Liam Payne is efficient, smart, liked by everyone, surrounded by people and lonely.

He doesn’t fully realise it, and he doesn’t understand why.

Jean Toulson is forgettable, absentminded and asks too many questions.

She also has a potted fern she renames every week.

An AU about two optimistic people who aren't meant to be protagonists. Their story is slow, awkward and not very dramatic - but it's alright, because it's their own.


1. Skittle houses.

It was safe to say that Liam Payne was the boy every girl's parents dreamed of.

He was good looking, polite, respectful and would graduate in a year with his degree in accounting (Honours in English Literature) from an excellent uni in Leeds. He worked part time at the local general store. He didn't drink and had almost coughed a lung out the only time he'd tried a smoke. He brought home his dates with fifteen minutes to curfew and blushed and stuttered before daring to kiss her chastely on the cheek after the first date. 

It wasn't that Liam was naive, but it was just that he was just far too honourable.

His mates teased him about his unnecessary need to be responsible and proper. His teachers found his lack of smarminess a relief and beamed at him everyday. Girls thought he was charming, and handsome and so very good at everything. Liam liked life, he enjoyed being alive; he didn't see the point of spending his time being the kind of person that would cause problems or have to suffer them. 

His father liked that he was willing to play golf with him sometimes and that despite being rubbish at the skills required for accounting, he would try as hard as he could. His mother liked that Liam was never too embarrassed to hug her back and was keen to help her and was perfectly cheeky and charming to her friends. His sister liked that he would help her with homework and that he let her have more pudding when their mum wasn't looking. 

Liam would help strangers cross the road. He would assist a short child trying to reach a book. He would carry his teachers' bags when they were loaded with term papers. He wouldn't even try and hesitate before doing a friend a favour: helping them with a paper or picking them up late after a particularly drunken night. 

Everyone liked Liam.

It was difficult not to.



The first time they met, Liam didn't notice her.

He was with Louis, listening to his friend very enthusiastically narrate a story he had actually heard (four times), but was in far too good a mood to stop the overdramatic music magazine intern.

“...and BAM. The copier exploded. It was fuckin' brilliant, Liam. Oh, fuck. And not a single one of those absolute morons knew it was me! You know what the best part is? No intern has to make copies for a very long time!”

Liam was supposed to be studying, but he laughed anyway. Not because the story was still particularly funny, but because this time Louis' flailing arms had almost hit his newest girlfriend, who was an aspiring Fashion major in Liam's year. 

Elle looked a little irritated at almost being backhanded by her boyfriend, but her face smoothed over (even though Liam noticed she shrugged off Louis' welcoming arms) as she nodded a hello to him and smiled. Liam grinned back and politely gave them their privacy, focusing on the numbers ahead of him, tuning out their conversation to the best of his ability. 

“I know, but I wanted to...” 

“...almost hit me, you arse...” 

“...about the other day...” 

“...again....for goodness' sake...” 


“...already heard it about two dozen times!” 

The two of them were glaring at each other, but Liam knew it wasn't worth taking seriously. They fought all the time and a part of him wondered whether it was better that way, fighting for most of the time they had together. Maybe it was healthier, to have it out about the small irksome things than just bottle them up and store them. 

But then again, he'd never had a problem with his old girlfriend and that hadn't kept her from dumping him and leaving for London.

He exhaled; his pen had been pressed too hard onto the paper. He'd have to find a new sheet.

“How's it going, then, Liam?” Elle asked him, finally. She was asking to be courteous, he knew, because her fingers were fidgeting on the strap of the overly large purse most girls toted around. She and her boyfriend had that restlessness in common: Louis had doodled over two of his book covers (which now read Liam wants to snog Tommo, Mrs Niall Horan and I wish my curls were as pretty as Harry's :( because Louis was immature like that); he had also broken three pens, eaten the Mars Bars in his pocket and half of the breakfast bar Liam carried and had just finished making a house of Skittles on the table. 

“It's alright. Busy, y'know.”

“Yeah, I know.” She lglanced at her watch quickly, running a hand through her long hair before looking around, forehead creased.

Louis started eating the mural of Skittles, starting with the orange clouds. “Waiting for someone, babe?”

“Yeah, I have an assignment for Design with this girl. She's a computer major, so I thought she'd be a good pick, but I think she's avoiding me.”

“Why would you think that?”

His girlfriend looked put out at the thought of her partner. “I don't know, really. She seemed nice, but she keeps forgetting when we're supposed to meet and doesn't save my number or text back.” 

“Maybe she's just mental,” Louis suggested in his usual sensitive way, now sweeping the green Skittles that had made the roof into his hand and throwing them into his open mouth.

“She didn't seem like it. She keeps apologizing a lot, most bitches don't do that. I'm wondering if she's just daft.”

“She could be a stoner.” Louis wriggled his eyebrows and then pinched his face into one of complete idiotic lunacy, tongue stuck out and eyes droopy. Liam bit back a snigger and Elle rolled her eyes.

“Don't be – oh. There she is. Thank goodness.” She waved her arms at someone on the other end of the library. Whoever she was trying to signal to obviously couldn't see or didn't respond, because she made an exasperated noise. 

“What is that moron doing? Honestly. She looks like she's wandered in by mistake.”

“Was she following the carpeting?” Louis asked, incredulous but extremely entertained. 

“Her phone. She does that, all the bloody time. I have no idea why. I'm going to go grab her before she wanders out. See you later. Bye Liam.” 

“Bye, Elle.” 

“I think you were spot on with the daft theory, babe.” Louis called out behind her. 

Liam's gaze followed her back to the other end of the student rec room, where she grabbed a girl by the elbow and dragged her out. The girl looked slightly taken aback and clutched her backpack to herself, the ends of her dirty blonde braid whipping her in her own face as she was swung around. 

“Mate, those computer major birds look like they've forgotten what the world looks like outside their compile processes.” 

“That's rude.” 

“Still, you got to admit, barring some of those fit geek girls and the lads we played football with the other day, the faculty is a little weird.” 

“Isn't Zayn doing a class in computer programming?” 

“Case in point!” Louis exclaimed, bringing his palm down on the table and scattering the rest of the Skittle house. 

Because it was a little funny to imagine the ultra cool Zayn Mallik with his quiff and cigarettes and general I'm an artist attitude as a pale asocial bookworm, Liam couldn't help but laugh. 

“Don't let him hear you say that,” he warned, even though he was still smiling as he starting scribbling on a fresh page.

Louis snorted, now tossing Skittles in the air and trying to catch them in his mouth. He wasn't very good at this, and the candy would bounce off his face and land on Liam's books and hair. 

“I reckon I could take Zayn,” Louis announced with an overdramatic karate chop. “He ain't gon' be able to a damn' thing!” He said the last part of the sentence in a terrible Italian accent, making Liam's lips quirk.

Although his two friends were probably equally matched in terms of strength, both equally good footballers and Louis had the benefit of being quicker, Liam knew that out of all his friends, Zayn would probably be the one to hold his own in a fist fight. Not the silly, half serious ones that most boys seem to enjoy to state their right to the last can of coke in the vending machine, but an actual one, with broken noses and black eyes instead of tickling and glomping till immobile. 

Louis seemed to remember Zayn's brief stint in the boxing club too, and added fairly, “Well, maybe if Harry held him down, I'd be able to get him.” 

“Not a chance, mate. Harry would be too scared of getting his curls messed up.”

Louis seemed to consider this. 

“If Niall sat on him, I'd be able to get him.” 




The second time they met, Liam had just been abandoned halfway through a date. 

He was painfully aware that it was the second time one of his dates had gotten a phonecall and then claimed she had to leave due to unavoidable circumstances.

Then she had asked for a ride.

And because Liam was a prat and she really was a very pretty girl, he shrugged and agreed.

She lived near the college library, and Liam needed to find some books for his paper on Sophocles anyway. Besides, the least he could do was part on fairly amicable terms. There was no point offending a girl for just not being able to enjoy his company.

Not that she had tried very hard. She had led a monologue about why she thought popular music was trash (“I mean, how is it that any of those horrid men get to shag all these girls and then write about it in the most horrible way and then have it happen again?”) and then criticised his decision to get pasta as opposed to her grilled salmon. Whenever Liam spoke, her eyes would glaze over or she would be texting somebody.

“Bye Liam, I'm really sorry I had to run out like this!”

“Yeah, it's okay. See you around.” 

This was the last time he would let Harry find him a girl, Liam decided firmly, waving halfheartedly to Lisa or Lizzie or Leah.

“Of course,” she yelled back, hurrying away even as she beamed at him over her shoulder. 

He didn't even really know her name. 

“It's Libby.” 

He suddenly realised he had said what he was thinking aloud and looked sheepishly towards the girl who had spoken. 

“I knew it was with an L,” he offered weakly. 

The girl raised her eyebrows at him before tilting her head up and blowing out a smoke circle. She didn't look like the smoking type, who Liam always assumed (in a manner that he knew was slightly immature and really just propogating a stereotype) wore a lot of black or leather. Zayn himself fit into the former category, with an occasional foray into the second. 

This girl wore black slacks and a green jumper with blue trainers. She looked like any other uni student on campus, dressed like she was late for her first lecture with lack of sleep evident in her face. Remarkably ordinary looking, mousy blonde hair in a braid, grey eyes covered by glasses.

“If it makes you feel any better,” the girl said, half smiling as she brought her fag to her mouth again. “She never dates anyone seriously. Keeps meeting blokes and then ditching them when her tosser of an ex boyfriend calls. She's going to meet him near the Science building and they'll shag in his car.” 

Liam stared at her, spluttering a little. “What?” 

“She lives across the hall from me,” the girl confided, leaning comfortably against the grey stone of the library's exterior. “You can't honestly blame her. She tries to move on, but it doesn't go well.”

“What?” Liam said again.

“Jacob is the bad boy type, y'know. I reckon you're too nice for her. She's into the arsewipe sort. Likes to get her heart broken. Serious psychological problem.”

Bollocks. Of course he had to date the girl mooning about her old boyfriend despite his evident lack of respect for her.

“Do girls really like that, though?” Liam wondered aloud, his forehead creasing as he tried to reason out why that sort of emotional fuckery would be attractive.

“Dunno, do I? Can't see any other girl I know taking that sort of shit from a boy. Most of them like the faithful kind. Like you, probably.”

“How would you know if I'm faithful?” 

She barked out an incredulous laugh before she dropped her cigarette to the ground and crushed it under her heel. “Seriously? You dropped Libby home after she ditched your date. You're wearing a plaid shirt, and it's fully buttoned up. You're either one of them American woodcutters or a closet pedophile.” 

“It's cold,” Liam said defensively, shoving his hands into his pockets and feeling thankful for the woollen cap hiding his red ears. 

She grinned, bending down to pick up the butt of her cigarette and flicking it into one of the many bins that were on campus. “Whatever you say, mate.”

“You shouldn't throw cigarette butts into the rubbish bin. It could cause a fire.”

Ah, smashing retort, Payne, a voice in his head said sardonically.

“I stubbed it out. It's alright.” She crossed her arms across her chest and looked at him, mildly amused. “Well, I best get back to work. I've been on break for a while.” 

“Where do you work?” 

His question came out of his mouth before he could help himself and she looked a little taken aback. 

“At the library,” she said slowly, forehead creasing. “I've seen you around a fair bit here. You sit near the window and huddle into the corner if you think someone is going to disturb you.” 

“You've seen me?” Liam repeated, eyeing the girl skeptically. She didn't look particularly familiar. Not to mention that her rather odd way of reciting the behaviour of people she didn't know made him suspicious. She could easily be one of the wallflowers who prey on college students and remember their schedules so she could sell the information to a raving revenge obsessed lunatic or a potential axe murderer.

Those girls always died after selling their information. Generally when on a trip to spend their ill gotten gains on something like pot or cheap jewelry.

Liam took a moment to chatise himself for even thinking the words ill gotten gains. 

“I've checked out books for you,” she told him, as if aware that he was pinning her as a potentially dead pothead. 

“Oh,” Liam said, the back of his neck heating up uncomfortably, feeling like an asshole of the worst kind. “Sorry, I didn't...”

“S'okay. I'm clarifying so you don't think I've been spying on you or anything. I have a rather dull job. You just tend to stare at the people after a while.”

“No, I..er. What's your name?”

“Jean. I know who you are, Liam Payne. You have to return a book in two days.”

“You remember everyone who's checked out a book?” he asked, impressed. 

“Not many people come to the library. The internet is a marvellous thing.” She looked at the battered man's watch on her wrist and frowned. “I have to get back.” 

“Oh, I, er, I'm going to the library too.”

“Good on you,” she said vaguely, taking out her phone and walking past him. Liam squinted at her back, puzzled for a moment before following her up the stairs into the large library, which was, thankfully heated. 

He took what was apparently his usual place, realised that from the spot he had a direct view of the librarian's desk. Jean sat there, resting her head on one hand as she spoke to a boy with three books and no library pass. 

She had a clear view of him, and he'd never actually noticed her. 

He kept looking up to glance at her, almost absent mindedly and then in astonishment when he saw Zayn talking to her. He was leaning over the counter and had his usual unimpressed expression on his face as Jean listened, hands behind her head, tilting her chair back so it was balancing on the two rear legs. 

How could she be acquainted to one of his closest mates and still a stranger? She had to be invited to one of the many parties Zayn worked at, and Liam was one of the only ones sober enough to see everyone and actually talk to them at those. 

They probably had a class together or something, he thought, watching as she steadied her chair and nodded at Zayn, typing something on her phone as he spoke. He gave her a curt nod and flicked her on her slightly large forehead, making her scrunch her nose up with annoyance. Zayn turned around, his dark eyes sweeping across the library before zooming in on Liam, making him half smile in greeting and walk over, hands in his jacket pockets and long lazy strides. 

Liam sometimes compared Zayn Malik to a large, lazy cat in his head. It wasn't something he'd say aloud, but the idea of the self proclaimed bad boy as a feline amused him. He had a lot of characteristics he shared with the species, including the effortlessly languid grace, the vanity, the laziness...not to mention the excessive grooming. 

“How's it going?” Zayn said, drawing up a chair and falling into it neatly before shrugging off the well fitted jacket he wore. “Thought you'd still on your date with that girl...what's her name? Lizzie?” 

“Libby,” Liam said, rubbing his nose as he caught Jean's eye. She couldn't hear them from all the way there, could she? 

“Ah, riiiight,” Zayn drawled, bringing his hands half a foot away from his chest and making lewd squeezing gestures. “Libby.” 

Liam tried not to let his ears heat up. 

“Shut up,” he hissed, holding up a book to hide his face, peeking over it at his friend and then Jean, who had propped her feet onto her counter. 

Zayn laughed. “Alright, but seriously, what happened? Harry said you two planned to spend the day together.”

Liam put his book down and sighed. “She got phoned halfway through lunch, and said she had to leave. So I dropped her off and came here. Except apparently she was called by her ex boyfriend and they're going to be shagging in his car near the Science block.” 

“Oh, that's shit, mate. What a bitch.” 

“It's okay. It's not like we had much in common to begin with.” 

“Harry's girls are always awful. Don't take it personally.” Zayn took the pencil he usually kept behind his ear (occasionally replaced by an unlit cigarette) and took started sliding the tip of it across the last page in Liam's notebook. 

“So, how do you know her?” Liam asked, now used to his mates treating his possessions like public property. His eyes slid to the girl in question, still staring into space. 

“Oh, she made a pass at me first year and got offended when I called her by the wrong name.” 


“Who? Oh, I thought you meant Libby. Nah, Jean's my lab partner. She's alright. Always has a cigarette, think she's a little bonkers though. Doesn't get out much. She says she stays in with her fern in her room, who – get this – she calls Ophelia.” 

Liam processed this new information, and tried not to smile before changing the subject. 

“So you dated her before me?” 

“Jean? You're dating Jean?” 

“No, Libby.” 

“Oh. No, mate. She's nice and all, seemed really into me but I've heard she's loony over her ex. Everyone knows that. Not including you, clearly.” 

“Yeah, thanks for the heads up, by the way, you prat.” 

“I only heard about it today, can't blame me. Hey, wait. Who told you she's shagging her ex now?” 

Liam jerked his head towards Jean. “She did. She was outside the library when Libby ran off. I have her to thank for being a better human being than you lot. I can't believe you knew, Harry knew...” 

“Well, I reckon Harry was running out of girls willing to talk to him long enough to set you up. This was the eighth, right?” 

“Sixth.” Liam sounded a bit too defensive even to his own ears. “The third one didn't show.” 

“Eh, whatever. You must be a shit date. The last couple birds you went out with aren't what you call...selective.” 

“Classy, Malik. Very classy.” 

“Say what you like, mate. Louis reckons you've lost your touch.” 

“Does he.” 

“Harry's betting on problems...down there, y'know?” 

Liam responded to this by spluttering and gripping the large tome of a book he was reading tight enough to turn his knuckles white before holding it up to sheild his face. His friend only smirked, pushing his notebook away and tucking his pencil back behind his ear, going on without a trace of embarrassment. 

“Niall's wagering that you still miss Carol.” 

Liam stiffened at the mention of his old girlfriend's name. It still brought up the involuntary pang and dull hollow throb that echoed inside him, but in the last five months he'd built up enough stability to not storm out to the nearest pub. 

“Did he now,” he deadpanned, keeping his tone devoid of any expression. 

Zayn looked at him with an unreadable look on his face, face as blank as ever. Girls claimed that his eyes were as liquid and deep as his voice, mirroring what he was thinking. The look of perpetual misunderstood suffering that suited him very well; from his artistically messy hair to the standard block coloured shirts with well fitted jeans and the same pair of soft leather boots or sometimes trainers – he looked like the pained artistic genius he probably was. 

But Liam had known Zayn for a long time now and he still couldn't read his eyes, specially if they were directed at him. 

“I'd say I agree, but I guess it's not really any of our bloody business.” 

“You're right. It's not.” 

“Alright, then.” Zayn leaned back in his chair, tapping a rhythm out on the table that drew a few cross looks from the other people in the library. 

Liam swallowed, his throat suddenly felt dry and the previously comfortable warmth of the library felt stifling. He put his book down and scrambled to change the subject because Zayn wouldn't going to; it was typically his style to let the awkwardness swell until Liam couldn't bear it and confessed how he felt about Carol and what she had said before walking out of their shared flat. His gaze felt on Zayn's doodle (or as people without the ability to draw referred to it – fine art) and he pointed at it. 

“Who's that?” 

The rough sketch was of a profile, blurry around the actual facial features, but with thin wire glasses and a particularly nice mouth, but comically upturned nose. Strands of hair fell from a very untidy braid to rest against the cheek and curved along the ear with multiple earrings. 

“Jean. That's how I see her most of the time, sitting next to her, y'know.” 

“Oh.” Liam stared at the ear, which had (slightly insultingly) been given the most attention. Everything else was in loopy, careless strokes, but the ear was shaded in and each earring drawn neatly. “I met her properly for the first time. Ever. She's the librarian, but I found out her name just today.” 

Zayn didn't seem as appalled or taken aback as Liam had felt. “So? It's a big campus, a lot of people.” 

“I never met her through you, either.” 

“She doesn't go to college parties, not too many friends. She's a little daft, you won't have much in common. She's in a few of Niall's electives too. ” 

“But I should have at least seen her once then.” 

“I don't know, mate. She isn't the kind of girl you really notice.” 

That seemed unfair, Liam thought, watching Jean almost doze off and then snapping her head up as she woke herself up. 


After a while, Zayn would convince his flatmate to stop studying and go for a walk. He would agree, because he didn't see the point of being difficult. Niall would meet up with them, and between making sure the Irish boy didn't strip in the pub and refusing the drinks being pressed onto him, Liam would forget about the strange librarian. 

Jean Toulson would close the library up and go home to her potted fern. She would listen to Libby talk about Jacob and Liam and heartache, then study for an upcoming test before falling asleep at her desk. She would sleep like the dead, unaware that Liam Payne intended to be her friend, and that she would soon never be the forgettable girl again.

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