This can be read in 2 ways, without the bit under the cut or with it, entirely up to you.
He shuts the door behind him and calls out ‘i’m home’. He stops next to the mirror, looks at his reflection, the memories of the last few hours with his family in his head, all of them good even the last 5 minutes though they’d been filled with tears, his eyes now red rimmed. Just like always.
There’s no response to his call, and he’s not that surprised. They’ve done this before, so many times before and it never changes, except something feels like its shifted, he thinks, hopes, he’s managed to hide it.
He walks in and out of the rooms downstairs looking for him, but each one’s empty, in each one he runs his fingers over the furniture, memorises it all so he won’t forget, and then he walks up the stairs past the photos, past the memories that they’ve built together.
He pushes open the door into their bedroom and Zayn’s there, sat in the Bradford City top Liam bought him on his birthday, pair of Liam’s joggers on underneath, on the edge of the bed, chewing on a fingernail on his left hand while with his right hand he fiddles with a loose thread on the hem of the shirt , he doesn’t look up when Liam walks in.
This is new. For all the times that they’ve done this, for all the fact that saying goodbye each time is painful, its never been like this, there’s never been this kind of silence.
He clears his throat, apprehensive suddenly. ‘You okay babe?’
Zayn gives no indication he heard, except for the smallest movement of his eyebrows upwards as Liam sits down next to him.
Liam’s never normally stuck for words. Part of being in the job he’s got, leading all the men, it goes with the territory, finding words, words when all hope can feel lost.
But now? In the few hours that he’s been gone, it feels like something else has shifted and he hates not knowing why.
Zayn drops the finger from his mouth then and turns slightly, just enough that Liam can see confusion mixed with anger over his face.
‘What’s with the box?’
“Shit” is the first thought in Liam’s head, the next thought? “Why the fuck didn’t I hide it better?’’
The final thought is what he voices, even though he knows its not what Zayn wants to hear, that it’s a stupid response.
“You weren’t meant to find it, it was only meant to be found if…”
“If what Liam?” Zayn says it quietly then louder, “If WHAT?”
Liam could lie. He could spin a thousand tales about how its a surprise for Zayn’s next birthday and that wouldn’t be a total lie, how its just a little box of stuff that’s private for him and he knows Zayn’s not looked in it, and he knows he won’t unless Liam says he can. But Zayn knows, because Zayn knows Liam and its only that Liam’s been daft enough to think he could do it, get it ready and hide it all without him knowing that he did it in the first place.
‘It’s my umpteenth tour Zayn, and so far I’ve been lucky, so lucky but someday well someday that luck might run out, and well..’
“I don’t want a box Liam, I want you and you made a promise, you promised me that when you thought your luck was about to run out, you’d leave’
He shifts on the bed then, faces Liam properly and the hand that was playing with the seam reaches for one of Liam’s.
“You’ve done 10 years of this Liam, you’ve been to more funerals than an 80 year old, you’ve had more sleepless nights and nightmares about what you’ve seen than’s healthy for a 27 year old man and well, I know its selfish but I want you in my life all year round, when it’s going to be time that you say it’s been enough, that you’ve done enough? When it’s going to be our turn’’
Liam says nothing for a moment because like always Zayn voices the questions he’s asked himself these past months but kept quiet. Instead of answering them, he’d found the box in a craft shop one Saturday when he was out looking for a birthday present for Zayn’s mum and he’d spent those last few months filling it. With memories, with words, with them. Something to remember him by if the luck ran out.
‘I love you Zayn but…’
There’s a sigh that sounds as if it comes from deep inside Zayn. ‘But you love the job too, I get that Li, that’s what I signed up for, I knew it was part of the deal when I met you, but that box and you, you promised’
Liam turns the hand that’s in his over, tracing the lines in the palm of his hand, and when he looks up from Zayn’s hand, his face isn’t angry, its not reproachful, not how some of the lads in the regiment’s partners are, not bitter or jealous of what Liam does and how it takes them away. Zayn’s always been so understanding, no matter how many times Liam being away has meant he missed important parts of Zayn’s life.
The exhibitions for the art he does on the side, his graduation when he’d worked so hard to get a First, first day at the school he teaches in, all those things he’s missed and he can’t get them back, and yet there’s never been a hint of anything other than understanding.
And a box? That doesn’t compensate for that especially not when the reason he put it all together was all for a time when Liam didn’t come home.
He bites at the corner of his mouth and then lifts the hand up to Zayn’s face, he’s clean shaven right now, looks as young as he did when they met 9 years ago, a few lines more perhaps that Liam makes sure he remembers so when he’s alone at night, and when the darkness and the sounds outside become too much, he can just shut his eyes and imagine him like he’s there.
Liam knows that he won’t shave now till Liam returns and that first night that he does when he’s so spent and yet the adrenaline and the memories and the relief of being home won’t let him sleep, he’ll wake up and find Zayn in the bathroom shaving the beard all off before he’ll turn back to face Liam and reach out his hands and say ‘Thank you for coming back to me’
Its all fucked up really and its not the kind of routine that Liam asked for and there’s an itch him that wants to turn back time, that instead of being where they are now on the eve of more months apart, that he could have given his notice and handed over to the next guy who’s been waiting so patiently for so long anyway.
But its too late and he just has to hope that its not too late full stop, and its that makes him promise like he’s never promised before.
‘I’m coming back to you and when I come back, you can choose whether to keep that beard growing till I’m plaiting it and till the kids in your class can swing from it if they like or you can shave it, you’ll never have to keep those rituals again, and i’ll be the stay at home dad who’ll watch proudly as you make the next 10, 20, 30 years all about you rather than putting everything on hold for me’
Zayn’s smiling, lifting his hand to cover Liam’s which remains on the side of Zayn’s face.
‘I don’t think 14 year old lads would want to swing from my old father time beard Liam, they’d rip the piss out of me instead and you don’t have to stop living on my account, it’d just be proper sick you know to start planning together rather than apart you know?’
He leans forward then unfurling his fingers from Zayn’s hand that’s still in his and placing it on Zayn’s knee and he presses his lips against Zayn’s while his other hand that’s linked with Zayn’s falls away from his face and they hold onto each other, while they kiss and if he shuts his eyes for long enough, maybe he can just wish the next 6 months away.
Their luck is never that kind of course, and life isn’t like that as Liam pulls his mouth away from Zayn’s just for a moment.
‘We’ll open that box when I come back, promise you won’t touch it’
‘What box babe?’ Zayn smiles and then their lips touch again and Liam moves the hand from Zayn’s knee and uses it to push him backwards onto the bed.
Creating more memories, just this time not for a box.