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The Only Place You've Known

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Liam's having a long week.

It starts with a group of paps hounding him when he's only trying to pick up a gift for Ruth's birthday, something he can shop for and browse and look at with his own eyes, live, in person — touch with his own two hands; something he doesn't have to order online alone at night off Amazon in a hotel room bed or on the tour bus bunk. Word gets out that Liam's at a particular outdoor shopping centre.

Before he can really process the outpouring of fans lined up, asking for pictures and autographs, growing rapidly louder with each request — the shop security's eyeing Liam, eyeing the crowd, and Liam decides it would be best for another day, perhaps, maybe the timing isn't right — maybe he can make a date of it with Smith, tomorrow or the next day; he'll still be on holiday for a good bit of time.

While he's leaving though, huddling to the carpark, pulling his snapback lower over his face, posing with as many fans as he can and signing and smiling on the way, the paps show up. The cameras are bright and dizzying enough on their own, leaving spots of color in their wake like he's sat up too fast; he'll never get used to it, the shutter-click ringing in his ears above the noise of the young dark-haired girl with a neon blue One Direction headband and matching wristbands he was just talking to.

Liam ducks his head down and ignores it and shoulders through. He knows how to handle it by now, apologizing to the people he can't reach, saying he's sorry until the word feels used and hoarse, thumbing the car keys in his pocket with increasing urgency — he can nearly feel the cold dead metallic weight in his hands, and he just wants to be in his driver's seat, just wants to be starting the engine already.

A few of the paps tail him to the carpark, and when the fans trickle off as Liam begins weaving through the aisle of parked cars, one of the paps starts talking. They always do, but this guy isn't just saying hey or asking how it's going, he's saying, "Liam, how's twitter been treating you? Heard about that feud, man," between the insistent shutter-clicking.

Liam makes the mistake of glancing over, half a curious look, too much indulgence though, he should know better, he can't really be surprised when the guy keeps talking: "Too bad so many people care where you stick your dick. Personally I don't, shit, I'd let you have a go at me."

There's a scattering of laughs from the other guys. Liam's nearly to his car. Then the pap says, "I mean, for the right price, maybe. How about it?"

It's not the worst thing Liam's been told, not by a long shot, no worse than twitter or the protestors outside some of their venues or all of secondary school and sixth form, that's for certain. On the drive home, though, he's unable to shake it off, and when he checks the internet the next day — unable to help himself, restlessness sinking down a black endless pit deep in his stomach — there are hundreds of videos of Liam clearly audibly saying, "How about you fuck off," but none of what the pap had said right before.

He does himself a favor and neglects his mentions on twitter, staying off the internet, especially after he gets a sympathetic text from both Niall and Louis, surprised that they'd even known and not surprised at all. Smith comforts him, anyway, offering cuddles and trading kisses with Liam on his massive plush couch throughout screening a streaming copy of Iron Man 3 followed by the original Die Hard. They order piles of Chinese takeaway, feeding each other straight from the cartons with their amateurly held chopsticks, so it isn't too bad.

 

*

 

The next night Andy invites Liam out. Liam spends a while trying to convince Smith to come, cornering him on the bed, the duvet looking clean and crisp beneath the lines of Smith's naked shoulders.

"Come on," Liam says into Smith’s neck, trying not to pout and puckering his mouth into a kiss instead. "It'll be fun, we won't stay long, just enough for like, a drink and a dance."

He feels Smith laugh beneath him, vibrating against Liam’s hands around Smith's waist, so he grins into Smith's throat. "You like it when I dance badly, don't you? Highlight of your young life, innit? Admit it." He tickles Smith a little just to hear him laugh louder.

Smith catches Liam’s hands and stills them against his chest and says, "No, babe, you go, I just don't feel like it tonight but it's fine, I swear."

He gives Liam a sincere earnest look, and it's still new, even if Liam's known Smith for a long time, since before X-Factor and One Direction, since before everything, it's still new with them so Liam doesn't push.

He lets Smith's hands slip from his grasp and says, "Alright," while he finds a clean shirt to wear.

Andy always wants to go to Funky Buddha and it's alright — it's absolutely fine, Liam doesn't mind. It's always loud, but they get a good booth and good service and great music and sometimes they let Liam up by the DJ to mess with the turntable and it's fun. Liam doesn't drink too much tonight — only enough to feel the buzz humming in his bones and for his eyes to feel out of focus, his laugh and tongue loosened, that excess restlessness from the pap and the video evaporating from his skin through his pores until it's all dried up and gone.

A few people recognize him and he's happy to oblige with pictures — exaggerating pouty faces as he holds the camera above both their heads like he's taking a selfie. Some just want a hug, though, and that's even easier to give into.

One boy taps Liam lightly on the shoulder just when he'd been heading onto the dance floor and when Liam turns around belatedly to face him, the boy, who can't be older than seventeen, leans in like he's going to tell Liam a secret and says, "I just wanted to say thank you."

He's shouting a little to be heard above the music. "I don't know like — how to properly say, but, what you've done, it means so much to me."

Liam blinks to clear his head, all set to touch the boy's elbow and tell him it's not a problem, mate — whatever it is Liam's done, he's sure it's nothing, he's sure it isn't anything worth the boy stumbling over, reaching for Liam's shoulder again awkwardly to continue saying, "I've never like — I never thought I would see anyone so open about it, or like so famous, like able to be so famous, like on the cover of, of — anything, any teen magazine that my fucking younger sister could pick up."

And Liam gets it, because he’s never thought so either — that someone his age would be able to do it. Not growing up, not during The X-Factor, not when he came out, not ever. His breath's gotten all locked up in his chest beneath his lungs, tight and hard, an iron grip on his heart, and it stalls him, gives the boy enough time to say, "Anyway, just, thanks, thank you, I'm glad you're here," before he's pulling away and stepping out of Liam's space, looking at him almost shyly.

Liam has to clear his throat and it's hard to talk around the helpless smile eating up his face, but he manages to say, "Of course, thank you, mate." He finally reaches out to touch the boy's elbow and squeezes briefly, a single stinging moment of solidarity.

The boy smiles back. Liam imagines it's the club’s hot bright lights suddenly flashing over and illuminating them that makes his eyes feel like they're pricking with tears.

Liam finally finds Andy on the floor and he must not be able to help his grin, must have some expression written all over his face, maybe he looks guilty even because Andy quirks a smile at him and slings his arm across Liam's shoulders and says, "What's with you? Get a dirty text or summat?"

Liam laughs, but he's still got that tight pulling iron grip on his heart. "No," he shakes his head and thinks about telling Andy, but instead he flags a passing waitress down for another bottle of champagne. "Nothing," he tells Andy. "It was — just a fan, it was nothing."

They cheers their glasses together with a clink and drink up.

 

*

 

Liam lets himself in the front door before dawn and immediately stumbles up the staircase to his bedroom, tugs off his jeans and top as he goes, leaves them hanging off the banister and on the floor, eager for his thousand thread-count sheets and feather-down pillows and Smith's warm sleeping body.

Smith wakes up a little, cracking one eye open as Liam gets settled under the covers, and Liam takes the opportunity to smile and kiss him. Smith indulges him clumsily, sleepily for a moment, patting Liam's bare chest like he's consoling him.

"Hey," Liam whispers, close enough to Smith's face to see the scattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose. "Hey, I missed you."

Smith looks at him with his one eye and then closes it and says into the pillow, "Did you," groggy and hoarse.

"Yeah." Liam touches his fingers to Smith’s soft cheek, bites his own lip, and then says, "I met this fan — he was like." It's hard to think through the fuzz of liquor and the slur from exhaustion, and in the quiet dark room with his voice echoing loudly even though it's still hissing in a whisper, the club and the boy seem millions of lightyears away, ages ago. "He was trying to thank me, didn’t even ask for a picture or anything," Liam says.

"Mm,” Smith says, squirming further into the sheets, sounding halfway asleep again already. "That's nice, baby.”

"Yeah, it was, it was more than nice though, it was like — I don't know, I wish you would've heard it, I felt so weird — I can't really put it into words, I mean I was grateful of course, but I got what he was saying on this other level and I didn't want him to thank me exactly, because, like I don't think of myself that way, right?" Liam's still touching Smith's cheek. He's been stroking his thumb across the bone like he's smoothing out his thoughts. "Like, I'm still waiting for the — whatever, the young gay queer idol and icon of my, my time and generation and what-have-you."

Smith makes a noise in acknowledgement, but he doesn't move and his breathing seems to be growing decidedly deeper and slower, more relaxed.

Liam looks at him, his eyelashes brushing his cheek, his hair fanned out on the pillow around his head like a halo. "Anyway," Liam says, "I just wanted to tell you. It's not like I can exactly tell Andy, you know?" He almost laughs, but Smith's lying perfectly still, breathing all evened out, so Liam lowers himself down onto the mattress and lies flat on his back and watches the ceiling and thinks about sleeping.

Smith curls into him after a moment. "Tell me about it tomorrow, babe," he mumbles into Liam's shoulder and then he’s asleep.

 

*

 

In the clear fresh light of day, sitting round his kitchen table and sipping morning tea, watching Smith’s long fringe all rumpled from sleep and the lines still imprinted across his face from the pillow while he fumbles with the coffeemaker Liam never uses, it suddenly feels stupid. Liam can’t get a grasp on the words he’d felt viscerally last night, and the image of the fan, the boy keeps slipping away beneath a wash of the club’s flashing lights and the smell of smoke and the waitress he’d flagged down for that last glass of champagne. He doesn’t know what he was trying to say, anyway. Maybe it didn’t even really happen. He rubs his hands across his face and remembers accepting the compliment, remembers maybe touching the boy’s elbow or shoulder or side in acknowledgement.

Smith’s in the middle of asking what Liam wants to do about breakfast and the sad lack of food in the house when he suddenly cuts himself off mid-sentence and says, “Oh, what was that thing,” squinting at Liam like it'll bring his thoughts into focus, starting to stretch his arm out to touch Liam’s hand from across the table. “What were you telling me last night? I was dead asleep.”

Liam shakes his head, shakes off the jump in his pulse. “Oh,” he says, surprised, swallowing, his ears prickling with heat in a rush of awareness. “It was nothing,” he waves his hand and shakes his head again, stuttering over the memory of coming home and climbing into bed to see Smith's bare back facing him, his head turned away. Liam didn’t expect Smith to bring it up now; it's like he’s read Liam's mind. “Don’t worry about it, can’t even remember myself,” he says and huffs a laugh.

“Alright,” Smith says, and after a moment he laughs a little, too.

 

*

 

Eventually, they wind up in the supermarket. Liam pushes the trolley and lets Smith talk him into a blend of guava fruit juice and organic chocolate-coated strawberries and a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, though Smith admittedly doesn’t have to try very hard, if at all. They bung in a cheap marked-down copy of the third Pirates of the Caribbean and an Elle Decor catalog while they’re waiting in the queue to sort through later.

Liam drives them home. Less than halfway there, he gets preoccupied with his iPod, scrolling, hunting for a tune he’s been wanting to play for Smith, it’s been stuck in Liam’s head for ages, he keeps singing snatches of it without realizing. He's so distracted that he has to look up and slam on the brakes quickly at a red light to avoid bashing into the car in front of him.

The longer he looks though, the more the car in front is bizarrely familiar like he’s seen it in a dream — small and blue, a Fiat so clean it seems new — and Liam realizes abruptly then that it’s the exact same model as Daniel’s car, exact same shade, same brakelights, same back window. He watches it drive away when the light turns green before he remembers that he has to follow it and pull out of the junction too.

He knows it’s not Daniel’s car. He watches the Fiat pull into the left-hand turn lane and resists craning his head around to peer through the side window and double-check. It can’t be Daniel’s, the license plate wasn't right, and there’s no reason for it to be Daniel’s, it’s not a remote possibility because last Liam’s heard — which wasn’t terribly long ago — Daniel was meant to be on tour playing backup dancer to Ciara and not wandering around London.

Anyway, Smith distracts Liam by asking what song he’d been looking for, saying that he’ll find it so Liam can focus on the road, and soon Miguel’s voice is bumping through the speakers and Liam forgets.

There's another Fiat on Liam's block when they finally turn onto it, so Liam doesn't manage to forget for very long. The Fiat's parked a handful of homes down, in plain sight, and this one isn't blue, it's silver, gleaming in the sun, and Liam knows, he knows; it's a very popular car.

It's a bit weird, though. He can't rid himself of picturing Daniel's small blue Fiat with those same brakelights and same back window loaded to the brim with Daniel’s stuff in boxes, jackets and jumpers still on hangers, lotions and Dior cologne bottles and hairbrushes thrown on the carpet floor, pillowcases and books and picture-frames piled in the passenger seat where Liam had sat so many times as Daniel pulled away from Liam's drive for one last time. It's a reverse sense of déjà vu when Liam parks his car in his drive and the gravel crunches beneath the tires.

Smith's voice startles Liam out of it. He's talking about something he found in the Elle Decor magazine he's been flipping through — a bunch of faux vintage trunks there's a two page feature on — and looking at Smith from across the seat divider as Smith opens the door and climbs out feels like a second wave of déjà vu spreading from the top of Liam's head down to his toes, like he's been seeing double and it's all just come into focus.

For a moment when Liam enters his house — Smith's already gone through to the kitchen but Liam can't hear him, it's dead quiet in the foyer — the light from the bay window's fanning out across the wood floor in long stripes, and all Liam can see is Daniel in his loose black dropcrotch sweats and low scoop-neck shirt folded up on the floor with one foot pressed to his thigh in a stretch, his leg laid out like he's making a ninety-degree angle, arching his back to touch his own bare foot with both hands, the sunlight hitting the tops of his curly hair. But then Liam takes a confused step forward like he's trying to walk into the memory, and the sound of his own footstep echoes and the vision breaks and it's just him again, standing in his foyer, holding bags and bags of shopping, staring at the empty floor.

 

*

 

Later, both Liam and Smith are ignoring Pirates of the Caribbean 3 playing idly in the background in favor of snogging messily on Liam's couch. Then Liam's shirt's gone, virtually vanished into thin air, and Smith's palming at the front of Liam's jeans and Liam's groaning into his mouth.

Smith pulls away to unfasten Liam's trousers and Liam takes in the sight of Smith's fringe falling in his eyes, his red kiss-swollen mouth, the hectic flush on his cheeks and the way his collar's been pulled apart from his neck like Liam's broken the hem from tugging so hard. He's bloody gorgeous and Liam has to close his eyes, wondering how he has so many things in his life to feel lucky for.

His luck is a bit short-lived — Smith's just fisted his hand around Liam's hard cock when Liam's phone starts vibrating across the coffee table.

He mutters, "Ignore it, ignore it," into Smith's mouth, kissing him until he gives and starts moving his hand again, laughing in a way that tastes delicious. But Liam's phone keeps ringing, growing louder and more insistent each time it vibrates, and it's getting harder to actually ignore in practice, though the theory was a dream and Smith's hand feels too good to give up.

He pulls away from Smith's mouth where he'd been half-kissing Liam and half-distractedly breathing heavily, reaches down to still Smith's hand. Liam’s already regretting it before he says, "Maybe — it might be important?"

Smith only laughs again, amused, ducks in for a quick closed kiss, and then lets go of Liam's prick with a squeeze, pats his thigh like he's allowing permission. "Go on, then," he says, smoothing his own hair back from his forehead.

Liam tips over on the couch to grope for his phone, tugging it in as soon as his fingers slide across it. It's only Harry who’s been ringing, but it’s a lot of missed calls. With a last mournful sigh, Liam tugs his pants up to cover his dick and then says, "Just a second," and rings Harry.

Harry picks up straight away, crowing, “Payno! Thought I’d never get ahold of you,” before the second ring.

“Yeah, hi,” Liam says, darting a look at Smith who’s turned to face the telly and propped his head up with one hand, his elbow bent over the back of the couch. “Was kind of in the middle of something, you alright?” Liam says.

“Oh, were you,” Harry says, slow and amused. “Terribly sorry to interrupt, mate, tell Smith I say hi.”

“Might do, if you get on with it. Did you ring me for a reason? Just miss my voice, Hazza? It hasn’t been so long, has it?” Liam says.

“Yeah, couldn’t bear it. You up for a conference call with the lads, though? We’ve got tour dates to discuss,” Harry says.

Liam casts a lingering look at Smith, but Smith’s only watching the telly, his expression much more interested than it’d been a moment ago, and the flush on his face has dimmed. He’s playing with his hair, twining it between two fingers. Liam shifts to get more comfortable on the couch and then says, “‘Course, put me through,” to Harry, and he reaches down to button but not zip his jeans, smiling at Smith, though Smith can’t see it.

It’s a mess of a conversation, as usual; they quarrel over how many dates to add and to which stadiums for the tour. Louis’s the only one with a sheet from their tour manager of available venues, and though he swears he’s emailed a copy to everyone Liam’s yet to receive a notification for it on his phone. They toss around the idea of hopping on skype for a proper raise-your-hand put-’em-up don’t-be-shy vote, but never follow through.

Liam asks Smith more than once if he wants Liam to move into the kitchen or upstairs or summat so that Smith might actually be able to enjoy the film, turn the volume up. Smith just shakes his head though, and strokes Liam’s thigh and knee, looking a bit bemused.

Finally they settle on UK and Ireland dates, a handful more gigs, and then they’re ringing off one-by-one between exclamations about Australia and seeing each other soon. It’s down to just Harry and Liam again before they say bye too and the line goes dead.

“Sorry,” Liam says immediately, dropping his phone onto the coffee table with a clatter and turning to face Smith. “Sorry, that went on longer than I expected.” He throws Smith a smile, reaches for his side and for his arm that’s still bent up on the couch’s headrest to pull him in.

“That’s alright,” Smith says, huffing a laugh, tilting his head to look into Liam’s face.

Liam kisses him, but Liam’s grinning so it doesn’t last for too long. “Where were we?” he asks, hopeful.

“Oh,” Smith says, “Don’t be so sure you’ll get quite so lucky a second time round.” But he’s smiling too, even as he’s a bit slow to kiss Liam back and come closer.

 

*

 

At the end of the week, the last night before Liam flies to Australia, he's beneath Smith in his big massive king bed, the duvet spilling onto the floor, the pillows lost above their heads, the bottom fitted sheet coming loose from one corner as Smith fucks him into the mattress. Liam feels desperate to remember it — he keeps getting flashes of empty white hotel rooms between raising his knees and his hands slipping down the sweaty length of Smith’s spine.

Smith’s hands are braced on either side of Liam’s shoulders, his face is close enough to kiss. Liam can feel him breathing, his erratic harsh pants puffing against Liam’s jaw and throat as he fucks into him. It’s like Smith’s splitting Liam open, spearing him into two.

Liam opens his eyes to look up into Smith's face, and he gets that same double out of focus vision, like the déjà vu when he was in the car and the vacant foyer. Smith's face — his cinched eyebrows, the flushed column of his bare neck, his mouth held open — above Liam is blurry and slurred like Smith’s a wet watercolor on a canvas and Liam’s smeared all the paint together with his palms.

Liam must slacken his grip on Smith's back or maybe his face drops, blanks out, because Smith stills inside him completely the next moment with his hips pressed flush against Liam’s arse.

"Hey," Smith says, his voice rough like he's been screaming, lifting his hand from the sheets to touch Liam's jaw and chin. "You alright? Where did you go?"

"What?" Liam wets his mouth and blinks and it brings his focus in, aligning the double vision until it snaps together like a lens twisting and tightening. "I'm right here," he says, the words scraping out of his throat between huge breaths like sighs.

Smith's fingers linger on Liam's chin as he bends down to kiss him, sweaty and firm. Liam leans into it, raises his head from the mattress and kisses Smith again before he pulls away. He can feel Smith's cock throbbing inside him, a hot hard unrelenting pressure, and he shifts his hips, urging Smith on. Smith takes the hint, starts up again, fucking Liam until Liam comes all over his own hand and both of their bellies, his mouth wide open, his eyes screwed shut.

After, Liam splays out flat on his back. Smith curls up into Liam’s side and plays with the stray thin dark hairs curling on Liam's chest. They’ve kicked the sheet and duvet over their legs. Liam’s still heated up, his muscles loose and lax, sinking into the bed like quicksand.

He’s just lulling himself to sleep — the sound of Smith’s rhythmic breathing coupled with the white noise inside Liam’s head are as easy and comfortable to fall into as the bed — when Smith shifts against Liam, flattening his palm to Liam’s chest and snuffling into his neck as he says, “What was,” his voice still hoarse. “What were those dates you were talking about a bit ago?”

Liam rouses himself and lifts his hand from where it’d curled up slack on the mattress in his doze to touch Smith’s lower back. “Hmm?” he says, squinting his eyes open. “You mean when I was on the phone? A few days ago, was it?”

“Yeah, like, I was just wondering.” Smith pauses and Liam feels Smith shake his head a little, but Liam can’t tell if he’s only burrowing his face deeper into the hollow of Liam's throat or if he’s talking himself out of something. “Like, how many dates did you say it would be?” He’s tracing the pads of his fingers around Liam’s nipple and then plucking lightly at the hairs surrounding it.

“Oh, those are — it’s for our stadium tour, like next year,” Liam says. He urges Smith closer with the arm he has around his waist and back, tugging him in until he throws his leg across Liam’s thighs and knees. “It’s just, we’re just doing a few more dates for the UK leg of it. Is that what you meant?”

Smith shrugs. “Yeah,” he says, after a moment. “Yeah, I was just wondering, that’s all.”

Liam bites his lip, staring at the ceiling, and then he rolls over in Smith’s arms to look at him. He takes Smith’s face between his hands, thumbing his cheeks, and says, “Were you worried about it or summat?” And before Smith can answer, “Don’t be.”

“I wasn’t,” Smith says. He leans back a little in Liam’s grip and Liam can see directly into Smith’s eyes, though Smith only holds the contact for a second before he glances down. His hand’s on Liam’s chest but it’s still. “I was only wondering,” he says.

Liam nods but he’s not sure Smith sees, so he reaches across the pillow to kiss him. Smith indulges him, but he doesn’t open his mouth, and when he pulls away he yawns and gives Liam a brief smile. “You’ve got an early flight, don’t you?”

“Not too early,” Liam says.

Smith’s already breaking Liam’s hold, though, to fluff up the pillow beneath him and settle in.

 

*

 

Smith gets in the car that comes to pick Liam up for Heathrow. They hold hands the whole drive — Liam keeps smoothing his thumb over the backs of Smith’s knuckles, and Smith rests his head on Liam’s shoulder, warm and still half-asleep. When they arrive, Preston hustles to lift Liam’s luggage out of the boot in a rush, and Liam turns in his seat to look at Smith, unbuckling his seat-belt one-handed, reaching over to unbuckle Smith’s after, ready to drag the both of them out of the car, but Smith shakes his head and pulls Liam’s hand in towards his chest and Liam pauses with his arm stretched out over Smith’s body.

He must look surprised or confused, because Smith kisses him quickly on the mouth first before he says, “No, baby, I don’t have to go in, I’ll just — can we say bye now?”

Liam glances from Smith’s knotted up face, something soft beset in his eyes almost with hurt or pity, to out the window where there’re loads of cars rolling by, tacky and overly bright in the stale reflective lighting.

“Is that what you — yeah, of course,” Liam says, the words tumbling out before he can get a grip on them, feeling slow to catch up. He lifts his hand up from Smith’s seat-belt to smooth it across his face instead, leaning closer to kiss him again.

Smith kisses him back readily in quick firm pecks, one after the other as he holds onto the sides of Liam’s neck with both hands.

The car door swings open and the noise from outside floods in like an assault — cars beeping, crackling loudspeaker arrival announcements, the gnawing sound of luggage wheels on cement, people chattering. It jars Liam away from the comfort of Smith’s warm mouth like an electrical shock.

“Liam,” Preston says, kind but not entirely patient, and distracted, blocking the door. “We’ve gotta go, come on.”

“Okay,” Liam calls back, not looking away from Smith, who’s giving him a weak smile. “Okay,” he repeats more quietly, just between the two of them, not exactly a question.

Smith nods a little and kisses Liam one last time, breathing in harshly through his nose, sucking his stomach in like he's bracing himself. “Okay,” Smith echoes.

“I’ll miss you,” Liam says. He’s sliding his legs on the seat towards the door, but he hasn’t yet pulled his face away from Smith, bent towards him. “I’ll text you when we land.”

He darts in to press a split-second kiss at the corner of Smith’s mouth. “Are you sure you don’t want to —” he starts to say, but Smith interrupts him.

“Go, go,” Smith says, half-laughing, pushing at Liam’s shoulder. His fingers are fisted in Liam’s sweatshirt though, holding on. “Have fun, best tour ever, right?”

“Right, yeah,” Liam says, flashing him a smile.

Smith looks small, is all, sitting in the middle seat with the reflection from the windows shining over him like spotlights and the noise outside swallowing him up, the seat-belt wrapped around his chest and cutting into the material of the shirt he took from Liam’s drawer.

“Liam,” Preston says, sounding much more urgent than he had a moment ago. Smith lets go of Liam's sweatshirt.

“Right,” Liam says again, “I’m coming,” and he pulls himself away from Smith, climbs out of the car, slides the door shut behind him, shouldering his backpack. He glances over his shoulder, but he can’t see through the tinted window. The car’s already pulling away from the kerb and back into the airport traffic to take Smith home, anyway.

 

*

 

Time trickles on more slowly after Liam makes it to the gate. Niall’s already there, sat in one of the soft black seats by a wall built from thick sheets of glass. His hood's pulled up over his hair, but he's got a huge grin on his face, all his teeth showing as he looks down at his phone, typing quickly. Louis’s slouched in the seat next to him and illuminated by the sun, his head on Niall’s shoulder, his arm thrown across his face over his eyes like he’s dead asleep.

Liam can’t help from smiling preemptively as he walks up to them and kicks Niall’s ankles to get his attention once he's within reach, stood right in front of him.

Niall looks up straight away. “Leemo!” he shouts in a stage-whisper.

“Hey, bro,” Liam says and leans down to accept the one-armed hug Niall offers. Niall thumps him on the back with his hand, heavy with his phone still held in it, and whispers quietly into his ear, “You look good, man,” before kissing his cheek.

Liam gives him a kiss back and then pulls away to flop down into the seat on Niall’s other side. “You too,” he says, belated.

Niall pulls a dumb face — folding his lip up above his teeth and crossing his eyes, and Liam laughs.

Niall shushes him, though it’s facetious. He hooks his thumb over his shoulder to point at Louis. “Don’t wanna wake the bear, do we? Been a terror all morning, full on strop over his tea, but don’t tell him you heard it from me,” Niall says, winking.

“Bully,” Louis says groggily before Liam can reply, and Liam spots one of Louis’ hands waving dismissively in the air beyond Niall’s shoulder. “I've done no such thing. Been a right prince, I have.”

Niall snorts a laugh, saying, “Right, yeah,” but then Louis tips his head back further and it falls off of Niall’s shoulder into his lap so that Louis’s looking upside down at Liam from Niall’s thigh. Louis puts his hand over Niall’s mouth for good measure, though they’re both grinning, and then says, “How’re you, bro? Good drive? Hit any traffic?”

“Yeah, no,” Liam says, proffering another smile. “Great drive, the best.”

Niall and Louis both don’t ask where Smith is, but Liam brings it up later after they’ve all fallen into a lapsed silence waiting for Zayn to show and Louis’s distracted himself by playing with the loose threads at the waistband of Niall’s joggers, tugging them out one by one until the elastic underneath shows and Niall's watching him, reluctantly fascinated.

Neither of them are looking at Liam, so Liam sighs and drops his head back onto the top of the seat to stare at the high towering ceiling and says, “There was this like, weird thing, I don't know. I saw Smith off in the car — I was wondering, d'you think that’s. Like.” He shifts around in the seat, shrugging as though it’ll help the things he wants to say fall in a row like tetris pieces.

“I thought he was gonna come in with me, that's all, but maybe he didn’t want to.” His voice trails off, fizzling out towards the end, growing quiet, rooted deep in his chest and he’s not actually sure if Louis and Niall have heard; he’s busy remembering the paps outside the glass sliding doors when he’d been walking in to check his baggage, their camera flashes and the lingering spots of colors they leave, the small cluster of fans he took hurried photographs with before he got in line for security. He closes his eyes and wishes he hadn’t said anything at all.

“I don't know,” Louis says, hedging into it. “Usually El and me, we say like a proper goodbye the night before, you know, private, and she’s never, I mean I haven’t ever brought her in with me.”

“Yeah,” Liam says, thinking about the way Smith had looked small sat in the middle seat alone, and the tinted car window.

“Besides, you never did bring Danny in, did you?” Louis says.

Liam shakes his head. “No, never,” he says and then looks down at his hands. He’d thought maybe it would be different with Smith, but he doesn’t know why.

“Seems pretty normal, then,” Louis’s saying. “To be fair, you can’t blame him — Smith, I mean. Can you, mate?” He sounds like he’s smiling, lightening up the tone of his voice.

Liam wants to smile back, so he finally looks over at Louis and Niall, and he’s right, they’re both smiling at him just like he imagined they would be, familiar and kind and almost amused, almost considering. He really wishes he hadn’t said anything.

 

*

 

Zayn treks up to them from down the empty aisle sluggishly like a zombie out of a film, rubbing at his eyes, his face pale and sunken. He comes to a halt at the seats and nods at them, plopping his duffel down at their feet, and then leans in wordlessly for a hug with Liam, who’s closest.

“Zayner,” Niall’s announcing in an imitation of a TV presenter, and Liam huffs a smile into Zayn’s shoulder, squeezing him before letting him slip away.

“Hey,” Zayn says, reaching across Liam to bump Niall’s outstretched fist and then Louis’.

“Ah,” Louis says. “So the elusive Malik is real. Almost thought we’d been imagining him this whole time.”

Zayn yawns massively, not bothering to cover it up, and mumbles, “Couldn’t dream me up if you tried, mate." He slumps into Liam’s shoulder from the seat beside him.

“Now Tommo,” Liam says, hooking his arm around Zayn’s shoulders so that Zayn can cuddle up more comfortably. “You know he’s a vampire, isn’t meant to be out in the daytime, is he?”

“Allergic to sunlight,” Zayn agrees, his eyes closed. “Payno gets it. I want him to have my valuables, and, what’s it, possessions if I don’t make it off the flight.” He gestures lazily with one hand, rubbing his fingers together like he’s trying to snap. “Put it in writing, new will.”

They have to board the flight only a few moments later, and Liam darts a last glance around the lobby stewing in the peaceful morning light, unsure of what he’s looking for, hesitating long enough though that Louis claps him on the shoulder like he’s been trying to grab Liam’s attention for a while.

Liam follows him and Niall and Zayn down the narrow passageway onto the plane, and Niall’s laugh bounces around the corridor maniacally. The close tight acoustics amplify all of their voices, the shuffling of their feet. It’s hard to miss it when Zayn asks from a few steps ahead of Liam, “When’s Harry getting over there?”

“Didn’t he text you?” Niall asks from the very front.

Liam can hear Louis say, “Don’t be silly, Neil, you know you’re Harry’s favorite member of the band, he only texts you,” and he can imagine the grin and nose wrinkle Niall throws at Louis in response.

Zayn shakes his head though, so Liam bumps the side of his fist into his back and tells him, “Hazza’s flying out of L.A. tomorrow, I think.”

It’s just them and Preston and Paul and Cal, Alberto and Paddy from security, but they all sit up in the front row so Liam passes them by as he follows Zayn down the middle aisle towards the back.

Liam snags a window seat, and Louis comes out of seemingly nowhere to grab the one next to him immediately, smacking Liam on the leg as he settles in with a blanket he must’ve got from the overhead compartment.

“I’ll share if you ask nicely,” Louis says, unfolding the blanket over his bunched up knees and giving Liam a wry grin.

“Is that right,” Liam says. He reaches for a corner of the blanket slowly and folds the fleece into his fist one finger at a time. “Bet you’ll share even if I don’t,” he says. He tugs hard and half the blanket snaps towards him, billowing, before Louis catches on and tightens his grip, laughing, tugging back.

“Not so fast, best be smart about it Payno, it's a long flight to go cold,” Louis says, pulling hard. The fleece stretches taut between them. Louis’s smiling though, his eyes creasing up and Liam smiles right back.

Then the intercom crackles as an air hostess announces they’re pulling away from the gate, and Liam drops his end of the blanket in a rush, scrambles to grab his phone from his pocket. He texts Smith quickly, his fingers slippery over the keys: taking offfff hope u got back safeeeee xxx

He has to shut his phone off before Smith replies, but the air conditioner hums to life above him and there’s only light from the sun slipping through the small round uncovered windows and Louis leaves Liam a corner of the blanket without him having to ask — so he curls up in the big seat, ignoring the belt cutting into his stomach as the plane lifts off the runway, into the sky, and gravity tightens all around him, compressing and compacting him like he could shrink into a tiny ball, disappear into tiny specks of dust.

 

*

 

There's a great massive pool at the hotel in Adelaide. The water’s at just the right temperature from the sun, and it’s soothing to the ache of jet-lag stubbornly burrowed in Liam’s bones.

By the time he’s strolling back through the hotel wrapped in fluffy terry-cloth striped towels, his hair dripping onto his shoulders and smelling like fresh chlorine, he’s almost able to trick his body into forgetting the twenty-four hours he lost on a plane ride; the carpet floor, the slur of patrons moving in and out of his sight, the muted tones of voices feel less like an induced hallucination and more like they’re real, it’s happening to him, he’s there.

When the lift doors finally bing open and part where Liam’s been jump-kicking the button repeatedly during his wait, he’s surprised to find Harry standing inside. The mirrored walls reflect the moving image of Harry’s shoulders stretching out his henley and the back of his rumpled hair in a flash.

Liam blinks and then says, “Hello stranger,” summoning his best deep Michael Bublé accent.

Harry looks up and grins as soon as he registers Liam. He holds the lift doors apart politely as he steps out and extends his other arm for a hug. “Hey, you alright?” he says, slow like his voice always is and rumbly like he's tired or newly awake, though he seems pleased, unbothered.

“'Course, sorry, mate, I’m all wet,” Liam says, hugging him in return and then stepping backwards into the lift. “You?” he asks, watching Harry’s face instead of the lift buttons.

Harry shrugs, “Don't know yet, do I? Just got in.” His mouth curls so that his dimples shadow his cheeks; his hand keeps the doors from shutting.

Liam winks at him, bouncing a little on his toes, “Well, let me know how it goes.”

Harry draws his hand away to salute Liam. “Always. Enjoy your stay, Mr. Payne,” Harry intones and with a last grin, he’s turning around. The lift slides shut behind him and Liam’s left exhaling a laugh at the closed doors reflecting his own face back to him, but the inside of the doors are gold and shimmery like fun house mirrors and his face is distorted, pulled dramatically out of proportion.

Liam has to shake his head to clear it before he can remember his floor number and what button to press, and then the lift zips him up at last, his tummy swooping from the rush.

In his room, Liam stands underneath the warm spray in the shower singing Can’t help myself, how does it feel to know that I love you baby loud enough that it echoes off the tiles and around in his head like he’s got his in-ears in, and he feels his muscles unlocking, melting just like they had in the pool, the ache slinking out. Maybe, he's thinking, the week hasn't been so long after all. It’s not entirely surprising then that by the time he’s soaping his stomach and thighs he’s hard.

He goes slow with himself — stroking up his cock with the flat of his palm, the tail end of his humming caught in his throat when he groans at the contact — and he leans his free forearm across the wet tile to support his weight as he closes his eyes, thinking about Smith opening him up with his fingers one night — or was it two — ago, Smith’s fingers slipping into Liam's eager wet mouth instead and touching his teeth, Smith's cock big and hot and hard for Liam sliding into his throat.

His fist speeds up, he’s so close already, and then Liam's visualization of Smith's face grows blurry and indistinct again like it had when he'd been above Liam fucking him, the colors running together as if the water from the shower's washing Smith's features away. Before Liam knows it, before he gets a grasp on his sudden confusion, he’s coming all over his hand and the wall and his stomach, milking himself through it distractedly, his legs wobbly the whole time he finishes rinsing himself off.

The bathroom’s abruptly quiet with the water shut off and the fan humming, his skin’s pruned and flushed, and as he towels himself dry for the second time that day instead of feeling light with relief, his stomach feels heavy and dense just like the thick steam clogging up the air. He looks at his pink face and bare chest in the bathroom mirror and, guilty, thinks that he didn’t even bother to take a picture, he didn’t wait to send a text to Smith or anything.

The guilt sat like stacked bricks in Liam’s belly grows heavier when he checks his phone where it’d been charging by the bed only to find a snapchat from Smith waiting; it’s a shot of Smith bundled up in Liam’s Adidas sweatshirt, Liam’s Obey snapback angled over Smith’s face so that he’s obscured. Liam watches the short handful of seconds tick down until the picture disappears.

He sends Smith a snapchat back of himself pursing his mouth into a kissy face and as much of his naked arms and collarbones and pecs as he can fit in the frame. He texts Smith after, too, to say miss u alreadddddy x, so he doesn’t feel as much like he’s sunken to the bottom of the ocean with a load of cement weights attached to him by the time he burrows underneath the hotel covers, yawning.

 

*

 

Liam’s on top of the bloody world when he bounds off stage. He’s buzzing from his head to his soles, and he can’t stand it, his whole body vibrating the same way his ears are ringing from the screams and the loud bass and the drums. In an effort to work some of the energy out, he hefts Niall up from behind in the green room backstage, grabbing Niall’s waist and lifting him in the air, spinning them around until Liam can’t hold them up any longer, but Niall only yells and cheers along with him even when they both tumble to the floor.

Louis’s right there, ready to grab Liam’s face next, shout into it and smack a kiss on his forehead, smack his fists into Liam’s shoulders.

It quells the lingering sting of nerves Liam’s been shouldering all night. There’s always this split-second when he’s backstage after he’s grouped in a huddle with the boys — when he's waiting for the curtain to rise, able to hear the noise of the crowd already — and he gets afraid that suddenly the cheers will morph into a relentless wave of booing, a gripping fear that leaves him breathless. Then the curtain goes up and Liam may not be able to breathe, but he’s there to meet the fans and not once have they booed for One Direction yet. Here he is now with the rest of the lads, hollering and jumping on the couches and boxing with security and all of them bursting right open from the show; the fear is so far away that Liam can hardly remember what it must’ve felt like to begin with.

It carries Liam all the way back to the hotel — well past piling into Niall’s room with the rest of the boys and huddling out on the balcony overlooking the lights twinkling off in the distance, just as visible as the stars reflecting in the ocean.

Zayn’s licking a stripe up a sheet of waxy paper for the joint he’s rolling and Louis’s smiling easily at Niall shouting over the banister and Harry’s snapping a shot of the view on his phone’s camera. The waves are rolling in softly and it’s nice, Liam thinks. It’s so nice when Zayn finally lights up, the bud smelling sweet and fresh, smoke pooling loose and transparent in the air around their heads like vacant thought clouds.

Though the smoke burns on the way down, it soothes Liam’s chest from the inside out, and by their third shared joint, the thick cords of tension strung tight in his bones have been slackened, his eyes heavy and lidded, his smile so easy he’s not sure it ever leaves his face between the cool whip of the wind and watching the boys, his boys, all with matching grins slid smoothly into place on their chilled-out pinked faces.

They tumble inside Niall’s room, not quite tired yet, and soon enough Louis’s calling out, “Let’s play a game, shall we, come on.”

“Like what?” Harry asks from where he’s flopped on his back on the bed, his voice even more gradual, unfolding from his mouth just like the smoke had moments ago.

Louis shrugs and makes a face, so Niall steps in, slumps against Louis’ back, drops his weight onto him as he says, “Summat naughty, I reckon,” wriggling his eyebrows.

Liam’s mouth quirks up and Louis barks a laugh, reaches back to bump Niall’s fist. “Yeah, ace,” Louis says, “No ordinary truth or dare.”

Some kind of truth or dare, then?” Zayn says. He’s fallen into a slump on the floor, his legs stretched all the way out, and his eyes are so low and red they look shut, but he’s managing a slow smile.

“Alright, if you insist, dead boring though,” Louis says. He straightens up before switching Niall in front of him by the shoulders, clasps his hand over Niall’s eyes and says, “No peeking, Neil.”

Niall gives a nod of assent and then Louis’s spinning the both of them in a wobbly circle, explaining, “You pick who goes first.” Niall lifts his arm obediently.

“Eeny-meeny-miney-mo,” Louis says, wobbling them around, Niall’s arm swinging threateningly. “Who-will-it-be-to-goooo.” He stops Niall suddenly, and Liam, sat on the floor by the bed, finds himself on the receiving end of Niall’s pointer finger.

“Oooh, Payno’s up on the chopping block, well done, Nialler,” Louis says, lifting his hand from Niall’s eyes in favor of shaking him by the shoulders as Niall cheers with both arms in the air like he’s won a race.

“I’d like to thank my parents, first off,” Niall starts, already laughing, and Liam realizes he’s laughing too, and maybe Harry is as well, he thinks he can hear him, and Louis definitely is right before he shushes Niall gently, pressing his finger to his lips, grinning like he isn’t able to look away.

“In honor of your victory,” Louis says, “I reckon you should probably, you know, have at it. Go on, ask our sweet Liam the naughtiest truth you’ve always wanted to know deep down in that tiny Irish heart of yours, be honest.”

Niall laughs like it’s one of the funniest things Louis’s ever said, and then calms and says, “Wait, wait, oh,” quieting himself. “This is serious, this is, I need to think.”

He dumps himself down on the floor in front of the telly stand. “Can I confer?” he asks after a beat. Then he puts his head in his hands, “Why did you — why’re you making me think right now.”

“That’s alright,” Zayn says, kicking his foot out to tap Liam’s thigh. “I’ve got a question, like if you need a hand, Nialler.”

“Come prepared, did you?” Louis says at the same time Liam hears Harry say from above him, “Better make it a good one, you may never have such a chance again.”

Zayn must share a look with Harry because Liam can’t see Zayn’s face for a moment with the way that he angles it up as he says, “D’you wanna have a go?”

“Please,” Harry says. “Honor’s all yours, mate.”

Liam must be laughing again to himself a bit helplessly because then Zayn’s tapping Liam’s leg with his bare toes, saying, “Bro, so tell me,” and Liam has to quiet himself so that he doesn’t miss the rest of Zayn’s question, grasping Zayn’s ankle to still it. It’s warm under his hand and he strokes the skin there with his thumb absently, distracted by the gentle smooth sensation.

“You’ve never said, never, like even now — remember when we were at the bungalow, the first time, like round the fire pit? Remember how Haz was telling us that, like, origin story about the bungalow, that girl he brought round.” Zayn shoots up another grin to Harry, wiggling his eyebrows much like Niall had earlier. “His first time.”

Liam grins and hears Niall laugh, mutter a side-comment, but Liam’s looking at Zayn who’s grinning back at him. “Yeah,” Liam says. “Quite memorable for our Hazza, wasn’t it?”

“Quite special,” Zayn agrees, nodding a little, and Harry puts in, mock-offended, “Hey, you lot didn’t have any better stories yourselves.”

Zayn’s eyes light up, open a hare wider in recognition. “That’s what I’m saying,” he says, almost giddy, reaching his hand up to give Harry a low-five. “We’ve never got to compare ours to Liam’s, did we.”

“Oh,” Liam says.

Louis crows, "Brilliant, bro, I'd almost forgotten that, it's been ages."

Liam's stomach suddenly feels like it’s dropped to his feet, awkwardly heavy in contrast to the way the rest of him is relaxed and at ease and light from the weed, floating away in wisps. He shifts his legs against the carpet, sitting up a bit straighter against the bed like it’ll help balance him out, but it doesn’t — only makes him hyper-aware of the fabric creating static against his joggers. “Oh,” he says again, with greater emphasis, wetting his dry mouth. He shrugs, “Not much to tell, in the end."

"C'mon, man," Louis wheedles, and Zayn says, shaking his head a little, "Always such a gentleman, aren't you? Never shag and tell."

Niall laughs again, and Louis's cracking a grin too and then saying, "Always. It's a bit suspicious, if you ask me." He squints at Liam, but any attempt to appear accusing is lost in the way his eyes look red and dopey. "Like are we sure Payno's not secretly a virgin hiding in our midsts? Maybe we need to, like, give Smith a friendly ring and ask if Liam's been holding off, claiming he's got a headache every night."

Niall's laughter only grows louder at that and Zayn’s chuckling too, but it's Harry who speaks up next, his hand ruffling Liam's hair affectionately from the bed. "I think we know he's no virgin, or has everyone but me luckily forgot The Great Bunk Incident of ‘012."

"Mate, no one has forgotten Liam literally bloody breaking his bunk. Still looking for tips on how to manage such a feat, actually, now that you mention it," Louis says.

Liam laughs and it feels less forced, he's less heavy, but he can't quite help the hunch of his shoulders when he shrugs, casual. "My secret to keep, innit. Might come in handy later, who knows."

Zayn kicks him in the leg again, and their laughter quiets just long enough for Niall to pipe up, encouraging, "Go on, then, let's hear it, what’s the story."

Morning glory. What’s the tale?” Harry sings after a beat, lazy and amused.

Nightingale. Have you heard about Hugo and Kim?” Liam’s quick to punch in, miming his falsetto, but he cuts himself off with a short laugh because it’s hard enough already to get a grip on what he wants to say. “No, honestly,” he starts before anyone else blooms into song.

He resists scratching at the back of his neck, anxious to hurry up and answer. It’s just — he keeps getting a flood of images from the first cramped bedroom he ever had with his nursery sheer bunny-rabbit curtains, fourteen years old and under his old worn Power Rangers comforter from ages ago when he was small, his crew-neck t-shirt screwed up around his tummy and grotty jeans only tugged open enough for his dick to be pulled out through his boxers, a boy's warm live experienced hand wanking him quick and tight, Liam trying to shut himself up by biting the boy's warm flat firm shoulder through his top, trying so hard to be quiet, so so quiet even though it felt much better than he could've ever dreamed, puzzle pieces locking into place, their breathing humid and damp, his parents downstairs and his sisters down the hall, the repeat sleepover he never got, the first kiss he never got either.

"It's boring, literally like," he shrugs again. "There's no story, I swear." Probably, Liam's always thought, it's the same as any other gay kid growing up. It's not special; it’s a bit tragic, but it’s not something the boys haven’t necessarily heard before either. Pick one from the bunch.

For the briefest second, Liam looks up and he can feel all of their gazes pinned on him and Zayn's foot’s gone still on his leg, Harry's hand’s gone still in his hair, and it seems just the same as being caught mid-interview, the way they're looking at him, waiting for the rest of his answer. Then time speeds up again, and Zayn and Harry are shifting beside and above him and Niall's shrugging easily.

Louis shrugs too. "Alright, then at least tell me this," he says, sharing a glance with Zayn, grin starting up. "How big was he?"

Niall and Harry erupt into laughter first, and Zayn joins in after only a moment, so Liam does too.

"Yeah, give us just, like, the ballpark," Niall says.

Louis's saying, "It's morbid curiosity really, but," he's got his hands in front of him, setting them further apart in intervals like he's measuring. "Just stop me when I get there, bro."

Liam only laughs. "Keep going, mate," he says, but his stomach feels like rocks again. The truth is, if he's talking strict first time, then he doesn't actually know how big the guy was.

 

*

 

Liam doesn’t always take his phone on stage with him, and usually it’s an accident when he does — forgot to leave it in their quick change room, or in the green room, or summat, and this time is no different. He doesn’t realize it’s in his pocket and he’s bouncing on his feet, shaking his arms out, waiting for the curtain to rise. That creeping fear’s tight in his chest, threatening to swallow him whole, though he knows it won’t; the screams from the crowd are already deafening. Then his phone vibrates against his thigh, and Liam almost drops his mic, startled.

He fumbles his phone out of his pocket. He’s got a text from Smith with a picture attached. The text itself says thinking about you and when Liam opens up the picture, it’s a zoomed in close up of Smith in a pair of tight undersized One Direction briefs. Probably meant for girls. Liam and the rest of the lads' young smiling faces are graphed over one of Smith’s sharp hip bones and the thin cotton’s stretched taut over Smith’s cock tucked in. The waistband reads #1 BOYBAND, and it’s dragged down so low that Liam can see the groomed shaved curls trailing to Smith’s prick.

Liam stares at the picture, biting his lip hard enough to hurt, and then glances up, suddenly worried that someone’s watching him. Before he can reply to Smith another picture downloads. This time it’s a mirror shot of the back of the briefs cupping Smith’s bum.

The thudding drum beat starts up, vibrating up Liam’s body like a shockwave, and he doesn’t have time to respond, the curtain’s going to go up any moment, he has to tuck his phone away and adjust himself in his low tight jeans. The rush of realization that he’s about to perform and the heat in his face eats up any lingering arousal. Mostly.

Liam shakes his head to clear it and the curtain lifts.

He doesn’t get the chance to check his phone during the quick change, distracted anyway by Louis throwing his used sweaty shirt at his face and Harry laughing next to him in amusement, bumping his elbow. He doesn’t get the chance to check his phone again after the gig either — not in the green room, not in the noisy boisterous van ride to the hotel, and not even after that when he poses with a gathering of waiting fans in the lobby.

By the time Liam’s ditched Niall and Louis at one of their rooms down the corridor and left Harry at the lobby bar and Zayn outside by the van where he’s having a smoke, Liam has no idea what time it must be in London. But his room is thankfully quiet when the door slams behind him, and he’s alone, so he strips off the pair of joggers he’d shucked on after the gig and the sweatshirt he’d zipped up without a shirt underneath and finally checks his phone.

Smith’s sent two more pictures and no more texts. In the first one, he’s hard and in the briefs, but isn’t touching himself. His cock juts out above the waistband, red and shiny. In the second, he’s got his hand wrapped around himself and the briefs are stretched between his thighs, digging into his skin and turning it creamy white. It looks like they’re about to tear in half.

Liam reaches down to to squeeze his own prick that’s thickening up against his bare thigh, bites back a groan. He’s glad he didn’t bother putting any boxers on. He texts Smith on his way to the bathroom: welllll wasnt this nice 2 come home to. quite like ur pants or should I say pantiesss they look familar ;) wish i was there to take them off babe you look so hooooot xxx

Smith hasn’t texted Liam back when Liam gets out of the shower, and Liam’s cock’s angry at him, confused about the wait, hot and hard, straining up against his belly; all he’s been doing is thinking about the pictures. Guilt from the time before has kept Liam’s hands at bay — remembering when he’d missed a chance with Smith who’d been waiting — but Liam can’t hold off any longer now, climbing naked onto his bed.

Who knows what time it is in London anyway, he doesn’t, Smith’s probably fast asleep, been dead to the world for hours, ages. Liam splays flat on his back and presses his feet to the mattress so that his knees raise and he can fuck up into his fist, groaning immediately, loudly in the silence of his room.

He forces himself to slow and takes a couple pictures with his phone for Smith with a shaky hand — precome leaking from the head of his cock and smeared between his fingers, his thighs spread so that his balls and arsehole are visible, and then he looks at the pictures Smith sent and Smith doesn’t feel quite as far away anymore. Liam can’t help from fucking up harder into his hand, riding the edge of orgasm in a hot rush when he imagines being the one to rip the briefs off of Smith’s open thighs with his bare hands, yanking hard at the flimsy thin fabric.

He’s already close, but there’s something he really wants, something he misses most of all, so he drops his phone to slide two fingers into his mouth, press down on his tongue, suck them to the second knuckle, and tightens his other hand around his prick. His stomach’s quivering with anticipation and it feels so good to have something filling his mouth as he remembers the way Smith’s hard cock looked in the briefs, in his hand, that Liam can’t keep his high keening noise in.

It’s much more difficult this time, but he releases his cock again to take another picture. His eyes look dark and black through the lens, his mouth swollen and flush around his fingers, his bare collarbones sharp, his hair damp and curling. He holds onto his phone because he knows he’s only going to be able to take one more picture before he forgets about it entirely, and he slips his fingers from his mouth to drop between his thighs and dip below his balls and trace his rim instead.

Liam gives himself a moment to shut his eyes and breathe hard, slip the tip of one finger in only a bit. He tries to hold still and takes another picture, and then throws his phone on the floor and fumbles for the sachet of lube he’d brought with him to bed, tearing it open with his teeth. It’s only a few wild beats of his heart in his ears and chest before his fingers are slick. He doesn’t hesitate to slide one into himself, moaning. He adds a second finger as soon as he can, biting his lip, a noise like a growl vibrating in his throat. He grips his cock with his other hand, starts to wank himself off again.

Between fucking his fingers into himself and riding his hand, it’s too much to keep track of, and his cock gets wet and slippery from all his precome, his balls draw up tight, but he wants to hold off still, wants to fuck himself for just a bit longer — it’s not quite enough; it's like he could come any moment, but the ache in his belly is gripping, makes his ears buzz until all he can hear are the slick sounds of his fingers working into himself.

He drizzles the rest of the lube messily onto his fingers and palm so that he can get a third finger in, and has to shove a pillow over his face when he all but screams at the stretch.

His arm’s cramped and sore, and he’s cramming the pillow so hard over his face that he can’t breathe, the pillowcase is going soggy and damp, his chest rising frantically, the taste of copper rising in the back of his throat from his lungs working overtime. There’s white spots fizzling behind his eyes from screwing them shut, the sheets sticking to his hot sweaty skin, but he can’t stop riding his fingers. He could come from just this, he thinks deliriously, stuck remembering Smith’s cock in those pictures, widening his legs. He could come just like this, it feels so fucking good.

There’s a sudden bang like a door slamming open or shut and Liam jerks in a startle, pulls the pillow off his face just in time to see Harry walk through the threshold into the room, looking down at his phone in his hands. Liam only manages to take one huge open-mouthed breath before Harry finally looks up and then stumbles backwards, his eyes large and wide.

“Oh, fucking, Jesus Christ,” Harry says, and Liam closes his eyes. He still has his fingers inside of himself. It’s not the first time he’s been walked in on, but it is the first time he’s been walked in on like this.

“Sorry,” Harry says, more quickly than Liam’s ever heard him speak. “Sorry, sorry, I didn’t, er.” He’s walking back through the way he came, but he must have his hand clamped over his eyes because he runs right into the archway, and then swears and rubs his forehead.

Liam can’t help from huffing a little bit of a laugh. “Can I help you, mate?” he says, going for dry, but his voice has become so raspy and breathless that he’s not sure the tone carries.

Harry starts, “I was just going to ask you if you wanted to come with me, uh," And then stops. “Shit, bad choice of words.” He pauses backwards in the archway.

Liam doesn’t want to slide his fingers out. His body’s still buzzing from his head to his toes and his fingers still feel full and heavy inside of himself and his cock is still really hard. “Great,” he says. “Could you get the fuck out.”

“Yeah, yep, leaving, sorry, I’m sorry,” Harry says on his way to the door; his voice travels through the room, echoing. “Sorry to interrupt.”

Liam has to strain to hear the door shut, but it finally does, and he sighs into the resounding blessed silence before he shifts his fingers inside his hole and moans helplessly at the sensation. He doesn’t bother with the pillow over his face, and he fucks his fingers into himself, fucks up into his fist, picks the rhythm up where he left off and comes hard all over his chest and tummy.

He thinks about sending Smith a picture of his spunk on his fingers, smearing it around his mouth and on his tongue, but in the end Liam rolls over into a fresh cold pillow and he’s out like a light.

 

*

 

Niall and Harry are off on a golf course they’d had recommended to them, and Zayn’s decided he can’t be arsed to get dressed, let alone leave, if they’ve not got any work, and Louis’s finagling his way into arranging a quick jet to Fiji, which apparently isn’t so far from them and boggles Liam’s mind trying to fit it all together on a map. Anyway, Liam wants to go out.

There’s a massive shopping centre with an attached theatre and a late showing of Gravity that he may just get lucky enough to slip into. He’s been rather lucky before, though he wasn’t alone, but he shrugs to himself in the hotel mirror before he leaves, tightening the knot of his folded bandana around his hair, and thinks fuck it. What’s the worst that could happen?

He’s bored of the pool and doing laps, and sore from the gym. He’s pinky-promised Louis that he wouldn’t even think of surfing without him first. Besides, the time difference is dizzying for him and Smith to keep track of; it keeps sliding away from him like a caught fish slipping from his bare hands. He’s always returning to a missed call or text or sending one back himself that takes eight hours to receive a response to. It’s fine, but it’d be nice to go out.

He convinces Paddy to wait outside by the carpark and not trail him through the centre. He even makes it through one whole floor level without getting recognized. They’re not in Melbourne or Australia often, Liam knows, and quite a bit’s changed since the last time they were, so it doesn’t come as a surprise to Liam once he’s finally noticed. He doesn’t mind — he honestly doesn’t, and he’s sure to tell the fans that when they approach him, first as individuals, shuffling up to him shyly and shell-shocked but determined, and then in bolder groups, insisting on separate pictures.

He’s just had this one girl taller than him hug him so tight he was a little worried he’d see stars and tell him he’s her favorite member, and it doesn’t matter to her at all that he’s gay, she can make an exception, he’s hot enough, and he laughs and tries to smooth out the twist of his eyebrows when he takes a picture with her, holding her shoulder.

After, it seems as though everyone on the whole bleeding planet knows Liam’s there. He’s a bit cornered by a corridor leading to the toilets and ATMs between two shops. There’re loads of people now, and though there are no paps, the fluorescent lighting screws with Liam’s eyes like a series of camera flashes.

“Liam, Liam!” Someone is shouting. “Liam, I love you, please!”

“Ah,” Liam says, trying to dodge a stray hand that’s going for his t-shirt. “Sorry, if everyone could just, like, be calm, I can do a picture with all of you.”

That only seems to ratchet up the noise and tension though, and his name is gets called out so often it’s slurring together into one giant seamless nonsense word. There’re more hands pulling for his shirt or arm or hair now, and each face he passes his eyes over looks equally desperate and strained and tear-soaked. He regrets not bringing Paddy in, and tries to smile, wants to insist it can’t be worth all that anyway, and he could — he really wants to give everyone a picture. Some of these girls and boys look so small they could be Lux’s not-very-much-older sibling, and some are grown enough to be Nicola's age.

The hoard of people all start pushing together towards him, and panic flares up bright and hot in Liam’s chest. “Careful,” he says as loudly as he can, glancing at the glass frames of the shops on either side of him, reflecting the image of him and his fans. He can’t quite make out the regular shopping crowd over everyone’s shoulders, but he’s thinking of them too when he says, “Careful, don’t want anyone to get hurt!”

Someone’s shouting in a straining stretched voice, “Watch it! Come on, give him some room!” It’s more than one person shouting, really, and the rest of it, the noise, doesn’t even seem like his name anymore; it’s as though he’s on stage almost, a vast deep space of sound that ricochets around in his ears. His chest’s hot and tight in an the adrenaline rush like it does before a show, as if he’s reacting on pure instinct and muscle memory.

He says, “I’m really sorry guys, I’m — sorry, but I,” and his voice gets a bit swallowed up when he says can’t.

He does his best to disentangle himself and snap quick split-second shots with a few of the girls on the outskirts of the mass, worried about how the strain of his mouth will turn out, apologizing and apologizing, his cheeks sore from smiling and smiling, his chest growing knotted and gnarled and tighter, snagging on the tripping panicked wire over and over.

He takes the nearest escalator up to the next floor, finds a host of empty tables in the food court, sits at the first one he sees, puts his head between his hands and breathes. It’s overwhelming when they all crowd around him like that, too similar maybe to being cornered by the older lads after school in secondary school or summat, though it’d been for a very different reason then. His vision clears after a moment anyway, not so blurry from the lights and noise and trying to take in the sheer scope of people. But he can’t forget the way each face had looked either — distraught like they were going to rip their hearts out of their chests and hand them to him, live and still beating — and even more so when Liam left, like he’d really gone and taken their hearts away with him.

He calls Paddy to say he'll be out front in a second. Then, after he thinks for a moment, asks if Paddy can meet him in the food court instead.

 

*

 

Back in the hotel, Liam lays about with Zayn in Zayn’s room and plays Grand Theft Auto V. He's just hijacked a sweet Maserati and he's making a clean getaway when the screen freezes and Zayn says, "Sorry bro, I'm dying.” He gets up from the bed to fumble with a dirty pair of jeans on the floor for his pack.

Liam hums in acknowledgement and watches Zayn slide the balcony door open, his teeth clenched around the filter of his cigarette as he mutters, "Just a mo'."

Right before Zayn shuts the door behind him, he glances up to Liam like an afterthought and asks, “You want?” jerking his chin up in Liam’s direction, and Liam does, he could really honestly go for one, but he doesn’t want to get up either, so he shakes his head and the glass door slides closed.

Liam manages to wait and sit still perched on the bed for a bit, but the telly goes black from running out of patience and Zayn’s boring, isn't doing anything outside in the sun through glass door, smoke curling around his throat and shoulders lazily as he looks down at his phone in one hand and all it really does is make Liam think about his own phone resting on his thigh.

Zayn lights up another cigarette and Liam gives in, thumbs his phone awake. He’s got loads of notifications from twitter — direct messages and mentions both. He’s got a few texts too, but they’re only something dumb from Jordan and something sweet from his mum and nothing from Smith, so Liam bites his lip and pretends that he’s debating with himself before he checks the notifications.

Some are quite nice — a frowny face for solidarity in accompaniment with an awww sorry baby or hope u get to enjoy the beautiful day tmrw!! and smiley emoticons or kisses given freely.

But then Liam’s scrolling and Zayn doesn’t come back in before Liam, not completely surprised, sees everything else:

@stylinflwrpwr so fucking whiny omg does he ever shut up

@sh1tsngigs lol whut do they even keep him in band 4 prob all he’s good @ is sucking their d

@nhselfizs boo hoooo

@zayn4king youd think hed appreciate the support right especially considering

@dyn0m1t3 ‘a bit scared’ by fans lol r u 5? typical whiny fag

@lillie467 i get that hes homo but does he hav to dress like that too as if i needed more reasons 2 be annoyed

@1dxxxluver if you were sooo sry then you’d have just take the damn pics i waited for hrs and hrs.

The sudden gnawing sound of the balcony door sliding open jars Liam from his phone and he jerks his head up to watch Zayn walk through.

Zayn gives him a grin with his eyebrows raised, and Liam only freezes for a beat before he gives one back. He must look alright because then Zayn’s flopping down on the bed next to him in a huff, smelling like an ashtray and the warm sun, reaching for his controller.

Liam locks his phone without looking at it and tosses it to the floor. When Zayn says, “Alright, lock and load,” Liam picks up his controller too.

Eventually, they’re in the middle of watching one of the action scenes play out on screen and Zayn’s admiring the improved graphics. Liam agrees with him, and then he says, “You know like, when I was out earlier?”

Zayn makes an affirmative noise, so Liam continues, looking at the screen and not Zayn’s face, “I was gonna see Gravity.”

“Oh, sick bro, I wanna see that,” Zayn says straight away. Liam feels Zayn’s eyes on his back from where Zayn’s lying out beside him.

He tosses Zayn a grin over his shoulder, “We’ll catch it together then, yeah?”

Zayn grins back and asks, “Didn’t make it?”

Liam shrugs, looks at the telly again. “Nah, there was like, all of a sudden, massive amounts of people and fans and whatever, so.” He shrugs once more. “That’s why I came back.”

It’s quiet and the scene’s almost over. He imagines Zayn nodding along, so he plunges forward, taking a breath. “Anyway, I feel bad like? But there were so many. I didn’t know what to do, it was just me.”

Zayn tugs at Liam’s arm, urging Liam backwards, and he goes with the motion, lets Zayn guide him down onto the bed beside him. Zayn shushes him and pets his hair.

Liam feels like he might really be five years old like that one tweet said, but it doesn’t stop him from saying, “I just — I don’t know how to explain it to them. I do feel bad, but.” But he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do. Maybe he isn’t exactly surprised that it’s upsetting for his fans, or annoying, or that he comes off as whiny and dopey and stupid and they’re going to call him a fag for it like everyone’s done to Liam since before he even knew what the word would mean to him, but expecting it doesn’t keep his chest from tightening up like that panicked wire’s still tripping, either.

“You’re alright,” Zayn says softly. His fingers in Liam’s hair dislodge Liam’s bandana and then straighten it. “Better than me,” Zayn’s saying and Liam can tell he’s smiling a little. “You know me, I say no even when there’s just, like, a few people sometimes.”

Liam nods against Zayn’s chest. That’s true, he thinks, and chews the inside of his cheek. But he's also distracted, thinking of that time in New York, during the American leg, when his family flew out just to see him and they'd all gone to get dinner together — his parents and Ruth and Nicola and his niece — and there'd been a massive crowd then too, and everyone waited for him to come out the back door of the restaurant to take pictures one by one until they'd all gotten in and his meal had grown dead cold and solid like a brick in the bottom of his stomach. He doesn’t seem to have done enough either, then.

The action scene must’ve stopped a bit ago, but it seems Zayn’s paused the screen again, and Liam doesn’t know when he stopped looking at the telly.

He hasn’t got time to dwell on it because the next moment Zayn’s door’s bursting open and Niall’s piling through with his arms in the air, saying loudly, “Call me the golfing king, lads, might as well give up all hope now.”

Harry comes through the door after, scoffing, shutting it behind him. “Wouldn’t be so quick to claim the throne, pal.” They’re both in their golfing kit still, their caps on and trousers held up by their belts, polos tucked in.

“What,” Niall says, his eyebrows raised, twisting around to look at Harry. “You? Listen, I’ve got not just one — oh no — but two,” he holds two fingers up for emphasis, “two bum knees, mate, and I still wiped the floor with your arse.”

“If we played cricket, just once,” Harry starts to say, but Niall interrupts, “Please, not with that posh shite again,” and he jumps onto the bed next to Liam, bouncing all three of them on the mattress.

Niall turns his bright eyes onto Liam and Zayn before Harry gets a chance to reply. “‘Ello loves,” he says, affecting a convincing London accent. “What’ve you lot been up to, then?”

Niall takes over for Liam in the game when Liam says he’s finished with it anyway, and Liam scoops up his phone from the floor and then scoots back further on the bed by the headboard to watch the two of them play.

Zayn and Niall start squabbling over switching to FIFA almost immediately, and Liam manages only one reply to a mention on twitter, just to clarify after checking his feed, he’s thinking about this girl in the shopping centre and her mascara tracking down her face in long black stripes, before Harry comes round to sit by him, leaning on his elbow, his legs dangling over the edge of the bed. Liam shoves his phone under his bum by his back pocket instead, sitting on it. He’s a bit surprised, maybe, just for half a second, he thinks, that Harry’s as calm as ever, as nonchalant as always, like he’d never walked in on Liam, like he’s never seen what Liam looks like flat on his back with his legs wide open and his fingers —

But then Harry leans in a bit closer, tilting his face up towards Liam, and says, “Hey,” nudging him, and Liam realizes that maybe the only surprising bit is how it never manages to feel awkward between them at all.

“Hey,” Liam returns, looking down at Harry.

Harry lets out a sigh and drops his head onto Liam’s shoulder. “How was your day?”

“Not great,” Liam says, honest.

Harry nods; his hair tickles Liam’s cheek and chin from the movement. Liam feels Harry’s big hand pat his thigh in more of a caress than anything, comforting and consoling, for a long still moment.

“Should’ve come to the course with me and Nialler,” Harry says finally, a bit distracted, probably looking straight ahead at the screen. “It was ace.”

“Foul!” Niall’s voice rings out and it draws Liam’s gaze away from the top of Harry’s head, back to the end of the bed and the telly. “That was a fucking foul!”

They must’ve switched over to FIFA after all. And probably Harry’s right; Liam doesn’t know why he didn’t just go golfing instead and spare everyone the trouble.

 

*

 

Liam’s biking in circles in a semi-vacant carpark by the empty buses and vans and security and Paul. It’s warm even though it’s dark, and he stands up on the pedals, attempts a low wheelie or two, gains speed and spins in quick turns. It doesn’t feel like it’s been long at all, he’s only gone up and down a ramp he found a few paces back a couple of times before Paul’s yelling his name off in the distance by the bus, waving his hand to get Liam’s attention.

Liam comes to a sharp stop sideways right in front of him. “What’d you think of that, huh?” he says.

Paul says, “I think you’ve got a call coming in.” He’s been holding Liam’s phone for him, and he offers it out in one extended hand. “Cool moves, kid.”

Liam grins down at Paul’s hands and takes his phone, muttering, “Cheers.”

It’s Smith who’s ringing and Liam’s particularly grateful that Paul let him know. He answers the call and pushes the phone between his shoulder and cheek, starting to bike away absently in slow cycles. “Hey, babe,” he says into the receiver.

“Hi,” Smith says immediately. “Can you facetime?” His voice sounds lovely and earnest and tired and tinny.

“Uh,” Liam says, buying time, swinging the handlebars around and rolling to another stop gradually. “Yeah, absolutely, give me just a minute.”

It takes more than a minute, but soon enough Liam’s looking into Smith’s face through his phone screen and beaming at him, sat on the bike seat and resting his elbows on the handlebars.

“Have you not got a shirt on?” Smith’s saying, squinting and laughing, and Liam wishes he’d brought his headphones out with him too. “Go on, give us a show. What’s it so dark for?”

Liam laughs, “Sorry.” He tries to angle his phone so that Smith might catch a bit of his skin. “I’m in a carpark, I’ve been biking.” He brings his phone up close and pulls a face.

Smith laughs again, “Right, it all makes sense now.”

He tells Liam about this fan he’d run into at Tesco’s who recognized him straight away, and Smith had been so surprised when the fan had asked for a picture; the boy had been really nice, said he knew Smith and Liam were new or whatever, but he was rooting for them and he hopes to find a boyfriend like that someday, they’re like one of his idol couples or summat, he’d even asked how their trip to France was over break. Liam can’t stop grinning by the time Smith’s finished regaling.

“Aww,” Liam says, a bit wistful. “Wish I’d been there to see it, babe, that’s sweet.”

“It was,” Smith says. His grin catches in the lighting, his teeth glinting. Seems like he’s in the kitchen in his flat; there’s granite countertop beyond his shoulder. “Tell me about your day, though.”

“It was —” Liam begins, scrubbing his hand through his hair under his snapback. “It was fine,” he decides. “Bit of like — I don't know if you saw twitter today or whatever? But you probably shouldn’t.” He laughs, but it drags a bit, awkward and belated.

“Oh no,” Smith says, giving Liam a sympathetic frown, his eyes big and sad, and suddenly Liam wishes Smith were making almost any other expression, anything else; it looks similar to the face he’d given Liam in the car at the airport, and Liam doesn’t want to see that.

“No, no, it just gets a bit scary, you know? There were so many people, like. I’d just gone to shop yesterday, I didn’t expect — anyway, reckon I’d better just stick to doing it online from now on.” He tries to laugh again, but his voice betrays him again and goes breathy.

Smith hasn’t stopped with the frown, either. “Tomorrow will be better, love,” he says.

Liam remembers the tweets yesterday telling him so, too, and he says, “Yeah,” because today has been better. “'Course.” He does his best to brighten up his smile. He’s only got to see Smith’s face a handful of times this week, if that.

 

*

 

The flight to Sydney is short, hardly over an hour from gate to gate. Liam’s got plenty of room to stretch out and recline his seat and request loads of blankets to bundle himself in. He’d not had much sleep the night before somehow; he’d woke with his eyes crusty and sore and heavy that morning, felt blind in the sun carrying his bag to their van. Now, the steady air conditioner running and the soft humming from the aeroplane make it easy for Liam to slip away beneath the cocoon he’s created for himself. His eyes slide shut like a curtain before they're off the runway.

Then his eyes spring open and Liam’s gasping awake what feels like only a moment later, his legs jerking like they do when he’s been dreaming that he’s falling, and he struggles to sit up beneath the pile of blankets, rubbing at his aching eyes. He can’t remember what it was he’d been dreaming — he’d only been skimming the surface of it anyway, like floating atop water without being able to sink in — a brief snatch of contorted sneering faces, the low slithering hiss of sharp cruel whispering, a flash of his old secondary school campus or maybe it was an empty shopping centre carpark; Liam can’t be sure.

He startles a bit again when the world reorients itself and he finds Niall’s face fairly close to his, looking concerned. Then Liam registers that Niall’s got a hand on his shoulder too as if Niall’s been shaking him awake.

Before he can say anything, Niall’s asking, “Alright there, mate?” He sounds wary.

“Yeah,” Liam says, clearing his throat; it’s really dry.

“Why?” he asks when Niall doesn’t immediately lean away. “Was I, like, talking in my sleep, or summat?” He huffs a laugh like he’s making a joke, but the truth is his heart’s beating quick and restless high up in his throat as though he never woke, panic lingering in his body, and he only wishes it were a joke. He reaches up to squeeze Niall’s hand, remind himself that whatever the half-dream was — it wasn’t real, shakes his head to wash it away.

“A bit,” Niall says slowly, squeezing Liam’s hand back. His expression begins to clear up, and Liam’s glad; the concern seemed almost unnatural on his face.

Then Liam hears from beyond Niall’s frame: “A bit?” It’s Louis.

“Sounded right weird, like you were crying,” Louis’ head pops up over Niall’s shoulder. “You’re sure?” He looks concerned the same as Niall had a moment ago.

Liam looks away from them and nods, stretches in his seat. His pulse seems to finally calm a bit as he relaxes into his skin, though he feels grimey like he’s been sweating. He pushes the blankets off his chest; the cool air helps immediately. “Just a bit of a — strange dream," he says, unsure where he'd begin explaining or how to start in on it; unsure of what's happened. “But I’m fine.”

He has to say it a few more times before they back off, and he wonders what bloody sounds he was making in his sleep to warrant such a response; it wasn't as bad as all that, he wakes up like this sometimes, and he’s fine now. They let him up for the toilet, at least, when he asks.

He's on his way down the aisle when Harry catches his sweatshirt sleeve at the elbow from his seat and Liam pauses. He takes in Harry's careful, furrowed expression as he’s reclining all the way back in his seat, blankets climbing all the way up to his shoulders like Liam had been whilst asleep earlier.

Harry doesn’t say anything right away, just looks and looks for ages it seems and it makes Liam feel on spot, his face hot, renewed sweat prickling at his pores. He doesn’t like it. He furrows his eyebrows back at Harry.

"You're alright?" Harry asks, his pitch even lower than normal.

Liam's said it what must be one hundred times by now so he snaps more than he means to when he answers, "Yes, Jesus, I'm fine." It's also — only that maybe he'd been a bit hopeful in his earlier assessment — his heart hasn't really stopped beating so loudly or quickly yet and his legs are a bit weird and wobbly.

Harry's gaze lingers, so Liam pulls his arm away gently from his grip, rustles Harry's curls with his hand instead.

"I'm alright," he insists quietly, and then continues down to the loo.

 

*

 

Maybe Liam spoke too soon — because although he is perfectly alright for the rest of the day, that night he wakes up gasping again, swaddled in the hotel comforter, hot and flushed, sweating bullets.

He remembers more of this dream — he’d been in a school yard and he’d been playing a game of footie, but the grass had been wet and slippery from fresh rain, and Liam fell when he’d tried to kick the ball into the goal. He’d gotten his football shirt muddy, too slick to get a grasp on, and everyone, all of his classmates and the coach and maybe even his band, had crowded around him. He was paralyzed lying prone flat on his back, and he’d only woken up when someone had lifted their boots to bring one down right onto his face, his arms and legs like sandbags, useless, too heavy to lift in defence as he stared horrified at the muck and shredded blades of grass stuck on the underside of the spiked studs, unable to breathe.

It's stupid, he tells himself, shaking himself awake and shucking all the bedding to the floor, his arms and legs working fine now. He checks his phone absently in the darkened room to remind himself that this dream wasn't real either, and he winds up sending a text to Smith — just to say that he misses him and he's thinking about him — waiting for his heart to slow.

After a while Liam must fall back asleep because the next he knows, his eyes are popping open in sudden awareness and the sunlight is bright streaming through the curtains over the bed, over his bare legs and chest. It takes him a moment to realize that it's his alarm that's woken him, buzzing on the bedside table obnoxiously. He can't remember what he dreamt of this time, thankfully, but he doesn't feel like he’s well rested either.

Anyway, he gets a series of knocks on his door followed by the latch clicking open that must be one of the boys coming by for brekkie while he's lying in bed busy replying to Smith's text, so there's no time to stew on it.

 

*

 

Liam’s at a pub a scattering of blocks from the hotel for Lou’s birthday. Harry and Niall and Josh and Cal and Tom and his trainer, Mark, have all come too, but Zayn and Louis have fucked off to some place called Hamilton Island for a few days. Liam doesn’t mind — Liam’s not thinking about them at all, truth be told. He didn’t set out to do it, but he’d started matching shots of Jameson with Niall and Josh and Cal, and he doesn’t know how many he’s had before his face begins to go tingly numb, pinpricking when he laughs at the story Tom’s telling where they’re gathered in the back by round tables in a marked off VIP section.

Soon, Niall’s thumping his hand on Liam’s back and saying loudly into his ear, “Won’t you have a real drink, Leemo? Come on, a man can’t be expected to survive on shots alone.”

Liam agrees, they have nothing to do tomorrow and he’s still coming down from their gig tonight, so he trails after Niall over the ropes one foot at a time to the bar, finding that his legs feel numb and tingling like his face from the knee down.

He slumps against the countertop next to Niall at the bar, doesn’t bother with sitting down, and listens to Niall order a couple pints. Then Niall’s nudging Liam’s side with his elbow right at his ribs and Liam drags his gaze away in a blur from the bottles of rum and tequila that he’s been staring at, trying to make sense of the labels stacked cleanly in the back on shelves, imagining how easily he could afford the whole bar itself.

“What’re you getting?” Niall’s asking.

“Er, champagne?” Liam says, but that doesn’t sound quite as nice as it normally might considering how deliciously fizzy it always is going down and how mellow it makes Liam feel. He frowns a little; he hadn’t really thought about it yet. His chest’s heavy with heat from the whiskey, and he wants a different taste in his mouth — something light or sweet.

“Mate,” Liam hears from behind him half a second before he feels Harry’s weight slump onto his back. “You’ve been buying bottles for tables too often if you’re thinking champagne.” Harry isn’t bothering to hold himself up at all, he’s nearly talking directly into Liam’s ear, the ends of his hair rasping along Liam’s jaw like phantom stubble.

Liam tilts his head backwards so that he’s touching Harry’s shoulder in welcome. Harry doesn’t feel heavy, so he doesn’t mind. “If you’re such a expert,” Liam tells him, “what should I get, then?”

Harry hums in consideration and Liam feels the vibration against his back through Harry’s chest, rumbling between their shirts. Then Harry shifts so that his arm’s slung around Liam’s shoulders rather than his body and he’s standing next to Liam, leaning up against the bartop too. After a moment, Harry says to the bartender, “Better make it a cherry vodka sour.”

He gives a Liam a look. With the angle the lights hit his face, his eyes seem half-closed, his lashes long and luring. “You always like the sweet ones,” he says, rubbing his hand against Liam’s shoulder, his mouth growing crooked from his grin.

Liam looks away from Harry to take his drink and nod to the bartender in thanks, but they don’t wander back to the VIP table quite yet. Niall’s sipping his lager, and Harry shrugs when they both ask him why he isn’t getting anything else. He steals a sip from Liam’s glass to see if it’s what he wants, but he still can’t decide, he says, although he had decided for Liam so easily. They wind up sharing the entire thing and ordering another, anyway.

Before they unstick themselves from their conversation and finally deliver the pint Niall had ordered for Cal, Liam’s phone starts vibrating in his pocket. It jars him — hits him like a tonne of bricks, it’d taken him a while to feel it — and he settles his glass back onto the counter unsteadily, tucking his fingers into his mouth to clean them where drink splashed over the edges and wet them, pulling his phone from his pocket with his free hand.

He just swallowing the sweet lingering taste of Grey Goose and cherry grenadine when he manages to glance at the screen. He doesn’t recognize the number — it’s not in his contacts, no name pops up with it — but it looks so familiar that it feels as if he should recognize it. He doesn’t know who would be ringing him at this hour, so late or maybe it’s early in another part of the world, and the only number that lights up in his brain is Smith’s parent’s home that he always forgets to save because Smith rings so sparingly from it, but he shrugs to himself, unbothered, and then answers, already half-expecting to hear Smith’s voice on the other end, unable to keep himself from grinning preemptively.

There’s static and it’s quiet. He can only make out a whisper of a voice through the receiver, but it sort of sounds like Smith, a nice lilting fragmented boyish tone, so Liam assumes he’s right straight away and says, “Babe, can you hear me? You alright?”

He plugs his other ear with his fingers and hunches his shoulders up like it’ll help block out the din, and maybe it works because then he does hear a voice fizzling through the speaker into his ear. “Hi,” it says tentatively. “I didn’t know if you’d pick up.”

It’s not Smith. Liam’s stomach drops like he’s gone full speed downhill strapped on a roller coaster still drunk. It’s Daniel, and he’s saying in Liam’s extended startled silence, “Sorry if it’s a bad time, or, I don’t know if you were expecting somebody else or summat? But I just wanted to tell you —”

His voice is crystal clear now as though they’ve both found a spot of clean reception and it’s much more immediately familiar than his number had been — much more familiar than Liam thought it would be — so familiar that Liam can picture Daniel’s face shaping his voice as if he’s stood at the bar with Liam talking to him, his curly hair and his sharp cheekbones and his plush giving mouth.

“Why're you calling?” Liam lets out in a rush. He jerks his fingers from his ears like they burn and the noise from the bar floods in like he’s coming out of a tunnel.

“I miss you, Liam,” Daniel starts saying. Liam scrubs his hands over his eyes so that he doesn’t have to pay attention to how it sounds like Daniel’s pleading when he goes on, “I really miss you, I’ve — I saw this thing today and it reminded me of you, and, I,” Daniel takes a sharp breath in. “I’ve been thinking about you.”

Liam has to snap his mouth shut to keep himself from replying viciously Well I haven’t been thinking about you. He says instead, “Listen, you can’t just ring me like this, and anyway, I’m sorry but I’m really busy right now, alright? I have to go.”

It takes enough effort just to squeeze his eyes closed and concentrate on getting all the words out, his head won’t quit spinning. He doesn’t appreciate it when Daniel replies: “Maybe some other time then — could we talk? Just talk, I swear, Liam, Li, it’s — you have no idea how nice it is to hear your voice.”

“I don’t know, I’m with someone now, you know that,” Liam says, trying not to slur, trying to keep the impatience from his tone, trying to forget Daniel saying Li as if he gets to do that, as if he knows Liam still.

Daniel’s saying, “Just to talk, that’s all.”

“I have to go,” Liam says again because he doesn’t want to hear it, and he doesn’t give Daniel any time to reply before he hangs up.

He’s forgotten where he is, he realizes, blinking at his now blank phone screen and down at his boots on the wood floor, adjusting his eyes to the dim lights — it’s like the phone and Daniel’s voice had sucked him into a vacuum and he’s just popped out on the other side. He pockets his phone and twists around to face the bar again.

He gets hands on his shoulders almost immediately on either side — both Niall and Harry, then, he thinks, and downs half of his drink in one go.

“Alright?” Harry asks, and Liam’s not looking at Harry’s face, so he doesn’t know if Harry’s got a twist to his mouth like he had when Liam’d woken up from that half-dream on the plane, or if his eyebrows are lifted like he’s teasing or what, but his hand on Liam’s shoulder is steady.

Liam finishes off his drink and then says, “Yeah, fine.” He wipes his wrist across his mouth. “Fine,” he says again. “It was Danny.” He’d meant to say Daniel and it makes his stomach twist.

“Jesus,” Niall says. “Out of the blue, huh?” He thumps his hand on Liam’s shoulder and then lets go, but Harry keeps his hand still.

“Yeah, he wanted to — I don’t know, I don’t,” Liam says because he really doesn’t. He finally turns to look at Niall’s face and shrugs. “Talk, or summat.”

Niall’s eyebrows are quirked in a blend of disbelief and surprise and, maybe, almost, concern. His eyes are wide and open, so Liam looks there while Niall tells him, “Bit odd, innit?”

Then Niall pushes the last full lager by his elbow over to Liam across the bar and shoots him a private grin, “Reckon it’ll serve you better than Cal right about now, yeah?”

Liam huffs a laugh in thanks and doesn’t hesitate for very long before he’s sliding the pint closer.

Harry leans in from Liam’s other side just as Liam’s bringing the glass up to his lips. “Forget about him,” Harry says, close to Liam’s ear like when he’d first found Liam at the bar, talking into it, the ghost heat of his mouth brushing the rim.

“We’ve come to celebrate, haven’t we?” Harry says and he shakes Liam’s shoulder for emphasis, and only then does Liam realize Harry’s been holding onto him that whole time.

Liam takes Niall and Harry’s joint advice to heart. He gets absolutely pissed until he forgets and forgets and doesn’t know what his chest feels wobbly with laughter and thrumming with heat for, or what he’s done to make it that way. It's impossible to regret while he’s on his way back to the hotel with everyone, unable to contain his grin, the city lights slurring like the corners of his vision are wet with tears, the night air refreshing on his hot face.

Their voices and laughs echo down the street, and before Liam knows it he’s riding the lift with just Niall and Harry again, zooming up to their floor.

He must stumble when he steps out of the lift because he’s laughing, and Harry’s laughing too but he’s also cupping Liam’s elbow and holding his waist, and Niall laughs with them both down the corridor.

Niall’s room comes up first, but he squints at his keycard for a moment, and then insists on taking Liam to his first with Harry, and Liam shrugs, unable to think of a reason to argue or think very much at all.

Once they’ve stumbled in through Liam’s room — after he got a bit of help sliding the keycard — Liam starts taking his top off immediately, the tight restricting fabric confusing and uncomfortable, and he gets his boots chucked across the room right when he sees the bed and realizes just how knackered he is. He flops onto it before he manages to get his jeans off, makes a happy muffled noise in the soft sweet duvet, ignoring the sounds of Niall and Harry moving about.

He hears Niall say, “Payno, have a sip of water for me, bud,” and then someone’s shaking his shoulder, so Liam convinces himself to flop onto his back instead and reaches blindly for the glass Niall’s holding for him.

He finds it after a couple tries, squinting through the bright lights someone must’ve switched on, and Niall helps him sit up to drink it. “Ugh,” Liam says into the lip. It’s difficult to swallow; his jaw is tired. “Why’re you making me do this.”

Niall snorts a laugh, amused. “Trust me,” he says. “You’ll thank me later.” He ruffles Liam’s hair and sets the water on the bedside table, only stumbling a little.

“You need to lend me some of your Irish,” Liam tells him, falling backwards into the sheets, flinging his forearm across his eyes. The room’s spinning.

“Be glad to.” Niall sounds much closer, and Liam slides his arm behind his head and opens his eyes to find Niall right there. Niall smacks a kiss onto his forehead. “Don’t try going anywhere in the morning.”

He points his finger into Liam’s face when Liam only laughs. “I’m serious, Payno,” Niall says, but he’s smiling too.

“Alright, alright,” Liam agrees, easy, fronting his hands up and kicking his leg out to smack his foot into Niall. “I wouldn’t anyway.”

Maybe his words get a bit lost on his tongue trying to find their way out — Niall only gives him this fond look, all grin, and then bends out of Liam’s space.

Liam can hear him say, “Alright, mate, you’re up.”

Niall must be talking to Harry because Harry comes into view next. He’s got a fond look like Niall had, but it’s more quiet, subdued, pressed into the corners of his mouth like a secret. Liam hears the door shut.

Harry goes for Liam’s wrist first, his fingers skimming across the skin on the underside of Liam’s bare arm in a tingle until he finds the clasp of Liam’s watch and clicks it open, pulling it off and setting it on the bedside table by the water with a clink. Then Harry moves to the end of the bed.

“Let’s get you out of these, yeah?” Harry says, reaching for the waistband of Liam’s jeans, and Liam tries to help though his hands are clumsy from being a bit numbed and he doesn’t manage to do much beside hover his fingers around Harry’s and shift his hips up so that Harry can slide his jeans down easily. He kicks a bit when they’re at his ankles, but maybe it does more harm than good because Harry takes his time pulling Liam’s feet free one by one anyway, wrapping his large hand around Liam’s ankles.

Harry tosses Liam his phone from the pocket of his jeans and it lands on Liam’s bare chest before Harry’s turning away, folding Liam’s jeans in half, laying them over his open luggage in the corner. Liam fumbles with his phone once he manages to look away, and he checks the time, sparing a wince for how late it is. When he opens it to check his messages, he finds he’s got a few. He can’t focus his eyes enough to read them, but there’s one from Ruth and another from Tom and another from Smith, so he’s grinning by the time he makes it to the last one, sent hours ago, from Daniel’s unsaved number.

He doesn’t bother looking further and throws his phone harder than he means to away from himself — watches it fly through the air like it’s suspended on strings before it lands hard on the floor with a thump and skids on the carpet.

Harry turns around at the noise. “You okay?” he asks. He furrows his eyebrows slowly together.

“Fine,” Liam says, kicking hard at his duvet so that it fluffs up and he can climb underneath it. “Peachy keen.” He settles with the duvet, but it’s too warm so he kicks at it again until it’s bunched at his feet and sighs, uncomfortable from the room spinning and his vision feeling blurry and his tongue feeling so loose and heavy and large in his mouth all at the same time.

“What does he want from me?” Liam says, staring up at the ceiling. “What would he ring me for? I don’t understand.”

Harry pops back into view and perches on Liam’s side by his head. “What’s that?” Harry says. He looks curious, attentive, though Liam's thought this whole night that Harry must be drunk too, that Harry’d been matching shot for shot — hadn't he?

“Danny,” Liam explains, frustrated already. “What does he think it’ll do, ringing me. Saying sorry and ringing anyway — and he knows,” Liam’s voice goes a bit hoarse, straining. “He knows I’m with someone, I’m with Smith. He knows that.”

He closes his eyes; the bright lights are making them hurt. Harry’s hand comes onto his forehead, cool and soothing as his fingers brush through Liam’s hair. “What did he say?” Harry asks.

But Liam doesn’t want to think about what Daniel said. “Does it matter?” Liam says, shaking his head without pulling away from Harry’s hand. “I don’t want to think of him. I don’t have to anymore.”

Harry shushes him, his fingers sliding slowly through Liam’s hair, curling strands around his knuckle. “Then don’t. You’re right, you don’t have to.”

“He’s the one who broke it off with me,” Liam says, feeling indignant. The room’s starting to spin less from lying flat, though his face feels flushed, especially by his eyes; the dark behind his lids is soothing anyway, like Harry’s hand and calm slow voice, and it’s luring him away. “Not me,” Liam says. “Not me, I wouldn’t have.”

“I know,” he hears Harry say.

His mouth feels heavy from growing so tired, but there’s something he wants to say, even if it makes his chest feel tight and hot to say it, like he’s still got his top on, like the duvet laying over him, bricks on his sternum weighing him down. “Why did he,” Liam says, almost whispering, the words scraping against his throat. “Why did he dump me, then, if he’s only going to say he misses me later.”

Sleep takes him and there’s no time for Liam to think about what Harry’s murmuring or his fingers in Liam’s hair or why Liam’s chest is all soggy and his throat raw and his eyes wet.

 

*

 

The show in Melbourne is massively loud. Liam can’t hear his own voice or the boys between song breaks, swallowed up easily in one huge gulp by the crowd. Answering twitter questions would feel pointless and impossible if it didn’t rocket up the energy level, like their audience doesn’t need to know what they’re saying — the raw sight of them alone more than enough to consume whole.

There’s a catwalk for the stage, but no second platform to fly overhead to, so they compromise by sitting at the end of the catwalk, legs dangling over the edge for their batch of slower songs that come one right after the other.

There’s this tacky bright sign that seems almost as massive as the sheer volume — long ropes of words squirm across it, in and out of Liam’s vision like moving cursive. There’re two girls holding it, one on either side, and they’re jumping in sync to raise it higher, waving their free arms when Liam glances over, but he doesn’t get a proper look until he’s sat at the edge, waiting for the second chorus of Little Things, his elbow resting on his knee to hold his head up with his curled hand.

He gestures for the girls to raise the sign again and they do, keeping it still. He has to squint to read — but he gets the gist quick, couldn’t miss thank you for saving my life and giving me the courage to keep going and met my girlfriend at your show in big bold letters, even if he wanted to.

It’s easy for Liam to give them a real smile, press his hand to his chest like his heart hurts, and it does, it hurts, give a thumbs up. He wishes that he could do more, but all he thinks of is searching for eye contact between the two girls, wondering fleetingly who wrote it, who’s the girlfriend, and singing ’Cause it’s you, oh it’s you, and I’m in love with you right to them.

He doesn’t forget them soon, it’s easily the best sign he’s seen all night, one of the best things he’s been told in a while, even if it’s not just for him, and he turns it over in his mind like a physical piece of paper again and again until the corners feel worn long after he’s stood up from the end of the catwalk and bowed in a line with the rest of the boys and jumped feet-first down into the stage trap door like it’s a rabbit hole.

Can’t be much of a surprise then that when Smith rings Liam on his van ride to the hotel, damp with post-show sweat and the residual burn, sat alone in the very back behind Josh and Sandy and Dan and Liam answers his phone, it’s one of the first things that wants to pop out from his mouth like opening one of those trick cans with fake coiled snakes inside waiting to spring free. He manages to keep it in long enough to ask Smith how he is, and Smith’s good, brilliant, but he hasn’t got much time, on break on set for a shoot, runners went to grab tuna cucumber sandwiches for the crew and lunch or summat, and it rushes the memory out of Liam all the more quickly for it — stumbling over his own tongue in his haste to tell Smith how the show was.

He leans into the corner of the van by the back window like he can create a privacy curtain with his shoulders. “There was this one sign, babe, it was so nice,” he starts. “It was so, so nice — you’ve, d’you have enough time? Can I tell you?”

Smith urges him on, and Liam’s imagining Smith’s handsome smiling encouraging face while he says, “It said like. I mean, it was far away, right? I was sat right on the end of the stage, but I could still make it out. D’you remember that one fan, that boy I told you about from when I’d gone out with Andy and them to Funky Buddha? Remember that?”

The silence drags, and then Smith says, “No, I can’t remember, I don’t — did you? You’re sure you told me?”

Liam feels so positively sure that he did. His head’s swollen up with the fading high from the gig, but he can recall repeating the story about that boy to Smith while they were in Liam’s bed at home where he wishes he were every night, if only just for the night, and watching Smith’s face with perfect clarity; then the rest sinks in and Liam’s memory derails and Smith’s eyes were closed, Liam knows now, Smith’s eyes were closed then and Liam had gone to sleep and in the morning, he hadn’t —

“Oh, right, maybe it was something else,” Liam says quickly. “It doesn’t matter anyway, the sign — it was like this massive thank you, and this girl, I think she was there with her girlfriend too, and she just wanted to say thank you for saving her life.” Smith doesn’t say anything yet, listening still, so Liam goes on: “I was buzzing, babe, but like. How do you take a compliment like that, you know?” He almost laughs.

Smith makes a slow noise in acknowledgement, and Liam wants to see his face. He can’t place the sound by itself. “Yeah,” Smith says quietly. “I get that.” He sighs a little, and then draws a breath in and Liam forces his legs to still where they’re bouncing as if it’ll help him better hear. “I get what you mean,” is all Smith says next.

Then Smith says he has to get his hair fixed and his make-up redone and changed for the shoot so he rings off.

 

*

 

The next morning Liam’s sipping a strong brew of tea at a round table in the hotel’s quiet vacant attached restaurant with Harry, waiting for the other boys to show. He’s been scrolling through his feed on his phone, bleary-eyed, before switching over to his texts and emails, clearing out things he doesn’t need, hesitantly deleting them one by one, nearly unable to tell what’s important and what’s not from feeling dead asleep, his fingers large and stiff against the keypad. Half-way through he finds the unopened text from Daniel’s unsaved number.

Most of whatever was said throughout their phone call is lost to Liam in a haze from the night, washed away from slipping into his soft welcoming bedsheets in the end, he blacksout when he drinks, it feels ages ago now, but the text says it was good to hear your voice, ring me if you want to talk ..x

And that’s enough for Liam to fill in the blanks. He hasn’t said anything of it to Smith yet, but Liam would want to know, he thinks, if it were reversed and Smith had gotten a text or call from his ex. Liam would want to know, and what if it happens again — the way Daniel’d phrased his text, it’s like Liam’s agreed to something he no longer remembers, and he doesn’t want to have to think of it any longer.

He imagines Smith’s probably still awake, it can’t be very late in London yet, so Liam sends him: u woooont belleve this but i forgot 2 tell you daniel rung me haha i just hung up on him tho.

He pockets his phone after, and returns to his tea, smiles at Harry sat across from him.

“Finished with that thing yet?” Harry says. He’s flipping through a travel guide he’d nicked from the front desk when they’d passed, and he’s grinning down at the laminated pages, but Liam knows the grin’s meant for him.

“Like you’re one to talk,” Liam says, kicking him gently beneath the table, hooking his foot around Harry's ankle more than anything. “What’ve you got there?”

Harry’s eyebrows furrow with thought. “You like sushi, right?” he says. The sun’s fanning out beyond the window they’re sat by, and it touches on the loose stringy curls hanging in front of Harry’s face while he’s looking down, turning another page. He pushes his hair off his forehead and glances up to meet Liam’s gaze, his mouth flickering, a dimple hinting at his cheek, his eyes clear and green.

“Yeah,” Liam says, his eyebrows and mouth giving way to his excitement. “What of it?”

Harry passes the guide over to Liam. “There’s this one place, got a brilliant review,” he says, and then he stands to sit on Liam’s side rather than from across to him, leans over once he’s settled to point it out for Liam, his long finger skimming across the page. He’s right; the sushi bar looks ace.

The boys arrive before too long, just as Liam and Harry have solidified plans to see what the sushi bar’s worth in person later, and after Liam’s finished his eggs and bacon and toast, full and finally blessedly awake, he sees Smith’s reply: Oh? That’s weird xx.

So, Liam shoots back hes weird x and doesn’t worry about it at all any more.

 

*

 

A pair of Liam’s pants get stolen off his balcony whilst he’s asleep, and he doesn’t see the papped pictures of himself running out in nothing except for a pair of joggers hanging on by a thread until Smith emails him later in the day, right when Liam’s just changed into his jeans for the gig and he’s got his in-ears hanging loosely around his neck like headphones, laughing backstage at Louis tying the strings of their band’s trainers together.

Liam's phone pings from his back pocket and when Liam checks, Smith hasn’t put anything in the email’s subject line except for :( seen this? He’s left the body blank besides a DailyMail link with Liam's name in it, and Liam clicks it slowly, his eyebrows creasing together with a sense of foreboding.

He says, “Jesus, fucking hell,” aloud to himself once the pictures load, and it must grab Louis’ attention, Liam must’ve said it louder than he thought because Louis’s saying, “What’s wrong with you?”

Louis comes up to Liam’s shoulder, peeking around for a look at his phone, throwing his arm across Liam’s back. “Oooh,” Louis says when he sees, sounding like he’s wincing. And then he laughs, “What in God's name happened? Always did think it's a lovely prick you've got, bro, nothing to be ashamed of.”

Liam mutters, “Cheers,” begrudgingly. He thinks of elbowing Louis off, but doesn’t. Liam’d tweeted earlier when it first happened — when his pants were first stolen — that it was so embarrassing, and he half wishes he could retweet it now.

Anyway, Liam has a show, and then he’s off to the hotel as early as he can manage because they have two gigs back to back the next day, and he’s tired. In the quiet space of his hotel room, he opens his email again, stares at his own confused twisting expression distinct in broad daylight in the pictures; seems like it’s a mirror now as he’s looking at himself, his mouth almost sneering.

He can nearly feel the heat of the sun from when he’d been on the balcony and the jolt of fear from when he’d been lying naked in bed and heard the thump on his sliding door; it claws up in his chest, white hot. He looks at his bare torso and, Christ, he really can see his dick in his joggers and he hasn’t zoomed in yet. After a moment, Liam decides he doesn’t want to see the close up of his pubic hair, it’s exhausting enough to look at the photos as is, and he rings Smith.

Smith picks up straight away, saying, “Hey,” out of breath, stringing the word out like a sigh. “You alright?”

“Hi,” Liam returns. “Yeah, fine, you?” He hasn’t taken his shoes off or his jeans — only his top that he’s got hanging from his other hand, and he’s perched at the end of the bed, hunching over his knees, but the idea of scooting back and propping himself up against the pillows feels far away.

Smith hums noncommittally instead of answering, then says, “Mad about your knickers, innit?”

“Yeah,” Liam says, forces a short laugh. “I didn’t know about those — that there’d been a fucking wanker out there or whatever taking pictures like that, when I was outside.”

“Crazy life, huh?” Smith says, sounding like he’s sighing again. Before Liam can agree, Smith’s laughing, though it's not particularly funny. “I mean, never thought I’d see, like. My boyfriend’s pubes all over the internet.”

“Yeah, babe, like — I didn’t know, just grabbed the first thing I saw on the floor." Liam wants to start the story from the beginning though, maybe it’ll make more sense to go over it in order; he hasn’t got it sorted in his own head yet. “What happened was, I was asleep, right?” he says, thinking again about the noise at his balcony door early in the morning.

“Right,” Smith says. But then before Liam can go on, Smith’s saying again, “Right, isn’t there anything your PR or whatever can do to like, take them down?”

“Fairly sure they’re doing all they can,” Liam answers slowly so that his tone stays steady. “I don’t like it any more than you do, you know.” And he doesn't like the reminder, either, that his pubes and dick or whatever are floating around on the internet for anyone to see, that it isn’t just something the people closest to him might know about him now, it’s something everyone could know.

But it’s a piss poor thing to whinge to Smith about, he thinks. Smith obviously doesn’t really want to hear the story, anyway; he’s probably seen enough. Besides, there’s nothing Liam can do about it except think of how to field the interview questions over it when they come, which he expects will be soon, they have a radio interview in a day or two. There’s nothing he can do about the way it feels a bit like he’s spread naked on an operating table with his chest split waiting for open-heart surgery, either — hoping for the anesthetic to kick in. He should be used to that, shouldn’t he. It’s not like he’s ever stopped half-feeling so since he came out. He flops backwards onto his bed and lets his breath whoosh from his chest, lets his shirt slip from his hand to the floor.

“Sorry,” Smith’s murmuring into his ear, his voice more quiet. “Sorry, I know, it’s not your fault, it’s just, like. It’s so odd.”

“I know it is,” Liam says, smoothing his tone out into reassurance, though he feels reluctant to, staring up blankly at the ceiling.

“No,” Smith says, a little harder, insistent. “I mean, you’ve — you’re not used to it exactly, right, but you’ve had, what. Nearly three years — and before that, too, I know you didn’t make it, but you were being filmed all the time, when you were first on X-Factor, you know?”

Liam doesn’t know where Smith’s going with any of it, but it's the most Liam's heard Smith's voice at one time for a fortnight so Liam doesn't interrupt when Smith keeps talking: “Ever since I’ve known you, you’ve always. You were always performing. I’m in the camera a lot now, you know, for my job like, but I guess I just — didn’t realize.”

“Didn’t realize what?” Liam can’t figure it out if Smith won’t tell him. Smith pauses long enough that Liam kicks his shoes off and unbuckles his jeans, squirming out of them. “Babe?” he asks when the silence stretches on for so long he wonders if the call’s dropped.

“Didn’t realize how it would be,” Smith finally says, his words cutting up short like they’re splitting off prematurely from one another.

“Me either,” Liam says, honest, splaying out in his sheets again, more comfortably this time, his legs dangling over the end of the bed. “I’ve been thinking — what if I fly you out here?”

“What? To Australia? No, Liam, you can’t, you absolutely can't do that.”

“Why not?” Liam asks, furrowing his eyebrows over Smith’s startled tone. He really wants to see Smith’s face, but switching over to facetime will take ages now. “It’s not so expensive, it’s a long flight, I know, but you could stay for a bit?”

“Liam,” Smith says. He’s pleading in that same hard tone — like he's explaining a rulebook to a child, and it makes Liam close his eyes. “I can’t, I — have work, I have shoots, for my job, and it’s twenty-four hours, isn’t it? A plane ride for twenty-four hours, I don’t know if I could even sit through that.”

Liam shrugs to himself. When he finally remembers Smith can’t see him, Liam says, “Alright.”

“I’d love to, it’s sweet of you, really. But I can’t. Not right now.”

Liam wishes it wouldn’t bubble up in him, but he bites his lip so that he doesn’t apologize, rubs his hand across his face, jarring himself out of it. This day has rolled on ceaselessly for ages, that's all; he really is tired. Maybe he’d thought at first that coming back to the room early meant he could skype with Smith, see his face and smile, distract himself with Smith’s naked chest and cock, but now all Liam wants to do is lie in his borrowed bed and maybe have a wank and sleep. “I get it,” he tells Smith instead. “We’ll talk about it another time.”

Smith hesitates, Liam can hear him breathe in and out a couple of times, and Liam wants to find it soothing and rhythmic like he does when Smith's lying beside him in his bed at home, but then Smith says, "Doesn't it ever — doesn't it all feel a bit impossible sometimes?"

"Impossible?" Liam repeats, confused.

Smith rushes out, “I miss you," hard with emphasis, as though it's an answer, but also like he’s asking something of Liam.

Liam’s heard Smith say it so many times by now; it never quite feels like enough, he’ll never grow tired of hearing it, but he doesn’t know why — now — he feels as though he should be apologizing again. The thing is, Liam keeps remembering this time when he was small and Ruth had been chasing him round the front room even though his mum had scolded them for running too fast in the house already as they'd whizzed by, and Liam could never be sure, even now, who fell first then, but him and Ruth had both tripped over their feet and knocked into his mum's glass cabinet shelves where she kept these miniature porcelain figurines of cherubic pink-faced angels and glittery fairies and a few spilled out into the floor, cracking right in half down the center before shattering apart into too many pieces, too many small bits to be saved or fixed, couldn't have been glued back together by then at all.

His mum hadn't looked cross — just disappointed, her face heavy, and Liam had wanted to apologize, say he didn’t mean to, it was only an accident, but he didn't know whose fault it was, and he'd meant to help his mum when she'd kneeled onto the floor and carefully, painstakingly swept up the chipped pieces until they were all gone, tossed the mess into the bin so no one hurt themselves over it, but Liam hadn't known where to start and Ruth had already scampered off to her room, and it was just him, stood there alone, like a great big bloody git.

He must take a while to respond because next he knows Smith's calling Liam's name, and when Liam replies, says yeah?, says belatedly that he misses Smith too, the only warning he gets is a sharp hissing inhale.

It's like a dam breaks for Smith. All of a sudden he's saying a lot at once: it's been ages since I've seen your face and didn't know it would be like this and then Daniel rung you and I don’t know what to think about that. Liam can't take all of it in so quickly, feeling struck dumb, sitting up suddenly in the middle of his bed as if it'll help him hear better.

He hardly has time to cut through with, "Whoa, babe, slow down," before Smith's saying urgently, his voice almost wailing, almost panicked, "It's so weird, Liam, it's like you're here and not. I thought it would be the same as when I knew you before but it isn't! It just isn't."

There’s muffled static like a radio dial switching between channels, searching for a signal in the wake of their silence, and Liam scrubs his hand across his eyes, trying to sort through all that Smith’s said in his head. “It’s alright,” Liam starts, and then shakes his head at himself. He thinks of what Smith told him that time in the carpark, how nice it was to hear. “I’ll be back soon. Some days are harder, yeah? Tomorrow — tomorrow will be easier, better.”

“I don’t know, I don’t,” Smith says, and it isn’t what Liam thought he would say at all. “I don't think so.”

"Babe," Liam says, biting into the word, almost barking it. He drops his head into his hand again, holds it up with his elbow at his knee. "We can't even have a proper conversation about it now. You're upset, yeah? So get some rest, alright? And we'll sort it out later."

He must've said the wrong thing because Smith shoots back straight away, accusing, "Later, huh? When the bloody fuck will that be?"

Liam sighs, feeling fucking knackered like he hasn't slept for a week — and in some respect he hasn't, really, jerking awake from those nagging dreams that keep creeping up on him like a pesky flu.

“Sure, Liam, we'll talk later. Right, yeah, of course, whatever you need," Smith says, his voice twisting. "Have a nice night." Then the line goes dead.

 

*

 

Liam’s changing shirts in his hotel room just as night’s falling and staring down at Smith’s lone text sent two days ago sat in his phone, the last Liam’s heard from Smith. Smith’d spent hours Liam didn’t exactly have in spares explaining until his voice was hoarse that he didn’t like feeling as if he were waiting around for Liam’s call, for when Liam would finally have a snatch of free time that they’d eat up in two seconds flat, for when the paps got tired of them and Smith’d stopped getting loads of mentions on twitter, didn’t like feeling as if he was constantly unavoidably out all the time — something Liam didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter of.

Liam hadn’t had Smith’s face to gauge any of it, but Smith’s words felt achingly familiar, like that dogging bout of déjà vu Liam had before in London. He’d found himself saying viciously, betrayed, “You said you wanted this. I asked and you said — before, babe,” the endearment tasting tart in his mouth. “Smith, you knew before what you were getting into with me. It’s a package deal.”

Smith hadn’t much been a fan of that. The truth is, Liam thinks now, buckling his belt, he’s already had this conversation. Not directly with Smith maybe, but Liam already knows that this — space, a break, whatever it is Smith says he wants — it isn’t going to help, and it’s the opposite of what Liam wants. He knows where it’s going to end up; the only difference is Liam never shouted at Daniel through the phone line about the things Daniel promised and then of course changed his mind over — didn’t know that maybe he should shout about it, or that it was alright to; he’d kept it choked in his throat, words buried beneath his tongue, half-paralyzed with the terror that it’d only make Daniel leave him sooner.

And it makes Liam tired, as he looks into the bathroom mirror, styles his hair in quick strokes with his gel wet fingers. Not sleepy, but so fucking tired to say the same old used things that he’s heard before, that he heard with Daniel, that he’s hearing again with Smith only for the same old used result at the end — him still alone in his bed.

Liam slides his wallet into his back pocket along with his keycard and types so quickly to Smith that it stings his fingers: it wont help and you already know it so be honest w me

Then he drops his phone on the round table by the window in the corner of his room and leaves to meet Harry and Louis and Niall and most of their band downstairs at the hotel bar.

 

*

 

Liam doesn’t know how many tequila sunrises he pre-gamed with Dan and John before he wandered into the casino attached to the hotel with the boys and them, the bartender had a heavy hand, but he does know his feet feel easy in his Timberlands, like they want to give right into the spotless ornate carpet floor, and his chest’s much looser now than it was when he’d first stepped out the lift and greeted everyone at the hotel bar — much, much looser; it’s not tightened up like it’s been wound with a key anymore, so Liam isn’t worrying. He’s only going along with Harry’s arm around his waist guiding him to a Texas Hold ‘Em table as if he wouldn’t think to do anything else.

Louis’s on Liam’s other side, saying, “What’d you bet Liam, hm? Reckon Harry loses it all on the first hand, or what.”

Liam laughs as they come to a stop, peering at the table. All the chairs are full, but they wait there anyway. “No bet,” Liam says, shaking his head, nudging Harry with an elbow to his side. Harry makes an absent low disgruntled heyyy, a would-be complaint on anyone else. “Not a problem though, is it? Hazza’ll just buy in again.”

Louis’s grin grows more acute. “Can’t if they won’t let him back to the table. Too embarrassing, innit.”

Niall pops up between Liam and Louis’s shoulders, slinging an arm crookedly over them, just in time to chime in: “Right, well whilst you lot watch Harry blow it, there’s slots over there calling my name.” He jerks his chin up towards a long strip of carpet leading through the crowd further back into the casino that’s darkened, seems like a stretch of mahogany and flashing lights and smoke from the distance. “And there’s fit as fuck waitresses giving out free drinks.” Niall claps Liam and Louis on their shoulders. “So, cheers, mates.”

“Neil,” Louis shouts immediately, scandalized, and pulls away from Liam’s side with a squeeze below Liam’s ribs that’s just too sharp to tickle. “How dare you try to leave me for fit waitresses,” Louis says, following Niall’s laugh down the carpet; they disappear between a group of tourists in jeans rolled up to their knees and ratty t-shirts.

Harry hums like he’s considering beside Liam and Liam somehow manages to hear it over the din, glances at Harry’s face in profile, Harry's eyebrows pulling together. Liam throws his arm across Harry’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, mate,” Liam says. “Won’t be leaving you for a fit waitress anytime soon.”

Harry squeezes Liam’s hip with the arm he has around Liam’s waist. “Can always count on you,” Harry says. He tosses Liam a slow grin, and then he pulls away, his hand lingering against the small of Liam’s back.

Harry moves towards a chair at the far end of the table that Liam hadn’t noticed opened up, sits down gradually, almost gracefully, fluidly leaning back in his seat once he’s settled despite the many gin and tonics Liam had seen him down at the bar.

Liam doesn’t hesitate — he goes to rest his crossed forearms over the back of Harry’s chair and watch him lose his money, peeks over Harry’s slumped shoulder that’s see-through with the sheer black shirt he’s got on to see the table. The low lights make everything glow, smoothing out the wrinkles in the dealer’s practiced hands, making Harry’s arm look like one long seamless tan line of skin, his rings glinting when he reaches to accept his cards.

Harry’s a very serious player, and Liam doesn’t want to interrupt him, but he does anyway, ducks in to whisper into Harry’s ear what he thinks are helpful hints. Harry usually gives him an acknowledgement — a nod, or a thoughtful hmm, or one time he reaches back to slap his hand over Liam’s mouth and turns his furrowed eyebrows onto Liam’s face, though the corners of his mouth fight with a laugh while he tells Liam, “Don’t give it away to the whole table, you’ll ruin me,” after Liam’s maybe whispered not so quietly.

There’s a woman sat next to Harry with the worst poker face, though, so Liam can’t exactly help his input; it’s too easy. She gasps and cheers, blatantly delighted, makes tsking sounds and sighs, obviously upset, and Liam tries to hide his quiet laughing while he passes on his tips, and maybe Harry can read the woman well enough on his own, doesn’t exactly need Liam leaning in to repeat it right into his ear. Anyway, the woman’s husband’s standing behind her chair too, like Liam is for Harry, and he laughs as well, so Liam doesn’t feel so bad. Plus, her husband’s helping her — Liam sees him pointing not very subtly at her hand and gesturing, so it’s only fair to even the playing field.

After a few hands, a waiter in a white oxford button-down with the sleeves rolled to his elbows and a missing blazer strolls by asking about for drink orders. He comes to Liam and Harry’s end of the table last, but Liam sees the waiter glancing over before then. Maybe the waiter’s only glancing to the bets being placed, the high stacks of chips sliding and threatening to topple against the green felt, but by the time he’s reached the third chair at the table, only a couple seats away now, and he’s looking up from the man whose order he’s taking — Liam’s fairly certain they’ve made eye contact more than once.

It’s hard to tell with the way Liam’s already feeling flushed, his eyes unfocused from the Patron and the distracting zinging from slot machines, the noisy scatter of chips falling against one another in a rush. There’s no mistaking it though when the waiter finally reaches them and he’s taller than Liam, but he leans in anyway, looking from Harry’s face to Liam’s, his eyes dragging.

“Anything for you two?” he asks. He’s stood so close to Liam’s elbow branching out from the back of Harry’s chair that Liam thinks he can feel the heat bleeding through the waiter’s top.

Harry orders a hard cider, smiles as he says thanks, his dimples sinking into his cheeks for the briefest second. He twists back to the table, and the waiter looks at Liam again. “And you?” he asks.

Liam shrugs, unfolding from the back of Harry’s chair until he’s only resting on it with one arm, turned to face the waiter rather than the table. He looks into the waiter’s face — at the way the waiter’s holding his delicate mouth, like he’s pursing it. The waiter lifts an eyebrow.

“I’ve got the whole bar to choose from, right?” Liam asks, starting to grin. “Could get anything I like?”

The waiter returns Liam’s smile, and Liam glances down for a name tag, finds it pinned close to the buttoned seam of his shirt — Justin. Then Justin says, sounding deliberate, “Yeah, anything you want.”

Liam laughs a bit, feeling a warm wild swoop in his tummy, buzzed, and steps further away from Harry’s chair so that only his hand’s lingering on the back by the curve of Harry’s shoulder. “Brilliant,” Liam says, “got any recommendations for me?”

Justin makes like he’s thinking, his expression going thoughtful but it’s a bit facetious, put on, and he glances from side to side like he’s checking for — his boss, maybe, or other waiters, Liam doesn’t know who for. “Can think of a few things,” Justin answers, “that you might like.”

“Wanna share, mate?” Liam says. He wets his mouth and watches Justin’s gaze drop. “Or rather, you could show me, at the bar.” Liam doesn’t know when he let his hand fall from Harry’s chair, or when he’d stepped up so close into Justin’s space that he can spot the birthmark on the corner of his jaw, see his grey eyes and expanding pupils, his collar pulling away from his throat, but an arm falling heavily on top of Liam’s shoulders shocks him like a glass of cold water to his face.

Justin looks startled too, and confused, darting a glance between Liam’s face and Harry’s as Harry says to Justin, “Don’t worry about that cider, mate, I’m out.” Harry flashes him a grin.

Liam’s about to say that he’s not out yet, he’d still like to see about those recommendations — but Harry’s cutting in again with, “Better make sure Lou and Niall haven’t gone broke too, hmm, Liam?” looking right at Liam, his hand tightening on Liam’s shoulder.

Liam starts to say, “That’s alright, you go on without me — ”

But Justin gives a short huffed smile and talks over Liam, says, “Good luck.” His tone’s final, though his eyes pass over Liam’s face wistfully; Justin turns away in the end and disappears into the crowd before Liam manages to stop him, his reflexes lagging and belated, unable to keep up with the abrupt turn, the rug pulled from beneath his feet.

“Hazza.” Liam twists out from under Harry’s arm and faces him. “What the fuck was that for?” he says, his lip curling back from his teeth.

Harry smooths his own hair back from his forehead with his outstretched arm as if it’s what he’d meant to do all along, unbothered by Liam stepping out from him, meeting Liam’s gaze head on. “What was what?”

“You know what,” Liam says, his voice straining from fighting the pull of shouting. He makes an unhappy noise in his throat and turns away from Harry looking unperturbed, shrugging casually as if he doesn’t know what he’s done, Liam doesn’t want to see it. It’s useless though, Liam thinks, looking out onto the casino floor. James or Justin or whoever is long gone, and as Liam spots the backs of other waiters in their black blazers circling around busy tables and between rows of slot machines cha-chinging in rapid succession, it feels impossible — finding and pulling another bloke.

“Whatever,” Liam says, his mouth still knotted tight, shooting a look at Harry. “I’m going back to the room.” He pushes past Harry, but he’s careful not to touch Harry, thins his body sideways so that he doesn’t, holds his arms in the air by his head.

“Liam,” he hears Harry saying, splitting his name apart from speaking it so slow, but Liam keeps walking.

It’s a bit hard to walk, though, particularly as quickly as he wants to towards the casino’s open pathway that he knows will lead him right to the hotel lobby, all he has to do is stay on it. He stumbles, getting used to his balance, but carries on, even as he can hear Harry saying his name again, almost urgent in his low flat voice.

Liam’s nearly to the entrance of the casino that opens expansively like an unhinged jaw, a giant mouth that he’s about to walk right through when Harry grabs Liam’s leather jacket sleeve and pulls until Liam stops without wanting to; it tips him off balance and he has to.

“Look,” Harry says, leveling his tone, holding onto Liam’s bicep now, turning Liam towards his body. “You’re smashed, I’m looking after you, alright? I don’t think Smith would’ve appreciated that.”

Liam scoffs, wanting to jerk away, looking anywhere except for Harry’s face. “Don’t think you know what Smith would or wouldn’t appreciate, mate,” Liam says, and then he does step away from Harry, puts his hand on Harry’s chest to push him back as gently as he can manage. Harry almost trips anyway, his face blanching for a split second.

“Let me walk you,” Harry says after he recovers, and he reaches for Liam’s arm again.

“I’m fine.” Liam dodges Harry’s hand. Liam stumbles again; his weight feels like a surprise everytime he shifts, but he doesn’t feel drunk anymore, his head gone all too clear, his thoughts gone all too sharp — nothing buzzing or foggy about it. His face and chest still feel hot but it isn’t from the tequila and lime.

“I’m fine, I can do it myself,” Liam says again when Harry doesn’t let go. Harry’s still looking at him, considering, unconvinced apparently, so Liam rolls his eyes and turns around to exit the casino like he’d been going to. If Harry wants to hang on and trip after him so badly, then he can.

Harry lets Liam’s arm go though, and Liam finds himself alone in the lobby. The bright lights are a shock and make his eyes burn, bleeding tears from dilating too fast, and he has to slow down so that his unbalance doesn’t become overwhelming enough to make him fall right over. He takes a stop at the hotel bar to settle himself, and wants a cigarette but winds up ordering a kamikaze straight up. He remembers ordering them in Vegas, and the memory takes him away from the fluorescent lights in the bar and noise from the lobby and casino beyond it filtering in long enough for him to finish off his glass in one go, order another.

By the time Liam rises from the comfortable swiveling bar stool to head to the lifts, walking is much more difficult than he recalled it being. His head’s swimming now, he’s buggered as all fucking hell, but he laughs at himself bumping into the corridor wall, tripping into the lift when the doors part — having to catch himself with a clammy hand to the banister. The ride up the floors makes him dizzy, but it’s over before it hardly starts, it feels. One moment Liam’s blinking and the shimmery doors are sliding shut, and the next he’s opening his eyes and the doors are opening too.

He has to rest against the wall in the hallway a few doors down from his room after he falls into it. But it’s only to catch his breath, he’s fine. He manages to get his door unlocked after a handful of tries, anyway, and gets into his empty quiet room in one piece.

He's just thrown his wallet onto the floor and gotten twisted up in his jacket around his arms when his phone starts blaring ’03 Bonnie & Clyde and Liam's mouth’s already crunched up, scoffing before he answers, knowing it's Smith’s voice he's going to have to hear. "What?" he says, tugging the phone to his ear.

"Oh, I didn't think you'd pick up," Smith says. He sounds surprised. But he also sounds hoarse and sort of lovely in a familiar way, and Liam wants to hang up.

"I wasn't going to," Liam says. "Thought we weren't talking." He gives up on his jacket, leaves it uncomfortably tight and restricting at his elbows like its trying to pin them into his body. He'll forget about it soon anyway.

He moves to his bed as Smith says to him slowly, testing the words out, "I was just thinking." Smith clears his throat. "About you, and us." It sounds like he’s been crying.

"I don’t know what you were thinking about," Liam tells him loudly, closing his eyes, lying in his messy sheets halfway down the bed, the comforter on the floor from this morning. Maybe he'll just fall asleep instead and leave Smith with a dial tone. "I don't know what there is to think about anymore, I don't know what you'd have to say to me."

"Liam," Smith breaks in.

But now that Liam's gotten started he can't stop. He's clenching the phone so tight in his hand it might break and it clears his head right up, cuts through the fog like a knife. "What do we have to say to each other? I don't have anything to fucking say to you."

“Liam,” Smith says again. It sounds like he’s pleading, like he’s crying, and it’s the same — it’s just like when Danny called, it’s all the same. Why did Liam think it’d go any different. Smith’s sorry now, isn’t he. He’s fucking sorry now, but he wasn’t sorry two days ago when he was listing off all the reasons why it’s not worth it, why Liam isn’t worth it.

“I’m just out with my mates, trying to have a good fucking time, and you’re here ringing me. What’re you ringing for?” Liam says. He isn’t yelling, but it still hurts his throat. “Don’t you have other things to do?”

Liam doesn’t know if Smith hangs up or if he says anything else before Liam’s finished talking. There’s a loud rushing in his ears anyway like a river dropping over a waterfall, and his head’s still swimming, and he tells himself he doesn’t care.

He lies on his back in his bed with his boots and all his clothes on and scrolls through his twitter feed. He can’t get his eyes to focus very long, it’s difficult to make sense of the words and take them in as sentences, but he finds a snatch of concentration from the anger burning bright like a furnace in his chest, and there’s this one tweet in his mentions that catches his attention: Single Liam’s the best Drunk Liam’s the best Any Liam is the Best, and he replies to it, types thank you, jabbing at his keypad so hard it’s like a punch, shocks through his whole hand from the force. He even listens to spell-check when it corrects him before he posts.

It gives him this giddy rush too, his stomach filled with bubbles threatening to pop, giggles rising in his throat like bile — so giddy that it makes him feel sick. He rolls onto his hurting stomach, shoves his face under his cool clean pillows. He’s so sick with it that he thinks he’s going to throw up, his vision spinning behind his shut eyes, spinning and spinning until Liam doesn’t know which way is up or down, can’t feel his legs or arms. He passes out with all his clothes on, lying perfectly still.

 

*

 

Liam doesn’t know how long he’s been on the treadmill in the hotel gym for. He can’t manage more than jogging at a decelerated pace — his head still feels like it’s being drilled open with a jackhammer, his teeth still rotting in his gums from puking in his bathroom sink earlier, his limbs hard to lift from being so heavy. He’s been guzzling water since he woke up, but it isn’t exactly helping, just makes his empty stomach churn with underfed nausea.

The jogging probably isn’t helping either, but when Liam had woken up, he’d seen the reply he doesn’t really remember typing to that tweet all over his feed, and he’d seen a handful of texts from Smith that accumulated in the end to: i don’t want to have a night again like last night, i’d rather not have any night at all with you. Liam couldn’t hang about his vacant quiet hotel room watching the clock tick away, staring at his luggage bag with all of his favorite clothes except for his Obey snapback and Adidas sweatshirt, tasting the remnants of liquor sour and stale on his dry tongue while he lied about in his saturated bed after that; he’d felt ill straight away.

At least his trainers pounding rhythmically against the rolling treadmill belt is distracting — enough to keep his head from flying away, trying to wander; he’s unable to think past the hot humid sweat building up dense and thick beneath his thin cotton shirt along his spine, between his thighs under his mesh shorts, bleeding out water he doesn’t have any excess of.

After a while, he can’t take it, tasting copper in the back of his throat like he’s going to puke blood next, and he strips his shirt off, slings it around his neck, heads for the lift to catch a quick shower in his room. Maybe, he’s thinking a bit wistfully in the lift, trying to distract himself again by focusing on the tightened way his chest’s expanding, sucking up air hurriedly — maybe his phone will be flushed down the toilet, thrown out the window, zapped up into space, and he won’t have to look at it any longer.

He’s scrubbing his face against his shirt to mop up the sweat on his forehead while walking down the corridor, so he doesn’t see Lou and Lux and Harry as much as hear them first — Lux’s delighted tinkling laugh ringing out above Harry’s low murmur. Liam can’t help from smiling at the sound and he lowers his shirt; they all pop into view, coming from the other end of the corridor like they’ve only just left one of the rooms and Liam arrived just a moment too late to hear the door slam shut.

He meets them in the middle, and he must still look like absolute shit, though they all look fresh and well rested, because Harry’s giving him a smile, but his mouth’s closed and his eyes regard Liam closely, carefully. Liam ignores him to greet Lux first, press a kiss to her tiny round cheek, pleased when he gets to hear her laugh again. He gives Lou a kiss too; she’s smiling much more easily than Harry.

Liam’s all set to tell Harry see you later, mate as he pulls away from Lou, but before he can get his mouth open Harry says, “Niall was looking for you earlier.”

Liam lifts an eyebrow. “Was he?” he asks, shrugging. “Been at the gym, mate.” He takes a step to the side towards the wall, working on slipping past them, caught between the corridor and Harry’s bare shoulders and side — he’s shirtless too, Liam can see his new tat on the underside of his arm, a portrait of a skeleton in a top hat, it looks sore and raw still, red and nearly glowing. Lou’s already taking a step forward and then another, and Lux’s waving her little chubby hand in the air, peeking over Lou’s shoulder. Liam waves back, giving her a smile.

“Right, yeah,” Harry says, still stood there and looking into Liam’s face. “Don’t know if you’d heard, but we’re leaving to meet Zayn in New Zealand in a bit, so.”

Liam doesn’t know what Harry’s watching so closely for. “Ace, great,” Liam says, taking a step backwards. He turns away and waves over his shoulder, finally saying, “See you later, mate,” like he’d planned.

Harry doesn’t come after him, and Liam tells himself he doesn’t know why Harry would, especially when Liam returns to his room only to find his phone waiting for him still, despite his fruitless wishing in the lift; it’s better that no one’s around to see that. The truth is, Liam doesn’t know what he’d say, anyway — to Harry or any of the boys. So what, he tells them that he and Smith broke up or are going to any second or had a huge massive row or whatever. What’re they going to do — offer Liam crap films and loads of ice cream?

It’s not so serious as it was before, with Daniel — Liam and Smith hadn’t even gotten to saying they’re in love or anything yet, even though Liam’s known Smith for ages longer. And anyway, Liam would rather watch Shelter once or twice alone on his laptop during the flight than sit through The Break Up or Forgetting Sarah Marshall with everyone else, spending the entire film wanting to roll his eyes a bit, searching for himself in it and turning up short, hands empty like always.

He knows they’d mean well, but it’d only feel like being back in secondary school or sixth form and watching Hollyoaks — having to listen to the corridor chatter from his classmates and Andy too, always talking the same way about fancying each other and hooking up, new stories every other hour, sounding like they were part of a scene from the films Liam sometimes watched with Ruth and Ruth’s mates when he’d slip down into their basement — Four Weddings and a Funeral, 10 Things I Hate About You, Pretty Woman — all following this script Liam could never quite read. Ruth and her mates never seemed to mind when Liam joined them, at least — just fussed with his straightened hair, asked what his secret was, said they couldn’t get theirs to look so shiny and smooth, and Ruth would shoot him this smile, like she was grateful, which Liam’s never quite understood, even now.

Anyway, those films and programmes and the chatter, they weren’t anything like finally balling up the hot tight nerve to screen episodes of Queer as Folk in a separate window in internet explorer on his desktop in his room, checking over his shoulder like his door would burst open suddenly any second, his leg bouncing under his desk the whole time, headphones jammed in his ears so hard it hurt. It took him absolute ages to get through those first few episodes, rewinding just to hear again and again the casual drop of his boyfriend, or repeat a kiss like he could memorize it if he stared hard enough, studying every detail much more closely than he’d ever bothered to study maths or his readings or any of his schoolwork he couldn’t ever seem to understand very well. At least Queer as Folk made sense to him.

But Liam doesn’t know what anyone could possibly say to him now, he really doesn’t — there’s no film or programme or chatter his mates would know about for this, though they’d try, he knows they would like they did last time for his first break up. It’d only worry them in the end if Liam were to say something, and it would only worry Liam too, so Liam lets the shower wash it from his mind like it’s washing his sweat off in warm rivlets. He still has to pack his luggage for the flight; his room’s in a right state.

 

*

 

Liam can’t sleep. It’s late, he knows it is; he’s been checking both the alarm clock sat on the hotel room bedside table and his phone every few minutes for the past half-hour straight. His room’s pitch black, can hardly see the faint outline of his hand waving in front of his face, and the sheets are itchy, scratchy like they’re made from wool rather than soft cotton. Every time he thinks he’s going to sink away into his pillows and slip right into a dream, all of a sudden he gets a niggling urge to shift his legs around or roll onto his stomach rather than his side, and the squirming makes his skin prickly and sensitive.

He tries to wank off, hoping to knock himself out, but first all he can see is Smith’s hot flushed face with his mouth dropped open like he’s mid-orgasm, and then Smith’s hopeful miserable face, like how he’d looked in the car when they’d parted at Heathrow, and it’s impossible.

The worst of it is that when Liam leans halfway off the bed to dig his laptop out from his backpack and he rests it on his bent knees under the sheets, the harsh light illuminating his face and bare chest, making him wince and squint as he surfs the internet for free cheap porn — he settles into watching a video of this one laddish guy facing sideways, spreading his thighs over the lap of another guy who’s lying flat on his back on a wrestling ring floor, but the careful precise trained way they're looking to and away from each other’s faces makes Liam have to close his eyes, just hear the grunts and groans filtering in through his headphones because it’s hard to watch, never looks right, and then all he thinks about is the last time he was riding a nice hard cock that wasn’t Smith’s.

It’d been after Liam’s break up with Danny; Liam had been going out a lot, and he doesn’t remember all of it now, but he remembers bringing the bloke back to his hotel room, pushing him down onto the clean tucked-in duvet. He had curly hair like Danny and it fanned out around his face, but a surprisingly low voice, especially when Liam’d been on the guy and he’d let out these deep rattling groans, Liam’s hands braced on the guy’s chest over his v-neck screwed up to his pecs, Liam’s naked thighs slapping against the guy’s over and over from bouncing so quickly on his cock. Liam wasn’t all that drunk, he had wanted to feel it, but he didn’t want to hear it when the guy kept saying, “Aw, yeah, fucking take it,” in that growling grinding voice, slapping Liam’s arse, “Take it, take it.”

And Liam took it, but he’d wanted to shove his hand over the guy’s mouth and get him to shut up. Instead Liam had opted for fisting his hand around his own prick, trying to speed it all up, get it over with, quieting the noise he was making like he didn’t want the guy to know just how unbelievably good it felt.

After, the guy had been lounging around in Liam’s sheets with his legs sprawled, still breathing heavily, his shirt sweat through to the bone while Liam shuffled a pair of joggers on, and then the guy had said, “Who would’ve thought famous popstar Liam Payne’s such a catcher and not a pitcher?” Liam didn’t let him hang around for much longer.

Another night, Liam had been in a club men’s room snogging this other bloke, and the floor was grimey and sticky from spilt lager or vomit or come, Liam doesn’t know, but he remembers how it’d felt against his knees. The lights were fragmented like one of the bulbs had been smashed and it scattered all over the place, all over the guy’s face and big hands as he’d unzipped his jeans just enough to pull his cock out, but Liam could see that he was huge, his cock was so bloody big, and all Liam had wanted to do was suck him off.

He had, and the bloke’s cock had stretched Liam’s mouth until it was sore, made his jaw ache, felt so big in Liam’s throat he thought he wouldn’t be able to swallow, thought he’d just choke and choke, and the bloke must’ve known, he must’ve been able to tell because he said to Liam, “You like my big dick, huh?” looking surprised and drunk, his eyes bloodshot but open, watching Liam’s mouth, touching it with his fingers wonderingly. All Liam could think then was that the bloke had absolutely no idea just how much Liam liked it.

The guy had been nice enough to offer to return the favor after, but he’d said he’d never done it before, so Liam had just wanked off into a wad of toilet paper and gone home.

It doesn’t help Liam wank any now, so he shuts his laptop down, throws his headphones onto the hotel room floor beside it, and rolls over to find a cool spot. He’s half-hard and he’d like to come, he would, but his chest feels hot and tight now, gridlocked, and it really does seem impossible.

 

*

 

Liam lets Louis rope him into bunking off the start of soundcheck in favor of running up a long narrowed staircase to the venue’s roof. The wind’s got a biting chill to it from being so high up, and the entire city’s laid out below them, sloping across an endless green mass of New Zealand’s hills. It’s still early in the day, so it’s not like there’s any lights twinkling in the distance to look at, and everything’s dropped down quite low, the tops of buildings seeming miles and miles away, other adjacent flat rooftops much too far to even imagine jumping onto like Batman or Spiderman in a sick superhero move; the view is so indistinct that Liam has to squint to spot anything besides the foliage. He gets cold even though he’s got a sweatshirt on and leaves Louis sat on the railing, looking up into the sky as if he’s happy to soak up the sun for a while longer.

After, they’ve got a snatch of free hours before their late gig, and Liam deliberately shuts his phone off in the van ride to the hotel. He stuffs his headphones in and blasts a new playlist he slapped together only a few moments ago when he’d been tugging his snapback lower over his hair as he’d walked to the van, climbed inside to the back seat by the window. Frank Ocean’s Thinkin Bout You saves Liam from having to think about how he might normally eat up his spare hours as if they were nothing, scraps and crumbs that do little to quell an overwhelming appetite.

Zayn tugs one of Liam’s earbuds out to ask, “Alright? You okay?” into Liam’s ear just as Drake’s singing from the other end mad ‘cause he ain’t like me, oh you mad ‘cause nobody ever did it like me, but Liam shrugs and says he’s fine because he doesn’t know what else to say; he reaches for his earbud back, sliding it out gently from between Zayn’s fingers until it comes loose.

He doesn’t know what face he’s making, but Zayn slings his arm around Liam’s shoulders and pulls him nearer, so it must not be very convincing. Anyway, they pull into the hotel carpark soon, and then Liam’s bundling out of the car, into the lobby. There’s a group of fans waiting outside and inside both; Liam apologizes and waves and smiles, shouldering past, and Niall gives his side a squeeze so Liam knows it’s alright, Harry or him and Louis will stop for pictures maybe, sign a few things for the girls, they’ve been waiting a while and Liam does feel bad. It’s only that he’d like his bed, he’d like to have a lie in.

Liam doesn’t hear it if Harry knocks on his room door before he comes in, but Liam does hear Harry call out his name, and then, after muffled footfalls looming closer, he feels Harry’s hand on his shoulder, shaking him gently like he’s waking Liam, though Liam’s not asleep, before turning Liam over onto his back in the middle of the bed.

Liam’s already frowning by the time he lands on his back, and it grows worse, dragging at his mouth once he takes in Harry kneeling halfway onto the mattress and his expression — his furrowed pinched eyebrows, the closed serious set of his mouth.

Liam closes his eyes so that he doesn’t have to look and says, “What, Harry,” not asking a question, “I’m trying to sleep — I’m shattered, alright?”

Harry’s hand’s still on Liam’s shoulder, but he’s stroking his fingers now slowly over the open seam of Liam’s sweatshirt. He pulls at the material, tugs, but Liam doesn’t open his eyes.

“Could go for a nap myself,” Harry says.

Liam does open his eyes then, and Harry’s looking right back at him, gaze steady, so Liam exhales a sigh and rolls onto his side, makes room for Harry, kicks at the duvet so that Harry can climb underneath if he wants. Harry must want because next Liam knows, there’s the noise of Harry unzipping his boots, and then Harry’s warm legs press up behind Liam’s thighs and knees. The duvet stays slumped around their shins and ankles. Harry’s arm winds around Liam’s waist, pulling until Liam’s back’s snug to Harry’s chest; Liam can feel Harry breathing, hear it, that same steady calm as his face had looked a moment ago.

Liam lies perfectly still. He stares at the curtains drawn shut over the window on the far wall; they look like they belong in an oil painting from the way the backlight outside’s illuminating the crevices and dips, the way they're rendered immobile.

Harry’s hand disturbs Liam, moves from his waist to his chest to pat him briefly, warm thumps of Harry's huge palm landing on Liam’s sternum like he’s settling him or sending him off, a phantom even heartbeat, and then Liam hears him say, “Sleep, Liam,” his voice quiet, and his hand falls away.

It’s enough to make Liam’s mouth twist, his face tense up. He can’t very well rest or keep still now, not with Harry unmoving, whispers of his breath evening out like he’s really going to lie there and kip. Liam squirms away until only Harry’s fingers are still touching his waist and Liam can’t feel Harry’s chest or legs or feet or ankles or nose or anything anymore.

It’s silent for a good while; Liam listens to the drum beats of his heart starting to thump louder beneath his chest from anticipation, and he thinks maybe Harry’s going to let it go, let Liam have this — the blessed quiet and the fresh clean pillow and his thoughts to himself — Harry usually does, he usually always does, but of course now, Harry doesn’t — he says, “You okay?” His voice sounds raspy as if he’s really been on his way to falling asleep.

Liam shrugs. His mouth and throat feel tight like it’s been too long since he’s used them, and he doesn’t know what to tell Harry anyway, just like he didn’t know what to tell Harry earlier in corridor in Sydney, or Zayn in the van.

Harry’s sliding his big hand up Liam’s back and murmuring, “You’ve been all —” He pauses for so long that Liam thinks he’s finished talking; there’s no noise except for Harry’s hand smoothing over the fabric of Liam’s sweatshirt. Then finally Harry says, “Quiet, and proper sad like. Frowning all the time. Ever since that night, in the casino.”

Liam shakes his head, though he’s not sure Harry can exactly see from how they’re both lying. He shrugs again. “It’s nothing,” he says.

Harry makes a noise in his throat, almost sympathetic, and eventually he says softly, “It’s never nothing, is it,” quietly, like he doesn’t mean for anyone else to hear and he’d rather be speaking right into Liam’s ear, keep it between just the two of them, though there’s no one else in the room anyway.

For all the times Harry has to pick to push, Liam doesn’t know why it has to be now, why Harry can’t do his whole be at peace with others, let them be at peace with you, everyone will get where they’re going at their own pace thing, and just let Liam lie in his bed and not sleep and feel miserable by himself like he wants.

“It’s nothing,” Liam says; his voice betrays him and it doesn’t come out hard like he meant for it to; it’s soft, like he meant to whisper back instead. He takes in a sharp breath to clear his head, but it only stings his lungs, makes them hitch in his chest in an aborted sob. “He fucking dumped me, alright? Would you give it a rest now?”

He’s glad he doesn’t have to see Harry’s face when he says it, would much rather shove his own face into the pillow and pull the collar of his sweatshirt and hood up over the back of his neck and ears. Maybe it’s childish, he knows, but it makes him feel better.

Harry’s rubbing his hand in circles against the breadth of Liam’s back like he wants to help Liam feel better too, soothe Liam, feed him an ounce of the calm and steadiness Harry walked in with that hasn’t budged an inch, but instead it feels like Harry’s hand’s full of static and it’s raising all the hairs on the back of Liam’s arms and neck, prickling his skin, disrupting whatever relief hiding beneath his sweatshirt has provided. He shifts his legs up into his body, towards his chest, tucking his knees in awkwardly, and shrugs his shoulders to convince Harry to stop.

Harry doesn’t take the hint at all, again — Liam feels him leaning closer next rather than further, feels Harry’s curls whispering against the hand Liam’s left bunched up in his hood on the back of his neck. Harry’s voice whispers too: “Wanna talk about it?”

Liam absolutely does not; he’s much happier to stare at the blank white expanse of the pillow beneath him.

“Liam,” Harry says, asking again in the resounding silence. “Come on, look at me at least, won’t you?” He touches the back of Liam’s hand, runs his fingers along his bones, tracing, still so very gentle.

It’s enough to make Liam want to lash his arm out and shove Harry off until he stops touching Liam completely and gives him a chance to just breathe without having someone looking in. It’s only Harry, one of his best mates, Liam knows it shouldn’t feel like just anyone’s watching; he just doesn’t like how Harry can remain so bloody calm when Liam’s anything but.

“It’s no good to keep it all in like that,” Harry’s saying, his voice dropping in concern. Liam can picture his face perfectly — his eyebrows pinching again right in the center of his forehead, his vexed mouth.

“Leave it,” Liam says, his voice finally coming out hard. “Alright? Just leave it.” He can feel his mouth twisting up, wanting to sneer, his lips curling away from his teeth, though then he feels a bit bad too, a pang of regret when Harry’s hand does drop away, leaves Liam all alone, and he can hear Harry sighing. Before Liam knows it he’s saying, “Fuck him, anyway. Fuck it. He didn’t want to do the whole —” he lifts his hand from his hood and neck to gesture vaguely in the air, drops it back down like dead weight. “Out thing, the whole, whatever, famous popstar lifestyle. He said he did, right, but.” Liam shrugs so hard it hurts his shoulders like he's sprained them. “Guess not.”

He doesn’t know if Harry managed to hear any of it; Liam’s been talking right into the pillow and he hasn’t shifted his face away or his sweatshirt down, but then Harry’s hand returns, lies steadily on Liam’s waist again. Harry’s quiet, so Liam breathes in and then breathes out, wishing for a cigarette, imagining the exhale like a stream of smoke, and suddenly he’s saying more: “It’s fine, fuck it, right? We’d only had the whole bloody world watching us.” His voice strains, and he clears his throat; it comes out hoarse again anyway when he says next, “Not like we were to together long anyway, not like he loved me.”

It’s not like it’s anything new, either, is it? Liam can’t help from thinking about his bollocksed up first time, his first boyfriend, if he could call it that — they’d never discussed a proper label then or anything, but they were together and Liam hadn’t been shagging anyone else or thinking of anyone else, but the boy had — was shagging a lot of other blokes, it turned out. Then there was Danny, and Liam’s never been sure of how so much went wrong so quickly there, it’s gotten all tangled up like crossed wires between breaking international records and professional studio recordings and selling out tours and Madison Square Garden. And now there's this.

Liam’d always hoped, in some way, before he came out but when he knew he was going to do it, knew he had to, couldn’t have it any other way, all or nothing — after they got signed when they lost The X-Factor — he’d hoped, just always imagined he’d have someone to navigate it with, someone who got what it’s like for Liam in a way the other boys, bless them, would never quite be able to.

After surviving the surreal chilling terror during his second audition that he absolutely just couldn’t wait for at sixteen — stood on a stage much smaller than he remembered, his hands and feet too large for his awkward body, his eyes feeling too big to jam inside his head like he could hardly close them to blink, his hair a little longer from when he’d last been on live national television at fourteen, different clothes, his voice a bit different too, though bringing the mic up to his mouth and singing had gone all right, just as easy as ever, just as easy as always — he’d thought he might have more to show for himself three years deep into fame than now two publicly failed relationships and a mass of broken hearts from all the queer kids eager to see Liam succeed, especially eager for Liam's stable boyfriend, just as Liam had been eager watching Queer as Folk for the first time.

Those young queer kids looking through a magazine for Liam, coming to his shows to tell him massive things like you saved my life, buying his merch and seeing his band’s film and providing his income — Liam really hates to tell them that he can’t seem to get anyone to stick around, and he doesn’t know how to reassure them that they’ll have any better luck.

It’s probably just him, though, Liam knows. He can’t be surprised. It was just him when he was small and in secondary school. There were other queer boys, but Liam’s the one who got cornered by the steel chain-link gates on his way to school by older lads and had his rucksack flung up a tree, or had Tipp-Ex spilled all over the crotch of his brand new trousers, or had to bunk off to a shopping centre for hours instead of going to his lessons so that he didn't have to go home later and excuse away another black eye. It seems he’s still always excusing something to his mum — how long he’ll be away from home, nasty protesters outside his concerts, why he can't always check in. He'll hate to go home on holiday now and excuse another break up.

Maybe Harry’s been saying something or calling Liam’s name, Liam doesn’t know, but Harry starts to tug Liam’s shoulder and he’s still gentle, of course, but he’s more firm too, determined to get Liam to face him, so Liam shuts his eyes and goes until he’s lying on his other side, turned towards Harry.

He doesn’t want to have to look; his eyes already feel sore and achy enough without staring into Harry’s sympathetic pitying face. Harry’ll be nice about it, Harry always is, but Liam doesn’t want to have to see it. It’s stupid anyway, he tells himself. It’s alright maybe at sixteen to think like this, to feel a bit sorry for himself, feel a bit frozen and stiff before walking onto the audition stage and worrying that his body would go numb and he’d forget every single word and everyone would laugh at him like they did when he was twelve and thirteen and fourteen until he remembered how to move again. It’s alright at sixteen to imagine that a boy cheating on Liam and lying through his teeth about it was the best it might get, imagine that Liam’d never manage a proper relationship. But it’s getting old at twenty, isn’t it. And it’s so bloody dumb, he thinks, in the face of all the other things he’s received, been lucky enough to get a taste of.

Harry’s fingers are running down the side of Liam’s face now, touching his jaw, smoothing his hair back from his forehead, Liam can feel the warm gleam from Harry’s rings, and he’s shushing Liam, soft rumbles coming from deep within his chest like how he sounds when he hits a really low note, saying, “Shh, it’s alright, shh.”

Liam doesn’t know what all the fuss is for until he cracks his eyes open and they feel damp and wet, aching, and his whole face is scrunched up, his chest keyed up so tight that it’s hard to take the next breath in. Harry’s eyebrows are furrowing just as Liam thought they would be, and his eyes are tender but they aren’t pitying.

He pulls Liam into his front, and Liam doesn’t bother fighting him, just folds his arms into his chest and tucks his face between the side of Harry’s neck and the pillow, concentrates on breathing until it feels less like all his air’s getting choked with a noose high in his throat, less like his lungs are seizing up. Harry’s got both arms around Liam now, petting his back like he’d been petting Liam’s face a moment ago, and Harry’s flannel’s worn down to comfy cottony knobs from being through the wash so often; his skin’s soft too, clean like he might’ve showered at the venue, smelling of juniper and rum from his bodywash and a bit like the orange Liam saw him peeling in the van. It’s as familiar as every other time Liam’s curled up to him.

Liam’s tongue’s so heavy, damp and wet like his eyes, thick in his mouth, but he wants to tell Harry this, so he forces himself to swallow and say, “You know, the first time — the first time I was ever with a boy, it was like. He didn’t even, he didn’t let me get him off or anything.” His voice hitches, but he carries on, speaking into Harry’s throat, “Didn’t want it, I guess, didn’t want me to touch him.”

Harry tightens his arms around Liam’s back, pulling him even closer until Liam’s sore tired knees slot between Harry’s and Harry’s ankle hooks around his calf. He isn’t holding Liam too tight though, like he knows Liam’s chest is tight enough without any excess pressure. Liam tells him, “I couldn’t even make him come. Me, I was finished in four seconds flat, I didn’t — know it would feel quite like that. But him, he was just looking at me, like I’d done something wrong, but I'd not touched him or anything, not got a kiss even, I don’t know what I did.”

He doesn’t know what Harry could possibly have to say to him now. There’s no way Harry can reach into Liam’s mind and toss out the memory of Liam lying stupid in his own ages old Power Rangers bedsheets with his shirt twisted up over his chest and his own come drying on his stomach and his cheeks so hot they burned, reaching for the waistband of a boy’s jeans only to have his hands pushed away, like Liam was the only one who’d wanted it all along. He’d felt so lucky earlier to have a fit boy in his bed wanking him, more lucky than he could’ve dreamed.

“That’s shit,” Harry says. His mouth’s pressed to Liam’s forehead and hair, and Liam can feel Harry's lips moving as they shape his words, the hint of his teeth. “That’s such shit. Reckon it’s definitely gotta be the worst first time story I’ve heard.”

Liam forces a short laugh, and it comes out all wet, probably because his throat’s not just tight now, but it’s lumpy and soggy too, difficult to swallow around.

“If it makes you feel any better,” Harry says, “mine was pretty shit too, right. I mean, it’s not like I made her come either; didn’t know what the bloody hell I was doing, did I?”

“Yeah,” Liam says, shakes his head, “but it’s not really the same for you, is it?” His chest swells with a resurge of hot anger ballooning underneath his skin — because it’s not the same for Harry or any of the other lads, and it’s never going to be. It doesn’t really matter if Harry cocked up his first time too. Liam’d bet the girl still wanted to look at Harry after; bet Harry got another date; bet he got loads and loads of practice, never had to worry about it. What’s there for Harry to worry about, after all.

“It doesn’t mean the same thing, in the end. I’m sure you still had a right good time with her,” Liam says, his voice cracking from trying to sharpen; he would bet, as well, that none of any of the other boy’s breakups had them feeling like a sad lonely little queer stuck all alone in their massive gaping bed, like Liam had felt then, like he feels now.

He shakes his head again to rid himself of the thought; it isn’t fair for him to blame them, he knows, but he pushes his hand flat to Harry’s chest right over the first button done up at his sternum, gives himself room to breathe because it still makes his face feel twisted up, cheeks stung. Maybe Harry understands though, because all Harry says next, slowly as if wanting to get the words right, is, “Yeah, you’re right. I did.”

It’s nice of him to say, and it’s nice that he doesn’t let Liam pull away, tugs Liam back in, keeps his arms locked as if he could hold Liam’s fraying pieces coming loose at his seams together, stuff his cotton filling back inside like he’s a great big stupid teddy bear. Liam doesn’t want to move too far anyway. All of it’s too nice to give up just yet — especially with his eyes feeling hot and swollen like he’s going to start crying again in big hot stinging tears.

Harry kisses his forehead, then his cheek, wiping away his tears, and it’s so bloody nice of Harry, his large hands stroking down Liam’s back, holding Liam close like Harry honestly doesn’t mind, only wants to help. It’s so nice — him kissing Liam’s cheek again, the corner of his eyes, and murmuring into his ear, “Any bloke would be fucking lucky to have you,” sounding like he means it. Harry only says it again when a wracking sob escapes from Liam’s chest and makes his whole body clench up from trying to keep another one in, telling him, “I swear, anyone would be lucky.”

Liam wants so badly to believe him. It hurts he wants it so badly, like a fissure cracking his heart right open, God it hurts; he wants Harry to mean it. Before Liam knows it, he’s turning his face up to meet Harry’s, seeking desperately for Harry’s mouth, wanting to find the traces of his promise there. The kiss is wet and damp like Liam’s eyes and face, but Harry’s lips are warm.

Harry takes a sharp breath in through his nose, Liam hears it, but Liam just kisses him again, harder, reaching to cup the back of Harry’s neck with his clammy palms, and then Harry’s kissing him too, slow, gently like he’s been handling Liam the entire time, and then deep, their mouths blooming open until Liam feels Harry’s tongue slick against his, against his teeth.

It seems as though it’s been ages since Liam’s had a proper kiss, and it takes him right out of his head; he rises into it, leaning into Harry’s mouth, his fingers tightening against Harry’s neck and the ends of his curls until they bite his skin. He tastes just like the orange he’d been having, the familiar brand of toothpaste that Liam uses too. Harry’s holding Liam’s back still, and his jaw too, thumbing along the sharp line, his rings pressing indents into Liam’s cheek.

Then Harry makes this noise, a cut off moan that reverberates into Liam’s mouth, and it shocks him away from Harry with a slick wet sound. He falls back onto the pillows beneath Harry, escaping Harry’s hands, staring stupid up at Harry’s pink mouth, the flush dusting his cheeks, the smear of spit on the bow of his lips — parts of Harry that Liam never imagined he’d see.

Liam’s own face feels slack, dead numb, and he watches Harry breathe out through his mouth, his chest concaving beneath his flannel, and say, “Liam,” sounding a bit struck, his eyelids lowered as he looks down into Liam’s face.

All of a sudden what Liam’s done hits him at once, and he covers his face with hands, groaning into his palms and ruined sweatshirt sleeves he’s been wiping his snotty nose in, saying, “Oh bollocks, Jesus bugger fuck, I’m so sorry, I’m really sorry, Hazza.” He can’t believe it, so he says again and again, “Sorry, fucking hell, I’m such an idiot.” He can’t believe he’s used Harry like this, and he’s broken the cardinal rule — never, ever snog straight friends, especially not ones who look like Harry Styles.

“It’s alright,” Harry’s saying, because of course he is. “It’s fine, Liam, I don’t mind it.” He tries to pry Liam’s hands off his face, but Liam rolls away from him, wishing he could roll right off the bed so that the floor would open up into an endless black pit and swallow him whole. He says loudly, “It’s not fine,” his voice ringing around the room. “It’s so bloody far from fine.”

“No,” Harry’s saying over him, “no, no.” He’s insistent, tugging Liam’s shoulder, trying to get him to turn around again. “Liam,” Harry says, starting to sound a bit desperate, “Listen to me.”

“Look, we can just forget about it, right? Let’s just — if we pretend it never happened — I’d rather like to do that,” Liam says. He squeezes his eyes shut so tight he sees stars.

“Did you not like it?” Harry asks. “Was I that bad? I mean, never properly snogged a bloke before, so maybe you have a good reason to think I’m awful.” It sounds like he’s trying to joke, nudging Liam’s back like he’d be elbowing his side if they were stood next to each other like he’s done a million times during interviews and promo, cajoling. After Liam doesn’t laugh or move or say anything, too busy trying to breathe and swearing himself to hell and back, Harry goes on: “If you won’t look at me, then just listen. I liked it, alright? You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”

Liam finally turns over. Harry looks the same as he has for as long as Liam’s known him — same shine to his curly hair, same handsome face and large green eyes, same crooked tilt to his mouth though it’s still a bit pink and slick, same nose and chin, the random freckles and blemishes, all his bits and bobs Liam’s memorized from seeing him day in and day out since they were both sixteen. “You liked it,” Liam repeats, sniffling.

Harry nods, and his gaze slips down. He’s biting his lip — a new expression that Liam’s never seen before, almost shy. Harry gives half a shrug and then answers, “I really liked it.”

Liam’s eyes are crusty and sore from crying, and his mouth’s still half-tingling like he’s rubbed a mess of Deep Heat across it, and now his head’s spinning too, trying to process. He doesn’t know where to start in; he’d thought he’d figured Harry out ages ago. “Sorry, I thought you — I didn’t think you’d,” Liam tries and then stops. “Do you — fancy boys, then?”

Harry glances to Liam and away, up to the ceiling. Liam can’t tell what Harry liked about all the kissing; maybe Harry only liked that he was kissing any boy for the first time, Liam can understand that. Just as he’s wondering if it was the wrong thing to ask, Harry says, “I think so. Sometimes, anyway. I fancy girls too, so I’ve never really had to worry much about it. And it’s not like you. You’ve always been quite sure, you know?” He gives that half-shrug again, hunching his wide shoulders as if to make himself smaller. “I haven’t had to think about it.”

“Right.” Liam ignores the way his heart’s picking up speed again, trying to flee like a trapped injured bird from the cage his ribs keep it in, because Liam knows it’s his turn to be a good mate now, be there to reach clumsily for Harry’s hand, hold tight to his fingers in solidarity. Liam tries to offer a brief reassuring smile as well, but it falls flat on his face, drops off quick. He can feel his pulse in his palm, hammering against Harry’s hand. “It’s alright if it’s just sometimes. It’s different for everyone, isn’t it?”

Harry’s looking down at their hands, so Liam gives his fingers a squeeze. “I know,” Harry says. He looks up to Liam’s face like maybe he’s waiting for Liam to say more, carry on, but Liam still isn’t sure what to tell him, what more Harry wants. He hardly knows what to tell himself.

Then Harry begins to lean closer — his large eyes expanding before Liam, his long eyelashes, the flush that never quite faded from his face and throat — and for half a horrid second Liam’s terrified and frozen stiff thinking Harry’s going to kiss his mouth, that Harry does want him, that Liam is what Harry liked best about all the kissing, but Harry only kisses Liam’s forehead, his lips warm, and says, “Hate to see you so upset.”

A wonky wet laugh bursts from the back of Liam’s throat, and he pushes Harry away as calmly and gently as he can, ignoring his hand trembling and his mouth quivering. He guides Harry down onto the sheets, and Harry goes easily. He looks curious, an echo of a furrow creasing his eyebrows, marring his face. It was nice of him, Liam thinks, to let Liam have that kiss, to say he liked it. But Harry doesn’t need to be quite so nice anymore.

“I’m alright,” Liam says. He settles into the sheets too, facing away from Harry, turning over to look at the still curtains on the far wall again. “Really do fancy myself a nap now, though.”

He hears Harry laugh. It’s more of a soft exhale against the the back of Liam’s neck than anything, but Liam takes it for what it’s worth.

“Reckon we have time,” Harry says, and Liam, exhausted, lets himself drift off.

 

*

 

The moment they touch down in Melbourne, they’ve got an interview straight away that Liam had forgot about on the aeroplane. He’s only in a pair of joggers and a reasonably clean shirt — at least it smells alright enough when he gives his armpits a whiff, just a bit like days old deodorant and aftershave, a bit of clinging sleep musk. It doesn’t matter anyway, Lou says, fussing with Liam’s hair, brushing on a paper-thin coat of foundation over his forehead; there is no time to change.

He doesn’t know what she’s bothering with his hair for, it’s a right mess from passing out on the flight, and he’s going to tug his snapback he’s twisting between his hands on again after — he tells her, too — but she says it makes her feel better, so he distracts himself by pulling faces at Lux, who Tom’s holding, stood in the corridor just beyond Lou’s shoulder.

Then Liam’s ushered to wait behind Niall and Louis stood by a closed door. He fistbumps them in greeting and interrupts their playing a round of slaps that’s steadily turning Niall’s hands bright pink. There’s only a quick few moments for Zayn and Harry to go through touch-up before the door they’re crowded around opens and they’re walking into a new room — more like a backstage dressing room than anything, full of long mirrors and an empty vanity and stools for chairs.

The cameramen wave a brief hello — Harry gets up to shake their hands, actually, but he’s encouraged back to his seat before he can, and as they’re being miked and settling onto their stools, the interviewer — a tall blonde woman with a kind face and thick Australian accent who calls herself Tina — shakes their hands respectively in greeting.

Liam had walked in first, so he’s sat closest to the wall and mirrors, uses the vanity to prop his elbow up and force himself into better posture, tries not to look at his reflection and the bags under his eyes that Lou’s covered up with her magic. Everything goes fine, anyway — Liam forgets whatever he’d been so terribly anxious over, why his leg keeps bouncing and he can’t stop twining the short bristles on his jaw from his beard between his fingertips, why he keeps gesturing so widely and expansively that he has a moment’s concern he’ll hit Harry, sat next to him, in the face or chest — and wouldn’t that just be a riot; Liam’s already been trying for a few days now to not spend any time longer than necessary thinking about Harry or his face, Liam doesn’t need the reminder. But it’s all going fine — just fine until they’re asked about Zayn’s engagement.

Wouldn’t be a problem itself, would it, to listen to Zayn’s voice lilt a bit from his pleased delight, hear him quietly evade doing much more than acknowledging it; it’s certainly not difficult for Liam to feel chuffed for his mate, his bro, applauding in congratulations for him, but then Tina has to go and say after: “On a less happy note, Liam, we heard you have relationship news yourself.”

“Er,” Liam starts, dragging the sound out, willing his face not to blanch, touching his beard again, scratching a little with his nails and stinging his skin. “More like no relationship to talk about, innit?” he settles on, huffing a laugh, pushing his cheeks up in a strained smile, quirking an eyebrow.

Niall laughs too, and Liam’s relieved he’s there; he’s relieved they’re all there, especially when Louis sat in front of Liam chimes in with: “Right, bit of a backwards question.”

Tina gives a polite laugh herself, glances between all of their faces and says slowly, “Yeah, I suppose it is.” She recovers, though: “But, you’re no longer spoken for, Liam? Back on the market?”

“Oh, back on the market,” Harry says, before Liam can answer. Liam tilts his head to the side to look at Harry, and Harry turns to look at Liam too, nearly right at the exact same time. Harry says to him, his gaze steady on Liam’s face, “Selling yourself now? Come off it,” he pats Liam’s leg at the knee. “We’ve raised you better than that, haven’t we.”

“Yeah, mate,” Niall says. He leans in from across Harry’s other side to pull a face and say, “It’s not worth it, trust me.”

“Been there yourself, Nialler?” Liam asks, starting to laugh. Niall manages to nod solemnly before he breaks and laughs too.

Tina waits for them to quiet, and pushes again, looking only at Liam this time, right to him as she says: “So, should boys be on the look out? Liam?”

Liam raises his eyebrows. “Am I coming after them, is that what you’re asking?” He clenches his jaw to control his expression. He’s not sure how hard his voice comes out, how sharp it might be on the playback, and he’s especially not sure how it’s going to sound if he has to speak again.

But then Louis’s saying, “Hold on a moment. Did she say boys?” Louis twists in his seat to look back at Liam. “Is she saying — Liam,” he says. “Are you gay?”

Liam doesn’t miss a beat, too grateful for the opening. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he deadpans.

Tina seems to resign herself then to not getting anything more on the subject from the lot of them. As she moves onto the next question, asking Louis about Fiji instead, Zayn reaches back to squeeze Liam’s ankle in comfort, and Liam relaxes as much as he can into the interview. Maybe he spends most of the time looking down at his feet and shuffling them against the floor, or humming snatches of songs to himself, only popping in to nod along or for a quick comment, but who’s going to blame him; he doesn’t blame himself.

Just before their time’s up, though, Tina asks Liam about his stolen pants. If Liam had hardly been keeping it together when he’d been questioned about his newly single status, he isn’t doing anything of the sort now, accepting the gift pair of red boxer briefs Tina hands him on behalf of the studio with a barely restrained eye roll, forcing a closed smile that feels so tight on his mouth that he thinks his chapped lips are going to split and bleed.

He doesn’t want to go through the story again — he’s already had to tell it twice for radio, and to his security team, and that aborted time with Smith on the phone that’s swallowed up amid the way the line had gone dead after Smith all but hung up on him. Only to then finish with Liam. So, Liam can’t really help himself for rubbing his hand across his forehead while he skips over the tale half-heartedly, speaking quietly and quickly, his words nearly slurring from the speed, glancing around the whole room, hoping for it to end. It feels like he goes on for ages and ages, though it can’t have been, it’s only a few sentences; he’s tired of his own voice by the time he gets to the bit about his joggers and the balcony anyway.

Louis, bless him, finally jumps in then, turning to look at Liam again and saying, “That was all the same day?” He looks surprised even, and concerned, his mouth twisting like he wants to frown. And Liam thinks, looking back at Louis, that yes, that was all only one day.

Louis seems to inspire everyone else, too; they’ve all turned to look at Liam, Harry’s got his big hand on Liam’s knee again. It makes Liam’s whole leg tingle, and he wishes Harry wouldn’t touch him, but he can’t convince himself to push him away, either.

“What a day,” Harry says in answer to Louis’s hanging question. “Living the dream, innit.” He makes a follow-up joke Liam half-misses, smiling faintly, distantly, distracted by Harry squeezing his knee; it almost tickles.

The interview ends before Liam knows it after that, speeding by in a rush and blur, Harry’s hand on his knee the whole time, Liam unable to shake him off.

 

*

 

Liam’s woken up before his alarm goes off — not that he’d really been asleep anyway, more like staring up mindlessly in a half-doze at the ceiling and the dimmed bulbs impressed in it that appear translucent from the sunlight shadowing across Liam’s floor, reflecting weakly in the glass. There’s a quick beat of knocks at Liam’s door, though, that interrupts his dazed staring, and the door doesn’t swing open straight away, so it must not be one of the boys.

Liam tugs on a pair of pants and answers, only to greet Cal on the other end. Cal’s in a loose pair of trackies and an old worn top that’s faded around the collar, so Liam has an idea what Cal’s on about before he asks — “Yoga bears official club meeting, Payne. You up for it?”

Liam reckons it can’t hurt at all, not with the stress eating up his spine and locking it tense even if he’s lying flat. He shrugs on joggers and a vest and unlaced trainers strewn across his room floor before following Cal out, through the corridor, to the lift, down all the way to the hotel gym that’s utterly empty, the machines eerily quiet and bulking in the absence of use, and into a separate room with a door that taps shut slowly behind them.

Harry’s already inside the room, alone, sitting with his legs sprawled open, leaning back on his palms on the wood panelled flooring, stewing in the morning light shuttering through the large open window in the back of the room behind him. He looks a bit asleep still, but he’s ready for action — his unwashed hair swept back with a thin headband and the front tied up in a small ponytail to keep it off his face. He gives Liam a grin, nodding up at him, and Liam returns one that gets cut off with a yawn as he plops down beside Harry — not close enough to feel how Harry’s skin’s probably still sleep-warm though.

Cal was thoughtful enough to bring mats, or maybe the room came with them, Liam doesn’t know, but he’s thankful for the cushioning when they begin in on the mountain pose; the floor’s hard on his tired legs already.

By the time they’re transitioning from the cobra into child’s pose, Cal’s steady voice guiding Liam through it, Liam’s breached a quiet still level of wakefulness. His muscles have all been eased, resting on his bones like tender meat, and his shoulders are loose enough that he can’t even remember what all his fruitless squirming around in his sheets the night before had been for.

He lies on the floor a while longer with his chest touching his folded knees, his arms extended in front of him, his head hanging down, sighing — even after he hears Cal moving about, beginning to roll his yoga mat up, his feet creaking on the wood floor.

Then Cal tells them that he’s off, warns the two of them lightly not to miss bus call for Brisbane, and Liam hears the door open, swing shut, Cal’s footsteps fade away. He hasn’t heard Harry move or say anything, though he can hear Harry breathing quietly, so he must be somewhere beside Liam.

Liam lifts his head at last, his neck rising so easily it's as though he hardly has to move, and finds nothing in front of him except for the empty bare wall with Cal’s yoga mat propped against it. Liam rolls himself all the way up until he’s sat straight on his heels. Finally Harry comes into view in Liam’s peripherals — stretching his legs out in front of him, his hands reaching for his bare toes and falling rather short, only touching his shins just under his knees.

Liam laughs before he can stop himself, and then Harry laughs too, and says, “Shut it.” He straightens lazily and swings one leg out to kick at Liam’s knees. “Getting better at it, aren’t I?”

“Yeah,” Liam says, grinning. “Nearly there, mate.”

Harry makes like he’s going to kick Liam again, but instead he gives up and flops down onto his back on the floor and his mat, spreading his arms out wide. “I’d like to see you do better,” he says, tilting his head to look at Liam.

Liam stretches out beside Harry, holds himself up by his elbow, and shoves at the bare spanse of Harry's hip slipping out from between his shorts and top, though not very hard, only managing to jostle Harry a little. "I'll have you know, I'm very flexible," Liam says, and he can't help himself, so he adds, "Never had any complaints." He breaks out into a laugh that ricochets around the room at the mock-scandalized face Harry pulls.

When Liam realizes he must’ve quit laughing a bit ago and Harry's expression's cleared, become smooth and still like the undisturbed surface of a pond, Liam looks away; he’s been doing nothing except for staring right at the shape of Harry's mouth. He scrubs his hand through his hair to distract himself, jerk out of it, and opts for staring at the sunlight reaching through the window to greet the tops of Harry's bare toes instead, unsure whether it's any better of a view.

“Reckon Cal’ll teach us advanced poses soon?” Harry asks.

Liam snorts a laugh, thinking of Harry almost toppling over shifting from the tree pose to warrior earlier. “Think we’ve got our hands full as it is.” But when Liam looks, Harry’s giving Liam a soft smile, looking right back at him, so Liam finds himself amending, saying, “Maybe, though, who knows.”

“Maybe,” Harry echoes. “Then we’ll start instructing our own class, get the whole stadium in on it.” Harry’s grin goes crooked; his eyes open wider in his delight.

Liam looks away again, imagines instead their massive crowd of fans bowing their backs together until they’ve all shrunk to the floor, curling up into the pigeon, the huge stage lights gleaming off the vulnerable backs of their necks. “Bet they’d go for it,” he says finally, wondering if they would, if they’d love it; seems just as impossible as everything else their fans have done so far.

Neither of them move for a while, and Liam starts to feel a creeping wave of drowsiness settle over him, almost dizzying — like he’d rather be lying in his bed still, the early hour catching up to him, so he forces himself to stand, and then offers Harry a hand up from the floor. “Come on,” Liam says. “Best be on our way.”

Harry takes his hand, but he grips more tightly than Liam was expecting and pulls. Liam stumbles before going down, crashing to the floor right on top of Harry’s knees.

Harry’s busy laughing his head off, so he misses the pouting grumpy look Liam shoots him for it, but Liam hardly holds it for a moment before he laughs too, shoves at Harry’s shoulders in half-hearted retaliation, rolls off of him and onto the floor beside him.

There’s no avoiding Harry’s hands or body heat or face now. They’re lying so close together that Liam can see the sun caught in Harry’s eyes, fanning against his cheeks and chin and the grease in his hair, things Liam’s seen and felt and smelled one hundred times before. Harry’s smiling still at Liam, the residue of his laugh stuck in his dimples.

Liam must be smiling back too, his mouth feels wide open, but then Harry’s face shifts; he glances up to the ceiling, bites his lip. “We’re alright, yeah?” he asks, his eyes returning to Liam.

“Yeah,” Liam says, immediately. “We’re alright.” Harry’s giving Liam this look, though — like the one he’d given Liam when they’d been on Liam’s hotel room bed in New Zealand; Liam didn’t think he’d ever be able to recall it, but here it is again — almost shy, asking Liam for something that Liam doesn’t know. “‘Course, Hazza,” Liam carries on. “We’re always alright.”

Harry breaks the eye contact to glance away again — to the side, then down. He takes in a shuddering rattling breath. “Always,” Harry says, confirming, promising, looking at Liam again, his gaze staying put this time.

If only the sun wouldn’t frame his face like that, Liam thinks, making Harry look sixteen rather than nineteen, then Liam might be able to look away. The trouble is Harry looks terribly young, like one of the first mornings Liam’d ever seen him — like when they’d gone to Harry’s bungalow and on the second day Harry appeared in the kitchen doorway newly awoken, his hair a curly mess, rubbing at his eyes with his fist like a child, naked except for the thinnest pair of pants, his feet pointing in towards each other, unbothered as ever by Liam’s confession the night before, and Liam hardly had the time to recite a thankful prayer in his head for finding the group of boys he had, he still has; it’s another one of those feelings that’s never exactly gone away, that he’ll never get used to.

Before Liam convinces himself to move away, hurry to stand once more so that they’ll make their bus, Harry releases a quiet wavering laugh and it keeps Liam stock-still.

Then Harry reaches to touch the side of Liam’s face and his gaze follows his fingers as they trace the ridge of Liam’s brow, the slope of his nose before they slide against his cheekbone and his knuckles stroke down the side of Liam’s face to his jaw. Harry’s hand blooms open and rests against the crook of Liam’s neck, his thumb brushing the underside of Liam’s chin.

It’s much less space than Liam thinks it will be for Harry to cross as he leans in to kiss the corner of Liam’s mouth, and then dead center — more of a peck than anything — before finally giving Liam a proper kiss, lingering until Liam’s just about ready to lift his hand and cup Harry’s face too, though Harry slips away again to kiss the edge of Liam’s mouth.

It’s so gentle that Liam presses his hand to Harry’s chest instead of holding his face, edging him back, and says, “It’s alright,” because it’s sweet of Harry to make sure Liam’s okay, to offer comfort like this, but it stings like strumming a wrong chord too, twisting Liam up tight from being mistuned; all he can recall with abrupt uncomfortable clarity is the hot flash of humiliation from crying all over Harry and kissing him in New Zealand. “You don’t have to — do this.” Whatever it is Harry thinks he’s doing.

“I want to,” Harry says. He hasn’t taken his hand off of Liam’s face yet. “Liam,” Harry says when Liam doesn’t exactly respond. And Liam wishes Harry would quit saying his name like that — always asking Liam for something that Liam doesn’t know.

Harry takes another deep breath and it must hurt his stomach from sucking it in like that, but right after he surges forward, kisses Liam hard, and if Liam hadn’t already been lying on the floor, it might’ve knocked him clean off his feet — as it is it makes his elbow beneath him give out and he sprawls onto his back; Harry follows him down until he’s hunched over Liam, his long legs stretched out beside Liam’s. Liam can feel Harry’s half-bare thighs against his own through his joggers, and Harry’s stomach’s twisting over Liam’s middle. Harry doesn’t give Liam a break — kissing him again and again, and Harry’s making it too easy — as easy as anything, as easy as bringing the mic up to sing — for Liam to give into it, fold like a house of cards.

Because maybe it’s alright to have this, to be selfish about this. Liam knows being left three times over isn’t anyone’s fault except for his own — but Harry, who’s never been an option for Liam before, not even as a fantasy until that day on the hotel bed in New Zealand — Harry doesn’t mind, doesn’t care right now; Harry’s seen Liam almost every single day for the past three years and he’s still here, he wants to with Liam.

So Liam brings his other hand to Harry’s curls, sliding his fingers through until they tangle, able to feel Harry’s pulse jumping in his throat against his other palm. When he gives into Harry’s urging and opens his mouth up into the kiss, it’s even better than last time — the warm welcoming heat of Harry’s mouth, his slick tongue.

Harry’s making quiet caught noises from the back of his throat into Liam — sighs and pleased sounds that just ride the line of a moan, his hand on Liam’s face tightening as if he could lift Liam up from the floor and into his body completely; Liam opens his mouth wider into the kiss as if it’ll help, but Harry’s noise only drags into a real moan that vibrates right through Liam from his head to his soles, cresting at the curl of his toes. He sucks on Harry’s tongue to hear Harry moan again, and Harry shifts so that his leg’s between Liam’s rather than next to him, his thigh wedged over Liam’s, his hips ghosting Liam’s side right by his waistband.

Liam’s already hard, God he’s so hard only from kissing Harry, it’s been ages since Liam’s gotten off with someone, and it feels like Harry might be hard too — especially with how he’s snogging Liam now, fucking his tongue into Liam’s mouth, sucking on Liam’s lower lip, his eager pleased noise escaping between the slick sounds of their mouths and their harsh breathing. Liam can’t get a proper lungful of air in at all — his head’s spinning and spinning from it, his nose stings, his jaw’s aching from being held open, but he doesn’t want to have to stop, can’t help from answering Harry’s groan with one of his own, keeping Harry close with his hands in Harry’s hair and on his face.

Not that it seems as if Harry’s trying to escape — not with how he’s squirming to fit between both of Liam’s legs, rising up to his knees and leaning over Liam with one hand flat to the yoga mat on the floor beneath them, the other still gripping tight to the side of Liam’s neck.

Liam widens his legs instinctively to make room, feels Harry’s knees bumping the insides of his own, his calves, and then Harry’s lowering his weight until his hips drop onto Liam’s, and so does his stomach and chest, and there’s no space between them at all anymore. Harry’s definitely hard — he’s huge against Liam’s hip and Liam’s own cock, and Liam can’t help the keening noise he makes into Harry’s open mouth at the contact, or how he rolls his hips up into Harry to feel him.

Harry’s moaning too, though, so he must not mind. He certainly doesn’t seem to mind, at least, when he pulls away, holding himself up by his hand on the mat, and his eyes flutter open to stare down right into Liam’s face, his lips.

Harry’s ponytail’s coming undone and his headband’s all screwed up in his curls, but he still looks unbearably lovely, as lovely as Liam’s only ever been helpless to find him, even when he’s tried not to. Harry’s whole mouth’s wet and swollen, and the skin around it is too, probably from Liam’s scruff, he thinks, staring at Harry’s reddened chin and upper lip. The flush on Harry’s face is much more prominent than last time, sweeping clean down the column of his throat. Liam watches Harry swallow, his adam’s apple bob.

“Liam,” Harry says, breathless, dragging his name out like he’s still moaning, his voice going hoarse. “I’m so hard for you.” He shifts his hips, grinds them in a circle, as if it wasn’t obvious enough, and Liam reflexively tightens his hands in Harry’s hair and on his face, feeling his own face twist up with his groan.

Harry dips closer, kisses Liam’s lower lip, and then the side of his mouth, his cheek, his jaw, murmuring, “You’ve made me so fucking hard,” and Liam turns his face blindly to kiss Harry again, drawing him in with both hands.

Harry starts rolling his hips down into Liam’s, building a rhythm, and Liam grinds up, pleased every time it makes Harry gasp into his mouth, pleased by the way Harry’s cock’s thickening in his shorts, and Liam wants more of him, wants to feel Harry’s hot bare skin, so he reaches behind Harry’s head to ruck his shirt up, press his hands flat to the curve of Harry’s smooth back and spine, the twist of his shoulders.

It spurs Harry into action too, and he pulls away from Liam’s mouth again to shove Liam’s vest up over his tummy and chest, saying, “God, you look so good,” like he can’t believe it. He makes to shove his hand inside Liam’s joggers too, but Liam grasps Harry’s wrist, kisses him so he knows he hasn’t done anything wrong before sliding his own hand down Harry’s quivering stomach into his shorts until he’s touching Harry’s cock instead.

Harry muffles a sharp noise by biting his lip — Liam watches him turn the underside of his mouth white from digging his teeth in, watches him squeeze his eyes shut, his arm shake where he’s holding himself up. He’s a bit slick from precome and he’s big — Liam knew, he already knew Harry was, but it’s much better than Liam could’ve imagined.

Harry’s so responsive too, jerking his hips up in tight punches in counterpoint to Liam wanking him in fast twisting strokes; he’s nearly whining, his face pink and flushed, his eyebrows pinching together in concentration, his bare chest heaving.

“Liam,” he says again, opening his eyes, his pupils dilated whole. “You’re gonna make me come.”

“I want you to,” Liam says, his throat dry. He wants Harry to so badly, wants to feel it, wants to do this for him. Liam can’t stop looking at Harry’s face or down to his hand on Harry inside Harry’s shorts.

Harry groans, his voice breaking, and it looks like his face’s going to break open too, the way it’s knotting up, like he’s going to wince, like it hurts it feels so good.

Liam pushes Harry’s shorts off his hips so that his cock springs free, heavy and hard, his slit messy with smears of precome, and Liam licks the flat of his palm, tasting an echo of Harry, before jerking Harry again, thumbing the head of his cock. But Harry moves the hand he has clenched in the bunched up material of Liam’s vest to still Liam’s wrist and says, “You too. Please, you too.”

Liam doesn’t want to deny him, especially not now, can’t, so together they push down Liam’s joggers until his cock’s free too, and Harry touches Liam right away — trails his fingers up Liam’s length slowly before wrapping his fist around him, squeezing experimentally. Liam does his best to keep still, let Harry have him, though he can’t exactly keep quiet. Harry’s biting his lip again as he touches Liam, staring down at Liam’s lap and his own hand as he starts to wank Liam, testing.

Seems like Harry could jerk Liam off for ages with the way he’s moving his hand — fascinated, nearly reverent, saying, “It’s really nice, your cock,” almost as slowly as he’s touching Liam. And Liam knows the first time he touched a boy’s hard cock, he could’ve spent ages on it too. He wishes he could give Harry all the time in the world, wants to — he wants to very badly. But they don’t have all the time in the world right now.

Liam slicks his palm again with his spit and says, “Here, Harry, we have to be quick,” and he takes both of them into one fist. Harry thrusts his hips up into Liam’s hand immediately, his cock sliding wetly against Liam’s, and groans, saying, “Oh fucking hell, Christ, that’s good.”

Liam guides Harry into kissing again, distracting himself from lingering in his head over just how nice Harry’s cock feels pressed close to his own, and they both thrust up against each other, into Liam’s hand jacking the both of them off. Harry doesn’t stop talking into Liam’s mouth — telling Liam how good he feels over and over.

Then Harry’s voice grows too breathless and he’s panting against Liam’s mouth, “I’m gonna come, you’re gonna make me come,” and it’s not much longer before he is in long hot spurts over both their bellies and Liam’s cock, breathing hard into the side of Liam’s face, his cheek hot and sweaty, his hips restless and quick.

Once he finally stills, Liam lets his cock go with a last gentle stroke and then starts to wank himself off so quick his wrist aches. Harry sets his head on Liam’s shoulder, but he’s looking down at Liam working his cock, watching, saying hoarsely, “Fuck, that’s really hot,” asking, “Are you gonna come?” until Liam’s moaning, “Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna,” and then Harry reaches down to touch Liam too, fitting his hand around Liam’s, not as tentative as he was before, and they both jerk off Liam’s cock together, and Liam can’t wait any longer, screws his eyes shut and comes hard, fucking up into their hands.

Harry kisses him straight away after — his mouth soft and pliant, and it’s gentle, tender, like when they’d started. Liam’s breathing too hard to last for long though, so Harry compromises by kissing the side of his face and his chin and brushing his nose along Liam’s neck, nuzzling lazily like a cat searching for pets. “That was amazing,” Harry says into Liam’s ear. “You’re amazing.”

Liam huffs out a laugh, dazed. “Yeah, brilliant,” he says, wiping his clean hand down his sweaty face. He gives Harry a quick kiss to the side of his head, and then properly strips his vest off to mop up the come on his stomach and around his cock, reaches to do the same for Harry as carefully as he can, clean Harry’s hand one finger at a time and bites his lip so that he doesn’t use his mouth instead like he wants. He balls his shirt up once he’s finished.

With a tired groan he finally rises until he’s standing, his legs shaky. Harry’s still lying on the floor, his prick out, and now he’s looking up at Liam, his eyebrows creasing together. He wets his lips and then says, “Liam,” sounding like he’s asking a question, his mouth wobbling a little.

“Hazza, we have a bus to catch,” Liam says, offering his hand again. “That’s all.”

After a beat, Harry’s face relaxes and he asks, “Is that all?” He even gives a little laugh, starting to grin.

“Think so,” Liam says, keeping his gaze steady on Harry’s face. The truth is, Liam isn’t entirely sure now; he isn’t sure at all what Harry’s asking of him, or if they’re alright anymore. He doesn’t know what he can expect now.

But it must be the right thing to say in the end because Harry grins full on, his dimples appearing and his teeth showing, and he takes Liam’s hand, lets Liam pull him up until they’re both standing.

“Right,” Harry says, tugging his shorts up. “Shall we catch our bus?”

They should, so Liam follows him out of the sunlight and out of the room.

 

*

 

When they arrive at the resort in Sydney —  the same hotel as when they were last there — there’re fans that seem like they’ve been waiting for ages crowded outside in the carpark. It’s late and dark except for the string of hanging lamp-lights, Liam has no idea of the time, hardly feels awake, dead on his feet, maybe it’s even nearly morning, so he stops as soon as he sees them. They're grateful for it, their voices leaping with excitement, and Liam tries to look each of them individually in the eye so that they know he's grateful too.

Harry comes over when Liam's halfway through the crowd — and if the increasing murmur punctuated by screams of, "Harry! Over here!" and "Harry, I love you!" wasn't a tip off, Harry slinging his arm around Liam's shoulder would've been a dead giveaway. Harry doesn't linger by Liam for too long, only enough to squeeze his shoulder — Liam doesn't know what for, solidarity or support or comfort or what; Liam doesn’t know anything that Harry’s been thinking lately, they’ve been so busy that they’ve hardly managed more than passing each other in the corridor or sitting across from one another at a catering table — and say, "What do we have here?" before he's joining in, signing autographs, posing for pictures.

Liam doesn't know if any of the other boys have stopped. He thinks he hears Niall's laugh somewhere beyond him, but he can't be sure. Anyway, Harry stays oddly close to Liam — always signing for or talking to a fan Liam's just left a handful of moments ago. Usually they field opposite ends of a crowd to reach a maximum number of people at once, but maybe because it's a smaller crowd, or maybe because — Liam doesn't know, it doesn't matter anyway, only that it’s sort of the most Liam’s seen of Harry besides being on stage since they’d gone to and left Brisbane.

And it only means that Harry's within earshot when this one boy who's all but bouncing on the tips of his toes smiles massively at Liam and says, "I can't believe you're here."

Liam laughs, smiling back easily in the face of the boy’s excitement. "Glad to be here, mate. You alright?"

"Yeah, much better now," the boys says, biting his lip, ducking his head. He can't be older than fifteen. "I'm a massive fan," he says while Liam signs an old worn Seventeen magazine cover, Liam's own young face swallowed up by his sprouting wild curls staring back at him. There’s a blurb in the corner of it, a snatch of text announcing One Direction’s biggest news yet — and Liam realizes that it must be from when he’d just come out.

Liam looks up at the boy again and asks, “What’s your name, babe?”

The boy stares, star-struck, face flushing, and then starts a bit, tells Liam he’s called Max, so Liam goes to add a note for him — thank you :) or your support means the world or summat, and Max must realize he's got Liam's attention for a bit longer because he goes on to say, shyly, "Could I get a picture too? I really — I wanna show my boyfriend."

Liam's grin flares up again. He passes the magazine over. "Yeah? Should we make him a bit jealous, then?" He gives a wink, and when he poses for the picture, holding Max's phone camera above their heads, he leans in and gives him a kiss on the cheek.

Max's face has gone bright red, but he’s smiling hugely too. Before Liam manages to move onto the next fan, he sees Max’s head jerk over, his eyes widening, and Liam hears Harry say, “Hi, you okay?”

Max looks shell-shocked, so Liam steps in, saying, “He’s alright,” squeezing Max on the shoulder. “We’ve just worried his boyfriend a bit.” He nudges Max with an elbow, winking again.

“Who wouldn’t be jealous over our Liam,” Harry says to Max. Then Harry’s mouth crooks into a grin. “But we can do better than that.”

Liam isn’t going to disagree, and when he holds the phone camera above all three of their heads this time, both he and Harry lean in on opposite sides to give Max a kiss on either side of his cheek. Liam tries not to look across and catch Harry’s eyeline, but he wonders if Harry knows what he’s giving Max, what it would’ve meant to Liam if he’d been in Max’s shoes at fifteen.

Liam doesn’t say anything or ask Harry, though, not even after they leave the fans and shoulder through the hotel lobby and all of them and their security pile into a crowded lift. Liam hadn’t said anything to that fan, Max, either, but Liam privately hopes Max doesn’t get bothered at school over it like Liam had, hopes his parents are alright with it, hopes his boyfriend takes him on dates — to films and dinner and that, gives him flowers and chocolates for Valentine’s Day; he hopes they had a nice, slow, safe first time; hopes years from now that Max will remember it with nothing in his heart except for appreciation.

It’s only as Liam’s finally opening up his hotel room, his backpack heavy on his achy shoulders like it’s stuffed with months and months worth of clothes, more than the hoodie and deodorant and energy drinks he knows is in it, more than he knows he’s even brought on tour with him — it’s only then that Liam realizes he hopes he gave Harry a nice, slow, safe first time with a boy too, and the thought makes him drop his keycard right onto the floor of the open threshold to his room.

 

*

 

Liam’s been ignoring his phone on principle for a little while, but he must’ve left the sound on from when he was playing Flick-Kick Football on the aeroplane because even with Liam blaring a favorite Biggie playlist off his iPod and rapping along, he still hears his phone beep inside his backpack that he’s tossed on top of his luggage in one corner.

He can’t unhear it, so he debates with himself as he rolls himself off of his bed and lands on the floor in a crouch. He was going to — well, his phone isn’t really interrupting anything, is it, other than Liam staring blankly at the wall some more and watching Pawn Stars on mute; it’s only that there’s a whole host of people who might be texting Liam at the moment, and he’s not sure he wants to hear from any of them. Bit of an opposite feeling from the start of tour, when he couldn’t wait to see who it might be.

He digs his phone out of his backpack though, and checks, and finds that it’s Harry asking had anything to eat?

Liam hasn’t, actually. Not on the plane, either. Room service was on his list of eventual things to get round to, but he hasn’t exactly felt in a rush for it, hasn’t felt particularly hungry. It sounds nicer, though, coming from Harry, almost like when his mum fixes him tea and it’s the same stuff but it tastes miles better than when Liam fixes it for himself, and Liam can’t stop thinking that he really hasn’t hung around with Harry for a while, not properly, and after everything —

So Liam texts back nooo not yet ?? and waits, stood there in front of his luggage and open backpack in his socks and pants and sweatshirt, his legs shifting restlessly.

His phone doesn’t leave him waiting for long. It beeps, and Liam almost drops it rather than opening it to see: seafood alright?

Liam’s stomach swoops like it does when he’s — flirting or summat, though he isn’t, and Harry isn’t either, definitely not, but Liam bites his lip to contain his sudden beaming grin while he replies alrite w meeee

By the time Harry comes knocking on Liam’s door, Liam’s exchanged his sweatshirt for a jacket and managed to throw a pair of jeans on, even tuck a bandana in his back pocket how he likes to. He doesn’t bother with his hair or worry about the dark circles under his eyes or spritz cologne on, though. Because it’s not like Harry’s taking him on a date — which is a thought that leaves him momentarily a bit breathless, gripping the laces of his boots tightly, his stomach swooping again like it had when Harry first texted him except magnified by ten thousand. It’s not a strange thought in light of what they’ve done together. But it’s not a date, either, Liam’s sure; it’s just like the sushi bar they’d gone to in Melbourne or winding up at the casino or the loads and loads of other times Liam’s gone out with Harry or any of the other boys — things Liam can expect, things he already knows.

So he doesn’t know why he can’t quite let the thought go, and why when he opens up the door to find Harry grinning at him in an oversized jumper rather than plaid, Raybans pushed up into his hair, it feels like Liam’s hand’s shaking on the door handle, just a bit. He runs his hand through his hair instead to jerk himself out of it, grins back at Harry, closes the door behind him.

The walk down the corridor to lift helps Liam forget about it anyway, forget what he’d been worried or scared or whatever over. They’re alright, it’s as easy as ever, it’s always quite easy with Harry, and the relief is so fresh and crisp that Liam’s laughing a bit at himself, a bit at the two of them as he fights Harry for who gets to push the lift button first.

 

*

 

“Five stars,” Harry’s saying, leaning in to speak into Liam’s ear while the hostess at the podium is busy finding them a table out on the crowded patio. “Brilliant reviews, too, Liam. I’ve done my research.” His mouth brushes the lobe of Liam’s ear a bit while he talks, so Liam presses his hand to Harry’s chest, not sure whether he’s pushing him away or pulling him closer.

“Is that right?” Liam says instead of trying to figure it out, leaving his palm on Harry. “Because I recall a very similar conversation about that one shit bar in L.A.”

“Excuse me, Liam,” Harry says pulling away, giving Liam a face that’s half-lost due to Harry’s shades covering his eyes, though Harry’s affronted mouth says enough. “That was one time. Once.”

“Yeah, alright, whatever you need to tell yourself, mate,” Liam says. He moves his hand to rub Harry’s shoulder in mock-consolation. “You’re treating me anyway, right?”

He starts to laugh, but the face Harry’s giving him has shifted — a quiet smile, his dimples just shadows. “Right,” Harry says, sounding far too much like he means it, and the arm he lifts to squeeze Liam’s side feels far too much like a promise as well.

They get an ace wood slab table tucked right up against the far side of the patio that overlooks the ocean. They can see the tide rolling onto the beach from their seats, the sun diffusing a warm fading glow like a cigarette being ashed out in slow-motion — lingering shades of orange and pink. It casts over Harry’s face across from Liam, touching along his messy curls, the twist of his shoulders beneath his dark jumper and his big hands, his gold and black rings cupped around his phone as he gets a shot of the view.

“Nice,” Harry says after he snaps the picture. He lifts his shades to squint down at his phone and flicks his thumb across the screen, probably selecting a filter, something quirky.

Liam drops his menu onto the table just in time for Harry to reach across, shoving his phone under Liam’s face while saying, “What d’you think? Reckon I’m the next Cal Aurand?”

Liam takes Harry’s hands into both of his to angle Harry’s phone away from his face so he can actually have a look see. “Smashed it,” he says, honest, and it’s true — the sight’s gorgeous alone, but the way Harry’s played with the contrast makes the Liam feel like he’s gazing through a telescope at the sun, the ocean sparkling under his fingertips. He misses surfing for a sweet spare second, too — being lost in the midst of endless warm waves, disappearing until he’s only a tiny speck in the vast ocean. He glances up to Harry’s face, meeting Harry’s grin with one of his own. “Gonna post it, then?”

Harry’s hand nudges between Liam’s like it’s trying to come loose and Liam hadn’t realized he’s been holding on; he lets go straight away.

Harry says, “Think so, just gotta find the right caption,” as he returns his hand to his body, looks down at the screen again, resting his elbows on the table. His thumbs hesitate before typing slowly.

Liam’s about to suggest something — about not burying your head in the sand to miss the sunset, or hermit crabs coming out to watch in honor of the Thai crab cakes he’d spied on the menu; he’s not sorted it yet — but Harry makes a sudden affirmative noise in his throat and says, “Ah, there,” and then shifts around in his seat to slip his phone back into his pocket.

Liam has to restrain from digging his own phone out and checking Harry’s post, but there’s plenty of time for that later, he reminds himself, looking instead at Harry sat right across from him and fiddling with the drinks menu.

The waitress comes round while Harry’s still pouring over the drinks, for ages now, not that Liam can really talk — he’s only made it distractedly through appetizers himself.

“Er,” Liam says, lowering his menu and glancing at Harry, who’s useless, busy making a thoughtful expression down at his own menu, so Liam glances up to the waitress. “Sorry, think we need a few more minutes?”

“Hang on,” Harry says, finally looking up. He grins and his whole face lights up, dimpling; his eyes must be bright beneath his shades. Then he orders a beer sampler, which comes on a thick block of wood not unlike their table, and it’s got small shallow indented holders for miniature tumblers. The tumblers start from the darkest heaviest lagers on one end — the furthest’s solid black, Liam’s not sure about wanting to try it as he leans over to have a sniff, looks like lumpy coal up close and it’s so strong he makes a face, covering his nose, he’ll have to make Harry give it a go first — to the lightest ones, pale yellow.

The waitress talks them through each beer sample — this one’s our best light amber, sort of citrusy, nicest in the summer like it is now and on — and it takes quite a while for her to leave. Probably because Liam’s got questions, can’t help it, it’s pretty sick to hear about the in-house brewing process, and Harry’s got questions himself. Most of the time, though, they have a similar question that one of them says and the other agrees with, or they say at the same time, voices overlapping, and Liam laughs loudly at that, which makes Harry laugh too, so then it takes even longer. But the beer’s still chilled and foamy by the time they get round to tasting.

“Oooh,” Liam says, squinting at the sheet of paper the waitress left for them with labels and descriptions for each beer. “I like that one, what was it?” It’d been a tumbler from the middle, right between brown and reddish, hit a sweet spot for him — not too heavy, not too watered down; he passes it over for Harry to try.

Harry takes the glass and then leans across the table to read the sheet with Liam. Harry frowns in concentration before he laughs. “Don’t know, can’t make heads or tails out of these names, are they all in German or summat?”

“Looks like it,” Liam says, but he’s not looking at the sheet any longer or even thinking of the time they were in Brussels and they’d all given pronouncing the street signs a go fast as they could on their way to the venue, a stupid game Louis made up — he’s looking at Harry and Harry’s shades hanging from the collar of his jumper, his hair flopping onto his forehead, his long eyelashes slanting down towards the table.

Harry looks up, and when he catches Liam’s eye, Liam’s really not sure what’s going to happen, he’s not sure what he’s going to do, if he can trust himself — Harry’s mouth’s still parted and the bow of his lips looks pink, his eyelids lowered, and Liam has to fist his hands in his lap tightly so that he doesn’t grab Harry’s face instead and remind himself just how good it feels to have Harry’s mouth against his own; it makes Liam’s face go hot, his shoulders jerk and his nails bite into his own skin. Maybe it’s only the beer drifting up to his head. Though he’s hardly had any, really, between sipping and sharing each glass.

“Decided on what you want?” Harry asks without looking away.

Liam bites his lip to keep from saying the first thing that pops up in his brain, and instead shakes his head in answer to Harry and at himself, at realizing he’s forgotten everything on the menu.

“That’s alright,” Harry says. He settles back into his chair, shoots Liam a grin. “Can’t make up me mind myself. Wanna split?”

“Yeah,” Liam says, clearing his throat, wiping his wrist across his mouth to chase away the lingering memory of kissing Harry as though it’s as new as fresh ink, hot on his mouth. “Cheers, brilliant.”

So Harry orders again — he orders fried oysters and seared scallops in an amazing ginger butter sauce and these Moroccan coconut shrimp that get Liam’s fingers salty and a bit greasy even after he licks them off; Harry insists on feeding one of the shrimp to Liam himself, his free hand cupping underneath so that the cocktail sauce doesn’t drip onto the table. Liam almost chokes first from being unable to quit laughing, and then from forgetting to breathe when Harry’s thumb swipes at the corner of Liam’s mouth, catching a bit of the sauce before sucking it clean in his own mouth.

All of that’s before the entrées. Somehow — Liam’s not quite sure how, seems like it’s the most he’s eaten at once in over a month — they’ve both got room left in them for dessert even though their loads and loads of plates are wiped clean; they agree straight away on a trifle.

The trifle’s massive, as big as Liam’s head, far too much for the both of them. They tuck in from opposite ends, and the second the sweet white cake and the fresh fruit hits Liam’s tongue, he can’t help from letting out an appreciative noise; it’s just as familiar as it is absolutely delicious, and it makes Liam feel like he’s with Harry in his back garden or summat — like they’ve prepared the trifle themselves with his mum and sisters in the kitchen in his parent’s home and brought it outside to have in the sun and in the grass, the breeze cool against their faces, Harry grinning at him like he is now, like he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Their forks clink and scrape against each other’s accidentally as they near the bottom of the glass bowl, down to leftover pudding and whipped cream. Liam laughs when Harry foregoes trying to secure another bite in favor of attacking Liam’s fork full on. He almost does drop his fork, but manages to twist his wrist and wriggle away at the last second, pokes the prongs of Harry’s fork back and says, “C’mon Styles, is that the best you’ve got?”

Harry says, “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” He relents after a last stab at Liam, drops his fork with clatter into the bowl.

Liam takes advantage of being the last fork standing to scoop up a bite for himself. But before he raises it to his mouth, Harry’s cold wet fingers nudge his nose, press it like a button.

Harry’s hand dodges away as Liam glances up, but Harry’s grinning full on at him and isn’t hiding the whipped cream smeared on his fingers at all. “Got a little something there, Liam,” Harry says, his words difficult to get out around his massive grin.

“Do I?” Liam says. “Wonder what that could be.” He dips his fingers into the glass bowl and smears the remainder of the whipped cream against Harry’s cheek like he’s fingerpainting, rising half-way out of his chair just to reach Harry, who won’t keep still, laughing his head off.

They’re cleaned up by the time the check comes round, at least. Liam had to watch Harry swipe at his cheek and lick his own palm clean, which Liam could’ve gone without if he’s honest, kept bouncing his leg underneath the table and shifting around in his seat so that he didn’t do something stupid — but maybe it’s fair, because Harry had to watch Liam lick his fingers clean too, and if Liam let his tongue linger a bit against the pads of his fingertips and lowered his eyes while he did it. Well.

Harry does insist on paying just as he’d threatened to in the beginning.

“Hazza,” Liam says, drawing his name out in half a whine. “You don’t have to, honestly.”

“It’s too late, though,” Harry says, not even bothering to check the bill before handing his credit card over to their waitress. “And besides,” Harry says, looking at Liam. “I want to.”

The sun’s nearly set now — there’s only the last dying embers in a flat line right above the horizon — but Liam can picture Harry’s face just as it was the last time they’d done yoga together, in Melbourne, swallowed up in the sunlight and making him look terribly young; can picture the last time Harry’d said that to him, I want to, with perfect clarity and a shiver crawls right up Liam’s spine. He swallows and looks away from Harry, out to the view.

“Thanks,” Liam says. The sun’s making its final descent, sinking into the ocean like it’s coming home. “Thanks, Hazza.”

 

*

 

Liam doesn't know what he was expecting, but he's sure Harry tailing him out of the cab and back through the hotel lobby all the way to the lifts isn't quite it.

"Tired?" Liam asks with half a smile, glancing at Harry as they step inside the lift and the doors shut behind them. "Food coma, yeah?"

Harry shrugs after thumbing the button to their floor. He leans back against the wall and banister, tipping his head backwards so that his neck arches, the mirror glimmering gold behind him. "Not really," Harry says. "But," he shoots Liam a grin in return, catching his gaze because Liam still hasn't quite managed to look away. “Wouldn’t be a gentleman if I left you to walk back alone, would I?”

The doors bing open and Liam finally breaks their gaze to step through. Harry follows Liam right down the corridor — past where Liam knows his own room is — and Liam doesn't want to have to keep expecting more, so he says, "Reckon I'll probably knock right out, but if you want," he's already fishing his keycard from his back pocket. "If you wanted to watch a film or summat, it's fine, you're used to my snoring, right?" He huffs a laugh, glancing at Harry only quick enough to catch the swing of his shades hung at his jumper's collar and his dark curls and wide open eyes under the corridor’s fluorescent lighting trained onto Liam's face. Liam wishes he wouldn't have looked at all.

He stops at his room then, slides the keycard through the reader and the door flashes green in recognition. He's all set to turn the handle when Harry says, "Liam," asking a question, pausing Liam dead in his tracks and Liam can't not look to see what it might be. So he turns his head, his cheek pillowing against his shoulder, and finds Harry's biting his lip, his dimples burrowing in his cheeks like they're hiding something.

Harry releases a breath and then says, "If you like, if you want, I'll come in."

"If I want?" Liam asks, raising his eyebrow. If Liam wants, as if it's that easy. As if Harry doesn't mind doing this for him. Again.

"If," Harry starts, slowly, "if it's alright, that is."

Liam shrugs, his grip on the door handle growing warm and sweaty. "I told you, mate, it's always alright with us."

Harry's expression doesn't shift much, but he does reach out to touch Liam's arm and turn him until he's letting the door handle go and properly facing Harry.

Harry slips his hand down to linger over Liam's jacket sleeve by his wrist, just shy of holding his hand, and says, serious, "Always." Then Harry gives a little laugh, looks towards the floor and shakes his head. "I just never thought that you'd — "

He shakes his head again and looks up at Liam, and Liam's about to ask, he really is, his heart beginning to hammer, he's going to ask that Harry's never thought Liam'd what — that he'd be this easy for it? That he'd give himself up before even being asked? That he's so pathetic and so lonely he'd need comfort this badly after he'd gone and fucked up another perfectly fine relationship? — and Liam doesn't know what sort of face he's making, but Harry's grip tightens as if to hold Liam steady and he leans in before Liam gets any words out, and then they're kissing, Harry's mouth warm and open and wet like Liam remembers it, like Liam's been wanting to taste again all night.

Liam's hands fist in thin air and he doesn’t know if anything will be the same between them anymore after this — maybe, if Liam’s honest, it hasn’t been for a little while, but he kisses Harry anyway, and Harry’s hand falls to Liam’s waist, squeezing, his other hand cradling the back of Liam’s head, guiding him backwards until he's against the hotel room door, his back and shoulders hitting the wood, and Harry follows him, their mouths opening into each other, Harry sucking at Liam's lower lip until it stings.

Harry lets go of Liam’s head to brace himself with a hand flat to the door. His next kiss is gentled, slower, Harry breathing in deep like he's trying to hold himself together.

"Liam," Harry says against Liam's mouth, and then pulls away, breathes into the the side of Liam's heated face for a moment. "Is this — is it," Harry says, and Liam's distracted by the way Harry's voice goes hoarse, but Liam knows Harry well enough to hear that Harry sounds frustrated too.

Liam pushes Harry back with the hands he has on Harry's shoulders just enough to see Harry's face. Maybe it's a mistake again to look — Harry's already flushing, his mouth already shiny and pink.

"I’ve wanted to tell you," Harry says, after staring down into Liam's face for a long moment, his gaze fluttering between Liam's eyes and lips. "I —"

A door down the corridor slams and Liam startles — almost feeling caught like he's in his parent's house again, in his room with his ages old bunny-rabbit curtains, screening a compiled video of John and Craig’s storyline from Hollyoaks on youtube, jerking in alarm every time footfalls ran past his closed but unlocked door. He doesn't pull away now though, because he isn't in his parent's house, and he isn't fourteen anymore either, and Harry doesn't pull away either, though he does turn his head to look.

It's only Louis coming down the hall, tossing a football back and forth between his hands. "Hiya boys," Louis says when he gets closer, lifting both of his brows. "Lovely evening, innit?"

"Reckon so," Harry says. His hand's still braced by Liam's head, though his other’s dropped from Liam’s waist, and Liam looks at him rather than Louis, even when Louis says, "Looks like it. How was that place you went to? Good view?" He sounds a bit like he's trying not to laugh, but Liam can't make himself turn and catch Louis' smile and give him one back.

Harry's calm as ever, is all — and of course it's impossible to look at him now, the two of them caught red-mouthed, and not think of how Harry might let this roll off of him as easily as he lets everything else, that Harry wouldn't care about how often he's papped or what else the tabloids are going to tut over or what his mentions on twitter are because Harry already doesn't care about any of that, not really, it's no deal-breaker — and Harry's always been only an arm's length away, he's never been fussed about Liam being out — only for Liam's own sake, of course — and he might not be fussed, either, if he were out too.

"Liam?" Louis's calling his name.

Liam forces his eyes away, lets out an absent questioning, "Hmm?"

"Good dinner for you as well, then?" Louis's already past them now — edging backwards down the corridor. He's smiling with half his mouth, but his eyes look a bit sharp.

"Yeah," Liam says immediately. He knocks his knuckles into Harry's chest. "Proper gent, ain't he."

Louis points a warning finger at Harry. "I should hope so, Payno," he says, and then he turns round and drops the ball, kicks it in a chase and he's gone.

Harry says Liam's name again and it's a question just like before, but he's speaking more quietly, almost whispering into Liam's ear. Liam's leg's bouncing in a fit of restless anticipation now and he can't get himself to quit it as he waits for the other half of Harry's question, biting his own lip.

"D'you want to go in?" Harry asks, finally, his face open, his eyes large and green.

"Yeah," Liam says distractedly, reaching for the door handle behind him blindly. "Yes." His teeth cut into his lip, he's biting it so hard.

Liam forgets that he has to swipe his keycard again and all the lights are off, the early dark night filtering into his room where he left the curtains open, so it's a bit before he gets his eyes back on Harry's face — and it's just that Liam wants to check, because Liam can't quite be sure of how much Harry's offering, of what he keeps asking after. When the light shutters on, Harry's stood under the arched threshold between the front room with the couch and telly and attached kitchen, and the bedroom — his fingers sweeping his curls away from his face, looking right back at Liam like he's been waiting already, his mouth closed.

"Do you know," Harry says, and it startles Liam into action; he looks away and switches on another light, shrugs off his jacket, kicks his boots off while Harry carries on: "Do you remember that time in — I don't know where we were, Melbourne or Sydney — and I'd come to, I'd gone to get you for dinner or summat?"

Liam turns around, down to bare feet and his t-shirt and jeans now, the band of his watch clicking open in his hand. Harry's still looking right at Liam.

"Remember?" Harry asks. Liam shakes his head because he doesn't, can't figure out which time Harry's on about, but then Harry runs his hand through his curls again, more quickly, almost nervous or agitated or frustrated like he'd sounded in the hallway. "You were —" Harry says and he makes a loose wanking gesture with one fist in front of his crotch, waggling his eyebrows, laughing a little.

Liam laughs too. "Oh," he says. "Right." Yeah, Liam can't forget then — not if he tried, Harry's eyes huge and wide, him stumbling through the bedroom threshold — bit like he is now — Liam splayed in the bedsheets, legs open.

Harry's hand falls in a slack gesture. "I'd thought then that you'd — that I'd —" he shakes his head. His mouth's gone tight and his eyebrows furrowed, his shoulders hunching like he can't heft the weight of it.

Liam steps forward, wishing he could smooth the wrinkles out of Harry's face, but Harry says suddenly, "I wanted to be the one to do it. I didn't know then, but now I know, I want to be the one to —" and all Liam can remember is that moment in perfect clarity — his own fingers twisting inside himself, the ache of fucking himself open slow first and then hard, and his shoulders jar from it, his face flushing, his knees wanting to quiver like they're going to give out, wishing to widen already, already wanting to sink down to the floor.

Maybe he misses something Harry says because a moment later it seems they're close enough for Liam to feel the ghost of Harry's body heat, where his big warm hands were against Liam's neck and wrist and waist earlier, and then Harry's close enough that his breath's fanning out against Liam's mouth and their feet are interlocked, Harry's boots scuffing on the carpet floor.

Harry opens his mouth, and Liam's sure Harry's going to ask if it's alright, but Liam's already told Harry it is, so he does them both a favor and kisses Harry before he says anything else; he's said enough. Harry kisses Liam back readily, fisting his hands at the back of Liam's shirt and drawing him in until Liam's own hands are in Harry's curls, framing his face.

They stumble backwards into the bedroom, Harry pulling Liam with his huge hands on Liam's warm bare skin beneath his shirt, Liam pushing with his grip on Harry's curls and waist, kissing Harry so hard that he doesn't notice when they hit the end of the bed and almost fall right onto it. But they don't, only laugh into each other's mouths as they brace against the edge — rather Liam braces, and tightens his grip on Harry to keep him steady and Harry does little more than push his face into the side of Liam's neck and grin against his skin.

After they recover, the break gives Liam a moment to slip his shirt off, and he hears Harry make a soft noise at that — intimate or private like he didn't mean to — so Liam lets his shirt drop right to the floor and goes for the flies at his jeans next. Harry's hands cover his though, and then Harry's kissing him again — deep and slow.

"Let me," Harry says, kissing Liam's jaw and cheek. "I want to."

Liam wishes Harry'd quit saying that; Liam feels flushed enough as it is, so he kisses Harry again and they both unzip Liam's jeans until they slip off his hips and pool at his knees, and Liam's already hard though they've hardly done more than snog. It certainly doesn’t help that Harry's holding Liam close with an arm around Liam's waist and fucking his tongue into Liam's mouth, letting Liam fist his hands in the underside of Harry's jumper at his back like Liam means to break the soft expensive cotton apart. Liam can feel Harry through his jeans, the hot hard line of him.

Harry snaps the waistband of Liam's pants against his skin and it makes Liam moan between their mouths, his knees want to give again, sink down right onto the floor. Then Harry's hands dip below the back of Liam's pants to cup his arse, and Liam has to break their kiss to moan again, into Harry's throat this time, fighting the urge of rutting into Harry's thigh or cock through his jeans until they both come.

It's a lot to take — Harry groans too when Liam bites his skin, mostly to quiet himself but also because he wants to, and Harry's hips stutter forward and he's right there — so hard for Liam, having asked to fuck him; it's a lot to take and Liam has to close his eyes, let Harry hold him for a moment, his own arms draped over Harry's shoulders. He just wants a second to breathe — it's difficult to remember what city they're in, which hotel, what day it is.

"Liam?" Harry asks. He drags a hand up from Liam's hip to gently push him away at his chest, just until Liam's forced to lift his head and look at Harry — Harry, whose eyelids are lowered and his mouth a darkening swollen red and his whole throat flushed. "You alright?" Harry asks. He's thumbing over Liam's jaw now, his eyebrows starting to crease. "Where did you go?"

Liam closes his eyes and breathes in again — so deep that it rattles his lungs — and then he opens his eyes and kisses Harry just as gently as he's touching Liam. "I'm right here," Liam says, meaning it.

They tug off Liam's pants, and soon Harry loses his shirt and jumper and then they're both on the bed. Harry's bowing between Liam’s open spread legs, one of his hands sliding up the inside of Liam’s bare thigh, Harry's face hot to the touch when Liam reaches up to draw him in so that Harry’ll stop scanning his eyes slowly over Liam’s naked body like he’s never seen him before.

Liam opens his mouth eagerly for Harry, sucking on his lower lip, fisting his hands in Harry’s curls, wanting to distract the both of them, erase that look in Harry’s eyes and Harry groans, Liam feels Harry’s body jerk in response, but Harry slows the kiss too until it’s long and deep, their breaths matching each other’s pace, evening out, Liam’s fingers relaxing unconsciously in Harry’s curls.

Harry’s hunching all the way over Liam again, between Liam’s legs just like how they’d been in the hotel’s gym room last time, but Harry’s touching Liam’s face more carefully now as he lowers Liam onto the sheets.

He pulls away to kiss Liam’s cheek, his chin and jaw and neck, and it makes Liam squirm. He reaches between them to finish unbuttoning Harry’s jeans, shifts away from Harry’s hot wet mouth sucking at the hollow of his throat, not that it doesn’t feel good — it feels so good, too good though, and Liam isn’t sure yet if he wants to have to see the mark after and be reminded of Harry spending such thoughtful time on him.

“Come on,” Liam says, pushing Harry’s jeans and pants off his hips to draw his cock out, biting his own lip so that he doesn’t groan from feeling Harry thick and hard for him, his cock heavy. He jacks Harry’s cock a couple of times and Harry moans above him, his hips pushing into Liam’s hand.

“Want you to fuck me,” Liam says, looking down at his hand on Harry’s cock rather than Harry’s face. He doesn’t realize how much he really does want it until he says it — but God does he want Harry’s big hard cock sliding inside of him, filling him up, splitting Liam open until he can’t think or breathe or feel anything else.

“You’re sure?” Harry says, raspy and breathless above Liam.

“I’m sure,” Liam says. He looks up into Harry’s face as he gives Harry’s cock a squeeze, watches Harry’s eyes flutter shut, his mouth drop open with a noise.

Liam waits for Harry to open his eyes again before dragging his hand away from Harry’s cock and sucking his fingers smeared with Harry’s precome into his mouth. Harry’s eyes drop to Liam’s mouth, stay fixated until Liam lets his fingers slip free. Harry kisses Liam right after, hard and firm, like he’s only just realized how much he’s missed being away, and Liam wraps an arm around Harry’s neck to hold him there.

Then Liam helps Harry wrestle out of his jeans and pants — Harry keeps stopping to kiss Liam, holding onto his face like he’s hesitant to let Liam slip away, and it makes Liam laugh into his mouth, surprised but pleased in a way that makes his belly knot up and loosen at the same time.

Soon Harry’s naked too, and Liam’s been pretty good so far at convincing himself to not want for too much up until now, but he can’t resist some things, so he pushes Harry onto his back as they kiss, and then pulls away to do what part of him’s always helplessly wanted to the whole time Liam’s had to watch Harry grow up, ink up his body, become the person Liam knows now; Liam kisses down the arch of Harry’s neck, bites at his shoulder where Harry has his sister’s name tattooed, and then down, Liam’s hands following his mouth as it descends and grows hot and raw, his teeth less shy, though Harry doesn’t seem to mind at all — he’s only holding onto Liam’s shoulders, rubbing his hand up the back of Liam’s neck into his hair, breathing erratically like they’re already fucking.

Liam traces Harry’s moth tattoo with his lips and tongue, and Harry’s stomach quivers under him.

“Liam,” Harry says, sounding desperate, begging, asking Liam for something, and this time Liam thinks he knows what it might be, so Liam hums into Harry’s skin in acknowledgement, kisses down to the inside of Harry’s hip and takes his cock into one hand.

He jerks Harry off slowly, just enough to relieve and Liam's mouth dips lower until he’s breathing into the base of Harry’s cock, resting his forehead at the crease of Harry’s hip for a moment, feeling how hard Harry is for him, Harry’s long fingers and the warm gleam from his rings touching the back of Liam’s neck and shoulders still, carding through his hair.

Then Liam can’t hold off any longer. He takes Harry’s cock into his mouth, sucking at the head, and Harry’s hands tighten on Liam immediately, groaning. His hips jerk, but Liam doesn’t hold him down, leaves his hands spread on Harry’s thighs, doesn’t mind Harry’s cock fucking into his mouth; he just takes Harry deeper, opening up his throat for Harry, and Harry gets louder, his hands tighter in Liam’s hair, holding Liam’s head still.

Harry’s talking too, gasping out, “Oh, fuck, Liam, please,” as Liam blows Harry slowly, Liam’s own hips and hard cock grinding into the sheets.

Liam pulls off when Harry’s thighs start to shake because as deliriously good as Harry’s cock feels and tastes — and God does he taste good, sharp and heavy and stretching Liam’s mouth out like that — it isn’t the only thing Liam wants. A string of precome and spit trail from his parted mouth to Harry’s cock, and Harry’s cock twitches as Harry moans, must be taking in the sight of it.

Liam licks his lips, swallows, and then grips Harry’s thigh and lifts it up so that Liam can dip lower to suck Harry’s sac into his mouth too, tongue at the skin behind all the way to Harry’s hole.

Harry cries out at that, his leg flexing in Liam’s hold, and the next time he says Liam’s name, he sounds struck and hoarse and breathless. Liam presses the flat of his tongue to Harry’s rim again, mostly just to hear the way Harry shouts at it once more, his hand ruthless in Liam’s hair, but also because Liam wants to.

“Has anyone ever done this for you before?” Liam pulls back to ask, voice rasping, kissing the inside of Harry’s thigh.

Harry’s leaning up on his elbows now to look at Liam, eyes glazed and body flushed, and it takes him a moment to collect himself, but he shakes his head, takes an open-mouthed breath. “I’ve never — asked anyone to.”

Liam resists a grin, gives Harry’s thigh a bite to contain it. Liam’s own cock aching, straining up between his stomach and the sheets keeps him from fucking Harry with his tongue like he might do otherwise. Instead, he teases his tongue against Harry’s rim in a hot curl, only threatening to push in, and then crawls his way back up to Harry’s face, his knees on either side of Harry’s hips, their cocks rubbing together, slick from Liam’s spit and their precome, and Liam kisses Harry’s mouth.

Liam’s glad Harry doesn’t seem to mind, kisses Liam back just as eagerly, his hands framing Liam’s face and his thumbs stroking along Liam’s cheekbones gently.

“You’re amazing,” Harry says, pulling away. “Fuck, your mouth.” He kisses Liam quickly, like he’s helpless to do it. “Wanna make you feel good, too.”

Liam shuts his eyes for a moment to breathe because Harry’s started looking at him carefully again, like Liam’s something new or special, the look Liam was hoping to jar Harry out of, and after Liam opens his eyes, Harry’s expression hasn’t changed, still there, but Liam forces himself to say, “You are.” He bends to kiss the side of Harry’s mouth in reassurance, wanting to tuck his face into Harry’s neck, breathing against his parted mouth as Liam says, “You will.”

Liam rolls off of Harry and splays himself out on his back again, urges Harry to come closer with a hand on his neck, saying, “Come on, like this,” spreading his legs for Harry to fit between once more.

Liam finds the lube on his bedside table and kisses Harry as he presses it into Harry’s hand, guiding his fingers down to Liam’s hole. Harry pauses though, stilling.

His eyes are heavy as he looks into Liam’s face. “I haven’t — I’ve not really done this before,” he says, swallowing.

“You’re alright, it’s alright,” Liam says. He gives Harry a lingering kiss because the twist to Harry’s eyebrows hasn’t quite smoothed out. Liam flicks open the lube, smears a generous amount onto Harry’s fingers, slicking them.

Harry takes in a sharp breath when Liam lowers Harry’s hand again and his fingers skate across Liam’s hole, make Liam moan softly. Harry’s fingers are warm and wet, and Liam really wants them inside of him, but Harry’s only touching, gently, tracing Liam’s rim.

“Liam,” Harry says, drawing Liam’s gaze back to Harry’s face rather than down at the long stretch of Harry’s tanned inked arm, Liam’s own hard flushed cock and tummy, his bent knees and spread thighs. “Show me,” Harry says, biting his lip.

So Liam slicks his fingers too and then reaches between them, and it’s so slippery, so wet between their hands, Harry’s rings might slide right off, it makes Liam shift a little in restless anticipation, but he holds still so that he can press one of Harry’s fingers inside of himself. His hand starts shaking at the immediate burn, but he guides Harry until his whole finger’s inside, not wanting him to stop.

“God,” Harry says. His mouth’s slack and open, and he’s staring down at their hands, down at where Liam’s sliding Harry’s finger in slowly, out, in again. “You’re so tight,” Harry says, low and hoarse, a bit amazed.

Liam doesn’t want to rush Harry, but he needs more, he can’t stand the feeling alone, so he adds his own finger in alongside Harry’s and he groans so loud at the stretch that it rips at his throat, his finger pressed tightly against Harry’s.

“Oh, fuck,” Harry says, low, his voice ready to give out when they start working Liam open in sync. “Fucking hell, can I —” he says, his bare chest heaving a bit. He glances at Liam’s face to ask, to check. His mouth’s still red and swollen and dropped open in disbelief.

“Yeah,” Liam says, voice hoarse from holding in his moan, knowing that anything Harry wants to do will be alright. “Yes, Harry, yeah.”

Harry adds another slick finger straight away and Liam takes him easily, bearing down at the stretch, unable to help groaning and rolling his hips into it. He slips his own finger free and grabs at his own thigh instead, unable to stand the feeling of Harry’s fingers sliding into him, needing an outlet.

“Please,” Liam says, when Harry teases another finger around Liam’s rim. “Do it, please,” he says, so Harry does, and he moans with Liam at the tight hot press.

Harry finally seems to pull himself away from staring at his hand at Liam’s hole, because then he’s kissing Liam sloppily, wetly, saying, “You have no idea how good you feel, Christ. Can’t believe I get to fuck you.”

Liam does his best to kiss Harry back, but he’s a bit busy letting Harry’s words wash over him, in and out of his ears and rolling his hips down onto Harry’s fingers and trying not to wank himself until he comes from the feeling alone; his hand’s biting into his own thigh so hard it hurts now, his other hand fisting in the sheets. “Can you,” Liam says into Harry’s mouth. “Fuck me, please. Harry —”

“Yeah,” Harry says, groaning against Liam’s mouth as he stretches his fingers apart inside of Liam and Liam feels himself opening easily for Harry, giving into him. “‘Course, anything you want,” Harry says. He slides his fingers in deep — and Liam’s moan hitches at that, the way it feels like a promise, the way Harry’s making promises with his words Liam knows Harry can’t keep — before Harry slips them out.

Harry fumbles about on the beside table, dropping the strip of condoms twice before Liam laughs a bit and helps him, tearing one off. Liam leaves Harry to tear it open, though, and roll it on, reaching down to stroke his own cock that’s so hard now Liam’s not sure he’s going to even last for very long.

Harry finds the lube in the sheets and slicks himself up, and then he’s right between Liam’s spread legs again, bracing himself on one hand by Liam’s shoulder, and holding his cock in the other, ready to guide himself into Liam.

“You’re sure?” Harry asks again, looking into Liam’s face, his necklaces suspended between their chests. His eyes are searching and his mouth’s closed, waiting.

Liam leans up and kisses him, reaches down to take hold of Harry’s cock, smooth from the condom, wet from the lube, hard for Liam. “I’m sure,” he says against Harry’s mouth, and Liam is, he’s sure of this, sure of angling Harry towards his hole. The head of Harry’s cock snubs up against him and they gasp into each other’s mouths at the touch.

Liam lets go to fall back into the sheets again and bends his knees up toward his chest, holds his thighs open for Harry.

Harry keeps his face close to Liam’s, but he’s looking down as he guides himself inside. He sinks in slowly, and Liam can’t stand how good it feels — Harry’s really quite big and the way Liam feels himself opening up is relentless, like a fissure cracking him right open, unable to feel anything except for the thick burn from his head to his soles. He must be loud — must be nearly shouting, because Harry pauses once he’s flush inside Liam, his hips pressed to Liam’s arse, and he’s saying, gritting the words out like they hurt, “You okay? You alright? Is this — alright?” touching Liam’s chest and neck and face like he’s trying to ground him.

Liam has to force himself to concentrate enough to say, “Yes, fuck, it’s fucking alright, Harry,” his whole body hot and burning, heat licking at his cheeks and mouth, his head filled with helium and white hot static. He lets go of his legs and hooks them around Harry’s sides and hips, his hands grabbing desperately for Harry’s shoulders and back.

Harry kisses Liam hard, and finally starts to move, thrusting slowly, shallowly. “You feel so fucking good, Liam,” he says, groaning, picking up a rhythm. “You’re so tight,” Harry says, dipping to kiss Liam again, though he does little more than pant into Liam’s open mouth as he fucks him, drops down to his elbows on either side of Liam’s shoulders so that they’re pressed together and Liam’s cock’s rubbing between their stomachs.

“Just wanna keep fucking you again and again,” Harry says, voice rough and hot in Liam’s ear after Liam turns his face away — needing to breathe, Harry kissing Liam’s jaw and cheek messily. “Love feeling you around my cock.”

Liam’s voice gives out in a whine when Harry thrusts particularly deep, his entire body lighting up. “Love it too,” he manages to say, too honest.

It only makes Harry groan, fucking Liam harder. “Can’t — I’m not gonna last very long,” Harry says, his voice dragging out. “Sorry, you — it’s, you feel too good.”

Liam holds tighter to Harry’s shoulders and his next breath catches in his throat, stinging. He sort of wishes Harry would be quiet, let Liam get lost again in the thick hard burning pressure of him being fucked open rather than fighting the urge to tell Harry that Liam’s not — he’s not that good, it’s only that it’s Harry’s first time like this, because if Liam was, if he was too good then he wouldn’t — Smith and Daniel, all of the other boys, they wouldn’t have —

But Harry can’t seem to help himself, his words half-lost into the skin at Liam’s throat and jaw as he’s saying, “Just wanna make you feel as good as you make me feel, love seeing you like this, can’t believe I get to.”

Liam kisses Harry to get him to quiet, it’s making it impossible to breathe to hear Harry talk like that, and Harry thrusts harder into him, sweat dripping down his spine and beading along his forehead. “Gonna make you come,” Harry says into Liam’s mouth. “Wanna make you come so fucking hard.”

He fucks into Liam harder like he really means it, won’t settle for anything less, and Liam screws his eyes shut as he takes it, moaning helplessly, his whole body still heated right up, his chest rising frantically with his breaths, his arms falling slack above his own head into the sheets.

“Yeah, wanna see you just like this, loving it,” Harry’s saying, Liam can feel his breath fanning quick and erratic over Liam’s own open mouth, “you’re so fucking hot, gorgeous.”

Liam’s chest hitches and he feels Harry’s hand scramble against his until they’re holding hands, fingers wound tightly together above Liam’s head, and then Harry’s other hand closes around Liam’s cock, jerking him off as Harry fucks into him harder and harder, impossibly deep.

Liam can’t breathe at all, his back arching to take Harry even deeper instinctively, and Harry still hasn’t shut up — he keeps saying things like, “Come for me, oh, fuck, Liam, please come for me, please,” like he doesn’t want to see anything else, and it’s making Liam’s face burn hotter and hotter, his eyes aching like they’re bruised from keeping them shut.

Harry’s hand on Liam’s cock is jerking him off just right, tight and twisting and quick, and Harry’s cock fucking into Liam is even better, and Liam starts saying between his moans in a voice that’s cracking apart, feels wrecked and used coming out of him, “Don’t stop, don’t stop,” because he’s close, he’s so fucking close even as his eyes feel like they’re stinging, pricking with tears.

Harry tells him, “Won’t, I wouldn’t ever,” and Liam can’t breathe at all when he comes, spilling all over Harry’s fingers and their stomachs and chests, sobbing through it, and it lasts for ages, Liam burning white hot, blanking out until nothing else is left.

Harry grabs onto Liam’s other hand above his head and fucks him right through it, fucks him in earnest, groaning, saying, “That was the hottest fucking thing, fuck, love seeing you come on my cock,” his hips slapping into Liam.

Liam gathers himself enough to open his eyes, though they feel a bit damp and swollen, and finds Harry’s face flushed and sweaty, unbelievably lovely, broken open, his eyes wide and dark and trained right on Liam’s face, and Liam can’t look away.

“Come in me, want you to come in me,” Liam says, hoarse, his voice breaking with it, tightening his legs around Harry’s hips to keep him close, arching his back again weakly.

Harry looks into Liam’s face the whole time, and it’s that expression — like Liam is someone new or someone special, that look Liam didn’t want to see, and Harry’s fucking Liam until the bed’s shaking, smacking into the wall, the sheets all twisted up around them; their fingers are damp and sweaty and numb from gripping so tight to each other, Liam thinks they’ll accidentally let go, but they don’t and then Harry’s groaning, “Gonna come,” and his hands on Liam’s tighten sharp and hard, and then Harry’s coming, his whole face shuddering, his body shaking, moaning loud and unashamed.

 

*

 

After, they must’ve all but conked out. Liam doesn’t remember — doesn’t even really know what they did with the condom or about all the lights still being on — and waking up gasping in the dark room, sweaty and overly hot, his skin sticking to the sheets, his heart thumping hard and quick with panic in his chest doesn’t make it any easier to recall. He can’t remember the dream that must’ve woke him either, but it must’ve not been very good. His head’s spinning, and he presses the heels of his palms against his too hot eyes, lying flat on his back in bed, trying to take even breaths, hoping to calm himself.

It’s probably like any one of those dreams he’s been having — football boot to his paralyzed face, or cornered in secondary school outside the corridor, or whatever — and it’s not real, he reminds himself firmly, so it’s nothing to get fussed over. He relaxes his hands against his face, and his pulse’s just beginning to slow so that it doesn’t feel like his heart’s trying to pop free from his ribcage anymore when there’s the noise of the sheets rustling and then a hand lands on Liam’s stomach and he startles, drops his own hands from his face.

It’s only Harry, of course, his hand rubbing in soothing circles now all the way up to Liam’s still hammering chest, and Liam can just make out Harry’s face swollen and soft from sleep, his curls flattened on one side from the pillow, his bare shoulders gleaming silver in the moonlight seeping through the curtains.

Harry’s hand’s warm, gentle as it slides up Liam’s chest to touch his face, his jaw and upturned cheek. “Alright?” Harry asks, his voice raspy and groggy, his mouth hardly separating to get the sound out, though his eyes grow intent, watching closely.

Liam nods, and then Harry’s hand starts to fall away, skimming down Liam’s chest, but Liam’s heart hasn’t really quit beating too quick, so he grabs at Harry’s hand and before he can think he finds himself saying, “You’re still here.”

Harry’s hand stills in Liam’s, pressed flat to his sternum — and it seems like all of him freezes, really, but Liam forces himself to keep looking Harry in the eye because Harry hasn’t looked away, and because Liam’s not sure out of all the things he thought might happen, he expected to happen, that this would be on any list. Harry’s eyebrows only crease a bit — confusedly, sleepily, and then he says, “‘Course I am,” like he wouldn’t plan on being anywhere else. He gives Liam’s hand a squeeze and asks, slowly, “Did you — not want me to be?”

Liam can’t help gripping Harry’s hand tighter at that and shaking his head. “No,” he says immediately, his voice low and hoarse. “No, don’t ever think that.”

“Alright,” Harry says, huffing a bit of a smile into Liam’s pillow and the sheets, as if it’s as easy as that. Harry settles like he’ll fall asleep again, his hand left on Liam’s chest, Liam left staring at him, but then Harry makes a sudden thoughtful noise and his eyes flare open wider rather than closing, his hand flexing in Liam’s hold. “What’d you wake up for then?” he asks, his face growing concerned.

“Oh,” Liam says, “it was nothing. Don’t worry about it, go back to sleep.” He turns onto his side and shushes Harry, even puts his hand over Harry’s face and eyes to encourage him, but Harry ends up laughing, so Liam does too and it feels much better than his chest being knotted up all tight like heavy sailing rope. Then Harry draws Liam’s hand away from his face — holding onto the both of them now — and shakes his head a bit.

“Liam,” Harry says, stretching his name out, asking without having to say anything more.

“It was only a dream,” Liam says, looking at his hands trapped in both of Harry’s rather than Harry’s face.

“Fine,” Harry says at last after Liam urges him to sleep again. “If you say you’re alright, then I believe you.”

Liam’s sure that’ll be the end of it, so he’s caught a bit off-guard when Harry lets go of him only to pull Liam into his chest, lay Liam’s head on his shoulder and wrap his arms around Liam’s lower back. “Sorted, then,” Harry says, and Liam can hear his voice rumbling beneath his ear. “No more bad dreams, alright?” His hand’s rubbing up and down Liam’s back, soothing, the last of Liam’s dream panic slinking away beneath the wash of it.

Liam hides his face into Harry’s neck, takes a steadying breath when he feels Harry’s fingers in his hair, touching so gently still. “Right,” Liam says into Harry’s skin. “No more of that.”

Liam can’t seem to drop off after, though — even though it’s not too hot at all, not even with their legs tangled together under the sheets, and Harry’s warm and comfy. Liam’s wide awake, is all — buzzing with unleashed energy that hums below his skin; it makes it impossible to want to close to his eyes again and sleep. So he rolls over instead, as slowly and delicately as he can to not disturb Harry, whose slack arms let Liam slip free, and Liam gropes for his phone on the bedside table.

He finds it after a few tries, leans over the end of the bed to hunch around it and hide the bright light, wincing and squinting when his home screen flares up. He’s not got any messages — no mentions on twitter or texts or missed calls or anything — and he stares for a moment at his blank screen before he remembers Harry’s post. His fingers slide against his keypad in his haste to pull instagram up, and then it’s there, the sunset from last night over the ocean with the filter that makes Liam feel like he’s looking at it from far far away, from outer-space, and there’s the caption Harry decided on right below it: A view’s only as good as its company.

Liam bites his lip against a grin that wants to take up his whole face and can’t help from laughing quietly a little. It’s quite early in the day — far too early for this, for the way the humming beneath Liam’s skin’s only growing louder, more insistent. He drops his phone back on the bedside table and turns around again.

Harry’s already there looking at him, one eye squinted open, the edge of his smile lost in his sheets. “What’s it now, Liam?” he says when he catches Liam’s eye, and his big hand reaches out for Liam’s shoulder.

Liam goes easily, saying, “Nothing,” props himself up with his forearm on his side by Harry, close enough that he could duck down and kiss him good morning, if he wanted to.

“If it’s nothing, then what're you up for?” Harry says, prodding Liam’s side, though his movement’s much too sluggish to do more than tickle, make Liam laugh. “Hmm?”

“Can’t sleep,” Liam says, shrugs. He bites his lip, looking down into Harry’s face. Harry’s still smiling a bit up at him, dead tired as he must be, the sheets twisted all the way down to his thighs. “Thinking about going for a morning surf.”

“I’ll go with you,” Harry says straight away. He yawns and then stretches like a cat, and Liam can’t resist it any longer — he ducks down to kiss Harry good morning, and Harry’s hands go right to the back of Liam’s head and neck like they never left, his mouth soft and warm.

 

*

 

The sun’s only beginning to rise, fanning out just below the horizon in a welcoming glow, and the beach is deserted, still and quiet and untouched like a blanket’s been folded over it — it’s the perfect time to surf, and Liam grins as he greets the ocean, the sand gritty and warming between his bare toes.

Harry sets up camp on the sand with an afghan he’d taken from Lou, and he stretches out with his shades and a styrofoam cup of coffee he’d made in the attached kitchen in Liam’s suite as Liam shrugs on his wetsuit. Liam’d already sanded his board down before they left the hotel — on the balcony while he’d waited for Harry to get the shower running for the both of them — so he’s all set to go now.

“Catch some waves for me,” Harry says, grinning up at Liam, his dimples sinking in deep.

The water’s chilled and cold against Liam’s feet and ankles when he reaches it, makes a shiver run up his spine. He takes a last glance over his shoulder, and Harry’s there lying on one elbow, stretched out as comfortably as he’d been in bed this morning, the early dawn light touching on the tops of his hair pushed off his forehead and flying away from his face in the light breeze, his long legs and yellow shorts and oversized plaid shirt. He makes a lazy shooing motion at Liam as if to tell him to get on with it, so Liam looks back to the horizon again, grinning.

The sun’s going to come up any moment now, Liam can tell, and he can already feel the warmth from it, even though the water’s freezing. He wades through until he’s up to his waist, his board floating beside him, the waves lapping gently against his stomach and back, and then he dives in head first.