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Love in Slow Motion

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Louis bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, humming to himself and trying to remember the footwork for the chorus. Harry, who was reclined across a park bench like he was about to take a nap, squinted up at him with a little half smile.

“Are you really nervous?” he asked. “You know what he’s going to say.”

“Shut up,” said Louis, who was, in fact, nervous. He wasn’t nervous out of worrying about Liam, because he knew exactly what Liam would do, but more over the fact that Zayn would fall over his feet at some point and also Niall couldn’t stop bloody giggling.

“Give us a smile,” Nick said, sticking the camera in Louis’s face. Louis batted him away, scowling. He had no idea why Nick was there; he hadn’t even bothered to learn the dance. “Come on Louis, it’s lucky ninety-nine.”

“That’s not a thing,” Louis said huffily.

“Could be,” Nick said. “You could make it a thing. You’re proper internet famous and all that.”

“Go away, Nick,” said Louis. He probably should be thanking Nick for making him internet famous in the first place, only somewhere around a year and a half ago he’d gone from being Nick Grimshaw the DJ to Harry’s hipster friend and crush Nick and so Louis didn’t feel obliged to be nice to him anymore. “Or at least film it properly.”

“Right.” Nick cleared his throat and put on his radio voice. “Here we are, at the park, to surprise Liam Payne as he plays footie with the lads—"

“Lads!” yelled Niall, pumping his fist in the air.

“—so that Louis Tomlinson can profess his undying love for him and ask him to get married.” He turned the camera on Louis. “Any last words, Louis?”

“Zayn,” Louis said seriously, looking past the camera to where Zayn was leaning on Perrie, looking mostly asleep. “I swear to god, if you muck this up, I will steal Perrie from you.”

“Dead romantic, that,” Harry said. Perrie blew Louis a kiss and kissed Zayn’s temple. “All right, everything set?”

“Yep,” Louis said. He bounced up and down again, like he was warming up for a kickabout, and looked over the small crowd of friends that he had managed to rope into this. “Who’s got the music?”

And with the first notes of Marry You by Bruno Mars, all thirty-odd of them set out down the field toward where Liam was playing football with his friends, completely oblivious to the horde approaching. Louis saw the exact moment when Liam registered the music, his broad shoulders going tense before he turned slowly, eyebrows drawn together in a familiar frown. Louis waved cheerfully, and as the song went into the chorus, they went into their painstakingly choreographed dance number.

It was, of course, an absolute disaster, people turning the wrong way and laughing and Zayn definitely fell over, but by the end Liam was laughing, even if he was rolling his eyes. Louis slid to his knees, wincing despite himself, and took Liam’s hand in his. Liam let him, even as he glanced back over his shoulder at his friends, who were doubled over with laughter.

“Liam,” Louis said very seriously.

“Yes, Louis,” Liam said.

“Will you, Liam Payne, finally admit that I am better at proposals than anyone else in the world?” Louis asked.

“I dunno, Louis Tomlinson,” Liam said. “I don’t reckon you’ve actually proposed just now.”

“Marry me, Liam Payne,” Louis said. He pressed his cheek to Liam’s chilled hand. “Make me the happiest man in the world.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Liam said. “Nice try, love, but no.”

“Aw, damn it,” Louis said cheerfully, springing to his feet. “Better luck next time, yeah?”

Liam just shook his head, smiling fondly. He gave Louis a quick hug and a peck on the cheek and asked, “You gonna stay to watch us play?” and Louis asked, “Your mate Tom gonna take his shirt off for some shirts and skins?” and Liam swatted at him before jogging back out to re-join his mates. Everyone else was sorting themselves out when Louis turned around, settling in on the grass to watch the football, and Louis sank down next to Harry, who tucked his hand into the crook of Louis’s arm.

“One more to go,” he said. “Gonna be weird, innit, once you’re done?”

“Yeah,” Louis said, watching Liam talk all captainly to the other lads. “Gonna be right weird.”

He did his best to ignore the hollowness in his stomach, and the small part of him that wished, despite his best efforts, that Liam had said yes. It was a stupid hope; and yet, there it was. He had been hoping for months—maybe nearly a year now—and still, every time, Liam laughed at him and played along until he said no.

Frankly, Louis was looking forward to the whole ill-advised escapade being over and done with.

 

Louis had been proposing to Liam on and off for going on four years now. He usually managed it once or twice a month, taking a break if either of them were seriously dating someone, occasionally more if it didn’t require too much planning. Somehow, Liam was surprised every damn time, though he really shouldn’t have been. The whole thing was his fault anyway, or at least that’s what Louis protested when Liam got stroppy about it.

It started like this:

Liam, Zayn, and Niall were eighteen, Louis was nineteen, Harry the child was seventeen, and they were all watching YouTube videos in Harry’s stepdad’s cabin one weekend when Zayn clicked on one that was titled something like BEST PROPOSAL EVER!!!!! Louis had groaned loudly, but Liam, the sap, had covered his mouth with one hand and watched, misty-eyed, as some twat hipster proposed to his girlfriend by spelling it out on a litter of kittens and setting them loose in an IKEA or something. Possibly Louis didn’t remember it all that well. The salient point was that at the end, Liam wiped his nose on his sleeve over how lovely it all was, but Louis had scoffed loudly, looking at all the other boys who were, to his disgust, also looking emotional, even Niall.

“Oh, come on, Louis,” Liam complained. “It’s sweet!”

“I could do a better proposal than that,” Louis said. “I could do a hundred better proposals than that.”

“Sure you could,” Liam said, and Harry had laughed and Zayn had shaken his head and Niall had slapped Louis on the back, and Louis had started planning.

The first time, he hadn’t let on to anyone what he was doing, had just slipped a cheap ring into Liam’s champagne on New Year’s Eve and filmed him fishing it out and looking around and then he’d handed his phone off to Harry so he could go down on one knee.

“Liam Reginald Payne —”

“You know that isn’t my middle name —”

“—will you marry me?” Louis had finished. Short and sweet, and it had taken everyone a moment to get it, but then Niall had said, “Wait, are you really going to propose a hundred times?”

“Oh my god,” Liam said. “Louis.”

“Are you bowled over by my sense of drama and romance?” Louis asked.

“You’re such an idiot,” Liam said. “Please tell me this ring isn’t real.”

“I paid like five quid for it, don’t be absurd,” Louis said. Later that night, after several more glasses of champagne and at least three shots, he’d uploaded the whole thing to his YouTube channel. Liam hadn’t spoken to him for three days, because Louis hadn’t asked before putting a video of him drinking online. (Eventually he’d relented because a bunch of commenters called him fit and he was charmingly pleased by it.)

At the time, Louis had a decent number of followers all on the basis of his occasionally shirtless rambling video blogs, and also because Harry occasionally wandered through the background in only his pants. A few of them asked for context behind the proposal video, so he recorded a little video where he explained the hundred proposals thing, and then he was locked in, he really was, because every time he posted one he got more followers, and Louis was nothing if not a slave to his view count.

The one that got him the most hits—the one that really started the ball rolling, as it were—was Proposal #24, which had happened on a particularly wet May afternoon. Louis was supposed to be meeting the others for lunch, but he was running late because he had lost his Oyster card, and as he’d gotten off the bus it had started pouring, absolutely torrential. At first he’d been furious; then, he had an idea.

He texted Niall to get his phone ready—all his friends were prepared these days, he loved them for it—and ran like mad to the café, where the lads were sitting outside, crammed up against the window to take advantage of the awning overhead. Louis pulled in all his breath.

“Liam!” he bellowed. “Liam!”

Liam turned, eyes wide, and when he saw Louis he started to get up, looking concerned. Niall shoved him back down, phone out and at the ready. “Louis?” Liam called back. “What is it?”

“Why didn’t you write me?” Louis yelled. “Why?”

“What?” Liam asked, looking around the table in confusion. Niall panned around to get his face in it. “Louis, what on earth are you —”

“It wasn’t over for me!” Louis yelled, advancing down the sidewalk toward them. People were staring now, but he didn’t much care. This was too good an opportunity to lose. “I waited for you for seven years! I wrote you every day for a year!”

“You wrote me?” Liam asked, still looking adorably baffled.

“Yes!” Louis said, coming to stand at the little fence closing in the outside seating area. He leaned forward on it. “It wasn’t over! It still isn’t over, if you want me.”

“Think you’re mixing up the lines a bit, mate,” Zayn said mildly.

“Liam,” Louis said, “I still love you. Do you still love me?”

“Oh, take him back,” said an older lady sitting at the next table over. She dabbed at her eyes with a genuine handkerchief. “Just look at him, the poor dear.”

Louis did his utmost to look pitiful, which mostly involved widening his eyes and pouting. Liam still looked confused, but he got up and held out his hand to help Louis over the little fence, and Louis leapt into his arms, knowing that Liam could take his weight. Liam let out a surprised sound and then an even more startled yelp when Louis kissed him full on the mouth.

Oh,” Liam said when Louis pulled back. “The Notebook.”

“Will you marry me, Liam Payne?” Louis asked, hooking his ankles around Liam’s back.

“If I say yes, will you get down?” Liam asked.

“No, you have to carry me home,” Louis said, and Liam unceremoniously dumped him in the fifth chair at their table.

Louis posted the video as Proposal #24: The Notebook Special and went to bed that night still slightly damp but feeling very pleased with himself. When he woke up the next morning, it was to find that the video had over a hundred thousand views and that his Twitter, normally barren of notifications except from the lads and Harry’s mum, had over a hundred missed mentions.

After some investigation, he discovered that Nick Grimshaw of Radio 1 had tweeted out a link to the video, saying, This is sooooo cute! That one link had already been retweeted a couple hundred times. Someone had found his Twitter and retweeted his own hastily sent out tweet—I got Liam good today !! Can’t believe how long it took him to cotton on !!—and that had well over a hundred retweets too. Louis had just gotten up but he felt faint anyway. He sat down at the end of his bed and stared at his phone.

“Oi,” said Liam, knocking on his door and looking in on him. “Why is my mum asking me if we’re dating? Did you send her the videos?”

“Um,” Louis said. “You might want to check Twitter.”

And that was how they became internet famous.

 

Well, it was a fair bit more complicated than that. First, Louis had tweeted a thanks to Nick for getting him followers, and then they’d had a bit of back and forth, mostly Nick snarking him about getting the lines wrong. Louis had been kind of annoyed, but the next morning, Nick mentioned him and his videos on his show. Not that Louis cared, of course, but it was kind of cool.

“This is amazing,” Harry said, listening to the replay when the five of them were piled into their flat’s tiny living room. He was still wearing his apron from work, his cheek smeared with flour. “You’re bloody famous, you should ask him for an interview or summat.”

“Don’t think that’s how interviews work,” Niall said, taking the bowl of popcorn off the cardboard box that served as their table and balancing it on his knees. “Just make friends with him on Twitter, seems like you’re halfway there already.”

Louis risked a look at Liam, who had been kind of quiet and weird ever since the video took off. “Liam, what do you think?”

“People think I’m a dickhead for not saying yes,” Liam said. “You know that?”

“I said it’s just a bet,” Louis said.

“It wasn’t a bet, you decided to do this all on your own,” Zayn said.

“Semantics.” Louis waved his hand dismissively. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Niall mouth semantics before cracking up. “Maybe I should just call in.”

“Ooh, good idea,” Harry said, nodding. He leaned over Louis to get at the popcorn. “You can tell everyone it’s just fun, but you have plenty more ideas up your sleeve.”

“Do you?” Liam asked plaintively.

“One hundred proposals,” Louis said firmly. “I said I’d do it, so I’m doing it.”

The next morning, he called into Nick’s show and introduced himself, and somehow, Louis wasn’t sure how, Nick ended up being their friend and did things like get them decent equipment for filming and introducing Louis to people who rambled at him about how to monetize his brand and rubbish like that. Somehow it had worked, because he had money now, not loads but enough he could give his sisters over the top gifts and help his mum out, or at least before she met his step-dad. Louis didn't pay much attention to all the business-y stuff that kept cropping up, but Harry did, and Harry started showing up at Louis's flat saying things like, "The Telegraph wants you to write a piece on romance," and "What do you think of these t-shirt designs?"

It was all mad, really, because Louis was still bouncing from shit job to shit job, no uni degree to his name, and yet he would get recognized on the street sometimes by people who'd yell, "Tell Liam if he doesn't want you, I'll have you!" Harry always shook his head at them, muttering about true love.

The problem was, of course, Liam.

Louis had met Liam when he was eighteen years old and Liam was still flat-ironing his hair like a twat. Louis was working in Toys R Us when Liam came in looking for something for the kids at the school he volunteered at, and Louis had whipped out his sick piano skills to wow Liam because Louis was nothing if not a glutton for attention and praise. Liam had been more impressed than the display really warranted, and Louis had preened underneath his effusive praise. Liam was so bloody nice, was the thing, and seemed genuinely surprised when Louis asked if he wanted to come out after Louis was done to kick around a football for a bit.

By the time Liam met Harry and Niall, Louis had decided to keep him. He was so innocent and gullible, qualities Louis valued in a friend, and though he was annoyingly responsible, he listened, too, and would play footie with them, which helped balance the teams a bit. With Liam had come Zayn, and that had seemed to cement something for them. They had eventually migrated down to London, where all five of them shared a cramped flat for a year before splitting up, Zayn and Liam in one, Harry and Louis in another, and Niall taking up with another Niall from Ireland, which none of them ever stopped taking the piss out of.

It had taken Louis a good while to realize that his desire to corrupt Liam wasn’t just mates; it was wanting to see Liam blush and squirm. It was wanting Liam’s attention, and wanting his smiles and blushes, and somewhere around proposal #30 it had all stopped being a joke. It was around that same time that Liam met Danielle and Louis had to leave off anyway because it wasn’t really on, was it, to propose to someone who was dating someone else for real.

When Danielle and Liam had broken up, Louis had thrown himself into arranging the most absurd, over the top proposal he could think of, which involved a scavenger hunt through London and Louis tackling him to the ground in Hyde Park and tickling him until Liam was smiling for the first time in ages. That video, filmed by Harry, had been quite popular as well.

Louis had proposed to Liam in every way imaginable. He had tied a note to Nick’s dog’s collar and sent him to Liam (#32). He had hired a skywriter to spell MARRY ME LIAM when Liam was home in Wolverhampton (#77). He had taken Liam to the top of the Eiffel Tower (#84) and asked him during a football match (#19) and he’d had one of Nick’s DJ friends play Train’s Marry Me at a club (#46) and he’d even, once, done karaoke to Savage Garden’s Truly Madly Deeply (#95) despite the fact he knew his voice was the weakest of their friends, except Nick, and Liam himself could have done it loads better.

And every time—every fucking time—Liam smiled and blushed and, eventually, said no.

 

Once Liam’s football match was over, they all adjourned to the pub.

Well, not everyone; Louis’s backup dancers had largely dispersed, though some of them—Perrie’s mates, mostly, and a few of Nick’s friends—had stuck around, lured by the promise of booze. Harry had climbed up onto Big Niall, or Bressie, as he was usually more properly called, and was demanding to be carried to the King’s Arms.

“Don’t know where that is, love,” Bressie said cheerfully, holding onto Harry’s shins as though he weren’t the slightest bit perturbed. He probably wasn’t. He’d had long enough to get used to them.

Louis, never one to miss a good opportunity for competition, gave Liam a thumbs up before springing onto his back. Liam stumbled, yelling, “For fuck’s sake!” but he did grab Louis’s ankles and hold him in place, so he considered it a win.

“Right,” said Louis, surveying the sights from his new vantage point. “Move out!”

They went to the pub where Jesy worked part time because her manager liked them and didn’t get as annoyed with them as others. They sprawled out over five tables, in and out of their seats as they talked loudly, sent people to get drinks, and generally made a lot of ruckus. Louis was squished between Harry and Nick’s friend Aimee, a loud American that Louis liked despite his determination to hate all of Nick’s friends. Down the table, Liam was talking with Jade, his eyebrows very serious. Niall was regaling the people around him with a story about his job, and Zayn and Perrie were deep in conversation with Lou Teasdale.

Louis took a moment to feel rather smug about it all. When he and the lads had first moved down to London, they hadn’t had anything other than their ambitions. They lived off their wits and the good graces of Harry’s step-father for the first few months until Liam had gotten his gig doing sound at a venue, and that had kept them for the month while Zayn found work in an art gallery, Niall as a music teacher (paid handsomely by the hour), and Harry at a bakery. Louis had bounced around between jobs, as he tended to, but was never without one for too long, and in the meantime the videos had happened, and soon it didn’t matter as much, because he had that.

They had made something of themselves, and they hadn’t failed. Louis couldn’t believe it sometimes; he had spent most of their first year in London expecting to be back in Doncaster by the spring, tail between his legs and ready to make another go at uni. Once, in a drink-inspired fit of sincerity, Nick had told Louis that they reminded him of Nick and his friends when they were young.

“We all wanted so much,” Nick had said from where he was lying on Harry and Louis’s couch, a bottle of cabernet clutched to his chest. “We were young and stupid and we believed in ourselves and somehow it worked out. I think you lot could be the same.”

Louis, who had been even drunker than Nick at the time, had accepted the compliment for what it was. Ordinarily he probably would have laughed it off, but in that moment, he felt that Nick was right; and sitting at the pub with his unlikely group of friends around him, he knew it.

“You’re being quiet,” Harry said, digging his pointy elbow into Louis’s side. “Normally you’d be bouncing off the walls after getting Liam that good.”

Louis shrugged and picked up his pint. Harry narrowed his eyes at him in that way that meant he was trying to figure something out. Harry was annoyingly bright, but he needed time to follow his thoughts through to the end, which was why Louis distracted him by saying, “Look, Nick’s got his top off,” and then laughing when Harry’s head whipped around.

“Give him a few more of those cocktails and he’ll take everything off,” Aimee said. She reached over to grab a chip from the basket that had been settled between Louis and Leigh-Anne across the way. “That was a great one, Louis. Do you have any plans for the big one hundred? Elephants or a parade, maybe?”

“Oh, that would have been good,” said Louis wistfully. “Tell him we’re going to the Pride parade and had one of the floats hold up a sign. Might have been a bit, dunno.”

“Yeah,” Aimee agreed. “If we were in New York, I’d say try the Macy’s parade. Have one of the giant balloons say LIAM I LOVE YOU.”

"Please don't do anything so big," Liam said, craning his head to look around Jade. "I feel bad when all of you go to so much effort."

"If you'd just say yes, you tease," Louis said light-heartedly. He wasn't sure it landed judging by the face Liam pulled. "I promise, I won't go totally overboard. Again."

"Yes, the hot air balloon was a bit much," Liam said dryly.

"Ah, number sixty-nine," Louis said dreamily. "I wanted it to be much dirtier, but Zayn talked me out of it."

"Thank god." Liam was smiling, though, so he couldn't be too mad.

After the pub, the five of them went back to Liam and Zayn’s, which had been their unofficial hub since they moved out of each other’s pockets. Part of it was that they were the most central, and part of it was that they had the nicest living room, but Louis also thought it was that they all leaned on Liam. Liam did things like make sure they all had tickets home for the holidays and brought them soup when they were ill and cuddled Louis through his many break-ups.

The last one, a year ago now, had been particularly brutal because they had only been going out a month but Louis had really liked him, had thought perhaps he could actually get over Liam, but Renstupid name, Louis thought viciouslyhad broken up with him when he'd seen the video where Louis proposed to Liam during a game of Scrabble by getting the other lads to pass him tiles so he could spell out MARRY ME LIAM. That one hadn't been planned either, and Louis nearly hadn’t posted it because even he could tell he looked stupidly besotted.

"It was funny and all," Ren had said, "being the boyfriend of the lad who proposes to his mate on YouTube. But you're actually in love with him, aren't you? How fucking sad is that?" That last bit was what had made Louis really lose it, because he knew full well how pathetic he was, but he didn't need to hear it from gorgeous Ren, who had kissed him not half an hour before after making him homemade pizza.

Louis had been particularly miserable after that, and had probably left snot stains on Liam’s couch. He cuddled up next to Liam now as they sprawled out on the couch, tucking his head against his shoulder, and said, "I bet you'll be glad when it's all over, huh? Won't have to look over your shoulder anymore."

"Nah," Liam said easily. "It's fun, isn't it? Don't reckon when I actually get married it'll be this big of a deal, so it's nice to see what it's like."

"Don't your mates think it's weird?" Louis asked, tracing patterns on Liam's leg and not meeting his eyes. Liam, for all that he was basically a mum with his niceness and mother hen tendencies, was a real lad, all sporty and into girls, as far as Louis could tell, except for that one time he had gotten off with a boy when they'd gone clubbing in the early days. His friends were all laddy, too, roadies and sound technicians with skull tattoos and big muscles. Louis always felt like a pixie next to them.

"A bit, but, like, it's mostly been like that since I met them," Liam said. "They think you're funny."

"Well, I am," Louis agreed smugly. He knew his videos were popular, and he had a decent following on Twitter these days despite the occasional times he'd said something fucking stupid and made an ass of himself. Still, it was nice to get compliments.

"What are you whispering about?" Harry asked, twisting around to squint up at them. "There's a movie on."

"We've seen this like fifteen times," Louis pointed out as a giant robot punched a giant monster on screen. "It hasn't changed."

"Shh," Harry said, pressing a finger to Louis's lips. He was so weird. Louis really was quite fond of him.

They parted ways around midnight, rubbing at their eyes and promising to see each other soon, which they did every time knowing full well they'd see each other before two days had passed. Louis kissed Liam on the cheek, and Zayn on the mouth to make him scrunch up his face, and wrapped himself around Harry to go home. Niall cackled at all of them and took a picture for his Instagram.

"Open mic night on Thursday?" Liam asked hopefully as they were about to leave. Louis made a grumpy noise. "Louis, you promised you wouldn't complain anymore. You like singing."

"Not when you lot are showing off your gorgeous voices and I've only got my raspy warbling," Louis said grumpily. "But fine, I'll come and cheer you on and maybe someone will see the video and finally give you a record deal."

"I don't want a record deal," Liam said, which was a total lie because Louis had heard him talk, drunkenly, about how much he had wanted the X Factor the time he'd been on, back when he'd met Jade. "I just want to sing with my mates. You'd better come, Louis."

"I'll be there," Louis said. "Promise."

"Come on," Harry said. "I've got work early in the morning."

"The busy life of a contract intern," Louis sighed dramatically, and he pushed Harry from the door, out in the direction of home.

 

Louis's current job was at an H&M. He fucking hated it. He tried to make like he didn't, because his co-workers were nice enough and the employee discount helped with things, but he was always thinking, if I made just a little more money at this video stuff I could be out of here. He made a tidy amount of money on the side writing occasional articles and selling silly merch that played off jokes he'd made in the proposal videos, but it wasn't quite enough to cover rent and food and everything else.

The worst part was when people recognized him, because they were always so surprised he had a normal job, and he had to play like it was a lark, a bit of fun, and his teeth grated the entire time. Wednesday was particularly awful because they were having a sale, and they kept having to move things around. Louis got yelled at by the shift manager in the back office for taking too long to get back from his lunch break, which wasn’t his fault, the bloody sandwich shop’s panini maker had broken halfway through making his food. Normally he got on with Em, but she was cranky and the store manager had been on her lately, and so Louis couldn’t even get properly mad at her.

By the time he got off work, he was tired and in no mood to go be the weak link at his friends’ talent show, but he’d promised Liam. He braved the early September rain to walk rather than spend money on the bus and somehow ended up being early despite that. Liam was fiddling with his guitar when Louis let himself up into the flat, frowning at a pad of musical staves. Louis listened to him hum a pretty sort of melody for a minute before he sat down on the sofa beside him and looked over his shoulder at the notation. Liam started and stilled his fingers on the strings.

"You're early," he said suspiciously. "You're never early."

"Lies," Louis said. "I have been, on occasion, early to things."

Liam looked at him with dubious eyebrows but didn't bother contradicting him. He went back to plucking at the guitar. Louis looked around at the canvases that littered the flat, all Zayn's work. Louis had watched him work a few times; it was hypnotizing. Zayn would sit cross-legged on the floor, canvas in front of him as he carefully spray-painted using the stencils he cut out of pieces of card stock.

“You’re dripping on the sofa,” Liam said after a moment. “Get your coat off, come on. You can borrow one of my jumpers.”

He set his guitar down and disappeared into his room. Louis took advantage of the moment to take a closer look at what Liam had been writing, humming the melody softly to himself. There weren’t any words yet, but he liked it, thought it sounded melancholic and nostalgic and fond, all at the same time. He could almost taste the lyrics on the tip of his tongue. But he hadn’t written a song in years, and Liam was loads better than him anyway.

“I’m just messing around,” Liam said when he came out. “I haven’t written anything in ages.”

“You should,” Louis said. “You’re dead good.”

“I’m no good with words,” Liam said. He handed Louis a soft, worn blue jumper. “Zayn used to help me sometimes, but he’s been working on his portfolio for some young artist show he’s trying to get into.”

“How is it going?” Louis asked curiously. Some of Zayn’s work had been in a show back at the beginning of the summer, and two of the pieces had sold, but Zayn hadn’t been satisfied with that. He’d been sulky for ages.

“Has he not told you?” Liam asked.

“You know Zayn,” Louis said. “Keeps himself to himself, and all that.”

Liam shrugged and sat back down, picking up the guitar. “He’s stressed out. He’s got a lot between planning the wedding and work, and him and Perrie had that huge fight back in March.” Which was a nice way of putting it, Louis thought wryly, when Zayn had slept with a girl who’d come into the gallery while Perrie was out of town. Liam had been so furious about the whole thing that he hadn’t spoken to Zayn for two weeks. He didn’t like lying or deception, and he hated it even more because Zayn had brought her home.

Liam had insanely high expectations of everyone, really, especially himself. The really big rows Louis had with him always seemed to be about Louis getting a better job and “applying himself,” like Liam was his bloody mum. The wretched thing was how Louis did feel horrible about disappointing him, like the time Louis had been in the tabloids being a twat at a bar with Zayn and Liam had frowned at them for ages. Liam made Louis want to be better. It was awful.

Louis tapped his fingers along as Liam started playing again, studying the line of Liam’s profile the way he rarely got a chance to. His chest was tight with familiar affection. Moments like this, he thought of going to one knee and asking Liam for real. Taking his hand and kissing his knuckles, or just leaning over and kissing him. But he never, ever did.

One day, he was sure, he’d get over it.

The rest of the boys stumbled in a little after six, in varying states of dampness. Zayn, who hated umbrellas, was soaking wet and grumpy about it. Harry had an obnoxiously huge umbrella with tiny cupcakes all over it, yet somehow was still wet everywhere but his chest, and Niall had apparently caught a ride with Bressie and had been dropped off right in front of the building and was nearly completely dry.

“Anyone else coming?” Liam asked, setting aside his guitar. “Perrie or Jade or any of them?”

“Just the lads,” Niall said. “Lads night, yeah? Us five against the world, and all that.”

“We don’t spend enough time just the five of us,” Harry said, sliding in to tuck himself in against Liam’s side. He tucked his nose in against Liam’s neck and said something that sounded like, “We’re so busy.”

“We all went and grew up, didn’t we?” Liam asked, even as he stroked Harry’s back soothingly. “We aren’t just pissing away the time between classes and that.”

“Growing up sucks,” Harry said. “I want to be eighteen forever.”

“You’re twenty-one, love,” Louis said, pinching Harry’s side and grinning when he yelped. “A bit past that now.”

They waited until the rain let up a bit to head out to the pub, and by the time they got there and ordered drinks and food, there was already a girl on the little stage, a skinny thing who looked like she was fresh out of uni and had a voice that made Louis shiver. Liam leaned into Louis to steal one of his chips and said, low in his ear, “She’s really good, isn’t she?”

Louis did his best not to show what the feeling of Liam’s breath against his neck was doing to him. “Yeah,” he said, and he groped for his pint. “Yeah, she is.”

Niall was the first to go up to the stage, hopping up there with a bright smile, and picking up the guitar that the pub kept up on the stage. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Niall. Gonna sing you one of my mate Bressie’s songs.”

Harry snorted and groped for his phone, thumbing open the camera and training it on him. “This is brilliant,” he said, grinning.

Louis grinned, leaning over Liam’s shoulder to watch Harry zoom in and focus on Niall’s face. He forgot sometimes that Bressie was proper famous in Ireland, because he was just Niall’s mate from Mullingar, but every now and then he was reminded that him and his boys were brushing elbows with celebrities every now and then. And he kind of counted as one, which was the weirdest part of it all.

Louis loved Niall’s voice. He had a voice a bit like an American country singer, a little twangy but still melodic. And Niall knew how to play an audience better than anyone except maybe Harry, beaming out at them as he strummed away and sang one of Bressie’s old songs. They all applauded wildly when Niall stepped off the stage, bowing deeply, and Harry sent the video off to Bressie before Niall could come stop him.

Zayn was the next to go, singing a Ne-Yo song, winning over everyone in the pub with his slow, shy grin and a toss of his hair. He looked like a fifties heartthrob in his leather jacket. Louis half-expected his eyes to twinkle in the light. He wouldn’t put it past him.

Harry, who was a huge show-off, sang Stay by Rihanna, clutching the microphone and crooning into it with his husky voice. Louis sometimes thought Harry missed his calling as a pop star. He could imagine him on stage, winking at a cheering crowd. Harry ran his hand through his long hair when he was finished, cheek dimpling, and Louis swore a girl close to the stage swooned.

And then there was Liam.

It was possible that Louis was biased, since he was in love with Liam and all, but Liam was his favourite singer out of them all. Zayn was amazing, and Harry had the kind of voice that sounded like sex no matter what he was actually saying, but Liam was just effortless and smooth. He threw in flourishes sometimes, because he was bored or to show off, and he was always adorably embarrassed when people cheered him.

Liam took the stage blushing as always and stumbled over his words a bit before saying, “I’m going to sing a Michael Bublé song,” and grinning when Harry yelled, “Predictable, Payno!”

Liam strummed at the guitar for a moment, getting himself comfortable, then launched into Haven’t Met You Yet, voice silk and longing in that way he could do. Liam poured so much emotion into his singing, and Louis wished he could show that to the hundreds of people who’ve asked, Why him? on Twitter. He knew that the only thing they saw of Liam was what was in his videos, which wasn’t fair to him. Liam was amazing and Louis thought everyone, even people who would never meet him in person, should know that.

Louis clapped the loudest of everyone when Liam came off the stage, grinning and flushing at the cheers. He pushed himself out of the booth and seized Liam in a hug. He had the wild impulse to go to one knee here, now, and ask Liam to go out with him, to marry him, to give whatever he was willing to give. But it didn’t seem right, somehow. He had proposed to Liam in every way imaginable, and the hundredth had to be the best. Liam deserved nothing less.

“Are you going to go up, Tommo?” Liam asked, slinging his arm around Louis’s shoulders. “Haven’t heard you sing in ages.”

“How am I supposed to follow that up?” Louis asked, reaching over to twist Liam’s nipple. Liam laughed and squirmed away from him. “No one wants to listen to my screeching after that.”

“You have a lovely voice,” Liam said, eyes going all squinty the way he did when he was feeling stubborn about something. “I wish you’d stop talking yourself down like that.”

“If he doesn’t want to sing, he doesn’t have to sing,” Zayn said calmly, reaching out to tug Liam into the seat beside him. “You sounded good, Liam.”

“Thanks,” Liam said, beaming at them all. Louis squeezed in next to Niall and watched Liam accept everyone’s compliments with the same modesty and embarrassment as always. He finally managed to wrench his gaze away and found Niall looking at him speculatively.

“What?” Louis asked, shoulder going up.

Niall shrugged. “Want some of my chips?” he asked, pushing his basket toward Louis. Niall almost never shared food. Louis was suspicious.

“What did you do to them?” he asked.

“Nothing!” Niall said, clutching his chest. “I’m offended you’d even suggest such a thing.”

Louis narrowed his eyes and reached for one, not wanting to give Niall the satisfaction of backing down. He popped it in his mouth and immediately spat it back out again, yelling, “Fucking vinegar, Niall!”

Niall burst into laughter and ducked into Harry, trying to use him as cover. Louis grabbed the chip and tried to shove it down Niall’s shirt, which devolved into a slap fight that ended in Louis giggling into Niall’s lap and Niall totally ruining Louis’s attempt at a quiff. It was a look.

As it turned out, that was the best night out the five of them would have for the next few months.

 

Since it was fall, Harry was back in law school, which Louis never ceased to find hilarious because Harry was the most unlikely lawyer in the world. The upshot of it was that Harry was studying all the time and wasn’t able to hang out or find Louis side gigs writing articles and that. Louis picked up more hours at work, finally, and it was nice to have the extra cash coming in, but it was exhausting, and Harry wasn’t up to cuddling him all the time like he used to. When he wasn’t studying at the flat, he was out, presumably at the library, and Louis hated coming home to an empty flat. Louis went over to Niall’s sometimes, or Liam and Zayn’s, but usually when he clocked out, all he wanted was to be back home where he could kick off his shoes and settle into bed.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said when Louis brought it up, and he did look genuinely sad, his eyes big and lower lip jutting out. “It’s just crazy, yeah? We can go out this weekend.”

Only Harry ended up begging off, claiming he was tired, and Louis went to the park to have a kick about with Niall and Bressie and their Irish friends instead, feeling very much like a tagalong. Niall’s friends were nice, but they were Niall’s friends, and Louis always felt slightly wrong-footed with them. He usually was okay at making nice, but they had so many inside jokes that he couldn’t keep up. Niall tried, because he was a mate, but sometimes he got wrapped up in whatever Bressie or Eoghan was saying and forgot to explain.

Zayn, on the other hand, was locking himself in his room more and more to paint. Liam was working long shifts at the studio where he worked, doing some backing vocals for Ed Sheeran’s new album, which was so cool that Louis couldn’t even hold it against him. Louis hung out with some friends from work, and Jade and Jesy when they had time, but he grew tired of needing to seek out new people every time he had a moment to spare and instead spent the time dicking around on Twitter and giving joke answers to people who asked about when he was going to propose to Liam next.

By the time October came around and it was edging toward Halloween and Nick’s annual bash, Louis was feeling rather cut off and miserable. One Friday after work, he went over to Liam’s to bother him and had an argument with Zayn when he came out to snap at them for being too loud, and then Liam had gotten all quiet and said in a soft voice that things weren’t going too well at the gallery. Louis understood that, of course, but he was annoyed that he hadn’t seen any of them in what felt like years and none of them seemed to have any time for him.

“He doesn’t have to be such a brat,” Louis said, louder than he really needed to. Liam looked at him all disappointed, and Louis sat back on the couch in a huff, arms crossed. “Well, he doesn’t,” he said, quieter.

“Come on, Louis,” Liam said. He reached over to rub at Louis’s shoulders. “He just wants a bit of peace and quiet, yeah? That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To give Harry space to study?”

“I’m here because Harry isn’t bloody home,” Louis said. “He’s never home anymore, and it’s so empty. I hate it.”

“Oh, Lou,” Liam said, dragging him in for a hug. “I’m sorry.” He kissed the side of Louis’s head carelessly. Louis went boneless in his arms, grateful as always for Liam’s attention. “It must be lonely. You’ve never lived alone, have you?”

“None of us have,” Louis pointed out. “We’re none of us only children, Liam.”

“Yes,” Liam said patiently, “but my sisters were out of the house by the time I was a teenager, and Niall was alone half the time because his dad worked, and Harry’s sister is older, too. You always had your sisters around.”

“Well, yeah,” Louis said sulkily. Liam was right, of course. Louis liked noise and chaos; it felt like home. Harry used to be good for that before he went and became all adult despite wanting to be eighteen forever. Louis pressed his face into Liam’s collar and sighed. “I hate this. I hate my job. I hate being the only one of us who’s got nothing to his name.”

“You’ve got thousands of subscribers on YouTube,” Liam said, stroking his back, fingers running up and down his spine. “From proposing to me, I might add.”

“It isn’t the same,” Louis said. “That’s gonna be over soon, isn’t it. I’m just a fad. And then I’ll be the guy at H&M until I die.”

Liam sighed, and Louis could hear him biting back the lecture, which he deeply appreciated. He pressed in closer to Liam, closing his eyes. After a moment, Liam asked, “Are you falling asleep on me?”

“Never,” Louis lied. Liam snorted and didn’t stop stroking his back.

He woke up sometime later, alone on the sofa with a blanket covering him. The lights under Liam and Zayn’s doors were off, and it was pitch dark, but a cursory glance at his phone told him it was only eleven thirty and he had plenty of time to get home. He got back to the flat, opened the door, and called, “Harry? You home yet?” and heard a thump in the direction of the couch.

Freezing up, he inched toward the light switch. “Is that you, Harry?” he asked. “If you’re a burglar, let me warn you, I am very large and intimidating.”

“Fuck,” said a voice that was not Harry’s but nonetheless very familiar. Louis lunged and flipped on the lights in time to see Harry scrambling away from Nick, who was lying on the couch with his jeans half-undone and his mouth red and wet.

“What,” Louis said flatly, looking from Nick to Harry.

“Liam said you were at his for the night,” Harry said. He was already wringing his hands, looking remarkably penitent despite the fact his trousers were threatening to fall to his ankles and his hair was a complete bird’s nest. “Louis, just hang on a moment—”

“What the fuck,” Louis said. “How the fuck long has this been going on? He’s a decade older than you!”

“Nine and a half years,” Harry said.

“Not the fucking point,” Louis snarled. “Is this why you’ve been blowing me off? To shack up with this—this fucking cradle robber? What’s the matter, Grimshaw, your model boyfriends not young enough for you?”

Nick looked from Harry to Louis and straightened up slowly, buttoning his jeans. “I’d better go, I think.”

“No, you can stay,” Louis said. “Clearly I’m not wanted, right? You want all this time to yourself, you can have it.”

“Louis, that isn’t—” Harry started, looking wrecked and miserable, but Louis didn’t want to hear it. He slammed back out of the apartment and stormed out to the street before realizing that he had no idea where to go. He didn’t want to go back to Liam and Zayn’s and risk another row over waking Zayn up, and he sure as hell wasn’t going back to his. After a moment, he decided to go to Niall’s, because he was the least likely to ask questions.

Bressie was the one to answer the door, and he didn’t even ask what Louis was doing there, just welcomed him in and asked if he wanted tea. Louis shook his head and said, “Was hoping I could borrow your couch for the night, mate, I’m knackered.”

“Sure,” Bressie said, looking at Louis curiously. “Everything all right?”

“Fine,” Louis said shortly. “I’m going to turn in, if that’s all right with you.”

“Of course.” Bressie disappeared into the hall and came back with spare pillows and blankets. “Shout if you need anything,” he said.

Louis really liked Bressie, he decided.

He didn’t sleep well, waking up nearly once an hour from restless dreams. He was already regretting snapping at Harry, who he knew had been nursing a crush on Nick for ages, even if he was angry that Harry was apparently ditching him for a secret boyfriend. When he finally woke up around nine in the morning to Niall dancing around the kitchen and singing to himself, he felt nearly as bad as when he’d gone to sleep.

“Morning, sunshine,” Niall said, grinning at him. “Was a right surprise finding you here when I woke up, Bressie forgot to tell me you were here.”

“I should have called,” Louis said, rubbing at his face. “Can I use your shower, Nialler? I’ve got to go into work at eleven.”

“Go ahead,” Niall said, waving his spatula vaguely toward the bathroom. “Grab anything you like out of my closet.”

Louis took a long, hot shower until he felt less crap, and came out to find a cup of tea waiting for him along with a plate of eggs and bacon. He seized Niall around the middle and planted a huge kiss on his cheek before sitting down with a happy sigh. Niall, giggling, went back to flipping bacon.

“So are you going to tell me why you’re here and not at home?” he asked. His tone was casual, but Louis knew better than to underestimate him. “You haven’t slept on my couch for a while.”

“I kind of walked in on Harry with—someone,” Louis said, catching himself at the last moment. He didn’t want to be responsible for telling anyone else about them, not when Harry hadn’t even told him.

“Nick?” Niall asked knowingly. Louis nearly spat out his tea. “What, you didn’t guess?”

“I knew Harry had a crush on him, but I didn’t—he didn’t tell me they were shagging,” Louis said, annoyed. “Did you know?”

"I didn't know," Niall said, "but Nick's been arse over tits for Harry since they met and Harry isn't much better. And Nick said something on his show the other day about a new boyfriend. Tina and Fiona went mental. Nick texted me and said he told Matt it was me just to make him shout.”

"Matt's crush on you is very odd," Louis said.

"I'm very lovable," Niall said. He turned around finally and pointed the spatula at Louis. "You went spare at them, didn't you?"

"Might have said a few things," Louis admitted. "Harry doesn't keep secrets from me."

"Not like you," Niall said. He gave Louis that penetrating look he remembered from the last time they'd all made it to open mic night together. Louis opened his mouth to protest that of course he didn’t, and then he remembered The Secret, the Liam secret, the one he had kept for what felt like forever now, and he shut his mouth.

"Mm hm," Niall said. "Now eat up, you've got work."

"Yes, Mum," Louis said, rolling his eyes.

Niall sent Louis off to work with a slap on the arse and a reminder to bring back the clothes he had taken. Louis waved goodbye and knew that neither of them would get back their own clothes for at least a month.

He was grumpy the entire time at work, unable to stop thinking about what he’d said to Harry and Nick and how upset Harry had looked. He hated making Harry sad; it was nearly as bad as making one of his sisters sad. And he knew he had overreacted, just a bit, but why hadn’t Harry told him? Why didn’t anyone seem to have time for him these days?

He dragged himself home after work and found Harry sitting at the kitchen table, books spread out around him and his head bent over them as he read. There was a mug of cold tea by him, and Louis instinctively went to boil another kettle for the two of them. He busied himself with that rather than look at Harry, and Harry didn’t say anything, which was already a bad sign. Louis made two cups of tea and slid one across to Harry when he sat down. Harry glanced up at that, gave a little quirk of his mouth that might have been a smile, and took it. He looked wan and out of sorts, hair falling from his bun. Louis felt awful.

"I shouldn't have shouted last night," Louis said to Harry, folding his hands around his mug of tea to hide them shaking. "I was surprised, is all."

Harry narrowed his eyes at him. "Nick broke up with me," he said bluntly. "Because of you."

"What?" Louis asked, voice going squeaky with surprise. "Because of me?"

"Well, I suppose we'd have to be properly going out," Harry said, "only all we've done is had sex and snogged and he made me a pie once, but he hasn't really taken me anywhere and now he's convinced he's a dirty old man because you called him a cradle robber." Harry glared at him fiercely.

"What a tosser," Louis said. Harry scrunched up his face even more.

"Don't say that about him," he said. "It's because he thinks you're clever, you know. I know you and him don't always get on but he respects your opinion and you think he's too old for your best friend. So. Thanks a lot."

"Nick respects my opinion?" Louis asked, genuinely baffled. "Since when?"

"Oh my god, Lou, this isn't fucking about you!" Harry exploded. Louis started back, shocked. He could count on his fingers the number of times he had seen Harry properly mad: one, when Gemma's boyfriend had cheated on her; two, when someone had called Nick a slur at a club; and three, when Niall had gotten his knee mucked up during a kickabout. Harry didn't get mad; he got annoyed, maybe, and went off to sulk for a bit, but he never got really angry.

Except for now, apparently.

"For years it's always been about you, hasn't it," Harry said. "Dragging all of us along on your stupid videos and you never asked us if we wanted to, you just did it. Poor Liam's had to put up with all of that on top of trying to date like a normal bloke and do his job. And we all made the most of it, even when you kept moaning about how it was only a lark and it wouldn't last but that's because you never try with anything else. And god forbid any of us have a life outside of you, or you get stroppy. But you don't own us, Lou!"

"I'm sorry, how did you meet your boyfriend again?" Louis demanded. "Oh right, my stupid videos."

"Oh for fuck's sake," Harry said, throwing up his hands. "Can't you see? This is what I mean. We all love you, Lou, but god, sometimes you make it hard."

Louis swallowed a few times to get himself under control. “Is that why you didn’t tell me?” he asked finally. “Because I’m so unbearable or whatever? Stroppy, you said?”

Harry deflated slightly, looking sad again. “No,” he said. “I just wanted—I liked it being just me and him. It was fun like that. Something that was just ours.” He shook his head, dislodging more strands of his hair. “Whatever. He said we can still be friends, so I guess we can try that, but I really like him, Lou. So you’ll understand if I’m not best pleased with you for the next few days.”

“Yeah,” Louis said, feeling more miserable than he had before. “I’m gonna just go to bed.”

Harry just grunted. Louis wasn’t sure if he wanted to cry or throw things. Instead, he took his cup of tea and hid in his bedroom like a fucking coward. He stared at his computer for a while, then opened it up and pulled up the Radio 1 page, going to Nick’s show from Friday. He put on his headphones and settled in to listen.

He and Nick had a lot of opposing opinions on things, Harry wasn’t wrong about that, and they both liked winding each other up. Louis thought Nick could be a bit of a pretentious twat sometimes, but he was, Louis had to grudgingly admit, nice, and he had been a good friend to them. Possibly Louis was just mad because Harry sometimes ditched him and the boys to go out with Nick and his friends, and maybe Harry had a point about Louis getting jealous and stroppy. Maybe.

Louis fucked around on Facebook and Twitter while he listened to Nick’s show, snorting at Nick talking about Rita Ora and something that had happened on X Factor. It was about an hour into the show that the subject of weekend plans came up, Fiona copping to a night in with her fiancé and Tina saying she had a hen party to go to. Fiona asked Nick what he was up to, voice all suggestive, and Nick sounded almost shy as he admitted, “Got dinner with my boyfriend tonight.”

God, Louis was an arsehole.

He switched it off after that, not wanting to have his mistakes rubbed in his face. His tea was nearly completely cold, but he drank all of it anyway and curled up on his side, wondering how on earth he was going to make it up to them. And, a little, if Harry was right about him.

 

“Do you hate it?” Louis asked Liam later that week. He was curled up on Liam’s sofa because Harry was still angry with him and it sucked to be in the flat with him. Liam was watching a movie on TV and playing with the ends of Louis’ hair idly.

“Hate what?” Liam asked.

“The videos,” Louis said. “Do you hate me for doing all of it without asking you? I should have asked, shouldn’t I?”

Liam’s hand stilled in his hair. “Lou, what on earth brought this on?”

Louis wasn’t really feeling up to explaining the row he’d had with Harry, so he just burrowed into Liam’s thigh and shook his head. “Just answer the question, Liam.”

Liam’s hand moved down to his neck, stroking the skin there with two fingers. “I was a little mad at first, I think. I don’t remember. But it’s a laugh, isn’t it? And it’s fun. I like seeing what you come up with. It’s been one of the things I can count on to make me smile.”

And he had a point with that. The whole proposal thing was, strangely, one of the few constants in Louis’s life. Between the revolving door of partners and jobs and his mum getting remarried and giving him two more baby siblings to dote on, Louis felt like his life was constantly in a state of upheaval. But he always had another proposal to plan, another way to make Liam smile, and sometimes, that had gotten him through the miserable days at work when he wondered if he shouldn’t just pack it all up and go back home to try uni again.

“So you don’t want me to stop?” Louis asked Liam’s hip. It was a very nice hip. Maybe Louis could just stay here looking at it forever. Liam would probably let him.

“Stop?” Liam laughed. “You’ve only got one more to go, mate. I’ve been looking forward to it. Taking your sweet time, aren’t you?”

“It’s going to be fabulous,” Louis said. “One for the ages.”

“I bet.” Liam scratched along Louis’s hairline and Louis arched into it, making a pleased noise. “When I propose, I’m going to have to really make it something.”

“What are you thinking?” Louis asked curiously. “What would a Liam Payne proposal look like?”

“Well,” Liam said, “I think it would depend on the person, of course. If it were you, say, I guess I’d go big, yeah? Like you’ve done for me. Maybe a Rovers match. Do the thing properly there.”

“Aww,” Louis said. “How sweet.”

“How do you think you’ll propose when you do it for real?” Liam asked. Louis swallowed back the urge to say what makes you think I haven’t?

“Like you said, it depends,” Louis said. He took a moment to consider how he’d like to propose to Liam; on Valentine’s Day would be too cheesy but another day that meant something. With their friends around them, hopefully, and Louis wouldn’t have to focus on anything other than getting the question out. “But I think something quiet and intimate. Just friends and family or the like. I like planning all the theatrics, but it isn’t about that, really. It’s about the moment.”

“Really?” Liam asked. “After everything you’ve done for me, that’s what you’d go with? You’ve set the bar so high for the rest of us and all.”

“Zayn proposed to Perrie in her back garden,” Louis pointed out.

“Well, that was just right for them, wasn’t it? And I know you helped with that,” Liam said. “He said you went ring shopping with him.”

Louis sighed. “Guess that’s one thing I haven’t mucked up.”

Liam stilled again. “What do you mean?”

With a groan, Louis rolled over and looked up at Liam before recounting, stumblingly, his row with Harry. Liam’s face went all soft and sorry about halfway through, and Louis hated that, hated feeling like he needed pity when he’d been the twat. He kind of wanted Liam to tell him he’d been a twat so he knew and so he could start fixing it, somehow. But Liam just hugged him close and kissed the top of his head.

“Oh, Lou,” he said. “You’re a mess, aren’t you?”

That was worse than Liam’s anger, really. Louis pushed him away and said, “I don’t need you to tell me that, I need to you tell me how to fix it.”

“Well, did you mean it?” Liam asked. “That they shouldn’t be dating or whatever?”

“Nick is a bit old for him,” Louis said, “but Harry really likes him. God, he’s so sad, Liam. I hate it.”

“So?” Liam asked, petting him more. “What are you going to do about it?”

Louis glared at him. Liam was so grown-up and mature. It had to be exhausting. “Fine,” he said, pulling out his phone and scrolling through his contacts until he found Nick. He fired off a quick text—Can we meet for coffee?—and threw his phone down on the cushions. “There. I’m going to talk Nick into dating Harry again and then I can be alone and miserable forever.”

“You’re so dramatic,” Liam said fondly. “You’re welcome here any time you’re lonely and need a cuddle, all right?”

“I know,” Louis said. It was why he loved Liam so much. He kissed Liam noisily on the cheek and levered himself to his feet. “I’d best go home. Thanks, Liam.”

“Anytime, Lou,” Liam said, smiling up at him, and Louis couldn’t help swooping down to drop a chaste peck on his lips, just to see Liam’s face scrunch up in surprise. Louis snatched up his phone and saw himself out, waving goodbye over his shoulder.

 

Louis and Nick met for coffee at a posh little café that Nick suggested. Louis tucked his ripped Toms under his chair, feeling self-conscious of his work clothes, which were nice enough but not designer or anything. Nick came in a few minutes after him, looking as tired and drawn as Harry had been, and he sat gingerly in his chair like he was ready to run.

“Hiya,” Nick said. “Wasn’t expecting you to text.”

“That’s because I’m a tosser,” Louis said. “Let me get you something. Coffee?”

“Please,” Nick said. Louis got up and went to the counter to give himself time to work out what he wanted to say. He got himself tea and Nick a black coffee, which he carefully brought back to the table without spilling more than a little of it.

“Nice,” Nick said, taking the cup. “Harry would have knocked it all over the place.” His voice only caught a little on the name, but Louis winced anyway.

“I was a waiter for a while,” Louis reminded him. “And um, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“You being a waiter?” Nick asked. Louis couldn’t tell if he was being purposefully obtuse or if he really hadn’t figured it out.

“No,” Louis said. “Harry.”

“Oh.” Nick looked down at his coffee, picked up the little spoon that had come with it and stirred it aimlessly. “We broke up, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I know you broke up, he proper shouted at me about it,” Louis said, rolling his eyes. “You shouldn’t have, though. He’s mad for you, you know, and I may have overreacted a bit when I walked in on you —” Nick snorted, but Louis ignored it, barrelling on. “The point is, you shouldn’t have broken up with him. He’s miserable.”

“You weren’t wrong about me being old for him,” Nick pointed out. “I’m thirty, and —”

“You’re thirty-one,” Louis said. “We celebrated your birthday and all.”

“Yes, thank you for reminding me,” Nick said, rolling his eyes. “Harry should be with someone his own age, and you’re right about that.”

Louis shook his head. “Thing is, Harry has always dated people older than him,” he said. “You’re not even the oldest person he’s dated. And besides,” he added, inspiration striking, “I think this is you just trying to run away from the fact you’re mad over him too.”

Nick arched his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

“I know you and your whole relationship thing,” Louis said. “Which is bollocks. You’re just too scared of actually being in love.”

“Wow,” Nick said. “Straight for the jugular, huh?” But he was smiling now, a little hesitantly. “Has he really been miserable without me?”

“Absolutely wretched,” Louis confirmed. “Please make him happy again. He might even talk to me.”

“All right,” Nick said. “For you, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Louis said and, feeling much better, leaned back in his seat to drink his tea.

 

Louis didn’t know what Nick had said to Harry, but Harry warmed up to Louis by the end of the weekend, even draped himself over Louis when they were watching telly. Louis didn’t actually want to know what Nick had done; he could guess from the hickeys Harry was very bad at hiding, since he hardly wore clothes anyway.

“You’ll be coming to Nick’s Halloween party, right?” Harry asked him late Sunday night. Louis had to open up at the shop in the morning, so it was a bit stupid that he hadn’t gone to sleep yet, but he was revelling in getting to cuddle with Harry again. “You said you’d come before we rowed.”

“Yeah, it’s always a laugh, innit?” Louis asked, digging his fingers into Harry’s side to make him yelp and squirm. “What are you going to be dressed up as?”

“It’s a surprise,” Harry said, waggling eyebrows. If Louis knew him at all, he’d be wearing as little as possible. “What about you?”

“Not sure,” Louis said, thinking on what he had in his closet. “I might have to get something from work.”

“You’re totally going to be Danny Zuko again,” Harry said knowingly, and then he yelped, yelling, “Uncle!” as Louis started tickling him again.

Louis didn’t go as Danny Zuko, since he had done that the year before, but he did want to do his hair in a quiff again. He spent some time debating over it, then ended up buying a red jacket from the women’s section and ended up coming to the party Nick was throwing at his friend Henry’s house as Jim Stark from Rebel Without A Cause. Aimee, who opened the door, recognized him immediately, shouting, “James Dean!” and enveloping him in a hug.

“Hiya,” Louis said, hugging her back. He wasn’t sure what Aimee was supposed to be, except she was dressed in very loud colours. Maybe she was herself. “Harry and them here?”

“All except Niall, I think, they’re inside.” Aimee ushered him into the loud chaos of the flat, which was lit with UV lights and utterly packed. Nick’s parties were always off the wall, and this was no exception. He waved to Leigh-Anne and Jesy, who were talking to a very tall man dressed as Frankenstein, and then he saw Rita Ora dancing with Nick, who was dressed as Taylor Swift, Louis was pretty sure, and that was Douglas Booth in the corner chatting with Harry.

“Louis!” Harry yelled when he saw him. He seized Louis in a hug, kissed him soundly on the mouth, and beamed at him. “I thought you said you weren’t going to be Danny Zuko.”

“I’m James Dean,” Louis said, pinching Harry. “You ignorant child.”

Harry was dressed as Fabio or something, his shirt gaping open to his naval and his hair loose. Harry saw Louis looking and grinned.

“I’m a romance novel hero,” he said. “Nick! Come here, we have to show Louis our pose.”

Nick came over gamely and immediately plastered himself to Harry’s chest, and Louis had to admit they did rather look like a couple off one of the cheap novels he had definitely not stolen off his mum as a teenager. “Nice,” he said, snapping a picture of them on his phone. “The Reckless Lawyer and the Virgin Singer?”

“Something like that,” Harry said, smirking at Nick.

Louis moved on after that, getting himself a drink and saying hello to people as he went. He got drawn into conversation with a girl he vaguely recognized as one of Aimee’s friends, and hardly noticed Niall until he was on him. Niall grinned out of the face of Winnie the Pooh and said, “Sorry, Jim,” before poking Louis in the stomach.

“Hey,” Louis said, batting him away. “Where’s your honey, Pooh Bear?”

“Good question,” Niall said, turning to look over his shoulder. He pointed with one plush arm to where Bressie was standing, wearing a brown shirt with a handwritten sign on it that said HONEY. “There he is.”

“Disgusting,” Louis said fondly.

He found Zayn and Perrie in the corner later, deep in conversation, and Louis decided not to interrupt them, even though he really wanted to tease them for dressing as Iron Man and Rampage. Liam was all the way in the back, fucking around with Nick’s music set-up with someone who looked a lot like Ed Sheeran.

“Louis!” Liam said, beaming. He was, no shock, dressed as Batman, though he’d taken the cowl down. “Meet Ed!”

And oh fuck, it was Ed Sheeran. Louis shook his head, trying not to give away how starstruck he felt. “Hi,” Ed Sheeran, smiling. Ed Sheeran was smiling at him. “I’ve watched some of those videos of you and Liam, mate, they’re wicked. People propose at my concerts, but none of them have been half as cool as those.”

“I’ll throw him over for you,” Louis said, and Ed laughed, head tilting back. Louis gave Liam a look to say I’m acting like I’m joking but I’m really not and Liam wrinkled his nose at him. “Love your stuff, really.”

“Oh, thanks,” Ed said. “You should hear the stuff I’ve been working on with Liam, it’s amazing. He’s really good at what he does. I’ve been trying to get him to help produce my album.”

“And I keep telling him I don’t know the first thing about producing,” Liam said, knocking Ed in the arm. “I just muck about with the controls.”

“He’s dead good at writing songs, too,” Louis said, feeling like he needed to brag on Liam a bit. Liam groaned and stepped away.

“If you’re just going to gossip about me, I’m going to get another drink,” he said, and he disappeared into the crowd, leaving Louis with Ed Sheeran. Sometimes Louis’s life was really surreal.

Ed was super nice and even took a photo with Louis when he asked, and Louis posted it to his Twitter saying, Look who I found !! and grinned when he almost instantly got a dozen retweets. “We’re popular,” he told Ed, showing him, and Ed laughed again.

Jade joined them at some point, and she and Ed got along well, too, and Louis was feeling pretty fucking good about life until he started wondering where Liam had gotten off to. He looked around and saw Liam chatting with a gorgeous girl with dark hair and a lovely smile. Louis’s hand went tight around the beer bottle he still hadn’t put down.

“Who is that?” he asked no one in particular.

“Oh,” Jade said, following his look. “That’s Sophia. She’s fancied Liam for ages. Good for her.”

“Yeah?” Louis asked. “I suppose that’s okay. Everyone ought to fancy Liam.” He sounded idiotic, he knew he did, but he didn’t know how to deal with that soft smile on Liam’s face, not when it was directed at someone else. He knew Liam didn’t love him, but it hurt a bit to see it so publicly.

“Louis, hon,” Jade said, putting a hand on his arm. “You all right?”

“Just,” Louis said, searching for something to say that didn’t make him sound like a dick. “Worried?”

“Ah, yeah,” Jade said. “Sophia’s a good girl, though. Wouldn’t let her near Liam if she weren’t, you know.”

And Louis did know, because Jade loved Liam like a brother. They all loved Liam and would do anything to protect him. Liam fell in love hard, and he gave all of himself to people without even thinking about it, and they all remembered how shattered he’d been about Danielle. Louis took a breath, calming himself down, and smiled at her.

“Gonna get another drink,” he said, and he slipped away from them to get as shitfaced as he could.

He ended the night getting off with one of Bressie’s mates in the toilet, panting into the guy’s mouth as they wanked each other off. After, they washed their hands and endured the ribbing of their friends, parting with, “Good time, yeah?” and “Talk to you later.” Louis felt a bit like a shit, but when he looked around, Liam wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

Which was fine.

Louis went home to his empty flat, Harry having gone home with Nick. He crashed into bed fully dressed and slept until his alarm woke him up, far too early, for his shift at work.

 

Louis was busy at work for the next week or so, hardly having time to do errands, let alone see his friends, and he only managed to see the lads once for an hour when they all jiggered their schedules to get together for a pint on Wednesday. Louis had to beg out early just as Liam was about to join in open mic night, and he apologized by kissing them all effusively on the cheek. Zayn waved him off, laughing, and Niall dragged Louis back in for an emphatic kiss on the mouth.

“You don’t need to work yourself to the bone,” Niall said, staring him in the face. “You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” Louis said, patting Niall’s cheek. “Get off, Mum, I’ve got work in the morning.”

Liam waved goodbye as Louis left. He hadn’t said a word about Sophia, and Louis wasn’t sure how to interpret that. They definitely had looked cosy at the party, and Liam didn’t do one night stands, but he couldn’t keep his mouth shut about his girlfriends, either. He was always so happy he couldn’t help gushing about them. It was sweet, really, Louis told himself. Not at all annoying and heart-breaking.

In the morning, feeling a bit whimsical since he was opening with Vanessa, a perky sixth-former who thought Louis was hilarious, he flipped on the radio to listen to Nick’s show while they got the store ready. Nick was talking about his party, and with a jolt, Louis realized Nick was talking about him, saying, “—my friend proper swooned over Ed Sheeran, I’m told.”

“Not everyone is used to rubbing elbows with celebrities, Grimmy,” Fiona said, sounding amused.

“He knows me,” Nick said indignantly. Louis huffed out a laugh, fond despite himself, and allowed himself to think that it would be okay that Harry was dating him. He wouldn’t have to be left out.

So on Friday, when Harry asked if Louis wanted to come over to Nick’s with him to watch some telly, Louis said yes, to Harry’s delight. They had a pleasant night in, Nick’s dog running roughshod over them while they ate takeaway Italian, and then they all sprawled out on the sofa in a tangled heap. Louis was so content he didn’t even throw too much popcorn at Nick and Harry when they started snogging twenty minutes in.

Of course, it all went tits up by midweek, because that was how these things went. Louis was closing at work, covering a shift for one of his co-workers, when his phone went off as he was refolding jeans in the women’s section. He swore and clawed his phone out of his pocket, thumbing off the ringer before anyone heard. He wasn’t, strictly speaking, meant to have his phone with him on the floor, but he always did on the off-chance his mum called. He peered at the screen, to see if it was, in fact, his mum, but instead the caller ID said it was Liam.

Liam never called Louis at work. He didn’t even text; he said it was a bad habit to get into. Louis debated picking up. Maybe Liam had just forgotten he was working? But curiosity overrode his sense and he ducked behind the sale rack to answer.

“Liam?” he asked. There was a heavy silence on the other end, and Louis’s stomach dropped. “Liam, are you there?’

He heard Liam draw in a ragged breath, and he knew, just knew something had gone wrong. “What is it, Liam?” he asked, turning his back on the store. “Are you all right? Is it one of your sisters? Your mum?”

“No,” Liam said. “I—it’s Zayn. He moved out.”

“Moved out?” Louis asked, perplexed. “He wasn’t supposed to do that until after the wedding and that’s not for ages.”

"Not like that. He's moving back home," Liam said, tearful and heartfelt. "He didn't even tell me in person, just packed his things and texted me from the train."

"Shit," Louis said, stomach lurching. "Are you—what about rent? What the fuck?"

"He and Perrie called it quits too," Liam said. "Or, well, I think he did. I don't know what's going on, Louis. Could you just come over here?"

Louis looked around the store from his hiding spot behind the sale rack. It was nearly closing time anyway, and if he made a run for it he could probably escape his manager. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, yes, I’ll be there. Don’t move, all right? You want me to pick you up anything? Ice cream? A cricket bat?”

“Why a cricket bat?” Liam asked.

“To beat up Zayn,” Louis said. “Obviously.”

Liam laughed wetly, but Louis was glad to hear it. “You like Zayn.”

“He made you cry,” Louis said fiercely. “I hate him.”

Lou,” Liam said, horrified. He was so nice. Why had Louis fallen for someone who was nice? “Please don’t beat up Zayn. He’s bigger than you anyway.”

“Yes, but I’m scrappy,” said Louis. “I bet I could take him down.”

Louis saw his manager emerge from the employees only door as Liam was telling him to please, please be nice, Zayn just needed to get away from London for a bit, and he cut Liam off to whisper, “I’ve got to go, but I’ll be there soon, I promise.”

He hung up before Liam could protest and snuck around the back of the rack, keeping close to the wall. The moment his manager turned his back, he made a run for the door, glad that he didn’t bring much to work anyway since the stuff in his locker could be left behind for the time being. Just before he slipped out the front, he heard, “Louis!” but ignored it, throwing himself out into the street and toward the bus stop. He’d explain later.

It took him far too long to get to Liam and Zayn’s—well, just Liam’s now. Louis let himself in and found Liam huddled on the sofa, an abandoned cup of tea on the table and a blanket around his shoulders. Louis threw himself on the sofa beside Liam and wrapped his arms around his broad shoulders. "Hi," he said into Liam's arm. "I'm sorry Zayn made you sad."

Liam laughed a little, sounding sniffly. “I’m not, it’s more shock, I think. I knew he wasn’t happy, but I didn’t think he’d just leave.”

“Did he say why?” Louis asked, tugging Liam down to rest his head in his lap. “Or did he just go sayonara, I’m out?”

“No, but I know he got rejected from another art show,” Liam said. “He nearly set fire to one of his canvasses before I stopped him.”

“Oh,” Louis said, running his fingers through Liam’s hair, which was getting a bit long on top. “So he’s going home?”

“I guess.” Liam groaned and covered his face with his hands. “I just keep wondering why he didn’t tell me how he was feeling. We were mates. I was going to be best man.”

“I know,” Louis said, deciding not to point out that Liam’s using past tense. “What did he say?”

“Nothing important,” Liam said. “A load of rubbish. He was upset.”

Louis frowned down at him, then lunged for Liam’s jeans, working his hand into his pocket to pull out his phone. Liam tried to knock him off, but he had the disadvantage of lying down, and Louis got it out, unlocking it with Liam’s passcode because he’d never changed it from their initials—HLNZ—and opened his messages.

Liam was right; Zayn was clearly upset. Toward the end of the thread, he was getting downright rude, telling Liam to fuck off and to stop being such a mum. There was a bit that caught Louis’s attention though, a mention of his name that made him pause.

You ever going to tell Louis? Zayn had sent at three that afternoon. No lead in, no explanation, just an answer to Liam asking why Zayn hadn’t told him anything.

Liam hadn’t answered; he’d just asked if Perrie knew Zayn was leaving. Louis suddenly needed to know what Zayn had meant, but he didn’t want to ask, not when Liam was looking so sad and vulnerable. He handed Liam his phone back and tugged him into another hug.

He ended up staying the night, not wanting to leave Liam alone in the flat, and slept on the couch with his clothes still on. In the morning, he dressed in Liam’s clothes and risked one peek into Zayn’s empty bedroom. It was eerie, the walls blanker than they’d ever been once Zayn had moved in, the only sign he’d ever been there a few faint streaks of paint on the floor.

Louis quietly closed the door behind him and debated waking Liam before he went. He was already running late, though, and he was going to get a right bollocking about leaving early. Instead he scribbled a quick note on Liam’s music pad—still working on the same song as he had been at the beginning of September, Louis noticed—and he hurried off to catch the bus.

As it turned out, he’d been right about receiving a bollocking; but instead of it ending with him apologizing and promising to be better, it ended with the store manager firing him as Em made sad faces at him, looking genuinely sorry. Louis sat there in stunned silence, not knowing what to say. He hadn’t liked H&M much, but he’d lasted there longer than most of his previous jobs, and he didn’t know what he’d do next. He didn’t want to go back to waiting tables, and he hated retail, and he was rubbish at anything requiring real skill. It wasn’t until Ben cleared his throat and said, “We need you to sign some exit paperwork,” that it really hit home.

He was unemployed again, and this time he didn’t know what he’d do. He signed the papers, gathered his things from his locker, said goodbye to his co-workers, and stumbled out into the weak autumn sunlight. He had the rest of the day, still, and he didn’t want to go home or to Liam’s. After a moment of consideration, Louis turned and marched in the direction of the nearest pub, where he proceeded to order two shots of tequila.

By the time he stumbled back to Liam’s, he was wankered and feeling fairly numb. Liam was home, and he looked up fondly when Louis stumbled in, asking, “Did you have a good day of work?” in a knowing tone, and Louis couldn’t. He couldn’t tell him and risk Liam’s pitying smile and his well-meaning suggestions about what Louis could do next. All he wanted was to curl up next to Liam and ask him about his day, so that’s what he did.

Liam said something about trying to call Zayn, aiming for light, but Louis could hear the real hurt under his voice. Louis hugged him tight and kissed him and let Liam get him water, because Liam liked taking care of him. He spent the night there rather than back home, and the next night too, because when he got back from sorting through the last few things with HR, Liam was on the phone with Zayn, expression pinched as he paced around the living room.

“No, don’t tell me to fuck off, I’m your best mate! I’m your flatmate, for fuck’s sake, and I’m worried about you!” Liam said, waving his hand. He saw Louis and turned away, shoulder hunching. “Zayn, come on.”

Louis settled himself on the couch and watched Liam warily. Liam was another one who didn’t get angry often, but he looked halfway there now. Zayn’s voice was audible from where Louis sat, which was something in and of itself when he was usually so soft-spoken. He sounded angry, too. Louis hugged his knees to his chest, aching with the desire to pull Liam into his arms.

“Have you even talked to Perrie?” Liam asked, and then his face twisted into a scowl. “Oh, very nice, Zayn. Don’t be a dick. It isn’t the same thing. Don’t say that about him. He’s been really great, you’re the one who’s been an arsehole.”

“Are you talking about me?” Louis asked, startled. Liam shot a look at him, apparently remembering he was there, and he slipped into his bedroom, shutting the door quietly behind him. Louis stared at the closed door, wondering what Zayn could have said to make Liam scowl like that. Zayn had always been prickly, but he was usually moody, not mean. He sunk into the couch and wrapped Liam’s blanket around himself to wait until Liam emerged.

When Liam came out of the bedroom some half an hour later, following some yelling Louis couldn’t quite make out, his face was blotchy with tears. Louis lifted up his arm and beckoned Liam in to cuddle. Liam practically threw himself against him. Louis didn’t ask what Zayn had said, just rubbed his back until Liam’s breath steadied and he didn’t look quite so sad.

Louis took to splitting his time between Liam’s and Niall’s, not really wanting to go home where he’d be reminded of the need to pay rent and buy groceries and all the things he needed a job for. Liam seemed to think that Louis was trying to cheer him up, which was true, if not the whole truth, and Niall never asked many questions. Louis had worked out that Liam wasn’t seeing Sophia, mostly because he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of her, and he had tried, on occasion, to work up the nerve to ask Liam why not since she was gorgeous and into him, but Louis wasn’t sure he wanted to broach that subject.

“Lou,” Niall said when Louis was dozing on his couch. Niall was home between house calls, guitar on his lap as he picked out chords absently. “Why are you staring at your phone like that?”

“Why isn’t Liam dating that Sophia girl?” he asked Niall. “She liked him.”

“Didn’t want to?” Niall suggested. “Why are you wondering?”

“Dunno. Just want to know when I can propose again, I suppose,” Louis said, which was a lie. Judging from the unimpressed look Niall gave him, Niall knew it. “I’ve got to top everything else.”

“Need to buy a ring,” Niall said. “That’ll really surprise him.”

“That’s a lot of money,” Louis said without thinking. Niall stopped playing and carefully set his guitar down on its stand.

“Yes,” he said. “And you haven’t a job right now, have you?”

Louis groaned, throwing his arm over his eyes. “Do we have to talk about this?”

“You’re staying in my flat during the day so you can pretend to Liam you’re going to work, so yes,” Niall said. “Come on, Lou, I’m not an idiot.”

“Okay, yes, I got sacked,” Louis said, sitting up. “I got sacked and I’m a fuck up and Liam is never going to love me if I keep screwing up.”

He realized what he said too late when he saw Niall’s face. “Fuck,” he said, heartfelt, and he pulled his knees to his chest.

“Oh, Lou,” Niall said, coming over to sit beside him. “How long?”

“Dunno,” Louis said. “Ages. Haven’t even told Harry.”

Niall hugged him, resting his cheek on Louis’s back. “I’m sorry, mate. Have you tried talking to Liam about it?”

“And saying, what, you know how I keep proposing to you? How would you feel if I meant it?” Louis asked sarcastically. “Niall, if he liked me, I’d know it. Liam’s shit at hiding stuff like that.”

Niall was quiet for a long time, just stroking his hair. "I'm sorry everything's such shit," he said eventually. "But I might have something that can help. And promise me you'll hear me out before you tell me you have everything under control."

"Niall—"

"Promise," Niall said. Louis's friends knew him too well.

"I promise," he said sulkily. "What is it?"

"One of my kids’ mums works at this wedding planning firm," Niall said. "She realized who I was from your videos and has been gabbing about wanting to meet you. Actually, her boss wants to meet you. Hire you, really. They think you're right clever."

"They're just dumb videos," Louis said.

"They're creative, and romantic, and fun," Niall said firmly, pressing a little more firmly against Louis's head. "Don't act like that."

"I can't plan weddings," Louis said. "You need to be organized and on time, and you know how I am with people I think are stupid—"

"They don't want you to plan weddings," Niall said. "They want you to help people propose. And come up with ideas for themes and fun stuff like that. And you'd be good at that, Louis, you really would. When I mentioned your hundred little siblings—"

"Six," Louis said.

"Whatever," Niall said. "She said she knew some children's charities that would love someone like you to do some stuff for them too. I told her you'd meet with them." Louis opened his mouth to protest, and Niall slapped his hand over it. Louis immediately licked his palm, but Niall didn't even flinch. "You're going, even if I have to get Harry to come and frown at you to do it."

When Niall moved his hand away, Louis said, "Fine," and, "You watch, they'll change their minds once they meet me," but he didn't stomp off, and Niall seemed to take this as the victory it was, because he stopped pestering Louis. He didn’t make Louis go home, either. Louis loved Niall a lot.

He did finally go home that night, to find Harry and Nick on the couch watching a cooking show. Louis squeezed himself between them just to be a dick and then squeaked when Harry threw himself at him, hugging him tight.

“He missed you,” Nick said from Louis’s other side, sounding amused. “I might have done a bit, too.”

“I’m a shining light in your lives and you don’t know how to live without me,” Louis said loftily, though it was somewhat ruined by getting some of Harry’s hair in his mouth. He spat it out. “Sorry. I got fired, is all, and Liam was sad because of Zayn, and all that.”

“You got fired?” Harry asked, aghast, pulling back to look at him. “Oh no, Lou!”

“It’s okay,” Louis said, dragging Harry back to him. “Niall reckons he found me a new job. I won’t leave you in the lurch, Haz.”

“Good,” Harry said into Louis’s chest. “Not that I don’t want to live at Nick’s posh flat.” Louis snorted.

“Not that posh,” Nick muttered. “All right, I should go home and let you boys cuddle.”

“You can stay,” Louis said magnanimously. Nick gave him a small, knowing smile before leaning down to kiss Harry. He kissed Louis’s cheek too, and left them to their own devices. Harry made a noise of satisfaction and settled closer into Louis.

“Missed you,” Harry said, sounding sleepy already.

“You too,” Louis said, and he focused on the television, where Nigella was tasting pasta sauce while making pornographic noises, and he had to blink hard against the fond tears threatening to spring to his eyes.

 

Niall arranged for Louis to meet with Cara Jemisen, head of a small wedding and event planning firm, on Monday. Louis dressed in his best clothes before going, even letting Harry do his hair before he left. He was anxious and convinced it was all some kind of mistake, because who would think he’d be any good at this kind of thing? Still, when he arrived at the office building, he plastered on his best brave face and gave his name to the delicate-boned receptionist, who smiled and let him up.

The offices were all glass and smooth marble, impossibly elegant, and Louis felt very shabby though he was wearing some of the most expensive clothes he’d ever owned. Cara Jemisen came out of her office, towering over Louis in slick black heels, her dark hair in a multitude of braids that were pulled back into a very chic chignon. If he weren't madly in love with Liam, he might have fallen in love at first sight.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Cara Jemisen, pleased to meet you.”

“Hi,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m —”

“Louis, yes,” she said briskly, shaking his hand. She had a very strong grip. “I recognize you from the videos.”

“Oh,” Louis said. “I thought Niall was joking about that.”

“No,” she said. Her eyebrows were immaculate. He was pretty sure if he touched the collar of her white shirt it would cut him, it was so sharply pressed. It was terrifying. “We watched them all the time in the office. Helped us when we were stumped for ideas.”

“That’s very flattering,” Louis said, not sure if he believed her or not.

Cara smiled suddenly, and she became much less intimidating. “I promise I’m not lying,” she said. “My favourite was when you had one of the musicians at his studio sing Marry Me, Liam. It was lovely.”

“Number seventy-three,” Louis said faintly. “Wow, so you really have watched them?”

“Yes,” Cara said. “Why don’t you come into my office and we can talk more about why I wanted to meet with you.”

Louis trailed after her into her office and sat down in a ridiculously plush leather chair. He crossed his legs, then decided that looked unprofessional and settled so his hands were folded in his lap.

"I don't know what Niall's told you," Louis said once she had sat down, "but I don't have experience with event planning or anything. I've really only worked retail, that kind of thing. I didn't even finish uni."

"That doesn't matter," Cara said. "What matters is your creativity and adaptability. Niall's told me about how you organized some of your videos, and it's clear to me that you have both in spades. It was your videos that inspired our Perfect Proposal initiative, actually. We want the entire wedding experience to fit the couple, whether they're inclined to big displays or quiet, intimate moments."

"I only knew what I was doing because it was someone I know really well," Louis said helplessly.

Cara looked at him for a moment. "I believe you can do this," she said. "I have a young woman coming in about half an hour for a proposal consultation. I'd like you to sit in with myself and Raina when we meet with her."

“Raina?” Louis asked.

Raina turned out to be a woman closer to Louis’s age. She reminded Louis a bit of Liam, with her meticulous appearance and how she appeared to be taking notes on everything. She sat next to Louis as Cara and him chatted about his work experience—not impressive, Louis knew—and his various proposals to Liam. They both asked him what he had planned for the hundredth, and he forced a smile as he said it was a surprise, not wanting to admit that he had been avoiding thinking about it. They smiled at that, and then Raina checked her watch and said they’d better go meet their client.

The client was a girl who could only be a little older than Louis, with wide, startled doe eyes and a bobbed haircut. She introduced herself as Whitney and sat perched on the edge of her seat while Cara introduced herself, Raina, and Louis. Cara folded her hands over her lap and smiled at Whitney.

"Why don't you tell us a little about why you're here?" Cara asked.

Whitney swallowed. "Well," she said carefully, "I'm planning on proposing to my girlfriend, but I don't really know what to do. She's, you know, dead romantic. I'm not, really, and I know she loves all that pomp."

Cara glanced at Louis, who was watching Whitney carefully. She sounded northern, like him, and he felt a pang of sympathy for her. Cara and Raina were quite intimidating.

"Hi," he said, drawing her attention to him. "Like she said, my name's Louis. What's your girlfriend's name?"

"Jane," she said, smiling tentatively. "Where are you from?"

"Doncaster," Louis said. "You?"

"Liverpool," she said. "Jane's from Devon, though. We've lived here for five years now."

"And how long have you been together?" Louis asked. This was easy, he realized. He liked getting to know people, and as he asked Whitney about how she and Jane had met, what they liked to do together and what they both did for jobs, he saw her slowly relax, growing more animated. Cara and Raina had withdrawn, watching him with a knowing look, and Louis had the distinct feeling he had been manipulated, but he couldn't bring himself to hold it against him, not when he was proper invested in getting Whitney married to her fashion designer girlfriend.

By the time Whitney left, Louis had a tentative idea for something that would be romantic but not overwhelming to Whitney, who seemed much more introverted than her girlfriend apparently was, and an appointment to go ring shopping. When the door closed behind her, Cara scooted forward, smirking slightly.

"Ideas, Louis?" she asked.

"Well, you heard her say that they like exploring London together, right?" Louis said, twisting his hands in his lap. "It might take some doing, but some kind of a scavenger hunt that involves their friends might be sweet, right? And then Whitney can get people involved but not have to do the thing itself in front of an audience."

Cara and Raina exchanged looks. "I like it," Raina said. "Cara?"

"It's brilliant," Cara said. "Are you still sure you can't do this job?"

"I might be all right at it," Louis allowed. He knew he was grinning like an idiot, still buzzing with ideas. "So you really want to hire me?"

"I think we just did," Cara said. She stood and held out her hand. Louis rose to his feet and shook hands, feeling a little light-headed. "Welcome to the company, Louis."

It didn’t hit Louis until later, after he had met with HR and signed all the paperwork and arranged his new schedule, that he had a job, a proper career, and he couldn’t resist punching the air and hissing, “Yes!” in the middle of his bus. A couple people tutted at him, but he didn’t care, and he got off at Liam’s flat instead of his own to tell him the news.

“I thought you were at H&M,” Liam said when Louis had stumbled through telling him he had a new job, and oh, it was helping people with their engagements and that. “Did you quit?”

“I was fired ages ago,” Louis said, though it had been more like two weeks. “Anyway, that’s not the point, Liam, I’ve got a brilliant new job and I’m starting after the New Year! Congratulate me!”

“You were fired?” Liam asked faintly, then he shook his head. “Never mind, I’ll yell at you for that later. This is amazing, Louis, I always knew you could do something tremendous.” He seized Louis in a hug, tight and warm and perfect, and Louis sank against him, tucking his nose into Liam’s neck and breathing in deeply.

“We’ve got to tell the lads,” Louis said. “Celebration drinks and that. Invite whoever. Perrie, she deserves a drink, Jade, the girls, Bressie, Nick, Sophia, if you want—”

“Who’s Sophia?” Liam asked, frowning, and Louis didn’t know what to say to that, didn’t want to seem like a mental case for obsessing over a girl Liam had talked to for a few minutes at Nick’s party, so he barrelled over him and suggested Liam invite Ed Sheeran and Rita Ora—“I don’t even know Rita well,” Liam protested—and eventually stopped suggesting increasingly outlandish people when Liam tackled him to the couch and shoved a pillow in his face to make him stop talking.

Liam went to change clothes while Louis texted everyone the news. His music notes were out again, still the same song, this time with nearly all the music, bridge and everything, but only the start of lyrics here and there. Louis tapped his fingers against his leg, humming to himself and working out words in his head. He pulled out his phone and started thumbing in some words, taking a moment to snap a photo of the music to come back to later, and by the time Liam came out, looking absolutely gorgeous in a crisp white shirt and dark jeans, Louis had half of a chorus written.

“What are you doing?” Liam asked, leaning over to look at what Louis was writing. Louis hid his phone quickly, an idea starting to percolate.

“Nothing,” he said, turning his head to bite at Liam’s ear. “Let’s go.”

It was a brilliant night, everyone crammed into Jesy’s bar as they talked loudly. Louis kissed Perrie several times, bought her a drink and then threatened to set her up with someone, laughing when Perrie shoved him off with a grin. Niall bought Louis a seemingly endless number of pints, shouting, “I knew you could do it!” and Harry hung off his shoulders the whole time, beaming. Liam watched all of it with a proud smile on his face, and Louis was so in love with him that it felt like he was burning up. Lit up from the inside.

“What?” Harry asked, poking Louis’s cheek. “You’ve got your thinking face on.”

“I think I know what I’m going to do for number one hundred,” Louis said quietly, looking at Liam talking to Bressie. Harry laughed, delighted, and Louis, for the first time in ages, felt like he was exactly where he belonged.

 

Planning the hundredth proposal took less time than it probably should have. What took the longest was finding a ring that he thought would look good on Liam. He had to do some guessing about the size, but he found one that was perfect, simple, a white gold ring etched with a woven pattern and a yellow gold border. It cost a pretty penny, but Louis could afford it now that he knew he had a real salary and benefits coming in.

“Your man will love it,” the salesman told him sincerely when he slipped the ring box into a bag. “Best of luck, mate.”

“Thanks,” Louis said, taking the bag. “Cheers.”

When he wasn’t at the office with Cara and Raina helping plan Whitney’s engagement—he wasn’t strictly meant to be working for them yet, but he was invested now, and they were paying him a hiring bonus in thanks—he kept going over to Niall’s to mess around on his guitar or on Bressie’s keyboard. Niall took a look at the music when Louis was practicing once and gave him a hug before letting him have his bedroom. Louis was careful to sing quietly, not wanting to give anything else away, but by the time the end of December was rolling around, he felt ready.

Liam was predictable in many things. One of them was his insistence on going to an open mic night before they all went home for the holidays, and because they all did miss each other terribly when they were home, they humoured him every year. Louis put up a cursory protest because he knew he was supposed to, but was secretly glad that he didn’t have to drop hints about it.

The night before they went out, Louis sat down with his webcam and filmed the first video he’d done in ages, starting out by saying, “Hi guys, I know it’s been months, and all of you have been asking where the hundredth proposal is.”

He fiddled with his trousers and sighed. “I know it’s a bit cliché to say things have been crazy but they have. A lot of personal stuff that’s boring, so I won’t go into it, but I’m starting a new job in January, and life has been really great recently, so I’ve actually had time to plan out what I’m doing. It’s number one hundred, innit, it’s got to be special. Liam deserves that.”

Louis smiled at the camera, feeling a bit raw and naked. “Anyway, tomorrow we’re all going out to open mic night because Liam loves it, and I’ve got something planned. I know you don’t watch these, Liam, but if you watch this one, please know you mean the world to me, and just because this is the last doesn’t mean I don’t love you.

“To all of you who have been watching all along,” he continued, “I appreciate it so, so much. These videos have kept me sane over the last few years, and all of you have made my life so much better. I never thought I’d be asked to write love advice or help plan other people’s engagements, and it’s because all of you kept watching and talking about it on social media. I’m sorry I’ve been so shit recently, but hey, we’re near the end, aren’t we? I’ll have to figure out what I’m going to do with this channel now that I’m done, so if you have any ideas, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

“Right, so,” he said, trying to bring it back to light and fun. “Tomorrow’s the big day. Who knows? Maybe he’ll finally say yes.” He hesitated, then decided that was as good a send-off as any. He leaned forward to switch off the recording, set the video to upload without watching it back, and headed off to sleep.

 

Like always, they met at Liam’s before they headed out for the night. It didn’t feel quite right without Zayn; nothing did, really, but they were getting used to it. Nick came along with them instead, since he and Harry were nearly inseparable these days. He insisted he wouldn’t sing, making Harry pout, and Louis bumped fists with him in solidarity. It was good to have one other person who’d sit out with him in the future.

It went as it always did. Niall went up to the stage and sang first, one of Ed’s songs to make Liam laugh, and Harry sang Journey, and Liam, after some hemming and hawing, sang Justin Timberlake and brought the fucking house down.

“All right, lads,” Louis said when Liam had come back to the table. “You’ve all had your fun, now it’s time for me to rock your socks off.”

Liam turned his huge eyes on Louis. “What?” he asked. “You never sing.”

“First time for everything,” he said, getting to his feet. He squeezed past Harry, leaning over to whisper, “Get the camera ready,” and smiling when Harry lit up, understanding dawning.

There was a keyboard up onstage too, and Louis decided to go for that rather than the guitar, since he had a bit more experience with piano than anything. He sat down on the piano bench and fussed with its placement for a bit longer than he really needed so he could take a few deep breaths and hopefully calm his trembling fingers. Finally, he straightened up, let his hands rest on the keys, and smiled tensely out at the bar.

"Hi," he said. From out in the audience, Harry yelled hi back. Louis's smile grew a little less fixed. "I'm going to play you a song my friend wrote. I added the lyrics. Um, hope you don't hate it." He went to start playing, then remembered to say, "I'm calling it Fireproof."

He didn't dare look at Liam, focused as he was on playing and remembering the lyrics. He didn't know if he had overstepped, if Liam would be mad his song now had lyrics he didn't write attached to it.

He had practiced, more than he wanted to let on, but it was different to be here in front of them, in front of him like this. He was conscious of every word as he sang, voice scraping raw on the chorus. Nobody loves you, baby, the way I do, he sang, and he meant it. Really meant it.

When he finished and finally lifted his hands off the final chord, there was a horrible breathless moment of silence before the bar erupted in applause. Louis grinned, relieved, and looked up finally. His friends were, typically, being idiots. Harry was standing on a chair and cheering while trying to hold his phone steady, Nick's arm around his waist to keep him from falling, Niall was whooping, and Liam was beaming, clapping so hard Louis could hear it from across the room.

Louis stood, sketched an ironic sort of bow, and bounced from the stage, making a beeline for his table. Harry leapt from the chair to hug him, squeezing the air from him, and even Nick patted him on the shoulder, saying, "You sounded really great."

"Thanks," Louis said, but he had eyes only for Liam, who was watching him with huge, shiny eyes. "Hey, um."

"That was great," Liam said breathlessly. "Louis, that was perfect. I can’t believe you made my song sound that brilliant."

"Oh," Louis said, grinning so hard his face hurt. "Good. Because, uh, I have something to ask you."

Liam stared up at him, clueless as always, and Louis loved him so goddamn much it was like a physical pain in his side. How could he be so lovely and still not realize Louis was in love with him? Louis swallowed hard and pulled the ring box from his pocket, the first time he'd ever done it properly, and he opened it as he went to one knee.

"Liam," he said, and oh, this hurt so much, he was hoping Liam knew or had watched his video earlier and understood what he meant or something, "I love you more than anything. Will you please marry me?"

Liam stared at him for a long moment, then pushed Niall out of the booth and came out to kneel in front of Louis. His eyes were bright as he said, voice rough, "That's the best one." He closed his hands over Louis's; the ring box snapped shut. "That one was perfect."

Liam still thought it was a fucking joke. Of course. Louis forced his smile to be as bright as possible. "Of course it was," he said. "I am brilliant. Excuse me a moment."

Louis pulled his hands from Liam's and carefully set the ring box on the table. It hurt him to do it, but he wasn't taking it back, even if it had cost an obscene amount of money. Liam had turned to Niall already, didn't even seem to notice Louis leaving. He took his coat and slipped outside into the chill air, eyes prickling hot and sharp. He rubbed fiercely at his face and went to the kerb to hail a taxi.

"Louis," a voice called. He turned and saw Harry coming toward him, brow furrowed. "You're going home?"

"I have a train to Doncaster tomorrow," Louis said, which wasn’t true, but he had been planning on going home soon anyway. "I should be going."

"Louis, that ring." Harry paused and then reached out to him, taking his arm. "That one was real, wasn't it?"

"They were all real," Louis said. "Fuck. Don't tell Liam."

"Lou—"

"Promise me, Haz," Louis said fiercely. "Promise me you won't tell him. I don't want him to feel bad because he doesn't feel the same."

Harry looked at him for a moment, and Louis knew that Harry was going to try to find a way out of it later, but by then he'd be safely home on Doncaster, far away from Liam and his kind face and his perfect smile. Harry sighed finally and said, "I promise."

He pulled Louis into a hug and kissed his cheek. Louis hugged him back fiercely, squeezing his eyes shut. "I'll be back after the New Year when we can exchange gifts and all," Louis said. "Don't have sex in my room."

"I make no promises," Harry said wetly. He was so emotional sometimes. "Take care, Lou, and if I don't see you in the morning, have a safe journey."

“Love you,” Louis said. “Don’t tell Liam.”

“I won’t,” Harry said. “Love you too.” He let Louis go and waved down a cab for him. Louis slid inside and waved before turning to tell the driver where to go. He manage to last about two blocks before he started to cry, silent and humiliating, feeling something hard in his chest coming loose.

 

Louis did manage to catch a train in the morning, and he called his mum from the station to tell her he was coming. She sent Lottie to pick him up, and Louis hugged her tightly, squeezing her until she squeaked and protested. He missed his sisters so much sometimes, and it was so good to see them. On the drive home, she caught him up on the latest gossip in town and everything their siblings had been up to before saying, “Hey, I watched your video, you didn’t tell us you got a new job.”

“I was going to tell everyone at dinner,” Louis said.

“Is it good?” she asked, glancing at him. Six years younger and she was trying to take care of him. “I know you hated H&M.”

“It’s good,” Louis said, smiling. “I promise.”

He waited until the whole family was seated around the dining table, all nine of them, before he told them about the job. “I think it’s going to be good,” he said, and his mum burst into happy tears, getting up to smother him in kisses. He squirmed, trying to protest, and grinning. “Mum,” he said.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said. “Oh, Louis. I worried for so long.”

“Mum,” he sighed, but he was so happy to see her pleased.

His mood was made even better when he got an excited text from Whitney saying, She said yes!!! Thank you so much for helping me!! later that night. Louis beamed and texted her back, Gotta start planning the wedding then !! Congrats !! xx

Whitney sent him back a photo of her and the girl that must be her Jane kissing underneath the sign of the restaurant where they’d had their first date. They looked deliriously happy. Louis gave his phone to his mum to show her, and laughed when she teared up again.

“Oh, shut it,” she said, swatting at him. “It’s lovely, it is. You’re helping people find true love. Nothing is better than that.”

“Yeah,” Louis said fondly, saving the picture to his phone. “It’s pretty brilliant, isn’t it.”

Of course, by the time morning rolled around, he remembered why he had fled to Doncaster in the first place, and he decided he’d better sleep the whole day so he didn’t have to think about Liam’s sweet, clueless face. He hadn’t checked Twitter or his email at all, knowing people would be asking when they could see the hundredth proposal, but he didn’t want to ask Harry for the video. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to post it, if he were honest. It was stupid, but he had been hoping that Liam would somehow read his mind and know that this time was serious. Which was ridiculous.

He managed to sleep in until a little past noon before Lottie came in, face scrunched up. "Lou," she said, ignoring the way he groaned and burrowed into his bed, "have you gone on Twitter yet?"

"Lottie, I just woke up," Louis said, voice muffled by the pillow over his face. "Why don't you just tell me what happened."

"Your new video went up," Lottie said.

Louis sat up suddenly, pillow falling to one side. "Video?"

Lottie picked up his phone from the bedside table and fiddled with it for a minute before hopping on the bed next to him, holding it so they could both see the screen. It buffered for a moment before resolving into a shot of Harry's serious face, his brow furrowed adorably.

"Is it on?" he asked.

"Yes, love," Nick said, sounding amused. "Go on."

"Okay," Harry said. "Hi. Um, you've probably realized I'm not Louis—"

Louis snorted. Lottie dug her pointy elbow into his side and shushed him.

"—and that's because Louis doesn't know I'm putting this up," Harry said. "I made him some promises that I regret now, but I didn't promise not to put this up, so here we are. This is proposal number one hundred, which happened about a week ago. I think Louis was afraid to put it up, because at some point it all stopped being a joke, you know."

"I'm going to kill him," Louis said.

"Shh," Lottie said again.

"Don't get mad at Liam, because he didn't know. Louis's dead good at hiding his feelings a lot of the time."

"Harry," Nick said off camera.

"Right." Harry gave the screen thumbs up. "Thanks to Nick for helping me with the video. Here's proposal number one hundred."

It was worse that Louis could have imagined. The video itself was good, of course. They were all old hands at this by now, and Harry had probably had Nick's help with getting it up and Nick had a hundred friends who did film stuff. But nothing could have prepared him for the embarrassment of seeing his own face so naked, hearing his voice which really was weak and weird and raspy, no matter what Liam said, and the look on his face as he came over. He looked like a fucking idiot, an idiot who couldn't sack up and ask the person he loved on a date.

Lottie tucked her head against his shoulder when the Louis in the video went down on one knee. The camera lingered on his face, and so Louis got to see the exact moment Liam said no, the way his smile grew fixed and his eyes glassy. It was fucking awful.

Louis thought the video would end once he left; but instead Harry panned over to Liam, who was still kneeling on the floor and looking confused.

"Is he okay?" Liam asked them all.

"I'll go check on him," came Harry's voice. “Nick, hold my phone for a moment?”

From behind the camera, Nick’s hand reached out to pick up the ring box, flipping it open and bringing it close into view. Louis bit the inside of his lip so hard he thought he would bleed. Lottie grabbed his hand and squeezed as Nick said, "Bloody hell, I think this is real, you know."

"What?" Liam asked. "Isn't it just that pound one he always uses?"

"He lost that one ages ago," Niall said. "He told me he was going to get a new one, but he didn't show me.”

"Can I see?" The camera swung up as Nick handed the ring over. Liam's brow was furrowed in that sweet way of his when he couldn't figure out if someone was taking the piss out of him or not—and Louis wanted to shout through the screen that he wasn't, he wouldn't mess around like that, except he would, wouldn't he? He had.

"Nick," came Niall's voice. "I think you should turn the camera off."

"What? Oh." Nick swung the camera around so it got a little bit of his face. "Sorry, Louis, but you can cut all this out, right?"

Louis choked out a laugh and turned to bury his face in Lottie's hair. His friends were such idiots. The video ended a moment later, and a screen of text popped up, his usual credits, and the stupid dinkly music he and Liam had written to put over it ages ago. Lottie touched the screen and the video shrunk down into the YouTube window, which was when Louis saw the view count.

"A million?" he croaked. "I've never had that many—oh god, a million people have seen that."

"Some of it could be people rewatching," Lottie said, clearly trying to be helpful.

"God," Louis said. "I'm going to kill Harry."

Except he wasn't; part of him was glad it was out there, even if it was awful and humiliating. At least it was over now. He wouldn't have to answer people on Twitter who asked what he would be doing for number 100, or teased him for his "obvious crush.” Well, if it were so obvious, Liam hadn't bloody figured it out yet.

"I'm sorry," Lottie said after a moment. "You like him a lot, don't you?"

"I'd have married him for real," Louis said. "If he'd said yes."

Lottie nodded and kissed his cheek. "You want me to go?"

"No," he said. "Stay, just for a bit."

Lottie tucked herself in alongside him. Fizzy found them like that a few minutes later and climbed in too, and it was almost like when they were little kids and Louis was looking after them while their mum was at work. He loved them so much, he really did, and when the twins came in too, he gave in to the urge to cuddle them all until they were yelling and giggling at him. They all of them fell off the bed with a thump, and their mum looked in on them a minute later, shook her head, and left again.

“I’m glad you’re home,” Fizzy said into his shoulder, and he hugged her close, saying, “Me too.”

 

Louis continued to ignore his Twitter and email for the next few days, only taking a moment to fire off texts to Harry and Nick saying I’m getting you back and one to Niall saying Thanks. He debated sending Liam something, but he couldn’t think what to say. He eventually settled on a Santa emoji and nothing else. He’d see him after the New Year when they exchanged gifts. Maybe by then he’d have worked out what he wanted to say.

The best part about the holidays was, by far, his birthday. He did love Christmas and exchanging gifts with his family, but because he’d thrown some truly epic tantrums as a kid, his mum had gone out of her way for years to make sure he knew his birthday wasn’t forgotten. He woke up on Christmas Eve to find that she had made him pancakes, and everyone was shoving gifts on him before he’d even had his cup of tea.

“Twenty-four,” his mum said tearfully, kissing his head. “Oh, my boy is so grown up.”

Mum,” he said, horrified. His stepdad clapped him on the shoulder in commiseration.

As usual, his family had gone for useful gifts, which Louis appreciated, and he was particularly touched to find that his stepdad had gotten him a rather beautiful Moleskine planner. He gave them all hugs and kisses and insisted they help him with the pancakes before going to snuggle the babies so he could hide his feelings for a bit. Doris and Ernest were too young to tease him for getting emotional.

They all went out for dinner at a posh Italian place a town over, and Louis felt bad the entire time, tried to insist to his mum that he could pay for part of it, but she slapped his hand when he tried to reach for the check. “It’s your birthday,” she said.

“But Mum,” he said. She pushed his hand away and waved down their waiter.

“Eat your cake,” she said, pointing at the tiramisu in front of him.

Louis rolled his eyes but did as he was told. He was just about done when he heard a commotion behind him, a raised voice that sounded somewhat familiar. He frowned, turning, and saw a flash of hair that looked suspiciously like Niall. Next to him, Lottie giggled.

“Lottie?” he asked, looking around at her. “What’s going on?”

“Shh,” she said. “Pay attention.”

And into the little private back room they were in came Niall, Harry, and Liam, all of them beaming. Niall had his guitar around his neck, and Harry was wearing a jumper Louis was sure belonged to Nick, and Liam—Liam looked amazing, of course, and he was staring at Louis.

“What are you doing here?” Louis asked, startled. “We aren’t exchanging gifts until the New Year.”

“It’s your birthday, innit?” said Liam. “We weren’t missing that. Besides, I have—shush, Niall, would you just start playing?”

Niall stopped laughing, though his face was red like it was taking great effort. He started strumming, and everyone around Louis went quiet. When Louis chanced a look, Lottie had her phone out and was filming.

Liam took a breath and started singing.

Louis didn’t know the song, but it was pretty, heartfelt and raw. Harry joined in with harmony on the chorus as Liam sang, I have loved you since we were eighteen, and Louis’s heart clenched, wondering—but it couldn’t be, could it?

Lottie was beaming when he looked at her, and his mum was crying again, and Louis looked at Liam, who was staring right at him, and maybe Louis wasn’t wrong to hope after all. He clutched the back of his chair as Liam launched into the second verse. He sounded clear and perfect as always, and he was looking at Louis the entire time, and when he sang, “I have loved you since we were eighteen,” again, he came closer, kneeling down. Louis couldn’t hear anymore, not past the rushing in his ears as Liam pulled out a familiar box, and Louis saw then that Liam was wearing the ring Louis had gotten him.

“Liam,” Louis said, choked. “What are you doing?”

“I,” Liam said, falling out of the song. “It isn’t fair, you know, that you thought I’d just know somehow that you meant it. But you did, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” Louis said. “Liam –”

“That’s a song I’ve been working on with Ed,” Liam said, reaching out for Louis’s hand. “It started about you, you know. I never thought—I always thought it was a joke.”

“It wasn’t,” Louis said. “Maybe at first.”

“I’ve loved you for ages, Louis,” Liam said. He opened the ring box, and there was a matching ring to the one Liam was wearing, only with the colours inversed. “Will you date me and then, maybe, marry me?”

“Maybe?” Louis asked. “I’ve asked you to marry me a hundred times.”

“We should probably date first, though,” Liam said, brows coming together in an anxious little frown. “Shouldn’t we?”

“Maybe,” Louis allowed. He reached out and took the ring with shaking fingers. “Yes.”

“Yes we should date first or yes to marrying me?” Liam asked.

“Both,” Louis said. He slipped the ring onto his left hand, where it fit perfectly. “Obviously.”

Liam broke into a huge smile and seized Louis up into his arms, kissing him soundly on the mouth. They had kissed before, friendly pecks and that, but never anything like this, and it was even better than Louis could have ever imagined. Louis clung to his neck and laughed into his mouth, jumping so he could wrap his legs around Liam’s waist. Behind Liam, Niall and Harry were cheering, and Fizzy was making gagging noises, and he was sure his mum was crying again.

“We’re a bit ridiculous, aren’t we?” Louis asked Liam when they stopped kissing.

“A bit,” Liam said. He was beaming so huge his cheeks were bunched up. Louis loved him so much it was absurd. “But we love each other, don’t we? Isn’t that what matters?”

“Yes,” Louis said, ducking his head to kiss Liam again. He slid down after a moment and looked back at his family. “You all helped with this, didn’t you?”

“Only a little,” his mum said. “Liam called and explained what he wanted to do, and it was so sweet.”

“I expect that video,” Louis told Lottie, who stuck her tongue out at him but nodded. Liam was giggling behind him, delighted, and Louis decided that as much as he loved his family, it was time to get some more birthday kisses out of his brand new boyfriend-fiancé. He slid his hand into Liam’s and towed him toward the exit, waving goodbye over his shoulder and grinning at Liam’s blush.

 

Much later, after Louis had gone through the video Lottie had sent him and edited it down to the bits they could post without getting in trouble with Ed’s record company, he posted it to YouTube and settled back to watch it upload while Liam slept beside him in his childhood bed.

Liam stirred around two a.m. and squinted up at him. “You’re still up,” he said accusingly.

“I know I shagged your brains out, but I still have energy,” Louis said primly. He angled the computer toward Liam. “Besides, I’m doing work.”

“Work,” Liam agreed, kissing Louis’s elbow. “Is it Christmas yet?”

“Oh—yes,” Louis said. “Happy Christmas, Liam.”

“Happy Christmas,” Liam said, “and happy birthday, Lou. Love you.”

“Love you,” Louis said, because he’d never be able to say it enough. He leaned down and kissed Liam before pushing him over in bed to have some more sleepy sex, only stopping when Liam yelped, “Your computer!” and moved the laptop to his bedside table.

Liam was wonderfully pushy and blushing about it, and Louis was looking forward to learning everything that would make Liam’s eyes go wide and astonished like he couldn’t believe how lucky he was. Louis wasn’t sure what his own face was doing when Liam got his big hand on Louis’s dick—again!—but Liam smiled huge and bright.

“You’re lovely,” Liam said, in all apparent sincerity, and Louis had to kiss him again. When he came, he buried his face in Liam’s neck and clutched onto his arms tightly. Liam stroked him through it, sure and steady, and when Louis reached out to return the favour, he looked amazed and startled. Louis couldn’t help laughing in his face even as he brought Liam off.

Liam pouted at him until Louis got up to grab tissues to clean up with, and then he pulled Louis up against his chest. He was an aggressive cuddler after sex, Louis was learning. Louis liked it, the feeling of Liam around him like a cloak, or armour.

“Since you were eighteen, really?” Louis asked sleepily. “You never let on.”

Liam snorted into Louis’ hair. “You weren’t meant to know, were you?”

“Yeah, but you’re shit at lying,” Louis said. “I should have known.”

“Hey,” Liam protested, but he didn’t bother actually trying to contradict Louis. “Zayn was the only one I told, but that was because we lived together. I suppose to you it all would have seemed very gradual, so you wouldn’t have noticed. I knew I was properly in love with you that Christmas, when you spent all your savings on gifts for us and the girls. It was stupid and that, but it was so sweet. I think that was the first time I knew it, but I’d probably—it had probably started before that, if I’m honest.”

“Oh,” Louis said quietly. He kissed Liam’s arm, right at the edge of one of his chevron tattoos. “I don’t deserve you, you know. I never would have started proposing if I’d known.”

“You shouldn’t regret it,” Liam said. “The whole thing was fun, seeing what you would come up with, and without it we wouldn’t have met Nick and all his friends, or been on a hot air balloon, or sky-dived, you maniac.” He kisses the back of Louis’s neck. “I’ve had the time of my life with you, and I’d quite like to spend the rest of it together.”

“That was dead romantic,” Louis said. “That’s how you should have proposed.”

“Oh, sorry,” Liam said, laughing. “You want me to do it again?”

“Well, I did propose one hundred times,” Louis said. “You’ve got ninety-nine more if you want to match up, sonny.”

“Ungrateful,” Liam muttered, but he pulled Louis over to him, and Louis was distracted from the question of proposals by the much more urgent need to kiss Liam breathless.

In the morning, once the video was up with the title Proposal #1: Liam’s Turn, Louis tweeted out the link with just three words: I said yes.

 

“Are you really nervous?” Niall asked as Louis bounced up and down on the balls of his feet. “You know what he’s going to say.”

“Yes,” Louis said, because he had given a lot of thought to this ever since Harry had brought it up three months ago. “It doesn’t mean I can’t be nervous. This is going to change everything.”

“In a good way, though,” Niall said. “Right, Bressie?”

“Yes,” Bressie said, looking up from his tea. “Should do.”

Louis turned to look at Liam for help. Liam just raised his hands and said, “I think it’s brilliant, Louis. Just let it run its course, yeah?” He leaned over to turn up the radio as Nick’s voice came on over the tail end of a Years & Years song.

“And we’ve got a caller, a Harry from London. Hiya Harry, you know that’s the name of my boyfriend?”

“Hey,” said Harry, slow and smiley, and it was weird to hear the faint echo of his voice from the bedroom, just before the radio. “No kidding.”

“Oh,” Nick said. “Producer Vic, did you decide to play a prank on dear Grimmy? This isn’t my boyfriend Harry on the line, is it?”

“It is, sorry to say,” Vic said, not sounding sorry at all. “Let’s hear what he has to say, all right?”

“All right,” Nick said, sounding a bit wary. “What brings you to call in, love? Haven’t fallen and landed yourself in casualty, have you?”

“One time,” Harry said, laughing. “No, I was just wondering how you fancy being fiancés instead of boyfriends.”

There was a brief pause, and then Nick said, “Harry, are you asking me to marry you on the radio?”

“Might be,” Harry said, and he was properly laughing now. “Is that all right?”

“Is that all—Louis helped you with this, didn’t he?” Nick demanded. “Harry!”

“Nick, tell the nice boy what you say,” Fiona said, on the verge of laughter. “Are you going to make an honest man of him or what?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Nick said, “of course I’ll marry you, Harry, you overdramatic lunatic.”

“Love you too, Grimmy,” Harry said, and a song faded in over the top. There was quiet murmuring from the bedroom for a moment or two longer before Harry came out, smiling sheepishly and holding his phone out.

“You bastards, how long have you been planning this?” Nick demanded, voice crackling through speakerphone. “It was—oh my god, I’m getting married.”

“Lou, you’ll help plan our wedding, right?” Harry asked, nudging him. “Not that I don’t trust Cara, but you know us.”

“I’d be insulted if you asked anyone else,” Louis said honestly. Liam beamed at him and kissed his cheek. Louis turned his head so he could capture his mouth, forgetting for a moment that there were other people around until Niall cleared his throat.

“What about you two?” Bressie asked when they broke apart, Liam blushing adorably. “When are you two finally going to tie the knot? It’s been nearly two years, hasn’t it?”

“Liam has ninety-nine more proposals to go,” Louis said, and Liam groans and swats him. “I don’t know,” he added honestly. “We’re figuring it out.”

Liam reached down and took his hand. Louis rubbed his thumb over the ring Liam still wore every day and smiled until Nick said, “Not that this isn’t touching, but I have to be back on the radio. I assume you colluded with my producers?”

“Yep,” Louis said cheerfully. “And be sure you dress nice for dinner tonight.”

“It’s going to be a bloody party, innit,” Nick said, and he hung up before any of them could answer. He was right of course; Zayn was even coming down to make an appearance, or so Liam said. It promised to a huge bash, and Louis had planned it all himself.

Harry was beaming so wide he looked slightly demented. “He said yes,” he said, kissing them all on the cheeks and throwing his arms around Louis. “I’m going to be married!”

Louis wanted to say something cutting, but found he couldn’t quite bring himself to, not when Harry was smiling brilliantly. Instead he smiled back and squeezed Liam’s hand as, on the radio, Nick returned from the song to the teasing of Fiona and Vic. Harry draped himself along Louis’s back, chin digging into his shoulder, and they listened together as Nick fended off their kissing noises and failed to sound anything other than deliriously happy.

The party was a roaring success, Nick and Harry lording over them all like bloody kings and showing off their matching rings to anyone who stood still for longer than ten seconds. Niall dumped champagne over them at one point, cackling madly, and Zayn shyly produced a sketch he’d done of them before being nearly strangled in a hug from Harry. Zayn left after that, but he gave Louis and Liam hugs and promised to call. He looked happier; he had a show opening in the fall, too, and they had tentative plans to go with Perrie and the girls. When Zayn hugged Liam, he whispered something that made Liam blush and glance over at Louis.

“What?” Louis asked, nipping at Liam’s shoulder.

“Nothing,” Liam said. “Good to see you, Zayn.”

Zayn waved and slipped out the door, leaving just as Aimee and Ian produced a giant cake with Nick and Harry’s faces on it. Louis kissed Liam and said, “I’ve got to get me a piece of that. You want one, love?”

“Get me Harry’s nose,” Liam said, lazily groping Louis’s bum as Louis climbed over him to get out of their booth.

After the cake was singing, and a Newlyweds game Louis had written with Aimee to make Nick and Harry answer questions about each other. Because they were really nauseatingly in love, they got all of them right and snogged obnoxiously after every one. Louis stayed in the corner with Liam for rest of the night, content to cuddle with him and watch his handiwork smugly. Liam, who was secretly rather naughty, kept his hand on Louis’s thigh, rather higher than was strictly appropriate for a public setting.

“I’m so proud of you,” Liam said towards the end of the night, as Harry set about kissing everyone in the pub. “You’ve done so well for yourself.”

“I suppose,” Louis said. “Nothing compared to you, Grammy-nominated songwriter and all.”

“Wouldn’t be without you,” Liam said. “No one believes in me like you, you know.” He pulled Louis in close to him. “I don’t want to overshadow Harry and Nick, of course, but how do you fancy getting married after them? Nothing too big. Something quiet, I think.”

“Liam James Payne,” Louis said, grinning when Liam wrinkled his nose, “are you asking me to marry you? Again?”

“Well, like you said,” Liam said, “I still have to catch up with you. So what do you reckon? Think we could make each other happy?”

“Don’t we already?” Louis asked. “I dunno, I think it’d be dead funny to just stay engaged forever—” Liam dug his fingers into his side and Louis yelped, squirming away. “Oh, all right. I suppose I’ll marry you.”

“You suppose?” Liam said.

“I will,” Louis said. “I shall. Just try to stop me.” He tapped Liam’s mouth with his finger and watched as Liam’s eyes darkened.

“Don’t reckon I will,” Liam said, beaming at him. He kissed Louis, and Louis thought, to hell with it, and climbed into Liam’s lap, ignoring the wolf whistles and cheers of their friends. Liam laughed into his mouth, and Louis was wildly, wonderfully, perfectly happy.