feel the same way about me as I do about you, then that’s fine. Then I’ll hold your hand when you first ask out the new guy you’re into, and I’ll help you get dressed, and I’ll be here when you come home at the end of the date, to celebrate with you if it went great or to comfort you if it went badly.”

Zayn smiles. “Promise?”

*

It’s a promise Louis keeps, five months later.

He does hold Zayn’s hand when Zayn asks out the new guy he’s into.

It just so happens that the guy Zayn’s asking out is him.

-fin-