The only reason Liam met with Louis at all was because he was desperate.
"It's perfect," Harry had said, mouth half-full of a sandwich, and clapped Liam on the back. "He's a great mate of mine, and he'll be an amazing nanny."
"He?" Liam had echoed, trying not to sound too caught up in gender roles and whatnot because that sort of thing always made Harry cross.
And then Sammy had come running through the green room screaming bloody murder, and upended one of the stylists' bags full of makeup and hair thingies. Liam had to duck away from getting his hair fixed and jump out of the chair to grab Sammy before he tripped anyone or got trampled by security. "Sorry, sorry," Liam said, while Sammy kicked and wiggled and did his best impression of a four-year-old tornado. "He's bored, sorry." Harry nodded sympathetically, because Harry got bored waiting for hair and makeup and lighting as well. But Harry was a couple of decades older than Sammy, and he didn't burst into tears whenever things got a bit crazy or he missed his dad. Not so much anymore, at least.
"But this is what I'm saying," Harry said, shaking his famous fringe out of his eyes. "You clearly need someone right away and Louis would be perfect."
"The agency—" Liam said, trying to stop Sammy crying and apologize to the hair and makeup and wardrobe people and not get his shirt wet all at once. He couldn't manage any of it, and everyone in the room looked cross. Except Sammy, who looked like he was going to properly melt down. Liam and Harry were supposed to be doing an interview in ten minutes, and—
"But the agency nannies have all been rubbish, haven't they?" Harry said. Liam shrugged, fair point, and tried to distract Sammy with games on his mobile. "I'm just saying. It couldn't hurt. Come on, they need us." And just as Liam had got Sammy calmed down he had to hand him over to Ricky the security guy, who Sammy barely knew, and who was certainly not going to be able to stop him sobbing for his daddy. It hurt.
Which was how Liam had ended up getting coffee and interviewing Harry's friend Louis the next morning. He didn't look a thing like a nanny. He had a rather toothy smile and very flippy fringe and a knitted beanie on, and there was something a bit odd about him. Maybe that was just Liam's exhaustion talking; it was hard to keep the hours of a professional musician and also the hours of a four year old.
"So I hear you need a nanny?" Louis asked, smiling widely.
Liam tried not to look too dubious. He loved Harry, but Harry's taste in friends had always run a bit extreme. Harry's career as England's Hottest Popstar had led him to meet some very strange people, while Liam had mostly stuck to singer-songwriter music and normal friends from before X-Factor. Except for Harry, of course, who had pulled Liam into his orbit on X-Factor and somehow never let him escape.
"Are you a nanny?" he asked. "Harry was rather vague." Some girls getting coffee looked over and began giggling and Liam smiled back politely. It had taken him years to get used to the idea that they were giggling at him.
Louis said brightly, "I've got four little sisters."
"Um," said Liam, trying to sound polite. This whole thing was a terrible idea, he was sure. "But, like. References? Or any experience at being a nanny?"
"There's no greater experience than life," said Louis grandly. "I all but raised four little girls, and children love me."
"'Children love me' isn't the same as being qualified to look after my son," said Liam. He took a deep breath and blew it out again slowly. "Sorry. I sound a bit worked up. This has been... The whole nanny thing has been one disaster after another and I'm—"
"Desperate?" Louis guessed. Liam blinked at him. "Harry said," Louis explained apologetically. "He seems to think it's all rather gone to hell and he's a bit worried you're… Don't take this the wrong way. Highly strung."
Liam tried to scowl, but he was so tired and Louis – or Harry, really – was right. "He could do with a bit more being highly strung," Liam grumbled. Harry was one of those people who sailed through life. He'd appeared to sail through the X-Factor and he'd sailed through his ensuing solo pop career and he was sailing through his current phase of being Britain's most Eligible Bachelor. Liam had spent the entire X-Factor experience on the brink of a nervous breakdown. He'd mostly only kept it together because Harry had been on the brink of one as well, and they both pretended to be fine to keep each other's spirits up. Sugarscape and the fan forums had got pretty obsessed with their bromance.
"We've had two people through the agency in the last month," said Liam. "One of them sold a picture of Sammy to the Sun and the other one... I don't know. Sammy didn't like her. He's only four but he's not a prisoner, and he cried, and..." Liam trailed off. That made it fairly clear, he thought, what an awful job he was doing as a father. Letting a crying four year old decide who to hire. But then the only other option was to take Sammy with him to everything, every studio session and photo shoot and rehearsal. "And I've got an album coming out and I'm busy and I can't bring him with me, but I can't leave him behind…"
"Right," said Louis, popping a bit of cake into his mouth. "Desperate."
Liam flushed a little bit. It sounded a bit like you're a rubbish dad. "Limited time to solve a really complicated problem," he said.
"Well," said Louis, smiling, "I'm a solution."
Liam wasn't entirely sure what to make of him. This wasn't like any interview Liam had ever done. Normally nannies came with references and a list of educational games to play and usually... Well, usually they were women. "You really haven't got any references?" Liam asked doubtfully.
"You can call my sisters," said Louis. He took a sip of coffee and waggled his eyebrows under his fringe.
Liam couldn't help being polite, even when he was completely dubious. "But in actual terms of being a real, qualified nanny," Liam said. There was something very, very strange about Louis, although he couldn't put his finger on it. He seemed a bit unreal, almost. It wasn't making him feel like Sammy would be unsafe with him, just… Well, Liam was a bit apprehensive about leaving Sammy with anyone, let alone some strange friend of Harry's.
"Well, in those terms, no," Louis acknowledged.
Liam blinked at him a bit. "Oh," he said. He was a bit disappointed, but he hadn't really got his hopes up anyway. After this many months of trying to keep it together he didn't expect miracles anymore. "Okay. It was nice to meet you—"
"Hang on," said Louis. "Look, I know it's a bit weird, but conventional or not, I am great with kids and I can do whatever it is a nanny does. Really. I'm responsible, I'm caring, I'm fun. Kids love me." He smiled a broad you-can-trust me smile and Liam… Well. Liam had no idea how to feel. He liked to believe that people were being honest and straightforward with him but he'd learned since becoming famous that he was being lied to quite a lot. And he couldn't let just anyone watch Sammy. There had been quite enough screw ups in Sammy's life already.
"That's great and all," said Liam. "But I don't need fun, I need qualified. Sammy's really... I have to do this right. He's got enough weirdness in his life just because of what I do."
Louis pulled a thoughtful face. "I take it his mum isn't around?"
"Um," said Liam, shifting uncomfortably. For some reason it felt a lot more like Louis was interviewing him than the other way around. "It was very amicable, she's working in the States. Better for him to stay here where he's got family and all."
"Yes," said Louis, smiling kindly. "That was what I saw in The Sun."
Liam had worked ridiculously hard to keep everything about Brooke – and more importantly, everything about Sammy – out of the papers but he'd had to say something. It hardly even sounded like words to him anymore. "So you can see where stability is really important, and I can't hire just anyone, and—"
"But, you do need someone right away, don't you?" Louis smiled brightly again. "Like, for tonight, even."
"Well, yes," Liam began.
Louis held his hands out as if the whole deal were settled. "Fantastic. Because I need a job."
Liam felt a bit dizzy. Why didn't this conversation make any sense? "But—"
"And if it doesn't work out it's not as if you hired me properly," Louis went on easily. "I can fill in until you find someone qualified, or until you decide Sammy hates me." He beamed.
Liam tried, "But, wait. That's not what I meant."
Louis nodded as if he were agreeing instead of steamrollering the conversation. "Yeah. Exactly. Have you got another option?"
Liam stared at him for a moment. "No," he said slowly. "I guess I haven't." He was, in fact, probably going to be late for all the things he had scheduled as it was, and Sammy was so, so tired of being dragged along to meetings and rehearsals.
Louis shrugged as if everything were settled. "Fantastic," he said, and grinned again. "Kids love me. You'll see."
From the beginning, Liam had been a bit mental about trying to know every detail of everything going on in his career and his life. He'd had to give that up for the last few months because he was the only person looking after Sammy and suddenly every spare second he had was devoted just to him. Not that there were any spare seconds to be had while recording an album. So the idea of bringing a stranger back to his house to look after Sammy was – well. It made him feel ill. One more chaotic element in a life that was horribly chaotic already. Liam was trying to talk himself around to the idea that this was all Harry's fault. Harry had a sort of hypnotic effect on Liam, and he always had. Liam was rubbish at telling Harry no.
Unfortunately, Louis seemed like the only solution for the next few hours. Liam had left Sammy with Ricky for the morning, but he was security, not a babysitter, and he'd probably given Sammy all the sweets in the house to keep him quiet. The next free minute Liam had he needed to go through the proper channels and find a real nanny. Liam was going to get everything sorted soon. Honestly.
As soon as Liam walked in, Sammy flung himself at Liam's legs. Ricky looked exhausted and waved from the couch without getting up. Liam felt doubly guilty; security really wasn't supposed to be stuck watching Sammy and Sammy was clearly bored and lonely.
"Hey," said Liam, ruffling Sammy's hair. "Did you miss me?"
"We had ice cream," said Sammy. Liam sighed a little. "Are you going out again?"
"Yeah," said Liam apologetically. Sammy began to pull one of wide-eyed tragic faces (Liam was sure Harry had taught him that) and everything inside Liam's chest felt like it was going to collapse. He picked Sammy up and tried saying brightly, "It's okay. I've brought you a proper babysitter." Normally he had a policy of not lying to Sammy, ever, but there were exceptions here and there.
"I want to come with you," said Sammy, holding Liam's shirt with both hands.
"No," said Liam, working hard to smile. "It's boring with me. I'll be busy and there's no one to play with. This is Louis—"
Sammy ducked and hid his face against Liam's chest.
Liam looked apologetically at Louis. "He's not shy," he said. "Honestly. But you see, this is why I can't just—"
Louis had been looking around the living room curiously but he stuck his hands in his pockets and smiled brightly at Sammy instead. "Hello. I'm Louis. Do you know any magic tricks?"
There was a tiny pause and then Sammy lifted his face just enough to give Louis a suspicious, curious look. "No," he said.
"Hmm," said Louis. "Pity. I know loads." He pulled one hand out of his pocket and revealed a little red rubber ball. Then he waved his hand around a bit and flipped it over and when he opened his hand again it was empty.
"Daddy!" said Sammy.
Liam shrugged. "I don't know where it is," he said.
Louis wiggled his fingers and reached out and pulled the ball out from behind Liam's ear. "Oh, is that where I left it? Silly me."
Sammy stared at him for a minute. "It's a trick," he said. "Isn't it?"
"It is," said Louis gravely. "Shall I show you how I do it?"
Liam was accidentally holding his breath, he realized, when Sammy abruptly shoved at him and started wiggling to get down. "Show me," Sammy demanded.
"Please," Liam said automatically.
"Please," Sammy echoed. Louis had crouched down so Sammy could take the ball and inspect it, and then Louis took it back and pretended to throw it in his own mouth, where it vanished. Sammy giggled.
"It takes loads of practice," said Louis seriously. "And hard work. I don't suppose you're any good at practice and hard work."
"I am," Sammy insisted. Harry would have made a joke there about how he was so obviously Liam's son. He would have been correct.
"Then you can be my assistant," said Louis. "That means you get put in the box to be sawed in half."
Sammy gave Liam an alarmed look. "Not really," Liam said. "It's a trick." At least he hoped Louis meant it as a magic trick.
"Is it like… pretending?" Sammy asked. He was very big on pretending; Liam spent quite a lot of time having to be different kinds of animals so Sammy could be the ring master at a circus.
"Yes," said Louis. "It's exactly like that. Shall we pretend to be magicians while your dad goes off to work?"
Sammy screwed up his face a bit. "But…" he said, looking at Liam again.
Liam wanted very badly to pick Sammy up and cuddle him and then stay home instead of leaving, but his mobile vibrated in his pocket. That was definitely someone texting that he was late for his meeting. "He doesn't even know you—" Liam said, trying not to sound too doubtful in front of Sammy, because Sammy could always tell, and then he'd start to cry.
"He'll get to know me," said Louis, cheerful and certain. "You should go. Is there something for dinner?"
"Fish fingers in the freezer and broccoli in the fridge," said Liam.
"And chips," said Sammy.
"No, you had chips yesterday," said Liam.
Sammy started to let his lower lip tremble and there was a moment when Liam wanted to throw all his rules out the window – vegetables and bed time and playing outside rather than watching television – because of his tremendous and overwhelming guilt.
"Broccoli is amazing," said Louis. "You can help me make it. I know a special recipe so it's better than chips."
"It isn't better than chips," said Sammy doubtfully
"I will bet you one million pounds," said Louis.
Sammy blinked at him again. He got that from Liam, too; he never quite knew what to do when someone was ridiculous. "I haven't got a million pounds," said Sammy.
"Then I'll bet you this ball," said Louis, making the red ball appear in his hand again.
Louis seemed fine with Sammy, which should have been the most important thing to Liam. He knew the longer he stuck around the worse he'd make leaving. He just couldn't quite bear to go. "I'll come and say good night when I get home," Liam said, leaning down to kiss the top of Sammy's head. "Be good."
Sammy's eyes started to fill up with tears – when had he learnt to cry on cue? Liam wondered despairingly – and Liam bit his lip, hard, trying not to look upset as well.
"We'll be wonderful," said Louis confidently. "Have you got a cardboard box somewhere? I want to show you a trick." He held his hand out for Sammy.
Sammy looked at Liam and then at Louis, and made a frowny, tragic little face that broke Liam's heart all to pieces. "I've got a box," Sammy said slowly. "Shall I show you?"
"Yes, please," said Louis. He flashed an easy grin at Liam, who still wasn't at all sure he wanted to leave, and then Sammy took Louis's hand and led him toward the den where he had a collection of toy boxes.
Ricky dragged himself off the couch. "We're late," he said. "You ready?"
Liam took a couple of deep breaths. The whole thing felt very, very strange. Much stranger than anyone else he'd left Sammy with. But Sammy liked magic tricks and pretending games, and surely Harry wouldn't have given him Louis's mobile number unless Louis was trustworthy. "Yeah," he said. "We should go."
They weren't the best meetings Liam had ever had, because he spent the entire time with his hand in his pocket waiting for his mobile to buzz with dire news. When it didn't, he found himself assuming that Louis had somehow ended up with Sammy in an Accident and Emergency room or somewhere mobiles weren't allowed. Liam might have agreed to have naked dancers on fire on stage with him or something. He wasn't sure, he hadn't been listening.
He did manage to hear something about the single testing better than expected, which was nice, not but enough to get his attention entirely back in the room. "Very high expectations for this album," and "small tour and then a larger European tour," and "maybe America this time," people were saying, and Liam nodded a lot, but it wasn't as if he were actually in charge of any of those decisions. That was why he had a manager and a management team. During the first album Liam had tried to stay on top of nearly every decision, but then Sammy had happened and he'd let go a bit, and then Brooke had left and… Well. He hadn't been on his game since then.
At the end of the meeting, his tour manager, Rex, took Liam aside and made a concerted effort to actually get his attention. "People are really connecting to this album. We're getting amazing feedback on the songs you wrote. I just need to know you're ready to talk about all those songs in interviews, and what they mean and where they came from."
"Yeah," said Liam, who was not at all certain about it. He hadn't done a round of interviews since Brooke had left. He'd been so careful about keeping Sammy out of the spotlight and the papers, and particularly in the last few months.
"People are going to be asking about Brooke," said Rex.
"I'll just say it was an amicable break up," said Liam automatically. "She's in L.A. There isn't much else to say about it."
Rex gave him a long look and Liam stared at his mobile, wondering what Louis was doing with Sammy right now. "People are interested," he said. It was clear he was being gentle, so Liam tried not to flinch. "They want to hear about your broken heart."
"They want a lot of things," said Liam flatly. "They can't have Sammy and they can't have that. They can have anything else."
Rex shook his head. "You know even if we tell people they can't ask about it they will. And if you don't answer it'll just get blown up into something worse than what it is."
"Then I'll say what I always say," said Liam. "Or I'll ignore them until they ask about something else. It's none of their business."
It wasn't a satisfying answer and it wasn't really going to work, but it was all Liam really had to offer. Rex tried looking stern, and Liam steadfastly stared at his mobile in case important news appeared.
When he finally got back to the house, it was well after midnight. The whole place was quiet, which was reassuring. Liam didn't see any obvious signs of fire or blood or catastrophe anywhere, and Sammy wasn't still up, screaming his lungs out.
Louis was sitting on the couch watching football on the television. "Hey," he said. "Good meetings? Sammy's been asleep for ages."
Liam let out a little breath he hadn't meant to hold. "Yeah," he said. "Thanks. I'll go and check on him and then we can… I don't know. Chat." He just needed to see Sammy for himself and make sure that everything was really okay.
Sammy was in bed, fast asleep. He had a cuddly puppy toy clutched in one hand and the blankets all flung onto the floor. The dog had been a present from Harry years ago, and Liam knew better than to try and pry it away. Nothing woke Sammy up faster. He put the blankets back on the bed and kissed Sammy's forehead. There were no obvious signs of trauma. Liam felt a little ridiculous for worrying.
"Okay?" said Louis when Liam came back out.
"Yeah, sorry. I just. Um, hazard of single parenting, you worry a lot," said Liam. He sat down carefully at the other end of the couch.
"It was brilliant," said Louis. The light from the television screen was flickering against the side of his face. "The cardboard box turned out to be an excellent rocket ship to Jupiter."
That sounded fantastic. Liam had given up on making up games; he was too busy to do much more than buy toys and hope they'd be fun when Sammy had to play by himself. "Good," said Liam guiltily. "I'm sure he loved that."
"He has a lot of very strong opinions on Jupiter, and who should be the captain," said Louis. "I told him I'd bring him some books on space. I hope that's alright?" He paused and then smiled, a little hesitantly. "Even if you don't want me to come back, I could recommend some books for him. He knows the alphabet. He's very clever."
"He is," said Liam. He'd been exhausted all day but exhaustion hit him, suddenly, like a bus, and he could barely manage to stay upright on the couch. He'd have to be up to make Sammy breakfast in a few hours. "I… I mean, at some point I ought to get a proper nanny to look after him, but—"
"But in the meantime I'm absolutely free," said Louis. "I'd love to look after him. He's a darling."
This wasn't at all the way Liam normally hired anyone. "There are all sorts of forms to sign," he said. "Non-disclosure agreements, and salary arrangements and—"
"Give me the numbers and I'll call tomorrow," said Louis. "I can do it while I'm watching Sammy. You do need me tomorrow, don't you?"
"I'll probably need you every day," said Liam. He'd glanced at his schedule over the next couple of weeks and it was absolutely mad. "I don't honestly know what I usually pay a nanny; I'm not the one who does any of the paperwork."
Louis grinned. "Well, I’m around whenever you need, and I'm sure there's someone who can tell me what you normally pay a nanny. I'm not a very good cook and I don't really tidy things, but I can do just about anything else. Like if you need someone to come with you and keep him busy while you're in a meeting, or if you want him to stay here and do things while you're out. I'm good either way. And since you haven't got an NDA I'll just promise not to take any pictures or sell any interviews, how about that?"
"That's…" Liam said. Louis was holding out his hand expectantly, little finger extended. "Oh," said Liam. "I see." Apparently 'good with kids' meant that Louis behaved like he was about twelve years old, but… Maybe that was a good thing. Liam laughed a little self-consciously and hooked his own little finger around Louis's.
"Deal," said Louis. "What time shall I come back tomorrow?"
"Early as you can, I suppose," said Liam. "I've got a photo shoot and a band rehearsal. If you can't be here I can take him with me and you can meet us somewhere."
"I'll be here." Louis made a funny movement like he was going to clap Liam on the shoulder or hug him or… Or something. But he didn't, and then he smiled a little apologetically, and stood up. "See you tomorrow morning. I'm really, really going to be good at this, I promise."
"I hope so," Liam said honestly. Louis didn't seem offended by that or anything. Liam found him a spare set of keys and called for a cab to take him wherever he lived, and then he went upstairs and crashed out on his bed still in his clothes from the day.
Liam rather hopefully made enough breakfast for three, in case Louis actually did come back. Liam wasn't much of a chef, really, and he'd swapped out all their white bread for wholemeal which made Sammy whine and shove his eggs around on his plate and pretend he wasn’t going eat them. Liam had a dream of serving breakfast properly on plates set round the table and giving Sammy real mealtimes where they'd chat about dinosaurs and trips to Jupiter, and it would be relaxed and comfortable, like a proper family meal.
Instead he always ended up trying to eat the bacon out of the pan with a fork while Sammy complained that it was the wrong sort of juice, and Liam's mobile buzzed because it had taken him longer than he'd thought – again – to get Sammy up and dressed. Liam was always late for something.
"I'm not hungry, I want to play Pokemon," said Sammy. "Daddy, I want to get down."
"You haven't finished—" Liam said, but Sammy was already wiggling his way off the chair. "You have to wash your hands before you touch anything!" Liam shouted after him, and then distractedly bumped his hand against the still-hot pan and burned it. He hissed out a pained breath and dropped the pan, and the bacon, all over the floor.
"Daddy?" said Sammy, running back in and clutching his video games in both hands.
"Don’t! It's still hot!" Liam said crossly. He was cross at himself, mostly; he didn't really have time to clean before he needed to go.
"Can I help?" Sammy offered. Liam's phone went from buzzing to ringing, and his hand still hurt. He didn't have time to supervise a four year old trying to clean up grease. He wanted was to sit down on the floor and cry for a minute.
"Go and play," Liam ordered, and Sammy looked a bit disappointed, but he took his game and left the kitchen. Liam tried to put his burned hand in the sink under cold water and answer his phone with the other hand at the same time, and just ended up dropping his mobile in the sink. "Crap," he said, fishing it back out. "Hello, sorry? Please don't die."
"I'll try not to?" said Harry's confused voice.
"Ugh, not you, I dropped my mobile." There was a strange noise from the living room, Sammy moving furniture, maybe.
"Just calling to see if you hired Louis," said Harry. He spoke so slowly, sometimes it was really frustrating, like when Liam was in the middle of three other things.
Liam shut off the tap and shook his hand dry so he could start wiping up the floor. "Yes, probably. If he isn't frightened off by what an absolutely crap day we're having already."
"Oh, good," said Harry, sounding genuinely relieved. "He'll be chuffed about that."
"Well, that's nice, I suppose," said Liam. "Listen, I need to go. Things are a bit mad here right now."
"Why don't you hire a chef and a maid as well?" Harry asked.
Liam could never tell when Harry was just taking the piss. "Because I'm a dad, I'm not running a child-raising business," Liam said, a little bit snappishly. "Don't you have some models to go and be photographed with?"
Harry laughed. "I love you, too," he said, and Liam turned his mobile off and stuffed it in his pocket so he could clean up the kitchen properly.
"Hello?" someone shouted. "Am I early? Late? Oh, hello. What's that?"
"Pokemon," said Sammy's voice. "See?"
Louis walked into the kitchen. He was carrying Sammy and he stopped in the doorway and looked around at the mess for a minute. Liam felt a distinct urge to tell him to go away until he had everything clean and sorted. "Hey," said Louis. "Would you like me to help him wash his face and hands? He's a bit sticky."
"Yes, please," said Liam.
"I don't want to!" Sammy said loudly. "I can wash them myself!
"Of course you do," said Louis, and then pulled an astonishingly silly face. It was so silly, in fact, that Sammy seemed to forget to argue, and allowed himself to be carried down the hall to the bathroom without a fuss.
It gave Liam the minute he needed to pull himself together so he could finish wiping up the floor and throw away the rest of the bacon. Down the hall Sammy was demanding to know if Louis had really brought him books about Jupiter.
"Is everything alright?" Louis asked curiously, when he reappeared with Sammy in tow. Sammy had swapped his Pokemon for a coloring book.
"Just a bit mad in the morning," Liam said. "There's breakfast if you'd like some. I've got the emergency phone numbers here somewhere, and you'll need to call Linda and figure out all that contract stuff. This is his GP's number, and if you can't reach me here's my mum's mobile, although she's probably at her ladies' book club right now."
Louis nodded. "Wow. That's sort of terrifyingly organized of you."
"He's got carrots and apples cut up for snacks and he doesn't get to watch television or eat crisps no matter how much he tells you he does," Liam said. "There's leftovers from yesterday for lunch and—"
"Do you do this every day?" Louis asked, tilting his head a little bit.
Liam stopped short. "Yeah," he said. "I mean. Someone's got to?" He didn't mean for it to sound like a question, but Louis was giving him the strangest look, as if everything he was doing was really odd.
"Okay," said Louis. "I see."
"He isn't allergic to anything but he's frightened of dogs, except the toy one Harry gave him. And there's a park across the street but if you go there take some plasters, I've got a cup of them by the door, because he always manages to fall off something. And he shouldn't be carrying Pokemon with him everywhere because he knows—"
"No! I just want to hold it!" Sammy said defensively, clutching his game to his chest.
Louis interrupted before Liam could get cross about it. "I've got markers that glow in the dark," he said. "Why don't we go and draw some stars and then we can turn the lights off and hang them from the ceiling?" Sammy went running into the living room to find them.
"If you need anything, call me," said Liam. "I've always got my mobile, and if I haven't got it then Rex is holding it for me, so if you have any questions or problems, or—"
"Got it. It's fine. Go to work," said Louis. "Any idea when you'll be back?"
"Not really," said Liam, a little bleakly.
Louis smiled reassuringly. "It'll be fine. If worse comes to worst, I can make an excellent dinner of entirely healthy foods, I promise. Everything is going to be absolutely alright."
Liam wanted to believe that, but he didn't really. Leaving Sammy with anyone all day, even his mum, always left him feeling like everything inside him had been tied into knots. "Just… Call me," he said again. "Even if nothing's wrong. I worry."
"Oh, do you?" Louis asked. "I hadn't noticed."
Liam glared at him half-heartedly. He knew he sounded crazy, but there were so many things that could go horribly wrong. Sammy was curious and fearless and opinionated and he did stupid things like dashing into traffic after a football or seeing how high he could climb trees and then falling out of them. And Louis wouldn't know, because he didn't know Sammy. If he stopped paying attention for a minute Sammy might run off and—
"I'll call," Louis promised. "I will let you know absolutely everything that happens, I promise. But everything is going to be absolutely fine."
"It's just easier when I have him with me," Liam mumbled. Sammy had been with him nearly every day – minus the nanny disasters – since Brooke had left. Louis was giving him a meaningful look, still, and it made Liam feel a bit embarrassed and a bit ridiculous. He went out and said good-bye to Sammy. Sammy gave him a hug but was much more distracted by the promise of things that glowed in the dark. Liam tried not to let it hurt his feelings.
Louis texted four times; once to say that they were going to the park, once to say they had come back from the park, once to say Sammy had eaten his lunch, and once because Sammy was asking for bubble bath and Louis couldn't find it. Liam texted him back probably more than he should have.
Louis called once as well, late in the afternoon when Liam was starting to go crazy from having been away all day. "Everything is fine," Louis said, and then, "Hello."
Liam laughed in spite of himself. "I'm not that worried," he lied.
"Right, obviously," said Louis. "I'm just calling to say I got in touch with your people and they've emailed all the forms and I've signed one million things and everything is in order."
"Oh, good," said Liam. He was surprisingly relieved just to hear that nothing much was going on.
"I think your management are doing a CRB on me as well," said Louis cheerfully. "Other than that year I spent in prison it should be fine."
"Joking. I am joking."
Sometimes Liam had trouble remembering how to breathe. "I knew that," said Liam, slightly strangled.
"We went to the park, Sammy found some other kids to play football with," said Louis cheerfully. "I mean, mostly he runs after the ball as it rolls away, but he's very good at it. A natural athlete. Otherwise we've mostly been planning our trip to Jupiter. I think we're bringing a picnic lunch."
"That sounds really nice," said Liam. He wanted to go on picnic lunches to Jupiter with Sammy, but he only had a ten minute break. It was a very strange feeling, knowing that he loved his job – if he could even call it a job – and wanted to be doing it every minute of the day, and that at the same exact moment he wanted to be home with Sammy all day long.
"And everything there is good?" Louis asked.
"Yeah," said Liam. One of the engineers was waving at him, which meant something needed to be fixed somewhere, and Rex had a terrifyingly thick binder of papers Liam needed to look over, and apparently he was approving some sort of limited-date tour around the UK shortly. That would mean a lot of chat shows and radio interviews and… Liam liked all those things, but he couldn't concentrate on them while he was worried about Sammy. "It's great, actually, things here are going really well. Thanks for, um…" He stopped awkwardly. You didn't really need to thank people you'd hired just for doing their jobs, but somehow what Louis was doing seemed different. "Anyway, I'll see you later."
"Yes, indeed!" said Louis cheerfully and rang off.
"Is the new nanny working out?" Rex asked.
Liam shrugged. "Maybe?" he said. "It's only been two days. Nothing's caught on fire, though, and Sammy doesn't hate him."
"Maybe you could get a couple of hours of sleep tonight," Rex joked. "Even hit the gym."
Now there was an idea. Liam hadn't had time to go and exercise in longer than he cared to think about, and it was one of the only ways he ever managed to feel like he'd sorted his head out. He dialed Louis back, making an apologetic face at all the people waiting on him. "Um, have you got official working hours?" he asked. "Because I don't want to be too late but I'd kill for half an hour to go running."
"Come back as late as you'd like," said Louis. "You would not believe how much you're paying me for this." In the background Liam heard Sammy say, "No, the rule was the green button makes it fly!"
It was a physical relief, like an actual literal weight off Liam's shoulders. "I'll text and let you know when I'll be back, then," he said, and smiled at the phone even though Louis couldn't see him.
"Excuse me, I think we're going through an asteroid belt," said Louis. Liam clicked his mobile off again. Maybe rather than shouting at Harry he needed to send him some flowers as a thank you.
The next day was the same basic thing; Louis came in and distracted Sammy with a book about dinosaurs, and Liam spent the entire day incredibly busy, but a little bit less worried than he would have been if he'd left Sammy with security playing in the hallways all day. There was still something very odd about Louis, something that made Liam's stomach twist just a little when he got home and saw Louis sitting on his couch. But maybe it wasn't entirely a bad feeling. Liam couldn't tell. He'd become numb to anything that wasn't worry or guilt over Sammy.
The third morning, Sammy saw Louis and instead of smiling back at him, his face started to crumple. "No," he said, in his whiniest voice. "Are you going away again? I want to come with you." He grabbed Liam's legs with both arms and hid his face against them.
Normally Liam found Sammy's whining frustrating and did everything he could to discourage it, except when he was feeling guilty and gave in to it immediately. But there was a tiny part of him that was really pleased Sammy didn't want him to go. "Louis's your new nanny," said Liam. "You're going to be with him lots and lots while I'm busy." He picked Sammy up and Sammy threw his arms around Liam's neck and clung to his shirt with both hands.
"Oh dear," said Louis. "I thought we were having fun."
"I want to go with you," said Sammy.
The right thing to do was to put Sammy down and tell him how much fun he was going to have with Louis. Liam knew that. They'd been through this before. But what he heard himself saying instead was, "I know, I want you to come with me, too," and that made Sammy cling tighter and start making noises that were suspiciously like sniffles.
Louis held his arms out in a clear question: shall I take him? Liam nodded and then… didn't put Sammy down, or hand him to Louis. "Sorry," he said. "It's um. When he's upset I get a bit rubbish at this."
Louis gave Liam a funny sort of look, like he was figuring things out. "Ah," said Louis. "Well, there's another way to do this, if you'd rather. We can come with you to do whatever it is you do all day, and while you're busy we can read about dinosaurs."
"I'm busy a lot, it's a bad idea," said Liam, but Sammy sniffled again. Liam kissed the top of his head and still didn't put him down.
"Hmm," said Louis. "I'll go and put a bag of toys together."
Liam said quietly, "You can't get everything you want just by being sad." Sammy shook his head. But then, why shouldn't he get everything he wanted? He was so young, and all he wanted was his father. Liam couldn't give him loads of the other things he wanted when he cried.
"Right," said Louis loudly. "I assume there are healthy snacks in the fridge and I should bring along some sort of hoodie, right? And some books? Sammy, do you want the one about the tyrannosaurus or the one about the little purple dinosaur?"
Sammy perked up a little bit. "I want both," he said.
"Excellent," Louis replied. "Shall we go?" He had a bag that was full of Sammy's things. It was slightly larger than Sammy himself was.
Liam sighed. "It's going to be really dull," he warned.
Louis grinned. "Nothing's dull when I'm around."
Liam was chatting to a DJ about the normal sort of things – very excited about the single coming out, even more excited about the album and the tour, no he had no idea who Harry was dating at the moment – when there was a thump on the glass of the booth behind him. Liam turned and there was Louis, pressing his face against the glass and puffing his cheeks out ridiculously, while Sammy tried to do the same and mostly giggled and got spit on the window.
Liam burst out laughing in the middle of a sentence. "Sorry," he said. "What was I saying?"
"Is that your son, Sammy?" the DJ asked. "He's adorable, he looks just like you."
"He's pulling funny faces outside the window," Liam said into the mic. "It's very distracting."
"He looks like he's having a good time. Is he excited about the new album?"
"You know, I haven't actually played it for him yet," said Liam. "He likes things that are a bit loud and silly. Actually, he's a huge fan of Harry's first CD, we play that all the time."
"Has he met Harry?"
"Oh, loads of times. I'm not sure he knows that the Harry who brings him toys is the same as the Harry he's heard on the radio."
"Well, he's a very lucky little boy." The DJ waved and Sammy waved back. Louis pulled a weird face and began flailing around as if he were being dragged down underneath the window. Sammy laughed and vanished as well.
"We were bored," Louis explained later. "Too many dinosaur stickers, not enough seeing what dad was up to." Sammy had settled perfectly happily on a bench with security and his Pokemon game. "Do you mind being distracted?"
Liam shook his head. "I like knowing he's having fun," he said.
That turned out to be a bit like issuing a challenge to Louis. During the next interview Louis put Sammy on his shoulders and walked back and forth behind the interviewer teaching Sammy to juggle very badly. And then when Liam was stuck in a rather long meeting looking at scheduling nonsense instead of going out to lunch, Louis and Sammy began a very loud game of racing toy cars up and down the hall. Only instead of making car noises they made duck noises and lion noises and once Louis clearly said, "Make a noise like a bunny rabbit!" and Sammy looked terribly confused until Louis began tickling him. Sammy burst out into hysterical giggles and Louis said triumphantly, "You sound just like a bunny rabbit!"
"Liam," said Rex. "Are you listening at all?"
"Er," said Liam, who hadn't been. "Yeah, of course."
Sammy was normally friendly and he liked nearly everyone he'd ever met – which was lucky, because Liam was always dragging him around to places with strangers – but he clearly really liked Louis. "You were right, I'm sorry," said Liam, when they slipped out for lunch. Sammy was distracted by a hamburger and being allowed chips.
Louis looked up at him quizzically, mouth half-full of hamburger. "Was I?" Louis asked. "That's fantastic. What about?"
"You said you were good with kids," said Liam. "I thought you meant… I don't know, I didn't realize you were actually really good with kids." He laughed a little.
"What on earth did you think I meant?" Louis asked.
"I just thought… I mean, lots of people say they're good with kids."
Louis nodded. He looked a little smug and a little silly and a lot like he was trying not to laugh at Liam. It was oddly cute. And not cute the way Sammy was at the moment, either, concentrating hard on carefully arranging his chips into a series of squares on the table. Cute like a funny lurch in Liam's stomach when Louis leaned over without even looking and moved the steak knife out of Sammy's reach. Cute like Louis's smile was a bit like looking directly into the sun. Cute like –
"Shall I take him home for the afternoon?" Louis asked.
Liam blinked. "Too boring?" he asked.
"More that I think he'd like a nap," said Louis. "Or I would. You look like you could use a nap as well."
"Always," Liam said, laughing. "I haven't had a decent lie-in since… Uh… Well, Sammy's four, so about four years."
"That," said Louis seriously, "is the saddest thing I've ever heard."
Liam shrugged. "I've got loads of other, better things to balance it out," he said. He leaned over and kissed the top of Sammy's head. "What do you think? Are you ready to go home for a while with Louis?"
"Okay," said Sammy. "Can I have ice cream?"
"Nope," said Liam. Sammy shrugged.
"He looks just like you when he does that," said Louis. Liam held up his hand for a high-five from Sammy, who slapped his hand without being distracted from his chips.
Liam managed to pack Sammy's things up and send him off with Louis without feeling terrible or guilty. And he managed it without having any other strange thoughts about Louis and his smile.
"I answered your house phone," said Louis, when Liam finally dragged himself home. "Someone called Zayn phoned and said he hasn't heard from you in two months and if you don't call him back tonight he's going to come and kidnap Sammy. He sounded quite serious."
"Crap," said Liam. "It can't have been two months. I'm sure I talked to him in… Um… A while ago."
Louis just rolled his eyes and handed Liam the phone. It was awfully late and Louis probably should have been able to go home a long time ago. Liam wished he had been.
"Sorry," Liam said to Louis, and sank onto the couch. Louis was doing something on his mobile and didn't seem inclined to get out of his chair. Liam was too tired to wonder why.
It was never too late to phone Zayn, since his job involved staying up all night. "I thought you were dead," said Zayn. "Or I would have except you just popped up on Sugarscape's twitter. Apparently you're having a good hair month?"
"Why on earth do you follow Sugarscape on twitter?" Liam asked.
"To make sure you aren't dead," said Zayn. "Listen, mate, I know things have been a bit crazy the last six months since Brooke officially left, but you have to call now and then."
Liam winced. "Sorry," he said. "I know, and I'm pretty close to getting things sorted again, I swear."
"Yeah, I talked to the new nanny. Or should I say manny?" Liam could tell Zayn was smirking over the phone.
"No, you should not say that," Liam said firmly. "Anyway, I'm sure I'll have more free time soon, and we can catch up. I promise."
"Haven't you got a single coming out?" Zayn asked. "How do you figure you'll have more free time?"
"Well… I… I'm an optimist, I suppose," said Liam.
Zayn sighed loudly. "You are actually ridiculous, Liam. Have you got any days off?"
Liam scrunched up his face, thinking, but he was so tired he couldn't remember anything Rex had said all day.
Louis said, "You haven't got anything on Monday." Liam stared at him. "Lisa sent me your schedule," Louis explained patiently.
"Oh," said Liam. "Uh, apparently I'm free on Monday."
"You aren't actually free," said Louis. "You promised to take Sammy to the park. You just haven't got any work."
Liam had no idea how to react to someone else knowing more about what his schedule was than he did. He was still staring rather rudely. "Er, correction, I'm taking Sammy to the park on Monday. But—"
"Great, I'll come and hang out," said Zayn. "And next time I text you you'd better reply, you arsehole."
"Yeah, I will, sorry," said Liam, but Zayn had already rung off.
Louis didn't look up from his mobile. "He sounds annoyed."
"I suppose I haven't really done anything with friends in… Um, a while," said Liam guiltily. "I've just got so much going on with Sammy and with the album. I didn't realize it had been months. He's probably calling up Niall as well. I hope he is. Why am I so crap at this?"
"At what, being alive?" Louis asked. "You beat yourself up quite a lot over things."
Liam frowned at him. "No, I… I just… I used to be better at them. I used to be able to work on music without leaving Sammy all day, and I used to be able to socialize with friends without needing to plan it weeks in advance, and—"
Louis looked up. "You've got a lot going on, is all," he said. He sounded oddly serious for someone who'd spent all day running up and down hallways making animal noises. "If you can't manage everything it's not the end of the world."
"But I can," Liam said. He hadn't meant to sound quite that angry. "I mean," he said, forcing himself to smile and unclench his hand from where he was holding too-tightly to the arm of the sofa. "I can manage all of this."
For a really long minute Louis didn't say anything. He probably thought Liam was absolutely mad. But Liam couldn't let anything completely go, because if one of the things he was juggling fell then everything was going to fall apart.
"Considering how late it is already," said Louis, "would it be weird if I just slept here tonight?"
"What? Oh—No, I mean, that's fine," said Liam. "I'm sorry it's so late."
Louis smiled. "S'okay," he said. "You're paying me an obscene amount of money to play with dinosaurs all day. Crashing at really nice house is not a hardship. There's a room down the hall that Sammy said is for Aunt Ruth, but since she's not here at the moment…"
"Yeah, of course, anytime," said Liam. "I'm sorry I sounded a bit snappish."
Louis shook his head. "You sounded tired," he said.
"I suppose I am," said Liam. "Make yourself at home."
"Oh, I intend to," said Louis. "Don't worry."
Liam woke up to a tremendous crash from the kitchen. He had a minute of panic – burglars? – and then he heard laughter and despite his pounding heart, his brain was fairly certain burglars didn't giggle. He felt a bit groggy. Liam checked his clock but someone had unplugged it, and his mobile wasn't by the bed.
He started to climb out of bed but then the door to his bedroom swung open. "Damn it," said Louis. "No, don't get up. I thought that might have woken you. Sammy's making breakfast, he wants to surprise you. Pretend you're asleep."
"What?" said Liam, but Louis ducked out again and closed the door.
Liam considered for a minute and then got back into bed. He'd give it a little while and then he'd go out into the kitchen and see what kind of horrible mess everyone was making. It wasn't like it was hard to lie down and pretend he couldn't hear banging and giggling coming down the hall. It was, in fact, horribly easy to close his eyes and pretend to doze off again.
"Daddy!" Sammy shouted. He was much closer than Liam had expected. Liam blinked himself awake again. "We made a fry up for you."
"Oh my god," said Liam, sitting up. "That's quite a lot of food."
Louis was holding an enormous tray with bacon and eggs and mushrooms and fried tomatoes and toast. "I've got plates," said Sammy. "And there's tea in the kitchen and I cooked." Behind him Louis pulled a face that said more-or-less.
"It looks amazing," said Liam. "Shall we go out to the table and—"
"Daddy, no," said Sammy sternly. "It's breakfast in bed."
"It's going to make a tremendous mess," muttered Liam, but he didn't argue when Sammy climbed onto the bed and began arranging himself a place to sit.
Louis put the tray down. "I'll go and get the tea."
"Are you surprised?" Sammy asked hopefully.
"I am completely surprised," said Liam. "Thank you." He dragged Sammy over for a hug, which Sammy tolerated for a couple of seconds before he wiggled away to start putting food on the plates. Liam winced because Sammy was dripping things all over his duvet, but before he could say anything Louis came back with tea.
"Here," said Louis, handing Liam a cup. Louis managed to help Sammy serve all the food without making Sammy think he wasn't in charge, which was quite a feat. "Okay, I can…" Louis said, nodding toward the door.
"Stay," said Liam. "You cooked – I mean, you helped cook," he corrected himself, at Sammy's offended look. "You should have breakfast with us."
Louis grinned. "I'll go and get more tea, then," he said.
The food was all undercooked or slightly burned, but it was the best breakfast Liam had had in ages. Maybe it was alright to have something greasy and delicious and make a tremendous mess now and then.
"How late am I already?" Liam asked. Louis pulled a guilty face. "My clock's unplugged, and I think you've got my mobile."
"It's possible we had a stealth mission this morning to turn the alarm off," Louis allowed, pulling Liam's phone out of his pocket. "And you aren't terribly late, as long as you don't need to shower or anything."
Liam wasn't at all sure what to say. "I'd rather be here than showering," he said, and hoped it sounded enough like 'thank you' for Louis to know what he meant. Liam snapped a photo on his mobile and tweeted it with Sammy made me a full english this morninggggg! Simon was after him to tweet more at the fans. He'd been better about it before things had gone sideways so badly.
It occurred to Liam rather guiltily that he'd let Louis look after Sammy all week without even trying to get to know him. "Where are you from? How do you know Harry? I don't know anything about you, really," said Liam apologetically.
Louis gave him a funny look. "And you got to know all the other nannies?"
"Well, but... You aren't quite like them, are you," Liam pointed out.
Louis sighed and took a huge bite of toast. "Louis Tomlinson, 25, failed singer, failed actor, failed everything, but unexpectedly good nanny. It's a pleasure."
Liam was a bit taken aback at that. "Sorry," he said. "What do you mean—"
"Sorry, that came out a bit sad. I just… I got rather suddenly sacked at my last job," Louis said, grabbing Sammy's hand before he could upend the tea. "And Harry, who I've known for ages, very kindly stepped in with this job recommendation. I know I wouldn't have been your first choice. It wouldn't be mine, either, but... It's going well so far, I think."
His tone was light but there was a current of hurt underneath it. "Really well," said Liam. When he wasn't sure what to say he always defaulted to bland and polite. It drove Harry mad in interviews.
"I know all about you, though," said Louis, smiling again. "I've done my homework. Plus, Harry has stories."
Liam winced. "I imagine he does. I rather thought he was sending you my way because he was worried I'd have a breakdown otherwise."
"He didn't not say that," Louis said confusingly.
"I'm doing alright," Liam insisted.
Louis laughed. He didn’t sound particularly amused, though. "Yeah, and I'm doing alright, too. We're both doing alright, aren't we?"
"We definitely are," said Liam, and Louis laughed again, for real this time.
"Can I come with you today?" Sammy asked. He was wiping his sticky hands off on the duvet. Liam tried not to wince.
"Not today, sweetheart, I'm really busy," said Liam. He wanted to pull Sammy into his lap but it would have just spilled food everywhere on the bed. "But you and Louis are going to do something really fun."
"Like what?" Sammy asked suspiciously.
Liam looked blankly at Louis, and Louis laughed at him a little bit. "I thought we'd play some football in the park," he said. "And then we were working on making a dinosaur alphabet, right?"
Liam didn't know what that was but it sounded like something Sammy would enjoy. "That's loads more fun than I'm going to have."
"Oh," said Sammy, mollified. "But… Can you come home for bedtime? You haven't been home to read me a story in forevvvvver."
It was a little like being stabbed in the chest. "I'll try," said Liam. He turned to Louis. "Has he been upset at bedtime?"
"Not really," said Louis. "A couple of stories creatively stolen and repurposed from Doctor Who and he drops right off. Don't worry about it."
"I like the story about the space lizards," said Sammy, and launched into what Liam had to assume was a mangled retelling of a bedtime story.
When Sammy was very tiny Liam had worked so hard to avoid doing anything that might have scarred Sammy for life. His real worry had been that he'd do something and not even realize he was doing it. What if it was something Sammy didn't even remember, but that still haunted him while he was growing up? But then Brooke had left and Liam hadn't had to wonder "what if" anymore, he just had to focus on keeping things from getting any worse.
"I should probably go," said Liam regretfully. He was so excited about the new album and a tour and all the things he genuinely loved to do. He just also wished he could have this every morning and spend all his time having breakfast with Sammy.
By the weekend Liam's house had devolved into such a big mess that it made Liam feel a little ill. Louis's stuff was everywhere, for one thing, and Louis had made himself at home in the guest room. "I told you," said Louis unconcernedly, "I don't clean. You should probably hire a maid or something."
Sammy was coloring a poster on the floor, surrounded by a disturbing number of papers and crayons and toys and dishes. "I'd really rather Sammy leaned to tidy up after himself," Liam said.
Louis sighed and flopped over on his back on the floor. "Then I am a terrible role model. I never tidy up after myself."
He didn't sound at all apologetic. Not for the first time, Liam didn't really feel like he'd hired Louis so much as just invited him to come and live with him, and play with Sammy all day. "Right, but…" Liam said, and then floundered. "I mean, you could tidy things up."
Louis made a horrible groaning noise. Liam was a little alarmed but Sammy didn't even look up from his coloring. "I'll call Lisa and we'll figure out someone to come and clean," said Louis. "Someone who'll sign the NDAs and promise not to steal your underwear, if that's what you're so worried about."
"No, that's not what – I mean, that's part of it, but… Sammy, c'mon, we're going to tidy," said Liam. It was easier to reason with Sammy than Louis, apparently.
"Noooooo," Sammy said, clutching his marker.
"Yes," said Liam firmly, dragging him to his feet. "Come on. You love to help!"
Sammy perked up at that. He did really enjoy helping. "Is Louis going to help, too?"
"Yes," said Liam. It would be unprofessional to kick Louis until he got up, probably, but he was still tempted. Liam Payne Nanny-Kicking Scandal. That would look amazing in the papers.
"I hate helping," said Louis loudly.
Sammy giggled. "You have to help," he said. "Come on. I'll show you."
"You are my best boy," said Liam, kissing Sammy's cheek. "Put the toys in their crates, yeah?"
"I don't wannnnnnna," Louis groaned. He held up his hands like he wanted Liam to help him get to his feet. Liam took his hands but the harder he pulled the more boneless and ridiculous Louis got, refusing to help at all. Liam laughed and pulled harder but Louis was pulling back down against him. He actually nearly toppled Liam over and onto the floor with him.
"You're silly," said Sammy disapprovingly.
Liam couldn't get his hands free of Louis's. "He is silly," he agreed. Kicking wasn't entirely off the table, was it?
"Both of you," said Sammy, shaking his head at them, and putting his toys and markers into the boxes where they were supposed to live.
"Oh, honestly," said Liam, hauling Louis up again. "I've got one four year old, and that's enough." He was trying to sound annoyed and not managing it very well.
"Oh, honestly," said Louis, mimicking him. "You're so tightly wound it's a wonder you don't explode twice a day." He got to his feet abruptly and picked Sammy up, spinning him around so that he laughed. "You like to help, eh? Then I suppose we should help, so your dad doesn't have a heart attack."
"Markers go in the box," said Sammy. "Toys go in the bin. Dishes go in the kitchen."
Louis blew a loud kiss against Sammy's neck and he giggled and squirmed. "You are your father's son," he said. "No mistaking that."
"Don't worry," said Liam cheerfully to Louis. "We'll fix you up. You'll love tidying by the time you're through with us."
"I won't," said Louis, but he laughed and grinned at Liam and then leaned down to help Sammy sort toys.
Zayn showed up to their park picnic with Niall in tow and a tremendously disapproving look on his face. "I'm amazed you actually showed up," he said, and then hugged Liam so hard he almost knocked him off his feet. "Are you okay, really?" Zayn asked over and over, while Liam nodded and tried to sound like he really, really was.
"Little man!" said Niall, high-fiving Sammy. "Oh my god, you got huge since I saw you last! What are you now, ten? Fifteen? A hundred? You'll have to come out with us for a pint soon!"
"I'm four," said Sammy, laughing.
"No," said Niall, "I'm sure you're at least a hundred. Aren't you?"
Zayn let go of Liam long enough to give Sammy a high-five as well. "He's so big."
"I know," said Liam. "It's like… Wasn't he just a baby? I'm sure he was."
"Ugh, you're such a dad," said Zayn, pretending to be disgusted.
"Hi," said Louis, beaming at everyone.
"And this is Louis, he's watching Sammy," said Liam.
Niall pushed his baseball cap back a little on his head. "Nanny, eh?" he said. "Interesting."
"I want to play football," said Sammy, pulling on Niall's hand.
Niall laughed. "He remembers I'm a sucker."
"I'll play, too," Louis volunteered, fishing a football out of the enormous bag of toys he'd brought.
It was a really nice day for the park, a little overcast but warm enough that Sammy wiggled out of his hoodie almost immediately. He and Niall and Louis seemed perfectly happy kicking the ball back and forth rather than playing any identifiable game with any sort of rules, so Liam and Zayn sprawled on the grass with all their bags.
Zayn leaned over and pinched Liam's arm, hard.
"Ow!" said Liam. "Hey."
"I thought you were dead," Zayn said.
"Not really, though," said Liam.
Zayn just frowned at him. "You've been really fucking hard to get in touch with the last few months, mate. No joke."
"I'm sorry," said Liam. "But I'm here now. And once all the album stuff is done and the tour is over I'll be around more."
"So, in another six months? Jesus, Liam, I wouldn't mind if things were going well, but—"
"Things are going well," Liam interrupted. Zayn snorted. "No, seriously. The album's ended up really good, the label people like it. I'm excited about the tour, and Sammy's happy with Louis…"
Zayn looked like he was going to argue and then shrugged instead. "Love the single," he said. "We're playing it loads at the club. You owe me an interview, by the way. We'll put it up as a podcast. People'll go mental."
"I can probably get Harry to do it, too," Liam offered.
"Yeah, cheers," said Zayn, leaning back on his elbows.
Sammy kicked the ball between Niall and Louis and they cheered as if he'd scored a goal. He came running back over to Liam for a congratulatory hug and then immediately pushed Liam away to go and play again.
"He only barely needs you anymore, eh?" said Zayn.
Liam punched him in the leg. "Not funny. Shut up."
Louis did a headstand and his shirt fell down over his face. Sammy and Niall laughed. Louis attempted to walk on his hands and ended up pitching over to the side into a tree and then sliding down into a heap, wailing like he was dying. Then he bounced back up and whispered something to Sammy. Liam was a little too far away to hear whatever it was, but clearly he was getting Sammy to show Niall some of the magic tricks he'd learned. They most involved yelling, "Abracadabra!" while Louis did actual slight-of-hand.
"Hmmm," said Zayn.
"What?" Liam asked. It was very weird, doing nothing with friends while someone else looked after Sammy. He hadn't relaxed in so long it felt like he'd forgotten how to. Zayn was giving him a funny, speculative look. "What?" Liam repeated. "Stop staring at me."
"It wasn't you I was staring at," said Zayn. He squinted at Sammy and Niall and Louis for a minute. "I was just thinking."
"About what?" Liam asked. Sometimes Zayn took forever to get to the point, it was as bad as trying to have a conversation with Harry.
"Did you by any chance interview loads of nannies?" Zayn asked.
Liam frowned at him. "No, I needed someone that day. Harry sent Louis and I didn't know what else to do. It's worked out, though."
Zayn sighed. "Too bad."
"No, it's great! I thought it was going to be a disaster."
"No, I mean it's too bad, because I was hoping you'd interviewed a hundred people and deliberately picked the hottest one." Zayn shook his head, disappointed.
Liam just stared at him. "Wait, what?"
"Well, you showed up here with a seriously fit bloke as your 'nanny.'" Zayn made little air quotes with his fingers. "It's weird. I was hoping this meant you'd remembered about sex and all."
"You are insane," said Liam, trying not to choke. "I'm the one with the son; I think I know all about sex, thanks."
Zayn rolled his eyes. "Not like that. It's been years since I've seen you even look at anyone, I just—"
"I'm married," said Liam. Zayn waited. "I mean, I was married," Liam corrected himself, looking mostly at the grass. "I wasn't going to look at anyone else.
"Yeah, but…" said Zayn. He bumped Liam with his shoulder. "She's been gone for a while, hasn’t she?"
Liam was finding Sammy's bag of toys suddenly fascinating. Plasters in case of emergency, a set of toy trains, the cuddly dog he'd got from Harry. "The papers only officially went through last month."
"But," said Zayn, "I mean, she's really been gone for a while."
There was a really long, heavy silence. Liam wasn't going to argue about it, because Zayn was right, but he also didn't want to talk about it, really. This was the problem with having friends. They insisted on asking about things Liam was perfectly happy to never think about again. Sammy's shrieking laugh rang out from where he was chasing Niall around a tree. Liam pulled out a toy gun Sammy had stuck in the bag and pretended to shoot Zayn with it, making little zapping noises.
Zayn laughed and pushed the gun away. "I was just excited that maybe you'd found someone you wanted to be around. Someone you thought was attractive."
"He works for me!" Liam protested. "You think I'd hire someone because I wanted to—Er, wanted to—"
"Fuck him?" Zayn asked, grinning wickedly. Liam elbowed him. "It's classic, isn't it? The dad and the nanny?"
"Not like this," said Liam, laughing. He put one hand up to block the sun and looked at Sammy and Louis. Louis had his arms crossed, laughing while Niall chased Sammy the other way around the tree. He was attractive, although that certainly wasn't why Liam had hired him. He had a nice laugh and excellent arms and a good sort of face, but Liam didn't have time to think about that kind of thing, and anyway, he was Louis's boss. It was weird. He shook his head and looked at Zayn instead.
"Ohhh," said Zayn. "I see. You want to, but you won't, because you don't want to be a gay pop star. I get it."
"Shut up," said Liam. Zayn looked so smug. "I don't think anyone would care much after Will Young and Adam Lambert, would they? Harry got papped kissing a guy last year, and it just made the girls scream louder."
"So you do want to fuck him, then?"
Liam put his hands over his ears and glared at Zayn. "Employee," he said.
"I just don't think the last time in your entire life you have sex should be when you were making an actual baby!" said Zayn. Liam really hoped no one could hear any of this conversation. Zayn tugged on Liam's arm until he moved his hands down again. "If it isn't him that's fine, but… get a girlfriend. Get a boyfriend. If you can't find one I'll find you one. I know loads of cute girls. Or boys. You tell me!"
"I'm fine," said Liam. "I'll get a… a whatever after Sammy's grown up and I don't have to worry about him anymore."
Zayn rolled his eyes again. "So in a million years."
"Yes," said Liam, a little defensively. "I'm busy at the moment."
"You could be," Zayn muttered, nodding at Louis, but then a couple of teenage girls saw them sitting on the grass and came over to ask for autographs and pictures. Liam smiled and posed with them and took one with Zayn as well – he was a bit famous, if you were the right sort of person, which actually Liam wasn't – and laughed as they walked away, whispering frantically to each other.
"I just want you to be happy," said Zayn. "You haven't been happy in ages."
"I'm happier than you think I am," said Liam. "God, people usually tell me to stop worrying. Come on; let's play football." He stood up.
"I'll get all sweaty," Zayn protested. He was wearing what looked like a really nice, expensive jumper.
"Yeah," said Liam. "You will." He picked up Sammy's bag so he could throw toys at Zayn's face, one at a time, while Zayn laughed and batted them away.
Louis fit in so well with Niall and Zayn and Sammy that it was easy to forget he was supposed to be working for Liam. It wasn’t nearly strange enough when Liam pulled sandwiches out of the bag they'd brought and Louis said, "Ugh, not that one, that one's disgusting," and pushed his hand away.
"That one's disgusting," Sammy echoed.
"It's just ham salad," said Liam. "And you are not teaching him to be a picky eater. No."
"I'm teaching him to be discerning," said Louis. He lay back in the grass with his hands behind his head. "And anyway I put slices of apple in the bag for him, so it's not like he's got nothing to eat."
"I'll eat it, whatever it is," said Niall, taking both of their sandwiches.
Sammy pulled a pouty face. "I want crisps," he said. "Or pizza. Can we have pizza?"
"Yeah," said Louis, rolling over. "Can we have pizza?"
Liam sighed at both of them. "Stop that."
Zayn, for some reason, was finding the whole thing unaccountably hilarious. "Yeah," he said. "Pizza."
"Don't you start," said Liam. "I brought perfectly good, healthy sandwiches."
Louis flailed a little. "I don't want a healthy sandwich," he said. He poked Liam's leg. "Pizza. Pizza. Pizza."
"Stop it," said Liam, trying not to laugh while he swatted Louis's hand away.
"I don't even have to be here today," Louis complained loudly. "It's my day off. I could be eating pizza anywhere."
Liam was immediately overcome with guilt. "Is it? I didn't realize. I'm sorry, if you want to go—"
Louis frowned at him, as if Liam were slightly stupid. "I want to be here, obviously. I just want pizza."
It still took Liam a second to get his breathing entirely back on track. It hadn't really occurred to him that Louis would have days off, and of course he'd have arranged it for the day Liam was free, that was really thoughtful of him. "Yeah," he said apologetically. "Okay then. Pizza, I guess. We can go and eat—"
Louis cheered and threw his arms in the air. A second later Sammy imitated him. Liam was slightly worried what was going to happen if Sammy spent a lot more time with Louis; what other weird behaviors was he going to pick up? Louis jumped to his feet and started helping Sammy put all the things he'd taken out to play with over the course of the morning back in the bag.
"See?" said Zayn quietly, elbowing Liam.
"See what?" Liam asked.
Zayn shook his head. "Fine, pretend that's not why."
It took Liam a second. "It's not!" he protested, but Zayn wasn't listening anymore.
Liam got home super late from the last day of rehearsals with the band, exhausted and worn out but a little bit high on anticipating the tour. He was so tired, though, and dreading getting up in the morning and wondering if maybe he could talk Louis into getting up with Sammy early.
But then he walked in and Louis was sitting on the couch with Sammy on his lap, and Sammy's face was red and puffy the way it got when he'd been crying. "Sammy?" said Liam, and Sammy looked over at him and burst into tears.
"It's okay," said Liam, picking him up. Sammy clung to Liam's neck and cried, somewhere between his loudest, saddest sobs, and the quiet way he grizzled when he was exhausted. "It's so late, sweetheart, why are you still up?" He looked over at Louis, who looked honestly tired out as well. Liam mouthed bad dreams? and Louis shook his head.
Sammy was just saying, "daddy," over and over when he could get enough breath. "It's alright, I'm home," said Liam, holding on as tightly as he could without actually crushing Sammy. "What's wrong, Sam? What happened?"
Sammy was too tired or crying too hard to explain what was upsetting him; he just clung to Liam while Liam rocked him back and forth the way he had when Sammy had cried as a baby. Eventually the sobs settled into quiet sniffles.
"I'm going to try and put him to bed," said Liam. "Do you mind staying up for a few minutes, I just—"
"Yeah, definitely, we should chat," said Louis, which sounded ominous. Especially since Louis looked half-asleep on the couch. He was keeping crazy hours, Liam thought guiltily. He needed to make sure Louis actually got a day off.
In the meantime he was feeling guilty over having left Sammy alone all day when he was so upset. Liam carried Sammy into his room and sat down on his bed. "What's wrong?" Liam asked again, but Sammy was tired and clearly still upset and he just made a choked, sad noise. "I'm sorry, sweetheart, I wish I'd been home a long time ago. Did you have a bad dream?" Sammy shook his head. "Did you get hurt?" Sammy shook his head again. Liam peeled one of Sammy's hands off his neck so he could kiss Sammy's fingers. Usually that made Sammy laugh, but he was clearly too upset and tired tonight. "Did Louis do something?" That hurt a little bit to ask, because Liam was scared Sammy would say yes, and then he'd have to… Well, he didn't know what he'd do.
"No," said Sammy. "I missed you."
Liam tried not to look relieved, because Sammy was still so upset. "You cried just because you missed me?" Liam asked. "Why didn't you call me? You know you can always call when I'm working."
"I know," said Sammy quietly. "You weren't here to read me a story."
It was like being punched in the stomach. "Is that why you're so upset?" Liam asked. He could quit working, maybe, cancel the tour, stay home forever, just so Sammy never sounded like this again – No, okay, that was crazy, Liam reminded himself firmly. It didn't feel crazy, though. It felt like he was being a miserably irresponsible dad.
"No," said Sammy. "I don't know. I missed you. And Louis…"
"What?" Liam asked. "What happened?"
"He read me a story," said Sammy. "And it was about a dragon who couldn't find his mummy. And… and…"
Never mind; this was much, much worse than just feeling guilty over not being home. "Oh, sweetheart," said Liam, kissing the top of Sammy's head. "Please don't cry."
Sammy was crying again, though, but it was more the tired cry than the heart-broken one. "She isn't here," Sammy said tiredly against Liam's chest.
"I know," said Liam. "She loves you very much, though. We can call her tomorrow, if you'd like. She loves to talk to you, you know that."
"She isn't here," Sammy repeated, tragic and exhausted, and then he yawned and hid his face against Liam's shirt.
He fell asleep not long after that, and Liam kept him in his lap for a couple of extra minutes, trying to figure out what he could have said or what he was going to do so this didn't happen again. There wasn't really anything. He couldn't fix it and he couldn’t explain it in a way Sammy would understand, so he was just going to have to go on and keep trying to hold things together. Even when it felt like he was trying to keep a handful of sand from falling between his fingers.
Liam tucked Sammy in and walked back out to where Louis was mostly-asleep on the couch. "I'm really sorry," Liam said. "It's so late. And I'm really sorry he—"
"No," Louis yawned, blinking himself awake again. "I didn't quite put together the plot of the book with… I shouldn't have read him that. I'm sorry."
Liam shook his head. "It's alright. It pops up out of nowhere sometimes." He sat down in the chair opposite the couch. He was so tired, but he wasn't going to be able to sleep now, he was too wound up with guilt.
Louis said a little hesitantly, "It would be easier if I knew what had happened…?" and let it trail off.
Liam put his head back and looked up at the ceiling. "We had a really amicable break up. She's working in L.A."
"No," said Louis. "I mean. That's great for the press and all, but that doesn't help me much when Sammy asks me if she's coming to visit soon."
It was amazing how silence could sound so recriminating. "Right," said Liam quietly. "Okay. I guess that's fair."
"I'm sorry, I know it's none of my business, but—"
"No," said Liam. "You're right. I just try not to talk about it. It keeps me from thinking about it all the time. It um… Okay. Well. The short version, I guess?" He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I met Brooke and she was fantastic, really fun and funny and crazy and wild. All the sorts of things I'm not. She was amazing. And then Sammy happened, which was an accident, but a good one, I thought. I'm a bit old-fashioned and I thought we'd do things the proper way, get married and settle down."
"She didn't want to?" Louis guessed.
Liam shook his head. "She was excited to, for a while. It was more… I mean, all the things I liked best about her, her spontaneity and craziness and wildness… They weren't really suited to staying home with a baby and being a housewife. Especially not when every time she went out she got papped and followed. She got restless and she wanted to go out and work instead. She's a model and an actress, and eventually she just stopped being here very much." There. That was as unemotionally as Liam had ever told the story.
"So she's in L.A. now?"
"We both thought it was better for Sammy to stay here. He's got his family here. She's coming home for Christmas, though."
Louis looked a little confused. "Christmas is months away."
Liam shrugged. It would have been easier if he'd felt angrier about the whole thing. "I know."
"And… not to be indelicate, but what have you told Sammy?"
Liam couldn't stop fidgeting. "Nothing, really, I suppose. That she loves him. That she'll be back. We call her a lot. She's busy, though, and—"
"Jesus," said Louis. "The divorce, and everything? Does he know about that?"
"I don't know how to explain divorce to a four year old," said Liam uncomfortably. "I didn't know how to explain it to my parents, honestly."
There was a really long pause. "At least it wasn't really bitter and all over the press," Louis said.
"No," said Liam quietly. "It was very civil."
"Are you… Are you upset about that?" Louis asked incredulously.
Liam shrugged. His chest felt incredibly heavy. "I just wish she'd wanted something from me, I guess. Ugh, I’m sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I'm really tired. And there's no way I'm paying you enough to work twenty-four hours a day so we should go to bed. You can take tomorrow off, I'm sorry you haven't had a break yet—"
"I'm fine," said Louis shortly.
There was something weird about his insistence on working all the time, but Liam was too tired to puzzle out what it was. Louis ran a hand through his hair so it was standing straight up and Liam resisted the urge to move over so he could straighten it out again. Louis's hair was his own business. He just looked tired and mussed and the stubble on his chin made him look a little older and…
Ugh, Liam was going to murder Zayn the next time he saw him. He hadn't had any thoughts at all about Louis's jaw before Zayn had planted them in his brain.
"Bed," said Liam. He stood up and offered Louis a hand up, too. "I'm sorry Sammy was so difficult tonight."
"I'm sorry I couldn't make him feel better," said Louis. "It'll be better next time." He let Liam pull him to his feet. For a minute Liam thought Louis was just going to sag forward against him and he'd have to drag Louis to bed, and that… That would not have been okay, actually. Liam refused to feel embarrassed over things that hadn't actually really happened, just stray thoughts flitting through his completely exhausted brain, but he was still glad it was dark in the living room because otherwise Louis would have seen his cheeks getting a little red.
"We'll both do better tomorrow," Liam said, and tried really hard to believe it.
Liam got up with Sammy in the morning because it was unfair to expect Louis to do it after such a late night. Sammy seemed to have forgotten that he'd been upset; he chattered happily about crayons and something Liam was only listening to with half an ear because he was still tired. He carried Sammy into the bathroom to clean his teeth and stared in confusion for a minute because there was a red toothbrush by the sink he didn't recognize.
"I wanna do it," said Sammy after a minute. "Put me down, I can do it myself."
Liam let him wiggle free. They had a little step for him to stand on so he could reach the taps himself, although he still had to be supervised so he didn't put an entire tube of toothpaste on his brush. "This isn't yours?" Liam asked him, picking up the red toothbrush.
"Mine has a dinosaur," Sammy said, mouth full of toothbrush.
"It's mine," said Louis sleepily, behind them. "Sorry. Is that not tidy enough?"
Liam turned with every intention of rolling his eyes, because no, he wasn't that worried about tidying. But Louis was wearing loose pajamas that hung off his hips and either Zayn or Liam being half-awake was to blame for the fact that Liam noticed, and then… Kept noticing. He dragged his eyes away from the inappropriately visible skin of Louis's stomach, but Louis's face wasn't much better; he looked rumpled and sleepy.
"It's fine," said Liam instead, half-strangled. "I'll go and make breakfast, if you'll watch him."
"Daddy, no," said Sammy, grabbing Liam's shirt with one slightly-toothpaste-covered hand.
Louis chuckled, and it was deeper and raspier than he usually sounded. Not that Liam was noticing. "I'll make breakfast," he said, and then he stretched, like a total bastard, so his shirt rode up.
Liam turned around, but Louis was still visible in the mirror. Liam tried closing his eyes for a moment instead. "That'd be great," he said.
"I want to show you my new game," said Sammy. "We made a box that's a time machine."
"I'd love to see that," said Liam. "Spit."
It was a lot easier getting Sammy ready and dressed while someone else made breakfast, even if that someone was singing one of Harry's songs loudly and deliberately off-key. "Does Harry know you butcher his singles?" Liam asked.
Louis grinned. "I try and make his ears bleed. Want to hear yours?"
"No," said Liam, but he didn't expect it to stop Louis from singing and it didn’t. Louis was clearly singing deliberately very badly, but his voice wasn't bad. Liam wondered how Louis had met Harry, if they had ever sung together.
Sammy put his hands over his ears. "Stop. You're like Scuttle."
"That's not nice," said Liam, trying not to laugh.
"That makes you Flounder," said Louis, pointing. Sammy giggled. Liam picked him up and kissed him loudly on the neck to make him laugh and squirm. He was going to be away the whole rest of the day, and a lot of days after that; he needed every excuse to cuddle Sammy while he was still home.
Louis yelled, "Breakfast! Get in here before I eat it all!" Sammy wiggled and pushed until Liam put him down so he could run into the kitchen.
Liam was amazed at how almost-manageable things seemed when he had another adult in the house. Not quite the family meal of his dreams but a lot closer than when he tried to do everything at once himself. "Thanks," he said to Louis.
"Whatever. I really will eat it all," said Louis. He deliberately bumped Liam with his shoulder as he carried food to the table and Liam laughed.
Lisa and Rex found time for Liam to catch lunch with Harry, because Liam having lunch with Harry was the kind of thing that got twitter all excited. Liam didn't actually mind, because he liked seeing Harry, but it was a little weird knowing people thought that hanging out with a friend was a saleable commodity.
They were alone in the back of the restaurant but people had certainly got pictures of them walking in. Harry looked like a rock star, but he always did; sunglasses hanging off the collar of his t-shirt, easy smile, trying to persuade Liam to have a drink with him just this once.
"No," said Liam, laughing. "I've got a radio thing after this and then a chat show, and I've got to sing."
"But I want you to be relaxed so I can hit you up for a favor," said Harry.
Liam couldn't tell if he was kidding or not. "You can always ask me for anything."
Harry grinned. "Promises, promises, Liam. What if I want something awful?"
"I know your mum. If you get too cheeky I'll just phone her." Liam shrugged.
Harry burst out laughing, throwing his head back. "I forget you fight dirty. You used to be so nice! What happened?"
"You, mostly," said Liam. "I was such a nice person before X-Factor. I'm sure I remember people saying that."
"Yeah, yeah, the rest of us are still trying to keep up with Saint Liam," said Harry. "Anyway this is a good favor. You'll like it."
That sounded a bit ominous, actually. "Is it pranking anyone, and is it likely for me to end up locked out of my hotel room naked again?" Liam asked. "Because I'm still cross about that."
"Oh, you are not, and you have a lovely arse, all of tumblr thinks so," said Harry. "And this isn't a prank. I mean, I guess it is, sort of."
"Harry," Liam groaned.
Harry finished his beer and waved for another. He had a wicked little grin that made Liam distinctly nervous. Harry's ideas were always hilarious and cheeky and no one ever stayed angry with him afterwards. But Liam wasn't very good at hilarious and cheeky, and as much as he loved that Harry still wanted to drag him along on his ridiculous plans, Liam was always nervous about them.
"You're doing a little tour, right?" said Harry.
"Five shows, London, Manchester, Leeds…" said Liam. He couldn't remember everywhere, actually, and after that was going to be a proper tour. He was trying not to think about it because he wasn't sure if there was a way to bring Sammy.
Harry said, "I want to be your supporting act."
Liam stared at him for a minute. "Well, you can't," he said. That should have been obvious. He waited for Harry to say something, but Harry just kept smiling. "Harry, you're a million times more famous than I am. Madonna isn't a support act for Aiden, you know?"
"Not a million times," said Harry.
"I distinctly remember getting voted off X-Factor before you," said Liam. "And I also remember one of us having a huge U.S. tour and a number one single in the States."
"But this isn't in the States. You've had plenty of hits, and people are going mental over the new single. But that doesn't matter," said Harry easily, "because I'm not going to be performing as me."
Liam felt like they were speaking Sanskrit or something. "Okay," he said.
"I've started a rock band." Harry's grin got much, much wider and wickeder. "A proper rock band. And I think we're good, but no one's going to tell me honestly, are they? It'll just be Harry Styles messing about. But we can do support for you and it'll be real."
"Harry, you're really really famous," said Liam. "People know what you look like. Your face is on at least three magazine covers right now. Are you planning to wear glasses and a fake moustache?"
"If I have to. Come on, Liam," said Harry, changing to his wheedling voice. "It'll be a laugh. And it'd be fun to perform together, wouldn't it? A bit of our bromance? People'll go crazy."
"Harry, you can't be my support act," Liam said. "It doesn't make any sense."
"And you can't tell anyone," Harry went on, as if Liam were agreeing to this. "I want it to be authentic."
Liam reached across the table and put the back of his hand on Harry's forehead. "Have you got a fever? Are you ill?"
Harry batted his hand away. "I'm brilliant," he said. "It'll be amazing. Come on, Liam, say yes. Come on."
"I can't say yes," Liam said. "I'm not really in charge of that sort of thing."
"Tell Rex you found an amazing new band and you want them to come on the tour to support you," Harry pleaded. "Come on."
"That won't work," Liam lied, looking at his lunch instead of Harry. "I've got a four year old. Whining is wasted on me. And anyway, I'm not in charge of that kind of decision, you know that. There's all those things the label worries about, they'd never put a band they don't know on stage. I'd have to tell them it's you."
"But I want to be a secret," Harry whined.
"It… I mean, they'll give you anything you want," said Liam. Why was he even thinking about ways to make this happen? Why hadn't he grown out of letting Harry push him into doing stupid things? "Just tell your tour manager that you want to do a tour, and—"
"Liammmmmm," Harry said, pounding on the table with one hand. "It can't be me! I want it to be my band."
Liam sighed. "I can't… I mean, if I tell Rex he'll be excited. But I have to tell him."
"Boo," said Harry. "I don't want anyone to know."
"Well, you can't have everything you want," said Liam.
Harry broke off a bit of dinner roll and threw it at him. "Of course I can. Okay, we'll only tell him and no one else, and you aren't allowed to tell anyone it's me, okay?'
"They'll know it's you the moment you step out," said Liam, shaking his head, but once Harry had a mad idea in his head there was no way to dissuade him. "Right, I want a favor in return, then."
Harry looked immediately suspicious. "What?"
Liam gave him a stern look that hopefully said You owe me. "I want to know about Louis."
"What do you want to know?" Harry asked. "He's working out, isn't he? He told me the nanny gig was going well. Better than his last few jobs."
"Yeah, it is. I just… He's not a nanny, really, is he? What was he doing before this? Because he won't tell me, and he doesn't ever want to take a day off. I'm breaking all sorts of employment laws, I think."
Harry sighed loudly. He started in on his second beer and didn't look at Liam for a minute, but Liam had learned that patience could wear Harry down. It was nice that they'd known each other for so long.
"I mean, I don't think he particularly wants me to talk to you about him?" said Harry finally. "I don't know. He didn't say so."
"If it's something really awful you don't have to tell me," said Liam. "I just want to get an idea who's moved into my house, you know?"
Harry laughed loudly. "Oh, is that where he's gone? He was living with me and all his things have been vanishing one by one."
"He was—" Liam started, frowning, because maybe he'd confused the whole thing and Louis was Harry's secret boyfriend, and they really should have mentioned that.
"No, like, he got kicked out of his flat last month," said Harry. He fiddled with his fork for a minute. "He's been staying with me because he didn't want to go home. He's just had a really shit summer. He was working on a radio programme and he was a bit cheeky to the wrong person and he got fired. And then he had this interview, for this television thing, and it was going so well, they called him in to sign the contracts and then decided to go another way at the last second. And he'd already told his mum and his sisters about it, and… He's a really funny actor and a good singer but nothing ever works out for him. He was staying with me, but just sitting in his room all day in the dark. I was a bit worried. Louis is only ever any good when he's busy. So I sent him to you."
Liam looked at him for a minute and then laughed. "You had no idea if he was going to be any good at watching my son, did you?"
"It worked out," said Harry, edging toward defensive. "Anyway, Louis's seemed a lot happier the last couple of weeks. You're good for him. Or Sammy is. He was devastated and now he's a bit better."
"I'm glad," said Liam. He was never going to forget the feeling of getting voted off the X-Factor as long as he lived. The way his stomach had sunk, the way Harry's eyes had gone wide and pitying, the way Liam had thought This is it, this is the end of my life, and tried so hard not to cry on television. If that was how Louis was feeling… Well, it was no wonder he didn't want a lot of free time to mope. "But you have to get him to have a day off, okay? Take him out drinking or something. Get him out of my house. I feel really bad, he won't listen to me and go."
Harry burst out laughing. "You are the only person in the world who's upset his nanny won't take some time off. You'd have met him years ago, you know, if you ever came to my parties."
"I've got a child," Liam protested.
"Bah," said Harry. "You never came to my parties even before you had Sammy, don't try and blame him."
Liam tried to look offended but that was basically true, so he threw bits of roll at Harry until Harry laughed and promised to take Louis out sometime soon.
It was the tiniest, silliest thing to get upset over.
What happened was just this:
Sammy, who definitely knew better, jumped off the back of the couch and slipped and banged himself on the floor pretty hard. Liam was halfway out the door already but then Sammy shrieked and started to cry, and Liam's heart stopped. He started to run back into the living room to pick Sammy up, but Louis was already there, already had Sammy up in his arms and was kissing his forehead where he'd knocked it against the floor.
"We're fine," said Louis, smiling at Liam over Sammy's head. "You're going to be late."
"But—" Liam started. Sammy's screams had settled down into quiet sobs and he was clinging to Louis's shirt the way he usually clung to Liam's. "You okay, Sammy?" he asked.
Sammy hid his face against Louis's chest and Louis kissed the top of his head. "He'll be fine, he just scared himself. He knows better than to jump off things, don't you? Unless it's a bouncy castle. Right?" He blew a loud wet kiss against Sammy's ear and Sammy squirmed a little bit, starting to giggle. "Really, we're okay. You can go."
"Oh," said Liam. He was unaccountably upset that Sammy wasn't still crying. He didn't want Sammy to be hurt, obviously, he just wasn't entirely sure how to feel about Sammy wanting Louis when he was upset. "I'll see you both later, then."
It sat at the back of Liam's head for the next couple of days, the idea that he wasn't home very much, and Louis was there – of course he was, that was his job – and if anything happened Sammy would go to Louis. It was perfectly logical. It was just a bit odd, because Louis wasn't really a nanny. He was more someone who had moved into Liam's house and was hanging out with his son all day and…
Apparently Liam wasn't entirely prepared for that.
It wasn't enough to distract him from smiling and signing things for fans or doing a radio interview, but on Wednesday Sammy was a little bit upset about Liam leaving again, and it was just enough to make him call home twice to make sure things were okay. The second time Louis laughed at him before he hung up. "Aren't you supposed to be a busy pop star? We're fine."
The afternoon interview went surprisingly badly; the girls from some website really only wanted to know how well he knew Harry and if Harry had ever kissed him and was Harry gay, and all sorts of questions Liam was definitely not going to answer. Then they turned around and started asking if the slower, sadder songs on the album were about his divorce and Liam found himself laughing uncomfortably through most of it. They didn't really want his responses, luckily, just to make their own stupid jokes, and it was only a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity.
"Lunch," said Rex, handing him a burger in a take-away bag. "Late, I know. You get cranky when your blood sugar is low."
"I get cranky when people are dicks," Liam grumbled. "Is there anything else? I'd like to go home. Louis's got the day off tomorrow, he's going out tonight with Harry."
"You have the weirdest relationship with him," said Rex. "He was in the paper, by the way, did you see? They got the two of you grocery shopping."
"Crap. They didn't get Sammy though, did they?"
Rex laughed. "You're more worried about that than the headline wondering if he's your friend, your employee, or your 'special friend'?"
"I'm always more worried about Sammy," Liam said. "I hope Louis doesn't mind showing up in those sorts of stories. I haven't been sending security out with him and Sammy, because they aren't recognizable, but maybe I should."
"You worry too much," said Rex. He held the door for the SUV open for Liam, who had stopped to sign a couple of things for fans standing around on the pavement outside the building.
Liam smiled for a camera phone picture and then climbed into the car. "No, but… What if they get followed? What if they get harassed?"
"They'll be fine," said Rex firmly. "You aren't exactly Princess Di, are you? Stop it, I can hear you starting to get upset."
"No, I'm not," Liam lied, taking his mobile out. He dialed Louis and tapped his other hand on his thigh, avoiding looking at Rex who was definitely rolling his eyes a bit. Louis didn't answer, though.
"They're probably at a park or somewhere with bad reception," said Rex.
"Yeah," said Liam. "Probably."
"Stop worrying," Rex said. "You're getting your picture taken next."
Liam worked hard at not pulling a face. "I just want the tour to start. I'm ready to start performing."
Rex patted his leg. "Soon enough. Are you absolutely sure this thing with Harry is a good idea?"
"No," said Liam, "but I never know what to do with Harry's mad schemes. If it all blows up after the first night we can send him home."
Rex raised an eyebrow. "You think anyone can send Britain's Sexiest Musician of the Year home?"
"No," said Liam. His finger hovered over his mobile and then hit call again without really asking his permission. "No one can ever make Harry do anything."
Louis still didn't answer. A couple of apocalyptic ideas flashed through Liam's brain and he shut them down firmly. Louis was underground on the tube for some reason. Or he was in a museum and he'd turned his mobile off. He was fine. Sammy was definitely absolutely fine.
"You okay?" Rex asked.
"Everything is great," said Liam firmly.
The house was terrifyingly quiet. Liam stood in the living room for a minute, trying to decide if it was possible Louis and Sammy had already gone to bed, but it was barely dinner time. "Hello?" Liam shouted. There was no noise at all except the humming of the refrigerator.
Liam pulled out his mobile and dialed Louis. He didn't pick up.
There was probably a completely logical and reasonable reason Louis wasn't picking up and hadn't all day, but logic and reason had no control over Liam's heart, which immediately started pounding. He stared at his phone for a minute, thinking of all the places they could be where Louis wouldn't have his mobile. Tube, huge crowd, park somewhere, hospital…
Well. That was a dreadful thought. Louis would have called, though, if he'd had to take Sammy to hospital. He would have called Liam immediately.
Unless, of course, he couldn't, because they'd both been in an accident.
"Ridiculous," Liam told himself firmly, out loud. "You are being ridiculous." There were lots of good reasons Louis might not be answering his phone.
Wherever they were, they'd want dinner when they got home. (Why weren't they home?) He went into the kitchen and chopped up vegetables for a few minutes before the urge to try and call Louis again got too overwhelming. He rinsed his hands off and then picked up his mobile and dialed again. It didn't even ring, it went straight to voicemail.
Liam wasn't overreacting and he wasn't panicking. He just needed to sit down on the couch for a minute with his head in his hands and breathe. That was a perfectly reasonable reaction.
The rattle of the doorknob turning should have brought a surge of relief with it. Instead it gave Liam an inexplicable surge of panic, even once he could hear Sammy saying excitedly, "And I liked the tyrannosaurus best. He was so big!" Sammy and Louis walked in, smiling and looking absolutely fine, and then the panic went and turned straight into anger.
"Hey," said Louis easily, hanging his jacket up. "You're home early."
"It's Wednesday, I was coming home because you're going out with Harry tonight," said Liam. His voice sounded pretty even, although his chest felt like it was being squeezed by some sort of vice.
Louis laughed. It was absolutely infuriating. Liam never got properly angry like this, it was a very strange feeling. If Louis wasn't dead, why the hell hadn't he answered his phone? "It's Tuesday," said Louis. "My night out's tomorrow. Otherwise we'd have already been home."
Being mistaken just made Liam feel angrier about the whole thing. It had been a miserable day and he felt stupid for having panicked and worse for not knowing how to deal with how upset he was. "You didn't answer your phone," he said.
"I got a tyrannosaurus toy," said Sammy, holding it up to show Liam.
Liam couldn't honestly be especially interested in a toy at the moment. "I called half a dozen times, you never answered your phone," he repeated.
"I answered twice this morning," said Louis. He pulled his mobile out and shrugged at it. "I turned it off at the museum and forgot to turn it back on, I guess. Whoops."
"Daddy?" said Sammy, frowning.
Liam was staring at Louis with what must have been an absolutely incredulous look, because Sammy had stopped playing, and the smile dropped off Louis's face. Liam picked Sammy up and gave him a quick, perfunctory kiss on the top of his head, and then walked him into his room and closed the door after him. He had never shouted at anyone in front of Sammy and he wasn't planning to start now.
And then he turned around and growled, "How could you possibly have left your phone off for hours and hours while you were out with my son?"
"It was an accident," said Louis. "Anyway, he's fine."
"That's not the point!" Liam shouted.
Louis stopped and stared at him. Liam couldn't breathe. He never yelled, not unless he was kidding, and he didn't know how to control it when he was honestly angry.
"Okay," said Louis a little incredulously. "I'm sorry I didn't answer the phone. But I know what I'm doing with Sammy—"
"Do you really not understand why this is a huge deal?" Liam demanded. "I need to know where he is, and where you are."
"But he's fine," said Louis. "I'd have called if anything was wrong. I'm sorry, alright? Calm down."
"Don't tell me to calm down!" Liam yelled.
"Stop yelling at me over an accident!" Louis said. "I apologized! It won't happen again—"
"If I can't trust you to even answer your phone—" Liam started, so angry that he couldn't feel his fingers. "I know you're not a real nanny, you're not a real anything, and it's no wonder. That's the most irresponsible bloody thing you could possibly do."
"Sammy's fine!" Louis shouted. "I don't know what your problem is. I'm sorry I didn't answer the fucking phone, Liam. I will do next time, alright?"
"Absolutely useless, I knew I shouldn't have just hired one of Harry's friends—"
"Fine!" Louis snapped. "I'll just go, shall I? Deal with everything by yourself again; you're so bloody good at that. It's not like Sammy needed someone to pay attention to him and take him out to play. You can't give him everything he needs and you know it, but you're welcome to try! Jesus Christ."
"Don't you dare try and tell me what I can't do for my own son," Liam said. Louis made an angry noise, not quite a word and not quite a shout, grabbed his jacket, and stormed out.
Liam's heart was pounding in his ears. He made himself start to breathe again, because he'd stopped somewhere in the middle of fighting with Louis — and what the hell was that, honestly, because Liam never fought with anyone. There certainly wasn't anything satisfying about having made Louis leave, either. He just felt rotten. Still angry that Louis hadn't answered his phone, still angry that Louis hadn't taken it seriously, and a bit angry with himself for calling Louis names.
He wondered if Louis had just resigned. It was a bit awkward, not knowing. He had things all over Liam's house; was he going to send someone to come and get them? Harry, probably. That would make sense.
The door to Sammy's room creaked open. "You were yelling," said Sammy in a very small voice, with just a hint of accusation.
"Not at you, sweetheart," said Liam. "I'm never cross with you. Come and… Come and tell me all about the dinosaurs you saw today."
Sammy still looked doubtful but he came out and sat with Liam on the couch and showed him the Tyrannosaurus toy he'd got and the movie he'd watched about how the dinosaurs all died. "Where's Louis gone?" he asked at the end of a very long and slightly confused explanation about what a meteor was. "Isn't he having supper with us?"
"He's gone home for a while," said Liam, which was a nice, neutral answer. Why was he always having to tell Sammy that people had gone without being able to tell him why? Most of the anger drained out of him and left him just feeling wretched and guilty.
"Can we have ice cream, then?" Sammy asked hopefully.
"Yeah," Liam sighed. "We can have all the ice cream you want."
By the time Liam put Sammy to bed, he was starting to hear his own words echoing around in his head as if he were shouting them over and over. This was why he tried never to get angry. He could never let it go afterward. But he was still cross with Louis and didn't want to call him and apologize when he was worried he might start shouting again.
He called Harry instead. "Is Louis there? I don't want to talk to him, I just… Wanted to make sure he was somewhere," said Liam.
"Everyone's somewhere," said Harry, in his infuriating drawl. "Shouldn't he be with you?"
"He… Uh, no, he's not here, so if he shows up there that would be good," said Liam.
There was a little pause. "What the hell, Liam?" said Harry. "You're being really weird."
"No, he… I yelled at him a bit and I just wanted to see if he'd gone back to yours, but if he hasn't then that's fine, I'm not in charge of him. I don't care where he goes, it's fine."
"You yelled at him?" Harry repeated incredulously.
"I… Yeah." Liam sighed. "He was an irresponsible dick and I yelled at him."
There was a much longer pause. "Whoa," said Harry eventually. "This is blowing my mind."
"You should probably call him and figure out where he is because he seemed pretty angry," said Liam, picking at some imaginary lint on his jeans. "And I'd like to know if he quit or what, but I mean, that's not your problem, obviously."
"Wow," said Harry. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Liam said. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Harry whistled. "I can't wait to hear Louis's version of what just happened," he said, and rang off.
Liam was not at all interested in hearing how Louis was going to describe walking in and getting shouted at. He couldn't work out if he felt more guilt or more anger, and either way it was upsetting his stomach.
Harry was probably going to wind up cross with Liam, too, since Louis was his friend. Harry hadn't ever understood why Liam worried so much, not when they'd been on the X-Factor tour together and Liam had followed Harry to the parties to make sure he drank enough water so he didn't die, or when they spent time hanging out together between tours, in Spain, and Liam insisted Harry wear suncream. Harry certainly didn't know what it was like to have a child to worry about all the time.
Liam thumbed through the contacts on his mobile for a minute before settling on Zayn. "Hey," he said. "I'm sure you're doing really exciting things at the club right now—"
"On a Tuesday?" Zayn said. "I'm home watching EastEnders."
"Well I'm having a crap night," said Liam. "What if you came and watched EastEnders over here?"
"It'll be over by the time I get there," said Zayn. "I'll bring a movie instead, yeah?"
"Yes, please," said Liam.
Zayn didn't ask what had happened and he didn't ask if Liam was okay, he just said, "You've already got all the Disney and Muppets anyone could ever need so I'll bring something about sports," and then hung up. Liam loved him, he really honestly did.
Zayn slept on the couch and got a rather rude awakening when Sammy jumped on him at half past six. "No," said Zayn rather flatly. "Liam, come and get him!"
Liam laughed at Zayn but he rescued him from Sammy, who really just wanted someone to play dinosaurs with him. "I had a dream I was a train," he said. "And then it was on a waterslide. Can we go on a waterslide?"
"Eventually, I suppose," said Liam, carrying him into the kitchen. He'd taken Sammy to Orlando a couple of times, even though he was too small for most of the rides he wanted to go on.
"Where's Louis gone? I don't want eggs, I want beans on toast. And I didn't wash my hands yet!" He held up his hands as proof, wiggling madly to get down.
"Go and wash them, then," Liam sighed, putting him down.
"I haven't cleaned my teeth, either!" Sammy shouted, running to the bathroom.
"Your kid is really weird," Zayn said. His hair was sticking up in seventeen directions.
Liam looked into the fridge and frowned. "You aren't going to be late for work, are you? Eggs and toast and beans and so on okay?"
"Do you seriously think I go to work before noon, ever?" Zayn asked. "I only ever see this time of the morning when I'm still up from the night before." He groaned and yawned and stretched. "Have you got tea? I can't be awake without tea."
"I want to!" Sammy shouted from down the hall. "Daddy, I want to make the tea!" He came pelting back down the hall and insisted Liam pick him up so he could reach over and flip the switch to turn the kettle on.
"Can you distract him, please, so I can make breakfast?" Liam asked.
Zayn pulled a face, but all he really needed to do was sit on the living room floor with his tea and nod a lot while Sammy explained the names and life stories of all his various dinosaurs. "This is the tyrannosaurus and he's married to the apatosaurus and they live in France—"
"Why do they live in France?"
Sammy rolled his eyes as if this were the stupidest question ever asked. "Because they speak French. And they take the train to London on the weekends. And this is—"
It was a lot easier to make breakfast without Sammy running around underfoot. Maybe all Liam really needed was another adult in the house, anyone at all. It didn't have to be a nanny or a babysitter, just someone to distract him for a little while. Maybe he could convince Zayn to hang around and spend mornings with them.
Well. No, because that would require Zayn to be up in the morning and he was only barely awake as it was. "Breakfast," Liam said, putting plates out.
"Daddy, Zayn hasn't washed his hands," Sammy said.
"Are all four year olds terrorists, or have you just got lucky?" Zayn grumbled.
Liam tried not to laugh at him. "Go and wash your hands, we have rules in this house."
Sammy asked twice during breakfast where Louis was, and both times Liam distracted him with more food. Zayn kept giving him looks, though, as if Liam should have had some kind of answer about Louis and he didn't. He was still a little angry, and he was overwhelming feeling guilty about having lost his temper, and he wasn't sure what to do about either one of those. He was a little hesitant to call Louis, and honestly it would probably have been a good idea to call up Lisa and get her to find him a proper nanny to look after Sammy and avoid this sort of thing in the future, but… Sammy liked Louis. And Liam did, too, when he wasn't absolutely furious with him. The idea of starting all over again seemed so depressing.
"Plans for today?" Zayn asked, waving his hand at Liam. That meant he'd asked before, whoops.
"Well, it's Thursday, so I've got the day mostly off," said Liam. "I thought I'd take Sammy out somewhere."
"It's Wednesday," said Zayn.
Liam winced. "I keep forgetting, Louis and Lisa are the ones who know what day it is, usually. Well then, I guess he's coming with me to a rehearsal. And then the park or something. That sounds fun, right?"
"I was going to go and see the boats with Louis," said Sammy, a little accusingly.
"Well, he'll…" He'll take you some other time might have been a lie, and Liam couldn't bring himself to say it. "We'll call him," he said. That was true, although Liam didn’t really mean to do it anytime soon.
"I want to see the boats," said Sammy mutinously. "Where's Louis? He was going to take me. I don't want to go with you, I want to go with Louis."
The louder Sammy got, the more Zayn looked like he was afraid a bomb was about to explode. "We don't yell to get what we want," said Liam, trying to sound perfectly calm.
"But he promised!"
"Well… He can't take you today," said Liam. Zayn gathered up the dirty plates and walked them over to the sink, clearly uncomfortable to be anywhere near a family dispute.
Sammy switched tactics abruptly, sticking his lower lip out and letting his eyes fill up with tears. "But I want to see the boats," he said, voice trembling. Liam didn't know what boats he was talking about or where, but he would have taken him if he could have. Watching Sammy cry was devastating.
"He can't today, but—" Liam started.
Sammy burst into great heaving tears, kicking his feet. He put his head down on his arms on the table and wailed, "But he prommmised," as if this were the absolute end of the world.
"Stop, stop," Liam said, meaning for it to sound like an order, but it sounded a lot more like a plea. He reached over and picked Sammy up, although Sammy tried to twist away furiously. After a minute he settled for sobbing into Liam's shoulder.
Zayn still looked mildly horrified. "So what do you do when he's… Like this?"
Liam sighed. "What do I do, or what should I do?"
There was a knock on the door, and then a minute later the noise of keys and the door opening. Louis walked in, looking tired and apologetic and weirdly serious. "I've, uh, I've still got keys," he said.
Liam had expected to still feel cross when he saw Louis again next, but instead he felt overwhelmingly relieved. "Hi, yeah, of course you do," he said.
Sammy looked up from his crying fit. His face was red and streaked with tears, and Liam really needed to do something before he grew up to be a complete monster. At the moment, though, Liam was just pleased he'd stopped crying. "Can we go and see the boats?" Sammy asked hopefully.
There was a long pause. Liam wasn't sure what to say, and neither was Louis, clearly, and they couldn't really discuss it easily as things were.
Zayn said, "Uh, I'll take Sammy to go and wash after breakfast, shall I?" He took Sammy out of Liam's arms, still sniffling a little bit. Zayn gave Liam a very stern look over the top of Sammy's head, although Liam wasn't entirely sure what it was supposed to mean. And then he and Sammy vanished down the hall.
"Hi," said Louis quietly. "So… I'm not really clear on whether or not you fired me yesterday."
Conversations that felt this awkward were usually with people Liam was dating or married to or something. "No," he said. "I thought maybe you resigned?"
"No," said Louis.
There was a pause. Liam was doing a terrible job of conducting this conversation like an employer and not just someone who was feeling guilty after a fight.
"Listen," said Louis, rubbing his arm distractedly with one hand, "I'm really sorry about yesterday. I get why you'd be worried, I should have noticed my mobile was off. I haven't really done this with kids who weren't my sisters, and with them I knew what I was doing. And they turned out fine, so… I mean, maybe I'm a bit overconfident that I know what I'm doing."
"I never normally yell," said Liam. "I'm sorry. I said a couple of things that—"
"It's fine; I'd have called me names, too," said Louis. He visibly relaxed, trying out a smile, and Liam smiled back.
"No, it's not," said Liam. "I should have been angry without being rude."
Louis stared at him for a minute. "You have really high standards for everything," he said. "Sorry, I'm being cheeky again. Listen, I promise, if I'm not actually fired, I'll take my mobile with me and text you every half an hour, on the minute, from now on."
"That's not necessary, you're—"
"And I'll carry a back-up phone in case that one isn't working, and a back up for the back up, and—"
"It's fine," said Liam, trying not to laugh. It was really difficult to stay cross with Louis when he was so determined to be funny. "I mean, it's not fine, but… I had a lousy day and I shouldn't have lost my temper." Liam shrugged weakly. "I'm just glad you're back. Thanks for not quitting, I guess, and for not—"
"Liam," said Louis, shaking his head. "Sometimes I'm a twat, okay? It's fine. When I am, you can shout at me, and I'll shout back, and then we'll both move on with our lives. It doesn't have to be the end of the world. Harry says you basically never get cross with anyone, which probably means you've got a serious explosion waiting to happen. I am here if you need someone to get cross with." He held his arms out magnanimously.
Liam was trying really hard not to giggle at him. "You're offering to let me shout at you when I'm having a lousy day with… whatever?"
"Well, you don't drink, and you don't yell. It's a wonder you don't ...." He made a noise like an explosion, wiggling his fingers around to demonstrate.
"I guess it is," said Liam.
Louis smiled at him, not his manic, ridiculous grin but a real smile. "It sounded like Sammy missed me," said Louis. "I'll just go and rescue Zayn."
"Thanks," said Liam again. It was a tremendous relief and just… Just a general feeling of being glad Louis was back. Louis just shook his head and went to find Sammy and Zayn.
Things went back to the way they had been before, except that Zayn started calling every couple of days and asking, "So, anything between you and the nanny yet? I saw the way you stared at him."
"No," said Liam. "It'd be really unfortunate if he quit because I was sexually harassing him."
"So don't harass him," said Zayn. "Just ask if he'd like some employment benefits, if you know what I mean, and—"
"I'm hanging up on you," said Liam loudly, and clicked his mobile off.
He was not, under any circumstances, going to entertain thoughts about Louis, no matter how much Louis smiled or laughed or was obnoxiously attractive. He made Sammy really happy and although he wasn't really a nanny he was an excellent full-time caretaker in an unorthodox sort of way. Liam wasn't going to screw that up by making some kind of clumsy pass at him. Liam wasn't any good at that kind of thing even when it wasn't an employee.
It was just that things kept happening.
Liam came home early and found Louis and Sammy sprawled in the living room surrounded by every single toy Sammy owned. "Oh my god," said Liam. "Oh my god."
"Shh," said Louis sternly. "You're interrupting the dinosaur wedding."
It wasn't the weirdest thing Liam had heard when he got home. "All these toys are party guests?" he guessed.
"There's been quite a lot of planning going in to this," Louis explained. "The trains are the best men and the dog is the mother of the bride."
"Oh, obviously," said Liam. He picked his way carefully through the sea of teddy bears and cuddly toys and considered that maybe Sammy had more than enough things to play with. Louis scooted over so there was a bit of room to sit down in the cleared space next to the dinosaurs, but Liam was still practically halfway in Louis's lap. Liam moved a train over and Sammy turned and said, "No, daddy! He has to be there, that's the aisle! You're sitting in the aisle."
"Sorry," said Liam, trying to scooch backward.
"They've got wedding rings made of pipe cleaners," said Louis.
Liam wasn't entirely sure how to feel about this elaborate toy wedding. "Is this all your idea?" he asked Louis hopefully.
"No," said Louis. "That special about royal weddings was on, sorry, I didn't mean to leave the television on at all. But then Sammy decided the dinosaurs needed a wedding too. I guess they've been living together in sin in France for far too long."
The tyrannosaurus had a long bit of toilet paper tied around its neck and trailing across the floor. "The tyrannosaurus is the bride?" Liam asked.
"Yes," said Louis. "She's very happy, apparently. I mean, there must have been lady t-rexes." He laughed and elbowed Liam a little.
Liam couldn't figure out a way to shove Louis away without actually putting his hands on Louis, and he just kept thinking what Zayn would say if he walked in. "Tell me the truth," he said, trying to edge just a little bit away. "Have I got the weirdest kid in the world?"
"One of my sisters pretended to be a panda for a week," said Louis. "She would only eat leafy greens and she kept trying to chew on twigs. My mum was going to take her to the psychologist. This is just a dinosaur wedding." He patted Liam's leg in what was probably meant to be a reassuring manner. But then he left his hand on Liam's thigh for a moment and… God, what kind of terrible parent was Liam, when he couldn’t keep his thoughts on his actual child and how weird he was, rather than hands on his legs?
"Daddy, you're the minister," said Sammy expectantly.
"Oh, uh," said Liam. "Um, do you, t-rex, take the apatosaurus to be your lawfully wedded dinosaur?"
"I do!" said Sammy in a squeaky voice.
"And do you, the apatosaurus, take the t-rex to be your dinosaur bride, I guess?"
"I do!" said Sammy.
"Then I guess they should kiss," said Liam.
Sammy gave him a dark look. "Dinosaurs don't kiss, daddy. Everyone knows that." Both the dinosaurs made growling noises instead and had a little fight between them while Sammy made them jump around and claw at each other.
"Everyone knows that," Louis echoed seriously, and then had a quiet giggling breakdown, hiding his face against Liam's shoulder. Liam patted him awkwardly on the back to avoid touching him anywhere else.
"I suppose I'm going to have to clean up from this wedding," Liam said to no one in particular.
"They're going on a honeymoon to the bathroom!" said Sammy, jumping up. "The shower is going to be a waterfall."
"Okay," said Louis, standing up to follow him. "Maybe he is one of the weirdest kids ever."
Liam called after them half-heartedly, "Someone should really help me put all these toys away!" There were splashing noises coming from the bathroom, though, and Sammy was giggling.
"Have you got any water guns?" Louis shouted.
Liam considered that question for a minute and then got up, took out Sammy's collection of water guns, and filled one up at the sink. A minute later a very soaked Louis came running out. "Help! I'm being drowned!" he shouted. Behind him, Sammy was laughing like mad.
Liam shot him with the water gun. It seemed like the only thing to do, really.
The clean up after that took days.
"Look at this," said Louis. "There are cockroach tours of the science museum. We are definitely doing that this weekend."
Liam was caught halfway between horrified and fascinated, particularly since he was making lunch. "Not really."
"Yes, really!" said Louis, cackling. "You get to dress up like a cockroach. Can you imagine anything better?"
"I… What?" said Liam. "Really?"
Louis was already lying on the floor with Sammy, who was trying to put a wheel back on his train with great concentration and ignoring both of the adults. "Would you like to dress up like a cockroach?" Louis asked, and then wiggled about on the floor a bit, presumably the way a cockroach would.
"Eww," said Sammy, and then laughed. "What's a cockroach? Can we dress up like them?"
"Ugh," said Liam. "Who wants lunch? Sorry, I meant who wants to wash for lunch and then sit at the table like a human being."
Sammy moaned. "I want to eat here, with my trains."
"We have a perfectly nice table," said Liam.
Sammy pulled a truly pathetic face. "Are you going away again after lunch? Come and sit on the floor with me."
That was entirely not fair. "But—" Liam said, because he was about to go. Why was Sammy so good at that and why did it always work? "I mean, I suppose—"
"Don't be ridiculous," said Louis, standing up. "Come on. Your dad said we're eating at the table." He dragged Sammy to his feet. "Go and wash. Go!" He gave Sammy a little push down the hall and then turned to give Liam a truly unimpressed look. "You are rubbish at this sometimes."
"Hey!" Liam protested. "I just… I mean, he misses me, and…"
"Rubbish," Louis repeated. "Who let you have a kid, honestly? You're a disaster."
"Shut up," said Liam, inexplicably cheered by Louis's teasing. "This isn't as easy as it looks."
"No," said Louis, getting out plates. "It's easier. Look at me, I'm a natural."
Liam sighed disapprovingly at him. "Well, I'm sorry I'm not as natural at it as you are." This was definitely not the way he was supposed to talk to someone who worked for him, but it was so easy to forget Louis wasn't just part of the family. Liam didn't especially want to remember that, ever.
"You do alright for a first-timer," said Louis.
"So tell me how you got so good at it," said Liam, assembling sandwiches. "Harry says your CV is all performing and stuff. Why aren't you doing that?"
Louis groaned. "Do we have to talk about it?"
"Yes," said Liam. "You called me a rubbish dad and I didn't throw anything at you."
Louis concentrated very hard on setting the table for a minute. "Fine. That's fair, I guess. Since your life is an open book. Just as long as that book is Fabulous or Shout."
"Teen Vogue sometimes, too," said Liam.
Louis laughed and Liam could see him relax just a tiny bit. Liam congratulated himself silently. "Okay," said Louis, clearly bracing himself a bit. "Well, there was a play I was in that got closed on opening night. There was an advert that didn't end up getting aired. There was a musical I was an understudy in. There were a couple of years of drama school which didn't go as well as I might have hoped. There was the radio gig I got sacked from. There were a bunch of nearly, almost parts in a bunch of television programmes."
"Wow," said Liam. "Okay, that's a bit discouraging."
Louis sighed. "I'm just getting a bit old to keep having stuff fall apart. And my mum is tired of loaning me money."
"Yeah," said Liam, "you're so old."
"Shut up," said Louis, shaking his head. "What do you know about things not working out? You were on X-Factor and now—"
"I only scraped by on X-Factor because of Harry," said Liam. "And which one of us is already divorced, okay? I've had my fair share of things not working out."
"You were adorable on X-Factor," Louis protested.
"Ha!" said Liam, putting the sandwiches on the table. "I knew you watched it."
"Yeah, well, I voted for Harry," said Louis. Sammy came back out, soaked all over, and Louis shook his head again. He pulled Sammy's wet shirt off and used it to dry his face. "What on earth did you do?"
"I washed my hands," said Sammy, frowning. "Get off. I'm hungry."
"Everyone voted for Harry," said Liam. "My sisters voted for Harry."
Louis cackled. "Not really."
"Oh, yes. They didn't tell me until later because I would have murdered them."
"I want to eat lunch without a shirt. I'm fine!" Sammy shouted, trying to wiggle away from Louis.
"He gets that from Harry," said Louis certainly. Liam laughed and tried to hide it as a cough. "Go and get a dry shirt, my friend. Shoo." Sammy sighed heavily and trudged to his room.
Liam wasn't sure if it was entirely appropriate to say, but he tried anyway. "You just talk like you've failed at all these things, and you haven't. They haven't worked out yet, is all."
"There has to be a point you stop trying, though, doesn't there?" Louis asked, tone a lot grimmer than Liam was used to hearing.
"No," said Liam. "I don't think so. You just keep trying and eventually it'll work out, and… What?" Louis was staring at him.
Louis scrunched up his face uncertainly. "You honestly believe that?"
"Of course," said Liam.
There was a pause. "Well, I don't," said Louis eventually. "I'm tired of trying and having things go pearshaped. It sucks. This—" he gestured to the kitchen at large "is easy."
"Yeah," said Liam. "But imagine if after things went badly you just gave up and—"
"Never dated again?" Louis asked pointedly. "Zayn emails me, you know, to check up on you. So does Harry."
"That's different," Liam protested, probably more embarrassed than the conversation warranted. He was awfully happy when Sammy came back in, though, wearing a t-shirt with Harry's face airbrushed on it, and he could change the subject.
"I'm really sorry," Liam said a couple of days later. "I think you're going to end up coming with us overnight for a couple of these tour dates. It's not very far away, but it's too far to go and come back and—"
"Relax," said Louis. He'd been throwing sweets at Liam's back while he made dinner, mostly because Sammy quite enjoyed picking them back up and organizing them by color in the sweets bowl. "I'd figured that out. I can come along and then you'll have someone to look after Sammy while you're being a pop star. It's fine."
"But it really wasn't supposed to be a twenty-four-hour-a-day job for you," Liam said, feeling frustrated. He was feeling a bit better about life in general lately, but he still hadn't managed to get everything sorted. He liked having everything running smoothly.
"Wasn't it?" Louis asked. A sweet skittered across the work surface and nearly landed in the pot where Liam was making spaghetti. He turned to give Louis an unimpressed look. "Sorry. Sammy, have you found that one that went under the chair yet?"
"I'm still looking!" Sammy shouted.
"You could just stop throwing things like a child," said Liam.
"What would be the fun in that?"
Liam sighed, but he wasn't really as annoyed as he let on. He liked making dinner for three. It was nice having someone else to distract Sammy, and it was nice having someone else around who didn't always want to eat fish fingers or beans on toast every single night. It was particularly nice having someone to talk to, although mostly what Liam had done lately was worry. "Are you sure it isn't a huge burden? You'll have to take a few days off afterwards, to balance it out."
"I will not, it's fine," said Louis. "I like traveling. I like hotels. And Harry's going to be there as well, so if you're with Sammy I'll go and bother him instead. I'll make my own fun."
Liam felt a weird little pang of jealousy, but in fairness, he wasn't as much fun as Harry was on tour. They'd learned that very early on, when Liam had spent most of the X-Factor tour trying to get everyone to shut up so he could sleep, while Harry had been all the older performers' pet, going out drinking and dancing and partying at every opportunity. Of course, when Harry was sick from too much drinking and dancing and partying it was Liam who'd ended up making him tea and giving him cuddles on the bus.
"I'm going to make you take days off, eventually," Liam said. The meatballs were making a satisfying hiss in the pan and they smelled nearly done. "Sammy, get out from underneath the chair and go and wash for dinner."
Sammy held up his hands. "Look, I found three paperclips and seven pence and a gum ball!"
"Don't eat it," Liam said quickly.
Sammy pulled a face. "Urgh, I wasn't going to, it's dirty." He put his newfound treasures carefully on the chair next to Louis and then went off to wash his hands.
"Any normal four year old eats gum off the floor," Louis complained. "You've made him really weird."
"You mean I'm trying to stop him getting the plague? Yes," said Liam.
Louis tapped his fingers restlessly on the table, which meant if Liam didn't get dinner done soon he was going to throw more things. "Are you done? It smells done. I'm hungry," Louis whined.
"You could help by setting the table," Liam said pointedly, which Louis ignored. "You really should take more days off, you've only had the two. And… I mean…. If this gets to be a bit much, and you think…." Liam couldn't come up with a less awkward way to broach the topic, but it had been sitting at the back of his mind for a week. Maybe longer. "If you get tired of nannying, or of Sammy, or of me, I'd completely understand. This isn't really what you set out to do, is it? Harry said you're really talented. Just let me know so I can find someone else—"
"You won't need to find anyone else," said Louis tiredly. "I'm not going anywhere, am I? Not unless I starve to death waiting for dinner."
Liam felt a strange combination of relieved and sorry. "If you ever did, though. I mean. We'd understand."
"Are you trying to get rid of me?" Louis asked. He sounded genuinely worried.
"No," said Liam quickly. He turned around and everything so he could give Louis a really sincere look. "No, having you here has been great. I just… I mean, we wouldn't want it to stop you doing something else, if…"
Louis threw a sweet at him. Liam flinched a second too late and it hit his cheek. "Shut up," said Louis. "You don't need to worry about that, I've given up."
Liam ought to have been upset, because Louis was sort of a friend, and he sounded a bit miserable, but mostly he felt reassured. "Okay," he said. "I mean… Okay."
"Okay, then," Louis echoed. He gave Liam a funny little smile and Liam smiled back, a little bit thank you and a little bit I'm sorry. Louis shrugged. Liam thought that the smile hadn't reached Louis's eyes at all, and then that that was a weird thing to think about his nanny, and then that he'd been sort of accidentally staring at Louis for at least a minute and dinner was probably about to burn.
"Crap," said Liam, turning around again quickly. "Get off your lazy arse and get the plates."
"Yes, sir," said Louis mockingly, but he got up and did it. Then Sammy came running back into the kitchen demanding food, and Liam tried not to feel relieved that the two of them weren't alone anymore.
Liam hadn't really tried to tour since Sammy was a baby, when he'd stayed home with Brooke and Liam's mum. It turned out having Louis around every minute of every day was absolutely necessary; there was no way for Liam to manage himself and anyone else, let alone a child who apparently wanted to touch everything. Sammy wanted to see how the equipment got loaded and unloaded, he wanted to play with the microphones, he wanted to touch the instruments, he wanted to run around the hallways screaming. Not because he was malicious, but because he was fascinated, and Liam didn’t entirely blame him; he'd always felt the same way when he got to a new venue.
Luckily Louis was always there to grab him just before he ran off the edge of the stage, or stuck his hand between the speakers being pushed together, or grabbed a wire someone was using. "Trains," said Louis, flipping Sammy upside down and carrying him away laughing. It was just reassuring enough that Liam could push worrying about Sammy to the back of his brain and concentrate on interviews and warming his voice up.
The hilarious part of the interviews was knowing that Harry Styles was going to be on stage in a couple of hours and not saying so. Liam was a terrible liar, usually, and he was a little worried he'd burst into laughter. "The new album's out in a week," said one of the women interviewing him. "Are you excited? Tell us about the new tour. Are you excited to see your supporting acts?"
"I absolutely can't wait," said Liam honestly. It was really unfair that Harry didn't have to do any press since he was pretending not to be there. His band had turned up and they were a bunch of scruffy hipsters in knitted caps and brightly colored trainers. They wore ironic sunglasses and carried around bottles of what Harry assured him was terrible beer. Liam wasn't at all surprised.
Liam had things to do every single second of the day until about half an hour before the show was starting, at which point he found himself inexplicably nervous. "You've done this before, though, haven't you?" Louis asked. He was sitting backstage on a couch with Sammy, trying to coax him into eating vegetables he was definitely not interested in.
"Loads of times. It's just a new album, it's a new tour, it's… I wrote most of the songs this time, it's different," said Liam uncomfortably. "Plus, who knows what's going to happen with Harry."
"Harry'll go on stage and be brilliant," said Louis. "That's his thing. He does awful, improbable, terrible things, and everyone loves him for it."
"Oh god, but what if—" Liam started.
Louis handed him a sandwich. "Have you had time to eat?"
"I… no," said Liam.
Sammy successfully escaped the couch and threw himself on the floor with a coloring book instead. "I want to come and see the show," he said. "Can I sing, too?"
"That's not a bad idea, as a publicity stunt," said Louis.
"No, I've already got Harry." Liam hadn't realized he was starving until Louis had handed him food, and he inhaled it so quickly he nearly choked. "Maybe tomorrow we can go and look while Harry's playing, but you'll have to wear ear plugs."
Sammy put his hands over his ears and gave Liam a baleful look.
"He should be asleep before I go on," said Liam. "It's been such a long day. You should take him to the hotel and put him to bed."
Louis's smile was teasing. "What if I want to see you on stage? I never have, you know. I want to see your swagger, Liam."
"I haven't got any," said Liam, laughing. "It's just me, but singing. I'd sing for you anytime." He meant it as a joke, an off-hand remark, but Louis sat up a little straighter.
"Would you?" Louis asked. He was giving Liam such an intense sort of look that Liam didn't know quite what to do with his hands or his face.
"I… yeah," said Liam. "I mean. Of course." He tried to laugh again, because it was such a silly conversation. "You hear me singing while I cook."
"And in the shower," said Louis, waggling his eyebrows and relaxing again.
"Yes, exactly," said Liam gratefully. "You've had your own exclusive concerts."
"I want to hear more about how Louis's getting exclusive concerts in the shower," said Harry, wandering in. He was wearing absolutely ridiculous black and grey clothes, with his beanie pulled down over his curls, and giant sunglasses.
Liam refused to blush. "Shut up," he said. "That's not what he meant. And people are still going to recognize you."
"My disguise is brilliant," Harry argued, but Louis gave him a skeptical look and he burst into laughter. It was unmistakable who he was, even with three-quarters of his face covered up.
"You really are such an idiot," Liam said, feeling inexplicably fond.
"Harry!" said Sammy. He stood up and held his arms up expectantly, and Harry picked him up. "You look silly."
Harry poked Sammy's nose and Sammy laughed. "Is this your first concert, Sammy?" Harry asked.
"No, I took him to see one of those kids' concert things with the puppets," said Liam.
"I've seen you sing on television," said Sammy. "That's a really big stage. Are you scared?"
"Never," said Harry. Liam rolled his eyes and then laughed when he saw Louis doing the same.
"If you're scared you can borrow my train," said Sammy. "But I want it back. I've got the whole set, they have a box to keep them in so they look nice."
Harry burst out laughing again. "Liam, stop ruining his childhood by giving him boxes to put things neatly away in!"
"Right?" said Louis. "We are always having to tidy."
"That's because you're a horrible mess monster," said Liam. Louis wadded up a napkin and threw it at him.
Rex popped in to tell Harry to get ready to go onstage, and Harry handed Sammy to Louis. "Can I come on stage with you?" Sammy asked.
"No, you're going to go to the hotel with me and work on our art project," said Louis. Sammy started to pout a little, sticking his lip out and sniffling.
"I mean, he could go up for a bit—" Liam began.
Louis kicked him in the shin. "Stop giving him everything he wants just because he pretends to cry, Liam, honestly." Liam tried to look offended but Louis was probably right, and anyway he was talking to Sammy now. "We have a project to work on. Your dad and Harry are going to be really busy but you can see them tonight after they're done." Sammy sighed tragically but he didn’t go on sniffling, so clearly Louis had a point.
"Hilarious," said Harry, apparently about nothing in particular. "Wish me luck, boys!"
"You have never needed luck on stage," said Liam, shaking his head, but he gave Harry a good-luck hug anyway, and then Louis did, and then Sammy did, and then Rex came back and dragged Harry away.
"This is going to be fascinating," said Louis.
"Nearly everything involving Harry is."
Harry's band was a rousing success, although that was mainly because a few seconds after he walked on stage a gasp ran through the audience and twitter collapsed for twenty minutes under the weight of people trying to tweet about him. It was hilarious. His set went well, and Liam's set went well, and later, sweaty and exhausted, Liam put his arm round Harry's shoulders and said, "Since everyone knows it's you, you should probably come out and sing something with me yeah?"
"I think the way it works, usually, is the headliner sings with the supporting act," said Harry. "Day off tomorrow, can I borrow your nanny?"
"Yeah, if you come and do press with me in the morning," Liam said. Harry stuck his lip out poutily. "That's all they're going to ask me about, you know it. Come and pretend your name is Harold Stylenham the Third, and you've never heard of Harry Styles, and are offended by the comparison. It'll be a laugh."
Harry sighed loudly, as if this were a terrible burden. "I suppose I have got a few interview requests in the last couple of hours."
"A million," said his tour manager, Paul, not looking up from his mobile. "I'm rounding down."
Louis and Sammy were already back at the hotel, and Sammy woke up enough for Liam to hug him goodnight and then passed out again. "You killed twitter!" said Louis gleefully. "This is amazing."
Harry took a beer from the fridge in Liam's room; he had, of course, made himself at home. Liam was sure that Louis had bought the beer specifically so that Harry could have one later; he certainly hadn't bought it for Liam. "Liam sounded amazing," said Harry. "The new songs live are just… I mean, is it really hard? Singing about her in public when everyone knows what you're talking about?"
"It was," said Liam, "but… Uh, it also wasn't? Not as bad as I expected, at least. It's like a sport injury that's faded—"
"You and sport," Harry groaned.
Liam frowned at him. "It feels like it's going to hurt forever, but it doesn't, and this is just… poking an old bruise a bit. But it's nice, it's good to get it out there."
"You're unburdening yourself," said Louis. "Do you mind if I…"
"Go ahead," said Liam, waving a hand, and Louis grabbed a beer as well.
Louis sprawled on the suite couch next to Harry. "You're letting go of some of your past pain by writing about it and then performing. It's catharsis."
Liam had a vague idea what catharsis meant, at least. "It's a bit like keeping the pain around all the time, though, isn't it? And making it public. It's probably unhealthy. It was all I could think about when I was writing, though."
"Not true," said Harry, bumping Liam's knee with his own. "Because two of those songs are about Sammy and how much you love him. And one is about me and how great I am."
"No, it's not," said Liam, sighing.
"Yes, it definitely is, I said that when you were writing it. There's a whole song about me and—"
"It's about being famous," Liam said loudly. "In general. Not everything is about you!"
Harry gave him a little shove. "It definitely is."
Liam was not above shoving back. "It's not."
Louis said, "You're going to wake Sammy up, oh my god. This was cute when you were both eighteen, but honestly." He climbed over Harry, who protested loudly, and squished himself into the very small space between them. He had one leg over Liam's and was mostly sitting on top of Harry. "Now behave."
"He started it," Harry grumbled, and then burst out laughing at Liam's glare.
"I want to know when you're going to write a song about me," said Louis, putting his head on Liam's shoulder.
"It would have to be something—" really stupid and romantic, Liam nearly said and then froze, horrified at himself. No one had authorized that sentence. His heart was pounding in his chest imagining how awful it would have been if he had kept talking.
Harry was never bothered when Liam froze up halfway through saying something. "Something about how annoying you are," said Harry.
"Yeah," Liam managed weakly. He needed Louis not to be leaning on him at the moment; it was confusing things. If Louis had been on the other side of the room, he wouldn't have thought that. If Louis hadn't been curled up next to him, making himself comfortable against Liam's side as if he belonged there. When Liam turned his head, he could just see Louis in profile, the swoop of his fringe and the edges of his lashes and a little bit of his jaw. He looked tired and sort of beautiful, and Liam was so, so screwed. He cursed Zayn a bit, although at this point it was difficult to really believe it was entirely Zayn's fault.
"A whole song about how annoying I am," said Louis around a yawn. "Sounds like a hit."
"Like I ought to hit you," Harry said, and giggled at himself.
"I should probably get to bed soon," Liam said. He needed everyone to leave him alone for a few minutes so he could recover from his unexpectedly intense feelings about someone entirely inappropriate. "And so should Harry. We've got interviews in the morning."
Harry groaned loudly. "Do I have to? The band and I are going out tonight, we were going to get all fucked up."
"You can still do that, you just have to be at the press stuff with me in the morning," said Liam sweetly. "But if you've got a hangover, I'm going to make really loud noises and make you sit under the brightest light."
"You are a bastard, Liam Payne," said Harry. "Kiss him goodnight for me, Louis." He climbed off the couch and saluted them with his beer, and then wandered off to find his band.
Louis tilted his face up and Liam started to say Isn't Harry ridiculous? with a disapproving sort of laugh, except then Louis kissed Liam's cheek. Liam stopped breathing.
Louis yawned again. "I must be getting old. I never used to get tired before dawn, especially not after one beer."
Liam couldn't find a way to say a word without his voice cracking or shaking or something embarrassing. He cleared his throat a couple of times. Louis didn't seem to mind. "You should go to bed, then," said Liam. He didn't want to shove Louis off his shoulder, but he wasn't sure how long he could sit there being so aware of Louis, like every breath Louis was taking was stealing a little bit of Liam's resolve to think of him as an employee. He closed his eyes for a second and reminded himself that it would be absolutely creepy and disrespectful to put his hand on Louis's thigh and just… See what he'd do about it. Liam had a feeling Louis wouldn't mind, was the problem.
"Yeah, bed," said Louis. "Since Sammy will be up at six."
Liam waited for Louis to stand up and stretch and go off into his own room before he did anything. And then mostly what he did was think about Louis, and how badly he and Sammy needed Louis, and how incredibly terrible it would be if Louis quit, or left, or Liam scared him off or ruined things.
The problem, Liam told himself, was that he hadn't felt anything like this in years, and he'd forgotten how to contain it. He'd had plenty of crushes and awkward moments with people at school. Even on the X-Factor, for the first few weeks, he'd been a little bit unsure what to do with how physically affectionate Harry had been. But he'd dealt with it, and he'd never let it make him stupid. This had snuck up on him. He'd thought it was an occasional passing glance or a weird moment where he noticed Louis's mouth more than he should have, but this was so much larger than that suddenly. It felt like it was going to come exploding out of his chest if he gave it the tiniest sliver of a chance.
"You are absolutely an idiot," said Liam quietly to himself, and went to bed. He didn't manage to sleep much at all.
Talking to the press was fun for Liam, because all they wanted to do was ask Harry questions, and Harry was determined not to give them any sensible answers. Liam spent the morning badly hiding his giggles while Harry answered questions with stories about having traveled to Tibet, or being struck by lightning, or actually being his own evil twin.
"I'm borrowing Louis and we're going drinking," said Harry when they were allowed to escape, and that was fine; there was no show that night and Liam hadn't spent a day alone with Sammy and nothing much to do in a long time. They found a playground and Sammy organized a game of hide-and-seek with some of the other children there until a couple of photographers started taking pictures. Liam apologized to the other mums and dads and took Sammy back to the hotel. Sammy was tired anyway, and Liam had promised to call Brooke, which was always a bit exhausting.
Sammy had a lovely chat with Brooke on the phone, where he told her all about the park and the hotel and the trains and their nicely organized case. She was so good on the phone with him, curious and encouraging and making him laugh. Liam couldn't understand how she could talk to Sammy like that, and love him, but not want to be with him. It was a fight they'd had a few hundred times already, though, and Liam didn’t like fighting with people.
"He sounds so grown up now," she said, when Liam finally took his mobile away from Sammy because he was half-asleep on the floor, singing a little song to his trains about napping.
"I sent you pictures, didn't I?" Liam asked. "He's huge. Every time I turn around he's bigger."
"I saw." There was a long pause. Liam was used to those, though. "He sounds really happy. I'm glad."
"He is happy. He's got someone great looking after him and he's enjoying traveling around with me, and… He's just a really good kid."
"Of course he is," said Brooke.
"Any time you want to come back and visit, just tell me, I'll buy you a ticket," Liam said, because he always did.
"No, it's better if I don't," she said, because that was what she always said. Liam very carefully didn't sigh. "He knows I love him, but it'd just… confuse him if I was there and then gone again."
This was the point where Liam tended to get annoyed and started sighing at her a lot through the phone, so he clenched his free hand into a fist instead, digging his nails into his palm.
"He'll be starting school soon, won't he?" Brooke asked. "God, how did he get so big? It's amazing."
Liam tried very hard not to think about Sammy starting school and being away with strangers all day. "Well, kids do that. They get bigger," he said instead.
"I should go," Brooke said. "Tell him mummy loves him and to have a good nap."
Liam clicked his mobile off. It was weird how, even months later – years, really, after she'd disengaged from both of them and left, even if she'd still been around – he always thought that maybe, maybe she'd want to come back. It was always in the back of his brain somewhere, like something had broken and he just couldn't quite accept that she had really gone for good.
"Your dad's a bit stupid," said Liam, picking Sammy up.
"No," said Sammy sleepily. "Is Louis here? I want Louis to read me a story."
"He'll be back soon," said Liam. He kissed Sammy's cheek and Sammy scrunched up his face. Liam thought fondly of when Sammy had been too small to object to kisses and hugs. He still let Liam cuddle him quite a bit, but eventually he'd start being embarrassed by it, and then Liam was going to be absolutely miserable. "I'm going to be that crying dad on the first day of school," Liam muttered. "I'm sorry in advance."
"Okay," said Sammy, because he was mostly asleep.
Louis and Harry burst through the door of the hotel laughing outrageously and then started loudly shushing each other when they saw Liam holding Sammy. "It's nap time, shut up," said Harry, shoving Louis.
"You alright?" Louis asked, frowning at Liam.
Liam shook his head. "Just thinking about… You know, things. The future. Don't worry about it. I'm taking Sammy in for a nap."
"You look a bit upset," said Louis.
Liam shrugged a little. "I might go to the gym downstairs for a while if someone else can stay with him. That'll help me clear my head."
"Today was the day you talked to Brooke?" Louis asked, still frowning.
"I'll put Sammy to bed," said Harry, holding his arms out. "I haven't had any time alone with my godson in ages."
"He's not actually your godson," Liam said, but he let Harry take Sammy.
"If you die, I get him," said Harry. "That means he's my godson."
"If I die he's got a mum," said Liam. "And after that it's my parents."
"Not if I steal him first," said Harry fondly. Sammy was perfectly happy to cling to Harry instead of Liam; he'd always been happy when Harry wanted to play with him.
Harry carried Sammy into the bedroom. Liam was so full of anger and exhaustion and tension from talking to Brooke and worrying about school that he was sure he was vibrating a little.
"I'll go to the gym with you," Louis offered.
"Really?" Liam asked. Louis had never said anything about liking exercise.
Louis grinned and patted his stomach. "I'm getting a bit of a beer gut. It couldn't hurt, could it?"
"You aren't, you're fit," said Liam. He heard himself a second after he'd said it and stumbled over whatever else he'd been going to say, turning it into an awkward cough.
"You think I'm fit," said Louis gleefully.
"I – No, I mean – Oh god, shut up," said Liam. "Are you coming?"
"Hang on, I've got to change. I don't wander around ready for a basketball game to break out at any moment," said Louis. "Not that you don't look adorable in your stupid giant shorts." Liam rolled his eyes. "Anyway it's fine, I brought jogging bottoms with me, just in case." Louis looked ridiculously pleased with himself.
"In case what?" Liam asked.
Louis grinned. "In case we needed to get sweaty."
Liam had another little coughing fit, while Louis laughed and went off to change. Liam wasn't imagining it; Louis was definitely flirting. Or trying to, at least. It wasn't the way Liam would have flirted with anyone, but he recognized it as a very Louis sort of thing to do. Lots of playing and teasing and touching and…
Liam wanted him to. Oh, it was awful. It was so nice, being wanted, and it was so comfortable having someone who actually wanted to be around him and Sammy. Liam couldn't tell if he liked it just because Louis was so different to how Brooke had been recently, or if he genuinely liked Louis. He suspected it was a little bit of both. Louis was actually quite a lot like her in some ways; impulsive and sensitive and wild and funny, but instead of being horrified at the idea of being around a family, Louis seemed to like it. It wasn't fair to him, really, trying to slot him into the gap Brooke had left in Liam's life.
Except Liam was developing a new, entirely Louis-shaped dent in his life, and if Louis left he was going to end up devastated all over again. Liam had got so used to him being around, catching all the loose threads Liam couldn't seem to keep together, being reassuring and funny when Liam didn't feel like laughing at all. And he was so good with Sammy, and Sammy adored him.
That was the problem, though. Liam couldn't really flirt with Louis and employ him to look after Sammy. It wasn't fair. He couldn't fire Louis, because he needed him. And if he didn't fire him, he couldn't actually have him in any way except as an employee. It was all so snarled up.
"Ready!" said Louis, reappearing in really ridiculously baggy jogging bottoms. "Shall we go? You're staring off into space again."
"I really need a nice long run," said Liam honestly. "You don't have to come—"
"I changed and everything," Louis said indignantly. "If I have a heart attack and die, tell my mum I loved her."
Liam giggled. It was terrible how just being around Louis made him feel a little bit better. It shouldn't have, and it wasn't fair, and he wasn't sure he was a good enough person to deal with it responsibly. "I'll send her flowers," he promised. Louis smiled back, and Liam shouldn't have let himself enjoy that, either, but he did.
The next show was good, if totally weird. Liam came out and sang a song with Harry's ridiculous hipster band and they crashed twitter again for a few minutes. It was fantastic.
Sammy seemed to like the tour; Liam was worried that seven days away from home in hotels and vans was going to be too much for him but he was so curious and excited to be there that it didn't seem to bother him at all. Harry and his band kept stealing Sammy for the shorter van rides. Liam was sure it meant Sammy was going to get all the sweets and video games he wasn't supposed to have, but he let Harry have him anyway.
It was so nice to be out and performing instead of in a studio or an interview. Liam liked everything about his job, and he was incredibly thankful for the chance to do anything — not everyone who had finished fourth on X-Factor got to – but what he loved best was singing on stage and having people sing back to him. And they knew the new songs even though the album wasn't out yet; it settled all of Liam's nerves about having included such personal things in the music.
There were photographers and fans waiting outside one of the hotels. Liam didn't like letting anyone take pictures of Sammy but he was carrying Sammy, who was sleepy from the van. Liam smiled and waved and turned so that his son was mostly blocked from camera phones while Liam still looked as gracious as he could manage.
"Here," said Louis, appearing behind him to take Sammy. "You can't sign anything like this and I can take him inside."
"Thank you," said Liam.
"And anyway Harry'll be by in a minute and everyone'll forget who you are," said Louis, bumping Liam with his hip. Liam laughed.
One of the girls outside the hotel screamed, "Louis!" and they both turned around to look at her incredulously. "You know who I am?" Louis asked.
"Of course we do!" someone else shouted. There were a bunch of screams from the crowd.
Louis looked really pleased about that, and Liam laughed. "I'll take him back and you sign autographs," Liam offered.
"I wouldn't mind being a little famous," Louis said. "Thanks, babe!" The girls burst into laughter and he waved at them. They waved back and shrieked. Liam thought that Louis would be really good at being famous. He'd say something silly and make everyone laugh, while he posed and looked gorgeous. Or possibly Liam was distracting himself again. Louis waved back at everyone and then carried Sammy into the hotel just as Harry and his band came along in their sunglasses and the crowd's screaming got twice as loud.
"Thanks," said Liam, leaning over to shout in Harry's ear. He was going to slip away into the hotel but Harry put his arm around Liam's neck and kissed his cheek and the screams got even louder somehow.
"It's not me they love best, it's us," said Harry, grinning sideways. Liam laughed. The photographers and fans with phones were going absolutely crazy. "We should do a real tour, a proper tour together."
"What, where I'm supporting you?" Liam asked. He wouldn't actually have minded; Harry sold out much bigger venues than Liam did.
"I dunno, maybe we can trade off or something," said Harry. "You bring Sammy and Louis, I'll bring my band. It'll be the best tour ever."
"You are so delusional," Liam said. He was grinning, though, because Harry always got to do whatever stupid things he wanted to, and Liam did honestly think it would be a pretty amazing way to spend a couple of months.
"So," said Louis upstairs in the suite. "Do you ever do that?"
"Do I ever do what?" Liam asked distractedly. He had emails from Zayn, and Harry had borrowed Sammy to play football in the hotel hallway, which probably meant Liam was going to go out and have to apologize to a hotel manager soon.
Louis was sorting clothes into bags. Somehow all of Sammy's things were multiplying as they moved from hotel to hotel and Louis didn't seem to have a good way to pack them all up again. "You know," Louis said, and he was trying really hard to sound casual, which just sounded weird. "The fans."
"Do I ever do the fans?" Liam asked, confused. "I always stop and take pictures if I can and I haven't got Sammy. Oh, but you mean… oh."
Louis laughed. "Yeah, I mean. Harry does, sometimes, I know. And you've got plenty of women downstairs who'd be happy to…" He trailed off with a bit of an eyebrow wiggle.
"No," said Liam. "I'm not that sort of person. I'm not very good at one night stands. I like relationships and…" He laughed self-consciously, because this conversation wasn't making him sound like much of a pop star. "I mean, you don't get married when you're eighteen unless you've got a few strange ideas, right?"
Louis laughed again. "Okay, fair point. But you couldn't have been hanging out with Harry this whole time and never picked anyone up. Come on. That's his area of expertise."
"He's going to find a nice someone and settle down," said Liam. "Maybe not today, but eventually. And then I'm going to laugh at him."
Louis snorted. "If you say so. Come and help me figure out how to get all these shirts back in this suitcase. I opened it and Sammy's clothes exploded everywhere."
"That's because you won't use the packing list I made," Liam scolded. "You just throw everything in there." He put his mobile away and sat down on the floor with Louis, elbowing him aside a little bit so he could get to the suitcase. "And you should roll things up instead of folding them; they'll fit better that way. The clean clothes go in one of the bags and the clothes he's already worn can go in a separate one. It's only been a few days; how can you not be able to keep a suitcase sorted for a week?"
Liam stopped, because Louis wasn't looking at the suitcase. He was looking at Liam. He looked at Liam all the time, of course, but this was different; Liam felt a buzzing in his chest and his heart leapt into his throat. The air between them was crackling. "What?" Liam asked. He thought he knew. He was almost sure about that funny, fond, intense look on Louis's face, and if he was right he needed to tell Louis that it was a bad idea. They couldn't and there were loads of reasons why.
Instead of that, Louis reached over and put his hand on top of Liam's and said, "It's just, you're kind of amazing."
And Liam didn't say We really can't do this, he said, "You're pretty amazing yourself." Everything inside his chest was all seized up and he couldn't breathe right, and Louis's hand was burningly warm on top of his own. Liam felt a bit like he'd got lost in a tunnel somewhere, and all his good sense and reasons why they weren't going to do this were outside, where he couldn't see them or remember them. He just kept looking at Louis's mouth and then back up at his face, and thinking oh god he's so gorgeous and I wish he would.
Louis leaned a little bit more into Liam's space, testing, and Liam nearly laughed, because he knew that move, that lean. He'd done it himself loads of times but he'd never had anyone try to lean in on him before. Louis's fingers tightened around Liam's hand. Louis's mouth was right there. It was just a breath away from Liam's, if Liam had been breathing. Louis was still giving him that funny, staring look, waiting for permission, or to be pushed away, or for Liam to react somehow, but Liam was frozen and couldn't think of a thing to say over the pounding of his heart in his ears.
"Can I," Louis whispered. Liam nodded once, jerkily, and then Louis bridged that last little space. His mouth was on Liam's and everything else in the room fell away. Louis was up on his knees, pressing himself against Liam, and his mouth was sweet but his tongue was wicked. Liam kissed him back with all the pent-up frustration and desperation and longing he'd been sinking under for weeks now.
It was a great kiss, an amazing kiss, and maybe that was why it took Liam a long, long minute to put his free hand on Louis's shoulder and push him back. "We can't," he said, and didn't look at how red Louis's mouth was, or how wide his eyes were, or the way his own hand was trying to shake. "I mean, I can't."
Louis paused for a second. "Is this… Because I mean, Harry swore up and down he took you to a gay bar and you were totally cool with it and you and this bloke ended up—"
"Harry should keep his mouth shut," said Liam, laughing with embarrassment. "Or remember how many things I know about him. No, it's not… I mean, that's not… I can't, Louis. You work for me."
Louis sat back on his heels. He hadn't let go of Liam's hand, and his chest was heaving a little bit. Liam told himself not to notice that. "I could quit?" Louis offered.
"But… Sammy and I… we need you," said Liam. He shook his head helplessly. "I don't want you to quit and I don't want you to go and I don't want to screw this up."
Louis sighed. "Why can't you be the sort of person who fools around with the hired help?" He sounded both fond and frustrated at once. "I mean, I like you because you're so good, but… Honestly, Liam, you could just pay me a bit more and I'd be happy to—"
"No," Liam said, laughing and blushing a little. "I can't pay you to sleep with me!"
"Is that what we're going to do?" Louis asked, grinning.
This was a terrible, dangerous, horrible conversation. Liam shook his head and scooted backward just a little. "No," he said. "That's what we are definitely not going to do."
Louis groaned loudly and flopped onto his back on the floor. "You're cockblocking yourself, Liam Payne. You are the worst person I have ever met."
"I'm absolutely awful," Liam agreed. He went to pull his hand free from Louis's, but Louis didn't let go, and Liam didn't really want him to anyway. "I'm really sorry."
"Don't be sorry," said Louis. "Except for being so hot, and kind, and lovely. You should be sorry about that. It's ruining my life."
Liam was trying not to laugh, he really was. It should have been a sober, sad moment. "I can't believe you're being so you about this," Liam said. "You should be really upset with me right now."
"I'm disappointed," Louis said. "I'm so fucking disappointed I could kill myself. But it's not like I've never been disappointed before, and you didn't fire me. I still get to play with Sammy all day, and hang out with rock stars, and stare at you when you're not looking."
"I see you doing that," Liam said.
"No," said Louis certainly. "I'm very subtle."
"You aren't." Liam shook his head, but he squeezed Louis's hand, and Louis squeezed back.
There was a long pause. Liam couldn't go and start packing again with only one hand, and he didn't especially want to take his hand back forcefully from Louis, so he just sat there, admiring Louis's profile on the floor and wishing things were different. His chest hurt with disappointment but he was sure he'd done the right thing. Louis didn't seem heartbroken, which was a bit weird. But he also wasn't angry, and he wasn't leaving, so that was something.
"So," said Louis eventually. "What do we do now?"
"I mean," Liam said, "we go on like before, don't we? You look after Sammy and I forget what day it is unless you tell me. Nothing changes. We just can't do this again."
Louis sighed. "Yeah," he said. "I mean, I get it, I just hate it." He took a deep breath and then smiled up at Liam from where he was lying on the floor. "Okay. Okay! I am brilliant at rolling with the punches, this is fine."
"You're brilliant just in general," said Liam. "Honestly, Louis, nannying clearly isn't the only thing you could do. You're so talented, and if you wanted to—"
"Shut up unless you're firing me," said Louis cheerfully. He sat up and let go of Liam's hand to dust himself off. Liam's hand was awfully cold without his. "I'm going to go and play hallway football for a while. Funny thing, I have all this energy I need to burn off."
"Sorry," said Liam, biting his lip. "I'll finish fixing the suitcase, then."
"Do me a favor and have a disfiguring accident as well," said Louis, and winked at him. Liam laughed, even though he was trying not to. Louis bounded out into the hallway with a shout. Liam sat alone on the floor for a while and tried to force all of the things in the suitcase to go back in just the way they had been before.
Zayn called and said, "Hey, babe. You're almost done, yeah? What do you think about Spain?"
"Uh, lovely paella," said Liam distractedly, because Sammy was running around him in circles with a train in each hand, making zooming noises. "Sombreros. Those things you hit and they're full of sweets."
Zayn laughed. "No, I mean, for a holiday. I've got a break from work, Sammy's off to school in a couple of months… I think we should all go on a holiday to Spain."
"You want me to take you on holiday," Liam said, laughing. "I see how it is."
"I think you've worked really hard, and you've got the album actually coming out in a couple of weeks, and before that you deserve an actual break. And yeah, I think you should take me and Sammy on a holiday. I know Harry thinks he's Sammy's godfather, but really it's me, and I never get to see him."
Liam said patiently, "It's neither of you, I keep saying that."
"You tell Harry I'll fight him for it."
Sammy had apparently got dizzy because he went crashing into one of the security guys, who looked amused and picked him up again. "I need to get off the phone before Sammy breaks everything in the break room," Liam said. "So no, you aren't fighting anyone for anything, but yeah, I'll think about it. It sounds nice."
"You deserve some time off. You could bring Louis, even."
Liam winced. "No," he said. "I don't think I want to go on holiday to a beach somewhere with Louis. He can have a couple of days off." Now the idea of a beach holiday with Louis was planted in his brain somewhere and he was going to wake up thinking about it, and Zayn was honestly the very worst kind of friend.
"A week," Zayn said insistently. "And why not? I bet he looks great in swimming trunks. I bet—"
"Sorry, you're breaking up," Liam said, and clicked his phone off before things could get worse. He stuck his mobile in his pocket and picked Sammy up before he could crash himself and all his trains into the wall. "We don't like Zayn anymore, got it?"
"Yes, we do," said Sammy, frowning. "That isn't nice."
Liam laughed. "I'm sorry, you're right. Of course we still like Zayn."
"Of course we do," Sammy repeated sternly. "You shouldn't be mean."
Since it was Liam who always said that, he couldn't exactly argue. "Right," he said instead. "Are you excited for the last night of the tour? Tomorrow we're going home and you can sleep in your own bed again. That'll be nice, won't it?"
"No, I like playing with Harry at the hotels," said Sammy. "He turned all the 'Do Not Disturb' signs the wrong way on the doors so I went and turned them all back again."
"You don't need to tidy up after Harry," said Liam, vaguely horrified that this was apparently a game they played.
"Someone has to," said Sammy, with a determined look on his face.
"Okay, definitely time to get you away from Harry," said Liam. "And maybe in to therapy, I didn't mean for you to end up like this."
"Like what?" Sammy asked, tilting his head, but then Harry and Louis came in and he wiggled to get down again.
Harry crouched down to get a full update on what Sammy and his trains had been up to all day. Liam's mobile rang again. "Yeah?" he said, expecting it to be Zayn again with more unhelpful questions about holidays.
"Hi," said Brooke. "Do you have a minute?"
She didn't normally call unless they had a scheduled date for her to talk to Sammy. "Yeah," he said again. "Of course." He chewed on his lip even though he was going to get yelled at by the makeup lady later.
"Okay, well, it's not a big deal, but I wanted to call you so it wasn't a surprise," said Brooke. Liam's face must have looked awfully worried because Louis walked over and tilted his head like a question. Brooke Liam mouthed and Louis nodded. "There's someone I've gone on a couple of dates with, and the last time someone took a few pictures and… I'm not very famous and neither is he, but it'd be awful if you found out from google alerts or something, so I wanted to call."
For a minute Liam couldn't say anything. He wasn't angry and he wasn't even honestly surprised, it was just… The last little threads of belief that she was eventually going to come back had unraveled and were blowing away. Louis very quietly slipped his hand into Liam's and squeezed once. Liam smiled at him gratefully.
"Okay," said Liam. "Thanks for letting me know."
"I know this is awkward, and I'm sorry," she started.
"No," said Liam. "I'm glad you're… I mean. Is he nice?"
She laughed. "Yeah, but it's only been a couple of dates, Liam, really. And I think you've spoiled me for nice guys, so."
"I hope I haven't." He smiled at the phone even though she couldn't see him, and Louis bumped his shoulder with his own. "You deserve a nice guy."
She sighed. "I don’t know if that's true. Is Sammy there? Would it be really disruptive if I just said hi, or—"
"He always wants to talk to you," said Liam, and he managed not to sound chiding when he said it, even. "Sammy, mummy's on the phone."
Sammy immediately lost interest in Harry, who looked slightly offended, and came running over to grab Liam's mobile. "Mummy! I've got a new train, and I crashed him into the wall and he had to go to the train hospital!" Sammy sat down on the floor with the phone in one hand and his train in the other.
Louis bumped Liam again. "You okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine," said Liam, and then smiled when he realized it was almost entirely true. "She's dating, and I don't want to kill myself. That's nice, isn't it?" Honestly, he almost felt like a weight had come off his chest. Brooke was definitely not coming back. Liam could stop expecting it and worrying about it. He hadn't realized he was until it stopped, like a switch had been turned off. It was distinctly easier to breathe now.
"Hmm," said Louis, which wasn't entirely approval or disapproval. He was giving Liam a funny look, and it would have been an excellent moment for Liam to lean in and kiss him, only he wasn't going to. In fact, Liam pulled his hand free of Louis's and moved a step away, just in case. It was entirely too tempting to forget that he had reasons not to do that sort of thing.
"I love you, too," said Sammy to the mobile a little sadly. Harry, Louis, and Liam all leaned in at the same time to pick him up. Louis got there first, because he was a little sneakier.
"D'you want to go back to the hotel to the pool?" Louis asked quickly. "We can go swimming."
"Okay," said Sammy glumly.
Louis tossed Liam his mobile. "Have a good show, both of you. I'll see you later. Hey, Sammy, did you know there are sharks in the pool?"
"No, there aren't," said Sammy uncertainly.
"We'll have to get snorkels and look for them, just to be sure," said Louis, carrying him out of the room.
"I literally can't imagine what I did before he was around," said Liam, sighing a little.
Harry gave him a long, appraising look. "Yeah," he said. "I kind of noticed. Is that…. If you're dating my best friend you have to tell me, you know that, right? It's required."
"What? No. No, we aren't doing that at all," said Liam. He was weirdly flustered that Harry had noticed, but of course Harry knew. Louis had asked him about Liam and gay bars and everything. Harry was horribly good at figuring out people's secrets, anyway.
"Really?" Harry said. "Because he was just holding your hand, and you were going to kiss him except we were all here." The security guys sitting in the corner were suddenly fascinated by their phones, pretending not to listen.
Liam shook his head. "No," he said. "I wasn't going to do that because he works for me."
"But… You wanted to?"
"Shut up," said Liam.
Harry's eyes went wide and delighted. "Oh my god, you already have."
"No, no, I… Well, yes. But we're not going to do it again. He works for me. Ugh, I hate you, why am I friends with you?"
Harry said, "Ha!"
He looked entirely too smug; Liam couldn't stand it. "I'm going on holiday with Zayn," Liam said. "Because he's Sammy's godfather, and they miss each other."
Harry pointed at him. "Don't try and change the subject, and no, he's not, I am. That's my dog he's carrying round everywhere. But you and Louis—"
"We aren't anything," Liam repeated.
Harry snickered. "It looks to me like he lives with you and your kid, and you make lunch and clean up after him, and he holds your hand when you're upset. So you're doing everything except having sex. It's just like you actually are married."
He wouldn't stop laughing. Liam threw a pillow from the couch at him.
"You always get married so fast," Harry giggled.
"Haven't you got a stupid hipster band to go and warm up with?" Liam asked, embarrassed and not nearly as annoyed as he should have been.
"Last show, you're coming out to sing with us, aren't you?" Harry asked.
"No," said Liam. "Because you're being an arse and I hate you."
Harry gave him a pouting, big-eyed sad stare.
"That doesn't work on me," Liam sighed. "Oh god. Fine. Fine! Just shut up about everything, okay? Because I'm really, really trying not to screw this up. Sammy needs him."
That made Harry look the tiniest bit serious for a minute. "Oh," he said. "I suppose. But when Sammy ends up with a new dad, I get credit for being the greatest godfather ever, right?"
"I think that'd be Don Corleone," said Liam. Harry threw the pillow back at him.
Sammy cried when they got back to their house, partly from exhaustion and partly from disappointment at not having any more adventures, and partly because Harry said goodbye and Sammy had become a kid who cried when people left. It made Liam feel horribly guilty.
"You've got the dog he gave you, though," said Louis, carrying Sammy inside. Harry gave Liam a look and Liam rolled his eyes at him.
By the time Liam got in with all their bags and suitcases Louis had already put Sammy down for a nap. "You're looking forward to doing the washing and organizing all our things, aren't you," said Louis disapprovingly.
"Yeah," said Liam. "Poor you, having all your clothes clean and sorted."
Louis laughed. "You just have such weird hobbies, is all. Going to the gym and sorting the washing. I don't understand you." He sat down on the couch in the living room, sprawling all over everything. "Oh my god, I could sleep for a week."
"Well, you can," said Liam, going through Sammy's suitcase on the floor. "I'm taking Sammy to Spain with Zayn for a couple of days. Hmm. That's a funny rhyme."
"Are you?" Louis asked.
"Yeah." Liam didn't look up so he wouldn't see Louis frowning at him. "You've certainly earned a few days off. And Zayn keeps reminding me that Sammy's starting Reception in September and we need to spend time together now, so… Once the album comes out it'll be even more madness, you know?"
There was a little pause. "Okay," said Louis. "Well. I'm sure I can amuse myself for a couple of days."
"You can still stay here, obviously," said Liam. "All your things are here. Throw a party or something. And then hire someone to come and clean up after it."
Louis laughed. "You don't think I'd clean it up?"
"No," said Liam. "I really don't." He bit the inside of his cheek and tried not to smile about it.
There was another little pause. "This isn't because you want to get away from me, right?" Louis asked. "Because if I made you uncomfortable with that whole… I mean, I'm sorry if —"
"No," said Liam. "Although I can't lie; a few days away might make me feel a little better about saying no. At least, I hope so."
Louis laughed. "Are you going to Spain to meet hot girls in bikinis, Liam?"
"Yes," said Liam dryly. "You've figured me out."
"You should!" said Louis. "Go and meet lots of hot girls in bikinis and have a fantastic time. You deserve a real holiday. But I mean… I'll miss you. Sammy too, obviously."
Liam was really glad he had a suitcase to sort through; it gave him something to do while he was working so hard at not looking at Louis. It wasn't really a viable long-term solution to his What To Do About Louis problem, though. "I keep telling you, I'm not much for flings. And we'll miss you, too. Sammy's going to think there are sharks in every pool thanks to you."
"I do what I can," said Louis happily. "Don't have too much fun without me."
"I don't suppose I will," said Liam.
It was surprisingly easy to run away to Spain for a week. Zayn had already booked everything on the understanding that he could talk Liam into it later. The hotel turned out to be a lot more lavish than what Liam would have chosen, but then Zayn had always had a taste for the finer things and being pampered. "You deserve a proper holiday," was all he said.
Liam wasn't very good at relaxing, but Zayn was an expert. They had a private stretch of the beach and chairs to lay out in the sun on, and Zayn got drinks while Liam turned his mobile off and tried not to look at it too much. Liam taught Sammy to swim, or at least not to be too scared of the waves, while Zayn laughed and refused to go into the surf. Liam got a sunburn on his nose but was careful that Sammy didn't.
Of course it wasn't actually possible to get away from life entirely. There were photographers, although they mostly kept a polite distance, and Liam found himself dragged into some awkward conversations with industry people around the hotel. There were always people at the hotel, no matter where he went, either trying to sell him something or to get him to buy something. Liam found himself wishing Louis were there; Louis was so much better at steering conversations back around to what he actually wanted to talk about, or excusing himself.
Sammy was getting a little bored at being trapped in the lobby where a couple of guys who worked for some part of Liam's label were trying to chat to him about something he'd stopped listening to. He nodded and said, "Right, yeah, of course," and tried to look like a busy dad who probably needed to go soon. But he vaguely knew one of them, Terry something, and he couldn't quite bring himself to just be rude to someone who knew all the people he knew.
"Dad," Sammy whined, tugging at Liam's shorts. "I want to go to the water."
"I know," said Liam. "Sorry." He really was going to have to excuse himself and just walk away in the middle of someone's sentence, he decided, only that was when his brain started actually listening to Terry Whoever and his friend.
"—So we're stuck, right? We were supposed to start filming this week, but the guy's got a drug problem, and I swear to god we've been through everyone who's ever auditioned for anything in the past six months. There's no one halfway decent. Either they're great with kids and lousy on camera or they're great on camera and can't stand kids." Terry leaned down and smiled awkwardly at Sammy, who recoiled and hid behind Liam's legs instead. "This little guy would be great for it, wouldn't he, Colin? Just adorable. If you ever wanted to get him into television."
"I don't think so," said Liam. "Sorry, you're looking for a presenter for a kids' programme?"
"Someone to cheer the kids up so they don't cry on camera, smile and keep things going. A Dermot O’Leary for toddlers," said Terry. "And finding him has been a nightmare."
Liam felt a little jolt. "I know someone who'd be absolutely perfect," he said, and then wished he hadn't but… Well. He did know someone perfect for that.
Terry and his friend, Colin, both looked at him curiously.
Liam got a funny kind of sinking dread in his stomach, because he was absolutely one-hundred-percent right about this, but it was horrible to be so right. "I've got a… A friend, he's great with kids, great with cameras, exactly what you're looking for. He'd be brilliant."
"Great, give us his number," said Terry.
Liam really, really didn't want to. He was a terrible person. "I haven't got it on me," he lied. Why had he said anything if he was just going to turn around and change his mind? Now he was going to feel guilty either way. "Give me yours and I'll have him call you, he's got clips…" Hadn't Harry said something about Louis doing things on camera or on youtube somewhere? "I'll find them and send them to you." Unless I don't, Liam added silently to himself.
"That'd be fantastic, Liam. You're a good lad," said Colin, clapping him on the back. Liam tried to smile but it felt a bit awkward.
Sammy slapped Liam's legs. "Can we go?" he asked crossly.
"We don't hit," said Liam, but he was glad of an excuse to leave. "Sorry, he's impatient. It was nice talking to you."
"Have your friend call us!" said Terry. "We're absolutely desperate."
Liam waved and let Sammy drag him outside to the beach, where Zayn was already lying on a chair with his ridiculous sunglasses on and a fancy looking alcoholic drink in one hand.
"Let's go in the water!" Sammy shouted. Liam caught his hand before he could run off.
"Not without suncream on," Liam said, and then had to hold Sammy still with one hand while trying to smear suncream on him with the other.
Zayn pushed his sunglasses up into his hair. "You okay? You look a bit cross."
"I'm fine, I'm…" Liam took a deep breath. "I'm not fine, I think I've just said something really stupid and screwed things up."
"What things?" Zayn asked. "Holiday things?"
Liam shook his head. Sammy tried to push him off and run into the water, and he was slippery and ended up falling in to the sand, which stuck to him all over. "Fine!" said Liam. "Go! Rinse yourself off." Sammy cheered and ran over to the waves, then immediately stopped before he actually got wet. His favorite game since they'd got there was to stand as close as he could to where the waves were rolling in and then race away from them up the beach, and then back out toward them when they receded. At least he wasn't likely to drown that way, since he refused to go in the water without Liam.
"I just… I think I've just accidentally found a really good job for Louis," said Liam.
Zayn frowned. "He's got a really good job."
"No, I mean a job he'd actually love. I know, he likes playing with Sammy, but his whole CV is radio shows and a couple of adverts, and he was at a drama school for a while… Sammy! Leave that alone, it's dirty, oh for god's sake." Sammy had found a discarded trainer someone had left buried in the sand and was checking it for crabs.
"He's fine," said Zayn. "Okay, now explain why that's screwing things up. That sounds fantastic."
"But… I don't actually want him to get a better job," said Liam. He felt awful saying it, guilty and miserable, but it was the truth. He squinted against the sun for a minute. "I don't want him to be unhappy, but I want him to stay with us."
"So don't tell him," Zayn shrugged.
"But I've got to tell him," Liam argued. "That would be horrible and selfish."
"You've earned some selfishness," Zayn said, not sounding especially bothered.
Liam glared. "I'll throw sand on you."
Zayn put a protective hand over his hair. "Okay, so tell him. Then he'll quit and the two of you can have all the sex you haven't been having this whole time."
"Well, that's selfish too, then!"
Zayn groaned. "I give up, Liam. What do you want?"
"I mean… I don’t need him for sex, I need him for Sammy," said Liam. Sammy had settled down to build a pile of sand into… a larger pile of sand, as near as Liam could tell.
"You need him for sex, don't kid yourself," said Zayn. "And to be honest, I don't buy that you need him just for Sammy. You've been here three days, yeah? And you miss him?"
"It's easier when there's someone else around to look after things."
Zayn shook his head. "No, I mean… Would the holiday be easier with him here, or more fun with him here? Do you miss having him around to take Sammy to the pool so you can have a lie-in, or do you miss having him around so the two of you can sit on the beach throwing sand at each other and making fun of how ridiculous the tourists look? Would you be more relaxed right now if he were here to rub suncream on your shoulders? Would you like me to take Sammy for the afternoon so the two of you could go up to the suite and—"
"Shut up," said Liam, which was kind of a giveaway. Zayn grinned.
"I thought so," Zayn said. He looked awfully smug. "Tell him about the job."
"But… But what if he gets it and he leaves?" Liam asked. He hadn't meant to sound quite so worried and small about it. "How am I going to find someone else? It was impossible to find him."
Zayn patted Liam's shoulder. "You're going to tell him anyway. You're not very good at being selfish, honestly."
"Daddy!" Sammy shouted, waving. "Come and help me build a sand castle!"
"You're going to call him," said Zayn.
Liam shook his head and then shrugged, because yeah. He probably was going to call. And then Louis was going to go away and there would be another missing person in Liam's life, and in Sammy's and… "Eventually," said Liam. "I can think about it for a little while first, can't I?"
Zayn shrugged. "Go and help Sammy build a sand castle," he said. "I'm going to sit in the shade and drink."
"Sometimes I think you have the very best plans," said Liam, and Zayn grinned.
It took Liam two days to actually brace himself to make the phone call, and when he did it was short and painful. Sammy and Zayn had gone shopping for presents to bring home for people, and Liam was alone in the hotel room, feeling a bit sunburnt and a lot nervous.
"Hi!" said Louis cheerfully. "I haven't trashed your house."
"Hi," Liam said, fidgeting a little. "Good. That's… Listen, you need to call someone, his name is Terry, he's going to tell you to call someone who works at Sky."
"Are you doing an interview or something over there?" Louis asked. "Hang on, I'll write this down."
Liam closed his eyes for a second. "No," he said. "Not for me, for you. They need someone to work on a children's programme and… I got Harry to send them a couple of videos of you, and they love you and they want to meet with you as soon as you can."
There was a really long silence.
"And – And you have to go and talk to them, okay?" Liam said. He was rambling a bit, speaking too quickly. "It's perfect, it's absolutely perfect, and you'd be so good at it, so you have to go and –"
"I've got a job," said Louis.
"Well… Well, then, I'll fire you," said Liam, and then winced. "Not really, because things don't always work out even when they're perfect. But you keep saying you've failed at all this stuff like you've just given up, and I really think you need to try, even if it ends up being rubbish. Okay? I just… You're so amazing, Louis, honestly, and this will be really amazing, too."
Louis wasn't saying anything and it was incredibly unnerving.
"Just call them and talk to them, and go in and see them, okay? Maybe you'll hate it, I don't know, but I think you—"
"Okay," said Louis.
Liam blew out a long, relieved breath. "Really?"
"You sound like you're having a heart attack, so… Yeah. Okay. I'll go and talk to them."
"Fantastic," said Liam. It wasn't fantastic, though, because they were going to love Louis and steal him away, and Liam was going to be absolutely crushed. It was amazing how he could feel successful and miserable at the same time. "That's great. I need to go, Sammy and Zayn are probably spending a million pounds on sombreros, but… Call them. It's perfect."
Louis laughed a little. "Tell Sammy I said hi," he said, and then he hung up.
Okay. Well, Liam had done the right thing, even though he felt a bit ill over it. He was going to need to call people and get the nanny agency to start sending him things again, because the odds of Harry having another perfect friend were slim. Louis hadn't sounded at all certain, but Liam knew, he absolutely knew, that it was going to end up going perfectly and Louis would get hired away to do something he was going to love.
Liam was determined to be happy about it, on Louis's behalf. It was just… It was a bit awful to think about, so maybe it was better if he didn't. He sat down on the couch for a minute and took a couple of deep breaths until he had absolutely convinced himself he'd done the only possible thing, and then he went downstairs to find Zayn and Sammy.
Liam didn’t spend the rest of his holiday moping, but only because he had become the sort of person who could grit his teeth and force himself to have fun. Louis didn't call back. Liam didn't call him either again, in fairness. He thought about calling Harry, just to check and see if he'd heard anything, but Harry would have just laughed at him so he didn't do that, either.
He managed not to completely flip out until they were properly on their way home in a car from the airport. "But what if he's already moved all his things out?" Liam said. "What if he's already left? I'm going to be insanely busy this week, I can't actually manage my schedule and Sammy."
"What if they didn't hire him?" Zayn replied. "You're exhausting, I just got back from a holiday. I shouldn't be tired again already."
"You're always tired," said Liam. Zayn shrugged.
They dropped Zayn off at his flat and he hugged Sammy and reminded him that his new favorite toy was the cuddly dolphin Zayn had bought him. "If Harry asks, you tell him I'm your godfather," said Zayn. Sammy looked vaguely confused but he nodded.
And then they were on their way back to their house, and Liam couldn't stop worrying. He was twitchy enough that Sammy said, "Daddy, stop it, I'm trying to nap."
"Sorry," said Liam, but he couldn't really help it. Every time he sat still or looked out the window at the London traffic he started to fret all over again.
The car pulled up and Liam was still thanking the driver and trying to get their suitcases out of the back when Sammy yelled, "Louis!" and went running up the drive. Liam's heart did a funny little lurch at that, but he didn't look up, because the suitcases were heavy and also if Louis was there to say he was leaving, Liam didn't really want to hear it. Sammy was chattering excitedly about sharks and squids and dolphins, none of which he'd seen except as toys.
"Did you bring me a souvenir?" Louis asked, when Sammy paused for breath.
"Daddy!" Sammy shouted. "Daddy, what have we got for Louis?"
Liam had to look up at that, and probably everything he had for Louis was written all over his face, although he tried to cover it with a shrug and a smile. "A sombrero and cuddly squid, I think," he said. "We'll have to unpack and check."
"And we got Niall a beer mug with his name painted on," said Sammy. "And we got Lisa a scarf. And I got stung by a jellyfish!"
Louis looked concerned, so Liam said, "No, he didn't. He stubbed his toe on a rock and Zayn decided it was a jellyfish and wouldn't let anyone swim for the rest of the day."
"It was a huge purple jellyfish," said Sammy certainly.
"It was a rock," Liam sighed, but no one was listening; Sammy was explaining how he'd nearly died because of the jellyfish. Zayn was a terrible influence.
Louis helped Sammy bring in his suitcase, even though Sammy was absolutely insistent he could do it himself. Liam brought all the actual bags along after them. He felt like someone had stretched all his nerves out on a rack and was tightening them slowly; the longer Louis didn't say anything, the more Liam couldn't say anything at all.
"Why don't you go and unpack?" Louis said to Sammy. "You like sorting all your clothes out."
"I do," said Sammy, and that was definitely Liam's influence. He dragged his bag into his room.
"He'll probably fall asleep on the floor," Liam said. "It's been a really long day and he was just napping in the car. He woke up because he was excited to see you."
That was a bit of an awkward confession. Louis wasn't smiling. Louis always smiled; it was horribly unnerving.
"I need some water," said Liam, going into the kitchen.
Louis followed him. "Was it a good holiday?"
"It was nice, lots of sun, lots of places for Sammy to run around. I've started teaching him to swim. Zayn nearly had a heart attack." Liam poured himself a glass of water because it was something to do and it meant he could avoid looking at Louis, who was definitely, definitely there to say that he had a new job and was leaving. Liam could feel it.
"Good," said Louis. "So. Hey. Can I ask you something?"
Liam closed his eyes, just for a second, before he pasted on a smile and nodded. He turned around and leaned against the work surface and tried to look really interested and cheerful.
Louis, according to his face, was not particularly fooled. But then, he looked a bit nervous as well. If he was quitting there was no need to look so worried; Liam knew he was leaving. Liam said, "It's okay, it's fine—"
"No," said Louis, "it's not. Let me… Okay, here's what I think happened, and you tell me if this is right, okay? So first, I kissed you."
Liam was unaccountably embarrassed and looked at the drops of water collecting on the outside of his glass rather than Louis. "Mmm," he said noncommittally.
"And I thought you enjoyed it," Louis said, as if he were plowing through a particularly painful speech, "but you said we shouldn't do that again. So then you went away to get some space for a while and not be around me at all—"
"Hang on," Liam said.
Louis held up a hand to stop him. "And then," Louis said, grimly determined, "you fired me and found me another job. True?"
"No!" Liam protested. "I mean… Well, yes, all of those things happened, but you make it sound sinister."
"So what I've been thinking," said Louis, "is that you are just too nice a guy to let anyone down easily. You went and found me another job so you wouldn't have to feel terrible about letting me go, and not wanting to date me. Am I close?"
Liam was so honestly shocked that he didn't say anything for a minute, and that seemed to confirm Louis's ideas. "Okay," said Louis with a sigh. "I thought so."
"No, wait," said Liam. "You're all wrong! I swear that's not at all what happened. I liked kissing you! I just can't do it while you work for me. And I didn't really mean to fire you; I just wanted you to go to the interview. I've been so upset thinking about you not being here, I almost didn't tell you about the other job, but then I had to, because it was perfect for you. And you're so wonderful and talented but sometimes it seems like you don't know that, and I want everyone to know that! I'm sure they loved you, they must have. I just wish I could also keep you here with us—"
Louis had been at least a few steps away, but then suddenly he wasn't. He was pressed right up against Liam, and he had both his hands on Liam's face, cupping his jaw, tilting his head down and kissing him. Liam made a little startled noise because Louis had knocked him into the counter, and the water he'd been holding spilled, but really Liam didn't care about the water at all. He grabbed the back of Louis's shirt and tangled his fingers in it, pulling him closer, kissing him with the sort of last-ditch desperation that made his whole body feel like it was on fire. Anywhere he wasn't pressed against Louis he felt bereft, anything that didn't feel like him was wrong.
"Okay," said Louis, pulling back a tiny bit. Liam couldn't stop himself from following Louis's mouth with his own, leaning into him and kissing him again. Louis smiled and laughed against his mouth and Liam was going to keep that moment inside his heart forever as the best and most perfect moment he'd ever had. "Hey," said Louis, pulling back again. "That's okay, then. So we can do this, now?"
"Can we?" Liam asked. He felt breathless and giddy and desperate.
"Well, I've got a new job," said Louis, grinning. "Although it doesn't start for a few days."
"Oh my god, I knew it!" Liam said. "I knew they'd love you!" He pulled Louis into a proper hug for a minute, and felt Louis relax a little, squeezing him back. "And there, see, that's something you haven't failed at, so I don't want to hear that ever again."
"That's one thing," said Louis. "But I think the fact that you gave them my name and then Harry called them didn't hurt."
"Two things," said Liam, smiling at him a little shyly. "I can think of two things you haven't failed at."
Louis laughed. "I don't understand you, or how you can be the way you are."
Liam pulled back a little, frowning at him. "What does that mean?"
"You're just really unusual," said Louis. "In a good way, I mean, but sometimes it's like… I don't entirely believe you're real." He laughed again. "Harry used to say that, and I didn't get what he meant, but now I do, I think."
"Well, I'm really happy for you," said Liam. His throat hurt a little bit, thinking about Louis not being around all day, every day. "That's great, it's—"
"Why do you look like you're trying not to cry?" Louis asked. He put his arms around Liam's neck and leaned in, kissing his jaw and then the side of his mouth. "You're meant to look pleased that I'm kissing you now. It's not immoral anymore."
"I am, but…" Liam closed his eyes for a minute and just enjoyed having Louis pressed up against him. It was going to be really difficult to ever move his hands off Louis's hips again and let him step away. "But you've got a new job, and I'm just… It's selfish, I guess. I liked having you here."
Louis laughed. Liam liked being kissed while Louis laughed, it was all the best parts of having Louis around in one moment. "Why would I leave?"
"Well… I mean. If you don't work for me, it would be a bit shit to ask you to stay and look after Sammy."
"And what if I still want to?" Louis asked. "I like him. I like you. Anyway, all my things are here."
Liam laughed, trying not to go hysterical with relief. "You don't mind not getting paid for it anymore?"
Louis was standing between Liam's legs and he rocked his hips forward a little bit, kissing his way up toward Liam's ear. "I'm sure you'll think of a way to compensate me for my hard work."
Liam meant to laugh at that, but he couldn't do that and also breathe while Louis had his mouth right there. "You won't be here all day with him any more, though."
"Stop arguing against me with logic, Liam, I hate that," said Louis, biting him on the neck. Liam tilted his head and let him bite. "I suppose you will need someone for a couple of months until Sammy starts school. And every now and then when we go out and do things without him. Proper dates. Oh god, Liam, can I take you on a proper date?"
"What," said Liam, "like, right now?"
"Tonight," said Louis, and kissed him again. Liam was having a really hard time not just grinning like a fool, and he'd worked his hands into Louis's back pockets, despite how tight his jeans were. "Why not?"
"I can't tonight," Liam said. "My nanny's just quit."
Louis bit him again. Liam burst out laughing.
Nothing really changed except—
"Daddy!" Sammy shouted. "I'm hungry, and the clock says six and I'm up and you're not."
Liam tried to drag himself to some kind of awareness, but it was spectacularly difficult. He'd always been a morning person but Sammy seemed to be waking up earlier and earlier. He blinked at Sammy, who was frowning next to the bed.
"Breakfast," Liam mumbled. "Go and get yourself something in the fridge."
"Daddy," said Sammy disapprovingly. "I'm not allowed to make toast by myself."
Liam rolled over, buried his face in his pillow, and counted down from three before he took a deep breath and looked up. "Okay," he said. "Right. Breakfast."
"Louis, get up," said Sammy demandingly. Louis moaned loudly and pulled the duvet over his head. Sammy giggled. "Everyone has to get up, we're going shopping today! I'm getting my bag today. Daaaaaddy."
Oh, right, that explained why Sammy was up so early and so excitedly. "I'm up!" said Liam, sitting up. "You get up, too." He elbowed Louis in the side.
"I don't have to be up for another hour," Louis complained. "You make the breakfasts around here. Sammy and I could still be asleep."
Sammy groaned. "I want everyone to get up," he said, and he looked like he was actually getting upset.
Liam grabbed him and pulled him up on the bed. "I'll make a fry up," he said. "You're in charge of getting Louis out of bed." He gave Sammy a loud kiss on the cheek.
Sammy started trying to pull the duvet off Louis while Louis rolled around and shrieked. Sammy giggled and jumped on him. Liam was just spectacularly grateful that Sammy hadn't noticed anything especially weird when Louis and then Louis's things had migrated into Liam's room. There had been one morning when he'd frowned at everyone and said, "But that's Daddy's room, you're only allowed in here if you've had a bad dream," but he hadn't seemed upset beyond that. Eventually Liam was going to have to tell him something. In the meantime Sammy threw a fit when he had to stay with a babysitter who wasn't Louis, so they were both trying to schedule their days so that didn't have to happen much.
Liam made tea because he wasn't awake enough to turn the hob on without injuring himself somehow. "Tea," Louis moaned, wandering into the kitchen. He had the duvet on like a toga. "Sammy's getting dressed. I'm sure I was never that excited to wake up."
"I don't know if you've heard," Liam said, handing him a cup of tea, "but he's starting school next week. And today we're buying him a bag with Spider-man on it."
"No," said Louis, "I haven't heard that a hundred times a day for the last month." He took a long drink of tea and made a slightly ecstatic face.
"At least he's excited," said Liam a little bleakly. He couldn't quite work up to excited for Sammy to be gone all day.
Louis said, "If you start crying before you actually drop him off at school, I'm going to take pictures and post them to twitter so the entire internet can make fun of you."
"Hey," Liam protested, and Louis kissed him. He tasted of tea, which was better than his normal morning breath. "In fairness to me, I'm going on tour and I'm going to be away for weeks and neither of you can come. He's got school and you've got your big successful job. So I'm allowed to get upset."
"Three weeks," said Louis. "And you're seeing us two weekends, you big baby."
"I don't want to go," Liam mumbled into Louis's shoulder. Louis managed to hug him and drink his tea at the same time, which was quite a feat. Liam snorted a little laugh to himself.
"What?" Louis asked, hooking his fingers in the waistband of Liam's tracksuit bottoms.
"Just," said Liam, smiling a little. "You kept telling me you were bad at things, and you're so good at so many things, really."
"Shut up," said Louis, pinching Liam's hip and trying to stifle a grin. "Unless you want to see some other things I'm good at."
"Is breakfast ready? I want to go shopping!" Sammy shouted from his room.
"The shops aren't open yet!" Liam shouted back. He elbowed Louis to get Louis's hand from creeping any further under the waistband of his jogging bottoms. "God, he gets so excited over everything—"
Louis laughed. "I wonder where he gets that from. Make us some breakfast before he explodes."
"Who's going to make breakfast while I'm gone?" Liam asked. He finished his tea a little too quickly and burned his mouth, and then started collecting food from the fridge. "And who's going to tidy up? And who's going to do the washing up? And who's going to—"
"It'll be fine, and you're going to have fun with Harry and his band, so stop it," said Louis firmly. "I can tidy, I just don't like to. I promise your son won't die when a towering heap of rubbish falls on him, okay?"
"You say that, but I've seen your car," Liam grumbled.
"Daddy!" said Sammy, running out. "I'm going to wear the jacket Zayn got me."
"It's August," said Liam. "Why on earth do you want to wear a leather jacket? Actually, a better question is what on earth was Zayn thinking? Go and put a shirt on under it, anyway." Sammy groaned and ran back into his room.
"He was trying to compete with that signed Man U football shirt that Harry got him," said Louis. "You should let them fight over who gets him a Spider-man bag. You'd end up with one signed by Stan Lee."
Liam sighed a little. "You encourage them to be ridiculous."
"I think it's hilarious," Louis shrugged. "This afternoon I'm taking Sammy to the park. One of his friends is having a football birthday party, and Sammy's going to wear that and be the coolest four year old on earth."
"I don't want him to be cool, I want him to be happy and well-adjusted and normal and—" Liam started, and then had to stop because Louis kissed him again. "I'm going to burn the bacon," Liam scolded him.
Louis wrapped his arms around Liam's waist, and Liam was slightly worried the duvet was going to fall off and Louis would end up getting burned with bacon grease somewhere he wouldn't enjoy. "He's fine," said Louis, "and I'm here if you need to be reminded that everything is okay."
Liam didn't know what to say to that, because Louis was ridiculous and wonderful and anyway Liam really was going to ruin breakfast if he didn't pay attention. "Go and put some clothes on," he said. "You've got a wardrobe fitting this morning for the show, so you can look pretty for all your fans."
"So I'd save everyone time if I showed up naked," Louis pointed out in his most reasonable voice.
"Harry always says that, too, and it never works," said Liam.
"Daddy!" Sammy shouted, running in again. His shirt was on inside-out. "Is breakfast ready, I'm starving. I'm going to die."
"He gets that from you," said Liam, and Louis laughed.
Louis leaned forward so he could whisper right in Liam's ear. "The worst part of him getting up at the crack of dawn is we can't ever manage morning sex."
Liam bit his lip. "Well, when he's at school I imagine we'll have mornings where we're both home and he's not, so…"
"Cheeky," said Louis approvingly.
"Go and get dressed," Liam repeated. "We're going to eat like real people, with everyone at the table, and plates, and serviettes, and proper conversation instead of you just shoveling food into your mouths and running away. We're going to have a proper family breakfast."
"And then my Spider-man bag," said Sammy loudly.
"Before Spider-man we have to put our shirts on the right way, I'm afraid," said Louis. He picked Sammy up and flipped him upside down, carrying him back toward the bedrooms. "That's so weird, I didn't know Spider-man could fly!"
Sammy said, "I'm not flying, you're holding me," with his most disapproving giggle.
So really, Liam thought, everything was exactly the same, only somehow much, much better.