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READER RESTRICTIONS: 13+

Disclaimer(s): language 

publish date:

Originally published on June 12 , 2015

Revised edition published on October 20, 2023

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"Oh, you and I, You and I. / We can make it if we try, You and I..."

One Direction, "You and I"

JULY 2015
IRVINE, CALIFORNIA

        Liam wrung his hands beneath the table, soft sweaty palms hot around his bony knuckles. His heart drummed slowly in his chest. He could feel his heavy pulse beneath his jaw.

        “Fuck. Get it together, mate,” Liam instructed himself, his words soft under his shaky breath. He had no idea why he was so nervous. Well, no, that wasn’t true. He knew exactly why. He just didn’t think that it made any sense.

        His phone vibrated on the table and, for a second, he feared that his heart had rocketed up into his throat. After taking a second to gather his composure--caramel eyes darting around the café to ensure that he had remained relatively inconspicuous--he tapped the screen. There was a text from Niall:

        Everything good?

        He sighed, large thumbs bouncing over the letters on onscreen: Yeah.

        It only took another second for Niall to respond: He show up yet?

        No.

        Lou would kill you if he knew.

        I kno.

        Li, he’s prob not gonna show. Don’t waste your whole night, k?

        I know. I won’t.

        The texts stopped after that. Liam withdrew his phone into the pockets of his black skinny jeans and ran his fingers through the trimmed brush of short hair atop his scalp. He glanced up at the art deco clock above the café’s entrance.

        It’d already been twenty-five minutes.

        “C’mon,” he whispered, as if to prompt the universe. He watched the cars cruise by on Cornell Avenue as he slid his hands up into his armpits, biceps tight, almost as if to hug himself. The maroon navy rugby sweater he was wearing was starting to feel warm.

        “Did you want anything?” A young waitress asked as she approached his table. She was a slender, dark-haired girl that reminded him a bit of Sophia.

        “Oh, n-no, thank you, Miss,” Liam assured, rubbing his palms on his thighs. He shot her a nervous smile.

        “Look, dude, you either order something, or you get out.” Her tone sharpened.

        Liam’s eyes widened and he chewed on his lower lip. “O-oh, I’m so sorry. Sure, I guess I’ll have—"

        The waitress giggled and cut him off. “I’m kidding.”

        Liam frowned. “Oh.”

        “I’m surprised you haven’t been mobbed yet,” she leaned forward and whispered with a smirk.

        “I’m sorry?”

        “You’re Liam, right? One Direction?”

        Liam sighed before: “Yeah.”

        “You’re not on tour around here, are you? I mean, to be honest, I’m not personally a fan, but—"

        "San Diego, actually."

        "Oh, well, that's still a bit of a drive. What are you doing here? Are the others here too?"        

        "No. I’m, uh, here alone, actually...”

        “Really…?”

        “Yep.”

        “Like, without anyone? No bodyguard?” The waitress clenched her fists and feigned a few quick jabs, as if she were a boxer.

        “Nope.”

        “No paparazzi today either?”

        “Well, not yet. But, I’m trying to lay low, and you’re not really helping.” He chuckled.

        “My bad.” She raised a brow. "You still haven't answered my question though."

        "Which one?" Liam asked.

        "Whare you doing here?"

        “Supposed to be meeting an old friend, actually.”

        “Oh, that’s nice.”

        “Well, it was supposed to be.” Liam paused and took a slow breath, exhaling through his nose. “He’s thirty minutes late. Hasn’t texted me or anything.”

        “Oh, yikes. Awwwkward.” The waitress frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. “Who stands up Liam from One Direction?”

        Liam winced. “Well, I don’t think—"

        “Just giving you a hard time. I’m sure he’ll show,” she interjected again, this time with a giggle. “But, uh, I should probably get back to work.” Her smile was an apologetic one.

        “Right.”

        “Let me know if you do decide on getting something, okay?”

        “Sure.”

        Unfortunately, despite Liam’s patience, and the waitress’s amiability, he could only tolerate another fifteen minutes of rapid glances at his phone and an unceasing sinking feeling in his gut, before he decided that it would be best to just leave. He bent over to tighten the laces of his black Nikes, stood up, and stepped away from the table. Before reaching the door, the dark-haired waitress stopped him again.

        “I’m sorry,” she offered.

        “It’s okay.” Liam forced another smile, but he suddenly wanted nothing more than to get back home and get to sleep.

        “Um, I hate to ask, but, um, before you go”--she placed a hand on his shoulder--“you think I could get a picture with you?”

        Liam furrowed his brow, trying his best to mask the unreasonable frustration that he was feeling. “I thought you said you weren’t a fan.”

        “Oh, I’m not,” she assured with a sly grin, “but my roommate is. I want proof that I met you tonight. It would kill her!”

--------------------------------

        Liam jogged up the steps to his temporary loft overlooking the Industry Plaza. His phone continuously vibrated in his pocket as he approached the front door.

        “I know, I know,” he muttered, as he fumbled for his keys.

        “What took you so long?” A familiar voice surfed the warm evening air from just beside him.

        “Bloody fuck!” Liam dropped his keys. He spun around on the ball of his foot, and raised his hands, as if to assume some sort of lackluster kung-fu pose.

        And, there was Zayn. “Jumpy, are we?” he asked, rather calmly.

        Liam didn’t want to believe it at first. Especially after the frustration his ex-band mate had already put him through that evening.

        “Fuck you!” Liam groaned, dropping his arms to his sides. “The hell have you been?”

        “Could ask you the same question, mate,” Zayn chuckled. “Been calling you for the last half hour.”

        “No you haven’t!”

        “I have,” he cracked a smile. It was this annoyingly devilish grin.

        Liam whipped out his phone, as if to prove otherwise. Unfortunately, the evidence was against him. The screen was indeed decorated with texts and ‘missed call’ alerts from Zayn, not Niall like he'd assumed.

        “Oh…”

        “Told ya.” Zayn smirked.

        “Well, what the hell?! I thought we agreed to meet at that coffee shop near the university! I've been texting you.

        “W-well, I changed my mind. Thought it’d be, you know, simpler, if we didn’t meet in public. I should've given you more notice.”

        Liam chewed on his lip. He wanted to be angry, he did. His brain was royally pissed. His heart, on the other hand… Finally, he exhaled. “Yeah, you should've,” he mumbled and stepped forward, wrapping his arms around his old friend. He pulled him close. Zayn felt so light, so empty. His scent--a woodsy mix of tobacco and patchouli--was highly nostalgic.

        “So, you gonna let me in, or just hug me all night?”

        “Haven’t decided yet,” Liam joked before pulling away. He picked up his keys and showed his guest inside. “It’s good to see you, Zayn.”

        “Yeah,” Zayn said. “You too.”

--------------------------------​

        “Nice place,” Zayn observed, as he sat down at the leather sofa in the middle of the front room.

        “Belongs to an old mate. He's out of town for the weekend. Really kinda worked out perfectly, if you ask me. I mean, what are the odds? Us being here around the same time?”

        Zayn didn’t respond. He kicked off his tennis shoes and placed his black-socked feet on the table in front of him. Like Liam, he was dressed very casually: jeans, a plain tee, and a deep, copper-colored zip-up hoodie.

        Liam eyed him from the bar across the way. Aside from the street clothes and his nearly-shaven head--which, thankfully, was no longer colored--Zayn definitely looked…different. Liam couldn’t place exactly what it was that stood out to him.

        “You want a drink, mate?” he offered.

        “No, I’m good,” Zayn declined.

        “You sure? Water?”

        “Fine, Liam. Really.” He held up his hand.

        “Okay.”

        Liam approached the sofa and slid himself down at the opposite end of the couch. He leaned back into the cool, pillowed embrace of the fabric, and looked up at the ceiling. His hands fell to his lap.

        "So, how have you been?” Zayn asked, though it sounded kind of obligatory.

        “Fine. You?”

        “Oh, things are great. I’m happy, Li.”

        “That’s good.”

        “How are...the others?” Zayn asked, tone somewhat tentative.

        “Oh, they’re fine.”

        “Yeah? Lou? Haz?”

        “All good.”

        “Ni?”

        “He’s good too. He knew we were meeting up tonight, actually.”

        “Oh?”

        “Yeah.”

        “And, he…?”

        “He was fine with it.”

        “Cool, cool.” Zayn bobbed his head slowly--a swaggering nod. The dialogue between them was script-like, easy yet somehow clunky. “Tour's still going well, then?”

        The last question stung a bit, but Liam had been mentally prepared for any and all questions surrounding the topic. “Yes. Brilliantly.”

        “Happy for ya.”

        “Thanks.” Liam really didn’t want to return the favor and ask Zayn about his solo work, so he changed the subject: “How’s Perrie?”

        “Happy. We’re...happy,” Zayn reiterated, but his voice fell flat. “Sophia?”

        “She’s great.”

        “Cool.”

        “Yep.” Liam was starting to feel the same strange agitation he’d been experiencing back at the café when he assumed he’d been stood up. He really didn’t know what was going on with himself: he’d been initially excited to see Zayn--it’d been so long, it was the first time they were meeting up in person since his departure. But now that they were actually together, things seemed...disappointing? No, that couldn’t be it. It’s not like he was expecting any different.

        “So,” Liam pried, “everything’s good, then?”

        “Perfect, actually,” Zayn stated with a shrug.

        “Brilliant…” Liam responded, feeling subtly offended. How could things be ‘perfect’ without his best mates? Was that the problem? Then again, what did it matter? He should be happy for him regardless…right? So then...what did he want? Of course, in retrospect, those questions really weren’t hard ones to answer. It only took him a few seconds to really pinpoint an accurate response.

        He turned to Zayn who was now, much to Liam’s annoyance, on his phone. “Zayn?” he asked.

        “Yeah?” Zayn didn’t look at him.

        “Can I ask you something?”

        “'Course.”

        “Do you, uh”--he paused, pressing his hands firmly together--“miss the old days?”

        Zayn glanced over at him and raised a brow. “What?”

        Liam sighed. Then, “Do you miss the group?”

        “Well, um, yeah. Sure I do. Sometimes.”

        Liam wasn’t convinced. “Do you really?”

        Zayn sighed and paused a moment. He lowered his head. “Do you want me to be honest...?”

        Liam stopped prying. His heart fell. Why it’d been up in the first place, he couldn’t say.

        “Look,” Zayn tried to offer an explanation, “before I left, there was a lot going on. Things were...tense. And all the politics. The stuff with the contracts..."

        "I know." Liam nodded. He couldn't pretend that things had been perfect. 

        "Plus, I've...grown a lot since I left," Zayn added. "I've changed. I've...matured." 

        This hit Liam a bit differently. “Matured…?” he asked.

        “Sure. You know, grown up.”

        Liam had been expecting awkwardness and possible discomfort, but he hadn’t been prepared to be insulted. The way Zayn was talking, it made it sound like he'd moved on, not from the band, but from him, from the others. "So, what are you even doing here?" he asked.

        Zayn frowned. “What?”

        “Why did you want to meet up? If you’re, you know, so mature now? Grown past us?”

        “Oh, don’t do that,” Zayn scolded, his parental tone was making things even worse.

        “Do what?” Liam asked, trying his damnedest to remain calm.

        “Twist my words.”

        “I’m not.”

        “Look, I wanted to catch up, okay? We were friends for a long time, mate. Still wanna know what’s going on with you.”

        Liam lowered his head. ‘Were’ friends. The words began to stir up the very insecurities he’d been feeling before--the ones that Niall had addressed and successfully quashed...right before Zayn announced his departure. The silence that followed was unbearably thick. Liam rubbed the back of his neck and stared up at the ceiling. Zayn continued to thumb through some apps on his phone. What did it all mean? Zayn’s actions and words seemed to conflict with one another. Liam’s confusion had only been amplified. On top of not knowing what to feel, he now had no idea what to think. It was utterly exhausting.

        Finally: “Hey, Liam?”

        “Yeah?” Liam answered almost too quickly. The sound of Zayn’s voice had ripped him from his self-inflicted mental tug-of-war.

        "You wanna put on a movie or something?”

        “Oh.” And, score another point for Liam's disappointment. “Yeah, sure.”

        The two young men really didn’t say much to one another for the rest of the evening. Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham did most of the talking for them, courtesy of the large, hypnotic flat-screen on the wall above the mantel.

--------------------------------

        Liam awoke first.

        The SPY credits were crawling up the TV screen, thrusting white bars of light into the dark room, which ascended up the walls like apparitions before disappearing into the maw of the expansive ceiling. The volume had been turned down low.

        Liam yawned and stretched. He didn’t remember turning all the lights off, but then again, he really didn’t even remember falling asleep. Things had kind of been a blur since he’d popped in the movie. He’d been so focused on trying to decipher what everything meant that he assumed his mind just thought it’d be easier to shut off for a bit.

        He glanced over at the other end of the couch, half-expecting to find it empty, but Zayn was still there. He had fallen asleep as well, face pressed into the corner where the large sofa arm met the back. He was hugging himself, hoodie tight against his body--and he had pulled his legs up, knees bent, his socked feet now only several inches from Liam’s lap.

        Liam took a minute to really just stare at his friend--they were still friends, weren’t they? Sure, Zayn hadn’t left One Direction on the best of terms, and Liam couldn’t lie to himself: things even before his official departure had not been great. Not at all. Of course, the boys had to stay strong for the media, for the fans. But there had been a lot of opinions. A lot of emotions. Liam had been angry. All of them had. Again, the irony was that this massive change had come only a couple of weeks after he'd already been struggling with his own insecurities about the future of the band; fortunately, Niall had been there for him.

        Niall.

        Liam clenched his fists and frowned. Glimpses of his blond mate wiping at his blue eyes flashed up from his memory. The betrayal that Niall had felt during the brunt of everything--it had seemed to affect him more than the others. There had been a brief period when Liam had become the comforter, their roles had definitely been reversed. Zayn’s departure had permanently altered the group’s dynamics--two and two--and Liam had found his partner in Niall. He had spent a lot of time with the Irish lad in the recent months and, though they really never talked about things, just sharing space and time, the unanimity of their unspoken pain, it helped, and they’d bonded a great deal.

        Liam smiled and exhaled softly through his nose, good memories eventually paling in favor of the uncomfortable present. Zayn’s chiseled, somber face replaced Niall’s, and Liam frowned again. He’d always understood why Zayn had made the decision he had--he wanted nothing more for his (estranged) friend to be happy. He, however, never understood the how. Zayn going about things the way he had…it was impulsive and rash and, honestly, it had been selfish. 

        He withdrew his phone and began to scroll through his pictures. It took him a minute or so, but he eventually came across one of his favorites: one that Niall had snapped prior to a concert from their most recent tour. He had cropped it and sent it to him shortly thereafter in a text:

niam_concert_by_littlegargalite-d8wnjcd_

Best mates. Always.

        Liam felt a warmth spread throughout his extremities. He loved Niall’s smile. He loved Niall’s laugh even more. A coping mechanism had recently been implemented between the two--one that Niall had initially set into motion on the same night that Liam had suffered his breakdown--and, though he originally found it very bizarre, it was now something that Liam really loved, something that he associated with his closeness to Niall: tickling.​

        It was almost guaranteed that, every time the two ended up alone together--at least lately, some sort of playful tickling would ensue between them. Liam learned that Niall’s laughter was one of the best sounds in existence: goofy and childlike, and he was quite proud of himself, now knowing his mate’s most ticklish spots--Ni’s armpits guaranteed a most brilliant response every time. He could hear the blond screaming with glee in the back of his mind, he could feel the velvety softness of his underarms ghosting on his fingertips. It took Liam a moment to realize that he was grinning rather stupidly. He closed the image and referred back to his texts. He messaged Niall:

        Zayn finally showed. We’re hanging at my place.

        Liam was almost shocked at how quickly his friend responded: Was wondering what happened. It's so late.

        Yeah. We were watching a movie.

        Oh. Hows it goin? asked Niall.

        Ok.

        Same old Zayn?

        No, actually. He kinda sucks now. Liam meant it as a joke. Sort of.

        Lol. Y?

        Says he’s mature now. Too grown up for us, apparently.

        Hahaha fuck him!

        It’s w/e. Still kinda nice to see him tho.

        I guess. Tell him hi from us? wrote Niall.

        I will.

        Ok. Lemme know how the rest of the night goes.

        K. Night.

        Night, Li. :)

        Liam put his phone away and stretched once more, letting a rather satisfying yawn escape from deep within his lungs. Upon bring his hands down, his fingers brushed against Zayn’s socked foot, and the accidental contact between them caused him to look down at his friend’s soles.

        Perhaps impulsively--almost automatically--given his most recent thoughts of Niall, Liam reached out and began to lightly run his finger up and down Zayn’s upturned right foot. The cotton sock was thick and allowed for much friction, but after a few seconds, Liam procured the intended reaction. The foot twitched, the toes curled, and Zayn pulled his leg away, withdrawing shallow breaths as he did so.

        It was at that moment that Liam decided to make an impulsive decision of his own. He wasn’t really sure what exactly inspired it--he’d been having enough trouble understanding himself across the span of the entire evening--but his rationale most likely drew justification from his newfound closeness with Niall. And so, with a strange energy, he stood up, rubbed his palms together, and made his way for the bedroom.

--------------------------------​

        Liam couldn’t lie: he was quite proud of his work, especially considering the fact that Zayn wasn’t normally a heavy sleeper. He’d successfully bound the Pakistani lad, at least halfway: belts fairly tight around his bony ankles and lower thighs. It hadn’t been easy – there were several points when Liam thought that Zayn would awaken for sure. Now, he was fairly aware that Zayn’s makeshift restraints weren’t one hundred percent inescapable, especially since his arms were still free, but, considering what he had planned, he hoped they’d be enough, at least for a little while.

        The butterflies in Liam’s stomach were fluttering up a storm. He made sure to take note of Zayn’s relaxed, sleep-induced frown one last time before beginning his assault. He didn’t care what the consequences would be; something was telling him to do this, and he was most eager to oblige.

        So, he sighed, pulled both of Zayn’s feet into his lap--the boy still lying on his side--and, without further ado, began to lightly scratch at the socked insteps. Right in the middle, gentle clawing swipes. The feet twitched and writhed, and Zayn instinctively pulled. A few seconds of his body not being able react in the way it desired was enough.

        “What the h-hell?” Zayn grumbled, eyebrows knitting together, as he raised his head and looked over at his tickler. “Liam?”

        “Sup, Zayn,” Liam said, smiling nervously. “Movie’s over.”

        “W-what are you doing?”

        “I was bored,” Liam responded indirectly, now digging his fingers into Zayn’s insteps. His right hand acted as the tickler, the left held fast to the belts around his ankles.

        “F-fuck!” Zayn struggled, twisting his body so that he was now lying on his back. He pulled again. His feet, secured, moved in sync, trying to dodge Liam’s attacking digits. “W-what the hell, Liam? So, you tied me up?!”

        "Just your legs, mate. Hope you don’t mind.” Liam was unsatisfied with Zayn’s lack of a smile. The socks would have to go. He didn’t have time to waste. He immediately curled his fingers around the hems of Zayn’s ankle socks; the pale skin was soft beneath.

        “Liam,” Zayn called out loudly, trying to pull his legs away. He finally leaned up and began to tug at the belt around his thighs. “Are you mad? The fuck you doing?”

        Liam ignored him, and began to peel the black cotton away, tickling the flesh as he did so. Zayn kicked, his feet peddling back and forth. He began to snicker and splutter, tugging against Liam’s hold.

        There we go. Liam smirked.

        “L-Liam! St-stahap! Wh-what are you--? STOP!”

        “What’s the matter, Zayn?”

        “W-what do you m-meeheeheean? You fucking t-tied me up and now you’re--! Y-you’re! STOP TOUCHING MY DAMN F-FEEHEET!”

        “Why?”

        “You’ve g-gone m-mad.”

        “No, I’m perfectly sane, I assure you,” Liam spoke softly. He had successfully stripped both feet bare, and, taking a break from the teasing, placed his palms on top of them.

        Zayn had nice feet. They were a lot less tan than the rest of his body. His toes were narrow, and they formed a smooth descending curve, in shape. He had long arches--the skin quite supple, and a little cool to the touch. Liam began to rock them up and down and shot an embarrassed grin over at Zayn, who was positively unamused.

        “Can you untie my ankles, please?” Zayn’s question sounded more like a statement, tone flat.

        “Nah.” Liam shook his head and began to tickle again. Zayn immediately bucked upward, breaths tight in his chest. He began to pull at the upper belt again, sliding down over his knees.

        “St-stop!” Zayn demanded, panting now.

        “Why?”

        “B-because I don’t like it!” he hissed.

        “Tell you what,” Liam offered, feeling rambunctious, “you last a minute without laughing, and I’ll stop and let you out.”

        “W-wha-hat?”

        “You heard me.” Liam had formed a ‘V’ with the pointer and middle fingers of his right hand. He skidded his nails up and down both of Zayn’s soles. Slowly. Repeatedly. Up. Down. Up. Down. Every time his fingertips approached Zayn’s toes, they would curl up, and as they descended toward the doughy heels, his feet would fan out and strain. Of course, this was just a warm-up.

        “Dammit, w-why…?” Zayn moaned as he fell back against the sofa again, punching his fists into the leathery seat cushion.

        “Just thought I’d have a little fun with ya, mate. Like the old days. You may be mature now, but I’m not.”

        “Fuck you,” Zayn murmured. He was really fighting it.

        “Not very nice, Zayn,” Liam scolded. He brought his left hand up and wrapped his fingers around his victim’s big toes. He peeled them back, exposing the flesh beneath and began to skitter the nails of his right hand across the vulnerable area.

        Zayn shot forward again and reached for Liam, trying to somehow inhibit his tickle attack. Unfortunately, without the ability to bend his knees and pull his feet back, he couldn’t really reach. After a few seconds of futile arm-waving and grunting, Zayn backed down again, balled up his fists and slammed his eyes shut.

        Liam paused and Zayn immediately let out a breath of grateful air. “You up for it?”

        “Liam,” Zayn gulped, “this is stupid. I’m really not in the mood.”

        “I am,” Liam argued with a shrug.

        “It’s late. I have to go,” Zayn came up with another excuse.

        “You don’t have any plans. Told me so yourself when we’d made the arrangements to meet.”

        “Please. I hate being tickled.” Finally, honesty.

        Liam knew he was telling the truth. It was why he often stayed away from tickling Zayn during concerts. Still, he played the fool: “Do you?”

        “Yes.”

        “Well, good.”

        Zayn opened his eyes and raised his head, thick eyebrows heavy on his brow. “What?”

        “I want to bug you a little,” Liam said, suddenly feeling a burning boldness bite at his heart. He began to tease slowly snake his fingers beneath Zayn’s toes again. He didn’t tickle, but he paced them there. The feet tensed up and Zayn held his breath.

        “What the hell’s your problem?” he asked.

        “One minute,” Liam reiterated, ignoring Zayn’s questions. “One minute. No laughing. I’ll let you out.”

        There was a thick silence between them. Several slow seconds slugged by. Eventually, Zayn leaned forward for a moment, tugged at Liam’s hold on his ankles, before sighing and laying back down. “Fuck this,” he growled.

        “Come on, tough guy. You got this,” Liam egged him on with a grin. Beneath the fiery courage, he definitely felt the icy flick of guilt. But, it was too late now. He’d already gotten himself into this very strange situation, and he had to go through with it.

        “One minute,” Zayn restated, as if to confirm. “Then I’m gone.”

        The little chill in Liam’s chest intensified, but, he considered himself a man of his word. “You got it.”

        “Go,” Zayn instructed, almost as if he were control now.

        “I’m not going to make this easy, arsehole,” Liam warned. He started the stopwatch on his phone and began, returning immediately to Zayn’s toes.

        The reaction was instant. Zayn’s entire body tensed up. He closed his eyes, thrust his skull into the cushiony sofa-arm behind him, and held his breath. Liam’s nails burrowed their way into the crevices between each toe.

        “Fuck,” Zayn wheezed. Liam looked over at him. His frown was sharp, but the edges of his narrow lips were threatening to curve upward. His brow had softened. He was definitely feeling it.

        “It’s only been ten seconds, mate,” Liam added insult to injury, sliding his entire left arm around both ankles to lock the soles in place.

        “Mmmmmmmmhm,” was all that Zayn answered with.

        This was definitely weird, nothing like the playful tickling that sparked to life whenever Niall and Liam would get into it. This was manipulative. This was a challenge. Liam had never tickled Zayn’s feet before. He really hadn’t tickled Zayn much in general. And now, after all this time--time without seeing Zayn at all--he’d subjected him to this? Quite the jump.

        Liam curved his fingers, knuckles forming squared angles, as he raked them down the instep of Zayn’s left foot first. He used the fingertips of his left hand to barely scratch at the outer arch of Zayn’s right foot. Both feet, now under a much more intensified assault, wrinkled up, the soles trembling. Zayn pulled harder against Liam’s hold and began to splutter.

        Liam’s eyes darted up to the phone:

        00:19.48

        C’mon, Zayn. Liam turned around--his back had been to Zayn’s face when he’d locked the ankles around his left arm--to see if he’d progressed any. Zayn was tugging at the incredibly-short mass of hair on his round head, shaking back and forth. His face could easily be compared to a balled-up tissue: wrinkles splayed outward from his tear ducts, eyes buried away in shadow. His nose had creased up like a rabbit’s and his eyebrows had curved inward, almost to convey anger. The smile on Zayn's face, however, conveyed otherwise. It had broken through his strained lips and it tied everything together beautifully. Liam had missed Zayn’s smile. The sly smirks and photogenic grins from the pictures, from the twitter posts and news articles--they had been missing something: a spark. And now, if even for a moment, it was back.

        "Gonna laugh there, Zayney?" Liam teased, nails flitting from the right instep to the left. It was starting to become difficult to keep his ankles locked in.

        "N-no! NO! NOHO!" Zayn yelped as Liam started to wildly ambush all of the sensitive flesh. His fingertips slithered their way around the wrinkling soles, like some sort of phalangic snake. They followed the creasing skin up along the outer arches and back up into the toes.

        “Okay!” Zayn cried. “Liam! Stop! Pleeeeeease!” He wasn’t laughing, but his words were musical and unstable. He was on the verge of breaking.

        “You’ve got thirty seconds,” Liam simply informed him and, it being the halfway point, he decided to take it up a notch. The belts hadn’t been the only items that he’d retrieved from his hosts’ bedroom. To defy the seconds that were cranking by, he reached down to the carpet at the base of the sofa and withdrew his secret weapon: a Revlon cushion hairbrush. Like lightning, he struck down on Zayn’s soles and the laughter erupted from his victim’s lungs like pursuing thunder, a great guffawing tempest.

        “BAAAAHHAHAHAHA, WHAT THE F-FUCK IS TH-THAHAHAHAT?!” Zayn screeched, his lyrical falsetto sparking in his heavy-hearted laughs. Well, he'd failed the challenge.

        Liam didn’t answer him, he continued to scrub away, the soft-tipped teeth nibbling at the ticklish skin. The brush was wide and flat and, as such, it served to cover much surface-area: from the balls of Zayn’s feet down the heart-shaped concave of his pale insteps to his cream-colored heels.

        “STAHAHAP! I GIVE!!” Zayn howled.

        “Didn’t even put up a good fight,” Liam snapped, feeling less satisfied than he had anticipated.

        “JUST STOP! PLEEHEEASE!”

        "No." This wasn't about fun and games anymore. This was something else. Liam grabbed Zayn’s tender toes and pulled them back again, this time raking the brush up into the soft sweet spots beneath his grape-like digits. 

        “LEEEHEEHEEUUUHUUHUUM! NOHOHOHO!”

        Liam looked back again and, despite his oxymoronic irritation, his heart swelled. Zayn had thrown his head back, jagged Adam’s Apple bobbing in his straining throat with each gushing laugh. His arms were to his sides, his hands gripping passionately onto the black leather beneath him. His mouth was a smiling maw, teeth glistening in the soft glow of the television. His eyes were still knitted shut. It was faintly reminiscent of the look he used to have when straining for his sweet high notes during their performances. Back when they were One Direction. Back when they were a family.

        Liam’s eyes fell back to the phone:

        01:04.32

        He stopped. Quickly. He released Zayn’s ankles, dropped the brush onto the floor, and scooted to the side. Zayn immediately retracted his legs, and curled up, rubbing his feet on the couch. It took a good while for his smile to his fade and for his brain to compute that the tickling had ceased. The sounds of his heavy breathing filled the quiet room. Liam sat patiently.

        “F-FUCK Y-YOU,” were the first words out of Zayn’s mouth.

        “You don’t have to keep saying that,” Liam sighed.

        “That was b-bloody awful.”

        “Yeah, well, you kinda deserved it. You failed miserably, by the way.”

        “I did not deserve that."

        "Yes, you did."

        "Why?"

        “Hmm, I wonder,” Liam shot sarcastically.

        “Enlighten me.”

        “You can’t be that dense.”

        “Apparently I am,” Zayn wheezed, finally removing the belts from his legs, first loosening the one that had slipped down to his shins, before working his way to the one at his ankles. “I mean, shit, Liam, this is how you treat me for wanting to meet up with you?”

        “Oh, well, sorry, mate,” Liam sighed. It was a half-hearted apology at best. He stood up and stretched. “Guess you better get going, then.”

        “I told you I was out after the little stunt you just pulled.”

        “Well, perfect. Works out then. I’ll see you when I see you. Nice catching up,” Liam stated blankly, now feeling strangely empty. At least he'd already accepted the fact that his emotions were on the fritz for the night. He turned to Zayn, offered him an innocent smile and quietly walked away.

        He didn’t know how long it would take him to leave.

        He didn’t listen for the door.

        He didn’t even frown.

        Not until he was safely in his guest room.

--------------------------------

        Liam stared up in the ceiling, arms folded, head resting in his palms. It must’ve been a good ten minutes, at least, since he’d left Zayn in the front room. He had to be gone by now. He wondered if it was too late to text Niall.

        He really had no idea what he’d been thinking--this wasn’t news. What had been the point of taking advantage of Zayn, tying up his legs, tickling his feet, and then, just…walking away? What the actual fuck was wrong with him? Liam didn’t know. It was almost like he’d become someone else. He didn’t even know what he’d wanted to accomplish. Did he actually think that tickling Zayn would’ve somehow…changed something? Anything? What was there to change…?

        “Ugh,” Liam groaned and removed his hands from behind his head, slapping them onto his face. He dragged his fingers down his cheeks and almost had to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Maybe Zayn was right. Maybe he was going mad.

        “So, you wanna tell me what that was about, then?” It was the second time that evening that Zayn’s voice had scared the hell out of him.

        Liam raised his head and saw Zayn standing in the doorway. “You haven’t left yet?”

        “No…”

        “Thought you would’ve been royally pissed.”

        “Well, I was,” Zayn muttered. “At first.”

        “But, you’re still here…”

        “I’m over it, I guess.”

        “Oh. Okay, then.”

        “But you’re not,” Zayn concluded, stepping into the room, dark eyes scanning him. A silence stepped between them momentarily before he brushed it aside. “Right?"

        Liam sat up, furrowing his brow. His heart started to pound away again. “What?”

        “You’re still mad at me.”

        “What…? No.”

        “C’mon, Liam.”

        “Zayn, I-I’m not.”

        “So you just wanted to make me piss myself for the fun of it?”

        Liam smirked and sighed. “As fun as that would be,” he teased, “No, I suppose not.”

        Zayn edged himself to the foot of the bed and sat down. “I was hoping that you agreeing to see me meant that you’d gotten over it, you know?”

        Liam pulled himself up and dropped his gaze immediately to the carpet. He noticed that Zayn had put his socks back on, but not his shoes.

        “No, mate,” Liam stated. He paused, a strange heat accumulating behind his eyes. “No, I don’t think I have. Not entirely.” It felt weird to say, but as soon as he had, the storm inside him seemed to calm itself…

        “How many times do I have to say I’m sorry?” Zayn sighed.

        “It’s not about being sorry, Zayn. I know you’re sorry.”

        “Then why are you still mad?”

        Liam took a deep breath. “I don't know."

        "You don't know...?"

        "It's just..."

        "Yeah?"

        "God, I just... I miss you, you arsehole!"

        Zayn lowered his head, but he didn’t respond.

        “Seeing you again,” he continued, “It kinda just brought everything back, you know?”

        Zayn was still silent.

        “You hurt us, Zayn. You hurt me,” Liam muttered, the stinging in his eyes had also moved to the back of his throat. His lip started to quiver and he knew he was in trouble. “Right before you broke the news, I’d really been going through a rough spot. You remember? With Sophia?”

        Zayn looked up at him, brow heavy, as if he were trying to concentrate. He didn’t confirm or deny anything verbally.

        “I was also worried that something was going to happen to the group, mate. A breakup. Guess my concerns were valid, huh?”

        “Liam, I—"

        “But, look, I’m sorry, okay? For tickling you like that. I shouldn’t have done it. Guess it was, I dunno, my version of payback…”

        Zayn leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs as he brought his hands together. He remained silent for a long time. Liam hung his head. He didn’t know what else to say. Finally, Zayn spoke up. His words were timid: “I miss you too, Li.”

        Liam turned to him. “Then what was all that about growing past us? Being too mature and whatnot?”

        Zayn sighed. “I told you I didn’t mean it like that. You're so damn sensitive. All I meant was that I’ve changed a bit. But, so have you. So have the others. I’ve seen it.”

        Liam chewed on his lip.

        “But,” Zayn continued, “why the hell do you think I reached out? ‘Course I miss you, mate. You’re like a brother to me. Always will be.”

        And, just like that, the confusion and the conflicting emotions that had been plaguing Liam all night, abated. He smiled softly. His throat was tight. His eyes tingled with the slightest hint of tears, but he held it together.

        “Just don’t wanna lose you, Zayn. Leaving is one thing. But, you just being, I dunno, done with me? I don't think I could handle that."

        Zayn looked up. His eyes withheld sadness now. Or something similar.

        "I'm not done with you, Liam. I don't think I ever will be."

        Liam nodded softly.

        “Guess I could’ve gone about things differently," Zayn added, almost as if he'd been reading Liam's mind, "but I’ll never stop caring for you guys. Hope you know that. I’m not good at always showing it, but… yeah…” He started to rub at the back of his neck and he’d grown a visible shade of pink. Liam chuckled.

        "Thanks, Zayn." Liam placed a hand on his friend's shoulder and gave it an affectionate squeeze. "Glad we got everything cleared up, then."

        “You know,” Zayn reiterated with a smirk, “my feet are still tingling.”

        “Sorry.” Liam grinned.

        “You always have a thing for tickling?”

        “What?”

        “I mean, you always used to tickle us. During interviews. Concerts. Harry even asked me once if I thought you had a thing for it. Harry does. A little bit.”

        “He did? He...does?” Liam felt a heat collect in his face. He really hadn’t considered the trend beforehand.

        “I mean, I don’t really care. It’s not a big deal,” Zayn assured.

        “No?”

        “Not really.”

        Liam paused, and they locked eyes. The strange fervor in his stomach bounced back, and his fingertips began to itch for Zayn’s flesh.

        “You know, maybe I do have a thing for tickling.”

        Zayn’s eyes widened.

        “And maybe”--Liam smirked--“I mean, now that we’ve gotten things cleared up, you’d like to, I dunno, indulge?”

        “What?” Zayn sounded nervous, but he couldn’t fight the smile.

        Liam pounced. He turned, as if to hug his friend--his brother--and brought him down onto the bed. His hands immediately arched up into Zayn’s armpits and the tickling recommenced.

        That night, Liam learned that he loved Zayn's laughter almost as much as Niall's.

        Almost.

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Author's notes: 

This story was originally published on June 12, 2015. This was my second fanfic, ever! It's an indirect sequel to "Directionless." At the time, this story took place in the near-future--this was right after Zayn had unexpectedly left One Direction.

 

As with any 1D fic that I've written, I originally dedicated this story to my man, Konrad (pyrokar1990)! He's been a supporter and a friend here in the community, and I am grateful to him for introducing me to this wonderful fandom. 

DISCLAIMER: 

Though this story features actual persons and references actual events, it is entirely a work of fiction and is in no way affiliated with, or endorsed by, those individuals. It is written solely for the purposes of entertainment and should not be taken seriously.

REVIEWS: 

"Thank you so much for this, it was beautiful. No need to dedicate the story to me, haha...My heart is in tatters, ripped to pieces by Liam's emotional struggle, yet strangely satisfied and warm." @pyrokar1990

"This was really sweet! I can relate since I've tickled a friend of mine irl like this and he was mad at first, but that quickly went away. Liam and Zayn probably had fun all night long after this." @jakenayna150

"I absolutely loved it. Zayn is my second favorite from One Direction and to read him so sneakily bound by Liam and tickled (on his feet!) was pure joy...I love how it was book ended with this emotional tug from Liam, this doubt but all an urgency to make things right with Zayn. These sorts of things make the characters feel human, and if they're human their intentions feel real, and if their intentions are real the fic has purpose and the tickling itself feels real also. Really great work!" @famous&ticklish

"This was really good. I loved Zayn's struggle not to laugh and the relationship between him and Liam. Perfect all around!" @hartlin

"This was so so good! You're a very talented writer and this was a fun (yet also cathartic) read." @justpretendinevermad

"Aww this was really cute! Great details, the characters seemed quite believable (despite the odd circumstances), and the tickling definitely satisfied my kink for it. I'm super happy the two made up at the end--guess they did mature after all. Great job!" @wandering_angel

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