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Getting Good At This

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Harry cries. Like, a lot. Over pretty much anything, including the time Louis’ mum had sent him a plant as a housewarming gift and he’d let it die after three weeks of not watering it. It’d sat there for another week, wilting sadly and turning brown, until Zayn had chucked it in the bin at dinner one night, which Harry had apparently found to be somehow devastating. He’d gotten legitimately weepy over a dead plant that hadn’t even belonged to him in the first place. Louis wishes that’s the most ridiculous example he can think of off the top of his head, but sadly, it’s not. It’s just one of those things -- Zayn never charges his phone, Niall’s always the last one going at the end of the night, and Harry cries.

Still, when Harry had cried at the funeral, it’d broken Louis’ heart a bit anyway. Funerals are a bitch, always, but this one had stuck particularly raw and jagged in Louis’ chest. At the burial, Harry had clutched at Louis’ sleeve a bit desperately, clung onto him and snotted into his collar unselfconsciously as they’d lowered in the casket, and that’s what had almost done Louis in. Because he’s seen Harry cry a hundred times, but that had been different, and so much worse -- there’s a marked difference between Harry crying over a film where a cartoon puppy is sad, and crying because his friend is dead.

One is substantially more gutting than the other, it turns out.

Louis had only met Jaz once, in passing at a party, and she’d seemed loud and lovely and vibrant, all jangling bracelets and electric red hair. Not dead at all. It’s a big shift, sudden and jarring, and Louis had barely known her. He imagines it must be so much worse for her proper mates, for Harry and Nick and all their other weird, hip friends, who had all loved Jaz. Or, like, still love her. He supposes loving someone isn’t the sort of thing that goes away, not ever, not even after someone’s spun off the road and into a guardrail in heavy rain.

The worst bit of the funeral, though, is the baby. If Louis’d thought it’d been heartbreaking to see Harry cry, seeing Jaz’s daughter, only six months old and wailing in the arms of a distant relative because she can’t figure out where her mum’s gone, had been infinitely worse. It still makes Louis’ heart clench up a week later just thinking about it. It’d set Harry off crying again, at the time, and then again later that night curled up on Louis’ sofa when he’d remembered it.

Louis thinks that all things considered, he’s seen about enough of Harry crying to last a lifetime, now.

Which is why he punches Harry in the shoulder -- lovingly, but a punch all the same -- when Harry tears up at the airport.

“Stop it, you git,” he says fondly, pulling Harry into a hug. “You’ll hardly be gone any time at all.”

“Two and a half months,” Harry says mournfully, shoving his face into the crook of Louis’ neck. He’s probably getting Louis’ jumper all damp. Louis hugs him tighter. “And that’s just the start of it.”

“Poor pop star,” Louis says. “Having to go out and live your dreams touring the world. Proper nightmare, innit?”

“Shut up,” Harry laughs wetly. “I’ll miss you. And just -- everything, you know.” He sniffs conspicuously and pulls back, adjusting the beanie that’s hiding his hair. There’s a bloke several meters away surreptitiously snapping a photo of Harry with his mobile, but if Harry notices, he ignores it, just wipes messily at his face with the cuff of his sleeve and pulls Louis into another rib-shattering hug.

“I know,” Louis says gently. He does. Harry’s pretty unflappable, but Louis knows when he’s shaken up, actually and properly, and this is the worst he’s seen him in a long time. He supposes it makes sense -- he doesn’t think Harry’s known anyone who’s died that wasn’t over the age of seventy before. Louis thinks it’s unfair, frankly, that that’s been taken from Harry now, and maybe that’s life, and life isn’t fair, but Harry’s always been a bit of a soft spot for him, the sort of person he wants to protect from the harsher truths of the world. Which is probably backwards, given that of the two of them, Harry’s the wildly famous one, and probably has had to grow up much faster because of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s also earnest and quick to trust. It certainly doesn’t change that Louis spends a lot of time thinking of how he can best wrap him up in soft blankets to keep him from ever being sad, or worse, jaded.

“But you’ll be back soon,” he tells Harry, tugging at a strand of hair that’s escaped his hat. “Two and a half months is hardly anything. Won’t even have time to miss me properly.”

Harry just scoffs at him, and then pulls back, straightening his jumper. “Miss you already, twat.”

Louis punches him in the arm again, sure that Harry knows exactly what he means by it, and wildly grateful for that.

Paul appears at Harry’s elbow, clearing his throat softly. “Gotta go now, Harry,” he says apologetically. He nods at Louis, and Louis waves. He’s already cornered Paul and threatened him with all sorts of bodily harm if he doesn’t look out for Harry on tour -- not that he doesn’t always, it’s just. Louis worries. Particularly lately. Best to be clear in his expectations. And Paul had at least had the decency to nod seriously at Louis’ warnings, as if he wasn’t twice his size.

Paul’s a good one.

“Yeah, all right,” Harry says, bending down to pick up his bag and sling it over his shoulder. “Listen, Lou,” he says. “Can you, like -- could you maybe check on Nick while I’m away?”

Louis feels himself pulling a face before he can stop himself, and tries his best to disguise it, but does a poor job of it.

“Just, like, a few times,” Harry says, a bit pleadingly. “He just -- I think he’s doesn’t really know what he’s doing, y’know? Overwhelmed, like.”

Louis snorts at that.

“Louis,” Harry says. “Please. I worry about them both. Nick hasn’t ever really been around kids, not like you have with the girls. You’d be so helpful, even if you just stopped by a few times.”

Louis tries to resist, because he can easily list off a thousand things he’d rather do -- honestly, the only good part of Harry being gone on tour is that he doesn’t usually have to see Nick’s face for the duration.

It’s not that Nick is the worst person alive, or anything, but he’s always seemed a bit unimpressed with Louis, which is frankly one of Louis’ least favorite traits in other people. Probably because Louis’ not a pop star, or a famous radio DJ or weird artsy fashion designer or whatever, just a run of the mill bloke with a shit job selling expensive cheese at a swotty farmer’s market and a terminally average flat he shares with Zayn. Hardly any social capital at all.

Anyway, whatever the cause, if Nick’s got some sort of problem with him, he’s more than happy to return the sentiment. They can coexist mostly amicably for Harry’s benefit when they have to, but he’s certainly not someone Louis has any interest in spending time with if he doesn’t have to.

But there’s something about Harry’s pleading face that’s always made it impossible for Louis to say no to him, and even besides, this is bigger than usual, not like Harry purposefully looking pathetic to get Louis to make him a cup of tea or something. Louis figures he’s properly worked himself up about it, worrying about leaving the country for so long and not being able to check in on Nick and the baby, so he’s probably not just asking Louis to do it to be a pain in the arse.

“I s’pose,” Louis says slowly. What he means to say he he supposes he can think about it, possibly, will at least try to give it moderately serious consideration, but Harry’s face does that stupid thing where it gets eclipsed by his smile, and Louis just shuts his mouth, because there’s no point trying to fight it now.

“Thanks, Lou,” Harry says, visibly relieved. “Really, I mean it.”

“He won’t want my help, though,” Louis protests half-heartedly.

“He will,” Harry assures him hastily. “I mean, like, he might not realize it, necessarily, but...” He doesn’t really finish the sentence.

Paul clears his throat again, and Harry shifts his bag. “Okay, yeah,” he says, and pulls Louis in for yet another hug. This one is at least less weepy that the first several. “Thanks,” he repeats.

“Yeah, all right, don’t go on about it,” Louis says, taking a step back and shooing Harry towards Paul. “You’ll miss your plane.”

“I’ll call you when I get a chance,” Harry says as he bumbles away, walking backward and waving as he follows Paul’s guiding hand on the strap of his bag.

“You’re an idiot,” Louis calls across the widening gap between them, and then, just in case: “Love you.”

“You too,” Harry says, and then he finally turns around to walk properly, his slouched back to Louis as he follows Paul into the crowd of the terminal. Another bloke with a camera notices him, and a teenage girl, and a small group begins to toddle along behind him and Paul as they go.

Louis waits until he can’t see Harry at all anymore, not even his stupid hat, and then turns to go home.


Zayn’s there when he gets back to the flat, sprawled impressively over every inch of the sofa. Louis kicks at his legs until he moves them an increment, just enough for Louis to wedge in beside them. As soon as he’s settled Zayn drapes them over his lap, pinning him down.

“See Harry off all right?” he asks lazily, eyes half closed.

“Yeah, it was fine. Only wept briefly.”

“Him or you?” Zayn asks.

Louis pinches him on the ankle.

“I’m a man of stone, Malik,” he says haughtily. “Honestly, him or me. He cried at that radio advert for gum last week, who do you think it was?”

Zayn just shrugs, and his eyes close all the way.

“‘S’how I got roped into going ‘round to Grimshaw’s while he’s away, anyway,” Louis says. “Can’t say no to his stupid sad face. You’d think I’d have built up a tolerance to it at this point.”

Zayn makes a mildly curious noise. “Why’s he want you to go to Nick’s?”

Louis purses his lips, because Zayn, traitorously, doesn’t seem to recognize what a burden this is to Louis, given the tone of his voice and the fact that he doesn’t even bother to open his eyes.

“He’s got Jaz’s kid living with him now,” Louis tells him. Zayn cracks one eye at that. “He’s her godfather, or whatever.”

“Don’t think being godfather’s got much to do with custody,” Zayn says.

“All right, well, he’s whatever the thing is where you get the kid if something happens to their parents, then,” Louis says with a shrug. He’s hazy on the details -- something to do with Jaz’s parents being dead, no father in the picture, something like that. It’s depressing enough that he doesn’t particularly want to know more in depth, his curiosity satisfied plenty by the sketchy outline as Harry’d explained it to him.

“Poor kid,” Zayn says. “How’s Nick feel about this?”

Louis pulls a face. “Why would I know? Ask Haz. Ask Nick, if you’re so interested.” He yanks at a hair on Zayn’s pale leg where his trackies have ridden up to expose his ankle until he winces and kicks at Louis in retaliation. “Harry must think he’s like, overwhelmed or something, I imagine that’s why he wants me to check on them. I mean. He must be all right, though, you don’t just get someone’s infant if you don’t really want it.”

“Doesn’t mean he knows what he’s doing,” Zayn says, kicking again when Louis’ hand creeps too close to his legs again and scowling meaningfully. Louis tucks his hand into the pocket of his sweatshirt and makes a vague noise.

“Y’gonna go?” Zayn asks.

“Told Haz I would, so I suppose I have to,” Louis says. “Dunno, maybe tomorrow. He’ll probably tell me to piss off, anyway.”

“Probably,” Zayn says agreeably, shutting his eyes again. “Do you want company when you go?”

“Nah, mate, no reason we should both suffer. I’ll go alone, as all heroes must.”

Louis pauses, waiting for Zayn to recognize the generosity of this, and of his truly noble and self-sacrificing nature, but Zayn just shrugs again, his eyes still shut, and he doesn’t even bother to flinch when Louis shoves his legs off to get up and make himself tea.


He’s pretty sure he remembers Nick’s place in Primrose Hill from the Halloween party he’d thrown the year before. Harry’d dragged him along to it, shagged someone in the coat closet, and then been sick on the paving stones in the back garden. It’d been a good party, even if Louis is loathe to admit it, since that feels awfully close to complimenting Nick.

He pushes the buzzer when he finds the right door -- there’s a stupid looking toad made out of stone on the small landing that he recalls being annoyed by last time he was there that he uses as a landmark -- and waits, fidgeting a bit restlessly on account of how little he actually wants to be there. He’s not even sure if Nick’s home now. Maybe he’s not, and he can tell Harry that he tried but sadly had no luck, and get out of the whole thing with minimal bother.

But after a long moment, Nick says “Yeah, what,” through the crackly speaker, dashing that particular hope.

“Er,” Louis says. “It’s Louis? Tomlinson?”

There’s a long pause, and what sounds like a sigh, and then the unmistakable sound of a baby crying in the background. “‘Kay,” Nick says eventually. Louis doesn’t know if that means ‘okay, come in,’ or ‘okay, I don’t care,’ but after a moment the gate unlocks, and when Louis gets to the door, Nick opens it, looking equal parts suspicious and positively haggard.

“Hi,” Louis says, uncomfortable.

“Hi,” Nick repeats slowly. He’s wearing a loose t-shirt with an array of different colored stains on it, and joggers that are in a similar state. He’s got glasses on, his hair even more uncontrolled than usual, and he’s not wearing any shoes, his bare feet staring up at Louis. It’s the most disheveled Louis’ ever seen him, and he tries not to revel in it too much, because the source of Nick’s disastrous state is wailing loudly somewhere inside the doorway.

“D’you need something?” Nick asks.

“Harry sent me over,” Louis says. He jams his hands into the pockets of his jacket just for something to do with them.

Nick rolls his eyes. “To check on me, I suppose,” he says, sounding a bit annoyed. Or like he would be annoyed, if he could work up the energy for it.

“Is she all right?” Louis asks mildly, nodding towards the sound of the baby crying. It starts to trail off for a moment, and then picks back up like a siren.

Nick sighs heavily and shrugs. “She’s not, like, injured, if that’s what you mean,” he says a bit defensively. “Been wailing all morning, though.”

“Oh,” Louis says uselessly. He scuffs his foot on the floor, trying to decide if that’s enough to fulfill his end of the bargain. The baby lets out a piercing shriek, and Nick’s eyes close behind his glasses for a long moment before they open again.

“Look, d’you want to come in? I need to feed her, can’t stand in the doorway all day.”

He doesn’t bother waiting for Louis’ answer, just turns back into the house and leaves Louis to follow after a short hesitation, pulling the door shut behind him.

Nick’s in the kitchen, and Louis follows him in because he can’t think of anything else to do. Through to the lounge he can see the baby, propped up in a soft lavender floor chair just inside the open doorway. He recognizes her from the funeral, her dark hair and wide blue eyes, and her face that’s scrunched up and turning blotchy as she cries. She seems to be tapering off now, letting out infrequent shrieks between longer stretches of tired whining.

The kitchen is a tip, a small pile of dirty dishes in the sink, crumbs all over the counter, and various toys and baby things scattered on every spare surface. Nick’s standing in front of a high chair near the table, clearly in the middle of trying to put it together and failing at it spectacularly.

“Haven’t you got work?” Louis asks, trying not to sound too curious as he picks up a loose piece of cereal from the counter and idly drops it into the sink. It’s morning, and Nick ought to be in the middle of his show right now, he’s just now realizing.

“Taking a sabbatical sort of deal until she’s settled,” Nick explains tersely, trying to shove the plastic tray part of the high chair into place. Something clicks, but not in a good way. “Off for at least another two weeks.” He looks over at the baby in her floor seat, whimpering pathetically. “Might be longer than that.” He doesn’t sound particularly hopeful.

“You’re doing that wrong,” Louis offers, hesitating for just a moment before crossing over to the baby and picking her up from the seat. He figures someone has to soothe her, and Nick’s clearly busy. She’s soft and warm and only a bit damp with tears and drool, and she reaches up for Louis right away.

“Please,” Nick says, readjusting the high chair. “Help yourself to the infant.”

Louis rolls his eyes, hitching her up on his hip and rubbing her softly on the back. It seems to calm her, at least a bit. “It’s upside down,” he says, ignoring the comment. “Not the tray, that little -- the pin thing underneath it, see?” He tries to point with the hand that’s not holding up the baby, but when he stops rubbing at her back she whimpers again.

“There’s no pin,” Nick says as he yanks on the exact pin Louis means. There’s another ominous-sounding click, and Nick takes a hasty step back from the high chair, throwing up his hands.

“Here,” Louis says, handing the baby over to Nick, “you’re going to break it.” Nick looks down at the baby with an alarmed expression, holding her to his chest a bit awkwardly, and Louis rolls his eyes. “The chair, obviously, not the baby.”

Although to be honest, Louis’ not too sure.

Nick doesn’t answer as Louis pulls the pin out and refits it in so the tray locks properly into place. He swings it up so there’s room for her to go in, and then turns back to Nick, holding out his arms for her. Nick hands her over a bit dazedly.

“Where’ve you even had her eating if you haven’t figured this out yet?” Louis asks curiously as he fastens her into the seat.

Nick bangs a cabinet open behind him a bit violently. “Sat her on my lap, didn’t I?” he says distractedly, shoving a box out of the way to get at an empty bottle. “She doesn’t really eat food, anyway, just takes a bottle,” Nick explains, setting about making one up with the tentative air of someone wildly out of his element. Halfway through, he mucks it up enough that he has to start over entirely, dumping the too-watery first attempt down the sink with a frustrated noise. Louis watches silently, resisting the urge to make suggestions.

When Nick eventually gets it right, he pulls a chair up next to the high chair and hands her the bottle, sighing when she immediately dribbles down her chin. “Apparently I can start giving her real food in a bit?” he asks, sounding fairly unsure of it.

“What is she, six months?” Louis asks. Nick nods. “Probably, then, yeah,” Louis agrees. “You can’t give them like… sushi, though, you know that, right?”

Nick rolls his eyes. “I know you can’t give an infant sushi, Tomlinson, yes.” For a moment he looks like he’s about to say something else, like maybe he’s going to list all the foods you can feed an infant just to prove he knows, but then just shuts his mouth instead.

“Bananas,” Louis offers after a moment, reaching over to wipe the mess from the baby’s face with his finger. “Start with bananas.”

Nick just makes a humming noise at that, and they sit in silence that’s only a bit tense, watching the baby eat until she loses interest, letting the bottle dangle down from her face where she’s got the nipple clenched in her gums.

Louis reaches over to take it and holds it up to her mouth, trying to get her to eat a bit more. “I’m sorry, miss, I don’t remember your name,” he says to her, offering one of his fingers to her free hand. She grabs it tightly and squeezes as she eats.

“It’s Milan,” Nick says, squinting a bit suspiciously at Louis and crossing his arms over his chest.

Louis snorts. “Is she honestly named after a city in Italy?” he asks disbelievingly, taking the bottle and setting it on the table when she starts to shove it away from her mouth. “That’s literally the most pretentious thing I’ve ever heard.”

“She’s not,” Nick says defensively. “She’s named after Milan Kundera, thank you very much. That’s an author, in case you didn’t know.”

Louis stares at Nick blankly for a moment and then blinks.  “Is that supposed to sound less pretentious?”

“Only if you don’t know how to read, I suppose,” Nick says, but it lacks enough energy to actually be barbed, just coming out weary instead, so Louis chooses to generously ignore it.

“I’m calling you Millie,” he says to the baby instead. She gurgles at him, and then says something that sounds like ‘ba,’ which he takes to mean she agrees.

“Eurgh,” Nick says from beside him. “She’s not someone’s nan.”

“You’re right,” Louis says, “better name her after some stuffy bloke who’s about a hundred years old instead. That’ll give her the air of sprightly youth.” He turns back to Nick for a moment so that he can see him rolling his eyes.

I didn’t name her,” Nick says, still defensively, but a bit quieter now. “Her mum did.”

Louis winces a bit. “Oh. Er, right.”

There’s a tense silence, and Louis turns back to Millie, who’s humming now and opening and closing her mouth like a fish.

“Sorry,” Louis says after a bit, not quite turning around to look at Nick. Instead he busies himself wiping at Millie’s messy face with her bib. When she’s relatively clean, he stands and pops her out of the high chair, positioning her on his shoulder with a flannel he finds on the countertop underneath her, and pats softly at his back as he walks her around the kitchen aimlessly, putting a deliberate bounce into his step.

“You’ve got sisters, haven’t you,” Nick says after watching him carefully for a moment.

“Four of ‘em, yeah.”

“And they’re all younger?” Nick looks carefully gauging, like he’s measuring Louis up and mentally cataloguing the results. It makes Louis more than a bit uncomfortable.

Millie spits up just slightly on his shoulder at that, and he wipes the flannel softly on her face, a bit grateful that she’s interrupted Nick’s staring at him.

“God, sorry,” Nick says, rising up from his chair like he’s going to do something about it, but looking like he has no idea what that might be. “She’s been sick on you.”

Louis shrugs. “Babies do that.”

“Not this much,” Nick says darkly. “It’s constant, dunno how she can have that much in her. I’ve got the spit-uppiest baby in the world, I swear.”

As soon as he says it, a look of vague horror crosses his face, and he barks out a humorless laugh and then sits back down heavily, putting his face in his hands.

“Er,” Louis says awkwardly, shifting Millie to his opposite hip. “Are you, like -- all right?” He winces, because it’s obvious Nick’s not, so now Louis sounds like a prat for asking, but it’s not his fault. He’d just meant to pop in and check on the baby to make sure it’s alive, not suss out Nick Grimshaw’s emotional state.

“It’s mad, isn’t it?” Nick says, lifting his head up from his hand with a frantic expression. “I’ve, like… got her. Jesus. I’ve got her for pretty much ever, making sure she doesn’t die or wind up horribly warped, and that’s, like. It’s mad.” He laughs like it’s the least funny thing anyone’s ever said. Which, maybe it is.

“Well,” says Louis, feeling wildly uncomfortable. He pets Millie’s hair to distract himself. “I mean, you’ve kept her alive so far. I doubt you’ll kill her at all, honestly.”

She makes a noise at that, punctuated by an enormous yawn.

“Has she slept today?” Louis asks. He’s much more comfortable if they stay strictly in the land of baby things. Baby things he knows. Nick Grimshaw’s feelings, on the other hand, he hasn’t got the first clue about, and thinks he probably doesn’t want to.

“Not since she woke us up this morning.”

“She’s probably ready for a nap, then,” Louis says. He hopes it sounds authoritative. It seems like Nick desperately needs someone to tell him what to do next, even if it seems like it ought to be second nature, given that she’s just eaten, and is yawning again. Hardly rocket science figuring out when a baby needs sleep, in Louis’ opinion.

“I know,” Nick insists. “In theory I know what her nap schedule is and when she eats and how to give her a bath, but she still cries all the time anyway. She probably hates me.”

“She’s a baby,” Louis says, hoping it sounds patient. “She can’t hate anyone.”

“She hates me,” Nick says morosely. “She knows I’m not her mum. She wants to go home.”

“She’s adjusting,” Louis says uncomfortably. He’s not sure what angle he’s meant to take here -- whether he should try to be stern with Nick and tell him to pull it together in the hopes that it’ll snap him out of it, or try for something closer to understanding and less like being a prick. You’re probably not supposed to be a prick to someone who’s just inherited a dead friend’s baby.

He’s not really sure what to do with Nick, so he turns to Millie again, whose eyelids are drooping almost all the way shut, her little mouth smushed open against his shoulder. She smells like softness and baby and everything familiar and homey, like all of Louis’ childhood with his mum and his sisters. Millie’s got more hair than any of his sisters had when they were her age, a bit bigger and rounder in the face, but there’s still something intrinsically familiar about having a baby in his arms.

She’s really quite sweet, he thinks. Bit unfair that this tiny thing has no one in the world except for a hapless Nick Grimshaw in stained sweatpants.

“Anyway,” he says, realizing the silence has gone on for too long. “D’you want me to put her down?”

Nick just nods a bit dumbly, rubbing at his eye with the heel of his hand. Louis sincerely hopes he’s not about to cry.

“Where’s her cot?” he asks, probably a bit too loudly.

“Through there, in my room,” Nick says tiredly. He must be exhausted -- he’s always been fussy about his bedroom the few time Louis’ been around for parties and such, making a show about how it’s his sanctuary and off limits and whatever other nonsense. But now he’s just pointing vaguely down the hall, letting Louis go through unescorted while he carries on staring resolutely at the table top.

“Here we are, miss,” Louis says softly when he gets there. There’s a small wooden cot at the foot of what must be Nick’s bed, painted cheerily in yellow and white. There’s also an explosion of nappy packages and baby-sized clothes scattered around the room, a change pad in one corner, and Louis gets her into a clean nappy and a soft white BabyGro before settling her into her cot with a soft gray stuffed mouse. She blinks up at him several times, and then goes out like a light.

When he gets back to the kitchen, Nick’s dog -- Puppy, Louis is pretty sure is its name, which is so stupid he hardly has words for it -- has appeared from wherever she’d been hiding, shifting restlessly at Nick’s feet.

“She needs to go out,” Nick says, a bit hysterically. “She needs to go out and I can’t leave Mila alone in here while I take her and she’s going to wee on the floor again and I don’t think I have a single clean rag that I’ll be able to clean it up with because the baby’s been sick on all of them.” He shoves his hand through his hair, leaving it standing up all lopsided so he looks even more frenzied than before. Which had been quite frenzied. “S’pose I’ll go get her, maybe she’ll go back down once Puppy’s finished.”

Louis sighs. “I can stay with her,” he offers, despite the fact that he’s already been here far, far longer than he’d originally planned. He’d planned on approximately two minutes, enough to fulfill his agreement with Harry in only the barest of senses. That seems to be out the window now, however. “Take the dog out, I’ll wait here.”

Nick looks like he’s about to object, but then Puppy bounces at his feet and whines, and he just shuts his mouth into a firm line, examining Louis with careful scrutiny. It’s more uncomfortable than Louis wants to admit, but he forces himself to stand there and return the gaze steadily, hands jammed in the pockets of his jeans.

“Are you sure?” Nick asks. “I’m sure you’d rather go, I can just wake her...”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Never wake a sleeping baby, Nicholas, surely you’ve heard that?”

Nick blinks at him. “I thought that was sleepwalkers.”

Louis waves his hand. “It’s both. Just go, I’ll stay. She’s sleeping, anyway, we’ll be fine.”

Nick wavers, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “All right,” he says slowly. “All right, but we’ll just be a moment. Like, seriously, under sixty seconds.”

Louis shrugs. “Do whatever,” he says, settling down in the kitchen chair again and pulling out his phone to occupy himself.

Nick’s still frowning at him as he shuts the door behind himself and the dog, still wearing the same stained sweatpants and vaguely hysterical expression, but Louis just ignores him in favor of scrolling through his emails.


Nick doesn’t turn back up for another twenty minutes. Louis is beginning to entertain the idea that Nick’s taken Puppy and fled to the Americas, leaving Louis to care for the baby instead, and he’s just about to start Googling “what do you do if someone abandons their baby at your flat,” although that’s not quite right because they’re technically at Nick’s, only he can’t think of how to phrase that -- “what to do when you’re stranded at someone else’s flat with their baby,” perhaps -- when he hears the front gate open, and a moment later, Nick appears with Puppy.

“Sorry,” Nick says immediately. “Sorry, I just haven’t been able to walk her properly in days and I felt bad, and she was sniffing everything and having so much fun…” He trails off, watching Puppy trot through to the lounge, sniff at Millie’s floor seat with a passing interest, and then jump up onto the sofa where she collapses happily.

“Thank you,” Nick says. Louis doesn’t think he’s ever heard Nick say ‘sorry’ or ‘thank you’ so many times in the whole time he’s known him, let alone a stretch of a few moments. It’s a bit disorienting.

“It’s fine,” Louis says, standing up and pocketing his phone. “She didn’t even wake up. You’ve probably got at least another hour before she does.” He pauses. “You could sleep too, probably. That’s, like. A thing. You’re supposed to sleep when they’re sleeping, and all.”

He goes a bit red in the face before he’s even finished, because something about exchanging parenting tips with Nick Grimshaw is just bizarre enough to be mortifying, and anyway, Nick’s probably about to say something arsey about it, because that’s what Nick does.

Except he doesn’t. He just nods tiredly, kicking off his worn trainers and hanging Puppy’s lead on a peg by the door. “Might do,” he says. “If she screams her head off all night again then I’ll at least have had an hour of sleep. Just enough to keep me alive, if not sane.”

He starts to edge towards the lounge, but then turns back to Louis. “Erm,” he says awkwardly, running his hand through his quiff. “Thanks, for like. Stopping by and helping.”

Louis just shrugs. “It was Harry’s idea,” is all he can think to say. He turns to go, and then stops when he feels an unexpected tug on his shoulder.

“Did you want to keep this?” Nick asks, a hint of a grin on his face as he holds up the spitty rag Louis had burped Millie on after she’d eaten. He’d forgotten it was still hanging on his shoulder.

“Don’t be a twat, Grimshaw,” he says, although he can’t manage to muster much force behind it. Nick’s already headed for the sofa, and he’s collapsed face first onto it by the time Louis is shutting the door behind him, just barely missing Puppy with his unnecessarily long legs.


The buzz of his phone rattling on the bedside table wakes him from a nap the next afternoon, although only in the most technical sense -- he’s still got that groggy, useless fuzz in his head that comes from sleeping in the middle of the day when you haven’t got anything better to do. He whacks at his phone to shut it up and pulls his pillow over his head, wondering if he can get away with going back to sleep. Probably not, because he’s got work in a bit, but he considers it strongly anyway.

Zayn hadn’t been home when he’d gotten home from Nick’s the day before, and he’s still nowhere to be found when Louis finally forces himself out of bed and stumbles into the kitchen to put on the kettle, despite the fact that it’s nearly three in the afternoon. Louis supposes he’s at Liam’s, seeing as he’s at Liam’s more often than he’s actually in their own flat. Louis and Harry have a standing bet going, and Louis’ money is on Zayn moving in with Liam officially rather than just in practice when their lease runs out at the end of the year.

Harry thinks it’ll be sooner than that.

Louis supposes he’ll have to move as well once it happens, whenever that ends up being. The rent is just a bit too much for him to pay on his own, and anyway, that seems a bit depressing, pinging around in the empty flat that’s got too much space for just him. He could probably find a one bed he could afford on his own somewhere, although that sounds depressing as well. He’s never lived on his own, and he’s not sure he’d know what to do with the privacy, with all the empty space.

Maybe Harry’ll have him. He’s got a massive famous-person type house with plenty of spare bedrooms, including one that Louis has pretty much already claimed as his own for when he’s too pissed or lazy to come home, or when Zayn and Liam are about being too sickening to handle. He’s got a nice pool, too, and would probably let Louis use his cars. Living with a pop star would undeniably have perks.

Still, the idea isn’t exactly right either, although he’ll take it if it’s that or sleeping on a street corner. It’s just -- it’s Harry’s house, and he’d only be taking up space in it. Harry’s got his house, and he’s not in it more often than he is because he’s off being talented and famous, and Zayn and Liam have each other and will likely wind up adopting a whole brood of children and a menagerie of animals by Christmas, if the sickening loved-up way they look at each other is anything to go by. Niall’s shacked up with Bressie in Mullingar half the year, and even when they’re back in London, they tend to stay in the house for days at a time for sex marathons that Louis will inevitably hear far too much about once they venture out into daylight again.

It just seems an awful lot like everyone’s got their own things, nice lovely things like homes and careers and people to love them that they’ve settled down with. Moving into Harry’s house would probably be perfectly lovely, but it would still feel like making space for himself somewhere that’s not actually his.

It’d be nice, is all, if he had someone who wanted to settle in somewhere with him. He suspects it’d be quite nice, anyway. So far, he’s never really had the opportunity to find out.

He takes his tea to the lounge and flops onto the sofa as dramatically as he can without spilling it, shaking his head in an effort to clear away that particular line of thought.

His phone vibrates in his pocket again with an unread message, and he pulls it out, hoping it’ll distract him from falling into a proper fit of feeling sorry for himself.

nick says u were brilliant w/ mil yesterday, the text from Harry reads. Louis groans and pulls a throw pillow over his face. He may be fuzzy-headed from sleep, but he still knows enough to suspect that this is going to turn out to be a headache. Of course Nick spoke to Harry about it. Now Harry’s going to get all smug and smirkily triumphant and call it proof that it was a brilliant idea on his part, having Louis go over in the first place. It’ll be unbearable.

There are two tactics Louis can take here, he thinks.

who is this, he types, trying for the easier option first. how did you get this number??

ha bloody ha ha u twat, Harry’s reply buzzes a moment later. A string of frowny faced emojis and tempura prawns follow.

Right. So avoidance through feigned ignorance is out, then.

The smart thing to do now would be to quietly and gracefully admit defeat, because Louis is stubborn, but in his experience, not stubborn enough to deny Harry something he wants when he truly sets his mind to getting it. He already knows how this is going to go; it’ll be easiest for both of them if he just considers it an inevitability, agrees to go check on Nick and Millie again sometime soon without making too much fuss, and let that be that.

That would be the smart thing.

get your gloating out now because im absolutely not going back, he types instead.


Forty minutes later, after an escalating series of shouty texts that finally turns into a phone call while Harry’s having his hair styled for a photoshoot, Louis agrees to go see Nick and Millie again the next day.

As he tugs on his trousers to head to his shift at the market, he thinks he should’ve held out for a full hour, just on principle.


He waits two more days to go back to Nick’s, though, as a form of quiet protest, and because he has a bit of a life. Or, like, he’d at least like to maintain the illusion of one. Particularly to Nick. He’s not quite sure why that’s the case, because he doesn’t actually give a shit what Nick Grimshaw thinks of him, but there it is. He figures that train of thought is best left unexamined, probably.

So he waits two more days, during which he picks up a few shifts at work, fucks around the flat with Zayn and makes Stan go out for pints with him, and then on Thursday, shoves one of Harry’s stupid bobble hats onto his head -- because he refuses to do his hair for the benefit of Nick Grimshaw and an infant -- and rings the bell at Nick’s flat just before noon.

“I’m in the middle of -- shit -- oh, double shit -- I’m in the middle of something,” Nick says through the speaker.

“Oh. I can go, then,” Louis offers. “Um. It’s Louis, by the way.”

“No, just -- come in, if you like, I just--”

The end of the sentence is cut off by a banging, and then the gate unlocks, so Louis lets himself through. He knocks on the front door to no answer, but when he tries the door, it’s unlocked. He figures that’s invitation enough.

“Hello?” he calls, shutting the door behind him.

“In here,” Nick’s voice says from down the hall.

When Louis comes through, the scene is similar enough to last time he’d been there, Nick and the baby set up in the kitchen. Millie’s not crying this time, but her face and upper body are covered in something sticky and bright green. Mushy peas, possibly. Whatever it is, it’s in Nick’s hair as well.

“She’s taken my lunch,” Nick says by way of explanation, looking a bit embarrassed about their respective states.

Louis tries not to feel pleased by it, and fails, because there’s something about Nick Grimshaw not knowing what he’s doing that’s deeply satisfying to him.

“And your lunch was…?” Louis asks, carefully taking off his jacket and draping it over the back of the lone chair that hasn’t got food spattered all over it.

“Fish and chips. She didn’t get that bit, just the peas, but she tried to put it in her mouth, only she missed, and when I tried to clean her off she put it in my hair, and…”

Nick trails off, and then shuts his mouth, frowning at Louis suspiciously like he’s just now realized who he’s talking to. Probably he has -- Louis remembers what it was like when he’d been the only one to watch the girls for hours at a time when they were just little babies, and how desperate you get to talk to someone, anyone, who isn’t trying to put their own feet in their mouth all the time.

He realizes with a jolt that he’s just empathized with Nick, which is actually the most disturbing thing he’s felt in a while.

“Anyway, have you just come to mock my incompetence?” Nick asks, back to that haughty tone of voice that reminds Louis why he finds Nick so insufferable most of the time. He stifles a sigh.

“Came by for the same reason I did last time,” he says, trying to sound bored and aloof, because that’s the best way to deal with Nick when he gets like this. Nick’s the sort of person who desperately wants you to take the bait, in Louis’ experience, and the fastest way to get under his skin is to not. “Harry asked me to.”

He doesn’t point out that he hadn’t mocked anyone the last time, which, frankly, he thinks he deserves some credit for. He’d been properly helpful, even Harry had said so. Which means, he realizes, that Nick must’ve, as well, when he’d spoken with Harry. And that’s -- interesting.

“You don’t need to,” Nick says, but his voice isn’t as sharp, now, and Louis thinks that’s probably as close to acceptance as he’s going to get.

“Not here to see you, anyway,” he says, brushing the rest of the way into the kitchen. “Here to see Millie, obviously.”

Millie lets out a piercing, happy shriek, and scrapes a line of mushy peas from her cheek into her mouth with one green hand.

“Hi, miss,” he says to her as he passes, gathering up a flannel from the counter and running it under the warm tap. He steadily ignores Nick watching him as he cleans off Millie’s face, and then her torso. She’s just in a nappy and little pink baby leggings, her shirt balled up on the floor near her high chair and covered in green sludge, so he wipes her down as best he can, and then pops her out of the seat and carries her over to the kitchen sink. “D’you want her to keep wearing food all day?” he asks Nick as he clears out a stray cereal bowl and wipes it down. “Because I suppose that’s your decision, but if not, I’ll give her a bath if you like.”

“She’s got a baby bath in the tub,” Nick says, still frowning in that curious way at Louis. He supposes it’s probably understandable, being a bit perplexed by how Louis’ showed up out of the blue and taken it upon himself to help with the cleaning up, but honestly, Nick’ll just have to deal with it.

Louis makes a face. “Those are a hassle. Sink works fine. Anyway, don’t you want to have a shower?” He flicks a glance up and down Nick. There’s more splatters of mushy peas down his left ear, and it’s starting to clump in his hair. “Unless that’s the look you’re going for,” he adds.

Nick scowls, but after a moment, he bangs off down the hall. Shortly, Louis hears the squeak of a shower being turned on, and he feels his face trying to smirk and roll its eyes all at once. He thinks it’s probably not flattering, so it’s a good job that Millie’s the only one who’s seen.

“Your father figure is a twit,” he tells her as he turns on the faucet to fill the sink with a few inches of warm water and sets about finding her bath things, toting her on his hip as he goes. There’s a small infant-sized towel with a hood and cat ears attached to it and baby soap that smells of lavender in a basket in Nick’s room, which he fetches, deliberately ignoring Nick humming in the en suite over the sound of the shower running.

Once he’s back in the kitchen he pulls off Millie’s green-stained leggings and sets her gently in the warm water, where she proceeds to splash frantically for several seconds until a small tidal wave of water hits her square in the face, and she coughs instinctively, looking baffled. Louis tries to hold back a grin and fails, because he’s always been hopeless in the face of squishy, daft little babies that smell of lavender, trying to figure out how simple things like water work. They’re like tiny, sweet aliens. It’s sickening endearing.

Nick must rush through his shower because he appears in the kitchen again before Louis’ even finished cleaning Millie off. He’s changed into a new pair of joggers and a clean t-shirt, Louis notices, and then deliberately turns away from him, focusing on getting Millie rinsed off and wrapped up snugly in her kitty cat towel, enveloped in the smell of lavender.

“Thanks,” Nick says once he does. He leans in close and reaches to take Millie from Louis. He doesn’t smell like lavender at all, Louis is horrified to find himself noticing before he can help it. He smells like posh soap and something spicy and warm.

He takes a step back as soon as Nick’s got Millie properly in his arms, desperate to get out of the proximity where he can’t help but notice how Nick Grimshaw smells as quickly as possible.

“You look much nicer, Miss Mila,” Nick says to her, tucking her under his chin. She babbles up at him, and then thwacks him in the chest with a small fist. Nick smiles at her so fondly that Louis feels like he’s intruding just watching them.

“So do you,” Louis says, and then realizes how it’s come out. “Just -- because you were foul before, I mean, obviously,” he amends quickly.

Nick just peers at him, his mouth quirking a bit, and then shakes his head slightly and disappears down the hall with her, leaving Louis standing there trying not to let himself flush. When they reappear a few minutes later, Millie’s snug in a new outfit, and Nick just shrugs at Louis before taking her into the lounge. Louis isn’t sure if he’s meant to follow, but he doesn’t want to stand around in the kitchen like a git, so he does.

There’s a soft-looking yellow blanket spread out on the floor, a few cuddly toys scattered around the perimeter of it, and Nick sets Millie down on it carefully.

Louis uses the silence to glance around the lounge, which is even more disastrous than the kitchen, piles of baby things and other assorted messes littering the room.

“Have you two left the house at all?” he asks as Millie wriggles around on her blanket. It looks like she’s nearly able to propel herself backward, and Louis wonders if Nick has any idea how to go about baby-proofing his ostentatiously hip flat. He’s grudgingly willing to admit that Nick has a decent enough eye for design, on a strictly objective level, but he also knows that the expensive-looking rug under the coffee table is probably only weeks from being ruined with spit-up or something else nasty. Not to mention how many sharp edges there are that she might bang into when she starts moving around properly, crawling and eventually walking. She’s making a go at it now, throwing out her arms and kicking her legs as she lies on her back, and Louis reckons she’ll be scooting around in hardly any time.

Nick looks to be thinking, and then scowls, like he doesn’t like the answer he’s come up with. “Went to the market ‘round the corner a few days ago. It was incredibly stressful,” he admits. “An ambulance went by with its sirens blasting and she started screaming.”

Louis tries not to pull a face. Millie’s been with Nick for almost a fortnight now, and if he had to guess, that’s probably the only time they’ve ventured out of the flat. No wonder Nick looks so harried, even with the mushy peas washed out of his hair.

“How’re you, like… surviving?” he asks skeptically. “With like… food?”

Nick picks at the yellow blanket, and bends at the waist to retrieve a cuddly snake when Millie gets her hand around it and promptly tosses it just out of her reach.

“My mum was here the first week,” he says, not looking up at Louis. “Set us up before she left with like, nappies and formula and all that. Reckon I’ve got four, five more days before that runs out and I have to leave the house.”

“You’ll go mad before that, probably,” Louis says. Millie’s wriggled around so she’s facing him, and he wiggles his fingers on her ribs softly until she smiles and laughs, her blue eyes impossibly big even for a baby. “You should like, take her to the park or something.”

Nick scowls and crosses his arms.

“What?” Louis asks. “That’s an outrageous idea, suddenly? Taking a child to the park?”

“I’d need about four more pair of hands,” Nick mutters. “Between her and Puppy.”

Louis sighs. Honestly, as if Nick’s the first person to try and take a baby to the park -- he’s being frightfully dramatic about it.

“If you want, I’ll come,” he offers grudgingly. Nick looks at him skeptically. “Only because I like Millie, obviously. And I’m sure it’d make Harry happy, anyway.”

Something on Nick’s face goes dark, and he scowls. “Harry doesn’t need to keep sending you over here to check up on us, y’know,” he says sourly. “I’m not, like, an expert, all right, but I do have an idea of what I’m doing. I’m not totally useless.”

Louis forces himself not to roll his eyes too obviously, because even if Nick’s using his brattiest tone of voice again, there’s something atypically vulnerable about it, and Louis can’t help but suspect this is a bit of a sensitive spot for him.

“Harry knows that, you idiot,” he says as kindly as he can manage -- which, admittedly, isn’t much, but still, he tries. “He’s not sending me because he thinks you’re going to like, accidentally poison her or something.” He feels suddenly tempted to say something to reassure Nick, which is an extremely unusual impulse, but he decides to go with it. “Look -- she wouldn’t be with you if you weren’t the best person to look after her, okay? Just, Harry loves her too, and.” He hesitates. “He loved Jaz, and he’s probably making himself sick that he can’t be here himself, so I’m just his proxy. It’s mostly to make him feel better that I’m here.”

That bit’s not strictly true, because while he’s not lying about how Nick isn’t a terrible caretaker, it’s also fairly obvious that he hasn’t been around babies much, either, whereas Louis has spent the better part of his life practically up to his neck in babies. He supposes it makes sense to help out as he can.

And, admittedly, there’s something roundly satisfying about being better than Nick at something, being able to show him up under the guise of being helpful and altruistic.

Just a bit.

“Anyway,” Louis says mildly. “Haven’t got any other babies around to dote on, which, like. Not to brag, but I’m pretty good at. And I’ve sort of missed it, so. I don’t mind, really.”

As soon as he says it, he realizes, to his surprise, how much he means it.

“Oh,” Nick says, a bit dumbly, which is a pleasant change. He’s got a smart response to everything, usually, and it’s both strange and a bit satisfying for Louis to come out of a conversation with Nick feeling like for once he’s got the last word in. Even if it is down to Nick’s sleep deprivation, which Louis suspects it likely is.

“So just shut up and let me help, okay?” he says, avoiding Nick’s gaze and focusing on Millie. She stretches her hands up to him, and he lets her grab at his hands and pull herself up into a wobbly sitting-up position.

He doesn’t look, but out of his peripheral vision, he’s pretty sure he sees Nick nod.


The next afternoon when he’s at work he gets a text from a number he hasn’t got in his phone.

going to try the park w/ mila tomorrow. she’d probably let you join us if you’re still interested, it says.

who is this, he responds, and someday that’ll stop being his default response whenever he gets a message he’s not sure how to respond to, but apparently that’s not today.

don’t be an idiot, Nick responds a moment later. we’re going after breakfast, if you get here by 10 i’ll let you tag along.

Louis scoffs audibly, and he’s about to answer with something snide and full of expletives, because the bloody park had been his idea in the first place, and he’d wager Nick won’t even bother going if he doesn’t turn up to help, but then another message pings in, a close up picture of Millie with a huge pair of aviator sunglasses balanced on her visibly perplexed face. All his snide responses slip his mind, suddenly.

maybe, he says instead.


The next day at quarter to ten, Nick lets him into his flat.

“Good of you to join us,” Nick says loftily.

“Just wanted to see you attempt this,” Louis says in response. “Since apparently you think it’s akin to piloting a jet plane, taking an infant who can’t even crawl out of the house for half an hour.”

“Great,” says Nick, ushering Louis through. “Really helpful already.”

Louis just rolls his eyes, and toes at the pile of detritus sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor. There’s a pram, two bags stuffed to the point of nearly exploding with assorted baby things, a blanket, a jacket, a lead for Puppy, and Millie herself, propped up in her soft purple floor chair, zipped up to the eyeballs in what appears to be two layers of coats.

“Posh,” Louis says, eyeing the pram. It’s one of those twatty designer ones that probably costs more than his rent, all sleek and monochromatic.

“Shut up,” Nick grunts, heaving one of the bags over his shoulder. “I didn’t pick it out. Barely know how it works.”

“Well,” Louis says, tucking the second bag underneath the pram. “Generally you put the baby in this open bit, see, and then you go push it around outdoors.”

“Funny,” Nick says with a scowl as he bends down to pick Millie up, arranging her in the pram. “So funny it’s almost unbearable.” He frowns down at Millie, picks her back up again, and rearranges her blanket before putting her back, tucking her in carefully. He stares some more, and Louis can see him about to reach in for another go, apparently displeased by this attempt as well, and he sighs and smacks his hand away.

“Are we going to actually go?” he asks. Nick scowls, but crosses his arms over his chest instead of fiddling with her blankets more, so Louis counts that as a win.

“Fine,” Nick says. “Only half an hour, though, then we’re coming straight back. I don’t want her to get cold.”

“Nick,” Louis says as patiently as he can manage as he carefully maneuvers the pram out of the flat and onto the sidewalk. Nick follows behind him with Puppy on her lead, locking the door behind him, and then switches with Louis so he’s got Puppy and Nick’s got Millie’s pram. “It’s April and she’s got two coats on. We’re not in the Arctic. She’ll be fine.”

“Well I worry!” Nick says, his voice going high and a bit shrieky as they start down the road. Briefly, Louis wonders if they’ll have any run-ins with paps. He’s plenty used to it at this point, on account of Harry, who winds up in the papers almost every time he buys milk, and he knows that Nick will sometimes show up on gossip sites on his own as well, at least if it’s a slow enough day. He wonders for a moment if that’s part of why Nick’s kept Millie holed up inside, and the thought considerably lessens his desire to smack Nick around the head for being so neurotic about it.

They go unnoticed the whole way to the park up the road, though, and Nick looks moderately less fretful by the time they set up on a bench and he takes Millie out of her pram, propping her on his knee. Puppy sets about circling the bench, sniffing studiously at everything she can get at before giving up and flopping at Louis’ feet.

“Not so bad, then?” Louis asks. He wishes he had tea -- he hadn’t thought to stop for any on the way over, and it’s early, still. Plus it would give him something to do with his hands, which feel a bit twitchy now, sat next to Nick with nothing to do except peer across the park.

“Mm,” Nick says, fussing with the zip of Millie’s coat. She gurgles up at him, and then tries to throw herself bodily out of his hands, laughing the whole time. The look of horror that flashes on Nick’s face as he fumbles to grip her even tighter cheers Louis more than it probably ought to.

“Don’t much like the look of that dog over there,” Nick says warily after a moment.

Louis frowns and looks around. The park is nearly empty, two grandmotherly old women on the opposite bench the only ones near them. Over the far hill there’s a bloke with a tiny dog on a lead, walking away from them.

“That dog over there,” Louis says slowly, nodding towards it. “The fluffy white one on a lead, very far away, that can’t weigh more than a stone?”

“It looks suspicious,” Nick says moodily.

Louis peers at Nick for a long, despairing moment before huffing out a pained laugh and shaking his head. “You’re completely mad,” he tells him.

Beneath them, Puppy hops up and tries to clamber up the front of Nick’s legs. “She wants up,” Louis informs him. “Unless you’re suspicious of her motives now as well.”

Nick scoffs. “Puppy’s hardly a threat. She’s very well trained.”

Louis blinks. “I saw her eating one of your trainers last time I was over,” he says. He gestures at Millie, then, because Puppy’s still trying to leap onto Nick’s lap, and Millie’s making grabby hands at her as she does, and there’s not enough room for the both of them on Nick’s narrow frame by a mile. “Here, give her.”

Nick passes Millie over to Louis, and she cuddles up to him immediately, wedging one tiny fist down the collar of his jumper. As soon as there’s space, Nick pulls Puppy up so that she can curl on his lap, her lead held loosely in his hands, and they settle back, the four of them, into a companionable silence.

One of the women on the bench opposite them catches Louis’ eye and smiles at him, and then nudges her companion, nodding over at them. They both smile indulgently at them, and Louis suddenly realizes how it must look, him and Nick sat on a narrow park bench on a Saturday morning with a baby and a dog. Properly domestic, he thinks.

He grimaces at the thought and tries to refrain from sticking out his tongue.


The women leave after a bit, and then it’s just Nick and Louis in their corner of the park. They abandon their bench so that Louis can lay out the blanket they’ve brought to set Millie on -- not her cuddly yellow one, which they’d left at Nick’s to keep it from getting dirty, but a thick navy one that she seems to find an acceptable substitute -- and he sits down with her, arranging a pile of cuddly animals that she ignores in favor of a leaf that’s blown over.

Once they’re set up Nick takes Puppy off to romp around in the off-leash area for a bit, and Louis hates to admit it, but it’s a bit of a relief. He blames the two old women and their kindly smiles, because he’s finding himself having a far nicer time than he cares to. He’d only meant to come to prove a point -- although he’s not entirely sure what point and to whom; to Nick, to prove that he’s the more skilled infant caretaker, or to Harry, to prove that he’s keeping his word about looking after them. But somewhere, without his permission, it’s just settled into a nice, normal trip to the park with no ulterior motives at all.

He blames the old women, and the surprisingly lovely weather, a change from all the rain of the last week, and Nick most of all, who’s still a bit tightly wound about taking Millie out of the house and yet hasn’t said anything particularly infuriating the whole time they’ve been there.

Louis isn’t sure what to do with that.

He realizes Millie’s trying to eat the leaf that’s blown onto her blanket and shakes his head as he prises it out of her fingers, a bit damp from trying to shove it in her mouth.

“Feral child,” he tells her happily once he’s got it away from her.

“Pah,” she says, and then grins gummily at him. Without his permission, his heart constricts. It’s just -- she’s so sweet, even for a baby, and Louis usually finds all babies sweet, and when he thinks about what a shit hand she’s already been dealt, and how that’ll always be true, how she’ll have to grow up and find out about her mum dying… it makes him want to clutch her to his chest and not let go, keep her safe from everything that might ever hurt her. Even if that’s not possible, he feels like he ought to try.

He bites down forcefully on his lip and tries to shake the feeling off, though, because right now she’s smiling happily at him from where she’s reclined on her back in her two coats, arms waving around and legs kicking out, and maybe that’s enough for now.

He’s holding her up in a sitting position when Nick and Puppy come back, trying to center her enough to sit up properly -- she can do it easily if she’s bent forward and balanced on her hands, but she hasn’t quite managed to hold herself upright yet, so Louis lets her cling to his fingers with her fists while she holds herself up, looking incredibly pleased with herself as she does.

“Hiya,” Nick says, plopping down beside them. Puppy bounds over, sniffing excitedly at Millie’s face before licking at her nose once, which sets Millie off shrieking happily as she tries to get away from Puppy’s tongue. “You two have fun?”

“Loads, yeah,” Louis says, trying to wriggle away from Puppy, who’s now trying to lick his face, wagging her tail furiously. “Discussed philosophy, y’know, very lofty ideas. The meaning of life and all that.”

“Really?” Nick asks mildly. “And did she have any intriguing ideas on the matter?”

“Got distracted trying to eat leaves before we could really get to the meat of it,” he says with a shrug, and Nick laughs.

“Her or you?” he asks, leaning in closer to Louis as he reaches his hand towards Millie, chucking her fondly under her chin with one long finger.

Nick’s only a few inches away now, his shoulder near to pressing up against Louis’, and he can smell him, that same spicy posh soap smell he’d had about him after he’d showered the other day. With a start, Louis realizes he can feel his pulse thumping too fast, and he takes a deep breath through his mouth to try and calm himself.

It doesn’t work.


He doesn’t mean it to happen, really, but after that he falls into a habit of stopping by Nick’s flat every few days. If Nick finds anything strange about the arrangement, he doesn’t say so. If anything, he seems grateful to have someone around to wrangle Millie, help keep her from flinging herself bodily off the sofa or petting Puppy too enthusiastically. Mostly Louis sits with Millie on her soft yellow blanket, spread out in the middle of Nick’s lounge floor while Nick tries to clean, or takes a shower, or whatever he can’t do when he’s got a baby to hold.

He spends an afternoon helping Nick move Millie’s cot into the spare bedroom. Nick had mentioned how hard it is for him to sleep when he’s constantly trying to listen to her at the foot of his bed, waking up every half hour to make sure she’s still breathing, to which Louis had rolled his eyes and told him there’s an easy solution to that, and it involves putting her in a different room with a baby monitor, obviously.

Nick fights him for nearly a week on it before he relents, but when they go to the park again a few days after they get her new bedroom set up, he reluctantly admits that they’re both better rested. Louis tries not to gloat too obviously. Sort of.

He’s still not sure he entirely likes Nick, because he’s still got a bit of an attitude and a stupid quiff and a pretentious way of talking. But he’s also funny, sometimes, which Louis reluctantly admits, and if he says something too arsey he’ll eventually apologize for it, probably. And he loves Millie so much that sometimes it’s almost hard to watch. Like when he’s looking at her like he hasn’t any clue what he’s meant to do with her, but he’s determined to do it anyway. Or when he makes her laugh, how it always seems to surprise him, to startle a laugh out of him as well.

That’s enough to make Louis very nearly like Nick, despite himself. Which has the unfortunate side effect of taking a lot of the joy out of showing Nick up in terms of taking care of Millie, because suddenly he finds he’s rooting for Nick, glad to see him slowly finding his footing.

It takes an embarrassingly short amount of time before he’s not sure what he did before -- before Millie. Not them, he forces himself to think, because that’s too much, especially to think about someone he still wants to smack in the back of the head fairly regularly. It’s Millie that’s important -- the routine they’ve somehow fallen into, and the way she’s coming to recognize him, the way she smiles in a certain way just for him. It’s just her that he’s gone all soft about, he tells himself -- Nick’s just peripheral.

He texts Harry pictures of Millie constantly, because he knows he’s still wracked by guilt for not being there, even just from the nonsensical strings of emojis he sends at odd hours of the night (an ocean wave followed by three mouthless faces is for when he’s feeling the worst). So Louis takes to sending pictures in a near constant stream -- when he and Nick take her on the now fairly regular trips to the park, and when she tries banana for the first time, and when she falls asleep with her whole fist in her mouth. Harry goes all snivelly and weepy on the phone nearly every time he calls, which makes Louis want to punch him and cuddle him all at once, even from across an ocean.

“I’m glad you two are getting on,” Harry says one day when Louis’ in the shops, balancing his phone against his ear as he looks for the cereal he likes that he can never remember the name of.

“I always get along with babies,” Louis says, frowning at a box, trying to figure out if the name sounds familiar.

“Not you and Milan, idiot, you and Nick.” Louis can practically hear Harry smiling down the line, equal parts delighted and smug, and he blinks.

“Oh. Are we getting on, then?” He hadn’t realized that’s what they’d been doing.

“Nick says you’ve been ‘surprisingly tolerable,’” Harry reports happily, as if it’s the highest sort of praise. Maybe it is, from Nick, Louis doesn’t know -- it surprises him either way.

“Well, that’s what it is, then,” Louis says, chucking the cereal in his basket decisively. “We’re tolerating each other for Millie’s sake.”

“It’s sweet that you have your own nickname for her,” Harry says fondly. There’s an ominous sniffle, and Louis makes a noise like tch in the back of his throat.

“Pull it together, Haz,” he scolds. He turns down a new aisle, where there’s a small bin full of soft plastic chewy-toys for babies, the sort that are meant to go in the freezer for when they’re teething and their gums hurt, and instinctively starts to look through them idly.

“All I said was it’s sweet,” Harry tells him. There’s a loud ruckus in the background, then, and Louis wonders how much longer he’ll have Harry for -- he’s meant to be rehearsing for a show, but he’s snuck off somewhere backstage to call.

“What d’you reckon she’d like to chew on more,” Louis asks him thoughtfully, “a weird-looking duck or a weird-looking rabbit?”

“Are you buying her toys at this very moment?” Harry asks delightedly.

“I’m buying cereal, Harold, there just happened to be teething toys near it.” Even to his own ears, though, it sounds flimsy.

“Duck,” Harry says firmly, and then there’s another ruckus, and a door opening. “Shit, I’ve been found out, I’ve gotta go. Are you headed over to Nick’s? Kiss both of them for me and tell them I miss ‘em.”

“I’m not,” Louis lies, “and I won’t.”

“Okay,” Harry says, unbearably smug, and then rings off.

Louis buys the rabbit, just to spite him.


Nick drags it out for nearly a month, but eventually, he has to go back to work. Which should hardly be a surprise, really, since that’s always been the plan, at least as far as Louis’ understood.

Except once it’s upon him, Nick somehow seems totally surprised by it, like it’s snuck up on him with no notice, and he spends his last weekend of leave in an absolute frenzy. On the Sunday evening before his first show back, Louis thinks he’s never seen a man more on the edge of a nervous breakdown than Nick currently is.

Louis’ trying not to be annoyed, and mostly failing. He’d gone through the trouble of getting takeaway for dinner for the both of them -- only because it’s easier than going back to his own flat to eat after covering a shift at the farmer’s market, and Nick’s flat is nearer the curry place he likes, and anyway, he hadn’t been able to see Millie that morning because he’d been working. He’d missed her, too, he’s not too proud to admit.

So it would have been rude of him to show up with only food for himself. That’s the only reason he’s brought anything for Nick, because he would have had to hear him whine about it all night, otherwise.

Except now he thinks he needn’t even have bothered, because Nick hasn’t eaten more than three bites of it, too busy panicking to sit down, let alone chew.

When Nick’s pacing his fourth nervous circuit of the kitchen, Millie propped up on his hip and sleepily pulling his hair as he worries loudly -- he’s babbling something about baby routines, now, and what happens if you disrupt them, or some rot -- Louis sighs and decisively puts down his fork.

“Here,” he says, standing up and reaching out his arms towards the baby impatiently. “Give her here, you’re driving me mad.”

Nick stops pacing, but only stares a bit dumbly at Louis, so he has to forcibly take Millie from him. She babbles conversationally, and her tiny fist is still balled in Nick’s hair, which takes a moment to untangle, but Louis finally gets her settled against his chest and marches her down the hall.

“What are you doing?” Nick asks, following several paces behind them.

“Putting her to bed,” Louis says firmly. “You’re going to make her sick if you walk her around the kitchen one more time, and I’m tired of watching it, and it’s her bedtime, anyway.” Or near enough, at least -- either way, looking at Millie is clearly just making Nick frantic, and Louis thinks maybe he’ll calm down at least slightly if he’s not staring at her, thinking of various complexes she’s bound to develop at being “abandoned by her guardian,” or whatever other new problem he’s managed to invent.

Nick looks like he might protest, but instead he just follows a few paces behind them as Louis goes about getting Millie ready for bed, changing her nappy and putting her in her striped pajamas that make her look a bit like a very tiny prisoner.

He sets her carefully in her cot in her bedroom, and then arches his eyebrows meaningfully at Nick -- the meaning he’s going for is say goodnight like a normal human, although he’s not sure if it totally comes across -- and leaves them, heading back into the kitchen, where he puts the takeaway in the fridge and puts the kettle on.

Nearly ten minutes later he’s about to go pull Nick out of Millie’s room by the ear, because there’s absolutely no reason it should take that long to put a tired baby to sleep unless you’re being a prat and having a meltdown about it, but then Nick finally stumbles in, flopping into a chair like a man who’s just run a marathon.

“Here,” Louis says, banging a mug in front of him.

“You made tea?” Nick asks, apparently perplexed by the concept.

“It’s more whiskey than tea,” Louis shrugs, gesturing vaguely to the bottle he’d found stashed in one of the high-up cupboards, sitting open on the countertop. “You seem like you need it.”

And actually, Louis thinks he deserves one as well, so he fixes himself a cup before he joins Nick at the table.

“What if--” Nick starts after a long moment, and Louis sighs, cutting him off at the pass, because they’re not going to do this all night. Entertaining the neuroses of a deranged man is a dangerous game. Louis knows. He lives with Zayn.

“It's going to be fine,” he says to Nick firmly, like he can make him shut up and believe it through sheer force. “You like that girl you’ve hired, don’t you?”

Nick frowns, but nods grudgingly. He’d found some girl to watch Millie during the mornings, and Louis can’t remember what her name is, but she’s some sort of combination nanny and university student, and she’d come extremely highly recommended by one of Nick’s friends at the station.

He’d also performed about six different background checks on her before hiring her properly, which Louis thinks is just a bit over the top.

“Yeah, but what if Mila doesn’t like her?” Nick ask. He wraps his long fingers around his cup and squeezes until they turn white.

“She did like her, you tosser. They played for nearly an hour when she was over, you said.”

“Well, yes, but that’s -- that’s just an hour, and I was there the whole time as well. What if she decides she hates Priya once I’ve left, and she spends the whole time crying, and she winds up emotionally scarred for life?” He takes a panicky gulp of tea and winces.

Louis rolls his eyes. Priya, that was her name.

“Do you realize how unlikely that is?” he asks. “Like, every part of it?”

Nick just blinks pathetically at him, and Louis sips his tea, glad he’d put plenty of whiskey in his own as well, because he deserves it, if this is how Nick is going to be.

“She’ll probably fuss once you go, yeah, but she’s a baby.” Louis tries to emphasize this, because he’s not sure if Nick understands. “They’re resilient. She liked Priya, and she’ll probably cry for a moment once you go, and then immediately forget all about you as soon as Peppa Pig’s on the telly.”

Nick frowns, and takes another heavy pull from his teacup. “Is that supposed to be consoling?”

Louis ignores him, and finishes his boozy tea with a gulp. “And you’ll be back home in less than five hours, which is hardly enough time to develop any lasting emotional scars, I promise.”

Nick stays silent, and Louis reaches over to grab his empty teacup before standing and bringing both of them over to the kettle, fixing them each another.

“I know I’m being stupid,” Nick says quietly to his turned back after a moment. “It’s just a bit terrifying, having her. More than a bit, actually.”

Louis’ hand stills where he’s stirring his own tea, suddenly feeling too large for the kitchen, and the quiet way Nick’s admitting to being scared.

“Like, she’s already had to go through… everything, y’know and I just -- don’t want to do anything to make it worse for her,” Nick continues. “I mean, you’ve said so, I’ve no idea what I’m doing.”

Louis turns around and leans against the countertop, looking at Nick carefully. “Okay,” he says slowly. “Listen to me carefully. I have said that, yes, because generally you don’t.” Nick winces, but then shrugs, like he doesn’t think he can argue the point.

But,” Louis continues. “And I’m only saying this once, so listen. That doesn’t matter, okay? Because you love her, and you want to do the best for her you can, and that’s what counts. So maybe you fuck up her bottles sometimes, but that’s not going to hurt her any.”

Nick nods slowly, seemingly thrown off balance by how Louis isn’t taking the piss out of him. If he’s honest, Louis is as well. He realizes with something like horror that his heartbeat has picked up a bit.

“Not having someone to love her,” he says, trying to ignore his pulse rattling off-kilter. “That’s what’ll hurt a kid. And she’s got that, all right? She’s got you. She’s fine.”

“Oh,” Nick says, quietly.

“Yeah.” Louis feels suddenly wildly overexposed, so he turns back to the counter and away from Nick, trying to focus on getting the right amount of whiskey into Nick’s tea. It glugs over, though, and sloshes on the counter, and he swears, grabbing at a spare rag to mop it up. He doesn’t even realize Nick’s stood up until he feels fingers close on his wrist.

He drops the rag and turns around.

He only gets a moment to marvel at how near Nick is. He’s so close, crowding Louis against the counter, towering over him in a way that should be claustrophobic, and he should feel boxed in but for some reason he doesn’t -- he feels frantic, but not with the need to get away.

And then Nick leans down, and he’s kissing him before Louis knows what to do, so he just -- kisses back, on instinct, because he knows how to do that much, at least.

He has to stretch up on his tiptoes, because Nick’s so bloody tall, unnecessarily tall, in Louis’ opinion, and his lips are dry and he’s still got a hand wrapped around Louis’ wrist, and he’s wearing an incredibly stupid shirt that says BRIXTON 1982 in neon pink faded letters across the back, and all of a sudden the only thing Louis can think is shit, shit, shit on a loop, because shit, he’s kissing Nick.

He thinks he’d laugh hysterically if his mouth wasn’t occupied.

He almost expects Nick to stop, once he realizes what he’s doing, but he doesn’t. He just keeps kissing Louis, not hesitantly, but gentler than Louis had expected. And apparently he’d expected something from kissing Nick, which is new information to the conscious part of his brain.

He leans into Nick, opening his mouth in the hopes that it’ll distract himself from his own thoughts, and it works, because there’s Nick’s tongue, pressing in, and Louis absolutely doesn’t make any sort of whimpering noise at that, no chance. But he does kiss Nick back more fiercely, nipping just a bit at Nick’s lip, and then Nick’s crowding in closer, pressing Louis back into the cabinets.

Without his permission, the hand that Nick isn’t gripping round the wrist falls off the counter where Louis’ been bracing himself, and finds its way to Nick’s arm, curling around his bicep. Somehow, that’s what startles Nick -- not the way his hips are flush against Louis’, or the way his nails are digging into the skin of Louis’ wrist. It’s the soft brush of Louis’ fingers on his arm that takes him out of it, and then suddenly they’re not kissing, Nick taking a frantic step away from Louis as if he’s been shocked.

“Um,” Louis says a bit breathlessly, head spinning from the sudden change. It’s a lot of things to happen in forty-five seconds, going from not kissing to kissing to not all over again, and he’s just -- not sure what to do with it all. Nick is gaping at him like a fish, and Jesus, why did he kiss him? Why did Louis kiss back?

“Um,” he says again.

There’s an interminable silence, and Louis hadn’t realized that five seconds could somehow stretch out so far, but they manage. Then all of a sudden Nick shakes his head, and then claps his hands together far too loudly.

“Mila!” he practically shouts. “Um. I’ve just -- I think I’ve just heard Mila?” he says frantically. “Crying, maybe, so I’ll just -- I’ll go check on her?”

“Uh,” Louis says, because there hasn’t been a sound from the hall. “Yes? All right?”

“Great!” Nick shouts again, and then practically sprints off until he’s safely out of sight.

Louis waits for four whole minutes, watching as they tick by on the clock above the stovetop, and then empties his teacup down the sink and lets himself out, suddenly frantic to get out of Nick’s flat and into the fresh air outside.


Louis doesn’t listen to Nick’s radio show the next morning.

Not as a deliberate choice, or anything, because that would mean it’d be a reaction to something, and there’s nothing to react to. Making the conscious decision not to listen to Nick’s show would mean he’s thinking about Nick in the first place, enough to decide he’d rather not hear his voice first thing in the morning after a confounding snog, and Louis is absolutely, definitely not thinking about -- any of that.

He just happens to be asleep. It’s not his fault Nick has to do such a bloody early show.

He does wake, once, just before nine, and if he’d reached over to his alarm clock it’d be easy to flick it on to Nick’s show, probably just in time for whatever guest he’s got on today to celebrate his big return. It’s already set to Radio 1, and he’d only have to hit one tiny little button to hear Nick’s voice, piped directly into his bedroom.

Louis rolls over, instead, and closes his eyes, willing himself back to sleep.


He doesn’t go to Nick’s the next day, or the day after that, but on Wednesday he wakes up and he’s suddenly a bit angry about it all. He’s not sure at who, really -- his first instinct is to say Nick, for kissing him in the first place, because really, what else could he have possibly set out to accomplish by it, besides mucking it all up?

Bloody Nick Grimshaw.

His second instinct, however, is to be annoyed with himself, which is much less satisfying. Because Nick might be the one who went and made it weird by kissing him, but really, Nick shouldn’t be able to get under his skin in the first place, so it’s at least partially Louis’ own fault for letting him.

So he’s just not going to let him. That’s what he decides. He’s not going to feel weird, because that would mean admitting there’s something to feel weird about, that Nick has the ability to make him feel weird, and there’s not, and he doesn’t. Louis refuses to have his routine upset, refuses to not see Millie just because Nick had suffered temporary insanity, or whatever, so he’ll just -- he’ll just go over like normal, because everything is normal.

Or it will be, if he tells himself that enough. He can be very stubborn when he puts his mind to it, and he intends to use that to his advantage now; he’ll be damned if he lets Nick get to him that easily.

“That’s probably exactly what he wants, anyway,” he tells Zayn, his mouth half full of cheese toastie.

“What?” Zayn asks, leaning his head back through the open door from the tiny balcony where he’s smoking. “What who wants?”

“Nick,” Louis clarifies, because he’s just realized that’s the first thing he’s actually said out loud, so that probably explains why Zayn’s looking at him with one eyebrow raised.

“Oh,” Zayn says mostly to himself, stubbing out his cigarette in a planter and then coming into the flat, shutting the door behind him. “Something happened with Nick?”

Louis nods.

“All right,” Zayn says, collapsing gracefully on the sofa, leaving room for Louis next to him. He perches on the armrest instead. “Whatever it is, go on.”

Louis opens his mouth, and then shuts it again, because it’s just struck him that now he has to tell Zayn what happened.

“Okay,” he says, biting at the edge of his thumbnail. “All right, I’ll tell you, but don’t fucking say anything, yeah?”

Zayn just blinks at him.

“Nick kissed me,” Louis huffs out, and then waits for Zayn to react with appropriate outrage.

He blinks again.

“Did you hear me?” Louis asks with a frown. “Nick Grimshaw,” he clarifies. “He kissed me. Like, with his mouth.”

“Okay,” Zayn says.

“I feel like maybe you’re not understanding what I’m saying,” Louis says slowly.

“Nah, I heard,” Zayn says. “Nick kissed you, yeah? So what?”

“So what?” Louis says. “That’s -- that’s not normal, Zayn! That’s never happened before!”


Louis is suddenly very concerned that he’s going to have to strangle his flatmate and hide his body beneath the floorboards. He lets out a frustrated noise, flopping over to bury his face in the sofa cushions.

“Sorry, mate, I figured that must’ve happened ages ago,” Zayn says with a shrug when Louis finally sits up. “You’re over there all the time, anyway.”

Louis scowls. “For MIllie. As a service to Harry. And because I like Millie.” He emphasizes the names carefully so Zayn understands.

“All right,” Zayn says impassively. “If that’s what you want to tell yourself.”

Louis chucks a cushion at him.


Maddeningly unhelpful conversation with Zayn aside, he decides he’s standing by his plan to staunchly reject any weirdness with a firm hand, and goes over to Nick’s the next day like nothing strange has happened at all.

He waits late enough into the afternoon to be sure that Nick’ll have gotten home from work, and then heads over quickly so he can’t talk himself out of it, only stopping briefly at a Costa for tea.

“Let me in, you prat,” he says into the speaker once he’s there, stepping back and shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He thinks it comes out very nearly normal, if he does say so himself.

“Oh,” Nick says when he opens his door a moment later, clearly surprised to see him. “I didn’t, um -- I didn’t know you were coming over?”

Louis pulls a face, because that’s a normal thing to do -- make faces at Nick being a prat. “I don’t usually tell you, do I?” He bustles in past Nick, trying to project an air of confidence.

Millie is on her yellow blanket in the middle of the lounge, and Louis marches over to her to pick her up, determined to focus all his energy on her. If he keeps himself occupied enough that way then there won’t be an opportunity for anything to get strange and awkward. When he’s a few paces away from scooping her up, however, he stops.

“Nick,” he says, narrowing his eyes at Millie. “She’s sitting up.”

And she is. Nick eventually sidles up next to Louis, standing there and peering at Millie along with him, but Louis keeps his focus on her, and how she’s not toppling over. She’s holding herself upright like she’s been doing it all her life, spine straight, no steadying hands on the ground at all.

“Oh,” Nick says. “Yeah, Priya said she started doing it yesterday? I mean, she was proper close already.”

Louis turns to Nick, and blinks meaningfully at him before reaching over and punching him none too gently in the arm.

“Hey!” Nick yelps. “What the fuck-- what was that for?”

“You should’ve told me,” Louis says. It comes out a bit squawkier than he would’ve liked. “I’ve been practicing with her for weeks.”

Nick’s face twists into something like total confusion, and he rubs idly at his bicep where Louis’d hit him.

“Yeah, well,” Nick says, dropping his gaze down to Millie. “Didn’t think you much wanted to hear from me? After that… thing.”

Louis stiffens, because oh, there’s the awkwardness. He wants to hit Nick again for managing to ruin his plan in less than two minutes flat.

“Dunno what thing you’re talking about, mate,” he says firmly. Below them, Millie starts to lean, teetering on her axis for a long moment before toppling over with a muffled thump. She lets out a startled noise, and then starts to cry. It’s more out of outrage than pain, Louis’ sure of it, but he snatches her up anyway, making soothing noises and cuddling her against his chest, grateful for the interruption.

Next to him, Nick says nothing.


“It was good, yeah,” Nick says later that afternoon. “Good to be back at work, y’know. Talk to adults again for a change. Well, if Fincham counts as an adult, at least.”

He’s folding a stack of clean baby clothes he’s just taken out of the wash, mostly patterned BabyGros and pyjamas. Louis resolves to buy Millie a pink frilly dress as soon as he can manage, because as far as he can tell, she hasn’t got any.

Although maybe that’s exactly the sort of thinking that makes Harry’s voice go all smug when he calls, like Louis buying Millie a present somehow proves something.

Well, sod Harry, he thinks. Millie ought to have at least one proper dress.

“And she wasn’t permanently scarred by your absence of five whole hours?” Louis asks. He wishes Millie was awake, because they’d done all right for most of the afternoon, goading Millie into showing off her new sitting up skills until she’d gotten bored and tired, but now that she’s down for a nap, there’s tension creeping back, all of Nick’s attention on Louis instead of deflected by the baby. Louis is still sat on the floor, leaning against the sofa where he’d been playing with Millie, and now Nick’s directly across from him, surrounded by laundry with his legs folded underneath himself, so there’s nowhere to look but at each other.

Nick chucks a single tiny sock at his face, though, which does a decent enough job of breaking the tension.

“She was fine,” Nick says, pressing his lips together to disguise a smile. “Priya said she was a dream and she scarcely missed me at all and you were completely right about everything, so go on and have your gloat about it.”

Louis grins and tips his head back against the sofa. “Sorry, could you just say that part again?” he asks. “The part about how right I was?” Honestly, if there are any words sweeter than you were right, particularly coming out of Nick’s mouth, Louis hasn’t heard them yet, and he’s certainly not going to pass up an opportunity to milk this for all its worth.

The second baby sock lands in his hair, this time.

“You can toss laundry at me all you want, Grimshaw, it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve just admitted I was right and you were wrong,” he says primly, plucking the sock off his head and tossing it back to Nick’s pile of laundry.

Nick just groans, shaking his head, but Louis can’t stop, now that he’s started in on it.

“If I get my phone, d’you think you could repeat it so I can record it?” he asks. “Like, I reckon I’d quite like to listen to that every night before bed, the time I was right and you were wrong and you said so out loud with your mouth and everything--”

“Christ, do you ever shut up?” Nick asks, cutting him off.

“Sometimes--” Louis starts to say, but then he has to shut up, because Nick’s knocked over a stack of folded, freshly-washed laundry to lean over and kiss him again.

Louis isn’t sure why it’s somehow more startling the second time, but it is.

If anything, it seems more hesitant than the first. Nick doesn’t hold Louis by the wrist this time, doesn’t bring their bodies any closer, just kisses him briefly, bent awkwardly over a pile of baby clothes.

At least when he pulls back, he doesn’t run off again.

“That’s the second time you’ve done that,” Louis says dumbly.

Nick squints at him. “Yes,” he says. “I know.”

“Oh. Okay.” Louis hasn’t any idea what else to say about it. Nick sits back on his heels, though, and doesn’t say anything, just peers at Louis curiously, and Louis thinks he’d better say something, or else they’ll stay like that forever, silent and too close.

“You can do it again,” is what comes out of his mouth.

“Are you sure?” Nick asks, seemingly surprised by that response.

Louis rolls his eyes. “I said it, didn’t I?”

Nick scoffs. “Yeah, but last time it happened you ran off into the night.”

Louis needs him to kiss him again, because if he doesn’t, he might have to throttle him.

“Because you ran off first,” he explains as patiently as he can manage.

To his shock, he thinks he sees Nick actually flush a bit, and he scowls self-consciously as he does. “The baby was crying,” he says weakly.

Maybe Louis is growing as a person, because he doesn’t call attention to what a blatant lie that is. “If you say so,” he says instead.

And then he leans in and tugs Nick forcefully toward him by the shirt collar.

This time, when Nick kisses him, he’s prepared, or at least as prepared as he supposes you can get for such a thing. Nick makes a noise as he kisses into Louis’ mouth, something like a whine, and Louis can’t tell if it’s frustration or relief or just a noise with no particular meaning, but then Nick’s crawling closer, crowding Louis against the bottom of the sofa until he’s kneeling over him, one long leg on either side of Louis’ hips.

Louis has to tip his head up and stretch a bit to reach Nick properly -- whose hesitation seems to have disappeared, now, based on the way he’s licking into Louis’ mouth -- and Louis desperately, desperately tries to ignore the way it makes his stomach twist in something far too pleased. Nick’s height is superfluous and annoying, he tries to remind himself. It absolutely isn’t a contributing factor to the way he’s getting a bit hard in his trousers right now.

He bites at Nick’s lip, and carefully threads a hand into the hair at the back of his head. He almost expects Nick to tell him off for mussing his hair, but Nick just makes another noise against Louis’ mouth, and then his hips stutter closer to Louis’ until they’re flush.

Distantly, the part of his mind that’s not totally stupefied by Nick Grimshaw’s tongue in his mouth catalogues the fact that Nick is half-hard as well. He feels a bit relieved, weirdly, because at least it isn’t just him -- he can’t think of anything more humiliating than one-sided erections, as far as Nick’s concerned -- but then Nick’s hand moves up to the edge of his face, his thumb pressing into the juncture of his jaw. His hips roll against Louis’ again, and there’s nothing halfway about the state of his dick anymore. He tries not to whimper at the feel of Nick’s hips, and the press of his cock through his jeans, but unsurprisingly fails.

“Jesus,” Nick says, only pulling an inch away from Louis’ face. He’s gone a bit splotchy across his cheeks, and his hair is sticking up madly from Louis’ hand pulling at it. He tastes like mint and tea and something warm, and Louis desperately wants to kiss him again. And maybe get a hand on his cock. Maybe both at the same time.

“Shut up, c’mon,” he says, pulling Nick back in, because if he’s talking that means he’s not kissing Louis anymore, and he thinks that simply can’t stand. He arches against the couch so his hips come up a bit, and then fits his hands around Nick’s narrow waist to keep him from going anywhere.

Nick pulls away from his mouth again anyway, mumbling “fuck” very quietly, but then his fingers are on Louis’ fly, fumbling to undo the button, and okay, Louis can accept that.

“Come on,” he says again, this time a bit more petulantly, because Nick’s taking too bloody long to get his trousers open. Nick tries the button again, and fails, and Louis bats his hand away, because honestly. He undoes his own trousers first, kissing Nick as he does it just to prove that he can manage both at the same time, and then goes for Nick’s as well, yanking his jeans down his hips once he does so they’re tight around his thighs, still spread out where he’s kneeling atop Louis.

Nick keeps kissing him, and his hands work under Louis’ shirt, his fingers spread carefully over the edge of Louis’ ribs as he slides them up and then back down. Louis shivers, distracted by the track of them, and of the taste of Nick’s mouth. He tries to focus, but it’s a lot, so he grudgingly pulls away from Nick’s mouth.

Nick responds by leaning in further and pressing a biting kiss to the hinge of Louis’ jaw, which is distracting in a whole new way, so he only lets him carry on with what feels like will wind up being a massive lovebite for a bit -- just a bit -- before he wriggles away.

“Fuck, stop,” he says. “Can’t concentrate if you keep--” He cuts himself off, shoving at the waistband of Nick’s briefs with a frustrated noise.

Nick smirks. “Concentrate on what,” he asks, the pleased, low pitch of his voice sending a shudder down Louis’ spine.

“Your cock, you dick,” he says, and then he shoves Nick’s pants down his hips, only taking a moment to appreciate the sight of Nick’s cock before he fits his hand around it firmly enough to make a point. Nick at least has the decency to groan at that, squeezing his eyes shut and tipping his hips forward to meet Louis’ grip.

Louis vows never to admit it out loud, not to anyone, but Nick’s cock is truly lovely, hard and long in his hand, a bit damp with precome that Louis would really, really like to take the flat of his tongue to. Nick’s eyes are still shut, his teeth biting into his bottom lip, and Louis thinks, yes. He can work with this.

He strokes at Nick’s cock for a long moment, feeling the points of Nick’s knees squeezing against his thighs as he starts to come apart, and then suddenly Nick’s mouth is back at his, kissing Louis with renewed desperation, just on the edge of sloppy and overwhelmed. When Nick finally gathers his wits enough to get a hand into Louis’ trousers and around his cock, Louis is barely aware of the high-pitched noise he makes, too distracted by all the sensations, Nick’s mouth and cock and hand and everything, everything that’s happening just now.

It’s only a few more flicks of his wrist before Nick is shuddering, gasping into his mouth and coming hot all over Louis’ fist. Louis barely has time to feel pleased with himself about the uncontained noises Nick’s making and the erratic jerk of his hips, though, because Nick’s hand doesn’t falter -- he strokes Louis through all of it, and then too quickly Louis’ coming too, his muscles contracting like there’s an electric current running through him, hips nearly coming off the floor as little pinpricks of light go off behind his eyelids.

Eventually, he collects his breath and opens his eyes. Nick is still kneeling over him, cock out, looking a bit dazed.

Unsure what else to do, Louis wiggles out from under Nick and stretches on his hands and knees until he can grab one of the clean flannels from the pile of laundry. Once he has it, he flops back against the foot of the sofa, and as if jolted into motion, Nick follows, sprawling next to him.

“Not the baby’s flannel,” he protests weakly, looking plaintively at the one Louis’ picked up, printed with little pink ducks, but Louis ignores him, wiping off his hand and tossing it to Nick when he’s finished. He wrinkles his nose, but takes it anyway, wiping it idly over his hands as Louis stares up at the ceiling. He realizes, after a moment, that his pants are still undone, so he tucks his cock back in and fastens his fly, wincing a bit at the dampness he’s missed.

When he looks over at Nick he’s done his jeans back up as well, but he looks fucked out anyway, hair wild and a flush across the bridge of his nose, a bit out of breath still.

“Worn out?” Louis says shakily, ignoring the fact that he probably looks and sounds just as wrecked as Nick. “Honestly. Stamina.”

“Shut it,” Nick says rolling his eyes, but then he yanks Louis by the wrist so he curls close against his side. Louis exhales unevenly, but then rests his head on Nick’s shoulder. It’s not… comfortable, necessarily, but it’s nice anyway.

It’s nice, he realizes, just being with Nick in general. As an experiment, he tries to find it in himself to regret coming over like he probably ought to, now that this has happened, because by all accounts, getting off with Nick Grimshaw is almost definitely a mistake. It probably should make him want to run, go home and call this whole thing off as a failure in the area of rational behavior.

It doesn’t. It makes him want to curl in even closer against Nick’s shoulder, and stay there.

“So,” Nick says eventually, and Louis can immediately sense the way he’s working himself up into some big speech. Louis would really rather not, now. Possibly not ever, but especially not now. Right now, he’d much prefer to stay quiet and still, and right here, with Nick.

“No, nope,” he interrupts. “No talking.” He rises shakily to his feet, and then extends his hand to Nick, pulling him up with him. As soon as he’s standing, he shoves Nick in the chest so he collapses onto the sofa, and then flops down next to him, wriggling them both around until they’re arranged the way he’d like, Louis’ back against Nick’s chest, head tucked under his chin.

“No talking?” Nick says into Louis’ ear. Louis can feel the rise and fall of his chest with every breath, and yeah, he definitely doesn’t want to talk right now.

“Nope,” he says decisively. “M’sleepy. So shut up. We’re napping.”

“Mm,” Nick says, and if he doesn’t like that idea, he keeps it to himself, and lets Louis reach up and drape the blanket over them. “Because the baby’s sleeping, innit, and I’m supposed to sleep when she does?”

Louis laughs at that, unexpectedly, and he thinks that maybe this’ll be all right after all. Maybe they can just wank each other off, have a nap afterward, and avoid any uncomfortable conversations about the whole affair, and go back to normal afterward.

“Also because ‘m lazy after a shag,” he says, staring with half-shut eyes at the disrupted pile of laundry on the floor in front of the sofa. Nick’ll just have to finish it later, he thinks.

Behind him, Nick laughs, and Louis lets his eyes close all the way.


“Is this -- all right?” Nick asks him later as he’s leaving. It’s nearly dark outside, and Millie’s awake again, clearly out of sorts, because she’s shrieking and crying at the drop of a hat. She’d woken up in a state, interrupting their own nap on the sofa with a wailing fit, and she’s barely stopped all afternoon. She’d cried about dropping her cuddly snake, and cried when Nick fetched it for her, and cried when Nick wasn’t fast enough with her bottle and then again when she’d decided she didn’t want it after all.

Louis feels a bit guilty for leaving Nick with such an ill-tempered little creature, because he’s starting to get that frazzled look about him again like he had in the beginning, but he also thinks he ought to go before things inevitably turn weird and awkward. Which, by all rights, they already should’ve done, but perhaps Millie’s foul mood had kept them too distracted, because aside from her fits, the rest of the afternoon had been completely and totally average. It’s only just now that Louis’ gathering up his things to go that Nick’s starting to go nervous and stilted.

“‘S what all right?” Louis asks. It’s a last-ditch attempt to avoid the discussion through sheer refusal to acknowledge that there’s anything to potentially not be all right, but apparently Nick doesn’t take the hint, because he barrels on, twisting his hands around uncomfortably.

“The whole… thing where we--” He stops and glances cagily at Millie in her high chair, like he’s censoring himself for her benefit, and Louis snorts out a laugh.

“Wanked each other off?” he offers, raising his eyebrows meaningfully. He’s pleased to see Nick’s expression go as scandalized as he’d hoped it would.

“There’s a child,” Nick protests.

“Who doesn’t understand English yet, idiot,” Louis says, crossing his arms, trying to keep any traces of fondness off his face.

“Anyway,” Nick says, wrinkling his nose just a bit. “It’s not, like -- weird?”

“Only if you keep asking about it being weird,” Louis says. “That’s a bit weird. Otherwise, I reckon we’re all right.”

“You’re not going to run off and disappear for a week again, are you?” Nick asks, the wry tone to his words not completely successful in turning the question into a proper joke -- Louis can still hear the uncertainty underneath it.

Louis pulls a face. “It was never a week,” he protests. “But yes, Nicholas, I will come back tomorrow, regardless of the fact that now I’ve touched your cock.”

Nick splutters a bit, and Louis sighs and claps him reassuringly on the shoulder. Someone here needs to use their brains, he thinks, and clearly it’s not going to be Nick.

“Pull it together,” he says, trying to sound helpful.

Nick collects himself, squares his shoulders, and then promptly looks down at his feet.

“All right. Well. If you’ll be here tomorrow, we could take Mila to the park again, maybe? If you’d like, I mean,” Nick says, frowning at his socks as he does. Louis almost wants to call attention to it, just on the instinct to give Nick a hard time on principle, but he stops himself.

“Sure,” he says after a brief hesitation.

“Okay,” Nick says, looking up from his shoes. “So -- see you then?”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees. Behind him, Millie shouts furiously, and Nick sighs.

“Better get that,” he says, nodding over his shoulder in her direction. “But, er -- tomorrow, then.”

“Tomorrow,” Louis says, pulling on his jacket. “It’ll be good.” He thinks he sounds more sure about it than he feels, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Nick makes curious face at him, quirking his head to the side, and Louis punches him firmly on the arm before shutting the door behind him.


Louis turns the idea of texting Harry to tell him about the whole -- thing over in his head when he’s in bed that night. He figures he might as well, because if he doesn’t, Nick probably will, given how those two gossip like pensioners. But then Harry will call, and his voice will do the smirky, pleased thing, and there’s a good chance he’ll wind up setting himself off crying about it somewhere along the way. Louis isn’t sure he’s prepared to handle it at the moment.

And there’s a bit of him, just a bit, that wants to keep it to himself, just for now. He thinks that whatever it means, getting off with Nick Grimshaw on a pile of laundry, it might be one of those things that’d be jinxed by trying to put it to words just yet. And he’s not even sure why he cares about jinxing it, not particularly eager to examine what that could mean, but it seems he does all the same.

He sends Harry a nonsense string of emoji instead: two thumbs up, three thumbs down, hands clapping, a flexed bicep, and a ghost.

Maddeningly, Harry seems to somehow extract a meaningful, hidden subtext from it, because when Louis’ phone buzzes with his response fifteen minutes later, it just says !!!!!! LOUIS, followed by fifteen red lips.

Louis groans, and turns off his phone before switching off the light.


He keeps to his word, and after his shift the next day he turns up at Nick’s flat as he’d promised. He wonders, with an almost detached sense of curiosity, how it’ll go, because he honestly can’t fathom a guess. His skills of prediction are apparently crap, anyway, because the events of both his recent visits had taken him totally by surprise.

But there’s no funny business as they gather things up for their walk to the park, just the same posh pram, and Puppy’s same frantic dance when Louis tries to attach her lead, and Nick’s same insistence to put Millie in two coats regardless of the fact that the sun’s out and shining.

It’s all very normal, right up until the point where, once they’re back at the flat, Nick puts Millie down in her cot for a rest, and five minutes later, sucks Louis off in the kitchen, banging up his knees on the tile floor in the process.

So maybe not quite so normal, then.

Or maybe this is normal now, Louis thinks a bit hysterically as he works his fist over Nick’s cock, bunched up against the refrigerator and shaky from coming in Nick’s mouth. Maybe it’s normal to get off semi-regularly with a bloke you were quite sure, for quite a while, that you hated, only maybe it turns out you don’t.

He supposes it’s all relative.

Anyway, Louis is nothing if not adaptable.


So he carries on helping Nick with Millie, still keeps her busy while Nick putters around the house and tells Nick when he’s got her nappy on backwards again (he doesn’t know how Nick is still managing that, honestly) or tries to put the wrong type of batteries in her baby monitor. He takes to coming over in the afternoon, once Nick’s done working and he’s sent Priya home, at least when Louis’ not working himself -- not every day, but more often than not. He stays until Millie goes to sleep, and sometimes before he goes, Nick will press his fingers against his hips and pull him into his bedroom and they’ll get each other off, hands or mouths or both, sometimes. Sometimes he doesn’t, just nods tiredly at Louis on his way out. And sometimes -- not often, but sometimes -- Nick will lean in when he walks Louis to door to see him out, and kiss him, just barely, on the edge of his mouth or the corner of the jaw, before he says “g’night.”

Louis isn’t sure what to do with that, only knows that it makes his heart seize up in a new and paralyzing way, but -- but not in a bad way. Not at all. That might be as far as he can sort it out in any sort of meaningful way -- it’s not a bad thing -- but he can work with that. He can work with any of it.

Like he said -- adaptable.


He turns up late one Saturday, just as the sun is starting to turn orange and slanty low in the sky, to find Nick’s flat strangely quiet. In the kitchen, Puppy’s growling and tearing apart some toy -- Louis can’t tell if it’s the dog or baby sort as mangled as it is, all its stuffing scattered about -- but there’s no Millie sounds, no shrieking or laughing or knocking things over, not even the white noise hum of her baby monitor listening in as she sleeps.

He frowns and looks around as he toes off his shoes, like maybe he’s just missed her somewhere, but it’s just Nick and Puppy, as far as he can tell.

“Where’s my Millie?” he asks, shutting the front door behind him.

“Shit, sorry, I forgot to tell you,” Nick says apologetically, appearing from the lounge. “My mum’s in town, she’s just picked her up for the night. She was making a fuss about how I like, needed a night off or something? I dunno, but I thought I’d best not argue.”

“Oh.” Louis fights the urge to wrinkle his nose with disappointment. “In that case, I can, um. Like, leave, if you want? Come back tomorrow?”

“No, it’s all right,” Nick says. “I mean, you don’t have to stay, obviously, but, um. You can. If you like.”

It throws Louis off -- he’s never been over to Nick’s without Millie around, and suddenly he’s not sure what to do, feeling vaguely wrong-footed and like he oughtn’t be there at all.

But he also thinks he oughtn’t just run off now that he is, so he hesitates for a moment, and then comes into the flat properly, trying not to look as out of place as he feels.

Nick follows him, and they take their places on opposite ends of the sofa, staring at the muted television where MasterChef is silently flickering.

Louis glances over at Nick, getting an eyeful of the evening sun as it sinks down the horizon and comes in through the glass doors to the garden.

Nick’s sitting too straight, like he’s not sure what to do with his body, and Louis notices that he’s a bit done up. His hair is more elaborate and stick up-y than usual, and he’s not wearing anything rumpled or stained, just tight trousers and an immaculate jumper that Louis doesn’t recognize. It throws him off even more -- he’s gotten so used to Nick in joggers and t-shirts with a baby draped over him that he feels a bit like he’s sat next to a stranger, now.

“Have you got plans? You look all--” He waves at Nick’s general area with his hand to stop himself from saying nice, hoping he gets the idea.

“Oh. Not covered in baby mess?” Nick offers.

“Exactly,” Louis says, biting at his lip to keep it from curling up in a smile.

Nick just shrugs. “Nah, no plans. Only thought I’d try to look like an actual person again, just to see if I could.”

“Oh. Well. You did all right, I suppose,” Louis says, and then grimaces at how it comes out, falling into a self-conscious silence.

He turns to focus on the still silent television, where a Bearnaise sauce is going wrong. This is stupid, he tells himself. He’s spent more time with Nick than anyone else in the last month or so by an enormous margin, and a not insubstantial portion of that time has involved nudity and orgasms, at least recently. There’s absolutely no reason he should be acting like Nick’s a stranger he’s hasn’t got the first idea what to say to. There must be something. They don’t usually sit in bloody silence.

“Wine,” Nick suddenly says, too loudly. “I have wine, I mean,” he clarifies, at a bit more normal volume. “And now I’m going to -- go get it?” He gestures back towards the kitchen, and then stands up half-way, his legs getting stuck in something like a crouch part way up, like he’s waiting for Louis’ permission to fetch a bottle of wine.

“Definitely,” Louis says hastily. Wine can only help.

Nick disappears into the kitchen, and Louis unmutes the television as he goes. Once Nick seems occupied, Louis frantically pulls his phone from his pocket, angling it towards his chest like Nick will somehow be able to see it from a room away.

help haz emergency how do u know if ur on a DATE !!!!!!!

He hits send and hopes with something bordering on mania that Harry doesn’t ask who Louis might potentially be on a date with. If he does, Louis will have to lie. Several times, probably, he’ll have to invent a person to be on a maybe-date with, and the details of it, and a follow-up story when Harry inevitably asks how it’d gone later, and Louis’ never particularly had the attention span for long-term deception.

It’s still preferable, however, to ever, under any circumstances, letting Harry know that the possible date partner is Nick.

“Are you hungry?” Nick calls. “I’ve that takeaway you brought yesterday left, I can heat it up if you like.”

“Sure,” Louis answers weakly, totally unsure if he’s actually hungry at all. It’ll be something to do with his hands, at least, and he figures that can’t hurt, considering how his brain’s gone all foggy with trying to sort out what they’re doing.

It feels definitely date-like, with wine and food and a empty flat with no Millie, just the two of them in the quiet. But then, maybe he hasn’t got any clue what he’s talking about. He’s sure he hasn’t, in fact.

He wishes Nick would bring that wine.

depends, Harry texts back a moment later. context? wheres this taking place??

i’m at his, Louis says, hoping that’s vague enough. There’s a bang from the kitchen, and then Nick swearing. It makes Louis jump, like Harry might somehow be able to hear Nick despite the fact that they’re only texting, and work out why Louis’ asking. we’re watching masterchef ? kinda? hes in the kitchen

has he put his hand down your trousers?? Harry asks. thats usually a dead giveaway

NO u slag, everything is v appropriate. theres wine, though…

could be a date, Harry replies. if he cooks for u it def is

no cooking, Louis says. leftover takeaway? does that count?

50-50. hard 2 tell.

you are the least helpful person i’ve ever known, Louis says, typing perhaps too aggressively. Honestly, he doesn’t know why he keeps Harry around if he can’t pull his weight in these sort of dilemmas.

put your mouth on his cock and see how he reacts???

Louis exhales through his nose heavily and looks for something to bang his head against. Sadly, there are only soft cushions at hand.

i hate you and im giving your phone number to the next 13 year old girl i see, Louis threatens, and shoves his phone away, hiding it under the nearest cushion.

“He’s shite,” Nick says, making Louis jump when he appears at his elbow, holding two plates of curry. He sets them on the table in front of them and then goes back for the wine, carrying two glasses in one of his enormous hands, the open bottle clutched in his other.

“What?” Louis asks, puzzled.

Nick nods at the television. “Mustache bloke. Rubbish. Dunno how he hasn’t been sent off yet.”

“Oh,” Louis says, wrinkling his nose consideringly at the contestant on screen. “What does he think he’s going to do with all that coriander?”

“Ruin a perfectly serviceable dish, I reckon,” Nick says, flopping down next to Louis on the sofa. He’s nearer, now, close to touching. Louis grabs his wine and knocks back half of it, all the while focused on the proximity of Nick’s knee to his own. He finishes the rest of the wine a moment later, and Nick refills his glass without comment.

The bloke does ruin his dish, predictably, and by the time he still isn’t sent off, Louis has relaxed by increments. He’s not sure if it’s down to the wine, or the way he and Nick have united against the man with a mustache -- who’s not only a rubbish chef, but seems to have sabotaged another contestant’s custard as well -- but by the time the next episode starts, the tension has almost entirely leached out of him.

Just before the elimination, his mobile buzzes from beneath the cushion he’d shoved it under, and when Nick’s busy hoisting Puppy up onto the sofa with them, he checks it.

i’ve thought about it, and if YOU’RE wondering if it’s a date, it probably is, says Harry’s response.


okay then give me ADVICE, Louis types, because if Harry’s going to be a twat, he can at least try to be a helpful twat.

There’s a long pause, long enough that Louis worries Harry’s decided to ignore him just to see how bad he can manage to muck up a maybe-date on his own -- he’s been doing all right so far, he thinks, but now that Harry’s telling him that this probably is, like… a date, he can feel the temptation to go a bit neurotic again creeping up on him. But eventually, Harry responds with two words:

be normal.

Louis resists the urge to audibly scoff, because Nick is just there, and he doesn’t want to have to explain.

Nick does glance over, raising his eyebrows curiously at his mobile, at Louis just shrugs. “Harry,” he explains, going for vague. “Needs to be distracted before an interview, apparently, but I’m telling him to piss off.”

It’s not precisely true, but he thinks that the truth probably falls somewhere in the realm of not normal, so.

Nick hums a laugh. “Tell him I say hi, yeah?” he says, shifting around and curling his legs underneath him.

“Mm,” Louis says. He won’t, certainly, because that’s precisely what he’s trying to avoid -- his Harry-world and his Nick-world colliding -- but he settles for sending a series of blank faced emojis and the message i think i am, if you can believe that before shutting off his phone and tossing it somewhere into the depths of the sofa.

“Hey,” Nick says, as Louis resettles himself. “C’mere, yeah?” He moves his legs, making room for Louis to curl against his shoulder if he likes.

Louis hesitates, but then decides that if they are on a date, then a bit of a cuddle… that’s probably normal, yeah? So he nods, tucks his legs underneath him, and lets Nick curl him against his shoulder, trying to breathe evenly.


“Fancy another episode?” Nick asks later, moving to queue it up on Sky+.

Louis shifts against Nick’s side and twists his neck a bit, letting it pop. The mustache bloke’s finally been sent away, and that was two episodes ago. He thinks his muscles may start to atrophy if they lie here any longer.

“Think I need to stretch m’legs a bit or else I’ll wind up fusing with your sofa,” he admits. He feels a bit reluctant to say so, because it’s nice where he is, curled against Nick, watching television and having wine. It’s surprising, but true. Still, his left foot’s been all over pins and needles for the last ten minutes, so probably they ought to at least shift a bit.

“Yeah, all right,” Nick agrees placidly, taking his arm from around Louis and unfolding himself up. He towers over Louis while he’s still slumped into the cushions, but waits for him patiently as he pulls himself up.

“Can we go outside?” Louis asks as he stands. “I haven’t seen your garden yet.”

Nick smiles at him in a funny way, like he hadn’t been expecting that. To be fair, Louis hadn’t really been expecting to say it, either.

“C’mon, then,” Nick says, offering a hand to Louis. He takes it, letting Nick pull him to his feet, and waits while Nick goes into his bedroom to rummage around for a worn-in denim jacket before leading them out through the French doors.

The garden is lovely, and Louis heads straight for one of the comfortable-looking loungers, Nick close behind him.

“Please don’t judge me for being an awful parent-type thing,” Nick says, exhaustion creeping into his voice as he flops down on the lounger next to Louis. The garden is chilly and a bit damp, a small puddle of rainwater from the chair soaking through the fabric of Louis’ jeans behind his knee, and he yanks the cuffs of his sleeves down over his hands.

“‘M always judging you,” he says lazily, squinting at the fairy lights strung up along the garden wall.

“Moreso than usual, then,” Nick says, waving his hand about. From somewhere -- the pocket of his jacket, maybe -- he’s produced a joint, and cocks an eyebrow at Louis a bit defensively.

Oh,” Louis says, his mouth curling into a smile. “Illicit drugs, I see. Scarcely suitable behavior for a father figure, Nicholas.”

“Doesn’t count if she’s not here,” Nick says with a shrug, tucking it between his lips and fishing an obnoxiously ornate lighter out of the pocket of his jeans. “Anyway, I take it you don’t want any if you’ve got such a strong moral objection.”

I’m not a father,” Louis says placidly. He holds himself very still, just for the sake of doing it, letting his eyes drift closed for a moment, before he shoves off his lounger and crosses over to Nick’s, arranging himself in the sprawl of his legs so he’s facing him.

“Neither am I, not really,” Nick says, his eyes cast down at the joint as he tries to get it to catch on the sputtering flame. He says it quietly, and it sends a pang through Louis’ chest.

“Don’t be a twat,” he says softly, taking the lighter from Nick’s hand and flicking it, cupping the flame with his hand so it lights the joint properly. A curl of sweet-smelling smoke winds up from it when it finally catches. Nick breathes in heavily and then exhales, and glances up at Louis skeptically for a moment before dropping his gaze again.

“Hey,” Louis says firmly, waiting for Nick to inhale again before plucking the joint out of his hand and taking a drag on it. He holds the smoke in his lungs before breathing it up into the cool air between them, and then looks at Nick carefully. “You’re her dad, all right? Just because she’s not your blood or whatever doesn’t mean you aren’t.” He thinks of things he could say, lots more things, but he drags on the joint instead, hoping that Nick gets his point without him having to. “You’re there when she wakes up every morning and when she goes to bed and that’s… that’s more than plenty get, all right? So don’t be stupid. You’re a dad, and a good one.”

He passes the joint back to Nick, his head swimming a bit, and he wishes he could write it off entirely on the smoke, but he suspects that’s not it, not quite.

Nick holds it, pausing for a long moment to stare at Louis with something unreadable in his eyes before taking another long drag and passing it back.

Louis kills it, stubbing it out in a potted plant, and then drapes himself bonelessly alongside Nick’s body, tucked halfway under his arm and nearly tipping over the edge of the lounger. He feels tingly and warm and like he wants to burrow in even closer to Nick, but they’re pressed as tight as he can make them be, so he settles for twisting a leg round Nick’s and putting his hands under the hem of his jumper. Nick flinches, because they’re a bit cold, but he doesn’t shove Louis away, just wraps his arm around his shoulder, letting him melt into him as they gaze up at the patch of sky they can see, distorted by the orange lights of the city.

“Bloody freezing,” Nick says after a long while, even though it isn’t, really, just slightly chilly. And that’s in Louis’ opinion, and he’s always the first to complain of cold. He thinks about pointing it out, but his tongue is too lazy to form the words, so he just makes a neutral sound into the collar of Nick’s jumper.

“C’mon, come inside with me,” Nick says, gently extracting himself from beneath Louis and standing up from the chair. Louis feels boneless, not really in the mood to move at all, but when Nick offers his hand to him, he takes it, letting Nick leverage him up from the lounger.

“All right,” he murmurs slowly, even though they’re already inside by the time he gets it out. Nick pulls the glass door shut behind them, and then wraps himself around Louis from the back, hooking his chin on Louis’ shoulder. Louis thinks about feeling a bit galled by how much Nick has to stoop for it, but leaves it in favor of letting Nick steer him around Millie’s toys strewn across the floor and down the hall toward his bedroom.

Nick’s thumbs are pressed into Louis hips by the time they get there, the points of contact ricocheting through Louis, amplified by the weed and the way Nick smells and the feel of his long frame draped over Louis’ own, all of it making his head swim and his pulse race.

When they’re halfway to the bed, Nick’s hand gets underneath the hem of Louis’ jumper, and he jumps a bit, startled by the cold. “Ice hands,” he mumbles, only trying lazily to inch away from the touch.

“Told you it was freezing out there,” Nick says, quiet. He presses a kiss against Louis’ neck, then, and he has to shut his eyes because his head is spinning. “Y’gonna warm me up, then?” Nick asks.

“Mm,” Louis hums consideringly. They’re stopped dead in the middle of Nick’s bedroom, and Louis’ knees feel like rubber, and his dick is so, so hard already. “No, got a better idea, c’mon,” he says decisively. He twists out of the clutch of Nick’s arms and fits his fingers into Nick’s belt loop, tugging him away from the bed and towards his en suite.

“But,” Nick protests slightly, dragging his feet on the carpet. “Bed,” he whines. He follows Louis even as he protests, though.

“Bed is nice,” Louis agrees, a bit fuzzily. He thinks there’s probably another more elegant way to phrase it, but he’s stoned, and hard for it, and he’s got an idea he doesn’t want to be distracted from, not just yet. “But you’ve also got a massive poncey shower, yeah?”

It’s not actually a question, he knows Nick does  -- one of those giant stone things that fits too many people and has too many jets and knobs and a bench as well, in case you become overtired while having a wash or something. He’s rolled his eyes at it more than once, because it’s stupid and extravagant and unnecessary, but right now that doesn’t stop him from wanting to get in it and turn the water as hot as possible all the same. There’s nothing he likes quite so much as a scalding shower, and the best he can get as his flat seems to be tepid, regardless of how much he tries to coax it warmer. He reckons Nick’s flat hasn’t got that problem, and they could probably stay under the water at near boiling all night if they were inclined. The thought of it sends a shiver dancing down his spine.

“Not poncey,” Nick protests, but he must not be that bothered, because he follows a bit more enthusiastically now.

Louis nearly stumbles against the doorframe as Nick crowds him through, but he catches himself, and sets to pulling off his socks and trousers while Nick fiddles with the knobs, setting the water tapping on the stone like a waterfall. He doesn’t bother with the light, so it’s dark in the room, only the orange glow from the window creeping in, and Louis closes his eyes as he tugs off his shirt and pants, leaning against the sink for a moment and letting himself breathe in the steam that’s already accumulating.

Nick’s bare foot nudges his, after a moment, and he peels his eyes open slowly. Nick’s clothes are in a heap beside Louis’, his glasses the only thing he’s still got on. A laugh bubbles up in Louis’ throat, because the lenses are completely steamed over.

“Shut up,” Nick says. He takes them off, folding them and setting them on the counter, and then pulls Louis in by the wrist and yanks them both under the water.

It’s so hot it nearly stings, and Louis lets out a happy sigh, because this is -- it’s lovely. He won’t say it out loud, not to Nick or to anyone else, but it truly is. Nick is crowded in close to him, a hand fitted against the hinge of Louis’ hip as the water comes down on them, and the room is dark and smells like ginger and satsuma and something very much Nick. It’s hot and humid and just a bit claustrophobic, everything nearly overwhelmingly sensory, almost palpable in his lungs, and Louis thinks he may never leave this place, not ever.

“Warm yet?” Nick asks, and Louis looks up at him, not even aware his eyes had drifted shut again until he’s opening them.

Nick’s hair is wet and flat, dripping down into his eyes, and he looks a bit pink across the cheeks, at least as far as Louis can tell in the near-total darkness. He’s closer to the tallest shower spray, although there are three additional smaller ones hitting Louis in the small of the back, so Louis inches closer, getting under the spray of it properly, lining up his body against Nick’s to manage.

“Getting there,” he says quietly, grinning.

“Well,” Nick murmurs. The hand he has at Louis’ hip moves as Nick wraps his arm around Louis’ waist, pulling him tight against him. Louis tries not to gasp at the feel of Nick’s hip flush against his cock, or the way Nick’s presses up against his belly, trapped tight enough so that even the water dripping down their chests diverts away, running down their hips. “Good.”

Nick’s free hand drifts up, one long finger curling under Louis’ chin and tilting it up. The water splashes into Louis’ eyes, so he twists closer, out of the direct spray, and then Nick leans down to kiss him, and he forgets about the water altogether.

Nick tastes sweet and warm and it makes the breath catch in Louis’ throat, despite the fact that he’s kissed Nick plenty of times by now. It’s not just the weed thrumming through his veins, he doesn’t think, although that’s what he’ll blame it on, if he has to. It’s the tight press of Nick’s skinny frame against him, the heat of the shower and the slick cool tile and the smell of soap and spice. If there’s anything outside the close press of the shower, Louis can’t remember it.

Nick bites down on Louis’ lower lip, and it jolts down his belly and straight to his cock, straining against Nick where it’s trapped between them. Louis whimpers, and tries to kiss back as fiercely, but he feels slow and syrupy and can’t quite manage to do anything besides yield to Nick’s tongue and buck up against his hips.

“Yeah, love, c’mon,” Nick says, pulling back an inch and gazing into Louis’ eyes, unblinking. His free hand snakes down, finding just enough room to carefully palm the length of Louis’ dick, and it feels like nearly too much, even light as it is. Nick’s opposite arm is still tight around Louis’ waist, though, and he holds Louis firmly even as he thinks his knees might give out. Nick pumps Louis slowly, like honey, and then nudges Louis backwards until he’s seated on the bench, the stones warmed from the steam and water.

It takes him a moment to register it all as Nick folds down to his knees in front of him, hands splayed against the inside of Louis’ thighs, pressing them open. Louis lets him, couldn’t resist if he wanted to, and he doesn’t, not even a bit. The furthest shower spray is trickling down Nick’s back and dripping down Louis’ legs, and Nick leans in and mouths so slowly at the head of Louis’ cock that he thinks he might cry. Nick sucks him down slowly, carefully, pulling off to bite at the thin skin of Louis’ hips and stomach before leaning in and refitting his mouth on Louis’ cock again. Nick’s thumbs are pressed against the backs of Louis’ thighs, digging sharply into the soft flesh there, keeping him spread open.

Louis tells himself that it’s far too quick to be this near to coming, and breathes a shuddery breath to try and steady himself.

Nick pulls off again, glancing up at Louis, and Louis can’t help the way his hips twitch up, trying to find Nick’s mouth again with a whine.

“Fuck,” Nick murmurs against the crease of his hip, and then his mouth is back, sucking Louis down fully, his mouth and throat even hotter and slicker than the trickle of water.

Distantly, Louis remembers how surprised he’d been the first time Nick had sucked him off. He’d just sort of assumed Nick wouldn’t bother with that, figured he’d be the sort to accept a blowjob without feeling the need to return it, but he’d gotten his mouth on Louis first, and seems much more willing to offer it up than Louis would’ve guessed. He’s never been more pleased to be wrong about something, because Nick’s mouth is wicked and clever as ever when it’s wrapped around his cock, and he’d be glad to have it there any time, any day.

His head is still spinning, and he thinks if Nick keeps at it much longer he’s going to come. He’s trying to decide if he wants to, yet, weighing whether it’ll be more fun to drag it out or just let go, when Nick’s mouth pulls away once again. Louis whines, because it’s not fair for Nick to tease him like this, but Nick doesn’t go far, just hauls Louis closer to the edge of the bench and presses his legs further open. One thumb works into the crease of Louis’ arse, and then Louis’ whine turns into a whimper and he bucks, because Nick’s mouth is there, hot and deliberate against Louis’ hole, licking slowly into him before Louis can gather his wits.

His head tips back and rattles against the stone of the shower, but he barely notices, too dizzy with the heat and the dark and the press of Nick’s tongue inside him, an unpredictable skitter of flat and pointed, little flitting kisses and long licks, too much and not enough in equal parts. Just when he thinks Nick’s decided to stay in one place he moves, adjusts, and Louis is squirming desperately and pressing his arse against Nick’s mouth after hardly any time at all.

Nick leans back, biting down at the inside of Louis’ thigh, the pinprick of his teeth like an electric shock. He glances up at Louis, like he’s checking if it’s all right, and Jesus, nothing’s ever been more all right.

“Don’t stop, areshole,” Louis says, voice barely there, scratched and worn even though he’s been quiet until now.

He expects Nick to say something contrary, or to turn his attention elsewhere, trying to make Louis beg for it again, but he just quirks a smile and leans back in, fucking his tongue into Louis steadily, laving the occasional long stroke over Louis with the flat of it. It’s not quite enough for Louis to come on its own, but he feels twisted inside-out anyway, white hot and nearly unmoored from himself. He can barely tell how long it goes on like that, the shower raining down around them and Nick licking him out, but his whole body jerks when he feels Nick’s hand come up to his cock and stroke it, only a few quick times before Louis’ whole body clenches involuntarily. He nearly blacks out with the force of coming, shooting halfway up his own chest with a shout.

Nick carries on with his mouth while Louis comes down, until Louis has to drag him off by the hair, too electrified to bear it anymore.

Louis looks breathlessly down at Nick, peering up at him from where he’s knelt on the floor the shower, all long limbs and wet hair flopped into his eyes, and something clenches in Louis’ chest.

“C’mere,” he says, grabbing aimlessly in Nick’s direction.

Nick stands, wincing, and Louis reminds himself to mock him about old arthritic knees at some point in the future, sometime when he’s not feeling so blissed out and vaguely stupefied. Louis rises shakily to his feet as well, steadying himself on the wall, because he really, desperately doesn’t want to slip on the tile and brain himself before he gets to touch Nick’s cock.

“Wanna sit?” Louis asks fuzzily. “I can--” He gestures, sort of, and hopes Nick gets the point.

“Rather go to bed,” Nick says. “Got some other things I’d like to do to you and I don’t fancy doing them on the tile, yeah?”

Louis sucks in a rattling breath. Sometimes he forgets that Nick talks for a living, but he does. He knows how to say something in just the right way to get the reaction he wants, which is infuriating lots of the time, but not now -- now it’s just meltingly sexy, the pitch of Nick’s voice low in the shower, reverberating with promise, with the idea that there’s more.

Louis reaches around Nick and tries to shut off the shower, but there are too many knobs, and all he manages to do is ratchet the stream that’s hitting him in the small of the back up a notch into something sharp and pinprick-y. Nick snorts, and twists around, turning off the complicated knobs with no problem. If Louis was less high, and less wobbly from coming, he might defend his own competence, but as it is, all he can think is getting Nick to take him to bed.

Out of the shower, he gropes for one of Nick’s enormous grey bath towels in the dark, and drags it over his head half-heartedly before dropping it in a heap on the floor. Sod the mess, he thinks, Nick can deal with it later. Anyway, Nick must be thinking the same, because he doesn’t even scowl at Louis, just does the same, and then drags Louis, naked and still a bit damp, into the bedroom by the wrist.

His bed is a massive pile of cushions and blankets, a mountain of soft white down. Louis collapses into with an oomph, and Nick follows, tugging the duvet with him so it comes up nearly to their heads.

If Louis had thought he’d felt boneless and dizzy in the shower, the softness of the bed triples it. He could sleep for a week, he thinks, if he closed his eyes, so he forces them to stay open, because he’s not done with Nick, not yet.

“Hi,” he says softly, scrunching himself against Nick’s side and biting a sharp kiss just under the jut of his collarbone.

“Hi, love,” Nick says. “Can I fuck you, d’you think?”

Louis is sure that whatever comes out of his mouth in response is just a noise, not any sort of intelligible word, but either way Nick seems to understand, smiling -- not even smirking, just smiling -- as he goes to rummage around in his bedside table while Louis scoots up the bed, propping a cushion underneath his hips before flopping backwards.

He’s looking at the ceiling when he feels Nick’s fingers inside his thighs, and God, it’s barely any time before he’s starting to get hard again, not with Nick knelt between his legs like that, running his hands over Louis carefully.

One long finger traces over Louis’ hole, and he shudders, drawing a breath.

“All right?” Nick asks. He’s slicked his hand, at some point, and Louis wants to bear down and just get him inside, but he forces himself to hold still, because Nick is asking so carefully.

“Like, just -- slow?” Louis manages to get out. “Been, y’know.” He doesn’t finish the sentence, leaves a while unspoken between them, but Nick just nods, and hesitates for a long moment before pressing one slick finger into Louis.

He’s loose enough from Nick’s tongue in the shower that it goes easy, just a push before he’s in, the rest of his fingers curled and resting at the base of Louis’ balls.

“Ah,” Louis says, tongue feeling thick. “That -- ah.” He squirms against Nick’s hand, adjusting to the long prod of his finger for a moment before rocking into it.

“You can, uh -- another,” he breathes out a moment later.

Nick doesn’t say anything, but after a few thrusts Louis can feel another finger pressing against him, and then sliding in. Nick’s hands are almost startlingly slow and deliberate, like he’s being careful with Louis. Something about that makes Louis’ chest feel too small.

Louis is hard again, now, and just on the edge of feeling raw and burned out. He needs Nick to be inside of him soon, or he may crawl out of his skin before he gets the chance.

“C’mon, I’m good, just -- you can fuck me,” he says, trying to keep his voice steady.

“Gonna,” Nick promises. Louis believes him, when he says it. “Gonna, love, just a moment.”

He pulls his fingers out with a wet sound, and Louis expects him to haul him up by the waist, but he doesn’t -- Nick’s hand is back with another finger, then, stretching and pressing into him slowly.

“Fuck, Nick, c’mon,” he whines. His hips are twisting around frantically, trying to get more of Nick’s fingers at the same time as he tries to pull away, because if Nick’s going to fuck him, he needs him to do it now.

Please,” Louis finally chokes out, his face going hot as he does.

Maybe Nick was just holding out for manners, because he groans against Louis’ ear, then, and pulls his hands away with a squelch. Louis feels too empty, and he bites down on his bottom lip to stop from saying it.

He doesn’t get the chance, as it is, because Nick is grabbing him by the waist, and twisting him around, hands still slick from the lube. He rolls onto his back and pulls Louis over him easily, arranging him over Nick’s hips like he’s weightless.

“Can you reach -- over there, on the table,” Nick asks a bit hoarsely. He gestures at the bedside table, and Louis realizes what he means, bending at the waist to grab the condom where Nick’s left it. He bumbles with it for a moment, and then gets it open, shifting his weight so that he can lean back enough and roll it onto Nick’s cock.

When it’s in place, Louis leverages himself up, trying to ignore the way his thighs shake as he does, and then Nick’s hand is there, guiding his cock into Louis so slowly it feels like he’s being taken apart at the seams. He tips his chin down, furrowing his eyes shut as he concentrates on Nick, the feel of him thick and solid pressing inside of him. It’s almost too much, and not enough all at once.

“Y’alright?” Nick asks with some strain. “Not too…?”

“Not -- giving you the satisfaction,” Louis huffs out, biting his lip. Nick is big, and it’s been a while, so it’s tight, yes, but he can feel the burn already shifting to something else, a different kind of spark.

And anyway, even as far gone as is he right now, Louis knows that even hinting that Nick’s cock is too big would be a horrible tactical error.

Beneath him, Nick smiles, and then Louis lifts his hips again before pressing down all the way so that Nick’s hips are flush against his arse, which turns the grin on Nick’s face into something more like a gasp.

They move slowly at first, Nick’s hands on Louis’ hips as they set the pace. Louis feels dopey and overheated and like he never, ever wants to do anything else but this -- bonelessly riding Nick’s cock while Nick holds onto him tightly, telling him how good he feels.

He leans forward, folding his body towards Nick to kiss him, and the change of angle is like a shock, sending off lights behind his eyes. “Oh,” he breathes into Nick’s mouth, overwhelmed.

“Fuck,” Nick says hoarsely, his hips stuttering in their rhythm. He fits one hand between them as best he can, wanking Louis’ off in the tight space between their bodies. His other hand trails up the curve of Louis’ arse and his back until it’s resting at the base of his skull, gripping gently at the soft hairs at the nape of Louis’ neck.

“‘m gonna,” Louis warns, not pulling back from Nick’s mouth even an inch.

Nick just nods, drops his head and keeps nodding against Louis’ collarbone as he wraps an arm around the back of Nick’s neck and holds himself tight, there, pressed up against him.

He comes suddenly, almost too much at once, spilling over Nick’s hand. The feel of his hole clenching around Nick's cock as he does makes his toes curl, and he finds Nick's mouth with his own again, gasping softly against it as he tries to get his breath back.

“Jesus, babe. D'you--” Nick makes a motion like he expects Louis to pull off, but he just shakes his head an inch, his pulse still erratic, and shoves down on Nick again, moaning at the way it’s just a bit too much, taking him right up to the edge now that he’s come again.

Nick doesn’t last much longer, though -- he plants his feet on the bed for leverage and then thrusts up at Louis, only a few times before he’s swearing and coming, his hand still fisted in Louis’ hair.

They stay like that for a long moment, Louis folded on top of Nick, kissing mindlessly at his mouth, his neck, Nick’s cock still inside Louis as they wait for their pulses to slow.

“Fuck,” Nick says eventually, tapping Louis on the thigh. He makes an unhappy sound but sits up, slowly letting Nick slide out of him, and then curls up along his side, feeling buzzed and happy and weightless.

Nick tosses the condom towards the bin and cuddles Louis for a while, and then stumbles out of bed, returning a moment later with a flannel. They clean up, and then Louis yanks the duvet and sheets over them, indulging himself just for a moment in how small he feels curled up against Nick’s chest. He sprawls his legs to make up for it, after a moment, kicking Nick’s own out of the way, determined to take up his own fair share of the bed just on principle.

“You take up a lot of space, y’know,” Nick mumbles, pressing his nose against Louis’ neck.

Louis just spreads his legs further, sprawling against Nick.

“Should probably go soon,” he says, a bit reluctantly. He’s boneless and cozy and exhausted, and he can scarcely imagine moving enough to find his pants, let alone get a taxi home.

“Oh,” Nick says, opening his eyes just enough to squint up at Louis. His hair is drying sideways, and Louis can’t stop himself from pulling one hand free of the duvet and scraping his fingers through it, rearranging it in the opposite direction. “I mean, you could--” He trails off.

“Could?” Louis asks.

“Could, like stay. Just, y’know. It’s late,” Nick explains. He leans his head into Louis’ hand, quiet for a long moment. “And also, if you stay, you can see Mila when my mum brings her back in the morning. Since you missed her, and all. It’s, um. Practical that way, y’know.”

He closes his eyes again, and Louis isn’t sure if it’s because of the way he’s still petting Nick’s hair, or if maybe Nick thinks that if he’s not looking, the offer won’t count as much. That if his eyes are shut, the weight of it’ll lessen, so long as it goes unseen.

Louis knows that particular technique better than he cares to admit.

The thing is, they haven’t done that bit before either. Louis always leaves, eventually, to go sleep in his own flat. Frankly, it’s never really occurred to him before now that he might stay.

But, like -- it’s practical, Nick’s right. He’d come over intending to see Millie, and it’s not that he’s disappointed with the way the evening’s turned out instead, but he’d still like to see her, once she’s back. There’s no sense in going home just to turn around and come back again tomorrow.

“Well,” he mumbles, pulling his hand away from Nick’s hair and scooting in closer. Nick’s arm comes out from under the blanket and drapes over him, and Louis wiggles in closer until Nick’s holding him against his chest, the rise of his breath matching up with Louis’. “If it’s practical, I mean,” he says, trying to suppress a grin.

“Purely pragmatic,” Nick says quietly into the shell of Louis’ ear, low and rumbling.

Louis’ eyes are drooping, and he hums happily as he gets the pillows and blankets the way he’d like. Nick shifts behind him, warm and solid, and just as Louis is on the edge of drifting off, he thinks he feels Nick press a kiss just underneath his ear. He’s asleep before he can be sure, though.


When he wakes in the morning, Nick is awake, although only just, jabbing blearily at his mobile with his eyes half shut.

“My mum’s here with Mila, I’ve got to let her in,” Nick says when he notices Louis is awake, sounding a bit apologetic about it.

“Mmf,” Louis says, shoving his face into the pillow. “Go on, then, but I’m not getting up yet.”

“Yeah, all right,” Nick says. There’s a draft of cold air when he peels back the duvet, which Louis grumbles at, but Nick just rolls his eyes and smiles as he casts around looking for a t-shirt and a pair of trackies to put on.

“That shirt is hideous,” Louis tells him once he does. It is, a horrible pattern of pink and green and orange neon triangles and squiggles all mashed together, and it looks loose in the neck and all worn-in and soft. Louis hates it, and also kind of wants to steal it for himself.

“Your face is hideous,” Nick tells him. He shifts like he’s about to make for the door, but then he turns back, hesitates for a moment, and leans down to kiss Louis at the edge of his mouth before leaving, shutting the bedroom door behind him as he goes.

Louis smiles, and doesn’t bother trying to stop himself.

After a moment he can hear the front door opening, and then the sounds of Nick’s mum in the flat, letting herself in, settling bags on the table and opening cupboards in the kitchen and cooing at Millie. He wonders if perhaps he’d ought to go out and say hello, but maybe that’s a bit presumptuous, introducing himself to Nick’s mum. Especially so early in the morning, stumbling out of Nick’s bedroom in his rumpled clothes from yesterday -- he’s not sure the first impression he wants to make is ‘Good morning, Mrs. Grimshaw, I’ve just been fucked by your son.’

So he stays in Nick’s bed, burrowing in tighter under his covers. Nick’s bed is big and white and impossibly soft -- miles more cozy than his own, he reluctantly admits -- and he thinks maybe he’ll just stay here forever. Or at least until he has to piss badly enough to force him out.

After a bit, he hears the sound of the front door shutting, Nick’s mum apparently gone, leaving just the sound of Millie babbling and Nick answering back as he bangs around.

He waits a bit longer, and then pulls on one of Nick’s jumpers and a pair of his track pants from a heap on the floor before shuffling into the kitchen.

“Pah!” Millie shrieks when she sees him, banging her fist happily into a pile of beige mush that’s on the tray of her high chair.

“Hi, baby,” Louis says, bending down to kiss the top of her head when he gets closer. She wriggles happily, and reaches up to smear one porridge-y hand across the front of his jumper.

“Oh, Mila,” Nick says, not quite managing to sound properly scolding. “All over his jumper, look.”

She just smiles and babbles, and Louis can’t help but smile as well. “S’all right,” he says. “Your jumper, anyway.”

Nick glances over him, and then pulls a face when he realizes he’s right. “So it is. Well done, baby,” he says, congratulating Millie very seriously. “Toast?” he asks Louis.

“Yeah, go on,” Louis says. “‘S’there tea?”

“Nearly,” Nick says, standing to rummage around in one of the cupboards. Louis steals his seat, and leans over to tickle Millie under one arm before trying to remind her of her porridge. She sloughs one tiny handful off her face and into her mouth, which Louis figures must be a success.

The toast and the kettle go at nearly the same time, so Louis fixes their tea, and then the three of them sit together at the table, eating mostly quietly. The kitchen smells nice, and Millie’s gurgling senselessly between them, and when Nick passes the marmalade, his hand lingers on Louis’ longer than strictly necessary.

It is, Louis realizes, the nicest morning he can recall having in a long while. The thought makes him want to lean across the table and kiss Nick, just where he’s got a bit of marmalade on the corner of his mouth, but before he can, Millie knocks her spoon onto the ground with a shriek.

Louis smiles and leans to fetch it for her, and can’t even find in himself it to be disappointed about missing an opportunity for a nice snog.

He reckons it’ll keep, anyway.


When Louis arrives in the afternoon, later that week, Nick is out of sorts.

It’s more than a bit weird, because Louis doesn’t think he’s seen Nick in a proper mood before -- he’s seen him be sarcastic and cutting, and sometimes frazzled about being covered in baby spit-up, and a variety of other states of annoyance. Usually he goes on about it at great length, more than happy to tell anyone who’ll listen how the world has wronged him.

But something seems to be upsetting him properly today, and it throws Louis off, because the only way it’s manifesting itself is in how quiet Nick’s gone. And quiet is one of the few ways Louis’ never thought of Nick.

He just nods at Louis mutely when he lets him in, and then disappears down the hallway into Millie’s room without saying anything, the door shutting behind him. Louis frowns, but settles into the kitchen, putting on the kettle and helping himself to the good biscuits Nick always tries to hide in the tallest cabinet. He only has to jump to reach them a little.

After a long while, Nick pads into the kitchen, looking drawn and worn-out, tired around the eyes in a new sort of way. “Hi,” he says wanly.

“Hi,” Louis repeats tentatively. He hesitates, not sure if he ought to ask Nick if he’s all right -- he doesn’t know if Nick’s perhaps the sort who likes to sulk in silence when they’re unhappy about something, although it seems unlikely, now that he’s thinking about it. It’s Nick, after all.

“Y’alright?” he asks as Nick crosses the kitchen, coming up behind Louis and hunching over to rest his chin on Louis’ shoulder and grab at his half-drunk tea.

“Mmph,” Nick says next to his ear. It comes out very pathetically, and Louis feels so sorry for him that he doesn’t even try to take back his tea.

“C’mon,” he says instead, standing up and pulling Nick by the hand down the corridor. He follows easily, and Louis pushes him into his bedroom even though it’s still early, the weak rainy sunlight filtering in through the curtains. Louis nudges Nick towards the bed. He goes without argument, a feat enough in itself, and flops down into a small little pile, cradling the tea to his chest.

Louis straightens the duvet, yanking it out from under Nick’s legs so he can spread it properly on top of him, and then toes off his own shoes and climbs into the bed next to Nick.

“Why’re we in bed?” Nick asks. “‘S’not even five yet.”

“Mm,” Louis agrees. He wriggles around so he’s propped up against the headboard, higher than Nick, and tugs him in so he’s cuddled against his chest. Nick lets him do it without protest, doesn’t even argue when Louis takes his tea away and sets it on the bedside table, and that’s what makes Louis realize Nick’s really bothered.

“You’re upset about something,” he says, nosing Nick’s hair gently. “And when I’m sulking I like to do it in bed. Thought maybe you might as well.”

Nick makes a sad noise only a bit like a laugh, and burrows in closer to Louis, the duvet pulled up nearly to his nose. On the bedside table, Millie’s baby monitor crackles as she makes a small noise in her sleep, and then falls silent.

“D’you want to talk about it?” Louis asks eventually.

“No,” Nick says immediately, but then huffs a sigh into Louis’ shirtfront. “Maybe, I dunno.”

“Well, if you do,” Louis says mildly.

Nick’s quiet for a long moment, just breathing a bit unevenly against Louis’ chest. He’s quiet so long that Louis thinks he might have fallen asleep, but then he sighs, and looks up at Louis.

“Jaz,” he says carefully, and Louis’ heart constricts, because, oh. Of course.

“Miss her, y’know?” Nick continues, and then laughs humorlessly. “That sounds stupid, doesn’t it? Like, obviously I miss her, she’s bloody dead.”

Louis isn’t sure there’s anything to say to that, so he doesn’t, just reaches under the duvet and strokes Nick’s arm softly.

“But then I think I shouldn’t be thinking about it, right, because I’m meant to be looking after Mila, not moping about. And Jaz wasn’t even my mum, she was just my friend, so who am I to feel sorry for myself?

“You can still miss her,” Louis says carefully. “Of course you miss her, Nick, you’re allowed.”

He feels a bit shit, actually, now that he knows. They’ve never even come close to talking about Jaz since it happened, and that’s -- that’s stupid, he thinks in retrospect, because obviously Jaz and Nick had been close, close enough for her to leave Millie with him. He should’ve noticed by now that Nick hasn’t said a word about her this whole time. Maybe it’s because he’s so used to Harry, he thinks, crying his feelings everywhere without a second thought -- but of course Nick’s not like that, he should’ve realized. Louis’ chest feels tight just thinking about how it must feel, keeping all that tangled up inside of you, and he squeezes his arms around Nick, hoping he can sense it’s meant partly as an apology.

“And then, like,” Nick continues. “Mila was babbling today when we were playing, and she -- it was just nonsense, obviously, but she made a noise that sounded like… like mama, and, like. She’s going to talk eventually, properly, with like, words, and -- what if one of them is ‘mum’? Or, fuck, what if it isn’t?” He makes a sad noise, pauses for a long moment, and then continues.

“It’s just. ‘M’gonna have to tell her about Jaz, someday, and I dunno how I’m meant to do it when I can’t even think about her without feeling like I want to be sick, you know?”

He looks up at Louis, then, looking very small and unsure, and it’s so foreign on Nick that Louis feels completely and utterly lost.

“It’s shit,” he agrees.

“Really, spectacularly shit,” Nick says softly.

“I dunno how to help,” Louis admits after a while. It bothers him, because he really thinks he ought to be able to do something, but maybe there’s nothing to be done for this sort of thing.

Nick makes a snuffly noise against his collar, and then sighs. “S’alright. You don’t have to help.”

Louis scowls, because maybe he doesn’t, but that doesn’t keep him from wishing he could anyway.

They’re quiet for a long time, and Nick drifts off eventually, twitching restlessly in his sleep. Louis lies there with him until he thinks he can slip out without disturbing Nick, and then pads down the hall quietly. He peers into Millie’s room, where she’s still asleep, curled up in a strange position with her knees bent underneath her, looking a bit like she’s doing yoga, and then goes to the kitchen, feeling at loose ends.

He thinks there’s got to be something he can do, and hasn’t any idea what that might be.

If he was the sort of person who could cook without starting small fires, this would be a prime opportunity to make a meal. That seems like a thing that’s done, when you’re trying to take care of someone and aren’t quite sure how to do it -- it might not sort out any of Nick’s problems about Jaz and Millie and all that, but at least it’s… something.

In the end he settles on calling in an order for far more Chinese than the two of them could ever dream of eating, and lines it all up neatly on the counter when it arrives.

Nick stumbles into the kitchen shortly afterward, probably woken by the sound of the doorbell going. He stops short, tilting his head at the spread of food, and Louis, sat in one of the kitchen chairs with his knees up at his chin.

“Dinner, if you’d like it,” Louis says, feeling a bit like he needs to explain himself. He digs his chin against his knees self-consciously, because now he’s not sure anymore -- he’s not sure how you do this sort of thing at all, really.

Nick doesn’t say anything, but his hand trails against Louis’ shoulder softly as he crosses into the kitchen, and a smile quirks across his face as he gathers plates for them out of the cupboard.

Halfway through his second pile of glass noodles, Nick pokes Louis in the hand with the end of his chopstick. “Thanks,” he says quietly.

Louis shrugs, and picks at his own spring roll. “‘S’just Chinese,” he says, feeling sort of self-conscious in the face of acknowledgment. He’s tempted to tell Nick to shut up and eat his food and stop being a prat, but he doesn’t.

“Well, thanks still,” Nick says, and that’s the last he says on it, but when Louis leaves for his own flat an hour later, Nick’s shoulders seem a bit less tense. Louis counts that as a win.

Two days later, when he’s putting Millie into her cot for a nap, he notices a framed photo propped up on the side table that hadn’t been there before.

It’s of Jaz, a bit out of focus and mid-laugh, jammed into the frame with half a dozen faces Louis vaguely recognizes from Nick’s circle of friends. It’s angled towards the cot, and big enough that Millie will be able to see it even from between the slats.

Something catches in his throat, and when he goes back into the lounge once Millie’s down, he curls around Nick on the sofa like an octopus, squeezing him tightly and pressing a kiss against his cheek.

“All right?” Nick asks mildly.

“Yeah,” Louis says, not quite yet able to force himself to pull away from Nick. “All right.”


A week later, he’s nearly finished with his shift at the market stall when his phone vibrates in his pocket, yet again. He thinks about ignoring it, because he’s occupied trying to sell an absolute twat in an obscenely expensive-looking suit some very overpriced goat cheese, but this is the third time it’s rung in the last five minutes. Either Harry’s bored, or there’s some sort of emergency with his mum and the girls, or he needs to tell off Zayn for sitting on his phone and accidentally dialing with his arse again.

He lets it go while he finishes ringing up the twat -- he’s got one of those rich people’s credit cards that weighs a fucking ton, and it makes Louis’ chest pang with a mix of jealousy and disgust when he swipes it -- and then ducks behind the back of the stall, fishing out his phone from his jeans pocket.

They’re all missed calls from Nick.

That’s new, he thinks. He’s fairly certain Nick’s never called him before, not once.

He frowns at the screen, but it doesn’t give any new information, just starts to rattle with another incoming call, and he answers cautiously.


“Oh, thank fuck,” Nick says, audibly flustered. “Jesus, why’d it take you so bloody long to answer, I’m losing my mind--”

“I’m at work, Nicholas,” he says as haughtily as he can manage.

“Well, so am I, that’s the problem,” Nick says. “Priya’s had an emergency, something with her mum, and she had to bring Mila over to me straight away, so now I’ve got her at the bloody station with me.”

Louis kicks idly at a rotten apple that’s rolled over from the next stall. “Okay?”

“It’s not,” Nick protests. “She’s exhausted and wants a nap and won’t stop crying and I’m back on the air in three minutes, and I’ve already let Matt do my last two links because Fiona’s got Mila but she can still see me through the bloody glass and she thinks I’m ignoring her so she keeps wailing--”

“Okay,” Louis says, interrupting him. Nick sounds like he’s about to start hyperventilating, and that won’t be good for anyone involved. “Look, can someone else hold her where she can’t see you? Maybe she’ll like, forget you’re there and calm down. Object whatsit, y’know.”

Nick just makes a long garbled noise of despair.

“Are you having an aneurism?” Louis asks, once he’s finished.

“Look,” Nick says, ignoring that part. “Are you terribly busy? D’you think you could come get her and take her back to mine? Only I know she trusts you, and I trust you, and it’s the only thing I can think of…”

Something does a funny little flip in Louis’ chest.

“Um,” he says. “Well, like, I’m at work for another fifteen minutes, and it’ll take me a bit to get across town, but…”

“That’s fine! That’s more than fine, I’ll just give her to an intern until then.”

Louis scowls. “An intern?”

“A responsible intern,” Nick assures him. “There’s got to be one around here somewhere.”

Louis isn’t sure how suddenly he’s become the one being reassured in this scenario.

“All right, yeah, I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he agrees.

“Oh Jesus, thank you, you’ve just saved me ten years off my life from worrying, I -- fuck, all right, I’ve gotta run, d’you know where it is?”

“Text me the address, I’ll figure it out,” Louis says, already eyeing the girl he’s working with, trying to decide if she’d notice if he slipped out early.

Only on Millie’s behalf, he clarifies to himself two minutes later as he’s slipping off his apron and ducking down the crowded lane between stalls, zipping up his hoodie as he goes. That’s the only reason he’s skiving off early -- for Millie. The cheese can mind itself. Millie can’t. He’s just making the rational choice.

That’s what he tells himself.


The Radio 1 lobby is less impressive than he’d thought it’d be, for some reason, just a standard lobby, but the girl at the desk must be expecting him because she just shoos him towards a set of lifts, and then he’s spat out in the reception area of the studio before he has much time to reflect on it.

There’s a tiny girl with electric blue hair leaned up against the main desk there, typing into her phone, and when she glances up at him, she smiles. “Oh, hi, you’re Louis?”

“Hi, yeah,” he says, shifting from one foot to the other. “Is Nick here?” He cranes his head, trying to look down the hall, but it’s mostly closed doors.

“Yeah, down to the left. You can go through, the mics are off for now,” she says, gesturing down the corridor. “Here, I’ll show you.”

She shoves off the desk and trots down the hall, and Louis follows, feeling a bit daft, like a duckling behind its mother.

They come around a bend and then Louis can see the walled-off parts of the studio where they actually broadcast, mostly see-through and glass. Nick is propped in a swivel chair with his headphones pulled down around his neck, and he’s reaching out to take Millie from a young-looking bloke with thick glasses. Millie at least doesn’t look to be sobbing anymore, which is good, as she’s about an inch from the mic. Even if it is off.

The blue-haired girl bangs on the glass with a fist, and then shouts: “Oi, Nick, your gentleman caller’s here!”

Louis sort of splutters beside her, taken aback, but before he can protest Nick’s getting up, headed for the corridor with Millie in his arms.

“Thank fuck,” he says when he arrives, passing Millie to Louis straight away. She’s a bit puffy in the face like she’s been crying, and she’s got an expression of someone balanced just on the razor’s edge of doing it again. Louis instinctively runs a soothing hand up and down her back, trying to head off a fit before it starts.

“Language,” he tells Nick mildly.

“Hm,” Nick says, furrowing his eyebrows at Louis a bit. “Here, c’mon, I’ve got her things in here.” He gestures for Louis to follow him into the studio, where apparently things are still off air for now, and kneels down to rummage around under his desk while Louis stands there, feeling conspicuous, Millie balanced on his hip.

There’s a handful of other people in the room -- Fiona and Matt, who Louis’ never met but knows their faces anyway, and a few others that he can’t put names to. The blue-haired girl’s followed them in too, and as Nick is knelt on the floor trying to jam an empty bottle into Millie’s travel bag that’s stowed under his desk, she clears her throat. “Aren’t you going to introduce your boyfriend, Nick?”

Nick’s head snaps up, smacking into the underside of the desk with a resounding thunk. The bottle flops out of the bag and rolls across the floor.

“My -- what?” he asks, dumbfounded. “D’you mean Louis?”

“Boyfriend?” a redhead woman Louis doesn’t recognize repeats, tilting her head towards Nick curiously.

“It’s not--” Louis starts, but then stops, because he doesn’t know what it isn’t, doesn’t know what he’s meant to say here. The bottle’s come to rest next to his foot, and Louis just stares at it, feeling a bit stupid. “What?”

“Nice to meet you, Louis,” Fiona says helpfully from her corner, smoothing over the weirdness. Matt waves, then goes back to fiddling with something. The blue-haired girl smirks in a deliberate sort of way.

“Hi,” Louis says, feeling totally perplexed as to what’s going on. “Nice to meet you lot as well?” It comes out as a question, and he winces.

“Can you get that?” Nick asks him, pointing at the bottle, apparently distracted from the issue already. Or at least pretending to be -- either way, Louis is grateful for it. “And then her hat is over here somewhere, dunno where it’s gone, maybe--” He flails around under the desk again a bit madly, nearly braining himself again.

Louis crouches down as best he can with Millie in his arms, grabbing the bottle and then lifting the bag up to Nick’s desk, trying not to jostle any important-looking buttons or sliders. There’s a screen with a countdown on it, under a minute left, and Louis assumes that’s how long they’ve got before Nick has to talk again, so he shoves the bottle back into the bag, adjusts Millie, and shoves her hat on her head once Nick finally finds it, standing up and brushing his palms off his thighs.

“Thanks,” Nick says, helping Louis shoulder the bag. “So you’re all right to take her back, then? I’ll come home straight after I’m finished here, you won’t have to wait long, and Priya said she should be back tomorrow, so it’s all…” He trails off, casting a slightly frantic glance at the monitor.

“It’s fine,” Louis says, trying to sound reassuring. “Give me your key and we’ll be out of your hair, yeah? Everything’s fine.”

“Sorry if she cries,” Nick says.

Louis shrugs. “‘M used to it. We’ll see you tonight, go do your work.”

Nick exhales visibly, and then, seemingly without thinking about it, leans in and kisses Louis on the edge of his mouth, just a soft brush before pulling back and sitting down, putting his headphones back on.

He waves as Louis and Millie follow the blue-haired girl out again, and Louis holds up Millie’s little hand as they go, making her wave back. She only tolerates it for a second and then snatches her hand away, making a face like she’s thinking about screaming, and Louis tries not to laugh at her. He knows how much he hates it when anyone laughs at him when he’s stroppy, so it seems unfair to do the same to her, even if she is a baby.

Nick waves one last time, and then turns back to his microphone, saying something Louis can’t hear through the glass, and then they’re around the corner again, out of sight.

“You two are sweet,” the blue-haired girl says as they wait in the lobby for the lift to make its way up. “Like, I’ve only been here a few months, but he seems happy with you, yeah? It’s sweet.”

“Oh,” Louis says, not sure at all what to do with his face. Thankfully, the lift pings the next moment, doors gliding open silently, saving him from having to figure it out. “Um, thanks?” he says as he steps inside with Millie.

The girl just smiles and shrugs, and then she’s back at her desk, scrolling through her phone. In a second the doors shut, leaving just Louis and Millie in the lift. She’s babbling nonsense into his ear, tugging at the strap to her bag like she wants nothing more than for all her belongings to scatter on the floor of the Radio 1 lift, and all Louis can think of is the word boyfriend, and the way Nick had kissed him without seeming to think about it, like it’s the easiest thing in the world.


Nick barges in just after five.

“Mila,” he crows, kicking off his shoes, crossing over to where Louis is sprawled on the sofa, Millie rested on his chest. She’d been napping, but woken not fifteen minutes ago, seemingly content to carry on using Louis as a pillow, grabbing and drooling on his shirt happily.

“And Louis,” Louis says, craning his head at Nick.

“Hullo both of you,” Nick corrects himself. “Was she terrible? She was so fussy at the studio, I worried…”

He trails off, though, and Louis guesses it’s because he notices that Millie is happy and placid.

“We’re just fine,” Louis says, patting idly at Millie’s hair. “Had a little food, a nice nap, y’know. Right up until you showed up.”

“Yeah, all right,” Nick says, smiling in a put-upon way and grabbing Millie from Louis’ chest. “C’mere, baby, I missed you. Has she spit up recently?” he asks Louis.

“On my shirt after lunch, you should be safe,” Louis says, swinging his legs around and sitting up now that he’s not pinned down.

Nick and Millie bang around in the kitchen for a bit, then her bedroom, and finally reappear in the lounge, Nick plopping down next to Louis with Millie on his lap.

“Y’saved my arse today,” he says, putting on a face like it pains him to admit it, except the way he’s smiling sort of ruins the effect.

“True,” Louis admits. “I’m quite wonderful like that.”

Nick scoffs. “I’m trying to say thank you, you prat, don’t make it difficult.”

“You should probably start by actually saying it, then,” Louis says.

Nick sighs heavily, still smiling despite himself. “Thank you, Louis.”

Louis preens and shrugs. “You’re welcome, Nicholas.”

They sit for a bit, Nick eventually turning on the television. The longer the quiet goes on, the more Louis starts to wonder if it’s building up to something -- like how the girl at the station had called him Nick’s boyfriend, and more importantly, how neither of them had corrected her.

Louis finds he doesn’t at all mind that it’s happened, but he thinks if they have to like, talk about what it means, he may have to run off into the sunset.

Nick clears his throat, and then turns to him. It makes Louis’ pulse pick up, and he’s just about to make an excuse, Nick beats him to it.

“Stay here tonight, yeah?” Nick asks. “I can make us dinner. As, like, a proper thank you. Well, probably. I can definitely order something, at least.”

It’s stupid, but it makes Louis’ heart flutter more than a bit, because -- that’s a boyfriend-y thing to do, isn’t it? It seems like it is, although Louis supposes he hasn’t really got any way of knowing.

And part of him thinks that objectively, it’s preposterous that he’s gone all fluttery over the prospect of being anyone’s boyfriend-type thing, let alone Nick Grimshaw’s, especially when the thought of talking about it makes him start to sweat a bit, but -- he supposes there no use fighting it. It’s been a very strange few months to say the least, and he thinks he can feel however he bloody well pleases, even if he’s not sure if he pleases at all.

All he knows is that he would like to stay -- he’d like Nick to make him dinner, and he’d like to stay after that, and he’d like for Nick to fuck him, and for the two of them to curl up in his bed together, sleep there all night, and wake up and feed Millie her breakfast.

That’s what he wants.

So he says “All right, yeah,” and stays.


He stays the next night, and the next as well.


Probably it means he’s a terrible mate, the absolute worst sort, selfish and self-involved and wrapped up with a new bloke he’s shagging, but the thing is, when Harry comes home on his break from touring, Louis sort of forgets it’s happening, right up until it is.

It’s not that he means to forget about it, but he’s slipped into that space where he’s accustomed to Harry being gone. It happens almost every time he’s gone on tour -- Louis sulks around for a few weeks, because suddenly there’s no one to distract him and go along with his schemes and force to sleep over in his bed when he’s feeling cuddly and lonely. But eventually, he gets used to it. He sort of has to, since Harry’s gone six months out of the year more often than not -- he just learns to let phone calls and texts be normal for them while he is.

So that’s what’s happened now, it seems, and it’s not surprising, but it still does make him feel a bit shit when he’s in the middle of an Eastenders rerun on a Tuesday morning, and finds himself surprised by a text from Harry that says r u meeting me at the airport tomorrow?

He frowns, a bit, because that doesn’t seem like that can possibly be right -- it can’t have been two and a half months already, he thinks. But he pulls up his calendar, and yes, there it is, right where Harry’d programmed it in himself before leaving: LUV OF MY LIFE RETURNS 2 ME!!!, blocking off the whole next day as occupied.

His email pings, then, and he grins, because it’s Paul, sending him Harry’s flight details, along with a harassed message about how Harry won’t let him book a car, insisting he’d rather Louis pick him up instead. You know how he gets, Paul’s said.

Louis sends Harry fifteen thumbs up emojis in a row, and doesn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day, because he does. He knows.


Louis takes the tube to Harry’s house the next day early, letting himself in with his own set of keys. It’s a bit dusty, feeling like a house that’s been closed up for several months might, even though he knows the housekeepers must’ve been in at least a few times.

He feels a bit regretful, which is silly, but he can’t help it -- he usually sleeps there once in a while when Harry’s away, just on principle that such a massive house should have at least someone in it. But he’s been so tied up for the last two months with Nick and the baby, he hasn’t even thought about it.

He shrugs, though, because there’s nothing to do for it now, and fixes himself a cup of tea -- the house looks better with his empty mug sitting unwashed in the sink once he’s finished, in his opinion -- and then rummages around in the strange turtle-shaped glass bowl near the door where Harry keeps all his car keys until he finds the set for the Range Rover.


When Harry comes around the corner at the arrivals gate, it’s in the middle of a small hurricane of activity -- other passengers, but also Paul, a few more crew members and hulking security blokes, and a small gaggle of loud girls with their mobiles aimed at Harry.

Harry seems entirely unbothered, though, and the moment he spots Louis, he breaks into a grin -- the one that always gets him on the cover of Heat, the bastard -- and launches himself at Louis unselfconsciously, nearly toppling them both over.

“Don’t cry,” Louis warns him, muffling his face in Harry’s neck. Above him, he hears Harry laugh and sniff conspicuously, and Louis would roll his eyes, except all of a sudden he’s too glad to have Harry back to manage.

“Sorry,” Harry says, pulling back. “Missed you.”

“Hm,” Louis says, smiling involuntarily. “Barely noticed you were gone, I did.”

Harry just smiles and hugs him again, one lanky arm around Louis’ neck with a strength that always surprises him.

“You’re the worst,” Harry says happily, stepping back and shouldering his bag.

“You too,” Louis says, and knows exactly what he means. “C’mon, let’s go home.”


They’re back to Harry’s house in under an hour; one perk of being a pop star is not having to wait around to claim your own luggage, but apparently the tradeoff is that Harry spends twenty minutes trying to sign autographs for the whole horde of girls who’ve managed to find out when his flight lands and are waiting for them in the car park. One of them even asks Louis for a picture while he’s waiting off to the side, which startles a laugh out of him -- it’s happened before, but only rarely, and he’s never really gotten used to people knowing who he is just because he’s Harry’s best mate.

He’s not sure if he’s actually quite used to anyone knowing who Harry is, to be honest, clamoring and weeping for a picture with him, because in Louis’ book he’s still the same prat he’s known all his life. He’s seen Harry eat candyfloss until he’s been sick on himself and cry at a funny-looking bird in the park and be grounded by his mum for sneaking out after curfew, which can make it a bit hard to reconcile the whole heartthrob thing. It’s all a bit mad, really-- it’s just Harry, the same idiot with terrible jokes and a too-wide smile that Louis had grown up with and moved to London with and done everything with, practically.

It almost makes Louis regret how he hasn’t mentioned anything about Nick to Harry yet -- nothing real or important, at least, beyond the fact that he’s been around a few times. Certainly nothing about… the rest of it. It’s strange, and sits in his stomach peculiarly. They don’t have secrets, is the thing, not Harry and Louis.

But when he tries to open his mouth and say it, just to test out what it might be like -- “So, Haz, I’ve been shagging Nick while you’ve been gone,” -- it feels too precarious, too unsure, so he swallows it back down again. He wants to keep this to himself, just now. So he shuts his mouth and sets about scouring Harry’s kitchen for anything they can eat instead.

“Texted Nick when I landed to tell him I’m home,” Harry tells him after a while, picking meticulously through a bag of crisps -- the only thing even vaguely edible he’d have in. “Reckon I might go see him and Milan in a bit.”

It startles Louis a little, even though there’s no reason it ought to -- maybe it’s just hearing Nick’s name outside of his own head. “Oh,” he says. “D’you want me to come along?”

Instinctively, he expects Harry to say yes, of course. And why wouldn’t he? Louis is the one who knows how to fix Millie’s bottle and how to trick her into a nap when she’s fussing while still making it seem like her idea, and anyway, he’s been a Nick’s nearly every night this week as it stands. Even Zayn’s noticed, pulling pointed looks at Louis when he turns up at his flat for clean clothes or a shower.

But Harry just shakes his head and says “Nah, ‘s’alright.” Louis stops, because he’d already been casting around trying to find his shoes.

“Oh,” he says, frowning just a bit. Harry doesn’t notice, though, too busy trying to fit his entire enormous hand into the crisp bag, tongue poked out the side of his mouth in concentration.

“Are you sure?” Louis asks. “I mean, it’s…” He’s not sure what to say it is, though -- no trouble, or fine, or actually what I’d prefer, if he’s being honest. He says nothing instead of any of those.

“You’ve done your time, mate,” Harry tells him, shaking his hair out of his eyes. He finds the particular crisp he was after, folded over on itself and nearly burnt, and then tosses the bag on the table, forgotten, as he crunches it loudly. “And honestly, thank you again, y’know. I know it was a bother, but, like, Nick says you’ve been a help. Said you’ll probably be glad not to have to be there every moment now, anyway, so don’t worry about it.”

That catches Louis unexpectedly, and more than a bit unpleasantly, sitting sourly in his stomach. He opens his mouth, instinctively wanting ask Harry precisely what Nick’s said, if he said Louis doesn’t have to come, or if it was closer to saying he didn’t want him to. There’s a difference, he thinks. He shuts his mouth again, though, because he’s not sure how to ask it without showing more of his hand than he’d like. He looks meaningfully at Harry, hoping maybe he can figure it out that way.

Harry’s face gives away nothing, though, just a blank, vaguely frog-like stare. Louis squints suspiciously. He can’t tell if Harry’s consciously trying to look innocent and wide-eyed, or if that’s just the way his face is.

This is the problem when Harry goes away, he thinks. Louis forgets how to read him in an instant with just a look, sometimes needing up to several. It’s massively inconvenient.

“I can come anyway,” he says slowly, still not sure what angle either one of them are taking right now.

But Harry’s shaking out his hair again, dusting crisp residue from his hands off on the thighs of his torn jeans and shoving his sock feet into those god-awful worn boots. “I’ll ring you when I’m on my way back, we’ll collect Zayn and Liam and go out properly,” he says.

Louis opens his mouth, but then closes it again, and before he can figure out any words to say, Harry’s stumbling out the door, knocking his shoulder against Louis’ and a kiss against his cheek as he goes.

The door’s clicked shut behind him before Louis has a chance to sort out what’s just happened. He’s still working it out as he flicks on the kettle and flops onto Harry’s enormous sofa, but he’s fairly sure he feels put out about it all the same.


Louis decides not to go to Nick’s the next day, or the day after, still a bit unsure as to where they stand.

Instead, he waits for Nick to ring him to ask why he hasn't turned up lately. And then keeps waiting when he doesn’t.

After nearly a week and no word from him, he gets the message.

Apparently he’d been very much mistaken when he’d assumed that things would carry on mostly unchanged once Harry’d come back, because Nick clearly doesn’t need him anymore, now that he’s got Harry around whenever he’s not with Louis. Harry goes to Nick’s flat to see him and Millie when Louis’ at work, or meets Nick at the station, doing an interview or just sitting hidden in the corner, laughing and trying to distract Nick from his links.

Not that Louis knows. He certainly doesn’t listen to Nick’s show every morning, feeling a bit like a stroppy volcano that’s starting to seethe beneath the surface.

Harry even takes Nick and Millie out to the cinema one afternoon. Louis offers to tag along for that one, and again the next day when Harry meets Nick and Millie at the shops, but Harry shrugs it off again each time, telling him Nick doesn’t want him to bother himself. It makes Louis smart with the realization that Nick’s brushing him off, even if he is doing in a roundabout way, using Harry as his mouthpiece.

He wonders if he’s been completely off base this whole time -- that maybe, whatever he’d thought it’d been with Nick, he’d never been more than a convenience, at most a reliable babysitter and occasional shag.

He doesn’t think that’s how it’d been, but -- well, he’s been wrong in the past.

The fourth time it happens, Harry carefully shrugging off Louis’ offer to join him visiting Nick for brunch, Louis’ resolve breaks, and he winds up texting Nick.

He’s been trying to talk himself out of it for days, telling himself that if Nick wanted to speak with him he could text just as easily, and he hasn’t, so he must not. But the temptation has been sitting just under his skin ever since the first brush-off, the impulse to text Nick and demand to know what his bloody problem is, why he suddenly doesn’t want Louis around after they’d had -- after they’d had something like a routine sorted out.

Louis knows it’s pathetic, which is the only thing that’s managed to stave it off until now, but he’s also never been much for self-denial, so really, it was only a matter of time. As soon as Harry’s gone, Louis’ typing furiously on his phone, going through eight drafts before he finally settles on something as not-pathetic as possible and close enough to normal to send to another human. Even if that human is being a bit of a twat.

everything alright w/ millie? he asks. could stop by after tea if u want

He knows it’s cagey and a bit weird, because he’s never offered to stop by before, just turns up like it’s his right, but. But it’s all been a bit weird since Harry’s been home anyway, the way he’d gone from seeing Nick nearly every day to not at all, so really, that’s hardly Louis’ fault. He’s just following suit.

He doesn’t get an answer until he’s in the middle of watching a film an hour later, sandwiched on the sofa between Liam and Zayn as conspicuously as he can manage. It’s his stipulation for watching films with them, because if he doesn’t act as a human dividing wall, one of them is bound to wind up with their hand down the other’s trousers in less than an hour. It’s sickening, and had very nearly ruined the second Avengers film for him, so he’d had to implement rules.

When his phone buzzes with a response, he peels himself away from them, exaggeratedly leaving a mound of cushions in his spot to take over the job. Liam just laughs, tipping his head back, and Zayn chucks a remote at him as he retreats into the kitchen.

It’s only to avoid being the rude friend on their phone during a film, he tells himself. Nobody likes that mate, the one who’s always tapping away at something while you’re trying to concentrate on Captain America and his tights.

It’s certainly not so that he can be ready in a moment if Nick asks him to come over, though. That would be very close to pathetic.

nah dont bother yourself, got hazza here and milas tolerating him well enough, Nick’s answer reads.

Something sour and unpleasant twists in Louis’ stomach as he reads it, and then reads it again.

It’s not rude, really, particularly considering he knows just how rude Nick can be if he feels like it, but it still smarts. It’s distinctly a brush-off, and Louis’ never really learned to tolerate the feeling of being thrown over as well as he might. And something about this brush-off in particular stings especially.

He stares at his reflection in the microwave for a long moment, trying to decide if it’s worth it to answer -- possibly something like no yeah i’m busy watching a film now anyway, which is what his first instinct tells him, even though he knows just how bratty that would be. But in the end he just turns off his mobile, leaving it dark next to the stove, and shuffles back into the lounge.

His cushion wall has been demolished. Zayn is curled up entirely in Liam’s lap, ignoring the film entirely in favor of nestling his nose against the curve of Liam’s jaw, and Liam’s got a soothing hand running idly up Zayn’s back so easily it seems he’s hardly aware of it.

Louis groans despairingly, and changes course, stomping off to his room and shutting the door behind him firmly.


Stomping off proves to be a mistake, though, because as a result, Liam and Zayn decide something’s wrong with him, and now they won’t bloody leave him alone.

“Do you want to come to dinner with us?” Liam asks gently. Louis hates gentle. It makes him want to get Liam in a headlock straight away to stop him from ever using that soft, pitying tone on him again, so he does that.

Liam doesn’t even fight back, though, just lets Louis wrestle him to the ground without protest, which takes a lot of the fun out of it.

“Honestly, I can change our reservation to three,” Liam says, once Louis’ let his head out of his armpit.

“Fantastic,” Louis says. “And maybe after I tag along on your date I can join while Zayn makes tender love to you as well. Really round out the whole night.”

Liam rolls his eyes at him, but still manages to do it indulgently and a bit sadly.

“Honestly,” Louis says, trying to use his best I’m being reasonable voice, hoping that it’ll get Liam to shut up about it. “I’m fine, I’ve got crisps and tea and the first season of One Tree Hill to watch. I don’t plan to leave the flat at all tonight, all right?”

“You shouldn't just mope around, mate,” Liam says sadly. “Just because things with Nick…”

He trails off, though, like he’s not sure if he’s maybe crossed a line by saying it out loud. Up until now, he’s only danced around it, not saying Nick’s name, like if he does Louis might swoon in despair or something.

“There were no things with Nick,” Louis says firmly. He shoves Liam by the shoulders towards the door, hoping he can manhandle him outside before he can think of any other new ways to feel sorry for Louis. “Go on, Zayn’ll murder me if you’re late on my account.”

“He wouldn’t!” Liam protests, sounding scandalized. “He says he’s sorry he isn’t here, actually, he got stuck at the studio, otherwise he’d tell you himself to come along.”

They’re almost to the front door. Louis waves a hand dismissively, shoving Liam out into the corridor.

“Just go on, Payne, I’m fine.”

“If you’re sure…” Liam says, looking a bit guilty and unsure.

“Niall and Bressie’ll be here day after tomorrow anyway, we’ll have a proper piss-up then,” Louis offers as a compromise. “I’m not moping, I’m conserving energy for that.”

“Well,” Liam says. “I mean, if you’re absolutely sure…”

“I am,” says Louis, sensing his opportunity and shutting the door in Liam’s face. He locks it, too, just to be sure.

“Love you, you idiot,” Liam calls from the opposite side. “Don’t mope all night!”

Louis tries to hold back an exasperated smile as Liam’s footsteps retreat, waiting until he’s sure he won’t try and come back before flopping onto the sofa dramatically.

He queues up the first disc of the show, idly wondering how many blankets he can steal off his and Zayn’s beds and wrap around himself at once.

When Liam and Zayn come in after midnight, Louis has managed four around his shoulders, three around his feet, and has nearly finished the second disc.

If Liam makes another pitying face at the sight of him, though, he doesn’t know, because he pretends to be asleep when he hears Zayn’s key in the lock.


Niall and Bressie turn up like a hurricane a few days later, which is a welcome distraction. They barge into Zayn and Louis’ flat straight off the plane from Dublin, Niall on Bressie’s back, whooping and shouting “Lads!” as Bressie hurls him towards the both of them. They wind up in a pile on the floor, tangled up like uncoordinated puppies, and before Louis has any time to think, Niall and Bressie have trundled them all of to a pub where Harry and Liam are already waiting.

It’s exactly what he needed; Niall gets him in a headlock the moment they’re sat at their table, and refuses to let him go until he downs a pint. He nearly chokes to death laughing, which makes Harry point out that Niall ought to make him go again, since he’s coughed up nearly a third of his drink all over his shirt, so technically he hadn’t finished it. Liam appoints himself judge, and in the end Louis is left languishing in Niall’s clutches for a full fifteen minutes before they all conclude that he can go free so long as he does three shots in a row straight away afterwards.

That part’s fine with him, too, as he plans to drink until he’s too pissed to remember why they’re all making a point to try and cheer him up in the first place.

It works, and an hour later he’s pleasantly drunk, kicking Liam with gleeful violence under the table and knocking over every attempt Harry’s making at building a house of cards with a deck he’s procured seemingly from nowhere.

If Harry’s taking up as a hobbyist sleight-of-hand magician, Louis thinks he may have to find a new best mate. Niall, maybe. Niall hasn’t put him in his armpit again, at least. So far.

He’s lost track of how many pints he’s had when, maddeningly, he finds himself thinking about Nick. It makes him immediately ornery, because there’s no reason for him to start moping about the whole Nick thing right now. He’s got all his boys with him, Harry sat next to him grinning inanely, Liam and Zayn being sickening across the table, and Niall going red-faced with laughter at something Harry’s said from where he’s perched halfway on Bressie’s lap. Bressie, for his part, almost knocks the lamp that’s hanging over their table with his head every time he moves, and can’t stop smiling at Niall like the sun shines out of his arse.

He should call Nick, Louis thinks. He should call him, and tell him exactly how much he doesn’t care that Nick doesn’t want him to come round anymore, because he’s having a fine time with his mates and his umpteenth pint and loads of other things that emphatically aren’t Nick Grimshaw.

It’s a terrible idea. Louis can recognize that even before it happens, and yet that doesn’t do anything to stop him. He’s got his mobile out and Nick’s number pulled up in a moment, thumb hovering over the send button.

“Gonna wee,” he announces to the table, wobbling as he stands. Niall and Zayn nod at him, and he stumbles away, heading towards the back exit rather than the toilets, letting the inertia of being pissed push him forward towards his poor choices. Even before the door swings open when he pushes it, he’s hitting send, letting Nick’s line ring tinnilly in his ear.

It goes to voicemail before he can even think of what he might say, which is maybe good, or maybe not -- he can’t really tell, as pissed as he is. The message doesn’t even have Nick’s voice, just a prerecorded thing asking him to talk after the beep, which for some reason makes him even angrier.

“Hullo, Nicholas,” he says. “This is -- it’s Louis. Tomlinson. Harry’s mate.” He pauses for a long moment, unsure what his follow-up is. Something scathing, he’d like, only he can’t think of anything. The alley behind the pub smells like piss, and his head is swimming. He sits down heavily, perching on the edge of the stairs.

“Haven’t heard from you in a bit,” he finally continues. “Which is -- fine, I don’t care. You don’t have to -- anyway. I’m just… calling. Obviously.” He barks out a laugh, can already tell he sounds like a total fucking berk. Might as well go with it, then. “You don’t need to call me, anyway. Hope Millie’s all right. Milan, I mean. Um…” He’s starting to regret this, now. “Never mind. Just… never mind.”

He holds his phone away from his face until a tinny voice starts to ask if he’s satisfied with his message or if he’d like to re-record. He does, erasing the last message entirely, and then ends the call without another word. It’ll still show up as a message in Nick’s phone, tomorrow, but at least all he’ll hear is a moment of quiet.

“Lou,” Harry says behind him.

Louis nearly falls off the stair, startled, because he hadn’t realized Harry had followed him.

“Hi,” he says, trying to put something light and easy-going into his voice. He hasn’t any idea if he succeeds, but he tries anyway. “Phone rang, had to come take it.”

Harry nods, and then folds himself down on the step next to Louis, resting his head on his shoulder.

“Sounded like you were leaving a message,” he says slowly. He’s pissed too -- Louis can tell because his voice goes even more glacially slow when he is, and Louis is suddenly so, so glad to have him there, even if he doesn’t want to talk about the idiotic message he’d just nearly left for Nick at all. It’s still better than being alone in a foul alley.

“I’m guessing,” Harry says slowly when Louis doesn’t respond, “that you were calling Nick.”

Louis shrugs, and knows that Harry will see it for what it is -- that the lack of a denial the closest he can get to acknowledging it out loud.

“What happened?” Harry asks. “With you two.”

Louis sighs heavily, and forces it out. “I mean. We were shagging, Haz, obviously. And now we’re not.” He picks at the knee of his trousers where there’s a thin patch.

Harry does the strange, all-knowing nodding he does, particularly when he’s sloshed. “I suspected,” he said. Louis hasn’t any idea how he does that, figures things out from halfway across the globe, but he does. Usually it’s one of his favorite things about Harry, and he suspects its part of the reason they can be themselves so well, even with Harry gone as much as he is -- he knows that if Harry’s in Japan, or Brazil, he knows Louis, that they know each other, that they’re connected by something just as well as if Harry was sitting on the opposite edge of the sofa in Louis’ lounge.

Now, though, it just makes him feel exposed and raw-edged, and a bit guilty and sad all at once.

“It doesn’t matter, anyway. He’s got you back, now, so that’s just… it’s done. Doesn’t matter.”

Louis isn’t pleased with how petulantly it comes out, because it’s not particularly mature, but there it is. He draws his knees up against his chest. He’s a hedgehog, he thinks. He’s a prickly, drunk, unaffected hedgehog, and no one at all -- especially, like, stupid tall birds with stupid long bird legs and stupid quiffs, for instance -- can get at him if he curls himself up tight enough.

“Lou,” Harry says sadly.

“Well, it doesn’t,” Louis says, too loudly. “Just -- sex, y’know, I can find other blokes to shag. Sure there are loads out -- there who’d be up for it.” He waves his hand weakly in the general direction of the pub.

“Obviously,” Harry says, nodding thoughtfully.

What Louis doesn’t say -- and this is mostly because when he starts to, he feels a bit of vom coming up, and closes his mouth entirely to stop it chucking out all over their shoes, rather than any sense of self-preservation -- is that he doesn’t want to find any other blokes to shag. It’s an incredibly irritating thought, that the only person he wants seems not to want him anymore. That maybe he did once, a bit, in a weird way, but it’s clear that Nick’s throwing him off, now, done with whatever diversion Louis was providing. It’s infuriating. Louis thinks maybe he will vom, just to register his displeasure with the whole situation.

“I won’t vom on your feet,” he tells Harry instead. Harry leans over and nuzzles his nose into his neck.

“Thanks,” he says.

“I think I’d like to go home, now, though,” he says. The words feel thick in his mouth, and he can’t tell if it’s from alcohol or self pity. Probably both.

Harry doesn’t say anything, just pops back into the pub to say they’re leaving, and then guides Louis into a cab, keeping him curled into his chest as he gives the cabbie directions to his own palatial house. Louis keeps his mind studiously blank until they get there, keeps it that way as Harry dumps him into his guest bedroom -- his Louis bedroom -- and tucks him into bed. He licks Louis on the cheek affectionately on his way out in a weird, Harry-ish comforting gesture, and stumbles into the doorframe as he goes like a drunk kitten.

Louis sighs, feeling sick and spinny and sorry for himself, and closes his eyes. Just as he thinks he won’t be able to stop from having sad and pathetic thoughts of Nick and MIllie any longer -- what they’re doing, and if they’re snuggled together on the sofa with Puppy right now, and if Millie ate today or if she fought her bottle like she’d done a few times recently, and what’s so wrong with Louis that they don’t bloody want him around -- he falls blessedly asleep.


Harry takes pity on Louis and his hangover the next day, and shows up halfway through his shift at work with coffee and sandwiches. He hadn’t been awake when Louis had snuck out that morning, and he’d been a bit glad for it -- he doesn’t remember exactly what he’d said to Harry when he’d been pissed last night, but he’s sure it’s excruciatingly embarrassing.

Still, Louis’ glad to see him all the same.

“Surviving?” Harry asks, shoving the coffee into Louis’ hands once he’s done ringing someone up.

“Depends,” Louis says, eyeing the cup with relief. The day is chilly, and he could use the caffeine, and surviving can be a very broad term, it turns out.

Harry just nods, like that makes sense, and perches on the back table, watching Louis move cheese around for half an hour, occasionally typing something on his phone.

“Reckon I’m gonna go see Milan today,” Harry says eventually, his voice cautious. “D’you want to come along?”

“No,” Louis says immediately, lying. “Anyway, wouldn’t want to be a third wheel.” He shoves a wheel of brie too harshly into place, and it squishes all over.

“Louis,” Harry starts slowly, glancing between Louis and the ruined brie several exaggeratedly long times before continuing. “You should just come along, if you’d like.”

“I’m busy,” he says, shaking his head.

Harry peers at him, and then shrugs, hopping off the counter and wandering over to wrap his arms around Louis’ shoulders from behind.

“I think they miss you,” he says, and Louis’ spine stiffens.

“They don’t, you ape, get off,” he says, trying to shrug away from Harry’s tentacle-like clutch.

“They do,” sing-songs Harry, refusing to be thrown off and redoubling his grasp. “Milan’s started speaking in full sentences and all she does is ask after you, it’s all Where’s Louis this and When’s Louis coming back with more prezzies for me that.”

Louis holds very still for a moment, waiting for the moment Harry lets his guard down and loosens his arm, and then flails violently, successfully knocking Harry off and onto his arse.

“Hey,” Harry pouts from the ground. He doesn’t look particularly injured, though, so Louis doesn’t feel bad, and anyway, a moment later Harry is distracted by an orange he’s found rolled half-way under the stall.

Louis rolls his eyes at him as Harry starts to unpeel the strange ground orange, and turns back to the brie.

He knows it’s a lie, of course, but it still sends a pang through him -- thinking about all the things Millie might be doing now that she wasn’t a fortnight ago that he’s missing. He can almost imagine it, absurd as it is, Millie and Nick sat around the kitchen table having a chat and a cuppa without him.

Maybe that’s stupid, though. Millie’s sweet, but she’s not his. Maybe he hasn’t got any right to those things, to Millie’s first words and first steps and first days of school, much as he thinks he ought to. Nick’s her dad, now, he’s the one raising her. Louis is just a bloke he shagged for a bit.

The thought makes him so sad his stomach aches a bit.

“Hey,” Harry says, still sprawled on the ground with his orange. “Y’alright? C’mere.” He pats the dirt beside him, and Louis doesn’t even have it in himself to protest, just plops down with a sigh and rests his head on Harry’s shoulder.

“Do you want the rest of my orange?” Harry asks after a moment.

Louis wrinkles his nose and shakes his head against Harry’s collarbone. He doesn’t particularly want strange fruit, but he does want to mope, and for Harry to cuddle him a bit, and he doesn’t want to sort the rest of the brie.

“You still like me best, right?” he asks Harry eventually, the question muffled from the way Louis is saying it directly into Harry’s neck.

“Always, Lou,” Harry says, wiping the orange juice on his fingers off on his trousers, and then gathering Louis up in a bonecrushing hug.

Louis stays there for another ten minutes, Harry cuddling him silently on the ground behind the stall, and doesn’t sell any more cheese for the rest of his shift, not even when he and Harry finally hoist themselves off the ground.


Louis is staring at a spider crawling down his far wall at nearly midnight, trying to decide if it’s small enough for him to squash himself or if Zayn will need to call Liam and have him come round to take care of it, when his phone rings.

He ignores it, because there’s a more pressing issue at hand. The spider is enormous, all long furry legs. It makes him think of Nick in that way, except for how it doesn’t, because he’s not thinking about Nick at all. But the similarities are there -- gangly and hairy and always creeping up where you aren’t expecting them to, making everything go all strange and uncomfortable.

The spider scuttles a few inches down the wall. Louis’ sure if he takes his eyes off it for even a moment, it’ll disappear into the mess of his bedroom, and then inevitably crawl into his mouth while he sleeps.

If he ever sleeps again. He may not. He may need to move house.

His phone quiets for only a moment before it rings again, and Louis’ hand twitches on instinct. Keeping his gaze on the spider, he grabs blindly for his phone, but it stops trilling before he can manage to find it.

He’s about to set it down again when it rings a third time, and he’s both surprised and entirely not to see Nick’s name flash on the display.

Because on one hand, Nick hasn’t tried to contact him in weeks, but on the other, Nick’s the only person Louis knows who’s both obnoxious and stubborn enough to simply keep calling until he gets a response even after several failures.

“Yes?” he asks slowly when he answers. Not answering doesn’t seem like a possibility, for whatever reason. Probably because it’d rob him the opportunity to shout at Nick, or freeze him out in a cutting display of cool indifference. Louis hasn’t decided which one he’d prefer yet.

“Do you ever answer your fucking phone on the first try?” Nick shouts at him, a hysterical twinge to his voice. Louis flinches, and holds the phone away from his ear.

“Do you know what time it is?” Louis snaps back. So not an icy cold-shoulder, then -- shouting it is. “Honestly, you fuck off for a fortnight and then call me up at arse o’clock to scream at me, what sort of--”

“Mila’s sick,” Nick interrupts. Louis’ tirade cuts off mid-word, and he totally forgets his outrage, feeling himself refocus instantly.

“What?” he asks. “What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s got a fever, and this, like, cough thing? It’s just started in the last few hours and she won’t stop crying and I dunno what to do--”

“Okay,” Louis says, cutting Nick off this time, trying to stop him before he gives himself some sort of breakdown. “Okay, how high’s her temperature?” He’s off the bed at once, all thoughts of menacing spiders gone, anything besides Millie being ill dropping off into the periphery. Louis balances the phone between his shoulder and cheek, trying to find his shoes.

“Bit over thirty-eight,” Nick says, his voice frayed and raw. Louis hears a banging in the background, and then Millie’s cries, longer and more desperate than usual. Louis finds his second shoe behind the wardrobe and nearly tips over trying to get it on.

“Okay, that’s not so bad,” Louis says, trying to sound reassuring and calm at the same time as he’s trying to stick his head through the arm of a jumper. He straightens himself and heads for the lounge, trying to remember where he’s left his keys.

“Do I need to take her to A&E?” Nick asks, pitching his voice over Millie’s wails.

“Dunno. Probably not?” Louis asks. He finds his keys inside an empty teacup and lets himself out into the hall. “I’ll be there in ten minutes, all right? We can see how she’s doing then.”

Nick exhales. “All right, yeah. Okay.”

“Just put her in a cool bath, maybe? Try to get her a bit less warm,” Louis says. The street is nearly empty, so he aims for the main road, hoping he can catch a cab there.

“Yeah, all right. I can do that,” Nick says. “See you soon?”

“Quick as I can get there,” Louis promises.

It’s only once he’s in the back of a cab headed for Primrose Hill that he realizes he’s got his shoes on the wrong feet, and how Nick hadn’t even needed to ask before Louis had been out the door, on the way without a second thought.


“How is she?” Louis asks when Nick lets him in.

“Stopped crying so much now,” Nick says. He blinks heavily, looking panicked and drawn. “Put her in the bath for a minute, seemed to help a bit? She’s still got a fever, though, and coughing a bit. She’s in her cot.”

Louis nods, and goes straight for Millie’s bedroom. The room is dim when he lets himself in, one little lamp sat next to the rocking chair casting out a soft glow. Millie’s in her cot like Nick said, not quite asleep, whimpering sadly in discomfort. She looks sweaty and flushed and unhappy, her dark hair curled and matted damply around her forehead, and Louis’ heart clenches up as he reaches down to stroke her warm cheek.

She whines, but leans into Louis’ hand.

Behind him, there’s a pathetic little noise, something stuck halfway between a sigh and a groan, and Louis startles, because he hadn’t even realized Nick had snuck up behind him. But there he is, looming just behind his elbow, wringing his hands together fretfully.

“I have no fucking idea what to do with a sick baby,” he says quietly to Louis. “I didn’t even realize that until just now. I think I forgot they get sick sometimes. That’s quite stupid, isn’t it?”

Louis can’t even bring himself to scold Nick for swearing in front of the baby, he seems so pathetic.

“You can give her a tiny bit of paracetamol,” Louis tells Nick. “How long’s she been poorly?”

“Started fussing once Priya left today,” Nick says. “I’ve got half the bloody pharmacy in the medicine cabinet, I went by once she started coughing, but, like. Dunno, was too nervous to give her anything. Thought I’d probably accidentally poison her or something.”

“You can give her Calpol or summat, it’s fine,” Louis says, trying to sound reassuring. Nick looks nearly worse than Millie, is the thing, panicked and a palpable strain to his voice. He’s even a bit sweaty as well, and Louis thinks if he can manage to get Millie feeling a bit better and keep Nick from having an anxiety attack all at once, it’ll be no small feat.

“C’mere, sweetheart,” Louis says soothingly to Millie, reaching down to pick her up. She starts to cry as he arranges her in his arms, cradling her against his chest, and it sets something guilty in his stomach. “I know, miss, but you’ll feel better once you’ve had some medicine, I promise.”

He carries her to the toilet, Nick following a step behind him like a puppy. He perches on the edge of the sink while Louis coaxes Millie into swallowing the Calpol, and then runs a rag under the cold tap, carefully wiping the sweat and tears off her face before settling it around the back of her neck. She lets out a few pathetic burbles, but seems too tired even to cry, now.

“Maybe we ought to take her to A&E anyway,” Nick says. He’s staring at Millie where she’s cradled in Louis arms, refusing to blink, like if he shuts his eyes for even an instant she’ll tip over and fall into a coma or something. Frankly, Louis finds it a bit unsettling, and he can’t imagine it’s making Millie feel any better, having Nick be so conspicuously panicked.

“She’s just got a bug, Nick, it’ll be all right. She’d just pick up something worse there, anyway, and we’d be there for hours.”

Nick’s mouth purses into a tight, unconvinced line, and he frowns.

“Look, d’you want me to get my mum on the phone?” Louis asks, a bit exasperated. “She’s a nurse, she can tell you I’m right.”

Nick just blinks at him, like he knows it’s unreasonable to say yes, please, Louis, call your mum at midnight for medical advice, but wanting to say exactly that anyway.

Louis sighs and yanks out his phone, dialing his mum as Nick makes a vague, insincere sound of protest.

Louis walks Millie out of the toilet and around the flat, patting her softly on the back as he talks to his mum -- who, bless her, doesn’t even question why Louis’ calling her so late about a strange sick baby -- telling her Millie’s symptoms. Millie only whines tiredly, her sweaty forehead lolling against Louis’ neck. Nick follows a half pace behind them, still twisting his hands together anxiously.

“Get her fever down,” Jay tells him. “She should be fine so long as it doesn’t go any higher.”

Louis purses his lips in a halfway sort of smile. “That’s what I told Nick, but he wants to take her to A&E anyway.”

His mum doesn’t ask who Nick is -- Louis is going to buy her so many nice Christmas presents this year just based on how few questions she’s asking right now when she could rightfully be prying like mad -- just makes a noise of understanding. “New parent?” she asks.

“Something like that, yeah,” Louis says evasively.

“They’re all like that,” she says gently. “Everything seems like the end of the world when you haven’t got any idea what you’re doing.”

“Will you tell him yourself?” Louis asks. “He doesn’t listen to me.” Nick pulls a panicked face beside him, holding his hands up like Louis is brandishing a pistol rather than a mobile phone, but Louis just shoves the phone towards him until he has no choice but to take it.

“Erm, yes, Mrs. Tomlinson?” Nick says nervously, suddenly sounding much more like a teenager than a famous adult radio presenter. Louis bites on his lip to keep from laughing, and walks Millie away, headed for the toilet again, while Nick makes vague noises of agreement into the phone.

A few minutes later, Nick stumbles in, handing Louis his phone back. “She said Mila’ll be all right if her temperature doesn’t go up,” he reports, sounding properly chastened. “And that we should give her another cool bath if it doesn't seem to go down at all.”

Louis gestures silently at the baby bath he’s got filling. “So exactly what I said, then,” he says gently.

Nick opens his mouth like he’s thinking of arguing, but then snaps it shut. “C’mere, baby,” he says to Millie instead, reaching out to take her from Louis. She’s sweaty and limp but not crying anymore, and goes with only a whimper.

Louis perches on the closed lid of the toilet while Nick gently sets Millie in her baby bath, dribbling the cool water over her with a flannel. It’s quiet, save for the slosh of the water and Millie’s occasional whimpers, and even those trail off after a bit. Louis’ legs start to cramp from the way they’re tucked up underneath him, but something about the stillness of the room keeps him from moving to shake them out.

“Towel?” Nick asks eventually, twisting around to look at Louis and nodding at a pile of fabric bunched up on the back of the toilet. When Louis shakes it out, he realizes it’s Millie’s hooded towel with the cat ears attached. It suddenly seems much smaller than it did when Louis had first seen it, washing mushy peas off Millie in the kitchen sink.

He hands it to Nick, who bundles her up tightly in it, balancing her tight against his chest with one arm as he fumbles around for her ear thermometer. She tries to wriggle away from it half-heartedly, but Louis wiggles his fingers at her, distracting her long enough for Nick to take her temperature, which has fallen by nearly half a degree. Nick’s shoulders visibly relax, if just a bit.

By the time they’re back in the lounge, Millie’s fast asleep, head lolled against Nick’s shoulder.

“Just gonna put her down,” Nick says quietly, and then he disappears into her bedroom.

Louis shifts awkwardly, wondering if this is his cue to leave. He knows he’s still meant to be angry with Nick, but he can’t quite manage to find it within him anymore. Mostly he feels out of place, now that Millie’s out of sight.

He’s still debating whether to slip out or not when Nick returns, shutting Millie’s door softly and running a hand tiredly though his hair. If he notices the uncomfortable way Louis is just standing in the middle of his lounge he ignores it, sidestepping him easily and collapsing down onto the sofa.

“She’s out, for now,” he says, exhaustion making his voice gravelly and a bit pathetic. “Seems to feel a bit better, at least.” His head tips back against the sofa, and his eyes shut. He looks tired, in more than one way.

“Good,” Louis says quietly. The flat seems palpably silent, now, and it makes him feel like he needs to whisper, despite the fact that Millie’s fast asleep and her door is shut. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “I think -- I’ll just go, then, yeah?”

Nick’s head lifts up slowly, opening his eyes with what seems like tremendous effort. “Oh,” he says. “D’you -- I mean, you don’t have to. I wouldn’t mind having someone else around for a bit, I think?”

Louis purses his lips, not sure what to do. He’s not sure why Nick’s making it sound like he wants Louis here, when clearly he doesn’t -- if he did, he might’ve called in the last two weeks. And he hasn’t. That’s clear enough.

“It’s late,” he says cagily. Nick just shrugs.

“Just -- I dunno, call Harry if you want company or something,” Louis says, struggling to keep his voice quiet and even. It’s not fair of Nick to mess him about like this -- because he does want to stay, desperately, wants to curl up on the sofa with Nick and make sure Millie’s all right and that Nick is as well, and if all Nick wants is anybody with a pulse to keep him from feeling alone, then -- then it’s shit to make Louis so tempted to stay, when it might as well be anyone at all.

“Harry?” Nick asks, sounding baffled. “What -- why would I call him?”

Louis sighs, and tries to stop the tantrum he can feel building. “‘Cos he’s the only person you’ve seen in weeks, maybe? And like, look, if you were just waiting for him to come back from tour, then, I dunno -- whatever, that’s fine. I’ll just… I’ll get out of your hair and let the two of you have your space. Like. He’s the one you’re properly mates with, yeah? I’m just… here.”

He drops his hands to his side and shrugs. Nick stares at him for so long that Louis thinks he can actually feel the weight of his gaze, direct and unblinking, impressively consistent for someone who looks so near to passing out from exhaustion.

“What,” Nick starts slowly. “What in God’s name are you talking about?”

“You’ve been dodging me ever since he’s been home, you idiot,” Louis snaps.

“I haven’t,” Nick says insistently. “Why would I be dodging you? I was trying to give you space, you tit.”

Louis’ mouth opens, and then closes. “Oh.” He crosses his arms in front of his chest and then uncrosses them. “Why the fuck have you been doing that?” he asks.

Nick shoves forward so he’s not quite so flopped out on the sofa, resting his elbows on his knees as he leans towards Louis. He glances around frantically, looking at the ceiling and the floor and out the door to the garden in that way that Louis knows means he's trying to sort his words out very carefully instead of just barreling into them head first. It’s a rare enough thing that Louis finds he’s surprised he can recognize it at all.

“Because,” Nick starts very slowly, “I’ve, like. I’ve just inherited a kid, yeah? And I love her, I mean, so much, and I’m glad to have her. But,” he says carefully. “Just because I have doesn’t mean you have to as well. D’you know what I mean?”

“No,” Louis says petulantly. He doesn’t. He doesn’t understand why Nick’s doing this, making it sound like Louis’ been trapped into something terrible and stifling against his will.

“I like… having you here, obviously,” Nick says. Louis thinks about saying something about what a funny sense of obvious Nick must have, but keeps his mouth shut, getting the sense that Nick is working up to something that maybe oughtn’t be interrupted. “But I don’t want you to feel, like… overwhelmed. It’s a lot, like, with me and Mila, and… yeah. You shouldn’t feel like you’re obligated to us. You aren’t.”

Distantly, Louis thinks this is the part where he should nod reasonably, and see himself out. They can go their separate ways, go back to whatever it was they were both doing before this whole arrangement started, and let that be it. Easier for everyone. That’s the proper course, he thinks.

“Yes I am, you idiot,” he says instead.

Nick’s face goes almost comically perplexed, and if Louis wasn’t being crushed by the way his words are hanging between them, out there and permanent, unable to be taken back, he might laugh.

Instead, he barrels on, because if they’re going to do this, then -- all right. He’ll do it.

And possibly move to a new country and change his name when it’s all finished and Nick still sends him away anyway.

“Look, just -- I missed both of you,” he explains, trying to keep from sounding too defensive. “I mean, I missed Millie, obviously, and I’m still sore I missed her sitting up the first time, and, like, what if she starts to talk soon? I don’t -- she oughtn’t be saying her first words to Priya, all right?”

He knows he’s babbling, and he can’t stop it, now that he’s in the thick of it. “But I also missed you, you prat, God knows why. But I missed you, and your stupid hair, and Millie and the both of you together, and I was in cab here in less than a minute when you told me she was sick. So if you think I’m not like, invested in the both of you, or something, well -- you’re even thicker than I thought.”

He crosses his arms, hoping it makes him look firm and sure rather than about to be sick on his shoes, which is how he feels at the moment. It’s just -- it’s a lot, to put out there like that, when Nick is obviously trying to give Louis the opportunity to disentangle himself from them both without any fuss.

But sod it. That’s not what he wants. It’s gone one in the morning, now, and Louis is tired from spending the night worrying over a sick baby, and he’s very possibly in love with Nick and Millie both. He hasn’t got the energy to pretend about any of it now.

“So,” he says, squinting his eyes at Nick. For his part, Nick seems a bit dazed, staring silently up at Louis from the sofa with a strange expression Louis has never seen on him before, a bit like he’s just remembered a word he’d forgotten, or put a name to something previously nameless.

“I don’t think they start to talk for a while,” Nick says eventually, very slowly. “Like… what, not until they’re like a year old, yeah?”

Louis throws up his hands in frustration. “That’s it, I’m just--” He starts to spin on his heel, because if that’s all Nick has to say then he can go fuck himself. But before he gets anywhere, Nick is standing up from the sofa, hand on Louis’ elbow and tugging him back towards him.

Before he can protest, Nick’s enormous hands are on either side of his face, and then he’s kissing Louis, frantically and a bit madly, like if he lets him, Louis will slip away like a wisp of smoke.

“Sorry,” Nick says when he finally pulls away, a bit breathless. His glasses are crooked. “Please stay. Just -- please? I honestly think I’ll be sick if you go, okay, so just… don’t.”

“Oh,” Louis says, a bit startled. Nick’s hands are still on his face, big and warm, and he thinks it’s the only thing keeping him from falling out of the clutch of gravity. “Well -- I mean. Since you asked nicely--”

Nick arms are suddenly around him, then, deceptively strong around Louis’ waist, clutching at him like he never intends to let go.

“You’re brilliant with Millie,” Nick says from somewhere above him, his voice a bit hoarse. “And you’re Harry’s whole world, and you’re funny and fit and a pain in the arse, and I want to strangle you a lot of the time. I like you quite a bit. Just to be clear.”

Louis is glad his face is smashed into Nick’s collar, because he doesn’t want him to see the soft, soppy thing he can feel his face doing at that. And he doesn’t think he’d be able to respond, if he were looking Nick in the eyes, but he isn’t, so it’s a bit easier for him to nod, and say “I like you too.”

“Poor choice,” Nick tells him. “I’m old and cranky and I’ve got a baby that spits up all the bloody time. You can probably do better than me.”

Louis kicks him in the ankle, which isn’t an easy feat, as closely tangled as they are.

“Are you trying to talk me out of it?” he asks.

Nick’s arms tighten around him. “No. Just thought you ought to have all the facts.”

“Well, I do,” Louis says, trying to sound haughty. His heart is near to jumping out of his chest, though, so it’s hard to quite get there. “I’ve always known exactly what a prat you are, Nick, and I still, like -- all of that stuff. Y’know.”

The word is there, and Louis can’t quite say it, doesn’t think this is the time. But it’s there all the same, and he suspects Nick hears it as well.

“Okay,” Nick says into his hair, arms still tight as vices around Louis’ ribs. “Good. And -- me too, okay? Me too.”


When they’ve stumbled into Nick’s bed, in the moment before Nick is on top of him and crushing the breath out of him, Louis’ head clears enough for him to realize how badly he’s missed it the last few weeks, just being here. His own bed is too small and too large all at once without Nick taking up space in it, and his pillows don’t feel right, and there’s no white noise from Millie’s baby monitor lulling him to sleep. He’d spent so many nights in Nick’s bed that he’d forgotten how to sleep in his own.

He wonders if that’s something he ought to examine, maybe.

But then Nick is on top of him, pressing him down into the sheets like he wants to hold him in place there, keep him where he belongs.

Something about that suits Louis just fine, he realizes.

He stretches his arms above his head, relishing in the softness of the duvet and the closeness of Nick, all around him, kissing him with concentrated intent.

This is what it’s like, Louis realizes, trailing his hands underneath the hem of Nick’s shirt and up his sides. Nick hums happily into his mouth and presses closer. This it what love is like. It must be -- it’s the biggest thing he’s ever felt, too large for his chest by miles, and it makes him want to laugh and grab Nick around the middle and hold him as tight as he can and shout all at once.

It’s ridiculous, he thinks. He feels like an idiot, grinning into the collar of Nick’s shirt, and Nick is grinning at him like an idiot as well, all soft and meaningful and no hidden jabs or prickly edges, just smiling, like he’s happiest just by having Louis here with him.

It feels ridiculous, but Louis is smiling as well, can’t force himself to stop, so he figures it must be okay.


Just before the sun comes up, Millie starts to cry. The sound jolts Louis out of a dead sleep, and a dream about puppies he’d been having. There’d been almost a dozen puppies, little white balls of fluff, and Louis’d had a basket he was meant to be keeping them in, except whenever he put one puppy in, two more crawled out.

At the foot of the bed, there’s just one Puppy, curled up in between the splay of Nick’s long legs. They’re angled away, but his top half is aimed towards Louis, the fingertips of his right hand just grazing Louis’ shoulder through the material of his shirt.

Millie cries again, and Nick stirs this time.

“Mmpf?” he asks from next to Louis, cracking one eye open. Nick’s face is smashed into the pillow, and a sliver of his collarbone is peeking out from the white sheets drawn over them, pale and freckled. If Millie wasn’t crying softly in the next room, Louis would lean down and lick him there.

“Just the baby,” Louis says, carefully crawling out of bed to keep from moving Nick or Puppy around too much. “I’ve got her, go back to sleep.”

Nick doesn’t respond, just shuts his eye and snuggles in closer, encroaching nearer to Louis’ pillow.

The floorboards are chilly under Louis’ feet, so he pulls on a pair of Nick’s pyjamas and tucks the too-long hems under his feet as he shuffles down the hall. He rubs the flats of his hands over his biceps, trying for some heat through friction, and opens Millie’s door.

She’s whimpering in her cot, one arm stuck through the slats and reaching out towards the door sadly. Louis picks her up gently, balancing her on his hip as he tries to soothe her and walk to the toilet at the same time.

She still feels warm, but less so, and her cries are much less pained and pathetic, sounding more tired than anything. Louis gets her to take a bit more Calpol and wipes her face where she’s snotted all over herself with a flannel. By the time he’s finished she’s stopped crying, settling instead for rousting around in Louis’ arms trying to find a comfortable position.

Louis starts to head back to her room, but hesitates in the hall. The first glimpse of grey sunlight is coming in through the garden doors, and it won’t be long before the time both Millie and Nick usually wake up anyway. Louis considers, and then turns the opposite way down the hall, heading back to Nick’s bedroom.

“You can cuddle with us for a bit, miss,” he tells her quietly as he slips back under the covers, settling her carefully between himself and Nick. It’s a full bed, especially with Puppy refusing to move at the foot of it, and by the time he’s got them both settled, Nick is awake again, peering at both of them with a curious, soft expression on his face.

“Hello,” he says to Millie very seriously. “Aren’t you meant to be in your own bed?”

Millie snuggles against his chest in answer, burying her sleepy face into his t-shirt. Nick looks like he’s about to melt.

“Thought she could use a cuddle,” Louis said. “Best thing for a sick baby, y’know.”

“Mm,” Nick says quietly, resting one big hand on Millie’s back. “Is that so?”

Louis nods. “Fact.”

“Guess we’re stuck here all day, then,” Nick says. “She looks fairly settled in, anyway.” He nods down at his chest, where Millie’s already fast asleep again.

“Haven’t you got work?” Louis asks.

Nick shrugs as much as he can without disturbing the baby, and then uses his free hand to reach around her, pulling Louis in snuggle closer to them both, so they’re all curled up, a little nest in the big bed.

“Someone’ll cover me,” Nick says. “Reckon my time’s better spent here with you lot.”

He leans over the lump of sleeping baby between them, then, and kisses Louis very softly on the lips. When he pulls back he squints and then smiles at Louis, looking a bit self-conscious, but more than anything, happy.

Louis suddenly doesn’t know what to do with everything he feels lighting up inside of him. These two are his, he realizes, startling at how pleased it makes him to think. They both want him here, maybe even need him, and there’s nowhere else he’d rather be than trapped in a bed between these two for the rest of the day, snotty and insufferable though they can be, respectively.

This is precisely where he wants to be.


(Four years later)

“Christ, we’re going to be late,” Louis murmurs, just loud enough to be sure Nick can hear it. He knows Nick must, but he just goes back to wringing his hands anxiously near the kettle instead of answering. Or doing anything to help them be less late.

“Maybe it’s a sign,” Nick says gravely. The kettle goes, but he doesn’t bother doing anything with it besides flicking it off. “Maybe she’s not ready for nursery, and we should keep her home a bit longer.”

He flops dramatically into one of the kitchen chairs, and then stands again, like he’s dissatisfied with the gesture.

“Can you do something helpful, please?” Louis asks. He’s trying not to snap, but Nick’s been drifting aimlessly around the house all morning (and all week, really), like some sort of sad Victorian ghost. “Her lunch is only halfway done, it’s in the fridge but she still needs a sandwich, and your dog’s gone to the toilet on the rug again.”

Nick just blinks at him in a mix of confusion and fear, and Louis sighs, knocking Nick out of the way to get the kettle. “Just make her a sandwich, Nick.” Louis makes their tea automatically, and then sets about finishing packing the enormous bookbag they’d bought for Millie the week before. He’s not sure why a four year old needs a bookbag, honestly, but the school had said to buy one, and Nick’s been finding increasingly more pointless things to stuff into it over the last few days, including four pairs of socks, a framed photo of Jaz, and the Christmas card Nick had insisted on sending out the year before, with a picture of the three of them in hideous matching reindeer jumpers on the front.

What Millie’s meant to do with that when she’s swinging and fingerpainting at nursery for four hours, Louis hasn’t the slightest idea, but he’s found it’s best not to question Nick too much when he’s this near to a complete mental breakdown.

Nick manages with the sandwich well enough, at least, but when Millie wanders into the room several minutes later in a mismatched jumper and tights, dragging along a toy truck tied to one of Puppy’s leads, he nearly loses it again, his eyes going all wide and pathetic like his daughter’s going off to war instead of school.

He swoops down at her, clutching her in a hug and barraging her with enough kisses that she drops the lead and starts to try and squirm out of his arms. “Are you nearly ready, sweetheart?” he asks, sounding suspiciously like he’d like her to say no so he’ll have an excuse to keep her at home a bit longer -- until she’s twenty, perhaps.

“Yup,” she says, shaking her wild hair out of her eyes in a gesture that Louis knows for a fact she’s picked up from Harry. “Dad, g’off,” she says, finally wriggling away from Nick and promptly celebrating her freedom by running madly around the kitchen table and careening into Louis’ legs, wrapping her arms around them with preternatural strength.

“Puppy did a big poo in the lounge,” she reports to him happily.

“Thank you, Millie, I’ve seen that,” Louis says. She lets go of his leg and does two more laps around the table before making for the corridor. As she runs by Louis tries to fix her hair, her brown curls gone mad around her in a tangle, but it’s more than a bit hopeless, and she’s off like a rocket anyway, back towards her room. “Brush your hair!” he calls after her. “We’ve got to leave in five minutes!”

She doesn’t answer, though, and as her door slams behind her and Louis retreats to the kitchen, he doesn’t feel particularly hopeful about being on time.

A moment later, he trips on the toy truck she’d left in the middle of the floor, and as he’s near to braining himself to death on the edge of the table, he thinks it’s a good job he loves both Millie and Nick so much, or else their combined chaos would’ve caused him to lose his mind years ago.


In the end, they trundle Millie off to school very nearly on time, only a few minutes late to the front gate. Her teacher is there to take her by the hand, and she barely turns to wave back at them before she’s skipping inside with hardly a backwards glance.

They watch until the door shuts behind her, and then stay at the gate a bit longer, standing in silence.

After a long moment, Nick sniffles conspicuously.

“Oh my God,” Louis says. “Stop crying. Please, it’s sickening.”

Nick squinches his face up. “I’m not,” he protests. “There’s, like. Stuff in my eye. Pollen or summat. My allergies.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “You haven’t got any allergies.”

“I could,” Nick says. He reaches over and takes Louis’ hand, gripping it too tightly as they turn to walk towards home.

“Stop it, you’ll break my fingers,” Louis warns him. “And I happen to know you’ve a vested interest in them.” He raises his eyebrows meaningfully, and Nick rolls his eyes, but smiles all the same.

Puppy trots along in front of them all the way back to the flat, and Nick seems considerably less likely to have a complete meltdown by the time they’re settled on the sofa with tea and a blanket thrown over them. They’ve both taken the day off from work, at Nick’s insistence that he’d be too emotionally fragile to either go into the station or be left alone at the flat.

Nick still spends the rest of the morning asking how long until they can pick Millie up, though, and after the fourth time in an hour, Louis tackles him backwards onto the sofa, perching over him and kissing him just so he can’t use his mouth for talking for a bit.

“That still doesn’t answer the question,” Nick says, once Louis’ let him back up.

“Oh my God,” Louis groans, crawling off Nick’s lap and kicking his bare feet into the curve of Nick’s hip none too gently. “Are you going to be this deranged for literally her whole life? She’s just gone to nursery, you prat, not Uni. We can fetch her in two hours. Can you wait two hours?” He kicks again, just for emphasis.

Nick purses his lips. “Maybe. I’ll consider it.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Honestly, I dunno what you’d do without me. Probably kidnap your own daughter from school early because you’re such a mess.”

Nick just shrugs, like that’s not particularly unreasonable.

Louis really does worry about Nick sometimes. He loves him, but he’s very clearly unhinged somewhere deep in his brain.

“Suppose I’ll have to keep you around, then,” Nick says.

Louis nods, preening a bit. “Too right. I’m a catch. You’d better watch it, Grimshaw, or else some other tall git with separation anxiety will come along and swoop me up.”

Nick frowns and grins at him all at once, but then turns his attention to picking at the blanket over their laps conspicuously, seemingly fascinated by the knit all of a sudden.

“Well,” Nick says, his voice steady in a way that sounds like he’s consciously trying to keep it that way. “Reckon that won’t be an issue once we’re married, anyway.”

Louis opens his mouth, and then shuts it again. It takes him a moment to understand what he’s just heard.

“What?” he finally says once he does, a bit faintly.

Nick turns to look at him, then, his determined expression on his face. “Well, like. I figure other blokes will be less inclined to try and steal you away once we’re married, y’know? Unless they’re like, a proper nasty homewrecking sort, or, like, one of those blokes that has some weird thing for…” He trails off, though, possibly due to the look on Louis face.

“When we’re married,” Louis repeats slowly, letting the words slowly mesh into something that makes sense.

Nick, infuriatingly, just nods.

Nick,” Louis says. It comes out squawkier than he’d have liked, but that’s probably not the important issue at hand right now. “You tit, you have to ask. Oh my God, you can’t just assume, you’ve got to do it properly--”

But then Nick is leaning over and laying his palm over Louis’ mouth, cutting him off in the middle of the sentence, and then before Louis can shove him off, Nick’s standing, and disappearing into their bedroom. Louis sits there, a bit stunned, his pulse picking up with every second that passes.

When Nick returns a moment later, standing at the foot of the sofa, he’s holding a small black box.

“Don’t be stupid,” Nick says, fidgeting with it. Louis thinks he might throw up. “I was going to do it properly, you git, you just make it so easy to wind you up.” He fumbles with the box, getting it open. The sunlight from the window glints off a plain silver band and catches in Louis’ eye.

“Ask,” Louis demands, his heart trying its best to physically burst out of his chest. “Do it nicely.”

Nick rolls his eyes, but then he’s dropping to one knee, actually kneeling, there on their rug in front of their sofa, holding a ring. Louis is going to be so furious with himself if he goes so lightheaded he winds up passing out and misses this all.

“Louis,” Nick says, “you absolute prat, will you please do me the great pleasure--”

Whatever he’s going to say, though, is lost, swallowed by the noise of protest he makes when Louis launches off the sofa and tackles him bodily, knocking them both to the floor in a heap.

“I had a nice speech,” Nick protests, gazing up at him a bit dazedly.

“You hadn’t,” Louis says, incapable of keeping himself from smiling. “You were going to call me names until I said yes just to shut you up.”

Nick shrugs. “You’ll never know, now.”

“I will,” Louis says. “Marry you, I mean. Obviously.”

“Maybe that wasn’t even what I was going to ask,” Nick protests.

Louis knees him in the ribs.

“Okay,” Nick wheezes. “It was.”

“Good,” Louis beams. His pulse is still rattling, but he’s suddenly so happy he thinks he might start laughing and never stop.

“Good,” Nick agrees, and then leans up to kiss him.


Harry nearly sobs himself sick when they tell him.