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Liam was never going to get a better opening than this.

The kiss or whatever wasn't anything real, he knew that, obviously. But it exploded on twitter about two hours after the show ended, and by the time he woke up the next morning it was trending number one all over the world and there was a message on his mobile from their publicist. An extra half hour of media prep had been added to the end of the schedule today just for him and Louis, leaving them with even less free time before the show.

"Fucking hell," he muttered, dragging himself out of bed and into the shower.

In a lot of ways, the prep for interviews was even more tedious than the interviews themselves could be. But it had to be done, and Liam had spent the last five years either loving the things he was doing, or finding ways to get through them without going mad. While this was a situation he'd never expected to be in, it didn't change the fact that the only way out was through, even when thousands of people thought he and his best mate had kissed onstage.

"At least no one's claiming we hate each other anymore," he said to Bethany after Harry and Niall had been sprung and it was just him and Louis left with their team.

Louis snorted. "That's scheduled for next week, after we have the big break up."

Liam snapped his fingers. "Yes, it's brilliant! Just the sort of publicity explosion we want in advance of the album."

"It'll sell itself, really," Louis said.

Bethany waited while they finished laughing at each other. "I'm glad you've plotted this entire relationship out, but in all seriousness, we need to discuss how you'll respond if you're asked about it in an interview."

Liam stared at her. "You don't really think someone's going to ask about it? It was an accident!"

"It wasn't even really a kiss," Louis added, and Liam nodded and pointed at him.

"I mean, we could add it to the list," Bethany said. "But saying 'no Eleanor, no Sophia, oh and no kiss that totally wasn't a kiss' will probably draw more attention to it, not less."

Liam and Louis looked at each other. Interviews were always minefields, no matter how many topics were officially off-limits. But between both of their breakups and Zayn leaving, it was worse than ever. Liam didn't mind being the go-to guy for discussing the new lineup of the band, even if it hadn't felt new to any of them for months. But he was already tired of interviewers trying to find a way around the restrictions just to get the scoop on his personal life, and he didn't want to add anything to their arsenal.

"Okay," Liam said. "Say we don't add it to the list. How would you want us to handle it?"

*

It all made sense, Bethany's plan. Just tell the truth: they both went the same way while trying to whisper, like mates in a club do all the time. Simple, really. Liam kept trying to add to it, explain exactly what had been going on at the time, but she always steered them back to the simple line.

It was all so much more straightforward than the angles they'd agreed on for all of the Zayn questions they got, but it still made Liam chafe a bit.

"It wasn't even anything at all!" he grumbled at Louis as they walked back to Louis's hotel room to steal half an hour of relaxation before they had to head over to the arena.

"Doesn't matter, Liam, you know that," Louis said, his business voice on, and that just got Liam's back up even more.

He waited until they were in Louis's room before saying, "Yes, of course I know that." They all knew that, thanks to the Larry conspiracies that refused to die. He and Louis were lucky not to deal with much of that nonsense. He smiled a little and nudged Louis with his elbow. "Not that it matters anyway, you and I could have had a full snog on stage and everyone would just say it was management."

Louis snorted out a laugh and Liam grinned harder; now Louis sounded more like his mate and less like his business partner. "Hiding right in plain sight."

And that was as good an opening as Liam was ever going to get, so he might as well take it. "Yeah, that reminds me, I wanted to talk to you about something."

"What about?" Louis asked, flipping his suitcase open. He dug out a t-shirt and started to change.

"Kissing," Liam said simply.

Louis's head popped through the collar of his t-shirt. "Oh, is my boy ready to get back on the market already? I thought we'd have to wait until at least after Christmas for this," Louis said, grinning madly as he rocked back on his heels. "So are we going out on the pull? Do you want to start now, or wait until we can focus on London, do you think?"

"Louis--"

"Yeah, probably best to wait until London, wouldn't want you to get distracted while we're still finishing up the tour." Louis winked at him before focusing back on his suitcase. "Ah!" He held up a tube of toothpaste and stood up, turning toward the bathroom.

Liam put his hand on Louis's arm and stopped him. "I'm not really interested in pulling at the moment."

Louis frowned at him. "Bit hard to manage some kissing without that." He frowned harder. "Unless this is about winning Sophia back, or something."

Liam shook his head. "Nothing like that. This is just a bit more complicated than pulling a girl at a club."

Louis reached out with his free hand and squeezed Liam's shoulder. "Well, we'll figure it out for you, lad."

"Would you mind it, like? Helping me figure it out?" Liam asked, his heart pounding.

"Would I mind what?"

"If we had kissed on stage. Or if we did now, for real," Liam said.

"Liam," Louis began.

"Because I wouldn't mind. I mean, I've been doing a lot of thinking since me and Soph split," Liam said, thinking that maybe he'd have done better to have started there.

"Really," Louis said sceptically, cocking his head like he thought the exact opposite was true.

Liam took a step back and crossed his arms. "Well, I have. And I think, it's not that I'm sure I'm bi or whatever--"

"Whoa," Louis said, holding his hands up.

"--but I'm sure that I'm not sure," Liam finished. He definitely should have led with this. "And I'd like to figure it out, but I can't exactly join Tinder, now can I?"

"And you reckon kissing me will help you sort it out?"

"When you say it, it sounds a bit silly," Liam said, feeling more and more like he'd completely bolloxed this up.

"So I'm your stand-in since Tinder is out, huh?" Louis asked, the most peculiar expression on his face.

Liam shook his head. "No, just. I'll figure out a way to try and find someone real once we're on break. But it'd be nice, if I meet a guy, not to feel like I'm back at the beginning in terms of experience."

"I mean, obviously it's different, but I'm pretty sure that kissing a lad isn't that different from kissing a girl," Louis said.

Liam waved a hand at him. "Yeah, but the other stuff's certainly different!"

Louis raised his eyebrows. "I thought we were talking about kissing, Liam."

Liam flushed. "Sometimes kissing can lead to other things."

"Look at this, he's never even kissed a bloke and already he's trying to get my clothes off," Louis said, crossing his arms over his chest.

Suddenly Liam felt like he could breathe easy again; if Louis was making fun of him he couldn't have fucked up too badly. "Just hoping I'll get lucky if I play my cards right," he said, doing his best attempt at a seductive face. Louis laughed right at him, which didn't seem that bad a reaction, all told.

"Listen, if we're going to do this, at least let me clean my teeth first," Louis said, waving the toothpaste at Liam.

"Oh!" Liam said. "Um, were you thinking now?"

After a moment, Louis shook his head. "Let's do the show and after that have a drink or two and you can tell me if you still want me to be your first gay kiss," Louis said, heading into the bathroom.

"You already were!" Liam called after him.

"Doesn't count!" Louis shouted back, and Liam grinned. That could have gone worse, he thought.

*

The show that night was just like all the rest of the UK leg so far, full of energy and family and friends, a real celebration in advance of the upcoming break. It was hard to worry about anything, given how full-throated their support from the fans was, and that included any worry about Louis. Liam got soaked through yet again, and the ride back to the hotel was damp and slightly squishy, but it was nothing a shower wouldn't fix.

He had put on a cleanish pair of jeans and a t-shirt when he heard Louis's knock on the door. "Coming!" he called out and walked to the door, rubbing his hand through his wet hair.

"Dressed up nice for the occasion, I see," Louis said when Liam opened the door. He held up a six pack. "Reinforcements."

"Planning on getting me tanked up, Tommo?" Liam asked, stepping back so Louis could come in. He was in joggers and one of his Adidas tops, the cuffs covering half his hands.

"No shame in needing a little liquid courage, that's all," Louis said. He put the beer on top of the dresser next to the TV. "And you can always back out, if you want."

Liam felt a bit insulted. "I'm not some fourteen year old in the middle of a gay panic, Lou."

Louis shrugged. "It'd be okay if you were."

"Are you...are you trying to talk me out of this?" Liam asked, feeling the most uncertain he'd been since he mentioned the idea to Louis, although not for the reasons Louis probably thought. "Because I know you'd be doing me a favour and all, but you don't have to if you don't want to."

Louis shook his head and grabbed one of the beers before climbing onto the bed. "No, it's not that. I'm just not really sure I get why you're doing this. It's a bit out of nowhere."

Liam followed suit, popping open the beer and then changing his mind. "Actually, I might just have a little whisky," he said, smiling a little sheepishly while he poured himself a couple of fingers' worth.

"Bring that with you, I'll have it when I finish this one," Louis said, gesturing at the open beer.

Liam did, placing the beer down on the side table and getting on the bed. He sat there, cross-legged, and stared down at his drink trying to think of how to explain. Maybe getting a bit sloshed wasn't the worst plan for the talking part, not to mention the kissing that might still follow.

"It's hard to explain." He took a sip of the whisky and forged on. "It just--I never really thought about it, you know? Or like, I did, when kids would call me a poof or whatever for loving to sing," he said, glancing up at Louis. There was no judgement on Louis's face, just a look of recognition, and Liam nodded and went on. "But that never really bothered me, because I knew I liked girls. So it didn't matter."

"It didn't matter that kids were taking the mickey out of you?" Louis asked, his voice a bit rough.

Liam flushed. "Well, it did, but I didn't care about whether what they were saying was true, because I knew it wasn't."

"Okay," Louis said, sounding like he thought it was anything but okay. "So then..."

"So then, like, it was nice when guys would flirt with me a bit, or when I ranked high on that Attitude poll, and it made me feel good, obviously, but I had Danielle, and then I had Soph, and I never looked at them and thought, 'if only you were a bit more manly' or something," Liam said, feeling more and more out of his depth. "I was never dissatisfied or anything. But then me and Soph broke up."

They were both silent while Liam stared at the blank telly and tried to figure out how to say the rest. "Was the break-up about this, then?" Louis asked slowly.

Shocked, Liam looked back at Louis. "What? No, not at all! Nothing of the sort. We'd just run our course, that's all." It had taken him the better part of three months to accept that and write over the part of his brain that had planned out their entire future together. It had always been so easy to imagine the two of them in ten years, with kids and a pack of dogs, but it had become more and more impossible to chart out the road to get there, until suddenly the roadmap disappeared completely.

"So what happened after you broke up, then?"

Liam flushed, remembering. "Well, you know how I did the Attitude shoot."

"Yeah, I heard something about that," Louis said dryly. Liam coughed, his face going even hotter, and he took a sip of whisky to try to cover it. Louis got a look of dawning awareness on his face. "Wait, did you hook up with the photographer or something?"

Liam nearly spit out his whisky. "Louis!"

Louis had crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm just asking, you look like you're about to confess all your sins."

Liam shook his head. "No, I didn't. I just really liked it, when they said nice things about how I looked, and listened to me. It was easy to flirt, a little. I wanted to flirt," he clarified. "It wasn't just that I knew they thought I was hot and so it felt good. I wanted to flirt with them. Even though they were guys. Or maybe because they were guys. I liked it from them, in particular, and it felt different from flirting with Dani or Sophia or a random girl. Almost easier, in a way. And I guess it just took me a little bit to realise that it still was flirting."

"You can flirt with people you don't want to have sex with, you know," Louis said. "Just, like, for fun."

Liam felt his face go red again. "This wasn't just for fun."

Louis was silent for long enough that Liam began to worry again. "Well, bisexuality is a thing," he finally said, looking down at the floor.

"Yeah, I know, Lou," Liam said, getting a little frustrated with how Louis was reacting.

"I just meant bisexuality can be a thing for you," Louis said, finally glancing at Liam. He looked a bit lost, and Liam had the strangest impulse to give him a hug, even though Louis was meant to be the rock here. "Of course you can kiss whoever you want. I just don't get why you don't want to keep flirting with one of those guys until something happens naturally. Or you could talk to Paul, I'm sure he could introduce you to loads of guys who would be discreet for as long as you wanted."

"But I don't want a random guy," Liam said. "I don't want a specific guy, either, but it's been months since I've kissed anyone, let alone had sex, and I'm rubbish at hookups, you know that. I can't think I'd be any better with a guy, when I don't know anything."

"And I would be better because?" Louis asked.

Liam couldn't keep the incredulous look off his face. "Because you're my best mate," he said simply. "I'm not ready to start seeing someone again, not seriously. And if I tried hooking up with a random bloke, I'd be so nervous I'd make a total idiot of myself. But I can't imagine being uncomfortable or nervous with you." He shrugged, looking down at his glass, barely any whisky left in it. "Especially since you've done stuff with a bloke before." Liam thought but didn't say Harry's name, the elephant in the room still looming large. It wasn't something any of them really talked about, not since things with the fans had got weird, but well. Liam had no idea where to start, and Louis was a good teacher and would know what he was doing. What better way to gain some experience?

When he glanced back at Louis, he was staring at Liam intently, like he was a problem to be solved. Liam sat and waited, a bit unnerved by the focus. He didn't know what Louis was thinking about, for once, and that more than anything else made him feel all at sea.

Finally Louis's expression cleared, like he had come to some sort of decision, and he gave a little nod and reached over and grabbed Liam's glass. "Okay," he said, throwing back the last bit of whisky in one shot, "let's give this a go, then."

Liam exhaled in relief. Now the butterflies in his stomach were just from nervous excitement and not from the fear that Louis was going to reject him. "How should we do this, then?" he asked, not bothering to hide how out of his depth he felt.

"You tell me, mate," Louis said, a bit of a challenge in his voice. "What's the plan?"

Oh. Liam hesitated and licked over his lower lip. "I hadn't really got this far when I thought about it," he confessed, shrugging sheepishly.

Louis laughed and shoved at his shoulder. "No wonder you wanted practice, you're terrible at this!"

"Hey, I'll have you know I've been quite successful with the ladies, thank you," Liam protested, shoving Louis back and grabbing hold of one of his wrists when he attempted to go for Liam's nipples.

"I'm not a girl, though," Louis said, twisting this way and that, forcing Liam to let go of his wrist.

Liam got his arm around Louis's waist instead. "That's sort of the point, isn't it?" he asked, and then he took a deep breath and swallowed his courage and leaned in to kiss him.

He missed Louis's mouth by an inch; it figured that the one time Liam was actually attempting to kiss Louis, his aim was off. But they both pulled away and then moved together again, and finally their mouths touched intentionally for the first time.

It was nice, he thought. Louis's lips were soft--like most lips, Liam supposed, but somehow it was more noticeable in contrast to the roughness of his stubble. All in all, it didn't make him recoil, which he'd been a bit worried about even after thinking about kissing a bloke for months now. So that was a start.

He pulled away just far enough that he could look at Louis without going cross-eyed. "What's the verdict?" Louis asked, looking unexpectedly nervous.

Liam decided to be generous. "It was nice," he said, giving Louis a small smile. "You?"

"I didn't know my opinion counted," Louis said sarcastically, but Liam could tell he was playing.

"Come on, tell me," Liam wheedled.

Louis put a hand on his chin and pretended to think. "A bit prickly," he said finally, reaching out and stroking Liam's beard with his fingers. Liam thought about the peach fuzz Harry had during their X Factor days and supposed the beard must be a bit of a new experience for Louis.

"You too, mate, I didn't know how scratchy it'd be to kiss a bloke," Liam said, brushing his knuckles over Louis's stubble.

Louis batted his hand away. "Mine is soft," he protested.

Liam shook his head. "It's not when you're rubbing against my mouth."

"Well then obviously you weren't doing it right," Louis said.

"You weren't," Liam retorted, and suddenly they were kissing again.

Better, Liam thought immediately. It was like getting into the cold ocean on a hot summer day; the first kiss was the initial plunge, but once he'd survived the shock to his system he remembered how much he loved swimming. Now that he was expecting the feel of stubble, he was able to just focus on the kissing.

He brought his hands up and cupped Louis's cheeks, wanting to feel the maleness of his face instead of hiding from it. Louis stilled at the touch and Liam almost pulled back, afraid that he had done something wrong, that maybe guys didn't do that when they kissed, or that Louis didn't like it. But a second later Louis got his hands in Liam's hair and deepened the kiss, and oh, that was what had been missing.

Liam tried to stop comparing it in his mind to every kiss he'd ever had with a girl and just let himself respond, slipping his tongue into Louis's mouth and exploring. But he kept waiting for Louis to take the lead a bit more, unsure how he would know whether he was being too forward, or kissing Louis like he would kiss a girl. He pulled away a little and asked, "Am I doing it right?"

Louis blinked at him while Liam tried to get his breathing under control. "Yeah, you can kiss," Louis said finally, looking a bit dazed. "Full marks."

Liam shook his head even while he grew warm from the praise. "No, but like. Am I kissing you like you're a girl?"

"Not unless you're sat here wishing I had tits or something," Louis said, making Liam laugh.

"No, not particularly," Liam said.

"It's not. It's not that different, Liam. You can kiss a guy just like you'd kiss a girl, I promise," Louis went on. He hesitated. "Did you want something different from me?"

"Only if you wanted something else!" Liam said quickly. "I just, I know I can take charge a bit."

"Some guys will like that," Louis said, giving him a small grin. "And if they don't, I expect they'll show you otherwise."

"Right," Liam said, thinking about what that might be like, a guy making it clear what he wanted from Liam. He quite liked the thought of that.

"So guys are a go?" Louis asked, pulling back a bit further from Liam and watching him.

"Oh. Yeah, I think so," Liam said, grinning a bit. He felt proud, and like he'd done well at his first time kissing a bloke, and he had liked it, just like he'd thought he would. If anything, he'd underestimated how nice it would be, or how easy it was to lose himself in it. He gave Louis a shrug. "I liked it."

"Yeah, I can see that," Louis said in an approving tone, and Liam felt his face flush. "Alright. Let's train you up, then. Get you nice and ready for your England debut."

"The London boys won't know what hit 'em," Liam said, getting into the spirit of things.

"Exactly." Louis cupped Liam's face, thumb brushing over his cheek before he gave him a little smack. "Do you mind if we call it a night for now, though? I'm feeling a bit knackered," he said, climbing off the bed already.

“Yeah, of course! Maybe we can try again later this week, during the break from shows," Liam suggested.

"Break," Louis snorted. "There's always something, even if it's not a show day."

"The life of the boy band, Louis," Liam said, spreading his hands and grinning sardonically.

"Not in a few months it won't be. But by then you'll be fighting the lads off with a stick, we'll make sure of that. Goodnight, Liam."

"Goodnight," Liam called out after him as Louis left. He got up off the bed and walked over to look at himself in the mirror. He didn't feel like he looked all that different, or like he could tell that he'd kissed a boy (and liked it). His lips were a bit red and maybe plumper than normal, but that could be from anything, really. He felt like he had at seventeen when he'd had sex with a girl for the first time, like everyone in the world could probably tell. In reality the only one who had seemed to know right away was Louis, and Liam was fairly certain that was only because he'd been badgering Liam about when the big day was going to be for ages. He couldn't keep it from him, not when Louis asked him outright and everything.

And now Louis was the only one who knew about this. Liam smiled at himself in the mirror and then told himself to stop being a weirdo and looked away. It felt nice, though, that for both of these firsts Louis knew exactly what he was going through. That, at least, hadn't changed at all.

*

Liam was so startled when an interviewer actually brought up their onstage kiss that for a second he completely forgot everything that Bethany had told them.

But when Louis didn't show any inclination to jump in and answer, he gave it his best shot. "Oh, that! We just moved the same way and bumped into each other." He smiled at the interviewer, who he liked a lot, even if the interview was at the end of a long day of of being asked the same five questions all phrased a little differently. She was nice, though, and seemed to actually care about discussing the album itself and not just Justin Bieber and Zayn.

That was probably why he decided to add, "We only kiss behind closed doors," winking at her. It worked; she laughed and moved on to what they had planned for their time off ("Oh, we haven't even thought about that yet, to be honest") and finally, finally they were done.

Louis grabbed Liam's elbow as they left, heading down the hall to join Harry and Niall for the final interview of the day. Liam didn't stop, but he slowed down enough so they were walking together. "Only kiss behind closed doors, huh?" Louis muttered into his ear, lips ghosting over his skin.

Liam gave him what he hoped was a cheeky smile. "Humour is the best way out, right?"

Louis just shook his head. "Never can leave well enough alone, can you?"

Liam pinched his side, chasing Louis as he squirmed away from his touch. "Listen, it's like Bethany said, if we act like it's ridiculous and we're not bothered, that's how they'll report it."

"Oh, so that was all media strategy, I see," Louis said, rolling his eyes.

"All that and being sneaky," Liam said happily, feeling like he'd finally won when Louis cracked a smile. "Speaking of, you got plans tonight?"

"Nope."

"Wanna come over for some Netflix and chill?" Liam whispered into his ear, not quite moving fast enough to evade Louis's punch to the stomach.

"Oh my god, we've got to work on your game, you're hopeless. Christ's sake," Louis said, looking like he couldn't believe Liam had actually said that.

"But you will come over?" Liam confirmed.

"Yes, fine, we'll have an evening in," Louis said, and Liam raised both fists in the air.

"You may mock me, Tommo, but it was effective, you've got to give me that!" he cried out, pointing at Louis as he walked backwards into the studio for the full band interview.

"I'm giving you nothing," Louis said, but Liam knew the truth.

*

The last interview of the day took forever, but finally they were released and Liam and Louis went back to the hotel. They were quiet in the car over, the pace of the day finally catching up with them, and there were still two full days of press left. Liam was beginning to think that ordering up some room service and actually just watching a film or something might not be such a bad plan.

He changed his mind when Louis started to poke at his back on their way through the hotel lobby. They got a lift to themselves up to their floor and Louis immediately started to go in on his nipples. "We're lucky they didn't bother to ask about the kiss in that interview too, god only knows what you would have said," Louis said.

"It's all about deflection, Louis, didn't you listen?" Liam said, dodging his fingers and getting in a few good pinches of his own.

"How is starting a new rumour deflection? That's just making it worse!" Louis continued to prod at him while they walked down the hall to Liam's room.

"Well, that's just it, isn't it?" Liam said, laughing as he pulled Louis into the hotel room. "Worst thing to do is act like the idea upsets us. We've all seen that too much to doubt it. Far better to just hide in plain sight. Like ninjas," Liam said, grinning with satisfaction at the thought.

"And telling a Swedish paper that we only kiss behind closed doors is your idea of being a ninja?" Louis asked, following Liam toward the bed.

"I'm telling you, it's foolproof," Liam said, and then he had an armful of Louis and he stopped talking.

Kissing Louis still wasn't what he had expected. Not that he'd spent a huge amount of time considering it or anything; just, it was both completely different from kissing Sophia or Danielle and yet exactly the same. He would have thought it would continue to be more distracting than it was, snogging someone and knowing that they were a lad, but aside from the stubble and the fact that he smelled like Louis, it was easy to lose himself in the kiss in just the same way.

And then Louis slid closer to him, slipping his arms over Liam's shoulders. Their hips moved against each other, making contact for the first time, and Liam felt Louis's dick against his thigh. Suddenly it all felt very different indeed.

Louis pulled back from the kiss and gave him a challenging look. "Alright?" he asked, his whole body still pressed up against Liam's.

Liam swallowed hard. This was the moment of truth. He'd felt Louis's dick while they were hugging before, of course; it was hard not to when hugging another lad wearing just trackies. But this was something else entirely. Now his leg was feeling Louis's dick while it got hard. Liam was making him hard, and if that thought didn't just make his own dick take notice.

He shifted a little, moving his thigh from side to side, really committing to the experience. Louis's arms tightened around his shoulders and then quickly relaxed again, like he was trying to hide his reaction. "Liked that, huh," Liam said, feeling smug.

"Don't be getting cocky," Louis grumbled, somehow twisting so that his hip rubbed against Liam's dick. Liam drew in a sharp breath. "See?"

"Yes, alright, you win," Liam said, because he'd never lost a battle to Louis that he'd ever really regretted, and he kissed Louis again.

It was even better now, like they were kissing with intent, not just as a test or a lesson, but like a real hookup. That was where it was leading; Liam could feel it with every kiss, and it made him want to be a bit daring, to prove he might actually be able to do this. So he let his hands slide down Louis's arse and really squeeze it, nothing like the friendly pats he gave Louis all the time, and he got Louis rocking his dick up against his in return, which turned out to feel pretty fucking amazing.

Having a clear cut sign that Louis was also enjoying himself was so nice, really. Figuring out what a girl liked had always felt a bit like a game that didn't have rules he properly understood, especially at the beginning, and while he felt pretty confident that he'd figured out how to win at this point, it still was a bit nerve-wracking. He often felt embarrassingly obvious in comparison, no possible way to mistake how he felt. But now the shoe was on the other foot, or rather each of them was wearing a shoe or something, because Louis felt just as hard as he was, and the way Louis was clutching at his back and practically dry humping him left little doubt in Liam's mind.

It was this confidence that inspired him to try his next move. He pulled away from Louis just enough to create some space between their bodies, and he felt up Louis's dick and gave him a little squeeze.

Louis looked at him, eyes wide, his mouth still wet from kissing, and Liam leaned in to kiss him again, the heel of his palm rubbing against Louis's dick. "Is this okay?" he asked against Louis's lips.

Louis huffed and then kissed him back. "Thought I was the one checking in on you."

"Well, we didn't say what we wanted or anything--"

"Yes, Liam, it's okay if you touch me there," Louis said, sounding exasperated and also a bit turned on, which was a good combination, to be honest. "Mind if I return the favour?" he asked while cupping Liam's dick at the same time, fingers running up and down the shaft.

Liam thrust forward into the touch. "Yeah, that's okay," he said, a bit unevenly.

Louis laughed, looking down at where his hand was gripping Liam's dick through his jeans. "It'd be even better naked, you know."

Liam took a deep breath and nodded, stepping away from Louis so he could get his boots off and his jeans and pants down. Then he felt a bit ridiculous stood there bare-arsed but with a shirt on, so he tugged it off over his head and then held his hands out, presenting himself.

Louis had got his shirt off first and was still undoing his jeans, his trainers kicked off to the side, so Liam saw the moment his dick popped free of his pants. Liam looked his fill.

He had seen Louis soft before, and even at half mast on occasion, in dressing rooms or on the bus. Harry was the only one of them who would walk around in the nude like it was totally normal, but none of them were shy about changing in front of each other at this point.

This was different, though. He'd never been in a situation where he could, like, study Louis's dick, because it'd never been out there on display for him before. So he took his time, cataloguing the various measurements of it, the sparse hair at the base of it, and his bollocks, which were nice and tight. Louis's dick didn't look as thick as Liam's was, but he thought it might be a bit longer, and there was a curve to Louis's dick that was quite fetching, in Liam's opinion.

"Nice," he said finally, nodding his approval at Louis.

Louis snorted and shook his head. "Word of advice: in the future, maybe don't stare at a bloke's dick like you're a judge on Strictly holding a scorecard."

"I like it! Was just thinking I'd be chuffed to have that dick," Liam protested.

"Well, cheers," Louis said, and then, after Liam cleared his throat and pointed at his own dick, added, "Yes, yours is also lovely, are you happy now?"

"Yes," Liam said definitively, and with that out of the way he took a deep breath and reached out to touch someone else's bare dick for the first time.

It felt familiar, which made sense given how many years he'd been giving his own willy a squeeze. It didn't have the intimidation factor of fumbling around a girl's bits for the first time, trying to figure out how it all worked. But on the other hand, there was a bit more pressure to get it right. How embarrassing would it be if it turned out he didn't even know how to wank a bloke off?

"So are you actually going to move your hand, or are you just going to hold it for a bit?" Louis asked finally.

"Shut up, don't rush me," Liam said, still staring down at his hand on Louis's dick.

"Oh, yes, by all means, just take your bloody time and--ah," Louis cut himself off as Liam curled his fingers around and began to stroke, the foreskin sliding easily up and down the shaft with his hand. Louis's hips snapped forward when Liam rubbed his thumb over the exposed head, already wet.

"Ha," Liam said softly, watching as Louis moved in counterpoint with Liam's hand. He reached out with his other hand and grabbed Louis's hip, his fingers pressing into his arse and urging him forward.

"Yeah, alright, you're doing fine with just that, let's see how you handle this," Louis said, getting his hand on Liam's dick and giving him a hard stroke.

"Oh fuck," Liam said, his hand stopping on Louis's dick.

"No, no, keep going, can't leave me hanging," Louis chided, the sound of his voice somehow making Liam harder and prodding him on.

He could feel it all building inside him, Louis's hand unerring in its pressure, just the right amount of friction through the slide to bring Liam close to the edge. There was something missing, though, and he licked his lips and fought through the embarrassment of having to ask. "Can we--can we kiss while we do this, or?" He had barely stammered it out before Louis's hand cupped the back of his neck and pulled him down, sliding his tongue into Liam's mouth.

Things got frantic from there, their hands bumping into each other as they wanked each other faster and faster. Liam could do little more than pant desperately into Louis's mouth in between kisses. "Louis," he gasped finally, coming so hard his legs could barely hold him up. He rested his forehead against Louis's and tried to get his breath back, his arm going around Louis's waist for support.

Belatedly he realised that he'd got his and meanwhile left Louis hanging, his dick still hard and unsatisfied in his hand. "Sorry, I didn't mean to stop," he said, beginning to stroke again.

"No, it's okay, I can do it," Louis said, but Liam shook his head and kissed Louis again while wanking him. Louis's thigh was pressed up against Liam's softening dick, which was a bit uncomfortable, but it was worth it to feel Louis squirming against him, his fingers digging into Liam's shoulder. It was easier to focus on kissing when Liam wasn't both getting and giving a handjob, swallowing up the small noises Louis made as his dick got even harder.

Louis pulled back from the kiss and Liam almost went still, afraid he'd somehow done something wrong, but Louis just dropped his head onto Liam's shoulder as he finally went over and came, his come slicking up Liam's hand and getting on his belly. He held Louis as he shuddered through it, not taking his hand away until Louis's dick had finally stopped pulsing.

The aftermath at least was the same, Liam feeling both totally spent and also elated and proud that he'd managed to get someone else off. "That wasn't too bad for a first time out, I don't think," he said smugly and stepped back from Louis. He frowned down at his stomach. "A bit messy, though."

"That's the downside of a wank, Liam," Louis said. He reached out and wiped his hand on Liam's shoulder.

"Ahhhhhhhhhh, what'd you do that for?" Liam asked, but he didn't really mind. He was already filthy and in desperate need of a shower.

"Your fault," Louis said, and Liam couldn't really argue with that.

"I guess that'll be one advantage once we get to blowjobs," Liam mused, poking at the come getting tacky in the hair on his belly. When Louis hadn't responded to that after a moment, Liam looked up; Louis's face was curiously blank. "I mean, unless you don't swallow, I suppose, but I kinda thought I would."

Louis finally reacted, snorting and shaking his head. "Planning out everything, huh."

"Of course!" Liam said. "Lots of boxes to tick. Um, thanks for helping me tick them," he added.

Louis rolled his eyes. "Well, I guess that's my cue to leave. I'll see you tomorrow," he said and pulled his pants and jeans back on.

"Oh, you could have showered here, if you wanted," Liam said.

Louis pulled his t-shirt back on over his head and shoved his feet into his trainers. "Nah, I'll just shower in my room. Have a good night."

Liam stopped him with a hand on his arm, feeling oddly incomplete. "Good night," he said, giving him a quick kiss. That was better.

Louis stared at him for a moment before giving him a little smile. "Sleep well, Payno," he said, slapping Liam's shoulder before slipping out of the room.

Liam took a deep breath. "Right," he said and smacked his belly, his hand sticking to his skin. "Time to deal with this."

*

Liam didn't have too much spare time to think about what they were doing over the next day and a half. The interviews kept coming, television spots for a dozen countries and print interviews for just as many, plus all of the web content that would get sliced and diced and pulled apart to be as salacious as possible. The only way to survive it was to think of it like a game, or approach it as just one more conversation he got to have with the lads. He was used to having an audience for a lot of their friendship; it had always been that way for them.

Maybe that was what made this thing with Louis feel so nice: having a secret, a real one, something that wasn't a crazy conspiracy theory and instead was just a private piece of their lives.

He wondered if that had been part of the appeal for Harry and Louis back in the X Factor days. He didn't think so, both because they had never tried particularly hard to hide anything, and also because at that point it was still so exciting that anyone cared about them at all that they gave up everything willingly. Nothing was out of bounds, nothing was too personal, and it had all seemed so much easier back then, before things spiralled out of control into something none of them could have anticipated.

He had never asked Louis when the thing between him and Harry had stopped, or how. He just knew that it must have been before Louis had started dating Eleanor, because Louis had been so gone over her from the first day, he would have chopped his own dick off before cheating on her. But Louis had never offered up any details about what happened, and neither had Harry, and after the fan attention had got bad enough to affect Louis and Eleanor's relationship, the last thing Liam wanted to do was bring it up.

It was hard not to be curious, but it seemed even less like something Liam could ask Louis about now, the same way he had never asked either of his ex-girlfriends for details about their previous boyfriends. Surely that was ridiculous, when he considered it: he wouldn't be asking Louis about an ex, but about Harry. Maybe that made it different enough.

He still didn't think he could bring it up, though. Especially since he didn't quite want to be directly compared with Harry, even though it happened years ago. He was fairly certain Harry had been Louis's first, or at least Louis had never spoken of anyone from sixth form or anything like that, and that wasn't anything Liam could ever compete with.

Not that it mattered much anyway. Louis was doing Liam a favour, getting him to a point where he could hold his own with guys and not feel like he was totally outclassed. The only reason Louis and Harry's past thing was at all relevant was because that was the experience he was drawing from, like some sort of intraband hand-me-down.

That thought made Liam smile. Wouldn't that be a thing to say in an interview.

He kept it to himself when he and Louis were asked about the stage kiss yet again, even though by that point in the day he had lost most of his filter. So instead of keeping his response short, as Bethany had so carefully instructed them on Sunday, he launched into a detailed explanation of Louis whacking him in the face right before the kiss happened.

Louis might have thought he didn't whack Liam that hard, but in Liam’s memory it was hard enough. Just another hazard of their particular brand of onstage antics. In some ways he remembered the knock to his chin more clearly than the kiss itself, now that he knew what it felt like to really kiss Louis. All in all, he thought they had answered the question well and been quite funny, so he didn't imagine Bethany would be too cross.

And then one of the interviewers pushed back a little in a joking way, and Liam heard Louis begin to sputter out of frustration, and it was time to nip it in the bud. Arguing was pointless; hiding in plain sight was the only way to go.

"Did you really mean that?" Louis asked once they were back at the hotel, the door to his room closing behind him.

"Mean what?"

"That you don't care what people think about it," Louis said, crossing his arms over his chest.

It took a minute for Liam to piece together what he was talking about. "What, the kiss on stage or whatever? Yeah, I really don't," Liam said, shrugging. "I mean, I might if they started getting weird about it, but aside from that, no."

"What if they knew about this?" Louis persisted.

Liam stared at him. "Are you asking if I'm coming out?"

"I don't know," Louis muttered. "I suppose. Are you?"

Baffled, Liam sat down on the bed, looking up at Louis. "Hadn't really thought about it much, to be honest."

"Really?' Louis asked, looking a bit sceptical.

Liam shook his head. "I think I'd like to know what it means to me first," he said slowly. "And like. I know it's a bit selfish, but I'd rather not share it unless there's a good reason to. Like if I start seeing a bloke seriously or something." He looked away, feeling a bit ashamed. "Otherwise I'd rather not deal with the attention."

"That's not selfish, it's just sane," Louis said, and he came over and sat down next to Liam.

"It is a bit selfish, I think," Liam countered. "Plus, if I'd been smarter I would have come out in the Attitude article and made a huge splash."

"You can do that when we're getting ready to come back, if you want to," Louis said.

"Ohhhh, that's a bit of nice promo. Take that, Adele!" Liam cried, getting proper into the idea. "But I'd probably need a boyfriend to really sell it."

"One thing at a time, Payno, we're working on it," Louis said. "A bit indirectly, but still."

"Speaking of," Liam said hopefully. He hadn't been sure when Louis came back to his hotel room after dinner that this was on the table, but he'd hoped it was.

Louis laughed at him. "You're chomping at the bit, lad!"

"Practice is very important," Liam said seriously, and Louis laughed again before kissing him.

It was strange how easy it was to fall into kissing Louis, like it didn't represent some sort of massive shift in their friendship. Liam supposed it didn't, really; he hadn't felt any particular urge to kiss him outside of a hotel room or anything, and while he did touch and hug Louis all the time, that was no great change. But this, this was rapidly changing from something that was pleasant and rather nice to something they were good at.

It might be a bit of a disadvantage to have the first man he’d kissed be this fantastic at it, let alone know Liam as well as he did, because Liam was beginning to have a hard time imagining that anyone else would measure up. He felt dangerously close to being swept away by something he didn't know if he was ready for, and it was all he could do to keep his head above water. It seemed like his own running stream of mental commentary was the only thing keeping him afloat.

But then Louis pulled them both further onto the bed, until they were lying next to each other and making out, Louis's leg sliding up over Liam's as they rubbed against each other, and he lost the ability to think about anything other than what was happening right now. It was like everything clicked together, like he and Louis wanted exactly the same thing, and he clutched at Louis's face while he kissed him and thrust his dick against Louis's, feeling a bit mortified at how hard he already was.

Louis's hands were traveling up and down Liam's body, seeming to find Liam's most sensitive spots on the first try every time. He'd got his nipple pinched by Louis he didn't even know how many times before, but it had never felt like this, like a current shooting down to his dick, lighting up his entire body. He gasped and arched his back, breaking the kiss for a moment as he panted through the pain, and then he went back in for another kiss and to give Louis's nipple the same treatment.

This time it was Louis who pulled out of the kiss. He pressed his forehead against Liam's neck and said, "Just because we're both guys doesn't mean if I do something to you I want you to do it back."

Smiling, Liam twisted hard again, satisfied when Louis arched his hips up, his dick rubbing against Liam's thigh. "Sometimes it does."

"Oh, fuck you," Louis panted, and Liam had to kiss him again.

The cycle continued from there, each touch causing a chain reaction between them until Liam was fairly certain both of them were in danger of coming in their pants. And that hadn't been what he’d wanted from this evening.

"Let me blow you," he gasped. "I want to."

Louis studied him for a moment, his cheeks flushed and lips red and a bit swollen from kissing. "Are you sure?" he asked slowly, like there was any chance Liam would ever say no.

Liam cupped Louis’s face, running his thumb over his cheek. "One hundred percent," he said, not trying to hide the desperation in his voice.

Louis gave him a quick nod. "Alright," he said, and he pulled away from Liam and kicked his trainers off before working on his jeans. "Don't try to deepthroat it or anything."

"You saying I can't handle your dick?" Liam asked, a hint of bravado coming through.

"I'm saying if you blow out your voice for tomorrow night's show because you try to take too much cock it'll be a hell of a thing to explain to the fans," Louis said with the confidence of someone who knew they had a trump card.

"Fine," Liam said. "I'll just blow your mind some other way."

"Liam, it's a mouth on a dick," Louis said, his t-shirt off and his pants and jeans caught around his ankles. He finally succeeded in kicking them off. "It's not rocket science. Just cover your teeth and think about what you like and give it a go."

Liam was barely listening to him, his entire attention caught by the sight of Louis's dick again. Somehow it seemed to have grown in size since the last time he'd seen it, but that was probably just the result of trying to imagine how he would fit even half of it in his mouth. He briefly considered how he would be able to take it in another way and then shied away from the thought. No need to complicate things by worrying about that now; they'd either get to that later or they wouldn't. Right now he had a different task at hand.

He decided to start with his hand, since the wanking had gone so well a few nights before. This at least felt familiar, and like a good way to approach the whole thing. So he got a nice rhythm going, glancing between Louis's dick and his face to make sure that he seemed like he was enjoying it, and when he felt like he was ready, he bent over and took just the head of Louis's dick in his mouth.

A moment later Louis's hand slid through his hair and tugged gently, and Liam decided that blowjobs were officially his new favourite thing. "That's right," Louis said quietly from above him. Liam tucked that praise away to save for later and swirled his tongue around the crown. He began to wank Louis gently at the same time, his tongue slipping under the foreskin when his hand moved up the shaft. On the next stroke, he opened his mouth wider and followed his hand down, taking in another inch or two.

"Fuck," Louis gasped, his hand pulling harder at Liam's hair, and that was all the encouragement Liam needed to keep going. He set a steady pace, his fist on the lower half of Louis's dick always keeping him from going too far, and he let himself get sloppy with it, saliva and pre-come making it slick. Louis's other hand began to pet over Liam's cheek as he sucked him off, pressing against his dick as it moved in and out of Liam’s mouth, and it felt so dirty and intimate at the same time that it made Liam a little lightheaded.

Or maybe that was just from how hard he was, all from having a dick in his mouth. He flushed at the thought, getting even harder. He slipped his hand down to press against the front of his jeans just as Louis cradled his head with both of his hands and started to snap up into his mouth, taking control of everything, and Liam almost shook apart from his orgasm, his pants becoming a wet and sticky mess in seconds.

While Liam came, he couldn't do much more than pant around Louis's dick as it slid through his wet hand. But it didn't seem to matter; Louis's moans got louder and louder with each thrust, breaking through the ringing in Liam's ears. "I'm gonna--Liam!" Louis moaned out as he came, flooding Liam's mouth. He tried to suck him through it and swallow, but a lot of it leaked out and down Louis's dick, still twitching with the force of his orgasm.

Liam felt like he was right in the heart of sex at the moment, holding it in his hand and in his mouth, and it was so overwhelming that it was all he could do to swallow and gulp in big breaths of air. He pulled away from Louis's dick when it seemed like the last spurt of come was over, resting his head on Louis's thigh and looking up at him. "How'd I do?" he rasped out, his voice sounding completely shot in a totally new way.

Louis just shook his head and hauled him up to kiss him. It was messy and slick and all Liam could smell or taste was sex, and it was everything he could have wanted, right up until the moment when Louis's hand slid over the crotch of his jeans and the wet come stain. "Don't," he said, pulling away from Louis. His embarrassment had been forgotten while his mouth was still on Louis's dick, but now he wanted to curl into a tiny ball.

"Did you come already?" Louis asked, and Liam turned away from him. "Hey, no."

"It's embarrassing," Liam said, not at all sure what it said about him that he could come from giving a blowjob and not even getting one.

"It's hot," Louis said, turning Liam's face back to his and kissing him again. "So fucking hot, do you have any idea," Louis said between kisses, his tongue sweeping through Liam's mouth and hands running up and down his back.

"Tell me," Liam begged, no longer sure what was going on but knowing that he needed to hear this.

"Getting a blowjob from someone who loves it so much it gets them off?" Louis asked. "How would that be anything other than the hottest thing in the world, knowing that I did that to you."

Liam moaned and clutched at Louis's arms. "You did," he whispered.

"Such a slag for it," Louis said affectionately, and Liam shivered.

"Okay," he said, and Louis kissed him again, hands softening on Liam's back, now just rubbing in a relaxing sweeping motion. It lulled Liam into feeling safe again, like even if he had done something that most people would think was pathetic or embarrassing, Louis seemed to like it, or at least didn't mock him for it. That was what let him ask, "Does it always feel like this?"

Louis's hands stilled for a second and then began to move again. "Does what always feel like this?"

Liam pulled back so he could see Louis's face. "You know. I didn't--I had no idea it would be this good, or so intense, and I just. Is it like this a lot?"

He hadn't thought it was a difficult question, but Louis didn't answer right away. "It can be," Louis said finally, sounding more like the Louis he'd known for years and less like the one who'd just reassured him post-blowjob. "Like, that's the thing about a hookup, sometimes it's great and sometimes you'd rather have just had a wank by yourself in the privacy of your own home." Liam laughed, and Louis flashed him a smile.

"I can't really imagine feeling this way during a normal hookup," Liam mused.

Louis rolled his eyes. "Well, it's called Netflix and chill for a reason, Liam, so don't stress out about it, alright?" He shifted until Liam moved back a bit, no longer touching Louis. "Sex doesn't have to be about feelings, sometimes it's just about getting off."

"Like that," Liam tried to clarified.

"Exactly like that," Louis said. "Now speaking of Netflix, are we watching something now or what?"

*

It would have been easier for Liam to be chill if his body hadn’t decided to betray him ten days before the end of tour. Far worse than the wracking stomach pains and frankly disgusting accompanying symptoms was the knowledge that the first cancelled concert in the history of his band was down to him. He was still insisting five minutes before they were supposed to go on that he could do it, he could make it, the worst was clearly over. But he was overruled first by their team and second by the rest of the band, and somehow that just made it worse.

“Liam, you’re in no shape to be going out there,” Niall said. He crouched next to where Liam was sat in a chair backstage.

Liam couldn’t quite imagine how he was going to stand and perform in front of people for nearly 2 hours, but he was certain he could survive it. “But the fans,” he protested weakly.

“We’re already talking with the venue about moving tonight’s show to Friday,” Harry said firmly. “It won’t be cancelled, just postponed.” Liam shook his head and then quickly stopped when the motion made the nausea rise up again.

“Come on, Liam, you shouldn’t be anywhere but in bed or in the bathroom,” Louis said. “You’re ill, and we’re not going on without you, so there’s nothing for you to worry about. It’s all being taken care of.”

Liam could hear the venue manager out on stage informing the crowd of the cancellation, and at the sound of the screams mixing with boos he turned his head away, as if anything could block out the sound.

“Right, let’s get him to the hotel. Paddy, is his car ready yet?” Liam heard Louis call out, and that was that. No use in trying to keep it together any longer. He let himself do what he’d wanted to since he first suspected that the fish he ate for lunch was a bit dodgy, and he cried.

He felt Niall’s hand on his shoulder. “You just rest up and we’ll be back here again tomorrow, like nothing happened.” Liam couldn’t think that far ahead yet, though, the full force of how ill he felt finally coming through.

It was still a bit touch and go until about 3 a.m., but then he fell into a deep sleep. They woke him up at 11 to confirm that he would be able to perform that night, and he couldn’t imagine saying no even though he still felt a bit like he’d been run over by a lorry. But that was manageable, and he also succeeded in firing out a couple of tweets apologising and thanking the fans before he fell back asleep for another five hours.

The lads had covered for him on a couple of interviews while he tried to sleep it off, and it was deeply reassuring to know that they’d always have his back, even when it meant more work for them. He spent the next three days trying to make up for it, throwing himself into every performance and doing his best to block out both the media and twitter. With only a week of tour left after the weekend, it felt selfish to be focusing on anything as inconsequential as figuring out how to successfully hook up with a bloke.

Besides, there hadn't been much opportunity to get Louis alone anyway. Even after Liam had fully recovered from his illness, Louis seemed to disappear after every show. That had been something of a routine for him during past tours, but this summer and autumn he had stuck fairly close to Liam. Maybe the non-stop touring had finally started to take its toll on him as well.

Liam flew home between the Belfast and Newcastle shows, needing a little downtime to screw his head on straight before the final batch of shows. It was hard to believe they'd actually got to this point; they'd been touring continuously for so long that having an empty calendar was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. He knew he'd have to get used to it, have to figure out how to live when he wasn't flying from city to city every other night. But for now he was rather grateful to be able to rejoin the tour again after only two days, ready to start again.

He didn't seem to be the only one; the entire crew and band were revved up and energised for the last week of shows. One night blended into the next, the crowds propelling them on to Sheffield and the final three nights.

The best shows were always the ones for one of their home crowds, their families all there just for them. It was one of the things Liam loved best about being in a band; they all had multiple families and hometowns now, places that considered them theirs. It was like having a whole new set of aunties and uncles who would love him no matter what, just because he belonged with Louis and Harry and Niall. A package deal, now and forever.

It all began to bubble up and over on the second to last night, the crowd spurring them all on. It felt almost manic, like sleeping after the show wasn't even an option because how could he possibly come down off a high like that. Luckily he wasn't alone in feeling that way, and Louis jumped on his back once they got backstage.

"Payno!" he yelled into Liam's ear. "We should go out tonight!"

Liam got his hands under Louis's thighs and carried him back to their dressing rooms, dumping him unceremoniously on the sofa. "Thought you'd be going out with your mates," Liam said.

Louis shook his head. "Nah, we're giving it a break between last night and tomorrow. Can't do it every night anymore, I'm an old man." He was poking at Liam's leg with his foot, like it was his fault Louis was over the hill at 23.

"In that case, maybe we could just stay in tonight," Liam said, trying for subtlety.

Louis's foot paused on Liam's leg. "That your idea of a smooth line, Liam?"

Dammit. "Maybe?" Liam tried.

Louis just laughed and pushed him away before standing up. "Lucky for you most people don't expect much more than 'Hi' as an opening line from a pop star, then."

"Hey." That wasn't fair when Louis knew how much Liam hated the idea of people just wanting the image of Liam Payne and not what was underneath. Although given that right now his image seemed to be that of a spoilt singer who'd callously caused a show to be cancelled just because he felt like it, maybe he didn't need to worry about that as much.

Louis touching him gently on the hand brought him out of that brief stint of wallowing. "You know I'm only playing."

"I know." Liam tried to smile at Louis, but he was pretty sure it came out more like a grimace. He stared down at his boots so he didn't have to see Louis's pity. "I'm just never going to be very good at this."

"Hey." Liam looked up when Louis kicked him again, a bit harder this time. "You're good enough already, and you've only just got started."

Liam flushed. "I don't just mean about the sex part, Lou."

"But that'll build your confidence, right?" Louis was staring at him, and Liam didn't know what to say. He had thought that was what it was all about a couple of weeks ago, when the idea first occurred to him. But he wasn't at all sure how it would actually help him meet anyone, much less someone he'd trust enough to do the sorts of things he'd done with Louis.

He had to say something, though. "Yeah, I think so," he said, mostly telling the truth. "I mean, it can't hurt, right?"

Louis laughed and shook his head. "That's the spirit."

"Hey, be nice to me, I'm new at this!" Liam complained. He sat down on the sofa next to Louis and started poking at him, waiting for Louis to poke him back so he could catch his wrists and then kiss him.

After weeks of feeling a bit off-kilter, first from the illness and the cancelled show and then from the internal countdown, it was nice to be able to relax with Louis again, even if it was in a new way. It already felt normal to him, though, like it was just one more way they were ridiculous together, one more shared experience that only they would understand.

It got a bit less relaxed and a touch more heated when Louis deepened the kiss, mouth dropping open to welcome Liam's tongue. Liam let go of Louis’s wrist to cup his face, thumb brushing over his cheek while they made out.

Louis pulled away a bit. "Probably shouldn't do this here."

Liam smiled, finally feeling like he knew which way was up again. "Let's go, then."

It had been almost two weeks since the last time they had done this, but somehow the distance made it easier to fall back into the rhythm, not harder. It felt familiar, like coming home after a long time away, so everything was both deeply known and newly exciting.

It reassured him that this hadn't been his worst idea ever, the way they fell into kissing again once they were back at the hotel. Nothing felt forced, or awkward; it was just the two of them trying another thing out, supporting each other in this like in everything. Or he supposed it was more Louis supporting him this time, but that was what friendship was all about: the give and take. He didn't know what Louis would need from him next, or when, but he'd be there for him in just this same way.

Or maybe not in exactly the same way, he thought, grinning to himself as they made out on the bed. He had been in so many hotel rooms with Louis over the years, hung out together on so many oversized beds that all smelled aggressively sterile, but that familiarity was cut through with the anticipation of not knowing what exactly might come next. It felt exciting, and Liam was happy to let Louis take the reins this time.

The question of what precisely was on the agenda for the evening was answered when Louis pulled away from him, panting a bit. "If I remember correctly, I owe you a blowjob," he said, palming Liam's dick through his jeans.

Liam's face went hot. "Oh, I mean, you don't have to if you don't want to."

Louis squeezed his dick hard and Liam gasped. "Liam, if you're hooking up with a bloke and you tell him you don't want him to blow you, he might get the wrong idea," Louis said, still rubbing Liam's dick. "So shut up and take the blowjob."

"Okay, shutting up," Liam managed.

"Good lad," Louis said, and started to undo Liam's jeans. "Here, help me get these off."

Liam sat up and got his jeans and pants down, kicking them off his ankles. Feeling a bit silly being mostly naked but not completely, he stripped his socks off too and pulled his t-shirt up over his head and finally sprawled back out on the bed. He spread his arms out. "Happy?"

Louis was sat between Liam's spread legs; somehow he'd managed to get himself naked while Liam had been struggling with his own clothes. Louis was looking at him, really looking at him, and not making any bones about it. "Yeah, that'll do." Before Liam could protest at that lackluster review, Louis had palmed Liam's bare dick again, and any complaints died on Liam's tongue. Louis took his time with it, using the pads of his fingers to tease Liam into full hardness. It was almost casual, except for the intensity of Louis's focus, which was unlike anything he'd experienced in bed before. Usually he was concentrating so hard on making the other person feel good that his own pleasure was secondary, something that happened almost as a reward for making his partner happy. But this was just about him, and it was thrilling and scary all at once.

He shivered, and Louis stopped his hand and looked up. "Cold?" he asked, eyes tracing down Liam's torso.

Liam shook his head. "No, it's just a lot," he said, and took a deep breath.

Louis reached up and began softly stroking over Liam's nipple, his other hand moving on Liam's dick again. It wasn't enough, such a light touch, barely skimming over his skin, and he was desperate for more. "Louis," he gasped, body arching up into his hands.

"Something you want?" Louis asked. His fingers circled around Liam's nipple so slowly it was maddening. Liam had never particularly paid attention to his nipples before, associating them much more with the pain of a nipple twist attack from Louis than with something that could make him feel good. But somehow that gentle touch was lighting up his entire body, creating a feedback loop between his nipples and his dick. He was worried that at this rate he was going to come before Louis even got his mouth on him.

"Thought you were going to suck me off," he said, trying to sound annoyed instead of desperately turned on.

"It's a little thing called foreplay, Liam," Louis said, not moving any faster.

"Oh fuck you, I know how foreplay works," Liam said, actually annoyed this time.

"Lucky for you, so do I," Louis said, and he leaned over and took Liam into his mouth just as he pinched down hard on Liam's nipple.

"Oh fuck," Liam groaned, head tilting back as he arched up into the hot wet suction of Louis's mouth. It had been months since he'd had this, but it was more than just the wait; it was the fact that Liam's entire body was so keyed up and ready for it that just the feel of Louis's tongue swirling over his dick was mindblowing. Like a virgin, he thought a bit hysterically, suddenly having a new appreciation for Madonna's work.

He closed his eyes and let himself just feel what Louis was doing to him. Louis wanted to give him a blowjob, and even if it was just for payback and out of a sense of fair play Liam was going to let him. So far Louis mostly focused on the head of Liam's cock, his fist tight around the shaft. Liam spread his legs a little further, drawing up his heels so he could get his feet flat on the bed and thrust up, trying to get a bit deeper.

Liam opened his eyes again when Louis pulled off. "Sorry, did I choke you?" Liam asked, stilling his hips.

Louis shook his head and cleared his throat. "No, I just wanted to know if you had any lotion."

"I think there's some in the bathroom, but what do you need lotion for?" Liam asked. He hesitated. "I mean, if you want to switch to a handjob, that's fine, obviously."

Louis rolled his eyes and slapped the side of Liam's thigh as he climbed off the bed and headed into the bathroom. "I can see you really did need me for help," he called out.

Liam could hear him rustling around. "Should be in the brown bag," he directed, and a second later Louis came out holding the bottle. "I can't imagine it would taste nice," he said tentatively.

Louis laughed and clicked open the bottle. "It's not going on your dick, Liam, don't worry," he said, squeezing out a bit onto the fingers of his right hand. He flipped the bottle closed and looked at Liam, no longer laughing. "I just want to try something out, is that okay?"

Liam was beginning to get an idea of where this was going, but he didn't want to say it in case he was wrong. "You'll stop if I don't like it?"

"Of course," Louis said, his left hand gently stroking over Liam's thigh.

Liam nodded. "Then yeah, I mean--go for it." He was still a bit tense, his dick flagging a little from the interruption and the uncertainty of what was going to happen next, but things got back on track as soon as Louis got his mouth on Liam's dick again. It was sloppy and a bit messy, Louis's hand easily sliding over the base of Liam's dick while he sucked on the head. "Yeah," Liam breathed out, daring to get a hand in Louis's hair and holding on.

He was expecting it, and trying not to tense up, but he still startled a bit when Louis touched him right behind his balls and slid further back. Louis stopped sucking him long enough to ask, "Alright?"

Liam swallowed hard and nodded. "Yeah, it's fine. Keep going," he said, feeling both extremely brave and also a bit foolish for being so nervous. He waited for Louis to immediately get to it, but his fingers were just gently rubbing over his taint, occasionally venturing further back but mostly staying put.

"I'm guessing no one's done this for you before," Louis said, and Liam shook his head. "I think you'll like it a lot. But if you don't, I'll stop, okay?" Liam nodded and let out a big breath. "Just try to relax."

Liam had no idea how he was going to manage that, and it only became more difficult when Louis started to suck him again, setting a steady rhythm that was just what Liam wanted. "Oh fuck," he gasped, hand tightening in Louis's hair as he moved with him. Louis was so good with his mouth that Liam forgot to think about what his hand was doing until suddenly he felt Louis pressing inside him.

He tensed without meaning to and then tried to relax, rubbing his fingers through Louis's hair. Louis was still sucking him, and so he focused on that, the way Louis's tongue was pressing up on the underside of Liam's dick on every stroke. His hips moved forward, wanting to get deeper into Louis's mouth, and that let Louis's finger slide in even further.

So far it wasn't unpleasant, exactly, and it didn't involve any of the pain that Liam had been a bit afraid of, and he liked the way Louis's thumb was pressing against his skin right behind his balls. But he didn't know if it was doing much for him, until something about the angle changed and Liam suddenly got the appeal.

"Oh my god," he whispered, and Louis moaned around his dick and sucked harder in response, and Liam felt like his orgasm was being triggered from deep inside of him, like Louis had somehow managed to reach more deeply than anyone else ever had before. Which was literally true, holy fuck, Louis was inside him and that was going to make him come like never before, because there was no way for him to control it as it all came spilling out of him. He kept saying, "Oh my god," and Louis's name over and over again because there was nothing else he could do as he shook through it. He'd had plenty of sex before, and got some bloody good blowjobs, but he'd never felt like someone had made him come like this, like he had no say in it because his body was being played like an instrument by someone who was an expert.

It felt almost unfair that someone else should know that he could feel this way when he hadn't had a clue. But it was the most natural thing in the world that it would be Louis who knew, and who could bring it out in him so easily, breaking down another barrier that he hadn't consciously known he had. This was why he had gone to Louis in the first place, why Louis would always be the person he knew he could turn to.

Louis finally pulled away, leaving Liam feeling sated and empty all at once. He blinked his eyes open and tried to focus on Louis again, but it was a long way back. "Louis," he said, his voice croaking like he'd been the one with a dick in his mouth.

Louis crawled over Liam's body, holding himself up with his hands flat on the bed on either side of Liam's chest. "Can I?" Louis started to ask and then he stopped. He was staring at Liam's mouth.

Liam put his hands on Louis's biceps and turned them so they were both on their sides facing each other before pulling Louis in for a kiss. Louis immediately opened up for it, moaning when Liam slid his tongue in, chasing the taste of himself. He still felt shaky and wide open, like he was a live wire, and the only thing that he cared about was making Louis feel just as good as he did.

Louis was thrusting against his hip while they kissed, his dick hard and the tip leaving a slick trail of pre-come on his skin. Liam reached down and got his hand on Louis's dick and began to stroke. Hips arching up, Louis made a soft sound into Liam's mouth and clutched at his arms.

Liam eased Louis all the way onto his back, tucking himself next to him with one leg thrown over Louis's. He couldn't stop kissing Louis while he wanked him, his arm curled around Louis's shoulders holding him close. "Come on," he whispered against Louis's lips. "Come on, baby, let me see it."

A moment later Louis tore his mouth away and let out a high-pitched whine, his entire body practically vibrating next to Liam as he got closer and closer. Liam watched his face the whole time, saw him bite down on his lip as he started to come, his mouth dropping open while he shuddered and shook his way through his orgasm. Liam had never seen anything so beautiful.

He leaned in and kissed Louis's neck while Louis panted and gasped. Liam still felt wrung out from his own orgasm, but it was such a relief to feel like he'd made Louis feel good too. He had to kiss Louis again, had to hold him close as they both trembled through the aftershocks, their kisses sloppy and inexpert and everything Liam needed right then.

One question kept circling through his mind while they kissed, though, something that he tried to push away until he couldn't any longer. He pulled away from Louis, just far enough that he could see his face clearly.

"How did you know I was going to like that?" Liam asked, still feeling a bit exposed and vulnerable.

"The fingering?" Louis asked.

Hearing him say it made Liam flush. "Yeah, that."

"Well, I mean, I didn't know for sure," Louis started.

"Knew more about it than me," Liam muttered.

"But I just thought you might. Since it's one of my favourite things," Louis finished quietly.

Liam stared at him. "One of your favourite things is getting a finger or two stuck up there during a blowjob?"

"Yeah, and you seemed to like it well enough, so sod off!" Louis said, shoving a bit at Liam's chest.

Fuck, he'd messed that up. Well done, Liam. "No, I didn't mean--obviously I liked it, I fucking loved it if I'm honest, but it's like." Liam stopped and tried to figure out what he wanted to say. "What else have I been missing?"

"Liam, you're only twenty-two, lad," Louis said, but Liam didn't want his sympathy.

"Yeah, I know, but still." Liam was aware he was freaking out a little, and it was messing with his afterglow, but what had he been thinking for all those years? "It just never occurred to me that it was a thing lads like us could do. It always seemed a bit, you know."

"A bit gay?" Louis asked, voice still quiet.

"Yeah," Liam said, feeling stupider by the minute.

"Well, you might be a bit gay," Louis said, sounding reasonable and non-judgemental, and Liam hated it. He didn't know what was wrong with him.

"Bisexual, okay," Liam said finally, like that was the real sticking point.

"I mean, if you think about it, that's what being bisexual sort of means. A bit gay, a bit straight, some combination of all of the above," Louis said. "But liking a finger up there doesn't make you gay or bi or whatever, okay?"

"Well, I am, alright?" Liam said, almost angry about it. "Bisexual, I mean."

"Alright," Louis said. "Listen, do you want me to go?"

"What? No," Liam said, bewildered by the change of topic. "Why would I want you to go?"

"I just thought--well, we're done here, right?" Louis said, stopping and then starting again mid-sentence.

"You don't have to go if you don't want to," Liam said. "The bed's big enough. I wouldn't mind."

Louis was staring at him again. "Alright," Louis said slowly, and like always Louis somehow had known exactly what Liam had wanted but couldn't quite say.

"Good," Liam said firmly, and he leaned over and gave Louis a kiss. "We're okay, right?"

Louis pushed him a little. "Of course we are, shut up."

"You shut up," Liam said back, grinning a little, and finally things felt a bit more normal.

*

Closing night of the tour was everything. The crowd was glorious, all of their friends and family there to celebrate them, and every moment felt like what they had been building toward for years. It was a good note to go out on, especially after the stress and anxiety of the cancelled Belfast show, and while the four of them knew they'd be back on stage together in not too terribly long (no matter what the press might say), it was still lovely to know they'd have that night to look back on and remember while they were on break.

More important than that, though, was the sense of relief and satisfaction and pride that they'd made it through. The past year had been their toughest ever as a band, without question, but none of them were lying when they told interviewers over and over again that it had made them stronger and closer. Liam looked at the three lads on stage with him and knew that he could trust all of them with anything, because they'd all proven it to each other countless times in the past six months. And it all came out on stage, during the multiple Act My Age encores and every single one of the hugs, those individual moments each expressing everything they felt in a shorthand that only they could read.

He hoped that their fans could feel it too, even if they'd never understand exactly what it was like to be in the bubble with them. But it was still a shared moment, just one more part of being One Direction that wasn't limited to the four of them, but also included the fans.

Besides, it was hard to get too sad when album promo was still up ahead of them. Promo might have felt more like a chore if Liam had felt less proud of the album, but he knew in his heart that it was the best album they'd ever made, and the one with the most meaning behind it. Weirdly, that made Louis more nervous rather than less, but for Liam it was impossible not to trust that the fans would understand it and love it as much as they did.

Before the promo cycle really started up again, though, they had a few days off, with only an appearance honouring Simon disrupting Liam's plan to sleep twelve hours a day and not do anything other than hang out with his dog. Even that was nice: he had Sunday to recover from the last week of shows and all the celebrating, while knowing he'd get to see his boys again the next night without any pressure at all.

The event itself was lovely, casual enough that Liam didn't feel terribly intimidated by the attendees. He knew that he belonged at events like this now, knew that he didn't have anything to prove to any of the people there, but he still couldn't quite believe that all of the success of the past five years had really happened to him. He kept waiting to feel it deep down in his bones, but it still felt like a dream most of the time. Maybe that was what the break would really give him: a chance to actually believe it was all real.

The one part that never felt like a dream was getting to be an idiot with Louis, which was exactly what they did after the ceremony. It was the first time in ages that they were able to go out to a club on a night when Liam had absolutely nothing he had to do the following day, and he felt the freedom of that through his entire body. Nothing was stopping him, no part of his old responsible nature piping up to remind him that he'd regret it in the morning if he had too much whisky. He might regret it--having a hangover was no one's idea of a good time--but it would just be a good excuse for an extended lie-in tomorrow.

Strangely enough, the fact that he could drink as much as he wanted and not suffer any real consequences for it actually didn't lead to him getting completely off his face. He was too busy having a laugh with Louis, dancing with him on a table in the VIP section just because he could, and that seemed more important than keeping his glass full at all times. So he was only tipsy when he slipped an arm around Louis's waist and held him close while they danced, fully aware of where the line was between mates having a good time out in public and what he really wanted to do, which was snog the living daylights out of Louis.

He didn't think he was alone in that desire. Louis's eyes were bright when he hooked an arm around Liam's neck and pulled him closer to whisper into his ear. It was hard to focus on the words Louis was saying when they were pressed so close together, the shape of Louis's body so familiar and fitting against Liam perfectly. "What was that?" he asked Louis eventually, sliding his cheek against Louis's to get his mouth near Louis's ear. "Couldn't quite hear you."

"I said, are you ready to get out of here?" Louis said directly into his ear. This time Liam heard him clearly, the words reverberating through his body as the confirmation that he wasn't alone in wanting a bit more privacy settled deep in his stomach.

He squeezed Louis's hip hard before pulling away just slightly, his self-control suddenly on a knife's edge. "Let's go, then."

The car ride back to Liam's place seemed to take forever. Louis didn't appear to be bothered at all, focused on his phone the whole way there. Liam attempted to do the same, but gave up after thirty seconds; there was nothing on his phone that would be sufficiently distracting.

Louis's composure disappeared the second they were inside, his hands fisted in Liam's shirt as he pulled Liam in for a kiss. It made Liam feel a little less ridiculous to know that Louis had been on the same knife's edge for the car ride home, even if he had been better at hiding it. But now that they were here, there was no point in either of them playing coy any longer. Liam pushed back and broke the kiss only to pull Louis upstairs to his bedroom. What he wanted from the rest of this night would go much better on a bed.

Louis seemed to agree, following so close on Liam's heels that Liam thought they might both trip and go tumbling to the floor. He wasn't quite sure why this evening felt so different, so urgent, except that the entire last month had been building toward this, and now that they were here he didn't want to wait any longer.

They landed on his bed with a thump, a momentary pause before they both smiled and reached for each other, this now as familiar as everything else they did. Or at least, it seemed familiar until the moment when Louis rolled them over so he was on top, fitting perfectly between Liam's thighs as they kissed. Louis felt more solid like this, like he could keep Liam here without even trying, and Liam would never want to get away. It was everything Liam had imagined it would feel like to be underneath a man like this, only better, because he already knew that there was nothing he could ask from Louis that he wouldn't give.

He hooked his ankles around Louis's legs and thrust up to grind their dicks together. Louis's hands didn't stay still, floating down from Liam's face to his hips and then back up to his head, fingers digging into Liam's hair. Liam grabbed Louis's arse and squeezed as they moved together; he wanted to ask Louis something, but he couldn't seem to stop kissing Louis long enough to speak.

Finally, he was able to roll them over so they were on their sides, which was enough to slow the frantic pace. He felt drunk, but it wasn't the alcohol he’d had at the club, it was the way Louis made him feel, like there was nothing better in the world than getting to touch him like this. It was that intoxication that let him pull away from Louis to ask for what he really wanted. "Wait, hold up."

Louis stopped trying to kiss him, but his hands were still busy stroking up and down Liam's back. "What?" he asked, switching his attention to Liam's neck. It felt rather nice, of course, but it didn't do much for Liam's ability to concentrate.

"I was thinking about what comes next," Liam said, tilting his head to the side so Louis had more room.

"Next for what?" Louis started to rock his hips against Liam again, which was so close to being what Liam wanted that it gave him the push to say it properly.

"I want you to fuck me," Liam gasped out, feeling his face bloom with heat. Louis stilled his hips, which wasn't what Liam wanted at all. He got his hand down on Louis's arse and tried to pull him back into the rhythm.

"Wait," Louis said, and Liam reluctantly stopped tugging him closer.

"What?" Liam was still blushing, but he tried to ignore it and act like this was no big deal, because it wasn't, really.

"Why do you want me to fuck you?" Louis asked, his face getting a bit red as well and his voice rising up at the end of the question.

"I mean, there's the obvious answer," Liam muttered. This wasn't the part he was good at, not one bit.

"Which is? Use your words, Liam," Louis said, a note of exasperation in his voice.

"Well, because I think I'd like it, alright," Liam said petulantly. "And because it's the last step, isn't it, like rescuing the princess in the tower at the end of the video game--"

"Which one of us is the princess?" Louis interrupted.

Liam ignored him. "So like, if I'm going to go out there into the world and try to pull properly or whatever, I'd like to know what I'm doing, so I don't make a complete arse out of myself. So to speak," he added, unable to help himself.

Louis flicked him on the arm for that, but smiled a bit, too. "You wouldn't rather fuck me?" he asked after a moment.

"I mean, I'd not say no to it," Liam said honestly. "But like, I've done that already."

"Shagging a girl isn't like fucking a bloke, Liam," Louis said a little sternly.

"No, I know, but I've done it that way. With a girl," Liam finally got out, and if he was blushing before he was a red lantern by now.

Louis stared at him. "You dirty dog," he said finally. "Sophia, then?"

"A gentleman never kisses and tells," Liam said, already feeling a bit guilty that he'd said as much as he had. "Especially not when he's in bed with someone else."

"Come on, I hardly count," Louis said, but he didn't press further. "So this is it, then? The last step?"

"Yes," Liam said confidently.

"There's other stuff, you know," Louis said, sounding a bit like he was stalling, all of the momentum they had before slipping away.

Liam nodded and waved his hand a bit. "I know, I know, there's lots more and it's all dead kinky and shit, I know, but like. This is the last basic."

"You think this is basic?" Louis asked, and now Liam knew he was stalling.

"Tommo," Liam said, giving him a little push. "Obviously I won't mind if you don't want to, but just say so, okay? I'm sick of the banter."

"You could never be sick of banter," Louis said, but Liam could tell he said it more out of habit than anything else. "Fine. I mean." He stopped and looked at Liam for so long that it started to make him feel self-conscious, like Louis could see things about him that he didn't even know himself. "If you're sure that's what you want."

Now it felt a little too much like Louis was just doing him a favour, even if that was exactly what the whole thing had started as. "Don't put yourself out for me," Liam said, stung. "Wouldn't want you to just go through the motions if you're not going to get anything out of it."

"Liam, shut up," Louis said a bit fiercely, and he kissed Liam again.

There was no mistaking the intent behind his kiss, and Liam got lost in it, let Louis press him back into the mattress and control everything. It was a bit frightening to turn himself over like that, but it was what he wanted, what he had asked for, and Louis was giving him everything he had hoped for and more. Louis pressed his wrists against the mattress on either side of his head and rocked against Liam's body, kissing him deeply, almost possessively.

He wasn't ready when Louis pulled away from his mouth, holding himself up over Liam and staring down at him. Liam strained up to attempt to kiss him again, but Louis shifted his body weight forward and kept him down. It only made Liam harder, his need more urgent. "Do you have lube?" Louis asked finally, his voice hoarse and a little squeaky.

Liam nodded. "Yeah, it's in the side table. There are condoms there too," he added. This time when he pushed, Louis moved with him, letting him up. Liam made quick work of his clothes, pulling and yanking everything off so that by the time Louis climbed back up onto the bed, Liam was naked, hard and ready.

"A bit cocky, aren't you?" Louis said. Liam just reached out in response and tugged on Louis's t-shirt, trying to get it up over his head. "Alright, give me a second." Liam left Louis to it and yanked the duvet down and pushed it to the foot of the bed. Louis stared at him bemusedly.

"It feels weird having sex on top of a made bed, it's not normal," Liam explained.

"Says who?" Louis asked.

"You have sex in bed, not on top of it," Liam said, certain he was right.

"Do you need the lights off and the covers up over you?" Louis asked, rolling his eyes a bit.

Liam pretended to think for a minute. "Not unless that's something you're into, I guess," he said finally, letting out a loud 'oof!' when Louis collapsed onto his stomach.

"Come on, Liam, let's see what you've got," Louis said. And really, Liam might not have done this particular thing before, but he'd had plenty of sex in general, and he thought he'd done pretty well with the handjobs and blowjobs and all the rest of it. So it seemed a bit rich for Louis to be treating him like he didn't know anything.

But then Louis lifted himself off of Liam’s stomach and knelt between his legs, giving him a cocky grin before getting a hand on Liam's dick and sliding his mouth down. That was the problem with trying to win a fight with Louis: he never fought fair, ever. And this right here was especially dirty pool, Louis's mouth already familiar to Liam's body. He spread his legs further, bending his knees out to the sides.

Louis pulled off Liam's dick, his thumb rubbing over the wet head. "Something you want?" he asked in an innocent voice.

Liam was two seconds away from strangling him. "Louis, come on," he begged. "Please." He sighed in relief when he heard the cap of the lube pop open, and he willed his muscles to relax. He still jumped when he felt Louis's fingers stroke behind his balls toward his arse, but he let out a big breath and focused on the steady, exploring pressure of his touch.

"That's it," Louis said quietly, all trace of mockery gone from his voice. He bent back over and took Liam in his mouth again, sliding further down his cock, and Liam got one hand in his hair and tried to hold on. He drew in a ragged breath as he felt Louis push one finger in, his hips rising up into the touch. It was like he was fucking from two sides now, fucking up into Louis's hand and mouth while fucking himself onto Louis's fingers. He had to make himself stop before he came without even getting Louis's dick inside him.

It was easier to hold off once Louis got a second and then a third finger inside, the pressure and the stretch enough of a challenge that he fell back away from the edge. He was still hard, but it was like he couldn't focus just on the sensations in his dick; there were too many other things going on. It all rolled through him like a wave that he couldn't quite catch, the rhythm just off, out of reach. And then something in the angle of Louis's fingers changed and it was like everything caught all at once. "Oh god, I can't, Louis," he panted, his muscles tensing as Louis sucked harder, his fingers deep inside.

Just as Liam thought he would lose control, his body hurtling toward the edge, Louis slowly pulled away, his fingers sliding out of Liam's body as Liam shook. Liam blinked open his eyes, staring up at Louis who was staring back at him, mouth still wet and red. He smiled a little, and Liam was suddenly struck by just how beautiful he was, hair falling over his forehead, the sharp lines of his cheekbones and jaw combining into a face Liam knew as well as his own. But right now he looked almost otherworldly, like someone Liam would dream up for a first time like this.

Then Louis swept the fringe off his forehead with his left hand in a motion so familiar it immediately brought Liam back to this moment, right now, and the knowledge that he was about to have sex, proper sex, with his best friend. "Louis," he said, voice low with urgency.

Louis grinned at him again, this time with a smug satisfaction that made Liam's entire body flush hot. "Think you're ready?"

Liam groaned and reached out with his right leg to nudge Louis closer. "You know I am," he said. He wanted to pull Louis down and at least kiss him or something, but Louis wouldn't move.

"Alright, alright," Louis said, and reached over for a condom. "How do you want it?" Louis asked casually, so casually that Liam almost wanted to yell. It wasn't fair that he was sweaty and a bit out of breath and had almost come what felt like five or six times already while Louis hardly seemed bothered.

"Whatever you want," Liam said; if Louis was so unaffected then he could make the decisions.

Louis paused before rolling down the condom, the tip pinched between his fingers and thumb. "Well, it might be easier on your front or your side."

"Let's do it like this," Liam decided, suddenly determined that Louis not have the final say over everything.

Louis looked up at that. "It might be a harder angle," he said slowly.

"Louis, I've had sex before, I know the basic idea," Liam said, feeling impatient and nervous and a bit more combative than he typically did during sex. But this was it, the moment they'd been building toward; it was one last change, one more way his life would never be the same after this autumn, and he needed to see it. He needed to be facing it head on. He didn't quite know how to express that to Louis, though.

Either Louis got it, in that way where nothing was actually said but somehow they were on the same page together anyway, or he decided against arguing with Liam about it. He just nodded and said, "Alright," and took a deep breath as he shuffled closer to Liam, pressing Liam's thighs further back.

Liam got his hands back on Louis finally, running his fingers up and down Louis's shoulders and arms, his skin soft and smooth to the touch. He was ready, his heart pounding in his chest and breath coming quick, when Louis pulled back again. "Wait, no--"

Louis shook his head and then leaned in over Liam, kissing him deeply. Liam made a small noise into his mouth and kissed him back, fingers digging into Louis's back. "Hand me one of your pillows," Louis finally said against his lips. Liam reached out a hand and grabbed one of the dozen or so pillows that he never knew what to do with and handed it to Louis. "Here, lift your hips up," Louis said, shoving the pillow under his arse when Liam did. That was one good use for it.

"Yeah, that's better," Louis said, looking over Liam's body, his hands behind Liam's knees. Liam wasn't sure he'd ever felt more exposed in all his life, but he shut his eyes against that thought and made himself breathe. "Alright," Louis said, and Liam felt the blunt head of Louis's dick pressed up against his arse. "Just press down into it, if you can."

"I know," Liam said, unable to stop himself from saying it, which was especially silly because it was a lie. He knew in theory, and he knew from having been on the other side of this, but as Louis slowly began to inch inside, he realised he didn't know a fucking thing. "Oh god, Louis," he breathed, already overwhelmed.

"Just keep breathing," Louis said, his voice sounding strained, hands gripping Liam's thighs hard. It was so difficult to breathe, though, his entire body feeling like there wasn't enough room for air, or enough time to draw in breath before Louis opened him up further. He found himself wishing he'd actually taken Harry up on his frequent invitations to do yoga together, his hips and thighs already feeling the strain of this unfamiliar position.

Every time he felt like he had got used to what was happening, Louis would somehow slide further in, pressing deeper inside like he was meant to be there. But Liam wasn't at all convinced that this was the case, having a (hopefully temporary) panic that the kids at school had been right, this wasn't natural or normal, at least not from this end of it, because surely nothing should feel this all-encompassing.

And then Louis gave a soft sigh, his head dropping down and almost touching Liam's chest, and he held himself still. "Just tell me when," Louis said tightly.

"When what?" Liam got out, his breath coming a bit easier now but nothing like normal.

Louis looked up at him, his expression so familiar that it almost made Liam want to laugh. Here he was with Louis's cock up his arse, and Louis could still look at him like he was a right idiot. "When I can start, y'know." He somehow tilted his hips forward. "Fucking."

Oh. Liam had been so focused on just the process of getting the dick in him that he'd almost forgot what would have to come after. He tried shifting his hips a little, giving an experimental little wiggle and clenching down on Louis's dick. That had the simultaneous effect of making it feel more comfortable and causing Louis to groan and hitch his hips forward. "Ah!"

"Sorry," Louis said, the movement stopping immediately. But Liam shook his head and clenched down again, almost trying to draw Louis further into his body, and that, now that started to make sense.

"Don't be sorry," Liam said, and he managed to wrap his legs up around Louis's waist, pulling him forward until Louis had to brace himself with his hands on either side of Liam's chest. He gave a little kick to Louis's bum. "What are you waiting for?"

"You try and show a little consideration and this is the thanks you get," Louis muttered, his voice tight. But he repositioned himself again, somehow getting even closer, and then he pulled out a little and thrust in and suddenly everything was a lot clearer.

"Oh god," Liam gasped, as Louis fucked into him. He couldn't see or feel or smell anything other than Louis, their bodies rocking together at the pace Louis set. It was like everything he'd ever thought he'd understood about how sex worked was rearranging itself in his mind. He just wanted to take everything Louis could give him, the sensations sparking all throughout his body. Liam let his head drop back onto the pillow, panting up at the ceiling for a moment, before he looked back up at Louis's face.

Louis was staring down at him, studying him like he might find the answer to the entire universe in Liam's face. Nothing seemed to break his concentration, like he was doing it all for Liam, and Liam suddenly felt alone in a way he wouldn't have thought was possible whilst being fucked by his best friend. He wanted Louis there with him, wanted to bring him along in this like in everything.

His hands had been gripping Louis's arms hard, bracing himself for everything thrust in, the sheen of sweat on Louis's skin making it slippery. Now he ran his hands down Louis's back and pulled him in harder, moving his body with Louis's thrusts and holding him tight with his legs wrapped round his body. His fingers dug into the meat of Louis's back, but even that wasn't enough, and his hands found Louis's hair and pulled him down for a kiss.

It was artless and messy and exactly what he wanted, feeling connected to Louis in every way now, the hot pant of his breath into Liam's mouth, the sound of Louis's moans as he began to thrust faster. Liam's entire body was shaking with the effort, the strain in his hips and legs a sharp counterpoint to the feeling of Louis filling him. The head of his dick rubbed against Louis's stomach on every thrust, the stimulation just what he needed to get there.

"Fuck, Louis," he moaned into his mouth, and Louis whined in response, a high pitched gasp of a noise breaking off at the tail end. Liam got his hands down around Louis's arse, pulling him in tighter as they fucked, slapping him hard once, twice before he got ahold of himself and just grabbed it. "Sorry, I didn't--"

"Oh god," Louis gasped, his face pressed against Liam's as he fucked in harder, his hips losing the rhythm. "Oh fuck, Liam." He slammed into Liam and held still, Louis's dick actually pulsing inside of Liam, and Liam had never imagined that anything could feel like that, like someone else's orgasm actually belonged to him, inside him. He fumbled a hand between their bodies, barely getting his fist around his dick for a few strokes before he followed Louis over, all of his muscles seizing up as he came long and hard. He felt like his breath had been punched out of him, the only thing he could focus on the overwhelming relief of finally coming.

The harsh sound of Louis breathing against his neck was all he could hear. Liam dragged his hand up Louis’s sweaty back and cupped the back of his head, fingers threading through his hair. Louis was heavy on top of him, their bodies squashed together, Liam’s come sticky and wet on both of their stomachs now, but he didn’t want to move, wanted to hold this moment in his hands for a bit longer. He turned his head just enough to kiss Louis’s temple, tightening his hand in his hair when Louis pressed his face against Liam’s neck.

Eventually Liam’s hips and thighs began to protest too much, though, and he had to move. He let his legs fall from around Louis’s waist, muscles shaking from the effort. Louis started to push himself up but Liam stopped him before he could move away completely, catching his mouth for another kiss. There was something unbearably intimate about it, slowly exploring Louis’s mouth with his tongue while he could feel Louis’s cock softening inside him. He put his hand on Louis’s cheek and tried to put everything he was feeling into the kiss, because he was certain he didn’t have the words for it.

Louis finally moved back from the kiss, resting his forehead against Liam’s, eyes still closed. After a long moment and then one more quick kiss, Louis knelt up and got one hand around the base of his cock, holding onto the condom while pulling out. The strangeness of that feeling went a long way toward pulling Liam back from the daze he had been in, the rest of his body also registering that these were new and not altogether pleasant sensations. He must have made a face, because Louis smirked at him. “Feel a bit weird?”

Liam watched as Louis crawled off the bed to dispose of the condom, relieved when he climbed back onto the bed after binning it. Liam tugged at Louis’s arm until he curled up next to Liam. They shifted together until they were both comfortable, Liam's hips and arse twingeing with every move. “Feels like I had a particularly hard workout,” he finally said.

Louis snorted. “An odd sort of workout.”

“Isolation exercises,” Liam said, finally giving into the slightly giddy laughter that had been threatening to break through since Louis had pulled out. Cross one more thing off the list, he thought.

“That’s one name for it.” Louis’s face was smashed against Liam’s chest, the words mumbled against his skin.

“Could be a song title. Quite clever,” Liam mused. He dragged his fingers over Louis’s arm and back, only stopping when Louis shivered. “You cold?” Louis shook his head against him, but Liam could see the goosebumps on Louis’s arm. “Here, sit up a second,” he said, already moving. He managed to keep Louis snug against him while he grabbed the duvet from the foot of the bed, pulling it up over them both. The come on his stomach was already dry, so there was no point in washing now instead of waiting till morning, and he didn’t have the energy for it. He curled toward Louis, pressing closer to him, and slowly drifted off to sleep.

*

When he woke the following morning, Louis was gone.

At first Liam thought he must already be up and in the kitchen, the sun streaming through his bedroom window by the time Liam finally got up for good. He had got up once near dawn to use the toilet and Louis had barely moved, sleeping so deeply he was dead to the world, and Liam had fallen back asleep easily.

But when he padded into his kitchen, no one was there. He found no sign of Louis in the rest of his place either. If not for the ache in his muscles, he could almost believe he had dreamt last night entirely.

It was hard to imagine it had been as good as he remembered it being. He was beginning to wonder if the great flaw in his plan had been ruining himself for all other men, because the idea of doing what he did last night with some stranger made him flush with embarrassment. He thought about how he had felt, the way his body had just responded to Louis, and he got warm low in his belly, like the aftershocks hadn’t quite ended.

Maybe it was for the best that Louis had just left without saying goodbye. Liam wasn’t entirely sure what he would say to him, anyway, other than maybe ‘fancy another go?’ And that was as strange as anything else, the fact that he had to wonder what he would say to Louis. The last time that had been true, they had been on the X Factor. He could just wait to talk to him until they saw each other at rehearsal next week, of course, but that seemed awfully far away.

Liam shook his head at himself. Worrying over nothing. He’d thought he got over that tendency years ago, but apparently not. Time to shower and start his day.

*

It had been easier not to worry before he found out from Harry that Louis had gone to Vancouver. They had met for lunch, Liam all too aware of the fact that for the foreseeable future this was the only way he’d get to see Harry at all: by pre-arrangement for social visits. He knew they all needed the break rather desperately, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be odd. And now Louis had fled the country, and not even told Liam about it.

“The Vancouver that’s in Canada?” he confirmed, certain for a moment that there must be a Vancouver somewhere closer that he’d just never heard of.

“Yes, Liam,” Harry said, in that tone he always used when Liam had asked a question that Harry considered obvious.

"When is he coming back?"

"Before next Monday, I'd imagine," Harry said, looking at him curiously.

"Well, I would hope so,” Liam said, waving his hand a bit. The rehearsals for promo start that day, the cycle beginning again, and the pace would be even more hectic this year. At least they all had the promise of a real break to help get them through it. That thought just made him consider again how very strange it felt that Louis had left without even mentioning his plans.

“Just taking advantage of this week, probably,” Harry said, chewing on his kale salad. It actually looked good, Liam’s burger sitting heavy in his stomach.

“He always does like an adventure,” Liam agreed dully. He picked his burger up to take another bite and then put it down again just as quickly. Harry watched him, waiting. “That must have been quite the adventure for him, in the beginning.”

“The band, you mean?” Harry asked. He steepled his hands together, elbows up on the table.

“The band, and other things, of course,” Liam said. He shook his head. He was terrible at all of this. “Why did you and Louis stop, anyway?" he finally asked, giving in to his curiosity and not bothering to be coy. "Was it just Eleanor, or did it happen before then?"

"Why did we stop what?" Harry asked back.

"You know." Liam gestured at him vaguely.

"I really don't," Harry said, brow furrowed.

"Why did you stop hooking up, or whatever?" Liam felt a bit embarrassed about having to say it out loud. He supposed it was one of those things like not being ready for sex if you can't buy the condoms in public; if he couldn't ask a question without feeling vaguely mortified, maybe he didn't deserve to know the answer.

“Liam,” Harry began to say, but now that Liam had started talking, he didn’t seem to be able to stop.

“Because if it affected either of you, I never saw it,” Liam continued. “The fan stuff did, obviously I know that, but the two of you just went from then to now like it was nothing. Or did I miss something? Probably I missed something.”

“Louis and I were never together,” Harry said, his voice low and certain, the exact opposite of his deflecting media tone.

“I know you weren’t together, but like—”

“We never kissed, or hooked up, or any of that,” Harry said a bit urgently. “We were just, I dunno, us, whatever that was, but it was never anything other than friendship.” Harry sat back, studying Liam. “Had you really thought that all this time?”

Liam’s mouth was open, but he couldn’t seem to shut it. “You must have, though,” Liam said.

Harry shook his head. “Didn’t. I’m straight,” he said, looking almost embarrassed to say it.

What did that have to do with anything, Liam almost said, because the thing Harry and Louis had had when they were all still kids seemed to be about so much more than that. But apparently it had everything to do with it for Harry, and besides which it wasn’t the point. “I’m bi, I think,” Liam said, feeling like he owed Harry that much.

“Oh,” Harry said, blinking a bit. “Well. Congratulations?”

Liam smiled a bit wanly. “Thanks. I’m not, you know, coming out or whatever. At least not now. I just. Thought you should know.”

“Thanks for telling me,” Harry said warmly. Liam suddenly wished that they weren’t still sat at a table in the middle of a restaurant, because he could do with a hug from Harry at the moment. Harry must have noticed, nudging Liam’s hand with his, and Liam grabbed onto it gratefully.

“So, Louis just upped and left for Vancouver, huh?” Harry asked in a casual voice, but when Liam tried to pull his hand back, he held it steady.

Liam sighed and stopped trying to hide anything. “Think I fucked up, Haz.”

Harry squeezed his hand, thumb rubbing over Liam’s skin. “If you did, you’ll fix it.”

How, Liam wanted to ask. In Liam’s experience, it was easier to fix a problem he actually understood. He felt like he was back in the dying days of his relationship with Sophia, aware that something was wrong but completely unable to identify what, let alone address it. He supposed that might have been the problem itself. Saying any of that seemed like asking too much of Harry, though. It wasn’t fair to put him in the middle of him and Louis. Not that he was even sure there was a middle of anything between them.

He realised that Harry had been waiting for him to say something for ages. “Thanks,” he said, smiling a little, because he really was grateful, and that was something he could say without making anything more complicated.

*

Liam didn’t hear from or see Louis again until the morning of their first rehearsal back. It had been the longest period of silence between them since the last vacation Liam had taken with only Sophia, without Louis and Eleanor along for the ride.

He’d thought about texting Louis loads of times, but what he wanted to say, to ask really, didn’t feel like something he should do by text. Plus, if Louis wanted to avoid Liam, he didn’t really want to push that.

Louis didn’t act like he’d just done a runner when Liam first saw him. “Liam!” he called out, pulling him in for a tight hug. “How are ya, lad?”

“I’m good,” Liam answered automatically. “How was Vancouver?”

Louis smiled at that. “It was ace. Nice to just have a bit of fun. And Atlanta was hopping, we should go back there sometime during break, check out the clubs.”

It was all so normal, so natural, that Liam had a brief moment of hysteria when he began to wonder if he’d imagined it all. But then Louis’s hand skimmed down Liam’s forearm, the touch lingering a little too long before Louis caught his eye and then stepped back, clasping his hands in front of his body. That was all Liam needed to make his mind up.

“Listen, can I talk to you for a second?” Liam asked, already tugging Louis outside. Niall and Harry were already in with the band getting set up, but they could wait for this. Liam hoped it wouldn’t be a long conversation, anyway.

“Sure,” Louis said. His voice had lost some of the certainty it’d had earlier, but Liam didn’t let himself think about that too much.

Liam waited until they were both outside, the door closed behind them. It was too quiet out there, the sounds of early morning in the city the only thing breaking through the loop of worry in his head, nothing else to distract him. So he took a deep breath and made himself say it. “Look, I think I owe you an apology.”

Louis’s shoulders went stiff, at odds with the casual way he said, “What for? Were you the one who lost my shoes when we were in America after all?”

Liam shook his head. “No, that wasn’t me.”

“Because I still miss those trainers, they were perfectly broken in,” Louis continued, looking anywhere but at Liam.

“Why didn’t you tell me you hadn’t done that stuff before?” Liam asked. “Letting me act like an idiot with you and you’re just as clueless as me.”

“Who says I haven’t?” Louis asked, his chin cocked up.

“I asked Harry,” Liam said. “So he says. Unless there’s someone you’ve not told either of us about.”

“What the fuck did you go to Harry for?” Louis asked fiercely.

“Well, after you left for another continent after fucking me I thought I might find out how things ended between the two of you,” Liam whispered back, almost spitting the words out.

“Don’t be so fucking dramatic, I went to play FIFA,” Louis said.

“Could have done that here,” Liam said. “Could have told me about it.”

“Hold up for a minute, I thought you said you were apologising to me,” Louis said sharply.

“I am,” Liam snapped back.

“Got a funny way of doing it.”

“Well, then I’m sorry I asked for your help when you didn’t know what you were doing, either,” Liam said.

Louis stared at him. “That’s what you’re apologising for.”

Liam nodded.

“You’re such a fucking arsehole,” Louis said, suddenly sounding angry in a way Liam had never heard directed at him, not even when they were at each other’s throats in the early days of the band. “Sorry I couldn’t be your expert for gay sex, Liam,” he continued, voice rising.

“Louis, keep your voice down!” Liam whispered fiercely.

“Oh, I’m sorry, is this something you didn’t want to discuss in public?” Louis taunted. “How inconsiderate of me. But no need to apologise, Liam. You got what you wanted, didn’t you?"

"Why did you let me think you'd done it before?" Liam asked. For some reason that was what he was stuck on.

"What does it matter?" Louis asked back, his voice caustic. "All you really needed was a mannequin, or better yet a dildo. I just did you one better--a living, breathing sex doll. So no apologies necessary, Liam. You're welcome, more like it." He brushed past Liam back into the studio, leaving him red-faced and shamed beyond anything he'd ever felt before.

*

The rehearsal was a disaster.

By the time Liam had managed to compose himself and come back inside, they were running forty-five minutes behind. His feeble apologies didn't seem to placate Niall or Harry or the band particularly, and Louis didn't even look at him when he spoke.

Everything he did just seemed to make it worse; if he attempted to behave normally with Louis, his snide remarks were so pointed that Liam was sure everyone in the room knew what had happened. But when he tried to leave Louis alone, it felt even more obvious, so out of character for both of them that he felt he might as well hold a sign that said, Had a row with Louis.

At first everyone seemed to think it was just another game between the two of them, or one of their spats that would burn out as quickly as it had begun. But as Louis's jibes became more and more frequent, the atmosphere grew tense, their behavior affecting every conversation that happened even if neither of them was involved.

After only an hour and a half of rehearsing, Niall was visibly flinching every time Liam said something to Louis that got rebuffed, and Harry was looking between the two of them, brow furrowed. They were being a bit too convincing with their scandalous breakup, Liam thought a bit hysterically. If only The Sun could see what was happening in this rehearsal.

"Guys, can you give us five?" Harry suddenly asked the band instead of starting his solo in Infinity. "We need to talk, the four of us."

It had been a long time since one of them had needed to call for a band meeting in the middle of something like this, not since they'd got back on their feet after Zayn had quit. There was a swell of nausea in Liam's stomach, but he swallowed it down and kept quiet while the band left the room, not looking at anyone.

"Alright." Harry sounded stern and serious, which was so unlike him it made Liam want to promise anything to fix this. "I don't know what this is all about," he said, Louis's answering snort making Liam flush and focus ever more intently on his fingers. "But the two of you are going to fucking work this out, because we haven't got through this entire year only to let it all go to shit now because of something stupid. Or is it not stupid?" Harry paused; Liam looked around at Louis staring off into the distance, at Niall chewing on his fingernails. "Is this something worth ruining the last six months for?"

That was an easy question. "No," Liam said quietly. "I'm sorry, we'll work it out."

Niall spoke up then. "It's gotta be the both of you." Louis finally looked over at them. "It's all fine and well for Liam to say you'll work it out or whatever, but that's not enough on its own."

"No, Liam's right," Louis said, sounding closed off but certain. It was painfully obvious that the only thing he was agreeing with Liam on was the fact that this wasn't worth destroying the band over. "We'll have it out, and everything will be fine."

"Don't fucking jerk us around if it won't be," Harry said fiercely. "I've had my fill of people keeping secrets this year."

"Me too," Niall added softly.

Liam wanted to throw himself off a cliff, and Louis looked like he felt the same way. "It's nothing to do with the band," Liam said again. "It's us being stupid, that's all."

"Promise," Louis said, glancing over at Liam. "Look, bring the lads back in and start working with them again, and let us sort this out in the meantime, alright? It'll be fifteen minutes, tops."

Liam wasn't at all sure how Louis could be so certain, when he didn't have a clue how they were going to sort any of this out. But he seemed to have convinced Harry and Niall, because they nodded and went to get the band while he and Louis found an empty office.

As soon as the door was closed, Liam started apologising again, because that was his only idea. "Louis, I am so sorry--"

"You asked me why I let you think I'd been with guys before," Louis interrupted him.

Liam nodded. "I never would have asked you if I had known you hadn't," he explained.

Louis laughed, a sharp, hollow sound to it. "I know, Liam." He stopped laughing then, a fixed look of determination crossing his face. It was an expression Liam had got quite familiar with in the aftermath of Zayn quitting, Louis steeling himself to do something he didn't want to but which he had to. Liam didn't like seeing it now. "I'm only saying this because if I don't we will fuck up the band, and I won't let that happen."

"Neither will I," Liam said, uncertain about so many other things in his life but never that.

Louis quirked a smile at that. "I know," he said again, almost gently, and took a breath. "You wanted to fuck me for my experience, right?"

It sounded so ugly, said like that, and Liam almost wanted to deny it. But it was the truth, even if that hadn't been how Liam had thought of it. He nodded.

"Well, I just wanted to fuck you in any way I could manage it," Louis said. He smiled; it looked unnatural and forced. "Only I never thought it'd be on offer, seeing as you're straight and all."

"I'm not," Liam said weakly.

Louis's smile looked a bit more real now. "Well, I know that now, don't I? But when it turned out I could fuck you, but only because you thought I'd know what I was doing, I reckoned, what did the truth matter, really? Either way you'd get that experience you wanted, and I'd get you for a bit."

Liam didn't understand anything. "You let me use you."

"Hard to use someone when they want to give what you're asking for," Louis replied, which somehow missed the point, Liam was sure. "If anything it was the other way round."

Now that was definitely mad. "I asked you to have sex with me, okay, how could you have been using me?"

"I'm in love with you," Louis said. There was something brittle and mocking in the way he said it, but none of it was directed at Liam somehow. Liam felt like his chest was about to cave in. "I had sex with you because I love you, and I lied and told you it didn't mean anything, and the only reason I'm telling you this now is because I haven't let this fuck up the band yet and I'm not going to let it do it now. I lied to you and I'm sorry for that, but I promise it doesn't have to change anything."

Liam's entire body had gone hot, but now it was slowly going numb. "How can it not change anything?"

"Because it won't." Louis's face was sharp and strained. "You're my best mate, Liam, and none of this changes that. I won't let it. You don't have to worry about me." He let out a breath. "I've dealt with it before and I can deal with it again."

"But what about my feelings?" Liam asked, the events of the past three weeks suddenly breaking apart and reforming in all new shapes in his mind.

"Don't." Louis sounded harsh and desperate. "Don't play at this--"

"I'm not playing at anything, Louis!"

"It's normal to feel strong emotions the first time you have a new kind of sex, it doesn't mean anything," Louis said placatingly.

"Oh, come off it, Lou, you've confessed, you're no more an expert on any of that than I am!" Liam shouted. "And you don't get to tell me my feelings."

"Liam." The calm, almost dispassionate tone of Louis's voice had been replaced by a desperation Liam hated instinctively. "You don't need to pretend for me, I promise I'll be fine."

"Oh, fuck you," Liam said, finally surging forward and pulling Louis in for a kiss.

It was a struggle at first, and Liam thought perhaps he had ruined everything after all. But all of the pieces of the puzzle had started to come together for him, and he might not be the quickest on the uptake but once he got there there was no uncertainty left. All that remained was to see if he could bring along Louis at the same time.

After long seconds of Louis holding himself still against Liam, he finally relaxed into the kiss, his arms wrapping around Liam's neck. Liam had had a moment of fear that kissing Louis wouldn't feel the same now, and he was right, because it was like a radio that had never quite been on the right frequency was suddenly clear as day, the transmission coming through perfectly. So much of the past autumn and the past five years clicked into place as they kissed, the realisation thrumming through his body. He clutched at Louis, holding him so tight he was almost afraid of leaving marks, except he couldn't bear to let him go.

Any hesitation from Louis was gone as well, his initial resistance transformed into an openness that floored Liam. He had spent so much time wondering if it would feel any different to kiss a man than it did to kiss a woman; all that time he'd been asking the wrong question.

When Louis tried to pull away, Liam didn't want to let him, terrified of breaking the bubble they'd somehow managed to create again. But Louis finally broke the kiss, although he kept both of his hands on Liam's face, which was something, at least. "We've got to get back out there," Louis said, his voice a bit hoarse.

"Oh, god," Liam said, feeling the fog of the moment lift just enough for their obligations and responsibilities to come flowing back in. He didn't even want to check his watch to see how much longer than fifteen minutes it had been. "Are we okay?" he asked, studying Louis's face.

He let out a loud breath when Louis nodded, the relief filling Liam's chest. "We're okay," Louis said, not quite as confident as Liam would have liked, but he could work with that.

"We can go back out there and do our job," Liam clarified.

"Definitely," Louis answered, smiling at him.

"And then tonight we can figure out the rest of this," Liam continued, not willing to cede any ground at this point.

Louis's smile dropped a bit. "Liam, I still don't--"

"Look, just give me tonight," Liam said a bit desperately. "I know this is sudden, and that I've missed so much it seems impossible I could just catch up in a day. But I promise you I have, because I love you." It was as easy to say now as it had ever been, even if it felt like something completely different.

"It's not a matter of whether or not you love me," Louis said. Liam could feel the wall being built back up, brick by brick, and he had to stop Louis now or else he'd never be able to knock it down again.

"Yes, it bloody is," Liam said. "That's exactly what this is about, and I may not know everything about gay sex, even now, but I know I love you, and I know I love having sex with you, and as much as I'm not willing to give up the band for anything I'm also not going to throw you over for anything, either." Louis was still just staring at him, clearly not convinced, and not for the first time Liam wished he could find the words that would magically make Louis believe him. "Listen, we have to go out there now, but let me show you tonight," he said, figuring more time could only help.

Louis laughed, which wasn't quite the reaction Liam was hoping for. "Are you seriously using the 'let me show you how much I love you' line?" Louis asked incredulously.

"Not intentionally!" Liam protested, but then he thought back on it. "But yes. If you won't believe me saying I love you, and that I think I could be in love with you, maybe you'll believe my body." He tried to keep from giggling while saying it, but the laughter broke through anyway.

It didn't matter because Louis was still laughing at him, too. "I don't know, I think your body said something else last week."

"It really didn't, though," Liam said, trying to get the words out clearly amidst his laughter because this was important, dammit. "I just didn't know what I was saying."

Louis closed his eyes. "Alright. I'm not promising anything, but we can at least talk more tonight. Talk," he repeated, opening his eyes again and staring at Liam. "And then maybe something else. Now let's get out there before Harry and Niall decide to go form their own band."

*

To everyone's relief, the rest of rehearsal went quickly and smoothly. The mood already felt different when Liam and Louis came back in, and after everyone had visibly checked back in with the two of them and discovered that they could look at each other without conflict, they all got down to business.

Still, Liam was glad it was only the first of the three rehearsals scheduled for the week, because he was on autopilot for most of it. He just kept going over what Louis had told him, trying to wrap his head around the idea that Louis was in love with him. Not only that, he apparently had been for a while, and seemed to think it was a bad thing.

It had never been easy for Liam to imagine what it would be like to date men. He was bad enough at flirting with women out at a club or whatever, and he’d at least known for years that he wanted to be with them in the first place. For men, there was a huge void whenever he tried to picture it, the gap between playful banter and flirting with intent so wide he couldn’t see across it. But now he began to wonder if that was simply because there was always someone specific who was supposed to be in that space.

He thought about this while they sang through Infinity, and during the first disastrous attempt at End of the Day. It came out in how he sang them both, but he’d never been good at hiding his feelings. The only one who could know what he meant was Louis anyway, and Liam wanted him to.

All in all, he made it to the end of the rehearsal without permanently destroying either his band or his relationship with his best mate. Given the way the day had started, he was inclined to give himself a pat on the back for that.

After that it was time for more interview prep and filming a bunch of promo videos that would be released over the next two months, and then finally the day was done and he could stop overthinking everything and actually finish the conversation with Louis.

He nudged Louis’s arm while a couple of last minute photos were snapped of all four of them. “Do you want to come back to mine?” he asked quietly.

“Face the photographer, please!” he heard one of their team call out, and he angled out a bit more but kept his eyes on Louis. He was glad he did when he saw Louis’s face flush a bit pink.

“Yeah, after we’re done,” Louis said under his breath. Liam grinned and finally turned completely toward the photographer.

*

Once they got to Liam's place, he was determined to actually do it right. Talking was important, even if it sometimes felt like that's all he ever tried to do anymore.

"I know I already said this, but I really am sorry," Liam led off with. "Drink?"

"I'll take a beer," Louis said, leaning on the kitchen island and watching Liam. "And you've already apologised."

"Well, I mean it. I'm sorry I didn't know how you felt." He handed Louis his beer.

"I did do what I could to make sure you didn't know, so I can't really blame you."

"Still." Liam couldn't quite believe he'd been so blind to it all now that it'd been pointed out to him. But then he hadn't any idea about his own feelings, either, so maybe this was just a general blind spot.

"This isn't really about me anyway," Louis continued, taking a sip of his beer.

Liam stared at him. "What on earth do you mean?"

Louis shrugged. "Nothing's really changed on my front. Except now you know that I love you, which I suppose makes it different. But only if you want it to," he said slowly.

"I told you earlier that I do," Liam said.

"Yeah, and now?" Louis was watching him with a carefully blank expression on his face, like Liam might not realise just how important the answer was to him if Louis looked like a robot. Liam needed to make him look like his Louis again.

"I don't know what I'm doing," Liam said slowly.

Louis raised his beer to that. "Makes two of us."

"But I know I want to try this properly with you. Because I don't want to go out and try to find another bloke to hook up with," Liam said, the very idea strange and a bit horrifying. "And I also want to keep having sex with a bloke."

"Looks like your options are limited, then," Louis said, his voice teasing.

Liam tried to match his tone. "Yeah, it's a bit of a pickle, you might say."

"Not really," Louis said. He finished his beer, placing it gently on the island. "Seems like there's a pretty easy solution."

"You think so?" Liam said. He'd never known it could feel like this to flirt with someone he'd already slept with, like the anticipation and suspense was even higher than it was before he'd even seen the person naked. But he found he was in no rush to get to the main course, enjoying this too much to want to rush it.

"Well, I suppose there's always celibacy," Louis said. "But that doesn't sound like much fun."

"I've had too much experience of that in my life," Liam said solemnly, grinning when Louis actually laughed at that.

"Pull the other one, you've been single for less than six months in the entire time I've known you," Louis said incredulously.

"They were very long months," Liam protested.

"Okay, so celibacy is out, fine," Louis said. "That really only leaves one other option." He had slowly made his way over to where Liam was stood, and now he stopped in front of Liam, half an arm's length away, not moving.

"I also don't think I want to sleep with someone I'm not in love with," Liam said, daring to reach out and brush his finger over the back of Louis's hand.

"That's extremely limiting," Louis said. "To the point that it comes dangerously close to the celibacy plan."

"Lucky for me I'm already in love," Liam said.

"You sure about that?"

"You going to let me show you?"

Louis groaned. "I told you, find another line, Liam, that's not going to work on everyone." His voice was shaky, and he kept trying to make eye contact with Liam and failing.

Liam slowly brushed his fingers over Louis's hand until he was holding it. "It doesn't need to work on everyone, though. Just you."

"You're lucky, not everyone's as soft a touch as me," Louis said, squeezing Liam's hand.

"That's not why I'm lucky," Liam said, and he leaned in and kissed Louis, his ability to use words completely spent.

It felt like it had during the rehearsal, only better, because while Liam still couldn't have said exactly what they were doing, he knew they were both in it together now, and everything else could be figured out later. Right now all he had to focus on was how easily Louis gave himself over to Liam, the fact that he hadn't even known there was more Louis had been holding back. But even just this kiss felt overwhelming, the way Louis held his face, fingers digging into his cheeks and then through his hair as they kissed, like he was finally allowing himself to fully commit.

And Liam gave it right back, making up for his slow start by learning fast, feeding off everything Louis did and then responding in kind. He hadn't realised how much of the past month had actually been like driving with the hand brake on, and now there was nothing holding them back.

They dragged each other into Liam's bedroom, one moment blending into the next, each of them losing their clothes like they were just one last final obstacle to the goal. When they tumbled onto the bed together, limbs wrapped around each other as they kissed, Liam had a moment's doubt of what came next; there was no longer a guide he was following on some futile quest for knowledge. But that was answered quickly enough when Louis pulled Liam on top of him, his hips cradling Liam between his legs.

"Now that we're not going down a list, mind fucking me for a change?" Louis asked, stretching up to kiss Liam again before he had a chance to answer one way or another. Liam tried to make his feelings known by getting his hands under Louis's body, squeezing his arse while he thrust against the soft skin of Louis's belly, their cocks sliding against each other.

From there it all happened in a blur, the experience of having sex with Louis transforming from a paint by numbers achievement game to something organic and freeflowing, driven solely by pleasure and mutual interest rather than any sort of plan. He was going to fuck Louis, but first he wanted to suck his cock again, wanted to feel that intimately connected to him, wanted his smell and taste to be the only thing he could focus on. In the past, he had never forgot it was Louis he was fucking, but now he wanted to make sure that Louis knew how much Liam wanted to fuck him, not some random bloke.

So Liam took Louis down as far as he could go, hand cupping his balls while he sucked him, fingers slowly creeping back until they were pressing up against Louis's arse. Louis pulled his hair at that and he upped the ante, sucking harder and massaging right behind Louis's balls with his thumb. He finally had to pull off when Louis yanked on his hair even harder. "Sorry, did I hurt you?"

Louis was staring at him. "How would that have hurt?"

"I don't know, I just thought I must have managed it if you want me to stop. Or did you want me to do something else? I can," Liam said, his voice already creaky from Louis's cock.

"Oh my god, all I wanted was to ask you for some lube," Louis said, his face starting to flush. "Not everything is a lesson, Liam."

"Oh!" Liam sat up completely. "Sorry, it's right there in the drawer, I should have got it out earlier." He crawled up the bed on his knees and got it plus a condom out. "There," he said, getting back between Louis's legs. "Um. Where were we?"

Louis rolled his eyes at him. "You were getting ready to fuck me, I'm pretty sure."

"Right." Liam tried and failed not to flush at the words. The embarrassment was easier to ignore if he just focused on what he wanted to do to Louis and didn't think about having to say it, or talk about it. Then it was just following the urge to touch Louis and make him feel good, to show him exactly what he felt through actions.

Because while it was cheesy and Louis was right to laugh at him for it, it did feel like he could say what he felt through his body rather than his words. He'd never been good at casual sex with women, either, and he'd known he would be rubbish at it with men, too, but this he felt like he could do well. It was like being on stage, like somehow showing his true self was easy and natural there. He lost himself in both settings, as long as he felt comfortable with what he was doing, and he couldn't imagine not feeling comfortable with Louis.

Losing himself in what he was doing felt simple when Louis looked so good, anyway. It was like a game, almost, seeing what he could do that would make Louis respond, and how to watch for and anticipate those reactions. It felt like it did when they were working on a song together and locked in on the melody, each piece of it clicking with the last, singing each of the new parts over and over again to learn them in their hearts before moving on to the next.

That was what it felt like now, Louis moaning and arching up into each touch, Liam's fingers moving over him. It was easy to trust that he was doing it right, that he could make Louis feel just as good as Louis always made him feel, and he wanted to tell him so, in all the ways. “Can’t wait to fuck you,” he said, fingers pressing deeper inside Louis’s body.

“Oh my god, then hurry up,” Louis retorted, and Liam shook his head and leaned in to kiss him. He wasn’t going to rush this, didn’t want this to be one more item to cross off.

“You look so gorgeous like this,” Liam said between kissing Louis. “I can’t believe I get to have this.”

“Liam,” Louis started and then gasped as Liam changed the angle of his fingers. “Oh god, come on, fuck me,” Louis almost begged and then kissed Liam again, making it rather difficult to do what he asked. Liam thought about what it would be like to be able to just push inside, not bother with the condoms at all, and he shuddered.

“Need to get the condom,” he said reluctantly. Then, feeling a bit daring, he added, “Someday I wanna fuck you bare.”

Louis bit down hard on Liam’s lip. “Only if you’re lucky,” he said, pushing Liam back, but Liam knew what a promise from Louis sounded like by now. Liam pulled away just long enough to get the condom on, and from there it was like his body knew what to do, holding Louis’s thighs wide and then pushing inside, hands gripping Louis's hips tightly as they moved together, first slowly and then faster and faster.

It felt so good Liam had a hard time not just slamming into Louis, the urge to take him rough and almost selfishly nearly impossible to ignore. But he held himself back, or at least he did until Louis smacked him on the arse. "Come on, lad, put your fucking back into it!"

Liam gasped out a laugh. "Oh, did you want something?" he asked, slowing down instead and rolling his hips in a way that was a tease for himself as much for Louis.

"Yeah, for you to stop treating me like glass," Louis answered, getting his hand up into Liam's hair and tugging hard. Liam pulled against his hand, the sharp pain making his mouth drop open, his hips snapping forward. "God yes, like that," Louis sighed, his hands now pulling Liam closer so that they could kiss.

From there Liam quickly lost all control, his efforts at holding back failing in the face of Louis's demands. At the very least he was going to make Louis come first, though, determined to win that competition tonight. He got his hand around Louis's dick, thumb flicking over the head on every stroke. They were sweaty and panting into each other's mouths, Louis's fingers digging into Liam's back as he urged him to fuck him harder, and Liam's arm began to shake from the effort of keeping himself braced above Louis.

He felt Louis clench down around him, heard him call out Liam's name in choked out gasps, and then Louis was coming, his entire body curling in. Liam tucked his face down next to Louis's neck and let go, getting both hands underneath Louis's body to hold him while he thrust and thrust and then came, making a ragged noise that would have been embarrassing if he had any energy left to care about such things.

It wasn't until after he had caught his breath enough to disentangle himself from Louis and deal with the condom that he got suddenly bashful. It was all fine and well to think that everything would work out just because the sex was so good, but surely a functional relationship required more than that. More talking, for one thing. He hesitated in getting back into bed after binning the condom.

"Stop that," Louis said, reaching out to poke Liam in the side.

Liam twisted away and grabbed Louis's hand. "Stop what?"

"Stop thinking and come cuddle," Louis said, pulling his hand back so Liam was forced to either let go or follow.

"I don't know why you think poking at me is the way to get me to cuddle," Liam protested even while climbing back onto the bed and curling next to Louis.

"Years of experience," Louis said, and Liam inwardly conceded that he might have a point.

"So that went okay, I thought," Liam said tentatively.

Louis snorted and kissed the side of Liam's head. "More than okay. You've convinced me."

"I have?" Liam asked, not at all sure it could be so easy after all that.

"Yes." Louis burrowed closer to him, fitting against Liam's side like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle, face pressed up against Liam's neck. "So no take backs. All sales final."

"I'm not entirely sure that's how this works," Liam said slowly, his heart beginning to pound harder.

Louis twisted around in his arms so that he was looking at Liam again. "Aren't you?" he asked quietly, with a certainty that made Liam's entire body relax again. "I am."

"Fine, I guess I am, too," Liam said, suddenly sure that even if he had no idea what would come next, the truly important things were sorted. "So what's next on the list?"

Louis laughed. "I've got no bloody idea. It's the blind leading the blind here, Liam."

"Well, we've done alright so far," Liam said. "Maybe I'll try teaching this time."

"Gonna find me a bloke?" Louis asked, just a hint of uncertainty left in his voice.

Liam kissed that away. "Already got you one."