A lot's changed since Niall moved to London, but probably the thing he notices the most is the way his group of cupids does their potions. That they do potions in a group is one reason why - Niall had done his in his room in Mullingar, using cared-for tools that he'd bought with his own money.
There's also the alcohol element.
His group of cupids alternate houses every fortnight for meetings, and everyone came around to Niall's today. It's only Bressie, Eoghan, Laura, and Niall making potions today; most of the others are still working on a paper or got a new paper on their own, but there's about twenty around for support.
"Drink, drink, drink!" Eoghan yells, pounding a hand on the table.
The others are yelling wordlessly and clapping their hands as Niall and the others finish stirring their potions. Niall's yelling a little, too - it's more fun that way. His pint smells fantastic.
He was elated when he came to London and discovered Bressie had learnt a way to mix potions with various alcohols. He's just as elated when he puts his lips to his glass and tips the liquid down as he was the first time he did it; it tastes rich and full and not like magic at all.
(And yes, Niall's heard all the jokes about the boozy Irish - he's gotten called a "pissed leprechaun" more than once even though his power's never been anywhere near financial - but his love for beer has little to do with his citizenship, thank you very much.)
Niall finishes downing his drink first, and when he sticks his arms in the air, the group lets out a cheer. They pick up their cheer anew when Laura finishes and lets forth a burp. Niall pats her on the back of her fashionably fuzzy jacket as she covers her mouth apologetically and tries not to be too jealous. He wishes he could belch, but that's not where his talents lie.
The papers appear moments later, little colourful pops in the air over their heads. Niall doesn't know why the magic isn't modern - a text to his phone would work so much better for him than a scrap of paper - but it is fun to see the swoops of colour as each paper goes to the person who conjured them. Niall loves the golden sheen the paper has; no other paper in the world looks like spell paper.
Laura unfolds hers immediately, picking up her phone a second later to find her people on Facebook. Eoghan peeks at his paper, nods in acknowledgement, and tucks it in his pocket; he does the legwork at home. Bressie unfolds his and holds it out so Niall can see.
"Three!" Niall says. He sees the little heart symbol under the names: red heart means romantic, and a purple heart means it's sexual. A slash running in the middle of the heart with both colours on either side, which Bressie's paper sports, means both. Stars mean familial, spades mean platonic, and lightning means "improving your time with yourself", as Bressie had put it when Niall had first moved to London. "I've never gotten three for a slash before."
Bressie shrugs. "Might be an easy one. What's yours, Chief?"
Niall unfolds his paper.
The only thing on it is a name: Louis Tomlinson. No symbol. Not even a question mark, which happens when the magic isn't sure which would be best. Niall's brow furrows, and he flips the paper over, but beyond the usual golden texture, there's nothing. No symbol appears when he flips it back over, either. (Not that he's had papers change after he's conjured them, but there's a first time for everything.)
"Why the frown? Give it over." Bressie reaches for the paper, and Niall lets him take it. Niall's done a lot of study about being a cupid and everything that goes into it, but Bressie's their resident elder and has had more firsthand experience than Niall. He'll be hard to stump.
"It's fucked," Niall says as Bressie studies the paper with a frown. "Should I recast?"
Bressie leans over to Eoghan and nudges him, showing him the paper.
Eoghan's eyebrows climb his forehead. "Fucking hell. It's blank."
"Yeah, didn't notice." Niall leans over Bressie to take the paper back. He takes a picture with his phone and tucks the paper into his pocket. "So? What is it?"
Bressie shakes his head. "No fucking clue. Anyone had a paper with just one name and nothing else?"
Niall looks at every head in the room, and they're all giving some kind of 'no' signal.
"I'll ask around," Bressie says, which is nice. He has the greatest access to cupids of the group, and he's more likely to get answers than the few sites online where cupids clump. Niall hates how old school sprites in general tend to be. If they'd join the current century, he could put a picture of his paper on Instagram and get an answer within minutes.
"But what should I do in the meantime?"
"Look up your name," Laura says. "Maybe you'll figure it out on your own."
It does seem like the obvious choice, but... "You don't think I'll fuck it up more?"
"Didn't fuck this up, Chief," Bressie says, patting Niall on the shoulder. "If you need help, I'm here."
Everyone else nods, and Niall sighs. Can't argue with common sense, he supposes.
The next morning, Niall finds that Louis Tomlinson has a private profile on Facebook, but his profile picture's public, and a Google reveals this particular Louis Tomlinson is the same as one that's teaching drama at a school not far from Niall's house. Since spells are based on location, and Niall's cupid sense is giving him the all-clear in its unique musical signature, this is the man.
He dials the number for Louis Tomlinson's school and feels a tingle of excitement in his stomach. It's not his cupid sense, which, having given confirmation, has gone back to being quiet. Niall just fucking loves doing this. He's excited to see this man face-to-face and see what Niall's magic says about him, and, maybe, Niall can help him find love, whatever kind of love that is.
Later that afternoon, Niall's sat in the Starbucks nearest Louis's school, waiting for Louis to be finished with lessons for the day. He didn't actually talk with Louis on the phone. When he called Louis's school, a nice lady in the main office called Molly heard he was a cupid and insisted on passing messages along. Some people were like that, wanting to be involved in some small way. Cupid attention wasn't as common as the films made it look, so the sidelines were the closest most people got. Anyway, Molly had said Louis was working and that she would text Niall a meeting place once she got one from Louis.
Niall let his cupid sense out a little about the people walking in when he first arrived. Not because he needs help recognising Louis - Facebook's good enough - but because it's a good way to kill time. Niall can get specific with it, but respecting privacy and boundaries is a large part of the cupid gig, so he just feels the size of the love in their lives and if anything positive or negative is happening. One person in a suit is about to do something big; Niall suspects a proposal. A younger person in a school uniform practically has hearts around their head, and Niall laughs a little at the contact high from the harmonies. Can't top young love.
And then Louis Tomlinson walks in, and Niall's breath catches.
No magic causes the rush Niall has when he first meets his papers. Niall asked Bressie near the beginning of their friendship if he'd had the same thing (or if anyone else had, for that matter). Bressie had said no and gone with Niall to a first meeting to see the cause. After it all, he'd turned to Niall and said, "You love...love." It was definitely true.
Of course, Louis isn't unattractive or anything. His eyes are extremely blue, and he has a rough, rolled-out-of-bed rock star look that only a drama teacher could count as professional and pull off in general, but most of Niall's reaction is appreciation and admiration. His cupid sense didn't tell Niall much, which isn't weird - for papers, he usually needs contact to work off of. But Niall's heart races, and he feels a wee bit tingly. There's just something about standing at the precipice of a major event in someone's life and knowing you'll be a part of it.
He waves when Louis looks his way, and Louis nods back in acknowledgement before getting in line. Niall is as patient as he ever is while Louis orders and then lingers by the pick-up area, which is to say, he's bouncing his leg under the table and drumming his fingers on the table.
When Louis finally comes over, he places his tea on the table and tugs off his gloves that look somehow functional and punk at the same time. "This won't take long?" Louis asks, offering a hand once it's bare. "Molly told me practically nothing, and I have plans tonight."
"Quick as a flash." Niall shakes his hand. "Niall Horan."
Louis's eyes brighten. "You're Irish."
"Tell me you're a leprechaun. I could use the money."
"Sorry. If it makes you feel any better, they're bloody boring." It's not entirely true - one of Greg's mates is a leprechaun, and he's perfectly nice. He also loves talking about stock markets and the value of whatever form of currency that strikes his fancy and the benefits of almighty capitalism, and Niall's nodded off a few times around him. "Molly didn't tell you why I wanted to meet?"
"No. Said she wanted to 'keep the element of surprise'." Louis does bunny quotes in the air, followed by a groan. "Fuck, is this a setup? Do you get that a lot? 'You're into blokes, and I have a friend who's gay, so you must be the love of his life?'"
Well. This was going to make things interesting. Niall clears his throat. "I'm a cupid, actually."
Louis's face closes down immediately. Niall's cupid sense isn't making a sound, of course.
"No," Louis says.
"No cupids, no setups, no interference in my fucking love life." Louis grabs his gloves quickly and starts shoving them back on.
Niall has an informal cupid protocol he's established, but there's one cardinal rule that all cupids follow: respect consent. No manipulation, no bribery. You can still give your contact info if they say no, but you may never hear from them again. Niall's had it happen more than once.
Which is why he wishes he could turn back time when he blurts out, "You don't even want to know what your paper says?"
Louis freezes. "My paper?"
"Shit." Niall shakes his head. "You said no. Um, I'm on Facebook. Really easy to find if you change your mind. I'll just."
Before Niall can take his own tea and make off with whatever dignity he has left, Louis rests his hand on Niall's arm.
"Who's on my paper?" Louis asks. He doesn't ask what a paper is or what's on it. He asks who. Which means he knows how cupids find people to work with.
"I left the actual paper at home." Niall sighs and pulls out his phone, scrolling to the picture. "I lose them too easily."
Louis takes his phone, and his eyes roam back and forth like he's searching for the same thing Niall was. "There's only my name."
Niall nods when Louis looks his way.
"None," Niall agrees.
"How do I know you didn't make this up?"
Niall gestures for Louis to return his phone, and when Louis does, Niall pulls up his licence. Digital credentials are the only things sprites do online these days, probably because it's a lot easier to carry a mobile in your pocket than charmed papers. (Niall had the latter before he moved to London. It made going to the cinema hard - they glowed in his pocket.)
Louis looks wary but not suspicious when he inspects the app Niall shows him.
"I mean, not that you know I didn't Photoshop the paper," Niall says. "But I'd be a shit cupid if I tried that. Other cupids in good standing saw me conjure the paper, if you want to talk to one of them."
Louis rolls his eyes. "What does it mean?"
"The paper? Dunno. I was hoping we could find out together." When Louis starts to frown, Niall says, "Or I could just talk to some of your loved ones on my own. Friends, family, coworkers...it doesn't have to be personal, mate. I'm more curious than anything at the moment."
Louis stares at Niall. No, he inspects Niall. "Harry didn't put you up to this, did he?"
"Don't know a Harry."
There's another pause as Louis considers this, but finally, finally, Louis nods once, curtly. "Don't talk to my fucking coworkers anymore. Nosy bastards, the lot of 'em." He pulls out his own mobile. "What's your number?"
Niall recites it, and seconds later, he gets a text from an unknown number with a couple of names and additional numbers.
"I'm not promising they'll talk to you," Louis says, tucking his phone away again.
"That's fine. Thank you."
Louis scowls. "So this is all you want to do? Solve the mystery?"
"If that's all you want out of it."
"Please. Don't act like a fucking saint on my account."
Niall feels a smile spread on his face. "Okay, the cupid version is this: I like it when people have love in their life. It's tough shit, sorting all of it out."
"So what makes you an expert?"
Niall snorts. "I'm not an expert. Have the magic touch, that's all."
For some reason, this is the moment that Louis's shoulders relax. The cupid sense is still quiet, but considering Louis doesn't seem to want to pursue what Niall might find, that's no surprise.
"Okay, sunshine," Louis says, picking up his drink. "Maybe I'll see you after you've worked more of your magic."
Niall keeps smiling as Louis leaves the Starbucks. He doesn't have to like the people he helps, but he already likes Louis.
The first job Niall had worked in London was an old widow looking for some companionship. She'd been a question mark, and Niall had been nervous as hell. He'd worked with Bressie on that one entirely, on the suggestion of the office that had helped Niall transfer his cupid licence, and Bressie had given him a lot of interesting insights.
Like, since Bressie had done most of the work, Niall had asked, "If we can conjure potions and have someone else do the work, why don't we?"
"Bureaucratic cupiding?" Bressie had cackled. "Doesn't work that way. We sacrifice time out of our lives to do it, and since we're all cupids and almost entirely working on our own papers with the people involved, the magic deems it acceptable. We bring non-magical ones into it and hand our papers off? That's when the magic twists, starts demanding more to work."
Niall had mostly said it as a joke, but it had made Bressie sigh. "If you're lucky," he said, "it stops there."
When they had found the widow her companion, a small dog from a rescue, Niall had been baffled. He'd known the attachments that papers could encourage didn't have to be romantic, but a dog?
"Attachment's attachment," Bressie had said, back at his flat with pints in their hands and football on the telly. "Had a mate that paired someone off with the Eiffel Tower."
"You're having me on."
"Wouldn't make it up. It wasn't one of those marriages like you see sometimes, although I wouldn't be surprised if I hear about one of those eventually. The person just needed a place they could go now and again to reconnect with life. The Eiffel Tower was it for them."
Niall had been enamoured with his cupid magic for a while - how could he not be? - but that was the moment he fell truly head over heels for it. For people in general, really.
Still, it hadn't been until later that night, after Bressie had called over Eoghan and introduced them over takeout Thai food, that Niall had asked what really weighed on his mind about the whole business.
"What if I've never been in a relationship?" he'd asked. "I'm single now, always been single. Shouldn't I be some kind of expert?"
Eoghan had nearly choked on his food from laughter. "Lad," he'd said. "There would be sadly few cupids if we needed to be married or some shit."
"Do you have friends?" Bressie asked Niall.
"Good with your family?"
Niall had nodded. It was a bit oversimplistic, maybe, but he and his Da were solid as a rock.
"You're more expert than a lot of us, then," Eoghan had said, clapping Niall on the back. "Now. Let's not talk the job. What kind of music do you like?"
And that had been that. Niall was following his calling, he'd made new friends, and he didn't need to be Don Juan or...the equivalent married person. Once he got settled in, it was hard for life to get better, really.
As he's getting on the Tube after his meeting with Louis, Niall texts the first number and gets an offer for a late dinner straight away. If nothing else, he can appreciate the speed with which things are moving; he would hate for a mystery paper to linger for days like normal ones so often do. He considers turning down the dinner anyway - Niall needs his me time as much as anyone, and maybe more than others - but he also doesn't have any ideas for dinner on his own. Restaurant it is.
After a nap at home, he ends up alone at a table in a reasonably nice place under the reservation Malik, who is the lad Niall texted, apparently. Said lad shows up a little late with another man in close proximity. They both shake Niall's hand and introduce themselves: Zayn Malik is Louis's best friend, apparently, and Harry is the tall muppet hanging off him and smirking at everything.
Zayn solves one mystery for Niall as he takes his chair. "You know Eoghan?"
"McDermott?" Niall grins, surprised. "Got pissed with him just a couple nights ago, actually."
Harry's face lights up as he moves in beside Zayn. "Say hello next time you see him, please."
"Can do. How do you know him?"
Zayn gestures between Harry and himself. "He set the two of us up."
Their server comes by, and they order, and then Harry goes on for a while about how Zayn's engaged to a "lovely, just lovely" woman named Perrie, and Harry has his boyfriend Nick, but how they were missing...something. And then Eoghan set up a meeting between Harry and Zayn, and it was the missing piece.
Niall listens to the entire story with his chin in his hands. Fucking Eoghan, getting a great setup like that. Maybe Niall will get one someday, too.
"That's why I got in touch so quickly," Zayn says when it seems Harry's finally run out of steam. "I knew I'd get a free meal out of it."
Niall cackles. He can see already why Zayn and Louis are friends, and really, just this much contact with Zayn is telling his cupid sense a lot. There's an intense bond between Zayn and Louis, and actually, a bond with Harry and Louis as well. Purely platonic on both ends, and it's possible for someone to be satisfied with their friendships and still have room for more, but Niall feels confident that the paper isn't telling Niall to find Louis more friends.
"So what does Louis's paper say?" Harry leans forward. "Eoghan let me keep mine."
"Louis's special. His paper only has his name on it."
Zayn lifts an eyebrow. "Is that normal?"
"Not in the slightest. My best mate's been doing this for a decade now, and he's never seen the like."
"Louis's so lucky," Harry breathes. "We only got to see Eoghan twice, but this could take you years!"
Shit. Niall never thought of it that way, but it's true, isn't it? He has no clue what Louis needs in his life, whether it's higher self-esteem or a date or a best friend. This could take him their entire lives. This could go unsolved.
"You all right?" Zayn's looking concerned.
"Sure." Niall laughs. Laughing always makes him feel better. "Tell me more about Louis."
They talk for a while after that. Zayn talks about all of Louis's siblings and parental figures - he's got quite a few, and it's mostly a good thing, judging by the way the cupid sense trills in Niall's head - and Harry reminds Zayn to bring up Louis's childhood friends. That much brings them through drinks and dinner, and the conversation's flowed well.
They've ordered dessert when it's time for Niall to switch to classic cupid territory.
"And romantically?" Niall asks. "Is Louis with someone? Aromantic?"
Harry takes the question. "He's been single as long as I've been with Zayn, but he and his girlfriend had broken up not long before. Something about a job somewhere else?"
"She'd just graduated," Zayn clarifies. "But they'd been moving apart. Pretty natural, and Louis was a bit rough for a while, but I don't think he's off love or anything."
Niall laughs to himself and shakes his head. There's some promise in the romantic area, according to his cupid sense. It gives him something to work off, but the next part tends to be the one that makes people uncomfortable.
"And what about his sex life?" Niall asks.
Zayn blinks at Niall. Harry laughs, big and surprised.
"You don't have to say anything you don't want to," Niall adds quickly. "Or, you know, if you think he'd kill you." He gets a murderous impression from Louis. Not in a bad way. He's just not someone to cross.
"What...what would you want to know?" Zayn asks carefully.
Niall shrugs. "Where he identifies. What kind of sex he likes. Is it tied with romantic love? Does he like a cheeky shag in a club toilet? Would he rather spend the night with a good book and a piece of cake?"
Harry laughs again. "Oh, I think Louis's the type that would take both cake and sex. Maybe at the same time."
"No, that's you," Zayn says to Harry. It's fond; they share a mushy look at each other that makes Niall sigh happily. To Niall, Zayn says, "Bisexual and generally monogamous is all I've ever tried to know, but we shared a flat in uni, so I could probably give you more detail than anyone needs."
"That much is fine." Yes, the cupid sense is saying that Louis's life could be enhanced with sex. Niall shouldn't be surprised that he's getting something off sex and romance for someone into monogamy; that's Niall's cupid career in short, really.
"Do you work with a lot of asexual people?" Harry asks. "My sister's asexual, but I think she'd like a cupid visit."
"I haven't done any personally." Niall holds back the longing sigh that wants to escape. People are more than their labels, and it's shitty to objectify them in any way. He just really wishes he got a little variety in his papers. "My friend Laura gets her fair share, although it's more aromantic sexual people in her case. I think Bressie has a mate in Ireland who specialises in sex repulsion."
"You can specialise?" Harry asks.
"Not consciously. You just...tend to draw a certain way when you brew your potions. It's a combination of style and the way your magic works."
Zayn smiles, brushing a single strand of hair out of his face. "If you got Louis, you must get a lot of people that want to get married."
"Does Louis want to get married?"
The server comes with their desserts at that moment. But Zayn sneaks in a "Louis would say he wouldn't" before they start to eat.
help Niall texts Bressie the next day.
Bressie, stand-up bloke that he is, rings Niall straight away. "No luck so far, Chief?"
"Wouldn't say that." He fills Bressie on what he's learned from both of his meet-ups. "I think I should set him up on a date, but..."
"But you usually have more to go on."
"And he sounded like dates were right out." Niall sighs, leaning back in his computer chair. "I want to help him, Brez. I mean, it's one thing if he opts out, but if he doesn't and it takes me years to do this..."
"Buck up, laddie. I know you can do this. And I have an idea."
Niall sits up a little more straight. "All ears."
"I've got a mate, name of Marvin. He's got a question paper by the name of Liam who he's looking to set up."
Promising. Niall didn't think about the fact that there were plenty of cupids who needed options for their papers. "But a date?"
"Don't make it a one-on-one. Invite those mates of Louis's from last night."
"Double date's still a date."
"So tag along."
A few pints, some lads he liked, and possible work toward his goal. Nights didn't get better than that, really. "I knew there was a reason I kept you round."
Bressie actually sounds sheepish when he replies. "There's no leads on what blank papers mean, so I figure I should be useful somehow, yeah?"
Niall winces. Bressie has problems with his self-esteem sometimes. That depression shit doesn't let up. "You know I love you?"
"Couldn't do this without you, Bressie. Don't you forget it."
"Love you, too, Chief."
Niall blushes a little. Good thing Bressie can't see him. "You want to come, too? We could make it a real party."
"Nah. Remember the last time we took more than the involved cupids on a date like this? Bloody disaster."
"They let us back in the pub."
"After we paid damages." Bressie sounds fond. "I'll sit this one out, but I'll keep me phone on. Let me ring Marvin and get back to you, yeah?"
"Counting the seconds."
It turns out this Liam doesn't want to meet with anyone without his cupid around, which suits Niall. He's called Zayn again and asked about the situation, and Zayn was more than happy to set things up. Niall doesn't usually do this much with middlemen, but it's working this time.
They meet in a pub round the corner from Niall's. He knows from experience that if they hit the sweet spot in the late afternoon, it'll be quiet without being empty. Too loud to start, and it'll be impossible to talk. Too empty, and it'll be weird. Niall's not bad at this part of it.
Marvin's waiting for Niall at the door with a nervous-looking man at his side, but they both shake Niall's hand eagerly enough. Liam - surname Payne, he informs Niall with a shaky smile - warms a little after Niall asks him a little about himself, too. Niall can hardly blame him for feeling nerves, especially when they walk in and only Louis and Zayn are sitting at the table.
"Hiya, lads," Niall says, introducing Marvin and Liam to the table. "I'm headed for the counter. Want anything?"
Zayn shakes his head. "Not ordering until Harry gets here. I thought we might split something, but he has an event with Nick."
Louis makes a disgusted noise very loudly. "He's not bringing Grimshaw, is he?"
"What's wrong with Nick?" Zayn asks, smiling a little.
"He's a complete knob!"
"He's a lot like you, more like."
"Exactly. I have to be a group's token knob if there's fewer than a baker's dozen. Bring in a shithead like Grimshaw, and the balance is fucked."
"Who's Nick?" Liam looks bewildered, but Niall's cupid sense doesn't feel like it's necessarily a bad thing. He shoots Marvin a small look, and he shrugs.
"Harry's husband." Louis rolls his eyes. "Proper disgusting, those two are."
"And who's Harry?"
"My boyfriend," Zayn says mildly.
Liam's eyes go huge. Louis's eyes narrow in return. "That a problem?" Louis asks.
"No! I, uh. Just don't know anyone who does that."
"Does what, exactly?"
Zayn puts a hand on Louis's arm and whispers something in his ear. Louis scowls, but when Zayn draws back, Louis mutters, "Sorry, Liam. I just hate it when people give Zayn shit."
Liam nods nervously in acknowledgement.
"Right," Niall says with a sigh. His cupid sense isn't giving him much, which is usually a sign that this isn't what Niall needs to aim for, but a little more time couldn't hurt. "Counter. Be right back."
He goes up and orders a pint and a burger with chips, and it's quiet, so the bartender tells him he'll fill the order straight away. Getting everything doesn't take enough time for Niall to check for texts, but by the time he turns back to the table, Louis's yelling "...you weren't such a fucking prude", and Liam's on his feet, face red. Niall rushes over, but Liam's already stormed off. His coat is still on the chair.
"What happened?" Niall asks Marvin, who's getting to his feet.
"Hold on," Zayn says before Marvin can answer. "Let me go."
Marvin looks a little surprised, but he nods, and Zayn leaves the table.
"I need a drink after that," Marvin says, exhaling hard. "Think you can keep things from exploding while I'm gone?"
When he's gone, Niall takes his seat back. Louis's staring fixedly at the wall, jaw clenched.
"Are you okay?" Niall asks him.
"What do you care?" Louis turns his scowl Niall's way. "Obviously I'm a shitty, horrible person, but you have to be nice to me because you're my cupid, right?"
Niall blinks. "Uh. Fights are shit, yeah?"
Niall always been good at reading people, so it's not his cupid sense that's telling him Louis's...well, not lying, exactly. Protecting himself.
He shifts closer. "I don't think you're a horrible person."
"You don't know me, do you?"
"I'd like to know you a little better." When Louis looks sceptical, Niall says, "I wouldn't be a cupid if I didn't like people. Believe me, I've been around some wankers, and I clear out straight away. There's nothing about this gig that says I have to take anyone on."
"And there's nothing that says I have to be involved," Louis says.
Niall nods. "Forcing people on either end is not what this is about."
"I'm not good at...whatever this is supposed to be." Louis slumps into his chair, tension gone from his body. "Waste of a cupid's time, really."
He's smiling and has a light tone to his voice, but Niall frowns. "The magic thinks you're worth the time, and I do too. So none of that, Tomlinson. We're going to make this work."
Louis's brittle smile thaws a little at the edges. "We are, are we."
Niall nods and pats Louis on the shoulder. "Now. Think you can get through the rest of the meal?"
"I suppose," Louis says, rolling his eyes, but he nudges Niall with his elbow and smiles warmly, so Niall's pleased.
Niall's also pleased when Liam and Zayn come back a few minutes later, after Marvin's returned with his own food and another drink for Louis, and Niall's cupid sense is singing its particular friendship song. It's not even the potential for friendship. Whatever they did out there solidly began something, and when they sit down, Marvin grins, eyebrows raised.
"You getting this?" he asks Niall in an incredulous undertone.
"Yeah," Niall says, dazed. He hasn't solved Louis's paper yet, but two cupids can't be wrong.
At least Liam's found what he's needed.
A couple hours later, they're at the centre of a filling pub. Niall's delightfully buzzed, Zayn's arm is around Liam's shoulder, and Harry's arrived, keeping Louis amused by sitting in his lap and poking him at random intervals. Niall's been taking the piss with Marvin, and it turns out Niall knows his wife, Rochelle. It's amazing how small London is sometimes.
"I have to be going," Marvin says when the noise around them quiets enough for him to be heard. It mostly means that their table's quieted for a moment, which has barely happened since the beginning. "Plans with the missus tonight. Thank you all for coming out."
Liam's on his feet before Marvin's all the way up, hand extended. "No, thank you, mate. This has been great."
Marvin shakes his hand, amused, and then he exchanges a bro hug with Niall. "Let me know if you need help with any of your papers in the future?"
"Same to you," Niall says. "And hey, you should come to potion nights. We'd love to have you."
Zayn gets up, too. "I should be off as well. Me 'n' Harry, you know."
"Yes, yes, rub my nose in all the amazing sex you get from more than one partner," Louis says, standing as well.
They hug, and Zayn hugs Niall in just as friendly a way. Niall hugs back eagerly and gets an even more enthusiastic hug from Harry. He likes these lads a lot.
When it gets to Liam and Louis, who are eyeing each other warily, Niall sighs and listens to the cupid sense in his head. "Might as well," he tells them. "If you want."
Louis sighs too, but he holds his arms out, and Liam steps in for a very stiff hug. It seems more nervous than disliking, especially if the way Liam's eyes crinkle when he smiles after he steps back is any way to tell. Even Louis seems to thaw a bit. The cupid sense in Niall's head is still saying very solidly platonic, but the potential's there, for sure.
"Which way are you?" Louis asks Niall when the others have cleared out.
Niall points in the general direction of his place. He doesn't even have to catch the tube from here.
"Same. Mind if I keep you company?"
"Not at all," Niall says, grinning. "Not sick of me yet?"
Louis laughs quietly. "Believe me, you'll know if I am."
They walk about a half block in silence. Part of it is necessity; with traffic and people coming and going from the pub, it's very loud outside. Part of it is that Niall isn't sure what to say. But a lot of it is that the silence is pretty comfortable. Louis's staying close, and when Niall looks his way, he smiles, friendly.
"Mind if I ask you something?"
Louis shrugs. "Be my guest."
"What do you want? Now that you're giving this a try, I mean."
"My answer's pretty boring." Louis tucks his hands into his hoodie. "I guess I'd like someone to be with me at things like this when everyone else is paired off."
"Liam wasn't paired."
"He came with two cupids. Didn't feel exactly single."
Niall laughs. "I came with you. Leaving with you too, obviously."
"If you were anyone else, I would probably hit on you right now." Louis raises his eyebrows, waggling them a bit.
"Aw, don't leave me hanging, bro," Niall says in his best American fratboy accent. He holds his arms comically wide, and Louis cackles and dances back from him...and into another pedestrian, who gives them the evil eye, so Louis says a quick, "Sorry!" and grabs Niall's hand to tug him further down the street.
When they've started walking more casually again - and after Niall's wiped away tears of laughter - he says, "Would you like it if we went on the pull? I'm a pretty decent wingman, if I do say so myself."
Louis's eyes light up. "Do you have literal wings? That has to be part of the cupid package."
"Don't I wish. But really. We could go to a club now, see where that takes us. The night is young."
"I do like drinking," Louis says, but he sighs. "I'm shit at club hookups, though. I did that twice after Eleanor and I broke up, and I ended up seeing one of the men for three dates after."
"Wow. From a gay club? Are you sure I'm the magic one?" Niall's pleased when Louis laughs. "What happened?"
"Obviously you liked him if you saw him that much."
"So I'm shit at relationships," Louis blurts. "Why can everyone else manage it, and I can't?"
Niall slows his steps. "You looking for a real answer to that?"
"Thought you weren't an expert." Louis's smile looks brittle.
"No more than anyone else. But at least I'm not in your head, yeah?" When Louis shrugs vaguely, Niall says, "I see plenty of people older than you who've never been able to hack it, and a lot of them try really hard."
"So I might never get there, is what you're saying?"
Niall shook his head. "I'm saying there's nothing wrong with you, and you're ahead of the game. You know what you want, for one, and..."
"And?" Louis's standing tall and smiling far more genuinely than before.
"And I'm here. It's what I do."
Louis laughs. "Not to blow your own horn or anything."
"I'm not telling you anything about my horn," Niall says with fake primness, and Louis cackles.
They round the corner, and Niall's house comes into view. Niall nods at it, and Louis's eyes widen. "That's you? Fuck, I'm in the wrong career."
"Comes in useful. I host parties a lot." That was an understatement. Between potion nights and mixers when cupids needed their papers to mingle, he had people visit loads. But Niall also got it quiet plenty, which was just as helpful. "You want to come to mine tomorrow?"
"For more brainstorming?"
"Or just to watch telly. Derby's playing."
"Oh, Derby's your team, is it?" Louis grins. "You don't have to worry about fraternization?"
Niall shakes his head. "If we're both okay with it, it's fine. And I'll cook."
"You have no idea what you've gotten yourself into, Horan." But Louis hugs him hard, and Niall's feels a little thrill of delight. Louis's a bit smaller than him, which Niall doesn't encounter much, but it works really well for hugs.
They both part with smiles on their faces.
"I thought you meant you'd, like, order takeout," Louis says as he enters Niall's house. "Didn't think you'd actually cook."
"'Course I would. I love cooking." Niall beams from behind his stove top. He nods toward the living room. "Match is on, if you're interested."
Louis shrugs and sits on one of the stools across from where Niall's cooking. "It'll still be there when we're done eating. Or when we eat? Do you like it when people eat on your sofas?"
Niall can't entirely suppress the flinch at Louis's question.
"Answers that question." Louis tilts his head. "So you're a bachelor who likes to keep things clean—"
"There's a difference?"
Niall laughs. "That you're asking says exactly how you keep things."
If Niall hadn't been sure before, Louis's unapologetic-but-sunny smile confirms it. "So you're a bachelor who likes to keep things in his bloody great house tidy and enjoys cooking. Have I got that right?"
"Well, some of it." Niall tastes the rice with a spoon and seasons it a little more.
"What did I get wrong?"
"I wouldn't say those are, like, the biggest parts of me." Niall stirs a little more and tastes again. That's closer. "My friends would talk about how I put pints away, or how many cupid matches I've made, or how it sounds when I play guitar."
Louis's eyebrows rise at the last. "Guitar?"
Niall shrugs and gets dishes from the cabinets.
"I notice you're not saying what you think are your most important aspects."
Niall puts the dishes on the counter and crosses his arms, a little exaggerated. "And why, Mr Tomlinson, are you so interested? I didn't know I'd have to revise before you came."
Louis cringes back hard, waving his arms, but his face is squinty as he laughs. "Christ, let's not bring up school. I spend enough time there."
"You don't like it?"
"Like it well enough, considering my dreams of superstardom and world domination didn't pan out." Louis accepts a bowl when Niall hands it to him. "This smells delicious. I just might have you cook for me from now on."
Niall fills his own bowl. "I could do meals once a week for you to take to work."
"You really shouldn't suggest that," Louis says. "Zayn could tell you, I'm a black hole that sucks people dry."
Niall laughs because it's obviously a joke, but he feels a twinge in his chest anyway. It's oddly like how part of his cupid sense comes about even though it couldn't be that at all. There's no music with it.
"Black holes crush, which you would know if you were a science teacher. Gravity, you know."
"Cheers." Louis rolls his eyes. "Is that what you would be in your non-magic life? A science teacher?"
"Nah. Suspect I would have paired up with you on that world domination quest." He directs Louis to his kitchen table, and they sit. "I love space, though."
They spend a lot of the rest of the night drinking beer and yelling at the match.
Louis decides to support the team against Derby since his own aren't playing, and even though he doesn't actually give a shit, he leaps about the room whenever they score, laughing mockingly at Niall. Niall throws things at him the first couple times, but mostly, he ends up rolling on the sofa and clutching his sides.
His cupid sense doesn't think Louis's found what he's looking for when Louis leaves for the night, but Niall doesn't need to check it to know they're going to be friends.
After that, Niall wants to take time to think. Laura often makes a detailed plan of attack with charts and the like, so Niall buys a whiteboard and sets it up in his house. Maybe he ends up writing a lot of question marks and drawing bad doodles of Louis's face, but he does quality thinking at the same time, to be sure.
He isn't sure how long he'll devote to thinking when he starts, but he manages two days in which his only near contact with Louis is a message from Harry. Harry meets with Liam and Louis at a coffee shop so they can all work, Harry on his novel, Liam doing...whatever work he does - Niall makes a mental note to check later - and Louis on grading papers. Niall smiles happily at his screen when he gets the message. Good to see Liam is definitely sorted, then.
And then he sends having a good time with Payno ? to Louis. He's shit at thinking things out, clearly.
He's staring at the board again when his phone makes musical sounds. The message on his screen reads Sooooo fun !! Missing out Horan :)
Niall laughs and dials Louis.
"Have you killed Liam yet?" he asks when Louis picks up.
Louis cackles. "Oi, Payno! You still alive?"
Niall can pick out a confused "Yes?" over the background noise, and Niall flops onto his sofa so he can listen to what they're doing.
"And then the call ended when Zayn turned up and mussed Liam's hair, and apparently Louis had to pounce," Niall says. "Bunch of idiots."
He's standing with Bressie at their latest cupid gathering a couple days later. Both Eoghan and Laura are brewing their drinks because they're both way better at what they do than Niall. Marvin's there, too; he raises a glass in tribute to Niall when he looks Niall's way. Niall waves back.
"So why are you telling me this?" Bressie asks, bemused smile on his face.
"Just telling you about the great strides I've made." Niall sighs. "You still working on your paper?"
Bressie's frowning, gaze a little distant, but he shakes it off and nods. "They want to take it slow and keep me on."
"Those are always nice." Niall likes getting to know his papers better. He sends and receives cards around the holidays for about twenty of them still, and he expects the number will grow over time. "Suspect Louis will be one of those for me, but if he—"
Niall startles. Bressie spoke loud enough that a lot of the chatter in the room cut off. "Whoa, all right?"
Bressie smiles nervously. Something had crossed his face a moment before he'd yelled, but it's gone now. "I'm fine," he says to the rest of the room, loud enough to hear but much quieter than before. To Niall, he says, "Sorry, just thought of, uh. Something I have to do."
"Oh. Well, before you run off, did you hear anything about my paper? Any cupid wisdom I need imparted?"
It's Bressie's turn to flinch. "What? Oh, no, nothing. When are you seeing Louis again?"
"After this, actually. He had a shit day at work, and even if he won't go on the pull, I figure drinks can't hurt."
"Right. I'll be in touch."
Bressie waves to the group and dashes off almost before anyone can register a complaint. Niall frowns after him, but Eoghan calls loudly for him to come over, so Niall goes, the memory of Bressie's behaviour as he goes.
It isn't just Louis who meets up with Niall; he shows up at the club - Niall's idea, just in case Louis decides to change his mind about pulling - with a nervous-looking Liam, Zayn, and a lovely woman who introduces herself as Perrie in tow. She's Zayn's fiancée, and she ruffles Louis's hair fondly when she arrives.
"I'm glad you're looking after this one," she says, and Niall grins at Louis's bashful smile. "If anyone deserves a cupid, it's him."
"All right, all right," Louis says loudly. He's still looking a bit tucked into himself, but he claps his hands and rubs them together and seems to regain some composure. "Let's get drink orders in. And maybe start a drinking game?"
"In public?" Liam asks.
"Haven't drunk much before, have we, Mr Payne?"
Liam mumbles something that sounds like "broken kidney".
"Didn't catch that," Niall says.
Liam shakes his head. "I didn't used to drink, but I do now."
"There's a lad," Louis says. "For that, you are allowed to pick our first shots of the night."
Louis looks satisfied. He glances at Niall, who shoots him back his own impressed nod as Liam sits next to Zayn and gets a friendly hug from him.
"And Louis doesn't pick the game," Perrie says.
"Hey!" Louis says. "Spin the Bottle is an upstanding game, I'll have you know."
Liam laughs, and it's definitely nervous.
"How about Never Have I Ever?" Zayn suggests.
There's pleased noises around the group, and Niall has to laugh. "You don't want to do body shots or something?"
Liam's eyes practically bug out of his head.
"In the interests of Liam surviving," Louis says, "Never Have I Ever. We'll do a round of shots first and do pints for the game, yeah?"
Niall grins. This is going to be fun.
Or it would be fun if they hadn't gone around the circle a few times and Niall's pint had been more than a little drained. It's not that Niall's not enjoying himself - Zayn and Perrie had teamed up with Liam for a lot of pointed jabs Louis's way, which means Louis is on his third pint in an hour and is very tipsy - but Niall feels a bit separated from the group.
Zayn seems to notice and slides closer. "You want a few for Louis, too? There was this time I went round the shops with him and his ex, and..."
Niall chuckles, but he holds up a hand to stop Zayn. "'S all right, mate. I just didn't realise I don't fit many of these so far."
"They are a little obscure."
"Zayn's turn!" Louis says. "Tuuuuurn. Lovely word, that."
Zayn nods assuringly at Niall. "Are you straight?"
"Believe the term is bisexual." Kissing a girl in school and theoretical approval at the gay bars was all Niall needed to settle that point, at least.
Zayn nods again and picks up his drink. "Never have I ever had oral sex."
"Giving or receiving?" The question comes, surprisingly, from a sheepish-but-looser Liam.
Right away, Zayn drinks, and Perrie looks very pleased with herself when she follows suit. Louis yells "Yeaaaaah!" loudly, taking a long swig of his pint, and shouts again when Liam does as well, pointing at Liam and clapping him on the back. Niall, of course, sighs with mild frustration and leaves his drink alone.
Louis slides into Niall, and Niall laughs and flinches away, waving at his nose dramatically.
"Hilarious," Louis says. "Now, don't be offended or anything, but...are you a virgin cupid?"
"Virginity's a fucked-up concept, mate. No such thing as purity or sluts or any of that shit." Niall has had many long discussions with Eoghan on the topic. They've all worked with people who haven't so much as kissed, and a lot of them had no interest in it. "I like to think of it as different levels of sexual experience."
Louis's swaying a little in his seat and staring at what seems to be Niall's forehead. Niall wipes at it. "Something there?" Niall asks.
Before Louis can answer, Perrie's calling out, "My turn! Never have I ever been kissed."
Everyone in the circle drinks at that, and Niall takes a generous swig so that he's not as far behind the rest. His drink tastes really good.
Louis collapses against Niall's side dramatically, turning into Niall's side when Niall throws an arm around Louis's shoulder. "I," Louis declares, "am pissed."
Niall snorts and pushes some of the fringe out of Louis's eyes with his free hand. Louis's warm against Niall's side, and the club's hot enough that Niall could likely fry an egg on the floor, but it's still nice.
"Couldn't tell," he tells Louis.
"Liam again," Zayn says.
Liam grins. He has a very nice smile when he's relaxed enough to give it. Crinkly around the eyes. "Never have I ever been in love right now."
He doesn't drink. Pity. Zayn and Perrie give each other a soppy look and drink without breaking eye contact. Niall smiles. Next to him, Louis's lost his smile and stares deeply into his glass.
"Hey." Niall nudges Louis. "I'm not drinking for this one."
"So? I want to."
"Drink, then. Forget the rules."
Louis snorts. "I don't want to drink to drink, Niall. I want to be in love. Don't understand why...why."
Niall picks up Louis's glass of water - mostly untouched, of course - from the table and hands it over. "Here you are. Fuck the man. Save your liver."
Louis takes a heavy breath, but he closes his eyes and drinks the water anyway. Niall gives him a bit of a squeeze. It's nice when pissed people listen to good advice.
"Just so you know, the whole reason the cupid potion found you is because you're lovable," Niall tells Louis, kissing the top of his head. "And it went a bit arse up, but we'll find you what you want. Promise."
Louis opens his eyes and looks up from his glass, giving Niall an uneven smile. It's big and genuine and...
And the cupid sense...
"Fuck me," Niall says under his breath, wonderingly.
Before he can think about anything, Zayn appears, holding a hand out to Louis. "Going to the loo, and you're coming."
Louis whines. "'M so comfy."
Liam and Perrie get up too, and they help Louis to his feet. He's a little wobbly, but generally okay since Zayn's there. They stumble off into the club together.
"Think I should switch to water, too," Liam says as he drops back into the booth. "Reckon I've hit things a bit hard."
"You haven't even finished your first pint." Perrie stretches out a little, lips curled in an amused smile.
"Had a shot first, love."
"Right. Makes all the difference."
"I'll be right back," Niall blurts. Liam waves a hand in acknowledgement. Perrie tucks her legs in enough for Niall to slip past her.
He ends up out back, not too far from the smokers. It's cold enough that Niall can see his breath, but the club was hot enough that the change in temperature's a relief. Still, it's not cold enough to explain why his hands struggle to take hold of his phone in his pocket, or why he accidentally presses the wrong parts of his screen when he's bringing up Bressie's number. And then he nearly drops his phone when Bressie calls him first - bloody psychic bastard - but he manages to hold on and pick up.
"Niall? You there?"
"I was just about to ring you," Niall says, louder than he means. A couple of the smokers turn to look his way, and he laughs nervously.
"Huh? Everything's good, yeah?"
Niall sighs. "What's going on?"
"I only figured out what your paper means." Bressie sounds chuffed, but when Niall doesn't react, he continues with a more serious tone. "Got a mate in Cork who married one of his papers, so I emailed and asked if he got one of them blanks. He did. Turns out cupids don't show up in their own potions. Confuses it or something, I don't know exactly. It doesn't happen much, though."
Niall leans against the brick wall. "I figured it out ten minutes ago when Louis looked at me and the cupid sense bloody sang." He doesn't say what he's thinking now, that he didn't even need the fucking thing.
"Fuck," Bressie says, with feeling. "What are you going to do?"
That's what Niall doesn't entirely know.
The rest of the night goes as quiet as this particular group can have it, which is not much at all. That's what clubs are for, though, and Niall has a fantastic time. He dances with the group as a whole, and when the group breaks apart, he dances with Louis, following his lead. There's fake boat paddling and chest shimmying. Louis has moves.
Yes, there's that little "you could love him" in the back of Niall's mind. Bit distracting to be sure. But then, he's doesn't need the cupid sense to tell him he's already most of the way there. Not when he sees Liam make Louis laugh and Louis ducks his head like he can't handle it, and Niall feels warm and tingly inside.
The group split cabs when they leave, and Louis ends up with Niall because "bloody big house means bloody big guest beds, and you'll make sure I end up in the toilet if I need to". Niall knows Louis won't need a babysitter, of course; he's not that drunk. But Louis takes the shared cab as an opportunity to use Niall as a pillow again and demand Niall play with his hair, and Niall complies. Everyone's happy.
Niall's barely up five minutes the next day before he's texting Bressie. While Niall usually does best keeping to himself and giving himself the space to decompress and think, he knows he can't be objective. Not when he hears Louis groaning through one of the walls and gets tingly. Niall's never been detached from his papers, exactly, but he needs some distance.
Bressie agrees to send out the cupid signal so he can field questions - Niall tells him to keep it vague, partially because the thought of everyone knowing more than he's willing to share leaves him a little raw, partially because he can't resist a good reveal - and wishes him good luck with Louis. Bressie's the best.
Louis's face down on the kitchen table when Niall puts his phone away and makes his way into the rest of the house.
"Fancy breakfast?" Niall asks.
Louis mutters something into the table. All Niall can make out is "greasy".
Niall cackles - into his arm because he knows how awful hangovers are - and fills a glass with water. He carefully sets it by Louis's head.
"Water'll do you more good than grease," Niall says quietly. "Maybe some pills for the headache, too."
"Thanks, Dad." But Louis takes the glass and drinks deeply. He goes right back to resting his head on his hands and groaning, but there's less of an edge to it, Niall thinks.
Niall knows Louis well enough at this point to know that he'd really prefer cereal over anything else, and he stocked something chocolatey in his pantry the last time he went to the shops for just such an occasion. (He feels a twinge of fondness when he opens the door and shakes his head at himself.) He also makes sure to refill Louis's glass of water after Niall's presented the cereal, and by the time Louis's pushing his bowl away, he looks less like he's been run over by a bus.
"So how are you planning to spend your day?" Louis asks, patting his stomach. "More matchmaking schemes? Because I warn you, I have to lesson plan today."
Niall grins. "You're free from my clutches today, Tommo. Got plans that don't involve dragging you round London."
"Oh? Are these plans that involve another match?"
"Nah. Going over to see my mate Bressie. His flat's nice, too."
"But you can work here, if you'd like. Invite the lads over. I'll only be a couple of hours."
Louis's face has gone blank. The cupid sense is giving Niall...something. He can't tell what, exactly. "No. Suppose I should actually see the place I pay to live in for a change."
It's Niall's turn to say, "Oh."
Louis plasters on a smile. It's very obviously forced. "Have a nice day, Horan. I'll have my phone on me if you find the love of my life."
He stands up and leaves the kitchen, and Niall's left staring at Louis's bowl when he hears the front door open and close. The cupid sense is still making some noise, and Niall can't make heads or tails of it.
It would be nice if something about this was easy.
"Big declaration of love," Eoghan's saying, standing up and gesturing dramatically. "I'm thinking guitars, big piles of roses..."
Bressie's nodding along in his nearby chair like Eoghan's making perfect sense. Luckily, Laura's next to him on the sofa, giving Niall the same what the fuck look he's probably got on his own face.
"...maybe a crowd, since you have us and all those friends of Louis's..."
"Might I remind you," Niall says when Eoghan takes a breath, "that I haven't known Louis that long, and I'm not in Love Actually?"
Eoghan crosses his arms. "But that's what so great! It's new enough that it's fresh, but you have the cupid sense guiding you along! You could make a big gesture and be more likely to make it stick!"
"Not if neither of them have that kind of style," Laura says. "I'm beginning to see why Niall got himself for his paper. One of you would have fucked it up."
Bressie laughs. "Maybe four heads aren't better than one."
"It's shit to be part of it, though," Niall says. "I mean, if Louis and...I don't know, Liam were going to try something, I would be far enough back that I would be able to see what I'm doing. It wouldn't be a problem if they decided not to take my suggestion. Or fuck, if they did, for that matter. I would just shrug it off and think it over some more. But..."
When he trails off, Eoghan says, "But you feel like there's a time limit?"
"There is, isn't there?" Niall sags backward. "It's not like I can put him off and expect him to wait, and I certainly can't pretend I'm only feeling in a friendly way while trying to find him someone else."
There's a lull in the conversation. That was the nice thing about all your mates being cupids; they tended to take moments to really think about the problem. Niall had said at the outset that he wasn't sure what he was thinking about the whole thing, so they're working together to make suggestions and help Niall process. Laura might be right about the way his paper played out, but at least there were still cupids around. Niall didn't know how normal people did love at all.
But then a few more minutes pass, and no one says anything.
"Uh," Niall says aloud. "One of you has to have a question. Or an insight. Something."
"I don't know what to ask," Laura blurts.
"Me neither," Eoghan says.
Niall looks at Bressie, who says, "I'm mostly thinking what you are, Chief. You have to tell Louis and soon."
"Maybe that's what needs to happen," Laura says. "See what Louis says. If he wants no part of it, that's your problem solved. You never need to know what you should do."
Eoghan winced. "That's a bit cold, isn't it?"
"No, it's just...it didn't entirely sound like Louis wanted to be set up, didn't it?"
Niall huffs a breath. There isn't really such a thing as cupid confidentiality - and even if there was, Niall's one of the parties involved here, so it wouldn't apply - but he hasn't told anyone about Louis's frustration about relationships not working and how much he seems to want one. Louis covers a lot of what he's feeling in jibes and play. It feels wrong baring that to the world...or even Niall's mates.
"I know you said you don't know what you're thinking," Bressie says, "but if you had Louis right in front of you, at this moment, what would you say?"
"I would say..." Niall actually knows what he would say. He's known since he left the club that night. "I would say I don't know what I'm doing because I've never done this before, and I'm not sure I feel ready for something this big."
As he expected, the room falls silent again. It's not like it's uncommon for people to back off from cupid intervention, but cupids...they leave when people tell them to, but it hurts. That one of them would want to step away - that the person who wants to step away is Niall - feels like a deep betrayal of everything that Niall is. His magic's gifting him with the opportunity for love, and he...can't.
But Louis needs someone who's all in. Niall can't go into a relationship knowing as little as he does and see Louis get crushed when another relationship falls apart on him.
Not when magic gave Louis a glimmer of hope.
"Shit," Niall says aloud. He's feeling a bit choked up. He buries his face in his hands so he doesn't have to see the others while he sorts himself out again.
When Niall goes home, he figures he'll give himself the night, at least. He's not putting it off, exactly. He's giving himself time to be a professional. He cooks himself some dinner while mulling which approach he'll take. A calm, distant withdrawal, maybe? Something as simple as "I can't be involved with this anymore", which is honest without being too revealing. Cuts off the possibility of being friends with Louis and the others, probably, but Niall doesn't have a lot of hope of keeping...
The doorbell goes.
Niall frowns. He wipes his hands, yells "Coming!", and doesn't think to look at his panel of security cameras before he opens the front door.
Which is probably good. He doesn't know if he would have answered if he'd seen Louis before.
"I need to talk to you," Louis says, walking in like he owns the place. Niall, dazed, doesn't think twice about letting him pass before he sees Louis standing by his sofa. "I don't know if you've had any progress with my paper..."
"Um," Niall says.
"But I don't want to know." Louis holds up his hands. "Don't tell me a word."
Well. Maybe Laura had been right about Louis making the decision for Niall. "Okay. Does this mean you don't want me to..."
"I just need to talk," Louis says. "Let me talk?"
"This is...kind of from nowhere, and I know that. I do. Harry told me to use my words, probably because I was throwing towels at Liam earlier instead of talking to him, and. Uh."
Niall tilts his head. He really has no idea where Louis's going with this.
"I don't know that I want to keep sorting out the paper," Louis says. "Because I was thinking we...had a spark. Kind of."
"We?" Niall asks. "You mean..."
"Me. And, uh. You." Louis flinches like he's afraid of what Niall was going to say. To be fair, if Niall had gone first, Louis would have had plenty of reason to be afraid.
"So you don't want to know about the paper?" he asks.
Louis shakes his head. "Even if you know what it means right now. It's done its job, hasn't it? We met. I like you. I know you haven't had a lot of experience with this kind of thing before..."
"Or any experience," Niall says quietly, but he laughs after. It's not entirely a nervous laugh.
"...so we can go slow. I want to go slow. I want to do this properly, give it a real try. Or, you know, if that's too much pressure, we can just take it each day—"
Niall holds up a hand. "No offense, but shut up for a second."
Louis's eyes go round. They go even bigger as Niall steps closer.
"Mind if I..." Niall asks, voice quiet.
Louis beams and pulls Niall in for a kiss.
It's awkward for a moment. Niall has enough experience to expect that much and wait it out. He doesn't wait long; it's obvious Louis not only has done this before, but that he likes doing it. That this is the way he shows how much he likes someone. Niall's knees wobble, and the cupid sense is second to the rush of wow through his blood.
They pull back after a moment. Niall stares at the wall for a moment, and just like that, his decision's made.
"Sick," he whispers, and he goes back in for more.
Niall's loved love forever. Just the concept of it was beautiful, but getting to see the realities firsthand meant the messy complications that people brought to the table, and somehow, it was even more beautiful.
But working toward love? Having affection in return?
It's even better.
Nothing much changes on the outside at first. Niall has to tell his fellow cupids that he's giving dating a go with Louis because he brought them in, but otherwise, they just...see each other a bit with their friends. Smile fondly. Talk a bit. Learn more. Everything that Niall saw from cupid distance - which meant intensely at first, and less and less as everyone involved figured out if it worked or not - but from inside the relationship. Niall keeps thinking of it as the difference between being in the back of a car versus driving...except he and Louis both have steering wheels. Maybe a boat would be a better metaphor?
"Air canoe," Louis suggests when Niall mentions it to him. It's one of their discussions they have while cuddled up, which is their primary activity early on. Niall's never enjoyed his house's couch more. "We have to paddle together, and there's the added element of danger."
"Because being on a regular canoe is perfectly safe." Niall shakes his head. "Wait. You think this is dangerous?"
"The danger of canoeing is what came to mind first? Besides, you're the one talking about driving."
Niall holds up his free hand. His other arm is wrapped around Louis because apparently, holding Louis closer is what Niall does when Louis basically uses Niall as a bed. Niall can feel Louis's laughter in his own chest.
"I'm sorry I brought it up," Niall says, ending that particular tangent. He thinks that Louis got the point anyway, which is that Niall thinks it's intense. In a good way.
They start more formally dating after a couple months. It's probably just Niall upping the intensity in his head, of course. They've eaten dinner out with their friends and together at Niall's place plenty of times. Eating dinner with just the two of them isn't dramatically changing the world. It's actually only when Niall's home again that he feels the tingle in his chest that tells him it feels different.
(The cupid sense also changes, but that's because of Niall's perceptions. His song with Louis has changed into something fun and poppy, just a bit faster than a ballad. It's a good tune.)
Maybe things would have kept progressing like that, slowly but nicely, but then Niall hurts his foot randomly on one of his cupid assignments. He's not sure what he's done, exactly; it just starts hurting. Niall's had enough experience with his terrible knees that he finishes the dinner he's supervising before he takes himself to hospital.
Of course, the step between the dinner and hospital is actually the important one. While Niall waits for the cab he's called, he texts Louis a quick update because he was supposed to meet him after his meeting. Shame, really. But the thought of Louis keeps Niall smiling through the ride to hospital and during the short wait and during the exam. Louis's sending him terrible jokes that, apparently, he asked Harry for, and it's just nice, having someone that's worried about keeping his spirits up.
He's so busy thinking nice thoughts about Louis that he almost misses Louis's voice, far off at first, and then closer to the room Niall's in. Is it actually Louis? Niall told him where he is, of course, but would he bother coming when it's not really a problem?
A nurse opens the door, and sure enough, there's Louis behind her, looking as good in trackie bottoms as he does when he dresses smarter.
"Your boyfriend's here to take you home," the nurse says with a smile. "It won't be too much longer."
Niall thanks her, and she leaves. Louis's still stood by the door, staring at Niall's foot in his special boot.
"It looks worse than it is," Niall says after a moment of silence. "I've had worse."
Louis laughs without humour. "That doesn't make me feel better. Christ, why am I worrying about how I feel? How are you?"
He sits next to Niall, and Niall grins at him.
"I'm fine," Niall says. "Really. It'll take a few weeks to heal. Hopefully I won't need surgery this time."
Louis winces, and Niall wonders if he's thinking about the scar on Niall's knee. Niall still hasn't been fully undressed around Louis, but he's worn torn jeans, and Louis drew an arrow right over the scar.
"A cupid should have an arrow," Louis had said when Niall had asked him about it.
Niall reaches out for Louis's hand, and when Louis takes it, looking fiercely glad he can help in some way, Niall's so overwhelmed he almost can't breathe.
"Hope you don't mind I called you my boyfriend," Louis says, his thumb stroking the back of Niall's hand. "But it's how I think of you."
Niall waves distractedly. "Called you my boyfriend to the doctor first. Wanted to know why I wouldn't look away from my bloody phone. And I think I'm in love with you."
It helps Niall to see that Louis also looks overwhelmed; Niall doesn't think he's seen Louis's eyes so big in his life.
"Thank fuck you said it first," Louis says, getting up from his chair. "I didn't want to be the clingy one."
Niall pulls Louis closer. "How soon did you know?"
"Probably the canoe talk."
Niall takes a second to laugh in Louis's face before he kisses him. To be fair, Louis's laughing against Niall's lips right back.
If Niall had guessed before he met Louis, he would have figured sex would have been the big part of his romantic future. Not the biggest part, but maybe half? And even after he and Louis started seeing each other in the slow-then-sudden way, Louis's kisses led Niall to believe that he wouldn't wait long before pouncing on Louis.
But it turns out they don't do more than lazy making out until after they say they love each other. Okay, yes, maybe Niall wanks himself off at night thinking of Louis's lips on him and the way Louis's hands feel and just...Louis, and he knows from his cupid perspective that sex doesn't have to be more than a mutually enjoyable experience, but Niall thinks it is a bit more for him. Either way, in the beginning, he just isn't ready yet, and Louis doesn't push. If anything, Louis seems honoured by their snogging sessions.
(Niall can tell because, when Louis's feeling something intense and emotional, Louis bothers Liam in some way. The amount of times Louis tries to prank text Liam after they kiss is almost the exact same number as the times they kiss, which Niall knows because Louis always shows Niall his phone triumphantly.)
But then Niall breaks his foot, and he and Louis tell each other they love each other, and some invisible dam breaks. Niall wants, and Louis is responding.
But it's terrible timing. Niall's supposed to rest easy for a week, and Louis has some school production to fret over for another week after that. By the time Louis's told Niall he's booked a holiday away for them the weekend after Louis's play closes, Niall feels about ready to burst.
Louis drives them out to the country - how he has a car when he lives in London is beyond Niall, but Louis is obviously comfortable behind the wheel - and puts Niall on a bed in a one-room cottage when they get there. It's good thinking on Louis's part. No walls to share. No one listening in. Nowhere else to go, really. Just Niall and Louis.
"You are staying in this bed for the next two days," Louis informs Niall when he strips down to his boxer briefs and climbs in with him.
"The entire two days? What if I have to piss? Or shower?"
Louis gives Niall a withering look and speaks as if Niall didn't. "What we do is up to you."
"You don't have any suggestions?"
"I might have some thoughts." Louis's playing with Niall's hair casually, but even though Niall's got the cupid sense tamped down as far as it can go, he can still hear the ghost of a nervous tune coming from Louis. "But I know this is a big moment for you."
Niall pats Louis's knee reassuringly. If it were any other moment, he might tease Louis a bit, but he opts for genuine instead.
"Would be even if I was the biggest shagger in London, you know," he says. "Because it's you."
Louis responds to that by throwing a pillow in Niall's face.
They don't do anything more than kisses on the cheek the first night they arrive, though. Louis fixes Niall a bowl of cereal and makes him tea, and they watch shows on Niall's computer while they snuggle in bed until they fall asleep. But it's still pretty big for Niall. He's never slept with someone he's been in love with before...that is, actually fallen asleep with someone in his arms. It's a bit sweaty, and Louis whacks Niall in the face with his hand more than once in the middle of the night, but it couldn't be more perfect, really. Niall loves big spooning just as much in the night as he does when they're cuddling during the day.
When they wake up midway through the next morning, Niall asks, "Strip me down, will you? And get your kit off, too."
Niall's only wearing a shirt and boxers, but Louis rolls the boxers off reverently, taking his time when he gets to the cast on Niall's foot. He brushes his hands all over Niall's torso when he pushes Niall's shirt off, and just like that, Niall's naked in front of Louis. Louis casts off his boxer briefs with a dismissive kick and climbs back on the bed.
It doesn't feel as odd as Niall expected, being skin-to-skin with Louis, even with Louis's hardening cock nudging Niall in the side. It feels right. Almost like a warm blanket, really. There's the part of Niall's mind that knows how new this, and all of him knows how special it is, but mostly, it feels like he and Louis have done this forever.
Louis makes love like he kisses. He worships Niall, tasting every inch of Niall's skin with the focus and determination Louis likes to pretend he doesn't have. When Niall sighs and praises Louis, Louis shakes his head, like he refuses to believe how wonderful he is. Niall loves Louis, and Louis knows it, but there's still a part of Louis that obviously thinks he doesn't deserve it.
So Niall gets more vocal as Louis moves down to Niall's hips, kissing the bones there.
"So lucky," Niall gasps. "'M so lucky. I'm so glad I found you. I...oh, Lou."
He throws his arm over his eyes because he's welling up. Is that supposed to happen, crying because you're so feeling so good and so happy?
Louis takes Niall's free hand, lacing their fingers together.
"Look at me, love," Louis says gently, and when Niall does so, blinking water out of his eyes, Louis says, "You want me to stop?"
"Fuck no," Niall says gruffly.
Louis laughs and squeezes Niall's hand. "Just tell me to stop if it's too much, yeah? Even if it's good. It's better to ease in."
"I swear, if you don't..."
But Louis does, and Niall can't believe how amazing Louis's mouth feels on his cock. He tries to pay attention to what Louis does, since it's so practised and masterful, but he's working too hard to keep from coming. He still comes in fewer than five minutes, but he and Louis talked about that last night. Louis not only expected it, he said he'd "be flattered if it happened".
When Niall comes down, he asks, "You flattered, then?"
"Immensely," Louis says, reaching down to take his cock in hand after slicking himself up with lube. "Mind if I come on you?"
"Only if I don't get to help. Thought I might try blowing you, but..."
Louis allows Niall to take over, thrusting into Niall's hand. He looks amazing like this, hair sweaty and gaze intense in that vaguely challenging way Louis always has.
"There...there'll be plenty of time for that," Louis manages. "Fuck, your hand."
Niall uses knowledge gained from snogging and bites at Louis's ear lightly. That's enough to bring Louis to the brink, and when Niall speeds his hand, Louis tips over, coming all over Niall's hand.
They wipe the worst of the spunk and lube off each other and hug for a bit.
"Feeling truly debauched?" Louis asks.
"Completely," Niall says sarcastically, but he's laughing at Louis's waggling eyebrows.
One year later
Niall's fussing over his living room when the doorbell goes. His house looks much like it has for the last couple years, but the energy is different now that Louis officially lives with him. There's always the edge of chaos. Niall wouldn't have it any other way, of course, but it does leave him uneasy in party situations.
Louis, on the other hand, seems to have no such qualms. He dashes past Niall and goes for the door, yelling, "Let the housewarming begin!"
Their first guest is Bressie, who's brought a very nice bottle of Irish whiskey and seems too big for the place, as he always does. He's followed closely by Harry and Nick, who are hanging off each other and staring into each other's eyes like they don't also live with each other. A few cupids trickle in after Niall and Louis have watched Bressie sitting next to a practically-snogging Harry and Nick with amusement, one of whom is Laura, who's brought a lovely paper named Sophia with her.
The group's been talking and milling about for an hour and a half when their last guest appears. Liam had been considerate enough to tell Niall in advance - weeks in advance, even - that he wouldn't be able to arrive on time, and neither Niall or Louis cared, but judging by the multiple gift bags of alcohol Liam's toting, he still does.
"I haven't missed too much drunkenness, have I?" Liam asks after he hugs Niall.
Louis appears and hops onto Liam's back. "Carry me in, faithful steed!"
"He's only had one drink, actually," Niall says.
"Louis doesn't need alcohol," Liam says, but the words drip with fondness. If he wasn't as straight as a theoretical cupid's arrow, Niall suspects Liam and Louis would have eloped months ago. Better for Niall that he isn't, probably.
He doesn't see where Liam carries Louis off to because Harry corners Niall after he turns away from the door.
"Got a message you should see," Harry says, holding up his phone. It's from Zayn, who's back in Bradford with his mum and dad after a rough patch earlier this year...a rough patch that left him quitting his job, breaking off his engagement with Perrie, and breaking up with Harry. Harry didn't seem to hold a grudge - they still spoke on and off - and Louis liked to pretend he was fine with "being deserted heartlessly", so Niall had issued a housewarming invitation to Zayn. Zayn replied in the negative, but in the message he'd left Harry, he'd said to wish Niall and Louis the best.
Niall uses Harry's phone to send a selfie of him waving to Zayn back, and when he returns Harry's phone to him, he asks, "You doing all right, then?"
"You could say that." Harry pulls up an email on his phone and hands the phone back to Niall. It's discussion of a finalised adoption date. Apparently, he and Nick are going to be dads, and this is the first Niall's heard of it.
Niall exclaims happily and tackles Harry.
When he's done loving on Harry - and when he's done shaking Nick's hand to congratulate him - he moves to another room to find Laura, who's chatting brightly with Sophia. It turns out Sophia's a question mark, but Laura says, "Cupid sense is giving me some kind of pinging here. Thoughts?"
Niall opens his own cupid sense and hears a wisp of a familiar melody. He also hears another melody that harmonizes with the first in places, and Niall grins with surprise when he gets an idea.
"Come with me," he tells Laura and Sophia, and he makes straight for Liam.
It doesn't take the cupid sense for Niall to know he's guessed correctly. He sees Liam's eyes grow wide, and he says, "Sophia? I haven't seen you in...too long, I think."
"Liam!" she says happily, and instead of the tentative merging of melodies Niall expected, the cupid sense bugles a choral song. Even though Niall isn't physically hearing music, he finds himself rubbing at his ears regardless.
The party continues, peaks when Louis does a table dance for Niall complete with rowing motions and hip thrusts, and slowly winds down. Bressie, first to arrive, is also one of the last to leave, letting Niall lean on him on the couch as Louis does a slightly tipsy dance to some pop-punk classic that Niall doesn't entirely recognize.
"How's your paper, then?" Bressie asks after they both silently admire Louis for a few minutes. "Giving you much trouble?"
"Not much." Niall pulls it out of his pocket. He's done the traditional picture-taking part, in case he loses the paper, but he's been toting the actual paper around for a while. After all, it's his first three-person slash. "Third woman's been a bit busy, but she should meet the other two next week."
"Perfect," Bressie says. "Well, I have a breakfast with my latest tomorrow morning, so I'll let myself out. Thanks for a great party, Chief."
Niall rises with him. "Wouldn't be a party without you."
They hug, and Niall follows Bressie as he hugs Louis goodbye. Louis looks positively tiny in Bressie's arms. Niall coos out loud, and Louis flips him off.
When Bressie steps away, waving one more time before he makes for the door, Niall asks, "Might I have this dance?"
"Only if you promise not to break anything," Louis says sternly. "I'm tired of seeing you in casts."
Just because Niall accidentally broke his wrist earlier in the year, Louis has to go all protective. Niall rolls his eyes, but he holds his hand out. "Fine. Promise."
Louis takes his hand and pulls Niall close to him, and they spin around their living room slowly, ignoring the debris from the party in favour of making each other laugh. They'll probably fuck off and go to bed before Niall goes into full clean-up mode. One of the many compromises they've learned in their time together.
But in the meantime, they sway together, Niall humming their song as the cupid sense plays it in his head.
Perfect end to the night, really.