It starts with a baby crying in the middle of the night.
Only it doesn’t, not really. It starts on the worst day of Liam’s life, which is saying something or should, at least to someone who deals with metaphors for a living.
“I’m - I’m sorry, Li. I’m - I’ll go now, okay? If you need anything.” Danielle sighs, like she knows there’s not much point in saying any of this, because keep in touch and it’s not you, it’s me and we weren’t really going to work out mean less than nothing now. She hesitates a small moment, then reaches a small hand out to squeeze Liam’s wrist, fingers scraping along the bracelet she’d gotten him for his last birthday. He’s not sure why but it hits him then; that’s the last time Dani laughed with him, while it was still easy, while they were still easy, when she wrapped that hand around his wrist and pressed her lips to his palm and whispered happy birthday, babe into his mouth.
He lifts his head up when she’s let go off him and he’s a moment too late to catch her, because she’s turned her back to him already and her hair is all he can see as she walks away, winding her way through the tables. When she pushes the glass door behind her and the wooden sign that says Closed bounces against it, he thinks for a moment she might stop, pause and just think, think about what she’s doing. But she’s gone under a sheet of London rain, lost in the crowd of suits and umbrellas, and Liam has to breathe through his mouth and clear his head, because the love of his life has just up and gone, left him with nothing more than empty words and a cold cup of coffee in front of him. Jesus Christ.
He wants to wallow - needs to, more like - and he’s just about to raise his hand for a double on the rocks or their strongest lager or anything, really, to stave off the burning in his chest, when the pocket of his jacket starts vibrating and Jason Derulo starts crooning his name in a high falsetto. He jumps, completely undignified, and pats his chest down until he manages to pull his phone out, glaring at the Louis - Statue of Liberty emoji - Tomlinson flashing on screen. He hits silent and hates himself for feeling guilty about it but he can’t talk to Louis now, he can’t talk to anyone, because no one knows and he’s not going to be the one that tells them. He puts the phone face down on the table and plants his own head next to it, trying not to lose it in the middle of a packed tea shop in Kensington.
His phone buzzes twice more because Louis’ never accepted no for an answer and Liam groans every time, trying not to play Danielle’s last words over and over again in his mind. He counts five minutes under his breath since the last call, when the phone buzzes once more, short this time, and Liam looks to the side curious. Louis’ never had the patience for texting; he’s not Harry, who’ll text you anything from a too long hiiiiiii to a knock-knock joke just for the hell of it, and he’s not Niall, who’s always too busy to answer the phone but never too busy to ignore you completely. He taps his blunt nails on the surface of the table, steeling himself; he’s not sure if he’s supposed to feel anything other than the numbness in his body, but now there’s curiosity, and he’s not sure if he’s allowed that yet.
Answer your fucking phone Liam it’s IMPORTANT
it’s about Harry Li please
Liam’s cheek is still pressed on the cool surface of the table but his movements are mechanic, sliding the phone unlocked and hitting dial. There’s a small voice inside him that’s repeating a steady mantra; no more bad news, not today, I can’t handle anymore today. He feels selfish just for thinking it, like maybe he’s only allowed that much sadness in one day and he’s already been careless with it, but he can’t help it. There’s a lump in his throat as he listens to the dial tone and he tries to ignore the girl in the green apron squinting at him carefully as she wipes down one table over.
“Liam,” Louis sounds breathless on the other line, as if he’s been running a marathon. Liam imagines him pushing through the crowd in a subway station in New York, bundled up from the September cold. He’s so far away, Liam realises; he’s so far away and Liam misses him, misses him terribly right now. He could use a Louis to make him smile.
“Hey, Lou,” he murmurs, hating how gruff his voice sounds. He clears his throat into his fist, cheek still moulded on the table. The line crackles in his ear.
“I’ve been calling for fifteen minutes, you twat, what you got a phone for, Jesus.”
It’s not the soft, comforting voice Liam was hoping for, but then, Louis doesn’t know, and he’s never expected soft from Louis. “I’m sorry, I - I was - um -”
“Do you think I fucking care, mate, I didn’t call international to have a chat. I - sorry, dude, this is my cab - Li, wait.” There’s more static and the sound of someone cursing loudly and then it’s almost quiet, and Louis’ breathing down the line again. Liam waits patiently and watches the tea shop girl collect the rubbish in a bin bag; she comes over to his table and points silently at Dani’s half-full latte. Liam shrugs. He can’t blame the girl for looking at him like he’s a lunatic.
“What is it you wanted, Lou,” he says in a resigned voice, his eyes shut. “Only I’m not - I can’t really talk no-”
“Nothing - I repeat, nothing is more important than what I’m about to tell you, Liam Payne.” It’s Louis’ change of tone more than anything that makes Liam blink and sit up, massaging the side of his face that’s gone to sleep. He feels alert all of a sudden, like he’s woken up from a deep slumber.
“What’s wrong, Louis? Are you - did something happen -?”
“No. Well, yeah, but not to me. I guess Harry hasn’t called? Dammit, I told him -”
Liam inhales sharply and his knuckles are turning white around the mug he’s holding. “What happened to Harry?”
Louis sighs all the way from New York and Liam feels his heart clench a little. It has to be bad; it’s got to be bad if Louis’ calling from the other side of the world and Harry isn’t calling at all. “There was an accident. Not Harry, before you throw a fit, Harry - Harry’s fine. He just - Anne just called me, he wasn’t up to talking on the phone much.” He can hear Louis swallow and, god, Liam’s about a second away from boarding a plane and killing him. He stands up and grabs the messenger bag hanging from the chair, loops it over his shoulder and walks to the door. Danielle took his umbrella; he’s just going to have to brave the storm, quite literally. He bows his head down and pushes through the commuters, heavy drops flattening his hair. He presses the phone closer to his ear.
“...the car crashed, on the M25. The baby wasn’t with them, it was at a friend’s house or something? I don’t know, I’m not sure, Anne wasn’t either and Harry - you know Haz, he just got to the hospital, he’s freaking out, they’re - they were his oldest friends, he’s known them since he was, like, sixteen, before us, before me even and. I just. Liam, I’m in New York. I can’t - Liam, can you -?”
“Of course,” Liam says instantly, and it’s good to know, there’s this, this one thing he can definitely know about himself. There’s nothing that would make him hesitate doing this. “I’m going straight to Euston, there’s - I think there’s a train going to Cheshire in an hour.”
Louis practically laughs with relief. “Thanks, man. I don’t think I can make it for another two days, there aren’t any flights and my credit card’s all maxed out and, like, I’ll be there for the funeral, I have to be and it’s -”
“Hey. Hey, Louis, don’t - don’t worry, yeah? I can do this.” He stands by the entrance to South Kensington station, phone in his hands shaking a little, either from the cold or the magnitude of this. “If Harry needs anything, I’ll be there. In - in a few hours, in fact, so, just. Don’t worry.”
“‘Course, ‘course. Knew we could count on you, Li. Take care of him, yeah? I’ve - I’ve got to go now. I’ll talk to you later when I’m on my laptop. Give H a hug from me. And say hi to Dani, yeah? Love you, mate. Bye!”
The phone clicks off before Liam has time to say goodbye back. He stares at it for a second and wonders briefly how long he’s going to have that pain to deal with, that sharp nothing from when people mention Danielle casually in conversation. He doesn’t let himself dwell on it though, because he’s getting soaked and the train to Cheshire leaves at 2:05. Popping the collar of his jacket, he takes the slippery steps two at a time.
That’s how it starts then, really. On a rainy day in London, with a car crashing two hundred miles away and a baby with no parents crying in the middle of the night.
The funeral happens on a Tuesday and Liam’s sort of ashamed that his first thought is that there’s no way there will be this many people at his own funeral.
It comes with the territory, he thinks (he hopes); being a writer - even a mediocre one for a shitty London-based tabloid - he’s bound to be a bit more melodramatic than most. He looks at each of the faces around him, all the drab black, and the pinched expressions, and the tears, even the crocodile ones, and he finds himself wondering.
You want it to be a dreadful occasion, selfishly. You want women on their knees, sobbing, drying heaving sobs about what a waste it is that you’re gone; you want men tearing their hair out, jealous even at that moment that you’ve stolen some sort of thunder just by kicking the bucket; you want family and friends to grieve, to feel the profound loss because you mattered to someone, and you not being part of the world more is something that will scar them, even if it’s not graceful to admit. You catch yourself imagining, sometimes, the exact dress your wife will wear when she gets the news, or the shade of lipstick she’ll press her final kiss with, or the hand clenched around her wrist as she tries to keep it together. Is that selfish, really, to want to know you meant something to someone? Are we that immune to ourselves, that celebrating life is of more consequence than cursing death?
Liam blinks, once, twice, and focuses on the fingers snapping in front of him. He needs to stop writing in his head, because he’s never had the greatest memory and there’s no notebook around to jot anything down. It’s not as if death is a particularly popular subject to write about in the tabloid; unless it’s a London socialite with massive boobs or something, death is reduced to the half page of obituaries Liam was just promoted from.
“I - right, sorry. Are we supposed to do something?” He glances over to his left, where Zayn is sitting, hands clasped over his lap. It’s a small church and it’s packed with people, but he and the boys are left sitting at the back, he and Niall and Zayn, their eyes focused not on the two caskets at the head of the church, but on the pews in the front. Liam lifts his head up an inch, just to make sure they’re both still there; he catches sight of Harry’s unruly curls, head bowed down a little, and then Louis’ wilting quiff, that hasn’t left Harry’s side since he got to Cheshire last night. He’s grateful for that much at least, Louis being here to handle it; Liam can write about death, no problem. He can make it sound poetic and meaningful and bring a tear to your eyes because it’s his job. But this is too real; this is one of his best friends crying when Liam finally got to Holmes Chapel, this is two cold bodies that make a chill travel down his spine, this is a nine-month old baby who’s breaking into sobs in Harry’s arms because she needs her mum.
“No, it’s just,” Zayn looks uncomfortable, glancing from left to right. “D’you think we can go outside? This is fucking with my head.”
Liam nods, even though he should probably say something like, we should stay and be here for Harry or we’re supposed to be mourning. But he doesn’t, because Zayn is like him more than people think, and he knows they’re feeling the same guilt, when you’re not sad for the same reason everyone else is. Plus Liam’s more observant than people give him credit for; he’s noticed the shake in Zayn’s hand, he knows it’s the nerves more than anything that have him craving for a cigarette.
They walk out, trying to make themselves as small as possible, Liam leading the way, and Zayn following, his hand wrapped tight around Niall’s wrist. It’s so much easier to breathe when they push the church doors shut behind them; even if it’s pissing down with rain, the harsh Northern weather making Liam’s bones creak, it’s preferable to the feeling inside. There’s hopelessness there, and anger, and so much sadness Liam feels like the world is out of it, every single bad feeling locked tight in a small church in Cheshire.
Zayn’s fingers are nimble with his cigarette. He bites one end with his teeth and nudges Niall’s hands around his mouth to keep the lighter from flickering. Liam watches them from a few steps away, feeling like an intruder, same as he has all day. Zayn exhales a breath of smoke and shakes his head and Niall leans over to kiss the corner of his mouth, pressing his forehead against Zayn’s cheek. It’s so soft and intimate and it makes Liam ache, that he’s jealous of his best friends for having what he thought he had. God, this whole fucking day is making him feel guilty; guilty for not being there for Harry enough, guilty for wishing Dani was here, guilty for envying Zayn and Niall’s easy comfort.
“What are you doing, Payno, c’mere.” Niall is smiling at him, a small, private real smile that Liam holds onto like a lifeline, and then they’re all huddled together, keeping each other warm as best they can.
“This is shit,” Zayn mumbles through a puff of smoke. “This is so shit.”
“You said it, babe,” Niall says, stealing the cigarette from Zayn’s hand and taking a hit. He looks steadier after it and Liam doesn’t smoke, not really, not ever, but he still lifts a hand to pluck it out of Niall’s grip. It makes him feel like a teenager; sharing a smoke with his best mates, like smoking will make something right.
“Did Haz tell you about the will, Liam?” Zayn asks suddenly, cigarette back in his mouth. Liam shakes his head; Harry hadn’t told him anything much over the last few days. He hadn’t been around enough, constantly at the beck and call of his goddaughter who was staying with her grandparents on the other side of Holmes Chapel. It made Liam feel useless, really, until Louis came home from Manchester airport and gave him a rough hug and said, good, Li, you did good.
“It’s fucked up, is what it is,” Zayn’s saying, stamping out his smoke aggressively. “Like, I know they weren’t expecting it, who expects to die in their thirties, right? But, like, Harry’s still at Uni, he’s barely twenty-five, I don’t understand how they thought it was a good idea. He can’t - he can’t put his life on hold for a kid he’s gonna have to raise for the next eighteen years!”
Liam tries to understand where he’s missed the thread of conversation, because this, this doesn’t make sense. Niall seems just as lost.
“You’re the lawyer here, Z. Can’t he just - say no?”
Zayn makes a frustrated noise. “That’s just it, though. He can. But he doesn’t want to! Like, I know he loves that kid to death - Jesus, sorry - but he can’t expect to be a parent to her, when he’s still - Harry’s still a kid, himself. I know he fancies himself a great godfather and, like, I’m sure he is, but this is different and I don’t think he understands how difficult this is gonna be. And her grandparents are willing to take her and I just - god, he’s being so stupid!”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Zayn.”
All three of them jump about a foot in the air and Liam looks at Zayn’s absolutely horrified face before he turns around, watching the church doors swing shut a second time. Louis is standing there, shifting his weight from one foot to another, breathing hotly into his hands, trying to get circulation flowing. He makes a small move with his head at Zayn, a shut up or I will murder you kind of face, and Zayn looks down, for all the world like a schoolboy caught cheating. Niall is playing with Zayn’s pack of Marbs, beating them against his hipbone like he’s nervous. God, it feels so wrong, to know there’s a balance between them and it’s broken or needs to be fixed, and Liam hates it. He knows it’s his fault just as much as the others; he hasn’t dared look at Harry since they came out of the church.
He does though, when he hears a small pathetic sort of sob that’s gut-wrenching. He looks up and sees Harry in his creased black suit, the one Liam remembers he wore for his graduation, hair tumbled over his forehead like he hasn’t let it do in over a year, and a baby in his arms, holding onto one of his fingers like it’s the only thing she knows anymore. His heart might stop for a moment, he’s not entirely sure; it’s painful, seeing one of his best friends look so broken and knowing the only thing keeping him together is the tight hold a little girl has on him. He’s not sure why it dawns on him then; he just knows that this is an image he’ll remember for a long time and, at the same time, he knows Harry can do this. If this is what he wants, to raise a baby, to raise a kid even though he’s still a kid himself, Liam knows he can do it.
He doesn’t mean for it but their eyes meet as he realises the last. Puffy, red-rimmed eyes, with black circles under them and just a hint of green, but somehow he manages to make them smile when he looks at Liam. And Liam smiles back, because it’s the easiest thing to do, smiling is, smiling back at Harry, and he hopes it’s all there, what he knows, but can’t say.
“I think you can do it.” He didn’t mean that either, the words tumbling out of his mouth, but it’s happened and he can’t take it back and he doesn’t want to, not with the way Harry is smiling at him, properly now, all dimples and teeth and easy eyes. He can feel rather than see Louis’ eyes crinkle at the corners and Niall nudges him softly, a silent yeah, I think so too, and Zayn sighs not like he’s lost, but like he can’t help but love the idiots he’s friends with. Maybe that’s what does it, then; brings them back, all five of them.
“I hope so,” Harry says, still looking at Liam, shifting the baby in his arms until she leans the side of her head on Harry’s shoulder, eyes fluttering shut. Liam moves forward, hand delicate as he can make it as rubs a knuckle down her spine. She’s breathing shallowly, like she’s eager for it, and he can feel her tiny heartbeat on the pads of his fingers. It’s kind of humbling, to know such a small human can exist. Harry’s watching him, still smiling. “I hope I can do it. We’ll try at least, won’t we, Hols?”
He feels Niall’s chin hook over his shoulder and sees Zayn out of the corner of his eyes taking his place next to Harry, whispering something that looks like an apology into his ear. Louis hasn’t moved an inch, stuck to Harry like he has since yesterday, a frown on his face which Liam recognises well enough to know there’s an argument coming soon. He relaxes though, when he looks at Liam. Not today. I’ll do it tomorrow.
They stay like that until the funeral’s over and Liam only lets Holly go when she starts mumbling into Harry’s neck, hungry.
“You can’t do this alone, Harry!”
Liam pinches his nose between his thumb and forefinger and focuses his gaze on the burn mark on the breakfast table. He wonders whether it was a hot pan or oil spat out from the oven or anything, really, because he doesn’t care. He just can’t listen to this argument again. It’s been three days and he’s pretty sure he’s heard every variation of it, in varying volumes depending on whether Holly is asleep or not. Zayn and Niall had the best idea of the lot of them, packing up and heading back to London, even if their excuse was that they both had to work. Liam’s still not entirely sure why he’s still here.
“Jeez, thanks, Lou, thank you for not making me feel like shit for deciding to raise a baby, I really needed to know that I’m useless at it, honestly, it completely flew over my head that this would be hard!” Harry’s yelling, yelling the way that Liam knows he’s angry, all simmering under the surface and measured tone and drawn up to his full height to make himself look daunting. It doesn’t work, because Louis’ still the most daunting figure in the house even if he’s the smallest, but Liam’s not about to tell either of them that. He leans against the countertop and watches their argument like he would a tennis match; his neck will feel this tomorrow.
“You frustrating fucking -” Louis all but pulls his hair out. “That’s not what I fucking said! You can do this, of course you can do this, but raising a baby is hard enough, you can’t expect to do it on your own -”
“Her grandparents live down the street, my mum is twenty minutes away, your mum lives in Manchester and she promised she’s a phone call away, Louis. I can do it. And I’m not letting you be stupid, just because you think I’m incompetent!” Harry lets out a frustrated growl and scrunches his nose up like he’s five years old and maybe Liam should say something, but Harry and Louis are terrifying enough without him butting into it. He turns instinctively towards the baby monitor he’s taken to carrying around with him while he’s been staying here and listens, tuning out the shouting match in front of him. Nothing, thankfully. Holly’s still asleep.
Louis’ shoulders sag, like he’s tired all of a sudden. “Babe. I know. And I don’t think you’re incompetent, I’ve seen you with her. It’s just. I know a little bit about this, I could help, I want to help.”
Harry does that thing, where he tries to become small, tries to fit in whatever space he’s in, as if he’s still not sure why the whole room lights up when he’s in it. Liam feels a smile tugging at the corners of his lips; Harry’s just so Harry, sometimes, and Liam can’t quite deal with that fact.
“I could never ask you to do that, though, Lou. I could never live with myself. You - you have a life in New York and I’d never - I’d say yes if you were living back here, of course I would. But you’re my best mate and I would never say yes now.”
Louis sighs and Liam recognises it in him, the sign that Louis’ all but given up. “I’m not gonna change your mind about this, am I?” He’s looking up at Harry, with the same fond look he has all these years; Liam breathes out with relief.
“Nope,” Harry grins. “Sorry, I plan on telling my goddaughter how her Uncle Louis is some big shot professor at Columbia soon.”
Louis laughs. “Fine, fine. And what about London? You’re not - you’re not thinking about moving back there? For school and all?”
Harry squares his shoulder and looks over at Liam. He’s been doing that lately, readying himself for something hard by glancing over at Liam, like it meant something when Liam said he believed he could do it. Liam bites his bottom lip and blinks; it seems to do the trick.
“School’s on hold for now,” Harry says finally, tearing his gaze away from Liam. “And there’s no point in staying in London, not when they left me this house. I loved growing up here and they wanted Holly to grow up here and it just. It makes sense.”
Louis nods slowly. He’s inched closer to Harry, like he’s saying sorry, because they’ve both been better with showing each other, rather than telling. Liam watches them carefully, because it feels like the argument’s finally coming to a close. “What about when you start working again?”
Harry runs a hand through his hair, jittery again. Liam has the sudden urge to still his hands, if only to soothe him, but he stays put because this feels like Louis’ territory anyway. “Nick said I can go whenever I want, like, they don’t need me straight away, the radio isn’t going to fall apart without me, so, I’m - I’m just gonna wing it until I figure it out. And I know that doesn’t sound responsible or whatever, so don’t say it, Lou, but it’s the best I can do and she’s my priority always so -”
“Hey, hey, I’d ever say that. Of course, I know she’s your priority, I’m just worried about you. It’s so much, Harry, and you can do it, ‘course, I’m only -” and here Louis turns to Liam, almost desperate and Liam doesn’t know what possesses him really. Only, he’s been thinking of it since he left London almost a week ago now and it makes sense, doesn’t it, and Harry’s one of his best friends, and it’s not running away, not really, it isn’t.
“I can do it,” Liam says and his voice sounds so steady and sure, even he’s shocked by it. Harry and Louis look at him, both confused.
“Do what,” asks Harry dumbly. Louis seems to catch up faster, because his face clears and he looks about a second away from kissing Liam.
“Stay here. If you want me to. Help with Hol. If you want me to. I mean,” he pushes away from the counter and walks up to Harry, looking at him as intently as he can, trying to show he means it. “I can work from here, easy. I could write a piece on Northern England or something, or a silly piece like ‘How Not To Raise A Baby With Two Idiots As Dads’, they’d probably love it at the paper. And, like, it’s not as if we’ve never lived together before. You know what I’m like, from Uni and all. We don’t need to get used to each other. If you want me to, Hazza. I can help you.”
Harry is biting both his lips, eyebrows meeting on his forehead, and it’s always something, to be met by Harry Styles’ intense stares. He doesn’t shy away from it though, because he knows Harry’s testing him, making sure he means it. He does mean it. I do.
“Liam fucking Payne, you absolute legend.” Louis’ hands both come down to clamp Liam’s shoulders and he’s shaken from meeting Harry’s gaze. He screws his eyes shut and then opens them again to smile at Louis.
“Hardly a legend. But I can help. With this.”
“What about Danielle?” It’s the first thing Harry’s said since Liam offered and it’s like ice water’s been thrown on him, because it’s the first time he’s heard her name since Louis talked about her on the phone.
“I,” he coughs, tries to clear his throat, looking anywhere but at Harry and Louis now. “That’s - that won’t be an issue. Not - not anymore.”
Louis’ fingers go slack. “Fuck. Payne. Why didn’t you -?”
“There were more important things happening.” He does glance at Harry now and he’s frowning again, almost angry.
“You should’ve said, Liam,” Harry says quietly. Liam shakes his head.
“What would have we done? Gone to the pub with the stroller? Had a heart to heart with milk instead of whisky? I’m fine, Haz. Or as fine as I can be.” If he says it enough times out loud, he’ll believe it, right?
“Is that why you offered? You want to run away from London?” He doesn’t sound like he’s accusing Liam, just curious. Louis makes a warning kind of noise.
“No, Harry! Of course not! I just.” He’s not sure how to explain it, is the thing. It’s not running away, he knows that much. “I need to leave. And you need m- you need someone to help you out. I can work from home, at least for a bit, and you know I love Holly. I can be here for you. For both of you.” He knows he sounds earnest and maybe like he’s trying to convince himself as much as Harry but it must work, because Harry visibly relaxes, his face breaking into a grin.
“D’you mean it? Really?”
Liam nods, not trusting himself to speak. Louis laughs from his other side.
“Look at you two, growing up, adopting.” Louis presses a hand to his chest. “I bagsy godfather to baby number two.”
“Fuck off, Lou,” Harry laughs, cheeks going a little pink. Liam feels like there’s a balloon in his chest, the way it’s expanding; it feels good, watching Harry look almost happy. Their eyes meet over Louis going over his best man speech for their eventual wedding apparently and Liam nods, once, just as Harry does.
It’s going to be fine, they both seem to be saying.
The funny thing is, though, it’s completely not bloody fine.
“Holly. Hols. Holly, love, light of my life. Please eat your dinner, baby.”
“Hollyyyyy. You can do it! Or I’ll eat it! Yum, mmm, look, I’m going to eat it, give it here, Harry, mmm!”
They both sound like absolute dolts, Liam's’ pretty sure, and he thinks there’s a fair chance Holly is on the same page as him, if her pout is anything to go by. She even has her arms crossed, which is, frankly, impressive. Liam is stumped by babies; babies are beyond his comprehension. Harry looks equally perplexed.
“Maybe mushy peas and mash just isn’t appetising, mate,” Liam says finally. “I mean, it looks kind of -” shit, he mouths at Harry, raising his eyebrows at the spoonful of yellow and green goo Harry’s holding in front of Holly’s high chair. Harry frowns at him, as if Liam’s just insulted his cooking skills.
“I’ve been slaving over this all morning, Liam,” he says blankly. Liam fights the urge not to giggle.
“I know you have, Hazza. Just. Maybe she’d rather have what we had? In smaller pieces? The book said we should treat her like a tiny adult.” Liam’s been reading How To books for the last two weeks; the bedside table in the guest room is nearly toppling over under the weight of fifteen books he borrowed from the library and Liam’s brain is still kind of fuzzy with baby raising information.
“What if she chokes, though? Chicken is sort of chewy. Her teeth are barely there.” Harry leans in, until his nose boops against Holly’s. She bats him away, giggling, and Liam winks at her.
“She’s not going to choke,” Liam says, trying to sound like he knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t, he doesn’t have a clue, but someone has to pretend to be the responsible adult and it might as well be the adult that’s writing about raising a baby in a prominent London newspaper.
Holly is an explorer in her heart of hearts. Every corner of every room is an adventure waiting to happen, anything that glimmers and shines is a treasure to be found and whatever catches her eye is worth enough to be tested, usually by biting it. There’s a ‘new parent hotline’ that I’ve been calling like it’s my job, usually wasting about half an hour explaining our living situation; yes, we live together, no, we’re not a couple, no, she’s not my daughter. It’s tough, especially when the logistics are hard enough to figure out by yourself, and it’s worse when supposed experts are being just plain dense about it. "It’s normal,” they say eventually, "biting and chewing is normal, even if you not being her dad is not”. Thanks for that, ‘new parent’ Expert Number Fifteen. You’ve been brilliant.
“Stop that,” Harry mutters, the spoon still flying circles around Holly’s unamused mouth. She reaches out to pull one of Harry’s erant curls and Liam wants to kiss her baby little head for it.
“Stop what,” Liam says, rummaging through a drawer for another spoon and filling it with mushy pea goo. Now they’re both making silly complicated movements in front of a baby that has no time for them.
“Stop writing. I can hear you thinking. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”
Liam blushes and looks at Harry as slyly as he can through the corner of his eye. Not as slyly as he could have, apparently, because Harry’s grinning at him as he catches him. “I’m not -”
“You are,” Harry says mildly. “You left your laptop on last night after you put Hols in bed. I snooped around.”
“Harry!” Liam hopes he sounds as outraged as he feels, but Harry’s still dimpling like a loon, so there’s not much hope there. “That’s, like - that’s private!”
“How is it private, Liam, you’re publishing it on Sunday.”
Liam twists his mouth, trying to find something smart to say. “It’s - it’s not, like, edited -”
“I wasn’t judging the writing, Li, and the writing’s quite good -”
“No, I mean,” Liam breathes out, always finding it difficult to express himself when he’s not doing it on a keyboard. “The rough draft is like - like a journal? And that’s, like, sort of private. Not everything’s going on the paper.”
Harry sits up, crossing his arms much like Holly, spoon dangling from his giant hand. He looks serious and Liam doesn’t like it when Harry’s serious.
“I’m sorry,” he says, finally. “I get that. Needing something private. I completely get it. It won’t happen again.”
Liam can’t help the smile on his face. He pulls a chair next to Harry. “I wasn’t scolding you, okay? You can probably take a look at the drafts whenever you want, they’re about you, aren’t they? Well, you and me and Holly. Just - just ask me first?”
Harry’s is the kind of smile you think can never get bigger than it is, and then it just - expands. “Okay. Thanks, Li. Not just for letting me read it.”
Liam takes a breath and nudges Harry’s side with his elbow. “In this together, aren’t we?”
Harry nods. “We are.” And, because he’s Harry, and can’t leave a lovely moment just be, he reaches an arm out and stuffs Liam’s mouth with mushy peas. Liam swallows before he even has a chance to realise what’s going on.
“You little s-”
“Not in front of the baby, Liam!” Harry crows, ecstatic, and Liam’s so bloody amused by him that he almost misses his chance. He doesn’t though, because Liam’s learnt from the best, and the best is Louis. So he returns the favour, and stuffs Harry with his own spoon.
“What the -?”
“You snooze, you lose, mate,” Liam says sagely. He turns to Holly, who’s looking on at them with delight. “That’s an important life lesson there for you, baby girl. You know, the mash isn’t half bad actually,” he says back to Harry.
“It’s alright, innit? What say you, Hol? Wanna try?”
Holly smacks her lips in response and Liam all but collapses with laughter.
...When you write for a living, your appearance is what you describe with words; the frown you wear on your face, the curve of your spine as you hold someone close, the bow of someone’s lips before you kiss them (or want to). So, it’s odd to suddenly realise that nothing you’re wearing matches. It happened at two am, on a Tuesday, and I was writing as I usually am at that time of night, and it took nothing more than looking down to notice. It was as if I grabbed every piece of random clothing I had that morning and put it together purely for the sake of putting something on. The thing is though, when you're so tired, it’s an accomplishment to just be wearing clothes, never mind looking good in them. I wonder if that’s something all parents have; a moment of dawning comprehension, where you realise, all of a sudden, that you’ve taken the backseat in your own life. What Holly wears matters, because Holly matters. Me - and Harry, if his jorts in the middle of winter are anything to go by - not so much.
“Are you hellbent on embarrassing me, Liam Payne?”
Liam jumps in his seat, a jolt of his shoulders when he hears Harry’s voice whispered in his ear, and he turns half around to throw him a look. “You scared me, you dick!”
“Language, Liam,” Harry, and he sounds delighted for it. He does one of his exaggerated winks that no one in the world knows what they mean and lollops over to Liam’s bed, his lanky body covering half of it. It’s late and Liam’s tired and he’s of half a mind to go over there and simply push Harry off. But then, Harry’s smiling like an idiot, eyes shut and chest rising and falling evenly, and Liam doesn’t have the heart for it. He looks back at his computer and saves the document, putting it on standby. It’s nice, the almost silence as he presses the heels of his hands to his eyes; there’s nothing but a little static coming from the baby monitor.
“Li,” Harry says suddenly and Liam blinks, half asleep and startled because he thought Harry had nodded off.
“Whassit, Haz,” he yawns, stretching his arms above his head and appreciating the cracking noise. He needs to start running again; all this baby raising business will make him pudgy.
Harry’s quiet for a long moment and Liam actually rolls over to the bed in the chair to check he hasn’t fallen asleep; he hasn’t. Even in the dark, Liam can make out his eyes almost sparkling.
“I start work tomorrow,” Harry says finally and oh. Liam was wondering when this would happen. The books warned him about it, called it leaving the nest, only he wasn’t sure how relevant it was in their case. Very relevant, apparently.
“You do,” Liam says gently, smiling as he leans over Harry. Harry smiles back, but it’s small.
“Maybe it’s too soon -”
“Maybe she still needs me here, I know you’re here and that was the whole point but -”
“Haz,” Liam repeats patiently.
“- but I’m not sure it’s the best idea for me to leave? Like, she’s a baby and I know you love her and she loves you too, but perhaps it’s best if we both stick around a bit longer -”
“Haz,” Liam says again, firmer this time, and he reaches an arm out to squeeze Harry’s bicep to remind him he’s here. Harry looks up at him like he’d never forgotten.
“It’s going to be fine, Harry. You’re going to go to work, because you’re good at it and you want to do it and, let’s face it, money’s always nice. And me and Hols will be fine and we’ll be waiting for you here at the end of the day. You can do it, Harry. Trust me.”
Harry inhales deeply, looking a bit less unsure of himself than before. “Am I doing okay, Li.” It’s less of a question and if he wasn’t paying attention to every little bit of Harry, he might have missed it, might have missed the way his lip curved up to mouth the words. He slips off the chair and sits himself at the edge of the bed, not letting go of Harry’s arm.
“What’s this, then,” he asks quietly, because it feels like this conversation is a secret, something no one is supposed to know of. There’s a part of him - small, he hopes, but it seems big, huge even - that feels like it’s not him he should be talking to about this. Harry should be talking to Louis, or Zayn even, or Niall, but Liam’s the one that’s here. He’s perversely grateful for that, at least. “What’s with you doubting yourself all of a sudden?”
Harry snorts mirthlessly. “Been on my mind, y’know. Always, really.”
Liam nods. “I do know.” Harry’s eyes flick up and his face goes softer, loses the harder edge it has when he’s worried.
“I know you do. ‘S why I’m here, isn’t it? You’re the only one who knows.”
Liam tries to swallow, but it’s hard suddenly, like something’s lodged in his throat. He hadn’t realised, but he’s making shapes against Harry’s skin, trying to soothe him, maybe. Maybe he’s soothing himself. “How am I doing, do you think?”
Harry smiles, bigger, truer this time. “Brilliant, Li. Honestly. I - I don’t think I could’ve done any of this without you. It’s - I mean, it’s barely a month, and we’re not, like, experts, anyway you look at it but, like. You don’t even know. How much I could not do this without you.”
Liam scratches his face with a free hand, if only to have something to do other than look at Harry. “You’re going to make me bloody cry, you idiot.”
“Don’t cry, Liam,” Harry pouts, nuzzling his face in Liam’s thigh, and Liam’s laughing suddenly and pushing him away.
“You’re a menace.”
Harry does his cheeky smile, the one Liam recognises from Uni, when he’d come back flushed and half drunk, and he’d whisper into Liam’s ear, until he was too tired to do anything else. It’s that flashback more than anything that makes him talk again. “You too, y’know.”
“Me too what?”
Liam sighs, but it’s happy. “You’re doing okay. You’re doing great. You’re - I don’t want to say dad, Haz, because I know that’s not what you want to hear, but you’re such a great parent to her. And you’re trying so hard and it’s just - you’re doing okay, I promise. More than.”
The corners of Harry’s mouth tilt up. “Okay. Okay, I believe you.”
“Good,” Liam says quietly. “Now, get your skinny arse of my bed, ‘cos I’m tired and you have work tomorrow so you need to sleep.” He pokes him to make a point. Harry giggles.
“Both those things can happen while I stay here,” Harry says pointedly. Liam frowns at him, confused for a second; then he gets it.
“Harry. We’re adults. Responsible adults. You can sleep on your own bed.”
Harry honest to god sulks. “C’mon, Li. Like old times.”
“That was in Uni.” Liam is relentless. He can say no to Harry. It’s totally possible. “And I always kicked you out, remember?”
“No, I don’t,” Harry says stubbornly. He bats his eyelashes, like he thinks he’s Zayn or something. “I’ve been sleeping awfully this week. I need a cuddle.”
“You’re five years old,” Liam shakes his head but his will is breaking and he knows Harry knows it.
“I am.” Harry moves to the side of the bed and pats down the space next to him. “Snuggle time.”
“A menace,” Liam repeats, walking over to his wardrobe and pulling off his holey slacks, rummaging through until he finds a pair of decent-looking pyjama bottoms. Harry wolf-whistles from behind him. Liam can feel the blush all the way to his ears. “I hate you.”
“Liar,” Harry grins, curling himself on his pillow, as Liam falls into bed, swimming a little in his baggy shirt. He can’t argue with that one. He tugs at a curl on Harry’s head, just because he can and inches closer, nose brushing against Harry’s. “Goodnight, Hazza.”
Harry makes a contented noise and snuggles closer. “G’night, Liam.”
There was a small Sainsbury’s in Holborn, just around the corner from his and Dani’s flat, where he’d pick the shopping up everyday after work. He remembers the list still; whole fat milk, whole fat yogurt, lemon (for veg!), coconut water, prod. of the season. She had a diet and she stuck to it, smiling at Liam whenever she came back home, exhausted after practice.There was a slight sheen on her skin and a sweatshirt tied around her middle and it was always his favourite part of the day, waiting to hear the keys scrape against the lock and Dani to dump her bag on the floor, stretching until Liam got the picture and came in for a cuddle.
He’s brought back to the present when a small hand paws at his face for attention and he looks away from the semi-skimmed milk to dote on the little creature in his arms. Holly seems satisfied enough when he gives her his finger to play with and turns it into an acceptable chew toy. Her teeth are sharper now, so it’s not as if it doesn’t hurt, but he can deal with this kind of pain; it keeps the other sort of dull ache at bay, which is all he can ask for. He leans over to grab a bottle of the red-capped milk and puts it in their trolley. One quick glance around tells him Harry’s still lost in the fresh produce aisle; what that boy sees in fresh fruit will never be something Liam understands.
He pushes the trolley idly, pausing in front of a biscuit display and holding Holly in front of it so she can pick herself. She’s big enough now that biscuits aren’t beyond her and she makes full use of it, chucking Digestives and Penguins and everything bright and red along with the rest of the shopping; he’ll have to sort it out later, when Harry gets back.
“What’s your name, then, little doll?”
Liam shifts Holly where she’s sitting on the crook of his elbow and turns her to face the older lady who’s smiling at them both. She’s got one of those nice faces Liam appreciates, lined and soft and wise almost; he’s not sure if it’s a thing to be nostalgic for a time that hasn’t come yet, but still, he’d like to maybe look like that when he’s older. Holly hides her face in his neck, suddenly all shy.
“Hey, Hols! C’mon, say hi to the nice lady! Like we’ve practiced! Hello!” He waves his free hand to show her and Holly does eventually, shaking a tiny fist and mumbling nonsense at Liam. Liam smiles apologetically at the lady.
“Hey, Li, didn’t you say avocado was good for kids around Hols’ age? I swear you did, I’m not just being a posh knobhead, am I, Nick says I’m turning into one of those hipster parent - Oh! Um, hi! Um?” Harry directs the last um to Liam, raising his eyebrows with a small smile.
“Holly’s being a little shy and won’t say a proper hi to the lady,” Liam explains, looking at the basket in Harry’s hand. “And, yeah, I did mention something about avocados, but not like a whole tree of them, Haz.”
Harry’s smile turns sheepish. The old lady is looking on at them fondly. “You have an adorable family,” she says to Liam. “How long have you been married?”
Liam doesn’t drop Holly but it’s a near thing the way he flounders, a deep blush travelling up his spine. “I, um,” he stammers and thank god for Harry, who comes up beside him to the rescue, his arm snaking around Liam’s middle. Which. Okay.
“Four years,” Harry says proudly, smile almost splitting his face into two. “Four years next week, isn’t it, babe?”
“Um.” Liam’s brain might have short-circuited.
“He’s awful with dates,” Harry says easily, rolling his eyes at the lady. She laughs with him, falling under the Styles charm instantly.
“Oh, don’t you worry, darling, they all do. Mine’s the same. He’ll get it right one day. I’ll leave you three to your shopping. Bye-bye, Holly!” She shuffles away with her basket and Liam watches her, keenly aware of the arm that Harry’s still got around him.
“Um, Harry? What was that?”
Harry shrugs, arm finally slipping from Liam’s waist, turning to coo over Holly instead. “Well, I wasn’t about to get into our complicated life story with some old bitty we’ve never met. Seemed easier.”
“I, right, okay. Sounded practiced, is all,” Liam says, trying to ignore how he still feels slightly warm; the lights in the supermarket are too bright. Harry’s arm was a nice weight around him. He blinks and focuses on handing the baby over to Harry.
Harry kisses her full on the mouth and gives her an avocado to play with. Then he glances over at Liam furtively. “I, um, might have said something similar to a few other people. It’s just easy, you know. It’s not a big deal, Li. ‘Ve you got problem with it?”
“No! No, I mean, ‘course not, I was just. No, it makes sense.” He clamps his mouth shut before it sounds like the lady doth protest too much. He’s not sure why he feels so wrong-footed about it. Harry nods and Liam’s not sure why, but the way he turns his head now reminds Liam of Holly from before. When has Harry of all people ever felt bashful?
“Shall we go then? Think we’d better put a few of these avocados back. No, Hols, you don’t eat this part. Well, it’s not my fault you’re being silly, is it?”
Liam stays behind for a moment, trying to settle the strange feeling in his gut. He shrugs it off as best he can and rolls the trolley faster to catch up with them. Holly greets him with a tongue full of avocado skin.
He’s in the middle of typing his latest piece for the paper - ‘Instagram does not a happy baby make’ - when Skype appears in a window and the name Louis Tomlinson starts flashing in front of him. He grins widely and leans over to haul Holly onto his lap from where she was sitting at his feet playing with some sort of game console Harry’s sister brought over for her yesterday.
“Let’s shout Harry, yeah? Tell ‘im Uncle Louis’ calling? C’mon, babe, one, two, three! HARRY!”
Holly doesn’t say his name because she’s not quite there yet but she does understand enough to yell incomprehensibly alongside Liam. Harry comes in running, a tea towel draped over his shoulder and what looks like a whole shirt tied around his head like a headband. Liam decides not to comment.
“What the hell -?” Harry starts, looking flummoxed. Liam points at the screen eagerly.
“Come say hi to Lou!”
Harry nearly trips over his own feet in his haste. He leans over Liam, pressing a cursory kiss on top of Holly’s head and then fitting himself snugly over Liam’s shoulder. Liam butts their heads together for a moment and taps the mousepad so the video call comes in. A Louis in a bright pink beanie and a scarf wrapped around his neck appears on screen, waving his hands like a madman. God, Liam’s missed him.
“Hellooooooo, England! How’s it cooking, ya fam of misfits?” Louis’ face breaks into a smile and Liam feels oddly proud that he’s part of what accomplished that. His eyes flick down in the bottom right corner where he can see a miniature version of themselves. They make a cute picture, to be fair.
“Lou!” Harry makes silly grabby hands at the screen, a few stray curls ending up in Liam’s mouth.
“Harry,” he coughs out, making exaggerated faces for Holly’s benefit. She giggles and so does Louis, which is all Liam can ask for.
“Sorry, babe,” Harry mutters offhandedly. “Louis! Ignore Liam, focus on me! How are you?”
“Play nice, Haz. Jealousy doesn’t look good on you,” Louis laughs and Liam pretends to miss the slightly concerned look he throws in their direction. “I’m good. Really good. Freezing my bollocks off and cursing my dissertation but, other than that, good. How’s my favourite girl?”
“She’s great, aren’t you, Hol? Remember Uncle Lou, baby?” Liam lifts her up so she sees the screen better. Holly gurgles.
Louis frowns and leans in closer. “You better not let this kid forget me, you fuck - I mean, you stupid yet responsible parents. I want you to hang a photo of me over her crib.”
“Already sorted, Lou,” Harry says with a straight face. “Got one over Liam’s bed too, so we don’t forget you either.”
Louis laughs again shortly, then stops abruptly as if he’s had a thought. He looks from one to the other, frowning rather more at Liam. “Okay. Moving on. How’s work? How’s writing? How’s raising a baby?”
Liam lets Harry take over for this, not really paying attention to his ramblings, just watching him talk. He’s come to Liam’s side now, sitting on the arm of Liam’s chair and playing idly either with Holly’s few strands of hair or with Liam’s hand. It’s relaxing actually, because Harry’s voice has a calming sort of quality to it and it’s not long before his eyes feel heavy. He blinks back to consciousness when Harry shakes him gently. Liam smiles wanly at the face looming over him.
“Hey, Li, gimme Hols, she’s nodded off. I’ll take her to bed, you chat to Lou and then I’ll take over, yeah?” Liam nods absently and scoops Holly up to press her into Harry’s arms. He gives her a kiss on the cheek and smiles when Harry winks at him slowly. He watches them both leave the living room, vaguely missing them both already. He only turns back when Louis clicks his tongue impatiently.
“Well, I officially feel ignored.”
Liam smiles. “Could never ignore you, Lou. We’re just a bit tired.”
“Hmm,” Louis says primly. “Is it the baby keeping you up all night or you two shagging without telling me?”
Liam chokes on air, nearly toppling over his chair. “What the - Jesus Christ, Louis, what in the world?”
“Tell me I’m wrong,” Louis says, smarting, arms crossed over his chest. He looks genuinely pissed off.
“Louis, it’s me and Harry -”
“Yes, I’m well aware, Payne. You and Harry who are raising a baby together. You and Harry who are calling each other babe. You and Harry who are apparently sharing a bed.”
Liam stares, open-mouthed. “You have literally done all of that, aside from the baby thing. Lou, I don’t -”
“There’s a difference, Li! A baby makes a difference! And if you think I don’t know what Harry looks like when he’s in -”
“Hey, d’you want tea, Liam?” Harry’s voice carries from across the hall in the kitchen and Liam jumps.
Louis tsks tetchily. “Saved by the motherfucking bell.”
“Shut up,” Liam says quietly. “Yeah, um, yeah, alright, Hazza, thanks!”
“Telling me to shut up, that’s rich,” Louis’ muttering. “You know you’re treading on dangerous waters here, Liam.”
“Louis, I swear, whatever you think is happening is definitely not happening.”
Louis pauses his very practiced I refuse to even look at you expression and bites the inside of his cheek. “You promise?”
“Lou, I swear,” Liam repeats, one ear trained in the direction of the kitchen where Harry’s whistling Elvis.
Louis resumes his position in front of the screen, face right in the camera. “Liam, it’s not that I don’t, like, approve or anything. I never want you to think that. You’re both adults and you’re entitled to do what you want and I have no say in it. Just. You and Dani were, like - you were this close to popping the question, you told me, and Harry. Fuck. Harry’s my best friend in the entire world, Li, and his whole entire life has been turned upside down. I don’t want you or your friendship to come the wrong way out.”
Liam doesn’t even know where to begin. “Louis, I would never hurt Harry -”
“No, I know,” Louis rushes. “I know. Just. You’re both kind of, fragile, right now. I don’t want you to ever say Harry’s a mistake.”
It leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, the last. He blinks. “Louis. When I said nothing happened, I meant it.”
“Right, but you’re not listening. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, because it’s not my place, but if you do and you hurt each other, I will grab you both by the balls and -”
“I’m back,” Harry pops from around the door, two steaming mugs in his hands. He puts one on the coffee table and takes a seat on the arm of Liam’s chair, even though there’s plenty of space on the couch. Liam feels very self-aware all of a sudden. “I’d make you a cuppa, Lou, but you abandoned me for New York. Only Liam loves me.” He punctuates the last with a caress of Liam’s cheek, which is a lot softer than Liam usually expects from Harry. Louis raises his eyebrows pointedly, as if he’s saying I told you so.
“Right, I, um. I’m gonna go to bed.” He stands up, trying to ignore the wobble in his legs. Harry doesn’t seem to notice anything strange; he just smiles warmly and tugs Liam’s arm with no intent.
“Night, Li.” There’s a smile at the corner of Harry’s lips that Liam’s come to think of as his own. He lets out a shaky breath he didn’t know he was holding.
“Goodnight, Liam Payne,” Louis echoes a lot less lovingly. Liam scowls at him.
“I - yeah, good - good night.” He pulls his arm away from Harry’s grip and resists the urge to run to his bedroom and hide.
Christmas is uncharted territory for most new parents, but with us especially, it’s a completely different ballgame. There are too many firsts to consider; first Christmas for Holly, first Christmas with Holly, first Christmas for us with a baby, first Christmas at this house we’re both closer to calling home now. There’s the tree we pick out from the market, the one Harry and Holly order me to carry, because apparently wearing flannel makes a statement; there’s Christmas baubles to buy and decorations to beg off our parents; there’s the ever present question of ‘is alcohol acceptable now we’re sure she can’t reach the top cupboard?’.
The answer to the last is the most pressing apparently. We all but threw a party when a friend’s mum reassured as that one glass of wine a day definitely does not make us bad parents.
Liam wakes up on Christmas day with a faceful of curls in his mouth. He blinks, blearily, and his movements are mechanic when he pushes Harry’s hair away from his tongue, because he’s used to this now, fortunately or not. He turns to the alarm clock by his bedside and makes out the time; 9:23 in the morning, which means they’ve been apart from Holly exactly a day. His chest feels tight at the thought and it feels wrong to glance over at the baby monitor and hear no sound. But, no. They decided it would be good for Holly to spend Christmas Eve with her grandparents; they’re just as much a part of her life as Liam and Harry, and, anyway, they promised to bring her over before lunch. It’s fine; it’s totally fine. Liam doesn’t miss her.
Liam misses her so much.
He groans and rubs both hands over his face, pushing the sleep away. Harry’s still fast asleep beside him, his head more on Liam’s pillow than his own, because Harry’s like an octopus seeking out warmth. Liam knows he’s staring but there’s something awfully peaceful about watching Harry breathe slowly in and out; his face is always less tired like this, his hair falling unstyled over his forehead, the pink of his lips always brighter. Liam likes watching him sleep in the few moments he allows himself to in the morning, just before reality kicks in and a voice that sounds terribly like a certain Louis Tomlinson starts belting in his ear. That’s just plain creepy, Liam Payne, and why the fuck are you still letting him sleep in your bed?
He doesn’t have an answer to that, even though he should, even though he’s given himself more than enough time to think about it. Louis’ call still makes him nervous whenever he looks back on it but there wasn’t really much he could do; the very next morning after the call, he’d woken up exactly like this, Harry draped over him and sleeping soundly, and Liam didn’t have the heart to tell him that he shouldn’t. It happened the next night and he didn’t say no again, and the next, and the one after that, and somewhere along the line, Liam convinced himself that it was fine, this is fine. What Louis was talking about was bollocks; there’s nothing wrong with sleeping in the same bed and it might be true that they’re both a little broken, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to fuck it out. Liam is still getting over Danielle; Harry hasn’t been in a relationship in a long time and for all Liam knows, he could be shagging someone new everyday before he comes home from work.
The thought’s a little unsavoury for this time in the morning and if Liam chooses to ignore the twist in his gut it brings, he can do as he damn well pleases.
“Stop thinking so loudly,” Harry mutters, his voice muffled by the pillow, and Liam starts, twisting his head so fast he actually cricks it. Massaging the back of his shoulder, he tries to school his expression into something completely nonchalant.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” he says quietly and, fuck, it wasn’t meant to come out sounding so endeared. Harry raises his head an inch and smiles dopily at Liam.
“G’morning, love. Where’s my coffee?”
Liam frowns at him, trying to make it look real. “If you wanted breakfast in bed, the kitchen has a perfectly good floor to sleep on.”
Harry’s a twenty-five year old adult so he doesn’t sulk. Except, of course he does. “Liiii. C’mon. It’s Christmas and our baby’s isn’t here so you can’t spoil her. Spoil me.”
Liam shakes his head fondly. “Merry Christmas, Hazza. I’m going to make my own coffee.” He swings his legs from the bed and considers putting on his joggers to go for a run. It’s the holidays though; he can afford to be lazy on the holidays.
“Merry Christmas, Liam. I don’t know why I keep you,” Harry pouts behind him and Liam can hear him stretching on the bed.
“Because you love me,” Liam replies easily, padding over to the bathroom and splashing water on his face. His reflection looks so well-rested he almost does a double-take; he runs a hand through his hair that’s grown out from the buzzcut he’d stuck to since London. He kind of likes it like this; it makes it seem more real that he’s grown.
“I do,” Harry singsongs happily, finally getting out of the bed. Liam leans on the door jab to watch him and pretends to ignore the Louis voice in his head; what did I say about being creepy, Edward Cullen? Harry’s half naked, because of course he is, but he reaches out to pull on a pair of Liam’s trackies; even a human heater like Harry Styles feels the cold when it’s snowing outside.
They clamber down the stairs like they’re twelve year old boys racing to see what Father Christmas brought them, bumping into each other and laughing like mad. Harry gets to the tree first, making stupid crowing noises like it means something, and Liam just shakes his head, falling onto the couch. There’s a stack of mince pies on the coffee table and he shouldn’t, but he does, and he stuffs one in his mouth in one go. Harry’s idly looking through the presents under the tree.
“Coffee or tea?” Liam mumbles as he gets up and walks into the kitchen, switching the kettle and the coffee maker on.
“Whatever you have,” Harry answers distractedly.
“Coffee it is,” Liam says to himself, pulling two mugs from the cupboard. He busies himself with milk and sugar, then makes his way back into the living room to find Harry itching to open presents.
“Sometimes I’m not sure you’re actually older than Holly,” Liam quips, kneeling down next to him and handing over the warm mug.
“Excuse me, Liam. I have a very excitable approach to life, it’s not my fault the rest of you are boring old codgers.” He rummages through the brightly-wrapped presents again one-handed, bottom lip stuck out. Liam finds his eyes drawn there; it’s honestly not fair sometimes, that Harry can just look like Harry Styles with no warning. He has the sudden urge to poke his lip with a finger. He clenches both hands tighter around his mug.
“Can’t I open one? Hols won’t notice.”
“Are you seriously trying to cheat our kid out of her first proper Christmas?” Liam asks, jaw dropping. Harry squirms where he’s sitting but he does his innocent, wide-eyed face he thinks works on everyone. “Absolutely not.”
“You’re the worst,” he mumbles, in a voice that clearly contradicts his words.. He smiles up at Liam, one corner of his mouth lifting up. “You’re a good - you know.”
Dad is left unspoken, but it hangs there between them. Liam blinks.
“Okay, fine. One present each. Only one!”
Harry fistbumps the air and buries himself under the tree until he comes out with a red-wrapped box in his hands. Liam finds his heart is suddenly in his throat. “Did it have to be that one?”
Harry grins. “‘Course it did. Wanna see what you got me, Payne.”
Liam sighs and takes a careful sip of his coffee. “It’s nothing special, fair warning.”
“Shut up, Liam,” Harry says fondly, deft hand tearing the paper. Liam watches the small box come out and squeezes his eyes shut a second before Harry realises what it is.
“How disappointed are you from a scale of one to ten?” Liam says, eyes still shut. He feels Harry inch in closer and then there’s a soft swell of lips on Liam’s cheek and that’s.
“I love it, you idiot,” Harry says softly and Liam has to open his eyes now, to see Harry spinning the Polaroid camera in his hands like he’s never been more pleased with anything. He lifts it up to his eyeline. “C’mon. You’ve got to be the first one.”
“No, Haz, I look awful -”
“Liam! You don’t. Now pose for me. Say ‘Holly’!” Liam rolls his eyes but lifts his empty mug up in a salute and shrugs with a smile.
“Hey, Holly. Your dad’s an arse. Cheese!”
Harry clicks on the shutter but his face is blank when he drops the camera. Liam stares at him, horrified.
“Shit, Harry, no - I didn’t mean -” Liam wants to die. Liam wants to find a deep, deep hole and bury himself in it; Harry’s face is unreadable.
“No, it’s - it’s fine. Don’t worry about it, Li.” Harry takes a deep breath and pulls the photo from the camera. A still-sleepy looking Liam is smiling there, his eyes crinkled at the corners. Liam doesn’t understand how a moment could change so drastically. “Hold this, will you? Shake it.” Harry instructs, standing up to head to the hall. Liam is frozen where he’s sat, a much happier miniature Liam in his hands. I fucked up, he thinks. I fucked up, I fucked up, I fucked up.
Harry doesn’t give him more time to reflect on just how badly he’s fucked up. He’s back, a ballpoint pen in his hand. “Give it here.” Liam does, trying not to see how much his fingers are shaking. Harry scrawls something at the edge of the polaroid, then hands it back to Liam.
daddy says hi, Holly 25/12/19
Liam swallows and it takes him an age to raise his head to meet Harry’s eyes. Harry shrugs.
“Your turn, now,” Harry says, finally breaking eye contact with Liam. “Which d’you want?”
“I - what?”
“Which present,” Harry replies patiently, the sparkle back in his eye, even if he’s not looking at Liam.
“I - whichever. Just. You pick.”
Harry grins, all teeth, and reaches out for a professionally wrapped gift that Liam recognises from his favourite shop in London. There’s no tag on it, just a hastily written Liam in one corner. He goes all cold.
“Liam?” Trust Harry to notice instantly. “Liam, what’s wrong?”
Liam opens his mouth to answer but his mouth is all dry. He tries again. “It’s - this is from Dani.”
Harry stills next to him. “Jesus. I - fuck, I’m sorry. I didn’t - I didn’t even realise - fuck -”
“It’s not your fault,” Liam says mechanically, staring at the still unwrapped gift. He pushes it back under the tree; he can’t do this now. He stares at the empty coffee cup in front of him; he’s not sure if it’s him that feels more empty.
Harry’s hand is soft on him when he cups his cheek and turns Liam’s face towards him. Liam’s eyes feel heavy; his whole body feels heavy. “You’re sad, Liam,” Harry murmurs. “Don’t be sad, Liam.”
Liam’s laugh sounds watery to his ears. “I don’t think I can stop that, Haz.”
Harry bites his lower lip, looking at Liam intently. “I can though,” he says quietly and then he leans in, pressing his mouth lightly on Liam’s.
There aren’t fireworks; there’s not a fizzle and a crackle and Liam isn’t suddenly seeing stars. It’s just - warm, really, and comforting, and Liam’s hand mirrors Harry’s, wrapping around Harry’s neck for some kind of balance. Neither of them make it more heated, there’s no need for that, and they break away a couple of moments later, both smiling a little.
“Better?” Harry asks, sounding like he very much already knows the answer.
Liam tips his head to the side, feeling the sadness he’s been carrying for months slowly ebb away. “Better.”
New Year’s is the occasion Christmas couldn’t be, at least as far as Harry’s concerned. He goes all out, buying the biggest turkey in the shops, filling their cupboards with every kind of spice, overindulging in chocolate and custard and stocking up on a bar’s worth of alcohol. His excuse is that it’s Holly’s first New Year and he wants her to experience it all, even if she doesn’t remember any of it eventually. Liam knows him well enough to figure out the truth; their New Year party is Harry’s opportunity to prove that he can do it, that he did it. That Holly is his and he’s doing a damn good job of it and Liam can’t help but be proud of him for that much.
Louis arrives in the UK on Christmas Day and spends a week with his family before proclaiming himself officially driven insane and knocking their door on New Year’s Eve. Liam’s never heard Harry let out such an undignified screech as he did when he opened the door and Liam and Holly watched them both try to untangle themselves from each other for a good quarter of an hour, giving up halfway through and spending the rest of the day basically living in each other’s pockets.
Zayn and Niall come over early in the afternoon, presents in hand to buy Holly’s affection with, and Niall assumes his sous-chef responsibilities immediately, following Harry’s instructions only when he feels like it. Their parents and extended family are coming later in the evening, mostly because, as Gemma mentioned, we can’t handle this much family bonding without booze.
That’s why at around six, they’re all huddled on the living room floor, Louis and Zayn playing cards with such intensity it hurts to look at, Harry and Niall bringing out a platter of cheese sandwiches to keep them going until dinner, Liam playing with Holly as she sits on his lap. Niall sidles in next to Zayn, waving a sandwich in his face until Zayn bites at it aggressively, and Harry assumes his usual position next to Liam, reaching out shake a chubby arm until Holly giggles. Louis looks up from his Club Flush, eyes squinted dangerously at the rest of them.
“I’m feeling awfully like a third wheel. At least gimme the bloody baby, so I don’t have to wallow in my singledom.” He meets Liam’s eyes when he says the last and Liam squirms in his seat, looking away.
“Nope,” Niall pipes up, oblivious to the slight tension, making grabby hands towards Liam. “I want the baby, it’s my turn.” He shifts over to the couch, Holly in his lap, and Liam moves instinctively to Zayn, while Harry laughs and plants himself behind Louis, wrapping both arms around him.
“There you go, grumpy. You have me now.”
“Thought I always did,” Louis says petulantly, leaning back. “Replaced me, have you, Styles?”
“Never,” Harry says fondly, biting at Louis’ ear. He meets Liam’s eyes though and winks at him; Liam flushes and looks down at Zayn’s cards. Zayn gives him a calculated look and rests his arm on Liam’s knee, like he’s grounding him; he’s grateful for Zayn and his silences sometimes.
“Cor, she’s so cute, aren’t you, Hols? Aren’t you? Look at you giggling, you little darling.” Niall makes his voice all posh, mimicking Harry probably. It must work, because Liam’s never seen Holly so animated. Niall blows a raspberry at her, eyes lighting up when she tries to do the same. “Zayn, I want one.”
Zayn’s eyes roll right to the back of his skull. “No.” He throws a seven of spades in Louis’ direction. Liam knows him well enough to spot the smile hidden in the folds of his mouth. Sometimes Liam forgets how long Niall and Zayn have been together; he wonders if this is the first time they’ve talked about family. Somehow he doubts it.
“Ugh,” Niall pouts but Liam can tell by his voice that he’s joking around. “Maybe I’ll just steal this one. What d’you think, Hols? Kick these losers to the curb?” Holly smacks her lips together. “I am the fricking baby whisperer.”
“Don’t think she was agreeing, mate,” Louis points out.
“Says you. Speaking of these losers, how’s Payno at this, Hazza?”
Liam looks up from Zayn’s hand to see Harry watching him, smile at the corner of his lips. He does his own, almost without meaning to; it’s instinct, smiling at Harry.
“The best,” Harry says simply.
Zayn nudges him softly in the shoulder and Liam ducks his head down.
“Reckoned he would be,” Niall laughs. “He’s gonna make a great dad someday.”
Liam’s body freezes at Niall’s words; he can feel his hands going numb. Zayn abandons his cards on the floor, turns bodily around to look at Liam, frown deep between his eyes. It’s awfully silent in the room suddenly; Liam could hear a pin fall.
“I, um,” Niall says uselessly. “I put my foot in it, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, you did, babe,” Zayn says, tearing himself away from Liam to look at his boyfriend. “Give the baby back where it belongs.”
Liam lifts his arms wordlessly to accept Holly in them and makes sure he doesn’t look in either Harry or Louis’ direction. It feels like the silence has been stretching over them for hours.
“He already is,” Harry says quietly, finally breaking it. Liam has to look up at him then, has to see how it’s Louis holding Harry now, not the other way around, and it kind of breaks his heart, because it should be him, he realises now.
“Let’s watch Corrie, yeah,” Louis says suddenly and then the telly’s turned on and the tension dissipates and Liam is left worrying about the conversation that’s coming, sooner rather than later.
“Liam! Liam! Wake the fuck up, you wanker, I know you’re faking it!”
Liam wants to be stubborn, he really, really does, but, unlike Louis, he’s a decent human being and he can’t ignore him when he’s leaving the country in a couple of days. So he sits up from the couch where he’s temporarily been assigned on account that every other bed is occupied. It’s just his luck that him and Louis were both relegated to the living room.
“What do you want,” he says shortly. “I’m tired and still a bit drunk and I’m not in the mood, Louis.”
If looks could kill, Liam would be six feet under right about now. Louis opens his mouth and Liam curses himself for knowing him so well because he rushes to answer the question he hasn't asked.
"Before you say anything, the answer is no."
Louis looks fit to murder again. "You don't even know what I was about to say."
"Yes, I do," Liam says, rubbing a knuckle in his eye. "And the answer is still no."
"No, what?" Louis' going to make him say it.
"No," Liam mutters tiredly. "No, we aren't shagging behind your back."
Louis cracks his knuckles. “Something’s happened.”
Liam doesn’t want to look furtive, but he’s not sure he manages it, not with the way he’s looking everywhere but at Louis, hands twisting in his lap. “Nothing happened. You’re being paranoid.” A thought strikes him suddenly. “Hey, why am I the one getting the third degree? Did you have a chat with Harry about your,” he wiggles his fingers in Louis’ direction, “your theories?”
“My theories,” Louis scoffs and sits cross-legged next to Liam on the couch. “And yes, I fucking did. But Harry can be evasive when he wants to be. He thinks I know everything anyway.”
Liam goes red. “There’s no - there’s no everything.”
“Well, Harry seems to think there is. He just keeps smiling at me and winking. I don’t know where he gets the idea that I can read his fucking mind.” Louis’ murder stare is thankfully not directed at Liam this time; he supposes Harry’s a lot more used to it though. Louis starts suddenly and starts digging into his pyjama bottom pockets. Liam looks on apprehensively. Knowing Louis, he might have brought a cricket bat along to prove his point.
“D’you wanna know how I know something happened?”
“No,” Liam pouts, looking at the black telly screen. Yes, he means. Louis seems to know what he’s not saying. He shoves his phone under Liam’s nose. The screen is lit up on a text conversation between Louis and Harry. “He sent me that on Christmas Day.”
merry xmas and happy day after your birthday, lou xx
Happy Christmas, HARRRRYYYYYY. LOVE YOU, MISS YOU, COME AND SAVE ME FROM MUM
The conversation keeps at the same inane level as most conversation between Harry and Louis do, until.
and iiiiiiiiiii seeeeeeee spaaaaarks flyyyyyyyy
Louis’ response is mostly a whole lot of punctuation.
“I don’t know what I’m looking at, Lou,” Liam says, confused. Louis pulls the phone away from him, looking crazy.
“He quoted Taylor Swift at me, Liam! Taylor Swift! You’ve broken him!”
Liam giggles, because it feels like he has to. “You’re being ridiculous, Louis.”
“You don’t know, Liam Payne,” Louis says murderously. “For that hipster idiot upstairs to be quoting Taylor fucking Swift, either he hit his head or something really stupid happened.Which is it? Because his head seems to be pretty much in order. Relatively speaking.”
It feels like the moment of truth. And anyway, Liam’s pretty much been dying to ask someone for advice. He’d rather hoped it would be Zayn who cornered him though; at least Zayn wouldn’t resort to physical violence. “Okay. Okay, fine. Something happened.”
Louis exhales slowly. “Tell me.” He sounds less homicidal, which can only be good.
Liam plays with the hands in his lap. “I - we. We kissed, alright? Just once. But, like. Yeah.”
He can feel Louis freak out next to him again. “That’s even worse than shagging, you absolute fucking - ugh! Why are you both so stupid?” He actually starts pulling his hair.
“How is that worse than shagging, Louis? In what universe is a kiss worse than a shag?”
“You are an innocent babe to the ways of the world, Liam Payne,” Louis says maddeningly. They look at each other for a long moment, until Louis’ shoulders sag. “Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. If you’ve kissed before you’ve done the deed - it means something, Li. It’s gotta mean something.”
Liam thinks he has a headache. “Why are you so sure we’re gonna end up in bed together? I have some self-control, you know.”
Louis smiles at him and it’s almost sad. “D’you want to control yourself though?”
Liam doesn’t answer. Louis taps a knuckle against his knee.
“Do you know what Harry told me today?”
Liam shakes his head. “No, and I don’t want to know because he told you in confidence.”
Louis laughs. “As if Harry has any shame, Liam, please.”
Liam smiles down at the floor. True enough.
“It’s been exactly one hundred days since he last fucked someone. He’s counting the days, the bloody fool.” Liam rubs the back of his neck, feeling warm. He’s not entirely sure why the information is making it hard for him to stop smiling. “I bet it’s about the same for you?”
Liam worries his lip. Louis shakes his head.
“‘Course it is. The sexual frustration is about ready to kill people in here. I feel like I’m suffocating right now.”
“Shut up, Lou,” Liam says fondly.
“I’m serious! We’ve got the lovebirds upstairs going at it like rabbits and Anne and Robin seemed pretty cosy in Harry’s bed, I’m a dissertation away from being celibate and you and Harry have gone all disgustingly,” he makes a face, “domestic on me.” Louis sighs. “Can I ask you something, Li?”
“I’m pretty sure you’ve already been doing that.”
Louis looks uncomfortable. “This is kinda...delicate.” Liam looks at him. “What Niall said earlier.”
“Oh,” Liam says. “Right.”
“I’m just saying. Whatever happens between you and Haz, just. There’s more than you two to consider. I don’t think Holly’s far from calling both of you Daddy.”
Liam rubs a hand over his face. It’s not as if that never occurred to him. And he’s certain Harry’s been thinking along the same lines. He breathes out. “Holly’s the priority, Louis. Holly’s always the priority.”
Louis chuckles. “Shit.”
“What?” Liam frowns.
Louis covers his mouth with a hand, looking almost impressed. “You’re starting to sound like each other.”
“Is that a bad thing?” He leans back on the couch and smiles wanly when Louis leans back too, head resting on Liam’s shoulder.
“No, Li. It’s not bad at all.”
It’s every parent’s nightmare, isn’t it? A slightly worrying cough, a too warm forehead, crying in the middle of the night when the baby has just fallen asleep. You’re never really prepared for it, because, for all you treat your son or daughter like the most fragile thing in the world, there’s still a part of you that’s convinced they’re invincible. Your own personal superhero can’t be sick; there’s no kryptonite to hurt her, no arch enemy to bring him down, so when it happens, you lose your head. Even Iron Man’s suit has a weak spot; your job is to fix it, any way you can.
Holly has a fever.
Holly has a fever and Liam has never seen anyone look more panicked than Harry does right now in his life.
The day starts well enough; they have a routine now, one they stick to, and it goes something like this. Harry’s alarm goes off in the morning, that annoying preset iPhone alarm at seven on the dot, and Liam takes it as his cue to get up from bed, nudging at Harry until he groans at him. Satisfied, Liam makes his way downstairs, switching the kettle on and slipping a beanie round his head before he goes on his daily run, grabbing the paper and a bottle of milk from the shop down the road. 45 minutes later, he comes home to the smell of bacon cooking on the pan, Harry dressed for work and Holly making an attempt at talking as soon as she spots Liam at the door.
Today, it starts going wrong after Liam’s slipped into his tracksuit, a hoodie of Harry’s over his shoulders. He pads across the room, trying not to stir Harry awake because he was up till late working on something for the radio station, and freezes when he hears Holly’s quiet whine through the baby monitor. He glances quickly over at Harry who’s still dead to the world and crosses the hall to the baby’s room, worry churning in his stomach when he sees her stood up in her crib, face scrunched up and tearstained.
“Hey, you,” he murmurs softly, hands at her waist as he lifts her up, fitting her to his side. Her face presses against his like always and he pauses his movement when he feels how warm she is.
“Oh, that’s not good, baby.” He rubs a finger against her forehead and she nuzzles closer, still not crying like she usually would. That’s what worries him most; how she’s not complaining, like she has no idea what’s wrong with her. “Shh, Hol. Let’s go wake Dad, yeah? Let’s wake Harry and see what he thinks.”
Harry’s still asleep, curled up on Liam’s side of the bed like he’s been chasing the warmth. Liam sits on the edge, a fitful Holly making pawing movements in Harry’s direction. Liam pushes Harry’s hair back, trying to ease him awake. It doesn’t take long; Harry’s eyes flutter open a couple of minutes later, dimpling as soon as he focuses on both of them.
“This is a nice way to wake up,” he mumbles gruffly, hand reaching out to play with Holly’s foot. He stills as soon as he touches her skin, bracing himself on his elbows to sit up. “She’s warm.”
“She’s very warm,” Liam agrees, bringing Holly’s forehead to his mouth and kissing her, arms still making a rocking motion to soothe her. The colour drains from Harry’s cheeks.
“D’you think - a fever?”
“Probably,” Liam says helplessly, his heart dropping when Holly starts mumbling incoherently, face screwed up like she’s not sure if she’s supposed to cry or not. “I don’t - Harry, I’m not sure what we’ve got to do.”
Harry bites his bottom lip until it swells and, god, Liam hates himself, but it’s hard to look away. “I’m - I’m gonna go call mum. Or Jay. Maybe Jay’s better. Jay’s a nurse.”
“Call Jay,” Liam says, finally looking back at Harry. “I’ll - we’ll walk around a bit, right, Holly, babe? Keep your mind of it.” Holly doesn’t agree, just clings to Liam, a lot more fussy than he’s used to. Harry’s still looking at her like the world is falling apart in front of him. Liam nudges him with a free hand, squeezing his waist. Harry glances back, suddenly awake, and nods.
“Okay. Yeah, Jay. I’m. Yeah, I’ll go now.” He doesn’t bother wearing anything else, even though it’s so cold outside the windows have turned foggy, and Liam swallows and averts his eyes. This is not the time.
They both walk up and down the hall in opposite directions, Harry panicking over the phone to an awfully calm Jay, Liam patting Holly’s back and murmuring nonsense in an effort to comfort her.
“Right. Right, yeah. Okay, that sounds - yeah, definitely, um, I’ll call as soon as I - thanks ever so much, Jay. No, really, it’s - you’ve been great. Yeah, yeah, talk later.” Harry puts his phone down on one of the shelves in the hallway and opens his arms expectantly. Liam doesn’t need to be told twice; he passes over Holly to Harry’s open embrace, brushing his knuckles against Harry reassuringly.
“Run a bath for her. Tepid water, whatever that means. We’ve got to bring down her temperature. Jay says we shouldn’t worry, it’s, like, normal? Or, I don’t know, it happens, whatever, I just don’t want it to happen to Holly.” He’s babbling, like Harry’s wont to do when he’s nervous, and Liam gives in, reaching out to cup his cheek. Harry stops blinking erratically almost instantly.
“Calm down. I’ll run the bath and you call work. We can do this, okay? We’ve done everything else. We can do this.” If he says it enough times, maybe they’ll both believe it. Harry nods softly.
The bath is a sorry business. Holly is uncomfortable throughout, preferring Harry’s arms to treading water, and she starts crying properly when Liam takes a damp sponge to her forehead and underarms. He hates hearing her cry at the best of times, but this is worse, because he doesn’t know what to do to help her and he feels useless and stupid and like he can do nothing right.
“What about medicine,” he asks when Holly is wrapped up snugly in a fluffy towel, sniffing instead of crying, which is at least half a blessing. Harry’s leaning against the sink, eyes trained on Holly’s pouty face.
“We should take her temperature again. If - if it’s not gone down, then we can give her Ibuprofen.” Harry runs both hands through his hair, looking desperate. Liam wants to hug him almost as much as Holly right now.
It goes much like that for the rest of the day. Liam’s got a damp blanket over his shoulder and a digital thermometer in his pocket and Harry is running around like a lunatic, coaxing Holly into drinking juice and chicken broth, his ear attached to the phone, either calling Louis’ mum or the pediatrician, both of which insist they have nothing to worry about. Which is all well and good for them because they don’t have a kicking and screaming baby in front of them and a Harry who’s more headless chicken than human at this point.
It’s around twelve midnight that the house suddenly falls into silence. Holly’s fever is steady at 38, after they both give in and spoon Ibuprofen into her moody little mouth. Liam’s in the kitchen, stirring milk into a cup of tea, and he exhales loudly when he realises what the quiet means. At least she’s sleeping, he thinks, even if it’s fevered, at least she’s exhausted herself that much. He takes the stairs two at a time, careful not to spill the tea, and pushes Holly’s bedroom door open, searching for them both in the dark.
Holly’s breathing shakily against Harry’s chest, hands making fists around Harry’s collarbones, while he rocks her back and forth, muttering nonsense in her ear. He’s not wearing a shirt so it’s comforting for Holly to curl up against him, her skin a little cooler against his. Liam can see goosebumps along his arms, the stark contrast of his skin against his tattoos visible even in the half-light. He doesn’t want to admit that his breath catches, but his breath definitely catches. He’s not sure he’s ever seen anything quite as beautiful as this boy in front of him, with bags under his eyes and a baby sleeping in his arms.
“Hey,” Harry croaks out, making Liam blink. “‘Zat for me?” He tilts his chin at the cup.
“I,” Liam stammers, heart beating like a fucking drum. “Sure, if you. Yeah, ‘course.” He offers the cup, hand shaking. Harry frowns at him for a second, before he turns to put Holly carefully in her crib. She doesn’t stir, just makes bubbles with her mouth.
“You okay, Li?” Harry’s closer now, a free hand wrapping around the mug, and Liam - god knows why - is suddenly terribly, horribly aware that he hasn’t showered since yesterday. There’s stubble on his chin; the last time he shaved was yesterday morning while Harry sang James Morrison offkey to a delighted Holly who watched him brush his teeth around the words please give me something because someday I might know my heart.
“Just tired,” he says distractedly, still not able to tear his gaze away. Harry smiles at him, that sweet smile, when his mouth is shut, but the dimples are still there.
“You should sleep. You’ve done enough today.” He puts the cup down carefully and nudges Liam’s arm with a knuckle. “You’ve done enough for always, y’know.”
“‘S what I’m here for, Hazza,” Liam says quietly, voice gruff. Harry chuckles.
“Yeah. Still. Couldn’t have done it without you.”
Liam’s not sure they can get any closer. If he blinks one more time, he could probably count every one of Harry’s eyelashes. He doesn’t blink though, because his heart has jumped up somewhere in his throat and Harry’s whispering suddenly, breath ghosting over Liam’s mouth. “Okay?” And Liam nods, nods desperately, because of course, of course it’s okay.
It’s not soft this time. It’s hungry and heated and open-mouthed and Liam’s whole body is buzzing with the white hot pressure of Harry’s lips against his. He wraps a hand behind Harry’s neck and pulls him in until his chest is pressed to Harry’s, fingers scraping until they grab at the hairs on the back of his head and tug. Harry whines into his mouth, arms circling Liam’s back and making fists in his ratty shirt, teeth sinking into Liam’ bottom lip. They’re flush against each other and Harry refuses to let go, even as he guides them to the door.
“Bedroom,” he pants out, out of breath, leaning back an inch to stare at Liam. Liam’s never been so scared of being wanted anything this much.
“Yes, Jesus, yes,” he mutters, going in for another kiss.
“Monitor?” Harry mumbles into Liam’s mouth again, hands slipping down Liam’s back until they’re kneading his bum. Liam gasps and pulls at his hair harder; it doesn’t put off Harry one bit. He just grins, wickedly, and tilts his head lower to mouth at Liam’s neck.
“Mine, it’s - in mine.”
They stumble blindly into the bedroom, Harry intent on ridding Liam of any unnecessary clothes, nails scraping at his hip bones in an effort to pull his shirt over his head. “Bed, bed, bed,” Harry whines and Liam would laugh maybe, if this wasn’t the least funny thing he’d ever lived through. Suddenly Harry’s spinning him around, pushing him down to lay on the bed, and the breath is knocked out of Liam, not just because he wasn’t warned but because it’s Harry, Harry getting naked right in front of him and that.
That’s a lot.
Harry smiles at Liam watching him, thumbs hooked along the seam of his track bottoms as he shimmies out off them. They land in a pool on the floor and Liam might have had a moment of terrifying realisation about what they’re about to do - because, fuck, that’s Harry’s cock, and it’s, well - but then Harry’s body seems to remember he’s about as graceful as a colt and he trips over them, landing in a heap over Liam. Liam doesn’t want to laugh, he really doesn’t, because his mind is still stuck on big, but this is funny, dammit. Harry’s giggling into his neck anyway.
“That was supposed to be seductive,” Harry says, and he doesn’t even have the decency to sound embarrassed.
“You’re the worst,” Liam laughs, hands cupping Harry’s face and going in for a kiss.
It’s lazy this time, like they’re both taking their time to explore, and Liam loves it, loves knowing he can do this. He’s not tugging Harry’s hair anymore, just idly curling strands around his finger, rolling them both around so it can be his turn on Harry’s neck. He’s so intent on making a mark in the space between Harry’s collarbones that he doesn’t notice at first how Harry’s poking at his cheek to get his attention. When the spot’s pink enough to satisfy him, he presses his chin to Harry’s chest and looks up. “What.”
Harry presses his lips together - swollen and red and fuck, Liam did that - and looks like he’s trying to bite back a laugh. “I’m, um, not being funny or anything, Li, and the kissing’s good - really good, we should do that more - but, like. Um, I haven’t gotten off with anyone but my hand in the last half a fucking year and I kind of really want that to change, so. If you could just.” He makes a vague waving motion towards his crotch.
“Am I just your hand’s replacement, then?” Liam asks, trying his hardest to sound serious. Harry looks horrified.
“What? No! No, of course not! I never meant - fuck, no, I want it to be you - I’ve wanted it to be you for - hey. Are you laughing. Are you laughing at me, Liam Payne?” Harry sounds so helplessly affronted Liam breaks into giggles again.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, ignore me.” Liam sinks his teeth into he fleshier part of Harry’s chest to stop the laughter bubbling. Harry’s muscles jump under his mouth.
“I kind of really don’t want to ignore you right now, Liam. If you could.”
Liam sits up, legs bracketing Harry’s knees as he half kneels away from him. It’s still a bit breathtaking, seeing Harry spread out like this underneath him. There’s nothing stopping him from doing exactly what his brain is telling him his dick really, really wants him to do. Well, except.
“What,” Harry says, eyes serious as they swivel down to his own cock. “Everything seems in order.” More than, Liam wants to say, but there are more pressing matters to attend to.
“I. Harry, I don’t.” He rubs a hand to his face, feeling it heat up. “I don’t have any condoms,” he mutters, voice muffled by his fingers. The last thing he expects is Harry to start laughing. Again. Liam’s honestly never imagined sex to be quite this amusing. Or fun, really. Harry makes it fun.
“Bless you, Liam,” Harry says, leaning up on his elbows so his face is closer to Liam’s. “I’m not saying that’s not a brilliant idea, because it really fucking is, but, like, time’s kind of a issue. I was thinking more along the lines of,” he makes a rocking motion with a loose fist and Liam’s flush creeps up to his ears. Oh, god.
“Oh, god.” Assuming is the worst. Assuming makes him want to drop on the floor and curl into a very horny ball.
“Hey,” comes Harry’s voice, from the land of No Embarrassment At All, population one. “Liam. We have - all the time in the world, later. When there’s not a sick baby in the next room. You can fuck me every which way you want to then. Now can you just,” he lifts his head up more, a clear invitation, and Liam doesn’t think he’ll ever be mortified enough to deny Harry a kiss. He fits their mouths together, leaning down, and it’s easy again, because it’s Harry.
Until Harry’s hand sneaks between them and gropes at Liam’s crotch and Liam sees stars, the friction of his pants and Harry’s tight grip and the way Harry is kissing him through it, all of it too much to keep Liam from doing much more than pant sloppily into Harry’s mouth. It doesn’t take long - almost six months, Liam argues with himself, there’s an excuse - before he slumps over Harry utterly happily spent. He smiles into Harry’s shoulder when Harry starts poking his cheek again.
“Again, I’m not being funny but if you could just -”
Liam’s rather more effective at shutting him up this time.
Liam isn’t a coward; he isn’t, and hiding in a bakery in some forgotten corner of Holmes Chapel doesn’t make him a coward. He’s just trying to clear his head, trying to put words to the half-formed thoughts he’s had since this morning when he woke up, and being somewhere else, a change of scenery, is supposed to help.
Of course, what doesn’t help is that this is apparently the bakery Harry used to work at when he was a teenager and the first thing he’s greeted with when he ducks inside to avoid the rain, is a chokingly tight hug and a pinch on his bum. The second thing is being ushered to the best place to sit at apparently, along with a huge batch of muffins to get him through. Liam mumbles thanks and tries not to make it too obvious that he’d rather brave the rain again, even if he does catch his death of a cold. He sits down, avoids squirming in his seat at all costs and does his best not to dwell on the fact that Harry’s permeated every inch of his life when Liam wasn’t looking.
He gives himself a mental slap, because that’s just stupid talk; he’s been living in Holmes Chapel, for goodness’ sake, of course Harry’s everywhere, of course everyone knows him, of course he’s going to be reminded of him wherever he goes. He’d walked past the secondary school on his way over, where Harry must have gone to every morning; the library, the church, the tiny shopping center, where Harry’s no doubt been too many times to count. If he leans up from his chair, he can see the road you have to turn at to head to Anne’s house and it’s kind of overwhelming to not be able to see anything Harry hasn’t touched. He breathes in through his nose and out through his mouth and tries desperately hard to focus on anything other than the panic swelling in his chest.
It’s the morning after, he thinks. Of all the things in the world, he never thought he’d share a morning after with Harry. Harry’s his friend, sometimes his best friend, and roughhousing in Uni or nursing him through his boyish crush on Louis or watching him fall head over heels for a day and then laughing about it the next, nothing, none of those prepared him for this.
It’s not as if it’s awkward, it’s not as if anything that happened last night made today awkward. He woke up cold this morning and for one dreadful, sickening moment, he actually thought Harry had snuck out, left him to sleep on his own for the first time in months. His heart was making such an effort to beat out of his chest, Liam’s still fairly convinced he was at the early stages of a heart attack but then he’d looked up and his heart went back to normal and Harry was standing at the door with a smile and a happy Holly in his arms. “Don’t get up,” Harry had whispered, grin still playing at his lips. “You could use some more sleep. I’m just going over to Mum’s, ‘cos she wants to fuss over her today. I’ll be back by lunch.”
“Is she - how’s the fever?” Liam had blinked, trying to control the urge to run and scoop them both up in his arms. Harry shook his head.
“We’re fine and dandy, aren’t we, Hols? C’mon, let’s go give Dad a kiss goodbye.” And they had, both of them. Liam touches his lips unconsciously; they still feel too warm.
So he got up after they’d gone and tried to run but didn’t get much further than the front garden. Then he’d booted up his laptop and stared at a blank document for about half an hour before typing in one strung along sentence that didn’t make much sense no matter how many times he read it. Then he grabbed his Moleskin in a fit of I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing and grabbed a coat and started walking as far away from the house as possible. About halfway here, he’d realised the jacket he’d wrapped himself in wasn’t even his. That’s pretty much when the panic started settling.
“D’you want more tea, love? We’ve just toasted up some scones if you’d like.”
Liam blinks out of his panicked reverie and looks up at the kind face that’s smiling down at him. “I’m. Um. I’m fine, thanks, thank you. You’ve been really lovely.”
Her smile turns wider. “Anything for you, love. I was just saying the other day what darlings you two are for doing this. And so young! Warms the cockles of my heart.”
“It’s nothing,” Liam says quietly. God fucking knows that’s a lie. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.” That, though. That much is true.
The lady dabs her eyes daintily. “Bless you.” She reaches down to pat his cheek, a little clumsy. “Tell Harry he’s found a good one.” She nods again, looking like he’s done her proud, and walks back behind the counter.
Liam sits there, frozen. He’s not sure if the panic’s subsided because of her words or if he’s just used to it now but he’s not still feeling like he’s fallen apart, which can only be good. He looks down at his hands, stained a little with ink because he’d rushed and brought an old fountain pen with him; it’s leaked onto his notebook, making the words there incomprehensible. Not that he needs to be reminded of what he’s written; his name and Harry’s name and Holly’s name in looped, joined up writing, like he’s a thirteen year old girl who’s moon eyed over some boy in her English class. He’s about three stickers and a sprinkle of glitter away from writing a practiced Mr. Liam Styles in the margins. The thought makes him giggle and the giggle makes a wave of relief course through him. He glances at the clock hanging above the till; quarter to one. If he makes a run for it, he might get home before them.
He yells out a goodbye, running back to smack a kiss on the woman’s cheek. It’s stopped raining thankfully when he pushes the glass door and all the track training he did in Uni comes in handy, because Holmes Chapel seems more a blur than anything else as he heads home. He jumps over the fence when he gets there, residual energy making him think he’s Spiderman or something and fumbles with the keys at the door. It’s unlocked, though, and he’s not even disappointed at the thought that they got there before him; as long as they’re here, he thinks. That’s really all that matters.
He finds Harry in the kitchen, sitting at the table, index finger beating a stuttered rhythm on the back of Liam’s laptop. Liam drops the keys into the bowl they have near the kettle and tries to keep his face in check; he looks around, trying to spot a toddler crawling on the floor.
“Where’s Hol?” he says breathlessly, sinking into the chair next to Harry’s. He’s all but itching to reach out and grab his hand.
Harry doesn’t look at him when he answers. “At mum’s. I thought it might be good if we had a chat alone.” He snorts suddenly, not like it’s funny, and something cold courses down Liam’s spine.
“I, um. That’s - that’s probably a good idea,” he says hesitantly, trying to piece together why Harry feels so closed off. Maybe it’s because they’re both at a loss how to handle a discussion this big. Liam gets that.
Harry hums, still refusing to turn his head. “You know, I - I woke up today? And I thought, I thought I was happy? I thought we were happy. Odd that. How you can be so fucking delusional.”
Liam pales. He wishes Harry would look at him. “Harry, I’m not - I don’t really follow. What are you - what’s going on?”
He can see Harry biting his lip in profile, an ugly smile curling at his mouth. His moves are lazy, mechanic, when he flips Liam’s laptop on and the same document Liam was staring at earlier is still on screen. “‘Humans make mistakes so easily. We’re hard-wired with them, come prepackaged with a set of wrongs that never seem to balance out the rights, and we make them over and over, never learning, because sometimes forgive and forget is easier than paying attention. There’s so many you can pinpoint to when you start regretting your choices -’”
“Harry,” Liam says, deathly quiet, hoping he stops reading, hoping he listens.
“‘- was it the day you got that B that made you get into your second-choice of Uni? Was it that coffee you spilt over a girl, and the smile you shared as you asked for her number? Was it saying, me, I can do it, I can raise a baby in my twenties? Was it kissing someone, the only someone you weren’t supposed to kiss -’”
“Harry, please stop.” Liam can feel his hands shaking.
“Why would I stop, Liam? This is getting good,” Harry says and it’s malicious, it’s hurtful, it sounds so, so wrong coming from Harry, Liam wants nothing more than to stop breathing. “Don’t you want to know what other mistakes you’ve made in your life? I mean, they all seem to boil down to two people, so we can all use our imagination -”
“Harry, don’t. It’s not what you -”
“Don’t you fucking dare,” Harry hisses, and that’s when he turns and Liam can see how his eyes are raw, like he’s been steeling himself not to cry. “Don’t you fucking dare tell me it’s not what I think. You said it yourself, this is you, this unedited shit is you, all you, this is what you’ve been thinking about from day one! Why didn’t you fucking run, Liam? We gave you an out, I gave you an out, no one fucking forced you to do this!”
“I know, Harry, I didn’t -”
“Didn’t what? Didn’t mean that? Tell me, you didn’t mean any of that?” Harry’s standing up now and Liam should but Liam can’t bring himself to lie. He keeps his mouth shut.
“Fuck,” Harry breathes out. “Fuck. Were you just putting it on then? Was it just an act?”
“Of course it wasn’t, Haz -”
“Then tell me. Explain, Liam.” Harry’s face is so closed off, so angry, Liam feels like he’s choking.
“It’s just,” he has to explain, he’s got to explain, but words were never his strong suit, not when he had to speak them and he’s floundering, stuttering out sentences that mean less than nothing. “I never thought - I never saw myself as - as a dad, not, not when I’m barely twenty-five -”
Harry’s lip is wobbling. “Welcome to the fucking club, Liam! Did you think this is how I saw my life? Waking up at three am to cuddle a baby instead of getting twatted in a club or something? Leaving school and coming back to live here? Fucking falling in l- in whatever this was with you?” He comes closer and leans down, pressing a finger to Liam’s chest. “Nothing, nothing about this is how I pictured myself. But I wouldn’t fucking change a second.”
That brings Liam’s voice back again. He stands up, suddenly desperate, and his hand makes a fist over Harry’s. “I know that now, Hazza. I just - that’s why I came running back here, to tell you - to tell you that l-”
“No,” Harry says, pulling away from Liam. “Don’t you dare, because I don’t want to fucking hear it.”
“No,” he says again, taking another step back. “I want you gone. I’m going to my mum’s and I’ll be back tomorrow and I want you gone.”
Liam doesn’t remember how to breathe. “Harry, please.”
Harry shakes his head but doesn’t say another word before he turns around and goes through the door. The last thing Liam hears is him slamming it shut.
don’t talk to me don’t talk to anyone don’t even talk to yourself
It’s Louis’ thirteenth text today and while he’s obviously still angry, he’s misquoting Kanye West to Liam, which has to count for something. He hopes it does at least. He stares at his phone and does the maths; thirteen texts from Louis, fifteen missed calls from Niall and one solitary call from Zayn.
Nothing from Harry. Not that he expected anything.
“Hey, Li. Kettle’s still warm. You sure you don’t want anything?”
Liam looks up from his lap and squints at the figure in the doorway; she looks soft in her sweats, hair done in a messy bun like she always wore it when she was at home. It’s an achingly familiar sight and there’s a space in him, somewhere deep, that he knows she’ll always belong. It's comforting though, to know finally that she's not the biggest part of him now.
“Thanks, Dani. I'm - I’m alright."
She nods, then makes her way over, climbing over the boxes littering the floor. She sits down next to him, on a box with books written in her messy scrawl in black marker, and intertwines her hand with his. It strikes him then, how absolutely small she is. With her free hand, she runs her fingers through his hair.
“You look good, I don’t think I said before,” she starts, her voice barely more than a whisper. It echoes in their old flat though, because it’s empty, whatever used to exist here packed away in a moving van. “I missed you, you know.” She squeezes once to show she means it.
Liam takes a shaky breath. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I missed you too.”
Danielle lets out an amused laugh. “You think? Thanks, Liam.”
He knits his eyebrows together, horrified; he’s got the worst case of foot in mouth disease since Niall Horan. “No! God, no, I didn’t mean - of course I missed you, Dani. I just - I meant, I had a lot on, y’know, I don’t think I had the time to miss anyone properly, other than a decent night’s sleep.”
Dani laughs again, full-bodied, a loose curl bouncing on her forehead. Six months ago, he wouldn’t have thought twice about tucking it behind her ear; now, he’s content enough to let it be. “I get it, don’t worry, I was only teasing. You’re terribly easy to wind up.”
Liam snorts softly. “I’ve been told. I think I’m better at it now.”
Dani leans over, her head fitting on his shoulder almost perfectly. “Yeah. You would be. Can’t live with Harry that long and not grow immune.” She’s not careful when she says his name because she knows Liam too well and he’s so, so grateful to her for that. He needs to hear his name spoken aloud; needs to be told by someone else that he’s still real, even if he’s miles away now. Liam swallows; that thought hurts.
“So,” he croaks out, “when are you moving into the new place officially?”
She doesn’t comment on the awkward turn of the conversation, just sighs happily. “As soon as I can. The landlord’s been great so everything’s pretty much in order. I can’t wait to live there, Li. It’s not as big as this but it’s in Battersea which is so much closer to school and it’s just - I really love it. You’ll visit, won’t you?”
“‘Course,” he says fondly, and he knows he means it. His gaze slips around the empty apartment, the one he shared with Danielle practically since they were teenagers together. “We had a fun time here, didn’t we?”
Dani squeezes his hand again. “I don’t think I’ll ever have as much fun as I did living with you, love.” She taps a thumb on the back of his hand. “Anyone’d be crazy to let you go.”
Liam shuts his eyes, resting them only a little; the train down from Manchester was exhausting and he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since, because Dani had moved the bed and couch already. “You let me go,” he murmurs, trying not to sound accusing.
She doesn’t sound offended when she replies. “It was my time to. I was talking about anyone else who came after me.”
“Think that was more my doing than anything else.”
Dani hums in reply, clearly not on the same page. Her phone vibrates suddenly from her pocket and she untangles herself to take it out. “Looks like the mover’s here. Help me take this stuff down?”
He does, carrying most of the heavy boxes while Dani gives the van driver directions to the new flat. When they’re done, Dani turns around to hug him goodbye. It strikes him again, just how tiny she is and how he’s used to two sizes now; one that can fit snugly under his chin and one that’s just tall enough to kiss. Dani’s not right for either, not anymore.
“Miss me, Liam Payne. I’m not asking, I’m telling.” She pulls away, pointing at him threateningly. He laughs.
“I will, if you will.”
He stands at the curb of the pavement, watching her pull out with her battered old car, and waves just before she goes round the bend. At least he has a few days to spare in his old London flat. Dani’s lease expires at the end of the week; he’ll have had to find somewhere new to stay by then. The thought doesn’t make him excited in the least.
“Watch where you’re going there, big man.”
Liam nearly jumps out of his skin as he turns around to walk back up to the flat. He presses a palm flat on his chest and resists the urge to kick Zayn in the shin as he’s sitting there on the doorstep.
“Little warning would be nice,” he says, panting slightly. Zayn plays with the lighter in his hand and raises an eyebrow.
“Answering a phone call would be nice, too,” he says mildly.
“Point taken.” He sits on a step below Zayn, folding his arms against the cold. “Hi, Zayn.”
“Hey, Liam. When d’you get here?”
Liam coughs in his fist. He could lie but he’s useless at it, especially with Zayn. “About a week ago. Been staying with Dani.”
“Reckoned you would be.” Zayn’s tone is measured.
“So,” Zayn repeats.
“Should I guess why you’re here?”
“Don’t think it’s much of a guess, babe.” He clicks the lighter on and off, one finger tapping against the outline of his cigarette packet in his jeans.
“Does this mean Louis’ given up on me? If he’s sending you to deal with me.” Liam’s voice catches slightly in his throat. Zayn’s head turns carefully and Liam sees it then, the slightly hurt look there.
“You’re an idiot, Li. I came here because you’re my best mate and I’m gonna look out for you no matter what. And of course Louis hasn’t given up on you, you dick,” he punctuates the last with a punch aimed at Liam’s stomach. “he’s lucky enough the school believes him when he says he needs to use the library at Manchester, which is the biggest load of bollocks I’ve ever heard. He can’t hop to London whenever he pleases.”
Liam pinches his nose once. “So he’s with Harry?”
“‘Course he is. Someone’s gotta knock some sense into that idiot too.”
Zayn’s face instantly turns softer. “Went up to Cheshire yesterday. Louis requested back-up. He says answer your goddamn texts.”
Liam smiles down at his lap. “So, you got stuck with me.”
“So, I got stuck with you. Good thing you’re my favourite. Don’t tell Niall that.”
Liam smiles wider. “I won’t.”
It’s evening, so it’s just turning dark, lights on the roads turning on and buses stopping at each stop to let commuters out. Fried chicken wafts over from the chip shop opposite and the Indian lady one door over waves at him with her copy of the Evening Standard. They don’t say anything to each other as they people watch; Zayn finally gives in when it turns colder and plucks a cigarette from his packet. He doesn’t offer one to Liam.
“So what are you gonna do then?”
That’s the good thing with Zayn; he appreciates silence and he only talks when he needs to. It’s been so long now, the long stretches of silence aren’t heavy and Liam knows Zayn well enough to know what he’s asking.
“Wait,” Liam says truthfully.
Zayn breathes out a puff of smoke. “I hope it’s good enough, whatever you’re planning.” He inches closer to Liam, sharing body warmth.
“I hope so too, Zayn,” Liam murmurs, leaning in when Zayn wraps an arm around him. “I hope so too.”
Family is an odd word, isn’t it? It can mean so much, and so little, depending on who you ask, and regardless, it’s always a heavy word to say. Ask anyone on the street and they’ll have a different answer for you. Family is dad back home, retired and smoking a pipe only when it rains; family is Sunday roast every Monday because mum is odd like that and they never have the right beans at the market any other day; family is the people you invite to your wedding; family is the person you marry after the first wedding; family is the lifelong friend you make on the first day of school and the ones you make at Uni; family is the little girl you stay up all night for because she has a fever.
Sometimes, family are the people you’re stuck with, from the moment you come into this world. And, sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to choose your family. I’ve chosen mine.
The knock on the door wakes Liam up with a jolt and he bangs his head on the hardwood surface. At least Zayn was thoughtful enough to bring him a sleeping bag; he’s in a lot less danger of waking up with back pains. He glances over at his phone, squinting at the time there; 8:02 am. On a Sunday. It is a Sunday, right?
Someone knocks on the door a second time.
Groaning and stretching his arms above his head, he reaches out blindly for a hoodie to cover himself with. He wouldn’t care if it was just Zayn at the door, but it’s too early in the am for Zayn to even consider the possibility of wakefulness. It’s probably someone who wouldn’t really appreciate Liam being half-naked before it’s even properly light; maybe it’s the landlord calling in about the heating again; or maybe the overeager new tenant. All Liam really wanted to do was sleep in.
He pads over to the door barefoot and yawns loudly before he puts his hand on the doorknob; he could look through the peephole, he reasons, but that would require effort. He swings it open, shifting his weight so he’s kept upright by the wall and blinks at the figure in front of him. Figures, his brain corrects; there are two of them.
“Harry,” he says numbly. Jesus, is he having a lucid dream?
Because that’s definitely Harry standing outside his door, hair floppy and unwashed and brushing over his forehead. Harry with his oversized The Who shirt that never fit him, Harry with his trademark black skinny jeans, Harry in a sheepskin coat he’s almost definitely stolen from Louis. Harry, with Holly in one arm, sleeping soundly on his shoulder inside the coat, and with a stack of newspapers in the other hand. Harry, who looks the maddest Liam’s ever seen him.
“Harry,” he says again, because he’s not entirely sure he was heard the first time.
“Liam,” Harry replies curtly. “I’m coming in.” He pushes past Liam and into the hallway, boots squeaking on the floor. He knows the way, he’s been in this flat too many times not to, but Liam still stands there, dumbly, watching him until Harry hisses at him. “Come here! And be quiet, she’s been asleep the whole drive down.”
Liam follows him into the living room, where Harry’s just standing, surveying the empty room with distaste. “Turning into a monk, are you?”
“Not - not exactly,” Liam answers helplessly, fully aware of how stupid he must sound.
“Right,” Harry says, looking like he’s decided something. “Right, this is a bit, um, awkward because I was planning on having my hands free when I said my piece.”
“I can -” Liam offers, arms raised hesitantly. Harry shakes his head.
“No, it’s alright. This works.” He takes a deep breath, adjusting his hold on Holly. “I read your article.”
Liam nods; he’d figured that much. “When exactly -? Only it’s barely half eight in the morning.”
“Zayn told me,” Harry waves his fingers, like that’s not important. “Well, he told me to look out for something and, well, you really shouldn’t leave me alone with Louis and Niall, because they have the worst ideas in the universe. They woke me up at four to go wait outside the newsagent’s until the van with the papers arrived. Pretty sure everyone back home thinks we’ve gone mad.”
Liam can feel his heart beat unevenly somewhere in the vague area of his throat. “So. Did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Did you read it,” Liam asks quietly. There’s not even traffic at this hour; it’s like the whole world’s asleep.
Harry looks at him, brows still furrowed, biting his bottom lip until it’s red. “Did you mean it?”
“Every bloody word,” Liam says truthfully, his voice shaking with the weight of it. Harry nods, once.
“Thought so,” he says and Liam waits, because there’s got to be more than that.
“Harry, what -?”
“I want to yell at you. I want to have a shouting match so loud your neighbours kick you out and you’re banned from living in London ever again. Because you’ve been stupid as fuck, Liam, and you’ve scared me half to death, and I don’t whether I love you or hate you more for it.”
Love, Liam thinks. Love me for it.
“But I have a baby in my arms and I don’t want to wake her up, so I’m not going to yell. We’re skipping that but I’m not fucking forgetting it because you’re a bloody idiot, Liam -”
“I am,” Liam laughs, happiness bubbling out of him, threatening to break the surface. He takes a step closer, because now he can, now he knows he can. Harry’s still frowning at him but there’s a smile there, there’s Harry’s stupid, silly smile that all Liam’s.
“Such a bloody idiot, Liam Payne.”
“But you love me,” Liam finishes, because he can. He takes one more step closer, then another. Harry’s lips are exactly where they should be for a kiss.
“But I love you,” Harry repeats, and closes the distance.
“First day of school!”
Holly drags out the last syllable as long as she can, breaking it up whenever she bounces on the bed. Her short little legs only take her so far so Liam grabs her by the underarms and helps her jump properly over the sheets on the human lump that is Harry. Harry’s answering groan is one of a deeply felt pain. Liam would be sympathetic if he hadn’t spent an hour making his muscles sore by running around Regent’s Park.
“Can’t do that, Daddy,” Holly says primly, crawling over until she finds Harry’s head and smacks her lips on his nose. Harry grumbles and buries himself deeper into the pillow.
“Can’t do that, Daddy,” Liam repeats, pulling the sheet back so they get a better glimpse of grumpy morning Harry. His eyes are still half shut with sleepydust, hair a tumbled mess that Liam feels the slightest bit smug about and he’s naked aside from the necklaces tangled around his neck. Liam tucks the sheet snugly around his torso to prevent their daughter from seeing anything that’s out of bounds and smiles at the sleepy boy in front of him. “Morning, you.”
“I’m returning both of you to the shop,” Harry whines, one long arm reaching behind to drag a kicking and giggling Holly closer to him. She squeals when he blows a raspberry on her chubby arm. “I want a new family, this one won’t let me sleep!”
“Dad, save me, daddy, help!” Holly yells in the loudest voice she can and Liam assumes his Superman stance, hands on his waist, red and blue shirt looking a lot more menacing.
“Leave my daughter alone,” he hisses, leaning in and banging his teeth together close to Harry’s ear. He wraps a hand around Harry’s neck and squeezes. “Or I will do what I did to you last night.” This is supposed to come out as a whisper, all breathy until Harry shivers, but Liam forgets sometimes that their kid has supersonic hearing.
“What did you do to him last night, daddy?” Holly asks curiously, face leaning into Liam’s. Harry’s smile unfolds slowly, entirely too reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat.
“Yeah, daddy, what did you to me last night?” He makes his eyes as big and innocent as they get, then flutters them for effect. Liam refuses to blush.
“Unspeakable things, Holly,” he replies, reaching over to rescue her and untangle her from Harry’s arms. She wobbles slightly on her feet when they touch the floor, then stands up straight to prove she can do it; she’s an expert on walking now. She shrugs, clearly not on the same page as them about how interesting these unspeakable things are.
“Daddy, I made you breakfast.”
Harry rests his chin on his crossed arms and leans over the bed. “Did you, little lady?”
Holly nods eagerly. “Yes! Dad says we’re s’pposed to eat good before we go to school so we made you eggs! And bacon! A lotta bacon!”
“Wow,” Harry says in a voice filled with wonder. He still has morning voice, all rough and scratchy, and it makes Liam swallow and sink a thumb into his thigh to ground himself. Harry looks up at him fleetingly, as if he knows exactly what Liam has in mind, then focuses back on Holly. “Where is it, then? Where’s my breakfast?”
Holly pouts, in a way that’s so reminiscent of Harry it makes Liam’s heart clench. “Daddy says we’re not s’posed to have breakfast in bed.”
“Ugh, Daddy. What a buzzkill,” Harry kicks out at Liam, trying not to grin. Liam rolls his eyes.
“I’m not having crumbs all over the bed. You can get your lazy bum down to the kitchen. Anyway,” he looks at the watch on his wrist, “it’s quarter to nine. Your first class starts at ten, you need to get up.”
“But I don’t wanna,” Harry moans, huddling under the sheets again. Holly giggles, then rolls her eyes when she catches Liam looking at her.
“Baby,” Liam leans down to her height, “why don’t you start making tea for all of us? I’ll drag Dad along in a second.”
“Okay!” Holly says, like she’s never heard a more exciting idea, and waddles off, taking the stairs one hop at a time by the sound of it. Liam turns around to face a buried Harry.
“Get up, babe,” he says softly, laying down next to him, head close enough that when Harry pulls the sheets down again he only has to purse his lips to kiss him. He does.
“I really don’t want to,” Harry mumbles through the kiss.
“Liar,” Liam laughs. “You’ve wanted this for ages. This is why we moved back to London. Well, that and your really fit English Professor apparently.”
Harry chuckles. “Did he tell you to say that?”
Liam digs into his pockets. “And I quote - ‘I realise it’s going to be hard but tell Harold he really has to concentrate on what I’m saying, not just my spectacular face’,” he reads from his phone, his one-sided conversation with Louis - heart eyes emoji - Tomlinson continuing for about twenty texts. “I think he’s more nervous than you are.”
Harry smiles fondly. “It’ll be weird.”
“Having Louis as a responsible adult you’re supposed to pay attention to? I’ll say.”
“No,” Harry mumbles, leaning in closer to mouth at Liam’s neck; it’s making it rather difficult for Liam to make sense of what he’s saying. “Well,” he pulls back, biting his lips distractingly. “Not just that. It’ll be weird going back to school.”
Liam smiles, hand drawing circles against Harry’s curls. “Yeah. But you can do it, babe. And you’re going to be brilliant at it.”
Harry sits up a little, then presses his chest against Liam’s, makes their noses boop against each other. “You think?”
“You’ve done everything else, haven’t you?” Liam grins, catching Harry’s lip with his mouth. “School will be a breeze after raising that terror. And marrying me.”
Harry still looks worried. “I had you though. For both those things.”
Liam leans up, cupping a hand behind Harry’s neck. “You still have me,” he whispers, laughing with Harry when he hears Holly calling them from downstairs. “For always.”