Neon Red – Chapter 44

(DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. It’s important to remember this is all totally fabricated, embellished, and exaggerated for entertainment purposes.)

**********

“What studio were you at?”

“Shahid’s,” I uttered, growing numb.

“Oh…that guy,”

“Yeah, that guy,” I repeated, acknowledging his disdain over my newfound friendship. He and the other guys had been super wary of me hanging out with a new producer and dabbling with music on my own, and they hadn’t been too shy about cluing me in on it either. Louis made tons of snide remarks whenever I talked about my studio time in Ealing, and Liam had even scoffed at the notion of me going off to the Asian Awards on my own. Something along the lines of ‘Well, look at you. Gone off without us then. We see where we’re not wanted.’ He even asked if white people weren’t allowed to attend the ceremony, which was such an idiotic assumption I didn’t have the energy to correct him. I just told him he was correct.

“He’s been gud to me…despite what youh all may think.”

“I’m sure he has,” he said wryly, twisting my glass of water around at the base. “Pretty sure he’s just conditioning you, though…”

“Oh god, here we goh…”

“M’serious, mate. I think you should watch yourself. I don’t get a good feeling from those guys…”

“‘Those guys?’ What guys? Brown guys? My cousins? His mates? Who exactlyh are youh talkin’ about??”

“I didn’t mean it like that—”

“Sounds a bit prejudiced if youh ask me,” I spat, becoming hella defensive. My embarrassment over following him was long forgotten.

“What the fuck is your deal, alright? You know I care about you, Zayn. I’m just looking out for you. You know I always have your best interest at heart. I mean, genuinely, mate.”

“Well, I tend to think that if youh cared about me soh much, youh wouldn’t have ditched me then ignored me for four months straight.”

“I didn’t ditch you. We broke up, remember? And, uh, I haven’t ignored you for four fucking months. Fuck’s sake, that’s a complete exaggeration and you know it. A borderline lie. We’ve both been super respectful of each other. Let’s not ruin that ok?” I glanced at him briefly and could only shrug. He continued, “And I don’t have time to ignore you. I’ve been busy with other people, and other things, and that’s not my fault. Sure, we haven’t spent as much time together lately, but, uh, things aren’t how they use to be. We don’t, like, have a reason to make time for each other anymore, remember? We’re over. You make time for Perrie and your job, and now your new friends. You don’t need to spend time with me, it seems.”

“Whatever youh say, Haz. Believe what youh want, maan. Don’t worry about me or who the fuck I’m spendin’ time with, okay? And I’ll do the same. How about dat?”

“Fucking perfect.”

“Maybe youh should get back to your date, then. You guys headed back to your place after this? Get a little alone time in? You’re being rude to him by sittin’ here with me, y’know.”

“First of all, he’s not my date, dickhead, and I don’t appreciate the insinuation behind those remarks. They’re nasty. Fuck you. I don’t need that accusatory bullshit from you. He’s just a fucking producer.”

“Soh basically you’re allowed to hang with new producers, but not me? The minute I do, it suddenly spells trouble? Youh think I’m not mature enough to handle new friends in the industry or sumthin’? Youh the only one allowed to have those?”

“Only because I know how you think…how you operate.” At that, I frowned, setting both arms on the table and leaning across.

“And what the fuck is that supposed to mean? Huh, Harry? How about youh enlighten me as to ‘how I think’, since you’re such a fuckin’ scholar on the matter. Go ahead brainiac.”

“You’re a flake.” That was only the first gut punch. He was no longer holding back like I had observed earlier. “And you’re also pretty selfish at times. You’ve been looking for any excuse to ditch us since the beginning, barely showing up to meetings, uh, showing up to rehearsals and studio time super late. Ruining the schedules for the day. Not realizing your actions had a domino effect on us all most of the time. It set us all back anytime you wouldn’t show up. It’s almost like you’ve been trying to sabotage us all along. Like you, uh, think you’re too good for what we’ve built or something. Even though it’s the only reason you’ve gotten anywhere in life—”

“Broh, I swear to fuckin’ god—”

“AND…” he barked, refusing to be interrupted. “With someone as underhanded as Naughty Boy in your ear—”

“Youh don’t know shit about him!”

“I know enough. You don’t get out much, but I do. And the stories I’ve heard about him screwing over talent and blackmailing them by holding their work hostage is insane.”

“Okay, Haz…whatever youh say. You’ve never even met the maan, yet you’re soh quick to jump and spread lies about him just to discredit what we have goin’ on. You’re a jealous fuck, that’s what youh are. Always have been. And youh don’t even realize this is a major fuckin’ stereotype you’re feedin’ into right now. That people of color are somehow inherently suspicious and shouldn’t be trusted. Would it kill youh to pick up a fuckin’ book and educate yourself, broh, and realize how ignorant youh sound right now—”

“Look, alright, I’m not gonna sit here and make this shit about race, Z. It has nothing to do with that. My point is…I know there’s no way you don’t, uh, have ideas in your head thanks to him. He’s been in your ear, mate, and I can tell. I know you better than anyone. I can see you’re already entertaining ideas about ditching us. About going solo. I can see it now. Flake behavior—”

“Really?? I’m a flake??” I was livid. Ready to flip tables. “Says the guy who can’t date anyone for more than two fuckin’ months at a time, youh fickle little twat. Don’t fuckin’ talk to me about how I am and question my fuckin’ commitment to this band, when you’re the most disloyal, shallow, self-absorbed, fake motherfucker I know. All youh give a fuck about is yourself and tryin’ to kiss ass and make friends with people youh think might benefit your career in the future—”

“That’s not even remotely true,” he sneered.

“I’m not stupid Haz. It doesn’t take a bloody rocket scientist to see the way you’ve been layin’ the groundwork for a solo career ever since you started meetin’ with the head of the US label last year.”

“Again, not even remotely true. We bonded over golf, nothing more.”

“Soh I’m supposed to believe youh two just honestly get along? That there’s never any talk of business or future contracts? Fuck that.” He punched himself in the head a few times, growing frustrated. “Look, Haz, I’m not sayin’ what you’re doin’ is necessarily wrong, but please don’t sit here and be a hypocrite. Youh want out too, and youh absolutely fuckin’ know it. Youh can barely stand being around any of us anymore. Youh only tolerated me as long as I was givin’ youh what you needed behind closed doors. Now there’s separate busses and planes? And now youh wanna act like Mr. Fuckin’ Company Man and pretend to be a part of the team? You’re not a part of the team and youh know it. You’re the only one of us bastards who ever acts too good to be there—”

“Fuck you!” he shouted, growing red all over; madder than I’d ever seen him in my life.

With that, I got up, completely forgetting to pay the check. Because of him, today I’d officially stalked someone, stolen a pair of sunglasses, and now dine and dashed. What the fuck was he making me out to be? Still, I couldn’t turn back to take care of the tab. The damage was done now.

A few blocks from the restaurant in the cool night air, I realized I had no clue where I was headed. I stopped at a vacant intersection and read the street signs aloud like it would help lend me clarity as to where I was or which direction I needed to head in. I glanced down at my phone, and just my fucking luck, it was on 6%. I should’ve charged it at the studio like I’d started to, instead of opting to do it later after I got home. Now I was fucked, unless I could get an uber or a cab before it shut off. I searched for an Uber, but there weren’t any takers. I walked a little further, headed in the direction I knew the cab had been taking me earlier, but knew it’d take me forever to get home on foot as I was over 20 miles away.

Just then, my phone rang. “Where the fuck are you?!” Haz shouted the second I answered.

“Don’t worry about it.” With that, I hung up. He called back immediately, but I didn’t answer. I checked for another Uber, but still no drivers in the area. Now I tried to Google a cab company when my phone beeped and said I was on 2%. I knew it wouldn’t last for me to find an Uber and have it traced to me, nor long enough to find a cab service and lead them to my location. I was screwed. With an internal growl, I gritted my teeth, swallowed my pride, then called him back.

“You’re an idiot,” he said as soon as he answered. “You eat at restaurants and ditch now? Is that the type of shit you do? Those people work hard and tips matter. You want to help destroy small businesses?”

“Shut the fuck up, broh. Clearly I didn’t mean to ditch—”

“Oh, right, in the same way you didn’t mean to stalk me?!”

“Haz, give it a fuckin’ rest okay? I’m stranded! And I have a lot on my fuckin’ mind and you’re drivin’ me insane right now!” I hollered the last part, uncaring of who was around to hear or that he might hang up on me and I’d be lost till morning.

Instead of coming back with a heated quip, he only sighed and said, “Where are you?”

**********

After being told to stay put and not walk any further and watching my phone finally die, I was left out in the cold as night encroached around me. Most of the shops had closed by now, and there was too little light to illuminate my paths if I decided to walk from there. An uneasiness set up shop in my gut, and I found myself counting the minutes until he got there. Nearby there was a stoop for an office building, so I climbed up a few steps and sat, the area lending me a tiny sense of security.

“Have you lost your way?” A woman asked, opening the door to the building behind me. I butted the cigarette and fanned the smoke away, turning to look up at her. She was a middle-aged redhead with huge undereye bags from what I could see in the overhanging porch light. She seemed nice enough, so the question must’ve been a genuine one.

“Oh, noh, sorry! Just waitin’ on a ride. Me phone battery died. I apologize, I didn’t mean to cause any trouble. I’ll move.”

“No need. Stay, please. Will they be here soon? Would you like to use my mobile?” she held an iPhone out the door at me, and although it was tempting, I couldn’t risk calling Haz on a stranger’s phone and giving his number away. He said he’d be there soon and I trusted without question, no matter the awful things we’d said to each other only half an hour ago. Even if he didn’t know my precise location, I knew somehow, someway he’d locate me. Our telepathy hadn’t died just yet.

“Oh goodness…smell that?” she asked, gazing up. “Smells like rain, don’t it? You can come in if you’d like?”

“It’s soh temptin’…thank youh, really. But I wouldn’t want to miss them if I’m not visible when they drove by. I think I’ll just wait it out. I have me trusty hood anyweh,” I laughed.

“Your choice, lad. Suit yourself, then,” she smiled. “I’m just a doorbell away if you need me. Don’t hesitate to ring.”

“Will do.” I thanked her again and my heart sputtered a bit. I think I was in disbelief that there were still strangers out there willing to look out for others when they saw them in a bad spot. I wasn’t as alone here as I’d been thinking. However, the exchange was still a bit off-putting. She was a woman alone, so I didn’t want to take advantage of her kindness, and I hoped in the future she’d exercise a bit more caution before inviting strange men into her property at night with little to no context of who they were. I was positive she didn’t know me from the band, yet she had been so trusting of me.

At last, a black sedan appeared at the opposite end of the street, creeping as if in search of someone. I was positive it must’ve been him, but it was so dark I wasn’t sure he could see me. I hopped off the stepped and sprinted down the road. He rolled down the window to the backseat and told me to get in, so I ran around to the other side and obeyed. The driver greeted me, but Haz didn’t. I could tell he was upset.

“Thanks for comin’ by the way. That was decent of ya.”

“You would’ve done the same for me,” he muttered, staring fixedly out of the window.

“What do I owe youh? For back at the restaurant? Youh paid the tab, didn’t youh?”

“I did.”

“What’d it set youh back?”

“Don’t worry about it. Forget about it. We’re all good.”

“Thanks, broh.”

“Yeah, don’t mention it.”

I felt like an idiot for all that had happened, and his silence was killing me. I’d said some harsh shit back at the restaurant and now felt the need to apologize for it. He probably wanted to apologize too, but didn’t want to be the first to break. I’d start.

“Hey, uh, Haz…y’know…I’m really sorry for the things I said.”

“Are you actually sorry, though? Or are you just saying that because I bought your dinner and found you a ride home?”

“Yeah,” I chuckled. “That helps too…but seriously, maan. I mean it. I shouldn’t have said the things I said.”

“Well then…I guess I’m sorry too.”

“Soh, do youh actually mean it? Or are youh just sayin’ it cause I said it first.”

“Both…” he smiled faintly, before the gesture was reversed and sucked back into the blackened, gaping void of our estrangement. A smile was far too much at the minute, and I was wholly undeserving of it.

“You know I don’t take separate busses and planes to avoid you, right?”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah…it’s never been about you. I have my reasons, but, uh, it was never meant to put separation between us. It’s mainly to cut down on my exposure to the other guys so this band thing can last as long as possible…for the fans. Louis bugs me too. I just can’t stand to be around him…ever since we grew apart. He, uh, has this resentment towards me, always has since I moved out. And the way he watches me and comments on everything I do and say makes me feel super uneasy. Sometimes I can’t even stand the sound of his voice. It irritates me, knowing better than anyone what he’s really like, and uh, how he has so many people fooled.”

“Woah…” I blinked in disbelief. “Youh never told me this. Any of it??”

“It’s no big deal. Not anything I can’t handle, right? It’s just better if I keep away when I don’t absolutely have to be there for work. I won’t be the one to expose how shitty he can be behind closed doors, but I also won’t put up with it anymore either.”

“Wow…that’s sort of eye-openin’, Haz. I wish you’d told me sooner.”

“Yeah…”

“Was he nasty to youh?”

“Very. Especially when I told him I was moving out after I brought the house in Hampstead. We hadn’t been getting on for a while before that, but I thought maybe putting a little distance between us would help repair the friendship. Unfortunately, our banter was lost. I couldn’t stand living with him. It took me about a month before the mess and the smell became overwhelming. Our moms both lectured us on how nasty the place had gotten in such a short amount of time, but he wouldn’t listen. All I could do was, uh, keep my room clean, but the rest of the place was a tip. The kitchen especially.”

“Oh, woah, yeah. I remember that. Mans couldn’t wash a dish to save his life. And his feet smelled soh bad. He didn’t even care. He’d kick his shoes off any wear and put them funky dogs up on the couch. He stayed at my place a lot, and whenever he did, I was constantly on him about cleaning up after himself.”

“Yeah,” he chuckled. “Me too. And when it got bad, just a few months in, I had to go. I couldn’t even wait for my renovations on the house to be finished.”

“Thank God for Ben, right?” I remarked.

“Honestly…he saved me. He and Mere grounded the hell out of me too.”

“Soh it was for the better, then. If Lou doesn’t understand that by now, then it’s his own problem. I respect youh for keepin those boundaries in place. He can be a dickhead sumtimes.”

“Yeah,” he said, wanting to laugh again, but holding back. “So, uh…you stalking me now?”

“I didn’t intend to.”

“But you are stalking me?”

“Yeah…call it the spur of the moment.” He scoffed, but didn’t pipe up. “I dunno Haz. I guess latelyh I haven’t really been feelin’ like meself. A lot’s changed, maan. A lot. I never knew how dependent I was on our routine before.”

“Right…”

“Youh make me crazy. To be honest with youh, I don’t think there’s anythin’ I wouldn’t do to get close to youh again.” At that he kneed me a little to remind me there was no barrier that would hinder the driver from hearing everything we said. There was no way to spin my last statement in a platonic light, so I needed to be careful as the car service was under no obligation to keep my conversation out of the tabloids and gossip rags.

“He seemed pretty dope,” I said later of Johan. “Didn’t seem to mind how long youh spent at my table.”

“Yeah, he’s, like, super chill. It’s no biggie to him, though. We’ve been out a few times before and write together a lot. He’s not too likely gonna be missing me for few minutes.”

“Did youh finish your dinner?”

“Mate, of course not. Couldn’t even start on it. I knew you’d have trouble finding a ride around here, and I knew your phone was likely dying—”

“Because when isn’t it dying?”

“Exactly. And I knew you were high too. You reeked of weed. So, there’s no way I could sit there and eat in peace knowing you’d probably stranded yourself.”

“I’m sorry for ruinin’ your night…”

“It’s alright. Shit happens.”

“Yeah…and I can tell youh really like him,” I muttered.

“How do you figure?”

“It’s the way youh look at him. Youh look at everyone youh really like in the same way. Total engrossment. Starry-eyed. That used to be me.” At that, he looked over at me, then kneed me a little, unable to form a response.

“How’s Kendall?” I asked, looking to change the subject.

“Wouldn’t know. Haven’t talked to her.”

“Youh guys not in touch anymore?’

“Nope. Not like we were,” he rubbed his nose.

“Soh…does that mean…?”

“Yup. It’s over. At least for now.”

“What happened??”

“Not really up for discussing it.”

“Understood.” It took all that I was to keep from showing any signs of elation. I wanted to cry out with the relief I felt welling up inside, but fought tooth and nail to keep it repressed. After I composed myself, I looked over at him, brow furrowed.

“Soh…um…does that maybe mean…?”

“No. I’m still done with that too, mate. I don’t know about you, but these last few months have been pretty liberating for me. It’s like a ton of bricks have been lifted off my shoulders.”

“Yeah…forh sure…” I swallowed the achy lump in my throat, trying to hide how much it hurt to hear that. Despite her being out of the picture, there was still no chance for me. He was truly over it all. “Quite liberatin’, that.”

For the rest of the ride, we chose silence. I stared out of one window, and he took the other. The driver cleared his throat every now and then and reminded us of his presence. When we finally got to my place, I asked him to come up, but he declined. Inside, I set my phone on the charger and let it juice up. After removing my jacket and clothes for the evening, I ran to the restroom, stomach churning from the alfredo after all.

Later that night when I’d gotten into bed, I couldn’t sleep. Partly because my stomach still ached so badly, but also because I couldn’t stop thinking of our car ride. Despite all the talking we’d done, there was so much we hadn’t said that seemed to waft between us. Feeling ballsy, I called him up. He answered after a few rings, sighing deeply.

“Youh sleep? I wake ya?” I asked quietly.

“Mm-hm,” he exhaled. No further words offered. The shadows in my room shifted as the moon was uncovered for a few seconds. The silence was a comfort to me. It reminded me of the first few nights I’d spent camping with the Edwards at the beginning of the month, except this time the company was the person I couldn’t stop dreaming about.

“M’sorry for wakin’ youh, babe,” I whispered. “I just…I just wanted to thank youh again for comin’ to rescue me. I didn’t even ask for help, but youh were right there without question. In a heartbeat. I’ll never forget that. Ever.” Silence answered. I listened closely, and there was just the gentle sound of his breath filling the speaker. It deepened and became slower the longer I listened.

“Haz? Babe…youh hear me?” Still no response. He was totally out for the count and was therefore incapable of hanging up. Not that I wanted him to, anyway. This was a far better outcome than I could’ve hoped for. Feeling like the luckiest bastard on earth, I put the call on speakerphone and laid it onto the pillow beside my head. I shifted to face it, eyes growing heavy with fatigue. Already my every breath was in alignment with his. It was almost like he was laying beside me. Warmth emanating from his body. His unconscious weight pressed into me as ever. Before long, I was fast asleep with the tender music of his breathing watching over me; dreaming of waking up beside him come morning.

(Thanks for reading!❤️)

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