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Not Your Fault But Mine

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This is a disaster. A disaster. "Liam," Louis yells down the hall, over the noise of Liam's Un-Birthday Party iPod Mix To Beat All Other Mixes Ever. "Liam, all the booze is gone."

"We haven't run out of booze," Liam calls back.

Louis skilfully—if a trifle drunkenly—sidesteps one of Eleanor's flatmates on his way back into the living room. She's snogging the face off of one of Niall's new mates from the rugby team. Liam's sprawled all over their sofa, his new girlfriend tucked up against his front. He has his fingertips hooked in the waistband of her jeans, the saucy devil. Louis waggles his eyebrows at him and doesn't trip over his feet. He's counting it as a win.

"How on earth do you know?" Louis asks. "You're there being all, you know, busy." He waves his hand in the general direction of Sophia, who waves back. Louis has managed to say about five words to her since she arrived earlier, but she seems like a good choice of new girlfriend for Liam. Louis plans on liking her a lot once he's got over Liam failing to live up to the responsibility of being guest of honour at his own Un-Birthday. Louis has a lot of plans for the five of them this year; their house is going to be the house of magnificent, incredible parties, and subsequent magnificent, incredible hangovers. Less than a week into their lease, and they seem to be succeeding.

"Because we bought nine hundred million bottles of shit alcohol this morning, and even you couldn't have put it all away by now," Liam says.

"I might have done," Louis says, quite insulted. "Niall, we could have drunk all that booze by now, right? Liam's calling us out. Tell him off for me."

Niall's playing table football with his rugby club mates. He doesn't play rugby because next to his new friends, he's the size of a gnome, but he seems to have been adopted by them regardless. They don't seem to mind that he prefers footie, as all people should. Louis loves football.

"Oi," Louis says, louder this time. "Niall. Defend my honour."

Niall immediately hands over responsibility for his side of the table to the biggest, tallest, broadest of his friends, Bressie—who Louis definitely, definitely has never imagined being pinned to the bed by—and stumbles into Louis' side. "Are you suggesting we can't drink, Liam?"

"Never," Liam says, but he's laughing now. He's fucking sober, the idiot. It's his fake birthday, and he's mostly sober. Louis is most disappointed. That gold star chart they have pinned to the fridge is getting a sad fucking face in Liam's column, the moment Louis remembers where he hid the marker pens. He's also hidden the gold stars, because he intends on winning whatever the gold star chart prize is. Harry's mum is the best, honestly, and sends them the best welcome to your new house presents. Along with the gold star chart had been three bottles of wine, a box of party poppers, and some highlighters with I'm a winner on the side. Louis had confiscated them all. He's going to give them out only when his housemates manage to truly shine. Liam is not getting one after he's done so badly at the getting drunk part of his un-birthday party.

"I've lost the alcohol, Niall," Louis says, making his best sad face. "Where's the alcohol gone? And why isn't Liam drunk? It's his birthday."

"It was my birthday last month," Liam reminds them both, over the glorious sound of Atomic Kitten singing Venus. This playlist is a work of genius. Zayn and Harry and Louis had spent the whole of yesterday putting it together, only for Liam to refuse to get drunk. You have to be drunk to listen to Atomic Kitten and B*witched. It's a rule.

"That was only your real birthday," Louis says dismissively. "What does your real birthday matter when your best friends in the world throw you a fake birthday party?"

This Un-Birthday Project is literally the best idea he's ever had. It's just rude, having a birthday outside of term time. Everyone deserves an opportunity to get well and truly shit-faced to celebrate the occasion of their birth, and even more than that, they deserve to do it in the company of their friends, and to get as many presents as possible. Hence: the Un-Birthday Project; an opportunity for him, Liam, and Niall to each have their very own party, in term-time, where people bring them presents and treat them like kings and they can have birthday cake.

Speaking of cake: "Where's the cake? And all those candles? We need forty-six candles, to celebrate how old Liam is on the inside."

"Oi," Liam says mildly.

"I speak the truth," Louis says. "You know it. Get up off your arse and get some drink down you. You can't be sober when it's your birthday."

"It's not my birthday—"

"Shut up, Liam."

He comes back ten minutes later balancing a huge Sara Lee double chocolate gateau on a High School Musical lap tray they'd found down the back of Zayn's bed last weekend, when they'd moved in. Zayn is shadowing him like a protective chicken, which is totally unnecessary since Louis is absolutely killing it tonight, and forty-six melting candles pose absolutely no threat to anyone whatsoever.

Niall follows him with a plastic bag full of plastic, multi-coloured shot glasses they'd nicked from the Student Union during Louis' short-lived job as a barman last year, three bottles of cheap-as-chips Tesco tequila under his arm. He's already bellowing out happy birthday to you, and everyone else joins in, people spilling in from the back garden and the dining room and their bedrooms and the kitchen, all of them singing to Liam. Liam stands on the sofa with his arm around Sophia's shoulders, and sings right along with them until Zayn digs his fingers into his side to make him stop.

"It's your birthday, knobhead," he says, and Liam laughs, and ducks in to blow out all of his candles. The chocolate's melting everywhere and the candles are toppling off the cake, but it's amazing and ridiculous and Niall's handing out shots of tequila, and this is going to be the best fucking year ever, Louis can just tell. The best fucking year ever.

~*~

Louis sits out on the back step with the dregs of the bottle of tequila later, freezing his balls off whilst he drunkenly smokes his way through the remains of a packet of Marlboro someone had stupidly left on the kitchen table.

"Give us one," someone says, tripping out the kitchen door and stumbling out onto the step next to him.

Louis frowns. Nick Grimshaw is towering above him, a terrible beanpole of torn jeans and smug hipster superciliousness. "Get your own," he says. "I stole these myself."

"Charmed," Nick says, and Louis rolls his eyes. He sits down next to Louis on the step. "I've got my own anyway." He fumbles in his pocket. "Got a light?"

Louis hands him his lighter.

"Good summer?" Nick asks, after taking a long drag on his cigarette.

"It was all right," Louis says, taking his lighter back. "Worked a lot."

"Harry said you'd got a job."

"Yep," Louis says, nodding. It isn't that he doesn't like Nick Grimshaw, it's more that he just doesn't see the point of him, or his friends. Harry had bounced back to their halls sometime before Easter last year, complete with an invitation to a second year's party, and ever since then, being friends with Harry had had a side order of knobhead hipsters, of which Nick was the self-proclaimed leader. Between Nick and his friends, they ran Indie Soc, the most knobheady of all the knobhead Union societies. "Emptied a lot of boxes. Ran that stock room like a king."

"Obviously," Nick says. "This is the bit where you ask me if I had a good summer."

Louis doesn't want to know about Nick's summer. "Did you have a good summer?" he parrots, scuffing at the cracked paving slab with the toe of his Toms. He takes another gulp of tequila and hands the bottle to Nick.

"Why, yes, thank you, Louis," Nick says. "I had a brilliant summer. Did Harry tell you about the time we were in Selfridges in Manchester and that security guard followed us all the way round because he didn't think scruffy buggers like us should be in there?"

Louis ignores the pang of jealousy that spasms low in his stomach. He and Harry had spent the best part of last year talking about camping and interrailing and package holidays to Majorca and hanging out with each other over the summer. It had all been fantasy, at least on Louis' part. He knew he had to go home and get a job. Harry had apparently spent most of his summer camped out at Nick's, or vice versa, and Louis had only seen him three times. He was supposed to be saving for next summer, when interrailing was supposed to be more than just a fantasy, but everyone knew Louis was terrible at saving. "He didn't mention it," he says, taking another drag on his cigarette.

"He should have done," Nick says. "It was funny."

"Uh-huh," Louis says, ignoring Nick bumping his knee into his.

"One day I'm going to be rich and famous," Nick says, a little drunkenly. He leans back against the wall, head tipped back. "They won't try and chuck me out of Selfridges then. Well, they might, but I'll be able to flash my cash at them. Buy something stupid just to prove I should be there."

"You're such a wanker," Louis says, because that's one of the wankiest things that he's heard Nick say, and Nick really is the biggest wanker out of all of Harry's new, wanky friends. He wonders if they'll all be wankers next September, when they're all third years, or if third year wankery really is just specific to Nick and his friends.

"Takes one to know one," Nick says, but he laughs, like it's a joke.

Nick spends a lot of time round Louis laughing, like Louis has said something really funny and not terribly insulting. When it comes to Nick, Louis usually finds himself aiming for insulting.

Louis narrows his eyes.

"Hey, are you coming to the Indie Soc freshers' party on Saturday? It's going to be properly fantastic." Nick stubs out his cigarette on the ground by his foot.

"How on earth can a night organised by you lot possibly be properly fantastic?" Louis puts out his cigarette with the toe of his Toms and promptly lights another. He never smokes this much. He'll wake up tomorrow feeling like death and tasting like Marlboro Lights, and he'll regret this then. He often regrets it in the morning. Doesn't stop him doing it now, though. "You're all wankers."

"Don't be awful about my friends." He appears deceptively sober but Louis can smell the alcohol coming off him in waves. Or that might be him. "You going to give me one of those cigarettes, or what? That was my last. Anyway, it'll be full of first years pretending to know shit about music. Surely someone there will want to kiss you. You wouldn't want to turn that down, right?"

Louis sniffs and hands over the last cigarette. "I'm not desperate, thank you very much." He sort of is. He'd only got off with two people over the summer, once in June at a club when he was supposed to be getting rat-arsed with Stan and his mates from uni, and one round the back of work with a well fit ATM engineer named Steve, who'd been a nice break from the monotony of working in that bloody stockroom, but not exactly a prospect for repeat kissing.

Nick bumps his elbow into Louis'. "You should come. Harry said he was going to drag you all anyway. He's bought you all wristbands already."

Louis makes a noise that may or may not resemble nrgh, and brings his knees up to his chin.

"I'd like it if you came," Nick says. "Come on. Cheap drinks."

Nick is such a dickhead.

"There are always cheap drinks. It's the fucking Union."

"I'll give you one for free."

"Wanker," Louis says, burying his face in his knees for a minute. The garden is starting to spin, and he's virtually out of tequila. "Think I'm going to be sick."

"Charmed," Nick says, but he does at least grab the bottle out of Louis' hand and shove him in the vague direction of the flower bed. "Do your thing, Tomlinson."

"Tommo," Louis corrects, spitting into the mud. The contract for the house said they had to maintain the garden. Vomiting in the hydrangeas probably doesn't count.

"Tommo," Nick says, and rubs his back. "Get it all up, love. That tequila's fucking vile."

"Go away," Louis says, and then he's too busy throwing up to notice whether Nick actually does or not.

~*~

Louis wakes up half in and out of bed, his jeans hanging off one ankle, and the washing up bowl on the floor by his head.

He stumbles in the general direction of the kitchen, wrapping himself in his duvet as he goes.

"My head's bangin'," he announces, falling over the bin.

Harry's sitting at the table, eating toast. "Morning."

"Where is everyone?" Louis drops down onto the only other clear seat in the kitchen, and pulls the duvet over his head. "Think I'm going to die."

"Zayn left with Perrie last night, Liam and Sophia have gone to have breakfast at the West Point, and Niall's still in bed."

"Thought we were all going to get a massive fry up and drink the town dry of tea," Louis says, resting his forehead gently against the table top. It's entirely possible he's glued his skull to the table in a pool of disgustingly sticky day-old alcohol. "What happened to that plan?"

"Dunno," Harry says. "Do you want some tea?"

Louis wants to spend the day in the pub, nursing a hangover and making fun of his mates for being more hungover than he is. That had been the plan. That had been a fucking awesome plan. He has the best plans. "Yes," he says, in his most piteous voice. "I desperately want some tea." He pauses. "And maybe some toast. With jam."

"It's a good thing I love you," Harry says, but he's already putting bread in the toaster and putting the kettle on to boil, so Louis knows it's the truth.

"I have missed you, Hazza, you know," Louis says, and only half of that is a joke.

Harry just grins at him over his shoulder. "Right back at you. What happened to you coming to meet me in Manchester, anyway?"

Louis wraps the duvet tighter around him, and groans his hangover into the table top. "Work happened," he says. "So much fucking work." He whines as sadly as he can manage and waits for Harry to bring him his breakfast.

"I missed you," Harry says, tapping his foot into Louis'.

"You said that."

"Meant it so much I said it twice," Harry says. "We should have gone interrailing, like we said."

"Nrgh," Louis says, and doesn't think about his student overdraft or the fact he's wholly reliant on a student loan he's never going to be able to pay back. "Next summer."

"Won't let you off this time," Harry says, popping the toast out of the toaster and onto a plate. He nudges it under Louis' nose.

Louis makes a sad, plaintive kind of noise, and Harry gets the jam out of the fridge for him. "You're my best friend ever," Louis says, and means it.

Harry kisses the top of his head and steals a piece of Louis' toast.

"Bastard," Louis says, and Harry grins.

~*~

The five of them end up at a tattoo place in town late in the afternoon on Thursday. Louis feels sort of odd, bouncing off first one of them, then another. Lectures don't start until next week, and all they've done so far this week is have Liam's un-birthday party and drink and hang out and sleep late. Niall—who still hasn't come round to the idea of tattoos—gets talking to the girl behind the counter instead whilst the rest of them queue up for their tattoos. She probably gets bugged about her tattoos all the time, but Niall is magic when it comes to getting people to talk to him, so she ends up talking them through with him whilst the others take it in turns to sit in the tattooist's chair.

It's not even Louis' first tattoo, but he's still kind of anxious as he sits down to take his turn, restless even beneath his skin. He'd got a couple last year, a little tally just in the curve of his elbow, four lines and one across the middle. His little sisters thought it was for them, and he wasn't about to disabuse them of that, even though he hadn't exactly been thinking of them when he'd had it done. His Bus 1 tattoo was just his and Zayn's, hanging out for endless hours in Zayn's room in halls. He couldn't even remember when they'd started calling it the bus, but they'd got the tattoos just after Easter, before their first year exams had started. He'd got his third one over the summer, a paper aeroplane for all the travelling he wasn't doing, and all the conversations he'd had with Harry about going away, and for all the travelling they would be doing. He looks at it sometimes and imagines their summer together, best friends hitting Europe with everything they've got. They've been talking this week about going together now, all five of them. Louis can't fucking wait.

He gets oops! scrawled across the inside of his arm this time, Harry watching as he gets it done, huge fucking smile on his face as Louis gets Harry's handwriting inked on his skin forever and ever. Harry's getting hi done next, Louis' writing. Afterwards, when Zayn's getting Friday on his chest, and Liam's talking to one of the tattoo artists about the bigger project he's been thinking about, Louis thinks, fuck it, and goes for a second. His student loan's just come in, he can blow it on ridiculous fucking tattoos.

He asks for five tiny birds inked on his right wrist, one for each of them, and he should feel embarrassed about this, his second tattoo for his best friends, but he can't. He wants these boys inked on his skin, wants to remember this feeling forever, even when he's old, and over thirty, and nothing's fun anymore.

Liam shows him the notes for his designs when he's done, his four arrows and the quote for his other arm. Louis isn't the only one who wants to record this feeling forever.

Louis hangs off him instead of talking it out, bumping his feet into Liam's ankles as Liam drags him round the waiting area. Liam's laughing. Louis raises his voice so that everyone can hear him over Liam's ridiculous laugh. "Let's go to the fucking pub. Go to a club afterwards, whatever. Come on." He's buzzing underneath his skin, endorphins everywhere. He wants to run and jump and scream. He'll settle for getting wasted and dancing and crawling home afterwards. He'll settle for hanging off his friends and having the time of his life.

He wants it to last forever.

~*~

He wakes up in Niall's bed, top'n'tailing, Niall's smelly feet right by his nose. He crawls out of bed and stumbles to his own bed via the bathroom. Harry is asleep in the bath. Louis covers him with a towel and calls it aftercare. He doesn't bother asking why Harry is hugging a giant elephant mask to his chest.

Some things are best left to the eternal mystery of drunkenness.

~*~

The Indie Soc Welcomes Freshers!! party on Saturday is full of wankers. Louis has been here half an hour, and he's counted so many stupid moustaches and neck beards and checked shirts that he's fairly sure he's got to be seeing at least triple, as there surely can't be this many people actively choosing this as a fashion option. It's a good thing that the drinks are super cheap and the music isn't truly awful, or he'd be regretting his decision to accept one of Harry's hopefully proffered wristbands. He might have been downstairs instead, sneaking into the Union club, which would hopefully be full of people just as drunk as he is, and where there might be a nice boy sans neck beard who might want to kiss him.

To be honest, he'll scrimp on the nice part if he gets a cheeky snog out of it.

Up here people are drunk, but they're being serious about it.

"You should have just renamed it Hipster Soc," he tells Nick, flopping down onto the bench next to him. "Or Hipster Wanker Soc. That might scan better."

"Hello, Louis Tomlinson," Nick says. He sounds happy to see him, but then the table in front of Nick is stacked full of empty glasses. Surely they can't all be Nick's? He'd be dead if he'd drunk all that. Louis wants to congratulate him, but he's too busy being irritated by his existence.

"What's wrong with putting on music that people actually know, dickhead? There are indie songs that people actually know and like, you know. It isn't actually a crime."

"You're so charming," Nick says, but he does look oddly charmed. Or drunk, one of the two. "You're so charming I don't know what to do with myself. And anyway, we're doing half hour DJ slots. I don't actually control the music."

"You should do," Louis says sulkily, downing the rest of his vodka and Coke. "This is shit."

Nick leans in. "Spoiler: it's all crap. I like Beyonce and A$ap Rocky. This is just an excuse to hang out with my mates."

"Liar," Louis says. "Didn't you say something about a free drink?"

"Thought you'd be too drunk to remember that," Nick says. He makes a big show of rolling his eyes. "Fine. What do you want?"

"Triple vodka and lemonade," Louis says, in satisfaction. "And a shot of tequila."

He makes himself comfortable at Nick's table whilst Nick's gone at the bar. The venue upstairs at the Union is kind of ridiculously small, and randomly has clouds painted on the ceiling. Viewed in daylight it looks like a shabby church hall. There's a bar, though, although it's not quite as well stocked as the main Union bar. It's usually taken over by the various music societies to run alternative evenings to the main club downstairs. Rock Soc had it last night, apparently. Louis had gone to some of their evenings last year, and one night he'd pulled a boy with delicious dark eyes and a lot of eyeliner. He had a vague recollection of sitting on the windowsill in the toilets and the boy drawing it on him. He'd quite liked that.

Harry is around somewhere, dancing with a girl with long, dirty blonde hair and incredible eyebrows. Zayn and Perrie went downstairs ages ago because the bar up here didn't have Jack Daniels, and they haven't been seen since. Liam, the prat, had begged off because he was taking Sophia out to dinner. Louis was well annoyed. They'd been going out half the summer, surely they could give up each other's company for the sake of bloody fucking fresher's week. She'd only been home three days before she'd turned up again today. According to Liam's meticulous calendar, they were going to be seeing each other virtually every weekend all term anyway. Niall was supposed to be coming later. He'd gone round to Bressie's to eat fajitas, apparently. Louis had stopped listening after that.

Nick comes back after a while, balancing a tray with two drinks and two shots on it. "They didn't have tequila," he says, nudging the tray onto the table a little gingerly. "I got us Aftershock instead."

"Good enough," Louis says, and knocks back the shot in one.

"You're terrible," Nick says, and Louis laughs at that, holding his vodka up to clink against Nick's, since Nick never seems to mind too much that Louis is being a brat.

"Got to do something to protect against the terrible music," Louis says, just as they swap over to the next DJ, who starts off with The Fray's How To Save A Life. It's the first song he's liked all evening.

"Okay," Nick says, gulping back his shot. "I'll agree with you on this one. This is totally shit."

"It's no Beyonce," Louis says. The arse is hanging out of Nick's jeans. Honestly, him and Harry, they spend all of their student loan on stupid, ridiculous things like a hundred checked shirts, and magical gunk that makes their hair look like they've been electrocuted, and yet between the two of them, they don't seem to own a single pair of jeans that isn't held together by good will and duct tape alone.

"But who is," Nick agrees, and Louis hadn't meant to say something Nick could agree with. That's never his aim.

They're interrupted by Harry coming over and dropping down onto the bench between them, deliciously drunk and floppy. "I love this song," he says, resting his head on Louis' shoulder.

"You never do," Nick says. He sounds scandalised. "This is the end of our friendship, Styles."

Good, Louis thinks. His jealousy of Harry's friendship with Nick and the other third years is something that settles on his skin like a rash. Harry is his best friend, and it's good that everyone knows it. He wraps an arm around Harry's shoulders, just so that Nick knows. He's terribly possessive when he's drunk. He could make a bet that Nick doesn't have Harry's handwriting inked into his skin, though. That's just him.

"Never," Harry says, bumping his knuckles into Nick's bicep. "Like you could ever not be friends with me, Nicholas."

Louis doesn't growl, that would be ridiculous. He knocks back half of his triple vodka instead. "Come and dance with me, Haz."

Harry agrees easily, obediently clambering to his feet when Louis nudges him up. Louis feels frenetic, and drunk, and like he doesn't know what to do with all of the pent up energy clawing out from underneath his skin.

~*~

Louis wakes up on Sunday with a hangover the size of Wales, and someone's number scrawled on the inside of his wrist in biro. He washes it off in the shower, vaguely bothered he can't remember who put it there, or when. Last night must have been a night and a half if he's forgetting bits of it. Mostly he remembers bickering with Nick about music, and then dancing on the table to the Britpop half hour. Harry had joined him, though, he remembers that part. He doesn't quite remember getting home, but he does remember singing Wonderwall at the top of his voice in the kitchen with Harry and Niall. Good times.

He spends the rest of the morning sprawled across the sofa watching Iron Man with Harry, and then with Liam as well, who's miserable after seeing Sophia off on the train after breakfast. He rests his feet in Harry's lap and Liam takes the end of the sofa beyond Harry, one arm behind Harry's head. Niall gets up in time to see the start of Iron Man 2, taking over the arm chair, and Zayn comes home at lunch time, bearing a carrier bag with a huge bag of oven chips and a bottle of ketchup in. They send him right back out again to go to the corner shop for more food, and Liam reluctantly goes with him, because he's the only one of them apart from Zayn who's actually bothered getting dressed.

They come back with frozen pizzas, and packets of crisps and cans of Coke and bags of penny sweets, and they devour the lot like a bunch of gannets, Iron Man 2 turning into Avengers Assemble, turning into Iron Man 3 before they round off the night with Captain America.

It's the best day Louis has had in months, and it's not just because he could quite happily get hard for either Iron Man or Steve Rogers.

It's just: this year is going to be the best fucking year ever, that's all. He has the best fucking mates in the world.

~*~

Lectures start in the morning, and Louis knows from the moment he stumbles into the lecture theatre and sees the course schedule up on the big screen that he's made a bad module choice. He finds Eleanor half way up on the left hand side, and she's left a seat for him, hugging him hello as he drops down next to her. He steals a gulp of her takeaway tea. They'd lived opposite each other in halls last year, and she hadn't killed him for being annoyingly loud, so he's counting that as a good sign.

"Hi, babe," he says. "How's things?" The lecturer is already handing around module handbooks and they look far, far too large for his liking. Last year had been a bit of a laugh, with none of their first year marks really counting for anything, but second year was different, and it was just Louis' luck that the English modules for the first semester of this year had all looked terrible. He'd picked the two that looked like he might have a vague chance of passing them, and it was just his luck that Zayn had picked the other two options instead. Still, it meant that Zayn was going to be stuck with learning Old English and faffing about with Chaucer until after Christmas.

When the course handbook arrives on the desk in front of him, Louis isn't sure his semester is going to be any easier than Zayn's. He gingerly takes a look at the reading list. Samuel Becket's Endgame, T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland—fuck, he's going to fail this whole module. His second module has to be better or he's going to plough the whole semester. He doesn't bother looking at the rest of the list.

"Don't look so scared," Eleanor says, bumping her elbow into his. "We can totally do this."

"Pinky swear?" Louis asks, crooking his little finger.

She tucks her finger into his. "Pinky swear. What are you doing after this? Do you want to come to the book shop with me and get all of these? We can try the second hand one first. You can come back to mine after, if you want. I'll make you lunch."

"You're going to be my new best friend," Louis declares as the lecturer shushes them all down and opens the first course handbook.

After the lecture's over, he drops a small fortune on books he's never going to get around to reading, and then spends the rest of his lunchtime on Eleanor's sofa watching Neighbours and Home and Away with her and her flatmates. Eleanor and Jess get into a heated debate over where they'd rather live, Summer Bay or Ramsay Street, and Louis ends up backing Eleanor, because in Summer Bay there's always the risk of forest fires, or floods, or both at the same time, and Louis rather prefers the idea of a pool in the back garden instead. He ends up spending the whole afternoon there, hanging out in her back garden, enjoying the last of the sunshine, shivering in jumpers and pretending that the sun is warm enough to justify this amount of time outside.

He gets back to his to find Zayn and Perrie getting off on the sofa. He sits on them both, engineering his way into both of their laps, and wraps an arm around both their shoulders. "Doesn't anyone want to love me?" he asks, pouting.

"Get off, dickhead," Zayn says, but he only shoves Louis gently, so Louis stays where he is.

"Perrie loves me," Louis says, presenting his cheek for a kiss, and Perrie kisses him dutifully.

"I do," she agrees, "but my love only extends so far, love, so if you don't get off us now, I'm going to pull your legs off."

"Promises, promises," Louis says, but he rolls off them anyway, sprawling all over the other end of the sofa.

"How come you move for Pezza, but not for me?" Zayn asks, reaching over and bumping his fist into Louis' ankle.

"Because Perrie is the secret love of my life," Louis says, stealing some of the Doritos from the bag on the coffee table. "I've got something to tell you both. I'm straight, I'm sorry. All last year I was living a lie, and this year I just want Perrie to love me back."

"Finally," Perrie says, clapping her hands over her heart. "This is what I've been waiting for all this time. Zayn, you were just my decoy boyfriend. I'm sorry, you're nothing in comparison to Louis."

"Told you," Louis says. "Do you two want tea?"

"Always," Zayn says, and Louis grins, heading for the kitchen. His friends are the best friends in the world.

When he gets back, Zayn and Perrie are disappearing, giggling, up the stairs to Zayn's bedroom. Louis drinks three cups of tea and turns the volume up on the telly so that he doesn't have to hear them getting down and dirty upstairs. He bangs on Zayn's door every time he goes upstairs to use the loo, but that's only to be expected, surely. He's the best friend ever, he is.

He's bored, though. Just a little bit, but still. Bored.

~*~

They hold Niall's Unofficial Un-Birthday Party on the Friday at the end of the first week of lectures, and it's total fucking carnage. Louis mixes the most lethal combination of alcohol he can manage, and serves shot glass after shot glass of it to all the newcomers as soon as they come through the front door, which he's decorated to look like a troll bridge. He often matches the newcomers, shot for shot, and by the time Nick arrives later on, his flatmates in tow, Louis is wasted.

"Hello, Louis," Aimee says, taking a shot as soon as she's through the door. "What's in this shit?"

"Booze," Louis says, and he only slurs a little bit. "Special recipe."

"Well done," Aimee says, patting his cheek on the way past. Louis tries not to learn the names of all of Nick's awful hipster friends on principle, but Aimee is difficult to ignore. He pretends they all have to do two shots to gain entrance, but he makes Nick do three, just because.

Nick sits down on the stairs next to Louis. "Hi," he says.

"Hi," Louis says. "Were you invited?"

"Yep," Nick says, and he reaches past Louis for the bowl of bright green alcohol that Louis had spent the afternoon concocting. Niall had tried to help, but Louis had maintained that Niall's chemistry course would give him an unfair advantage, and had banished him to the kitchen to help Harry and Liam make chocolate cornflake crispies instead. "When's your one of these, again?"

"My un-birthday party?" Louis takes the shot Nick's offering him, and knocks it back, after touching his plastic neon shot glass to Nick's. "Reading week. End of reading week. It's going to be fucking magnificent."

"I can imagine," Nick says. "You going to invite me to that, then?"

"No," Louis says. "No hipsters allowed."

Nick rolls his eyes, but he's laughing. "You're such a dickhead."

"You're a wanker," Louis says. "Shouldn't you be off complaining about our music and comparing moustaches?"

"I don't have a moustache."

"You should do," Louis declares, and he pours out another shot for one of Niall's rugby friends, who's just arrived. Bressie is still deliciously hot. Louis still occasionally likes to imagine being pinned to the bed by him, not that he ever admits that out loud. "Isn't that a rule?"

"I don't know what you think about me and my friends, but it's all bollocks."

"Whatever," Louis says. He's almost out of troll bridge shot mixture. He pours the last bit out for him and Nick. "Me and Harry made a dance up to I Knew You Were Trouble. It's fucking awesome. You probably won't like it because it's not sung by wanky hipsters."

"I love Taylor Swift," Nick says.

"Liar." Louis stumbles to his feet. "I might change my mind about inviting you to my birthday party. If you're not awful."

"Thanks," Nick says, and Louis feels curiously odd inside. He needs another fucking drink.

The party just gets better. Niall has a birthday cake that's a massive mountain of chocolate crispy cakes with ill-gotten mini eggs mixed on in. Louis wants to know if you can set fire to them, like Christmas pudding, and he and Harry pour brandy all over the stack of cakes in preparation for the greatest science experiment ever. Zayn makes them take it outside in case they set fire to the place, because Zayn is too sensible for his own good.

It's a disaster. A beautiful, magnificent disaster. Louis wears that success like a crown for the rest of the night, even as he and Harry are teaching everyone their Taylor dance.

He wakes up in the morning in Liam's bed, with his face pressed up into Liam's armpit, Niall sprawled across the bottom of the bed with his feet in Louis' face. Again.

Even with Niall's sweaty feet in his face, the hangover is completely worth it.

So, so worth it.

~*~

"Liam," Louis whines, coming into Liam's bedroom a couple of weeks later and flopping down onto his bed. "Liam, why won't you come to the pub with me?"

Liam has papers spread over his bed, and all over his floor. He's carefully highlighting great big passages of text in yellow. Most of the pages are already ninety-five per cent yellow. Louis doesn't bother pointing out the futility of colouring in every line.

"Come to the pub," Louis says. "Come on."

"I can't," Liam says. "I've got this stupid essay to write and tonight is my sound tech course."

"Nurgh," Louis says, flopping about like a fish. He's got an essay to write too, and a seminar tomorrow on The fucking Waste Land. He doesn't understand any of it, and none of it makes sense, and he's clearly a fucking idiot because everyone else gets it apart from him. "Skip it and come to the pub."

"No," Liam says. "I really like this course. I don't want to fall behind." He's started doing a sound tech course at the local college, one evening per week. Louis resents the interference in his pub schedule. Thursdays had always belonged to him and Liam last year, but now Liam always has to do his sound tech homework on Thursdays, and then he doesn't finish at college until late.

"You're such a loser," Louis says, bumping his foot into Liam's thigh. "Skip it and come to the pub."

"No," Liam says again, and he doesn't sound quite so forgiving of Louis being a giant dickhead as normal. "I've got to finish this before tonight."

"Come on," Louis whines. "Stop being such a knob. You're no fun anymore."

"Yeah, well," Liam says, pushing Louis' foot out of the way. "Maybe I never was. Look, will you just leave me alone for a bit? I really have got to do this."

Louis goes back to his bedroom and stares at his copy of T.S. Eliot for a while, before giving it up as a bad deal and going to the pub by himself. At least without a wingman he's got a better chance of getting a cheeky snog from some pissed-up student with low morals and even lower standards.

He doesn't miss Liam at all. He can do this by himself.

~*~

Louis goes to play footie in the park with Liam and Niall on Sunday morning, just a stupid kickabout with jumpers for goal posts. Zayn watches from the bench by the side of the pitch, although 'watches' might be a little too enthusiastic considering he spends ninety-seven per cent of his time checking his phone. Fuck knows where Harry is, since he hadn't come home last night.

Louis is pissed off. It isn't like they had plans this morning or anything. He's tried texting, but Harry hasn't texted back. Niall is hungover, and Liam keeps getting right in Louis' face, taking great delight in being better at tackling than Louis, and normally Louis can take it, but this morning he isn't in the mood.

"Going to take it from me, are you?" Liam says, passing the ball from foot to foot and not letting Louis anywhere near it. Louis tries to get it off him, but clearly all of his footballing skills are missing presumed dead today, because they're nowhere to be found. "Ha, Tommo, today it's all about the Payno."

"Fuck off," Louis says, trying to kick Liam in the ankle. His foot connects with a painful sounding sort of crack, but Liam doesn't look furious, more like he thought it was an accident, and that just infuriates Louis even more.

"Four hours sleep and I'm still beating you," Liam says, hopping out of Louis' way, ball still attached to his foot like it's been fucking glued to him.

"Only losers do essays on Saturday fucking night, Liam," Louis says, trying fruitlessly to get the ball off Liam. Niall's doing a handstand in between the jumper goal posts, his hoodie and t-shirt falling down to reveal his bare stomach, and his heart clearly isn't in it either.

"Oi," Liam says, and Louis isn't stupid, he knows what Liam looks like when he's had his feelings hurt. Louis hates that look. He takes the opportunity to dart past him to get the ball, and shoot it right at Niall in goal. Niall ends up in a heap on the floor, but he's clutching the ball to his chest and laughing.

"What a fucking save," Niall says, and Louis' had it with footie for now.

"Let's just go down the pub," Louis says, reaching for the ball from where Niall's holding it out for him. "I could murder a burger."

"I'm broke," Liam says, as they start to gather up their stuff to go over to where Zayn's still industrially playing Candy Crush or whatever he's doing that isn't playing footie with the rest of them.

"How can you be broke?" Louis asks. "It's what, week four? Your loan's got to last you 'til fucking January."

"I've still got money," Liam says, going a bit red. "But I've got a budget. I can't just spend whatever I want to. I've got food at home."

"For fuck's sake," Louis says, and he's not sure if he's ready to hit something because Liam is being such a terrible stick in the mud, or because he's just spotted Harry coming over the crest of the hill with Nick fucking Grimshaw.

"I thought we were playing football?" Harry asks, slinging an arm around Liam's shoulders as he gets to the bottom of the hill.

"You're too late," Louis says, pulling on his hoodie.

"Only a little bit," Harry says.

"Blame me," Nick says. "Have you seen my hair today? It won't do what it's supposed to, it's like I've got a hedgehog on my head. A rubbish hedgehog, though, that won't do what I want it to."

"Not much different to normal, then," Louis says. He doesn't mean to snap, but they'd had plans. Two on two, and Zayn refereeing. This morning had gone differently in his head. Zayn had been less interested in Candy Crush Saga and more interested in football, for a start. "Are you coming to the pub, or what? Liam doesn't want to."

"It's not that I don't want to," Liam says, stuffing his hands into his pockets. He's gone red. "I've got this stupid work to do for sound tech, and this essay to finish, anyway. And I said I'd Skype Sophia this afternoon."

"And you're broke," Louis says. "I know, you said. No time for us. Zayn, you're coming, right?"

"For a bit," Zayn says, looking up from his phone. "Seeing Pezza later, we're going to the cinema."

Louis' chest is starting to feel tight, and he doesn't quite know why. He got out of bed the wrong side, probably. "Niall?"

"You bet," Niall says, wrapping an arm around Louis' waist. "If we go to The Granary, Eoghan's probably working. Or if he isn't, Laura will be. Can probably get us ten per cent off the burgers."

"The Granary's full of the fucking rugby team," Louis says. "Bet you they won't be showing the footie this afternoon."

"Ten per cent, though," Harry says.

Like Harry's bank balance is going to be bothered by an extra ten per cent on a burger. Harry's loaded, at least compared to Louis. "What's wrong with going down The White Hart, like normal?" Louis persists. He doesn't know why he's being such a dick today, but everyone's annoying him. Last year they'd spent all their time in The White Hart. It had been right round the corner from their hall, so they'd tumbled in and out of there on an almost daily basis. Louis had snogged a bartender there once.

"Their chips are crap," Zayn says. "And the bus stop for the cinema's fucking miles from there. Let's go down The Granary."

"The burgers are pretty good," Harry says, almost apologetically.

"You don't get an opinion, you missed football," Louis says. He knows he's lost, and he doesn't know why he's so bothered; it's not like The White Hart is the best pub in the world or anything, he'd just sort of got used to it last year. They had a normal table they'd sit at. Stuff was familiar there, like the graffiti in the loos and sticky, laminated menus on each of the tables.

"I quite like The White Hart," Nick says. "I played darts there once. I was proper good at it and everything."

Louis sighs. "Right, we're going to The Granary. Everyone except Liam."

"Louis—"

"Shut it, Liam."

"I've got work to do," Liam says, a little lamely, like Louis hasn't got tutorials and essays to prepare for, and deadlines coming up. It's fucking uni, and everyone knows the focus shouldn't be work. "But maybe I could come for a drink."

"Brilliant," Louis says. He doesn't feel brilliant.

"Stop being such a dick," Zayn rolls his eyes. "We're all coming, aren't we?"

"Even me," Nick pipes up.

Louis hopes his death glare says shut up, Nick as loudly as he's thinking it. "You don't all have to come if it's just because I'm dragging you," he says. "I can go by myself."

"No," Liam says, plastering on a smile. "I want to."

Louis knows he doesn't want to. He knows he's just badgered Liam to come along, but he doesn't understand why it can't be like last year, when it hadn't needed a second's persuasion to spend the whole fucking day in the pub. Now he can't get anyone to come along, even though it's a Sunday, and Sundays were invented for hanging out in the pub all day. He grabs his football and tucks it under his arm. "Come on, then," he says. He doesn't know why he's so bad tempered. He's got what he wanted, footie and then the pub, but it doesn't feel like the nice kind of victory he'd expected. It feels sort of tainted and forced.

He trails down the path after the others, towards the pub.

The Granary is full of students already, but Niall pushes through the already-full tables to stand by one in the corner where the current inhabitants are starting to look like they might want to leave. Anyone else would succeed in making the incumbents at least grumpy, but Niall's superpower appears to be making even people who are being ousted from their pub table like him.

They take over the table the moment it's free, Louis dumping the football under the seat and reaching for the menu. He doesn't know why he's looking, as he's going to have the burger with bacon and cheese, and chips and onion rings on the side, and a fucking pint.

He might have a pint now and a pint with his burger, and then a pint afterwards, for good measure.

"You finished with that?" Nick asks, holding his hand out for the menu.

"Nope," Louis lies, and pretends to be studying the shepherd's pie. God, he has no idea why he's being such a dickhead. Liam isn't even looking at the menu, even though he's probably as ravenous as the rest of them. Niall is leaning over them to talk to his friend Eoghan, who's collecting glasses. He's trying to engineer a discount. Harry is texting on his phone, and Zayn is talking to some guy two tables over who Louis vaguely remembers from one of their English tutorials last year. "God," he says, kicking Liam under the table. "I'll buy you lunch. Tell me what you want."

"I can't—" Liam says.

"You can," Louis says, because he feels shitty and doesn't really know why. "If you don't tell me what you want I'm getting you the veggie burger."

"I hate veggie burgers."

"Exactly," Louis says, and he sticks his tongue out at Nick before shoving the menu in Liam's direction.

"Take it that means you're not buying me lunch, then," Nick says.

"Got it in one," Louis says. He relents, if only because he sees Harry's eyebrow twitch. "I'm going up for a pint, though. Do you want one? You got me that drink in Fresher's week."

Nick makes a face. "Fine," he says, and then he gets a tenner out of his back pocket anyway. "Will you order me a burger as well, whilst you're up there? Bacon and cheese, and get me some onion rings and chips on the side as well, whilst you're at it. Might as well go all out, right? Push that boat out."

Louis narrows his eyes. "That's what I'm getting," he says.

"We can be food twins," Nick says, lightly. He shoves the tenner in Louis' direction. "Go on, there's a love."

"I'm not your love," Louis says, and he kicks Liam under the table again. "You know what you want yet?"

"Plain burger and chips," he says.

Louis raises an eyebrow. "It's on me," he says, because he's rich and that's all he has to say on the matter. His student loan is a glorious gift. He's probably never going to earn enough to pay it back, anyway. Whatever. "What extras do you want?"

"None," Liam says.

"So," Louis says, reaching for the menu, "that's extra gherkins and blue cheese, then. With olives to start."

"Blergh," Liam says, which is approximately if not quite a word. "Fine. Same as you," he says, although he doesn't look that happy about it.

"Marvellous," Louis says. "That's three of us for the Louis special. Anyone else?"

"I'm paying by card," Harry says. He hasn't even looked at the menu yet. He's still on his phone.

Niall has clambered over the edge of the bench to follow Eoghan round the bar, and Zayn isn't back from talking to his friend yet. Louis shrugs his shoulders and goes up to the bar. He orders his food, three pints, and six shots to get them in the mood. He puts it all on his debit card because, fuck it, this is what the Student Welfare department is for. He'd ended up making two applications to the university's hardship fund in first year, the first to pay his stupid accommodation costs when his loan hadn't come in, and the second because he'd fucked up and ended up with three weeks left of term and no fucking money with which to eat.

He comes back to the table with all the shots on a tray, and displays it proudly as he sits back down again.

"What the fuck is that?" Zayn asks, sitting down opposite him.

"I have no idea," Louis says. "Goldschläger, perhaps. It's whatever's on special offer. I didn't bother asking what it was. Dig in."

"I'm going to the cinema," Zayn complains. "I can't be wasted at the cinema, Perrie will dump me, for a start."

"Shut up," Louis says, and pokes the shot glass towards him. "Like you haven't been wasted in front of Perrie a million times. Drink up." Nick takes his without complaining, but Liam is clearly unwilling to participate.

"I've got an essay to do," he says.

"Jog home then," Louis says, unrepentantly. "That'll get rid of it. Haz? Niall, here's one for you."

Niall and Harry are enthusiastic, at least. Louis ignores Zayn and Liam, and counts them all in.

They down them all at the same time, Nick making an odd sort of choking sound next to him. Louis shakes his head to get rid of the taste. He isn't entirely sure how it got to the point where alcohol didn't make things better, but there's an odd kind of twist to his stomach that he can't quite manage to make go away.

The burgers are perfect. They're about ten times better than the same option at The White Hart. Louis hates that. He hates that Zayn keeps checking his watch, and that Liam's attention is clearly already half on his essay and his uni work at home. Niall keeps darting off to talk to Eoghan, or his other friends from the rugby team, who've not un-adopted Niall even though Niall has no particular wish to be pushed around on the rugby field in the rain. Nick and Harry keep stopping to look at stuff on Harry's phone, comparing Twitter feeds and weird articles they've been reading.

Louis shouldn't feel left out, sitting in the pub on a Sunday lunchtime with his best friends in the world—and Nick, but Nick is like the fucking leech that won't go the fuck away—but for the first time, Louis doesn't have anything to say, or anyone to say it to even if he did.

He goes to the bar for another pint after a while, and chases it with a raspberry vodka shot at the bar whilst he's waiting for his card to go through.

This isn't how he imagined today going.

~*~

He gets home from lectures on Tuesday afternoon to find Zayn on his way out to Perrie's with his rucksack, and the rest of the house in silence.

"Where is everyone?" he asks, dumping his bag down on the stairs. His tutorial homework is in there; it's the lowest mark he's ever got. His tutor had also written a whole paragraph telling him he had no idea how to use semi-colons. That, at least, was one part of English Louis had thought he'd understood. He's even crap at those bits.

Zayn's doing his shoelaces up. "Harry and Niall have gone to the cinema, and Liam's gone to town."

"Oh," Louis says, and it's weird, because it's not like Harry and Niall going to the cinema together is a new thing. They've always done it, just wandered off to see whatever's on, on free afternoons when they're bored of hanging round the house. They'd done it in halls too, so it's not like it hasn't happened before. But Louis hasn't felt like this before, like they're going without him, like there's a thing that his best friends are doing that doesn't have a space for him. "Fine. Are you back later?" They'd all talked last night about watching a DVD and eating endless frozen pizzas. Louis had spent this morning's lectures drawing little slices of pepperoni pizza in the margin of his refill pad.

"Nah," Zayn says. "Staying at Perrie's, aren't I?"

"Right," Louis says. He feels a little bit like he's just taken a sideways step in his own life, just slotting out of his own personal Facebook timeline, and now he's just watching everyone else's slide by without him in it. It's so, so fucking weird. "What about the others?"

"Dunno," Zayn says, and he grins, grabbing his jacket from the hook behind Louis' head. "See you, mate."

"See you," Louis echoes, and he waits until the door's closed before he wanders towards his bedroom. He leaves the door open and puts the volume on his laptop on high, wanking off to terrible xhamster porn just because he can.

His chest feels tight and he doesn't know what to do to make it go away.

~*~

The odd feeling inside of him doesn't go away. He can't keep up with his English tutorials. Poetry has always been a black hole for him at the best of times, but The Waste Land is another universe entirely. It makes precisely no sense, and there isn't a space in any of his tutorials for him to ask questions, anyway. It's like the other nine people in his group are speaking a different language when they talk about T.S. Eliot, like they've all shifted up a gear and gone up a level when Louis wasn't looking. He can't even ask Eleanor, because she's got a different tutorial group to him, and anyway, he doesn't like owning up to the fact that clearly he's a complete thicko, and it's just taken him almost twenty one years to realise it.

At home, it's just the same. Everyone's busy and doing essays and going to lectures—and skipping lectures too, because they're not Louis' friends for nothing—but Louis keeps feeling like he's on the outside, looking in. Niall is roped in to actually participating in rugby practices, even though he's still got no particular desire to play, and he comes home on Wednesday nights with mud everywhere, and bruises, and smelling like wet dog. Zayn and Perrie are all over each other, and apparently Perrie's bed is a double, unlike Zayn's at the house, so obviously they're spending most of their time there. Zayn rolls up to shower and change his clothes and grab his books, but he's barely around. Liam spends all of his time studying, or doing work for his sound tech course, and when he's not doing that, he's earnestly Skyping Sophia, or on the phone to her, or going for runs because he's read that it's an aid to learning.

And Harry, who Louis would—before this term—have called his best fucking friend in the whole wide world, is just fucking absent. He knows everyone, and if there's someone he doesn't know, then he knows someone who knows a way in. He goes to house parties and goes off to meet people in pubs, and ends up telling Louis about practicing his French at three AM on the bridge by the river with six girls doing combined French and German honours. If he's not doing that, then he's off with Nick, and Louis only knows this because on the few occasions that their paths do cross, he gets invited along.

He's too much of a knobhead to say no, so he gets to spend the afternoon in the Victoria pub, which is always full of hipster dickheads with too much time on their hands, who spend hours standing at the jukebox, arguing over which obscure artist that no one with any sense had ever heard of deserves to be picked first with their thirty pence selection choice. He sits with Nick and Harry and Nick's flatmates and Nick's friends, and this idiot whose name Louis can't be bothered to try and remember, who suggests that they should start a football team to participate in the Victoria's league. It's the stupidest idea that Louis' ever heard, because it doesn't look like any of them like football, and he makes an educated guess that barely any of them could even name the Liverpool manager, or the Arsenal manager, or any of the repeatedly capped players for England. The blazing stupidity of a bunch of ridiculous hipsters playing football because they reckon they can make it ironic sits heavy on Louis' chest like a physical fucking weight. Even Harry seems to be getting enthusiastic about it, which is ridiculous, since Harry has the co-ordination of a clumsy newborn giraffe, and because he's missed every single arranged footie kickabout that Louis has put together since the start of term.

Nick leans over and elbows Louis in the side. "You up for it?" he asks, leaving his elbow bumping up against Louis' ribs. "Harry says you're well good. You could be our ringer."

Louis sniffs. He's a curious mixture of not drunk enough and way too drunk to be putting up with this. "Nah," he says, scratching his fingernail along the edge of the table. "Don't think I know how to make footie ironic."

Nick rolls his eyes; he does that at Louis a lot, but Louis can't help but notice that this time Nick doesn't try to talk to him much afterwards.

That sits heavy on his chest, too. He doesn't even like Nick, so he doesn't get why Nick not paying him any attention is making him feel like this. But it's not in Louis' nature to make his excuses and leave, so he ends up staying until the bitter end, drinking pints of Carlsberg and trying not to sneer too often and too obviously at Harry's new friends. There's a whole conversation about fake, black-rimmed glasses at one point, and Louis tries not to tell them to shut the fuck up, because he's got glasses at home in his glasses case, and they're fucking expensive, and he hates not being able to afford new ones now that he has a scratch on one of the lenses.

He stays until the end, until most of them have gone, and it's just Nick and Harry and Aimee and Nick's other friend Gillian at the table. They call last orders at the bar, and Louis makes it up in time to order another beer, but when he gets back to the table, Gillian's already gone, and Aimee is putting on her coat.

"We'll have to get going if we don't want to sit separately," she's saying, as Louis sits down with his drink.

"Where are we going?" Louis asks, before he can help himself.

Nick and Harry exchange a glance. Louis steels himself, and when had that been a thing that he did, and with Harry? He raises an eyebrow.

"I didn't think you wanted to come," Harry says. "I did ask you if you wanted a ticket."

Louis vaguely remembers a conversation about something, the day before. Tickets. Late night, something. Blah blah. "Right," he says.

"There might be some left," Harry says, apologetically. "You could come with us."

"Their Twitter says they've sold out," Aimee says, looking down at her phone. "Look, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, sold out."

Louis nods, and wraps his hand a little tighter around his beer. "You don't strike me as an Indiana Jones fan," he says to Nick.

Nick shrugs. "I am, however, a hot, younger Harrison Ford fan."

"Do you want us to stay whilst you finish your drink?" Harry asks. To his credit, he looks vaguely uncomfortable.

"Nah," Louis lies. "This girl from my course is having a party. I was going to go anyway, so I'll just finish this and then go. Off you go."

It's a lie. It's always a lie; he never has anything he has to do, or anywhere he has to go. He keeps thinking about the way Nick stopped talking to him earlier in the evening, and he hates it, because Louis is better than this. He's better at not wanting to be something he's not, he's better at being happy being who he is. It's just so terribly difficult at the moment. It's all so fucking hard.

He stumbles home by himself at midnight, drunk, and confusingly, terribly close to tears.

~*~

Reading Week rolls around with happy inevitability. Louis has his last lecture and his last tutorial group, and after lunch with Eleanor and her flatmate, Jess, he wanders home half way through the afternoon to faceplant on his bed and not think about uni work for a glorious, delicious ten day stretch. He's so tired. Everything's hard. At least he has his Un-Birthday Project Party coming up; they'd talked about it at the beginning of term and decided on the Friday in Reading Week. A fucking good party is exactly what he needs; a blow out, all of his friends in one place at the same time, music and booze and cake and candles and not enough sleep.

~*~

Louis spends the day of his un-birthday methodically drinking shots in the comfort of his own bedroom, watching Star Wars, episodes four, five, and six, and playing games on his phone. Sophia is up for a long weekend, and she and Liam have gone out for the day. Harry is at home with his family, Zayn is in the library, and Niall's gone on a day trip to the seaside with Bressie and the others, and not one of them has remembered that today is supposed to be the unofficial celebration of Louis' birth.

Not one of them.

He throws up mid-afternoon, vomiting up tequila so that his throat burns and his head hurts and he sits on the floor in the bathroom and cries. He cries and he throws up again and he ends up passing out in his bedroom at six in the evening, too drunk to stand up.

It's not the way he envisaged getting to this point today.

~*~

"We're going for breakfast," Liam says, knocking on Louis' door the following morning.

Louis stares up at the ceiling, at the glow-stars he'd stuck there the day after arriving. "Fuck off," he says, because his hangover is the size of Birmingham, and his head hurts, and he's so fucking tired he doesn't know what to do with himself.

"Fine," Liam snaps, and Louis pulls the covers up and over his head, and wonders when it was that his friends moved on without him.

~*~

Louis hides upstairs in the library with his English essay scrunched up in his rucksack. It's his lowest mark yet, and he'd tried. He'd tried.

He has no idea how to do better, and for the first time since he'd come to uni, he's got no one to tell, and no one to phone up and arrange to go to the pub with.

He doesn't know what to do to make it better. He doesn't know what to do at all.

He wants his friends back, and he doesn't even remember losing them.

~*~

"What are we up to tonight?" Louis asks, wandering into the kitchen the following Friday lunchtime. He's had to steel himself to walk in, plastering on a smile and trying not to look like he's awkward and unsure around his best friends. He feels oddly unsettled, anxiety sitting deep in his belly. It's been like this for days. "Union's doing a cheese-fest? We could go to that." He doesn't really expect anyone to say yes. He's stopped expecting anyone to say yes. He doesn't really know why or how it's happened, or when it was that they started to forget him the way that they have, but it's a persistent ache in his chest that he really doesn't know what to do with. Even Niall had snapped at him yesterday, for using up all the hot water before he'd managed to get in the shower, and Niall never snaps at anyone.

Harry and Liam exchange glances. Louis' chest feels tight already, although that feeling's there when he wakes up and when he goes to sleep, so this is hardly any different.

"What?" he asks.

"Well," Harry says, almost apologetically, "there's a party. At Nick's."

"Right," Louis says. "Okay."

"Didn't you get a Facebook invite?"

"Probably," Louis says. He'd turned off his Facebook notifications during reading week, when he'd gone to read his timeline and seen nine million pictures of his housemates and best friends having a hundred different kinds of fun without even inviting him. There's a drunken sort of masochistic pain in refreshing his feed, but he hasn't been drunk in a couple of days, and that last one had been a big one, so he's not entirely sure he could be trusted to remember an invite to a party. He fumbles awkwardly with the kettle, and tries to put it on to boil. "Is that what everyone's doing, then?"

"Yeah," Liam says.

"I'm sure Nick invited you," Harry says. "He wouldn't not invite you."

"Right," Louis says, because there's no reason for Nick to invite Louis anywhere, since all they ever do is bicker and snap at each other. Louis can't even get his best friends to want him around, so he's definitely not going to be able to get Nick to. "Okay."

"You are going to come, aren't you?" Harry asks, sort of carefully. Louis is really fucking sick of people being careful with him.

"Might do," Louis says. "Got a few other options tonight. Might drop by later." He'll go and get frontloaded at a pub first. There's no way he's turning up at Nick's without being at least a little bit wasted. The kettle finishes boiling but his hand shakes as he pours out water onto his tea bag. He puts it back down and goes for a beer from the fridge instead.

"That's Zayn's," Liam says.

"So what," Louis says. "I'll pay him back. It's only a beer, god."

"Louis."

"It's just a beer," Louis says. "He wouldn't say I couldn't have a beer."

"How many has he got left?" Liam asks doggedly.

"Fine," Louis snaps, and he puts the open can back in the fridge. "There. Happy?"

"Lou—"

Louis shakes his head. His hands are trembling. There's vodka in his bedroom, under his bed. "Whatever."

"Louis," Harry says. "Are you going to come with us to Nick's?"

"I'll see you there, maybe," Louis says, heading down the hall to his bedroom, but his eyes are stinging and his chest hurts. He's so tired. He can't remember the last time he woke up and didn't feel as tired as he did before he went to sleep. "I've got other things to do, you know."

He doesn't listen to Harry's response, closing the door behind him and leaning his head back against the wall. He's such a fucking failure.

~*~

Louis can hear Nick's party as soon as he turns into his street. It's raining and he's got his collar turned up against the cold, his hands shoved inside his pockets. He doesn't know why he feels so odd—almost tearful—when he never fucking cries.

He pushes open the gate to Nick's front yard, talking and music and light seeping out through the curtains and up into the bedrooms, noise everywhere. His stomach feels like it does before an exam, in knots, anxiety sparking across his skin. He ignores the doorbell in favour of pushing the door open.

"Oi," Aimee says, from where she's sitting on the stairs by the front door, with a couple of girls that Louis doesn't recognise, "some of us knock."

"It's a party," Louis says, which isn't quite the sorry he was meaning.

"Still not your house," Aimee says, but Louis just salutes her and heads further inside, because being a dickhead is his current tour de force. He spots Zayn and Perrie through the door into the living room as he takes off his coat and dumps it on top of the pile in the hall, the two of them leaning up against the mantelpiece and pressed close together. They don't notice him raise his hand to them in greeting, so he pushes past the snogging couple half in and out of the dining room to go into the kitchen to find himself a drink. He should have brought something, but he didn't, so he's just going to steal what's here instead. He pours himself at least a triple, and knocks back a shot of Goldschläger even as he's searching out a can of Coke to top off his vodka.

"Are you seriously drinking all of our booze?" Nick asks, from the kitchen doorway.

"It's a party," Louis says, and just because he can, he drinks Goldschläger straight from the bottle.

"Nice," Nick says. "Please don't tell me you spat in that, I only bought it last week."

"Might have done," Louis says, a little sullenly. "Don't you have Coke? I need something to mix my drink with." He doesn't really, it just tastes a little better if he can take the edge off the vodka with something sweet.

"Behind you," Nick says, pointing at the fridge. "How are you, anyway? Harry said you didn't get my Facebook invite."

"I've blocked you," Louis lies, taking a Coke from the box on the floor and cracking it open. He pours an inch on top of his vodka and then dumps the can on the side. "And Harry needs to keep his fucking mouth shut for a change." God, Louis' chest feels like it's getting tighter with every breath. It hurts, it hurts so much. These were his friends—his best friends—Niall and Zayn and Harry and Liam, and none of them seem to want him around anymore. He doesn't know what to do without them.

"What crawled up your arse?" Nick asks. He reaches past Louis for the half-open can of Coke, and tops up his drink with it. "Not that you're normally sunshine and light, but you're a special brand of arsehole tonight."

"It's the only thing I'm good at, being an arsehole," Louis says. "Going to get my degree in it and everything." He knocks back half of his drink. Christ, that burns. "Nah, I'm only a dick around stupid hipster wannabes."

"You should slow down," Harry says, coming into the kitchen and hooking his chin over Nick's shoulder. Louis would be too short for that. He wants to cry but he can't. He feels like such a failure, and it's even worse this time than it was when he fucked his A levels up the first time, or how he's lost every job he's ever had, because he thought he'd got it right with his boys, and being friends, but it turns out he's wrong about this too, because he hasn't got this right either. He's fucked up his English modules and he's hated everything he's supposed to have studied this term, and worse than that, none of his friends have asked him if he's okay in weeks. He doesn't know why his missed un-birthday party had hit him so hard, but every time he thinks about it, he wants to sink through the floor and curl up and cry.

"What I do is none of your fucking business, Haz," he says, and his throat feels like it's about to close up. He doesn't know why Harry's pretending he cares now; he hasn't looked out for him in weeks and weeks. "What, are you the fucking booze police, now? You're fucking drinking."

"Louis—" Harry says, and he looks upset, and all Louis can feel is a savage sort of satisfaction that Harry is feeling one iota of how awful Louis is.

"Stop being such a dickhead, Haz," Louis says, and he grabs his drink. God, he needs to get out of here. Coming to this party was the worst idea ever. He pushes past Harry and Nick even as they're both trying to talk after him, but he can't bear to even try and listen.

Niall is in the dining room with Liam and a pile of Nick's friends. They're playing drinking games with packs of cards and stupid fucking LPs on the actual fucking hipster record player, laughing and sitting on top of one another, someone half in and out of the window into the back garden, doing some kind of dare.

No one even notices Louis standing in the doorway, and after a minute he turns around and leaves, heading into the living room to see if he can find Zayn and Perrie, but they're not there anymore. Nick is, though, and he gives Louis the kind of glance that Louis has come to dread, his gaze sliding away from Louis like he doesn't matter, like he's not even there. Nick never looks at him like that. Louis hadn't known that it mattered.

Nick's on the sofa with some of his friends, talking about their new football team.

"It's going to be great," Nick says, "because I haven't been on a footy pitch since year nine PE."

"Just think how laddy you're going to be now, though," one of the other guys says, tapping his bottle of Corona against Nick's plastic glass. "Proper laddy."

"Proper laddy," Nick echoes, shooting Louis a glance. "But we need a team name. Like, a good one, too. Nothing shit. And we need a football strip."

"Seriously," the other guy says, "only you could be more bothered about the strip colour and our name than who's going to be on our actual team."

Louis hates it. He hates it, because everything is such a fucking joke to Nick and his friends, and he's tired of it. Footy is great, and all Nick can do is turn it into something ridiculous. "Everything's a fucking joke to you," he says, butting into their conversation. "Don't you ever try at anything? And now what, you've got a fucking ironic football team too? Just to be more laddy, like that's even a fucking thing. Do you have any idea how much of an idiot that makes you look? You look stupid."

"That's it," Nick says, and he stands up and grabs Louis' elbow, dragging him out of the living room and into the hall. Louis is pretty wasted, and he knows Nick well enough to recognise that he is, too.

"Get off me," Louis snaps, trying to tug his arm away from Nick's as Nick shoves him in the direction of the door. At least Aimee and her friend have moved somewhere else.

"No," Nick looks fierce, and drunk, and pissed off. He shakes Louis' arm. "I'm so fucking sick of your shit, Louis. Where the fuck do you get off?"

"Let go of me," Louis says again, but Nick's grip is tight. "You've got no right." His heart's pounding. He feels sick.

"I've got all the right," Nick says. "God, you used to be fun to invite round, what with your whole arsehole thing; that used to be funny, but now you're always awful." He loosens his grip on Louis' elbow then, but Louis doesn't move. He can't. "I don't know where you think you get off, going on about how you think everything's a fucking joke to me. Like, you're seriously standing here and having a go at me for not trying, when everyone knows you love football, but you wouldn't even think about joining our team. Whatever, you don't have to be on my team, but you've not even thought about trying out for the football society. You could have got together a five-a-side team at the least. The Union is always fucking going on about their five-a-side league. You could do that standing on your head, but you don't fucking bother."

Louis is actually going to be sick. He has to swallow it down, the taste of bile on his tongue.

"It's not even just football, is it? You love drama, but you never do any of the plays. You could do stuff in the LGBT society, cos they're desperate for people, but you don't even go. You don't try at anything, Louis, and everyone knows it, and you're ruining my fucking party. I used to have Harry going on about you all the time, about how great you were, and all I get from Harry now is how you're doing his head in, and how he's sick of it, and you know what? I get it. I'm sick of it too. You judge me and my friends, like, all the time, and I'm tired of it. So what if you don't like what me and my friends like? I don't care, because we have fun, and we have a good time. We're not hurting anyone. The only person who has a problem with it is you, and I don't need you judging us every second of every day. Don't you ever get tired of it? Being such a huge fucking dickhead all the time? Even your friends are tired of you. You see any of them hanging around right now? No, because they're as sick of you as the rest of us."

"God," Louis manages. "Right." Normally he'd give as good as he got, normally he'd tell Nick what an annoying hipster dickhead he is, but he just can't. He can't. There's nothing he hates more than being found out. Just this once he'd wanted it to work out. He tries to nod, but he can't. There's a sob caught in his throat, and he's either going to be sick or cry, and both of them sound like the worst possible things that he could do right now. "I'm just, um—I'll go." He can't manage more than that, because he's going to fucking cry. His eyes feel wet. He doesn't fucking cry and he can feel himself starting, and he hates it, he hates it, he hates it.

He clumsily grabs his jacket from the pile in the hall, and pushes his way out of the front door.

He's still carrying his drink, and he leaves it on the wall by the gate as he tries desperately to keep from breaking down. He's half way down the road before he breaks into a run, a sob escaping even before he reaches the main road. He's fairly sure he's going to be sick; everything he's drunk tonight is rolling around in his stomach as he crosses the road, darting between the cars. The sound of horns follows him as he slows down, taking the path down the side of the river that leads into the park.

He can't breathe. He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes to stop himself from crying. Because he's a failure, and he knows he's a failure, and he's never fucking succeeded at anything, not really, and this is the biggest failure of them all, because he'd wanted it so much. These friends, this course, this whole experience. He'd wanted it so much.

He'd wanted it so fucking much.

He climbs over the fence into the bowling green at the corner of the park, and then out again the other side, until he gets to the tennis courts and he just can't go on anymore. He feels sick and his phone's vibrating against his leg in his pocket.

He sinks to the floor by the wall of the tennis court, and pulls the back off his phone so that battery falls out, without checking to see who's been ringing him. He puts his head in his hands.

He still can't fucking breathe.