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Liam and Niall collapsed on the grass, groaning. Niall was sweaty and red-faced and still only looked about half as tired as Liam felt after an hour of playing football really badly. It was an excellent way to work off stress after school, except for all the bruises Liam had got from getting tackled and tripped.

"Well," said Niall, chest heaving. "That was terrible. We're like old men."

"I'm too young to be an old man," said Liam, but he lay back in the grass to stare at the sky. His heart was trying to pound out of his chest. He'd been lax in going for runs lately because he had so much work to do for his music A-level, and it was clearly catching up with him.

"You know what we should do?" Niall asked.

Liam groaned. "We should study," he said. "I've got that stupid essay to write on baroque musical forms."

"No," said Niall. "That is what we should definitely not do. We should go and get some chips. And Friday we should go to that house party that Sam's having."

Chips sounded nice. Sam's party sounded less so; Liam wasn't a huge fan of house parties, or parties in general. "Right, but I—"

Niall turned to give him a little glare. "You aren't spending Friday night on your computer; I swear to god, I'll drag you out of the house myself."

"I've got work to do—"

"No," said Niall firmly. "Anyway you aren't doing work on a Friday night. You're chatting to strangers on twitter and watching youtube videos, aren't you? You can chat to people in real life instead, that'd be a change."

"Well," said Liam, and then trailed off. He'd been friends with Niall forever; Niall ought to be able to finish the rest of that sentence without Liam's help. Anyway, Niall wasn't wrong, exactly. Liam did have a tendency to refuse to go to parties, and he did have a tendency to spend his Fridays on the internet. "And anyway, what's the point?" Liam finished, as if they'd had a conversation.

"The point is you not spending another Friday sitting in your room by yourself. You aren't even looking at porn, Liam. At least you could be looking at porn."

Liam leaned over and gave Niall a smack on the arm and Niall smacked him back. Liam had to sit up so he could properly give Niall a shove. "Just because you're a pervert—" Liam started.

"S'not perverted, mate, it's normal. It's you we should be worried about. You know who doesn't look at porn? Serial killers."

Somehow this conversation had spiraled wildly out of Liam's comfort zone. "Hang on," he said. "I look at porn! I am not a serial killer."

"I'm just saying," said Niall, with a shrug. "If you're blowing me off you should at least be watching someone blowing something."

Liam snickered. "I'm not the one of us who was caught looking at porn on his phone in the common room, am I? I think that means I'm doing better than you are."

"Better at what?" Niall asked philosophically. "Anyway, that's the only possible excuse I'd accept, so you'll just have to come with me to Sam's."

"Ugh," said Liam. "I repeat: what's the point?"

"You're more fun than y'think y'are," said Niall. Liam pulled a face, because he definitely wasn't. "You might meet someone," Niall said. "You might accidentally have a fantastic time. Oh, and Harry's band is playing, you won't want to miss that."

Liam looked very, very hard at the grass they were sitting on for a minute, waiting for Niall to follow that up with the obvious teasing joke, but Niall was just sat there smirking. Liam counted to ten and then to ten again until he was relatively sure his expression was neutral and normal. "Oh," he said. "Are they?"

"They will," said Niall. "I heard they're getting good, actually. Gonna be playing at the battle of the bands. You should be playing that, too."

"I'm not a band," said Liam.

"No, but it'd be an excuse to hang about with other musicians. I'm just saying. If you happen to become friends with Harry that almost definitely means you might bump in to –"

"Shh," said Liam, putting his hand over Niall's mouth. There were a load of younger kids playing football on the field, and none of them were likely to hear their conversation or care, but it was still enough to make Liam's stomach flip flop.

Niall licked Liam's hand, and Liam pulled his hand away with a little yelp. "Right," said Niall. "My mistake. You wouldn't want to accidentally talk to Louis and let him know you're a person who's alive."

"I wouldn't," Liam agreed, trying to sound dignified. "He wouldn't… He's always doing those stupid pranks. I don't need to be in one of his youtube videos getting flour poured on my head or whatever. Anyway, he doesn't even go to our school."

"I know," said Niall, "which is why you should come to this party. You can sit on the couch and stare at him all you want, which is kind of a lot, mate. I'm not making fun but it's a little weird."

"I'm not – I don't – Ugh, it's not like that," said Liam.

Niall gave him what was definitely a pitying look. "Okay," he said. "Sure. But you're still coming to this party with me and Zayn. You owe me."

"Oh my god, not this again," Liam groaned, flopping back on the grass again. "It's been years."

"You're going to owe me for the rest of your life, Payne. Remember that. Remember, remember, the fifth of November," Niall intoned seriously.

"It was spring, you are such an idiot," said Liam, punching him in the leg.

"Then remember the fifth of something in spring, when I saved your life," Niall said. He punched Liam back and Liam laughed and hit Niall properly this time. They spent a couple of minutes trying to shove each other over and then the football got out of Niall's lap and rolled over to where a bunch of year seven kids were playing and Niall had to jog off to fetch it back.

"Come on, chips, I'm starved," said Niall, offering Liam a hand up. "You've got money, right?"

A large part of being friends with Niall since they were kids was buying him food. Liam had got used to that, and his mum tended to slip him an extra pound or two when he and Niall were going out. "He's so skinny," she'd fret, as if Niall didn't have the world's loudest and largest family constantly trying to feed him up.

Liam gave Niall a half-hearted shove and then a one-armed hug that was more strangulation than affection. Niall laughed. "And you're still coming with us on Friday, don't bother pretending to be ill," Niall added.

Liam sighed, which they both knew meant Niall had won.

--

"Have you done the essay for general studies?" Zayn asked hopefully later, sprawled on Liam's bed.

"The one about 'Is global warming real?'" Liam asked.

"Yeah," said Zayn.

Liam always expected Zayn to try and copy his work. It was nice that he was only taking two A-levels with Zayn because it cut down tremendously on the number of times a week Zayn used his hopeful face to try and get Liam's essays. At least Liam could be sure Zayn would pass those two subjects. "Not yet," said Liam.

"But you've got notes and, like, you started research, right?"

"You could do it yourself—" Liam started.

Zayn's phone buzzed. "Hang on," he said, and started texting furiously.

That was the other problem with Zayn. His mobile was basically fused to his hand and he could barely go a minute without getting a text from someone. Usually a girl. It was absolutely unfair how many girls Zayn got texting and calling him. Zayn was just as big a dork as Liam, except he had really long eyelashes and a wistful, pouty expression when he stared off into space. He read comics, for god's sake. Not that he read them at school or when girls were around.

"You can't copy my notes," Liam said, mostly for the sake of having said it. Zayn would definitely steal his notes at some point before the essay was due.

"Okay," said Zayn, waving a bit and sending another text. "My little sister says hi. She's really gone a bit Ginny Weasely on you, hasn't she?"

"I think it's sweet," said Liam. He did, mostly, except for how they could never go to Zayn's house to do anything because his sisters were always fighting and the youngest one tried to follow them from room to room pleading to know what they were doing. When they were at Liam's his sisters left them mostly alone, although he'd overheard one of them saying Zayn was fit, and nearly thrown up from horror. Ruth had a boyfriend and a baby; she had no business ogling Liam's friends. "You could do your own homework if you weren't always on your phone," Liam said.

Zayn snorted. "What a brilliant idea, Liam. I'll get right on that. That sounds like fun."

Liam sighed and went back to his laptop. He'd accidentally found video of Harry's band performing at a party and they did, in fact, sound a lot better than when he'd heard them last over the summer. Despite not going to their school, Harry's band was one of those things that everyone knew about. Harry and Louis were the type of boys that everyone knew as well. Niall was friends with them, in point of fact. But then, Niall knew everyone.

"You're coming on Friday, yeah?" Zayn said. "Niall said you were, but Niall always says you are."

"Not if I fall off a cliff or something," Liam said. "But otherwise, I suppose."

"Good," said Zayn, texting. "I've got some girls I'm inviting and they think you're cute."

"What?" Liam spun his chair around to frown at Zayn. "Really?"

"They saw you playing your acoustic guitar at Nelson's and thought you were really artistic and lovely. I am quoting, by the way. So since we're friends obviously I'm artistic and lovely as well." Zayn waggled his eyebrows a bit.

Liam laughed. "Oh, I see. Using my fame from my unpaid café shows."

"Listen, mate, you keep playing and singing and eventually you get famous, and I get to be the friend who stuck by you all along. I'll take all the girls you don't want." Zayn stopped and considered for a moment. "Maybe I'll take some of the girls you do want, as well. Not deliberately, obviously, because I love you."

"Deliberately? Someone swallowed a dictionary," said Liam. "Anyway I'll never have groupies because I'm going to spend the rest of my life playing Beatles covers at Nelson's and not getting paid for it."

"You could play the songs you wrote yourself. And you could ask him to pay you. You know a load of girls go there every Saturday afternoon to drink coffee and stare at you. You're good for business. Hang on." Zayn's phone buzzed again and he went back to texting.

Liam sincerely doubted that a load of girls came to Nelson's to stare at him, although there were some girls he recognized as being there nearly every week. They were awfully young, which made Liam feel a little strange about the whole thing. And he was fairly sure they were there to stare at Niall and Zayn as much as him. Niall always came down and ate half of Nelson's cakes, while Zayn sat on one of the couches and got chatted up by older ladies.

"Anyway, even if you never get famous I'm still going to follow you around forever. What would I do without you?" Zayn said, half-shouting in mock despair.

"I don't know," said Liam, trying not to laugh. "Your own homework?"

"Don't leave me," Zayn said, reaching over to grab Liam's arm. "You can't ever leave me, Liam!"

Zayn tended to get really loud when he was being silly, and in a minute Liam's sisters would come to see what all the shouting was about, and give him crap about all his friends being so incredibly strange all the time. "I won't," said Liam, trying to take his arm back. Zayn was being particularly clingy, though, so Liam ended up just dragging him mostly off the bed and onto the floor. "Zayn! I can't type with one hand."

Zayn threw his arms around Liam's neck and pretended to cry, and it was so stupid that Liam couldn't stop himself from laughing. That just encouraged Zayn to be even more ridiculous. "Why haven't I got any normal friends?" Liam asked no one.

"Dunno." Zayn shrugged and squinted at Liam's laptop. He never wore his glasses when he ought to. "Is that Harry's band?"

"Yeah, they sound pretty good."

"I could introduce you, you know," said Zayn. "At the party on Friday, I mean."

Liam definitely didn't want that. Well. He did. But he also didn't. It was complicated and embarrassing, and he tried to squirm away from Zayn, but Zayn still had his arms around Liam's neck. "No, thanks," said Liam.

"They're cool guys," said Zayn.

"No, they're – They're – They're rivals," Liam said, trying to think of a halfway decent reason he didn't want to hang out with Harry, and by extension of all Harry's friends. "They'll probably go on X-Factor and get famous and I'll still be playing Here Comes The Sun at Nelson's."

Zayn looked mildly puzzled. "So… D'you want me to pretend I hate them? I can. Ugh, they're so annoying, Harry's really cheeky and Louis's obnoxious and not at all hilarious."

Liam rolled his eyes and tried not to laugh. "No. I just. I don't think it's a good idea for us all to hang out. I'm really horribly jealous."

Zayn laughed. "Right," he said. "That sounds like you." His phone buzzed and he threw himself back on the bed to check his messages.

"I might be jealous," Liam grumbled, going back to his laptop. He hit play on the video of Harry's band and tried to work up some jealousy, but mostly he was impressed by how Harry flipped his hair around and how really decent his voice sounded.

Someone threw a bra at Harry-on-the-computer and he laughed and threw it back, and the camera phone recording the whole thing turned and zoomed in on Louis, standing right by the stage and waving the bra around his head and cheering. It was ridiculous and definitely not attractive or hilarious or clever. Liam could never in a million years imagine himself being so spontaneous and loud and silly, but he wished… Well. He wished a lot of things, looking at Louis.

"Riiiiiight," said Zayn. "You're watching Harry."

Liam closed his laptop. "Shut up. I just. I'm just… It's not him. It's the idea of him, and being really loud and silly and confident and popular and…. I mean, it can't be him, I don't even know him."

"Oh, Liam," Zayn, sending another text. "I can pretend if you like, but you don't even believe that."

"I do," Liam insisted, but he let Zayn distract him with the newest hip-hop album he'd downloaded to his phone so they wouldn't have to talk about it anymore.

--

Niall was almost exactly a month younger than Liam, but Liam still found himself feeling generally big-brotherly toward him. It wasn't a problem except that Niall had a tendency to drink too much at parties and then get sick and miserable, and Liam always had to stop himself lecturing him about it. Liam got a lot of late-night phone calls from Niall, drunk and needing someone to walk him home. Liam enjoyed that, actually.

Niall and Zayn had brought cider with them to drink on their way over to Liam's house, and then had to pretend to be sober and polite while Liam's mum asked them if they'd like a snack. She ruffled Liam's hair in a way that would have been terribly embarrassing if she hadn't tried to do the same to both of them. Niall laughed but Zayn looked honestly horrified that anyone would try and touch his hair, and Liam had to distract his mum so she wouldn't get offended.

"Have fun," she said. "And be good."

Niall dragged Liam out the door as if he were afraid Liam would make a break for it. "You're not supposed to tell your parents you're going to a party, you know," he said. "Why can't you tell them you're off to mine to study and then sneak out like a normal person?"

"They'd worry if I lied," Liam said reasonably.

"Not if they didn't know," said Zayn. "Cider?"

"No, thanks," said Liam. "You can't drink that on the bus, you know."

"I can't get caught drinking it on the bus," Zayn corrected him.

It wasn't especially far to Sam's house, and it wasn't entirely dark yet. They could hear music from the street, and there were already kids standing around outside and smoking. "Sam's parents have gone to Mallorca," said Zayn. "Some kind of holiday for parents who want to get away. It sounds like a swingers party, doesn't it?"

"Please don't ever suggest that about anyone's parents," Liam said, and then Zayn got dragged away by a load of girls who wanted to show him the new tattoo that someone called Jenna had got.

"Have a cider," said Niall. The kitchen was full of people but the party clearly wasn't in full swing yet. If Liam leaned around he could see Harry and some of his friends setting up a speaker in the front room. Sam's parents were pretty well-off and his house was airy and spacious. There was enough room for a band to set up, as long as it was mostly just a couple of boys with speakers and guitars.

"I don't want a cider," said Liam, frowning at Niall. Niall knew that perfectly well.

"No, I'm saying hold the cider," said Niall, pushing a slightly warm can into Liam's hand. "That way no one'll offer you another drink."

That was a really clever idea, actually. "Cheers," said Liam.

Niall stared at him for a minute. "You've got to at least open it, mate," he pointed out. "And drink a little or it'll be full and you'll spill it all over."

Liam was starting to suspect this was less Niall being kind and more Niall's long-standing desire to get Liam trashed with him. "I thought the point was not to drink," he said, but Niall gave him That Look and Liam sighed and let Niall cajole him into having a couple of swallows.

"I'm gonna go and find some food," said Niall. "Don't go home without telling me, okay?"

"Don't drink too much," Liam countered. Niall laughed and disappeared into the crowd.

Liam felt a little abandoned. He knew some of the people crowded into the kitchen, there were a few from his school and a couple he knew from playing here and there around town. He just didn't know any of them very well, and Liam was friendly but he wasn't tremendously good at inserting himself into other people's conversations.

Somehow he found himself wandering out of the kitchen to where Harry and his friends were plugging in amps and pedals. "S'hooked up wrong," said Liam to one of them, pointing to a wire that was in the output socket by mistake.

"What? Which one?"

"That one, it's… Here, I can fix it," said Liam. He put his cider down and pulled the plugs out, putting them back in the right spots. "See?"

"Cheers," said Harry, flipping his hair out of his eyes. "You wanna help us with the rest of this crap? We're really shit at figuring out what plugs in where."

Liam hesitated for a minute, but his urge to make things go correctly overwhelmed his sense of self-preservation, which was telling him to avoid Harry in case other people came by. Maybe he could just fix everything and then sneak away. "Yeah, okay," said Liam. "The pedal's backwards, too. This is all… You must have nothing but feedback all the time."

Harry grinned at him. "It's very rock-n-roll," he said, and Liam laughed.

Harry wasn't kidding; he'd hooked up a bunch of things wrong, and Liam tut-tutted to himself and crawled around the back of the amp to correct everything. He wondered if Harry had any idea about levels, and decided he probably didn't. Liam was methodical and got itchy when everything wasn't just right, where clearly Harry and his band had been shoving plugs into whatever was nearest. Which, if Harry's reputation with the girls was even half-true, was also his life philosophy.

"What's this?" demanded someone loudly. "Have you got a roadie, Harry?" Liam popped his head out from behind the amp and saw Louis looking at him curiously. Liam froze, feeling oddly like he'd been caught doing something naughty.

"He volunteered," said Harry.

"And who wouldn't offer to help you, with this beautiful face?" Louis asked, grabbing Harry's chin. "That was awfully nice of him." He sounded vaguely suspicious, like maybe other people weren't allowed to offer to help Harry.

"Er," said Liam. Louis was looking at him. There were at least fifty other people milling around Sam's house; surely Louis could have found someone else to look at. Louis's stare was highly disconcerting. "I could stop, if you'd like?"

"Why would we like that?" Louis asked, tilting his head quizzically.

"I don't know," said Liam.

Louis laughed. Liam had seen him laugh bunches of times, Louis laughed basically non-stop when he was out with Harry or making his stupid prank videos. It was more dramatic up close, though, a bit more like watching the sun rise from the actual surface of the sun. Liam's cheeks were going to start going red in a second, and then he'd have to kill himself. This was exactly what was not supposed to happen.

"Don't scare him away; he knows how the thingies work," said Harry.

Louis said, straight-facedly, "Do you mean penises? I keep telling you to use the proper word, Harry." Harry laughed and shoved him and Louis laughed and shoved him back, and while they seemed distracted was clearly an excellent time for Liam to go and find Niall.

Liam got as far as getting back on his feet and starting to edge away when he was suddenly and violently accosted by Zayn. "There you are! I thought you'd run away," Zayn said. He wrapped an arm around Liam's waist and hooked his chin over Liam's shoulder. "You vanished." Zayn smelt distinctly of cider and was starting to seem cuddly in the way that meant he'd drunk too much too quickly.

"You vanished," Liam said.

"Hey!" said Louis, and Zayn let go of Liam to go and hug him and then Harry. It was all very sweet, and Liam took another small step toward the kitchen where presumably he wouldn't have to be part of this conversation.

"Hang on, have you met Liam?" Zayn asked, catching Liam's hand. "We go to school together. Liam, this is Harry and Louis."

"Hi," said Liam, waving a little awkwardly with his free hand. Of course Zayn knew them, too. They were probably all always at parties together.

"Our Liam's really clever," said Zayn. He smiled at Liam, his particularly fond and drunk smile.

"That's why you copy my homework," Liam said, but smiling. Zayn squeezed his hand.

"Liam's doing a music A-level, he knows everything about everything."

Harry and Louis were looking at him speculatively, it was more kinds of awful than Liam could list. Normally Zayn was quite quiet and reserved; why was he such a chatty, friendly drunk? "No, I – I mean, unless you want to know the history of the Baroque period, I could tell you all about Bach and Handel and Vivaldi, but—"

"I don't," said Louis definitely, pulling a face. "But you were fixing Harry's pedals, so you must know loads."

"More than us," shrugged Harry. "I'm gonna go and get the other guitars."

"Yeah, alright," said Louis. "Catch you later." He waved to Zayn and followed Harry outside.

Liam blew out a long breath he hadn't realized he was holding.

"Nice," said Zayn. "I thought you weren't here to meet—"

"Shut up!" said Liam. God, he needed new friends. "I wasn't, just, it was plugged in wrong, and it would probably have exploded or something, and I can't—"

Zayn laughed. "You've gone all red, it's really cute."

"It's not, stop, oh my god," said Liam, hiding his face against Zayn's shoulder. Zayn patted him consolingly on the back.

"Come on; those girls I told you about want to talk about the Beatles," Zayn said. "We can go upstairs where Harry and Louis will definitely not be. You just use your really sincere face, and I'll take care of the girls."

"What really sincere face?" Liam asked, frowning.

"That one," said Zayn. "Perfect."

Liam sighed a little, but talking about the Beatles with a bunch of girls did sound a lot better than saying stupid things to Louis and Harry, so he followed Zayn upstairs through the crowd.

--

 

The girls were called Katie and Sarah and Sidika, and they had seen Liam playing at Nelson's at least twice. "You've got fans, mate," said Zayn. Liam wasn't sure how to deal with that, so he smiled and shrugged. They all ended up sitting on the floor of Sam's parent's room. Liam could hear Harry's band messing around with their guitars underneath all the people shouting and running through the halls.

"Do you sing?" Katie asked Zayn, and he shook his head and looked down and it was all so completely ridiculous and put-on that Liam almost laughed at him.

"He does," Liam assured them, and then they all wanted him to sing something and Liam got a chance to make fun of Zayn, which was a nice switch. "He's just terribly modest, aren't you?" He elbowed Zayn in the side.

"Oh, well," said Zayn, looking mostly at the floor, with the pouty, distant, shy look he had perfected whilst Liam was revising for his GCSEs. The girls cooed at him. It was hilarious.

The band started playing loudly. All Liam could make out was the bass line and a noise that was meant to be singing. There was a general cheer from people downstairs.

"Why aren't you playing?" Sidika asked Liam, putting her hand on his leg.

"Oh," said Liam, and then, "Um," and "It's not really my party, I suppose? I barely even know Sam." There wasn't really room for him to move away from her. Zayn had Sarah mostly in his lap, and he was sitting so close to Liam that Liam couldn't move that way, either.

"Hello!" shouted Niall, appearing in the doorway. "I've found cupcakes!"

"Yes, please," said Liam, scrambling up a little rudely. Zayn said something but Liam pretended not to hear, stepping over Sarah to get to Niall. "Let's eat them somewhere… somewhere else?"

Niall scrunched up his face at Liam with hilarious dubiousness, then shrugged at Zayn. "Here," he said. "Pink icing."

"Right," said Liam, "cheers."

"I'm starving," Niall groaned, eating half of his cupcake in one bite. "I was trying to convince Sam to order a pizza."

The hallway was crowded and loud and people were drinking and shouting and running back and forth. Someone nearly knocked Liam's cupcake out of his hand. "Just one pizza?" said Liam. "What'll everyone else eat after you get done with it?"

"I'm a growing boy," said Niall happily. "Can I have yours?"

"You just had your own," Liam grumbled, but he handed his cupcake to Niall. It hadn't really ever been for him anyway.

"Hey there!" said someone behind them, and Liam turned only to find himself nose-to-nose with Louis. Louis smiled at him, and it was just as disconcerting as it had been before. Liam's stomach did a strange flip and he edged backward a step or two. "You left your cider," Louis said, offering Liam the can.

Liam's brain had absolutely stopped. It didn't make sense that he was seeing Louis upstairs when Harry was downstairs singing. Also, he'd run through several hundred different scenarios of what he'd say if he were ever forced to talk to Louis, and now they were all missing, presumed too stupid to actually say. Maybe Louis was just looking for Zayn? That at least would make a little bit of sense.

"It is yours, isn't it?" Louis asked, holding the can up. He looked a little tentative.

"Zayn is in the bedroom," Liam blurted.

Niall rolled his eyes. "Yeah, it's his, cheers," he said, taking the cider out of Louis's hand. "He's already drunk, sorry."

"What? No, I'm —" started Liam. Niall stepped on his foot and it occurred to Liam belatedly that claiming to be drunk would save him from sounding like an idiot.

Louis grinned. It was so friendly; why was he being so friendly? "I thought it was funny you helped set up and then ran off. You're not… I mean, Zayn's hanging out up here, right? But you should come and hear the band."

Liam's brain just kept telling him that Louis was looking for Zayn, in the absence of any other logic. "He is, he's in there with some girls," Liam said, nodding toward the bedroom.

Louis frowned a little.

"He'd love to hear the band, he's a big fan," said Niall, giving Liam a shove toward the stairs that almost sent him tripping into Louis. Liam gave Niall a really stern glare, which Niall grinned at. "Aren't you?"

"I can hear them from here," Liam said.

For a second Louis's expression changed to something a little… Flatter? Liam didn't know him well enough to be able to guess what he was thinking. "I can get you a good seat. I know the band," Louis offered, and then he winked.

He winked. Liam laughed, more startled than anything else. He didn't even know Louis; there was no call for him to go around winking at people. Especially not Liam, who was discovering that his up-until-now hypothetical crush was an actual horribly real crush that made him feel slightly ill. Liam wondered if Louis would think he was really strange if he just made a run for the door.

Louis clearly took Liam laughing as encouragement, because he said, "Come on," and tugged on Liam's sleeve. Liam started to freeze up because seriously, what was happening, but Louis had grabbed him with the express purpose of pulling him down the stairs.

Liam looked back over his shoulder, trying to give Niall a look that would say clearly This isn't funny, and, Is this some kind of prank? and What is going on? Niall just grinned and stuffed the cupcake into his mouth and didn't follow them.

Niall was disowned, or whatever you did for best friends who betrayed you. "Look out, make way, step aside!" said Louis, shoving his way through the crowd. People laughed and moved, and Liam found himself being towed along until they were at the couch, right next to where the band were playing. Louis found a spot to sit down, somehow, crowded between a girl Liam vaguely recognized from school and a boy who Liam had definitely played football with once. "Sit down!" Louis shouted over the band, but Liam couldn't see anywhere that wasn't already twice as full as it should have been so he just shook his head and laughed again and crossed his arms.

Harry and his band sounded as good as a bunch of teenagers playing in someone's living room possibly could; Liam tried to listen and concentrate but he was distracted and he kept accidentally looking at Louis instead of at Harry. If Louis turned out to want to talk to Liam, Liam was going to have to pretend he hadn't spent the last year collecting random facts about Louis from other people's conversations. It would be pretty horrifically embarrassing to accidentally say that he knew Louis's favorite chip shop in town, or that he knew Louis had a bunch of younger sisters. Liam had gone out of his way not to talk to Louis, ever, avoiding a couple of times when he might have had the opportunity, and now he was…

Well. Louis looked up at him with an encouraging sort of grin and Liam smiled back out of reflex, and Louis leaned over and patted Liam's leg, which was the closest thing at hand for him. It still made Liam feel like he was jumping out of his skin.

The band finished up on a triumphant, and insanely loud, chord, and Harry shouted, "I need a beer, be back in a few!" There were cheers and some clapping; Liam clapped, because he was polite, and because they sounded really decent. The crowd that had been standing around the living room surged forward a little, to chat to the band, and Liam tried to step out of the way.

It didn't really work, because Harry immediately shoved through all the people to throw himself on Louis's lap. "Get us a beer," said Harry.

"Can't. Got a lump of boy on my lap," said Louis. "Liam, would you get this lazy bastard a beer? And me as well." He put his fingers in Harry's sweaty hair and began petting him.

"Yeah," said Liam, "of course." He wasn't very good at making conversation, but he could be helpful. He had to elbow his way through a load of people who all wanted to talk to Harry – and by extension Louis – to find where Niall's friend Roger was standing guard over the beer. Saying "Niall's friend" was a bit of a misnomer, though, because Niall considered himself friends with every single person he'd ever met in his entire life, and was perfectly comfortable talking to any of them about anything.

"Really?" Zayn asked, appearing out of the mass of people. "You're getting two beers?" He'd lost all the girls somewhere, but presumably he'd be looking for them again later.

"Louis asked me to," Liam said helplessly.

Zayn started laughing. "Ohhhhh, did he?"

"You take them to him," Liam said, trying to shove the bottles at Zayn, but Zayn held his hands up and shook his head.

Getting back through the crowd without spilling anything was tricky. Liam didn't especially want to shove through, but he also couldn't imagine himself not bringing beers back when he'd been asked for a favor. "Let Liam through!" Louis hollered, and some of the kids magically moved aside. It was amazing.

"You didn't get one for yourself," said Harry, giving him a little nod of thanks. He flipped his hair out of his eyes and one of the girls from Liam's form giggled and had to clap her hand over her mouth.

"No, I don't drink," Liam said.

Louis frowned at him. "I thought Niall said you were drunk?"

"I… Oh," said Liam. "Well. I could be drunk on life?"

"Could be," said Harry agreeably. He was still getting a scalp massage from Louis's free hand, and he leaned back into it, closing his eyes. Some of the girls from Liam's school definitely began giggling again. Liam wasn't sure what to make of it; everyone knew that Louis-and-Harry was a thing that happened, and as far as Liam knew no one entirely understood it.

A light bulb in one of Sam's lights fizzled and cracked, dropping half the living room into darkness. There was a gasp and then a cheer. "What the hell?" Louis said.

"Probably we overloaded a circuit," said Liam. The band had brought an awful lot of extension cords and power strips with them. Liam wasn't entirely certain that light bulbs and power strips ran on the same circuits, but it was possible.

"S'not a proper house party until we ruin some stuff," said Harry.

"And if all the lights went out, we'd be delighted," said Liam. He snickered a little at himself.

Louis gave him a look that was absolutely incredulous. "What?"

"Sorry, I… It's a pun, you know. No lights. Delighted." Liam laughed at himself again self-consciously. "Sorry, that was awful."

"A pun," Louis echoed, eyebrows raised.

"It was awful," said Harry gravely, and then laughed, which made Liam feel a bit better. Harry leaned in, whispering something in Louis's ear. Or possibly… kissing him? It was hard to tell from Liam's angle and when Liam whispered to his friends he didn't do it by looking so much like he was nibbling on their ears.

One of the other members of the band began playing again, and everyone in the living room cheered. Louis cheered, too, and shoved Harry off his lap. He gave Harry a smack on the arse as well, and then grinned cheekily at Liam, who had no idea why he was being grinned at.

--

Sometime later, when the band was done and nearly everyone in the house was drunk and loud and dancing in the front room or groping upstairs or passed out on the floor somewhere, Liam managed to track down Niall and Zayn. Niall was chatting to a bunch of people in the kitchen as if they'd all been friends for years, and Zayn was slightly drunk and entirely rumpled, with lipstick marks all over his neck.

"You were having fun, weren't you?" Zayn asked teasingly, wrapping his arms around Liam's neck.

Liam had spent most of the evening grateful it was too loud for Louis to try and say anything to him over the band playing. Even now that Sam's stereo was booming through the house it was too loud to hear much of anything.

Liam could feel his cheeks going red, but he shrugged it off. "No," he said. "I just… I was just stood there, wasn't I? It was awkward."

"You could have talked to him," said Niall.

"No," Liam repeated.

Niall made an incredulous face at him, but Zayn just leaned in and kissed Liam's neck. Liam laughed and tried to shrug him off. "Our little boy, all grown up," Zayn said, in his imitation of his aunts' accent.

"Oh for Christ's sake, Niall's drunk, can we take him home, please?" Liam asked, trying to squirm away from Zayn. He enjoyed how much his friends loved him, but people were staring, and Zayn tended to just get louder and louder.

"I'm not drunk!" Niall said loudly, and nearly walked into the wall.

They couldn't get through the crowds of drunk people in the living room without nearly running down Harry and Louis. They both looked wasted, Louis whispering something to Harry with his arm wrapped around Harry's neck, and Harry throwing his head back and laughing. Liam bit his lip and tried not to stare.

"Where's my coat?" Niall demanded.

"You didn't bring one," said Liam. "You can take my jumper if it's cold."

"Is it cold?" Niall asked, blinking owlishly at him.

"Not really, no," said Liam. He glanced over at where Louis was drunkenly leaning into Harry. Harry had his arm round Louis's waist, mostly holding him up while he talked to a blonde girl. "Um," said Liam.

"What?" Zayn asked. He'd given up on having both of his arms around Liam's neck, but only because it stopped him finishing his cider.

Liam tried really hard to sound as absolutely neutral as possible, but Zayn was drunk and probably wouldn't remember anyway. "Harry and Louis," said Liam. "I know that's what they do, but…" He trailed off, hoping Zayn would know what he was saying.

Zayn looked thoughtful. "I dunno," he said. "I mean, there are all those stories about Harry and half the girls at his school, and Harry and that teacher, and I think there was a thing with Louis and a girl for a while? But… I mean… I shouldn't say this, I suppose, but I definitely heard the two of them were seen snogging at a gay bar." Zayn held his hands up, sloshing cider on Liam. "Probably not, I mean, we haven't even got a gay bar in town! But I definitely heard about that from loads of people."

Liam's heart sank a little bit. Louis and Harry were holding hands, fingers linked together, drunkenly giggling at something someone else had said. It wasn't at all unusual behavior for Harry and Louis. And Zayn knew all the best, most recent gossip, so he was probably right. Liam had thought for half a minute that Louis had seemed… Well. Friendly. Possibly unusually friendly. But Louis was friendly with everyone. He laughed at something the girl Harry was trying to impress said, and then shouted something and everyone laughed.

"He's just a really friendly person," Liam said, mostly to himself.

Zayn gave him a one-armed hug and used his other elbow to start shoving Niall toward the door. "He is really, really friendly," Zayn agreed, "but I think he was being especially friendly with you. So that's something. You made a friend!"

Liam tried to imagine himself being friends with Louis and spending loads of time with him. It just seemed like it would be endless opportunities for Liam to embarrass himself. Spending all night smiling at him like an idiot hadn't actually made Louis seem any less charming or funny or insane. Liam had vaguely hoped that actually talking to Louis would change how ridiculous Liam felt about him, but… Mostly he just felt ridiculous in an entirely new way.

"S'not so bad as all that," said Zayn, staggering down the front step after Niall. "Cheer up, Liam."

"I'm cheerful," said Liam. He caught Niall before he fell entirely on the grass, both arms around Niall's chest, and hauled him upright again.

"Cheerful like The Cure," said Zayn.

Liam shrugged. He didn't feel tragically sad, just resigned. "You guys made me come to this party," he pointed out. "Worked out exactly as well as could be expected."

"Better," said Niall, flailing a little. "You've given us a load of things to make fun of you over."

"Oh, well," said Liam, "good."

--

Nelson's café wasn't anything very special, but Nelson let Liam play his guitar there over the weekend. Mostly no one listened, but Zayn stopped by to stand around looking soulfully at whatever women wandered by, and Niall often came by to eat baked goods. Mostly it was just Liam, though, and that was all he really wanted. Just the chance to play music and sing and get better.

He was playing Here Comes the Sun for a mostly-bored audience of two children who'd been left to watch him while their mum bought cake. That didn't bother Liam, he didn't mind them throwing Lego at him and shrieking, but then Harry walked into the shop and Liam missed a chord change.

Mostly it was because Harry gave him one of his sly grins and waved, and then sat down at the café to listen. It was weird. Liam started to think about that for just a moment and then stopped, because he couldn't think about what Harry was doing there and also play songs. Not even songs he'd been playing over and over since he'd got his first guitar. Liam ducked his head and let his fringe fall in his eyes as he stared at his hands changing chords, and managed not to miss any other words or chords.

Harry was the only one clapping at the end. Neither of the children seemed particularly impressed. Liam gave him a little smile and hoped he'd go away, but he didn't. Harry said, "When you get a minute," and then pulled out his phone and began texting. Liam didn't know what that meant, exactly, and he looked around for Zayn, but Zayn didn't seem to be anywhere around. Liam wasn't sure what else to do, so he started playing and singing Yesterday instead.

He finished that one and Zayn still hadn't reappeared, and Harry hadn't left. The kids got carted off by their mum, and a couple of girls from school came in. They mostly ignored him, which Liam was used to, but he was feeling unsettled anyway and it was just discouraging enough to make him stop after a couple of bars of Imagine.

Liam preferred to just rip plasters off anyway. He put his guitar back in the case, wiped his slightly sweaty palms off on his jeans, and sat down next to Harry. "You wanted something?" he said.

Harry didn't look up from his texting. "Yeah," he said. "One minute." Liam craned his neck, trying to work out where Zayn had vanished to. He hadn't seen any other girls come in, so Zayn shouldn't have vanished into a dark corner or the toilets with them. "So," said Harry, pocketing his phone. He smiled at Liam again, lazy and toothy and entirely too charming.

"Okay," said Liam agreeably, because he had no idea what Harry wanted.

"You sounded good," said Harry, nodding toward Liam's guitar. "You're here a lot? Zayn said you do this nearly every weekend. You get paid?"

"No," said Liam. "It's just for fun. For practice."

"Practice is fun?" Harry asked incredulously. "If you don't get paid you must get girls, right? Loads of girls?"

Liam glanced up reflexively at the girls who'd walked in, and they were definitely looking his way, but he was relatively certain that was because he was talking to Harry. "Not as such," he said. "Usually I've just got Niall and Zayn. I like getting to play, I suppose. I don't much care where."

Harry looked puzzled at that, and a little sleepy, but Liam was learning that Harry's default expression looked a little sleepy. "But the girls aren't bad, either," he said.

"Well," said Liam. "If they want to come by I don't mind."

Harry laughed at that, throwing his head back. "'Course you don't," he said. "When are you done here? You should come and hang out at ours."

Liam bit back the urge to say, What on earth for? "Just two musicians hanging out?" he joked instead, because he was entirely out of his depth and when he was entirely out of his depth he made terrible jokes or he lectured people.

"Well, Louis'll be there as well," said Harry with a shrug. Liam nodded as if he should have known that, and he probably should have; Harry and Louis were always together. "You're funny and you like music. Most of the people in this village are dead boring."

Liam laughed. It was just such a ridiculous thing to say. Liam was dead boring, especially compared to Louis and Harry. But Harry looked pleased to have made Liam laugh, so Liam didn't say Are you joking? Or You must be taking the piss. "Really?" Liam asked, half expecting Harry to say no.

"Of course," said Harry. "Are you finished?"

"I could be," said Liam.

"If you aren't getting paid I don't think they can make you stay, can they?" Harry asked.

That was a good point. But a better point was how utterly unready Liam was to spend time hanging about with Harry and Louis. "Let me just find Zayn," he said.

Zayn was outside having a smoke, as it turned out. "Hey, you shouldn't smoke," said Liam. "Harry wants us to go over to his house and hang out for a while." That was a bit of an oversimplification, but Harry was standing right behind him, and Liam couldn't think of a nice way to explain things otherwise.

He was counting on Zayn laughing or saying, "No way," so he'd have an excuse not to go, but Zayn just stubbed his cigarette out on the pavement and nodded. "Cool," he said. "Shall I call Niall to grab some drinks to bring along?"

"Definitely," said Harry.

Liam must have looked a bit panicked, because Zayn put his arm around Liam's shoulder. "Relax," he said, leaning in to whisper. "It's just lads hanging out. Best case, you can get to know them, eh?" He laughed a little and bumped Liam with his hip. "Worst case, they ask you to do some weird threesome shit and I'll pretend you've got an emergency at home." He clapped Liam's shoulder reassuringly.

Harry was giving them a mildly suspicious look, but Liam was fairly sure he hadn't heard that. And that Harry and Louis weren't going to invite him to a threesome. Liam wasn't honestly positive what he'd do if they did. Stutter until he passed out, probably. "Sounds great," Liam lied, smiling at everyone. Harry smiled back and flipped his hair out of his eyes. Liam was entirely confused by his life.

--

"I like you lot," said Louis loudly. "You're weird."

Harry's house was the poshest place Liam had ever seen in his life. Harry had a pool. No one had a pool. There was Harry's proper house, and then another little bungalow down the lane, where the pool was, and apparently no parents or anyone to stop them all sitting around outside drinking and being idiots.

Niall laughed. "You, callin' other people weird. Classic."

Louis attempted to look indignant at that. Everyone laughed. "A lot of people think my weirdness is charming," Louis said.

"'Course they do," said Zayn, saluting with his beer. "Whatever you say."

"Charming like a tumor," Harry drawled, and then giggled, and Louis jumped on him and… Well. It looked a lot like he was biting Harry, and Liam didn't know them well enough to be certain if that was an actual bite or a play bite or just the weirdest kind of making out he'd ever seen.

Louis shoved Harry off his chair and sat up. "We should jump in the pool. Who wants to jump in the pool with me?"

It was fairly warm out, but not hot enough to warrant jumping in the pool. And the sun was starting to set, which was going to make it even colder. Still, it sounded like fun.

Liam must have looked like he was considering it, because Louis grinned. "Liam'll come with me, won't you?"

"I…" said Liam. He was the sort of person who jumped in pools when someone dared him to; Liam liked doing mildly stupid things. But he was absolutely not going to jump in a pool with Louis while everyone else watched. "I will if Zayn and Niall come."

"I don't swim," said Zayn.

"He means he doesn't know how," Niall explained. Zayn pouted at him. Niall laughed. "And he means he doesn't want to get his hair wet after he spent hours getting it just perfect."

"Shut up," said Zayn, throwing an empty can at him.

"I could teach you," Liam said. He'd been trying to teach him to swim for years.

"Or he could just go in the shallow end where he can stand around and not get his lovely hair wet," said Louis dismissively. "Harry?"

"Yeah, of course," said Harry, shrugging.

Liam looked at Niall. He knew Niall would think it was hilarious to say he wasn't going and then try and bully Liam into going himself, but if he did that Liam was going to sneak into his house and murder him in his sleep, never mind their years of friendship.

Niall said, "Of course I will, can't let you go in and drown by yourself. You still owe me from last time I saved—"

Liam groaned. "Oh god, not again. Shut up. I'll drown you."

"I want to hear this story," said Harry, leaning forward.

"It's not much of a story—" Liam started.

"Not except for the part where I rescued you and saved your life!" Niall hollered.

Liam put his face in his hands and shook his head.

"See, when I first moved over here Liam was getting bullied by these kids at school. But then—"

"It wasn't that big a deal," said Liam. "I was just getting bothered a bit by older boys on my way to school, and one day Niall happened to be with me and he went completely mental at them—"

"They were making him cry, and I punched one of 'em right in the face," Niall interrupted with great relish.

"—and after that they left me alone." Liam sighed. Zayn was already laughing and Harry was starting to giggle. For about the millionth time, Liam thought about getting new friends.

"And I kicked the other one in the jewels." Niall grinned. "They never bothered you again, did they?"

Liam sighed. Louis just about fell over laughing. "I wasn't crying," he said, with absolutely no hope of being believed. "One of the boys had shoved me over and my knee was all bloody."

"The thing to keep in mind," Zayn said, "is that as short as Liam was, Niall was about half that size. God, I wish I'd been there."

"That is the loveliest, loveliest thing I've ever heard," said Louis, pretending to wipe tears out of his eyes. "The bonds of true friendship!"

"Yeah, well," said Liam, punching Niall in the arm. That wasn't the story that Liam ideally wanted Louis told the first time they hung out. Liam sounded like an idiot and a wimp, and he didn't want Louis picturing him at primary school with bigger kids making him cry. He strangled Niall a little harder than was strictly necessary.

"Brilliant," said Louis. "So if I ever need defending I'll come straight to you, Niall."

Niall puffed himself up a little bit, posing with his arms flexed. Liam tickled him under his ribs and Niall squeaked and batted his hands away.

"Absolutely ferocious," said Liam.

"Tougher than you," Niall retorted.

Louis stood up and stretched. Liam tried to ignore the way his shirt rode up, and then didn't have to worry about that anymore because Louis pulled his shirt off entirely. "Are we going in the pool or what, boys?" Louis had rather more defined abs than Liam had been expecting. Not quite a six-pack but… Not quite not one, either. Liam stared for just a second and then dragged his eyes away to something safer, like Zayn smirking at him.

"Yeah," said Zayn. "After you."

Harry looked at them for a second and then shrugged and pulled his own shirt off. Louis had his trousers off, as well, which meant Liam had to turn and look the other way entirely or risk embarrassing himself in the most obvious way possible. Liam tried to concentrate on taking his shirt off and not think at all about words like almost naked and wet. Except that they were all about to be almost naked and wet, and then Liam was going to be in a lot of trouble. At least if anyone noticed anything he could drown himself.

"Pants on, trousers off?" said Louis like a question, like they were all going to decide to get naked instead. Liam could have done with trousers on as well, but walking home in wet trousers would have been pretty awful. He tried not to look nervous, or anxious, or turned on. Especially not that last one.

It wasn't as bad as he'd feared once they had all jumped in the pool; Harry and Louis were busy trying to drown each other, and Zayn was genuinely trying to stay mostly dry while Niall splashed at him. For a while Louis chased Harry around the pool and Harry tried to hide behind Liam, who ended up unwillingly caught between Louis and Harry trying to drag each other under the water. Liam's vague plan of avoiding Louis as much as possible wasn't an option, so he went with his second; treat Louis exactly the way he would if he were any other friend.

Louis ducked under the water, caught Liam by the ankle, and attempted to drown him. Liam managed not to kick him in the face, but only just. When Louis surfaced Liam shoved his head right back under the water in retaliation. Louis came up again coughing and spluttering and with a look that promised vengeance in his eyes, but Liam just laughed and tried not to notice how good cross looked on him. Thank god Liam's crush wasn't bad enough to make him accidentally blurt that aloud.

"Watch out, Payne," said Louis, pointing at him.

Liam laughed again and splashed him. Louis spluttered in outrage, hair sticking up in every direction. Liam could do this; he could play with Louis as if Louis were just anyone. It helped that Harry was right there, giving Liam an approving look. He wondered how Harry would look at him if he knew what Liam was thinking about Louis being nearly naked and grabbing at him in the pool.

"Nice one!" shouted Harry gleefully, and Louis dived under the water and took off after him again, grabbing Harry and dragging him under. Liam ducked out of the way. His plan was only going to work if there wasn't quite so much groping going on whilst they were all mostly naked. Liam was going to have very vivid things to think about before bed tonight.

Zayn had already pushed himself out of the pool and was sitting on the edge. "You great baby," said Niall witheringly. Zayn shrugged and shook his hair out of his eyes.

"Arr!" shouted Louis suddenly. "Avast! Yarrrrrr! I'm a pirate!"

"You're an idiot," said Harry, but he sounded fond. They were touching each other rather a lot as they swam, or pretended to be swimming. Harry's hands vanished under the water and Louis shouted indignantly and grabbed at him, and there was a lot of splashing and possibly groping. Liam found the water cold, suddenly, and decided to get out and go sit with Zayn instead.

Zayn gave him a considering look. "What?" asked Liam.

"Nothing," said Zayn after a minute. "I could go for a smoke." He bumped Liam with his shoulder in a friendly sort of way, and Liam sighed and then smiled at him. His friends weren't entirely terrible. Sometimes they were pretty great.

Harry and Louis and Niall caused a small tsunami in the pool that nearly splashed Liam and Zayn. Zayn ducked behind Liam.

"Volleyball!" shouted Harry. "Niall's on my team!" He had a net to set up across the center of the pool, and a couple of volleyballs floating around at the far end.

"I've got Liam; he's tall," yelled Louis.

Zayn held up his hands. "I'm not getting back in the water," he said. "I'll keep score."

"Boo," said Liam, giving him a little shove. "You should play."

"Then the teams would be uneven," Harry objected.

"No, because Zayn's so lousy at sport he'd probably hurt his team anyway," Liam said. Zayn pushed him into the pool.

--

Louis wanted to make a bonfire they could all huddle around to dry off, but they couldn't find anything to burn. Harry wouldn't let Louis burn the furniture – "Not again," he said darkly, giving Louis a look – and so they ended up sprawled around on the sofa under a mess of blankets. Niall was shivering so Liam pulled him closer and put his arm around him, and Niall put his head on Liam's shoulder.

"This is cozy," said Louis, grinning. "All of us cuddled on a couch."

"S'nice, yeah," said Zayn, in his too-cool-to-be-impressed voice, which always meant he was impressed.

"I can't believe how posh your house is," said Liam.

"Not my house, my stepdad's house," said Harry. There were all sorts of food scattered around the place. Harry looked at a bowl of fizzy sweets consideringly, then picked one up and threw it at Liam.

"Cheers," Liam said. "Whoever's house it is, it's ridiculous."

Harry shrugged. "Did you bring your guitar? Can I play with it?"

"You don't know how," said Louis, but Harry wasn't waiting for Liam's permission, he was already grabbing it. Harry hadn't put his trousers back on, and Liam didn't miss that Louis seemed to be staring at his arse when he leaned over.

Well. Liam tried not be noticed noticing that. "Nice of you to have us over," he said instead.

Niall laughed, mouth open and half-full of crisps. "Don't mind Liam; he always sounds as if his mum has just yelled at him for not being a good enough boy."

"I do not," said Liam, but Zayn laughed, too.

"At least one of us is a civilized person instead of a wild animal," said Louis in a fake-prim voice.

"Yeah, but he gives you these looks when you swear," said Niall, still giggling.

"Or smoke," Zayn chimed in.

"I can handle a look or two," said Louis. He leered outrageously at Liam, who laughed because it was still so startling to have Louis's full attention on him. Liam tried not to blush or look too embarrassed. He was still hoping Louis wouldn’t notice how awkward Liam felt around him.

Harry was messing about with Liam's guitar. He played a C chord, and then a D chord, and then an absolutely terrible F. Liam winced. "I can show you how to do that," he said.

Zayn burst out laughing. "See?" he said.

"What? No, that was not me having manners, that was me saving all of our ears," Liam objected.

Niall poured the rest of the packet of crisps into his mouth. "S'just Liam being Liam," he said. "And you all know what happens when anyone fucks around with that."

"I'm not ten anymore," said Liam, rolling his eyes. "And anyway, who—"

"Right?" Niall said, right over the top of him. He gave Harry a weird, stern look, and then glared at Louis.

"Yeah, yeah," said Harry. "Liam, come and show me that chord."

Something odd was going on, but Liam wasn't great at working out what Niall was talking about most of the time anyway, so he shrugged and went over to help Harry instead. It was cold without the blanket; Liam was wearing his shirt and jeans again, but his arms were still clammy and his hair was still dripping down the back of his neck. He'd straightened his hair that morning, but it was drying into a mess of damp curls. Anyway his feet were still bare, and the floor of the bungalow was cold. Harry was warm, though, even mostly naked. Liam sat down on the floor next to him and showed him a better way to do the bar for the f chord. As long as there were things to do – and Louis stopped grabbing Liam, and grinning at him, and winking, and touching and all of it — Liam could totally hang out and enjoy being friends with all of them.

--

Harry's band got offered another gig, a proper gig at a bar. "That's amazing," said Liam about a hundred times.

Harry gave him a tight smile and looked a little ill. "You're all coming, right?" he said. "The bar doesn't check IDs."

"Niall knows the barman, anyway," said Zayn. "And Liam doesn't drink 'cause he's only got one kidney."

"You said that last week, so I looked it up. He could," Louis interrupted. Everyone turned to look at him, sprawled on his back on Harry's floor. "I did research."

"Why would you do that?" Liam asked, pulling a face at him.

Louis pointed sternly. "I'm going to get you drunk, Payne. You better brace yourself."

All Liam heard was Louis telling him he wasn't very fun, which was true, but mildly painful. "No, but—"

"How did you research that?" Zayn asked, looking up from his phone.

Louis looked proud of himself. "I googled it. And then I asked his mum."

"What? How on earth did you ask my mum?"

"You look so horrified," Harry giggled.

"I have my ways," said Louis loftily. "I ran into her in Asda. She looks just like you, and she is glad you're making friends."

Liam groaned. "Well, it doesn't matter, because I don't like drinking," said Liam. "It's not good for you, anyway, and it's loads of extra calories. It dehydrates you, that's how you get hangovers anyway—"

Louis threw a pillow at him. "Shut up. Stop trying to spoil all my fun."

"It's tragic, what you do to your body," said Liam, in his most deliberately sanctimonious voice. Zayn groaned and Niall booed. "All of you! Binge drinking leads to all sorts of health complications and –"

Louis growled and tackled Liam off the couch, which was maybe what Liam had been secretly deliberately aiming for.

--

Niall and Zayn and Louis had been to the bar where Harry was playing loads of times, but Liam had managed to avoid it every time he was invited. It was dark and the floor was sticky, which was strangely horrible. It wasn't crowded, at least, since it was still early. Liam tried to imagine himself up there on the stage and thought it looked exciting.

"I can't," said Harry, looking pale. "I absolutely can't."

"I'll get you a beer, mate, it'll be fine," said Niall. He shouted to the barman, who grinned and shouted back.

"I just absolutely can't," Harry said again. He looked at Louis with big pleading eyes, as if Louis were going to be able to cancel the gig without anyone being disappointed.

"It's going to be fine," said Liam. "You sound really good, I've heard you."

Louis shook his head. "Awful," he said. "You're absolutely terrible. I've never seen someone with so little charm. I've got a bag of ear plugs just so I won't have to hear you."

"Shut up," said Harry, a little grumpily.

"Terrible," Louis repeated. He balled up a napkin off the bar and threw it at Harry's face. Harry glared at him. "Miserable," said Louis, throwing another napkin. "You should probably go and kill yourself—"

"Stop it," Harry huffed, batting Louis's hands away from his face. Louis yanked on one of his curls and Harry yelped in outrage, slapping at Louis.

Liam had a pretty good idea where this was going, so he moved their glasses out of range before Louis tickled Harry and Harry's flailing covered all of them in cider. Louis seemed to ramp up his goofiness when Harry needed distracting.

"I'm going to stand up the front and boo!" Louis yelled. He was throwing everything he could get his hands on – ketchup packets, napkins, Zayn's mobile – at Harry. The barman, who was practically the only person there, gave them both a disapproving look. Louis threw a spoon at Harry and nailed him right in the side of the face. Harry made a strangled noise and lunged at him. Louis threw his arms up in victory and then fled across the bar, with Harry hot on his heels.

The barman was still giving them dark looks, as if he were about to kick everyone out. "Sorry," said Liam quickly, picking the napkins and silverware up off the floor. Niall and Zayn laughed at him a little, but it mollified the barman. Liam was pleased to feel useful. He expected to be pulled onstage to help the band set up their amps any moment, as well.

Harry chased Louis into a dark corner of the bar and something went on. Liam couldn't see clearly from where he was, and anyway he wasn't really trying to. Zayn clapped him on the shoulder and said, "I think they're just chatting? That's what Louis does. He gets really stupid when Harry gets nervous."

"I can think of other ways he could be calming Harry down," Liam said, and then bit his lip guiltily. Whatever they were doing wasn't his business.

Zayn laughed. "Yeah, it might be that, too." He craned his neck a little, trying to get a better look. "Honestly, I can't tell if that's whispering or kissing. You'd be better off if you just said something, y'know. Find out what's going on, so you can jump him or move on."

"I can't," said Liam, appalled. "That'd be rude. And… And anyway, I don't care, it's fine."

"Liar," said Zayn, draping himself over Liam's shoulders.

Louis jogged back over. "That's sorted," he said. He gave Liam and Zayn a quick, funny look, and then got a drink off Niall. "Harry's feeling a little better. If you're ever stressed, you come straight to me, I'll sort you out."

Liam couldn't imagine a situation in which Louis was the calming force, rather than the one making him panic. "Right," he said.

"I mean it, Liam. Anything." There was a second when Liam thought maybe Louis was serious, that he really meant it, and then Louis grinned and threw a coaster at him.

Harry's band ended up sounding fine, and Liam spent the entire performance watching Louis watch Harry with stars in his eyes

--

 

Somehow Louis and Harry invaded Liam and Niall's regular football matches after school. (Matches was a generous description; generally it was Louis and Niall running around and passing the ball back and forth while Zayn checked his text messages and complained about being bored.) They quickly found that it didn't work at all if Louis and Liam were against Harry and Niall – Harry and Niall were playing for fun, but Louis and Liam were playing to win. It seemed to be the only time Louis really took anything seriously.

Louis was clearly unprepared for Liam to score against him as often as he managed, and every time it happened Louis would give Liam this look, like he was amazed and impressed and promising retribution at some point in the future. It made Liam feel shivery, but he ignored that and grinned and just laughed and went on with the game.

Whenever that happened Louis took great pleasure in "accidentally" tackling Liam. Liam ended up with loads of bruises, but he couldn't honestly pretend he minded having Louis jump on him. Anyway, Liam weighed more than Louis, and if he ever had really wanted not to be knocked over and given a face full of mud, he could have stopped him.

It was fun, though. Zayn hated getting dirty, and Niall didn't have the temperament to get really competitive. Harry liked to play but got bored if he wasn't winning, or pouty if he didn't get to score often enough. Louis, though, wanted to smash a goal every single time he got the ball, wasn't a sore loser, and didn't mind if he got knocked down.

If Liam had been making a list of qualities he wanted in a hypothetical boyfriend, those would have been near the top. But then Louis would tackle Harry and rub their muddy noses together or lick Harry's cheek until he cried from giggles, and Liam would put his imaginary list away again and try not to think about it.

--

The first time Louis bit Liam he had no idea what to do. Liam had got used to Louis sprawling all over him if they happened to be sitting next to each other, and he had got used to Louis sneaking up behind him and poking him in the side, or grabbing his hand, or ruffling his hair. It was strange and it made Liam's heart stop beating for a minute every single time it happened, but it was just Louis being Louis. He did the same to Harry and Zayn and occasionally Niall.

But there was an afternoon when they were all at Harry's stepdad's bungalow again, and Liam was showing Harry how to finger a couple of chords – "Fingering!" said Niall, and then giggled for the rest of the afternoon – and Liam was concentrating really hard and didn't notice Louis coming over to stare at the two of them.

"Oi," said Louis, but Liam didn't look up, because usually he was talking to Harry, and anyway Liam was distracted. Harry still wasn't quite getting his little finger in the right place. "Stop ignoring me," Louis said, a little bit louder.

"You'd better—" Liam started to tell Harry. And then suddenly Louis darted over, grabbed Liam's shoulder, and bit him on the neck.

It stung a little bit, but Liam was so honestly floored that he didn't react at all. He sat there frozen, mouth slightly open, staring at Harry as if Harry would be able to explain what Louis was doing. Louis dug his teeth into Liam's shoulder and sucked hard for a second. Then he sat back on his heels looking smug.

Liam put his hand on his neck mostly out of reflex. He was still staring, and he couldn't remember how to breathe. His jeans were uncomfortably tight suddenly as well, which was embarrassing.

Harry fell over giggling. "I think you killed him, Lou."

"No, I – I just – What was that?" Liam said. His voice was a little squeaky, maybe, but he'd just got assaulted. It was allowable.

"That'll teach you to ignore me," said Louis.

"But I wasn't—"

"And now you'll have to explain why you've got a love bite on your neck for the rest of the week. Don't ignore me, Liam, or you'll pay the price."

Liam couldn't get his mouth to close, even though he knew gaping wasn't a very attractive look. Niall burst out laughing and even Zayn was laughing behind his phone.

"But… But I wasn't ignoring you, I was just showing Harry something," Liam said. His brain had got stuck on the idea that if he just explained things reasonably everyone would nod and understand and Louis somehow wouldn't have just sucked on his neck.

"Well, don't show things to Harry, show things to me," said Louis.

"You're such a twat," Harry laughed, throwing a pillow at Louis. "Not everyone likes getting jumped on."

Louis pulled a face at him. "I waited until I was reasonably sure he wouldn't run away! And anyway, I'll show you," he said, and threw himself on Harry. Liam moved out of the way of all the flailing and kicking feet that ensued.

Niall was still laughing. "Amazing. You should see your face! Just amazing."

"He bit me!" Liam said. He felt like some kind of sympathy should have been in order, or at least for someone to explain to him how he ought to feel about it.

"So he did," said Zayn seriously, but he was making fun of Liam, too.

"How'm I going to explain this to my mum?" Liam asked. "And at school! I can't just say 'Oh, Louis Tomlinson bit me.'"

"I think you should say exactly that," said Louis, giving up on tickling Harry to death. He sat up and flipped his hair out of his eyes. "I marked you. Everyone should know it."

Liam bit his lip, hard, so his voice wouldn't crack and he couldn't accidentally blurt anything embarrassing. He needed really badly to adjust his jeans, but he couldn't, because Louis was looking at him. I marked you and everyone should know it rattled around in his head, making it hard to concentrate or breathe or do anything but stare at Louis's mouth, and that wasn't part of Liam's plan to respect whatever weird thing Louis and Harry had going on. His chest hurt from trying not to react too obviously.

Liam waited for the conversation to go back to plans for the weekend – Harry wanted to catch a movie, Louis was pushing for making a prank video – before he made his slightly awkward excuses and fled.

As it turned out his parents pretended not to notice the shockingly red mark on his neck, but his sisters laughed themselves sick. Liam ignored them with great dignity, went upstairs, locked his bedroom door, and thought about nothing but Louis's mouth for the rest of the night.

--

The next time Louis bit Liam it went slightly better, although Liam still panicked and froze and didn't know what to do. Zayn waited a beat and then leaned over and bit Liam's neck on the other side. Louis yelled, "Hey, you're stealing my bit!" Zayn shrugged, and then the two of them play-fought over it for a few minutes while Liam recovered the ability to breathe.

The third time Liam managed a shrug and a fake-casual, "Well, that's another love bite from Louis Tomlinson." Louis beamed at him. Liam had no idea why.

Louis biting him remained a frequent topic on the list of things Liam thought about at night with his bedroom door locked. It was also Niall's very favorite thing to tease him about, mainly because it made Liam blush so hard.

--

 

Liam was in town after school doing errands for his mother when he ran smack into Harry. He literally ran into him; Harry was staring off into space and Liam was checking his texts.

"Oops," said Liam, and then, "Hey!"

Harry grinned at him. His grin always looked a little sly. "Fancy seeing you here. Have you seen Louis? I'm supposed to be meeting him."

"I've been buying nappies and tea cakes," said Liam.

"Why, Liam!" said Harry. "Have you got a secret lovechild? That would be amazing."

Liam laughed. "No, just a niece. Ruth and her boyfriend had a big fight and she's staying with my parents, so we've got a baby in the house, and I'm the only one who had time to shop today."

"Then you definitely deserve a break. Come and eat with me. If Louis misses us then that's his own fault. He probably pranked someone and is getting beaten half to death for it. Serves him right."

"I thought you liked his pranks," said Liam. He had every intention of telling Harry he needed to get home, but then instead he followed Harry into Starbucks. Liam didn't even like Starbucks.

"Louis's pranks and I have broken up since he decided to duct tape me to a fence," said Harry. "I got him back, though. He's sore in so many places he won't be able to sit down for a week."

Liam managed not to trip over his own feet, but Jesus; he really didn't need to know what Harry and Louis got up to. It made him feel guilty for thinking about Louis at all. "Well," said Liam. "Right."

Harry asked, "What would you like? My treat, I dragged you in here." And that was another reason to feel guilty; Liam liked Harry. Harry was surprisingly nice, incredibly funny, and horribly cheeky. "Frappucino?"

"Ugh, no; those are all sugar," said Liam. "Just a coffee, I think. I've got an essay to write tonight when I get home."

Harry gave him a funny look. "Are you really planning on university and everything? Why don't you spend more time trying to get gigs? That's what you really want to do, isn't it?"

"But I can't just drop everything else and figure it'll all work out," said Liam. "It's all down to hard work, isn't it? I can study music technology and then—"

"Oh my god," said Harry. "Liam, relax." He ordered something complicated at the counter and a couple of cookies. The girl working there asked for his name. Harry gave her a funny look and said, "Justin Timberlake." Liam laughed. She rolled her eyes at them, but wrote it on the cup anyway.

"Anyway don't you want to do music, too?" Liam asked.

Harry shrugged. "I'd like to. But I mean. I get nervous." He pulled a face at himself.

The girl making coffees said, "Two lattes for… Justin Timberlake? Ha ha."

"Don't laugh, he's the next big thing," said Liam. He bumped Harry with his shoulder and nodded at him. Harry grinned.

It was surprisingly easy to sit around with Harry and talk about absolutely nothing. Liam said, "Thanks a latte," and Harry made a pained face and kicked him under the table, laughing. Harry had a tremendously charming laugh – Liam tried not to think about how much Louis probably really enjoyed it. Harry waited until Liam had a mouthful of hot coffee and then leaned over and muttered in Liam's ear about the tits on the woman at the next table. Liam nearly choked.

"You're terrible," said Liam, sounding more impressed than he meant to. Harry smirked at him so Liam reached over and messed up Harry's curls. Harry laughed and slapped his hand away, trying to poke Liam's cheek.

The girl behind the coffee counter was giving them a nasty look. Liam dropped his hands guiltily to the table and offered her an apologetic smile. It had become his part-time job, mollifying people who were annoyed by Louis or Harry or all of them being loud and breaking things.

"We'll corrupt you yet, Payne," said Harry, clearly pleased with himself, and offered him half a cookie.

--

It just kept happening that Liam would run into Louis or Harry in town, and then they'd all end up hanging out together. Liam wasn't entirely sure what Louis and Harry got out of it, but the five of them always had a good time. It was fun, if a little strange, having suddenly doubled the number of close friends he had.

"Have you got the notes for General Studies?" Zayn asked hopefully, hooking his chin over Liam's shoulder.

"I have, but not for you," said Liam, trying to shrug him off. Zayn had dragged Liam out of the house to come to the chip shop and meet Niall, and Liam had a performance piece due for his music course. Liam didn't even really like chips.

"Don't be ridiculous; you love me," said Zayn. "Hey, Louis!"

"Thought I saw you lot here," said Louis.

There were a group of kids who always stood around outside the chip shop, or sometimes Asda, and half of them waved to Louis. "Nice one last week!" someone shouted, and Louis grinned. Liam had watched that video. Louis had set a load of frogs free at a little girl's birthday party in the park. It was awfully funny because her brother had started to cry over the frogs, while the girls had mostly thought they were great. Obviously Louis being hilarious and sweet was a terrible problem for Liam, especially now that Liam was spending so much time with him trying not to notice Louis's smile.

"Niall's inside getting food," said Zayn. Louis nodded in an of-course-he-is-way and went inside, too.

"Anyway I couldn't take notes, because I was getting texts from Jenna," said Zayn, as if Liam had a list of objections instead of just a general feeling that Zayn copied his work too much. "She's been out with Darren but she texted me a picture with her tits out, so I think I'm probably doing okay there."

"She did not," said Liam, mildly aghast. Zayn took out his phone and showed Liam what was certainly a picture of someone's tits. "But why would she do that?"

"Dunno," said Zayn, shrugging. "I'm a friendly sort of boy, I suppose. She won't go out with me this weekend, though; says she can't fool around behind Darren's back. I'm changing my Facebook status to 'It's Complicated."

"She can't fool around behind his back but she can send you naked pictures?" Liam was sure he looked very dubious and disapproving, exactly the way Zayn and Niall were always mocking him for.

Zayn grinned too widely, a play-grin for when he was fooling around. "I didn't ask her to, did I? But if she sends me boobs it'd be rude not to look."

"Oh, would it," Liam started.

Louis bounced out of the chip shop holding a massive pile of chips. "Quick!" he shouted. "I stole these from Niall!" He made a funny hooting noise and ran down the pavement. A moment later Niall came tearing after him. Niall couldn't figure out how to tackle him without spilling the food everywhere, though, and they ended up shouting and chasing each other round a bench.

Zayn leaned in and shook his head, close enough that his hair brushed Liam's cheek. "I can't believe that's what you've got a crush on, mate."

Liam started to try and explain, but he's so funny and he doesn't care what anyone thinks and have you seen his smile? but he suspected Zayn wouldn't appreciate any of that. Liam sighed instead. "No," he said. "Me neither."

--

Liam didn't deliberately decide to avoid anyone; what happened was he had an essay and an exam scheduled for the same week, and then more the week after that, and one of his teachers had taken him aside to ask why his marks were slipping lately. They'd never been spectacular, but now they were on their way to terrible. (The answer was that he was spending a lot more time hanging out in chip shops and a lot less time at home by himself with the computer. Liam didn't say that.) And of course that teacher had called his parents, and Liam was getting a lot of worried looks at home, which meant he needed to ace everything. He wanted As in all his subjects anyway.

The upshot was that he missed a night out with the lads, and then another one, and movies with Harry on Saturday, and football with Niall and Louis, and the entirety of whatever saga was going on with Zayn and at least two different girls at the moment. He knew it was going on because Louis kept sending him texts – Zayn sez he got another pic of jenas boobs r u mad? – that were just barely informative enough to let Liam know he was missing something vital. Niall called a couple of times to threaten Liam's life if he didn't come out with them, but Liam was genuinely busy.

"Don't worry, I'll have Friday free this week," Liam said over and over, while secretly wishing that he could spend Friday sleeping, because he was exhausted from revising and writing essays and trying to text enough not to be a completely terrible friend.

"If you don't come out with us Friday I'm coming and dragging you out!" Louis yelled at him on the phone. It was weirdly flattering, but Liam was tired and just said, "Right, of course," and ignored it.

Then on Friday, of course, there was a family emergency, and a family emergency trumped all of Liam's other plans. Actually 'emergency' was too strong a word; everyone was busy and had plans that couldn't be cancelled except for Liam. "You don't mind babysitting, do you Li?" his sister Ruth asked, and Liam couldn't very well say, But I was going to go lie around on Harry's couch and watch terrible movies whilst staring at the boy who I am fairly certain already has a boyfriend.

"No, it's fine. I have homework," said Liam, which was true. And anyway he liked his niece. Liam had been roped into babysitting her loads of times. It had never been much of an issue before, since he hadn't really had anywhere else to be.

"You're the best," said Ruth, and ran off to the hen party she had completely forgotten to plan a sitter for. Liam shrugged and looked at baby Stella, who gave him a considering look and then crawled off to find her dinosaur toy. There wasn't really anywhere she could go, since she couldn't climb steps yet, and the living room had been baby proofed by his parents, so Liam mostly went back to revising and trying not to fall asleep on the couch before the baby did. That would have been embarrassing.

Niall called an hour later. "Where are you? We're waiting on you for Fast and Furious!"

"Oh," said Liam, "I texted Zayn, did you not get it? I'm stuck at home watching Stella."

"Why didn't you tell your sister you had plans?"

"You can watch movies without me," said Liam. Stella began making cranky noises on the floor and he picked her up. "Say hi to Niall, Stella."

There was a lot of rowdy shouting in the background. Liam was honestly sorry to be missing it. "Is this –" Niall dropped his voice to a whisper. "Are you trying to avoid Tomlinson?"

"What?" Liam said too loudly, and Stella squirmed and made half a sobbing noise. "No! Why would you say that?"

"I dunno, you're still a bit weird around him. And you've been busy all the time lately."

"I've got my exams coming up. So have you," Liam said pointedly.

Niall sighed. "I just think, either you manage to be proper friends with him and stop being such a mess, or you sack up and just say, 'Lou, I think you're pretty like a girl, let's hold hands and twirl in a field.'"

Liam snorted. "What a brilliant plan. I am being proper friends with him."

"Not if you're ditching us!"

"It was a family emergency, this isn't my fault."

"Still. What's wrong with just offering to suck his cock? I think he'd like that."

Liam nearly dropped the phone, and then he nearly dropped the baby, trying to catch it. "Niall!" he hissed. "I'm holding a baby!"

"And she doesn't speak English yet, does she? For Christ's sake—"

"He's got Harry for that," Liam blurted.

There was a pause.

"You reckon?" Niall said finally.

"Yeah," said Liam. "I mean, Zayn thinks so. Everyone thinks so. I don't know if it's an official thing or just… Or just them being them, but… I mean… He's got Harry, so. I'm not… I wouldn't want to…"

"Yeah," Niall said heavily. "I see your point. I still think, though, if you offered the worst that would happen is he'd say, 'Nah, thanks anyway.' And then you'd know."

Liam shook his head and then remembered Niall couldn't see him over the phone. "I like being friends with them. I don't want to make it awkward."

"You're always a bit awkward, mate," said Niall, but not in a mean way. "You'll come out tomorrow then, yeah?"

"Well, I shouldn't—"

"Tomorrow, Payne, or I'm coming to get you," said Niall, and hung up.

Stella squirmed and wiggled and threw her head back to cry. "Don't do that," said Liam. "How about a snack? Would that help?" She didn’t appear swayed, but some slices of apple and a handful of Wheatabix helped her calm down to just sniffling sadly and looking at the door. "Your mum'll be home in a bit," Liam lied. Stella was too little to understand him anyway, but he suspected a hen do probably lasted rather later than a baby stayed awake.

His phone rang again. Liam sighed. He really had wanted to do a bit of revising. "Yeah?" he said, trying to distract Stella with her dinosaur, but she just pushed it away and began crying.

There was a pause. "I thought you were lying," said Louis's voice. "But that does sound like a baby."

"S'my niece," said Liam. "Stella, say hi. Say hi, Stella!" For some reason that made her wail and kick her feet in an absolute fury. "Sorry, normally she's quite friendly, but tonight she's not having a good time."

"So it's just you and Stella?" Louis asked. Niall was shouting something in the background, and then Zayn said something else and it sounded a lot like Louis closed a door.

"My sister's got a hen do, and her boyfriend is out of town. My parents are at an anniversary party, and no one lets my other sister babysit. So," said Liam. "Anyway, I don't mind. I like Stella. Er, normally." She had a bubble of snot in her nose at the moment, and furious baby tears streaming down her face. Not Liam's favorite look for her.

"It sounds like you're murdering her," said Louis.

"It's fine, I'll put on her Peppa Pig DVD and she'll calm down," said Liam. "That usually works."

"Usually?" asked Louis.

"I hope it does. I don't really know what else to do."

Louis laughed. "You sound like an ace babysitter."

"I'm the emergency back up," Liam admitted. "Definitely being called up from the reserve team."

"Hmmm," said Louis, and then he hung up. Liam stared at his mobile for a second, wondering if the call had been dropped, but Louis didn't try and call him back again. Liam shrugged and decided it was just Louis being his weird self and went back to trying to calm Stella.

She didn't want any of the snacks and she wasn't interested in Peppa Pig. Liam changed her nappy but it didn't help. He ended up walking back and forth through the living room singing to her and hoping that she'd eventually fall asleep. Normally she liked Liam's singing but tonight it wasn't helping much at all.

He was seriously considering calling Ruth and demanding she just come home and sort Stella out herself when the doorbell rang. Liam had no idea who could be coming by so late and didn't really plan to answer it, but then there was a knock and Louis's voice yelling, "I can hear the baby crying! Open the door, Liam!"

Liam had a moment of complete confusion about what was going on, so it was understandable that he walked over, opened the door, and said, "What?" He expected it to be one of Louis's prank videos, maybe with Niall and Zayn and Harry jumping out from behind the door to shout, "Surprise!" Then presumably they'd pull Liam's trousers down or throw eggs at him. Liam's brain caught up a second later and told him that his friends would definitely not do those things. Especially not while he was holding a baby.

"My poor little darling," said Louis. He put his bag down and reached out for Stella. Liam let Louis take the baby because he didn't entirely know what else to do. Louis walked in to Liam's house as if he came there all the time, bouncing Stella and murmuring things to her quietly. Liam stared for a moment, then closed the front door.

"Hello," said Liam uncertainly.

"Was Liam being very mean to you, pet?" Louis asked, kissing Stella's cheek. She took a deep, trembling breath, getting ready to scream. Liam winced in anticipation. Louis kissed her nose very gently and pulled an absolutely ridiculous face at her, and Stella blinked at him with wide eyes. She seemed to have forgotten to shriek. "There's my darling girl," said Louis. He pulled another funny face and stuck his tongue out at her, making silly soothing noises. Stella was looking at him wonderingly, as if he were the strangest and best thing she'd ever seen.

Liam imagined he was looking at Louis with much the same expression.

"It's so nice to meet you, Miss Stella," said Louis. He puffed out his cheeks and made more silly noises and she giggled, reaching for his face. "There, I knew you were a good girl, really," Louis said, bouncing her a little.

Liam would have thought Louis would probably drop a baby, or pretend it was a toy, or be horrified by the crying or something. He was usually so ridiculous. Only obviously he knew exactly how to use that ridiculousness with a child. Of course he did. It wasn't enough for Louis to be pretty and funny and charming and clever. If Louis had secret depths of sensitivity and maturity Liam was going to have to kill himself.

"Oh my god," said Liam, mostly to himself. He felt like the floor had dropped out from underneath him. It was as if Louis had come over just to make sure Liam was a complete mess for the rest of his life.

Louis shot Liam a quick grin. "Babies love me," he said, "and it sounded like you needed some help."

"I need some water," said Liam dazedly. He walked into the kitchen and held on to the work surface for a minute, to stay entirely upright. He was honestly hurting over how much he liked Louis. It ached everywhere, like Liam had gone twenty rounds with the Hulk and lost every one.

"Can I have a glass as well?" Louis asked.

Liam blinked and took a deep breath. He was not at all certain he could talk to Louis at the moment as if Louis were just another friend, and he didn't want to be the jerk who screwed everything up for everyone. Harry was his friend. "Yeah," he managed. "Of course." He got two glasses and filled them up without spilling everything everywhere, even though it felt as if his hands were shaking. He'd even schooled his face into something like a normal expression by the time he walked back out. "So you heard Stella crying and just thought you'd stop by?"

"It does seem like you needed my help," said Louis. Stella was clutching his shirt with both hands and giggling while he pulled faces and cooed at her.

"And… Babies love you?" Liam asked.

Louis shrugged. "I've got four little sisters. You've seen me with two of them in town, the twins."

"I didn't realize you… I mean, I knew you had sisters," Liam said. This was not the time to betray himself as a stalker who'd been collecting information about Louis for months.

"Mum works and someone's got to look after them," said Louis. "That's why I'm taking a gap year."

"Oh," said Liam. Apparently his stalking needed work. He knew Louis had already finished school but he'd just thought Louis wasn't really interested in university. Or at least that he wasn't interested until Harry could come with him.

"I don't mind, I've still got loads of time to hang out. Mostly they need me to make lunches and make sure everyone gets to school on time and stay home when someone's ill. Easiest job in the world. Mum'd be lost without me, though." Louis sat down on the couch, bouncing Stella on his knee. She giggled and chewed on her fist. "Maybe I won't do university anyway. Maybe I'll get a job. That might be more help."

Liam bit his lip. All the questions he could think of were awfully personal, and this was a quieter, calmer Louis than he'd ever seen before. He sat down next to Louis, but not too close. "What kind of job?"

Louis shrugged. "Dunno. I could get a job in a shop somewhere. I could sell stuff, right?"

"I'd buy anything you offered," said Liam honestly. Louis quirked an eyebrow at him and Liam looked down at his trainers.

Stella had settled against Louis's shoulder. "I could hire myself out as a professional babysitter," Louis offered, with a crooked little grin.

When Louis grinned like that it made Liam's chest ache more. "Or as a party clown," Liam said.

Louis laughed. "I could do," he said. "I'd have to learn to tumble or make animals out of balloons."

"I think it'd come naturally to you," said Liam. "Shall I put her to bed? Thanks for calming her down. You could go—"

"Oh, she's not asleep yet, are you, sweetheart?" Louis brushed Stella's cheek with his thumb. "We could watch a movie or something. Maybe not Peppa Pig?"

Liam had forgotten that was still on, he was so distracted by Louis. "Oh," he said. "You don't… Weren't you going to watch every single Fast and Furious movie with Harry and Zayn and Niall?"

"I'm like Batman," said Louis. "I go where I'm most needed. What have you got?"

Liam didn't know what to do with all these breathless, squirmy, awful feelings he was having. "Er," he said. "That's appropriate for Stella and us? Wall-E, maybe?"

"Do you like movies about the end of the world, Stella?" Louis asked the baby in his high-pitched cooing voice. "Sounds good to her."

It occurred to Liam suddenly that his living room was full of baby toys and the couch was covered in notes and books and he had no idea how to entertain Louis if he decided to stick around. "Shall I… Are you hungry? We have apple slices and…"

"No junk food?" Louis asked, laughing. "No, of course you don't have that."

"You should eat less crisps," said Liam.

Louis elbowed him. "You should eat more crisps. Anyway, it's fine. I'm not hungry. Put the movie on."

Liam scrambled to move his papers and highlighters aside and make a little space for Louis to kick his feet up on the coffee table. Stella made a sad little noise as if she were going to start crying again, and Louis held her up over his head, pulling faces and laughing at her. Liam laughed, too; underneath all the aching in his chest Louis made him feel light and a little giddy. Louis shot him a quick look and a grin and then went back to making funny noises at Stella.

"She's normally not like this," said Liam. He sat back down on the couch and picked up the remote to start the film. Louis threw his leg across Liam's – Liam tried not to freeze up, Louis did that all the time – and moved Stella so she was sitting half on each of their laps.

"She's a princess and an angel," said Louis, ignoring the way Stella was still sniffling slightly.

"She's not, but I love her anyway," said Liam. He picked up the cuddly dinosaur and made it dance back and forth, trying to ignore the warm weight of Louis's leg across his own.

--

Stella fell asleep, but Louis didn’t seem inclined to move. He made a bunch of terrible jokes about the movie and Liam was so tired he couldn't do anything but giggle and roll his eyes. He was leaning on Louis a little bit, but it wasn't his fault; Stella was lying across both of them.

Liam didn't realize he was dozing, too, until he was abruptly cold because Louis had moved. "Sorry," Louis whispered, "I'm just putting Stella down. Has she got a cot somewhere?"

"I can—" Liam said, but he was half-asleep and Louis shook his head. "Through the kitchen," Liam said. Louis vanished with the baby and Liam tried to work out if he'd been drooling or snoring or anything on Louis's shoulder.

The movie was nearly over when Louis came back. "Are you going to go?" Liam asked. Honestly, he was still a little confused about why Louis had come over in the first place, and when he thought about it too hard it made his chest hurt.

Louis managed to smile and frown at the same time, somehow, as if Liam were a really fun but confusing puzzle. "Should I?"

"I just… The boys'll have beer and better movies that aren't cartoons," said Liam. "I ought to revise."

"You wouldn't really on a Friday night, would you?" Louis asked.

Liam bit his lip. "Actually, I'd probably just fall asleep on the couch."

Louis laughed. "Then if it's all the same I'd rather stay. I'm knackered."

Louis was never tired, no matter how much crazy running around he did with Harry, but Liam didn't especially want to argue. "Okay," he said. "I mean… Should I put something else on?"

"I will." Louis poked through the DVDs beside the television. "Why on earth have you got North and South and three different versions of Pride and Prejudice?"

"I've got two older sisters," said Liam.

Louis snorted skeptically. "You probably sit around watching it and imagining yourself as Margaret Hale. You quite enjoy lecturing people."

"I don't," said Liam.

Louis assumed a silly voice. "Harry, you are clearly not a gentleman; put your trousers back on!"

Liam tried not to giggle and couldn't help himself. "So I'm proud but poor and Harry's a misunderstood factory owner with a crazy mum?"

"Aha!" said Louis, pointing. "I knew you'd watched it."

"Well, so have you!"

Louis ignored that clearly salient point. "I should have known you'd be all about brooding heroes with dark eyes and furrowed brows. I mean, look at Zayn."

"He'd be a terrible industrialist. He'd show up late and then fall asleep."

"Still, you'd swoon." Louis sounded oddly annoyed. "I'm putting on Dr Who. That's alright, isn't it?"

"Depends on which doctor," said Liam, not sure what he'd done to annoy Louis. "Who's your favorite?"

"The Fourth Doctor, of course," said Louis. "But I suppose I'll settle for Nine. Billie Piper, eh? The Doctor knows how to pick a companion."

"Yeah," said Liam, who preferred Donna. "Okay."

Louis settled in next to him on the couch. He didn't look annoyed anymore, at least. After a minute he leaned over and put his head on Liam's shoulder, and Liam very carefully didn't react to that. "I could be a bad wolf," Louis said, but it didn't really seem to mean anything so Liam didn't answer.

After a few minutes, Louis kicked off his shoes and wiggled around so he was lying on the couch with his head resting on Liam's thigh. Liam inhaled sharply and then reminded himself that he was being absolutely ridiculous, and also if he didn't keep calm it was going to get really awkward having the back of Louis's head so near his dick.

Louis was unconcernedly watching the television still, though. "So," he said suddenly. "Zayn. He's not here."

Liam frowned. "He's with Harry and Niall, isn't he? You can go back over there if you'd like."

"Stop trying to make me leave, Liam. I feel very unwanted." Liam laughed and Louis grinned up at him. "Anyway, Zayn ditched us for some girl. Why is he always off with girls?"

That was fairly unsurprising news. "Girls are, like, his hobby," said Liam, shrugging.

"But he always comes home to you?" Louis suggested.

Liam laughed. "It's complicated, I guess. That's just Zayn. He's been like that since we were kids. Actually, he used to be really shy around girls, it was adorable."

"Hmm," said Louis. That seemed to be the end of it for a minute, and then Louis very deliberately turned his face toward Liam's knee and bit Liam's thigh.

Liam yelped and jumped and nearly knocked Louis off the couch. Louis sat up, laughing at him. "You almost gave me a black eye!"

Liam's heart was pounding so hard it felt like he might actually die. "You… you bit me," Liam said. His voice cracked. He'd got used to Louis biting his neck, but Louis biting his leg, biting his thigh, made him feel like he'd been struck by lightning. Everything tingled and his lungs seemed too small.

Louis smirked at him, eyes still laughing.

"You're always biting me," Liam complained. "I don't see why."

"Because you blush," said Louis. Liam automatically put his hand on his cheek to see if it was hot. Louis burst out laughing again.

"Shut up," Liam grumbled. He had to look away from Louis's face and take a couple of deep breaths. He'd nearly got his heart back to a normal rate instead of a furious samba, and his jeans were uncomfortable but not obviously so.

"It's cute," said Louis. That didn't help.

"That doesn't make any sense," Liam said. He was probably blushing again. "You could be drinking with Harry and you're here babysitting and biting me instead. Does that seem logical? Really?"

"I can drink and bite Harry any time," said Louis carelessly. "And I like babysitting, obviously. It's practically my job."

Liam wished he could ignore the way Louis took Harry as a given. "That's really nice, that you stayed home to watch your sisters for your mum," he said instead.

Louis shrugged and went quiet again. "Honestly, after dad left, there was a while when she just couldn't do it herself. I wasn't going to run off and leave her."

"That's really amazing of you," said Liam sincerely.

Louis gave him a funny look, as if he thought Liam were kidding. "It's my mum and my sisters. What else would I do?"

The last little shred of Liam's heart that had been attempting to hold steady against the constant onslaught of Louis crumbled. Liam was made up entirely of terrible, painful feelings about things he couldn't have. This quiet version of Louis was so different, so almost-delicate, that it made Liam hurt for him a little bit. He wondered who got to see Louis like this besides Harry. He wished it were him.

Liam tried to stuff all those thoughts down by concentrating on how Louis looked at Harry, and touched Harry, and Liam's resolve to be friends with both of them no matter what. Harry made Louis happy, and Louis clearly needed more things that made him happy.

Liam couldn't help himself. "Really," he insisted. "You're amazing."

"Oh, Liam," Louis sighed. "Don't say that." He leaned forward as if he were suddenly intently interested in Doctor Who and Liam frowned at him but didn't say anything else. After a minute Louis began joking around again, asking Liam about who he'd marry, shag, or kill from all the Doctor's companions. Liam laughed – he'd marry Sarah Jane, definitely, which Louis thought was hilarious – and Liam managed to mostly forget about being bitten and Louis's strangely sad faces sometimes.

--

Liam heard his father saying, "Well, that was awfully nice of you."

"No," said Louis, "it was no trouble."

That wasn't right. Liam was sure that wasn't right. His father didn’t know Louis, for one thing.

"It was still very sweet," said Liam's mum.

"I didn't have anything else to do. Anyway, Liam's always looking after us."

Liam's parents laughed, and it occurred to Liam that he could open his eyes and figure out what was going on. He hadn't realized they were closed, was the problem. Liam struggled to actually wake up, blinking sleepily and trying to work out how he'd ended up under a blanket on the couch.

"Oh hello, sweetheart," Liam's mum said. She and his dad were standing in the doorway still clad in their nice coats, and Louis was beaming at them with his hands in his pockets.

"I fell asleep," said Liam, and then felt like an idiot. As a statement it was pointless, and as a question he'd already answered himself. "Sorry, I… I don't remember falling asleep."

"It was just before Captain Jack showed up," said Louis. "Pity. All work and no play makes you a dull boy."

"Shut up," said Liam.

"Liam," said his dad chidingly.

Louis giggled like a naughty child. "Sorry, I was only teasing," he said, but Liam was just the tiniest bit stung. He was dull, compared to whatever Niall and Harry and Zayn were up to at the moment. He'd fallen asleep on Louis twice. He was always canceling plans to hang out and not showing up to parties or drinking with the boys. When Louis joked about it he probably wasn't really joking. "It was nice to meet you both," Louis said to Liam's parents. "And I'll see you tomorrow. Nelson's and then football in the park, yeah?"

Louis was out the door before Liam had time to come up with an answer, whether that would have been I'm too busy considering I just napped away my time to read or Yeah, of course.

"He seems nice," said Liam's mum, and one of her eyebrows went up like a question.

"I'm going to bed," said Liam. He folded the blanket up and put it across the back of the couch.

"It's nice you've got some new friends," said his dad, and Liam wasn’t imagining the slightly pointed emphasis on the word "friend," he was pretty certain.

"Good night," said Liam firmly. They beamed at him. Liam shook his head at them, said, "Ugh," and went upstairs to bed.

--

The next time Niall accused Liam of ditching them because he was trying to avoid Louis it was slightly true. "But it's mostly because I don't want to go to another house party," he said.

"Parties are fun," said Niall.

"Not if you don't drink. I'm always bored. I don't mind coming along to make sure you and Zayn get home safely but it's just going to be a whole night of watching Zayn try and get into Jenna's pants."

Niall was sprawled across one of the tables in their common room at school. "I think it's about Louis," he said. "You're worried he'll get drunk and you'll take advantage of him."

Liam laughed. "Sounds like me."

"Here's an idea," said Niall, perking up a little bit. "What if you pretend to get drunk and kiss him? And then if he freaks out and says he's dating Harry, you can say it was just a drunk joke."

"He knows perfectly well I don't drink," said Liam.

"You'd be pretending," said Niall.

Liam shook his head. He was fairly certain he couldn't pretend to be that drunk, first, and if he kissed Louis and then Louis just stared at him or apologized he would die. He would actually drop dead on the spot. Plus he'd never be able to look Harry in the face again. "I'm skipping the party," he said firmly.

Niall gave him a betrayed look. "You always skip all the parties. You'd have a better chance with Louis if you went, you know."

"That's – ouch," said Liam. "I know I'm not fun, or whatever, but—"

"No, shut up," said Niall, punching him in the arm. "I mean, because he's always there. Always. I swear I've never been to a party where he wasn't dancing on a table by the end. He likes parties! You could go and – you're not boring, Liam. At least, he doesn't think so. He wouldn't keep coming to play football with us or pouting when you don't come out if he thought you were boring. He just probably thinks you don't like the things he likes. But if you did—"

"He'd still have Harry," said Liam. It was a little difficult to swallow; his throat felt all clogged up. "That's not the point. He likes parties and I don't, so why would he want – I mean even if he didn't have Harry already – This is a stupid conversation, are you done? Shall we go and get some food?"

Niall never argued with food, even when he clearly wanted to keep arguing with Liam. He closed his notebooks that he hadn't really looked at. "A party now and then wouldn't kill you," Niall grumbled. "You could come hang out with me. You still owe me, don't forget."

"Ugh," said Liam. "Just because I'm not coming to this one party –"

"Or any party, ever!" Niall said, nearly a shout. Everyone else turned to look at them and Liam ducked a little.

"—Or any party, ever," Liam conceded, "doesn't mean you aren't still my best friend, so shut up or I'll sing Girls Aloud and get it stuck in your head again."

"I'll give you a dead arm," Niall threatened. Liam started humming Love Machine and dancing behind Niall. Niall threw a pen at him.

--

Louis rang just as Liam was getting off the bus with Zayn. "Hang on," Liam said, fumbling for his mobile. "Yeah?"

"Hi," said Louis. He sounded a little subdued, enough so that Liam stopped and frowned at his phone for a second.

"You missed a hell of a party last night," Zayn said, at the same moment Louis said, "I didn't see you last night."

"Are you okay?" Liam asked. Zayn looked at him, and Liam waved a hand, trying to explain that he was talking to Louis on the phone.

Louis sighed. "I'm fine. You're with Zayn right now? Sorry, I can call you back—"

"You don't sound fine," said Liam. Zayn had started texting someone, probably Jenna, so Liam didn't feel bad about ignoring him.

"No, I'm absolutely great," said Louis, in a pale imitation of his normal perk. "I just… I thought you'd come out last night and you didn't."

"Parties, drunk people…" Liam trailed off with a little shrug. "Niall and Zayn enjoyed it."

"Yeah. No, it was fun. It was a good time. Oh, hey, what if… Um. Can I ask you something?"

There was something a little bit strange about Louis's voice, and Liam's heart began pounding in his ears without his permission. "Of course," Liam said, trying to stop himself from sounding overly serious.

Louis laughed quietly. "Oh, I was just… You know what, never mind. D'you want to do something?"

Liam wanted to know what Louis had been going to ask him, but he couldn't think of a way to say so. "Uh, let me see if Zayn is busy," he said.

"No," said Louis, and then sighed. "I mean, fine, but… Maybe don't bring him? I thought it could be just you and me, hanging out."

There was absolutely no reason for that to make Liam's heart jump into his throat. And yet it did, and he needed a second when he ducked his head and his hair fell across his face a little bit so Zayn wouldn't see his expression. "Not even Harry?" Liam asked, joking but not really joking, and he couldn't tell if his tone was right or if Louis was going to instantly know that Liam was… well. Hopeful would have been close to the right word.

"Nah, definitely not Harry. Just you and me. Tonight, maybe? We could, like, go out."

Liam stopped breathing. He doesn't mean what you think he means, he told himself sternly, but there was something so weird and tentative about Louis's tone that Liam didn’t entirely believe himself.

"You can ask me anything, you know," Liam blurted. Zayn looked up from his texting, saw Liam's face, and both his eyebrow went up immediately. Liam was definitely blushing. He ducked his head again, turning away from Zayn as much as he could manage.

"Maybe I will tonight," said Louis, a little cheekily. Liam laughed. "I'll text you, yeah? Later."

Liam clicked his mobile off. His hands were shaking. "What?" Zayn asked. "Oh my god, what?"

"Nothing," said Liam. "I mean… Maybe nothing? I don't know."

Zayn copied all of Liam's homework, and he missed jokes now and again, but he was ace at reading Liam's mind. "Louis asked you out," said Zayn, absolutely certain. "Oh, wow."

"No! He… He just said he has something to ask me. Later. Uh. Alone." Liam's cheeks hurt, they were so red. He couldn't stop smiling, he felt absolutely stupid.

Zayn grinned. "Oh, did he? That's brilliant!"

"It's probably nothing," insisted Liam.

Zayn put his arm around Liam's neck and dragged him down so he could strangle him a little. Liam laughed. "You're gonna be so cute together," said Zayn, in his fake-crying voice. Liam elbowed him in the side and tried not to let himself get too excited.

--

Louis texted Liam the name of a little restaurant in town. Liam thought about maybe changing his clothes, wearing something nicer than jogging bottoms and a t-shirt, but immediately decided it was unforgivably girly to even consider. It wasn't as if Louis were going to be taking pictures of anything. Liam tried to do some reading for general studies and then gave up and spent a couple of hours looking at stupid things on his phone to kill time.

He was absolutely not nervous and his hands weren't at all sweaty when he finally headed off to see Louis. He was humming, though, and bouncing a little bit, and when he saw Louis standing outside, with the light from the restaurant behind him making his hair glow a little, and a big smile on his face, it was possible that Liam forgot how to breathe for a moment.

"Hey," said Louis. He had a really beautiful smile; it made Liam need to smile back at him all the time.

"Hi," said Liam, biting the inside of his cheek. He could already feel his cheeks getting hot. He was ridiculous around Louis. He'd need to work on that.

"I thought we could get dinner," said Louis, jerking his head toward the restaurant.

Liam didn't say, oh my god, is this a date? because he was fairly sure he should have known whether it was one or not. There was the lingering question of Harry, of course, but as much as Liam liked Harry he couldn't bring himself to want to talk about Harry at the moment. He wanted Louis to say, "Me and Harry are just good friends, and I was hoping you and me could go out," so badly that it made his hands clench up into fists.

"Liam?" said Louis, tilting his head with a funny, fond little smile. "Dinner?"

"Oh," said Liam. "Yeah, of course, yeah."

"You were a million miles away," Louis laughed, giving Liam's cheek a little smack. Liam shook his head and huffed in mock-indignation.

The restaurant wasn't really anything fancy, it was just a bit nicer than the shops where they normally hung out, but it had tables. Most of the people sitting around were definitely on dates, which Liam tried very hard not to notice.

"You know Harry's band's got another gig?" Louis asked as they sat down.

Liam was torn between being happy for them and realizing he was going to spend the rest of his life going to shitty bars to see his friends play. "That's great for them," he said. "They sound better every time I hear them."

"Do you ever write songs?" Louis asked. "I was thinking next gig he gets, the band could bring you along, you could play, too. Beatles covers are fine, but you must be writing things, right?"

"I've got original compositions for my A-Level," Liam said, pulling a face.

"Ugh, not that. Proper songs. You must have written some."

Liam shrugged. "I have. I don't know if they're any good, and anyway, Harry's band isn't big enough to need an opening act."

"They will be," said Louis. "If we could just get Harry to stop panicking over screwing up."

Liam loved Harry, but he didn't especially want to sit around at dinner with Louis discussing him. "I don't know why he gets nervous, he's always good," said Liam.

"The thing about Harry is he's really sweet," said Louis. "He wants everyone to get on and be nice to each other. He pretends to be bad, but really he's not. That's probably why you two get on so well. You're both really good people."

"I – Oh – what?" said Liam, trying not to color.

"Really," said Louis, reaching over the table and grabbing Liam's hand. Liam had got better about that, he didn't usually go absolutely stiff when Louis did that anymore, but tonight he didn't know what to do with himself. Louis was being unusually sincere and Liam's stomach felt like it was doing backflips. "I thought you were putting it on at first, that no one could be so honestly kind, but you aren't. That's just you."

Liam felt a lot like he was going to die. "Oh," he said again, because it looked like Louis expected a response of some sort. His brain had gone entirely off-line.

Louis grinned, and pretended like he wanted to smack Liam again. Liam ducked out of the way. "I can't stand it," said Louis. "It makes me want to corrupt you terribly."

Liam's breath caught in his throat again. "You — what?" he choked.

"I'd like to muss you up and get you dirty," Louis said, smile going wicked.

It was entirely possible Liam was going to drop dead right there at the table. "You could," he mumbled. "If you'd like."

Louis laughed. "I'm working on it! See, that's why I wanted to talk to you tonight. Without anyone else here."

For a minute Liam couldn't hear over the sound of his heart, as if all the blood in his body were rushing through his ears. He felt dizzy and a little ill. When had his crush started manifesting itself like the flu, he wondered, and would it be cured if he finally just got to tell Louis how he'd felt about him for such a long time? His pulse was going so quickly that his fingers were tingling and he was a little worried he'd forget to keep breathing and just keel over.

"I want you to help me prank Harry," said Louis. "It's going to be amazing. Normally he helps me with everything, he does the videos and whatever, but I really need to prank him and get it on tape, and I want it to be something awful."

It was so completely not what Liam had been thinking Louis would say next that it took him a minute to process it. "Pranks?" he echoed, feeling dim.

"Your idea of practical jokes is terrible, I've seen it," said Louis. "You could use the practice. You and me'll make a great team; you're so nice Harry'll never expect it. We can plot out something really awful. I wonder if I can make him cry on video. I'll make it up to him later, of course. I'm not a monster."

"Oh my god," said Liam. "You just want me to help you prank Harry." It was a fundamentally stupid thing to say, but Liam felt awfully stupid at the moment. He had the sensation that he was actually crashing through the floor, could feel the horrible plummet in his stomach as if he'd tripped and fallen.

"I don't think Zayn can keep a secret," said Louis, "and Niall'd give it away by giggling. But you should make an excellent henchman." He made finger guns and pointed at Liam.

A waitress came over and asked what they'd like to eat. Liam must have mumbled something because she went away again, but honestly he felt like if he ate anything he'd throw it up straight away. Louis went on with his plans for pranking Harry, animatedly waving his arms around and making noises to illustrate each step, and Liam tried to listen, but his brain was full of fuzzy noises like a badly-tuned radio.

The worst part was it was entirely down to Liam that he felt so terrible. Because Louis hadn't done or said anything, and Liam had started to… He'd let himself… Anyway, it was stupid, and he was an idiot, and every miserable feeling he was having was his own fault. Louis had been nice, but Louis was always nice, and Louis just wanted to chat about Harry, because of course Louis did.

Louis thought of Liam exactly how Liam had suspected; Liam was dependable, which meant dull. Liam didn't know how to do pranks properly, which also meant dull. Liam was just the guy who missed out on parties and could hold a video camera steady while Louis teased someone much more fun than Liam was.

Louis stopped halfway through a sentence to frown at Liam. "Are you alright?"

Liam nodded and tried to put on a smile. He didn't give himself any allowances for feeling sorry for himself, not when he'd worked himself up over nothing and then had to deal with the consequences. "I'm fine," he said. "What'll you do next?"

Louis looked doubtful, but went on. "Well, that's why I need the duct tape," he said. "Are you certain you're okay? You look a little… Weird."

At least he hadn't said anything. It could have been so much worse if Liam had actually said, "Is this a date?" out loud. Or anything, really. Liam was going to need a couple of days to deal with his disappointment and all these terrible, awful, painful feelings bubbling around in his stomach, and then he'd be fine.

Maybe he'd need more like a week. A week without seeing Louis smile at Harry, and a week without Louis jumping all over him.

…maybe a month. If Liam could manage a month without running in to Louis he was positive he'd be fine again. Completely able to carry on a normal conversation like typical friends. Maybe even able to deal with some of his dreadful jealousy of Harry.

Louis was looking at him, with his concerned face and his big eyes and his swoopy hair, and he was so attractive that it made the awful, crushing feeling in Liam's chest worse. Louis had these moments of stillness sometimes, when Liam could see that the goofiness and the silly voices were all just put on for other people's benefit, when Louis was afraid someone was bored, or wouldn't like him, or might be sad. Some of it was Louis's real restlessness, but so much of it was just Louis being generous with his attention and his energy, and the idea of Louis being kind at the moment made Liam positive he was about to throw up.

"I might have the flu," Liam said suddenly. Louis tilted his head and frowned quizzically. "Ruth had it, and the baby's got it, so… I might be getting ill," said Liam. He wasn't a fantastic liar, but he apparently looked as bad as he felt.

"Okay," said Louis, nodding slowly.

"I should probably go home, god, I don't want to get you ill, too," said Liam. He tried to stand up and push his chair in at the same time he looked for his wallet, and he ended up knocking the chair over instead, fumbling everything everywhere.

"Jesus, Liam, what's your problem?" Louis asked, getting up to help him. Louis's hands brushed Liam's and it felt like an electric shock. Liam recoiled, flinching like he hadn't since the first time Louis had unexpectedly bitten him. He banged into the table and their water spilled everywhere, drenching Louis's chair.

"Sorry, sorry," Liam said, but the more Louis was helpful the more Liam felt like he'd been kicked in the stomach. He wasn't going to cry, at least; that would have been really difficult to explain. "Tell me about the… About the prank later, yeah? I'm going to run home."

Louis looked disappointed. It was awful. "You've got food coming."

"No, I—Here." Liam grabbed a note without looking at it and shoved it on the table, then realized it was going to get wet and tried to pick it up again. He ended up with damp spots on his t-shirt and a soggy note and Louis staring at him as if he were an alien. Liam made himself stop and take a deep breath before he upended the table and Louis realized he was actually having a breakdown. "Sorry, here, this is for whatever I ordered. Just – text me about the prank. Or actually, don't. I don’t think I'd be very helpful, I'm not funny. I'm clearly not the person you should have help you with this. Get Niall to do it, he's hilarious. He'd be better. He's a much better choice, really, overall." Liam clamped down on his tendency to start babbling and lecturing when he was upset. "I'm going home. G'night."

"Liam, what on earth is wrong with you?" Louis asked, still half-teasing.

Liam tried a smile, tried a shrug, and came away feeling even more like he'd fallen out of a plane without a parachute. He knew he looked like an absolute crazy person, running out before dinner even started, but he couldn't sit there in a restaurant surrounded by couples on a date, and look at Louis all night. He just couldn't. Liam turned on his heel and fled, leaving Louis shaking his head curiously behind him.

--

It would have been fine, Liam believed, except Niall and Zayn decided to surprise him by popping by at an odd hour the next day. Liam had successfully avoided them by actually bunking off school for once. He faked being sick and stayed in bed straight through until his mum shouted, "Liam, the boys are here!" She hadn't really believed he was ill anyway.

He went downstairs and tried to paste on a happy face for Zayn and Niall. Niall immediately blinked at him suspiciously. It was terrible, having friends who knew you so well, and also Liam was aware he didn't lie very well. And then Zayn elbowed him and grinned and said, "Well? Was it amazing? Did he kiss you? Did you skip school to hide the hickeys?"

Niall said indignantly, "Why wasn't I told? I'm supposed to be told about these things!" They both looked at him expectantly.

Liam had a double problem; that he couldn't fake being happy very well, and that he was an idiot who had set himself up for disappointment. "It was just Louis wanting to chat about Harry," he said, shrugging one shoulder and trying to smile.

Zayn dragged him onto the couch. "But… He was all mysterious."

"No, I just misunderstood him. Can we talk about something else?"

"Hang on a mo," said Niall. "He asked you out to dinner to talk about Harry? That's fucked up. Was it like, an invitation to a threesome?"

Liam was a little worried his mum could hear all this from the kitchen. "No," he said. He made himself smile because none of this was Louis's fault, so it wasn't fair to say anything. It was slightly more painful than the time he'd fallen out of a tree, though. "How was school today?"

"If it wasn't a date why did Louis want to talk to you alone?" Zayn asked. He frowned. "Was he just being a jerk?"

"No," said Liam, a little more forcefully than he needed to. "Louis's not a jerk, I'm just an absolute idiot. He wanted to play a prank on Harry and have me help. Can we drop it, please?"

Zayn leaned around him to frown at Niall, who also looked a bit annoyed. "That's pretty shit," said Niall. "Acting like it was a big deal and then having it be nothing."

"He didn't – He wasn't –"

"I mean, let's face it. He knows you fancy him. Sorry, Li, but it's seventeen kinds of obvious," said Zayn. He sounded genuinely apologetic, which didn't especially help. Liam wished he were dead. "It's all over your face. Just like right now you look miserable."

"If he's just fucking with you, I'll punch him in the face," Niall said. "I've done it before, you know."

The idea that Louis knew was so awful that Liam sank right back into the misery of the night before as if he were realizing all over again. "No," he said unconvincingly. "He just… He wanted to talk pranks because mine are crap, obviously, and he wishes I were more fun. It's not—"

"Did he say that?" Zayn demanded.

Had he? Liam remembered him saying something like that. "Sort of?" Liam settled on. "Not in a mean way. I'm just… I'm not his type, anyway, and maybe he did know I… That I… I mean, maybe he was just letting me know that he doesn't fancy me. That's fine, I knew that, I knew about Harry."

"I'll punch his head off," said Niall.

Liam had the best and simultaneously worst friends ever. "No!" he said. "Niall, seriously, you can't. It wasn't him, it was all me. I just thought… I just stupidly thought maybe…" He couldn't swallow and he couldn't finish the sentence. Liam also couldn't handle the sheer amount of pity on Niall and Zayn's faces so he stared at his socks, instead.

"Oh god, Liam, you should see your face," said Zayn, pulling him in to a hug.

Liam said, "Life is full of disappointment, right?" but it mostly got swallowed by Zayn's jumper. Zayn hugged him harder, fingers tangled in the back of Liam's t-shirt.

"I like Louis a lot," said Niall loudly, "but if he told you that load of shite I'll absolutely kill him. And then he can apologize and we'll go out for a pint and it'll be fine! But first I'm gonna kill him."

"No," said Liam, trying to pull away from Zayn. Zayn kept his arms round Liam's waist, which he didn't actually object to. "Niall, you can't. He'll hate me. He'll hate all of us, and anyway Louis didn't do anything. Promise me you won't. I'm not ten anymore; I can fight my own battles."

"You could, but you never do," Niall grumbled. He relented with a sigh. "Fine. I promise. If you say it's not his fault—"

"It wasn't," Liam said firmly. "Just mine. I'm an idiot."

"You're only an idiot for calling yourself an idiot," Zayn said. "What sort of arsehole invites people out for private dinners to talk about a prank? He must have been winding you up for a laugh. Are you sure he wasn't filming it?"

It was such a horrible thought that Liam couldn't even consider it. Anyway, Louis had been a little quieter than usual, and so much more serious. He hadn't sounded like he was taking the piss when he told Liam that he was a good person. "No," Liam said. "It wasn't a prank on me. I'd kill him myself."

"You wouldn't, though," said Zayn fondly, hooking his chin over Liam's shoulder.

Liam sighed a little. He wouldn't. He still liked Louis too much, even if it was something that made him feel hopeless, now, and all empty inside where his heart should have been. "I just should have known, really," Liam said.

"You keep making that face, Payne, I'm gonna punch him anyway," Niall threatened. "Now what food have you got? Where's your mum?"

Liam laughed. "In the kitchen. She heard you come in, don't worry."

Niall lit up. "I love your mum," he said, jumping off the couch. "Snacks'll fix everything."

"I'm just never gonna speak to Louis again," Liam mumbled to Zayn. "That's a good plan, right?"

"Absolutely," Zayn lied, and Liam tried to let himself believe it.

--

It wasn't actually hard to avoid Louis for a couple of days; Liam just went straight home after school, didn't show up to Nelson's, and spent the weekend at home. Niall and Zayn kept following him home, as if they were worried he'd crack into a million little pieces if he were left on his own. It was very kind, but also made it impossible for Liam to get any revising or work done. Saturday night they went out to drink without him, but that was entirely normal.

It hadn't occurred to Liam to worry that they might run into Harry and Louis while they were out until his phone buzzed with a text, and then another, and then another, until it was buzzing so furiously it might as well have been ringing. Liam had been half-heartedly trying to sleep, but he got up to check his phone.

From Niall 10:53
o shit it wasnt me i swer

From Niall 10:55
DONT B MAD @ US THEY STRTED IT

From Niall 10:55
he was smyling and zayn , got mad , i t wasn me

From Niall 10:56
Zayn is drunk , i think

From Niall 10:56
me to

From Niall 10:56
r u up?

From Niall 10:57
r u up???

From Niall 10:58
why arent yu up?

From Niall 10:58
LIAM

From Niall 10:59
LIAMMMMMMM

From Zayn 11:00
Sorry x X x I love you x X

Liam was slightly terrified of calling Niall back. "What happened?" he asked, not even pretending to be polite.

"I promised I wouldn't and I didn't!" Niall said loudly. They were obviously outside a pub; Liam could hear music and shouting and cars.

"What are we discussing?" Liam asked grimly.

Niall sounded absolutely pissed. "We walked in and Louis was there and first thing, right, very first thing he says is, 'Does Liam know that wasn't a date?' And maybe me and Zayn already had a couple on the way over, but his tone was out of line."

Liam winced. "Oh, god," he said. "It's fine, it's okay, I already knew I made an idiot out of myself." It wasn't okay, Liam's stomach felt like it was full of lead, but he didn't like to complain.

Niall made an awkward, unhappy little noise. "Well, it might have been okay, except Zayn suddenly decided it was his job to clock Louis in the face."

Liam tried to gasp and shout at the same time and ended up choking on nothing and spluttering into the phone for a minute. "What?" he shouted finally. "Zayn did what?"

"That's a lie!" Zayn shouted from somewhere behind Niall, and Liam could hear what sounded like a little scuffle.

"S'not a lie, Zayn tried to punch Louis in the gob. Only you know Zayn, he's about as good at punching people as a wet noodle would be. He really more just… I mean, sort of, like, you know." Liam imagined Niall was flailing a bit on the other end of the phone to demonstrate.

Liam had to hide his face against a pillow for a minute. It was fine; he could hear Niall and Zayn arguing drunkenly with each other.

Zayn had punched Louis in the face.

Louis was worried Liam thought that might have been a date.

Liam seriously considered moving to Madagascar and starting a new life with… With… With a mustache or something. A mustache and a one-eyed dog, and Liam would build himself a cabin and live in the jungle and have no electricity or contact with the outside world again, ever.

"Liam?" Niall said. "You okay?"

"No," said Liam, behind the pillow. "Now I don't just have to avoid him for a few weeks, I have to avoid him for the rest of my life."

"Nah, we'll all forget about it and hang out again eventually," said Niall, sounding uncertain. "We'll have a drink, we'll clown around, it'll be fine. He ought to be cross with Zayn, anyway, not with you."

"Give the phone to Zayn. I need to talk to him," said Liam.

There was more shouting and a little bit of the phone being dropped, and then Zayn said, "Before you say anything! It was an accident."

"How do you hit someone in the face by accident?" Liam demanded. He was trying to work himself up to cross with Zayn, but Liam had a hard time being cross with anyone, ever.

"I just wanted to knock that smirk off his face, he was making fun of you," said Zayn. "Sorry. I knew Niall promised not to—"

"I didn't want either one of you to – Jesus Christ," said Liam.

He swore so rarely that Zayn actually didn't reply for a minute. "I'm sorry," Zayn said again, finally

"No," said Liam. He flopped over backward on his bed. "Remember when I'd never spoken to Louis, and we didn't have any problems, and you'd never hit anyone in the face? I know exactly where it all went wrong. I should have just never started talking to him and Harry." Liam tried to wish that it had all never happened, but he couldn't; he'd had too much fun with Louis and Harry and all five of them spending time at the bungalow and being ridiculous. It had been really amazing. And now he could never, ever go back there.

Zayn shouted and then Niall reappeared on the phone. "Zayn didn't mean it," he said. "Don't be cross. We'll take Louis out for a pint in a week or two, he'll forget all about it."

Louis would forget about getting hit, but he wouldn't forget that he thought Liam was an idiot. "Yeah," said Liam. He rubbed his forehead with one hand, planning his escape to live all on his own on an island with no mobile reception. "That sounds good."

--

Avoiding Louis and Harry got a lot easier after that, since Niall and Zayn were helping.

--

Football was less fun with just Niall than Liam remembered, and going to the chip shop was a lot quieter without Louis throwing food at everyone, or Harry getting kicked out for pulling people's trousers down. Liam had more time to get his revising done and do his reading and essays for his music exams, but mostly he didn't. Mostly he didn't do much of anything.

--

Two and a half weeks later Liam was home, alone, clicking through Cracked articles on a Saturday night while Niall and Zayn went to a party for someone that Niall had met once and instantly become mates with. Zayn had pouted at him a bit, claiming he'd be lonely and shy without Liam there. Liam laughed and ignored him.

A little after midnight, when Liam was starting to think about maybe going to bed, Niall called. "I'm drunk," he said loudly. "Hullo."

"Hi," said Liam. "What else is new?"

"No, I'm… I'm really… Hey, where are you?"

"I'm at home," said Liam patiently. "How drunk are you?"

"I'm not drunk!" Niall said, and giggled, and dropped the phone. Liam listened to general party noise for a minute, shook his head a little, and started pulling out his trainers and a sweatshirt because clearly he needed to go and get Niall.

"Hello?" said a girl's voice. "Whose phone is this?"

"The drunk blond fellow with the Irish accent," said Liam. This wasn't the first time this had happened.

After a minute Niall's voice came back. "Liam!" he said. "Liam, Zayn's abandoned me for that girl who's always taking her kit off. I think I'm drunk."

"Yeah," said Liam fondly. "I got that. Are you at Eric's? I can be there in twenty minutes."

"But you hate parties," said Niall. "Oh god, I'm gonna throw up. 'Scuse me."

Liam clicked his phone off and stuffed it in his pocket. He'd rescued Niall from drunkenly stumbling home through traffic a couple of times. It made him feel needed, which was nice.

Luckily Eric lived close enough that Liam could jog over there in a few minutes. Once he'd had to wake his parents up to get a lift to go and get Niall, and they'd all got a lot of stern parental looks and disappointed lectures for a couple of days. Liam needed to find some time to start taking driving lessons so he could pick up Zayn and Niall when they got drunk at parties.

It was a nice night for a jog, cool but not cold, not too dark on the streets, not too many people out and screaming. It was easy to find Eric's party; his house was lit up like Christmas, with drunk students snogging and groping all along the pavement. Liam wasn't exactly sure how he'd find Niall, but he assumed Niall would be in there and loud enough to find if Liam just looked around a bit. He pushed his way in through a crowd of people he mostly recognized from school. There was a thumping stereo playing somewhere, making the walls shake, and half the furniture had been upended. Probably Liam should look for Zayn, too; whoever this girl was, Zayn was probably too drunk to do anything fun with her.

A drunk girl grabbed Liam and tried to kiss him; he laughed and shrugged her off and shoved his way into the kitchen. He was taller than most of the people there, but not tall enough to see Niall anywhere. Liam pushed his way through and around again. Someone shouted, "Whoo!" at him and Liam shouted it back, waving his arms a little. At least it seemed like a fun party, even if it was completely mad.

Liam managed to squeeze through to the stairs, which were also full of people. If he got to the top he could look around for Niall; that might save some time. It was hard getting past all the couples groping each other on the steps, and hard to see anything over all the waving arms and people jumping on each other.

Liam leaned over the balcony at the top of the steps, looking for Niall. He didn't see him, so it was possible Niall had curled up in a corner somewhere and was napping. Someone bumped in to Liam and offered him a bottle; Liam shook his head. It was quieter upstairs, at least, although still ear-splittingly loud. Liam was a little surprised Niall hadn't been trampled.

Someone else banged in to Liam and then grabbed his arm. "Hey," said Louis. "Liam! Hey, Liam!"

Liam froze. His heart dropped straight through his feet. When he turned to look Louis was looking at him, curious and really drunk. Louis smiled a little tentatively. "I thought you hated parties!"

"I do," said Liam. "I'm looking for Niall. I'm… I'm really sorry about Zayn." He bit his lip. His whole chest hurt.

Louis grimaced.

"I'm so sorry," Liam repeated. He was pretty sure Louis was too drunk to remember any of this later, but just in case he never ran into Louis again he wanted to say it. "It was all my fault, I know that, I shouldn’t have said anything to either of them and I shouldn't have assumed—"

The crowd upstairs surged a little bit, shoving Louis closer to Liam. Liam was holding on to the banister with one hand and Louis's hand fell on top of his. Their shoulders bumped a little. Liam felt achy and miserable all over.

"I'm really drunk!" Louis said. He didn't need to shout anymore, they were close enough that Liam could hear him over the music.

"I know," said Liam. He sighed. "I should go—"

"I mean," Louis said, pressing a little bit closer, "I'm drunk enough that I can forget I said this in the morning, okay? We can pretend this never happened. But I just need to tell you something."

"Don't," said Liam. Last time it had ended so badly, and he just wanted to go home without screwing anything up even worse. He tried to avoid Louis's gaze but there weren't a lot of other places to look.

Louis pulled a face. "I know, but I have to!" He took a deep breath, psyching himself up for something difficult. Liam did not want to hear whatever it was, and couldn't keep the cringe off his face. "I just want to say that you can do better than Zayn!"

That… That was not even on the same planet as what Liam had been bracing himself for. "What?" he said.

"I think you deserve better," Louis said. He winced, then blurted, "I like Zayn! He's a great mate but he's an awful boyfriend, and you deserve better, Liam."

"I'm sorry?" Liam said. Maybe he'd got some kind of contact drunk from being at the party; he had no idea what Louis was talking about.

"You're too nice," said Louis, squeezing Liam's hand. "It's not fair; he gets to go off and shag whoever he wants. I'm sorry I made him cross, I swear it wasn't really supposed to be a date, I just… I just really like you, and you're too nice, Liam, and you deserve someone who only wants you."

"What are you talking about?" Liam asked. It was possible he was shouting a little, but he was honestly confused. "Zayn is not my boyfriend!"

Louis blinked at him. "Well… Good," he said, looking confused, too.

"Why would you think Zayn is my boyfriend?" Liam demanded. He felt like he and Louis were having entirely different conversations.

"He's always touching you and kissing you and you won't go anywhere without him," Louis said. "I just… Me and Harry thought—"

"No," said Liam, a little more forcefully than he needed to. "Absolutely not. I love Zayn but I wouldn't date him. He likes girls!"

"Well, his Facebook status is 'It's Complicated,'" said Louis, looking uncomfortable. "We just thought… We talked about it a lot. Christ, I'm pissed, did I mention?"

"Yeah," said Liam. He wanted to laugh but he wasn't sure it was entirely appropriate. "You've thought Zayn was my boyfriend this whole time?"

A tiny smile tugged at the corner of Louis's mouth, and Liam smiled back, because he always had to smile back at Louis. "You're not dating Zayn," said Louis.

"No," said Liam, shaking his head.

Louis considered for a moment. "And you aren't dating Niall, either, right?"

"Urgh," said Liam, pulling a face. "No!"

"I didn't think so," said Louis, giggling. "I just… Okay, just making certain. Are you dating anyone right now?"

Something a lot like hope tugged at the inside of Liam's ribs. For a minute he couldn't move, and he certainly couldn't answer. He was frozen looking at Louis's smile, the way it lit up his whole face, the way it made him the only person worth looking at in the whole house. Louis was smiling at him like Liam was someone special, and it took all of Liam's breath away.

Liam bit his lip and shook his head. "No," he said. "I'm not –"

Someone crashed into Liam's back, sending him almost over the balcony. Louis grabbed his arm. "Liam!" shouted Niall, behind him. "I found you!"

Right, right. This was why Liam had come out. He gave Louis a sideways apologetic smile, just in case they'd been about to say what Liam wanted them to have been about to say. They probably hadn't been. They probably almost certainly hadn't been. Louis smiled back brilliantly, with some kind of promise Liam couldn't read sparking in his eyes, and Liam laughed helplessly and turned to Niall.

"You're so drunk," said Liam. Niall was only barely staying upright and his face was bright red. Niall laughed, open-mouthed, and sagged against Liam's side.

"I'm so drunk!" Niall agreed. Liam wrapped his arm around Niall's waist so he wouldn't collapse on the floor. "I might be. Why are you here?"

"You called me," said Liam patiently. "I'm here to get you home alive."

"This is a great party," Niall shouted. "A fantastic party! This is an amazing party!" He threw his arms in the air and nearly knocked himself unbalanced again.

"This is why I'm here," said Liam to Louis, since he was fairly sure Niall wasn't really talking to anyone anyway. "I'm gonna take him home."

Louis was giving him the strangest look, fond and bright and something else. "Of course you are," said Louis.

"Are you drunk enough that I should worry about you, too?" Liam asked.

Louis laughed at him. "I'm absolutely fine," he said. "I'm here babysitting young Harold, who is currently running around starkers on a dare. I'm not much good as a babysitter for him, but I can hold my drinks, unlike some of our friends."

Our friends, Liam repeated to himself, and tried not to let himself dissolve into a pile of feelings. "I thought— Oh," said Liam.

"Courage in a bottle of cider," said Louis, winking.

Winking was how all this trouble had begun. Liam could feel his cheeks start to heat up, and he had no idea what they were talking about, or what Louis wanted, or if anyone was still cross with anyone for punching that had or hadn't really happened. "I'm gonna go," he said, pulling Niall with him toward the stairs. "I'll… Um, will I see you around?"

Louis grinned. "Definitely. Get home safe, Kyle."

"Kyle!" said Niall, bursting into hysterical giggles. "Kyle. Oh, this is an ace party. We smashed it tonight."

It was hard enough dragging Niall down the steps through the crowd without both of them falling and breaking their necks, but Liam risked a glance back over his shoulder. Louis was watching them, still grinning.

"Yeah," said Liam, biting the inside of his cheek to keep his smile from exploding everywhere. "An ace party."

--

 

It was a bright, sunny afternoon and Liam let Zayn persuade him to leave school early. It was so gorgeous outside that Liam just couldn't persuade himself that he wanted to stay and revise. The plan was to go and get some food and wait for Niall to get done with school and join them. But then Zayn saw one of the girls he'd been attempting to woo with his poetry – Liam tried not to laugh – and wandered off to chat to her, and Liam sat down on one of the benches in the town centre with his phone to kill time in the sun.

A few minutes later someone cleared his throat behind Liam's shoulder. He looked up from Twitter and there was Louis. He looked exactly like himself, but the sun was giving his hair a bit of a halo, and he was grinning like it was the best day ever.

"Fancy seeing you here," said Louis.

Liam hadn't actually heard from Louis since the party, and he wasn’t sure if Louis remembered the drunken conversation they'd had. "Hi," said Liam. It was nice his default voice sounded lecture-y instead of nervous.

Louis made a big show of looking at all the people walking past on the pavement. "I don't see Zayn or Niall. Still at school?"

"Niall is, Zayn's off talking to girls," said Liam. "I don't see Harry anywhere, either…?"

"He's got a band rehearsal." Louis had his hands behind his back, and he rocked back and forth on his heels for a minute. "Can I sit down?"

Maybe Louis remembered? Or maybe he was tired of them all not hanging out? Liam said, "Of course," and scooted over on the bench a little. Louis vaulted over the back and sat down next to him, knees drawn up and grinning like he was full of mischief. It made Liam the tiniest bit apprehensive.

Liam believed in things like 'there's no time like the present' and 'always be honest.' His heart pounded in his ears a couple of times. "I'm not dating Zayn," Liam blurted.

Louis's eyes crinkled up. "Oh, really?"

"I… I wasn't sure if you remembered, and you seemed sort of upset about it before?" Liam tried. It was possible he was making a really big idiot of himself. He dug his nails into his palms.

"I remember," said Louis. "Did you think I could forget that?" He wiggled his eyebrows and kicked his shoe against the bench.

Liam shrugged a little. "Um," he said. Louis's smile was getting increasingly focused on him, and Liam wanted that and was overwhelmed by it in equal measure. His heart was pounding again.

"It was hard to tell, is all, since he's always kissing you and crawling all over you," Louis said. He tapped his fingers quickly against his thigh, over and over.

"Yeah, but we're just mates. Zayn really likes girls, I told you. And… I mean..." Liam told himself that it was better to know, and that it was worth the risk, and a load of other things he didn't believe. "You've got someone like that too, haven't you?" His voice didn't crack and it didn't quite drop all the way to a whisper, so that was a win.

Louis stared at him for a minute. "I have," he agreed slowly. "But… Well, Harry really likes girls. I thought you knew that."

Liam's head felt a little disconnected from the rest of him, like it might float away. He couldn't tell if he was breathing too hard or not enough. "I mean, but, if I were Harry, I'd make you an exception," Liam tried to explain.

"Would you?" Louis asked, grinning again. He leaned forward, and Liam forced himself not to lean back, even though it meant Louis's face was practically touching his. Liam had got more used to that with all the playing around. "Liam Payne," said Louis, slightly teasing, "do you fancy me?"

Liam wanted to die from embarrassment, but Louis had stopped tapping his fingers and was sitting so quietly that he almost seemed like a different person. Liam was never going to get used to these moments of stillness and sincerity.

"Liam?" Louis asked, with just the slightest thread of nervousness in his voice.

"I…" said Liam. His voice collapsed out from under him. He cleared his throat and forced himself to put his chin up so he was looking at Louis, and not the bench, or the ground. "I do," said Liam. And then, just like always when he was nervous, a torrent of words followed. "But I mean, I understand that I'm not fun like Harry, and I don't play around the way you two do, and if I were best mates with Harry I'd probably—"

Louis leaned forward and kissed him. All the words died in Liam's mouth, and then all the thoughts that had been racing around his brain in little circles vanished into tiny puffs of smoke. There was nothing, there was absolutely nothing in the entire world, except Louis's mouth pressing against his. Liam was sure his heart had stopped beating, even.

Louis pulled back. "Good," he said. "What are you talking about, you're not fun?" He reached over and laced his fingers through Liam's. He'd gone from very still to absolutely restless again, wiggling and squirming and edging over so he was pressed up against Liam and his leg was hooked over Liam's and rubbing his thumb back and forth across the back of Liam's hand.

Liam couldn't think straight with that much of Louis touching him. "I don't go to parties," Liam tried.

"I've seen you at parties twice, now," said Louis. "We met at a party."

If Louis moved any closer he was going to be in Liam's lap, and Liam wasn't sure he objected. "I don't drink," Liam said.

"I know," said Louis. He tilted his head so he could kiss Liam's neck, and Liam shuddered all over. Louis made an interested humming noise.

"You can't—We're in public," Liam said, voice cracking.

Louis laughed against his neck. "People would think it was stranger if I didn't try to molest you in public, honestly." He sank his teeth into Liam's shoulder and Liam gasped and tried to wiggle away and then remembered he didn't have to do that, although maybe he still wanted to? Families pushing prams were out for strolls and there were kids bunking off school all around them.

Louis burst out laughing and sat up. "Do you know what I like about you, Liam?" Liam started to say, Honestly, no, and thought better of it. "I like that you lecture me not to go out and drink too much even though I'm older than you. I like that you sigh and clean up after Harry when he doesn't deserve it. I like that you'd go anywhere in the middle of the night to make sure that Niall is okay. I am absolutely in love with the way you blush when I bite you." Louis waggled his eyebrows meaningfully and Liam could feel himself starting to blush again. "I like that you think the best of everyone, so much so that I thought you had a very strange relationship with Zayn where he got to go out and look at girls' boobs and come home and still snog you."

"Really?" Liam asked. He wished there were any way to stop blushing, because Louis mentioning it just made it a million times worse. Except apparently Louis liked it, which was a little bit weird.

"You are just that nice," Louis said. Liam pulled a face. "Also, if Zayn isn't your boyfriend why was he so cross with me for taking you on a date?"

Liam stared at him for a second. "Was that a date?"

Louis shrugged and looked mildly embarrassed. "It was going to be. Harry thought it was a good idea. But then I couldn't do it, I thought you'd be pissed when you realized. I chickened out."

"Oh, good," said Liam. Louis gave him a puzzled look. "No, I mean, because I thought something was up, and then I got there and you just wanted to talk about pranks and Harry. It's nice to know I'm not crazy. Zayn punched you because he was drunk and he's a good friend and an idiot. I was a little… Er. I was slightly disappointed, I guess, and it upset him."

"He didn't punch me, he sort of smacked me in the ear," said Louis. "But I took his point."

"That's awful," said Liam. "I'm really sorry. He's such an idiot—"

Louis pulled Liam's hand up to his mouth and bit him on the wrist. Liam choked. Apparently he was more sensitive there than he'd expected. Louis's teeth scraping against the inside of his wrist did things to him. "I thought it was nice, actually," said Louis firmly. "The least he could do, defending your honor."

"Oh god," Liam groaned. "Don't – He wasn't defending my honor, I can defend my own honor, why is everyone always going around trying to hit people for me? I don't believe in violence unless you've tried all the other ways to work things out. And I can hit people on my own, thank you. I had boxing lessons when I was younger, I know how to—"

Louis kissed him again. This time Liam was slightly better prepared to go on with his rant, but Louis had turned so he was more or less straddling Liam, and his knee was digging into Liam's thigh, and his fingers were going to leave bruises on Liam's shoulder, and his teeth were dragging along Liam's lower lip and Liam just… Forgot to keep talking.

Eventually Liam had to breathe. He'd kissed a couple of people before and breathing hadn't been such an issue, but he had trouble remembering how to do it around Louis anyway. "Well," he said, scooting back just a bit. "Okay. I guess that’s one way to win an argument." His mouth was tingling and he was going to look wrecked by the time he got Louis off his lap. He was strangely okay with that.

"Were we arguing?" Louis asked, smiling mischievously.

"No," said Liam. "Maybe? I don't know. Did you and Harry really sit around and discuss this? I mean, me? I mean, me and Zayn?"

Louis nodded mock-seriously. "We did. We absolutely could not figure you out. You'd let Zayn crawl all over you, and when I poked you—" He demonstrated, poking Liam in the cheek. Liam laughed. "—You'd get all frozen and look really confused. Harry said it was because you had a crush on me, but I figured probably you just thought I was weird."

"Oh dear," said Liam. "It wasn't that. Well, it was a little bit that, but also Harry was right there and I was pretty sure he was your boyfriend and I didn't want to make things awkward for you."

Louis burst out laughing. Liam wondered if, now that he had gotten to kiss Louis, he could just throw himself off a cliff somewhere and save himself all future embarrassment. He leaned forward and put his forehead on Louis's shoulder so he wouldn't have to look at him while his cheeks were burning.

"That was very polite of you, Liam," said Louis. "You are the most ridiculous person I have ever met."

"True or false," Liam said, still mostly talking straight into Louis's shirt. "You and Harry snogged at a gay bar."

"Well, that is true," said Louis. "But that's just me and Harry being me and Harry. You can't go and think it means something. It's just a bit of fun." He pushed on Liam's shoulder until he sat up. Louis was smiling at him, his blinding, dazzling smile. The one that had been killing Liam quietly since long before they'd ever spoken. "I suppose if you really object I could try and snog Harry less whilst I'm drunk," Louis offered.

"No," said Liam, "that wouldn’t be very nice of me, would it?"

"Oh god, Liam, this is why all of us want to punch people who are mean to you," said Louis.

Liam had no idea what that meant, so he shrugged. "Okay," he said. Agreeing with Louis seemed easiest. And he hadn't felt this easy around Louis, ever.

Liam spotted Harry standing just on the other side of the bus stop, trying to hide behind a tree and spy on them. And that was definitely Zayn hanging off his shoulder and texting someone. Most likely Niall. Liam didn't imagine they were especially surprised that he had Louis mostly in his lap, or that they were holding hands, or that Liam was going to have another bruise on his neck. He was pleased they were hanging out to spy, actually. There was going to be so much teasing. Liam was looking forward to it.

Liam smiled apologetically up at Louis. "This has been a very productive discussion, then. I'm sorry about all the confusion. It just seemed so awkward to go up to you and say, 'So that boy you're licking, you're dating him, right?'"

"Well, I hope I am now," said Louis, laughing and licking Liam's cheek.

Liam wrinkled up his nose, but said, "Oh good. Me, too," and pulled Louis down into another kiss.