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“I need a date for the office Christmas party,” Louis says, draping his legs over the arm of the sofa. Liam’s probably going to tell him off for getting dirt on the sofa or some nonsense, but it’s his flat as well and, besides, Liam makes the best annoyed faces.

“Oh?” Liam says, turning away from where he’s fiddling with his X-box. “Take your shoes off my sofa,” he adds absentmindedly.

Louis doesn’t move his legs. “Apparently I told them I was bringing a plus-one months ago and now, if I don’t, everyone will ask horrid questions about why or try to set me up with their relatives.”

“I’m sure their relatives are lovely,” Liam says, but he must catch something that flashes across Louis’s face—like a grimace, maybe—because he frowns and then adds, “Er, some of them might be alright?”

They really aren’t, Louis knows his colleagues, but Liam’s got the gist of it. And if he’s too rude, Liam will just frown at him until Louis says something vaguely apologetic and Louis’ll have to wait like, ten whole minutes to play FIFA. It’s not worth it.

(It had taken a lot of training to get Liam to even frown; at first he’d just ignored it when Louis said rude things. But Louis has trained him—admittedly not with the intent of making Liam look disappointed with him when he’s a twat, though that seems to have been a side effect of it.)

Speaking of Liam… well, he’s focused back on the TV, all arms and legs and long fingers around the controller. Definitely not unattractive. In some other life, one where he hadn’t slept off more hangovers than he can count in Liam’s care, Louis would absolutely try to pull him.

And it’s not like he’s never taken blokes to work events, no one cares at all.

“You know,” Louis says. “It’s not like I actually have to be dating the person I take, I just have to tell everyone I’m dating them so no one will slip me their recently-divorced niece’s number.”

Liam clearly doesn’t get it. He’s frowning a little confused frown at Louis. Louis wants to pinch his cheeks or hit him in the face, which is an urge he’s never understood in the slightest, even though it’s been as consistent in his friendship with Liam as Liam’s ability to laugh at even the stupidest jokes.

“I mean that you could be my date,” Louis says.

“Er,” Liam says.

“It’s a fantastic idea!” Louis is totally definitely right about this too, not like that time he told Liam it would totally definitely be a fantastic idea to do the worm while drunk and they’d nearly both got concussions. He’s not even drunk this time, sober ideas are much better. He should ask someone to remind him of that next time he’s drunk. “You can be my pretend date, I won’t have to try and find someone who actually wants to date me and can stand up to meeting Grimmy, and I won’t accidentally stick myself with a total bore.”

“Are you sure?” Liam asks.

Louis nods, smiling confidently at Liam. This is going to be great.

--

Louis grabs Liam’s hand as they’re walking into the party, though he doesn’t realize he’s done it until he thinks I ought to hold Liam’s hand so people will think we’re together and then looks down to realize he’s already doing it.

“Liam!” Grimm calls from across the room, entirely too gleefully.

“Hi!” Liam calls back, unnaturally excited for someone who’s greeting his best mate’s boss.

Grimmy visibly gives Liam a once-over, which is ridiculous because they’ve met a handful of times before, if only briefly, and then flicks his eyes over Louis, as well. “I didn’t know that’s what you were into, with all the muscles and stuff,” he says. “Good for, you know, things.” If it were possible for Louis to make Grimmy shut up with the power of his mind. Well, his life would be a lot quieter, most days. But if he’s going to pretend he’s dating Liam, well, people are going to jump to conclusions.

“Don’t even try that one, Grimshaw, I’ve seen the blokes you pull at clubs.”

Louis regrets striking back that hard, when Grimmy’s eyes go dangerous and he stands up to wrap an arm around Liam’s shoulders and pull him away from Louis. “So tell me, Liam,” he says. “How did you and this twat here end up taking the leap from friendship into romance?”

Liam, of course, promptly turns red as a beetroot. He stutters something about how they’ve just known each other for so long that it was the obvious next step, which is evidently good enough for Grimmy, who turns around and makes a kissy face at Louis.

“There must be more juicy details than that,” Grimmy says, and Louis just looks around in desperation for the alcohol he knows must be here. Of course Grimmy would want all the gory details, of course he would. Liam looks completely out of his depth—he’s always been a terrible liar and he’s worse under pressure. But it is imperative that Grimmy not realize they’re pulling one over on him, because he will absolutely spend the next eternity teasing Louis. Nonstop.

Louis cuts in with, “Oh, you know, we were just …” but finds himself trailing off before he’s actually concocted a believable story beyond we had a bit too much to drink and ended up snogging on the sofa. With anyone else, it would be believable, but Liam is Liam.

Damn him. Louis should have asked Harry as his fake date, though that would have destroyed his convoluted schemes to make sure that Harry and Grimmy never, ever meet for fear of what they could accomplish together.

“Louis went to kiss me goodbye one night and kind of … missed, and then neither of us really wanted to stop snogging,” Liam says.

Louis gapes. Which is bad, because he shouldn’t be surprised at the fake story of how he ended up dating his not-boyfriend but. Liam.

“That’s sickening,” Grimmy says. Louis privately agrees with him, but schools his face into a smirk instead, and reaches for Liam’s hand again. “Oh god, are you two just going to hold hands and coo at each other all night? I have other colleagues to talk to, Christ.”

Louis doesn’t complain, because this means he gets Liam all to himself. Well, except for how the show’s sound tech, Niall, comes over the minute Grimmy’s cleared out, but Niall’s never done anything but aid and abet Louis’s schemes. He’s the one who helped out when Louis decided to prank Grimmy by fucking around with the teleprompter, which had gone swimmingly until Louis had been put on performance review for three months. (It was worth it.)

Regardless, after enthusiastic hugs are shared all around, and after Louis has dragged Niall and Liam away from a tangent about guitar strings, the three of them settle in around a table with dangerously strong mixed drinks and some little bite-size cheese things. Various other people from the show—their producers Caroline and Sam, as well as about twelve other people Louis doesn’t know as well—stop by periodically, which is lovely. Also lovely is how Louis can just touch the back of Liam’s neck a little intimately, or lean in to whisper to him, and no one tries to chat to him about his love life or if he’d like to meet their best friend’s nephew (or niece, or cousin’s babysitter).

Well, to be fair, Caroline does whisper a fairly lewd comment about Liam’s hands and old sayings, but Louis just makes like he’s going to bite her and she holds her hands up in surrender. And it is kind of nice that everyone wants him to be happy and cares about him having someone to live happily ever after with. He really is glad they care—that drink must have been even stronger than he thought, he’s turning into Liam, appreciating people even when they drive him mad.

Of course, before Louis can start plotting anything with Niall, Grimmy turns up again to harass them. If Louis’s job weren’t actually pretty great—he enjoys herding show guests around more than he really should and there’s the promise of a promotion to actual on-screen work—he might have quit just to get away from this twat of a presenter. Well, probably not, Grimmy’s good for a laugh, it’s just that every so often, he decides to turn his mocking side on Louis and then it’s quite frustrating.

“I forgot to compliment you on that lovely jumper,” Grimmy says in his ear, making Louis jump about three feet in the air. He’s being sarcastic, of course, but Louis’s Christmas jumper is spectacular and anyone who says otherwise should really just be punched.

There are a variety of comebacks available. The obvious, of course, is “My mum made me this jumper, you prick,” but Grimmy might not fall for that one. Louis opts for “At least I’ve got someone to take it off me tonight,” with the extra sting of “Even your fancy suit hasn’t got you a lovely boyfriend like me.”

It’s not until he says it out loud himself—for some reason it didn’t process when Grimmy’d said it earlier—that he’s committed himself to pretending that Liam is his boyfriend for the foreseeable future. Possibly forever, unless he wants to concoct some elaborate and probably implausible story about an amicable break-up through which they’ve remained best mates.

“I’m going to get another drink for my aforementioned lovely boyfriend,” Louis says, mostly to cover himself. “Niall, would you like one?” He pointedly doesn’t offer to get Grimmy a drink, and Grimmy scowls at him, settling into the empty seat between Niall and Louis.

“There’s mistletoe in the corridor by the toilets. If you need an excuse to play tonsil hockey.”

Louis makes a mental note to avoid going into that corridor with Liam, so as to avoid snogging him publicly. Not that they’ve never kissed before but. It’s different when you’re not plastered and playing truth or dare with your mates. Or it probably would be different. Instead of letting himself ponder it any longer, he stands up to get new drinks for himself and Niall. And Grimmy too, though he’ll lie about that one if anyone asks.

After Louis returns to the table and distributes the drinks, Liam lets his hand rest against the back of Louis’s, their fingers touching just lightly. It’s perfect for their story—the touch is casually intimate—but Louis isn’t entirely sure Liam’s realized they’re doing it.

It’s not until several minutes into contemplating whether they could get away with making everyone on the programme sound like they’d been inhaling helium for a whole episode that Louis realizes he’s reaching up to stroke his thumb in soft circles across Liam’s skin. He doesn’t stop, because he doesn’t want to startle Liam out of the conversation he’s having with Grimmy—Liam has the best bemused expression on his face. Instead, Louis just points out that they really ought to get Zayn involved, because he’s as devious as any of them.

Niall agrees, and then he’s whipping his mobile out to text Zayn and the three of them are off.

--

“Are you really going to mess with the sound like that?” Liam asks on the way home. They’re still holding hands, fingers laced together loosely, and Louis is swinging their joined hands between them. Liam sounds honestly worried, though. “Because I know that joke with the teleprompter was funny but you were on performance review for three months for it and doing something like that again will mean you’ll have to wait even longer to get a presenting job.”

There is only one person on the entire planet better than his mum at making Louis feel bad about his absurd schemes, and that person is Liam. The awful bit is that they do it for the same reasons; they both want him to be happy and successful and, much as Louis enjoys his job, he and Liam both know he’d enjoy being a presenter even more. Once, while drunkenly sincere, he and Grimmy had discussed the merits of co-presenting, because they certainly have an interesting enough dynamic to pull it off. Louis fuzzily remembers being grateful that Grimmy hadn’t brought up his questionable track record with responsibility.

“Well,” Louis says. Liam’s right, is the thing. Christ, but he hates it when Liam’s right. It’s so much easier when Liam’s being unnecessarily serious (uptight, even) and Louis can just poke at him and make terrible jokes until his eyes crinkle and he gives in. But when Liam’s right, Louis is never able to bring himself to convince him to change his mind. He knows he could but it—it would be an abuse of his power. And there’s always the benefit of making Liam smile by impressing him with unexpected seriousness.

Liam doesn’t respond at first, just grips Louis’s hand a little tight. Then he says, “You know, I got Grimmy to start talking about you. He thinks you’d be a fantastic presenter. He said something about needing to keep you off-screen or you’d steal his job. Everyone thinks you’d be fantastic, really.”

There’s really nothing Louis can say to that, so he just squeezes Liam’s hand back and says an awkward thank-you.

--

It should surprise him a lot less than it does, when Liam interrupts his after-work routine a couple of weeks after Christmas to smile a little awkwardly at Louis and then say, “Er so, my mum rang me yesterday and reminded me that I said I’d bring a date to my cousin Beth’s wedding.”

“Oh?” Louis says. He doesn’t want to push too hard into the places he knows are still sore for Liam, the lingering wounds from a break-up that took a long time for him to come to terms with.

“She didn’t want to say anything earlier because she thought it would upset me, according to Ruth.” There’s a pause and then Liam adds, “She wasn’t wrong. It would have.”

“Are you all right now, love?” Louis asks, making room on the sofa if Liam needs to come over for a cuddle.

“Yeah. Yeah, I am.” Liam’s smile is a little thin, but he doesn’t look catastrophically heartbroken anymore, so Louis will take it as an improvement. “It’s just, well. I ought to take someone, since I said I would and otherwise the food will be wasted. And if I say I’m dating them, then Mum and Ruth and Nicola won’t spend the whole time fussing about whether I’m actually all right.”

Louis has to concede the point, nodding. “And…?” He’s pretty sure he knows what’s coming, but he’s going to make Liam say it anyway.

“So maybe you could do me a favor, same as I did at your party?”

“Well, I suppose I owe you that much,” Louis says. “But what’s in it for me?” He’s mostly teasing, but Liam’s always been terrible at figuring that out.

“There’ll be an open bar,” Liam says, a little hesitant.

“Sold,” Louis says.

Liam grins at him, and then adds after a pause, “Don’t get drunk and snog my sisters, though. Or flirt with my mum.”

“Who do you think I am? Harry?” Louis asks, honestly offended.

“You spent a lot of time together, he might be rubbing off on you,” Liam says.

Louis lunges at him, pressing his fingers into Liam’s sides and tickling him until there are tears of laughter in his eyes and he’s crying mercy. “Now Liam,” he says. “You know we’re not the kind of friends who touch each other’s penises.”

“Are you sure?” Liam asks, his voice teasing.

Louis leans in and bites at his neck until there’s a mark he’s never going to be able to hide tomorrow.

--

Pretending to date Liam is easier than actually dating anyone Louis has ever dated, and he’s not sure what to make of it. But, as it is, the wedding has been far more fun than he anticipated. Liam didn’t lie, there is an open bar, and his family are potentially the most amusing people on the planet. Just watching Liam and Ruth chatter away, both so intensely excitable, is entertainment enough for an evening, and Louis gets it with free alcohol and the chance to pry embarrassing stories out of Liam’s mum. She’s always more than happy to share.

And on the pretend boyfriends front, all Louis has to do is hold Liam’s hand occasionally and kiss his cheek every so often. Very low-maintenance fake boyfriend, Liam Payne is.

He’s barely talked to Liam the whole evening, though, as he’s been giggling with Ruth and Louis’s been chatting to Karen. Not talking to Liam’s a bit less nice than he’d expected, because getting to giggle with Liam makes just about everything more fun.

Just when Louis’s about to get maudlin into his drink, there are hands under his arms hauling him out of his chair.

“Come and dance with me,” Liam says. His words aren’t slurred but Louis can tell he’s a bit drunk. “It’ll be convincing and—stuff. And stuff.”

There is nothing better than drunk Liam. Literally nothing. Sex isn’t as great as Liam when he’s drunk. Louis should probably evaluate that thought at some point, because he doesn’t think he’s supposed to think that, especially not about his best mate. His thoughts are all muddled from the rum and maybe a little bit from Liam’s huge hands on his arms.

Louis lets himself be pulled toward the dance floor, where Liam wraps his arms around Louis’s waist. The song is middle-tempo but neither of them is a particularly talented dancer, even sober. Louis is more than happy to sway against him and rest his head on Liam’s shoulder. It’s all kind of intimate, pressing flush against Liam in public and letting his arms drape loosely around Liam’s neck. But they’re too drunk to do anything else—well, Louis is too drunk to do anything else and Liam is humoring him. Still, basically the same thing.

“Thank you for coming,” Liam says, soft and too-sincere, more into Louis’s neck than his ear. Louis tries not to think too much about the warmth of Liam’s breath against his skin.

Instead, he nods and says, “Course,” into the place where Liam’s neck meets his shoulder.

If nothing else, they must make a convincing couple, all plastered against each other and whispering. Louis’s stomach twists a little at the thought and he’s not sure why, too drunk and warm and tired to sort it all out.

The song ends after what feels like a long time, and the next is even more upbeat. Liam pries Louis’s arms from around his neck and grabs his wrists, making Louis dance in front of him like a puppet. They look ridiculous, Louis is sure, with Liam forcing Louis to move and shaking his own hips ridiculously, but it’s worth it for the way Liam’s whole face crinkles up.

Louis can’t help laughing whenever he does that. It’s just something he’s accepted about his life. When Liam laughs, really laughs, Louis is going to laugh too. No matter what.

--

They fall asleep on the same bed that night, the one closest to the door of their hotel room, and Louis wakes up the following morning mostly dressed and with his cheek pressed to Liam’s bare shoulder. Liam is still sound asleep, his arm wrapped loosely around Louis’s shoulders.

It’s warm, curled up like this, and Liam makes a surprisingly comfortable pillow. He smells good, too. A bit like sweat and a bit like alcohol but mostly like clean clothes and something that Louis associates with their tiny flat. He realizes the cliché even through the haze of his headache, that he thinks Liam smells like home.

Louis has nearly dozed off again when he feels Liam moving, clearly trying to extricate himself without waking Louis.

“I’m awake,” he mumbles into Liam’s collarbone.

Liam pushes him off and Louis lets himself be moved, flopping onto his back on the other pillow. He groans and yanks Liam’s pillow over his face as soon as Liam’s out of the bed.

“Do you want some tea?” Liam says. Because Liam is the sweetest person and hardly ever mocks him for hangovers. Liam is basically god. And Jesus. And also Ghandi.

“Yes,” Louis says, managing to make it sound more like a word than a groan.

“Did you take any paracetamol last night?” Liam asks as he putters about on the other side of the room. Louis is assuming that’s where the kettle is because he’s absolutely not opening his eyes again to check. Liam might have turned the lights on.

“No.” This time it definitely sounds more like a groan than a word. At least Liam doesn’t crow about it the way Niall would. Niall never gets hangovers. Louis doesn’t drink with him anymore, it’s just unfair.

He’s just lying there pathetically, when Liam pries the pillow off his face gently and offers him a mug of tea and two paracetamol. He hasn’t even turned the light on. Louis stands by his assessment that Liam is god.

“Our train’s in three hours,” Liam says gently. “And we’re meant to have breakfast with Mum and Dad and Ruth and Nicola in forty minutes.”

Louis is going to have to successfully maintain the façade that he’s sleeping with Liam—the non-literal kind of sleeping—while also not throwing up on anyone. Seems totally doable.

“I’m going to take a shower, and, after that, you have to get up.”

“Fine.”

Louis sips the tea slowly to the soundtrack of Liam singing in the shower. It’s nice—Liam has a lovely voice—and comforting. Louis has woken up to Liam singing in the shower for so many mornings now that he gets confused when it’s not there. He’s still curled under the covers when Liam comes out, his hair wet and plastered to the sides of his face. And then Liam shakes his head over the bed like a dog, making Louis squeal and nearly spill tea all over himself.

It’s times like these he regrets all that effort he put into corrupting Liam, because Old Serious Liam would never have shaken his wet hair all over a poor bloke with a hangover.

“Time to get up!” Liam says, disgustingly chipper.

“How are you not hungover?” Louis says.

One corner of Liam’s mouth twitches up. “I didn’t drink as much as you. And I drank a lot of water while you were busy being passed out on the first bed you could find, last night.”

“Wanker,” Louis says. Leave it to Liam to be responsible even when he’s drunk. Gross, that is.

Liam’s half-smile slips away and he gives Louis a strange look. “You don’t have to come to breakfast, if you don’t want to. I can tell everyone you’re too tired. I—I just. Well, you’re not really my boyfriend, so I shouldn’t make you do all the ridiculous things you’d have to if you were.”

Louis gets that funny twisting feeling in his stomach again, and he can’t look too long at Liam’s strange expression because it makes it worse. “Don’t be absurd,” he says. “I love your family. I want to come.”

“Are you sure?” Louis hasn’t seen Liam this hesitant for years; he thought they’d finally managed to cure him of the persistent worry that he wasn’t trying hard enough, wasn’t being good enough, wasn’t considering everyone else enough.

“Absolutely,” Louis says, and he hauls himself out of bed. Breakfast with a violently awful headache is a small price to pay for reminding Liam that sometimes other people will do things just to make him happy or to make his life easier.

And besides, he really does love Liam’s family.

--

Louis returns to work on Monday to find Caroline waiting for him, her face uncharacteristically serious. His stomach drops all the way to the floor, because he’s had this happen so many times but he just got off performance review and everyone always tells him he’s fantastic; he hadn’t expected it at all. Even the review had been half a formality—sure, he and Niall shouldn’t have fucked around with the teleprompter, but even Grimmy thought it was hilarious, and there had been a certain wink-wink attitude to the meetings he’d had about it with Caroline.

“Can I speak to you in my office for a moment, Louis?” she says. It’s disconcerting how serious she is, because he’s so used to her perpetual good humor and easy smile.

“Of course,” he says, desperately hoping his voice isn’t shaking.

As soon as he closes the door behind him, she gestures for him to sit down—and then her face breaks into a smile.

“Sorry,” she says. “It was a bit cruel to muck you about, but Grimmy must be rubbing off on me.”

It’s like something’s clenching and unclenching around Louis’s heart all at once. He’s having a bit of trouble remembering how to breathe.

“I know you’re used to working with Grimmy,” Caroline says. “And you’re so fantastic that I hate to give you up, but one of the other presenters is going on maternity leave, and I recommended that you could take over for her while she’s off. As a sort of a trial run. If you like it, you can do the whole year.”

If he thought he was having trouble breathing before, well, he didn’t know anything.

“Seriously?” he says, sounding breathless and hopeful and maybe a little overcome.

Caroline smiles and nods at him. “You’ll be fantastic. And afterward, we’ll absolutely talk about getting you your own show, or maybe you can share with Grimmy. He mentioned that you two have discussed that.”

All Louis can do is nod a little shakily. His hands might actually be vibrating.

“Thanks,” he says, swallowing the urge to be effusive and overly grateful. He’s earned this, he’s been good at his job, this isn’t something they’re giving him out of the goodness of their hearts.

Still, he wants to scream a little bit.

“Go and call your boyfriend,” Caroline says.

Louis does a double-take at her. “My …” he starts, and then it hits him. “Oh, yes, of course. I’ll be off … doing that.”

He does call Liam, of course, after sending off a quick text to his mum and Harry and Zayn (and Niall, in case he doesn’t already know). It’s a Monday, which means Liam gets done fairly early; there are a few days he has lessons until fairly late, especially for his older pupils. Still, it takes him a few moments to answer.

“Is everything all right, Louis?” Liam’s audibly concerned, and Louis tries not to be hurt that Liam’s first instinct is that something’s gone wrong. He reminds himself that, if Liam called him while he ought to be at work, or his mum phoned out of nowhere, he’d be sick with worry too.

“Everything’s fine,” Louis says. “Better than fine, really.” Liam doesn’t scream in his ear when Louis tells him, but Louis can hear the excitement in his voice; it’s contagious, and Louis finds himself bouncing on the balls of his feet. It feels a thousand times more real now he’s told Liam. Before, it was strangely distant and now it’s real and happening and he’s getting a shot at presenting.

“Oh my god,” Louis says.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Liam says, stupidly, heartwrenchingly sincere. “And I’m taking you for a celebratory dinner tonight.”

--

It’s not a date.

It’s not a date; it’s just a nice dinner with Liam at a restaurant nicer than their usual pubs. Because they’re celebrating Louis getting the presenting job, even just temporarily. And no one else is there because … well, Louis doesn’t really know why no one else is there. Not even Zayn, and, half the time, he has to pry Zayn off Liam with a crowbar.

But saying something might make Liam uncomfortable, and there’s probably a very good reason. Maybe Harry’s band had a gig—no, that’s ridiculous, if Harry’s band had a gig, Harry would have texted him about it six times today. At least.

“I’m really proud of you,” Liam says, interrupting Louis’s thoughts. His stomach twists around and for a moment Louis worries he might be getting ill.

“Thank you,” he says. Liam’s hand twitches on the table; Louis wonders what would happen, if he reached across the table and laced his fingers through Liam’s, and then he remembers they’re not dating.

“So what are you going to present about on your new programme?”

Louis shrugs, because it’s suddenly hit him that he’s going to be doing that. All by himself. It’s overwhelming and exhilarating. He could answer properly, tell Liam how it’s a children’s programme and he’ll mostly be telling ridiculous stories and dancing about like an idiot, but, well, Liam’s just such an easy mark.

“Maybe I’ll just talk about you the whole time.”

Liam turns bright red and suddenly seems very interested in the tablecloth.

Louis can’t help himself smiling at him, and it doesn’t even falter when he realizes he could talk for more than an hour straight about Liam.

--

This is the problem with having known someone for as long as Louis has known Liam. Now their mums are friends and, normally it isn’t much of a deal, but Louis’s got a message from his mum verbally abusing him for not telling her that he and Liam finally sorted themselves out and that Liam absolutely has to come home with him for Fee’s birthday in two weeks.

And. Oh. Right.

Louis hadn’t thought about that possibility at all, and clearly Liam hadn’t either and his mum doesn’t seem exactly surprised but. This may have all got spectacularly out of control.

But now he’s just staring at his mobile and the message is right there and the thing is, if he calls his mum and tells her that it was all a sham, she’ll understand because she’s used to him doing stupid shit like this, but she’ll be so sad. He could hear how happy she was that he was happy—she worries so much, and he’ll never understand how she has the mental reserves to worry about all of them and love them all so much. He’s not sure he can give her a reason to worry more. It’ll be easier on her if she thinks he and Liam are happily in love.

So he’s going to ask Liam for one more favor. He’s strangely reluctant, for reasons he can’t quite pinpoint, but there’s no way he’s going to make his mum worry over him feeling a bit odd. Liam doesn’t seem like he minds and, honestly, it’s nice to spend the time with him.

--

Louis’s mum insists that they can’t stay at a hotel, which wasn’t an argument Louis had honestly expected to be able to win, because he still has his own bedroom, but he’d made a token attempt. It would mean less time holding Liam’s hand and pretending and, well, there’s no way they’re going to be able to go the whole weekend without kissing. People will be suspicious; they’ve all seen Louis with the people he’s dated in the past and he’s not exactly stingy about public affection.

So he and Liam dump their bags in Louis’s bedroom, the one that’s still plastered with ancient posters of footballers and bands, but not before Liam kisses his mum on the cheek and thanks her profusely for letting him stay. Because he’s polite. And perfect. Louis wants to punch him.

He needs to say something to Liam about it, he can’t just spring the kissing on him without any warning, preferably before his meddling sisters get ideas in their heads and muck everything up.

Unfortunately, Liam makes it extremely difficult to talk to him privately. First he’s chatting to Louis’s mum about how all the girls are doing and her job, and then he’s offering to go golfing with Louis's mum's new boyfriend, and after that he’s got Daisy and Phoebe curled up with him on the sofa and he’s teaching them to read music.

Louis wants to vomit.

But he also can’t stop staring at how comfortable Liam looks, sitting snuggled comfortably with Loius’s little sisters, entertaining them of his own free will—there’s no way anyone would have asked him to, except perhaps Phoebe, and everyone would have told Liam he could say no. But he didn’t, and he’s got one arm around Daisy’s shoulder, holding her close.

Louis needs to go for a walk. Or something. He needs to not be watching this, because it makes his stomach go all squishy.

Of course, when he gets back, all three of them are asleep. Liam’s mouth is hanging open just the slightest bit, and Louis wants to rest the pad of his thumb against Liam’s too-pink lower lip. It’s an oddly specific desire, and not one he can say he’s ever had before.

Shaking it off, he tiptoes past them all into the kitchen. Okay, he stops to snap a picture with his mobile, but then he goes straight into the kitchen. And if anyone asks about the picture, he’ll lie through his teeth. Assuming he doesn’t stick it to the refrigerator in their flat.

--

“We’re going to have to kiss,” Louis whispers to Liam that night, when they’re snuggled a little too close in Louis’s old bed.

There’s ancient posters all around them, the remnants of Louis’s sixth form days still visible in the corners, and all he can think about, with Liam lying too-close and too-warm next to him, is how this is the first place he ever sucked someone off.

“Hmm?” Liam might be more than halfway to asleep.

“If we don’t kiss at all for a whole weekend, Mum is going to worry,” Louis says. “And the whole point of this is to keep her from worrying.”

“All right,” Liam says. Louis can just see his smile in the dark, and having to wait until tomorrow to kiss him seems like a terribly long time.

Louis falls asleep before he can think anything beyond that.

In the morning, he can feel the uncomfortable pressure of the room being too light, itching under his eyelids and threatening to rouse him before he’s prepared. He immediately reaches for the other pillow, the one he’s been using to block out the excess light for so many years—and it doesn’t move.

Frowning and opening one eye just the slightest bit, Louis realizes why. Liam is sound asleep on the pillow, of course, with one arm wrapped around it. He’s on his stomach, face turned toward Louis, and he has a tiny smile on his lips. Louis pulls at the pillow once more out of mild frustration, not hard enough to dislodge it.

But it’s apparently enough to wake Liam; Louis always forgets what a light sleeper he can be. Slowly, his eyes open—so close and so brown and so fuzzy with sleep. Louis is momentarily clobbered over the head with how much he loves Liam.

“Morning,” Liam says, hoarse with sleep.

“Hi,” Louis whispers back.

He lets his eyes slip shut again, and then Liam’s hand is in his hair, stroking so gently Louis thinks he might be imagining it.

Of course, before he can fall back asleep, there’s someone knocking insistently at the door.

“Mum says get up!” Lottie nearly screeches. “She wants your help setting up for the party, Louis. Liam can go back to sleep though.”

Louis wrinkles his nose. “Mum likes you better.”

“Never,” Liam says, sincerely enough that if Louis didn’t know him so well, he’d think Liam thought Louis actually worried his mum didn’t love him. “She loves you to pieces. And don’t complain, I’ll get up to help as well.”

“Then she really will like you better.” Louis is whinging a bit, but it’s too early and it’s Liam, who’s heard so much worse. Liam’s listened to him drunkenly cry about stupid blokes who don’t return his calls, and rubbed his shoulders the next morning when he was so hungover he didn’t want to move. He’s not going to go off Louis for a bit of early-morning whinging.

“Probably, but it’s less work for you to do this way.”

Liam drops a quick kiss on Louis’s temple, and it makes Louis’s skin feel too tight. The warmth of Liam’s lips seems to linger against his skin, and Louis has to force himself not to reach up and press his fingers to the spot Liam kissed.

“Fine,” he says, hoping it comes out appropriately grumpy rather than just fond. (The problem, of course, is that he is stupidly, painfully fond of Liam.)

--

The party goes off brilliantly, though it would have been markedly less so without Liam spending the whole time playing enthusiastically with the littlest kids, the ones who came mostly to keep Daisy and Phoebe company. By the time they’re leaving, nearly all of them are looking at Liam like he hung the stars.

Honestly, Louis understands the feeling.

But they’re cleaning up now, and his mum’s just sent him off to supermarket to restock on all the food they fed to the hordes of starving children.

Now is as good a time as ever, really. Louis leans over to kiss Liam, just a quick goodbye peck; it’ll be nothing, they’ve kissed a handful of times on dares after too much vodka and not enough entertainment.

Except this time, Liam’s opening his mouth to say something so, when their lips meet, it’s not the sealed pressed Louis expected. Liam’s lips are moving against his, soft and unfamiliar and—Louis responds instinctively, that’s all. He closes his eyes and opens his mouth slightly and then they’re really, properly kissing. Louis can feel Louis’s tongue and teeth and this is not at all what he expected but, now it’s happening, he’s reluctant to drag himself away.

Liam’s hand is resting lightly on Louis’s hip, his fingers tense but not pressing. Louis doesn’t reach out to touch him because he’s not sure what to do with his hands; he has one hand wrapped around Liam’s wrist and he doesn’t let go, just strokes his thumb across the inside of it.

“Oi!” Louis hears over the blood rushing in his ears—when did that start, when did he become so involved in kissing Liam that he stopped paying attention to everything happening around him? “I’ll not have you teaching your sisters about that part of having a boyfriend yet.”

Louis jumps back and, this time, when Liam flushes, he’s not the only one.

Like the coward he most definitely is, Louis runs out the door and spends much longer than he could ever possibly justify at the supermarket. His mum looks at him a bit oddly when he gets back, but doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t offer an explanation. Let them think he forgot where everything was.

--

The next morning, Louis wakes on his side, with his back to Liam. It’s the exact same position he went to sleep in, which is a bit unusual in itself, especially since he’s shared beds with Liam a thousand times in the past and they almost always wake up turned toward each other at the very least.

Liam’s on his side as well, facing away from Louis. He seems stiff, not nearly as relaxed as he usually does in sleep, and Louis feels himself frowning.

Easiest thing to do is probably just pretend nothing is odd at all. That’s what he did for so many years when Liam thought things were peculiar—sitting in people’s laps, or kissing on the cheek, or sharing a bed in the first place. Louis just acted like they were totally normal things to do (because they ought to be totally normal things to do) and eventually Liam accepted them as such. So maybe if he just pretends nothing’s odd, then Liam will eventually believe him, and things will go back to normal.

“Good morning, love,” Louis says, leaning over to lick Liam’s cheek.

Liam squawks and nearly flails himself out of the bed.

“Louis!” he says, a little scolding and a little laughing. He lunges over like he’s going to lick Louis back and Louis jumps off the bed.

“Time to get up!” he says. “Mum might be willing to make you breakfast, but she’ll want me to help her with mine.”

Liam immediately scrambles out of bed, as Louis knew he could. He’s nothing if not predictable in his desire to never let anyone do anything for him.

Luckily for Louis’s sanity, they don’t stay much past lunch. Most of the morning is lost to making and then cleaning up breakfast, and then Fee insists they all play bananagrams with her. That turns out unexpectedly delightful, mostly because Liam is appallingly bad. Louis isn’t especially surprised, acquainted as he is with Liam’s terrible spelling, but it’s still great fun. Louis, for his part, proves very good at convincing everyone to allow things he’s pretty sure aren’t actually words. In the end, though, Lottie beats them all and Louis tickles her mercilessly until she concedes that she was cheating because she has to know all kinds of fancy words for all her spelling tests at school.

Liam’s giggling, and Louis is sure it’s because his argument about why Lottie was cheating makes no sense, but mostly it just feels nice to make Liam laugh by being ridiculous. Comfortable, like. He’s been making Liam laugh by acting an idiot for nearly as long as he can remember.

The giggling dies down for goodbyes—hugs and kisses and then more hugs. Louis loves London, loves his friends and his life there, but it’s always difficult to leave his family. He can feel tears welling up when he crouches to hug Daisy and Phoebe and kiss their cheeks, but he blinks them away while no one is looking. They’ll get on just fine without him, they have for years now. And besides, it’s not like it was when they were younger; Lottie and Fee are old enough to help out now. He’s not leaving his mum stranded with four little kids.

“C’mon, Lou,” Liam says, gentle. “We need to leave if we’re going to make our train.”

On the train, he falls asleep on Liam’s shoulder and half-wakes a few times to feel Liam’s fingers trailing through his hair.

--

Louis makes a miserable noise when his alarm sounds the next morning. He doesn’t think he’s got up this early since he was at college, but this is for a job working as a television presenter on a children’s programme. It’s absolutely going to be worth it.

By the time he’s dragged himself into the kitchen, the smell of toast is wafting through the flat. Louis is so bleary-eyed that he can’t quite sort out where it’s coming from, as Liam doesn’t need to be up for another few hours at least.

But there, in the kitchen, in a dressing gown and fluffy slippers, is Liam.

“Good morning,” he says, voice rough with sleep. “I wanted to see you off on your first day.” He sounds nauseatingly proud and it’s so comforting that Louis just wants to curl up against him and never move. Maybe Liam will wrap him up in his dressing gown and snuggle him until he’s not sick from nerves anymore.

“Thanks,” Louis says. He’s not sure what else there is he can say, because you’re the best mate and best flatmate and general best person I could ever have imagined seems a bit over the top, but it’s all that comes to mind.

Half-dressed, and wishing he could remember whether or not he brushed his teeth, Louis drinks the tea Liam brings him—perfectly made, as usual—and eats the breakfast Liam makes him. All the tea does is turn the nerves making him feel sick into ones making his leg vibrate, but Liam just rests a comforting hand on his knee and smiles.

“You’ll be amazing,” he says when Louis has finished his eggs and toast. “Seriously, you’re going to be so brilliant. I can’t wait to see you.”

“You’re going to watch?” Louis says. And he shouldn’t be surprised, because of course Liam’s going to watch but. Liam’s going to watch. His heart actually aches a little from how much he loves him.

Before Louis realizes what he’s done, he’s pulling back from having pressed a quick kiss to the corner of Liam’s mouth and standing up to finish getting ready.

“Thank you so much,” he says as he walks out of the room, too scared to turn around and see what the expression on Liam’s face might be.

By the time he’s at work, he’s forced his mind to other subjects—mostly all the possible things that might go wrong during the show. It’s not exactly relaxing, but it’s better than thinking about how he accidentally kissed his flatmate and best friend goodbye on the mouth.

--

Surprisingly enough, the show goes off without any major disasters. There’s a brief spell of utter panic during which it seems like one of the cameras has stopped working, but that’s all cleared up quickly. Niall is a genuine hero, really, and the cameras aren’t even his job. And Louis doesn’t even muck everything up spectacularly.

So all in all, he leaves feeling pretty triumphant. He’s got texts from Harry and Zayn telling him he was fantastic, and a long voicemail from Liam about how much he loved the show that’s so rambling it barely even makes sense. Despite that, listening to it makes Louis’s stomach churn unpleasantly.

He kissed Liam this morning. And yesterday too, but they could always have just pretended that was for show. Today though, there was nothing else that could have been, except perhaps early-morning confusion. Maybe Louis thought that Liam was his boyfriend.

He’s not had a boyfriend in two years, that’s ridiculous.

This is all ridiculous.

Louis lets himself back into the flat. It’s around midday now; after the show, he’d had to meet with his new producers and talk about what they (and he) have in mind for the show. The adrenaline rush of being on television on his own terms has worn off and he’s seriously considering the virtues of taking a nap before making some lunch.

--

The nap turns out to be a wonderful idea, because naps are nearly always wonderful ideas. After, Louis eats lunch and does all sorts of adult things like answer his emails. He even goes out for a run, albeit a short one. Liam would be so proud.

Liam gets home fairly early on Mondays, but Louis has been home so long that when he finally comes through the door—humming some piece of classical music Louis vaguely recognizes—Louis is already stretched out on the sofa flipping between a couple of sports highlights programmes. He flails his arm about in an attempt to wave at Liam, though that ends with him accidentally flinging the remote in Liam’s direction.

Because Liam is a prick, he catches the remote and tosses it back toward Louis, hitting him in the chest.

“Ow!” Louis says, even though it didn’t really hurt, and then, before he can think it through, because it’s what they do and he’s already got kissing on his mind from earlier, “Come and kiss it better.”

Liam looks at him skeptically but walks over and kneels in front of the sofa. Louis smiles at him obligingly, or at least he hopes that’s what showing on his face, rather than the ridiculous fondness he so often feels for Liam.

Not quite kindly, though not unkindly either, Liam holds Louis’s arms out of the way and picks up the remote where it’s still lying on his chest. And then he leans over and presses a quick kiss to Louis’s chest.

Something flutters underneath where he kissed, and Louis’s skin feels tingly all over. He smiles at Liam and thanks him, and Liam blushes so prettily that it’s all Louis can focus on for a solid minute.

“What’s for tea?” he finally asks, sitting up.

“Whatever we have that takes the least work,” Liam says, with the tired smile of someone whose pupils have run him a big ragged. Louis has seen it before, and his heart twitches with something he thinks is probably guilt.

“I can make a curry using that chicken in the freezer,” Louis says, and Liam nods, his head tipping forward to rest on Louis’s shoulder. Louis strokes up and down his back and Liam melts against him.

“Every single lesson I had today was horrid,” he mumbles into Louis’s neck.

“Oh?” Louis says, moving his hand up to rub at Liam’s neck. He can feel Liam nod.

“No one had practiced, half of them clearly didn’t want to be there. One little girl cried when I told her she needed to practice if she wanted to get any better. It was terrible.” There’s a pause, and then Liam says, clearly distressed. “Lou, I made a girl cry.”

“Shh,” Louis says. “She’ll be fine.” He made his sisters cry plenty of times and they still loved him. But Liam knows that already; he’s heard the stories a thousand times over.

After a few lovely minutes of cuddling, Liam seems to have relaxed, so Louis squirms away from him to make dinner. Liam makes a quiet noise of protest, but Louis just pushes him onto the sofa.

“I’m going to make the curry,” he says. “You’ll feel better once you’ve eaten something.”

--

Liam is perkier by the time they’re done eating, and he insists on doing the washing up himself, but he’s still a bit off. Gloomy, like. It makes Louis want to hug him until he smiles all scrunchy-faced and contagious.

Time for the big guns. “Do you want to watch Toy Story?” Louis asks. Never underestimate the power of a good comfort movie in a time of need.

Liam smiles at him, a bit wan but a smile, at least. It’s clear that the whole day is bothering him even more than he’s let on. “Please,” he says.

And then they’re cuddled together on the sofa and Liam’s half-asleep with his head on Louis’s shoulder. Louis ought to be exhausted, he got up so early, but the nap helped a lot, and having Liam nearly asleep on him is kind of … not as relaxing as it used to be.

Eventually, the film ends and Liam starts to pry himself off Louis, mumbling something about having an early night.

“I should too,” Louis says. “Since I’m up early tomorrow for work.”

Liam nods sleepily at him, and then leans in and kisses Louis. It’s soft, just a press of lips against his, but it jolts through him and suddenly he’s wide awake. Liam lingers there, his lips nearly touching Louis’s, and the temptation to close the gap and kiss him again is too much to resist.

It’s a proper kiss this time, like yesterday in his mum’s kitchen. Lips and that’s the scrape of Liam’s teeth and before Louis processes it at all, his tongue’s in Liam’s mouth and Liam’s fingers are scrabbling at his hips. They’re so close, pressed against each other so tight that Louis’s head is tilted up almost painfully, and when did Liam get that much taller than him?

When they break apart, Louis is breathing heavily. Liam’s flushed and doesn’t meet his eyes.

“Er,” Liam says, and then scrambles off the sofa and—no other word for it—flees into his room.

--

The next day—and the day after that, and the one after that as well, and so on until Louis is a little sick with worry—Liam is odd. Distant and quiet and markedly less cuddly than usual.

It’s like someone took his Liam and replaced him with the version from the first month they knew each other, before he’d trained Liam to lean into touches and be liberal with sharing cuddles. This is the Liam who doesn’t make eye contact when Louis gets too strange and shies away from anything too touchy-feely.

Louis hates it.

Eventually, he caves and asks Harry to get drunk with him, because that’s what he always does when he doesn’t want to tell Harry that he doesn’t know what to do.

The pub isn’t crowded; Louis can’t stay out late with this new job, where he gets up so painfully early—yesterday Liam didn’t get up to make him tea and toast, and it stung. So they’re out early, before the tables fill up and it gets noisy. Louis starts in on a story about what Grimmy said to him at the meeting they both went to earlier, and Harry looks dangerously interested.

“When are you going to introduce us?” he says, grinning winningly.

“I’m not going to fall for that smile,” Louis says. “And never, there’s no way I’m subjecting myself to both of you at the same time.”

“You’re no fun at all.” Harry’s pouting, because at some point he learned that pouting will get him just about anything he wants. It’s because he looks so pathetic and adorable; Louis hates it, but he’s learned to stay strong.

“I have self-preservation instincts is all.”

Harry actually raises one eyebrow at him. Louis has no idea when he learned to do that. This is why he can never introduce him to Grimmy. “All evidence to the contrary …”

“Shut up,” Louis says. “You’re a twat, I don’t know why I like you.”

“Cause I’m a twat who skipped out on my colleagues to get drunk with you,” Harry says. Louis hates that he’s made a good point. To be fair, Louis hates just about everything right now. Including Liam. Especially Liam.

“Get me another pint, twat,” Louis says, and Harry does it.

By the time Louis is most of the way through the second pint, though, he’s starting to seriously contemplate saying things out loud that he really shouldn’t. Things like, “I kissed Liam earlier this week.” Harry would want to know why he’d kissed Liam, which would mean explaining the boyfriends thing and just—it would be bad. Harry would start grilling Louis about his feelings.

He needles Harry into talking about his colleagues at his new job; he’s doing some sort of strange thing with music that Louis would probably understand better if he’d not just had a lot of beer on an empty stomach.

Harry’s stories aren’t as good as Liam’s, though. There’s no silly kids, and Harry rambles like mad. It’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll actually finish any story he starts. Louis lets himself get lost in the flow of it and tries not to think about Liam.

--

When he gets back, not even very late, Liam’s already retreated to his room and closed the door. Louis doesn’t knock, which he might have done last week, and he feels his smile slipping away as he looks at the closed door. There’s a light on, creeping out into the corridor in thin lines, but Liam only ever closes his door when he desperately wants to be alone.

Louis chugs two glasses of water in the kitchen and hauls himself off to bed, because he’s not such an arse that he doesn’t respect Liam’s privacy. Well, he sometimes respects Liam’s privacy. Enough that it counts, right?

He falls asleep before he decides how much privacy respecting is enough to count.

--

From the looks on Harry and Niall and Zayn’s faces, Louis thinks he should probably be glad that they’ve not formally declared this an intervention and made a banner or something.

“You and Liam are dating,” Niall says bluntly. Louis has always appreciated that in the past, the way Niall doesn’t mince words. Maybe not so much when it’s being used against him.

“I—what?” Louis says, blinking rapidly.

“You’re actually dating,” Harry says. “Not just pretending to date when it’s convenient.”

Louis doesn’t say anything.

Zayn raises at eyebrow at him. “How many times have you kissed Liam now? Only counting the times you used tongue.”

“I’m not going to answer that!” Louis says. “That’s private!”

Niall screeches like a demented bird. “So … more than three times, then?”

“Shut up.” Niall’s not technically right, it’s only been twice with tongue, but Louis can feel himself pouting and he desperately tries to stop it but there’s really nothing else his face is interested in doing. “Liam and I are not dating.”

“No,” Harry says, even slower than usual. “You’re just mates who live together and hold hands and go out to dinner with each other’s families and snog.”

Well, Harry’s not wrong about the facts, but—“You’re twisting it all about!” Louis says, too loud. “It’s not like that! Liam doesn’t want it to be like that!”

No one says anything, and in the silence Louis reevaluates his objections. Oh.

“And I don’t want it to be like that either,” he tacks on weakly. Predictably, no one seems to believe him.

“We know you a bit better than that, mate,” Niall says.

“Wait,” Louis says. It’s taken him this long to catch on to the part of this all that’s odd. “I never told any of you Liam and I were pretending to date.”

Niall rolls his eyes and looks at Louis like he’s an absolute idiot. “I was at the Christmas party, you twat. It wasn’t difficult to suss out what was going on. And then we asked Liam, and he explained everything.”

Louis can’t really think of anything to say to that, but Zayn is glaring at him, so he wouldn’t try, even if he could. Harry is frowning at him, which is as unthreatening as Harry’s frowns always are, but Zayn looks genuinely angry.

“You need to sort this out,” Zayn says. Louis isn’t scared of him, not really, but he’s a lot closer to scared than he’s ever been of Zayn before.

“Seriously,” Niall says. “You’re allowed to be as much of an idiot about your own emotions as you want, but you’re absolutely forbidden from messing Liam about.” Niall’s not much better than Harry at looking threatening—kittens, the pair of them—but Louis does have a flash of memory of the kitten Stan got when they were in sixth form, the one that violently hated him and always tried to shred his legs. It had hurt.

“Fine,” Louis says. He’s not really sure what he can do about it—he’s got no idea how he’s messing Liam about—but he needs to say something to shut them up.

They look satisfied with his concession, and Zayn even offers to buy him a drink. As liquid courage for talking to Liam, which Louis is categorically not going to do (yet), but it’s still a free drink. So he accepts it, of course.

--

After that, well. Louis can’t go back to looking at Liam the way he did before. He used to be able to look at Liam’s arms and his back and his ridiculous smiles and not think about how much taller Liam is or what it would be like if Liam pinned his wrists to the bed (he could probably do it with one hand, and Christ, Louis can’t be thinking like that).

Louis used to be able to just not think about things like that. About what the implications are of this new thing they have, where they kiss sometimes. Liam’s not the type for casual hookups—Louis got him drunk and asked him, once, and Liam said that if there weren’t any emotions, he might as well just have a wank and avoid the awkwardness of it all. But Liam hasn’t said anything about the kiss, hasn’t pushed it farther and hasn’t tried to stop it either.

Right now, Liam is in the kitchen. He’s reaching for something off the very top shelf of the cupboard; it’s high, even for Liam, and there’s a strip of skin exposed between his t-shirt and his jeans. Louis can’t tear his eyes away from it, except to glance momentarily at the pull of the cotton across Liam’s shoulders.

Louis has worn that shirt. Not for a while now, but he’s nicked it—and other things—from Liam’s clean clothes a few times. He remembers how big it felt, too loose through the shoulders and with length to spare, the extra fabric crumpling above his hips. He swallows hard.

Fuck Harry and Niall and Zayn for bringing it up. This used to be so much easier.

“Is pasta all right?”

It takes Louis an embarrassingly long time to process the words, focused as he is on the lines of Liam’s torso and the way he can nearly see the outlines of Liam’s muscles through the shirt.

“Yeah,” he finally manages to say. “That sounds great.” He sounds a little choked, maybe, but hopefully Liam won’t notice. Louis manages to flick his eyes back to the TV—he’s ostensibly watching the football match—before Liam turns around. The air feels too thick. Weighty, maybe. It never used to be like this and Louis thinks he wishes it could go back.

He does like getting to kiss Liam occasionally, though. And dancing with Liam, that was pretty nice as well.

thanks for fucking it all up, he texts Harry, whose response is prompt.

it was already fucked up, we just pointed it out to you.

Wanker.

He doesn’t respond to Harry’s message, because Harry is useless, but his mobile buzzes again anyway. you said you were going to sort it out.

Louis sighs. What Harry lacks in power to instill fear, he makes up for in persistence. Louis’s not really afraid of what’ll happen if he ignores Harry, but it’ll be a right pain the arse, having to deal with messages every day about sorting things out with Liam.

Besides, he got the strong impression that there was something Zayn wasn’t telling him. And maybe the others as well, but especially Zayn. He’s not so dense as to not have realized that Zayn’s the most likely to know what’s going on in Liam’s head, which is sometimes so difficult for Louis to fathom.

Liam is so simple and straightforward, sometimes, but there are bits of him that have never quite made sense, because they’re so unlike Louis. He’s so steady and kind and he’ll do anything for the people he loves—that bit Louis understands—but he loves so easily. Easily and openly and everyone, and there are some days that Louis just wants to take all the love that Liam has in him and keep it for himself, wrap himself up in how much Liam cares for him until he doesn’t have to think about anything else.

Those are always the days he ends up poking at Liam endlessly, begging for his attention, texting him constantly and being endlessly twitchy until Liam finds a moment between his lessons to respond, incoherent and with too many letters in the middle and smiley faces at the end. He’s twitchy now, wringing his hands to try and get out the need to move. Maybe this is why Liam runs, that desperate inability to contain everything, the need to let it out somehow.

Normally, Louis would just bound into the kitchen and wrap himself around Liam’s back, tickle him until he was unable to cook, but he can’t stop thinking of how much calmer he feels when he does that. He remembers dancing with Liam, and how easy it was to sleep in the same bed, and Harry and Niall and Zayn glaring at him and telling him to sort things out.

The fact that it’s easier to pretend to date Liam occasionally than it is to actually date other people is even more telling than he thought, and Louis wants to smack himself in the face when he realizes it. It’s not that he’s just so familiar with Liam that it’s easy to act like they’re dating, it’s that they already act like they’re dating. Holding hands and hugging and kissing on the cheek feels familiar and easy because it is, and he’d just never bothered to look at it as anything but totally platonic.

But maybe it isn’t?

Maybe it wasn’t all along.

Louis wants to bury himself in the blanket that’s currently folded on the back of the sofa—Christ but Liam is tidy—and never come out. That might be a bit odd, though. And he’d never get any supper, because Liam won’t let him eat under the blanket.

Instead, he drags himself into the kitchen and helps as best he can. It’s difficult, difficult to tear his eyes away from Liam’s shoulders, difficult to keep from thinking about what it would be like to just crowd up behind Liam and lick a stripe up the back of his neck.

It’s not until they’re eating, and the food has calmed Louis’s sudden panic that Liam will realize everything and their whole friendship will become unbearably awkward, that Louis remembers Liam kissing him back, as enthusiastic about it as Louis was. Liam’s not the type to do something like that without knowing what it means; he’s not the type to do anything they’ve done without knowing what it means.

Louis is struck with the sudden and uncomfortable realization that, sometimes, Liam is a lot cleverer than he is. (It’s not the first time he’s had this realization.)

“Is everything all right?” Liam asks. They’ve been silent a long time, much longer than usual.

Louis hates how thoughtful he is.

“Er,” he says, unwilling to lie but unsure how to put I think I might be in love with you, and might have been in love with you for years now into words without sounding a bit demented. “Is it strange that we keep pretending that we’re dating each other instead of trying to find actual dates?”

“A bit,” Liam says, but he’s smiling so fondly, it feels like something’s trying to claw its way out of Louis’s chest.

“Should we stop?” Louis asks, but he doesn’t want to stop and, before he can help it, he’s following the question up with, “Or should we do something else instead?” It’s strange and inarticulate and he’s certain Liam will have no idea what he’s saying but—

“Only if you want to,” Liam says with a soft smile.

And Louis doesn’t, so he doesn’t respond. Instead, there’s a moment of silence before he starts in on a story about how they’d had actual children on the show today and there was one who was the most devious little bastard and Louis had wanted to keep him and train him to be a stealth prankster.

Liam giggles at him, and smiles in all the right places, and it’s almost like it was before.

--

Lying awake a few nights later, Louis caves and sends Harry possibly the most pathetic text message he’s ever sent: I don’t know how to fix things w liam.

Harry’s response, which is both helpful and completely useless, is he likes grand romantic gestures, yeah? And you’re good at those, so do something insane and romantic and then tell him you love him and want to adopt children with him.

Louis doesn’t respond by asking how Harry knows those things, because he’s sometimes above insulting Harry’s intelligence.

He finally drifts off, but he dreams of messages spelled out in hot air balloons and marriage proposals at American football games like he’s seen on youtube.

--

The idea he finally comes up with is stupid and reckless—so reckless Liam may hate it—but it’s all Louis can think of. He doesn’t have the money to take Liam out somewhere nice enough to make it clear what he’s doing, and that’s not their style anyway. He doesn’t want this to change everything; he wants them to still be themselves, just with more kissing and more sex.

So it’s this or hanging love poems up around their flat, and just the thought of that makes Louis cringe. Stupid and reckless is better than that. He can risk public humiliation, that’s nothing.

Still, he has to write out what he’s going to say on a scrap of paper and tuck it into his pocket, so he doesn’t get tripped up from nerves and make an arse of himself. He spends the entire show steeling himself, reminding himself that Liam might not be watching anyway, that this might not end catastrophically.

And despite all that, he nearly doesn’t do it. There’s just a couple of minutes left, and Louis’s meant to wish the viewers a cheerful farewell and tell them what’s happening tomorrow—which is ridiculous, because they’re all five and don’t care what’s happening tomorrow—but he’s going to do something else today.

Taking a deep breath, he rests his fingers against the scrap of paper in his pocket and says, “Thank you all for watching our show today and—” another deep breath now. “Instead of telling you what’s on tomorrow, which is helpfully posted on our website, I have something more important to say, even though it’s probably going to get me sacked. I—well, I think I’ve messed my flatmate about a bit, but I want him to know that I’m completely gone for him.”

Louis swallows hard, and finishes. “Hopefully I won’t get sacked for this, and I’ll be here again tomorrow. Have a lovely day!”

As soon as the cameras cut, his mobile starts vibrating audibly in the pocket of the jacket he tossed in the corner of the studio earlier.

“That’ll be Liam, then,” he says to no one in particular.

His producer Lou waves him off, and mouths something he’s pretty sure is, “Go get him.” Louis dives for his mobile and nearly runs out of the studio as Lou calls, “See you tomorrow” after him.

Well, at least he still has a job, even if Liam laughs in his face.

--

come home now, Louis’s mobile informs him, in the form of a text from Liam. It’s clearly serious because it’s correctly spelled; Louis’s heart clenches.

--

Louis is the one who basically sprinted from the tube station and is gasping for breath in the doorway to his own flat, but Liam’s the one who seems to be struggling to find a voice. He’s just standing there, staring at Louis with an expression Louis’s not sure he’s ever seen before. It seems like a nice expression, though. Which is hopeful.

“I—” Liam says, cutting himself off and flailing his hands a bit. “Me too, shit, Louis, me too.”

There’s—how is Louis supposed to react to that? Grand gestures like this only ever work out in films, not in real life, but Liam is standing in front of him and saying that he’s gone on Louis as well and just—

Louis kisses him, because there are no words for this feeling, or if there are, he doesn’t know them. It’s somewhere between their previous kisses, longer than the confused early-morning press of lips but less intense than the first one in Louis’s mum’s kitchen. For all the softness of it, the way Liam’s mouth is warm and giving against Louis’s, it’s still completely overwhelming.

Liam—Liam is kissing him. In their flat. Because they’re going to do this, they’re going to date like proper boyfriends, instead of just fucking around and pretending it’s a normal thing for mates to do. They need to talk about this, Louis thinks wildly, but instead of doing it, he nips gently at Liam’s lower lip and Liam makes a tiny noise.

Louis wants to save the noise in his heart forever, quiet and whimpery and like he never wants Louis to stop kissing him. He does eventually stop, because they can’t do this forever, they have to breathe, and breathing is extraordinarily difficult when he’s more focused on Liam’s tongue in his mouth.

“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” Liam whispers against Louis’s lips when he pulls away. Louis understands; this isn’t like the other times, because this time they both know what it means.

“We need to talk,” Louis says, and Liam nods.

“Do we need to talk right now?” Liam asks, blushing just the slightest bit. It’s so clear what he wants, and Louis wants it too, but the headiest part is just the idea of standing here on a perfectly normal day and Liam saying he wants to wait to talk about dating Louis until—until after they’ve fucked.

Louis leans in and seals his lips against Liam’s, because he doesn’t know how long he’s wanted to do this for but it’s long enough he’s not going to put it off to talk more. Liam’s right; they can talk after he’s kissed Liam’s neck and his shoulders and the spot on his side that always makes him giggle when Louis touches it. Just—later.

--

After—a thousand times after, after Louis has explored the lines of Liam’s stomach with his tongue and after Liam’s touched places Louis never knew he so desperately wanted Liam to touch—when he’s half-asleep on Liam’s shoulder, Liam asks him something. It’s so quiet and Louis is so sleepy he doesn’t catch it, though.

“Hmm?” he says, his lips vibrating against Liam’s skin.

“It’s my pupils’ end-of-term concert in three weeks,” Liam says, his hand stilling where it’s been drawing shapes on Louis’s back. “And I was wondering if you wanted to be my date. For real.”

The thing that’s always twisting in Louis’s stomach twists again, but it’s more pleasant this time. Like instead of twisting with wanting something he can’t have, he’s just happy that it’s happened. But regardless, it’s difficult to turn his thoughts into the kinds of words he needs right now, soft and intimate and—it’s easier to just push himself up and kiss Liam.

After he’s poured what was possibly years of ignorant longing into yet another kiss, it’s easy to rest his forehead against Liam’s and say, “I would love that. As long as we don’t have to give this up until then.”

Liam laughs. “Never. Not now I’ve got you like this.” And then something that sounds dangerously like never letting you go now is muffled by Louis’s mouth. But just the idea that Liam might have said that is enough to have Louis climbing over to straddle his hips and kiss him breathless. Again.

And again again again again again forever, Louis thinks fuzzily when Liam’s hands come up to clutch at his hips and he kisses back.