When the doorbell rings twenty minutes too early, Louis has to hastily threaten his sisters under his breath that if they don't stay in their room like they promised, he will rip the heads off each and every one of their barbie dolls. They all scamper upstairs save for Lottie, who crosses her arms and levels Louis with an icy cold glare, but since he's the one that taught her that trick in the first place, it's not exactly effective.
Louis glares right back and promises in a low voice, “And then I will cut off all their hair so even if you tape their heads back on, they'll be bald.”
The doorbell rings again and Lottie holds her ground for another ten seconds before crumpling. She runs up the stairs on thundering feet, yelling over her shoulder that she's going to tell mum as soon as she gets home.
“No one likes a tattletale, Lottie!” he calls after her. Once her blonde head has disappeared up the stairs, Louis takes a deep, fortifying breath. Whoever's at the door starts knocking impatiently.
“Coming, I'm coming!” Running a hand down the front of his shirt to smooth away the wrinkles, Louis fixes a smile on his face before grabbing for the door handle and tearing it open, quick like ripping off a plaster. Liam's standing there, his knuckles still raised, mid-knock, and he grins brightly at Louis. Peering over Liam's shoulder to see if anyone else has arrived, Louis misses the way his smile drops a bit.
They're still standing in the doorway when Liam pulls him into a hug and Louis automatically wraps his arms around him in a quick squeeze before letting go and shuffling back. “Happy birthday, Lou,” Liam says softly.
“Yeah, thanks, c'mon in.” He holds the door open so Liam can slip inside, glancing again down the empty street.
“Are Nick and Greg and them still coming, then?” Liam asks in a careful voice.
Shutting the door with a click, Louis rolls his eyes. “I don't know what your problem with them is, Liam, honestly. And anyway, it's my birthday, isn't it? I can invite who I like.”
The smile Liam gives him is equal parts fond and exasperated. “Course you can, Tommo.” He pauses. “I, uh. Sorry I'm early, but I wanted to give you your present before everyone else got here.”
“My present?” Louis repeats gleefully. He looks at Liam's empty hands curiously.
Liam ducks his head. “It's in the basement. I had your mum help me.”
The words are barely out of Liam's mouth before Louis is darting down the hall and through the kitchen to where the door to the basement is.
“Wait, wait!” Liam calls after him, laughing as he races after Louis. “Stop, you're supposed to be blindfolded so I can do a big reveal.”
“Should have thought of that before you told me where my present was, then!” Louis pauses just long enough to throw Liam a wild grin over his shoulder before tearing open the basement door and almost tripping down the steps. He pulls up short when he reaches the bottom.
“Liam. Is this...?”
Following after him with more cautious steps, it takes Liam a moment longer to catch up. “Do you like it?” he asks hesitantly. “You always complain that you don't have enough privacy, with your sisters everywhere, and I thought, well, so then I talked to your mum first, and she agreed, so...”
Louis looks around the basement in wonder. The cement floor has been covered with a thick, wall to wall rug and the wood paneling painted over with a light blue color. Someone – Liam – has tacked posters to the walls, all of Louis' favorite footie players and superheroes. There's a bed already set up in one corner, bigger than the twin-sized frame currently in his room.
“We couldn't move all your stuff without you catching on, but we got everything we could set up,” Liam offers.
Slowly pivoting around, Louis comes to a stop when he's facing Liam again. “You did this? You and my mum, you cleaned out the whole basement? For me?”
Liam's smile is shy but proud. “Do you like it?”
“Shit, Li, I love it.” Louis throws himself down onto the bed, huffing out a laugh when he bounces on the mattress. “You, Liam, are my best mate. Did you know that?”
Shuffling over to sit on the edge of the bed, Liam grins so hard his eyes crinkle into little slits. “Yeah, Lou, I know.”
Louis pokes his toes into Liam's thigh until Liam wraps his hand around Louis' ankle, fingers warm against his bare skin. “I need to be completely honest with you,” Liam adds, his eyes glittering in the lamplight. “I may have had, what's it called, interior motives.”
“Ulterior motives, you mean.”
Liam flaps his hand. “Yeah, yeah.” Climbing off the bed, he crosses the room to where an acoustic guitar is sitting on a stand.
Louis sits up. “You brought your guitar?”
Looking at him from beneath his fringe, Liam shrugs. “With your room down here now, we can play music and no one can hear us. Maybe we could even start that garage band.”
“Liam, you can play, like, three songs.”
Liam bites his lip. “Four, actually.”
“You learned a new song?” Louis asks curiously.
Picking up the guitar, Liam settles himself back on the foot of Louis' bed, guitar cradled in his lap. “Wanted to, like, write you a song, but,” he smiles up at Louis. “I'm not that good yet.”
Louis nudges him. “Nah, Li, you're the next Kurt Cobain.”
Fingers plucking absently at the strings, Liam's lips purse into a mischievous smile. “Replay.”
Rolling his eyes, Louis dutifully repeats, “Nah, Li. You're the next Kurt Cobain.” As an afterthought, he adds, “without, like, all the tragedy, I mean.”
“Cheers, mate.” Liam's biting his lip again, face screwed up against the smile that's trying to break free. Louis flops back onto the mattress, arm draped over his eyes against the brightness of the ceiling light.
“So, how 'bout that song, then?”
“Right, right.” Liam plucks out a few errant notes, testing the strings, before his fingers find a hesitating rhythm. A moment later he starts singing softly, voice quiet but sure.
“The strands in your eyes, that color them wonderful...”
Louis doesn't move as Liam continues the song, fingers dancing over the guitar strings with growing confidence the longer he plays. His voice never wavers, even on the long note near the end, and the silence that washes over them when he finishes feels heavy.
It's Louis who finally breaks it. “You learned my favorite song.”
Liam's fingers move restlessly over the strings, not quite a melody, but still soothing. “It's a good song.”
“You--” Louis starts to say, but cuts himself off when the doorbell rings. “Shit, shit, they're here.” He jumps off the bed, running a hand through his hair. “Can you – shit, can you put the guitar away? I'm going to go let them in.”
He doesn't wait for Liam's reply, bounding up the stairs to the front door. His sisters are nowhere in sight, thank god, and Louis takes a moment to compose himself before opening the door. Nick and Greg are both standing on his porch, a few other guys behind them, and a weight Louis didn't realize was sitting heavily on his shoulders falls away. They're here. They came.
“Hey,” he says, aiming for cool and missing by a mile. He stands back so they can all file in. “We're in the living room. My mum's not home, so we can do whatever.”
“Oohh,” Nick singsongs. “No adult supervision. Gonna be a real party, is it?”
Louis swallows nervously. “I mean. That's what you came for, right?”
Clapping him on the shoulder, Greg grins. “So, Tomlinson. Where does your mum keep the good stuff?”
“Good stuff?” Louis repeats. There's a noise behind him and he turns to see that Liam has emerged from the basement, empty-handed. He eyes Nick and Greg with distrust. “You can't take Louis' mum's alcohol.”
Greg cocks his head. “Can't we?”
Someone slings an arm over his shoulder and then Nick's voice says into his ear, “Tommo here is a good sport. He wants to have a real party for his birthday, doesn't he?”
Liam crosses his arms over his chest. “If his mum finds out, he'll be grounded.”
Louis hears a laugh that's quickly muffled and feels his face burn. “Jesus, it's fine, Liam. She hardly drinks anyway, with the girls around all the time. She won't notice.”
“See, Payne?” Nick says. “She won't notice. No need to be a baby about it.”
Liam looks like he's about to say something else, so Louis shrugs Nick's arm off and stalks over to him. “Me 'n Liam will grab the stuff, okay? You guys just, uh, make yourselves at home.”
Nick gives him a sloppy salute, smiling knowingly and Louis grabs Liam by the arm to drag him forcefully into the kitchen.
“What the hell are you doing?” he hisses as soon as they're out of earshot.
“What am I doing? Louis, you know your mum will notice! You can't let them drink here. What if your sisters find out?”
“Then I will threaten to flush all their barbie heads down the toilet if they tell. It will be fine, okay? We'll just refill what they drink with water.” Liam doesn't look convinced and Louis sighs. “Please, Liam. I'm lucky they even showed up, okay? Nick is, like, the coolest guy at school. If I don't... if this doesn't go well, I can kiss my social life goodbye.”
“You'll still have me,” Liam says stubbornly.
“I always have you,” Louis argues. “But I want to be invited to parties, and I want people to actually laugh at my jokes, and I want – I want to kiss someone! I'm 13, Liam. I'm not a kid anymore. I want to be somebody. Somebody cool, and funny, and – and important. So just. Just don't fuck this up for me, okay?”
Liam's silent for a long moment. “Okay,” he finally says, voice so quiet Louis almost misses it. He breathes out a sigh of relief and drags a chair over to the cabinet above the fridge that he's still not tall enough to reach. There are only a few bottles, but they're mostly full, liquid sloshing around as he reaches for them one by one. He hands them to Liam carefully before climbing back down.
“C'mon,” he says with more confidence than he really feels. “Let's go throw a party.”
Liam follows after him, bottles clutched tightly in hand.
Louis' head feels woozy. It takes the world half a second to catch up every time he moves and he looks into his empty cup like maybe there's an explanation inside. The bottles on the table are empty, too, and he thinks that's a bad thing, but he can't remember why.
His arms and legs are like jelly and Louis relaxes back onto the couch, head lolling to the right. Liam is sitting next to him, body stiff, and he's sipping slowly at his drink.
“Liam,” Louis tries to say. It comes out a bit slurred, but Liam glances over at him all the same so it can't be too bad. “Liam,” he says again. “Think 'm drunk.”
Someone laughs and Louis looks around, eyes struggling to focus. Nick's face swims into view, still laughing, and he tips his cup towards Louis.
“Here's to the birthday boy,” he announces. It's hard to tell, because no matter how hard Louis tries he can't shake the blurry edges of his vision, but Nick's smile looks sincere.
“To me!” Louis echoes loudly, raising his own empty cup.
“First time drinking, love?” Greg asks, and he sounds amused. “'Cause I totally can't tell.”
Louis' eyes find Greg's face. “Really?” he breathes. “You can't?”
There's more laughter and Louis grins. He loves making people laugh. Letting his head drop back onto the couch, Louis catches sight of Liam again. Liam's not laughing and Louis frowns.
“Why aren't you laughing?” he demands.
“Yeah, Liam,” Nick jumps in. “Don't you think our Tommo is funny?”
“I think our Tommo is hilarious,” Greg adds. Louis holds up his hand and Greg gives him a sloppy high five.
Liam's fingers turn white, he's gripping his cup so hard. He's going to break it if he isn't careful. Liam's always so careful.
“You guys don't have to be dicks,” Liam says softly. “He let you have his mum's alcohol. You can just be nice to him.”
Louis whips his head around so fast it takes a long moment for his eyes to catch up, his vision snapping into place after a hazy few seconds. “What the fuck, Liam?” he tries to whisper, but it comes out too loud.
“Oh, Liam thinks we aren't nice people.” Greg sounds sad, maybe, and that's just. That's not on.
“No,” Louis pleads, a little desperately. “Liam thinks you're nice people. Don't you, Li?”
Liam takes another sip of his drink instead of answering.
“I don't think he does,” Nick says, conversationally. “But that's all right. We'll just have to prove it, won't we?”
“Mmm,” Greg hums. “Nice people take an interest in other's lives, don't they?” He turns towards Liam. “So, Liam, please tell me, 'cause I've been dying to know. When your mum cuts your hair, how does she get the edge so straight? Does she actually put a bowl over your head, or is she just that talented?”
The plastic cup in Liam's hand crumples. He doesn't say a word, just gets up off the couch and disappears into the kitchen. Nick and Greg and the rest of the guys are laughing loudly and Louis joins in, a beat too late.
Nick glances down at his watch when the laughter dies out. “Well,” he says, not looking at Louis. “It's been fun, mate, but we've got places to be.”
“Oh. You... you're leaving?”
Greg ruffles his hair. “Sorry, kid. Great, um. Great party, and thanks for the drinks, yeah?”
Grabbing Greg by the wrist, Nick tugs him up. “Jesus, come on, he's not a puppy.” The rest of the guys get up to follow and Louis feels wild, off balance. “Where – where're y'going?”
“Don't worry about it,” Nick says at the same time someone else mutters, “better be more pussy at Caroline's, god.”
“Caroline's?” he echoes hopefully.
“God, Matt, learn to keep your fucking mouth shut,” Greg mutters while Nick smiles apologetically. “Ah, yeah, we'd totally invite you, but, um... there's not enough room in the car, y'know? Next time though, for sure.”
“Right,” Louis says flatly. “Well. Have fun.”
“Cheers, mate.” They stumble out the door, leaving behind a mess of empty bottles and scattered crumbs on the couch cushions and carpeting that Louis' mum is going to be proper pissed about when she gets home. Head feeling too heavy, Louis heaves himself to his feet and has to grab hold of the arm of the couch to steady himself. He makes his way to the kitchen on unsteady feet, leaning heavily on the doorway when he finally reaches it.
Liam is standing in front of the sink, arms braced on the edge and head bowed.
For a long moment, Louis just watches him. It's Liam who finally speaks. “Your friends all leave?”
“Go to hell,” Louis snaps. “I asked you to do one thing, one fucking thing, and you couldn't, you--”
Liam turns around to face him, face open in shock. “You think I'm the reason they left? You honestly... Louis, they came here to drink your mum's booze and left the moment it was gone. They're not-- I don't get it, why you want them to like you so bad.” He sounds more confused than anything.
“You wouldn't get it, would you? You're happy with your stupid hair and your stupid guitar and being nobody.” Liam flinches like Louis has actually slapped him, but Louis can't stop the words from tripping out his mouth, stumbling over each other as he bites them out. “I'm going to be somebody, Liam. Somebody important and cool and wanted. So fuck off, okay? Just. Fuck off.”
Shoving off the wall, he manages to make it to the door to the basement without tripping. He slams the door shut behind him and stumbles down the steps, breath coming in pants as he struggles not to cry. When he reaches his bed, he flings himself down on the mattress, burying his face in a pillow that smells like his mum's laundry detergent and Liam's shampoo.
There's a soft knock on his door after a few moments, but Louis ignores it. He doesn't want to be 13 anymore, not if it means broken dreams and not being good enough and crying himself to sleep like a little kid.
At least Liam was right about one thing. Down here, no one can hear him sob.
When Louis wakes up, he feels groggy and disoriented. The night before filters back in bits and pieces and he rolls over, groaning. He never cleaned up the mess, his mum is going to kill him, and ground his dead body forever, and then he won't get to see Liam, and--
Liam. Louis sits up and his head spins a bit before settling. Gingerly, he climbs out of bed, padding out of the bedroom on bare feet. He's distracted, head all over the place, which is why he doesn't notice anything's wrong until he comes face to face with a mirror just outside his room.
He does a double, then a triple take. His hands fly automatically to his face, fingers rubbing over slightly stubbled cheeks, and the figure in the mirror does the same. He stumbles back in shock, bumping painfully into the wall and nearly knocking a framed picture down before he scrambles down the hall. There's an oversized chair in the living room and he sinks down onto it, head between his knees as he counts slowly to ten, then twenty, then a hundred.
When he sits up, the room has stopped spinning but nothing else has changed. Louis still has a man's hands, a man's face, a man's body. Either this is the strangest, most vivid dream he's ever had, or...
No, no, it's definitely a dream. A really sick dream, apparently, because this flat is better than anything Louis could have imagined. He runs his hand over a buttery soft leather couch, wanders into the kitchen and grabs an apple from the fruit bowl sitting out on the counter. Crunching into the firm fruit, he absentmindedly wipes the juice away from his chin as he explores the rest of the flat. There's a disorganized pile of mail with his name on it, framed pictures of himself scattered about with people he doesn't recognize. Louis stops short when he reaches the panoramic windows, London's sweeping skyline laid out before him.
“Holy shit,” he breathes.
It's right about then that he notices the sound of the shower running, and he turns towards the bathroom in time to see the door swing open and a very blonde, very naked man step out in a cloud of steam.
Louis slaps a hand over his eyes. “Um,” he says eloquently.
The man laughs. “Think you're a riot, do ya?”
He's Irish, if the accent is anything to go by. “You're naked,” Louis points out the obvious, peeking through his fingers. The man either hasn't noticed, or doesn't care.
“Yeah, because there aren't any clean towels. Do ya actually do your own laundry, or just wait until I come over 't do it for you?”
Louis swallows. “Isn't there a rule against maids taking off their clothes?”
For reasons Louis can't figure out, this makes the man nearly double over with laughter. “That hurts, babe. That really hurts.” He grins at Louis, showing off a row of white, even teeth. “Gonna make you pay for that one.”
Looking around wildly, Louis spots a likely candidate for the front door. He shoves his feet into a pair of shoes near the mat and grabs a jacket off the rack, slipping it on over his plain white t-shirt. The blonde man watches him with amusement, leaning casually against the bathroom doorway like it's a normal thing to be naked in someone else's house.
Shooting him one last wary look, Louis flees out the door, the man's laughter following him down the hall. He gets as far as taking the lift down to the lobby before he pulls up short. Not that he's admitted it to anyone except Liam, but he's only been to London once on a class trip. He's got no idea where to go, or what to do, until--
“Tomlinson! The fuck, mate, we're going to be late. Get in.”
Louis looks up, and up some more, until his eyes come to rest on the face of a tall, good looking bloke with rather fancy hair. Louis' own hair is still a windswept mess and he runs his fingers through it self-consciously, buying himself a minute to think.
“Don't just stand there looking pretty, love. We've got that meeting with Cowell today.” He eyes Louis' bare ankles, just visible below the cuff of his trousers. “Why do you insist on doing that? Is it to irk me personally, because you know I take offense. It's unhygienic, is what it is.”
“It's-- I—” Louis stutters out.
The man just shakes his head. “Hopeless. Get in. We'll stop for coffee, okay?” He leans on the open car door, gesturing for Louis to crawl inside, and since the man's not naked and promised Louis coffee, he does. The man climbs in after him and leans forward to tell the driver. “Yeah, can you make a stop at Starbucks? Sleepy Beauty here needs his morning roast.”
“What about the meeting with Cowell?” Louis asks cautiously.
The man rolls his eyes. “You're a trainwreck without coffee. I'd rather be late.”
A loud vibrating noise splits the air and the man reaches into his pocket, swearing softly at the little device he pulls out before pressing it to ear. “Grimshaw.”
“Nick?” Louis says, surprised. Nick looks over at him, his pocket phone still up to his ear. “It's Teasdale,” he mouths. “Lou!” he says into the phone. “Sorry, babe, you know how Tomlinson is in the mornings... no, no, we're on way now... I mean, we're not not stopping for coffee, if that's what you're asking... yes, christ, we'll get you a tea then... yeah, ta. Bye.” He hangs up, pocketing the phone.
Louis feels completely out of his element, which is the only reason he doesn't tell Nick that he's always preferred tea to coffee.
He pulls up short outside of the office building, scalding hot coffee in hand.
“So, uh. This meeting with Cowell. What's... what's that all about, again?”
“I know you think you're funny, Tomlinson, but you're really, really not.” He must see something on Louis' face – complete and utter panic, if Louis had to take a wild guess – and rolls his eyes. “For fuck's sake – take a deep breath, would you? I hate when you get nervous. It makes me nervous.”
“Well, I'm sorry to inconvenience you,” Louis says tartly.
“There's the Louis I know and love,” Nick replies with a grin. “Save that biting wit of yours for Cowell, okay? All we need to do is convince him the last few artists we've signed are going to be a goldmine. Little bit of schmoozing, little bit of charm, be over before you know it.”
“Are the last few artists we've signed going to be a goldmine?” Louis asks.
This time when Nick smiles, it reminds Louis faintly of a shark. “They'd better be. Our careers depend on it.”
Right. No pressure then. Yesterday, Louis was struggling with algebra. Today, he's got a career. Wondering when the hell he's going to wake up from this nightmare, Louis squares his shoulders and follows Nick through the doors.
Cowell sends his condolences that he has to cancel the meeting. Louis' shoulders sag in relief while Nick fumes. “What a fucking prick,” he grouses. “I got here early for this, and he can't even cancel in advance? Un-fucking-believable.” He stops outside a door that's labeled Nick Grimshaw: Executive Producer.
“If anyone needs me,” he threatens. “I'll be in my office.”
Louis looks around at the reception bay, but no one will meet his gaze, eyes on the ground. Nick slams into his office, door clicking shut with finality behind him. There's another just down the hall with Louis' name on it, and he trails his fingers over the words Executive Producer etched underneath. Apparently, whatever he and Nick are doing, they're doing it together, and they're doing it right. With one last glance behind him, Louis lets himself into his office and allows himself a minute to breathe.
It's messy – no surprises there – but the floor to ceiling windows offer a sick view of a busy London street. Louis sinks into the chair behind the desk, eyes roaming over the mess of paperwork and a computer that looks like something out of the future. His head starts to swim again, but before he can have a full meltdown, he's distracted by the ringing of a phone.
Reaching for the receiver, he automatically says, “Hello, Tomlinson resid--” and hastily cuts himself off before he can give himself away.
“It's Mr. Sheeran, sir. He says he doesn't have an appointment, but it's important that he meet with you.” The voice on the other end of the line is cool, professional, but wavers a bit at the end.
“Sure,” Louis says. “Send him in.” It seems like the kind of thing a boss would say.
“I-- really?” the voice sounds surprised now, but quickly resumes the cool tone from before. “I mean, of course. I'll send him right in.”
“Thanks,” Louis replies, carefully placing the phone back in its cradle. He glances around the office again, fingers drumming nervously on the desk, but it's only a moment before a knock sounds on the door.
“It's open,” he calls. He watches the knob turn slowly before the door swings open and a red-headed man in a plain red sweatshirt and jeans steps in. Louis frowns and Mr. Sheeran closes the door behind him.
“Please,” he offers after an awkward pause. “Have a seat.”
“I'd rather stand,” Mr. Sheeran replies stiffly.
“Er, all right then. Um. What can I for you?”
“You can let me out of my fucking contract, is what you can do.” Louis stiffens at the venomous tone and watches the way that Sheeran's hands curl into fists by his sides.
“Sorry, your... contract?” he tries, trying not to flinch.
Sheeran runs a hand through his hair, jerking through the tangled strands in frustration. “Oh, is that the game we're playing today? You gonna pass me back to Grimmy, just so he can tell me that I need to talk to you? Real slick business you have going on. I really like the whole good cop/bad cop routine the two of you have perfected, but guess what? I'm not a fucking criminal, I'm your client.”
Nervously, Louis licks his lips. “And um, why is it, exactly, what you want out of your contract?”
“Because you're fucking me over!” Sheeran shouts, slamming his fist down on Louis's desk hard enough to rattle it. The phone starts ringing, an incessant, shrill noise that grates on his nerves. Without taking his eyes off of Sheeran, Louis grabs for it. “Hello?”
“Do you need me to call security?” It's the same voice as before.
He wants to say yes, to have someone else deal with this-- this problem, because he has no idea what he's doing, he's not prepared for this, but. Sheeran is still watching him, the fire fading from his eyes into something tired and resigned. With another nervous swallow, Louis says carefully, “No, no need for security. We'll just. I'll handle it.”
His hand barely shakes at all when he hangs up the phone. Sheeran is looking at him with renewed interest. “Not going to throw me out?”
Louis shakes his head. “Let me... listen, I'll look over your contract, okay? I'll try to, I dunno, figure something out.” He can always ask Nick, he reasons.
Sheeran is quiet for a long moment. “I thought you were supposed to be the bad cop,” he finally says.
“Thought I was supposed to be a producer,” Louis replies weakly. Sheeran's lips twitch into something that could be a smile, if you squint.
“If you don't call me, I'll come back,” Sheeran warns before he turns on his heel, leaving the office as quickly as he came in and closing the door quietly behind him. Louis slumps back into his chair, rubbing his hand over his face.
Barely a minute goes by before there's another knock. “Yeah?” he calls out tiredly.
The door cracks open and a girl pokes her head in. “Sorry for interrupting, Mr. Tomlinson. I just wanted, um. Just wanted to check in?” It's the voice from the phone, but it sounds warmer in person. “Make sure Ed hadn't, like, killed you or anything.”
Louis laughs wearily. “No, everything's fine, thanks.”
The girl hesitates. “Well, if you need anything...”
“Actually,” Louis says, sitting up straighter. “Can you find someone for me?”
Grabbing for a pad of paper and a pen, Louis scribbles down Liam's name and the phone number he's had memorized since Year 3. “Here's his name and number. I just need to know where he is.”
The girl takes the paper from him. “I'll do my best, Mr. Tomlinson.”
Louis winces. “Can you, like... Louis is fine.”
For the first time, the girl smiles. It's tiny, but it makes her already pretty features look radiant. “Sure, Louis,” she repeats. “I'll see what I can do.”
Eleanor can do a lot, apparently, because barely an hour later Louis has Liam's address in his hands. He tells her he's taking a long lunch and hails a cab outside the office that he pays for with a credit card he finds in the wallet in his coat pocket.
It's a bit a drive, especially with London traffic, and Louis' hands are sweaty with nerves when they pull up outside of Liam's building. He scans the row of call buttons before he finds the one labeled Payne and presses down the buzzer desperately.
“Hello? Hello?” The voice that comes through is staticky and unfamiliar.
“Liam?” Louis asks, ignoring the way his voice cracks. “Please, Li, tell me it's you. It's Louis, and I don't-- I don't know what's going on. I can't-- I need you, Liam.”
There's a pause before the voice says, “Can you repeat that? Sorry, all I got was static.”
“Liam?” Louis repeats.
“Sorry. Just, like. Ring twice if you're from KFC.”
Louis presses down twice on the buzzer.
He knocks on Liam's door maybe a bit harder than strictly necessary, but it's been a trying day already and it's barely noon.
The door opens a crack, a latched chain in the way, and the face peeking through is startlingly different than the Liam that Louis remembers. Dark stubble covers his sharp jawline, and his cheeks look leaner, more defined. His nose, though, is exactly the same and Louis' knees go weak with relief.
“Liam?” he says, hardly more than a whisper. When he's met with suspicious silence, he follows it up with, “oh my god, Liam. You look so – you're different, Liam. Jesus, is it really you?”
Another pause. And then: “Louis?”
Louis nods his head. “Yeah, yes, it's me.”
The door slams shut in his face.
Louis stands there a moment, completely at a loss, but then he hears the sound of metal dragging against metal as Liam unlocks the chain and a second later the door swings wide open. Without thinking, Louis throws himself in Liam's arms, burying his face in the warm skin of Liam's neck.
“Um. C'mon in, then,” Liam says weakly, arms wrapping around Louis like it's second nature.
“Liam,” Louis breathes. There's the faint scent of cologne clinging to his skin, but beneath it is a familiar smell that's distinctly Liam. Liam pats at his back awkwardly and Louis finally pulls back, smiling sheepishly.
“Sorry,” he starts. “It's just. Yesterday I was 13 and today I'm-- I'm this, and you're that, holy shit, you got so tall, and I'm freaking out a little bit because this is a dream, it has to be, but it doesn't feel like a dream, Liam, it feels real.”
Liam blinks at him before his eyes narrow suspiciously. “Are you drunk? High? Did you drink that cough syrup with the codeine?”
Louis' head starts to feel funny again. He tries another track. “Sorry, just. Can you, like. Catch me up. Fill me on what's happened since.” He swallows heavily. “Since we were kids?”
“I...” Liam trails off. “Sorry, but you're asking the wrong person. I don't know anything about you.”
Legs feeling like jelly, Louis lets himself sink down onto Liam's couch. “What do you mean, exactly? Aren't we...” his voice comes out very small. “Aren't we friends?”
Slowly, Liam shakes his head. “I haven't seen you since secondary school, mate.”
“Oh.” Suddenly it's hard to breathe. “Is it me, or is it hot in here? I feel like it's really hot in here.”
“Okay,” Liam says, sounding as if he's very far away. “Okay, just. Can you take some deep breaths for me? C'mon, Louis, there's a lad. In and out, in and out.”
Louis focuses on the way Liam's hand is rubbing soothing circles over his back, forces himself to take deep, gasping lungfuls of air and let them out shakily until the dots swimming in front of his eyes finally disappear.
“I'm okay,” he chokes out eventually. “I'm fine.”
“Okay,” Liam says again. “Do you want me to... I could walk you home?”
Mutely, Louis nods.
“So you're like Uncle Jesse, basically.”
Liam laughs and its deeper than Louis remembers, but so strangely familiar in this world where nothing makes sense.
“I mean, I guess? Pretty much just the song writing bit. Don't have the whole, y'know, house full of nieces, fit wife living in the attic, or anything.”
Louis bumps his shoulder against Liam's. It's hard to get used to how much taller than him Liam is now. “What happened to being the next Cobain?”
Smiling ruefully, Liam slides his hands into his pockets. “Tried out the whole garage band thing in school. Didn't really pan out like I'd hoped.”
“I'd've paid to see that,” Louis says wistfully.
This time, Liam's laugh sounds a little hollow. “Couldn't have paid you to come to one of our shows, actually.” He shrugs. “But, y'know, it's water under the bridge and all that.”
Louis waits a beat, but he doesn't add anything else. “What happened between us, Liam?”
Liam smiles and Louis can't tell what he's thinking. It makes him want to scream. “Like I said,” Liam repeats. “Water under the bridge.”
“Yeah.” They walk in silence a few moments before Louis offers slyly, “You know, I'm a big time producer now. Got my name on a fancy plaque and everything.”
“Mmm,” Liam murmurs. “I heard. You and Grimmy have made quite a name for yourselves, haven't you?”
“Yeah,” Louis repeats dreamily. “It's like... I'm somebody, y'know?”
It's Liam's turn to bump his shoulder against Louis'. “You were always somebody, Lou.”
“Replay,” Louis repeats, insistent. “Don't tell me you forgot replay.”
Liam huffs out a laugh. “Wow, no, I remember.” He catches Louis' eye, smile still unreadable. “You were always somebody, Lou,” he repeats, words sounding just as sincere the second time. Louis bites his lip against a smile.
They slow to a stop in front of Louis' building and Louis' eyes trail up to the top, searching out his window. He can't pick it out from down here on the ground, too far away to figure out which one is his in the sea of glass.
“What if this isn't just a dream, Li? What if I really got everything I ever wanted?”
Pulling his hand from his pocket, Liam rubs it over the back of his neck. His hair is shorter, now, nearly buzzed on the sides and just long enough on top to comb back with hairwax. His stubble is even more impressive than Louis', but his eyes are the same warm brown they've always been.
“Well,” he says, after mulling it over, “Then you might as well enjoy it.”
So Louis enjoys it. He skates by at the studio on his wit and Eleanor's help, but it's the parties and events he really excels at. There's always a drink in his hand and someone to laugh at his jokes. He loves the spotlight, climbing up on the bar to dance with some pretty young singer they've just signed while Nick moans loudly that Louis is a national embarrassment to anyone who'll listen. It just makes Louis wilder, the thrill of being the center of attention, of having so many eyes on him.
He shows up to work hungover more often than not, but it just gives him an excuse to check out during boring meetings. They're losing revenue, need to sign from fresh talent and drop some hits to stay afloat, but Louis isn't worried. His life has worked out fine this far and even if this isn't a dream, it's like he's invincible.
The only thing that really throws him is the day that Eleanor comes to his office with a stack of messages, reading them off for Louis as he lounges back in his chair, feet resting on the desk.
“And then the last one's from your mum, but I can just throw that out.”
Louis' feet hit the floor with a thump, knocking off a pile of papers. “Why would you throw that out?” he demands and Eleanor flinches.
“Sorry, I... you said they weren't important, just to bin them.”
Louis blinks. “I said that?”
She nods, looking at him with wide eyes.
“Right, well. I've changed my mind then. No, no, not your fault – just, give it here, yeah?”
She hands it over at once. He offers a distracted thanks as she scurries out of the office.
The next time he sees Liam is outside some ritzy club. He and Nick had been working the room, trying to charm potential investors, when Nick announced he was stepping out for a smoke. Feeling too warm and itchy under his starched collar, Louis followed him out for some air.
It's Nick that spots Liam first, actually, a snarky, “Well, if it isn't Liam Payne,” dropping from his lips.
Louis looks up in time to see Liam's tense smile. “Nick. It's been a while.”
Flicking ash from the end of his cigarette, Nick gives Liam a blatant once-over, completely ignoring the bloke standing next to him. “Somebody lost their baby fat.”
“Glad to see you haven't lost your charm,” Liam replies in a dry tone. The bloke standing next to him coughs loudly into his fist. “Oh, um. This is Harry. He's my--”
“I'm his fiancé,” Harry interrupts, reaching out to shake Louis' and Nick's hands in turn. A slow smile blooms across his face. “You must be Louis.”
“Oh, yeah, I... Liam talked about me?”
Harry's smile turns sly. “Might've mentioned you once or twice.”
“So!” Liam says brightly. “Great weather we're having, isn't it?”
Before this moment, Louis did not know it was possible to smoke a cigarette condescendingly. Nick, it would appear, has a lot of hidden talents. Louis elbows him sharply in the ribs and has to press his lips together against a smile when Nick huffs indignantly.
Harry twines his hand through Liam's, pressing in close to his side. “You know where the weather's really nice, Li?”
“Do we... can we not do this right now?”
Turning towards Nick and Louis, Harry tells them conspiratorially, “I'm trying to convince Liam to relocate to LA with me. C'mon, you're in the music business, right? Tell Liam how many more opportunities he'll have in LA.”
“Opportunities for what?” Nick mutters around his cigarette. “To join more shitty bands?”
Louis grinds his heel into Nick's instep. Nick swears and almost drops his cigarette, and Louis forces his mouth into a smile. “Oh, well I mean, I don't really... I'm only familiar with the music business, here in London, specifically, so I couldn't really... LA's pretty far, isn't it?”
“It'd be an adventure,” Harry starts at the same time that Liam mumbles, “Bit too far, if you ask me.”
They're both interrupted by a loud “OI!” from across the street. All four of them swivel their heads around towards the noise.
“Oh, shit,” Louis groans. Across the street is the blonde man from his flat, who starts jogging across the street towards them. Louis had sort of forgotten about that little problem.
“Domestic troubles?” Nick asks, amusement lacing his tone.
“I...” Louis starts, faltering.
“Oi, Lou,” the blonde man says once he's reached them. “What's up, babe?” He looks around at their little group, gives everyone a friendly wave. “Hello! Who're your friends, love?”
Louis looks at Nick helplessly, but Nick is busy puffing on his cigarette, watching the smoke drift up towards the sky in fascination. Unhelpful wanker. Louis tries out another smile, but it feels tight and wrong. “Oh, this is Liam, my, uh, old mate from school, and his friend, Harry.”
“Fiancé,” Harry corrects smoothly and Louis doesn't blush, he doesn't. “Right, right. Fiancé. Um, and this is...” he trails off, looking at the blonde man blankly.
“Niall Horan,” Liam fills in, grasping Niall's hand. “Big fan, mate, but I can't say the same for the rams.”
“You play for Derby?” Louis asks in disbelief. He'd thought, maybe, that he and Niall were – well, it seemed like they could be shagging, based on, like, the evidence, even though Niall's a bloke, which is, like... a thought for another time, he guesses... but there is no way, no way, that Louis is shagging a Derby player.
Niall just laughs like Louis has cracked a particularly funny joke. “And y'never let me forget it, do ya?” He slings a friendly arm over Louis' shoulder. “All right if I steal 'im from ya, Grimmy?”
Nick waves them off. “Go, take your puppy dog love somewhere else. I don't want to see it.”
Laughing again, Niall exchanges a friendly goodbye with Liam and Harry – everything he does seems friendly, now that he's wearing clothes – and steers Louis down the street. Louis lets him, feeling a bit dazed. He glances back once, in time to see that Nick has disappeared back inside the club. Liam has his arm around Harry, walking slowly away.
Louis wanders around Niall's flat while he grabs them a couple of beers from the fridge. His living room is neat and organized, and looks like all the décor has been ordered straight from an Ikea catalog. Louis picks up what appears to be a decorative vase and sets it back down guiltily when he hears Niall clear his throat behind him.
“So!” he says brightly, turning around.
“So,” Niall mimics, taking a pull from his beer. Louis makes grabby hands and Niall hands the other one over with a wide grin. Louis takes a big gulp and nearly chokes at the strong taste.
“God,” he gasps out around a cough. “Derby player and shit taste in beer. What did I do to deserve you?”
Throwing his head back with laughter, Niall sinks down on the couch, patting the cushion next to him. “C'mon, babe,” he pleads. “Haven't seen you in ages, feels like. Want a cuddle.”
Setting his beer down on the coffee table, Louis perches on the other end of the couch, leaving a wide gap between them. Niall seems to take it as a challenge, scooting over until he's right next to Louis, slipping an arm around his stiff shoulders.
“You're prickly tonight,” he announces.
“I'm, uh, I'm just tired,” Louis explains hastily as Niall smushes his cheek into Louis' shoulder. He's sort of like a blonde, Irish octopus. But it's nice, Louis decides. His side is warm where Niall is pressed up against him, and it feels... it feels nice.
Niall shifts, then, the arm around Louis' shoulder tugging him in even closer until Niall's lips find the sensitive skin of Louis' neck. His mouth is warm and a little wet, and it tickles when he drags his lips over Louis' pulse point.
Laughing a little desperately, Louis squirms away. He can't get far with Niall's octopus arm around him and the arm of the couch caging him in, but Niall at least pulls back.
“What's wrong, love? You're not still pissed about the match, are ya?”
“Uh, yes. Yes! I'm furious about it, actually. So mad, I can't even... can't even think straight.”
“Mmm,” Niall hums. “Good thing what I'm about 't do is very, very gay then.” He scoots back, hands sliding down to rest on Louis' thighs, tugging his legs over. With a wicked grin, he runs his palms back up, fingertips coming dangerously close to Louis' dick.
Louis scrambles off the couch, nearly kicking Niall in the face on accident.
“What--” he starts to say, but Louis is already shoving his feet back into his shoes.
“Sorry,” he says hastily. “Didn't realize, it's so late, I should – bed, y'know?”
Niall sits back, looking a little confused. “Got a perfectly nice bed here. Comes with morning blow jobs, too. Can't beat that, can you?”
Louis chokes on nothing. “Good night, Niall,” he says when he can breathe again, reaching for the door.
“What'd I do? Louis, talk 't me. Louis!” Niall's voice follows him down the hall, but Louis doesn't look back.
The atmosphere in the studio grows tense as the days pass, hushed conversations breaking off whenever Louis steps into a room.
He listens in exactly once, hears the whispered, “What's with the nice guy act? He isn't fooling anyone. At least he stands a chance of keeping a receptionist around. Did you know, Eleanor hasn't cried once the past three weeks?” and “I know, poor girl. She's going to get the worst of it once he drops the act. Sophia in accounting has a betting pool going on when he's going to snap,” and spends a long time in the bathroom after, examining the lines around his eyes and mouth.
People keep throwing around figures and numbers, pulling him into long, dull meetings, and it makes Louis' head hurt, too many things he doesn't understand. Being a producer was supposed to be fun, but instead it's responsibility. Even Nick, who's supposed to have his back, starts rolling his eyes whenever Louis opens his mouth to say something, loudly talking over him.
Louis ends up spending more time than not lurking around the recording booths. No one even tells him off when he fucks around in the control room, fiddling with equipment he has no business touching. He tries not to interfere when people are actually working, but he can't stop himself from asking questions about everything, like what that knob does or what happens if someone pulls that lever.
People always answer him, usually after a cautious pause, like they're not quite sure how to respond. “Are you, like, testing me?” one of the sound techs finally asks. He sounds... almost nervous.
“Why would you think that?” Louis asks, curious.
“Because you... I mean, don't you know all this stuff?”
Oh, right. “Er, yeah. I was testing you. Congrats, you passed!”
The tech breathes out a sigh that sounds suspiciously like relief before focusing on his work again. He talks into the little mic that connects to the recording booth, where a recently signed kid is trying his hardest to lay down a vocal track. At least, Nick calls him a kid. He can't be much younger than twenty, which seems ancient to Louis.
“Can you sing that part again?” the tech asks. “Start right before the bridge.”
The kid nods, grimly determined, and the tech cues the music in his headphones. Louis watches with fascination as he croons out the song, singing different parts over and over and over until the tech is finally satisfied.
“That's a wrap,” he says after forever, once the kid starts to sound a little hoarse. “Go home, drink some tea, and come back tomorrow ready to work, okay?”
Slipping off his headphones, the kid gives a thumbs up before exiting the booth. Louis stops him before he can make it too far.
“Hey, it's Zayn, right?”
Watching the tech finish up and shut everything down over Louis' shoulder, the kid nods carefully. “Yeah, yeah, it's Zayn.”
Louis grins. “Your voice is like, proper sick, mate. Seriously, you gave me goosebumps.” Louis holds his arm out to demonstrate. Behind him, the tech makes a snorting noise that he quickly turns into a cough at Louis' sharp look.
The tech hurries out after that, but Zayn lingers, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck.
“You, uh...” he says once they're alone. “Y'didn't really forget my name, did you?”
Louis cringes inwardly. “Ha, no, of course not! Zayn, Zaynie... the Zaynmiester. Y'know I'm just, uh, always playing around.”
Zayn does not look particularly happy about Louis' pet names, but offers a small smile all the same. “So,” he says conversationally. “Looks like it's just me and you, then.” His smile widens. “Imagine that.”
“Oh, well I think... Eleanor's still here, I'm sure, out in reception...” Louis trails off as Zayn steps closer, licking his lips like a hungry lion.
“That offer you mentioned earlier,” Zayn says in a low voice, completely out of the blue. “For extra studio time? That still stands, yeah?”
Louis is in over his head and sinking fast. “Remind me again. Which offer was that?”
Huffing out a quiet laugh, Zayn takes another step closer. “Gonna make me really work for it, aren't you?” he murmurs, and then he's ducking his head to press his lips to Louis', and then they're... it's...
Louis stumbles back until his shoulders hit the wall, hand coming up to cover his mouth. “What the fuck, Zayn?”
Zayn looks back at him with wide, panicked eyes. “You said – I thought – was I not supposed to kiss you?”
“Why would that be the offer?” Louis yelps.
Swallowing heavily, Zayn takes a second to breathe though his nose. “Right, right. Sorry, I don't... no kissing, I got it. Lemme... I can make it up to you, okay? I can make it good for you, I swear.”
“Zayn,” Louis says. “You... what...”
“Please,” he whispers. “Whatever you want, I'll do it. I don't care.”
There are black dots dancing in front of Louis' vision and he pinches his own thigh, hard, to bring himself back. “Look,” he starts. “You don't... you don't owe me anything, okay? You can have as much studio time as you want, I'll look at the schedule and make sure it's blocked off for you.”
For a long moment, Zayn just looks at him. “Is this... is it some kind of power play, or summat? Like, you don't actually want me to suck you off, just for everyone to think I have?”
“No.” Louis has to clear his voice three times before it will work. “No, I... whatever I said before, that was wrong, okay? I was wrong. And I'm sorry. I shouldn't have... whatever you need, you can have it, okay? You're, like, crazy talented, and you don't need to... I'm sorry, Zayn. I need to go.”
Louis turns on his heel and marches out of the recording room, leaving an open-mouthed Zayn behind him. He heads straight for the door, not bothering to stop by his office for his jacket or phone. Eleanor calls out a cheerful, “Good night, Louis!” but he doesn't trust himself to speak, so he brushes past her. He catches her disappointed expression in the reflection of the glass door on his way out and wonders bitterly if Sophia in accounting had a pool going about that, too.
The sun has long since set, taking all its warmth with it. Louis shivers, already regretting leaving his jacket inside, and swears in frustration when he reaches for his wallet, only to realize it's still in his jacket pocket. He can't go back inside and see what a terrible person is he reflected in Eleanor or Zayn's eyes, so he starts walking. At first, it's aimless wandering, shoulders hunched against the cold and eyes on the ground, watching cracks in the sidewalk.
After awhile, he starts to recognize street signs, and then he's in front of a familiar building. He stares at the callbox for a long time before pressing the Payne button. After another frustratingly staticky conversation, Liam buzzes him up.
His face twists in surprise when he opens the door to find Louis standing on his doormat.
Louis offers a weak smile. “Wanna go for a walk?”
“Did you walk here in that?” Liam asks with concern, grabbing for one Louis' arms. “Christ, Lou, you're covered in goosebumps. Let me grab you a jumper, okay?” He disappears inside for a moment, returning with a warm gray jumper that Louis pulls gratefully over his head. It's too big, sleeves hanging down past his hands, but it's soft and the scent of Liam's cologne clings faintly to the fabric.
“So. A walk, then?”
Louis nods and watches as Liam locks the door behind him before heading down the hall. Wrapping his arms around himself, he follows Liam down the steps.
“I can't believe you're getting married.” Louis winces as soon as the words are out of his mouth. “I mean, like,” he quickly backpedals. “Of course I can believe it, anyone would be lucky to marry you, just meant... it's happening so fast, y'know?”
Liam laughs. “Well, I'm thirty years old, Louis. Been dating Harry for quite awhile now. It's a logical step, y'know? Make filing taxes and all that loads easier.”
Louis stops short and Liam walks another few steps past him before he realizes, turning back with a confused smile on his face. “Louis?”
“You're getting married so your taxes are easier?” he asks incredulously.
Liam rolls his eyes. “I meant, that's one of the reasons it makes sense to get married. Obviously I love Harry, or I wouldn't have asked him to marry me. He's really great, actually. One of the best people I know.”
“Of course he is,” Louis agrees, trying to make his mouth lift in his smile. It's weird, how uncooperative his muscles are. “Are you two, like, soulmates, then? Butterflies in your tummy, weak in the knees, all that shit?”
The comment earns him another laugh, Liam's eyes crinkling as he grins. “'All that shit,' huh?” He pauses, thinking carefully. “No, I don't... I don't really believe in soulmates, or being destined to be together, or anything like that. Harry and I, we're compatible, y'know? Get on really well, always have. I think that's a good foundation for a relationship.”
“Well, you were always the practical one.”
Liam smiles, bumping his shoulder against Louis and they walk for half a block in silence. Normally, Louis hates silence, wants to fill it up with sound to drown out the noise in his head. With Liam, though, it's comfortable, easy. Walking next to him, Louis almost feels at home in his own skin, the manic energy that's constantly pulsing through his bloodstream quieting until he can just breathe.
“Can I ask you something?”
Liam turns towards him expectantly. Louis takes a deep breath.
“What... what happened, between us? Why aren't we friends anymore?”
“It's not important. I barely remember, in all honesty,” Liam lies. He's always been a shit liar and Louis feels a victorious sense of relief that he can still tell when Liam's lying.
“Please, Liam. It's important to me.”
Hands in his pockets, Liam makes a face, wrinkling his nose up. “We don't... it was so long ago, Louis. We don't need to get into it.”
Liam sighs. “Do you remember that party you had, on your 13th birthday?”
Eagerly, Louis nods. “Yeah, yeah, we had that fight, I remember, but I didn't mean it, I didn't mean any of what I said. I was just... I was mad at myself, mostly.”
When Liam smiles this time, it's a little sad. “Well, that's... that's nice to hear, I suppose. You probably didn't mean to smash my guitar, either, or yell at me to get out of your house and then never talk to me again?”
Liam shakes his head. “We were kids, Louis. It happens, okay? I don't... I'm over it, honestly.” He sounds so sincere, so fucking Liam, that Louis' throat feels tight, tongue too big for his mouth.
“I'm sorry, Li. You didn't deserve that.” He tries to swallow before forcing himself to look up and meet Liam's eyes. “I'm not a very nice person, Liam. I wasn't a good friend to you. I think – I know – that I've done awful things at work, I don't talk to my mum or sisters, and I... I...” He lets out a shaky breath. “I'm sorry. I need to... I can't stay here.”
He turns and practically runs down the street. Liam calls after him, but Louis doesn't turn around. Not that it matters, anyway, because Louis can run for as long as his lungs can stand it, but he can't escape himself.
It takes him a long train ride, a short cab ride, and three tries to raise his fist to the door to knock. When his mum answers, Louis is staggered for a moment that her hair is more gray than brown, that there are deep wrinkles creasing her skin at the corners of her eyes, lining her face. Hugging her, though, feels exactly right, and when he clings a little too tight, she squeezes right back.
“I'm sorry,” he says when he finally pulls back. “I should've called.”
She reaches out to smooth his fringe back from his face. “Nonsense,” she replies. “You're always welcome home, Lou. You know that.”
While his mum fixes him a cup of tea exactly the way he likes, Louis wanders around the living room on restless feet, fingertips trailing over the familiar mantle and unfamiliar photos in crowded frames. There are still baby photos, of course, a beaming toddler Louis with chubby cheeks and a gap-toothed smile, and pictures of all of his sisters, sunshine glinting off their golden hair. He pauses at the ones where they're nearly unrecognizable, save for their hair, as beautiful as his mum but complete strangers.
He takes the cup of tea his mum brings him, porcelain warm against the palms of his hands, and nods towards the pictures. “They really grew up, huh?”
His mum smiles, sipping at her own tea. “Mmhmm. I couldn't be more proud of all of you.”
Louis shifts guiltily and takes a gulp of tea. It's still too hot and burns the whole way down. His mum doesn't notice, eyes still on the pictures. “I still remember when you were a baby, just like it was yesterday. From the time you could talk, you were making people laugh.” She turns towards him and when she smiles, it knocks years off her face. “You grew up so fast, Lou. It's hard to believe how quickly the years pass.”
Louis laughs hollowly. “It is, isn't it?”
He sleeps in the guest bedroom and doesn't ask what happened to his old room in the basement. The sheets are soft and smell like home, but he tosses and turns restlessly all night. The house is weirdly quiet without the pounding of feet up and down the hall, or his sisters' shrieking laughter and muffled whispering. It's not something he thought he'd miss. Rolling over, he tugs the blanket up to his chin and curls into a ball, but he still can't get warm.
On bare feet, he climbs out of bed and grabs for his overnight bag. He digs through his clothes until he reaches the very bottom, where he shoved Liam's jumper into a wadded ball. Pulling it out, Louis tugs it over his head before crawling back under the covers. The extra layer is enough to keep the chill at bay, and Louis falls asleep with his nose pressed into the softness of his sleeve, breathing deep.
In the morning, his mum makes pancakes, and sausage, and eggs, and toast, piling up the food on Louis' plate.
“Mum,” he laughs. “There's no way I can eat all this.”
She grins. “Indulge me. I never thought I would say this, but I miss cooking for you and the girls.”
It's not like he can say no, after that. Louis eats until he feels like he's going to burst, finally sitting back with a groan when he's nearly cleaned his plate. His mom looks pleased as she carries the dishes to the sink, and waves off Louis' offer to help wash up.
“Would've been nice of you to offer when you still lived at home,” she chides gently. “It was like pulling teeth to get you and the girls to do any chores around the house.”
Louis squirms guiltily. “Sorry,” he says in a small voice. His mum just laughs. “Nothing to apologize for, Lou. A few dirty dishes are nothing, in the grand scheme of things.”
“Yeah,” he agrees. He takes a sip of his orange juice, runs his fingers through the ring of condensation on the table, smearing the perfect circle.
“What about the big things, though? Like, the big mistakes you've made?”
“Hmm.” His mum finishes scrubbing a dish, rinsing it off and placing it in the drying rack before answering. “I think it's important to make mistakes,” she finally says. “Because if you don't make them, you won't learn how to set them right.”
“Yeah,” he repeats. “I love you, mum. Have I told you that recently?”
She flicks soapy water at him from the sink, grins when he almost falls out of his seat to avoid getting wet. “Love you too, Lou.”
“Look, kid, I get that you want to take advantage of your extra studio time, but we're going in circles. You hit the note, it sounds fine. There's no point in recording this again and again.”
In the booth, Zayn lets out a sharp exhale. “One more time. I wanna try--”
The tech cuts him off. “No, nope, sorry. No embellishments. You're being marketed as a pop star, Malik. This track is gonna be your first single. The studio execs gave very specific instructions--”
“Gonna be honest, I don't really like your tone, mate.” Louis interrupts. “I gave Zayn the extra studio time, so what's the big deal in letting him play around with the vocals a bit?”
Zayn is quiet in the booth as the tech turns back to the soundboard with exaggerated motions. “And I'm sure that's all he's playing with, isn't it?” the tech mumbles under his breath, just loud enough for Louis to hear.
“Are you quite finished?” Louis snaps. The tech holds his hands up in a mocking defensive gesture and Louis' had enough. “Take five,” he orders. “And be ready to do your damn job when you come back.”
Pushing back his chair forcefully, the tech leaves the room without another word. In the booth, Zayn slumps on his stool, shoving his headphones down around his neck. Cautiously, Louis opens the door, but hovers in the doorway instead of going inside.
Zayn looks up after a moment. “Was starting to think the rumors about your temper weren't true,” he says, smiling wryly.
Louis snorts. “I'm trying to turn over a new leaf, but I won't tolerate disrespect.” He catches Zayn's eye. “You deserve better than that, mate.”
“Yeah, well,” Zayn sounds tired. “Thanks, I guess?”
Letting his head thunk against the wall, Louis lets the silence hang between them for a moment. “This probably isn't what you want to hear, but he's right. I think you've done about all you can with this song. Why're you still here, beating yourself up over it?”
Zayn runs his hands over the seam of his ripped skinny jeans, gaze following the path of his fingers. “Dunno. Thought when I got signed, it'd be, like,” he bites his lip, still addressing his lap. “I wanna make music, y'know? I'd do anything – well, you know that – to be on up stage, singing, but I... I guess these songs are getting my foot in the door, right, but this isn't really the kind of music I thought I'd making, is all.” He shrugs.
“You want songs with more vocal range,” Louis guesses. “You want to show off your voice.”
Finally looking up, Zayn smiles shyly. “I mean, yeah? 'S why I wanna be a singer. I'm good at it. I can do so much more than this.”
“Yeah,” Louis agrees, an idea beginning to form. “I think you can.”
“Louis,” Liam says when he opens the door. “This is becoming a bit of a habit, mate.”
“Well, you never gave me your number,” Louis argues. “And anyway, we needed to meet in person for this.”
“Did we?” Liam asks with a smile. “And what exactly are we meeting about?”
Louis grabs for the present he left leaning against the wall just outside Liam's door. It's pretty obvious what it is, but Louis is shit at wrapping boxed gifts, let alone guitar-shaped ones. Anyway, he's stuck a shiny blue bow to it, and it's the thought that counts.
“First, I owe you this,” he starts, presenting the guitar to Liam with a flourish.
“Take it, okay? It's like, the very least that I could do.”
Liam reaches for the case with gentle hands and doesn't protest when Louis follows him inside. He drops onto the couch to unclasp the lid, breath escaping in a tiny gasp when he sees the guitar. “Louis. This looks just like the one I had when I was 13.”
Louis ducks his head. “It's not the same one, obviously, and it probably needs to be tuned, but--”
“It's perfect,” Liam interrupts, looking up with a wide grin on his face.
“Are you properly buttered up then? Because I have a favor to ask.”
Liam takes the guitar out, settling it carefully into his lap and running his fingers over the strings. “Never look a gift horse in the mouth, eh?”
“You'll like this favor. I think. I hope so, anyway.”
Already focused on tuning the guitar, Liam waves him on. “Ask away, mate.”
Louis clears his throat. “Can you play me some of your stuff? Your original material, I mean.” He grins at Liam's surprised look. “I'm in the market for a song writer, and I need to know if you're any good.”
The sound cuts off abruptly as Liam stops strumming. “You know I mostly write, like, jingles and adverts, right? My songs aren't – I don't really write pop music, or the stuff you hear on the radio. It's probably not what you're looking for.”
Louis feels his lips curve up into an even bigger grin. “I think you might have exactly what I'm looking for, actually.”
He doesn't realize how late it's gotten until he stands up to stretch out the sore muscles in his back and catches sight of the clock.
“Oh, fuck,” Louis groans.
Liam looks up, fingers stilling on the guitar strings. “What? It wasn't that terrible, was it?”
Shaking his head, Louis points to the clock. “No, mate. You're like, what's it called, a siren, or something. You know, those mermaids who would drown sailors with their songs?”
Liam snorts out a laugh. “Was that supposed to be a compliment or an insult? I honestly can't tell.”
“A compliment,” Louis decides. “But I really need to get home and go to bed, or I'm going to regret it in the morning.” He pauses. “That's like, the most adult sentence I've ever said. This is terrible.”
Packing up his guitar, Liam catches his eye. “Hard to believe that you actually grew up, Lou. Wouldn't have believed it, if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.”
“Sometimes I still don't believe it,” Louis mutters. Louder, he says, “So, you'll come to the studio on Friday? I want Zayn to hear your stuff before he agrees to it. I have a feeling he's going to love it, though.”
Climbing to his feet, Liam yawns widely. “Sorry, it really is late, isn't it?” He smiles, looking a little sleepy. “You sure this is the sound you want? I've heard some of the songs that come out of your record label. This is pretty far from that.”
“Ah, well, between you and me... our numbers are down, revenue and profit margins and all that not where it should be. Nick thinks we just need another top 40 hit to get back in the game, but I think... I think this is better.”
“Mmm. And you are an important executive producer, name engraved on your door and everything. You would know.”
“Damn right I would.”
Liam walks him to the door, hand covering his mouth over another yawn. “I'll be there Friday,” he promises. “G'night, Lou.”
Louis smiles the whole way home.
Louis is completely unsurprised that Zayn loves Liam's stuff.
“I told you so,” he says knowingly. “I told you he would love it, didn't I? That's exactly what I said--” he's cut off when Liam flicks a pen at his face. “What the hell was that for?” Louis sputters.
“I know you love the sound of your own voice,” Liam says with a wicked grin. “But you don't have to make the rest of us suffer.”
Zayn coughs into his fist, and it sounds fishily like a laugh. Louis eyes him with suspicion. “Are you ill, Zayn? Do you have a cold? Do we need to reschedule, have you record a different day, or...?”
“No, no, no,” Zayn says hastily. “I'm, uh, the very picture of good health.” He looks longingly at Liam's sheet music.
Liam pats the spot on the couch next to him, and Zayn settles down on the cushion. “Which one do you want to start with, then?” he asks. Zayn's gaze flicks to Louis.
“Hey, man. You've got free reign here. I've given all of Liam's stuff a blanket stamp of approval, so you can pick what you like.”
Zayn licks his lips. “Really?”
“Really.” Louis pauses. “I'm going to go draft up a contract for Liam, and some amendments to yours.” Well, he's going to bribe Eleanor into helping him, because he still doesn't understand all the legal terms and she's a genius, “and we'll get the details figured out once we know what songs you'll be picking, okay?”
“Okay,” Zayn agrees happily. Liam's fingers are already plucking out a melody and Zayn's watching eagerly, sat on the edge of his seat. Louis would rather stay and watch, but the contracts need to be drafted and signed if Liam and Zayn's hard work is ever going to end up on the radio.
He's humming a little tune under his breath as he lets himself into his office, and pulls up short when he steps inside to see that Nick's already there, hands clasped behind his back as he looks out the window. Louis' eyes narrow. He wonders how long Nick posed like that, waiting for Louis to walk in on him.
“Nick,” he greets coolly. “Did you get lost on the way to your office?”
Turning from the window, Nick raises a brow. “Oh, hullo, Tomlinson. Didn't realize you still knew where your office was. Been spending an awful lot of time in the recording studio, haven't you?”
“You know me,” Louis tosses back. “Always been really hands on.” He immediately cringes at his word choice and Nick's growing smirk tells him that he didn't miss a thing.
“Pretty hands on with your new little project, aren't you? Tell me, how is it you convinced Payne to come to the studio? Bit far from the garage, isn't it?”
“This has been a great chat, Nick, really scintillating, but I've got to get some work done, so if you don't mind...”
“Always been good at tossing aside the people you don't have a use for, haven't you?” Nick observes pleasantly and Louis feels his face heat in a flush.
“People can change, Nick,” he says evenly.
“You can lie to everyone else, love, but you can't lie to yourself.”
Nick saunters out of the room before Louis can think of a response, leaving the door slightly ajar behind him just to be a prick. Louis gets up to shut it, resting his forehead against the smooth wood for a long moment.
Nick is wrong. People can change. Louis can change, can make something good out of all the mistakes he's made.
He collapses into his chair, digging through his desk drawers until he unearths a copy of Zayn's contract. It took him ages and a lot of hand holding from Eleanor to fix Sheeran's contract, and he got a migraine for his troubles, but doing the right thing isn't supposed to be easy, is it?
Liam knows his way around a soundboard, which means that he, Louis, and Zayn can stay late to record without inconveniencing anyone else, or putting up with attitude that Louis probably deserves, but doesn't want to deal with.
Liam's stuff is good, and it sounds even better once they get more of the backing track recorded, filling out the sound. It sounds incredible when Zayn opens his mouth to start singing, his voice pouring out the lyrics like honey, sweet and slow. Louis catches Liam's eye when Zayn ad libs a bit, adding in an impressive falsetto, and Liam's jaw actually drops.
“Wow,” he stutters. “He's good, isn't he? Never thought my song could sound like that.”
“Give yourself some credit, Li,” Louis orders. “The shit they gave him before was awful. And I mean, Zayn still sounded good, but this... you guys needed each other, I think.”
Liam beams, wriggling happily in his chair. “I'm glad, you know? That you showed up at my door.” He looks over, face still scrunched in a smile. “I missed you, Lou. More than I realized.”
“Yeah, I...” Louis bumps his knee against Liam's, beneath the soundboard. “Me too, Li.”
Liam turns back towards Zayn, face rapt with attention, but he doesn't move his knee away from Louis'.
When Zayn's growling stomach starts to ruin his takes, they decide to call it a night. Liam insists on seeing Zayn off in a cab, and despite Zayn's protests, he looks pleased to be taken care of. Louis watches the taillights of the cab disappear in a streak of red around the corner before he raises his brow at Liam.
“So,” he says. “We could be boring and go home to bed, make sure we're well-rested, responsible adults.”
Liam waits expectantly, lips twitching like he's trying not to smile.
“Or,” he continues, “we could go to that Chinese takeout place, eat until we puke.”
Liam pretends to consider before he finally smiles, lips curving up slowly. “Can we get fortune cookies?”
“Thought you didn't believe in fortune or fate,” Louis teases.
“You know, I've been changing my mind about a lot of things, these past few weeks,” Liam says cryptically. Louis doesn't push it, content to walk down the street in an easy silence.
They absolutely stuff themselves on Chinese, and while Louis doesn't actually puke, it's a close thing. Liam opens three fortune cookies with the eagerness of a puppy. He won't let Louis see his fortunes, no matter how hard he begs, because he insists they “won't come true.”
Louis rolls his eyes. “They're fortunes, not wishes. And anyway, you can't have three. That's too many.”
“Don't be jealous that I have more fortune than you, Louis. It's not a good look on you,” Liam tells him primly, laughing loudly when Louis kicks his shin under the table.
It's really, really late by the time they leave, and Louis knows that tomorrow when his alarm goes off he's going to regret it, but right now, in this moment, he doesn't care one bit. Liam's by his side, laughing at some dumb joke as they walk down the street, and it's like they're kids again, like no time at all has passed.
They pause at a red light, waiting for the walk signal at Liam's insistence, and Liam suddenly taps on his arm, pointing up at the night sky. “Look, Lou, look! A shooting star.”
Louis looks at Liam instead. “Mate. We're in London. You can't see any stars. It's an airplane.”
Dropping his gaze, Liam pouts. “Do wishes come true, if you wish them on airplanes?”
“What the hell are you wishing for?” Louis wonders aloud.
Liam doesn't answer, gaze flitting between Louis' eyes and Louis' mouth and then away, like he can't figure out what he wants. Louis takes a cautious step closer, until his shoulder is nearly brushing Liam's. Liam doesn't move away, and his eyes lock onto Louis'.
“Liam?” he asks in a hushed whisper, afraid that if he speaks any louder, it'll shatter the moment, push them over this fragile precipice.
He sees the way Liam's throat works as he swallows, doesn't move a muscle as Liam's warm hand comes up to cup his cheek, thumb rubbing slowly over Louis' bottom lip. Liam's eyes are dark, a bottomless black in the night, and Louis is drowning.
He feels Liam's warm breath ghosting over his skin a moment before his lips catch Louis' in a kiss. Louis has to tilt his head up and his hands find the soft fabric of Liam's shirt, gripping tightly as Liam's mouth moves against his. He pulls away after a moment and there's this terrible blankness in his eyes before he closes them, backing away until Louis is forced to drop his hands.
The walk signal finally comes on, but neither of them move for a long time.
“Zayn. I need you to take a deep breath, okay? Breathe for me, there's a lad.”
Louis grips Zayn's skinny shoulders hard, forcing him to sit on the couch. Zayn sinks down gratefully, head bowed as he focuses on breathing.
“Cowell's gonna love it, okay? Your vocals are incredible. You've absolutely smashed it. This is just a formality, really.”
Zayn looks up sharply. “Don't bullshit me, Lou. You know I'm going nowhere unless Cowell greenlights it.”
“It's my job to worry about that, okay? It's your job to sit here and look pretty.” Louis kindly doesn't mention the green tinge to Zayn's skin, which is decidedly not pretty. He really hopes Zayn doesn't puke. He can't imagine Cowell being happy about that.
“Where's Liam?” Zayn asks. “Shouldn't he be here? It's his song.”
Zayn's too distracted to notice the way Louis' smile drops for a second. “He's busy. Told him not to quit his day job, in case you were a flop. I'm kidding! Kidding!” he protests at Zayn's glare. At least Zayn's got a bit of red in his cheeks now. Louis pats his face gently.
“Just relax, okay? I will deal with Cowell.”
Zayn nods, and it's still a little shaky, but he sits up straighter, squaring his shoulders. “I can do this,” he says, sounding determined.
It's Louis who's bricking it when Cowell steps into the board room. There are so many things riding on this going well – Zayn's self esteem, his career as an emerging artist; Liam's reputation as a song writer, his credibility in the music business; Louis' job as a producer, his efforts to rebrand himself into someone with integrity, someone good.
He doesn't breathe at all while Eleanor cues up the song, his knee jiggling nervously beneath the table as the intro begins to play. Zayn is still in the seat next to him, hands clasped neatly in front of him on the table, making steady eye contact with the blank white wall across the room from him.
Louis' eyes flit nervously around the room, landing for a minute on Cowell, then Zayn, then Nick, trying to gauge everyone's reactions, to anticipate what's coming once the song ends. By the time the last note fades, he's still got no idea.
Cowell's fingers rap rhythmically against the table for a moment and he cocks his head, considering. No one makes a sound and all Louis can hear is the pounding of his heart, rattling against his ribcage.
“It's different,” Cowell says, an eternity later. “But I like it.” He looks at Zayn, who appears to be winning his staring contest with the wall. “You've got an impressive vocal range. Can you do that live?”
Zayn nods. “Yes, sir.”
“Excellent.” He turns to Louis. “You'll send me the rest of the demo? We'll have to get the rest of the tracks approved before we can commit them to the album, but if it's anything like this, I think we'll be in good shape.” For the first time since the meeting started, he smiles. “Congratulations, lads. I think you've really got something here.”
Louis sags back in his seat with relief. “Thank you, sir. I'll get the demo to you right away.”
“See that you do.” Cowell rises from his chair, his entourage following him out the door. As soon as it clicks shut behind them, Louis turns to Zayn. “Oh my god. Did that just happen?”
Zayn flings himself into Louis' arms, hugging him fiercely. “Thank you, Louis,” he mumbles into his neck. “Thank you for giving me this chance.”
“I told you, you had nothing to worry about,” Louis says back, returning the hug just as tightly.
Someone clears their throat, and Louis looks up, startled. Nick is still sitting at the end of the table, watching them with shrewd eyes. “Hate to interrupt your little moment,” he says, sounding bored, “but now that Cowell's approved the tracks, Malik will have to sign an updated contract.” He winks conspiratorially. “If you're gonna be the next big thing, love, we've got to make sure we keep you all to ourselves, don't we?”
Zayn laughs nervously, and Louis jumps in. “Don't worry, Nick. I've already got something drafted up, yeah?”
Nick climbs to his feet. “Well, as long as you've got it covered,” he replies airily. Louis watches him saunter out of the room with distaste.
“Oh my god.” Zayn pulls his phone out of his pocket. “I need to call my mum. Can I call my mum? I need to--”
Louis snatches the phone out of his hand, cutting off Zayn's loud protest. “Hold up, tiger. Nick's right, I need you to sign the updated contract first. Liam will need to sign, too, since we're going ahead with his songs.” He pauses to catch Zayn's eye. “You're not gonna be able to share all the details with your family right away, all right? It's part of the nondisclosure agreement.”
Zayn slumps a little, but agrees to follow Louis to his office to go over the details of the contract. “The price you have to pay,” he huffs out, scribbling his signature on page after page.
Louis grins. “Hey. At least you don't have to sell your soul.”
“Are you sure? I didn't read the fine print, but it sounds like something you music exec types would try to pull.”
“I'm wounded, Zayn. I really am.”
Zayn looks up, smiling helplessly. “This is happening, Louis. It's really happening.”
He beams back. “I know.”
News this good deserves more than a phone call, so the moment he can steal away from the studio, Louis catches a cab, climbs the now familiar steps to Liam's door.
He bangs on it loudly, too excited to care about upsetting Liam's neighbors, and for half a second he thinks he's made a mistake and knocked on the wrong door when it swings open to reveal a stranger.
Not a stranger, he realizes after the initial shock. It's Harry. Harry, Liam's fiancé.
“Oh. Um, sorry, is Liam here?”
“It's Louis, right?” Harry asks in his slow voice. At Louis' nod, he continues, smile apologetically. “Sorry, he's out handling some last minute wedding details.” Harry shakes his head, looking fond. “We've been planning it for months, but something always goes wrong last minute, doesn't it?”
He leans in to whisper, like it's a secret, “It's the florist. We ordered red roses for the arrangements, only to find out today that they've gone and used dark pink!” He shakes his head again in complete disbelief.
Louis must make a face, or something, since he can't imagine how a few gradients of color is cause for concern, because Harry continues, “I know it's not a huge deal, or anything, but you only get married once if you're lucky, you know? Even if it rains, or something, you should get the color roses you want, because it's your day, and you deserve to be happy with all the little details. I mean, it's setting the stage for the rest of your life, isn't it? You want it to be perfect as possible.”
He ducks his head, smiling sheepishly at Louis from beneath his fringe. “Sorry, sorry, I tend to get lost on these tangents if Liam doesn't cut me off. What was it you stopped by for?”
“Oh,” Louis says. “I just. I had some good news, about his songs. But I can tell him later. You should. He should be focused, on the wedding.”
Smiling, Harry says, “Liam insisted on a backyard wedding, so he and his parents have been stuck with most of the planning. Still, I think the red roses are going to look great with the fairy lights. Gonna be real picturesque, y'know? As long as we have good weather this weekend.” He bites his lip. “Sorry, sorry, rambling again. I'll tell him you stopped by, yeah?”
“Yeah. Thanks. Um, congratulations, by the way. Liam is... Liam's a great guy. He's lucky to have you.”
Two dimples appear in Harry's cheeks, he beams so hard. “Thanks, Louis. I appreciate that. Have a nice night, okay?”
“You too,” Louis replies, and Harry shuts the door with finality.
Louis gets into the office late the next day after hitting the snooze button on his alarm one too many times. Zayn had asked him to go out and celebrate the night before, but he'd begged off, claiming he had a headache. Now, he wishes he had the excuse of a hangover.
When he walks through the door, he responds to Eleanor's cheerful greeting on autopilot, shuffling into his office.
He stops short when he sees Nick, lounging back in his chair, feet up on Louis' desk like he owns the place.
“I'm not in the mood today, Nick,” he says wearily, slipping his jacket off his shoulders and hanging it on the rack by the door.
“You weren't out late celebrating, were you?” Nick asks innocently. “Because I'm sorry to say, it was a bit premature.”
“No, actually, I wasn't – what do you mean, 'premature'?”
Dropping his feet to the floor, Nick reaches for a file folder, flipping it open to reveal a stack of paperwork. He shoves it towards Louis. “Look familiar?”
Louis steps closer, peering at the top paper. He frowns. “It's Zayn's contract.”
“Nick, why are you--”
Nick cuts him off, grinning sharply. “I know you worked hard, love, drafting this all up yourself, but since we're partners, I took the liberty of reading it over for you. Pretty generous terms.”
“Zayn's talented. He deserves it.”
“Mmm,” Nick hums. “I won't argue with you on that. I was a bit concerned about the percentage the studio would be receiving, though, so I had Sophia in accounting take a look, crunch some numbers.”
Louis clenches his fists. “How thoughtful of you. Is there a point to this story?”
“Getting there. Sophia's thorough, you know, and she wanted to compare Zayn's contract to some of the other ones you've had a hand in drafting. Wouldn't you know it, she found a bit of an alarming trend.”
“Which I'm sure you'd love to tell me all about. Listen, Nick, I need to get some things done, so if you could wrap it up...”
Nick stands up abruptly. “Do I need to fucking spell it out for you, or do you honestly think the innocent act is going to get you off the hook?”
“The fuck are you on about?”
Leaning forward so his face is only inches from Louis', Nick hisses, “You've been re-writing contracts to give yourself a bigger cut. The money that should have been going to the studio, should have been spent on promotion, has been piling up in your personal bank account.” He spreads out the file of papers on Louis' desk. “This is just everything Sophia's found in the last six months. You've been giving yourself all kinds of neat financial perks while the studio's been struggling.”
Louis takes a staggering step back. “What the hell are you talking about? I don't – I have no idea what's going on.”
“Oh, please,” Nick scoffs. “Drop the fucking act, Tomlinson. Your signature is on every single one of these.” He gathers up the papers into a messy stack, looking more furious than Louis' ever seen him.
“I'm meeting with Cowell today, and I'm going to show him everything.” He brushes past Louis on his way to the door. “I'd start packing your things, love. I don't think you'll be employed here much longer.”
“What--” Louis manages to choke out. “What about Zayn? And Liam's songs?”
“They're property of the studio, which you will no longer be affiliated with.” He raises his brow. “So quite frankly, it's none of your fucking business.”
The door shuts behind Nick, leaving Louis alone in his office, his carefully constructed world crashing down around him.
Louis gets really, really drunk and passes out on his couch still in last night's clothes. He wakes up to several missed calls from the studio, but chucks his phone away instead of listening to any of the messages. If there's a way to solve this mess, then the answer is eluding him. He tried so hard, so fucking hard, to fix his mistakes, to make everything right, but with every layer he scrapes away, he finds another rotten one underneath.
There's only been one person who's believed in him from the start, who saw something worthwhile inside of him, even when Louis couldn't see anything at all.
And that person is getting married today.
Louis sits up in a rush, immediately grabbing his head with a groan. He's fucked everything up, but maybe – maybe it's not too late to save the one thing that really matters. Peeling himself off the couch, Louis stumbles into the bathroom, hoping the scalding hot water will wash away the worst of his hangover.
By the time he reaches Liam's parents' house, the wedding preparations are already well underway. He tries to look as inconspicuous as possible in his jeans and t-shirt, grabbing a bouquet of brilliant red roses to hide his face before darting through the front door. He hurries up the steps, side-stepping Liam's mum, and pauses outside Liam's bedroom door.
Knocking softly, he doesn't wait before letting himself in. Liam looks up at the noise and a confusing array of expressions flit across his face before he's able to school his features into something neutral.
“Hi, Liam,” Louis says inanely.
“Hey, Louis,” he says back, voice soft. He's dressed already, wearing ironed black trousers and a snowy white shirt buttoned to his throat. His bowtie dangles untied around his neck, and he looks – he looks -
“You look incredible,” Louis breathes.
Liam smiles, and it's a little sad. “What are you doing here, Lou?”
Louis swallows. It's now or never. “Listen to me, Liam,” he starts, voice shaky. “I'm sorry that it took me so long to say this, but I need you to know. I am not that awful person that I know that I was. I don't even know that person. And I'd like to believe... I have to believe, that if you knew that, if you really, really knew that... you wouldn't be getting ready to marry someone right now.” He lets out a deep breath. “Unless that someone were me.”
Running a hand through his hair, Liam glances up, looking Louis in the eye. “Lou, I'm not gonna lie to you. Being with you, these past few weeks... it's made me feel things, that I didn't – I didn't know I could feel anymore.” He sighs. “But these past few days, I've realized... you can't just turn back time.”
“Why not?” The words escape before Louis can bite his tongue against them.
Liam looks up, fixing his gaze on the ceiling for a long moment. “I moved on,” he says. “You moved on. We've gone down different paths for so long. We... we made choices, Lou. I chose Harry. That's his family down there. We care about each other, y'know? He's... Harry's not a consolation prize.”
Louis sniffles and fails to turn it into something less embarrassing.
“Please don't cry, Louis,” Liam begs, sounding not far from tears himself.
Running a hand over his face, Louis shakes his head. “'M fine, promise. 'M just... 'm just happy, for you, Li. I want you to be so, so happy.” He smiles at Liam, pretends the tears pricking at his eyes don't sting. “I love you, Liam. You're my best friend.”
Liam makes a sound that Louis would interpret as a laugh, under any other circumstance. He doesn't look up, watching his feet as he says thickly, “Louis, I... I've always loved you.”
Louis aims for a smile, but it doesn't matter that he misses because Liam won't look at him, anyway. He practically runs from the room, tripping his way down the steps and out the front door. His own house is empty, his mum and sisters all mingling next door, so there's no one to stop Louis from slipping through the kitchen and down the basement steps.
Everything's covered in dust and cobwebs, stacks of boxes and worn furniture that was new the last time Louis saw it. He throws himself down on an aged couch, kicking up a cloud of dust that does nothing for his already red eyes.
Liam's always loved him, but he chose Harry. The worst part is that Louis knows Liam made the right choice.
He hasn't cried himself to sleep since he was 13, but he's out of places to run and he can't think of a single better thing to do.
When Louis opens his eyes, they feel gritty from crying. He sits up, rubbing a hand over his face, and freezes when he sees the familiar duvet underneath. Barely daring to believe it, he leans back down and sniffs deeply. His pillow smells like his mum's laundry detergent and Liam's shampoo.
There's a knock on the basement door and Louis almost falls on his face in his haste to scramble out of bed and up the stairs. He whips the door open and Liam staggers back, fist still raised mid-knock. His wide brown eyes meet Louis' from beneath his awful bowl cut, his round face boyish and exactly right.
“I'm so sorry,” Louis blurts out. “Whatever I just said – I didn't mean a word of it, Li, I swear.”
Liam looks like he's at a loss for words, but luckily for him, Louis knows exactly what to say. Or what to do, rather. He throws himself at Liam, and Liam's arms come up automatically to catch him.
“Louis?” he asks, sounding unsure.
Louis cups Liam's face with both hands, leaning forward to press his forehead against Liam's. He's not going to be able to do this without standing on his tiptoes in a few years, he's sure. “It's you, Liam,” he whispers. “I choose you.”
“Lou--” Liam starts again, but Louis cuts him off, pressing his mouth to Liam's in a kiss. Liam makes a startled sort of noise before relaxing into it, lips moving cautiously against Louis'. Grinning, Louis rewards him by nipping at his bottom lip, gasping out a laugh when Liam flinches.
“What was that for?” Liam asks once Louis pulls away. He looks – happy. Hopeful.
Louis bites his lip against a smile before darting back in to kiss Liam again. It's the best answer he's got.
“Damn it, the roses were supposed to be red, not dark pink.”
Liam frowns. “Is that an important distinction? They'll still smell nice, won't they?”
It's all Louis can do not to stamp his foot. “Liam. This is our wedding. We deserve to have all the details right, don't we?”
Liam grabs his hand, pulling Louis in close so he can wrap his arms around him, chin hooked over his shoulder. Louis lets himself relax back against Liam's broad chest.
“Look,” he whispers in Louis' ear, pointing out the window. “Your sisters are having the time of their lives, ordering the wedding planners about. Who cares what color the roses are?” He presses his lips to the tender skin beneath Louis' jaw. “In a few hours, I'm gonna marry my best friend. What other details matter?”
Louis turns his head until he can catch Liam's mouth in a kiss. “Love you, Li.”
Louis rolls his eyes. He can't believe he's marrying such a sap. “Love you, Li," he dutifully repeats.
He can feel Liam's smile against his lips. “I've always loved you, Lou.”