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LOUIS
October, 2024

Liam answers the door in tracksuit bottoms so old and worn that Louis remembers them from their first stadium tour. He's got his arms crossed over his bare chest, and there are pillow creases on his cheek, and he looks like he's going to be cross, just as soon as he wakes up enough to remember that he should be. Louis can understand that, since he's been leaning on the bell of Liam's flat for ten minutes, and it's half two in the morning.

"Lou?" Liam asks, bleary and confused. "What?"

"Can I sleep on your sofa?" Louis asks. It comes out sounding almost normal, which is probably a miracle.

"Yeah, but—" Liam frowns, his forehead wrinkling like it always does when something doesn't make sense. "Of course, but—you've got a key?"

Louis does have a key to Liam's flat, on his big keyring alongside his keys to Harry's London house, and Harry's L.A. house, and Niall's London house and London office and house in Mullingar, and Zayn and Perrie's house, and Zayn's mum's house, and Lottie and Emma's house, and Fizzy's grotty flat in Manchester, and his mum and Dan's, and Eleanor's parents'—but he'd left his keys on the hall table when he'd walked out the door.

"I forgot my keys," Louis says, with perfect truth, and scrubs a hand through his hair. It's getting long again; any day now El's going to say something—fuck.

Liam blinks at him, concerned. "Are you—"

Louis shakes his head. He's not drunk; he's also not okay, so there's no good way that question could end. "Can I come in?"

"Oh," Liam says, "yeah, of course, shit, sorry—I'm basically asleep." He steps back, holding the door open for Louis.

Once he's inside, and Liam's shut and locked the door behind him, Louis can feel the start of the adrenaline crash. His hands are shaking when he takes off his shoes and coat, and that won't do at all—it's two-thirty in the morning, and he's already woken Liam up; it's going to have to wait. He hangs his coat on Liam's coat rack and starts for the living room.

Liam catches his wrist, though, and Louis forces himself to turn around and look at him. Liam's still frowning. "Lou—" he says, but something in Louis's face must stop him, because after a moment he pulls Louis in for a hug, instead. Liam's warm, and almost painfully familiar, and Louis breathes out against his shoulder and lets himself relax, just for a second. "Okay," Liam says into his hair, "in the morning, yeah?"

"Yeah," Louis agrees, pulling away. Any longer and he might start to fall apart. "'Night, Liam."

"'Night, Lou," Liam echoes, and goes back to his bedroom.

Louis breathes in, steady and slow, and goes into the living room. It's dark, but the curtains are open, and the lights of the city shine through the huge glass windows, giving strange ghostly shadows to everything in Liam's flat. Liam's high-rise penthouse is nothing at all like Louis and Eleanor's comfortable house, but right now it feels more like home than almost anywhere else. Louis closes the curtains and drops his trousers next to the sofa, and then he curls up under a blanket with his face tucked into the sofa cushions. For a moment, as he falls asleep, it feels almost like he's back in his old bunk on their old tour bus, familiar, and safe, and alone.

*

The shower's running when Louis wakes up, and he can hear Liam singing. He lies there for a minute, smiling in spite of himself and not really thinking about anything; then the weight of last night crashes down and he scrubs his hands over his eyes and gets up to make the tea.

They've mostly been getting together at Zayn and Perrie's, or Niall's when he's in London, so it's been a while since Louis's been in Liam's flat. Louis sees Liam all the time at work—and often enough for a pint after a long day—but he's been caught up trying to fix things with Eleanor for longer than he'd really care to admit, and it's been months since he and Liam have properly hung out together outside of work, and even longer since he's been to Liam's. Not that it matters, really; Louis's spent enough time in this kitchen over the years that he could probably find the tea things blindfolded.

He's fishing the tea bags out of the mugs when Liam comes into the kitchen. His hair's still wet, but he's put on boxers and a t-shirt. "I was going to do that," he says mildly, when Louis hands him a cup of tea. "Thought it was my job to make the tea after someone turns up on my doorstep in the middle of the night in a right mess."

Louis raises his eyebrows. "Do people often turn up on your doorstep in the middle of the night in a right mess?"

Liam takes a sip of his tea, considering. "Maybe not often," he says judiciously. "But I've seen films."

"Oh great," Louis says, rolling his eyes against the smile he can't quite hold back, "so we're going to base this entire conversation on films, then. That's going to go well."

"Mmm." Liam doesn't say anything else, and after a minute Louis looks away, caught out by the fact that Liam hasn't fired back. Louis was doing so well with the sarcasm, but now Liam's looking at him with his big stupid brown eyes, too earnest and kind for Louis to deal with this early in the morning. It's his own fault, though; he came to Liam. "Since I don't know what this conversation is," Liam says gently, "it seemed as good an idea as any."

Louis swallows hard, and sips his tea. It's hot and strong, just the way he likes it, and it helps, even if it doesn't really make anything better. He knows Liam would give him time, would probably make him breakfast and distract him with work and not say anything important. He also knows he'll feel worse if he lets that happen. "Right," he says, setting his mug down on the counter. "I—" He looks down, not quite able to meet Liam's eyes. "I think it's over, with me and El."

There's total silence after he says it, and Louis's not quite sure what he was expecting, but it isn't nothing, not when Liam always has something to say. When the silence starts to get unbearable, he makes himself look back up at Liam. Liam's fingers are white-knuckled around his mug of tea, and he looks—stricken is the only word Louis can think of, and suddenly he's furious. He's the one who's supposed to look like that, not Liam.

"Liam—" he starts, but Liam shakes his head like he's trying to shake himself out of a bad dream, and says, "No, that's—no, that doesn't make sense." It sounds like denial, like maybe Liam's just heard Louis wrong, and in a minute everything will go back to normal. Louis knows how that feels, but he's past that point, and he needs Liam to catch up before he does something really stupid like punch him in the face.

"I think I would know better than you," he snaps, crossing his arms and backing up a little, keeping the kitchen island between them.

Liam frowns, but then shakes his head again. "But, Lou, you and Eleanor are forever. You made it through all the years we were on the road, and since then, and it's—I don't—" He trails off, sounding lost.

It's not like Louis doesn't know that he and Eleanor are supposed to be a fixed point in the universe; he doesn't need Liam to rub it in. "Yeah, well," he says, harsh and cold and furious, "I guess nothing's fucking forever."

"But—" Liam starts, and then stops. He gives Louis a pleading, helpless look, and Louis lets out a breath, trying to rein in his anger. It's probably not fair to blame Liam for wanting things to be different, not when Louis feels the same way. But things aren't different, and Louis can't fix them, and he's done lying about it, to El, to the boys, to his family, to himself.

"This is my bloody divorce, Liam," he says sharply. "It would be nice if you could be a bit more supportive."

Liam's eyes go wide. "Oh," he says, "shit, Louis—" Louis waits, and eventually Liam takes a deep breath and rubs his hands over his face. "Fuck, mate, I'm so sorry," he says. "I was so—I was just so surprised, I didn't even think." He sets his tea down and comes around the island to lean next to Louis, shoulder to shoulder. Louis glares at him, but then he relents and leans his shoulder into Liam's. "You never said anything before," Liam says hesitantly, "I didn't know."

Louis sighs. "Yeah. I thought, you know, if I never said anything, maybe it wouldn't be real. It is, though."

"What happened?" Liam asks.

"It wasn't, like—" He shrugs. "It wasn't one big dramatic thing. We never even had a proper row about it, that's the weirdest part. But we didn't want the same things, anymore. You think—like, you've been with someone that long, it just seems like you have to want the same things, or else why would you have stuck it out through everything else? Only we didn't, and once you know that, you can't stop knowing it, and then that's the beginning of the end, the knowing." He and Liam have written hundreds of songs about relationships ending, but the reality is a lot sadder and a lot less poetic than he would've imagined, if he'd ever really thought those songs were going to apply to him.

"I think I understand," Liam says, after a moment. "Or, well—I understand the idea, but what didn't you both want?"

"Mmm," Louis says, and turns so he can look at Liam. "You didn't wonder why El and I haven't had kids?"

"Oh," Liam says, his voice breaking on the word.

Louis drags a hand through his hair; it's sticking up all over the place, but Liam's seen him looking much worse than this—even if he suddenly feels old, tired in ways he never used to be. "You know what you used to say about living backwards? Having all the fame and that, and then a wife and kids and a normal life?" Liam nods, although Louis thinks there's a little bitterness to the tilt of his mouth. Liam's not living that life, either. "It turned out, once we had the chance for that, it wasn't what she wanted."

Liam shakes his head slowly. "That's so strange," he says, which makes Louis smile in spite of himself; Liam's still such a traditionalist. "I don't mean—" He frowns. "I understand why somebody wouldn't want that, I suppose, loads of people don't, but—you're you, Lou. How could anybody not want that, with you?"

Louis blinks, startled and touched. He reaches out and squeezes Liam's arm, and Liam puts a hand over his. "Thanks, mate," he says, feeling a rush of affection. "I—thanks." Liam shrugs, and squeezes Louis's hand. Louis smiles at him, and then sighs. "She thought she did want it, though. I think she spent a long time trying to convince herself that it was what she wanted, only it wasn't. It's not her fault. It's not my fault, either," he adds quickly, when it looks like Liam might be about to rush to his defence. "S'not anybody's fault, it's just—it is what it is."

"Alright," Liam says. He lets go of Louis's hand, and Louis wraps both hands around his tea again. It's not gone cold yet, so he drinks the rest of the mug, and then sets it back down on the counter. "Are you sure you're alright, Lou?" Liam asks. "You seem—if you're really okay about this, I don't want to say that you shouldn't be, but it's all a bit—"

"Oh god," Louis says, laughing a little. "No, Liam, I am not okay. I haven't even told anybody besides you. El and I—we only finally called it quits last night, before I came here. I am—" He looks up at Liam. "I am a disaster. I am a powder keg. Any minute now I am going to start sobbing and not be able to stop."

"Oh," Liam says, sounding relieved, "that's alright, then."

Louis laughs again, a little helplessly. "Is it?"

"Yes," Liam says firmly. "I can do something, then. You can cry on me if you need to, and you can stay here for as long as you want, and I can go to the shops for ice cream and vodka like they do in films, or whatever you need. I'm no good to you if you don't need anything."

"That's a lie," Louis says automatically. "You're always good to me."

Liam smiles at him, and then pulls him into a hug. "I try to be," he says softly. Louis puts his head down on Liam's shoulder and clings to him, solid and comforting.

"Thank you," he says to Liam's collarbone, a little shakily. Liam hugs him tighter.

"You owe me, anyway," Louis adds, mustering a little sarcasm so that he doesn't start crying on Liam right there in the kitchen. He's not quite ready for that, even if Liam wouldn't mind. "I haven't had a break up in thirteen years. You, on the other hand—who has been there for you for every single one of your terrible break ups, Liam? Oh right, that would be me."

Liam lets go of him, and leans back against the counter. "They weren't all terrible."

"Danielle was terrible," Louis says, because it was a long time ago, but he's never going to forgive Liam for shaving his head without telling any of them, and he's never going to forget how broken-hearted and miserable Liam was for that entire year. "I grant you Sophia was not terrible, but after Sophia there was that fucking wanker."

"Gareth," Liam supplies, rolling his eyes, but there's a hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth.

"Arse," Louis agrees. "That one was horrendous, and you were inconsolable three weeks before my wedding, so you definitely owe me for that."

"I do," Liam admits, and nudges his foot against Louis's ankle. "I owe you for Charlie, too. You let me stay at yours while he moved his things out, remember?"

Louis does remember. It was two years ago, and he'd been working up to asking El if she wanted to have a baby, now that they'd had time to get used to life off the road, and then Liam and Charlie had split. Everyone liked Charlie, and Louis'd thought he was in for the long haul, with Liam. He remembers talking with Eleanor, low-voiced in their bedroom with Liam just on the other side of the wall, about how sad it was for Liam not to have someone, remembers thinking how lucky he was to have her. "That wasn't exactly terrible," he says, more honestly than he means to, "it was just sad."

"Yeah," Liam says, and leans back into Louis. "Like this one, right?"

Louis nods. "Like this one."

They're both quiet for a minute, leaning against each other and not saying anything, and then Liam says tentatively, "I don't know what to do, though, not really. I'll try to help, but I might not be any good at it." It's so like Liam to admit it immediately when he's out of his depth, and then jump in anyway; Louis loves him for that, along with loads of other reasons.

"It's alright," Louis says. "I've never got divorced before. I don't even know what I need." He shifts over a little so that he can put his head back down on Liam's shoulder. "For now, just—be here?"

Liam wraps an arm around Louis's shoulders. "Okay," he says, and stays.

 

LIAM
June, 2016

Liam finds Louis in the back lounge of Bus 1, sprawled on the sofa with his feet up and poking idly at his phone. Zayn's sleeping in the hotel, for once, and Harry and Niall have taken their day off to go golfing, so it's just the two of them on the bus.

"Hey, babe," Louis says, smiling up at him. He's barefoot, and his tracksuit bottoms are too big—Liam thinks they might be Harry's—and he's wearing an old, stretched-out t-shirt, and he looks lazy and relaxed, soft and disarming. Liam's seen him like this a thousand times before, but today it makes his breath catch in his throat.

"Hey," he says, shoving his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. "You busy?"

"Nope," Louis says promptly. "What's up? You've been keeping to yourself since Soph left." He narrows his eyes, looking at Liam, and his soft edges go suddenly sharp. "I know you two decided to call it a day, but I thought it was all—" he waves his hand, "mutual, and everything, that you were alright about it."

Liam looks down at his shoes. "Yeah, no, we are, we're fine," he says. "It's not that, or—it's not exactly that."

Louis swings his legs down off the sofa and drops his phone on the floor, and then pats the cushion beside him. "Come on then, young Liam, come and tell your Uncle Louis all about it."

Liam rolls his eyes, but he can't help grinning a little. "It's a bit creepy when you do that, Lou," he protests, even though it comes out sounding fond.

"Oi," Louis says, and throws a sock at him. "Stop dodging the question."

Liam catches the sock, and then makes a face at it; they definitely banned Louis's socks from sock warfare. He tosses the sock into a corner and looks back at Louis, who has his eyebrows raised expectantly. Liam's not sure he should go over there—if he's distracting himself by thinking about sock warfare, that's probably not a very good sign—but he's got to stop avoiding Louis at some point, and he has got to try to act normal, because he can't keep this up. He's already second-guessing everything he does, constantly rethinking nearly every moment of the last five and a half years, and it's just—it's horrible, and it has to stop. He takes a deep breath, and goes to sit next to Louis.

Louis tugs him in immediately, putting an arm around him so that Liam has to fold himself into Louis's side. They've sat like this so often that it's automatic for Liam to put a hand on Louis's thigh and turn a little so that he can see his face, but the warmth of Louis pressed against him is making his pulse speed up, rapid and noticeable. "Seriously, Liam," Louis says, poking him in the side. "We've all been worried. Are you sure it's not about Sophia?"

"It's not about Sophia," Liam says, shaking his head. "Or at least, not the way you think. I don't wish we were still together, and we are—like, we're friends. I just talked to her last night." Sophia is still a bit cross with him, but she's also the only person he's talked to about any of this, and besides the boys, she's his best friend. She'd told him to bite the bullet and tell Louis straightaway, but right now it seems easier to let Louis puzzle him out while he tries to keep his breathing under control.

Louis looks thoughtful. "Well, if it's not Sophia, specifically, is it—we all know how you get when you're single. I know you hate being alone." Liam looks down, studying his hand on Louis's thigh, and shrugs. He does hate being alone. "We'll find you someone," Louis says firmly, squeezing Liam's shoulder. "We'll find you a nice girl soon enough, don't you worry."

"What if I don't want a nice girl?" Liam asks, fidgeting with his fingers.

Louis frowns. "Do you want a girl who's not nice?" He sounds incredulous, although Liam doesn't know why he should; nobody's ever called Louis nice in his life, and if Liam has a type—but Louis doesn't know that. Liam shakes his head, and Louis says, starting to sound a bit irritated, "Well, what? I know you're not going to resign yourself to being alone forever, Liam, that's not you at all."

"No," Liam agrees, "but—what if I don't want a girl? What if I want a boy?" His voice breaks as he says it, sounding small and scared. He can't bring himself to meet Louis's eyes.

"Oh, Liam," Louis says softly, and before Liam can say anything else, Louis draws him in closer, hugging him tightly. Liam presses his face into Louis's collarbone and lets Louis hold him, and for a moment it's not about anything but that—just Louis being there, and Liam not hiding from either one of them. "Harry would kick me for asking this," Louis says into Liam's hair, not letting him go, "but, you're sure?"

Liam nods, and then pulls back so he's not talking into Louis's shoulder. "Yeah, I—turns out, I don't like girls." He's never said it to anyone before, except Sophia, and that had been—well, it'd been a bit different. "I tried," he says, "I tried so hard, and I thought I did, for a long time, and I kept trying, and Soph was so—she's so perfect in every other way, and I love her, but it—I tried, but I—"

"You don't like girls," Louis finishes for him. "You know that's okay, right?"

Liam shakes his head helplessly, and puts his hands over his eyes.

"Liam," Louis says sharply, in the tone of voice he uses when something is really important, and he needs Liam to shut up and listen to him.

"I know it's okay," Liam says. His voice wavers, and his eyes under his fingers are wet at the corners. He'll probably start proper crying in about two minutes. "I know, like—I do. It's just not what I ever expected."

"Yeah." Louis squeezes Liam's knee, reassuring and familiar. "I can't say I'm not surprised, you know? It's a bit of a shock, for me as well as for you, it sounds like." He reaches out and pulls Liam's hands away from his face, holding on to them and fixing Liam with one of his fierce looks. "But it won't change anything, alright? We love you no matter what, and you're no different just because you're a bit gay."

Liam looks at Louis's narrow shoulders, and the sharp curve of his collarbone, and the dark stubble on his jaw. "I might be a lot gay."

"Well, good," Louis says, and smirks at him, exactly the same way he always does. "You never do things by halves, I don't see why this should be any different."

"Oh god," Liam says, choking on a watery laugh, and then there are the tears, right on schedule. "Lou, I've got no bloody clue what I'm doing. This is so new, even if maybe it's not, and I—" He buries his face in Louis's shoulder again, just as the sobs take over and he stops being able to make words.

Louis holds him while he cries, one hand stroking up and down his back and the other in his hair. "It's alright, love," Louis says softly, "it's going to be alright. I know it's hard, but whatever you need, you just tell us; and if you don't know, then we'll help you figure it out. We've got your back, me and the lads." He presses a kiss to the top of Liam's head. "Anyone who tries to give you any shit about this is going to have to go through me," he adds, still in that same soft voice, and Liam laughs a little through the tears, because it's maybe the scariest threat he's ever heard from Louis, scarier than all the things he shouts when he's angry. "That's better," Louis says, and Liam can hear the smile in his voice. "Cry all you need to, love, but I promise it'll be okay."

Liam sits up eventually, rubbing at his wet eyes with the cuff of his sleeve. "Fuck," he says, still a bit watery. "I was so scared to tell you." He has his hands knotted in the thin fabric of Louis's top, pulling it out of shape, and he makes himself let go; Louis doesn't make any move to straighten it out, though, and his hand is still warm on Liam's back.

"I think telling people's the hardest part," Louis says, "but I'm glad you did." He smiles at Liam. "You can tell me anything, you know that."

It's almost true. Liam knows Louis believes it, and Liam's always believed it before—Louis will mock people for ridiculous things, and anything can be a joke to him, but he's loyal, and faithful, and true, and he knows when things are serious. Liam trusts him more than nearly anyone else in the world, but he can't trust him with everything. He can't tell Louis how he feels about him, because then things really would change. He can say I love you, and he can roughhouse and joke and tease and hug and hold hands and look at Louis with his heart in his eyes, because he's been doing that for almost as long as they've known one another. The fact that Liam knows what it all means for him now only matters because it helped him work out some other things about himself; it doesn't change anything with him and Louis. He can't have Louis that way, and he knows it. Louis has Eleanor. Louis loves him, whether or not Liam likes boys, and Louis will treat him the same as he always has, and knowing that for certain helps even more than Liam thought it would. But Louis doesn't want him.

"Thank you," he says, because he's not going to lie outright. "I—thanks, Lou."

"Always," Louis says seriously, and then he pinches Liam's nipple, because Louis can only be serious for so long. Liam yelps, and smacks Louis's hand, and resolutely ignores the way it makes his dick twitch in his jeans.

"Sorry I got you all wet," he adds, tugging at Louis's t-shirt; it's a bit worse for wear, from the crying.

Louis shrugs, looking unconcerned. "All part of the job, love," he says, and then grins. "Though if you'd like, I could take this opportunity to make a filthy joke."

Liam can feel his cheeks heat, but even if he's blushing it's good, it's normal. Louis knows—well, almost everything—and they're still the same. "Save it for Harry," Liam says, grinning back, "you know he hates to miss a filthy joke."

"I think he's writing a book," Louis says, sounding disgusted and proud at the same time. "The Filthy Jokes of One Direction by Harry 'The Banana' Styles. Speaking of which, though, Liam, do you think you're ready to tell the boys?"

Liam nods. "Tonight, maybe? I suppose we should have a meeting and all, do it up right."

"You and the bloody meetings," Louis groans, but he's still smiling. "I'll let them know." He picks his phone up off the floor. Liam starts to get up, but Louis tugs him back down to the sofa. "Stick around for a bit," he says, deceptively casual. "I might get bored, and you know where that could lead. Epic disasters, major crises, maybe even the end of the world."

Liam blinks at him, but Louis just gazes back, eyebrows raised guilelessly, until Liam ducks his head and leans back into his side. "Okay," he says, feeling grateful and relieved, and almost relaxed for the first time in days. "Well, I suppose if it's a matter of saving the world, I can make that sacrifice."

Louis smiles, and puts his arm back around Liam's shoulders. "There's a good lad."

*

The five of them gather in Liam's hotel room that night, and order loads of room service. Liam thought he'd be too nervous to eat, but it turns out to be just like normal, watching Niall eat his way through several plates of nachos and chicken, and laughing at Harry's terrible stories about their day on the golf course, and making faces at Zayn. So it's strangely easy, once they've finished eating and are lazing about on the floor and the bed and the sofa, and Louis clears his throat to get everyone's attention, to just—tell them.

Harry and Niall tackle Liam immediately, jumping onto the bed with him and knocking him over while they hug him—even though just a moment ago, they were groaning about how they were too full to ever move again.

"Congratulations," Harry says warmly in his ear, his hair tickling Liam's cheek and chin.

"Good for you," Niall says, kissing Liam wetly on the cheek.

"We are literally the most homoerotic band in the world," Louis says dryly, from somewhere Liam can't see, because Harry and Niall are still on top of him. "Lads, if you're not going to take Liam's gay virginity right now, would you get off him for a moment?"

Liam flushes and sits up, leaning back against the pillows. Harry and Niall move with him, curling into him on either side. Liam looks around for Zayn, and finds him still sat on the sofa, clearly unwilling to move; but he smiles warmly at Liam and gives him a thumbs up when Liam catches his eyes.

"Hey," Harry says, drawing out the vowel in protest, "don't be mean, Lou."

"I'm not," Louis says. "Liam wants to have a meeting; I'm just following orders."

Niall snorts. "Since when do you follow orders?"

"I do when they're good orders," Louis says pointedly, folding his arms and glaring at Niall.

"Or when they're Liam's," Harry says, almost under his breath.

"Oi," Louis says, and throws a chip at Harry. Niall catches it out of the air and eats it. "Listen, lads," Louis continues, "Liam was properly upset about this earlier, so let's be serious for a minute, alright?"

Liam looks down at his knees, but he looks back up when Harry puts a hand on his cheek and turns Liam to face him. "Why were you upset?" he asks, frowning. His eyebrows are drawn together in concern.

Liam shakes his head. "I'm not now, so much," he says, trying to find the right words. "I told Louis—it's just not what I expected, so it's taking some getting used to. It's new, and I don't, like—I don't really know what I'm doing. I just know it's how I am."

"Well, it is a surprise," Harry says slowly, and then he starts to get one of his cheeky grins, the corners of his mouth turning up and showing off his dimples. "I always thought Niall was the gay one."

"Oi," Niall yells, and climbs over Liam to tackle Harry off the edge of the bed. He pokes his head back up over the side once he's got Harry pinned with a knee in his stomach, and Harry is laughing and wheezing under him on the floor. "Sorry, mate," he says to Liam. "There's nothing wrong with it, obviously, I've just got to teach this filthy bugger here a lesson, you know how it is. Blokes are great! Just not for me. More for you, right?"

Liam looks down at the two of them—two of his four best mates, rolling around on the floor like they do all the time—and he's not quite sure how to feel. They've been like this for as long as he's known them, so few barriers between any of them. It took him a long time to get comfortable with that, to become somebody he liked being, somebody who could joke and cuddle and drink and not take things too seriously, and he doesn't want to lose any of it, just because he's changed, just because some of it could—does, maybe—mean something different for him. But he doesn't feel any differently towards Harry or Niall or Zayn, and he knows he can't have Louis.

"I dunno if it's a surprise, though," Zayn says quietly, from where he's sat on the sofa, and Liam turns to stare at him. Out of the corner of his eye he can see that Louis's done the same, and on the floor Harry and Niall abruptly stop giggling and sit up. "What?" Zayn demands, when he sees that they're all looking at him. "I don't mean—I didn't know, or whatever, but I was wondering. We all were, about what's been going on with Liam."

"Yeah," Louis says, "but Zayn, like—I didn't think this was on the list." He glances over at Liam, and Liam shakes his head. What does Zayn know?

Zayn shrugs. "I'm not saying it was. Or anything, really. It's just—something was up with Liam, yeah? And it seemed like a big thing, and he and Sophia split, and—" he closes his mouth abruptly and looks at Liam, and then gives him a soft, private smile, like he used to when he was the only one of them Liam felt he really understood, or who understood him. "I'm just not that surprised, is all. I'm glad you worked it out, babe," he says to Liam, his voice gentle and affectionate. "I'm glad you told us."

"Me too," Niall says from the floor, suddenly serious. "I'm really glad you told us, Payno."

Harry nods his agreement and gets up off the floor, sitting back down next to Liam on the bed. "Me three," he says, leaning back against Liam's chest. Liam puts an arm around him, a little hesitantly, and Harry turns his head to smile at him. "We should throw you a coming out party or something. Celebrate."

Liam frowns, a little confused. "Is it, like—is it a thing to celebrate?"

Harry narrows his eyes. "Yes," he says firmly. "Tell him, lads."

There's a pause, while Louis and Zayn and Niall have one of those silent conversations where nobody actually says anything, and then Louis comes and sits on the bed with them. "It's a good thing," he says, putting a hand on Liam's knee. "You don't have to celebrate if you don't want to, though. It's what I said earlier, yeah? Whatever you want, we've got your back."

"You really should have a party, though," Harry coaxes, in a very loud whisper. Louis reaches across Liam to swat him, and Harry catches Louis's hand and grins. Louis rolls his eyes.

"If he wants, Haz. Leave him be."

"Parties are good," Niall says, joining them on the bed. "But it's what Lou said. We love you, mate, and we're here for you, whatever you need. I know this is a big thing, but it doesn't have to be a big thing with us."

"Thanks, Nialler," Liam says softly. He's not sure what he did to deserve these boys, but sometimes he loves them so much, and feels so unbearably lucky, that he thinks his heart's going to pound right out of his chest.

Across the room, Zayn gives a put-upon sigh and gets up off the sofa. "Move your arse, Lou," he says, "it's my turn for a Liam cuddle."

Louis makes a face, but scoots down to the foot of the bed so Zayn can take the spot next to Liam. Zayn fusses with the pillows for a minute, and then leans into Liam's side and takes his free hand, twining their fingers together. Louis rests a hand on Liam's ankle, and Niall kicks his legs over Harry's, so that he can poke Liam in the thigh with his toes. Liam lets himself relax into the warmth of the four of them around him, safe and familiar and feeling like home.

"Hey," Harry says suddenly, sounding more awake than Liam had thought he was—his eyes were drifting closed, and Harry can fall asleep anywhere. "Are you really a gay virgin?"

"Um," Liam says, feeling himself turn red. "I—yes?"

Harry makes a huffing, dissatisfied noise. "Right, well, we'll need to do something about that, then. I know loads of people who can help find you a nice bloke, Liam."

"We can be your wingmen," Niall adds cheerfully.

"Um," Liam says again. "I'm not, like—" He looks to Louis for help, but Louis just gives him a curious look. "I don't know if I'm ready for that," he says finally, a little strained. "Not never, just—not yet." He doesn't bother to say that he can pull his own blokes, because it's probably not true, but he's not ready to let the lads help him. Soon, maybe, but not yet—not when anyone he meets would be measured against Louis, and inevitably fall short.

"You don't have to do anything you don't want to do," Zayn says soothingly, and squeezes Liam's hand.

"I still think you should have a party," Harry says, and then his voice gets serious. "We're proud of you, Liam. For telling us, and for working it out. It wouldn't have to be a big thing, just family, but it's still something to celebrate."

"Oh," Liam says, feeling warm all over. "I'll think about it, then." He presses a kiss into Harry's hair.

"That actually brings up another point," Louis says, sounding oddly hesitant. "I didn't ask this earlier, Liam, because I thought you had enough to be going on with, telling the lads. But like—Zayn's right, you don't have to do anything you don't want to, you haven't got to tell anybody but us, but—have you thought about that?"

Liam hasn't, at least not properly. Talking it over with Sophia, he'd been focused on how to tell Louis, on how he would react, and then on telling Zayn and Niall and Harry. Anything beyond that had been too much to think about, especially when he'd still wondered, alone in empty hotel rooms and unable to sleep, if they'd ask him to leave the band. But when Louis asks, there's not even a question.

"I've got to tell my family first," he says, "and then the crew and everybody. But I'm not keeping this from the fans."

Louis gives him a fierce look. "You don't owe anybody anything, Liam."

Liam shakes his head, holding tightly to Zayn's hand. "It's not—I mean, I do. We owe the fans everything, and you know it; but that's not why." Louis doesn't say anything, but he's taken his hand off Liam's ankle and folded his arms over his chest, and he's sitting at the end of the bed, drawn away from the rest of them. Liam wishes he knew what was going on in Louis's head. "It's the right thing to do," he says, feeling a little helpless. "I guess it might not be the right thing for everyone, but for me—I've got to be honest with our fans, and I couldn't live with it, if I could make something easier for someone out there who's like me, and I didn't."

Louis still doesn't say anything, and Harry and Zayn exchange a look over Liam's head. After a moment, Zayn lets go of Liam and moves down the bed to put a hand on Louis's wrist. When Louis glares at him, Zayn lets go, but he stays where he is, next to Louis at the foot of the bed.

"If you tell the fans, you'll be telling the whole world," Harry says, turning so he can meet Liam's eyes. He leans against Niall instead, and they both look serious.

"They'll eat you alive," Niall says. "Maybe not the fans, most of them, but the media—it won't be pretty."

"Yeah." Liam picks at the hole in the knee of his jeans, thinking it over. It's not like he's not used to that; it hasn't been so bad recently, but he's never been the most popular member of the band, and he knows he's got a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. "They already do," he offers. "And, like, wouldn't it be worse if I kept it a secret, and then somebody found out?"

"Some people will think that's what's happened anyway," Louis says, his voice tight and harsh. "They'll say you've been lying this whole time."

Liam blinks, and then rubs at his eyes. He's not going to start crying again. He knows Louis doesn't mean it; he knows Louis's on his side. "People will say a lot of things," he says. "I've still got to do this."

There's another silence, more thoughtful this time, but Liam can still feel the waves of tension rolling off Louis. "I won't, though," he says at last, carefully, once the silence has stretched out and Louis's still just as tense. "If, like—if you lads don't want me to, I'd understand. It affects all of you, too, so—we should vote. We did say this was a meeting."

The tension in the room eases abruptly, and when Liam looks up, Louis's shoulders have relaxed, and he's letting Zayn touch him. "We don't need to vote," Louis says, his voice back to normal. "If you want to come out, we'll all support you." He sounds fierce again, like he'll take down anyone who disagrees.

Liam looks around, not entirely sure how he feels about Louis making that decision for everyone; but Harry and Niall and Zayn are all nodding their agreement. "Thanks, lads," he says, feeling a little choked up.

Zayn gives him a fond, teasing smile. "Obviously," he says. "Stop worrying so much, Liam."

"I don't think he can," Louis says dryly, but he's smiling again, too. Liam still doesn't know what Louis was so upset about; but Louis will tell him or he won't, and either way he seems like he's over it, like he's back on Liam's side.

"Are we done with this meeting?" Harry asks. He's got his phone in his hand.

Louis raises his eyebrows. "Why, have you got somewhere important to be?"

"No," Harry says. "But I've just texted Grimmy to ask for recommendations for gay films, so we can watch them with Liam and be supportive. Only I think this one he's sent me is porn."

"Oh my god," Liam says, putting his head down on his knees and laughing helplessly. "Please can we just watch Iron Man?"

"What if there's gay Iron Man porn?" Harry gasps, sounding both delighted and horrified. "I'm going to ask him."

"Seriously, the most homoerotic band in the world," Louis says. He sounds like he's trying not to laugh. Liam looks up at them—at Harry and Niall, making faces at Harry's phone and talking over each other, and Louis, leaning on Zayn's shoulder and smirking, and Zayn, still smiling at Liam—and he thinks maybe it really will be alright.

 

LOUIS
October, 2024

Louis spends most of the day at Liam's, hiding from the rest of the world. Liam makes breakfast, and then sandwiches for lunch, and Louis makes several thousand cups of tea and kicks Liam's arse at FIFA. They spend a few hours working on Chloe's new single, and finalising the recording schedule for Moose & Squirrel, and it's nice, distracting, normal. Louis would rather like to stay forever; but they have meetings on Monday, and he's got nothing with him—just his wallet and his phone—and besides all that, he's thirty-two fucking years old and a bloody adult, and he can't hide forever.

When he turns his phone back on, he's got two texts from El, both from early that morning. Come back when you're ready x, the first one says, and then, immediately after that, Door's unlocked, I saw you left your keys. Text me if you're not coming back today, though, please. x.

"I've got to go home for a bit," he tells Liam.

Liam nods, and then gives Louis one of his earnest dark-eyed looks. "Do you—will you be okay on your own?"

Louis rolls his eyes, but secretly he's touched. "Yes, Liam, I will be alright going to my own house to talk to my own wife. What could possibly go wrong?"

"Louis," Liam says reproachfully.

Louis relents, and gives Liam as much of a smile as he can manage. It's not very much, and Liam looks a bit suspicious. "I'll be fine, love," he says. "Honest. We're not fighting or anything, she's still El. We've just got to talk about what we're doing now, and how to do it, and like—I need to pick up some clothes, figure out where I'm going to stay. It's her house, really, I don't want to put her out." He can tell he's babbling, and abruptly closes his mouth.

"You can stay here," Liam says, "for as long as you like. Didn't I say that before?"

"Yeah," Louis admits, because he had, but Louis hadn't really—well, he hadn't been counting on it, but that doesn't mean he hadn't hoped. "I don't want to put you out, either."

Liam shakes his head firmly. "You won't be." He studies Louis for a moment, and then quirks a smile. "You've got to take one of the spare rooms, though. If you're going to be staying here for a while, you aren't sleeping on the sofa."

"Oi," Louis protests. "I like your sofa."

"I know," Liam says patiently, "but I have two lovely spare bedrooms, with proper beds and privacy and everything. House rule, Lou."

Louis has stayed in both of Liam's spare rooms before, and they are lovely. It's just that if he gives up the sofa for a bedroom, this whole thing will start feeling more permanent, more real; which is exactly the reason he should, of course, because it is permanent and real. It's just that that's terrifying. Louis wonders if Liam knows that, if he's cracked the code. "Oh, fine," he says, trying for beleaguered and not terrified, "if you insist."

"I do," Liam says, and hugs him. "Go and get your things and talk to Eleanor," he adds, letting Louis go but keeping his hands on his shoulders. "I'll be here when you get back."

Louis reaches up and squeezes Liam's hands. "Thanks," he says, and then, when that doesn't seem like enough, "thanks for everything."

"Always," Liam says. "See you later, Lou."

"Later," Louis echoes, and goes.

*

The house is quiet when he lets himself in, not even any music coming from the radio in the kitchen. His keys are on the hall table where he left them. He puts them in the pocket of his coat so he won't forget them again, and goes into the kitchen to get a beer out of the fridge. He downs half of it, and then opens a second one and takes them both with him to go find Eleanor.

She's in the sitting room at the back of the house, sat with her feet up on the sofa and reading a thick stack of papers—definitely work, because she's got a pen in her hand and her glasses on while she reads. It's getting dark, and the warm light from the lamp on the end table makes her hair shine, gold and brown.

"Hey," he says softly, not quite wanting to disturb her concentration.

"Hey, babe." She sets her pen down and smiles up at him. It's not a proper Eleanor smile, not like the ones that light up her whole face, but it's something. He hands her the second beer, and takes the other end of the sofa.

"Sorry for interrupting," he says, nodding at the papers on her lap.

El shakes her head. "It's fine. I haven't really—my concentration's completely gone." She shrugs a little, looking almost embarrassed. "I keep trying to focus. Work, or that novel your mum lent me last time we were there, or this morning I actually tried to clean out the box room, but I just haven't got it today."

"I know what you mean," Louis says. "I'm pretty sure Liam let me beat him at FIFA. I'm a mess."

El laughs a little, and takes a long swallow of the beer. Louis watches her throat work, and then shakes his head, because there's really—there's no point. "Wait," he says, frowning, as his brain catches up, "you tried to clean out the box room?"

This time, El really laughs. "I know, right? I think I went properly mad this morning." She grins at him. "Don't go up there, Lou, seriously. I gave up after three hours, so now it's worse than it was before."

"But why?" Louis asks, before he can think better of it, and Eleanor's grin drops off her face.

"I don't—like I said, I think I went a bit mad," she says. "You weren't here, and I knew we were finished trying to make this work, and I had to do something where I could see results, where it wasn't—where I could do something." She runs her hands through her hair, untangling it from its knot so it falls loose around her shoulders. "It didn't work like I'd hoped, though. The box room's still a mess. Like us."

"The box room is not a metaphor for our relationship," Louis says sharply.

Eleanor raises her eyebrows. "I know," she says, just as sharp. He's always loved that about her, the way she can be as harsh and cruel and cutting as he can; but sometimes it means they keep hurting each other without anyone knowing when to stop. "It's still full of things we care about."

Neither of them says anything else for a minute. Louis knocks back the rest of his beer and sets the empty bottle on the end table. When he looks back at her, El's worrying at the label on her bottle with her thumbnail. "I'm sorry," she says, finally. She doesn't say I didn't mean it.

"I do still care about you," Louis says.

"I know," El says. "I still care about you, too, but it's not the same as it used to be. I love you, Lou, but I don't—we're not in this for the same things, anymore, and I don't think it's giving up to say that, or to stop trying to be people we're not."

Louis nods. "That's more or less what I said to Liam."

El smiles, looking more like her normal self. "Yeah? What did he say?"

"He was a little freaked out, actually," Louis admits. "He said—I don't know, after I shouted at him a bit he came around, and I think he understood, but at first he was really upset about us splitting up, like we were supposed to be forever."

"Oh, hell." It sounds heartfelt. She finishes her beer, and Louis reaches out and wraps his hand around her ankle, until she makes a face at him. "Well, it's not like we didn't think we were forever, too." She sighs. "Everybody does at twenty-one. I think we just believed it for longer."

"We had reason to," Louis says. "We had a really good run, El."

Eleanor looks at him, and for a moment it's like they're back there, believing so completely in each other that they can do anything. "We did," she agrees, and then she looks away and Louis can breathe again. He's not sure it's a fair trade, but it's what he's got. "Speaking of Liam," El says, "do you think we should start telling everyone?"

Louis rubs a hand over his eyes. "I think we have to. We're not going to hide this, are we? We've probably got to sit down with lawyers, and at some point I'll have to talk to my publicist; but I don't want to do that until we've told our families."

"Okay." She looks at him thoughtfully, eyes narrowed. Louis waits, because he has thirteen years of knowing exactly what Eleanor looks like when she's working on a problem, and it's nearly always worth it to wait her out. "Okay," she repeats, finally. "Divide and conquer, yeah? Tell our families, and then you talk to Amanda, and I can ring John on Monday, tell him and ask about representation." She frowns at Louis, and then sighs again. "It shouldn't be too hard, right? I don't want to take you to court for all your millions or anything, Lou, obviously, just—whatever's reasonable. Whatever we agree to, both of us."

"The house is yours, though," Louis says firmly, not wanting her to argue.

El tilts her head. "Alright, but you have to tell me why."

Louis stares at her helplessly. He doesn't know how to explain. They'd bought it together the year before their wedding, when One Direction was on a break, but they hadn't really settled in until after the band had ended. They'd picked everything out together, carpets and furniture and curtains and paint colours; there's a whole wall in Louis's office that Zayn painted for him specially, a bright, colourful mural of a band of superheroes. It's not really any more Eleanor's house than it is his, but he can't go on living here, not when it's the house he'd wanted the two of them to raise a family in, when it represents something he doesn't get to have.

"It's—" he starts, and then stops and drags a hand through his hair, frustrated. "I just can't," he says. "It's too much—ours, and we're not an us anymore."

"I don't know why you think that's not true for me, too," El says sharply, but then she looks away. "I'll keep the house, Lou, but you have to promise you'll let me sell it, if I decide I want to. I don't know if I want to stay here, either. I will for now, but—I might not, in the long term."

For one hot second, Louis's speechless with fury, because how could she? How could she even think about selling the house? Their house; but then his sense of reality catches up with him. It makes sense, that she wouldn't want to stay; he's not the only one who's giving something up, who's saying goodbye to the things they've built. "Yeah," he says, a little hoarse. "That's fair."

"Will you stay at Liam's?" El asks.

Louis nods. "For now. Maybe for a while."

"That's good," she says warmly, and then she moves the stack of papers onto the end table and sits up, squaring her shoulders. "Right. I think we should call our parents now, both of us. Get it over with together."

"Divide and conquer?" Louis asks, only a little sarcastic.

Eleanor gives him a tired grin. "That's the idea," she says. "You'd better get us another couple of beers, though. We're going to need them."

*

By mutual unspoken agreement, Louis leaves El to phone her parents in the sitting room and goes back down the hall to the kitchen. It's one of his favourite rooms in the house—big and open and airy, with bright tile on the work surfaces and warm yellow walls. Even though he still can't cook, he's been slowly trying to learn, just to do justice to their kitchen. He drinks a little more of his beer, and then he sits on one of the stools at the breakfast bar and rings his mum.

She takes it better than he thought she would—though if he thinks about it, he supposes he shouldn't be surprised. He remembers when she and his dad got divorced, and it was awful, but they were both adults about it, fair, and good to each other, and careful with him and the girls. His mum loves Eleanor, has treated her like a daughter since nearly the first time Louis brought her home, but she understands why people sometimes don't work out, why relationships end.

"I'm so sorry, love," she says, when Louis's told her everything and is trying very hard not to cry over the phone. "How are you holding up?"

He laughs a little. "Oh, well. Could be worse, right?"

"Mmm," she says. It sounds a bit judgmental.

"I've been better," he says, giving in; she'd just get it out of him eventually. "I don't know if I've known this was coming for so long that it feels anticlimactic, or if it hasn't properly hit me yet. I can tell I'm a mess, but I feel numb at the same time."

"That sounds about right," she says. "Not that I think there's any right way to feel, but that's what I remember."

He props his elbows on the breakfast bar and studies the tile. There's a little spot at one corner, where they hadn't cleaned well enough—soy sauce, he thinks, or maybe tea. "How'd you get through it?" he asks, even though he's not sure he wants to hear the answer.

"You and the girls," she says promptly. "But I had help from friends, too, and your grandparents, and work. Dan, eventually." She pauses. "You get through it because you've got to, Lou; it's life, sometimes things are really hard. It'll be hard for both of you, for a while, and you won't get to lean on each other. But you've got a lot of other people who love you, and you'll be alright. Even if it takes time."

"Are you sure?" he asks, a little plaintively.

"Absolutely," she says, and he lets out a breath, leaning his chin on his hand; he really wants to believe her. "Listen, sweetheart, why don't you come up at the weekend, spend some time with the babies?"

"You know they hate when you call them that," Louis says, smiling involuntarily. Dorie's angry face whenever Mum calls her and Ernie 'the babies' is one of his favourite things in the world. "They're ten."

He can picture his mum rolling her eyes. "They're still my babies," she says, "and so are you, Louis, divorce or no divorce. Come home at the weekend, alright? Give me a bit of break. Daisy'd love to see you, too, since she missed you the last time."

"Yeah, alright," he says, because it honestly sounds perfect. "Thanks, Mum."

"Of course," she says. "Call if you need anything, love. You know that."

He nods, even though she can't see him. "Yeah, I do. Love you."

"Love you too, sweetheart," she says, and hangs up.

Louis puts his phone down on the counter. He should go upstairs and pack a bag; he should see if Eleanor's done with her parents; he should call Lottie; he should call Harry. Instead he sits there a while longer, staring out the kitchen window, just remembering how to breathe.

*

He's putting jeans and t-shirts and jumpers into an overnight bag when Eleanor comes into the bedroom. He has about five hundred different overnight bags, plus the suitcases, but packing a proper suitcase feels too much like the last holiday he and El took together. The overnight bags still feel like tour, and for some reason that makes them seem more real.

"How'd it go?" he asks, still sorting through the chest of drawers. He should make sure he packs enough underwear; he never remembers that.

El sits down on the bed. "Horrible," she says, a little muffled. When he turns around, he can see that she's rolled over and buried her face in the pillows. He stares at her for a minute, and then instinct takes over and he goes to sit next to her on the bed, rubbing his hand gently up and down her back.

She makes a soft, familiar noise, relaxing under his hand. "They'll come around," she says, still muffled by the pillows. "I think they were just surprised." She rolls back over and sits up, and his hand slides automatically down to her waist. "They wanted to know why I hadn't said anything before, as if we ever talk about things like this in my family." She shakes her head. "Only, because I hadn't said anything, they didn't quite believe me. Mum kept asking why we weren't trying counselling, and if we were really sure."

"I'm sorry," Louis says.

El leans forward, resting her face against Louis's shoulder. Louis puts his arms around her. "It'll be alright," she says into his chest. "They just worry about me, and it was a bit of a shock for them."

"Yeah." Louis strokes his hands down her back again, comforting, like he has hundreds of times before. El sighs, her breath gusting against his neck, and then she lifts her head and kisses him.

It's just a casual, everyday kiss at first, her lips warm and soft against his, the kind of kiss they've given each other on a thousand different mornings on their way out the door; but then El puts a hand on the back of his neck, her long fingers tangling in his hair, and Louis opens his mouth to her. After that the kiss gets hotter, wetter, more frantic; Louis kisses El back just as hard, like it's the last time he'll ever get to do this. She tastes a little like the beer they were both drinking, but more like herself, like everything Louis ever thought he wanted.

Eventually, they have to stop kissing to breathe. Louis's still holding her, and El has one hand curled desperately at the back of his neck and the other pressed to his chest. They lean their foreheads together for a moment, their breathing harsh and loud in the quiet room.

"I'm going to miss you so much," El says. Her voice is rough.

"Me too." He kisses her again, softer and slower, saying goodbye. "I already miss you."

They stay like that for a while, holding on. El dashes a hand under her eyes when she finally pulls away, and Louis pretends not to notice. He's not exactly dry-eyed himself.

"We'll see each other, right?" El asks, sounding uncharacteristically hesitant. "I—not for the meetings and lawyers and things, but just to see each other?"

Louis nods. He's not sure it still counts as a cliché to say you want to stay friends when you've been with someone for thirteen years. "Of course we will, love," he says. "We'll figure it out."

El gives him one more quick kiss, just a brush of her lips against the corner of his mouth, and then she gets off the bed, pulling him up with her. She squeezes his hands, once, and then lets them go. "Come on," she says, "I'll help you pack."

*

There are lights on in the living room when Louis lets himself back into Liam's flat, and he can hear the television, but he goes into the larger of the two spare rooms, instead, and drops his bags on the floor. Liam's made up the bed while he's been gone, and left one of the lamps on, and the room is warm and inviting, nothing at all like a hotel. Louis lets out a slow breath, and wills himself to relax. He'll be alright here, for a while. Given the options available to him, there's nowhere he'd rather be.

Liam looks up when Louis comes into the living room. He's working on something on his tablet, and there's an old episode of Top Gear on the telly. "I got you a curry," Liam says, smiling. "It's in the kitchen."

"Bless you, Payno," Louis says, meaning it, and goes into the kitchen.

Liam waits until Louis's back on the sofa and halfway through his curry before he sets his tablet on the coffee table and asks, "How'd it go?"

Louis shrugs, and thinks about what to say while he chews. "It was okay," he says. "I'm a bit—Mum says it's normal, feeling a bit numb at the same time as you feel like a disaster waiting to happen."

"Mmm," Liam says. "She's probably right, yeah? Jay's usually right."

Louis grins a little. "Don't let her hear you say that, she'll get a big head."

Liam laughs. "You think she's usually right, too."

"Well, yeah," Louis agrees, "but she's my mum."

Liam's quiet for a moment, but he's still smiling. Louis eats more of his curry, and waits. "I love you," Liam says finally, "we all love you. We'll get you through this."

Louis looks at Liam, who is looking back at him with his soft brown eyes, worried and warm; besides Louis's mum and sisters and brother, Liam's probably the most stable, steady presence in Louis's life, and he has been for nearly fifteen years. "I know," Louis says, and almost believes it.

 

LIAM
April, 2018

The ceremony is so lovely that Liam can't find it in himself to be anything but stupidly, joyfully happy for Louis and Eleanor. They're both glowing when they say their vows, looking at each other like there isn't anyone else in the world. Louis's smile when Eleanor puts the ring on his finger could light up the whole planet, and Eleanor kisses him so passionately at the end of the ceremony that there's a round of applause and laughter from everyone watching.

After the ceremony there are the photographers, and loads of champagne, and then dinner, and cake, and toasts. The lads voted that Liam should give the toast for all of them, so after Stan finishes his best man speech, Liam gets up and talks about how perfect Lou and El are for each other, how El's always been one of the family, how she makes Louis happier every day of their lives, and he means everything he says. Louis and Eleanor are both smiling when he finishes, their eyes a little wet; Louis catches Eleanor's hand and kisses her knuckles, and then they both raise their glasses with Liam and the lads.

So it's not until much later that Liam has a chance to start feeling anything but happy, and then the bone-deep sadness hits him so hard that he has to go and sit at one of the empty tables, out of the way of everyone he knows.

Sophia finds him ten minutes later, dropping unceremoniously into the chair next to him. "Are you hiding?"

Liam looks out at the dance floor, where Louis and Eleanor are still dancing, leaning on each other and laughing. El's hair is coming loose, and Louis's lost his jacket somewhere. Niall and his new girlfriend are dancing, too, both of them looking drunk and flushed and happy; and Perrie and Zayn are sharing one chair at the edge of the floor, Perrie on Zayn's lap and their hands clasped together on her knee, their wedding rings catching the light.

"M'not hiding," he says, which is only mostly a lie. "Or—not really, anyway." He could have gone outside for a cigarette, or gone back to the hotel.

"I think you are, babe," Sophia says mildly. "Are you alright?"

"I'm so happy for them," Liam says, a little bleakly. "I love them, and they're so happy. How could I be anything other than happy for them, Soph?"

Sophia makes a thoughtful noise; he's not looking at her, but he can picture the expression on her face, the way her mouth purses and her eyes narrow. "You can be happy for them and still be sad for yourself, Liam."

"I—oh," he says. She's always so bloody smart. She hasn't been his girlfriend for two years, and she's still better at sorting out his feelings than he is.

"Yeah," she says gently. "So, like I said, how are you doing?"

He shakes his head, and finally turns to look at her. She's beautiful in her bridesmaid's dress, dark blue silk with a skirt that flutters around her knees. Her shining dark hair is loose over her bare shoulders, caught back on one side with glittering silver pins, and she crosses one of her long legs over the other as she looks back at him. He's always thought she was beautiful; he wishes he wanted to have sex with her.

"I don't know," he says honestly. "I am happy for them. I've been—it's been a really wonderful day. I just got a bit sad, suddenly, that's all. It's nothing to worry about."

"Mmm." She doesn't sound convinced.

"Why aren't you dancing, then?" he tries.

She laughs, looking embarrassed. "My feet are killing me."

"Give them here, then," Liam says, holding out his hands, and Sophia grins and kicks her feet into his lap. She's wearing pointy silver shoes with very high heels; he takes them off her, and then presses his thumbs into the arch of her foot, working out the knots.

"I love you," she says sincerely, but then she frowns at him. "But don't change the subject. What are you sad about?"

Liam looks down at her feet in his lap; her toenails are painted to match her dress. "It's not, like—it's just hard when they've all got someone. I thought this would be me, for such a long time, that I'd be one of the first of us to get married and settle down."

"What happened with Gareth?" Sophia asks. "You never said."

Liam has seen quite a lot of Sophia in the weeks leading up to the wedding, and he told her with everyone else when Gareth broke it off with him, but they never had a chance to talk about it any more than that. Liam had mostly fallen apart on Ruth and then on Louis, which was—well, mostly he thought Louis might kill Gareth, which was sort of gratifying, but not terribly helpful.

"I was more serious than he was," Liam says. He still feels raw, but it's not Gareth's fault that he'd only really wanted sex and Liam had wanted forever. Liam's not even sure he wanted forever with Gareth, but he'd thought maybe they could try. Even if somewhere deep down he'd always sort of known that Gareth wasn't who he really wanted.

Sophia gives him a look, fond and sad at the same time. "I'm sorry," she says, "that's hard." Liam nods, looking away. "Were you in love with him?"

"No," Liam says quietly. "I just hoped I could be, that's all." He looks at the dance floor, where Louis's got his arms around Eleanor and his face pressed into her hair. They're not dancing so much as they are swaying arrhythmically to the music. "I'm still—" He looks back at Sophia, hoping she'll say it for him, but she just raises her eyebrows and waits. "I could forget, when I was with Gareth, so I thought I was alright for a while. But I'm still tied up in knots over Lou."

"Oh, Liam," Sophia says.

"I know," Liam groans, and puts his face in his hands. "You don't have to say it, Soph, I know. It's so stupid, and pointless, and I can't stop—"

"Liam," Sophia says, much more sharply. She swings her feet out of his lap and leans in so she can pull his hands away from his face. "Babe, relax. I wasn't going to say anything." She squeezes his hands. "We both know you've got to get over Louis, but that doesn't mean you can just wish your feelings away. I told you before, it's alright to be sad."

Liam breathes out on a shuddery sigh, and leans his forehead against her shoulder. She strokes his back, her hands gentle; she's wearing a new perfume, Liam thinks, sometime with jasmine. "I hate that I'm sad at their wedding," he confesses.

"Yeah," Sophia agrees, hugging him. "But they never have to know that, do they? It'll be our secret."

"Okay," he says into the soft skin of her neck, and stays there for a minute, getting himself back together. Sophia's honestly too good to him, after what he's put her through.

"Hey," she says when he pulls back, giving him a bit of a look. "If you think a distraction might help, El's cousin Carl has been checking you out all night." She nods across the room at a tall blond bloke who's standing at the bar with Harry and Jay and Eleanor's cousin Emily. Liam vaguely remembers being introduced to him, but that's about it; he is handsome, though, and he's got that bemused look on his face that people sometimes get when they've been talking to Harry for too long.

"Really?"

Sophia actually smirks at him. "I heard him ask Harry if you were single."

"Huh." Liam could, maybe; there are worse things he could do than get off with a bloke he doesn't really know at his best mate's wedding. Louis would probably be proud of him, if—when, Liam shouldn't kid himself—he found out. But that just makes it suddenly, painfully impossible. Liam can't even think about getting off with Carl without Louis coming into it, and that's not fair to anyone, least of all himself. He's got too much going on in his head tonight.

"I don't think I can," he says to Sophia. "I'm not really—I'm no good at casual."

"It's not really any of my business," Sophia points out, her voice a little dry. "Come dance with me, then, if you're not going to pull Carl." She picks her shoes up off the floor, and starts to put them back on.

"Soph—" Liam starts, but Sophia gives him a look and he closes his mouth.

"It's late," she says. "The paparazzi all went home hours ago, and nobody here is going to think we're getting back together just because you dance with me at El and Lou's wedding. You're still one of my best friends, Liam. Additionally, I know I didn't turn you gay, and anyone who says so can fuck right off; and, finally, there's this guy at work who asked me out last week, and I think I'm going to say yes." She narrows her eyes at him, and he thinks it's one of the best and worst things about her, that she never lets him get away with anything. "Did you have any other objections?"

"No," Liam says meekly, and lets her pull him to his feet. "Wait, who's this guy at work?" he demands, after a minute, but Sophia just laughs, bright and happy and beautiful, and drags him back onto the dance floor.

 

LOUIS
November, 2024

"Uncle Lou!" Mahina shouts, and then Louis's got a tiny Malik stuck to his legs before he's even properly through the door of Zayn's house.

Louis crouches down to hug her. "How's my best girl?"

"Running me ragged," Zayn says, coming up behind her with Zafar in his arms. "Zaf was up half the night, and now neither of them will take a nap. Get out while you still can." He's smiling as he says it, though, and Louis grins up at him. Zayn's still Zayn, skinny jeans and Batman hoodie and tattoos and cheekbones, but he's also such a dad, now; Louis's not sure he'll ever get used to seeing Zayn with pureed food in his hair and a muslin over his shoulder.

"Too late," Louis says cheerfully.

"In that case, bro," Zayn says, "I would love you forever if you ran her around the garden for a bit, whilst I try to get Zaf to sleep."

"I'm a bit offended that you don't already love me forever," Louis says, pouting, but Zayn just rolls his eyes and goes back down the hall with Zaf. "C'mon then, love," Louis says to Mahina. "Where's your football got to?"

Mahina is still too small to really kick the football, but they roll it back and forth between them for a while, on the grass in the garden, while Louis explains offside rules and Mahina laughs at him; she looks like her dad when she does that, but she's much more interested in football than Zayn. It's a beautiful day in London, for once, cool and crisp but warm in the sunshine. When Mahina gets bored of the ball, Louis pretends to be a dragon so that she can chase him around the garden, yelling and waving a stick, which is a game he heartily approves of; princesses should not take any shit from dragons. Once she starts falling over more often—Harry's influence, Louis's sure—and her eyelids start to droop, he coaxes her back inside and puts her to bed.

"M'not sleepy," Mahina mutters, almost entirely asleep. Louis laughs and kisses her forehead. She makes a cross, sleepy noise and turns her face into the pillow, and for a second Louis can't breathe with how much he wants this, the house and the family and the little girl he can tuck into bed; and then he wants to kick himself in the face, because it's stupid and pointless to want things he can't have. Then Mahina snores, a tiny elephant noise almost exactly like Zayn's, and Louis has to cover his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. He's grinning as he turns out the lights and shuts her bedroom door and goes back downstairs. Zayn's in the kitchen, making himself a cup of coffee.

"Zaf asleep?" Louis asks.

Zayn nods. "Finally. It's been a bit of a day. Mahina?"

"Yeah," Louis says. "I keep telling you, Zayn, footie solves everything."

"Don't let tea hear you say that," Zayn says, sliding a mug over to Louis.

"Sorry, baby," Louis coos to the tea, "you're my one true love." Then he blinks at Zayn. "Zaynie," he says slowly, "you made me tea." He can't remember the last time Zayn made him tea. Louis knows the rules, and the rules are that he makes his own tea in Zayn's house. "Why did you make me tea?"

Zayn gives Louis a look which clearly says are you really that stupid? "Why don't you tell me?" He picks up his coffee cup and goes into the living room.

Louis follows him. Zayn's sat down on one end of the sofa, but the rest of the sofa is covered with toys and colouring books and felt tips, so Louis takes one of the armchairs. He only has to dislodge a cat to sit there, and Prada has mellowed in her old age and goes peaceably, stretching and ambling out of the room. The living room is honestly a bit of tip, but that makes Louis love it even more.

"Liam told you?" Louis asks, when he can't put it off any longer.

"Harry, actually," Zayn says.

"Bloody gossips, the lot of them," Louis complains, trying to decide how stroppy he wants to get about it.

"They wouldn't have to be if you'd told me yourself," Zayn points out, deceptively mild. There's a layer of real hurt underneath, Louis thinks, and winces.

"I was going to," he protests. "I just wanted to do it in person, that's all. I was going to tell you today." Zayn gives him a sceptical look. "Honestly, mate, I came round today to tell you. I wouldn't keep something this big from you, it's not—"

"Okay, Lou," Zayn says, cutting Louis off before he can start babbling. "Drink your bloody tea." He sounds cross, but not the kind of cross where he actually means it, and he looks less tense, less hurt. Louis relaxes, and drinks his tea. Unsurprisingly, it's perfect.

"I still can't believe you made me tea," he says. "Have you been replaced by a robot?"

Zayn makes an unimpressed face. "Don't be an idiot. Don't get used to it, either—it's a one-time, major life-altering events only experience."

"Mmm," Louis agrees, and looks down at his hands around the mug. He took his wedding ring off when he was at his mum's, but he can't get used to the way his hands look without it; he could start wearing rings on every finger, like Zayn and Harry used to, but somehow he doesn't think it would help.

"How are you, really?" Zayn asks, much more gently. "Harry said he couldn't really tell, on the phone."

Louis shakes his head. "I don't know," he says honestly. "I'm trying to go on like everything's normal, because I don't know what else to do. Mum says at some point it'll really hit me and I'll have a proper meltdown, and it's supposed to be easier after that, but it's like—nothing feels solid anymore."

Zayn's quiet for a moment, and then he says, "Some things are solid, though. You've got me and Pez and Mahina and Zaf. We're not going anywhere, and neither are the lads. Liam's looking after you, isn't he?"

"Yeah," Louis says, feeling a bit overwhelmed. Zayn offers up his family like it's nothing—or, not like it's nothing, but like it's an everything that belongs to Louis just as much as it does to Zayn. Louis knows Zayn's his family; Zayn's been family practically forever. But now that Louis's unmoored—now that he and El are truly, completely over, and that door's closed—it's hard not to look at Zayn and Perrie and their cluttered, messy house and their fantastic, brilliant children with a kind of bittersweet envy. It's just like Zayn to see that in Louis and ride right over it like it doesn't matter at all. "Liam's been great," Louis adds, when he's sure he can talk without starting to cry. "So are you, Zayn." They're both enormous understatements, but he thinks Zayn will know what he means.

Zayn goes a bit pink, looking embarrassed and pleased, and smiles at Louis in the same fond, familiar way he's been smiling at Louis for years. Louis thinks maybe Zayn's right: not everything has to fall to pieces just because his marriage has; some things are constant.

"Where is Pez, anyway?" he asks.

"Writing with the girls," Zayn says. "She'll be home for dinner, though, you should stay."

"How's that going?" Louis asks, perking up. He's both personally and professionally curious; after two full years off, and loads of ridiculous rumors about a permanent split now that three of the four of them have children, Little Mix is back in the studio working on their fifth album.

"Stay for dinner and ask her yourself," Zayn says, but when Louis glares at him he relents. "Really good, I think. She played me some of the stuff they've been working on and it sounds great—Jesy's doing some sick guitar shit, so it's more rock than they've done before. You'll like it, it's got killer harmonies." Louis opens his mouth to ask another question, but Zayn gives him a pointed look, raising his eyebrows. "Seriously, Lou, just stay and talk to Pez about it, you know she loves to talk shop."

He doesn't really need to be convinced. Dinner in the Edwards-Malik household is usually a bit of a spectacle, loud and messy and delicious, since Zayn cooks, and it always falls just short of disaster. Louis fits right in; and even though he's used to El being there with him, he thinks he can probably adapt to being on his own. Besides, he does want to talk to Perrie about the album, and she'll want to know that he's surviving the divorce. "If you insist."

"Good," Zayn says, looking satisfied, which means that had been his plan all along. Louis doesn't mind, though; Zayn's usually got the best plans.

*

On Tuesday, Louis and Liam have six meetings in a row, with barely enough time between them to run to the loo, much less take a proper break. By the third meeting, Louis is twitching restlessly, gnawing on the end of his biro and kicking Liam under the table; by the fifth, he's started coming up with increasingly ridiculous provisos and stipulations to add to the contracts, just to see when the other guys will break. Liam manages to keep a straight face and smooth things over, but Louis watches his mouth twitch helplessly for most of the sixth meeting, as he tries desperately not to laugh.

"What's got into you?" Liam demands, when they're finally out of the conference room and back in Louis's office, and Louis's digging the whisky out from the bottom drawer of his desk. "I haven't seen you like that in ages."

"Are you saying I've lost my edge, Payno?" Louis presses a hand to his heart, feigning outrage.

Liam grins at him. "I would never."

"Good," Louis says, appeased, and offers him the whisky bottle.

Liam takes it from him and sinks down into a chair. "Glasses?" he asks. Louis scoffs, and Liam shrugs and takes a swig from the bottle. "God, I'm tired," he groans, handing the bottle back to Louis. "Running the label's more work than touring, sometimes."

"Or you're just getting old," Louis says, a little meanly.

"Hah." Liam gives Louis a rueful smile. "Maybe." Then his smile turns wicked, almost a smirk. "But at least you'll always be older than me."

"Lies," Louis declares. "You've been forty-five since the day you were born." He knocks back a swallow of the whisky and puts his feet up on the desk, kicking over a stack of files. Liam leans forward and straightens them again, catching the files before they slide off onto the floor, and Louis makes a face at him. He's still restless, twitchy, the mood boiling under his skin.

"Let's go out tonight," he says abruptly. "Get some drinks, paint the town red."

Liam tilts his head, studying him. Louis's about to take it back, wave it away and find something else—there has to be something in his office he can break, some dickhead he can eviscerate by email, something—when Liam says, "Okay."

Louis lets out a breath. "Excellent," he says, feeling a little hollow; but now they're decided, so he puts the whisky back in the desk and gets up to get his coat.

*

Liam keeps pace with him for the first few hours, until Louis goes to the loo and comes back a lot less steady than he should be, the room spinning as he walks—which is when he realises that they never had anything to eat after they left the office.

"Jesus," he says to Liam, falling back into his chair. Liam looks a little green. "Get us some burgers, Liam, we're the stupidest people on the planet."

"I swear I used to be able to drink like this," Liam moans, putting his head down on the table. It's a sticky wooden pub table, which can't be very hygienic, but Louis thinks Liam's face has probably been in worse places. "When did we get old?"

"Burgers," Louis repeats. "Chips. If you feed me," he adds recklessly, "we can go to Funky Buddha."

Liam lifts his head and gives Louis an incredulous look. Even Liam doesn't go to Funky Buddha that often anymore, and Louis has never been particularly quiet about how much he hates the fucking place; but he's still restless, and the pub isn't enough tonight. They need to go bigger.

"We've got a session with Jamie tomorrow," Liam says carefully, but it doesn't sound like a no.

"Too old to drink all night and go to work in the morning, Payne?" Louis taunts.

Liam gives him a look that Louis can't quite read, but then he shrugs. "Suppose not," he says, and gets up. "Cheese and bacon?"

"Obviously," Louis agrees, and watches Liam walk away. He's mostly walking in a straight line, which is fairly impressive; Liam's tolerance has never been high, and they've been here for a while, and he's been drinking Jack Daniels & Cokes the whole time. He waves down the barman with no trouble, though, so Louis decides to leave him to it and gets out his phone.

Bets on whether I can get Liam drunk enough to tell twitter all his feelings, he texts Harry.

No bet, Harry texts back immediately, and then, you're drinking on a school night???

Fuck off, Louis texts, and Harry sends him a string of sad faces. We're not old and boring, Louis sends, after a minute, and after another minute his phone starts buzzing in his hand.

"Did somebody say you were old and boring?" Harry demands, when Louis answers. "You run the hottest independent record label on, like, the whole planet; you're the furthest thing from old or boring."

Louis sighs. "Hi, Harry."

Harry makes a frustrated noise on the phone. It sounds like there's water running in the background, or maybe like he's in a car with the windows down; Louis has no idea what time it is in L.A. "Lou."

"What if I want to be old and boring?" Louis asks.

There's a silence, and then Harry says, sounding exasperated and fond at the same time, "You know you make no sense, sometimes? Why do you want to be old and boring?"

"I don't," Louis says automatically, harsh and defensive, and then he rubs his hand over his face. "I don't know, Haz, everything's off today. You don't really want to talk to me right now."

"I always want to talk to you," Harry says, "but alright. Don't let Liam keep you out too late."

Louis snorts. "Other way around, mate."

"Yeah," Harry says softly, "I know," and hangs up without saying goodbye. Louis looks at his phone. He needs a distraction, something to keep him from texting El, something to keep him from thinking; luckily, Liam comes back before he can do anything too drastic.

"Harry says you should keep me out all night," Louis lies. "Like proper rockstars."

"I don't know," Liam says doubtfully. "Do rockstars have day jobs?"

Louis stares at him. "Liam," he says finally. "Mate. You know we actually are rockstars, right? We've got, like, seven hundred different music awards, and loads of platinum records. There's a Grammy right next to your telly."

"Oh, well," Liam says, grinning, "and here I thought we were responsible professionals. I suppose you'll have to show me how to be a rockstar."

"Mate," Louis says sincerely, reaching for his drink. "It would be my genuine pleasure."

*

Funky Buddha is just as awful Louis remembered, which is perfect. He orders them a couple of rounds of shots, and then drags Liam out to dance.

It's mostly a blur after that—they dance, and they drink, and they dance, and for a while, in the haze of terrible music and equally terrible booze, Louis forgets the horrible roiling tension under his skin. He feels loose, instead, free from consequences and feelings and reality; and with Liam there with him, he knows he's not in danger of losing himself completely. Liam stays by his side the whole night—even when a couple of different blokes try to pull him—and for a few hours, it's like everything's right with the world.

*

He wakes up to the worst sound he's ever heard. It's like a police siren crossed with a rooster and remixed with a heavy backing beat, and it's so fucking loud. "What the fuck," he mumbles into the pillow.

"Nnngh," Liam says, and reaches over him to slap the alarm clock. He misses the first three times, hitting Louis's hair, the pillow, and the edge of the bedside table, and nearly knocking the alarm clock onto the floor, but eventually the noise stops. In the sudden deafening silence, someone starts to stab Louis in the head with knives. He rolls over towards Liam; Liam's got to be able to do something about the fucking knives.

"If I give you all my money," Louis mutters, pressing his face into Liam's warm shoulder, "will you kill me?"

"Nnngh," Liam says again. "Murder-suicide, maybe." He groans. "Bloody buggering Christ, I probably should kill you."

"What'd I do?" Louis demands. He says it too loudly, which makes him wince and lower his voice. "It's your demon alarm clock stabbing me in the head."

There's a pause, and then Liam says, "The scary thing is that that made perfect sense to me." He props himself up on his elbows, dislodging Louis, and then makes a pained face and collapses back onto the mattress. "Last night was your idea," he says, "so it's your job to find the paracetamol. If we're very lucky, there might be some in the drawer."

They aren't that lucky, but there is a bottle of paracetamol in the cupboard in the bathroom, and Louis drags himself out to the kitchen for two glasses of water and brings it all back to the bedroom. He's steadier on his feet than he has any right to be, although he's also—bizarrely—still wearing his shoes. He and Liam drink their water and swallow their pills in grim silence. Liam, Louis notices once he's set the empty glass on the bedside table and collapsed back onto the bed beside him, seems to have got out of his shoes and jumper; Louis's still in all of yesterday's clothes.

"Do all your bed partners keep their shoes on?" Louis asks.

Liam gives him a blank look, and then looks him up and down and giggles. "Generally I do manage to get their clothes off," he says, and then, "oh god, Lou, don't make me laugh. Everything hurts."

"Ugh," Louis groans, mostly in agreement. "Thanks for getting us home, anyway."

"I think it was a mutual effort," Liam says, shrugging ruefully. Louis nods, and then stops nodding and lies as still as he can, his arm pressed against Liam's while they both wait for the paracetamol to start working. He remembers leaving the club, finding a taxi and stumbling home; he's not entirely sure why he's in Liam's room instead of his own, but it's not the first time—even if it's the first time in a long time—and drunk decisions are best not interrogated too closely. It's nice, anyway. He doesn't really like sleeping alone.

Eventually, they have to get up. Louis's head still hurts, but a hot shower and clean clothes and the tea Liam makes while Louis's in the shower go a long way towards reviving him, and by the time they're on their way to the studio he feels almost human.

It doesn't last. The session with Jamie goes well, but by the middle of the afternoon Louis's hangover has left his system, and the mood's come back with a vengeance. It's worse this time, because he can't do anything to make it go away. Contrary to what some people would probably say, he's too much of a responsible adult to go on a bender two nights running. Besides which, he's due round at Lottie's for tea, and he's pretty sure she'll eviscerate him if he doesn't show.

*

"I am extremely pissed off with you," Lottie says, once she's sat him at her kitchen table with a glass of wine.

"Lots—" Louis starts, but Lottie crosses her arms and glares at him. "Okay," he says instead. "Why?"

"You should have told me something was wrong," she says fiercely. "You never said, and the next thing I know, you and El are splitting up for good? Lou, you're supposed to talk to me."

Louis looks down at the table; it used to be their mum's, and it's scuffed and scratched from use and wear and love. "I'm sorry," he says. "We didn't talk to anybody, really. But I think with you, we didn't want you to get caught in the middle. El's one of your best friends, and I—"

"I already shouted at her," Lottie says, "and that's fine. But you're my brother, Lou, what the hell did you think I was going to say?" He looks up just in time to catch her shaking her head, hurt and mutinous. "You don't need to protect me, either, I can look after myself."

He meets her eyes, frowning a little. "I know you can, Lots, but I'm your brother. It's like—that's what I do."

"Yeah, well," she says, not looking very mollified. "Fucking stop keeping things from me, alright?"

He knows she's thinking about their parents' divorce, because so is he; he hasn't been able to stop thinking about it—and they're not remotely the same, but it's still impossible not to compare them. Lottie's right, is the thing. He should have talked to her earlier. "Okay," he says, nodding slowly, "alright. I'll do better."

Lottie lets out an explosive breath, and sits down at the table across from him. "Just try, Lou, that's all. I don't like feeling like I'm being left out of your life, especially when it's big stuff like this."

"I'm sorry, love," he says again, really meaning it this time. He takes a sip of the wine—it's good, which means Emma probably brought it home from work; Lottie's taste in wine is just as shit as his. "The whole thing's been weird," he adds. "Hindsight and all that, I knew we weren't working, but I think we both kept pretending until suddenly we couldn't anymore."

"That's what El said, too," Lottie says, more gently than she's said anything else since he arrived. "I'm really sorry, Lou. It's really—it's shit."

Louis laughs, because sometimes she's so much like him that it's almost painful. "Yeah," he agrees, and then looks around for a subject change. "Where's Em got to, then?"

"Down the shops," Lottie says, sounding fond. "We didn't have anything in, and you know how she gets. I always say you won't mind if we just get a takeaway, but I don't like to argue with her chefly pride." Louis knows this is a blatant lie, because Lottie loves to argue—she's his sister, how could she not?—but on the other hand, he gets the better end of the deal when Emma cooks. "You know you could have stayed with us?" Lottie continues, after a moment. "I know, like—I'm sure Liam's looking after you, but you could've come here."

Louis shakes his head, not sure what to say. He hadn't even thought of coming to stay with Lottie, even though she's his sister, and he loves her, and he sees her nearly every week. Going to Liam's had been automatic, like it was the only stable thing in a suddenly unstable world. It isn't, really—Zayn and Lottie have both made that clear—but Liam still feels more solid than almost anything else. "I didn't want to impose," he says, even though it's not strictly true. "Staying with Liam's convenient—we're usually going to the same place in the mornings, and he's got all that space. You and Emma haven't been living together that long; you don't need your big brother around, mucking things up."

Lottie narrows her eyes. "We've been living together for nearly a year, Lou; and you're always welcome, even if you eat all the cereal and never do the washing up."

"Oi," Louis protests, but Lottie keeps talking over him.

"Isn't it, like—I know you and Liam lived in each other's pockets for years, when you were touring, but isn't it a bit weird, now? It's been a long time."

She only sounds curious, not judgmental or even concerned, but Louis can feel his shoulders stiffen, the mood boiling up until he swallows hard and forces it back down. He's not taking a mood like this out on Lottie. "It's not weird," he says, a little too sharply. "It's nice, actually. Liam's always been good at looking after me, you know that." The weird thing, maybe, is how weird it just—isn't. He sees Liam at work, and he sees him at home, and it's easy and comfortable. He's been at Lottie's for half an hour, and he's happy to see her, but there's a part of him that already wants to be back on Liam's sofa, watching something terrible on the telly and talking about nothing, that already misses Liam's constant company.

"I know," Lottie says. "He's a good egg, Liam."

"Yes," Louis says, more firmly than he quite means to, "he is."

Lottie shrugs a little, letting it go. "Well, alright. Just as long as you know you're welcome here, too." Louis nods his agreement, and Lottie nods back, and then they're just nodding at each other for no reason, increasingly ridiculous, until Lottie breaks and starts to giggle.

"I win," Louis declares, smugly.

"Fuck off," Lottie says, and then leans her elbows on the table. "Tell me about the babies, then, I haven't seen them since summer."

"Oh, alright," Louis says, and starts telling her about Ernie's school play, and how he's playing the—incredibly important, Ernie assured him—role of the Second Penguin.

*

Liam's asleep on the sofa when Louis gets home, but he wakes up when Louis pokes him in the stomach where his top's ridden up. "Lou?" he mutters, sleepy and confused, and makes a scrunched-up face like a disgruntled puppy.

"Hey," Louis says, "you didn't have to wait up for me."

"I wasn't," Liam protests, unconvincingly, and moves so that Louis can fit himself into the space beside him. Liam's warm from sleep, and smells soft and familiar. "How'd it go with Lottie?" he asks.

"Mmm," Louis says noncommittally, and then, because that makes him feel a bit bad, "It was nice. Emma made this amazing pizza thing, and Lottie only shouted at me a little. You should come, next time."

Liam shakes his head. "I wouldn't want to intrude on your family time."

"That's a load of bollocks," Louis says, because it is; it's not like Liam's not family.

Liam laughs, his breath gusting over Louis's hair. "Well, alright," he says softly. Louis thinks they should probably get up off the sofa and go to bed—there's work tomorrow, and they were out late last night; but they stay like that for a long time, instead, just sitting together on the sofa and not saying a word.

*

Niall descends on Friday, like a small Irish whirlwind. He waltzes into Louis's office just after noon and launches himself at Louis before Louis's even out of his chair, so that they stagger back against the desk as they hug. Niall hangs on to him for a long time, arms tight around his back, and Louis lets himself cling.

"I'm so sorry," Niall says, finally pulling back. "I would've come down earlier, but since we already had this planned—"

Louis waves that off. "It's fine, mate, honest. I'm just glad to see your stupid face."

Niall grins at him. He's gone back to blond, and his hair's shorter now, but Louis hadn't realised how much he'd missed the stupid frosted tips. The blond makes Niall's eyes brighter and deepens his smile lines, and just having him in London makes Louis breathe a little easier.

"My stupid face is glad to see you, too," Niall says. "Work first and then the pub, yeah?"

"Yeah," Louis agrees, and sticks his head out his office door to call for his assistant.

If someone had asked Louis ten years ago what Niall would be doing after One Direction, he's not sure what he would have said—retire to Mullingar and raise sheep, probably, though he'd have been taking the piss; or maybe he'd have said something meaningless and unexceptional about writing songs for other bands, or being a judge on the X Factor. He's not sure he ever would have predicted that Niall would own a pub which doubles as one of the most popular small music venues in the UK and Ireland, and run a recording studio that brings new artists from all over the world to record in Mullingar. He's in London once or twice a month, whilst his wife Annie oversees things at home. She'd been a barmaid when Niall met her, which had surprised exactly no one; she's also a bit of a business genius, in Louis's professional opinion. Louis and Liam are sending Moose & Squirrel to record with them next month, so Niall's come down to coordinate and meet the band.

The meeting goes well, which is hardly a surprise. Moose & Squirrel love Niall instantly, and seem inclined to linger after they're done, clinging to their coffee cups and pestering Niall with loads of wide-eyed questions about recording and touring and writing with McFly and did One Direction really—and Niall laughs and shakes his head and gives all his best answers, until three-quarters of the band are hanging on his every word. Eventually, Louis catches Stevie's eye and tilts his head over at the rest of his band, and Stevie gives him a firm nod—he's almost as earnest as Liam was in 2010—and goes over to collect his lads.

"C'mon, guys, leave them alone," he says, tugging on Rob's sleeve and slinging an arm around Jon's shoulders, "Niall probably wants a chance to catch up with Lou and Liam without us getting in the way, yeah?"

Marcus catches on immediately, although he gives Niall a bit of a tragic look as he helps Stevie drag Rob and Jon away. Louis manages to hold back his laughter until the boys have left, and then he leans heavily on Niall's shoulder, sniggering. "You've done it again, Horan," he says, "another band bites the dust."

Niall elbows him in the ribs, laughing along with him. "Listen, mate, it's not my fault if bands all over the world fall in love with me."

"It might be a bit," Liam says, grinning. "You do lead them on, rather, with all your talk of the good old days. Lou and I will never get those boys to take us seriously again, now you've gone and told them about the great water balloon war of 2018."

"I don't think they took you seriously before," Niall points out, which clearly requires Louis to pinch his nipples. "Cut it out, Lou," Niall says, rolling his eyes. "Or at least buy me a drink first, what do you say?"

"Yeah, alright," Louis agrees, but he pinches Niall's nipples again, just to make it clear who has the upper hand.

*

Louis never really has the upper hand with Niall, though, which he probably should've remembered before they were two rounds down and Niall fixed him with his sharp eyes and said, "Alright, Lou, spill. How long has Liam been doing that?"

"What?" Louis demands, looking around to see if Liam can hear them, but he's over at the bar getting another round, and the crowd's thick enough that Louis thinks he'll be a while. "What do you mean?"

"He's doing that thing he used to do," Niall says. "Like, years ago, when we were on tour and it'd been too long since you'd seen El, and you went a bit mad. This rest of us always got sick of you pretty fast, even Zayn, and Paul would look like he was ready to drown you in the bath, and then Liam would step in and just—go along with all your mad schemes and make sure you didn't break anything important, including yourself."

Louis stares at him. "He—what, he managed me?"

Niall shrugs. "I don't know if I'd call it managing, exactly. It was more like he was the only one who could stand you, and he never seemed to mind going along with the ride until you calmed down, or El came back, or we had a break." Niall looks down at his empty pint glass, and when he looks back up at Louis his eyes are serious. "Thing is, we're older now, and El's not coming back."

Louis winces, stung, and Niall's eyes soften. "I'm sorry, Lou," he says. "I can't imagine how hard this must be, and I know it'll take some time before you're alright again. I'm glad Liam's looking after you when you need it; you've just got to be careful with him, too."

"How do you know I'm not alright?" Louis demands, even though it's an incredibly stupid thing to say.

Niall gives him a look which clearly says, that was an incredibly stupid thing to say. "I've known you for fourteen years, dickhead," he says. "Please."

"Yeah," Louis agrees, and looks away. He's not—he can see what Niall means, when he thinks about it: the way Liam would always be there when Louis was in a mood or ready to break things or needed to get drunk. He can see the way Liam's doing the same thing now. "Niall, do you—like, should I—" He's not sure what he wants to ask. "Do you think I'm bad for Liam, right now?"

"No," Niall says quickly. "Not the way I think you mean. I just don't think he has a lot of limits, when it comes to you, and when you're like this you're not really thinking about anyone else."

That hurts too, until Niall reaches across the table and puts his hand over Louis's. "It's okay for you not to be, Lou, I don't mean—just be careful, that's all. You know I'm going to worry."

"You're such a mum, Niall," Louis says crossly, but he smiles at Niall, and Niall squeezes his hand.

"Speaking of which," Liam says, carefully putting three more pints down on the table, "you've been here for ages and I haven't seen any pictures of my godson. You're a terrible dad, Niall. I'm kidnapping Connor."

"You are not," Niall says, but he gets his phone out and passes it across the table.

Louis looks over Liam's shoulder as he scrolls through the photos—Annie leading Connor around on ice skates, Connor and a tiny guitar, Connor in a bobble hat, Connor in an ancient One Direction onesie, Theo and Bobby and Niall and Connor and Greg, all looking exactly alike, Connor sat on top of the bar at Niall and Annie's pub—and feels the ache in his heart rise back up and swallow him whole.

*

"Why are you doing this?" Louis demands, as soon as he and Liam are through the door of Liam's flat.

Liam gives him a baffled look. "Doing what?"

"All of this." Louis waves his hands wildly. "Looking after me, letting me stay here, going along with everything I do." He can hear his voice getting louder, rising to a shout.

"What?" Liam repeats, sounding completely lost.

"I've been a nutter this week, Liam," Louis snaps, "completely fucking mad, and you've just gone along with it. You've never called me out about anything, you just let me use you—"

Liam's eyes are very wide, and he's backed up against the wall, putting space between them. Louis wants to break something. "What are you talking about?" Liam asks, his voice a little unsteady. "I don't—Lou, what—

Louis snarls, and throws his shoes and coat and keys at the hall table. They knock over a stack of mail, and a figurine of a dog, and the keys fall onto the floor with a satisfying jangling crash. It's still not enough. "I don't even know what you get out of this," Louis says, "I'm not worth it, when all I ever think about is myself," and then suddenly he's crying, harsh sobbing gasps finally bubbling over. His eyes are blurring with tears, so he doesn't see Liam move until Liam's arms are around him. Louis pushes at his chest, trying to shove him away, but Liam's stronger than he is and won't let go.

"Jesus, Lou," Liam says. He sounds nearly as rough as Louis, but his hands are warm on Louis's back, and Louis's suddenly too exhausted to fight. It's easier once he gives in and lets Liam hold him, once he puts his head down on Liam's broad shoulder and lets himself sob.

He's still crying when Liam starts to move them, guiding Louis through the flat with a firm hand on his hip. Liam's not quite carrying him, but Louis's not very steady on his feet, so it's a relief when Liam tips Louis onto his bed, and then lies down beside him and draws Louis back into his arms. Louis keeps crying for a while after that, until the sobs start to slow and he's just sniffling into Liam's shirt, red-eyed and exhausted and about as weak as a kitten.

"Fuck," he says finally, his voice rusty and waterlogged.

"Shh," Liam says, his fingers stroking gently through Louis's hair. Louis's face is still pressed into his shoulder, turned a little so that he can breathe. "It's alright."

"I'm not sure it is," Louis says. He's not angry, anymore, but he's still—he's a bit of a wreck.

"Maybe not now," Liam says, after a moment. "It will be, though." He pauses, and then says tentatively, "What you said before, about me going along with everything, and not saying anything about you being a bit mad? I don't know where that came from, exactly, but—I was waiting for this, I suppose." He sighs. "Maybe that wasn't fair, but you always need to do things at your own speed, Lou, and when you first came here, you said you were a powder keg, so—I gave you time. I suppose I knew you'd break when you were ready."

Louis's not sure what to do with that, but it's what his mum said, too: that once he broke down, things would start to get better.

"You are worth it," Liam adds, very softly. "You're my best friend."

Louis exhales, and nods his acceptance into Liam's chest. "I'm so tired," he says. "Can we just—can we go to sleep?"

"Yeah," Liam says, and kisses his forehead. "Let me get a wet flannel for your face, though, alright? Otherwise you'll be all blotchy in the morning."

Louis's too tired to argue, so he lets Liam get out of the bed, and even gets up for long enough to take off his trousers and socks. Liam brings him a flannel and Louis wipes his face clean, and then Liam bundles him back into bed and crawls in beside him, pulling the duvet up over both of them. "Goodnight, Lou," Liam says, and then he's curling around Louis, warm and close, and Louis falls asleep almost immediately.

*

He wakes up in Liam's bed for the second time that week. It's a lot nicer without the demon alarm clock, and this time Liam's already awake, sitting up against the pillows and reading something on his phone. "Hey," he says warmly, when Louis opens his eyes.

"Morning," Louis croaks, and then makes a face. His eyes feel alright, but his voice is a disaster.

"Morning," Liam echoes. "How are you feeling?"

Louis opens his mouth to say that he's fine, and then closes it again and actually takes stock. He feels—well, not alright, but maybe like alright is something that exists in his universe. Breaking down on Liam has left him feeling stripped clean, shaken up and taken apart and put back together again, not quite the same as he was, but not in pieces. It's—progress. "Better," he says, surprised to find that he means it. "I think I needed that, last night."

"Yeah," Liam says gently.

Louis looks away. "I'm sorry for shouting at you."

"Will you tell me what that was about?" Liam asks.

Louis sighs. "It's not—Niall said some things that cut a little close to home, and then I—took them out on you." He looks back at Liam just in time to see him frown and look down at his phone. "Don't—" he starts. "It's fine. Niall was just worried about both of us, that's all. He wanted to make sure I wasn't running all over you like I used to, sometimes." He takes a deep breath. "It's just that with Eleanor, for a while, I kept thinking I was being horribly selfish to want the things I wanted instead of the things she wanted, and when Niall said that sometimes when I'm like this I only think about myself—"

"You've never been like this before, though," Liam says fiercely. "You've never got divorced before. Even if, like—even if some of the things are the same, this is new." He shakes his head. "I never minded when you were a bit mental, anyway, and I don't mind now. I owe you, remember? But even if I didn't, it wouldn't matter. I'm looking after you because I want to, and because I love you, and because you're my friend."

"Alright," Louis says, feeling a little warm. "I—thank you." It's comfortable, lying in bed with Liam on a Saturday morning; he thinks about what Lottie said, but he still thinks he made the right choice. "I just don't want to be bad for you, that's all," he adds, before he can think about it too much.

Liam makes a choked sort of noise, and Louis turns his head to look up at him, concerned, but for once he can't read anything in Liam's face. "It's not—you don't need to worry about that," Liam says firmly, after a moment. "Do I need to say something to Niall?"

Louis shakes his head quickly. He didn't mean to throw Niall under the bus. "Absolutely not. He was looking out for us; and anyway, he was mostly right. I'm glad he said what he did, even if it shook me up a bit."

"Okay," Liam says seriously. "I didn't want to cancel lunch, but I would have."

Louis laughs, rusty but real. Liam smiles at him and picks up his phone again, and Louis curls into him; Liam's arm folds around his shoulders. Louis wants a cup of tea, but he thinks he can stay here a little longer.

"Do you ever miss it?" he asks, after a while.

"Hmm?"

"Touring," Louis says, not entirely sure why he's asking. "The band."

Liam's quiet for a moment, and then he puts his phone on the bedside table and slides down the bed so he's on his side next to Louis, face to face. "There's a lot of things I don't miss," he says, which Louis agrees with completely, "but there are things I do miss, too." He's got his thoughtful face on, eyebrows raised and forehead crinkled. "I'll always miss it, I think. Why?"

Louis shrugs, and looks down at the bed between them. He has an answer, he's just not sure he wants to say it aloud; but it's Liam. "I miss knowing what I was doing," he says slowly. "For such a long time, I thought I knew what I wanted, where I was going. It was the band, and El, and then it was a family of my own, and now that's all gone, and I don't know who I am without it."

"You're you," Liam says immediately. "You're Louis. You're the same person you've always been, and you'll figure out the rest." He pauses, and then he says, very quietly, "I did."

"Oh," Louis says, shaken.

Liam makes a sheepish face. "Well, it's a work in progress, anyway." Louis reaches out under the duvet and puts a hand on Liam's hip, squeezing a little in solidarity. Liam smiles at him. "I still think we did the right thing, stopping when we did," he adds. "I love what we're doing with the label, and I wouldn't—it was time. That doesn't mean I don't miss it, but I think we're all just making the best choices we can."

"I hope so," Louis says. He doesn't know if Liam's right; but when all else fails, Liam's faith in him is something to hang on to, a reminder that he can be better than he is on his worst days, better than he thinks he ever is, sometimes. He makes a silent promise to Niall that he'll treat that with the care it deserves, that he'll try not to take advantage, that he'll be worthy of Liam's love.

 

LIAM
May, 2019

Niall comes into the dressing room looking grim, and says, "I'm sorry, everyone, but could we please have the room?"

There are hours until the show, but Liam sees Lou and Caroline exchange a bit of a look as they get up to leave. "I'll finish your hair later, love," Lou says to Harry, more loudly than she really needs to; but no one can ever stay cross with Niall, and she still gives him a fond pat on the shoulder on her way out the door.

Once it's just the five of them, Niall lets out a harsh breath and says, "Lads, I'm calling it. It's time."

Liam freezes, shocked and blindsided, and then he seeks out Louis's eyes across the room. Louis shakes his head, clearly just as surprised as Liam.

Harry turns around in his chair. He's still got the cape over his shoulders from Lou doing his hair, and he's frowning. "What, like, right now?" He sounds alarmed.

"Not right this second, Harry, no," Niall says sharply, and then he starts pacing, back and forth in front of the door. Liam's been sprawled out on the sofa with his feet in Zayn's lap, but he swings his legs down and sits up straight. At the other end of the sofa, Zayn is watching Niall with a worried crease between his eyebrows. "I just mean that it's time to work out how we're going to do it," Niall continues. "But—soon. I think it has to be soon."

It's the number one rule of One Direction, and has been since the beginning: any of them can call time on the band; any of them can say when they're done; if any one of them wants out, then they all pack up and go home. In a million years, Liam never thought it would be Niall. He catches Louis's eyes again, and raises his eyebrows in a question.

Louis gives him a tiny nod of acknowledgment, and asks, "Did something happen?" His voice is very gentle. Niall whirls on him, and then stops and visibly deflates, dropping heavily into an abandoned chair.

"You don't have to tell us," Liam says, trying to match Louis's tone. He's not as good at this as Louis, but he's not leaving Louis to do it alone, "but you can, if you'd like."

Niall puts his hands over his face, rubbing at the corners of his eyes with his fingertips. "This is probably going to sound completely mental when I say it out loud," he says, sounding much more like his normal self, "but I started writing a goodbye song."

There's a long silence. Liam's brain is already spinning, and he's not sure what it means; Louis's biting his lip, and Zayn is frowning thoughtfully, tapping his fingers against his thigh. Eventually, Harry says hesitantly, "We could put it in the drawer, for a while?"

"I thought about that," Niall says. "I thought maybe I wouldn't even tell you, you know? Only then it was—I couldn't stop thinking about it, and it won't go away. What if it's time? It's been nearly ten years." He gives a choked sort of laugh. "It's a really great fucking song."

"Can we hear it?" Liam asks. There are all the things the song could mean for them, on the one hand; but on the other hand, Niall's started writing a song that he thinks is great, and there's no world in which Liam wouldn't want to hear that song as soon as possible.

Niall looks startled, and then nods. "I—okay."

"Good," Louis says briskly, getting up, and Liam relaxes a little. If he and Louis are together in this, then they can figure out the rest as they go along. One of Niall's guitars is leaning against the wall of the dressing room, and Louis brings it over to him.

Niall takes the guitar, and then does something on his phone and holds it out to Louis. "Those are the lyrics," he says. "They're not, like, done, but—"

Louis nods and takes the phone, but instead of going back to his chair, he comes to sit on the sofa between Liam and Zayn. Liam and Zayn both move closer, turning in towards Louis so that all three of them can read the lyrics on Niall's phone.

"Okay," Niall says softly, tuning the guitar, and then he starts to play and Liam forgets how to breathe.

Niall's voice is rough on the verse, but smooths and settles once he hits the chorus, and it's just that—the verse and the chorus and another verse, just Niall and his guitar—but Liam can already hear what it would sound like as a whole song, the way it would crescendo to the bridge, the way their voices would come together on the chorus, the way it would fill a stadium; he's tapping the beat with his foot before he even realises he's doing it, and his fingers are itching for a piano. It's a massive, gorgeous, soaring song, the kind of song you want to live in; and then there are the words. It reminds Liam of hearing Don't Forget Where You Belong for the first time—that unshakeable certainty that Niall had put words to something they all believed, something they all felt, in a way none of the rest of them could.

"Shit," Louis breathes, when Niall's fingers still on the frets. "So that's it, then."

"I'm sorry," Niall says miserably.

Liam opens his mouth to say something, but Harry gets there first. "Don't ever apologise for a song like that," he says vehemently. "Fuck, Niall, it's amazing." He sounds a little breathless, and Liam's already nodding his agreement.

"We're not putting this in the drawer," Liam says. "It's going on the album."

"Yeah," Niall agrees, looking down at his hands. "But then it's the last album."

Liam looks at Louis and Zayn. Zayn's taken Niall's phone and is reading the lyrics again. Louis gives Liam a little half-smile, and opens his hands. "So it's the last album," Liam says.

There's another long silence. Then, after a minute, Zayn looks up from Niall's phone and says carefully, "I wasn't going to bring this up yet, but me and Perrie have been talking about kids." He pauses, biting his lip, and then shrugs. "When we have them, I'd, like—I'd want to be able to stay home."

"Stay at home dad Zayn Malik?" Louis asks, sounding a bit sceptical, but Zayn just makes a face at him and says dryly, "You're one to talk, Lou."

Louis starts to reply, and then gets an arrested look on his face and closes his mouth. "Fair point," he says, after a moment.

"Everyone's all settled," Harry puts in, "Lou and El, and Zayn and Pez, and Niall and Annie—it's just me and Liam left." Liam looks over when Harry says his name, but Harry doesn't look particularly upset about being single; he's got one of his real smiles turning up the corners of his mouth. He tilts his head at Liam, and adds, "I suppose it would be easier to meet people off the road, don't you think? Liam?"

Liam considers that. Louis's warm and solid, sat next to him on the sofa—but it's not like Louis's going anywhere. They've got the label, and it might be nice to be able to give it the time it deserves. Louis's his business partner, and his best friend, and Liam won't lose him if they stop being bandmates; he won't lose any of them. They're always going to be part of each other's lives. Liam doesn't know if he'll ever really get over Louis, but he thinks he's ready to move on, to meet someone new, to try for something real. It's been more than a year since Gareth. "Yeah," he says to Harry. "I—that might be nice?" He doesn't mean for it to come out sounding like a question, but Harry just grins at him, and gives him a bit of a filthy wink. Liam blushes before he can stop himself, and Harry laughs.

"We're meant to be finalising dates for next year in a few weeks," Louis says, which makes Harry stop laughing. "For the anniversary tour."

"I was thinking about that," Niall says quietly. He's been silent the whole time they've been talking, but now he starts to strum the guitar again, unhesitatingly picking out the melody of the new song. "If it's the last album, then maybe we go out on a high, with the anniversary tour. Ten years, seven albums, plus, like, everything else—that's not so bad, especially not for a boy band."

It isn't so bad at all, Liam thinks. It's so much more than he ever thought he'd get to have, so much more than any of them could ever possibly have imagined. Even if this is the end of the road, it's the best road he's ever been on. There's time left, too; they've got an album to finish writing, and the biggest, most spectacular tour they've ever done to plan—another year and a half, at least, on the road with his boys. Liam thinks he could be ready for something else, after that. Something new. He meets Louis's eyes, and gives him a nod.

"Alright," Louis says, looking around the room at each of them in turn. "All in favour?"

Five hands go up.

 

LOUIS
December, 2024

Louis has lunch with Eleanor the first week of December, and it's—nice, mostly. There are a few awkward moments, and it's been years since they've had to catch each other up on their lives, so that takes some getting used to; but they commiserate ruefully about how Lottie shouted at both of them, and Louis tells El about going to see Dorie's football match at the weekend, and Liam's attempts to get him to go running, and how Chloe's single has been climbing the charts, and El tells him about her visit with her parents—better than expected, she says, shrugging it off—and her new project at work, and how she's thinking about looking for a flat after the new year. He expects it to hurt, when she talks about selling the house again, but somehow it doesn't; he's still sad, and maybe a bit more fragile than he'd quite like to admit, but he doesn't feel like his heart's breaking when he looks at her.

"You seem better," El says, once the waiter's cleared their plates.

"You too," Louis agrees.

El smiles a little, not seeming to mind that he's turned the question back on her. "I am, I think," she says judiciously. "I think it was honestly just loads worse before we decided to split up, you know?"

Louis nods his agreement. "It was awful at first," he says, "but I've been better lately. I'm getting on, I suppose. Figuring out life on my own."

El makes a thoughtful humming noise, and then says, "You won't be on your own forever." Louis blinks at her, surprised. He's not—even if he's not quite broken, anymore, he's not anywhere near ready to think about that. El rolls her eyes at the look on his face. "I don't mean right now," she says, sounding exasperated. "I just meant that there's someone out there for you, Lou, alright? It's not me, but someone. Don't start thinking you're going to be alone forever, or you'll get completely unbearable and Liam will murder you in your sleep."

"He would not," Louis says, outraged.

"Well, maybe not," El allows, "but he would give you those horrible tragic puppy dog eyes, and I'm not convinced that wouldn't be worse."

She has a point. Louis can picture the exact face Liam would make if Louis started talking about being alone forever, and it doesn't bear thinking about. "Alright," he says. "But—there's got to be someone out there for you, too, even if it isn't me."

"Mmm," El says. "Except maybe I want to be alone forever."

Louis doesn't understand that at all. It doesn't matter, though; he's always just wanted her to be happy. "You should have whatever you want, then," he says to Eleanor, meaning it.

She gives him a soft look, and reaches across the table to squeeze his hand. "You too, babe," she says. "You too."

*

He goes over to Mullingar with Moose & Squirrel at the end of the week, and gets them settled in at the recording studio. The boys are so excited to see Niall again that it takes Louis over an hour to pry him out of their clutches—although that turns out to be a good thing, in the end, because Stevie is having a small meltdown over recording their first proper album and needs a bit of hand-holding.

"Were we this much work?" he asks Niall on the walk back to his house, once they're finally free.

Niall laughs. "Worse, mate—we were all complete wrecks, at the beginning, and every little thing was the end of the world; and then you and Liam were at each other's throats on top of that."

"Oh, well," Louis says sheepishly, burrowing his hands into the pockets of his coat. It's freezing, and his fingers are cold even through his thick gloves. "At least we worked that out."

"Opposites attract," Niall says cheerfully, and then shrugs. He seems unbothered by the cold, but maybe it's just that he's wearing at least three jumpers under his coat. "Your lads'll be alright, Tommo. They've got their shit together, even when it seems like they don't, and they sound great. I really like them."

"Thanks," Louis says, touched.

He spends the night at Niall and Annie's—which mostly amounts to chasing Connor around the house for several hours, and then falling wearily into bed—and flies back to London first thing the next morning. It's still early when he gets home, and despite the hour and the painfully early flight, he feels awake and energised. He's just wondering whether he might be able to talk Liam into going out for breakfast and a bit of Christmas shopping when he walks into the flat, and finds a half-naked man he's never seen before in the kitchen.

They stare at each other, and then Louis leans against the kitchen doorframe as casually as he can, and fixes the bloke with a sharp look. "You don't look like a burglar."

The guy blushes a bright, embarrassed red. "Um, no, sorry. I was just—I was looking for the coffee?"

"Of course," Louis says agreeably, and points him towards the correct cupboard.

"Thank you," he says gratefully, and then bites his lip, looking uncomfortable, and adds, "I'm Will."

"Louis," Louis says.

"Nice to meet you," Will says politely. He still looks uncomfortable, but Louis can't tell whether he's been recognised, or if it's just the ordinary discomfort of the situation; for that matter, he doesn't know what Liam might have told this guy about him, which is a bit discomforting all on its own. He studies Will, while he goes about making his coffee. He's wearing tight jeans that rest low on his hips, and no shirt, and—Louis thinks, from the line of the jeans—no underwear, and he's really quite astonishingly fit. Louis can't fault Liam's taste.

"I'm sorry," Will says suddenly, "I didn't even think—did you want a coffee?"

Louis shakes his head. "The coffee's Liam's. I'm strictly tea, I'm afraid."

"Oh." Will looks utterly at a loss for what to say next. Louis takes pity on him and goes the rest of the way into the kitchen, getting the milk out of the fridge and locating the sugar. "Thanks," Will says again, carefully putting everything back where it came from once he's done. "I—um. I should go finish getting dressed."

Louis gives him a long look, lingering on his excellent pectorals. "Not on my account," he says dryly. "Or Liam's, I'd imagine."

"Um," Will says, his voice going a bit high. "No, I've—actually got to get to work. It was nice to meet you," he repeats, all in a rush, and flees out of the kitchen.

Louis watches him go, and then grins. It seems Liam's been busy, and he hasn't breathed a word of it to Louis. Louis's prepared—magnanimously—to forgive that, provided Liam tells him absolutely everything now. He goes through to the living room, and a few minutes later Will reappears, fully clothed and with Liam. Liam looks like he's just woken up, but he's wearing trackies and a t-shirt, and smiling sheepishly.

Will collects his coat from the arm of the sofa and puts it on, and then leans in and presses a kiss to the corner of Liam's mouth. "I had fun," he says to Liam.

Liam runs an embarrassed hand through his hair, darting a quick glance at Louis over Will's shoulder, but he gives Will a soft smile, and nods. "Let me see you out."

Louis follows them into the hallway, and waits as Liam shuts the door behind Will and turns slowly around. "So," Louis says, drawing out the word, "tell me about Will, then."

Liam looks blank, and then enlightened. "Will," he says, "right, that was it—I couldn't remember."

Louis stares at him. "You couldn't remember his name?" he demands, scandalised. "Liam James Payne."

Liam shrugs his shoulders a little, looking down at the floor. "We only met last night, at the club, so, like—"

"You had a one night stand," Louis fills in, feeling like the whole world is tilting on its axis. "That nice bloke in your kitchen this morning was a casual shag. You only met him last night, and you probably won't ever see him again."

"I suppose I could call him," Liam says unconvincingly. He doesn't even sound like he's convinced himself—more like he's offering up an option that someone else might take, under radically different circumstances.

"Jesus Christ," Louis says, and rubs his hands over his face. "I need to sit down."

He goes back into the living room without waiting to see if Liam will follow, and sinks down on the sofa. He feels rattled, and he doesn't like the feeling—he shouldn't be upset that Liam's got off with someone, even if it was a stranger. He's got nothing against one night stands or casual shags, even if he hasn't had one himself in thirteen years, and even if they don't hold much appeal for him now that he's single. It's just—it's Liam. Liam's the least casual person Louis knows, or at least he used to be; Louis doesn't know when that changed.

When he looks up again, Liam's hovering in the doorway and frowning. "Are you alright?" he asks hesitantly.

Louis nods, and then shakes his head, and then sighs. "I'm sorry. You just surprised me, that's all. It's none of my business, I suppose. I just didn't know you did, like—casual sex."

"Oh," Liam says, flushing. "Well, I—I do, now."

"Right." Louis doesn't know what to say. He's not sure why he's so upset—except that he hates the idea of Liam going around having meaningless sex with strangers, fucking around with people who don't properly know him, who might not treat him as well as he deserves; and on top of that, why didn't Louis know? "When did that start?" He tries not to sound hurt, but he can tell he doesn't quite succeed. Liam looks surprised, and then bites his lip and looks away.

"After Charlie," he says. Louis doesn't say anything, and after a pause Liam keeps talking. "I thought Charlie was it for me, you know? I thought we were going to make it work, forever, for real, and when that didn't happen—" He shakes his head. "This is a lot simpler."

"Liam," Louis protests, his voice breaking.

"It's not bad, Lou," Liam says, sounding like he's trying to reassure Louis. He's looking at him again, his eyebrows drawn together in concern. "And it's not like it's that new, either—me and Gareth were casual."

Louis stares at him, shocked. "You and Gareth were not casual," he says, so gobsmacked that he suspends his usual rule and calls Gareth by name, instead of that wanker. "He broke your fucking heart, Liam. Don't try to rewrite history. I was there."

Liam shrugs, looking a little embarrassed, but he holds his ground. "I mean, he did, I suppose," he says, "but only a little bit, really, and only because we had different expectations. It was casual. I didn't properly understand that then, but I do now. It can be fun, and like—it's just sex. It doesn't have to be serious all the time."

Louis has literally no idea how to respond to that. "Never mind Zayn," he says finally, a little faintly, "have you been replaced by a robot?"

Liam looks confused. "No?" he says. "I mean—I don't think so?" He pauses. "How would I know?"

"Oh my god," Louis groans, and drops his face into his hands, laughing. It's a bit hysterical, and after a minute the sofa dips beside him as Liam comes over and sits down.

"I'm really confused right now," Liam says plaintively, once Louis's laughter has slowed, and he's sat back up and wiped his eyes.

"I don't think you've been replaced by a robot," Louis says, which makes Liam look, if anything, more confused. "It's just—this seems like a bit of a massive change for you, and I don't know why you didn't tell me." That's the heart of it, right there: the horrible feeling that Liam's not told him something important, that he's been left out, that Liam doesn't trust him with his secrets. It's not that Louis thinks Liam doesn't deserve to have secrets—though there were times, when he was younger and slightly more of a knobhead, when he'd thought differently—but he doesn't like it. Even though they're older now, adults with separate lives, they're still best friends, business partners, flatmates, and Louis can feel the old familiar possessiveness coming back, even stronger than before.

"I would've told you if there was anything serious," Liam says, which is so far beside the point that Louis just stares at him until Liam looks away. "What was I supposed to say, anyway?" he demands, starting to sound cross. "It's not like I could just turn to you in the middle of a meeting with a band and say, 'By the way, Lou, I've started shagging people casually.' Loads of people get off with strangers. It's not a big deal."

Louis knows he's put a foot wrong, but he still feels rattled. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it, Liam," he says. Liam doesn't look mollified, so Louis adds, "I just thought it might be a bigger deal for you, that's all. I always thought you were the forever type."

"Yeah, well," Liam says, his voice harsh. "I thought you were, too." Louis winces and looks away. After a moment, Liam sighs. "I'm sorry," he says. "That wasn't fair."

Louis snorts. "It was, though. Quite the pair we are."

Liam sighs again, and when Louis looks back over at him, he's fidgeting with the hem of his top. "Maybe I should've told you," he says.

Louis shakes his head, apologetic. He feels like he's crossed a line, and he didn't know that he and Liam had any lines to cross. "I just want you to be happy," he says. "There's someone out there for you, even if it's not Charlie." He doesn't realise he's repeating Eleanor's words to him until he says them, but they're true. There's got to be someone out there for Liam; Liam's too special to be alone.

"I'm not still hung up on Charlie," Liam says dryly, "and I've got to say, Lou, regular sex with fit blokes isn't exactly making me unhappy. I'm fine like this." He sounds like he means it, but Louis can't shake the feeling that there's a lack of conviction behind the words, that Liam's convinced himself of something he doesn't entirely believe. Only it doesn't matter, does it? It's not his business; Liam's choices are his own.

"Sorry for freaking out," he says, finally. "I'm just being a bit of a knob, apparently."

Liam shrugs, and then turns a little on the sofa so he can nudge his knee against Louis's. "You are," he says, "but I like you, even when you're a knob."

Louis makes a face. "And here I thought you were going to say that you liked my knob."

"Don't push your luck," Liam says, finally grinning; his cheeks are a little pink, but Louis can let that slide—the important thing is to get them back on even ground, no matter how unsettled Louis still feels. He's not going to push Liam, not when he made a promise to himself—and to Niall—that he would be careful.

"What about breakfast, then?" he asks, instead of any of the other things he wants to say. "Am I lucky enough for breakfast?"

"Yeah, alright," Liam concedes. "Breakfast it is."

 

LIAM
June, 2017

"We've got Liam Payne from One Direction here in the studio with us today," Nick says into his microphone. "Say hello to Britain, Liam Payne."

"Hello Britain," Liam says gamely, grinning a bit at Nick. Nick is looking cheerful—even though it's not even eight o'clock in the morning—and he's wearing a blue and orange striped top that would be bright enough to keep Liam awake even if Fiona hadn't plied him with a cup of very strong coffee. "How are you this morning?"

"We'll hear from the nation a bit later," Nick says. "You can text in if you'd like to speak to Liam this morning—eight double-one double-nine—but how are you, Liam Payne? You haven't been to see us in ages."

It's true. Liam and the lads did a long interview with Scott in December, just before the start of their year off, but Liam hasn't been on the Breakfast Show since the interviews he did right after he came out—nearly a year ago now. Still, and even without the lads there with him, it's easy to talk to Nick, more like catching up with a friend than doing a proper interview. He talks about producing Cheryl's album, and the anti-bullying campaign he's working on, and writing in their off time, and how nice it is to be home for a while. He misses the shows, he says, but he's lucky that he still gets to talk to the fans on twitter, and today on the radio, and that they've been coming out in record numbers to support the anti-bullying campaign.

It helps that Nick doesn't ask him if he's seeing anyone, at least not until they take a break to play a few records. "So?" Nick asks, once they've taken off their headphones and the first song is playing in the background. "Where've you been hiding, then, love? Scott and I were just saying that we haven't seen you in weeks. Have you been keeping busy?" His voice gets a bit suggestive on the last question, and across the studio, Matt rolls his eyes.

"Only with work," Liam says, which he knows is a mistake as soon as he says it. He's awfully fond of Nick and Scott and everyone at Radio 1, and all of Nick's friends, who basically adopted him after he came out. The problem is that every time he sees them, they try to find him someone to shag.

Nick shakes his head. "Boring. Listen, why don't you come out with us tonight? I know everyone would love to see you."

"I don't know," Liam hedges. He's not even sure he wants to say no, it's just—it can be a bit much, sometimes.

"I'll tell Harry you're avoiding me," Nick threatens, and Liam winces. Harry may be halfway around the world in L.A., but his disappointed voice is even worse over the phone. Harry's convinced that Liam isn't dating anyone because he's selfless and noble and thinks it would be too hard for some nice bloke to date the out gay member of One Direction, and while Harry's not quite right, it's also sort of impossible to tell him why he's wrong. It's not even entirely about Louis—it's been a year, and Liam's never been one to give up easily, but he knows there's no point holding himself back over someone he can never have, no matter how much he loves him. He thinks he might be ready to try with someone else; it's just that he wants it to happen naturally, not because his friends are horrible matchmakers. It makes him feel even more awkward and out of his depth than he already does—which is loads—when they try to get him to pull blokes at pubs, or set him up on blind dates.

"I'm not avoiding you," Liam tells Nick. "It's just—" He sighs, and looks down at his hands. "Look, I'd like that—going out tonight, I mean—but will you stop trying to set me up with people?"

Nick makes a noise that sounds almost like a laugh. "I'm sorry," he says, a bit ruefully. "Harry's very persistent, isn't he?" Liam looks up just in time to catch Nick's fond smile. He shakes his head a little at Liam, still smiling, and then says, "Alright, Liam. Even though you are the nicest, loveliest, fittest gay popstar I know, and you look like bloody David Beckham, I will give you a break tonight, and not even try to live vicariously through you. Just come and have a drink, yeah? We'll catch up a bit."

"Alright," Liam agrees, relieved.

Nick starts to say something else just as Fiona says, "Ten seconds, guys." Nick rolls his eyes, and says, "Later, yeah?" instead of whatever he was going to say, and Liam nods and reaches for the headphones.

*

Liam's early getting to the pub, but he finds Nick and Scott and Fiona and Collette already there, sat around a big table in the back room and arguing amicably about the weather. Scott gets up to give him a hug, and Liam hugs him back and then takes the empty seat between him and Collette. Collette still sort of terrifies him, but she gives him a warm smile and a pat on the arm before turning back to Nick, and he relaxes.

People trickle in slowly—mostly people Liam knows, friends of Nick's that he's met through Nick and through Harry: Pixie and Daisy, Fiona's boyfriend James, Scott's boyfriend Andrew, who Liam's only met once before, but who shakes Liam's hand and gives him a friendly grin, Greg James. Liam asks after Ian and Aimee when neither of them appear, and is regaled with a long story about the baby, who's starting to crawl and causing loads of havoc.

Gillian comes in while Pixie and Greg are arguing over whose turn it is to get the next round. She's trailed by a tall man Liam doesn't know, both of them shaking out their umbrellas. "It's proper pouring, now," she says, "good thing you lot didn't decide to sit outside."

"Hiya, Gellz," Nick says, getting up to kiss her on the cheek. "Obviously we're not complete idiots."

"Debatable," Gillian says, grinning, and then waves her hand between the man behind her and the table. "Everybody, this is Gareth from work. Gareth, this is everybody." She glances over at Pixie and Greg, who are still arguing, and says, "Right, I'm getting the next round. What's everyone drinking?"

Pixie and Daisy go with her to help carry the drinks, Pixie still grumbling a little, and Gareth sits down across from Liam. He's got dark curly hair and brown eyes and a serious face, and he looks older than Liam, but not too much older—closer to Nick's age, maybe. Liam opens his mouth to introduce himself, but then Nick leans forward across the table and says, "So, Gareth from work, how do you know our Gillian?"

Gareth gives Nick an assessing look, and then smiles. "You must be Grimmy," he says. "Gillian told me you'd ask a lot of questions."

Nick laughs. "Guilty as charged," he agrees. "What in the world did a nice bloke like you do to get Gellz to drag you out to the pub with all of us, then? Not that we're not fantastic, obviously, but it's a bit like throwing a lamb to the wolves."

Gareth raises his eyebrows. "How do you know I'm a nice bloke, though?" he asks, but before anyone can answer, he goes on, "She was taking pity on me, I think. I just moved back to London, and I don't know very many people—I'm a photojournalist, and a travel writer, so it's been a while since I was in one place for this long. We're working on a story together, that's how I know her."

"What's the story about?" Collette asks, and after that the questions keep coming. Liam listens, and watches Gareth hold his own; he stays calm, friendly but reticent, and sometimes he manages to turn the questions around on them, which is fairly impressive. They only stop grilling him when Gillian and Pixie and Daisy come back with the drinks, drawing everyone's attention away.

"They're not so bad once they know you," Liam offers, once everyone else seems to be tied up in other conversations, and Gareth is studying his pint.

Gareth looks surprised, and then smiles at him. "They're not so bad now," he says. "Is the interrogation a rite of passage?"

Liam laughs, even though Gareth said it seriously. "I suppose," he says. "I'm Liam, by the way, we never did that part."

"It's nice to meet you, Liam," Gareth says promptly, and then gives a little shrug of his shoulders; they're nice shoulders, Liam thinks. "I like your band—though I'll admit it's not quite my usual thing."

"Oh," Liam says, feeling himself blush. He's used to their fans, but it still throws him a bit when ordinary people say nice things about One Direction. "Thanks, mate."

Gareth smiles at him again, and then takes a sip of his beer. Liam finds himself watching his mouth, all of a sudden, without meaning to at all. "You're a—travel writer, you said?" Liam asks, trying to distract himself. "What do you do, then?"

"Mostly I travel, and then I write about it," Gareth says dryly. "It's not that glamorous. I like to travel, though. I like new places, and I like to tell people about places I've been."

Liam nods, thinking about all the places he never even would've heard of, if it weren't for One Direction. "I like traveling," he agrees. "I've been all over the world with the band, and it's proper amazing, everything we've got to see." He pauses, and then adds sheepishly, "I'm still pants at geography, though. One time I said I thought Australia and Japan were right next to each other, and the lads took the piss out of me for days, but to tell you the truth I still don't really know where either one of them is."

Gareth stares at him, and then starts to laugh; it's a warm laugh, though, not mocking at all, and Liam ducks his head, embarrassed, but pleased at the same time. "That's adorable," Gareth says. "Didn't they show you on a map?"

"Yes," Liam admits, "but it didn't help. Did I mention I'm pants at geography?"

"Nobody can be that pants at geography," Gareth says, and starts telling Liam something a bit confusing about the Southern Hemisphere. Liam is fairly certain it's not going to help, but he listens anyway. Gareth has a nice voice, and he's quite handsome—even more so, Liam thinks, when he's passionate about something. He's easy to talk to, even if he probably thinks Liam's a bit strange. Nick and Scott and Collette and Gillian wander in and out of the conversation, and Liam drinks his pint and eats the chips Pixie shoves across the table at him, and doesn't even realise how much he's enjoying himself until Gareth glances at his watch and winces. "I've got to go," he says apologetically, and then he gives Liam a look from under his eyelashes. Liam's breath catches; he hadn't thought, but—oh. "Can I get your number?" Gareth asks. "I've had a really nice time, and I'd like to do it again."

Liam doesn't mention that he's never the one who arranges pub nights. Instead, he types his number into Gareth's phone when he passes it across the table, and then carefully saves Gareth's number in his own phone when Gareth texts him. "It was really nice to meet you," he says. It sounds terribly awkward, but Gareth just smiles at him again, and Liam wonders if there's intent in it, wonders if it means something.

"You too, Liam," he says, shrugging back into his mac. "Talk to you soon." It sounds like a promise, and Liam swallows hard, watching as Gareth makes the rounds, saying goodnight to everyone else, and then picks up his umbrella and goes out the door.

Nick fixes him with a look as soon as Gareth's left, but it's Scott who says, "Well, wasn't that interesting."

"Shut up," Liam says, flushing, and throws a napkin at him. "I hate you."

"You don't," Nick says, slinging an arm around Liam's shoulders. "But honestly, Liam, Gareth? I think you can do better. Do you see that bloke over by the bar—"

"You promised," Liam moans, and puts his head down on the table. His friends are the absolute worst, but he loves them.

*

Gareth doesn't call the next day, but he does call the day after that. Liam's in the studio when his phone rings, but he makes his excuses to Julian and steps outside when he sees who it is.

"Liam," Gareth says warmly, when Liam answers the phone. "How are you?"

"Yeah, good, thanks," Liam says, leaning against the wall outside the studio door. "How are you, mate?"

"Not bad," Gareth says, sounding amused. "Listen, I was wondering if you might like to have dinner with me? Just us, not the whole crowd."

Liam manages to avoid actually saying, Like on a date?, but it's a bit of a close thing. "I'd like that," he says instead, shyly. "Um, when?"

"How's tomorrow night?" Gareth asks, and then laughs; he's got a nice laugh, quiet and almost musical. "Is that too overeager? Later in the week would be fine."

"Oh, no," Liam says, blushing hard; his cheeks are hot, and he's sure he's bright red. "Tomorrow night's fine. That sounds lovely." He's suddenly grateful that he's alone outside the studio, that there's no one around to see him looking like an idiot.

"Excellent," Gareth says. He sounds pleased. "I'll text you a time and a place, if that's alright?" Liam agrees, and he can hear the smile in Gareth's voice when he says, "I'll see you tomorrow, then."

Liam stays outside for a while after they've hung up, until he's stopped blushing and his breathing is back under control. Julian gives him a bit of look when he goes back inside, but thankfully doesn't say anything. Liam's not sure what he would say, if Julian asked. Gareth is fit, and interesting, and Liam likes him, but it's not—it isn't anything, yet; he just hopes that it might be.

*

The restaurant Gareth chooses is small and nice and intimate, without being uncomfortably posh. Liam likes it immediately, and likes it even more when he takes off his jacket and Gareth gives him an appreciative look. He hasn't dressed up too much, just a nice shirt and trousers, but Gareth's gaze seems to linger on the unbuttoned top buttons of his shirt, and—maybe, though Liam can't be sure—on his mouth.

The food is excellent, and the wine is even better, and it's still easy to talk to Gareth. Gareth laughs a lot at things Liam says—never meanly, just in a soft way that seems almost charmed. Liam's not used to being the funny one, but he enjoys making Gareth laugh, enjoys that Gareth isn't anything like anyone else Liam knows. It's different than it was at the pub, both because they're alone and because Liam is about ninety percent certain that Gareth is properly flirting with him. They split a bottle of wine, and linger over pudding, and Liam's just thinking about how to get the night to go on a bit longer when Gareth leans forward across the table.

"Listen, Liam," he says. "I really like you."

Liam flushes and bites his lip, looking down at the table. Gareth makes a noise and Liam glances quickly back up, just in time to catch the hot look in his eyes. Liam swallows hard; he feels warm all over, and he doesn't think it's the wine.

"I'm not looking for anything serious, right now," Gareth continues, "but I'd quite like to take you home, if you'll let me."

"Oh," Liam breathes. "I—yes."

Gareth smiles slowly. "Good."

For a moment, Liam thinks they're going to get up and go right then—he's ready, and Gareth's still gazing at him with that hot, intent look, and their bill can't possibly be that important—but then he remembers that nearly everything about this is new to him. He takes a deep breath, and meets Gareth's eyes. "Only, I've never done this before. So if that's a problem—"

Gareth shakes his head. "I don't mind if you don't." He sounds serious, though, like he's thought it over and like he means it, and that's enough to put Liam at ease.

"Good, then," Liam says. "So, um—can we go?" He can tell he's blushing again, but maybe Gareth won't mind.

Gareth laughs, and reaches across the table to rub his thumb across Liam's knuckles. Liam sucks in a breath at the touch, more turned on than it makes any sense to be from something so small. "Yeah," Gareth says, and looks around for their waiter.

It turns out that the restaurant is just down the road from Gareth's flat, which means that Liam barely has time to get nervous, at least not until they're inside and Gareth's taken his jacket and asked him if he'd like something to drink. Liam shakes his head mutely; he feels twitchy and a little desperate, and he doesn't know what he's doing, but he wants it to start—and then Gareth gives him a long look from under his eyelashes and says, "Good," his voice low and promising, and reels Liam in by the front of his shirt.

The kiss is slow at first, careful, but then Gareth licks Liam's bottom lip and Liam gasps and opens his mouth, and it gets hotter and deeper. Gareth backs Liam up against the door, and Liam rests his hands on Gareth's narrow hips while they kiss; with Gareth pressed up against him, pinning him to the door with his long legs and big hands and broad shoulders, Liam can feel how stunningly different he is from a girl. Liam's spent a lot of time thinking about this, imagining what it would be like when he finally got off with a bloke, and it's already different, already better. Gareth kisses Liam without any hesitation, hard and rough in a way that has Liam moaning into his mouth and clinging to his hips. He's already half-hard, just from a bit of snogging; then Gareth moves even closer and Liam can feel the hard, hot press of his dick through their trousers.

"Oh god," he says, hips jerking forward, and Gareth laughs and starts undoing the buttons on Liam's shirt.

He gets Liam's shirt off, and Liam helps him out of his jumper, and then Gareth leads him through to the living room and pushes him down to sit on the sofa. He stands over him for a moment, looking down at Liam with dark eyes, and Liam's just about to reach up and drag him down when Gareth gives a little shake of his head and goes to his knees, kneeling on the carpet between Liam's spread legs.

"Oh," Liam says, looking down at him. Gareth's mouth is red and wet from kissing, and as Liam watches he licks his lips, and then puts his hands on the waistband of Liam's trousers, tilting his head in a question. "Yes," Liam gasps. "Please."

"You're so polite," Gareth murmurs, sounding a little dry, but then he's unbuttoning Liam's flies and urging Liam to arch his hips up so that he can get his trousers and pants down his thighs. Liam looks down at his dick once its free of his pants, hard and red and curving against his stomach, already wet at the tip; Gareth follows his gaze, and then he wraps his hand firmly around the base and slides his thumb over the head.

"Fuck," Liam says. It's been a long time since anyone else touched him like this, and Gareth's hands are big and warm, confident.

Gareth looks up at Liam, smirking, and then his eyes track down Liam's bare chest to his hips, to his cock, to his bared thighs. "Jesus, you're fit," he says, sounding a bit breathless.

"You too," Liam says immediately, which makes Gareth laugh. He's still got his hand on Liam's dick, but he's not doing anything. Liam's just starting to think about whether he should say something, whether he should beg, when Gareth finally leans in and licks the head of his cock. Liam's breath goes out of him in a rush, and then Gareth slides his mouth the rest of the way down, until his lips meet his fist. Liam groans wordlessly, and Gareth hums around his dick and starts sucking him off in earnest.

It's not that no one's blown Liam, before—to be fair, he's had an awful lot of blow jobs—but Gareth's mouth is wide and hot and unhesitating as he sucks Liam's dick, as he swallows around him and takes Liam all the way down his throat, and it's—god. Liam can't get over how much Gareth seems to love doing this, how wet his mouth is, how his eyelashes are dark against his cheeks. Gareth's big hand on his thigh is a steady, constant pressure, keeping him from thrusting up too much; and Liam knows better than to pull Gareth's hair, so he holds on to his shoulders instead, his fingers clenching and releasing as he gets more and more desperate, and then as he manages—somehow, miraculously—to gasp out a warning before he comes. Gareth pulls off and gives him one more firm stroke, and Liam comes hard all over Gareth's hands, the whole world going white and hot and hazy.

"God," he says finally, when he can think again. Gareth's still on his knees, and he licks a bit of come off his fingers as Liam watches, which gives Liam another shaky aftershock. "Fuck," he says again, because he still can't quite make sentences. "Can I—"

Gareth nods quickly and gets to his feet—he's a bit awkward as he stands, not quite graceful, and that makes Liam feel more confident, suddenly, makes him reach for the buttons of Gareth's trousers. Gareth's dick is pressing up against his flies, hard and obvious, and he breathes out on a relieved sigh when Liam undoes his flies. He takes the rest of his clothes off himself, stepping out of his trousers and pants until he's stood naked in front of Liam. Liam stares at him for a moment, breathless and overwhelmed. He wants him, wants Gareth in a way he's never wanted anyone before—at least, not anyone he could have, not anyone he could reach out and touch.

"C'mere," he says, holding out his hands, and Gareth steps in close and then straddles Liam's thighs. They slide nearly seamlessly back into a kiss, and Liam can taste himself on Gareth’s tongue. Gareth makes a small, desperate sound into Liam's mouth, his dick sliding wetly against Liam's stomach. Liam wonders if Gareth could get off just from this, from rubbing off against him, but he doesn't want to find out—at least, not right now; he wants to touch him. He breaks the kiss and looks down between them. Gareth's dick is long and slender and gorgeous, flushed and hard and leaking. Liam rubs his fingertips over the head and then brings his fingers up to his mouth, tasting him, and Gareth groans.

"Okay," Liam breathes, "okay, yeah," and gets his hand on Gareth's dick. It's—it shouldn't feel so intense, Liam thinks, just wanking off another bloke. It's not that different, even if the angle's strange. But Gareth's dick is smooth and silky in his hand, and it doesn't feel a bloody thing like wanking himself—not with Gareth over him, his knees pressed into Liam's thighs. Gareth kisses him, and Liam kisses him back and keeps wanking him, faster and faster, both of them breathing hard, until Gareth comes hot and wet on Liam's stomach and chest.

Gareth falls forward against him, shaking a little, and Liam puts his arms around him. He doesn't know if Gareth likes to cuddle—he hadn't thought to ask—but at least he doesn't seem to mind at the moment. His come is drying on Liam's skin, and it's probably a bit disgusting, but Liam can't find it in himself to care. He feels shattered down to his bones, broken open, alive. He had no idea it could be like this, and he's barely even got started.

"Are you alright?" Gareth asks, sitting up a bit; he stays where is, though, draped over Liam's lap. "You look a bit—"

Liam shakes his head slowly, which makes Gareth look concerned; but Liam's just—he's so far beyond alright. "Yes," he says finally, helplessly. "I—yes. Fuck, that was like. Amazing."

Gareth's eyebrows go up, but then he smiles. "Good," he says warmly.

"I want to blow you," Liam says, before he can stop himself. But they're still sat mostly naked on the sofa, so maybe it's alright to say that sort of thing.

Gareth blinks. "You really do just say everything you think, don't you?" He looks a bit surprised, but not like he wants to object. "Do you want to blow me right now?"

Liam flushes. "Maybe not right now," he says, "but, like—I really want to."

"Okay," Gareth says, sounding curious, and interested, and a little amused. "What else do you want to do?"

"Oh," Liam breathes, and looks up to meet his eyes. Gareth is still smiling, the kind of smile that makes his dark eyes shine. "Everything," Liam says. "I want to do everything."

Gareth leans in to kiss him again, slow at first, and then a bit dirty. "I think we can do that."

 

LOUIS
December, 2024

Louis's birthday falls on a Tuesday, so his birthday weekend—which Niall still insists on calling the One Direction Christmas Party, and Liam likes to remind people is also Jesus's birthday—is 21 and 22 December. Harry flies back to London a week in advance, since it's his year to host, and Louis picks him up at the airport. They hug for a long time outside the arrival doors; as always, it's this part of being a slightly washed-up popstar that Louis is most grateful for: that he can hug Harry in public without anyone bothering to care.

"I missed you," Harry says into his neck, sounding tired and plaintive. "Why don't you ever come to L.A.?"

"Why don't you ever come home?" Louis asks, even though it's an old song by now. He sounds like his mum when he says it—and probably like Anne, too, which might be worse.

Harry pulls away and gives him a bit of a frown, and Louis shakes his head apologetically. "I'm sorry, love. I just miss you, that's all."

"Yeah," Harry agrees, hugging Louis again and then stepping back to pick up his bags. This is usually the point at which Harry starts singing L.A.'s praises—sunny all the time, always a laugh, loads of new music—but he doesn't say any of those things; instead, he just slings his bag over his shoulder and passes Louis the handle of his suitcase.

Louis watches him covertly as they go out to the car park. He knows what Harry looks like after a long flight—completely knackered—but there's something more to him than exhaustion, this time, something that even Louis's years of experience can't quite read. Harry's hair is shorter than it was the last time Louis saw him, and it makes him look older, sharper and softer at the same time.

"Are you alright?" Louis asks him, once they've stowed Harry's stuff in the boot of Louis's car.

Harry shrugs, sliding into the passenger seat. "Just tired."

He doesn't sound like he's lying, or even like he's being particularly evasive, but Louis's spidey-sense is tingling. He thinks about trying to get it out of Harry immediately, when he's tired enough that he might give in; but Louis's got an entire week to work on him. Harry wouldn't keep a secret from Louis on his birthday, would he?

Instead of asking any prying questions, Louis starts the car. It's going to take forever to get out of Heathrow—ten days before Christmas, and it's already a bloody nightmare; though to be fair, Heathrow is always a bloody nightmare. Beside him, Harry looks more than half asleep. "How's my house?" he asks, after a minute.

"Still standing," Louis says. "Liam went over this morning, so I expect by the time we get there he'll have cleaned the house from top to bottom, and you'll have a fully stocked fridge. Probably a Christmas tree, too; he was getting a bit twitchy."

Harry laughs, slouching down in his seat and closing his eyes. "What would we do without Liam?"

"Fuck if I know," Louis says, shaking his head. "Fall to pieces in about ten seconds?" He smiles fondly, thinking about the way Liam had raced out of the flat, too excited to sit still or slow down—even at thirty-one, Liam is still a bit like a puppy, or the most efficient and capable five-year-old on the planet.

"Sounds about right," Harry agrees. His fond smile is an echo of Louis's, even though his eyes are closed. "It's a good thing you've got a Liam, Lou. Everyone should have a Liam, but there's only one Liam, so I'm glad you've got him, especially now." His voice has gone slow and drowsy and profound, the way it does sometimes when he's very tired or very high. Louis glances at him sideways and rolls his eyes.

Harry's right, though, for all that he sounds like he's talking in his sleep. Louis has no idea what he would do without Liam, and he is endlessly, immeasurably grateful that he has Liam in his life. He's also selfishly glad that there's only one of Liam, that Liam is unique, that not everyone gets to have him the way that Louis does—only that thought leaves him feeling unsettled again, like maybe he doesn't have Liam in all the ways he should.

"You're thinking too loud," Harry says grumpily. "I'm trying to sleep."

Louis laughs, startled out of his thoughts. "Sorry, love," he says. "Go to sleep, yeah? I'll wake you up when we get there."

"Good," Harry says, "g'night, Lou." He turns his face to the window, and a minute later he starts to snore. Louis smiles at him, soft and fond, and then concentrates on driving.

*

On Saturday morning, Louis comes downstairs to find everyone else already awake—even Zayn, clutching a cup of coffee and leaning sleepily against the kitchen counter. Louis flicks the kettle back on, and Harry hands him a mug and a tea bag before Louis can start rummaging around in the cupboards.

"Bless you, Harold," Louis says, his voice croaky with sleep. Harry grins, and then goes back to doing something frankly alarming with a pile of vegetables and something that looks like a torture device; across from him, Niall is peeling potatoes and whistling. Louis stares at them for a moment, and then shakes his head. He needs his tea before he tries to work out what is going on in Harry's kitchen.

"There's bread if you want toast," Harry adds, and Louis goes for the breadbin.

Once he's demolished a plate of toast and is most of the way through his first cup of tea, Louis is awake enough to lean next to Zayn and survey the kitchen. "Where's everyone else?" he asks, because Liam's missing, and there seems to be a surprising lack of small children in audible range.

"Pez and Liam took the kids to the park," Zayn says, slumping sideways into Louis's shoulder. Louis leans gently back, careful not to knock Zayn over; he's always a bit wobbly in the mornings. "Annie went to the shops—we got most of the list, but there were the last minute things everyone forgot."

Louis nods, looking around at the three of them. He hasn't managed to get them alone without Liam all week, and this might be his best chance. "In that case, lads, I wanted to talk to you about Liam."

Niall raises his eyebrows, setting his potato peeler down on the work surface. "What about Liam?"

"He's hooking up with blokes!" Louis says. The silence that greets this revelation is decidedly bewildered, and Louis makes a face. "Not, like—obviously the blokes part isn't a surprise, but they're random blokes. Strangers, not boyfriends or whatever. Liam is having casual one-night stands, is my point."

There's another silence; despite Louis's extended explanation, it doesn't sound any less perplexed. Beside him, Zayn straightens and turns to look at him. "I don't see how that's any of our business, Lou," he says. His voice is gentle, but he's giving Louis an unimpressed look.

Louis narrows his eyes. "But—"

"It's not a surprise, either," Niall cuts in, and Louis whirls around to stare at him. "He got off with a bloke in the pub loo when we were out for drinks—oh, not in November, Lou, don't look at me like that, it was in the summer. You weren't there that time, but it happened. Fit bloke, too, nothing to be ashamed about."

Louis puts his tea down on the counter with more force than necessary. "This doesn't strike any of you as strange? It's Liam."

"What did he tell you about it?" Zayn asks. He raises his eyebrows at Louis, challenging.

"He said he was fine with it," Louis say reluctantly. "He said it was easier like this—casual, I mean—and that after Charlie, he decided not to look for something serious again, but—"

"Liam's an adult," Zayn says sharply. "He can make his own decisions."

"I know," Louis says, because he's been telling himself the same thing for the last two weeks, "but don't you think he deserves better?"

He says it too loudly, and it comes out sounding more upset than he really meant it to; in the silence that follows, Harry finally stops whatever he's doing with the vegetables and gives Louis a thoughtful look, worrying his lower lip between his teeth. "Lou—" he says carefully. Louis shakes his head, but Harry keeps talking anyway. "It's—what happened with you and Eleanor, it happens, and it doesn't mean you need to fix everyone else's lives for them, just because your own dreams didn't work out the way you planned."

Sometimes Louis really fucking hates Harry Styles, and the way he can see right through everything Louis isn't saying. "That's not—"

"Yeah, it is," Zayn says. "Even if, like—even if this isn't what Liam wants, it's what he says he wants, and you've got to respect that."

"I haven't done anything," Louis says, stung.

"Yet," Niall says, surprisingly gently, "but we know you, Louis. Don't go meddling with Liam, just because you think everyone should have a happily ever after."

Louis looks away from all three pairs of knowing eyes. He's a little angry that they think this is all on him instead of on Liam, when Liam's the one who never told him, and Liam's the one making decisions that aren't making him happy—whatever he might say to the contrary. Louis knows Zayn's right, but he doesn't really want to listen. "Wouldn't I start with Harry, if that was my goal?" Louis demands, cross and a little mean. "He's perpetually single."

Harry sticks his tongue out at Louis, but he looks a little shifty, and Louis narrows his eyes, distracted. He hasn't had a chance to corner Harry all week. "Aren't you?" he demands, but Harry just holds up his hands.

"You're a shit matchmaker, Lou," he says. "Don't even try with me, and don't slut shame Liam, either, just because he's having casual sex instead of settling down and getting married or whatever—that's not for everybody, and maybe he is happy like this. Maybe it's what he wants."

"Slut shame?" Niall demands, half laughing, which sets Harry off; Louis stops paying attention to them after a second. He's painfully certain that casual sex is not what Liam wants, but he doesn't know how to say that without sounding like a nutter or an arsehole. He doesn't have anything solid to go on, no hard evidence to lay before Harry and Niall and Zayn and say, see, I told you he wasn't happy; and even if he did, what good would that do? What good would it be to prove that Liam's unhappy, when he doesn't have any way to fix it?

"Fine," he says finally, cutting off Harry and Niall's heated argument. "Fine, I—fine." It's not fine, but he doesn't know what else to say. If the lads think he's wrong about this, then he's got to try to let it go. Even if that feels impossible.

"Hey," Zayn says, putting his arm around Louis's shoulders. Louis tenses, and then relaxes into him. "It's going to be okay, yeah? You're going to be okay."

Louis sighs; this isn't really about him, but he still appreciates the gesture. "I know," he says. "Sorry, lads."

Harry shrugs. "You're entitled to be a bit weird, right now. You could make up for it by helping me with the veg." He picks up the torture device again, along with a courgette. Louis feels a strange sort of sympathy with the courgette.

"In your dreams," he says, and then there's the sound of the front door opening, and the high, cheerful yelling of the kids, with Liam and Perrie's lower voices in the background.

"You can supervise," Niall says, winking at Louis, and then he adds, quieter and more serious, "I think it's good, you living with Liam—you've both seemed happier lately, and maybe less lonely. Just don't fuck it up."

"I won't," Louis says. He made a promise and he means to keep it; he just wishes he didn't feel like there was something he was supposed to be doing differently, something he was supposed to change.

*

People pop in and out all through the afternoon and evening—friends and family, current workmates and former crew. Harry's house gets loud and crowded, people gathering around the huge Christmas tree in the front room, and in the kitchen and dining room and living room, drinking and eating and talking and laughing. The kids run around underfoot, putting Harry's extensive childproofing to the test. Lux is the oldest—and despite watching her grow up, Louis still finds it a bit disconcerting to see her so tall and poised, with her hair dyed a new bright red—and she and Brooklyn keep an eye on the smaller ones. Louis joins them for a while, helping the kids sort through the presents under the tree until they all find their own.

Louis's family is mostly in Doncaster already, but Lottie and Emma come, and bring Phoebe with them—Louis and Lottie and Phoebe are driving up together on Monday, so his sisters don't stay as long as they might otherwise; but it's good to see them. It's good to see everyone, even the people he sees all the time, like Gemma and Lou, and everyone from the label. He gets caught up in shoptalk with Simon, and then in a heated argument about guitars with Niall and Sandy, and then in catching up with Paul and cooing over the photos of his two-week-old nephew, and the whole day is lovely, festive and friendly and warm. For the first time, it's almost easy for Louis to answer when people ask him about the divorce. We gave it a good run, he says, but it just didn't work out; but we're still friends.

Eleanor stops by around six and stays for over an hour. Louis catches her in the kitchen doorway for a hug, and then she rolls her eyes up at the mistletoe over the door and kisses him on the cheek. "Happy birthday," she says. "It's a lovely party, Lou."

"We missed you yesterday," he says, which is true. "Harry and Liam spent two hours arguing over the fairy lights without you here to sort them out."

Eleanor laughs. "I'll tell you the secret for next year."

"Excellent," he says, and goes on into the kitchen. She's gone when he makes it back to the living room, but he finds Sophia and her husband talking with Liam and Ruth, and Sophia gives him a hug and says, "She said to tell you she's got an early morning, but Happy Christmas."

"Thanks," Louis says. "Is this weird for you?"

"No," Sophia says. "If it's not weird with Liam, I don't see how it would be weird with you. We've all been friends for a long time, and that doesn't go away."

"Hey," Liam says, hearing his name and turning away from his conversation with Sophia's husband.

Ruth snorts, and pokes Liam in the shoulder. "I think that was a compliment, Liam."

"Oh." Liam sounds chagrined, and they all laugh.

"I'm glad it doesn't go away," Louis says to Sophia. "I used to wonder—it seems a lot to expect that you'll still be friends with everyone you were friends with when you were twenty-one."

Sophia shrugs, and glances at Liam. "Maybe," she says, "but it's not like you lot had normal lives at twenty-one, and the rest of us—it's the kind of experience that brings people together for good. Even when we change, or grow apart, or break up, we still share that. It's not just the five of you, you know?"

Louis thinks about that, looking at Liam and Sophia and Ruth, and then around the room: Paul's asleep in the armchair with Zaf asleep on his lap, and Jade and Leigh-Anne have their heads bent together over the piano in the corner, and Brooklyn is helping Mahina open a Christmas cracker while Zayn and Caroline watch them fondly, and that's just the people in this room; the rest of the house is still full of friends, of family—all these people he loves, who are still here with him. "Yeah," he says softly. "I know."

*

The party starts to wind down around ten—most of the people with kids have left by then, unless they're staying at Harry's—and Louis, on his way to the toilet after a bit too much cider and rather more of Harry's Christmas punch, finds Liam leaning against the wall in the corridor between the kitchen and the downstairs loo, with his eyes closed.

"Have you gone to sleep standing up?" he demands. His chest feels warm with fondness, his heart a little too full.

Liam cracks one eye open, and then smiles at him. "Not entirely," he says, and yawns. "Sorry. I'm definitely getting old."

Louis leans against the wall next to him. "We all are," he agrees. If he was a little more sober, or even a little less happy, he might protest; but it's been a really good party. "You'd better still be up for the after party, though," he adds. "No matter how old we get, we've got standards. Traditions to uphold. Songs to sing."

"Oh god," Liam groans, and laughs. "Are you sure I can't just go to bed?"

"Absolutely not," Louis says firmly.

Liam sighs and stretches, arching his back and tilting his head up to look at the ceiling. Then he freezes, and Louis follows his gaze. "Lou," Liam says, after a moment, "was there mistletoe up on that wall before?"

Louis studies it, frowning. He doesn't remember it—they'd only done the doorways. But there'd been leftover sprigs, and he vaguely remembers Harry handing them around to the older kids and the younger adults, telling them to put them up wherever they liked. "I don't think so," he says to Liam, "but you know Harry. He likes people to kiss at Christmas."

"Right," Liam says tonelessly, still looking at the mistletoe. "Well, I don't see why we should have to; there's nobody here."

Louis stares at him. It's the last thing he would've expected to hear from Liam, who loves everything about Christmas, even the ridiculous parts. Liam's a traditionalist, and mistletoe is a tradition. "It's bad luck if we don't," Louis says. It's not even that he wants to kiss Liam, exactly, it's just—it's weird. His bubble of happiness is threatening to burst, faced with the return of the uncomfortable feeling that maybe he doesn't know Liam as well as he thought he did.

"That's stupid," Liam says sharply. He looks mulish and resistant, and there's something about the set of his mouth that reminds Louis suddenly of the Liam of fifteen years ago, the Liam who fought Louis at every turn, who wouldn't budge, or laugh, or play games. Louis doesn't like thinking about Liam before he was Louis's, before he unwound enough to let Louis in, before they were friends. He was a different person—hot, and strangely appealing, and Louis remembers wanking over him, once, before he'd guiltily resolved not to do it again—but he was even more miserable than Liam is now; Louis doesn't want that Liam back, not ever, but it doesn't stop him from responding like clockwork.

"Scared of a little mistletoe, Payno?" he taunts, arching his eyebrows. "Aren't you Mr Casual, now?" He mimics Liam, dry and cutting, "Sex doesn't have to be serious all the time. What's a little mistletoe snog between friends?"

He regrets it almost as soon as he says it, but regret has never been enough to stop him; and then Liam looks at him, eyes dark and hot and angry, and Louis's breath catches. "I'm not scared of the fucking mistletoe," Liam says, "back off, Louis."

"Make me," Louis says, pushing up on his toes, and Liam kisses him.

He was almost expecting it, except that he wasn't, quite—his mouth is open, so even though Liam kisses him with a hard press of his closed mouth, their lips catch and hold. Louis should pull away, but for some reason he doesn't; Liam's lips are dry and warm, soft and a little minty from the lip balm he uses in the winter, and then he sucks in a shaky breath, lips parting, and they're really kissing. It's—Louis's not sure what it is. He can't think clearly, and it's been so long since he's kissed anyone but El that at first he's just chasing sensation, the strange feeling of someone else's mouth on his, the press of lips and the tentative flicker of a tongue. He's just starting to get lost in it when Liam abruptly pulls away. Louis opens his eyes, ready to protest, ready to kiss Liam again, and then he sees Liam's face and the world comes crashing back down.

"Shit," Liam says. "Fuck, sorry, that was—"

"It's my fault," Louis says quickly. "I don't know what I was—" He steps back, putting space between them. He can't look away from Liam's face, but it's not because Liam looks upset or angry; it's that he looks shattered. "That was uncalled for," Louis says. He feels stunned. "I shouldn't have—I didn't mean to push."

Liam shakes his head, dragging a hand through his hair. "No, it was—" He laughs, dry and humorless. "I think I had a bit too much of Harry's punch, actually."

"Yeah," Louis says, relieved; they can blame it on Harry's punch, along with the bloody mistletoe. "Me too. Sorry."

Liam nods jerkily. "Me too," he echoes, and then somehow he manages to smile. "But hey, what's a little mistletoe snog between friends?" He says it an entirely different tone of voice than Louis had, warm and forgiving instead of taunting and cruel, and Louis lets out a slow breath.

"Right," he says. "Exactly."

"Good," Liam says, nodding. "I should get back in, I suppose—see you for the after party? Songs to sing and all that?"

"Yeah, of course," Louis says. "I was just on my way to the loo."

"Okay," Liam says, and gives Louis one of his dazzling smiles. "See you." Everything's forgiven, Louis thinks; they're fine. They have to be fine. Louis and Liam are always fine.

Louis makes it to the loo and gets the door shut and locked behind him before his knees give out. He slides down against the door and puts his head on his knees. He doesn't feel stunned, anymore. Instead, he feels like his entire body has suddenly woken up, his libido humming to life like an engine turning over. He hasn't been attracted to anyone in a long time—not even Eleanor, at the end—hasn't wanted anyone; now he wants so much he can barely breathe. He can't stop seeing the look on Liam's face after they kissed, shattered and frantic, but something else, too—something hot, and alive. He can't stop feeling Liam's mouth against his, and when he closes his eyes there are a thousand images of Liam to choose from, his shoulders and his eyes and the stupid curl in his stupid hair, and they're all approximately a thousand times more devastating than they were five minutes ago. Louis is so, so fucked.

 

LIAM
December, 2020

Liam's phone rings at seven o'clock on a Sunday morning, waking him up. It's still dark, and there is absolutely no reason for him to be awake at this hour when he doesn't have to be anywhere. "Hello?" he answers, a little groggily. Beside him, Charlie stirs sleepily and pulls a pillow over his head.

"Good, you're awake," Louis says cheerfully. "My birthday's in two weeks."

Liam falls back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling. "You woke me up," he mutters, even though he knows it won't make any difference. Louis's taken to calling him at all sorts of odd hours in the two months since One Direction's last concert; Liam's too used to it by now to get very cross. "I know your birthday's in two weeks, you idiot, it's Christmas."

Louis makes a disgruntled noise on the phone. "Be that as it may, Liam," he says haughtily, "I wouldn't want anyone to forget, especially not this year."

Liam sighs, and rubs a hand over his face. "What are you talking about? I've only been awake for thirty seconds."

"You're so useless," Louis says grumpily, but he sounds fond. "Fine, alright—I think we should have a party. For my birthday, and," he adds grudgingly, even though Liam know it's mostly for show, "for Christmas, if you insist. The five of us, and El and Pez and Annie and Charlie, and anyone Harry wants to bring, and family, and friends, and crew—just, like, a big party, before we all go home for Christmas."

"Oh," Liam says, thinking about it; it sounds—really nice, actually. There are loads of people he hasn't seen since the wrap party in October, and won't see in the spring, since they're not going back on tour. It's not that he can't see those people anyway—he can, and he will; but a party would go a long way towards making him feel like not everything is over. He wonders if that's why Louis thought of it, and then rolls his eyes at himself; of course it is. "That sounds lovely, Lou," he says, his voice warm.

"I thought we could do it at mine this year," Louis says, sounding softer and more tentative, not quite as brusque and certain as he had before, "and then maybe yours next year? It could rotate."

Liam feels a rush of unexpected relief. He hadn't even realised he was worrying—there shouldn't be anything to worry about, when he's been over at Zayn and Perrie's both of the last two weekends, helping them paint the nursery, and when he and Louis are going to start working full time on the label after the new year. But none of that changes the feelings of absence and loss, the deep-seated certainty that nothing is ever going to be the same. One Christmas party won't change that, not even if they have it every year; but it's a start, and so is knowing that Louis's worrying about the same things.

"Count me in," Liam says, "for your place this year, and mine next year. We'll make it a tradition."

"Good," Louis says, sounding more pleased than smug. "We need some new traditions."

 

LOUIS
January, 2025

January is busy, which is probably the only reason that Louis makes it a full two weeks into the new year before he wanks over Liam.

There's a lot of quiet time over Christmas, but whenever Louis starts to think too much about Liam—to think about Liam in the wrong ways—it's easy enough to distract himself by helping his mum in the kitchen, or running around outside with the babies, or bothering Daisy about her uni work, or letting Phoebe show him all the photos from when she went travelling round Europe. His family is so loud and cheerful and strange that they keep him thoroughly occupied; and even though his sex drive is back for the first time in months, he manages to keep his wank fantasies non-specific, quickly quashing any images of Liam that might rise to the surface at inopportune moments.

Then, once he and Liam are both back in London and things have the potential to get awkward, work goes mad. They've got Chloe's album drop, and Moose & Squirrel are done recording and ready for all the business of mixing and selling and scheduling their tour, and The Roundabout are back in the studio after a three-month break and starting to write again, and can't seem to decide on anything without running it by Liam or Louis or both. Louis and Liam work two straight weeks of twelve-hour days, and are so bloody knackered at the ends of them that they're lucky if they manage to collapse onto the sofa together and order a takeaway before they fall asleep.

Louis's so busy that he doesn't even notice when he and Liam fall right back into their normal patterns without any awkwardness at all; where there might have been awkwardness, it's just easy, comfortable and familiar, the way they've been with each other for as long as they've been friends. Neither of them mention the kiss. Louis is too tired and too busy to be distracted by his libido, and living together is as ordinary and seamless, as pleasantly domestic, as it has been for the last three months.

All of which goes promptly to hell on their first proper day off in a fortnight, when Liam comes out of the bathroom in nothing but a towel.

Louis is in the kitchen, half-asleep and making tea, when Liam comes in. He's just out of the shower, his hair damp and curling over his ears, one unruly curl falling into his eyes. He looks well-rested and cheerful for the first time in over a week; with the towel slung low around his hips, and glittering droplets of water running down his bare chest, highlighting the curves of his muscles and pooling slightly in the hollows of his hips, he also looks like he's walked straight out of porn. "Hey," Liam says. His voice is husky. "Guess what? We don't have to go to work today."

"Yeah," Louis agrees, a little stifled. His mind is offering up a lot of things they could do instead of going to work. It wouldn't take much, just to walk around the kitchen island and back Liam up against the sink, to tug that towel away—instead, Louis shoves Liam's tea across the counter.

"Cheers, Lou," Liam says, smiling at him. "Shower's free, if you want it." He picks up his tea and goes out; Louis watches him go, shocked and shaky and suddenly, desperately hard. He presses the heel of his hand to the front of his pyjama trousers, willing his dick to subside. It doesn't work, but it's good enough to get him down the hall to the bathroom, and once he's in the shower with the hot water pounding down on his shoulders, in the same place Liam was ten minutes ago—did he wank? Louis wonders helplessly, which makes his dick give a little twitch—he gives in and wraps his hand around his dick.

The last time Louis wanked over Liam was fourteen years ago, and the Liam he'd thought about then was someone else entirely—someone he barely knew, and didn't like. He'd thought Liam was hot, especially when he got cross and serious and started shouting at Louis; but Louis had felt guilty about it afterward, like he'd crossed some sort of invisible line, and it was after that that he'd resolved to find a way to be Liam's friend, even if he died trying. He hasn't thought about that in years—at least, he hadn't until Christmas. Liam is his now, his best friend, years and worlds and lifetimes away from those first days on X Factor; when he thinks about him now, hand moving fast and frantic on his dick, it's so different as to be almost unimaginable. He thinks about Liam stood in the kitchen in nothing but a towel. He thinks about Liam kissing him during the party, hot and wet and tasting a little like wine and punch; he thinks about what might have happened if Liam hadn't stopped kissing him, if they'd kept on kissing right there under the mistletoe where anyone could've walked in on them, if they'd started tugging at each other's clothes, if Louis had got his hands down the front of Liam's trousers and into his pants. He thinks about Liam curled up with him on the sofa, Liam holding him, Liam sleeping next to him—and that's it, he's coming.

He leans shakily against the shower wall, blinking his eyes open in time to watch the hot water wash his come off his hands. "Well, fuck," he says out loud to the empty bathroom.

*

He calls Harry, because he's pretty sure this would fall under Niall's definition of "fucking it up," and he's got a bad feeling about asking Zayn for advice about Liam. Zayn can get very protective of Liam—more so even than Niall or Louis, which is saying something. Harry's the least judgmental about sex stuff; and of all of them, he's still probably the best one to ask about what to do when you start having complicated feelings about a friend.

"Hi," Harry says, waving at Louis from the screen of his laptop. His hair is a tousled mess, and he's wearing a top that Louis is about eighty-five percent certain belongs to Perrie, so his clothes-stealing habit is clearly alive and well. He looks comfortable, curled up in a big armchair in the living room of his L.A. house, with morning sunshine streaming in through the windows. Louis hasn't been there much since they stopped touring, but it's a nice house—it's a shame it's got to be all the way over in Los Angeles. "What's up?"

"Can't I just call to catch up?" Louis demands.

Harry makes a sceptical face. "You can, but I saw you three weeks ago. Though to be fair, I didn't actually know something was wrong until you said that; I was just being friendly. You know, 'what's up, man?' like the kids say."

"You're so weird," Louis says, "kids have not said that for forty years."

"I'm an old soul," Harry says cheerfully. "But seriously, Lou, what's wrong? I know you're not getting divorced, since that's already happened. Is something going on with Liam?"

Louis stares at him, a little shocked. He hadn't—is it obvious? Did he say something? "Um," he starts. Harry's eyebrows go up, and Louis drops his head into his hands. "Okay," he says, a little muffled. "So. I wanked over Liam. He came out of the shower this morning, all—wet, and in a towel, and I just—" He trails off, not sure what else to say.

Harry doesn't say anything for a minute, but when Louis looks back up, half-expecting the worst, Harry's expression is thoughtful. "Well," he says slowly, "sometimes when you wank over a friend, it's just hormones." For a second, Louis feels a hollow sort of relief, and then Harry keeps talking. "And sometimes, it's because you're secretly in love with them."

"Jesus Christ," Louis says. "Which is it, then?"

"How the hell should I know?" Harry demands, rolling his eyes. "Come on, Lou, I'm not a magical sex whisperer." He pauses, and then gets an arrested look on his face. "That would be sick. Do you think there are magical sex whisperers? How do you get to be one?"

Louis puts his head down on the desk, banging his forehead against the smooth wooden surface. "Why did I call you? You are actually the worst."

"I honestly don't know," Harry says dryly, and then, "Did it just start this morning? Liam's really fit—he always has been. Maybe it's that? You haven't been single in a long time. Have you even really looked at anyone since El, until now?"

Louis shakes his head. "No, but—Liam and I kissed at my birthday party. There was mistletoe."

Harry looks surprised. "I'm sorry I missed that."

"I'm not," Louis says sharply, and Harry smirks at him; after a moment, he stops smirking.

"You and Liam have always been a bit weird," he says contemplatively, which makes Louis give a bark of involuntary laughter. "Okay, fine," Harry continues. "You and I are weird, too—we're all bloody weird, alright? But I can't tell you what you're feeling, Lou; and you should be careful with Liam, because it's still not your job to fix him, even if he is unhappy, and even if you might be a bit jealous of all those blokes he's been shagging. You've just got out of things with El, and you might not be making the best decisions, right now. But—" he shrugs, and looks away from the camera for a minute. "Trust your heart."

Louis makes a face, even though he feels a bit warm. It's one thing to find Liam attractive, to want to kiss him, or shag him, or curl up on the sofa with him forever, but—how can he trust his heart when he doesn't know what it's saying? "That's the stupidest advice I've ever heard," he lies.

"Hey," Harry says sadly, looking back at the camera and pouting. "I tried."

Louis winces. "I'm sorry, Haz," he says contritely, wishing he could reach out and squeeze Harry's hand. "Thank you, I mean."

"Well, alright," Harry says, mollified. "Just—you know Zayn and Niall and I will kill you if you hurt Liam, right? We love you, and we'd try to fix it first, obviously, but there are limits."

"I'd kill me first," Louis agrees. "I just want him to be happy."

"Hmm," Harry says, and gives him a long look, more discerning than Louis is entirely comfortable with; he's not sure what Harry's seeing, and he wishes he knew.

To distract himself, he asks, "What's going on with you, anyway? You were a bit odd at Christmas."

"Oh," Harry says, looking shifty.

"Like that!" Louis shouts, pointing at Harry triumphantly. "You look shifty as fuck, Styles. I meant to get it out of you while you were here, but you're not running away from me now. Out with it, or I'm coming over there."

Harry sighs, glancing at something out of Louis's line of sight. "Okay," he says finally. His cheeks are a little pink, and Louis narrows his eyes. "So, well. I knocked up—"

"Oh my god," Louis says, wanting to cheer. "Finally. You've been trying to steal babies for as long as I've known you. I have never met anyone as broody as you, Harry, and that includes me, and Liam, and my mum."

"—Taylor," Harry finishes.

Louis freezes, mouth open. He blinks, and then blinks again. Harry is still looking at him, pink-cheeked and bright-eyed. "Did you say—Taylor?" he demands, wondering if there's another Taylor. "Taylor Swift?"

"Um," Harry says, the smile breaking out over his face like a sunrise. "Yeah."

"Fucking hell," Louis breathes. "How long has that been going on?"

Harry looks shifty again. "Since Ed's wedding."

"Harry," Louis says, and then he can't finish the sentence. He's not sure he's been this surprised about anything in his life, including the time that Simon Cowell put him into a band with four strangers. "That was almost two years ago," he finally gets out, still reeling.

Harry makes a sheepish face, but he hasn't stopped smiling. "I would have said something, but—we were sort of enjoying it, the part where nobody knew."

It makes sense, given everything that happened with Harry and Taylor the last time, and all the things that have changed since then. Ten years ago, all the money in the world couldn't have kept them a secret, but things are different now, and maybe for the better. It's enough to keep Louis from getting too pissed off with Harry for keeping it a secret, anyway. "Are you telling people now?"

"Yeah," Harry says, "but slowly. I told Mum and Robin and Gemma at Christmas, and now I'm telling you, and Taylor's family knows. We're keeping it quiet, but not—well, not for long, probably, since we're having a baby." He's grinning now, wide and irrepressible and contagious, and Louis feels so fond of him that his heart kind of wants to burst.

"Congratulations, love," he says warmly.

"Thanks." Harry looks like he might bounce out of his chair from happiness. "I mean—it's just so great. She won't marry me, but we're working out the rest. It's going to be fantastic."

"I'm sure it will be," Louis says, with no doubt whatsoever.

"Listen," Harry says after a moment, "why don't you come visit? I know you hate L.A., but it might be good? Get you out of London for a bit. We can go out, find you a proper rebound, if you want, now that you're looking—" he stops at the look on Louis's face, and shrugs, "or not, if that's not what you want. But there's this new artist I've been keeping an eye on, and I think you'd love her, so you could call it a work trip."

"I don't know," Louis hedges. He can see that it might be a good idea, and he'd like to see Harry—and Taylor, too, however weird that might be—but his almost visceral reaction to the idea of leaving Liam makes the decision for him. He doesn't want to go anywhere. "I'll think about it," he says, "but we've got a lot going on here, right now."

Harry looks disappointed, but then he rallies. "Okay," he says, "but the invitation's open, if you change your mind."

"Thanks," Louis says, "for that, and for—the advice."

Harry shrugs, and gives Louis a warm, familiar smile. "You could try talking to him," he says. "Or, I don't know, plant one on him and see what happens."

"Uh-huh," Louis says, rolling his eyes. "Goodbye, Harry." Harry is still laughing when Louis closes the call.

*

Harry's advice, however hodgepodge and unhelpful, stays with him. Trusting his heart is one thing, but it's the plant one on him and see what happens that Louis can't stop thinking about. He's not actually stupid or foolhardy enough to throw himself at Liam without some indication that Liam might want him back; but it was Liam that kissed him, even if Louis had poked and prodded him into it, and Louis can still see the look on Liam's face afterwards, half shock and terror and half—something else. Something that might have been closer to incredulous delight. He's not sure if he can trust his memory, but he starts watching for signs.

*

"Hey," Liam says, poking his head around Louis's office door. He's smiling, rocking a little on his toes with his hands in his pockets. "Have you got a minute? Alice just sent over the album art for Moose & Squirrel, if you want to come take a look."

"Ooh," Louis says, bouncing up from his desk. "Yes, I absolutely do." He's been elbow-deep in scheduling contracts all morning, and deserves a break. "How is it?"

"It looks pretty good," Liam says, as Louis follows him down the hall to his own office, "the boys are coming in this afternoon, but I thought you'd want to see it first."

Liam sits down in his desk chair, and Louis leans over his shoulder while he pulls up the artwork on his monitor. He puts one hand flat on Liam's desk and rests his other arm on the back of Liam's chair, boxing him in—and he's done this a thousand times before, but his breath catches when Liam tilts his head to give Louis more room. His nose is in Liam's hair, and he can smell him, soap and sweat and the shampoo he uses, familiar as breathing; only this time it hits him in the back of his throat, arousal washing over him as he leans closer. Liam is very still for a moment, and Louis can't be completely sure, but he thinks he might feel him shudder before he points to his monitor. "What do you think?" Liam asks, his voice lower than Louis thinks it should be. "Good?"

"Yeah," Louis murmurs, and then makes himself concentrate on the art. It is good, actually, though he thinks— "Could the colours be brighter here?" He leans further over Liam's shoulder and points out the part that seems too dull, where it should be eye-catching and exciting.

"That's what I thought, too," Liam says, tilting his head back against Louis's chest and smiling up at him. "I'm glad we're on the same page."

*

Work is still mad, but they manage to carve out a free evening later that week. Jamie and the lads from the studio try to convince them to come out to the pub, but Liam and Louis both refuse; it might make him old and boring, but all Louis wants to do is order a takeaway and watch telly on the sofa with Liam.

They demolish a pizza and settle in on the sofa with a couple of beers and some new fashion reality show. The show's a bit weird, Louis thinks, but he's not really paying attention; Liam is warm against his side, and when Louis puts his head down on Liam's shoulder, Liam wraps an arm around him.

"I don't think that's a skirt," Liam says doubtfully, frowning at the television. "It's got, like, a bit that looks like a mermaid."

"Like Harry's tattoo," Louis says, giggling, and sits up to take a drink of his beer. When he sets it back down on the coffee table, Liam's looking at him instead of at the telly. Louis swallows, and Liam's dark eyes dart down to his throat, to his mouth. Louis thinks, what if I, and starts to lean forward, almost presses his mouth to Liam's again—for just a moment, it seems like Liam's leaning in with him—and then there's a loud noise from the television, applause and laughter, and they both look away. A moment later, Liam's arm comes back around his shoulders, and Louis curls into him again.

*

Louis and Eleanor sign their divorce papers on a Monday morning, and go out for lunch and fancy cocktails after; if you can't drink fancy cocktails with your ex-wife on the occasion of your official, finalised divorce, then Louis thinks there's something very wrong with the world. El hugs him after lunch, and he kisses her cheek, and there might be an actual spring in his step on his walk back to the office, for all that it's blisteringly cold and bloody January.

When he gets back to work, Liam and Chloe and half their office are in the conference room, opening a dozen bottles of champagne. "I can't believe I'm number one," Chloe cries, throwing herself at him for a slightly tearful hug; she's grinning wide enough to light up the room.

"You deserve it, love," Louis says, kissing the top of her head. "Drink some champagne and celebrate, yeah?"

"Yeah," she says. "Thank you for everything, though, honestly, I couldn't have—"

"None of that, now," Louis says. "Save it for your acceptance speeches when you win all the awards."

Chloe laughs and hugs him again, and then more people come in and she gets swept up in another round of hugs and congratulations. Louis makes his way over to Liam.

"Eating your words about the January release, yet?" Louis taunts, with a bit of a grin.

Liam rolls his eyes. "I still say it shouldn't have worked," he complains, but then he smiles at Louis. "But yes. You do have a way of making things work that shouldn't, Lou. It's a bit magic." His smile turns soft and affectionate, and Louis can feel himself starting to blush.

"Thanks," he says, more bashful and earnest than he means to be. He darts his eyes away when Liam keeps looking at him, warm and fond and a bit too much to handle.

"How'd it go with El and the lawyers?" Liam asks, after a moment.

"Good," Louis says. "Easy. I am now officially a free man."

"Good," Liam says softly. He hands Louis a glass of champagne. "We've got a lot to celebrate today, don't you think?"

"Yeah," Louis agrees, looking up into Liam's warm brown eyes. He clinks their glasses together in a toast.

*

They relocate to the pub midway through the afternoon. It's a good party—Louis likes the people, or he wouldn't work with them—and Chloe's incandescent happiness seems to make everyone else cheerful and gregarious. They all get progressively drunker, and order loads of food, and it's looking like it might turn out to be a nearly perfect day when Louis sees Liam talking with a bloke at the bar.

He's not anyone Louis recognizes, but he's leaning close to Liam with one elbow on the bar, looking up at him and laughing. Even from all the way across the room, Louis can see the intent in his eyes, the way his gaze flickers across Liam's face and down his body. Liam's not precisely encouraging him, but he hasn't turned the bloke away, either—they're still talking, and Liam is smiling, shaking his head in that adorable way he does when someone's shocked him a bit, but he thinks he might like it. Louis feels a sudden surge of jealousy so hot and overpowering that he's up out of his chair and halfway over the bar before he realises what he's doing, and by that point it's too late to turn back.

Louis is drunk enough—or jealous enough, maybe—that it seems like a good idea to drape himself over Liam's back and say, "Hey, babe, are you ready to go home?" Liam leans into him for a second, and then dislodges Louis gently and gives him a bit of a suspicious look. There's a smile twitching around the corners of his mouth, though. "It's getting late," Louis adds, innocently.

Liam rolls his eyes, but then he says, "Yeah, alright."

Louis gives the bloke a toothy smile over Liam's shoulder, unfriendly and probably a little too smug; but he's gratified when the guy backs off without making a fuss.

"It was nice talking to you," Liam says politely. Louis waits impatiently while the bloke agrees, looking a bit disappointed, and then he tugs Liam back to their table to get their coats.

It's not until they're home, and he's locked the door of the flat behind them and hung up his coat, that Liam says, "Are you going to apologise for cockblocking me?"

Louis toes off his shoes, not looking at Liam. "I wasn't planning on it," he says honestly. "You could've stayed, if you'd really wanted to." He starts unbuttoning his coat, but when he goes to hang it up, Liam catches his wrist.

"Lou," he says, his voice sounding rough. "It's not—I know you've got a problem with me shagging strangers, and maybe you're right, but—"

Louis drops his coat and whirls around; Liam's still holding his wrist. "I was jealous, you idiot. I didn't even realise that's what it was until Harry told me, and it's not—you do deserve better than this, you deserve so much better than meaningless sex with people you don't even know, but that's not the only reason why I—"

"Louis," Liam says. "Why were you jealous?"

"Why did you leave with me? You could have stayed," Louis fires back.

"I'm always going to leave with you," Liam says, and then his eyes widen, dark and panicked like he hadn't meant to say that. He drops Louis's wrist, and Louis reaches for it with his other hand, pressing his fingers in where Liam's had been. This is it, Louis thinks. Liam doesn't move, and he doesn't look like he's breathing; Louis sucks in a shaky breath, and then he puts both hands on Liam's chest and shoves him against the wall and kisses him.

Liam is utterly still for one long, terrifying minute, and then he makes a desperate noise against Louis's mouth and kisses him back. His mouth is warm, and wet, and eager, and once they've started kissing it's like there's nothing holding them back. Liam's hands are hot on Louis's back, on his waist and his hips, and there's nothing to feel out, this time; it's just all sensation. Louis kisses him, and keeps kissing him as Liam pushes off the wall and backs Louis into the living room.

They stumble through the room, trying to kiss and walk at the same time. Louis almost trips over the coffee table, but Liam rescues him, tripping him back onto the sofa instead, and then climbing on top of him. Liam kisses Louis's cheek, and his ear, and his throat, and then trails sharp, biting kisses along his collarbone, tugging the neck of his jumper out of the way, until Louis digs his hands into Liam's hair and drags his mouth back up. Liam is heavy on top of him, a familiar weight pressing him down into the sofa. Louis strokes his hands down Liam's back, feeling the muscles of his shoulders, the warm dip at the small of his back, and then pushing his fingers down the back of Liam's jeans.

Liam hisses when Louis gropes his arse, and his hips press down until Louis can feel Liam's dick against his thigh, hot and hard and big. Louis knows Liam's dick perfectly well, from years of familiar groping and shared hotel rooms rooms and accidental nudity, but this is a whole new angle—different, and better, even if Louis wouldn't change any of those years. He's hard, too, and he pulls his hands out of Liam's jeans and grabs his shoulders, arching up against him until their dicks are flush. Liam groans, low and hot in his throat, and Louis drags his mouth away from Liam's for long enough to gasp, "Jesus, Liam," frantic and desperate. And then suddenly Liam's backing away, up off the couch and halfway across the room before Louis can hold on to him.

Louis lies there, splayed out on the sofa and halfway to coming in his pants, breathing hard. Liam is facing away from him, visibly trembling, but after a moment he exhales and turns around, sinking down into the chair across the room. Louis can tell that Liam's still hard, but he's not paying any attention to his dick; Louis could do that for him, but—maybe not. "Okay," he says, finally. "What did I do wrong?"

Liam looks surprised, and then he sighs and rubs his hands over his face. "I can't—" he says, his voice breaking a little. "I can't be your experiment, Lou."

Louis stares at him, uncomprehending. "What?"

"You're not—you were with El for thirteen years, and Hannah before that. I know you're straight. I won't—I made a rule."

"Liam," Louis says, very slowly. He feels like he's walking in a minefield, or maybe like he is the minefield. "I have known I was bisexual since I was eight years old. I told you. I came out to you and the lads, at Harry's dad's place, that very first time we all got together. Did you forget?"

Liam is staring at him now. He looks gobsmacked, and after a moment he gives a shaky sort of laugh. "Fuck," he breathes. "I—shit. I guess I did."

Louis draws his knees up to his chest, so that he can drop his head onto them. "For fuck's sake, Liam," he says to his knees. "I know it was a long time ago, but I thought—when you were coming out, I said all those things about how hard it is, and how much I understood. Did you just think I was being a dick?"

Even though Louis's not looking at him, he can picture the face that Liam must be making, embarrassed and determined at the same time. "I never thought you were being a dick," Liam says. "I thought you were being nice. It never occurred to me that you were speaking from experience."

"Since when am I nice?" Louis demands, glancing up from his knees.

Liam frowns at him. "You're nice all the time, Lou," he says sharply, "even when you don't mean to be. But it wasn't—" he looks away, and then gives a little shrug. "You've got to remember, I barely knew anyone who was gay. I'm not even sure I knew what you meant, when you told us you were bi; and then you were dating girls, so I wouldn't have—I know better now, mostly, and maybe if I'd remembered—but I didn't. I didn't remember." He looks a little shaken, but then he squares his shoulders and looks back at Louis. "Why didn't you say anything, when I was coming out?"

"I thought you knew," Louis says incredulously.

"No," Liam says, "I mean, why didn't you ever, like—"

"Oh," Louis says, getting angry. "Because coming out was the right thing for you, it's the right thing for everybody? You know better. I was with El, and I thought that was going to be forever, and with everything, the shit with Harry—you honestly think I could've come out as bi without things getting worse for me, and for her, and for our families? For the band?" He's never felt bad about making that choice; he made it a long time before Liam came out, and Liam's righteousness never changed things for him. He couldn't have made the same choice Liam did; Liam put the fans first in a way Louis never did or would, no matter how lovely most of them were—but Liam's always been the better person, so generous with himself that Louis only ever wanted to protect him and keep him safe.

"No, I—shit," Liam says, and puts his hands over his face. "I'm sorry," he says, a little muffled. "You're right; it was a completely different situation for you, wasn't it?"

"Yes," Louis says sharply.

Liam drops his hands, and gives Louis a tentative, hesitant smile; it's just a shadow of his normal smile, but Louis relaxes. "I wish I'd remembered," Liam says, sounding sad. "It wouldn't have changed anything, I suppose, but—I really am sorry."

Louis nods. "It's alright." There's a long silence, while they both look at each other, and finally Louis says, "Is that it? Now you know I like boys, so—" It's mostly bravado, but he still—Liam is so beautiful, and so far away from him. Louis doesn't like it when Liam seems untouchable.

"Fuck," Liam says, looking a little miserable. "I—you don't know how much I want to, Lou, but—" He shakes his head, and Louis feels a cold wave of disappointment. "I can't be your rebound, either. I care too much about you for that."

"Fine," Louis says, and puts his head back down on his knees. After a moment he hears the creak of the chair and Liam's footsteps, and then Liam's hand is stroking through his hair. It's not sexual in the slightest, but Louis still shivers.

"I'm sorry," Liam says softly.

"Jesus Christ, Liam," Louis snaps. "I don't want a pity fuck. If we're not going to do this, go the fuck away so that I can wank off thinking about it, alright?"

There's a shaky exhale above him, and then Liam is stepping away from the sofa. Louis looks up just in time to catch the look on his face, wretched and hot and unhappy—heartbroken, Louis would say, if that made any sense at all. "I still think you'd be better off fucking me than all those random blokes," Louis says, harsh and a little desperate. "But—it's fine, Liam. I'm not going to—whatever. We're fine."

"Okay," Liam says, sounding a bit broken, and then he gives Louis one last tremulous smile and flees.

Louis falls back on the sofa, one arm flung over his eyes. Fuck, he thinks. What the fuck is he supposed to do now?

 

LIAM
July, 2016

Liam's knee has been jittering under the table for the last ten minutes. "We see what you're saying," says Claudia from Modest, "but don't you think it might be better to wait a bit longer?" Until you're not our problem, Liam hears, and tries not to wince.

Louis puts his hand on Liam's knee and leaves it there. Liam stops twitching; the steady pressure of Louis's hand is warm and reassuring, even if it also makes him feel a bit breathless.

Across the table, Ryan turns in his chair to glare at Claudia. "It's 2016, Claudia," he says. "I can't believe you're suggesting that Liam should stay in the closet. Until, what—they stop being a band? That's ridiculous."

"I just think we should consider—" says Claudia, looking a bit hunted, but down the table, Amrita nods. "I'm with Ryan," she says. "It might be difficult, but it could be good for image, too, in the long run."

Next to Liam, Niall makes a scoffing noise, almost too quiet to be heard, but Amrita raises her eyebrows in a question. "We're not too worried about image," Niall says. "I'm sorry, Amrita, everyone—we know that's your job, and we appreciate it, but it's not a question of whether Liam is going to do this, it's a question of the best way to go about doing it; we've already made up our minds."

Not for the first time, Liam is desperately grateful for Niall. With Niall and Louis on either side of him, and Harry and Zayn flanking them, he feels safe and protected, even in the face of opposition. He doesn't want to fight their team, though; as proud as he is of how hard the five of them have worked to build and maintain their control over the band, he knows that most of the time, that means trusting the people who know more than they do. He hopes they can do this without alienating everyone who works for them.

After a moment, Claudia nods. "It will be difficult," she warns, and then she looks up and down the table before turning back to Liam. She studies him for a second, and then smiles. "But it's also very brave. Of course you have our support."

"Oh," Liam says, blinking back sudden tears. "I—thank you." Under the table, Louis squeezes his knee. Liam takes a shaky breath. "Thank you, everyone."

"That does still leave the question of how," Simon says from the head of the table. His voice is quiet, but it rings out in the room, commanding everyone's attention. "Have you given that any thought?"

"We've talked about it a bit," Liam says, glancing around at the lads. "But, I don't know—I don't want to distract from press about the tour or the band."

"There's always Alan Carr," Timothy says, looking at his tablet and frowning. "Or James Corden and the Late Late Show, since America is an option and you're already here—and you and Corden are close, which might make things more comfortable. It is major news, Liam, so we could put you on just about any show you'd like to be on."

"There's also radio," Amrita puts in. Like Timothy, she's got out her tablet, and is tapping at the screen. "Breakfast would probably be best, and Grimshaw wouldn't make an utter hash of it; but I know you like interviewing with Scott Mills, and that could work as well. We could even phone The Advocate, I suppose, if you want to be a bit old-fashioned." Down the table, Ryan rolls his eyes.

Liam shakes his head. "I wouldn't mind doing an interview, but—wouldn't it be a bit weird, just me without the lads?" Louis squeezes his knee again, and Niall inches closer, until their shoulders are pressed together. "If the lads are there, we should be talking about the band and not about me," Liam says, feeling at sea, "and if they're not, that could be awful. People take things out of context in interviews, and sometimes the questions are really—and I wouldn't know—"

"Interviews can be scripted," Amrita says gently.

"I know," Liam says, looking down at the table. "But—"

"I have an idea," Louis says suddenly. Liam turns to look at him, surprised. Has Louis been sitting on this the whole time, or did he just think of it now?

Louis leans forward, elbows on the table, and glances at Simon. Simon opens his hands, and Louis grins, sharp and dangerous. "What if he did it like Tom Daley?" Louis suggests, like he's playing a trump card. "Just Liam, releasing a video."

Amrita frowns and starts to say something, and then closes her mouth. There's a thoughtful silence, until Ryan says, "It's not a bad idea, and it would keep it personal and immediate." He smiles at Liam. "That's what you want, right? To be able to speak more directly to the fans?"

"That's it exactly," Liam says. He remembers Tom's video; if he could do something like that—it would just be him, telling the truth about himself to the world, because he wants to and because it's the right thing to do. He grabs hold of Louis's hand under the table, trying to convey his gratitude. Louis's still watching their management team, but he folds his fingers into Liam's and squeezes. Louis might not want him as a boyfriend, but Liam doesn't know what he would do without him as a friend.

"There would need to be interviews after the video," Timothy says, "but it would give them a starting point, and that would help. We could have the lads go with you for some of the interviews, Liam, to show their support."

"That won't be a problem," Harry says firmly. "Liam has our complete support, and we'll be happy to say so as often and as loudly as necessary. Louder, probably." He leans around Niall to give Liam a fierce grin, and from Louis's other side, Zayn holds out his hand for a fistbump.

"Liam?" Simon prompts. When Liam looks up at him, Simon is smiling. "What do you think?"

"I think—" Liam takes a deep breath. He's going to do this; they're going to do this. "I think it's a great idea," he says. "Let's do it just like that."

*

They fly Ben in to film the video, because Liam's laptop camera—however personal and intimate—doesn't meet Louis's quality standards, and Amrita and Timothy, who have stayed behind to schedule Liam for interviews in America, think it wouldn't hurt to have an actual director. Ben sets up in Liam's hotel room, sitting Liam on the end of the bed.

"Are we sure the bed's a good idea?" Liam asks doubtfully.

"It's intimate," Amrita offers. She and Timothy are sat at the small table with Louis and several laptops. Harry and Niall are hovering at Ben's shoulders as he sets up the camera, and Zayn is sitting with Liam on the bed, holding his hand.

"It's fine," Louis says. "We're not trying to hide that you had help filming the video—you can even thank Ben, if you want—but it should feel natural and uninhibited." Liam blinks at him, confused, and Louis rolls his eyes, clearly trying to hide a smile. "What, that wasn't one of your calendar words? Unrestrained, relaxed, free and easy."

"Oh," Liam says.

Zayn squeezes his hand. "You know what you're going to say?"

Liam has been rehearsing in his head for the last few days, but he doesn't know what will happen when he gets in front of the camera. It won't be new—he's spent so much of his life in front of cameras that it probably will be natural, and whatever that word of Louis's was—uninhibited; easy. He's never done something quite like this before, but he's not very good at keeping secrets, and he wants the world to know him exactly as he is. Now that he knows more about himself, he wants to tell everyone. It's a little scary, but it helps that he's not doing it alone, that the lads and Ben—and even Amrita and Timothy—are in the room with him.

"I think so," he tells Zayn.

"We're ready," Ben says. "Take your time, Liam. We can do as many takes as you need."

"Okay," Liam says. He hugs Zayn, and looks around the room, meeting Louis's eyes, and then Harry's, and then Niall's. Zayn gets up off the bed and goes to stand with Harry behind the camera. Harry puts an arm around Zayn's waist and gives Liam a warm, encouraging smile. "Okay," Liam says again, softly, and looks up at the camera. "Go."

They do it in one take.

*

He really does try to only read the nice things—the tweets that thank him for coming out, for being brave, for being a role model; the articles that talk about supporting gay kids; the emails from his mum and dad and Nic and Ruth, from other friends. Then, three days after he posts the video, there's a big rainbow sign at their show, up near the front by the barrier, that says, LIAM, THANK YOU FOR SAVING MY LIFE, and Liam has to wipe away his tears with the bandana in his back pocket. He sends Paddy down to bring the girl and her friend backstage after the show, and hugs her and scribbles his name on her t-shirt when she asks, even though it feels immensely inadequate—especially when she insists that he keep the sign. She cries on him when they hug, smiling through her tears. Since he's also crying, he doesn't mind very much.

After that, the good things start to make him feel small, broken and devastated and not nearly brave enough; they're still overwhelmingly lovely, but when he reads them he starts to cry, and that's too much to handle along with everything else. So he starts reading the ones that aren't so nice.

Some of them are relatively easy to ignore—some of them are actually just mad, like the ones that claim that Liam coming out is a cover for Harry and Louis's secret love. The ones that call him a poof or a faggot or a cocksucker are cruel, but they're nothing Liam hasn't heard before, and he's older now; he can deal with bullies.

The worst ones, the ones that have Liam awake in the middle of the night, huddled under the hotel duvet and staring helplessly at his phone, are the ones that call him a liar. Louis was right about those, and they're worse than Liam imagined. They're betrayed, and hurt, and want to know why he never said anything before, why he kept his sexuality a secret. They say they trusted him, and they looked up to him, and now they can't believe anything he says. Liam tries to respond to each of them, but it's no good; the ones that reply throw everything he says back at him, until it starts to sound like excuses rather than the truth. He falls asleep with his phone in his hand, curled into a tight ball in the middle of the bed with the duvet pulled over his head.

Louis barges into his hotel room the next morning, half an hour before their bus call. He hauls the duvet off Liam and stands over the bed, looking cross and determined. "Give me your phone," he demands, holding out his hand.

Liam's already started to hand his phone to Louis when his brain wakes up the rest of the way. "What? Why?"

"I read your twitter this morning," Louis says grimly. "You're not doing that anymore."

"But—" Liam starts, frowning up at Louis.

"No," Louis says. He doesn't look like he can be moved by anything short of an earthquake. "Phone, Liam."

Liam hands over his phone, and then gets out of the bed. "Seriously, Lou, it's fine—"

"It's not," Louis says sharply. "I know you want to give the fans everything you have, Liam. I know you think we owe them; but that doesn't mean you belong to them. You're the most generous person in the whole fucking world, but if you keep on like this you won't have anything left to give." His voice softens. "Keep something for yourself, love."

Liam looks at him, heart pounding. Louis looks fierce and dangerous; his hair is a mess, and he's just in travel clothes—trackies and an old t-shirt—but his eyes are glittering, and he looks like he could take on an entire army and win. Liam wants to kiss him more than he's ever wanted anything in his life.

"I'll try," he says softly. He wants to give Louis everything he asks for.

"That's a start," Louis says gently. He pockets Liam's phone, and then smiles. "The consensus is that we're watching Friends on the bus, and you can have your phone back when we get to Atlanta." His smile widens. "Cuddling during Friends is mandatory."

Cuddling is always mandatory. "Okay," Liam says, smiling back, and goes to pack his bags.

 

LOUIS
January, 2025

"I'm going to kill you," Zayn says conversationally. He's got Zaf on his hip and is stirring something on the hob, and his voice is friendly and warm and ordinary, and completely terrifying.

Louis puts his head down on Zayn's kitchen table. "I know," he groans. "I just—"

"You don't know," Zayn says. "You've got no clue, Louis. You have fucked this up so badly that if I didn't love you like a brother, and if I wasn't giving you the benefit of the doubt because you only got divorced three months ago, I would throw you out of my house right now. Are we clear?"

Louis looks up, a little shocked. Zayn's turned around from the hob and he's frowning at Louis, his eyes dark and hard. Louis hasn't seen Zayn this angry in a long time, and never at him. "We're clear," he says, feeling choked up. "Shit, Zaynie, what did I—" He swallows hard, and lays his hands flat on the table. "Please tell me?"

Zayn studies him for a moment, and then he nods. He turns down the gas and covers the pan—Louis's not sure what he's cooking, but it smells amazing—and then sets Zaf in his highchair and sits down across from Louis. Zaf bangs his blocks together loudly, and Zayn makes faces at him until he laughs and settles down.

"Okay," Zayn says finally, once Zaf seems happy without his dad's attention. "So, it's like this. I never promised Liam that I wouldn't tell you; it was assumed, but now I'm going to tell you even though he's going to be cross, because I think it's more important that you know."

Louis's stomach hurts with nerves, but he nods.

"Liam was in love with you," Zayn says, like dropping a bomb.

For a moment, Louis can't even process the words; then he demands, "Was? When?"

Zayn shrugs, glancing sideways at Zaf and then back at Louis. "For a long time. I never got the whole story out of him, exactly, but—I'm pretty sure he worked out he liked boys because of you. I know he was in love with you when he came out. I don't know how long it lasted, but he was really committed to Charlie, so—"

"So he must have stopped," Louis says. He barely recognizes his own voice. "You're sure?"

"Yeah," Zayn says, giving him a sharp look. "But that's not the main thing. The main thing is that Liam has spent years making absolutely bloody fucking certain that this wouldn't affect your friendship, or your partnership, or the band, or anything in your life, and you just knocked all that down on a whim. Years, Louis."

Louis looks down at the table; it's covered with toys and books and empty mugs, unsorted mail and keys and hats and several mismatched pairs of gloves, detritus of the household—nothing that can distract him from Zayn's gaze, or from the rush of anger and guilt that he doesn't know what to do with. "Why didn't he tell me?" he asks, a little plaintively.

"Oh, because that would have been brilliant," Zayn says sarcastically. "You were in love with someone else. He knew you weren't about to leave Eleanor for him, and your friendship was too important for him to fuck it up. Can you really tell me you wouldn't have been different around him, if you'd known?"

Louis wants to tell Zayn exactly that, but—he can't. He doesn't know what he would have done; he doesn't know if he would've had the strength that Liam must have, to go on the same way they always had. But at least he would have tried. "So he just, what—suffered in silence?" He hates the idea of Liam suffering in silence almost as much as he hates the new terrible knowledge that Liam has been keeping this secret from him for years.

Zayn raises his eyebrows. "Have you met Liam?"

"Right," Louis says helplessly, and rubs his hands over his face. "Fuck, Zayn."

"Yeah," Zayn says. "So fix it."

Even in his cosy, comfortable kitchen, with Zaf gurgling beside him, Zayn looks like nothing quite so much as a vengeful god. Louis meets his eyes. "I'll do my best," he says seriously, and Zayn nods once. He doesn't say, you'd better, but Louis hears it anyway.

*

He brings Chinese home for tea as a peace offering, even though they hadn't exactly had a fight. Liam's in the kitchen doing the washing up, up to his elbows in soap suds with the work surfaces all shining and clean and scrubbed within an inch of their life; so if Louis was wondering how Liam was coping, he's got his answer. Louis takes the food through to the dining room, even though they usually eat in the kitchen or the living room, and Liam joins him a few minutes later with plates and cutlery.

"I talked to Zayn," Louis says, unpacking takeaway containers onto the end of the table that isn't covered with a keyboard and a guitar and several notebooks. He doesn't try to make it sound casual, and sure enough, Liam blanches. "Yeah," Louis says heavily. "Why didn't you ever tell me?"

"Zayn told you?" Liam asks. He's not looking at Louis, and he sounds almost angry.

"He did," Louis says, "but why didn't you?"

Liam shakes his head. "I never wanted you to know. I wish Zayn hadn't said anything."

That hurts more than Louis expected. He sits down at the table and reaches for the prawn crackers. He's not terribly hungry, but at least it gives him something to do with his hands. "I didn't think we had secrets like that, Liam. I thought you trusted me."

"I do trust you," Liam says quickly, "but it wasn't about that. I never wanted you to know because you couldn't do anything about it; I didn't want anything to change, and it would have. You're too important to me to lose, just because I had some—inconvenient feelings." His voice is rough, like it's costing him a lot to get the words out.

"Don't you think that's true for me, too?" Louis demands. He's starting to get angry, but he's not sure there's any point in shouting. "You don't think I would've worked just as hard to make sure we were okay? That we could go on the same way? I—fuck, Liam, I love you. You're my best fucking friend."

Liam finally looks at him. "I know," he says, "I know you do, but—it wasn't fair. It wouldn't have been fair, to ask that of you."

"That's a load of bollocks," Louis snaps. "Look, I just—I hate that you've been dealing with this on your own for god knows how long. That's not fair. At least Zayn knew, but—"

"He figured it out," Liam says. "I never told him."

Louis slaps his hands down on the table, hard enough that the cutlery skitters across the surface. "For fuck's sake," he shouts. "It's been fifteen fucking years, Liam. You don't have to be alone." There's a loaded silence, while Louis's words ring against the dining room walls. After a moment, he takes a deep breath, and says more quietly, "We're family. You—you're entitled to your secrets, I suppose, even if I don't like that very much; but you're not alone."

"Oh," Liam says, sounding watery. "I—shit, Lou."

"Yeah, well," Louis says. He feels wrung out, like he's gone several rounds in the ring with Mark—and it's Liam who's the boxer, not him. Liam hasn't touched the food, so Louis pushes the sweet and sour container across the table towards him. Liam looks at the container like it might bite him, but then he sighs and eats a pork ball.

"I'm sorry," Louis continues. "For last night, I mean. If I'd known, I wouldn't have—" It hurts to say, and the guilt makes his heart ache, cold and miserable. He still wants Liam; he's still jealous. He still thinks Liam deserves more than meaningless sex with strangers; he still thinks Liam's happiness is one of the most important things in the world. But he's not delusional enough to think that he's the one who can make Liam happy. Whatever Liam might have felt for him once, he doesn't feel that way now.

"Yeah," Liam says heavily. His expression is unreadable.

Louis reaches for the sweet and sour, and then changes his mind and goes for the chow mein. "Zayn said you got over me," he says carefully.

Liam blinks, his expression unguarded for half a second—and for half a second, Louis thinks maybe he's got it wrong, maybe—but then his face shutters. "I did," Liam says, sounding determined and embarrassed and miserable. "I did get over you. So—"

"Right," Louis says. "So." He eats some of the chow mein; it's delicious, but it tastes a bit like sawdust in his mouth. Across the table, Liam is poking desultorily at the Szechuan prawns. They eat in silence for a minute, and then Louis says, "I think I might go to L.A. for a while."

Liam's fork clatters to the table. "No," he says, sounding horrified. "I didn't—Louis, fuck."

Louis puts his fork down more carefully, and reaches across the table for Liam's hand. He does it automatically, not even thinking about it until he's got his fingers wrapped around Liam's, and by then Liam is looking at him with wide dark eyes and Louis wouldn't let go of him for anything in the world. "Just for a bit," he says gently. "Not—I'm not running away." It sounds like a lie, but he means it; he wouldn't run away from Liam. He's not sure he could. "I'll come back in a few weeks. But Harry invited me, and I think—maybe we should have a little space." He looks down at their hands. "There are some meetings I could take in L.A., and Harry's got an artist he wants me to meet, and—oh, actually, Liam, have you spoken to Harry recently?"

"No," Liam says, sounding confused. "We've texted a bit, but not properly since Christmas."

Harry didn't actually say that Louis couldn't tell Liam, and Louis owes him for telling Zayn about the divorce before Louis could. "He's having a baby," Louis says to Liam, "with Taylor Swift."

Liam's mouth actually drops open, his eyes wide as saucers. "You're taking the piss."

"I'm not." Louis grins, watching the look of incredulous shock cross Liam's face and turn to unholy glee. "As it happens, they've been sneaking around for nearly two years, and none of us knew, and now they're telling people, because Taylor's preggers."

"Oh my god," Liam breathes. "That's the most amazing thing I've ever heard."

"I know," Louis says. He and Liam grin at each other, both of them about five seconds from dissolving into giggles; for the first time since they stopped kissing the night before, Louis feels like they're on the same page. "I thought I might go make fun of them in person," he says.

Liam's grin fades, but not entirely—he's smiling when he looks down at their hands, still clasped together on the table. "Okay." He gives a little shrug, not meeting Louis's eyes. "Just—as long as you come home."

"I will," Louis promises. He squeezes Liam's hand. "We'll be alright, Liam. Nothing has to change."

Liam looks up, and Louis can see his own thought reflected in Liam's eyes: it already has. But it's not irreparable; they're adults, and they're friends, and they can't possibly be as bad at this sort of thing as they were when they were eighteen, or twenty-one, or twenty-three. If Liam's inconvenient feelings didn't break them then, then Louis's won't now. They'll be alright. They have to be.

 

LIAM
September, 2022

It's a beautiful autumn evening, the sun just starting to set behind the hedges that enclose Zayn's back garden. Liam sits on the patio steps and stares morosely out at the trees; he never used to be able to keep track of the seasons when they were touring—except for those brutally hot summers in America—but now the leaves are beginning to turn, and there's a cool breeze that makes him think about going back inside for a jumper. For a moment he wishes it was raining, and then he makes a disgusted face at himself. Moping never got anyone anywhere.

Zayn comes out of the house and sits down next to him. He puts an ashtray on the step between them and lights up the spliff, taking a drag and then handing it to Liam. "Thanks," Liam says, and they pass it back and forth in silence, until Liam can feel the tension in his shoulders start to unwind.

"Where are the girls, anyway?" he asks suddenly, a bit guiltily.

"Perrie's mum's for the weekend," Zayn says. "It's fine—I was going to go too, but Pez told me to stay home and look after you."

"Oh," Liam says, touched and grateful. "Thanks, Zaynie." The last thing Liam wants is to be alone. His flat is too big and too empty, and even though staying at Lou and El's has helped, he keeps thinking about Charlie packing his bags and walking out of his life.

"Of course, bro," Zayn says warmly. "There's no rush," he adds after a moment, "but you can tell me about it if you want to; I only got the basics from Lou."

Liam sighs and takes another drag, handing the spliff back to Zayn when he's done. Zayn stubs it out in the ashtray, but doesn't light another. "He got this job back in the states," Liam says finally, looking down at his knees. "It's like—in Chicago, I think? I don't know. But it's a lot closer to his family, and—" He breathes in, stealing himself; it still hurts to think about. "He didn't ask me to go with him."

Zayn doesn't say anything for a minute, and his voice is very gentle when he asks, "Would you have said yes?"

"I don't know," Liam says, even though he does. "I—he could at least have asked." He knows why Charlie didn't ask, though; he knows he wouldn't have gone.

"Maybe he just didn't want to hear you say no," Zayn suggests. He wraps an arm around Liam, pulling him close.

Liam rests his head on Zayn's shoulder. "I thought we were going to make it," he says, small and fragile. "I thought it was—you know. For keeps. I loved him, but I guess I didn't love him enough to go, and he didn't love me enough to stay." Zayn squeezes his shoulders and presses a kiss to Liam's temple. "Is that a complete cliché?" Liam asks, and Zayn laughs.

"Maybe," he says, letting go of Liam so he can light another spliff. "But, like, what isn't? We sang all those pop songs, babe. Nothing new under the sun."

That makes Liam smile, and when he takes another drag he can feel the high start to settle in; it won't fix anything, but it does make him feel better, untethered, like the weight of Charlie leaving isn't holding him down.

"Can I ask you something?" Zayn asks, after they've smoked a bit more.

"Yeah, of course," Liam says, "anything, bro, you know that."

"Mmm," Zayn says, passing him the spliff, and then he says, "Did you and Charlie break up because of Louis?"

Liam freezes; for a moment he can't move, and he can't think, and then the end of the spliff burns his fingers. "Ow, fuck," he says, dropping it. He stamps out the smoldering end with the toe of his boot and sucks his fingers into his mouth. "What?" he asks, once his fingers seem alright and he can speak again.

Zayn leans over and picks the butt up off the ground, putting it carefully in the ashtray. "I'm sorry," Liam says, wincing. He's still reeling. "I—what are you talking about?"

Zayn makes a humming noise, and then sighs. "Look, I never said anything, because it wasn't my business, and you were—well, it seemed like you were handling it pretty well, all things considered. But I know you've been a bit gone on Louis for a long time."

Liam stares at him, aghast. "How do you know?" Zayn raises his eyebrows meaningfully. "Oh," Liam says belatedly. "Shit." There goes any hope he might have had of keeping it a secret from Zayn. Then a worse thought occurs to him. "Does everybody know?"

"When will you learn that I know everything, Liam?" Zayn says dryly, but he gives Liam a reassuring smile. "I don't think anyone else knows—I know Louis doesn't, and none of the rest of us have ever talked about it, or anything like that." Liam lets out a breath he hadn't realised he was holding. "But I noticed." Zayn shrugs, and nudges his foot against Liam's ankle. "So?"

"We didn't break up because of Louis," Liam says, which is true—at least, he thought it was. "Why—" He trails off, looking quizzically at Zayn. He feels a bit fuzzy, and he's not sure if it's the weed or the conversation.

Zayn shrugs again, looking a little self-conscious. "I just wondered," he says. "If, like, your feelings for Lou—got in the way."

Liam shakes his head slowly. He loved Charlie. He still loves Charlie, but more than anything else, he's sad. The hard truth—the thing he doesn't want to admit, even to himself—is that as much as he misses Charlie, what hurts most is the loss of something he'd thought was going to work. He thought he had it figured it out; he thought he could have what he wanted—a partner, a family, a home, something that would last. What his parents have, and Zayn and Perrie, and Lou and El. It's not about Louis. It's that with Charlie, Liam wanted the idea more than he wanted the person.

"No," he says to Zayn. "It's—it was a lot of things, but not that."

"Okay," Zayn says. He studies Liam for a minute, and then leans in and hugs him. "I love you, bro," he says. "You'll be alright."

Liam hugs him back. "Thanks," he says, a little shakily. "I love you, too." Liam knows he'll be alright, eventually; it's okay, not to have everything he wants. He's already been unbelievably lucky, already got to have the band—the one thing he wanted more than anything else in the world. It's just selfish to want more than that.

 

LOUIS
February, 2025

Harry and Taylor meet him at the airport, which is sort of a surprise. "Are you two public, now?" Louis asks, a bit tartly. It's a miserable flight from Heathrow to LAX, and he feels twitchy from sitting too long, tired from hours in the air. He already misses London. The sun is too bright in L.A., and everyone is tanned and plastic, wearing sandals and sunglasses; Louis's had to put his own sunglasses on already, in defence against both the people and the sun.

Harry shrugs, and takes Louis's suitcase. "Hard to say." He glances at Taylor, his smile soft and private. "We might still be flying under the radar."

"Huh," Louis says. "Weird."

Taylor holds her hand out for Louis to shake, which is oddly endearing; they've met loads of times before, but they've never been close—there was never really a chance. "It's nice to see you, Louis," she says. "I thought I'd come along and keep Harry from driving you anywhere."

"Hey," Harry says crossly, but Louis laughs, and he and Taylor share a grin. Louis thinks bonding over Harry's horrible driving is probably a good place to start. Taylor picks up Louis's other bag and then tucks her free hand into Harry's, leaving Louis with just his phone and his extremely unnecessary jacket.

Louis follows them to the car park; it's a bit like a reversal of December in London: Harry's smiling and cheerful, joking about something with Taylor, and shooting worried glances at Louis when he thinks Louis isn't looking. Louis unlocks his phone and texts Liam: Harry looks so happy I dont even want to make fun of him. Help I think los angeles has already turned me into robot person.

Liam texts back immediately: oh nooooooooooo come back right now, and then on the heels of that, Glad you made it safe hug Harry for meeee x.

Louis stares at the x for a minute, which is ridiculous, because he and Liam have been closing texts with x's for as long as they've known each other. Ninety percent of the people Louis knows close texts that way—it doesn't mean anything, and one meaningless letter should not have him remembering the taste of Liam's mouth in vivid detail in the middle of a car park in Los Angeles.

"This is us," Harry says, interrupting Louis's frankly inappropriate thoughts. Louis takes a deep breath and shoves his phone back in his pocket and dodges Harry's eyes. "We thought we'd stop for burgers on the way home," Harry adds. He still sounds cheerful, but a bit tentative.

"Do you even have burgers in L.A.?" Louis asks, summoning up his bravado and helping Harry stow his bags in the boot while Taylor starts the car. "I thought it was all posh organic vegetables I've never heard of, and those restaurants that only serve one thing." Louis has actually been to L.A. before, so he knows he's talking rubbish, but it's the principle of the thing.

Harry rolls his eyes. "We'll show you," he threatens, which is about as menacing as a kitten. "Get in the bloody car." Louis grins, but he does as he's told. They're his lift, after all, and he was promised burgers.

*

Louis wakes up on his second morning in L.A. when Harry crawls into bed with him.

"What," he mumbles, putting a hand over Harry's face and pushing him away; he doesn't want Harry's cold nose in his ear. "Go away."

"No," Harry says, burrowing into Louis's side and pulling the duvet up over them. "Taylor went to her ballet lesson, and I want a cuddle."

"Oh my god," Louis says. "This is why I never come to L.A." He reaches over Harry for a pillow to hit him with, and ends up with both arms around him instead. "You're a menace, Styles," he grumbles, but Harry is soft and warm, made up entirely of familiar angles, and Louis sighs into his hair and relaxes. "I'll get you back for this later," he threatens, not very convincingly. Harry makes a happy humming noise against his neck.

"You and Taylor seem really happy," Louis says quietly, after a while. "I'm still going to tease you about this forever, obviously, but I'm so chuffed for you."

Louis can feel Harry's smile. "Thanks," he says softly. "I—thank you, Lou. That means a lot." He squeezes Louis's hip. "It's not anything I ever expected, but I feel so lucky."

"How did it happen, anyway?" Louis asks, curious.

"Mmm," Harry says. "It's a long story, and you should really ask Taylor, if you want to know why she thought I was worth a second chance. Sometimes I think I'm just along for the ride."

Louis laughs. "I bet you love that."

"You know," Harry says, lifting his head so he can grin at Louis, wide and genuine. "I really do."

"You don't mind that she won't marry you?" Louis asks. It had surprised him, the way Harry had brushed that off; no one would call Harry a traditionalist, but Louis had always sort of expected him to turn thirty and immediately get married and have seventeen children.

"Not really," Harry says, putting his head back down on the pillow next to Louis's. "She wants to do everything else—settle down, live together, be co-parents." Co-parents, Louis thinks, trying not to laugh; it sounds like a completely ordinary word when Harry says it, not ridiculous at all. "She says marriage is an antiquated patriarchal institution, and you know, I think she's right? Weddings are nice and all, but we don't need one." He hesitates, just long enough that Louis pushes himself up on his elbows, frowning.

"What?" Louis demands. "You're worrying about something. What is it?"

Harry sighs, and shakes his head a little on the pillow. "I'm honestly fine with not getting married. It's just that we haven't decided where we're going to live."

Louis blinks, surprised, and settles back down. "Not here?"

"I don't think so," Harry says. "Neither of us really wants to raise a kid in L.A." He pauses, and then shrugs. "I've lived here for a long time; I might be ready for a change."

"Huh," Louis says. He's not going to get his hopes up, but—

"The thing is," Harry says suddenly, talking much faster than he usually does, "I want my kid to grow up in London. I want to be closer to my parents, and Gem, and all of you, and—" Harry shifts closer, curling into Louis and moving his head to rest on Louis's chest. "I want to come home, and I want Taylor to come with me. But I don't know if she wants to."

Louis remembers, vaguely, that Taylor usually lives in New York. "Do you think she wants to live somewhere else? New York, or—"

"I don't know," Harry says, sounding a little miserable.

"Well," Louis says slowly, even though it's got to be a stupid question, "have you asked her?" Harry shakes his head. "Harry," Louis says, sitting up and dislodging Harry. "Ask her."

"What if she says no?" Harry asks, in a very small voice.

Louis gives Harry a sharp, serious look. "Then you'll talk about it more, and find something that makes you both happy. She's your partner, love—your girlfriend, or your co-parent, or whatever you want to call it; the point is that she's worth it, and she thinks you're worth it, and you'll work it out together."

Harry is quiet for a moment, looking up at Louis. "You give pretty good advice for someone who has so completely fucked up his own life," he says eventually.

"Fuck you," Louis says, without very much heat.

Harry tugs him back down into another cuddle. "Oh, Lou," he sighs. "You should take your own advice, you know that?"

Louis shakes his head, but he lets Harry wrap his arms around him. "I don't know how," he says quietly, nearly a whisper. "He's worth it, but what if I make it worse? What if I talk to him, and then we can't come back from that? It's already—I have to fix it, not keep fucking it up."

"I know," Harry says. "But what if you make it better?"

Louis sighs, and tucks his face into Harry's shoulder. "That way lies madness, Haz," he says. "Let it be."

Loud enough to be utterly obnoxious, Harry starts singing The Beatles' Let It Be. Louis sits back up and grabs a pillow, and commences beating Harry with it until he's laughing too hard to sing.

*

"So let me get this straight," Taylor says, propping her elbows on the breakfast bar. "You made out with him the same day you signed your divorce papers?"

"That sounds so sordid," Louis says, reaching for the biscuits. They've got chocolate and peanut butter bits in them, and they're kind of amazing. Taylor pulls the plate out of his reach, and fixes him with a look that makes him shrink back a little and fold his hands carefully on top of the bar.

"It sounds like a rebound," Taylor says, raising her perfect eyebrows. She's wearing one of Harry's shirts and a pair of cutoff shorts that might be older than Louis, and she still looks like a movie star. "I mean, we've all been there, but it's not a very nice thing to do to a friend."

Louis can feel himself starting to get angry, but he doesn't want to shout at Taylor; he likes her, and the truth is that she probably knows more about this than he does. "I don't—" he starts, and then stops, frustrated. He doesn't know how to say this. "Maybe it is," he says, "but, like—it's Liam. He's one of the most important people in my life."

"Mmm," Taylor hums. "All the more reason not to rebound on him, in that case."

"I suppose," Louis says, "but I don't know if I could. He's not temporary; anything I feel about Liam—it's permanent." The idea of rebounding suggests that he would bounce back off Liam when he was done, and he can't imagine that; Liam's too much of a stable force in his world, too solid, too magnetic.

Taylor studies him, looking thoughtful. "What do you feel about him?"

"Everything," Louis says, a little helplessly. "He's my best friend. I want him to be happy more than almost anything else in the world."

It feels good to say it out loud, at least until Taylor says mildly, "And you want to be the one to make him happy."

"I don't have to be," Louis says quickly, but it sounds unconvincing even to him. "I mean—it could be somebody else. Or if he's really happy on his own, then—" He knows Liam's not happy on his own. "It doesn't have to me," he repeats, and then, quieter, "I don't think it can be. I'm not—I don't think I'm what he wants, at least not anymore."

Taylor leans her chin on her hand. "That sounds like some star-crossed bullshit to me," she says bluntly. Louis stares at her, and she rolls her eyes. "Listen, I'm not saying things don't happen like that, because they do—we've both written a thousand songs about it, haven't we?—but sometimes life's not really that complicated. Have you told him how you feel?"

"I—not really," Louis admits. "We had a bit of an argument, and I said some stuff, but it wasn't—I don't know." It doesn't help that he's still not sure if he can trust his feelings. "How do I know if my feelings are real?"

"How does anyone know anything's real?" Taylor asks philosophically, sounding as whimsical as Harry; they really are appalling well-suited. "Are you in love with him?"

Louis has only ever been in love with one other person, and it didn't feel like this; but Eleanor and Liam are very different. There's no reason that the way he felt about Eleanor should be the way he feels about Liam, and the things that are the same—the unwavering desire to make the other person happy, the certainty that he wants to see him every day for the rest of his life, the comfort and stability and safety and feeling of home, the way he wants to kiss Liam and never stop—those things make him think, maybe. "I might be," he says quietly, studying his hands.

Taylor pushes the plate of biscuits back across the counter. "Have a cookie." Louis takes one. It's crispy around the edges and gooey in the middle, and tastes like a miracle. "You should tell him," Taylor continues, while he has his mouth full. "Didn't you say he used to be in love with you, and never told you?"

Louis swallows with difficulty, and nods. "Yes, but—"

"No but," Taylor says firmly. "I don't know Liam very well, but he's always seemed like a really good guy."

"He's the best," Louis says sharply. "He's the best person I know."

Taylor raises her eyebrows, looking almost amused. "So he deserves to hear the truth, don't you think?" She says it sweetly, but it's the kind of tone that can't be argued with, that's the last nail in the coffin of any argument Louis might have made. He doesn't think he wants to argue with her, though; he thinks he might just be afraid. Maybe Taylor sees that in his face, because she adds, "Even if he doesn't want to be with you forever, it seems clear that he loves you. If you both put all your cards on the table and don't hold anything back—" She gives a little shrug, her smile turning warm. "Whatever happens, even if it doesn't work out perfectly, at least you'll know you did the best you could."

Louis takes another biscuit and chews it slowly, thinking about that. He doesn't think of himself as a very brave person, not like Liam is; he's fiercely protective of the people he loves, but that's different than being brave. Louis will take the easier road, most of the time, when it's available to him, and he's never regretted that. But Liam deserves bravery; Liam deserves Louis to stand up and tell him the truth, and bear the consequences.

"Can I ask you something?" he asks Taylor.

"Sure," Taylor says.

"Harry wouldn't tell me the story, of how you two got back together. He said I should ask you."

"Ah." Taylor eats a biscuit contemplatively, licking crumbs off her fingers. "We always stayed friendly," she says finally. "We never really lost touch, even though it was hard for a while, and things were so crazy. After you guys stopped touring and he moved here for real, we started getting together whenever I was in L.A., and whenever he came to New York. By that point, enough had changed for both of us that we weren't getting stalked by paps every minute of the day, so it was easier to be friends." She pauses, looking almost lost in the memories. "And then at Ed's wedding, I just thought—so many of the things that messed us up the last time weren't there anymore, and we still liked each other so much, and we'd both grown up. I thought, I'll always regret not giving us another chance."

"And here you are," Louis says softly.

Taylor gives him a dazzling smile. "Here we are."

"So much for Never Ever Getting Back Together," Louis says dryly, trying to recuperate some of his edge.

"Oh please," Taylor says, rolling her eyes. "People grow up, Louis. Things change, and sometimes songs are just songs. You should know that better than most people."

Louis makes a face, but he's sufficiently chastened. "I do," he says. "Sorry."

She gives a delicate, unconcerned shrug, letting it wash right off her like it was nothing, and Louis remembers suddenly that Taylor has been through more than him and Harry and Liam and Niall and Zayn all put together. She's written her whole life into her music, given herself up to her fans, and somehow she's still strong and real and bright and genuine; and she did it all by herself. "Do you do this a lot?" he asks, and when she tilts her head questioningly, he clarifies, "Give romantic advice, I mean."

Taylor laughs. "So much," she says, grinning. "You wouldn't think so, right? All those songs about being a psycho ex, and yet."

Louis shakes his head. "No, I mean—I actually just wanted to say thank you."

"You're welcome," Taylor says easily, and hands him another biscuit. Louis hopes this is the start of a beautiful friendship.

*

Louis works from L.A., because he really can't leave London for an indefinite period of time and not keep working. He goes to meetings, and has lunch with producers and musicians and label executives, and works remotely on his laptop at Harry's dining room table, or in his basement studio. One of the better parts of his first two weeks in L.A. is that Julian is around, so Louis gets to spend a couple of days with him, smoking up on his back porch and messing about with a few of the new songs he's working on.

He and Liam email several times a day. Most of the time it's about work, but Louis finds himself telling Liam about Taylor's cats, and Harry's new obsession with water aerobics—water aerobics, for fuck's sake, like he's somebody's nan—and the ridiculous L.A. weather, and having to wait in the queue at Starbucks for nearly an hour. Liam writes back about how his assistant bought him a cactus for his office—maybe I won't kill this one??, he writes, followed by the embarrassed monkey emoji—and taking Mahina and Zaf to the zoo, and a thousand other tiny ordinary things that Louis wishes he was there to see. He misses Liam acutely, but despite Taylor's advice and Harry's worried glances, Louis isn't quite ready to go home.

At the end of the third week, Harry drags Louis out to see a new musician at a tiny club in West Hollywood. "I told you about her on the phone," he says excitedly, as they order drinks at the bar and then find a place to stand. "She's so great, Lou. She's like if Zayn and Perrie had a baby—"

"Zayn and Perrie actually have two babies," Louis puts in mildly.

Harry rolls his eyes. "If their voices had a baby," he says, "with Liam's work ethic, and your sense of humour, and Niall's charm."

Louis raises his eyebrows. "This is starting to sound a bit kinky. Where were you during this scenario?"

Harry makes a face, and then looks thoughtful, and then starts to smile. "She does strut around on stage quite a bit?"

"Hmm," Louis says. "But how often does she fall over?"

"Hey," Harry protests, but the band comes out on stage before he can say anything else.

Bellatrix—"Like in Harry Potter?" Louis asks sceptically. "She's actually called Natalie," Harry says, with a shrug. "But I like Bellatrix. Why shouldn't I call her by her stage name?"—has a spectacular voice, deep and rich and resonant, and an even more spectacular range. Her band isn't bad either—the drummer's a girl with orange hair, and her guitarist does backup vocals with a voice that's nearly as good as Bellatrix's—and the songs are complicated and interesting and extremely catchy. Louis actually gets a bit lost in the music, which almost never happens; usually when he sees unsigned artists he's already thinking about whether they would fit the label and how he would market them, calculating odds and counting variables, but Bellatrix's voice draws him in and doesn't let him go. Harry was right about the strutting, but what he didn't mention is that she also has his charisma. Her performance is the kind that's nearly impossible to look away from, and leaves you feeling bereft once it's over.

"She's phenomenal," he tells Harry, afterwards.

"Told you," Harry says smugly, and drags Louis backstage to meet the band.

*

Louis finishes writing a long email to Liam about Bellatrix and her band, and then goes out to the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea before bed. From the kitchen, he can see Harry and Taylor on the sofa in the living room. Taylor's sat half on Harry's lap, her long legs folded over him, and Harry has his arms around her, one hand resting lightly on her stomach. While Louis watches, Harry says something that makes Taylor laugh and duck her head to kiss him. Louis looks at Harry's hand in Taylor's hair while they kiss, and misses Liam so much that his chest aches.

miss you, he texts Liam, before he can second guess himself too much. Wish you were here x.

miss you tooooooo, Liam texts back five minutes later, when Louis is back in his bedroom with his tea.

Louis thinks about calling, but he's not ready. Instead, he puts his phone down on the bedside table and turns out the light. Soon, he thinks, as he falls asleep. Soon.

*

He's lying on a patio chair by the pool, soaking up the late afternoon sunshine, when his phone rings. Louis frowns down at Liam's face for a moment—it's got to be after midnight in London. "Hi," he says into the phone. "You're up a bit late, aren't you?" Liam doesn't say anything, and Louis sits up quickly, starting to get worried. "Liam? Is everything okay? What's wrong?"

There's a breathy sigh on the other end of the line, and then Liam says, "I missed your voice." Louis goes very still. "Went out with Niall tonight," Liam continues. "I know I've had a bit too much to drink, but I couldn't—Niall went home, and you aren't here to take away my phone."

"Did you go on twitter?" Louis asks, a little lost. Now that Liam's talking, Louis can tell that he's drunk. Liam doesn't slur when he's drunk, but he does get more rambling than usual, and he tends to tell people repeatedly just how much he's had to drink.

Liam laughs, but it sounds breathless and bitter. "No," he says, "not twitter. I called you. I shouldn't have called you, but now I have, and you're miles away in L.A., so I still have my phone. I should've left my phone somewhere, or given it to Niall. I promised I wouldn't—"

"Liam," Louis says slowly, "why shouldn't you have called me?"

"Oh," Liam says. "Because I lied."

"You mean about how you used to fancy me?" Louis asks, trying to keep his voice light. "I understand why you didn't tell me. It's alright; I don't love that you did it, but I do understand."

There's a rustling sound on the phone, like Liam is shaking his head. "Not about that," Liam says. "I said I was over you."

Louis feels suddenly winded, and he can hear his pulse in his ears, his heart pounding. "Liam—" he says finally, his voice breaking on Liam's name.

Liam makes a wretched, miserable-sounding noise. "Fuck," he says, and then, "Why do I still have my fucking phone? Lou. Why aren't you here?"

"I don't know," Louis says. He has no idea why he's not there. Why did he think coming to L.A. was a good idea? There's a whole continent and an ocean between him and Liam.

"When I said I got over you," Liam says, like an oncoming train, "I meant—I did stop having feelings, but then I started again. You moved in with me, and everything I felt—everything I feel—I don't know if it ever properly went away." Louis's fingers are clenched around his phone; it feels like the whole world has faded away to nothing, and all that's left is Liam's voice on the other end of the line.

"I—" he starts, trying to find words.

Liam makes a noise that's somewhere between a sob and a laugh. "I'm sorry," he says. "I know you don't—I wasn't going to call. I promised myself that I wouldn't say anything."

"No," Louis says, "I do—"

"It's alright," Liam says, cutting him off. "I know I can't have everything. I'm sorry, Lou, I shouldn't have—just come home, alright? Come home soon. I love you."

"Liam," Louis whispers; his voice is stuck in his throat, and he doesn't know how to get Liam to listen to him.

"Goodnight, Lou," Liam says sadly, and then he's hanging up the phone.

Louis stares at his phone, and then out at the pool and the patio, the sun starting to set behind the hills; he wonders if this is what it feels like to get hit by a bus. "Fuck," he says out loud, to his phone and the patio chair and the beer bottle sweating on the table beside him, and then he gets up and goes to find Harry to drive him to the airport.

 

LIAM
April, 2016

Louis's been in one of his moods for the last few days, twitchy and difficult. Paul's been looking harried, and Harry's gone into hiding, and even Zayn has told Louis to kindly fuck off. Liam seems to be the only one who doesn't mind Louis like this—and he's not sure why, exactly, since Louis used to drive him utterly mad, back when they started on X Factor. But that was a long time ago; these days, Louis's dangerous smile just makes Liam feel ready for the next adventure, the next hair-brained scheme that will either go spectacularly to hell, or be the greatest thing they've ever done. It's about even odds on which, but Liam's money is always on Louis.

"Earth to Liam," Louis says, elbowing him hard in the side. "I need you to hold this wrench. I've got my hands full with the superglue and the custard."

"Sorry," Liam says sheepishly. "I got a bit distracted. What are we doing?"

"Pranking the sound techs," Louis says, rolling his eyes, "obviously. Now come along." Liam grins at him, and does as he's told.

*

On stage that night, flush with the victory of a well-executed prank, Louis is on fire. He steals Liam's microphone, and gropes his arse, and conspires with Niall to tackle him and sit on his face, right in the middle of Steal My Girl. Louis is all over Liam—and Zayn and Niall, too, but mostly Liam—glittering and bright and wild. It's one of their best shows of the tour so far—it's so fantastic, in fact, that it takes Liam a long time to come down from the high, after the show. He's got an early session with Mark the next day, and he knows he needs to sleep, but he can't seem to wind down. He spends some time on twitter talking to fans, but when he gets bored of that and tries to watch something on the telly, everything he finds is in German. It's too late to call Sophia, and he doesn't want to bother the lads in the middle of the night, so eventually he gets undressed and gets into bed, in the desperate hope that going to bed will mean falling asleep.

He strokes his dick a bit under the duvet, not really thinking about anything. He's still replaying the show in his head, the cheers of the crowd and the way Louis was everywhere, a smirking, glorious whirlwind. Louis looked at him across the stage the same way he looked at him that afternoon, when they were pranking the sound techs—that look that's just for Liam, a challenge and a test and an invitation to be in on the joke. Liam loves Louis like that, even when he drives everyone else a bit mad; there's something about him that makes Liam excited, that make his pulse quicken and his cheeks flush.

He's proper wanking now, his dick all the way hard in his hand. He rubs his thumb over his foreskin, and then down along his cock, and then he tightens his fist and goes for it, quick and a little rough. He's still thinking about Louis, and before he can stop himself, or even start to question why he's doing it, he's thinking about Louis at different times, not just tonight: fresh out of the shower, or curled up on the bus, or sitting on Liam's lap in interviews, or giving Liam's dick a friendly squeeze in passing—Liam's hand speeds up, and then he's just seeing Louis's face, his cheekbones and his mouth and his bright blue eyes. Come on, Liam, Louis says in his head, impatient and teasing and fond, and Liam comes harder than he has in ages.

Oh, he thinks, shaking, with Louis's voice still ringing in his head. Shit.

 

LOUIS
March, 2025

By the time Louis lets himself into the flat, he's running almost entirely on adrenaline. He's been on a plane for ten hours, and even though he slept on the plane, it was aeroplane sleep—fragmentary, and uncomfortable, and not especially restful, even in the first class cabin; he hasn't been able to stop thinking about Liam.

Liam must hear the door, because he comes out of his bedroom before Louis can go looking for him. He's barefoot, and wearing tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt that definitely belongs to Louis, because it's too small on Liam, tight through the shoulders and chest. He doesn't look too awfully hungover, but it is after midday, so maybe he's kicked the worst of it; Louis was in the air for a long time. When he sees Louis, he freezes right in the middle of the hallway.

"Hi," Louis says.

"You came home," Liam breathes.

Louis smiles tentatively. "Said I would, didn't I?"

"Yeah, but—" Liam starts, and then stops. He shakes his head quickly, like he's trying to clear it, and takes a few steps towards Louis. He looks hesitant, uncertain of his welcome, but as soon as he's close enough to hug, Louis throws his arms around him. Liam lets out a shaky breath and hugs him back.

With his arms around Liam's neck and his face pressed into Liam's shoulder, Louis can feel how unsteady Liam's breathing is; but Liam's arms around him are tight and familiar, and he smells like home. Louis wants to kiss him, but they've got some things to talk about first. "I could murder a cup of tea," he says to Liam's collarbone.

"Yeah," Liam agrees, and lets go of him. "Come on, then. I'll make the tea this time."

Louis leaves his bags in the hall and follows Liam into the kitchen. He leans against the kitchen island and watches as Liam switches the kettle on, and gets out mugs and tea and milk and sugar. "So here's the thing," he says to Liam's back, "I think there are a few things we need to clear up."

He can see Liam tense, his shoulders tightening. "Hey," Louis says gently. "I love you, alright? That's thing number one."

"I know that," Liam says. He doesn't turn around, even though there's nothing left for him to do; they're just waiting for the kettle to boil.

"I may also be in love with you," Louis says, "which is thing number two."

Liam still doesn't turn around, but he does brace himself on the counter, his fingers white-knuckled where they grip the edge of the kitchen sink. "You're not," he says. "I know you love me, Lou, and maybe you want me a bit, but it's not—"

"Liam," Louis says sharply. "I've spent the last few weeks thinking about this very seriously, and I'd like you to listen to me for a moment. Can you do that?"

Liam bows his head. Louis stares at the arch of his neck until Liam says, very quietly, "Alright."

Louis takes a deep breath and then lets it out; time to be brave. "You're not a rebound," he says. "Rebounds are temporary, and nothing about you is temporary to me. You're the most important person in my life. I loved Eleanor, but even when I was with her, even when we were at our best, I missed you. I didn't know how much I missed you, and then we were living together, and I got to see you every morning, and every night, and I never got tired of you. I never wanted to be anywhere else. I don't want to be anywhere else." He pauses, collecting his thoughts, and then goes on. "I was jealous, and it is because I want you to myself. But I also know you haven't been happy like this—I know it, Liam. Tell me I'm wrong."

Liam sighs, and then shakes his head. "You're not wrong."

"Okay." Louis breathes out on a sigh that's almost an echo of Liam's. "So. I want you to be happy. I want you to have everything. When I was in L.A., I kept thinking about how I wanted to be the one to give you everything. Only I knew you didn't want me—at least, not anymore. That made sense, because how could I possibly be enough to make you happy? You deserve better than me. You deserve the world."

At that, Liam finally turns around. His eyes are wide and dark, and he looks almost angry. "There isn't anyone better than you."

Louis blinks, shocked out of his speech. "I—what?"

"There isn't anyone better than you," Liam repeats firmly. "Not for me." His cheeks are pink, and Louis can't stop looking at them, at the flush along his cheekbones and across the bridge of his nose. "I said this on the phone, I suppose, but—I never really stopped. Being in love with you, I mean."

Somewhere, distantly, the kettle clicks off. Louis can't bring himself to care. "It's taken me some time to catch up," he says, meeting Liam's eyes and holding his ground, "but I don't think I can stop being in love with you either."

"Oh." Liam's voice is very soft. They stare at each other, and Louis doesn't know about Liam, but he's not sure that he's breathing; for all that, though, the three feet between them might as well be the bloody ocean.

"For fuck's sake, Liam," Louis says finally, tried to the limits of this patience, "are you just going to stand all the way over there?"

Liam makes a noise that's almost a laugh, and then he smiles slowly and shakes his head. He's still smiling when he steps forward and kisses Louis. Louis can feel his smile while they kiss, the curve of his lips as he traces his tongue over them, licking into Liam's mouth. The kiss is a little dizzying; Liam presses himself all along Louis's front, but his hands are hesitant and tentative at Louis's waist. Liam's still holding back, Louis thinks, so he slides his hands up under the too-small t-shirt and tugs it off over his head. Liam looks a little surprised, but he shivers when Louis flattens his hands on his bare chest and tweaks his nipples.

"Don't hold back," Louis says. "You must have, like, years of fantasies." It doesn't come out sounding quite as dirty and daring as he would like, because once Louis starts thinking about Liam's years of fantasies, he starts to feel a bit desperate and overwhelmed.

But Liam still flushes, colour washing down his chest. "I trained myself not to think about you," he says quietly. "I've got fantasies, but—resisting you is a hard habit to break."

That makes Louis feel hot all over; he can feel himself blushing under Liam's intent gaze, but he pushes Liam back a little so that he can take off his hoodie and top, and then he raises his eyebrows in a challenge. "It takes three weeks to break a habit, so we'd better get started."

"God," Liam says, laughing a little, "you're so—" He sounds awed.

"What?" Louis demands.

"You," Liam says, and kisses him again. This time, he cups one hand around the back of Louis's neck, and strokes the other hand down his side to his hip. Louis kisses him hard, deep and open-mouthed. The steady pressure of Liam's hand on the back of his neck has him pushing forward, spreading his legs so that Liam can step between them. He wraps one leg around Liam's, leaning his weight half on Liam and half on the island at his back. He can feel Liam's dick against his thigh, and when the hand on his hip curves around to his arse, Louis groans into Liam's mouth.

"Fuck," Liam says distinctly, pulling out of the kiss. He's breathing hard, and he leans his forehead against Louis's for a moment. Louis slides his hands down Liam's back, pushing his fingers under the waistband of his trackies. "Right," Liam says firmly, and lifts Louis up onto the kitchen island.

"Oh," Louis gasps, all the breath going out of him in a rush. Sat on the counter, he looks down at Liam and raises his eyebrows again. He can't decide which part he likes more—Liam manhandling him, or the new and unexpected height. Liam slides his hands slowly up Louis's thighs, parting them. When Louis follows Liam's gaze, he can see that his cock is tenting his tracksuit bottoms a bit obscenely. "Um," he says, "Well, I—"

Liam glances up at Louis, looking so wicked and beautiful that Louis has to reach out and cup his cheek, rubbing his thumb over Liam's mouth. Liam turns his face into Louis's hand and kisses his palm. "Kitchen floor's a bit hard," he says, with a smile. "I needed a better angle." He tugs at Louis's trackies. Louis lifts his hips to help, and Liam pulls them down, right along with his underwear; Louis's dick bobs free, hard against his bare stomach.

"You don't, um," Louis says, which is probably the stupidest thing he's ever said; sure enough, Liam rolls his eyes.

"You asked about my fantasies," Liam points out, wrapping his hand around Louis's dick. "Here's one I've been thinking about for a long time, alright?"

Louis laughs breathlessly. "What, blowing me on the kitchen island?"

"Just blowing you," Liam says, and lowers his head, sucking Louis's cock into his mouth.

Liam's mouth is warm and wide, and he doesn't try to take too much at once, but he's very good at this. Louis tries to feel thankful to those who have gone before him, rather than horrifically jealous of every single other person that Liam has ever been with; then Liam flicks his tongue over the head of Louis's cock and Louis forgets that there are even other people in the world. Liam sucks Louis's dick slowly, using his lips and his tongue and his hand around the base; but after a while he makes a low, desperate-sounding noise, and takes Louis the rest of the way down his throat. Louis groans, shocked and hot and frantic, and his elbows abruptly give out. He falls back onto the counter, hips jerking up involuntarily into Liam's mouth.

Liam pulls off him, coughing and grinning. "Jesus," he says, his voice low and raspy, and quite possibly the hottest thing Louis has ever heard. "Stay down, Lou."

"Make me," Louis says, dazed. "Fuck, Liam—"

"Yeah," Liam says huskily. He presses Louis down to the counter with one hand on his chest and the other on his hip, and swallows him back down.

Louis clings to the edge of the counter with one hand, and tangles his other hand in Liam's hair. Liam hums his approval around Louis's dick, and sucks harder. "Fuck," Louis groans, utterly overwhelmed; he loses track, after that, in the warmth of Liam's mouth and the pressure of his hands, until he's gasping out a warning and coming hard down Liam's throat. Liam swallows, and then pulls off and rests his head on Louis's hip, breathing hard.

"Jesus Christ, Liam," Louis says shakily, after a moment. He props himself up on one elbow; his other hand is still in Liam's hair.

Liam makes a soft noise against his hip. "I—" he starts. He sounds rough, and not just from sucking cock. "God, Louis, I never thought—"

"Shh," Louis says, tugging gently on Liam's hair. "It's my turn."

"Well," Liam says, sounding a bit chagrined. "Yes, but—it's going to be over in about ten seconds."

"So we'll do it again," Louis says, and slides off the island. Liam straightens, catching him, but they're both a little unsteady on their feet and they stumble back against the counter while Louis tries to get his hands into Liam's pants. He manages it eventually; Liam is pressed against him, one hand braced behind Louis on the counter and his head down on Louis's shoulder. His dick is hard and leaking. Louis is going to get a proper look at it later, when he can take his time, but right now he just grips Liam's arse with one hand and his dick with the other, and wanks him off quick and fast and dirty, until Liam is shuddering and coming in his arms.

Liam groans against his neck, and Louis holds him until he stops shaking, and then keeps holding him because there's no reason to stop. "Don't take this the wrong way, Lou," Liam says finally, "but this is not what I was expecting when I got up this morning."

Louis laughs a little. "I was," he says, and then, more truthfully, "Well, no, but I was hoping. I was already on the plane, so—" He stops, and then starts laughing properly, relief and happiness and exhaustion and a bit of hysteria. "Fuck, Liam, I was on a plane. I probably smell like a plane. I've been awake for hours."

Liam hugs him tighter. "You smell wonderful," he says firmly, probably with more affection than truth. "But, um—" He pulls away, just far enough that they can look at each other. Louis studies him. Liam's mouth is very red, and his eyes are dark and shining. His happiness looks tentative, though, and fragile, and overpowering; Louis wants to keep him like this forever, for as long as it takes to make Liam believe that he's loved, and then for longer. "I didn't sleep that well, either," Liam says, after a moment. "Come to bed?"

"Yeah," Louis says. He smiles. "Yeah, let's do that."

*

This time when Louis wakes up in Liam's bed, Liam is spooned up against his back with his arms around him. Louis stretches, pressing back into him, and Liam makes a soft noise, his hands flexing on Louis's chest and hip. Louis can feel Liam's dick, half-hard against his arse. "Hey," he murmurs. "What time is it?"

"Mmm," Liam says, but then he squeezes Louis's hip and rolls over to look at the clock. Louis moves with him, shifting over onto his back. "Half five," Liam says, and turns back towards Louis. "D'you want to get up? Niall's still around, and I was supposed to go round to his for dinner."

Louis looks at Liam; his hair is a tousled mess of curls, and he has pillow creases on his cheek, and his mouth is red and bruised from kisses. "I am extremely fond of Niall," Louis says, "but I do not want to get up. I would much rather stay in this bed with you for as long as possible."

"Oh," Liam murmurs, with a small smile. "Won't we get hungry eventually?"

"Details," Louis says dismissively, waving his hand.

Liam's smile widens, looking cautiously delighted, and Louis rolls up onto his side, leaning in to kiss him. He tastes a little like sleep, but not unpleasant, and he kisses Louis back with flattering intensity. Louis is breathing hard by the time they part, and Liam's hands seem like they're everywhere, touching him all over.

"What, um," Liam asks, low and a little rough. "What else do you want?"

Louis slides his hand down until he can wrap his fingers loosely around Liam's dick. "I'd quite like for you to fuck me," he says.

Liam's eyes widen. "I—oh. Really?"

Louis tightens his hand on Liam's dick, sliding his thumb up and over the head. Liam's dick is hardening steadily in his hand, and it feels amazing. "Yes, obviously," he says, a little impatiently. "I want everything with you, and right now I want you to fuck me. Is that a problem?"

"God," Liam breathes. "I—no, it's not a problem. This is just going to take some getting used to, I suppose." He shakes his head helplessly, like he's not sure what to say.

Louis kisses him again. "I know I haven't been here as long as you," he says quietly, when he pulls back. "But I've got fantasies, too. They might be a bit newer, and it still seems like a miracle to me that you want me at all, but—"

"I want you," Liam says, kissing him. "Just—" He smiles, sweet and hesitant and hot. "Just keep telling me what you want?"

"Fuck," Louis breathes, pressing his face into Liam's shoulder. "Okay. I can do that." He takes a shuddery breath, and squeezes his hand on Liam's cock before letting go. "Fuck me, Liam."

Liam slides his hands down Louis's back and cups his arse. "Yes," he says. Louis presses back into Liam's hands, and forward into Liam's body—his broad chest and his hips and his thighs and his dick—until Liam swears under his breath and pushes Louis onto his back and crawls on top of him, kicking the duvet down to their feet.

Louis grins up at him, breath coming a little too fast; Liam is pressing him down into the bed, hands braced on either side of Louis's shoulders. "Get the lube, you knob," Louis says, laughing a little. "What are you waiting for?"

Liam leans down to kiss him, slow and dirty, which is so thoroughly distracting that Louis doesn't even hear him opening the drawer of the bedside table; and then Liam sits back on his heels with a tube of lube in his hand. He sets a whole strip of condoms down on the bedside table, which makes Louis feel flushed with anticipation, even though he's already naked with Liam kneeling between his legs. He spreads his legs to give Liam more room. Liam's eyes are dark with arousal when he looks down at Louis, and then he runs a hand up the inside of Louis's thigh. "Turn over?"

Louis gives a put-upon sigh, but he rolls over onto his hands and knees.

"Oh god," Liam says from behind him, and then both of his hands are back on Louis's arse. "Your arse, Lou, fuck."

Feeling a little smug, Louis shoves back into Liam's hands. "It's a work of art, I know," he says. "Get on with it."

Liam makes a choked, desperate-sounding noise, but then there's the click of the cap of the lube and his fingers come back slick. He pushes his first finger into Louis's arse very slowly—just his fingertip, barely any pressure at all; but when Louis groans and puts his head down on the pillow, Liam slides his finger the rest of the way in. "Have you, um—done this before?" Liam asks abruptly, sounding guilty.

Louis rolls his eyes, pressing back into Liam's finger. "It's been a while," he says tightly, "but El had a strap-on, so yes."

"Oh," Liam says breathlessly. "Right, um—"

"Give me another finger, Liam," Louis snaps.

Liam exhales on a shuddery breath, but he does as he's told. With two of Liam's fingers inside him, opening him, Louis can feel the stretch; Liam's careful, but Louis won't let him be too careful, and after a while he curls his fingers just right and Louis moans. "There," he says, "Fuck, Liam—"

"Okay," Liam says, and slides in a third finger, pressing unerringly against Louis's prostate until Louis is moaning into the pillow and shoving back into Liam's hand. Liam flattens his other hand on Louis's arse, holding him down.

"Jesus Christ," Louis says, after a moment, "Get your fucking dick in me."

"Oh my god, Lou," Liam says, a bit stifled. He sounds like he's trying not to laugh, but he takes his fingers out of Louis's arse and backs up a little, and a second later Louis hears the tear of the condom packet. When Louis rolls over onto his back, Liam's cock is hard and flushed. Louis watches him put the condom on, entranced. "Um," Liam says, looking down at him, one hand around the base of his dick. "It's easier—"

"Fuck that," Louis says. "Do it like this." Liam nods, and then his hands are on Louis's thighs, pressing his knees up to his chest. Louis still plays football regularly, and his thighs are strong, but they tremble a little under Liam's hands. Liam slides a pillow under Louis's hips, and then he looks down at Louis for a long, breathless moment before he lines up and presses in.

The first push of Liam's dick into him is more than Louis was expecting, and he closes his eyes and fists his hands in the sheets, trying to relax. "Are you alright?" Liam asks, sounding strained, and that's enough for Louis to lift his hips so that Liam can slide further into him. "Oh," Liam gasps, thrusting a little, and Louis shivers. "Is that, um—"

"Give me a second," Louis says tightly, and Liam goes very still, waiting, until Louis says, "Alright." Then he pulls back out and thrusts in again, deeper, and Louis's whole world goes white, sparking with pleasure. "Yes," he gasps. "Like that, fuck, keep going," and Liam does, fucking him deep and slow and hard. Louis wraps his legs around Liam's waist, ankles crossing in the small of his back, and after a while he lets go of the sheets and gets his hands on Liam's shoulders. Liam's hands are braced on the bed, holding himself up so that he has enough of an angle to keep fucking Louis; when Louis opens his eyes and looks up at him, Liam is sweating a little, the muscles straining in his arms. The fine sheen of sweat on Liam's chest is something Louis has seen a thousand times before, when Liam's been working out, or after a show, but right now it's one of the hottest things Louis has ever seen. Liam meets Louis's eyes, and Louis shudders.

"Liam," he gasps, right on the edge of coming, and Liam leans down far enough to kiss him. It's a deep, wet kiss, and Louis clenches his fingers on Liam's shoulder and gets his other hand on his dick, where it's sliding slick and hot against Liam's stomach. He tries to match Liam's rhythm, but it only takes a couple of pulls before he's coming between them, striping Liam's stomach and his own hand.

Liam keeps fucking him through the aftershocks, shivery and wonderful, and then he's coming too, falling forward onto Louis. Louis holds him while they both shake, until Liam pulls back and out, tying off the condom and dropping it into the bin by the bed. Louis winces a little as Liam slides out of him, but he feels too relaxed and fucked-out and satisfied to complain. He rolls slowly onto his side and curls into Liam. Liam's arms come around him, stroking up and down his back.

"I like your bed," Louis says, after a while.

"I like you in my bed," Liam says, and then he pauses, like he hadn't quite meant to say that out loud. Louis shifts around so that he can see Liam's face. "I, um—" Liam says, looking a bit anxious, but then he takes a deep breath, steeling himself. "These last few months, whilst you've been living here, I haven't been able to stop thinking about how you should've been staying in my room and my bed, instead of the spare room. I wanted you to stay here—but I knew that was stupid wishful thinking. Even if you slept here once or twice, that was just friends looking after each other."

"I don't know," Louis says slowly. "I'm starting to feel like I was missing out on the benefits of being your flatmate. I hate sleeping alone."

Liam goes still. "Is that why—"

Louis pushes himself up on his elbow, frowning down at Liam. "Don't be an idiot, Liam. I have not had sex with you twice in one afternoon because I hate sleeping alone."

Liam winces, and then nods. "No, I know, sorry. It's just—"

"I know," Louis says, and then he bites his lip and looks away. All your cards on the table, Taylor had said. "Look," Louis says, "I think—we're both a bit of a mess. It's hard for you to believe I mean this, and it's hard for me to believe you want me, when I'm a bit messed up, and just divorced, and kind of a lot to deal with even on a good day." Liam makes a protesting noise, and Louis puts his hand over his mouth. Liam blinks at him, surprised, but he doesn't try to say anything else. "I want to be worthy of you," Louis continues, very quietly, "and I want to show you that you deserve to have everything you want. But it might not be easy."

Liam lifts Louis's hand off his mouth and folds their fingers together. "I know," he says seriously, but then he smiles, and it lights up his whole face. "But if you're sure you want to, Lou, then—I want to try."

"Yes," Louis says, and kisses him.

The insistent buzzing of Liam's phone on the bedside table finally parts them, a few minutes later. Louis curls back into Liam's side, reading along with him as he unlocks his phone. Niall has texted five times.

Are you still coming round? Niall's first text says, shortly followed by, Liam?? and are you alive?!, and Do I need to come over there? and ok seriously how hungover are you.

Louis takes Liam's phone out of his hand and types, Spending whole day in bed with Louis, too busy shagging to come round for tea, and hits send. Liam stares at him, wide-eyed and a little shocked, and then he starts to laugh.

LOUIS WILLIAM TOMLINSON, Niall texts back, a moment later, GIVE LIAM BACK HIS PHONE.

Liam's a bit busy right now, Louis writes, which makes Liam hiss, "Lou," half horrified and half delighted.

There's a long enough pause before Niall writes back that Louis is starting to think about throwing Liam's phone onto the bedside table and getting back to kissing—and maybe a shower, and something to eat—but then the phone buzzes again. Do I need to kick your arse? Niall's sent, Zayn and I can be there in twenty minutes.

Louis looks at Liam, and raises his eyebrows. Liam ducks his head, smiling, and Louis looks back down at the phone. He writes, Don't think so ! Told him I love him and want to be with him forever before we shagged, so I think we're good !! xx.

Liam wraps his arms around Louis, looking over his shoulder at the phone, and presses a kiss to the top of his head. "I love you," he says.

Niall's next text is a string of exclamation marks, a smiley face, and a thumbs up emoji, and Louis does throw Liam's phone back onto the bedside table. "I love you, too," he says to Liam, and kisses him again.

 

LIAM
August, 2024

Liam raps his knuckles on Louis's open office door. Louis looks up from his computer, frowning, but his expression relaxes when he sees Liam. He's got his glasses on, and he looks a bit like he could use a break. "Me and Niall are going to the pub," Liam says. "Are you coming?"

Louis sighs and drags a hand through his hair. "Better not," he says. "I want to finish this, and then I should go home."

"If you're sure," Liam says, disappointed. He hasn't seen much of Louis outside of work, recently, and he was looking forward to their pub night with Niall.

Louis looks apologetic. "I'm sorry, mate. Next time?"

"Okay," Liam agrees. "Give our love to El, yeah?"

"Yeah, of course," Louis says. He smiles at Liam, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. "See you tomorrow," he adds, and then he's turning back to his computer.

Liam shoves his hands into his pockets, and goes to find Niall.

"No Lou?" Niall asks, when Liam tracks him down in the office kitchen. He shakes his head, and Niall makes a face. "Do you think something's going on with him? He's been hard to pin down, these last few months."

Liam shrugs. Louis has seemed more distant, but it's hard to imagine what could be wrong. Most of the time he's still his normal self, just a bit older, a little more mellow; but they're all getting older, and things change. Maybe they're just not as close as they used to be, now that they don't all live in each other's pockets. "I don't know," he admits. "Work's been a bit mad, but it's nothing we're not used to."

"Hmm," Niall says thoughtfully, but then he shrugs and pushes off the counter. "Well, who knows. I expect we'll find out sooner or later, if it's something important. Ready to go?"

"Yeah," Liam says. He feels hollow, all of a sudden, like maybe he is missing something—but it's probably nothing, he tells himself, and follows Niall out to the lift.

*

Laura and Eoghan join them at the pub, and Liam gets caught up on all the LIC gossip while they demolish a shit ton of food and several rounds of drinks. He's having fun with Niall and his friends, and he's not strictly on the pull, but when he gets up to get another drink, a bloke at the bar catches his eyes and gives him a long slow smile.

Liam studies him, after he's given his order to the barman. The bloke has a sharp face and blue eyes, and he's a bit shorter than Liam, but he doesn't look enough like Louis to break Liam's cardinal rule. Liam won't fuck men who look like Louis, not ever; but this bloke's resemblances to Louis are superficial at best, and Liam likes the way he's looking at him, hot and appreciative and a little speculative. After a moment he sets his glass down on the bar, very deliberately, and turns to walk back towards the loo.

Liam watches him walk away, making up his mind, and then he knocks back his drink, leaves his empty glass on the bar, and follows him.

The loo is a single cubicle, and it's unlocked. Liam pushes the door open carefully, just in case—he's had a few near misses like this, and they can be awfully embarrassing—but then the bloke from the bar grabs hold of Liam's shirt and tugs him the rest of the way in. "Oh," Liam says, surprised. The bloke grins up at him and presses him back against the door, reaching around Liam to flip the lock.

"Hello," he says. He's Scottish, which is somehow surprising—but maybe only because Liam's spent the whole rest of the evening with people from Ireland. He runs his hands down Liam's chest, looking a bit admiring, and then he tucks his fingers under the waistband of Liam's trousers and raises his eyebrows.

"Hi," Liam says, and leans down to kiss him. He seems a little surprised by the kiss, but responds happily enough, kissing Liam back with the kind of hot, dirty kisses that are always a prelude to sex. Liam grabs hold of his arse, pulling him flush against him until their dicks are pressing together through their trousers, and the bloke laughs into his mouth and starts to undo Liam's flies. He doesn't waste any time, and as soon as he's got Liam's trousers shoved down far enough to get a hand into his pants, he starts to wank Liam's dick. Liam groans and pulls out of the kiss, undoing the bloke's jeans and dragging them down with his pants until he can reach his cock. His cock feels fantastic in Liam's hand, smooth and hard, and Liam wanks him off at the same time as the guy is doing him, following instructions when the guy gasps them out in his ear—harder, and faster, and then even faster, until he's shaking and groaning. Liam shoves the bloke's top up, and he comes on Liam's hand and his own stomach. "Fuck," he says breathlessly, and then his hand is speeding up on Liam's cock, and he's kissing Liam again, and Liam is coming in his hand.

Afterwards, Liam slumps back against the door while the other guy puts himself to rights. He really is extremely fit, Liam thinks, and he looks flushed and satisfied as he goes to wash his hands at the sink. He buttons his jeans and straightens his top once he's dried his hands, and smiles at Liam. "Thanks," he says, with a bit of a cheeky grin.

"You too," Liam says, smiling back, and moves away from the door so the bloke can let himself out. Liam locks the door again behind him, and then does up his trousers and washes his hands. He's got a bit of come on his shirt, and he dabs at it with loo roll for a minute before giving up and leaving it alone; but when he meets his own eyes in the mirror, he has to look away. It's not—he doesn't look any different; he doesn't feel any different. Pulling blokes he doesn't know—whether he takes them home, or goes home with them, or they shag in a pub toilet—is perfectly fine, and he always enjoys himself.

It's only after, when the bloke leaves, and Liam remembers that there's not even a glimmer of potential for a future—and that that's the whole bloody point—that he gets a bit sad. The worst part about these moments is that he doesn't miss Charlie, or even Gareth; he misses the way he used to feel about Louis, hopeless and desperate and impossible, and so deep in him that nothing could cut it out. Maybe it's still there, somewhere, but these days it's buried deep. These days, he knows better; whatever it is that his happily married friends have found—contentment, and forever, and happy endings—it isn't for him.

He looks back up at the mirror and makes a disgusted face at himself, and then he squares his shoulders and leaves the loo.

Niall gives him a sharp look when he gets back to the table, even though Liam had made sure to detour to the bar and come back with another drink, and then he smirks. "Enjoy yourself, Payno?"

Liam puts his drink down on the table so that he can cover his face with his hands, flushed and embarrassed and trying not to laugh.

"Oh, Liam," Niall says, laughing uproariously. "If you can't say it, you shouldn't do it!"

"Fuck off," Liam says, but then he drops his hands and grins, and Niall holds out his hand for a fistbump. Liam returns it, and relaxes back into an evening with his friends.

 

LOUIS
April, 2025

Louis's sat at the dining room table in just his pants, reading his email, when Liam comes out of the bedroom fully dressed. He's wearing a nice shirt, and a pair of black trousers that Louis loves because they make Liam's arse look spectacular; but Louis's still a bit cross that Liam's wearing clothes. "Why did you have to get dressed, Liam?" he asks sadly.

Liam makes a face at him. "You've got to get dressed, too, or we'll be late."

"When am I ever on time?" Louis demands. "Me being on time would probably give Harry a heart attack."

Liam laughs, and comes around the table to lean down and kiss Louis. Louis kisses him back, until Liam straightens and leans against his shoulder.

Louis looks back at his laptop. "We've had an email from Bellatrix about coming to London next month," he says, "and El thinks we should have dinner at that new tapas place."

"Paparazzi magnet," Liam says dryly, and Louis grins. Eleanor's on a bit of a campaign against the popular press, which mostly seems to involve being photographed regularly in public with both Louis and Liam, looking like she's having a lovely time. Since they all get on very well, this isn't much of a hardship.

"Food's supposed to be good, though," Louis points out, glancing at his email again. "And Mum wants to visit. She's talking about bringing Ernie and Dorie for some touristy stuff, but I'm fairly sure it's code for wanting to see us."

Liam slides his hands into Louis's hair, tugging a little, and Louis closes his eyes. He always feels a bit like a cat when Liam does this, like he wants to start purring. "Leave the work for Monday, Lou," Liam says, and then, more carefully, "and you know I'm always happy to see your mum."

"Mmm," Louis says, and then he makes himself open his eyes and tilt his head back to look at Liam. "My mum loves you," he says. "It's just, you know—it's a change."

"I know," Liam says softly, and then he leans back down over Louis and kisses his neck.

"It's a good change," Louis murmurs, his voice going low and rough at the touch of Liam's mouth.

Liam kisses his throat, and then his ear, and then his shoulder. "I know that, too," he says, and then he's tugging Louis up out of his chair and turning him around and giving him a proper kiss, slow and thorough. "Go get dressed, babe," he says, finally pulling back. His eyes are bright. "We've got places to be."

*

Harry's house is full of people, but Louis only knows about half of them. He's introduced to Taylor's parents and brother and a whole host of her friends in rapid succession, and then retreats to the kitchen with Lou and Gemma, abandoning Liam to the Americans.

"So I hear you and Liam have shacked up together," Gemma says archly, handing him a beer.

"Ugh," Louis groans, but it's hard not to smile when he thinks about Liam. "The gossip chain's alive and well, I see."

"Oh, I don't know," Gemma says, grinning, "I heard it from El, not from my brother. Harry's got all secretive in his old age, but El's been telling everyone who will listen how chuffed she is for you and Liam."

"Oh," Louis says, feeling touched and fond all over again. He'd been so afraid to tell Eleanor, but when he'd finally mustered up the courage she'd just hugged him and said, smiling and a little watery, Well, I can't say that's what I was expecting, but I did tell you there was someone out there for you, didn't I?

"You've got to admit," Gemma continues, "it is news." Then she leans in and kisses his cheek. "But congratulations are in order, I think."

"Thanks, Gem," Louis says.

"And on the plus side," Lou puts in, accepting a second beer from Gemma and raising her eyebrows at Louis, "you've been a bit overshadowed by those two." She tilts her head in the direction of the living room, where Harry and Taylor are holding court from the sofa. Taylor's started to show, and Harry's hand is never very far from her stomach; they've been in London for about a week, moving into Harry's house, and the tabloids are having a field day.

"I suppose I should thank them for taking the heat off us," Louis says, grinning a little.

Gemma and Lou both laugh, and they clink their bottles together.

When Louis makes it back to the living room, he sees Liam and Zayn sat on the piano bench with their heads together. He hesitates for a moment, wondering if he should interrupt, but then Liam sees him and smiles, and Louis crosses the room to them.

"Hey," he says to both of them, and Liam gets up from the bench and gives him a quick kiss.

"Stay and talk to Zayn," he says, "I need the loo, and then maybe something to drink."

"Of course," Louis agrees, smiling after Liam as he darts across the room. He takes Liam's abandoned seat on the piano bench next to Zayn; Zayn leans his shoulder into Louis's, warm and familiar.

"Haven't seen that much of you, these last few weeks," he says.

"Oh." Louis feels suddenly embarrassed. He hasn't been avoiding Zayn, exactly, but he has seen less of him than he usually does. "It's, um—we've been a bit—"

Zayn smirks and taps the side of his nose. "Honeymoon phase," he says knowingly. Louis can feel himself turning red, and Zayn laughs and nods across the room to where Perrie is talking to Nick Grimshaw. "I remember that part very well." He grins. "It's cool, bro," he adds, after a moment, "but I know you've been avoiding me."

"I didn't mean to," Louis protests, a little ashamed.

"It's alright," Zayn says. "I might've avoided me too, in your shoes. But the important thing is that you did fix it, Lou, even if it wasn't the way any of us thought you would." He swings one leg over the bench and turns so that he's facing Louis. "I think we're all still a bit shocked, but I haven't seen either of you look this happy in a long time." He smiles. "So it's good. Keep doing what you're doing." He pokes Louis in the shoulder. "Except avoiding me."

Louis laughs, half in relief. "Okay," he says, and hugs him.

*

Niall comes up behind Louis in the middle of a conversation with Anne and Robin, and puts his arms around his waist. "Sorry," he says, leaning his chin on Louis's shoulder. "Can I steal you for a moment, Lou?"

Louis makes a face, but Anne and Robin just laugh and wave him off, and Louis lets Niall tug him out of the living room. He's lost track of Liam again, and he doesn't see Zayn or Harry, either—for once, Harry isn't hovering at Taylor's side. "What's up?" Louis asks Niall.

"Band business," Niall says succinctly, starting up the stairs.

"Huh," Louis says. "Okay." He follows Niall up the stairs and into the master bedroom; he's curious, and a little concerned—they haven't properly been a band for four years, so he's not sure what counts as band business now—and not at all surprised to see Liam and Harry sat on the bed, and Zayn in an armchair.

"Right," Niall says, shutting the bedroom door behind them. "We're all here."

Louis realises, suddenly and abruptly, that this is the first time all five of them have been together since Christmas, and a lot has changed since Christmas.

"So, um," Harry says, looking back and forth between Louis and Liam. "We sort of—got you something."

Louis blinks. "What?"

Harry shrugs, smiling a little. "It's a getting together present. Just a little one, though, not a big thing like a housewarming present or a wedding present. If you want a bigger present you should probably get married. This one is more, like, a 'getting your heads out of your arses' present—"

"Harry," Niall cuts in, sounding exasperated. "Get to the point."

Harry pouts at him, but then he picks up an envelope from the bed beside him and hands it to Liam. Liam looks down at the envelope, and then up at Louis, his forehead wrinkled in confusion. Louis shakes his head, equally bewildered, and goes to sit next to Liam on the bed.

The envelope is the ordinary kind that letters come in, and it's got both their names on it in Zayn's curling script, Liam & Louis, with a little flourish underneath. Louis glances at Zayn, and then he opens the envelope. Inside, there's a single folded sheet of paper. It's nice paper—the kind you might print a formal letter on—and when Louis unfolds it and holds it out so that he and Liam can both read what it says, it takes him a minute to understand what he's looking at; when he does, his breath catches in his throat.

This is to certify, the letter says, in fancy calligraphy, that in a passing vote, three out of five members of One Direction have voted in favour of the—here someone has written sexcapades and someone else has crossed it out and continued, romance of Liam James Payne and Louis William Tomlinson. Under that there's the date, and then Harry and Niall and Zayn have all signed their names, and down at the bottom are two witness signatures, Annie and Perrie.

"We know we're not a band anymore," Niall says quietly, "and we all make our own decisions and have our own lives, but we wanted you both to know how we felt."

"Oh," Louis says. His eyes are damp at the corners. "I—thanks, lads. Thank you."

Liam takes the letter from him, smoothing it out on his knee. Louis can tell that Liam's hands are shaking, but when he looks up his smile is dazzling. "We'll have to get it framed."

"You'd better," Zayn says. "That's a Zayn Malik original. I did calligraphy for you wankers."

Louis laughs, feeling overwhelmed. Next to him, Liam folds the letter and carefully slides it back into the envelope.

"Thank you," Liam says quietly, looking around at Harry and Niall and Zayn.

Harry hugs Liam, and then reaches around him to hug Louis. "We love you," he says, getting up off the bed and going over to pull Zayn out of his chair. "Come back downstairs when you're ready," he adds with a wink, as he herds Zayn and Niall out of the room.

Louis and Liam look at each other. "Do you think Harry wants us to have sex in his bed?" Liam asks doubtfully.

"I wouldn't put anything past Harry," Louis points out, trying not to laugh.

Liam does laugh, but then he shakes his head and his expression gets more serious. "When Zayn brought me up here, I thought for sure they were going to tell us this was a bad idea."

"Me too," Louis admits. "I don't know why, but—I suppose I was a bit scared."

"Yeah," Liam agrees, looking down at the envelope again. "It's just—" He leans into Louis's side. "It's more real like this. When it's just the two of us, sometimes it still feels like a dream, but with the lads—"

"I know," Louis says. He's been thinking the same thing. "Is that—" He pauses, and then steels himself. "Do you mind that?"

"No," Liam says quickly, shaking his head. "I don't mind. It can just be a little overwhelming, sometimes."

Louis nods and puts his arm around Liam, and then they're both quiet for a minute, sitting together on Harry's bed.

"This is a really nice house," Liam says, after a while. He's looking around the master bedroom, at the big windows and the shining wooden floors, the marble ensuite with the whirlpool bath. There are four more bedrooms just on this floor, enough for a big family.

"What would you think about buying a house with me?" Louis asks, trying to sound casual, and not like he's been looking at estate agents' websites for two weeks already.

"Oh," Liam breathes. "I—yes?" But then he pauses and looks down at his knees. "I want to," he says softly, "but—not quite yet. I think I need a little more time to get used to this being real."

Louis squeezes his shoulders. "Okay."

Liam looks up at him, his forehead furrowed. "You don't mind?"

"Of course not," Louis says, shaking his head; the estate agents aren't going anywhere, and neither is he. He takes Liam's hand. "We're a work in progress," he says. "We've got time."

 

Epilogue

LIAM
June, 2029

Louis comes into the study from putting the twins to bed, and drops onto the sofa behind Liam.

"Kids asleep?" Liam asks, closing his laptop and turning around in the desk chair. Louis is draped over the sofa, looking nearly asleep himself.

"Yeah," Louis says. "Though I've got to say, Liam, I am getting a bit sick of singing the One Direction back catalogue to Georgie every night, and he won't fall asleep to anything else."

Liam laughs. "He'll grow out of it."

"Maybe," Louis says dryly. "Or maybe I should try him on the new songs, before my ears start bleeding from boredom."

"Oh," Liam says, flushing, "aren't, um. Don't you think some of the new songs are a bit—well, you know. He's only three."

Louis grins and stretches, his legs falling open; he plants one foot flat on the floor, hips arching up as he stretches, and Liam can't help staring. He's allowed, he knows, but it's still—it can be a bit much, sometimes, even now. "The ones about you, you mean?" Louis asks, smug and teasing. "I can change the words, like I do with some of the old ones. I think he's a bit young to work out the metaphors, though."

"Oh," Liam says again, swallowing hard. Louis is looking at him with one of his familiar looks, fond and hot and a little exasperated, and Liam has to bite his lip and look away for a moment; it's honestly a bit of a miracle that they got any of those songs written in the first place.

"Taylor emailed to say she's happy to take the twins for the weekend," Liam says, looking around for a subject change. "So we can do the thing." He's still not sure what to call it; Harry and Taylor and their daughter are back from a month in New York, and Niall's coming down, and Perrie's home, so Zayn's coming round without the kids, and—they're having a meeting. Something like a meeting.

"Oh good," Louis says. "Lizzie's missed Paisley, while they've been in New York." At three and four, Lizzie and Paisley have already vowed to be best friends for life, and a month is a long time for a three-year-old missing her best friend.

"Those girls are going to be trouble," Liam says fondly, and Louis grins.

"Why would you expect anything else?" Louis asks, sounding as fond as Liam feels. "They're One Direction kids—they're all trouble. Except for George, I suppose, who is a sweetheart like his dad. Notwithstanding his obsession with our old songs."

Liam blushes, and then gives in and gets up out of his chair, going to sit on the sofa with Louis. Louis makes room for him, and then throws his legs over Liam's lap, effectively trapping him. Liam rubs a hand up Louis's calf, and Louis smirks. "How are you feeling about this weekend?" Louis asks, after a moment. Despite the smirk, his voice is serious.

Liam shakes his head slowly. It's been hard to think about anything else, but he still doesn't know how he feels. "Are we sure it's not, like, tempting fate?" Louis raises his eyebrows, and Liam sighs and runs a hand through his hair. "I just mean, we said we were done. We were the luckiest band in the world, and then we were over. Can we even still be One Direction, if we start up again? Not, like—I don't know. New Direction? The Return of Direction?" Louis is laughing at him, which is probably fair. All the new names he can think of are ridiculous, but even so— "It just seems like a lot to ask of the universe, when we've already had so much."

Louis gives Liam a considering look, and then reaches out and squeezes his hand. "I don't think there's a limit on luck," he says. "Or—well." He bends his head, looking down at their hands. "I don't think we have to stop asking for things, I suppose. It's turned out fairly well for us so far."

It has, Liam thinks; it's turned out better than he ever imagined it could. But he doesn't want to get selfish or greedy. "Besides," Louis adds, a bit more dryly, "just because we've gone and written another album doesn't mean anyone's going to buy it. Maybe everyone will hate it, and we'll have to tour in a van again."

"Oh my god," Liam says, laughing. "That would be amazing." He can almost imagine the five of them on a tiny stage in a tiny venue—the kind they only ever played right out of X Factor, before they even had an album to their name—with all their gear in the back of a van.

"It's going to be different," Louis says softly. "We're all different. Even if we call it a reunion, it's still—it'll be an entirely different thing than it was then."

Liam takes in his pensive look, and the small frown hovering at the corners of his mouth. "Do you mind that?"

Louis shakes his head. "Not at all," he says, and then grins. "I never got to blow you in a dressing room before, did I? There's loads of new things we could try."

Liam looks at Louis. Louis is older than he was when Liam used to imagine them together on the road, but he's no less beautiful; he's exactly who Liam wants. In Liam's fantasies they had loads of wildly impossible sex, offstage and onstage, backstage and in dressing rooms and in hotel rooms and in the bunks on the bus; but it's never felt more real than it does now, in the house they own together, with their kids asleep down the hall. "I can see the appeal," he says.

"Yeah," Louis agrees, low and hot, and then he leans forward and kisses Liam. Liam kisses him back, slow at first and then faster and deeper, pulling Louis close. By the time they part, Louis's straddling his lap, knees pressed against Liam's thighs.

"There's a lot to talk about," Louis says, leaning his forehead against Liam's shoulder. Liam strokes his hands down Louis's back, rucking up his top. "Loads, honestly—which is why the lads are coming for the weekend; but I think," he pauses, and then lifts his head to give Liam a long look, "I think it could be amazing. It can be exactly what we all want it to be, and we'll decide together."

Liam kisses Louis again. "Alright," he says. "Are you sure we shouldn't have a new name? What about Five Directions?"

"No," Louis says firmly, and sits back on Liam's lap so that he can put a hand on his dick through his trackies. "There's only one direction, Liam."

Liam groans and puts his hands over his face. "Lou."

Louis laughs and slides off his lap, standing up. "Come on," he says, holding out his hand.

Liam drops his hands and looks up at Louis, who is grinning down at him, wicked and fond at the same time. "I hate you," he says, and lets Louis pull him to his feet.

"I know," Louis says smugly, and drags him off to their bedroom.

*

Liam's not sure what wakes him, until he rolls over and sees that Louis's awake, lying too still on his side of the bed and staring up at the ceiling. Louis doesn't usually stay on his side of the bed—Liam's used to waking up with Louis wrapped around him like an octopus—and if he can't sleep, he tends to go downstairs or out to the study, where he can turn on a light without waking Liam.

"Lou?" Liam says, reaching a hand out across the bed to touch Louis's arm. "What's wrong?"

Louis is silent for a long moment, and then he huffs out a breath and turns onto his side so he's facing Liam. His eyes are bright in the dark room. "The thing is," he says, "I want another baby."

Liam feels his eyes go wide, and then he's smiling too hard to stop. "Oh," he says breathlessly, "yes, me too."

"Liam," Louis says, sounding a little stifled. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"Why didn't you?" Liam demands, pushing himself up on his elbow and frowning down at Louis. Louis reaches out and takes his hand, and Liam settles back down.

"You first," Louis says gently, squeezing Liam's hand.

"I haven't been going around thinking about it, exactly," Liam says slowly, trying to find the right words. "But as soon as you said it, I thought, oh, that's it, like it's been in the back of my head this whole time, just waiting for the right moment." He pauses, looking down at their clasped hands on top of the duvet. "But there's so much going on right now—I suppose I didn't think it was the right time."

Louis sighs. "That's why I haven't said anything. I keep thinking we shouldn't have another baby if we're going on tour, when we've already got the twins, and they'll be a handful. Except—" He shakes his head. "Why shouldn't we have everything?" He sounds tentative and daring at the same time, and Liam loves him so much he can barely breathe.

"Maybe we can," he says suddenly. "It's our tour. If we do it, we're going to make the rules, us and the lads. The baby—" He stops, completely arrested at the idea of the baby, and from the look on Louis's face it's taken him the same way. "The baby could be part of the plan," Liam finishes. He doesn't want to get greedy, but he also wants Louis to have everything he wants; when they want the same things— "Maybe we can have the twins and a baby and a tour," Liam says, his heart in his throat. "Why not?"

"God," Louis breathes, and kisses him.

By the time they come up for air, Liam is flat on his back with Louis on top of him. Liam strokes his hands down Louis's back, feeling the familiar planes of his body. His skin is soft and warm, and Liam's hands move down to his arse without any conscious thought, his fingers sliding back in where Louis is still loose and open from earlier.

Louis smiles down at him, bright and gorgeous, and pushes back onto Liam's fingers. "I love you," he says, and leans down to kiss him again.

Liam strokes his tongue into Louis's mouth, and Louis gets his hands into Liam's hair and pulls his head up so they can kiss more deeply. His dick is pressing insistently against Liam's hip, and Liam twists his fingers a little inside him, until Louis breaks away from his mouth and swears. Liam laughs breathlessly, looking up at him; Louis looks impatient and beautiful, bright-eyed and golden even in the dark, and he's Liam's. Liam wants to give him everything he has.

Louis frowns down at him a little crossly, like he's not sure why Liam is laughing, but then he starts to smile again. He goes up on his knees, backing off a little until Liam has to take his fingers out of his arse; then he grabs the lube off the bedside table and slicks up his hand before taking hold of Liam's cock. Liam's eyes flutter closed as Louis fists his dick, getting him desperately hard with just a few twists of his wrist and his wet hand. "Liam," Louis says sharply, when Liam's starting to wonder worriedly if he's going to come like this, "open your eyes."

"Oh," Liam gasps, and opens his eyes. Louis lets go of his dick and wipes his hand off on Liam's chest, and then he straddles Liam's hips and slides right down onto him; he holds Liam's gaze the whole time.

"Fuck," Liam groans, fisting his hands in the sheets. He can't look away from Louis. Louis is biting his lip in concentration, and then he lifts up and sinks back down again, and the hot look of pleasure that washes across his face is so overwhelming that Liam feels like he might be on fire. Then Louis grins at him, wicked and dangerous, and Liam's hands fly to Louis's waist, fingers pressing into his skin. Louis rides him hard, head thrown back, and if Liam was capable of doing anything other than holding on for the ride, he would kiss his neck and his collarbones and his hard nipples; instead, he clings to Louis and tries not to come too soon. Louis grabs hold of the headboard for leverage, fucking down onto Liam even harder, moving faster, and Liam gasps out, "Lou, wait—"

"Come on, Liam," Louis says, his voice rough and fucked-out and demanding, and Liam comes.

Louis keeps riding him through the aftershocks, until Liam is shivering and oversensitive, and then he gets off him and settles onto his back beside Liam with his hand on his dick. Liam slides three fingers back into him, feeling where Louis is slick and hot from his come. He's never going to get over the way that feels; Louis teases him for it and calls him a caveman, but when he looks down at Louis's heavy-lidded eyes and his red mouth and the way his hand is moving frantically on his dick, he thinks maybe Louis doesn't really mind that much.

He twists his fingers, searching, until Louis gives a low moan; then he reaches for Louis's cock with his other hand. He replaces Louis's hand with his own, wanking him off and fucking him with his fingers. Louis gives a shuddery sigh and turns his face towards Liam, and Liam leans in and kisses him while he comes.

Afterwards, they lie tangled together in their bed, sticky and sated and catching their breath. Liam presses soft, closed-mouth kisses to Louis's cheek and shoulder and collarbone, and Louis makes a low happy noise and rubs his foot up Liam's calf. After a while, Louis says, "So we're having another baby." He still sounds a little breathless.

"Yeah," Liam says, "I think we are." He hides his face in Louis's neck, but Louis tugs on his hair and makes him lift his head. He can see the same look of incredulous delight reflected on Louis's face, though, so there's not really any reason to hide. One of these days, Liam supposes he might stop being surprised by how lucky he is, but he wouldn't want to start taking it for granted.

"And a tour," Louis adds.

Liam is still a little less certain about the tour, but sometime in the last couple of hours it seems to have taken root in his heart. "If we all agree, and the lads want to," he says, "but—yes." Why not everything? he thinks, and then he goes still, because—Why not?

"Lou," he says, careful and tentative and cautiously hopeful, "do you want to get married?"

It might be a ridiculous question; but even though they've been together for four years, and have kids and a house and a business, even though they sign their Christmas cards from the Tomlinson-Paynes, they haven't quite managed that part. Liam's been thinking about it for a long time; but Louis was married before, and he hasn't wanted to push, not when he already has his happy ending.

Louis is staring at him, though, his lips parted in surprise, and then he starts to laugh. "Yes," he says, and kisses Liam. "Yes, fuck, I really do."

"Oh," Liam says, kissing him back. He can't seem to stop smiling. "Good." He and Louis have never really done things the normal way, straightforward and ordinary. They always seem to come at things inside out and backwards; but maybe it's better like that. Even when it takes a long time, they always seem to get there in the end.