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MAY

 

Liam smiles at the familiar road signs and the overwhelming energy that ebbs and flows around him. It’s not a conscious effort. He didn’t sketch the trees one by one in his mind the last time he took this drive, yet he knows them instantly. It’s an unbridled joy rising to the surface, an endless loop of I’m going back running through his head. The road sign stands out against foliage, ‘ Pine Lake 10 miles, Resort 13 miles’

Pine Lake Resort isn’t anything special unless there are people in it. Just a cluster of buildings a few miles outside of the only thing resembling a town for a half hour drive in any direction. Liam drives down the side roads that lead out to the hilly peninsula, crowded with clean buildings and dotted trees. He drives the last few miles with R&B blasting from the speakers, nodding along with the beat.

Liam finally reaches the front gate, heavy steel that cuts the peninsula off a mile from the edge, giving the illusion that their little resort is protected from the outside world. He pulls up next to the window and smiles at the gate attendant.

“Liam!” Tom leans out of the little windowed hut, “Back already?”

Liam grins. It’s been eight months but it feels both like a hundred years and two days, “Hey Tom. You know me. Can’t stay away for long.”

“Good to have you back, pal,” Tom opens the front gate.

“Good to be back,” Liam says, weight falling off his shoulders as he drives onto the main road of the Pine Lake Resort.

*****

Seventeen year old Liam, wishing for something extraordinary to happen for him, had applied to the housekeeping department of the PLR on a whim. High School hadn’t done much beside help him impress a small town college enough to get him a scholarship and a ticket away from the city that no longer felt like home. His few close friends had jobs and vacations lined up for that summer and almost 18 year old Liam had decided it was time to get away. Liam applied late one night when it was all hypotheticals in his head.

Two months later, Liam pulled up to the PLR front gate, fresh high school diploma hanging on the wall of his childhood bedroom and everything he held dear in the back seat of his mom’s old Subaru.

He pulled up to the gate attendant, fighting the urge to shiver with nerves, and rolled down the window.

“Hi?” he said to the older gentleman, “I’m here for move-in?”

“Well, how are you?” The guy had leaned through the window of his hut, hand extended, “Name’s Tom. Your name, friend?”

“I’m Liam, I’m good,” Liam nodded, “How are you?”

“Just swell,” Tom had smiled back at him, “You’re going to fit in here.”

Liam had laughed, a nervous bubble forcing its way out, “I hope so.”

******

Now, Liam is tempted to drive straight to the lodge and grab his keys, but instead he makes the sharp turn down the hidden drive to the back lodging. This will be his fifth summer in the employee housing. His first year he had to live in one of the old houses that dot the woods, remnants of the people who had lived here before Simon had slowly bought the property down the sides of the peninsula.

Liam drives past the empty houses. They stand like ghosts, full of memories of good nights where the air was thick with laughter and humidity. He smiles, singing along with the song on the radio, thinking about last summer. Maybe Sophia will be back this year. They had fun last year. Her room in the attic of House 6 had felt like his own. They hadn’t kept in touch.

That’s the other part of working at the resort that he likes, what happens here stays here. Behind the gates, it’s a world of their own. They make mistakes and people’s hearts break and every summer he’s met someone he’s really liked until it’s time to pack up and he realizes part of what he likes about them is the way they look taking off their uniform. There’s no use in trying to prolong it, or to make it into something more than it is. It’s a summer romance. As soon as Labor day hits, it’s gone.

Liam drives up the lane past where he lived his second and third year. Up ahead, Liam sees two people walking. One is a heavily tatted mess with a mop of curls, the other is blonde and his head is tilted back in a laugh. Liam grins and speeds up to meet them.

Harry turns when he hears Liam and starts waving when he recognizes the car. Niall stops and turns, starts shouting, “Look who showed up!”

Liam slows to a stop and parks beside them, “Need a ride?”

Harry throws open the door and grabs Liam's forearm, pulling on him to get out. Liam unclips his seatbelt and is pulled into Harry’s embrace. “Liam’s back!” Harry shouts to the pines around them.

“How are you, mate?” Liam pats Harry’s back. He pulls back to grab Niall, “How long have you guys been here?”

“You didn’t hear?” Niall quirks an eyebrow, “Harold and I got hired on as full-time staff back in March.”

“What?” Liam asks, “That’s great! I didn’t know.”

Harry throws an arm over Niall’s shoulder, “It was glorified security. Niall did pool maintenance too and I helped Ben with the new menu, but they mostly paid us to make sure no more bears got in.”

“What else were we going to do?” Niall asks, turning to Liam, “Maybe you’ll get asked to keep us company this winter.”

“Nah,” Liam smiles, “I’ve got one more year of grad school.”

“Oh yes,” Harry scoffs, “the degree. I forgot.”

Niall snorts, “You’re going to end up resort trash anyways. Why bother?”

“I’ve got dreams,” Liam leans against his car. His dreams are here, becoming a full time resort employee like the two of them. The dream is attainable now. Last summer, Lisa and Simon had sat him down and said they’d like him to be Lisa’s replacement when she retires. Simon was even footing the bill for Liam’s Business Management degree so he’d be able to handle Lisa’s end of the books. They’d asked Liam not to tell anyone so Liam’ sticking to it, dodging any questions that come his way.

Harry holds up a finger to Liam, “Those dreams better be on this side of the gate. We all promised.” Liam nods, face solemn to disguise his amusement. Five years ago, Niall, Harry and Liam had shared a triple in House 2 and promised that as long as one of them was here, the other two would come back too. It was dumb, and shouldn't have worked out, yet they’ve averaged more years already than most do.

That first year was a lucky fluke for all of them. They’d all come with little work experience under their belts and a few backpacks full of shorts. Niall had taken the top bunk of the bunk bed, Harry the bottom, and Liam the bed tucked in the corner of the room.

Liam, who had been hired for housekeeping, was brought to reservations on his second day. Lisa had seen him interacting with a guest and, desperate for more staff, had given him the small promotion. She likes to joke about it, plucking Liam out of the crowd and putting him on the track to his destiny.  Harry had been hired for food prep and clean up but had quickly moved to waiting tables. With his friendly demeanor and charm, he netted a record amount of good feedback and tips. By the end of the summer, Ben, the food manager, had Harry teaching weekly guest services training. Niall was hired to lifeguard and did his job well, but his real accomplishment was making the pool a lively place. He set up daily marco polo games for the kids and developed games for the families to play. The recreation manager, Julian, had taken him on as an apprentice and showed him the ropes.

Liam, Harry, and Niall pile into the car, a new energy filling Liam as the three of them are reunited. Together, they have a hand in almost every aspect of the resort. Liam’s title is Assistant Manager of Lodging, Harry is Food Manager, right hand man to the Food director, and Niall is Recreation supervisor. The titles don’t mean anything other than display the hours they’ve put in and the respect they've garnered.

“Do you think you’ll get a new car this summer?” Harry asks, lounging in the back seat with Liam’s guitar.

“If this one breaks down, yes,” Liam takes the right toward the warehouse.

“You’d look good in a sports car Liam,” Harry cheers, “You could buy one of Ben’s old ones.”

Liam meets Harry’s eyes in the rearview mirror, “That’s an awful idea. Would you buy one of his old cars?”

Harry thinks about it, eyes looking out to the forest, “You’re right. I don’t want to think what he’s done in those.” Niall chuckles in the front seat.

“So, anything I need to know boys?” Liam asks, “Any pre-season drama?”

“It’s hardly pre-season, Liam,” Niall rolls down his window, “Our’s is the only house with anyone living in it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Harry settles in the space between the front seats, “Move-ins not until late next week. Then we’ve got ten days until season.”

Liam frowns, “Feels late I guess.”

“Memorial day falls late this year,” Niall shrugs, “Season’s going to be a little longer.”

“Who else has moved in?” Liam asks.

“Us, the girls and Lou,” Harry says, eyes widening, “There is some drama. You’ll never guess who's not coming back.”

“Who?” Liam takes the turn, his home for the next four months looming before him. It’s an old brick house that Simon lived in for a while and refurbished so it’s in good shape. The kitchen appliances are all less than ten years old and the bedrooms are good-sized, most of them singles, rare on this property. The bathrooms even have tubs instead of standing showers. It’s reserved for the summer staff who have a sense of permanence attached to them. Liam will be living in the same room as he did last year, a little single tucked up behind the kitchen.

“You’ve got to guess,” Niall says, “You won’t believe it.”

“Wait, someone from the house? Our house?” Liam is intrigued now. Last he had talked to Lisa, everyone who had lived here last year was moving back in, “Is it one of the girls?”

“No, they’re all back,” Niall supplies. Relief trickles down Liam’s spine. He’s gotten close to Jesy, Leigh-Anne, Jade, and Perrie over the years. They all work in the main lodge. The four of them have been the main office workers for six seasons now and they’ll probably stay on indefinitely. They all work with kids during the year, Liam knows Perrie nannies and is pretty sure Jade works in after school care. But, without fail, the first week of May they’re back in the brick house like they never left.

“So Ashton then? Did he crack?” Liam guesses.

“Nope, Ash moves in tomorrow,” Harry says with a lilt to his voice.

The girls are back, Ash is moving in, and they said Louis had moved in. That leaves one person. Liam’s eyes widen, “No way.”

Niall nods next to him as Liam parks the car. They don’t make a move to get out.

“Why?” Liam asks.

Niall motions at Harry, “He talked to Harry when he came up in April to make it official.”

Harry preens at having the latest scoop, “He just wasn’t into it anymore. He felt stifled here or something.”

“What about Perrie?” Liam can’t believe this, “What about Tommo?”

“He broke up with Perrie a few days later,” Niall reveals, “And Lou, Lou’s not taking it so well.”

Liam shakes his head, “I can’t believe it.” He turns off the car and pulls the key, getting out to move his bags in the house.

Liam has vivid memories of his first summer, seeing Louis and Zayn running around the resort, knowing they wouldn’t ever really get in trouble. Louis is the son of the resort accountant of twenty years, Jay. Zayn and Louis have been tied at the hip and tied to the resort since they could ride bikes with training wheels in the employee parking lot.  They’re townies, grew up in Pine Lake, best friends until the end and all the other cliché stereotypes. Last summer they’d been maintenance supervisors, Zayn working more closely with the art and design side of things and Louis in charge of the maintenance troops at the resort. But that first summer, they’d ride through the grounds on old bikes, glee clear on their face as they headed to work.

“So who’s in Zayn’s room?” Liam asks, putting a new bullet point on his mental checklist to call Zayn.

“No one yet,” Harry helps Liam grab his bags from the back of the car, “I think they’re keeping it open in case he decides to come back.”

“Think Simon would let him back?”

“You know how Simon is,” Harry shrugs, “Bit of a softie when it comes to Zayn.”

They move Liam’s things into the back hallway. Harry and Niall split after a call from Ben. Liam’s left alone with a locked door and a pile of stuff clogging his hallway. He debates driving his car to the main lodge to grab his keys but decides to go out to the shed in the back and see if his bike is still in good shape.

He walks through the living room out onto the back porch, sliding the door shut and sees the smoke before the man.

“Tommo?” Louis is lying back on the porch steps, smoking a cigarette and staring out into the woods. There’s something rougher about his appearance. He’s added a few tattoos over the past year, more little doodles decorating his skin and his hair is longer. He’s still, nothing like the vibrating Louis from previous summers.

Louis looks over his shoulder, “Look who it is. Good to see you Payno.” Louis holds his hand out to shake and Liam accepts it, sitting down next to Louis.

They’d had a shaky start. Liam, the ever prim and proper reservationist didn’t exactly fit in with Louis’ carefree maintenance personality. They hardly talked that first year, Liam too busy with the other first years. By Liam’s second year, he was going out with Louis’ group of friends. It wasn’t until last year that they really developed anything resembling a friendship, more out of necessity of living in the same house and Liam and Zayn becoming close. Still, it was a friendship none the less.

“How ya been?” Liam asks.

Louis shrugs, “Fine, how are you? How’s school?”

“It’s good. Different to undergrad, but it’s almost over.”

Louis nods at that, taking another drag of the cigarette and letting the silence hang. Louis’ not one to let silence take over. Liam has few memories of a quiet Louis, and most of those were due to him listening to Zayn.

Liam rises up, “I better go grab my keys from the office.”

“You do that,” Louis’ voice is sharp but the words empty. Liam can’t figure out what he’s looking at. Louis’ gaze is stuck somewhere in the mass of trees. Maybe he’s seeing a ghost of a memory or a lost future. Either way, Louis’ not really there, not in the present.

“See you later, Lou.” Liam backs down the steps and kicks into a slight jog at the bottom stair.

The padlock on the shed opens with the same code. His bike is propped up in the back, an old Schwinn. It’s bright red and he got new tires put on it last year to make riding the trails easier. It’s got a basket affixed to the front and cuts his commute from his door to the lodge from 12 minutes to 4.

Everything seems to be in working order. He pulls the bike out of the shed and hops on, riding across the grass and Louis’ path. He lifts a hand as he passes Louis and gets a curt nod in response.

Liam finds the thin trail that leads through the woods and down the road to the warehouse. He can cut over to the lodge that way. It’s longer than the ride down the main road, but Liam feels content to snap back into this place slowly.

******

 

Liam grabs his keys, saying a warm hello to Lisa and the rest of the office before he leaves them to their work. He’ll start the day after the next to give him time to settle in, but, knowing himself, he’ll be back here tomorrow afternoon to get the lay of the land before the first real day.

Keys in hand, Liam hits the kickstand on his bike and hops on. He could go back to his room, start the slow process of unpacking, or he could take a ride down to the water. Once move-in starts next week, he won’t have the beach to himself for the rest of the summer.

Liam pushes off and heads deeper into the resort. It’s a short ride down the paths in between the different bungalows to the beach. The resort is set up in a giant wheel with a large pool in the center. He skirts the fencing around the pool deck and surveys the damage the winter brought with it. He passes the large spa building that sits near the water and hits the beach. He throws his bike behind the smoothie shack that they won’t open until mid-June.

Liam takes his shoes off before hitting the sand. There’s a few large rocks down by the edge of the water. Simon leaves them in some odd tribute to the nature that he’s torn up to make the resort. Liam heads there and plops down on the biggest boulder, lying back in the mid afternoon sun.

Liam pulls out his phone thinking now is as good a time as any to call Zayn. He hits his name on his contact list and taps his fingers against the rock in a slow pattern mimicking the ringback tone playing through the speakers.

“Liam?” Zayn mumbles. Liam’s almost certain Zayn was napping.

“Hey Zayn!” Liam cheers watching a troop of ducklings following their mother into the water, “How are you?”

Zayn snorts, “Calling to check up on me?”

Liam deflates, “Pretty much. What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, babe.” Liam can feel Zayn shrug through the phone, “It just wasn’t the right thing for me anymore.”

“Was it because of Perrie? Or did you and Louis get in a fight?”

“No,” Zayn assures, “nothing like that. Just wasn’t feeling it anymore. You get caught up in it when you’re doing it, but I couldn’t do it again.” Liam jaw flexes. He doesn’t know what to say so Zayn asks, “How’re you?”

Liam sits up on the rock, “Pretty good until I found out you weren’t coming back.”

Liam knows Zayn is grinning on the other end, “Don’t try to guilt me, Liam. It won’t work.”

“You’re not even going to let me try?” Liam says but they’re joking now.

“Nah, because you’d probably convince me,” Zayn admits.

Liam’s not sure exactly what he and Zayn were to each other. When they got close, Zayn had been dating Perrie for years and Liam was starting things up with Sophia. But Liam had let his guard down around Zayn. They’d taken bike rides on the outskirts of the resort and split six packs on nights when the others went to the bar. They skirted affection with jokes about it. Zayn’s the first man that Liam was able to admit his attraction to, in his head if not to Zayn’s face. All of that factors into a cluster of feelings that Liam doesn’t know, or want, to untangle.

“Liam?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve got to go, but can you look out for Louis for me?”

Liam agrees, “Sure, I’ll watch over the melodramatic grump for you.”

Zayn sighs, “Don’t let him do that. Such a diva, Lou. Just remind him that he knows how to have fun, alright? He’ll cheer up.”

“Will do, bye Zayn.”

“Bye babe, I’ll visit soon.”

Liam smiles, “I’ll hold you to it. Bye.” He hangs up and looks out over the water, waves gently lapping onto the shore.

Liam can’t imagine not feeling at home here. Something settles in his bones past the gate, an anchor affixing him to the spot. In high school, middle school, all his life he felt like the odd man out. Everyone else seemed to collide and stick in a way he couldn’t. But here, at the resort, he settles. He’s finally got something to hold onto.

Every year is an emotional adventure, long days and sleepless nights. He hardly leaves the mile radius he’s carved out for himself, but there’s still a sense of wonder at the beginning of every year. There are people from all over the country who want to give their all for the summer, who aren’t afraid to be out from under their parents’ wings. Somehow, all these souls together work.

Liam walks down to the water, careful not to step in. His feet are going to be sandy enough as it is, best to not get his old sneakers wet too. He contemplates going for a quick run but the sun’s looking low in the sky and he’s sure everyone will be getting off work soon. Leigh-Anne had said they’d take him for drinks in town when they got back. He’ll have enough time to shower if he heads back now.

Liam jogs to his bike, laces up his sneakers and rides towards home.

*****

“Li-am!” Harry shouts through Liam’s bedroom door, “You almost ready?”

“Give me a minute,” Liam gels his hair back and washes his hands, “I’ll meet you outside.”

“I’m leaving in five minutes whether you're with us or not,” Harry announces before the footsteps fade down the hallway. Liam grabs his wallet with one last look in the mirror and he runs out to the truck.

After their second summer, Harry bought a huge truck with his savings. It had only been a few years old at the point and the mileage was ok. It became everyone’s favorite vehicle their third year. Five people could fit in the cab and the local police knew them well enough not to pull them over if they had people in the bed.

Harry’s at the wheel with Niall shotgun, in control of the music blasting from the speakers inside and outside the truck. Leigh-Anne and Jade are in the cab with them. Perrie, Jesy, and Louis are in the back. Liam runs up to the side of the bed, grabs onto the frame and uses the tire to haul himself up. Perrie rolls her eyes at Liam’s display and Liam hits the back of the truck. Harry throws the truck into drive, crows, “And we’re off!”

The drive to town is only a few miles but it feels so far from their little spot in the woods. It’s five miles on a one lane highway to town, foliage trapping the road in on either side. Harry hits 60 as soon as he’s past the locked secondary gate that employees use.

Perrie and Jesy are snug up against the cab, chatting close together in the deafening wind. Liam turns to watch Louis. He’s sitting opposite Liam, ankles crossed next to Liam’s left knee. Louis’s looking ahead, watching the road.

Louis’ nose tips up as his eyes scan the road, his chestpiece stands out under the white of his thin shirt. There’s a thrum of energy around Louis that draws Liam in. He doesn’t remember it from past years. Maybe Zayn’s own glow hid Louis’ or maybe Liam never paid attention. Louis’ sharp cheekbones cut the wind and his hair flies around his face.

Liam shakes himself out of it when Louis turns back and catches him mid stare. Louis’ lips quirk up on either side.

“Missed me Payno?” Louis yells against the wind.

Liam shrugs, “Not really. Honestly, I’m surprised I remember your name.”

Louis throws his head back and laughs, “Well, I don’t remember you being so cheeky.”

“You rubbed off on me last summer,” Liam grins.

“Feel like I would’ve remembered that,” Louis muses. Liam laughs and Jesy looks at them, judges their antics. She pokes Liam in the arm. Liam and Louis hold eye contact. This feels more comfortable, more like the Louis Liam remembers, the brash kid who once covered Simon’s car with post-it notes.

Louis, seeming to take Liam’s conversation as a challenge, climbs toward the cab on his knees. Liam cringes, preparing himself. Louis’ favorite way to ride in Harry’s car is standing, hanging off of the detailing on the cab. Every time he’d done it their third year, Liam has reprimanded him, asking him to sit down until he was blue in the face. Last year had only been slightly better, reminding Louis every time to sit his ass down.

Louis pulls himself up, hair pushed back against the wind and a wild cackle escaping as he holds on. He turns his head and grins at Liam, “Got anything to say to me Payno?”

Liam swallows and shakes his head, “Nope, I’ll leave you to it.”

Louis relishes in the pride, shouting into the wind with a wild “Whoop!” of victory. And Liam. Liam can’t take it. Liam pushes down the fears in his stomach and uses Jesy’s leg to pull himself toward the cab,

“Watch it Liam,” she says but reaches out to help him forward. He gets his hands on the cab, takes a deep breath, and pulls himself up.

The wind digs into his face and he stumbles backward before catching himself. The wind whips at his clothes and Liam holds on to the edge of the truck, pulling himself forward against the wind. The trees fly past almost faster at this higher vantage point. Adrenaline pumps through Liam’s veins and he finds he likes it.

Louis had a crazed grin on his face next to him. “Just watch out for bugs!” he shouts. There’s an edge of glee around his face now, one Liam’s glad he got to put there.

“Hey!” Niall calls through the window, “Harry says if either of you assholes die, he’s not coming to your funeral!”

”Won’t be anything left of us to have a funeral!” Louis yells tipping his head back.

It’s followed by a muffled, “Don’t fucking die!” from Harry. Louis  laughs and Liam can’t stop himself from following along, his shoulder brushing against Louis and their bodies tensed, battling the wind.

They pull up to the bar five minutes later. It’s Wednesday Wing Night so the parking lot is full and Harry parks on the grass next to the little brick bar. ‘The Pine Lake Bar’ flashes from bright neon atop the roof. Liam and Louis jump down from the back while the girls step off the tires.

Leigh-Anne walks up to Liam, light glare on her face. She slaps his shoulder lightly, “Not you too! I can handle being around one knucklehead but not two!”

“Ah, Leigh,” Louis loops his arm around Leigh-Anne’s shoulders, “I knew you loved me.”

Leigh-Anne hides a grin and rolls her eyes, “Nope, I just don’t want to have to work with your mom after you’re sent to the hospital.” She walks away, linking arms with Jesy and walking into the bar.

“Come on boys!” Niall calls them over, holding the door open, “Got to grab a table.”

“We’re coming!” Louis says. It’s only the two of them now, standing next to the truck, everyone else having made their way slowly in pairs to the doorway.

Liam turns to look at Louis. Liam’s never understood him. Liam’s seen him be his mother’s son, a loving supporting figure who goes to her for advice. He’s seen Louis the big brother, throwing little girls over his shoulder and putting bandaids on boo-boos. Louis’ different to all their friends, partners in crime with Zayn, comedian to Niall, gentle with Harry. With Liam, it’s antagonistic, Louis holding Liam at arm’s length before he darts in to prod.

Right now, Louis is giving him a discerning look. It’s a stalemate of gazes, hands in their pockets and lips quirked up. Liam’s stuck at Louis’ eyes, bright and cool.  As Louis’ gaze drops down Liam breaks the moment, “Come on, before they run out of wings.”

The bar is as Liam remembers it from months ago, all deep wood and pool tables. Harry and Niall are pulling two tables together in the back and Perrie and Jesy are grabbing drinks for everyone at the bar; they had promised first round.

“Liam, come sit next to me,” Harry calls and pats the chair between him and Jade. Perrie hands him a beer and they click bottles.

“Won’t be really complete until Ashton moves in,” Niall says.

“Think you’re forgetting someone else there Nialler,” Louis takes a sip of his beer, makes a face, and heads to the bar. Liam watches him order a shot and a red drink. Liam frowns at the sight.

“Liam?” Barbara, the owner’s daughter, is over his right shoulder, “You doing wings too?”

“Wha-yeah. Medium please. Thanks,” he grins at her.

“Of course, nice to have you back Liam,” She winks and moves on to Jade.

Barbara leaves the table as Louis slides into his seat, “Looks like Liam’s found his next summer girlfriend.”

Liam laughs, “Hardly.”

“What you trying to say about Babs, Liam?” Harry prods in jest, “She’s a lovely girl.”

“Well,” Liam scratches the back of his neck, “I guess that would be the problem.”

Jesy narrows her eyes at him, “What do you mean by that?”

“Guess this is a good as time as any to tell you guys,” Liam picks at his beer bottle, “I came out this past spring.”

There’s a cheer from the girls side of the table and a splutter from Louis as he coughs up the sticky sweet red concoction. Niall laughs and thumps Louis’ back.

Louis’ eyes are wide, “Came out as what?”

Liam furrows his eyebrows, “Bisexual? But I’m not really looking at girls right now,” Liam shrugs, “Problem?”

“Nope,” Louis shakes his head, “No problem at all.” He drains the rest of his glass and slams it on the table.

“Jesus Lou,” Niall mutters but Liam’s attention is stolen by Harry.

“I am going to be the best wingman for you bro,” Harry says, “I’ve always wanted to see if I’d be as good a wing man with men as women.”

“Harry,” Liam grins, “You’re a terrible wingman. You always end up taking the girl home.”

“See! I’ll be way better with men! I won’t take them home.”

“Ok, guess we’ll see,” Liam answers. When he turns back to look across the table, Louis’ eyes are on him. Liam’s not particularly deep, he doesn’t hide much, but something in the way Louis’ eyes scan him make Liam feel like the ocean and Louis wants to discover what’s beneath the surface.

******

“How you feeling Liam?” Lisa asks as Liam closes out of his computer.

“Good?” Liam grins at her.

“Good,” Lisa grins back, “I’m glad your back. It gives me more wiggle room in my schedule.”

“Of course,” Liam shakes his head and grabs his few things.

Lisa is like a fairy godmother to him. She waved her magic wand five years ago and now he has direction in his life.

“Tomorrow, I want to go through the housing files and get everything set for Saturday,” Lisa steps back, giving Liam room to move from behind his desk, “It will take most of the day, and after we can make stock lists for the different offices.”

“Ok,” Liam nods, “I can do that.”

“Just giving you warning,” Lisa puts her hands on her hips, silver braid hanging down over her shoulder, “I’m really glad you’re back, kid. Missed you.”

Liam’s face lights up. He steps toward her and wraps her into a quick hug before darting out the door.

The familiar ride home goes by fast enough. He drives at school, so his body is still adjusting to the sway of the bike beneath him up the hills.

Liam pulls up to the house and hears everyone walking around inside. The looming brick almost breathes with the life behind its door. Perrie passes in front of the kitchen window and waves at him as he marches up their front steps.   

“There he is,” Niall says as Liam walks through the door, “Been here less than a week and they’re already keeping you late.”

“I wanted to finish what I was doing,” Liam leans against the kitchen island with the rest of them, staring at a huge pile of pizza boxes in the middle, “What’s this?”

“Ben and I are working on the menus for pizza nights, trying a few different new combinations,” Harry gestures at the pile and starts taking the boxes down, “These lovely pies have been donated. You just have to tell me what’s best.”

“Will do,” Ashton grabs a box and pulls it forward.

Liam reaches for a box and opens it. It’s covered in different vegetables and blobs of white that look like goat cheese. Louis, next to him, snorts, “Just like them to put a salad on a pizza.”

“It might be good,” Liam shrugs, grabbing a piece.

“You try that, I’m going to get something with meat on it,” Louis stands on his tiptoes to grab a piece of buffalo chicken out of the box in front of Perrie and Jesy.

Liam takes a big bite, roasted vegetables and the weird cheese hitting his tongue. He chews and grimaces as he swallows, “Harry? What is this?”

Harry looks up, eyes narrowed at the pizza before brightening, “That’s the vegan pizza! I made the cashew cheese myself.”

Louis explodes into laughter next to Liam who swallows, “Oh.”

“Is it good?” Harry’s eyes are lit up, questioning, “We wanted a quality alternative.”

“Yeah Payno,” Louis bumps his hip against Liam’s, “How is it?”

Liam turns to Louis, his eyes are bright and crisp. It’d taken a few days of Liam giving into Louis’ poking and prodding for that spark to come back, but Liam had sacrificed to keep his promise to Zayn. After work, they kick a football around the backyard, scoring on makeshift goals while everyone else bumbles around the house. Liam feels like a cloud, full of air and floating, when he gets Louis to smile.

Liam turns back to Harry, “I’m sure the vegans will love it.” He takes another bite, grimacing slightly when the substitute hits his tongue. Harry beams before turning back to his conversation with Jade.

“Here,” Louis places a piece of pizza on a flimsy paper plate in front of Liam. It has bits of steak and french fries on it. Liam’s arteries ache at the sight of it.

“Thanks,” Liam swaps out pieces and takes a bite. Louis steps on his toe.

“I try to save who I can,” Louis grins.

“Who wants beer?” Niall calls from open garage door.

“Me,” Liam calls, “Mine are on shelves.”

“What’s it called Liam,” Niall waits at the door.

“I honestly don’t know,” Liam shakes his head, “It’s in a green carton.” Niall nods and Louis raises an eyebrow at Liam.

“What did you buy?” Louis asks over the multiple voices all fighting to be heard.

“I went to the liquor store and bought whatever was cheapest,” Liam reaches forward to grab another few slices of pizza.

“No you didn’t,” Louis shakes his head, distaste on his face.

“I did,” Liam confirms. Niall hands him a green bottle with a stylized face on the corner. The liquor store only sells locally brewed beer. It’s a few more bucks but Liam likes it. 

“You drink that hipster shit?” Louis plucks the bottle from Liam’s fingers.

Liam grabs the bottle opener from his key chain, “Yes?”

Louis shakes his head again, “What about normal beer? Cheap beer Payno? This is a disgrace.” He hands the bottle back to Liam. Liam pops off the cap and takes a sip. It’s a little dark for his liking, but at least it tastes like beer.

“You want to try?”

“No, I don’t,” Louis grabs his own glass, “I have standards.”

“You’re missing out,” Liam grins as he takes another sip.

“I don’t think so,” Louis looks away. Liam can see the tension around his lips where he holds back a smile.

*****

“Liam!” It’s a muffled whisper followed by a knock to his door, “Payno!”

“Hm?” Liam says into his pillow.

“Open the door!” Liam gets up, adjusts his boxers, and opens the door a crack.

“Louis?”

Louis grins, mischief clouding the air around him, “Come on.”

“What?”

“Come on,” Louis repeats, “I’m going on an adventure and I’ve decided you are the lucky chap who gets to come with me.”

“Tommo, it’s,” Liam scrambles for his phone on his bedside table, “it’s two in the morning. And I have move in duty first thing tomorrow.”

“I know,” Louis says, “It’s the last night before everyone gets here. Last night this place will be empty.”

Liam leans his head against the door frame, hitting his forehead against the wood, groaning. He knows he shouldn’t. This is an awful idea. Truly horrendous. Unbelievably bad.

“Just let me put some clothes on,” Liam says with a sigh. He catches the smirk that plays on Louis’ lips as he pulls on a sweatshirt and jeans.

“Come on,” Liam follows as Louis leads him out the back door and down to the trail leading into the resort.

“Where we going?”

“It’s a surprise,” Louis calls over his shoulder.

Liam follows closely as they make their way through the foliage. It freaks Liam out how dense it is. During the day, sunlight peaks between the trees and it’s lovely. At night, it’s endless, stretching into the dark. Louis seems at home with the dense trail. His feet pick lightly over the roots dotting the trail that Liam keeps stumbling over. He has a headlamp on his dresser for these kind of situations and he’s regretting not bringing it. Louis seems to make do with a pocket flashlight and the moon.

They reach the main road and Liam follows Louis through the trails to the pool. A laugh shocks it’s way out of Liam.

“What?” Louis asks. He’s got his maintenance keys out. It’s a complete set for the resort, a big loop with multiple carabiners and teenage mutant ninja turtle key covers on the important ones. Louis grabs Donatello and unlocks the gate to the pool.

“Isn’t this a bit unoriginal for you? Kind of a cliche, isn’t it?” Liam mocks.

Louis pulls Liam in by the collar and locks the gate behind them, “Oh shut it. Zayn and I started doing this years ago, back when pool hopping was cool.”

“Pool hopping was never cool,” Liam quips. He starts to take his sweatshirt off before double checking with Louis, “Is it safe?”

“Can’t swim Payno?” Louis’ got his pants around his ankles.

“I meant the chemicals. Niall’s been working on it lately. Is it balanced properly?” Liam pulls his sneakers and pants off, standing and looking towards Louis. Louis is not where he was standing a moment ago.

“Why don’t you check for us?” Louis says before he pushes Liam into the deep end.

The water is cold. They don’t heat for the first time until a few days before guests show up. There’s a crisp feeling on the edge of Liam’s consciousness and he’s definitely awake now. He pushes up to the surface and is greeted by Louis doubled over on the pool deck.

“You won’t be laughing for long,” Liam starts to swim over to him.

“Now who’s a cliche?” Louis asks before running into a beautiful dive off the side. He glides into the pool, staying under longer than Liam did before pushing to the surface, “Christ it’s cold.”

“Yeah, well, what were you expecting?”

Louis is about to retort when they hear the sound of a golf cart approaching.

“Shit,” Liam says, swimming into the corner behind the diving board.

“Relax,” Louis says, resting his arms on the lip of the pool.

“Who's in there?” Tom calls through the chain links, flashlight lighting up the water next to Liam’s shoulder. Liam tries not to breathe. Louis splashes water into the light.

“It’s Liam Payne! Mr.Perfect himself is breaking the rules!” Louis cackles. Liam swims to Louis and pushes him under the water. Louis pushes back and splutters, grappling with Liam.

“Oh!” Tom says, starting on the lock, “Didn’t think you’d make it this year without your friend.”

Liam furrows his brow in confusion while Louis talks to Tom, “Nope, replaced him instead.”

Liam looks up and realizes that the golf cart is parked so that the headlights light up the pool area, enough that Tom is able to pick his way along the concrete and sit down on the lip of the pool.

“Howdy Liam, how’re you doing?” Tom asks. He pulls his socks and sneakers off and dips his shoes in the water, “Ooh, that feels good.”

“I’m good?” Liam questions. They’re not supposed to be here. Tom should be getting them out of the water, calling Simon or something. Instead, Louis is pulling himself out of the water and sitting next to Tom.

“How ya doing old man?” Louis’ voice is quiet, echoing across the surface of the water.

“Just fine, just fine,” Tom says, “Back’s acting up again. This might be my last summer.”

Louis chuckles, “You say that every year.”

“One of these years it will be true,” Tom pats Louis’ knee.

Liam’s never seen the two interact, but there’s an obvious affection between Tom and Louis. Louis’ smile is slight and caring. Tom, everyone’s adoptive grandfather over the summer, has a more stern look at Louis, letting Louis talk instead of the constant stream of comments he normally throws at everyone else.

“...so I can’t avoid it really.” Louis finishes a story about his job at housing the next day. He’s the last line before kids move in, giving them the safety lectures and housing policies. “I bet Simon thinks my menacing appearance will scare them straight and keep them well-behaved or some shit.”

Tom snorts, “Then he’s got the wrong guy for the job.”

Louis draws back in mock offense, “You don’t know that. Maybe I’ve grown up. I can act like a responsible adult and lay down the law.”

Tom shakes his head, “I’m going to have my hands full this summer,” Tom turns to Liam, “What are you doing all the way over there Liam?”

Liam looks at the diving board and back, “Just practicing my pull-ups.” He kicks up in the water and grabs onto the low lying board. He does a few lazy pull-ups out of the water before sinking back down.

“Now you got him started,” Louis says to Tom, “The show-off.”

“I don’t blame him,” Tom grins, “If I could do that I would.” Louis grins back at him but Tom starts to pull his feet out of the water, “Alrighty, got to get back to rounds. Don’t stay out here too long kiddo.”

“We were actually planning on sleeping out here, under the stars. Romantic, right?” Louis says while he helps Tom stand up. Tom ruffles his hair and starts walking back to his golf cart.

“Sure,” Tom points at Liam, “Have a lovely night boys!”

“Bye pops!” Louis calls over his shoulder. Tom drives away and Liam swims over to where Louis has grabbed a pack of cigarettes and is lighting up.

“Pops?”

Louis takes a moment and a drag before he answers, “Grandfather. My dad’s dad. Helped my mom out when I was a kid after he split.”

Liam holds onto the edge of the pool, in shock. Liam knows not to ask about the personal lives of the staff that have been here for years. He knows there’s drama, hears snippets of it in the office. He never would’ve guessed that Tom and Louis were related. Never even thought to question Jay’s, now divorced, past.

“Oh,” Liam says, not wanting to pry.

“Yep,” Louis says, “So. How do you like being bad Payno?”

“Hmm?”

“Look at you, breaking all the rules like a natural. Does it feel good?” Louis smirks.

“Doesn’t feel like breaking the rules when it’s sanctioned,” Liam counters.

Louis shrugs, “He only lets me do it once a year, the day before everyone else moves in. He didn’t want the other kids learning from me. And Zayn.” Smoke drips out between Louis’ lips and settles over the water.

It feels still, complete in the air. The water’s surface has settled. Louis’ smoke is effervescent in the moonlight and all they can here are the quiet sounds of the cicadas and grasshoppers.

“So,” Liam starts, “You got roped into doing move-in? I can’t remember you doing it before.”

“Yeah, Simon normally has Zayn do it, try to convince everyone to behave with his pretty face,” Louis muses, “normally works well actually.”

Liam snorts, “Didn’t house three throw a party the first weekend last summer?”

Louis lies back against the concrete, bare chest rising and falling parallel to the ground, “Before Zayn started doing it, people would have a party first night.”

“Who would do it before Zayn,” Liam asks, content hanging onto the pool wall next to Louis’ face.

Louis’ turns his head, wicked grin on his face, “Who else? Uncle Simon of course.”

Liam laughs, a pleased smile taking over Louis face as he does, “Really?”

“Yeah, he hated when Zayn would do better than him. The only thing that his ‘if you want it done right, do it yourself’ motto doesn’t work for.” Louis continues, “He hardly cares that they only behave because they want in Zayn’s pants.”

“Too bad,” Liam says, “getting their hopes up and then finding out about Perrie.”

Louis grimaces at that, “Yeah.”

Liam takes it as the end of the conversation it is. He pulls himself out of the water and tries to shake some of the water off, most of it hitting Louis.

“Shit,” Louis recoils, “I was almost dry.”

“Sorry,” Liam says with no regret. He catches the flirting notes in his own voice and tries to reign them in, “Didn’t see you there.”

Louis looks at him, eyes wide, before shaking his head, “Should have known you’d be trouble Payno. I should’ve known.”

“Like you aren’t trouble yourself Tommo,” Liam throws his sweatshirt on and slips on his sneakers, grabbing his jeans in hand, “Let’s get back. I’m on the early shift.”

Louis grins but pulls on his sweats, “Me too. We’ll be quite the pair tomorrow morning. Your mug with no sleep will scare the newbies senseless.”

“You’re really funny,” Liam quips as he yawns. Louis pinches his undefended side before heading out the gate and locking it behind them.

They take the main road back this time. It’s slightly longer but allows them to walk side by side. They nudge each other back and forth, Louis trying to push Liam into the forest and Liam having to hold his wrists to stop him. Louis’ always acted like this with him, pushing buttons, but Liam’s never had so much of Louis’ attention focused on him. He’s choosing to bask in it.

This silence isn’t uncomfortable like their meeting on the first day, nor is it the rushed, efficient thing of their walk down to the pool. This is a silence of content. Liam flicks his eyes to take in Louis’ small smile as Liam grapples with his wrists. It’s almost scary, the comfort that has settled between them in the past ten days but hadn’t happened in the previous four years.

Liam remembers the reason it became necessary, the reason why he was woken up tonight instead of sleeping until dawn.

“How are you doing?” Liam asks.

Louis tilts his head away from Liam, curious, “I’m fine? And you?”

Liam drops Louis’ wrists, “I meant with Zayn not being here.”

Louis stops, shuts his eyes for a moment before sighing. Liam stills a few paces ahead, wanting to uncross the line he overstepped, but Louis catches up to him, “You guys don’t have to humor me. I’m not a child.”

“No one thinks that, but we worry,” Liam tries to keep up with Louis’ quickened pace.

“You don’t have to,” Louis snarls, “Zayn’s made it clear what he thinks and I’m not going to dwell on it.” Louis turns, walking backwards ahead of Liam, quick feet against the ground, “Besides, I’ve got you as his replacement now, don’t I?”

Liam calms, “Just don’t expect me to show up to maintenance crew in the mornings.”

“What, afraid to get dirt on your pants?”

Liam fakes a serious face, “I could break a nail.”

Louis cackles and Liam joins in, “Oh no, the horror.”

Liam shakes his head, “My worst nightmare.”

Louis falls into step behind Liam and hooks his arm around Liam’s shoulder, “We’d toughen you up, teach you the lay of the land.”

“Maybe another time,” Liam tries, and fails, to shrink to fit himself closer against Louis’ body.

“I’ll hold you to it, Payno,” Louis mumbles.

The house looms up ahead of them, the downstairs lights shining through the windows, and with their destination in sight, their walk slows again.

“I,” Louis starts, pulling away from Liam, voice soft in the night, “Zayn and I used to hook up.”

“What?” Liam stops this time, hand in the pocket of his sweatshirt and Louis ahead of him. Louis doesn’t look at him when he turns around, instead stares into the trees and runs a hand through his hair.

“That summer when we shared a room, we used to hook up sometimes,” Louis shrugs, “We both wanted to experiment so we went for it.”

Liam does the math, finds a discrepancy, “What about Eleanor? You two were together-”

Louis laughs, bitter, “Liam, did you ever see her here?” He takes a step toward Liam, “I was here all summer and she was in college the rest of the year. Does that sound like a real relationship?”

Liam is stunned, jaw dropped, “You and Zayn?”

Louis shrugs, “It wasn’t romantic, and Zayn met Perrie the next summer.” Louis starts walking toward the house, and Liam follows, “I’m only telling you so you know you’re not the only queer one here.”

“Oh,” Liam nods. He didn’t mind before but it’s nice to know.

They reach the porch and Louis makes one more remark, “Figure you should know what replacing him entails,” Louis winks, “Good night Payno.” Louis disappears through the door. Liam’s lost in a daze of a trying to imagine a young Louis and Zayn on one of the bunks in house nine. He shakes his head, feeling like a pervert, and walks through to his room.

It’s only after stripping off the chlorine soaked sweatshirt that he realizes what Louis had said as he parted.

Liam trips over his feet making his way through his door and up the stairs to Louis’ room. It’s the biggest in the house but it’s an odd shape, thin and long, running most of the length of the hallway. Liam has always liked the windows in Louis’ room. They have a view of the lake.

Liam knocks lightly on the door, only realizing he’s naked besides a pair of boxers and sneakers when footsteps approach the door from the other side. Liam fights the urge to cover himself. Instead he plants his hands on the door frame, one hand gripped on either side of the doorway.

Louis opens the door, leaning against the doorframe on his side, arms crossed, eyebrow quirked at Liam, “Yeah?”

“Did you-?” Liam starts and bites his tongue, “Did you suggest something out there?”

Louis holds Liam’s gaze, heat in his eyes, before saying, “Did I?”

Liam shifts his weight between his feet. He feels like an idiot, close to naked and standing outside Louis’ room. Liam wonders if he planned this, making Liam work for it.

“Want to hang out tomorrow night?” Liam asks, words quiet in the house.

Louis looks down Liam’s chest, along his arms, before meeting Liam’s eyes again. Liam’s heart beat spikes under the gaze. It’s something about Louis’ eyes, the bright color hiding all Louis’ secrets.

Louis leans forward, angled for Liam’s face, and Liam expects a kiss. He parts his lips and leans into it, but Louis bypasses and heads for Liam’s ear.

Louis whispers in Liam’s ear, careful not to make contact between them. A shiver travels down Liam’s back, “Don’t make any plans after work tomorrow.”

Liam swallows and with that, Louis’ closes the door, leaving Liam holding onto the frame and wondering what exactly transpired between them.

“What the- Liam?” Niall peeks out from behind his door, “What the fuck are you doing up here? Go to bed.” Niall shuts his door and Liam forces his feet down the stairs.

Well. Looks like he has a date tomorrow night.

*****

Liam wakes up early in the morning, alarm blaring at 6. He throws on sneakers, still slightly wet from the night before, shorts and a t-shirt.

He won’t be able to run in the mornings after they open next week. Next week starts 12 hour days, quick meals when he can get them, and sleeping when he can. It’s not a glamourous life but it works for them. It’s part of the magic of the staff. They keep each other lifted.

The only way he was able to keep relationships up in the past was through work. Dani and he worked in the same department and often had shifts together. Working the desk for reservations can get boring in between check outs and check ins so they’d sit and talk and about a month into working together she’d kissed him. They’d tried to keep it a secret that first year but it came out eventually, toward the end of the summer. Lisa didn’t mind, as long as they kept it professional at work.

The secret of it all was what kept them running. Dani liked pulling him aside in the office and touching him under the desk. It was fun, running past her house and meeting in the woods. He lost his virginity in a small clearing in the woods behind house three. They’d brought a picnic on their day off and stayed there for hours, away from prying eyes.  

The next summer, it hadn’t been right. They’d fallen into each other as easy as they had before but now everyone was involved. People would make snide comments when he’d go to her room and he hated it. People made fun of her for dating down so she’d make lewd comments about him in bed to justify her decisions. It was a relief at the beginning of his third year when she didn’t pop up on moving day.

He took a break from romance his third summer. The gossip was that he was nursing a broken heart but that’s when he started getting more responsibilities at reservations. He got a promotion, a key to the office, and ten more hours a week. There wasn’t a way to maintain a relationship in the transition, so he didn’t.

Sophia had caught his eye that first day last year. He made note of her house number when he had her sign the contract. She was a lifeguard and worked under Niall so she wouldn’t be reprimanded if she was a few minutes late on her lunch break, visiting him. With Soph, it had been about a bed to come home to a sweet girl to make sure he ate three meals a day. There was never any illusion that there’d be more.

Liam’s feet hit the trails hard as he runs. He’s never tried anything with anyone here who was more permanent. Jade and he had almost slept together one night during his third year, both a few drinks past tipsy. They’d saved themselves last minute by remembering they had to work together the next day. Both with clear heads, the idea of dating someone who you knew would be back the following year seemed like a disaster.

And now there’s Louis.

Liam picks up his pace, watching the sun rise above the tree line and hit his eyes. He’s got to be out by the table at the employee turn off by eight. He has to grab the table and check in stuff from the main office with Harry’s truck.

Move-in is always all hands on deck. He’d been invited to help his third year. It was a test to see if he could handle the pressure in the office. He’d passed. His task that first time was to be a helping hand at employee housing, show people their rooms and help with heavy suitcases. This year and last he’s got desk duty. He’s working the full day, unlike the shifts everyone else takes between move-in and their other assigned work, because he’s the only one Lisa trusts not to screw up housing deposits and handing out the keys.

Liam runs up the front steps of his house and pulls open the door. Harry and Louis are sitting in the kitchen, cups of coffee and toast in front of them.

“Any more coffee for me?” Liam asks.

Louis squints up at him from where his head lies on the counter, “You don’t deserve coffee. No one who can get up and run before the sun rises should be allowed coffee.”

Liam grabs Harry’s cup and takes a sip, “You sound grumpy. Get enough sleep last night?” Liam feigns ignorance but it’s unnecessary. Harry is too interested in his toast to notice the glare Louis sends Liam’s way.

“I did my six hours but I still feel like crap,” Harry says, reaching back for his coffee.

“Harry,” Louis grumbles, “It’s supposed to be eight hours.”

“Eight?” Harry says, shocked, “Who has time for eight hours of sleep?”

“I would have if I hadn’t been woken up,” Liam pours his coffee and turns back to his friends, Niall coming down the stairs.

“What were you doing upstairs last night?” Niall yawns and steals the mug Liam poured. Liam frowns and grabs a fresh cup.

“I was-” he cuts off when he feels Louis’s eyes on him. Louis’ face is pinched in a way Liam can’t interpret any other way than shut up , “I heard a weird noise from up there. Checking for ghosts.”

“Don’t start that again Liam,” Harry sits up straight, accusing finger pointed at Liam, “I will not tolerate your damn ghost stories another year.”

“How do you explain it any other way-”

“Not. Again.” Harry attempts to be menacing but his unkempt hair and pouted lips make it hard to take him seriously.

Liam hides his quirked lips behind his coffee, “Ok, not again.”

Niall slams back the coffee and sets the mug in the sink, “Anyone else need to shower?”

“Me, but I’ll be down here,” Liam says.

“Better hurry, both of you,” Louis points at the clock, “we’ve got a half hour before the gates open.”

Liam turns to the wall and mumbles a quick “shit” when he sees the time, “Am I still good to borrow the truck?” He quirks an eyebrow at Harry.

“Yeah, I’ll leave the keys on the seat before I head to the warehouse.”

“Thanks,” Liam runs to the ground floor bathroom. No one else uses it unless all the others are filled. He’s the only one with a room down here and the bathrooms upstairs are nicer. The girls’ bathroom on the third floor is bigger than any of their rooms. Liam wouldn’t trade his though. He likes the privacy.

He’s out of the shower and dressed in his uniform in ten minutes. He grabs a bagel in the kitchen and runs out to Harry’s truck.

Twenty five minutes later, Liam has the table set up and organized, the change in the money box double counted, and a smile on his face. He can see the closed gate and his watch says he’s only got four minutes until eight. All he needs now is Jesy to show up for her shift with him.

“Payno!” Liam turns to see Louis, out of uniform, skating up the road.

“What are you doing?” Liam shouts, pointing toward the gate, “The gate’s about to open.”

“Please,” Louis comes to a halt right in front of the table, “I’m here in plenty of time.”

“Here?” Liam furrows his brow, “I thought you were third stop.”

“Traded with Jesy,” Louis says, settling into the seat next to Liam.

“Do you even know how to do this?” Liam asks.

“No, but you can teach me,” Louis grins, “We’ve got some time.”

At his words, the gates open and a minivan drives down the road. Liam drops his head into his palm, “Watch me for the first couple of cars, ok?”

“Got it,” Louis stacks his ankles on the edge of the table. Liam sighs and stands up, heading to meet the van, pop punk pouring from the windows.

Liam recognizes the faces before it comes to a stop, grinning because he can’t help it with these boys. He leans against the open window and smiles at them, “Welcome back boys. Tommo, your crew is here.”

With that, Louis pops up and pushes Liam out of the way, “Right on time, aren’t you. I expect you this on time every day now, you hear? You’ve set an expectation for yourself.”

Calum leans out the passenger window, “To be honest, we haven’t gone to bed yet so you can’t hold it against us.”

Louis lets out a long laugh, “How long has Luke been driving?”

“Few hours,” Calum says while Luke waves from his side of the van, “Mikey did most of the drive.”

“Where is he?” Liam asks.

“Passed out in the back.”

“Anyone else in there?”

“Nope,” Calum confirms, “Here’s all our first and last week's.” Calum hands Liam three checks and Liam grabs the deposit box. Louis continues to chat.

“Now,” Louis tells them, “I pulled some strings and you lot are going to be in grey house in the newer housing section. You’re welcome.”

“Thanks boss man!” Luke calls from inside the van.

“Least I could do, I’m going to need you at your best this summer. We’ve got a lot of new faces and there’s been a shift in management. Calum, you feel comfortable being in control of design?”

“Yeah,” Liam watches, pulling keys, as Calum furrows his eyebrows, “what’s Zayn doing then?”

Louis’ back stiffens, “He’s not coming back this year.”

“What?” Calum’s face falls. Liam knew that he and Zayn were close. Zayn had taken Calum under his wing early on, “Is he ok?”

Liam steps in, “He’s fine. Now,” he holds up the three key rings, “Luke and Calum are in room three and Mikey’s in room six. Drive along and you’ll run into Niall at some point to get new uniforms and schedules.”

“Bye boys, feel free to stop by the house later,” Louis hits the hood of their van and they drive away, music turned back up.

Liam migrates back to his chair, looking out for the next car, “I thought we had plans later.”

Louis’ face flicks up at that, smirk sneaking on to his lips, “Just because I invited them doesn’t mean I need to be there.”

Liam, baffled, reorganizes his papers, “I’m pretty sure that’s not true. Looks like we’ll have to hang out another night.”

Louis’ outstretched arm lands on the back of Liam’s chair, “We can always do both.”

Liam shakes his head around a grin, looking down at the paper work. He sits up straighter when he realizes, “Gray house 3 is one of the rooms for couples. It has a queen mattress.”

It’s Louis’ turn to look confused, “Wow, four gays at the resort, alert the media, whatever shall we do?”

Liam prods Louis’ side, “That’s not what I meant. I didn’t know, I thought you were trying to pull a prank on them.”

“Nope,” Louis leans back in his chair, surveying the forest, arm still heavy on Liam’s back rest, “How did you not know?”

“I didn’t spend too much time with anyone outside the house last year.”

“Spent a lot of time with Sophia.”

“Didn’t have time for anyone else really.” Liam looks up as another car comes down the road.

“Yeah, I remember that much,” Louis stands up, pats Liam’s shoulder, “I’ve got this one.” Liam watches Louis cross to meet the car, leaning confidently against the siding and saying with a grin, “Welcome to the Pine Lake Resort. Your name please?”

*****

Liam’s alarm goes off at seven and he gets punched in the face.

“Shut the fuck up,” Louis mumbles into Liam’s shoulder, eyes closed and his left hand smushing Liam’s face as if that will quiet the noise.

“Lou, wake up,” Liam pushes him back and reaches for the alarm. Louis, instead of waking up, curls his back towards Liam and steals his pillow.

They hadn’t planned to share a bed last night. Liam doesn’t remember the discussion of a plan at all. He remembers Louis knocking on his door after sunset, then a half full box of condoms, and cleaning up after with Louis’ t-shirt to annoy him. He remembers throwing on boxers and a movie, telling Louis to stay if he wanted to watch with him. And now he’s awake.

Liam showers quickly and goes back into his room, expecting Louis to be gone. Louis is still sprawled on his bed. Liam sighs before shaking Louis’ bare foot.

“Tommo, get up,” Liam checks the time. Training for all the departments starts promptly at 8:30 and Louis’ is practically the head of his department, “It’s training day.”

“No,” Louis responds, proving he’s not dead to the world. Liam grins and tickles Louis’ foot, “Jesus-” Louis’ head shoots up and he pulls his foot away from Liam’s fingers.

“Good morning,” Liam stands tall with pride, trying to gloat, but Louis smirks back, leaning with his arms crossed over his head as he leers at Liam.

“Now Liam, if you’d told me you were naked I would’ve woken right up, no complaints,” Liam’s cheeks flush as he looks down at the towel slung low on his hips, “C’mon, give us a show.”

Liam hesitates before rolling his eyes and dropping the towel. Nothing Louis didn’t see last night. Louis’ whistles as Liam pulls on boxers.

“So, last night,” Louis stretches on the bed while Liam tugs his shirt over his head, “One time thing? Or are we going to see a repeat performance?”

Liam shrugs, “I had fun. What do you want?”

Louis shifts forward on the bed, stubborn smirk never leaving his lips, “I could go for another round or two.”

“Just your luck, I have no other plans tonight,” Liam tosses a t-shirt at Louis. It hits him dead in the face, hiding his expression. Liam gut clenches.

“A go-getter, I like it Payno,” Louis says. Liam leaves the room, turning the corner to the kitchen.

“Morning everyone,” he says to the group huddled around the breakfast bar. It’s Ashton, Harry and Perrie, all sitting with breakfast and coffee mugs. Liam grabs a banana and starts peeling before he realizes no one has responded.

All three are looking at him with varied levels of surprise and admiration. Harry has an eyebrow quirked, “Were you talking to someone in there?”

Liam pauses, not knowing how forthcoming to be. Louis hadn’t wanted anyone to know about their excursion the other night. Plus, Liam doesn’t know if Louis is really out or not, he hadn’t known. Liam swallows the bite of banana, “Yes?”

Ashton laughs while Perrie puts her mug of coffee down, “You already met someone?” she asks, shocked, “they just moved in yesterday. How did you already meet someone?”

Before Liam can bumble through an answer, Louis rounds the corner in boxers and Liam’s t-shirt, hair mussed. Louis grins at the gathered crowd, “Mornin!” He walks passed Liam, slapping his butt before he continues on to the coffee maker. There’s an obvious hickey to the left of Louis’ adam’s apple that Liam vaguely recalls placing.

Harry breaks the tension, “Something you want to share with the class Lou?”

Louis turns around, “Me?” acting faux innocent. Not a moment later, the smirk is back and he says, “I’m fucking Payno.”

Liam flushes, Harry contemplates, and Perrie, leaves the room, coffee cup in hand. She walks up the stair, calling to the third floor, “Girls, you’re missing it.”

Harry holds up his hand for a high-five in Liam and Louis’ direction, “Congratulations on the sex.” Liam slaps his hand, Louis following enthusiastically behind. They can do this. They can be the first bit of drama in the house this year. Having something light and fun to make jokes about will ease these first few weeks without Zayn.

Liam leans back against the counter, peeling his banana. Louis leans against him, catching his eye, “That looks delicious,” Louis leans down, taking a decent chunk of banana in his lips before biting and pulling off. There goes Liam’s breakfast.

“You proud of yourself?” Liam turns to Louis, whose grinning with his mouth full, “I’m not the one who’s going to choke mate,” Liam laughs as he watches a dirty comeback light up Louis’ eyes, but he can’t say it without actually choking. Louis starts chewing but Liam grabs the mug from Louis’ finger, “Nope, moment’s gone, can’t say it anymore.” Liam tilts his head back and starts drinking all of Louis’ coffee when a hand twists his nipple.

Liam sprays coffee all down the front of his shirt and the floor. The hot coffee gets in his nose and he sneezes a few times while Louis gets his voice back and starts laughing, “Sorry Payno,” Liam looks up and darts for Louis, trying to get a grip on his shirt but misses, Louis sprinting towards the stairs.

Liam looks up at Harry and Ashton, both concealing amusement behind raised hands. Liam sighs, “You already took the photo, didn’t you?”

“Sorry boss,” Ashton raises his phone, “Videos in the group chat.”

“You really deserved it,” Harry offers, “Leaving your nipples so exposed like that.”

“I know, rookie mistake,” Liam pretends to be miffed but when he drops to the ground to clean up the spill, he can’t help the grin on his face.

******

“What did you think about Sarah?” Liam asks Ashton as they bike back to the house after training day. Ashton is the night desk manager and technically directly under Liam in terms of the hierarchy. In reality, their relationship is very much the captain and his first mate.  

“See how she is in a week. Maybe she’ll surprise us,” Ashton maneuvers his bike around a rock on the trail.

“Hopefully. She didn’t smile once at training, did you notice?”

“Yeah,” they coast to a stop as they enter the yard, “if it’s still bad after a few days, maybe have Lisa talk with her?”

“That could work,” Liam trails after Ashton as they walk to lock up their bikes, “Hey, what do you have planned for your last free night?” Liam knocks his elbow into Ashton’s.

“Boys and I are going to do our last performance of the summer. Probably around 10 at grey house,” Ashton grins.

“Awesome,” Liam claps Ashton on the shoulder, “I’ll stop by.”

Liam fastens the chain around his bike and moves to stand when there are hands in his hair. The hands run back and forth, mussing up Liam’s hair, the nails digging into his scalp.

“Tommo!” Liam maneuvers away from the hands and the laughing Louis attached to them.

“What, can’t handle a little dirt Payno?” Louis is standing there in jeans, a t-shirt, and a pound of dirt.

“There’s a reason I’m not on grounds,” Liam counters, trying to shake some of the planting soil out of his hair.

“Put your boys to work today, Ash,” Louis tucks his skateboard in with the other bikes.

“Yeah?”

“We finished all the garden beds,” Louis states, proud look on his face, “Was putting it off until Calum got here to help me with the design, but they look good.”

Liam listens as Ashton asks about the rest of the new crew. While Louis is distracted, Liam sneaks to the side of the front walk where there are patches of moss growing and grabs a handful. Liam manages to get back right behind Louis when he’s noticed.

“Liam-” Louis starts but gets no further before Liam crams a handful of moss down his back. Louis yelps, “Jesus Christ Liam!”

Liam runs, knowing Louis will follow. Another pair of sprinting feet join him running across the yard. Where Liam is made for distance, Louis’ lithe body is made for speed. Liam’s hardly rounded the corner of the house, heading for the expanse of the back yard, when Louis jumps on his back. They fall to the ground, narrowly missing a few smooth stones in the grass.

Liam tries to push back, get Louis underneath him, but Louis straddles Liam’s hips and pins Liam’s wrist. If Liam were really fighting, he could easily dislodge Louis, but he’s not.

“Just remember, you did this to yourself,” Louis reminds before he grabs two handfuls of grass and grinds them into Liam’s face. A few blades slip into Liam’s mouth as he tries to hold back a full-on giggle.

Louis hovers over Liam, panting through his laughter and echoing Liam’s delight. Liam’s hands settle on Louis’ thighs and he looks up towards the sun.

“You going to get off me any time soon?” Liam gives a quick squeeze to the muscle in Louis’ thigh.

Louis’ response is a slight grind backwards and, “I could. You going to shower?”

“Probably should. Someone made a mess of me,” Liam jokes, bringing a sharp edge to Louis’ lips.

“Need some company?” Louis bends down, only a few inches above Liam.

Liam takes the hint and drags Louis down by the back of his neck, remembering the feel of that quick tongue against his, “Sounds good.”

Immediately, Louis pops up, “Beat you to it Payno.” With that he’s off, jogging to the house. Liam takes a breath, exhaling towards the sky, before he follows.

*****

Liam wakes up on the first day of the season in Louis’ Tomlinson’s bed. It’s not how he imagined starting the season, nor any day really, but it works. He checks his phone and it’s forty five minutes before his alarm goes off. He could leave, head back down to his bed, but Louis’ arm is wrapped around his waist.

Liam dozes off, relaxing into the space Louis leaves for his body.

 

JUNE

 

The side office door opens, the one employees use. Liam’s helping the girls with some group bookings and all their heads snap up at the sound of the bell.

“It feels nice in here,” Louis says to no one in particular. He turns to the five of them, the four girls all hovering over Liam’s shoulder as he shows them the new programming, “Can I get a hand?”

Liam stands and can see Louis towing a crate behind him, “What’s that?”

“Paper, came in with the afternoon shipment,” sweats beading on his forehead and it’s barely June. It's going to be a hot summer, “And could you get my mum for me?”

“Sure thing,” Leigh-Anne heads toward the back offices, leaving the rest of them to unload the cart.

“How’s it going out there?” Liam asks as he moves the large boxes behind the desks for them to organize.

“Fine,” Louis leans against Perrie’s desk, “As expected.”

“The pavers look amazing,” Liam says, off hand.

“Is this your pillowtalk?” Jade asks, Jesy laughing beside her. Liam rolls his eyes.

“Funny,” he starts but Jay’s heels clack against the tile, cutting him off.

“What, dear?” she steps close to Louis but maintains a critical distance so that her suit doesn’t get grime all over it.

“Can you pick up Lottie tomorrow?” Louis asks.

Jay looks surprised, lips pouting, “I thought you had plans with her. She told me you were making a day out of it.”

Louis’ shoulders slump and there’s something about the gesture that leads Liam to believe it’s all for show. “I’m beat. I can’t walk around town for hours, let alone drive an hour to the airport.”

Jay frowns, “Are you working too much?” Liam knows he should look away. He’s blatantly staring at the pair from across the room, listening in like he has a right to this conversation. In a way, he does. Louis and Liam, by chance, have the same day off every week. Their first day off they spent in bed, last week they drove forty-five minutes to the closest big city to see a movie, and tomorrow they wanted to go to the lake in the next town over.

“Mum, I’m fine,” Louis argues, “I just don’t want to drive an hour both ways and wait in a airport on my one day off this week.”

Jay’s lip curls but she seems satisfied with his answer, “All right, I’ll have one of the girls take the car down,” she threads a hand through Louis’ hair, Liam tracing her fingers with his eyes to make sure he never repeats the motion, and sighs, “if you’re overworked, tell us. We can find a way to cut your hours.”

“No way,” Louis assures, “Still a new crew. Once they’re more seasoned I can take a few more breaks.” Louis darts in, kissing Jay’s cheek before waving good bye to the rest of them, “Good bye you lot, see you at home later.” He catches Liam’s eye and winks before wheeling the cart back out of the office. Liam grins to himself.

“What do you two have planned for tomorrow?” Leigh-Anne asks, looking over a brochure they need to have printed.

“We’re going to-” Liam starts before he notices Jay’s eyes focused on him. His teeth clack together when he closes them.

“What was that, Liam?” Jay asks, stepping closer.

“Uh,” Liam has always had trouble with authority like this. He’s a good worker, a fantastic employee. There’s never been any reason for his employers not to be happy with him. When suspicion is turned on him, he has no clue what to do. So he shrugs, “Nothing?”

Jay cocks her head, “Is he spending time with you rather than picking his sister, that he hasn’t seen since Christmas, up from the airport?”

Liam swallows and nods. His hands come together behind his back.

Jay takes a step closer, arms crossed in front of her chest, “Are you dating my son?”

Liam freezes. He and Louis don’t talk. They have a few hours together every night where they lob jokes at each other between rounds, but they don’t talk about important things. Like if whatever they’re doing has a label. Or whether Louis’ is out to his mother yet. Any of which would have been helpful prior to this conversation.

“No,” Liam settles on, “No, no, no, we’re not dating. We’re just-” Liam shrugs again, his insecurity shining through, “hanging out.”

Jay looks to the girls, “Is that code for something now?”

“Well, no,” Jesy says, “But there are a few phrases I’d use to describe what they’re doing together.”

“Jess,” Liam whispers, admonishing. He stops when Jay turns back to him, holding her hand up, palm toward him.

“I don’t want to know,” Jay says, giving Liam one more discerning glance before heading back into the offices.

Once she’s rounded the corner, Liam flops back into his chair, “Thanks Jesy, real helpful.”

“Oh please,” Perrie defends, “Jay doesn't care that you guys are dating, she cares that Lou is lying to her.”

“It’s nothing serious,” Liam shrugs, “Why would he tell his mother about it?”

Perrie stops typing, Leigh Anne pauses stamping. All the girls look at each other and then, synchronized, pout, and say “Oh, honey.”

“You know it creeps me out when you do that,” Liam rises from his chair, “I’m going out to the desk.”

“You can run from us but not from your problems,” Jade calls after him.

Liam rounds the corner to the reservations desk where Sarah is resolutely not smiling as a guest walks away.

“Come on Sarah,” he begs, “I’m sure you have such a nice smile.”

“I am smiling,” she says, mouth in a weak curve. Liam rests his head in the palm of his hand and prepares for the rush at check-in.

******

That night, Liam doesn’t leave the office until 9:30 because Ashton has the night off and the kid who covers for him shows up out of breath an hour late, excuses falling from his lips. Liam pushes his feet down on the pedals, eyelids forced open as he zigzags across the main road back to the house.

Liam’s muscles ache and he hasn’t worked out in weeks. They’ve barely hit mid-June and he’s already starting to feel it, that sticky sweet exhaustion settling into his skin. Around week five, he’ll wake up one morning and it will disappear, a memory he can never recreate. Until then, he’ll feel each moment press against his skin.

Liam throws his bike down next to the back porch rather than locking it up front. He walks through the back porch door, waving to the few people gathered around Niall and Mikey on guitars.

“Liam, you've got your day tomorrow right?” Harry asks, leaning back against the couch.

“Yeah, need anything?”

“I forgot to pick up kale at the market-”

“He’s not getting you kale, Harry,” Niall cuts him off, “You’ll be ok.”

“But what am I supposed to put in my smoothies?” the words trail off into a quiet hum as Liam breaks away to his room. He hears voices coming from behind his closed door.

It’s a computer. Louis sits on Liam’s bed with a vat of baked ziti and a day old football game on his laptop screen.

“Hello there,” Louis voice lacks its usual charisma, “They were eyeing my ziti and I was too lazy to bring it upstairs.”

“Fine, as long as you share,” Liam tugs off his shirt and drops onto the bed on the other side of the pan, “Where you’d get this?”

Louis hands over an extra fork, “I nabbed it from the kitchen. They were going to toss it after they closed the buffet.”

Liam raises an eyebrow, “And Harry’s ok with you eating out of their good serving pans?”

“Why not?” Louis grins, “I’ll bring it back tomorrow. After a good wash it will be good as ever.” Liam can’t help the quick laugh that escapes his lips.

They settle into the game. It’s an England game. Rooney keeps trying to run to the cross but is always a moment too late. They’re the better team, but not by much. Liam turns to Louis’ instead, “Still up for the lake tomorrow?”

“Yeah, need a good day off,” Louis rolls his shoulders, “Supposed to be nice.”

“First clear day this week,” Liam agrees, “How was today? Were you able to get everything you needed to get done before the rain hit?”

“Payno, we do not have to work for another 36 hours. Don’t ask me to talk about it,” Louis pokes Liam in the side, digging in with his finger.

“Fine, I won’t, I won’t,” Liam wrestles the hand away, “Does your mom know you like men?” It pops out, shocking Liam more than Louis. Louis leans back and smirks while Liam processes what he said.

“Not much she doesn’t know about me,” Louis runs a hand through his hair.

“She didn’t know about me,” Liam murmurs.

Louis furrows his brow, “What was I going to say? ‘Hey mum, I’m shagging one of your lackeys?” Louis shakes his head, “Not like we’re getting married.”

Liam swallows, “Right.”

Louis smirks and prods at Liam’s side again, “What was that Liam? You want to marry me now?”

“Absolutely not,” Liam struggles against Louis, bringing Louis’ hands down against the mattress, straddling Louis’ hips in the process.

“I bet you do,” Louis’ grin is vibrant as Liam leans down into the curve of Louis’ neck, digging his teeth in his shoulder, “I bet you pine after me all day, sign off as Mr. Liam Tomlinson on all your notes. I’m right, aren’t I, Payno?”

“Almost,” Liam breathes against the skin, “Tomlinson-Payne.”

Louis shakes with laughter as Liam’s hands trail up Louis’ arms, sliding along the warm skin.

“Jesus,” Louis gets a hand out and slams the laptop screen down, “I’m going to fuck you so hard tonight Liam. Sound good?”

Rather than answer, Liam dives in for more.

*****

Liam’s window faces the sun. He can’t help it when he stirs, arm tossed over Louis’ back. He pushes out of the bed, needing the bathroom.

His clock says it’s 7:30. At least he got an extra hour of sleep. He yawns and tosses on a t-shirt, scratching the hair of his lower stomach. There are traces of last night in the stiffness as he moves.

Liam uses the bathroom, rinsing the sleep from his eyes, and heads for the kitchen. He’ll let Louis sleep in a while. He stumbles into the kitchen, headed toward the coffee pot.

“Why are you awake?” Harry exclaims.

“I don’t want to screw up my schedule.” Liam rests his head against the cupboard. The coffee pot is dry. He sighs and reaches for the coffee filters.

“Well, you disgust me,” Harry says, draining his tea and grabbing his keys, “I’ll see you later.”

“Bye Harry,” Jade waves from her stool. She turns back to Liam, small smile on her face. He moves to sit next to her. They’re the only ones in the kitchen, “How are you, Liam? Been awhile since we talked.” She pats his hand twice, a polite admonishment.

Liam snorts, “I spend 12 hours with you every day.”

“Yes, but we don’t really get to talk,” she insists, “You never talk about Louis.”

“Nothing to say, really.” The tile is cool against Liam’s forearms. He leans his head down to feel it against his cheek, calm the flush of his cheeks.

“We all wish you’d spend more time with us,” Jade runs her fingers through Liam’s hair, maternal, “No Zayn and now we hardly see the two of you.”

“Never really saw me last year outside of work,” Liam argues but leans into her fingers. She’s always been easy for him, with polite conversation he understands how to navigate.

“That’s not true. You always made time for us,” She frowns, “It’d just be nice. We haven’t gone to the bar since the night before we opened. And even then you and Louis left early.”

Liam rises, “That was because I wanted to leave early, so I could go to bed.”

“Liam,” Jade’s voice has an edge to it. She stands up and starts cleaning her plate, “It’s fine. Stop pretending it’s not happening. Stop making excuses. I’m telling you, we miss you too. You act like you two are the only ones who miss him.” She grimaces, “You aren’t. It’s easier when you share the burden.” She grabs her purse from the back of her chair, leaning in to kiss the curve of his cheek. She leaves and Liam settles back down on the counter.

Is that what Louis and he are doing? It doesn't feel like mourning, it feels like sliding into place. Sure, whatever they’re doing is happening in Zayn’s absence, but not because of Zayn’s absence. Louis makes Liam feel settled in his skin. Louis relaxes around Liam.

“Payno? Where are you?” Louis stumbles into the kitchen, “Morning.”

“Morning,” Liam answers.

“Want breakfast?”

Liam perks up, “You cooking?”

“Yep, pancakes.” Louis grins and drags his feet to the cupboard with the instant pancake mix, “You in?”

“I could eat ten pancakes right now,” Liam says.

Louis shakes his head, sipping from Liam’s mug, “We’ll see about that.”

******

“It’s four,” Liam says, head lolling back against the warm sand.

“And?” Louis asks from his spot lying with his head on Liam’s stomach. The afternoon sun beats against them, leaking into Louis’ skin and bronzing his edges.

“We should get going soon.” They’ve hardly done anything all day besides splash in the water, cannon ball from the raft off the shore, and rest in the sun. There had been one failed attempt at making a sand castle that had ended with Louis pouring sand down Liam’s swim trunks, “I was thinking about making dinner for everyone.”

“Hmm?” Louis raises his head and squirms to lie next to Liam.

“Like we used to, last year. We can grab stuff for a barbeque and have food ready for people when they get home,” Liam skims a hand down Louis’ back, tracing the bumps of his spine.

Louis looks at Liam, eyes only partially hidden behind sunglasses. It’s been a good day. They have a good time together, complement each other. Louis’ nose crinkles as he considers Liam’s proposal. Liam itches to move his hand up, trace the skin around Louis’ ears, mouth, eyes. Something about it seems too intimate for the relationship they share.

“Ok,” Louis nods his head once, “we can do that.” Liam’s heart skips once at the ‘we,’ the casual way Liam’s plans have become Louis’ as well.

Liam’s never been in a relationship with anyone outside of the resort. Part of it is that he doesn’t feel tethered to his skin outside the gate. How could he ever be with someone when it wouldn’t be the real him? He never really tried. There were casual relationships, three steps lower than what he has with Louis. There were friends who he made mistakes with and laughed off the next day. There was sex but no intimacy. Nothing like this.

“Ok,” Liam responds with, savoring the sunlight before they pack up.

An hour later, they’re in aisle three with the oversized bags of marshmallows, trying to decided how many they’ll need.

“There’s hundreds of marshmallows in there. One bag will be enough,” Liam grabs the bag and tosses it into the cart. Louis grabs one as well.

“You are drastically underestimating me if you think I won’t throw a bag full at people throughout the night,” he says it so casually, truthful, that Liam can’t help but grin and find it endearing rather than wasteful.

“Ok,” Liam agrees, “But we’re only getting one box of chocolates so you don’t throw those at people too.”

“Fun killer Liam, that’s what you are,” Louis concedes and throws the box of Hershey’s into the cart.

“Chips?” Louis points down the display to the family-sized bags. He takes a firm stance in front of the rows of shiny plastic full of more air than food, his face discerning, “Which ones should we get.”

Liam feels filled to the brim every time Louis says we. He can’t explain it. It’s normal. They’re friends doing something together, the pronoun is we. We. Liam grins and steps behind Louis, draping an arm around Louis’ chest. Louis moves easily into the embrace.

“Those ones are on sale,” Liam points to the bottom shelf and returns his hand to Louis’ side, squeezing slightly.

“Louis?” they turn at the disturbance, Liam stepping away.

“Mrs.C! Great to see you,” Louis smiles wide at the woman standing there. She’s older, gray hair tracing her temples.

“How are you dear?” Liam steps away, grabbing the bags of chips as they catch up. From what Liam can gather, it’s one of Louis’ high school teachers. Maths, maybe science.

“I feel so embarrassed. Just last week I was asking your mother if I could set you up with my niece.”

“Hm?” Louis asks, “Why?”

“Well, I didn’t know…” she trails off, gesturing at Liam.

“Oh, no, no,” Louis reassures, “You could give me your niece’s number, but I probably wouldn’t call until September.” Louis finishes with a playful grin.

“Of course, I forget how busy you get. Have a good season, I’m sure I’ll bump into you again soon,” the woman waves and pushes her cart down the aisle.

Louis steps back to the cart, grabbing on to the bar. Liam walks close to him, “did your old teacher just try to set you up with someone?”

Louis shrugs, “Wouldn’t be the first time. El and I sat next to each other in her class. She called it before we started dating.”

“That’s a bit odd,” Liam stops to pick up a package of buns.

“She’s a family friend,” Louis claps his hands together, “Now, what else do we need?”

Liam checks his watch, “We need to get home and start cooking before everyone gets out.”

Louis pushes the cart a way, “That’s why I keep you around, Payno. My own personal watch.”

“Yep,” Liam watches Louis’ back as he walks down the aisle, “That’s what I am.”

******

“Hey,” Ashton taps Liam’s shoulder, “Lisa wants to talk to you.”

“You’re here early,” Liam turns the page in the book he keeps below the desk. He’s alone behind the front desk for an hour every night before Ashton gets in. He’s taken to reading novels he can buy for a dollar at the library’s book sales. He has a hard time following the plot sometimes, picking up and putting down the book so often in a shift, but it’s nice to have something to do. Lisa doesn’t mind.

“I resent that,” Ashton smiles, “Go on, get out. This my domain now.”

“Thanks Ash,” Liam pats his shoulder as he turns to the back office.

Lisa normally doesn’t stay this late. She leaves early so she can get in and relieve Ashton at 6. Simon also doesn’t stay late, but he can hear their voices coming down the long hall and Simon’s door is propped open a few inches.

Liam walks and taps lightly before entering, “Ashton said you wanted to speak with me?”

“Come in Liam,” Simon gestures to one of the chairs in front of his desk. Lisa sits on the corner of the desk next to him, arms crossed and a foot propped on the seat of his chair. Liam’s pretty sure they were married at one point but no one dares gossip about Simon on the property.

“Now that everything is settled, we want you to start learning my side of the business,” Lisa stands and grabs a bunch of keys off the desk, “Here’s your new set of keys. It’s everything you already had, plus all the skeleton maintenance keys.”

Liam sits up straighter, reaching for his pocket and the carabiner he has clipped to his belt buckle, handing them over and reaching for his new set. “Thanks.”

“Tomorrow, you’ll sit in with Lisa during the weekly deposit,” Simon’s fingers are steepled in front of him, the image of indifference, “I cannot stress enough the importance of secrecy here Liam. If I hear any word around the park about the process, we will not ask you to return.”

Liam opens his mouth to speak but Lisa cuts him to it, “He won’t tell anyone, Simon. He one time told a girl we didn’t have an extra outlet for her to charge her phone. He’ll be fine.” She sends Liam a quick smile.

“Good,” Simon’s face doesn’t move but there’s shine in his eyes that Liam thinks is approval, “We’ll see you in the morning then.”

“Good night sir,” Liam walks out, Lisa on his heels as she says her good nights and pleasantries.

“Excited?” Lisa squeezes Liam's forearm, “You’ll be allowed into the inner sanctum.”

Liam nods, “It’s crazy. It’s going pretty fast. Are you sure I’m ready?”

Lisa grabs her purse from her office and Liam leans against the door frame, “You’ll be fine. You can learn more from me than that fancy school can teach you.”

“Then why is he forcing me to get the degree?” Liam lowers his voice, leaning forward into the bright red painted office, “I’d rather be here.”

“I know. He thinks it will give you an edge,” Lisa puts her arm in Liam’s as they walk back out to his desk, “Only one more year and then you can stay.”

“Is it still a secret?” Liam questions, grabbing his keys. Simon always made certain to stress the secrecy of Liam’s training, both the fact of it and the process, “Or can I tell people?”

“The girls know,” Lisa admits, “Easier to tell them than to let them gossip when you join us in the deposit tomorrow. But otherwise,” she shakes her head, “It’s still not official that you’re replacing me by Simon’s standards.”

Liam groans, light, and holds the door open for Lisa, “I don’t mind, but it’d be nice to tell my mother I had a job lined up after grad school.”

“Soon, dear,” her lined hand comes up to pat his cheek, “Do you want a ride back to the house?”

“No,” Liam backs away from her, “I rode my bike. Thanks though.”

“No problem. See you in the morning,” she walks toward the employee lot down in back of the office. His bike is locked up to the rack tucked behind a set of bushes.

Liam rides slow back home, a nice leisurely pace as he takes wooded trails instead of pavement. His maroon polo is starting to smell with repeated wears. He’ll switch to his green one tomorrow.

The resort hums in his bones. He can hear the sounds of guests near the pool. Some nights, they set up a small dance floor next to the poolside bar. Harry loves it. He’s in charge of the whole shenanigan, deals with countless drunk guests who he easily assuages in their state. He also loves it because he gets to go in later in the morning the days after. Liam can picture him now, hands clasped in front of him and grin crooked as he takes an order for another beer.

Liam makes the last turn before the house, the windows looming like wide eyes between the tree branches. This might be his last summer in the house. Maybe Harry, Niall, and him can get a place in town to move in permanently. Maybe Louis’d want to come with them. Liam totters on the bike, thinking of it. There’d never be a moment of peace. And what would he and Louis do?

Liam, a few feet away from the edge of the woods, stops the bike. There’s a bonfire in the pit on the other side of the yard. Louis’ head is tipped back, laugh loud in the night air as it hits Liam’s skin.

It’s immense, the feeling that rises to Liam’s cheeks when Louis is near. He tries to rewind, remember the connection he felt with Soph, Dani. Was it like this? How could he ever have let them go if it felt like this? The tracks in his heart feel the same, but deeper, the dial cranked, his nerves frayed raw with overuse.

Liam sets his face, calm and collected, and wheels his bike to the side of the house before heading to the bonfire. He picks up his feet, moving in a light jog towards the flames.

“Payno!” Niall calls when Liam comes into view, “You’re back late.”

“Took the long way home,” Liam leans over Louis and grabs a beer from the cooler next to him, “Are you drinking my beers?”

“No one likes your beers,” Louis corrects, “We brought them because we knew you’d make a fuss if all we had was good beer.”

“Just because you can’t appreciate the subtleties-”

“Stop it,” Leigh-Anne holds out her hand to quiet them, “I am in no mood for your foreplay.” She looks Liam in the eye, “Liam, would you like to go dancing tonight?”

“What?” Liam cocks his head and sits on the ground in between Perrie and Louis, “Where?”

“We’re going to crash the dance night,” Niall’s face is lit up with the shadow of flames and glee.

“Come on, Payno,” Louis knocks his beer can gently against Liam’s face, “Have a sense of adventure.”

“I’m in,” Liam chugs half the beer and wipes his lips, “Give me ten minutes to shower first.”

“Hurry it up,” Leigh-Anne pouts, “We’ve been waiting on you.”

“I’ll rush, promise,” he takes another quick swig before jogging off to the house.

Jade and Jesy are in the kitchen, eating dinner. Jade grins, “Are you going with them?”

“Are you not?” Liam wipes his feet before unlacing his sneakers, “Sounds right up your alley.”

“We’re going, don’t worry about us,” Jade deflects, “Everyone’s been waiting on you.”

“What kept you so late?” Jesy asks, faux innocence. Liam rolls his eyes.

“I’m not allowed to say,” he raises his nose in the air and pretends not to see the grins split on both their faces.

“You little shit Liam. Thanks for not telling us!” Jesy exclaims, “How long have you known?”

“Lisa asked me at the beginning of last summer,” Liam whispers as he walks up beside them, “You really can’t tell anyone though. Simon’s made it very clear that if I can’t be trusted with this secret, he won’t trust me with any of them.”

“So it’s like a test?” Jade asks.

“I don’t know what it is. I would’ve told you if I had been allowed.”

Jesy leans against the counter, spark in her eyes, “Think of it, one day we’ll all be running the show here.”

“Congratulations Liam,” Jade pushes him towards his bathroom, “We’ll buy you a drink at the bar. Now, go shower. You stink.”

“Only because I spend all day with you,” he calls as he rounds the corner, two huffs following after him.

Liam showers and dresses again, putting on a light button up and leaving the top buttons undone. He slips on some loafers and his nice watch and heads out of his room, searching for his friends.

“Leave something for the imagination, Liam,” Louis sits at the breakfast bar, “come on, everyone else left. We’ll have to catch up.”

“We’re walking?”

“No one wanted to DD and can you imagine us drunk on our bikes?” Louis does up one of Liam’s buttons, his fingers glancing off Liam’s skin.

It’s one moment past dusk and the skies still mostly magenta with streaks of violet, the sun a fleeting memory. They pick their way across the trails, shoulder to shoulder. The width of their bodies fills the space in the trail, pressing them together amongst the trees.

They’re halfway to the pool when Louis reaches for Liam’s nipple, throwing away the words, “Zayn called me today.”

“What?” Liam yelps, pushing Louis’ hand away.

“Thursdays were my days off last year, so he thought he’d catch me at a good time,” Louis shifts forward so he’s a step in front of Liam and talking to the path, “I was cleaning out the back fountain and had to drop the tools to take the call.”

“You ok?” Liam asks. His hand drifts forward but falls before it makes contact with Louis’ elbow.

“Yeah,” Louis nods his head once, quick, “Good to hear from him. You’ll never guess what he’s doing.”

“What?”

Louis quirks his lips and snickers, “You’ve got to guess.”

Liam ponders, “Painting?” Liam had talked to Zayn briefly a few weeks ago. He’d said something about immersing himself in art.

“Close,” Louis turns and his feet tread gently over the uneven surface as he trots backward down the path, “he’s modeling.”

Liam stops. His feet freeze on the ground and his face lights up, “What?!”

Louis cracks up, “I know. It’s perfect for him. He gets to be the art.”

Liam shakes with laughter, dropping and clutching his stomach as he guffaws. Louis joins in, light laughter mixing with Liam’s in the air.

“Oh jesus,” Liam wipes tears from his eyes, “That’s brilliant.”

“He said to me, and this is a direct quote,” Louis slouches and looks off into the distance, lowering his voice to match Zayn’s, “I’m booked until August but I’ll make it up there.”

“Wow,” Liam says. They resume their walk, “So he’s doing well?”

“Yeah,” Louis nods, “He’ll visit for a week in early August. I told him he has to bring his portfolio or whatever it is models have.”

Liam brushes against Louis, “So you’re not fighting anymore? All in the clear.”

“We were never really fighting,” Louis’ voice is weak against the growing music in the background, “I was upset with him for leaving me behind and he was upset with me for not being overjoyed about it. What do you do with that? But yeah, we’re good now.”

“That’s good. I was worried,” Liam tries to lighten the mood, “felt like a custody battle for awhile.”

It’s quiet a moment in the space between them, contrasting with the noise ahead. Louis takes a breath, “I’m glad I got to keep you in the settlement.”

Liam deflates, “Me too.”

They break out on the side of the pool, the gates wide open and guests swaying to the beat in the fray. Louis’ face colors with mischief, “Let’s go Payno.”

Liam trails after Louis. He waves at Perrie, Leigh-Anne, and Jade, dancing on the floor. Niall and Jesy are at the bar, talking to Harry.

“Welcome,” Harry hands them both beers.

“Liam won’t drink this Harry,” Louis gestures, “It tastes too good.”

“I’ll drink what I want, thank you,” Liam takes a gulp.

“Come along boys,” Jesy leans over the bar to put her glass in the dirties tray, “We’re dancing.”

“Don’t be too jealous Harry,” Niall pats Harry’s curls, “Just think about all the tips you’re making.”

“Yep,” Harry looks up at them as he pours two drafts for another girl down the bar, “I’ll buy a nice loud stereo system. I can play it really late at night and have my own dance parties without you.”

“I didn’t think it was possible, but your eyes just got greener,” Louis quips at Harry and Liam laughs. They all head out to the dance floor and find a spot next to the other girls.

“Let’s see your moves Payno, come on,” Louis moves up close to Liam daring him, “show me what you’ve got.”

“Oh no, go easy on him Liam,” Jade giggles over her shoulder, walking past to Niall.

Louis’ eyebrows scrunch together and he turns back to Liam, “What was that about?”

Liam grins, hands settling on Louis’ hips, “You’ll see.”

Louis mouth drops in shock but he swiftly recovers, eyes crinkling as he starts to move in time with Liam, “How did I not know this about you? You? The dancing queen?”

“Got to keep some surprises, keep things fresh,” Liam grinds forward with his hips and Louis tilts his head back, laugh falling away into a happy sigh.

They dance. They dance when the cicadas start to sing and most of the guest drift back to their cabins. They dance while Niall darts around the thatched floor and Leigh-Anne flirts with one of the bartenders. They dance and laugh and enjoy the night until Tom comes around to shoo the last few people away. Louis hops on Liam’s back for the first half of their walk home. At half way, Liam drops him. They race home to the comfort of their well used sheets and the privacy a closed door lends.

 

July

 

Liam groans, head falling into his hands, “That was awful.”

Perrie, Jade, and Lisa all laugh while Jay smiles, “You’ll get used to it.”

“How does it feel?” Lisa puts a hand on his shoulder and holds up all the finished paper work. They have a filing cabinet carefully laid out with every week having a folder of it’s own, “First of the many times you’ll do that.”

Liam leans back in his chair, shifting his hands behind his head, “I can’t believe you’ve done that every week for years.”

“We get a break in the winter,” Jay adds her paperwork to the pile and stores it away, “You’re all set girls, we’ve got to debrief Liam.”

The girls leave and Jay sits next to Liam at his and Lisa’s computer, “Doable?”

Liam nods, “I think so, once I get used to looking at numbers for hours at a time.”

“Good,” Jay gives a deft nod, an action Liam has seen on Louis countless times.

“Just think, you can practice again next week,” Lisa gives a wry smile. Liam’s loved watching the weight drift off her shoulders as he starts to take some of it. He feels both terror and excitement for the day, far in the future, where all of her responsibilities and power shift to him completely.

“Joy,” Liam says, masking his happiness of feeling so integral to the process. Lisa had him watch the first week as she pointed out the major steps of the audit. The following two weeks she helped him with the steps, giving him small tasks and letting him do most of the math. This week she’d stood over one shoulder while he did the bulk of the work.

“I always thought the first boy we’d let back here would be Louis,” Jay says to the space behind Liam’s head.

“Louis?” Liam frowns, “Why?”

“I forget you haven’t been here that long,” Lisa says, “Louis worked in the office his third summer.”

“What?” Liam feels the shock cover his face. Louis’ never given any indication he’d worked anywhere besides the grounds.

“I brought him up after he turned sixteen,” Jay sits back in her chair, spinning back and forth with the twirl of her ankles, “We’d had plans for him to be my assistant. After three weeks he begged me to go back out into the sun.”

“He was a kid then,” Liam shrugs, “maybe he’s ready now?” he tries to hide the hope in his voice.

Liam pretends for most of the day. He pretends when he talks to Jay. He acts like an employee when all he wants is for her to tell stories about Louis. He pretends with the girls, when they call him out. He tells them that this year is no different from the others, that it’s summer romance with a swiftly approaching expiration date. And he lies to Louis, every time he silences the affection on his tongue.

Right now, Liam pretends that he isn’t thrilled at the idea of Louis working in the office.

Jay shakes her head, “I ask every year and the answer is always no.” She pouts, “All that money on a degree he won’t even use.”

“Louis’ has a degree?” Liam’s voice is high and tight.

Jay levels a look at him, “Does he tell anyone anything? Yes, he got his CPA. Finished this year. He’s got no excuse not to use it. I thought with Zayn gone he’d finally come work with me but no,” her voice is teasing and bitter, “has to watch over his boys.”

“He’ll come around,” Lisa pats Jay’s shoulder, ever the affectionate comforter. Lisa points Liam towards the door, “Come on, we’ve got to go count back the drawers for next week’s deposit.”

Liam fakes a pained look at Jay to get her to laugh before he goes. The light sound follows after him as he walks down the hall, thinking about what it’d be like to work alongside Louis every day.

*****

“You went to college?” Liam asks while Louis flips burgers for dinner. The rest of their friends are gathered around the fire, but Liam opted to sit next to the grill with Louis.

“Yes?” Louis smirks back, “You didn’t know that.”

“How would I know that?” Liam tips his head back against the brick of the house, “You never told me.”

“You never told me you had sex with Sophia in the pool shed, yet I know that. College is a little easier to figure out, Payno.”

“What?” Liam sits up, “Who told you that?”

Louis shrugs, “Everyone, no one. Not the point. Of course I was in school, what did you think I did all year? Sit at home twiddling my fingers?”

Liam purses his lips together. He had thought that. It was vivid to him, Louis helping his mom clean the house and pretending he didn’t want to, Louis taking a turn cooking at night, driving his sisters to dance classes, “No. I didn’t really think about it.”

“Ok,” Louis turns his back, plating food.

“Why won’t you work in the office?” Liam asks next.

Louis drops the plate on the crooked table next to the grill, “The fuck, Payno? What’s with all the questions?”

“I don’t know,” Liam shrugs, “I guess I realized how much I didn’t know about you.”

“There’s a reason for that,” Louis tucks his arms in front of his chest, “You don’t need to know anything about me.”

“No, I don’t need to,” Liam insists, “But I want to. I spend almost all my free time with you Lou. I’m allowed to be curious.”

That gives Louis pause. He stands there, arms crossed and eyes pinning Liam in his seat. Louis huffs once and relents, “Can you really see me working there? Clean shirt and all that? Answering phones? Not for me.” He turns back to the grill.

“Then why’d you get the degree?” Liam prods, “It’s kind of waste if you don’t do anything with it.”

“Liam, drop it.” Louis grabs the last plate and heads toward their friends, “Come on, foods up.”

“Fine,” Liam follows behind. He tries grabbing a plate to help out but Louis holds them out of reach.

Louis passes around the food and Liam sits next to Harry. There aren’t enough lawn chairs, so Liam and Harry lean up against Perrie’s shins.

Harry groans and rests his face against Liam’s shoulder, “I’m so tired.”

“Think about it this way, we’re past the halfway point,” Liam loops his arm around Harry’s shoulder.

“Hang on, is that right?” Perrie asks above them, “By how much?”

“I don’t know,” Liam answers, “I haven’t been keeping track but there’s no way we aren’t there. Does anyone know the day count?” Liam asks the group gathered.

“Fifty something?” Niall offers.

“Fifty-four,” Leigh-Anne corrects, “We passed mid way three days ago.”

Louis whistles and Harry pouts, “But we didn’t celebrate.”

“We’ll celebrate now!” Niall stands, running to the house.”

“Where’d he go?” Jesy raises an eyebrow.

Liam, Harry and Perrie all say at the same time, “His guitar.” Perrie snorts while Harry gently punches Liam.

“Better not make us sing,” Louis grumbles across the fire from Liam.

“Oh please Lou,” Perrie points, “We’ve all heard you singing in the shower.”

“You’ve heard no such thing,” Louis shakes his head, hiding a smile as he lies.

“Here he comes,” Jesy points as Niall walks back to them, guitar slung over his shoulder.

“Any requests?” Niall strums once quick across the strings.

“For you to not do this right now,” Louis says.

Harry chuckles, “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.” Louis throws a marshmallow at him from across the circle.

“What’s the one we learned first year?” Liam breaks up the bickering, “We got, like, fixated on that one song and wouldn’t stop practicing until we got our harmonies right.”

“I’ve never heard this story,” Perrie runs a hand through Liam’s hair.

Harry sits heavier into Liam’s side, “Yeah, we’d stay up late practicing in our bunks. Convinced ourselves if we worked hard enough we could get booked local.”

“What was it?” Jade asks. At that Niall start strumming. Liam picks up from memory, those chords resonating and interwoven with that first year.

“Thought I saw a man brought to life,” he sings, light and gentle into Harry’s hair, the other boys picking up with him and he sings.

The girls kick in at the chorus, swaying to the beat Jesy claps out. Liam transports to those days, sitting on his bunk, head almost hitting the ceiling with Harry and Niall on the floor in front of him. He recalls staying up late and getting drunk for the first time, the night Niall fell asleep in Liam’s bed by accident. Liam smiles through the pain of the memories, it was all so simple back then. Now, he feels jumbled. He watches Louis across the fire nodding along with the song and singing quietly, so no one will hear.

The song drifts out and they still during the brief moment that follows. Perrie breaks the bubble, “Why on earth did you pick that song?”

“We liked it,” Niall shrugs, “And it was easy to learn on guitar.”

“Know any other songs?” Jade asks.

“Yeah, what are you thinking?” Niall grins and starts plucking the strings in time with the popping of the fire.

*****

Louis turns over on the bed to face Liam, “What do you want to do tomorrow?”

“I need to go to the store. I’m running low on food,” Liam stretches out his back. It’s been awhile since they’ve gotten to do this. Last week, Louis went home to spend his day off with his sisters and now that the season is in full swing, it’s harder to find the energy for a good romp after work. It feels good though, some of the tension in Liam’s shoulders melting away after a good fuck.

Louis nods, “I should go too. I’ve been bugging Harry for food all week.”

“I’m sure he loves that.”

“Yeah,” Louis smirks, “because I owe him afterwards.” Liam laughs and settles more comfortably into the pillows. “Are you falling asleep on me already, Payno?”

“No,” Liam yawns, “Maybe. Let me nap a bit and then I’ll be good for another go.”

“Fine,” Louis grumbles but tucks into Liam’s side.

“Tell me a story,” Liam whispers.

“No.”

“C’mon,” Liam pokes Louis in the side, “I know you told stories to your sisters when they were kids.”

Louis groans, “There once was a princess named Liam,” Liam snickers and closes his eyes, listening to the story, “Liam was a very very pretty princess,” Louis’ voice softens. Liam can feel him shift in the bed, up onto his elbows so he can look down at Liam. Fingers trace down Liam’s arm, shifting in a steady pattern and lulling Liam to sleep.

“Liam, the pretty princess, left his home to find adventure. He came to an enchanted land called the Pine Lake Resort,” Liam gives a half hearted snort and surrenders to the quiet cadences of Louis’ voice, “Once there, he fell into many different beds, biding his time until he could fall into the Prince Tommo’s. Eventually he did and they had great sex.” Liam smiles gently at that and falls closer to sleep, his breath evening out.

Right when he’s on the edge of sleep, Louis continues, a soft breath in the air like Louis’ fingers in Liam’s hair, “Princess Payno didn’t realize the resort was really a black hole, where people go to die. But Liam was so good, his light shone and the Prince knew Liam would find his way out.” Louis sighs once, pulling his fingers out of Liam’s hair, “Which was a real shame for the Prince who liked having him in his bed a little too much.”

At that, Liam drops into a heavy sleep. He dreams of himself wrapped in pink tulle and Louis in shining armor. He dreams of a dragon guarding the gate of the resort. He dreams of Louis fighting the dragon, pushing Liam out and locking the gate. He dreams of knocking on the locked gates, screaming to be let in and no one hearing. He dreams of being rejected from the only place he’s ever felt at home.

*****

Liam wakes up alone in Louis’ bed. He stretches and looks at the clock. It’s 10 am. He hasn’t slept this late in months.

He rouses himself from bed, throws on a pair of boxers, and heads downstairs. Louis sitting at the island, laptop open with a T.V. show blaring.

Liam sidles up behind him and throws his arms over Louis’ shoulder, “you let me sleep in.”

“Breakfast is in the oven,” Louis says, “I don’t know if it’s still good. I thought you’d be up earlier so I made it an hour ago.”

“Thank you,” Liam presses a kiss to the heartbeat in Louis’ neck.

“Yep,” Louis turns to him, “So, I have some errands to run in the city today.”

“Ok,” Liam pours himself a cup of coffee, “do we need to leave at any particular time?”

“You don’t have to come with me,” Louis says, typing on his computer.

“I don’t mind,” Liam grabs his plate and a fork, “just let me know when we have to go.”

“I’ll be gone all day, Liam,” Louis finally looks at him, “It might be best if you don’t come.”

Liam pauses, full fork halfway to his open mouth, “Do you not want me to come?”

“No,” Louis shrugs, “I don’t want you to waste your day off.”

“Lou, I’m fine. Give me twenty to shower and I’ll be ready to go.”

“I-” Louis stands, shutting his laptop, “I’m just going to go now. I’ll be back later.”

“Ok?” Liam watches over his french toast. Louis is out of the house in three minutes. He leaves with a quick wave and a toss of his keys into the air. Liam doesn’t really get what happened until he’s washed and put his plate away.

******

With or without Louis, Liam has a productive day. He goes to the supermarket, stocks up on everything he’ll need for the next week or two. He calls his parents. He reads some of the material he’s supposed to look into over the summer. He and Ashton go for a run when Ashton wakes up. Liam feels good.

On autopilot, Liam makes dinner for two. Louis isn’t back yet, but Liam feels like he owes him for breakfast. He makes a pot of pasta and sets it on the stove on low heat for when Louis gets home. Liam, trying to prove to himself that his actions don’t revolve around Louis, fixes himself a plate, grabs a beer, and puts on an action film.

Half an hour later, Liam hears the car pull up. He relaxes back into the sofa. No one will be done with their shifts for another hour or so and Ashton went down to the pool to bother Niall at work.

“Hey,” Liam calls when the doors open, “How was the trip?”

“Good, good. Got all the stuff I needed,” Louis sets his grocery bags down in the kitchen and Liam watches over the back of the couch. Louis looks at the pot on the stove, “This yours?”

“It’s for you. I already ate,” Liam looks back at the TV because something exploded and he doesn’t know if it’s the good guys or the bad guys.

“You made me dinner?” Louis questions.

“Yeah. Getting you back for breakfast,” Liam tracks the plot on the screen, trying to get back into the movie but he hears Louis set something down heavily and close a cupboard door with a little too much force.

“Ok,” Louis marches to the couch and sits on the arm opposite Liam, “We need to talk Liam.”

Liam turns off the TV, lost from the plot at this point anyways, “What?”

“This needs to stop,” Louis says. It’s calculating, business. Liam swallows.

“You’re breaking up with me?”

“No! No, because we’re not together,” Louis features push up with tension, “We’re not in a relationship. You can’t make me dinner.”

Liam gapes and points a finger, “You made me breakfast. I was trying to return the favor.”

“Well, don’t,” Louis’ hands clutch into fists for a moment, “And we should stop sleeping in each other’s beds.”

“Lou what-” Liam tilts his head, “What are you talking about?”

“Everyone thinks we’re together,” Louis’s eyes are bright and blue, wide in his face, “They keep making jokes about us. I let it go because we knew that there was nothing going on here besides two friends fucking. But,” Louis leans forward onto his knees, “I don’t know if we’re sticking to that anymore.”

Liam stares. He feels frozen to the gaudy blue of the couch. So he stares at Louis. Louis is leaning forward, his bare feet up on the couch because Louis doesn’t wear shoes anywhere but work. His ankle tattoos mock Liam in their permanence.

Liam finds his voice again, “Why do you care what people think?”

“I don’t, I care about what we think,” Louis holds Liam’s gaze, “what you think.”

Liam sputters, “Then what’s so wrong about us being together?” It’s the wrong thing to say. Louis shuts down. Liam can see a part of what they had dying in Louis’ eyes.

Louis shakes his head, “Liam-”

“Seriously Lou, what’s so wrong with it?” Liam sits up, claims his space, “Are you sleeping with anyone else?”

“That doesn’t-”

“I’ll take that as a no. You like spending time with me, I know you do,” Louis doesn’t say anything so Liam keeps ploughing through, “That’s what a relationship is, Louis. It’s two people spending their time together and sleeping with each other. That’s what we are,” Liam sets his shoulder straight and keeps his throat from closing up on the next sentence, “Just because we have an end date doesn’t mean it’s any less true.”

Louis is fidgeting, looking down at the couch cushions, “I should have known this would happen.”

“Come on Lou,” Liam sits forward, “I do this every summer. It’s not a big deal.”

“And that’s exactly it Liam,” Louis looks up, “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to hang off you like them, I don’t want to be cutesy, or have a tearful goodbye. I just want to fuck. Maybe throw in a few laughs. I’m not like them and I don’t want to be.” Louis runs his hands up and down his thighs once, twice, and then stands up.  

Liam sits back against the couch. He can hear Louis in the kitchen, grabbing a plate and a fork. Liam grips his thighs and closes his eyes. He only has a few moments to pull himself together before Louis comes back over and he has to act unaffected. Liam takes a deep breath and falls back into the couch.

He opens his eyes in time for Louis to plop down next to him. He has a bowl full of Liam’s pasta. It feels like a bridge, some sort of peace offering.

“Thanks,” Louis says after a bite, “It’s good.”

“You’re welcome,” Liam mutters, reaching for the remote, ready to turn the TV back on.

Louis sighs, “Look, Liam, I like what we do together. The sex is great and we have a lot of fun, but that’s all I’m looking for, ok?”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Liam nods.

“Alright then, we’ll just take a step back from the couple stuff,” Louis sinks into the couch cushion, “think about it this way. You still get all the fun you’ve had in the past summers without the messy emotional part at the end.” Louis offers a small smile and Liam nods again, because he’s right. That would be easier. This whole thing would be easier the less involved they were. Unfortunately for Liam, he’s already involved.

“What were you watching?” Louis asks, bumping Liam’s knee with his own to encourage him to use the remote in his palm.

“Low-budget action film,” Liam presses the button.

“You’ll have to tell me what’s already happened,” Louis stabs more pasta in the bowl.

“Sure,” and Liam does. Liam updates Louis on the convoluted story and the unlikely supervillain and the horrible effects. Louis laughs as Liam explains and Liam mimics it.

That night, after everyone’s gotten home and they’ve told Liam about their days, Louis goes upstairs for bed and he doesn’t invite Liam.

Liam falls asleep in his bedroom, one of Louis’ shirts draped over his dresser.

*****

Liam spends the week after his conversation with Louis trying to do what Louis wants. He doesn’t sit with Louis at meals, he doesn’t spend the night in Louis’ bed. He goes to the bar with Niall and Jesy one night. It’s all going swimmingly, until the following Wednesday night.

“Don’t go yet,” Liam paws at Louis torso, dragging him back into the bed. Liam’s body feels raw and alight. If Louis leaves, he’s afraid that feeling will disappear.

Liam’s head is a little foggy. They had finished off a bottle of whiskey after dinner, playing dumb drinking games with some of the grounds boys. Liam had lost a lot. And now, now he wants to take a nap and he wants Louis to stay.

“Go to sleep Payno,” Louis whispers, grabbing his boxers and escaping Liam’s hands.

“I will. You should stay,” Liam curls up a little and watches Louis grab his shorts from the floor.

Louis laughs, “God you’re smashed.” He walks to the edge of the bed and puts a hand on Liam’s head where it feels like it’s expanding, “Remember our talk Liam? No more spending the night, lad.”

“It’s dumb,” Liam relaxes into the gentle tracks Louis is making in his short hair, “I want you to stay. I love you.”

Louis stops. Liam opens his eyes to ask why but he sees Louis grabbing the rest of his clothes and heading for the door, “Wait, but-”

Louis turns back to him, “No, Liam, fuck you.” Louis walks out the door. It hits loud against the trim, a hard thud that surprises Liam.

Liam thinks he should get up, find Louis, drag him back to bed. The pillow is so soft under his head, but Louis would be nicer. Liam smiles at the thought and drifts off to sleep.

*****

Liam wakes up the next day with a headache. He ignores his sore body and his sore head and jumps out of bed. His internal clock has him up with the sun and there are still people in the kitchen, he can hear them through the walls.

Liam turns into the kitchen, “Is Lou here?”

Harry, Perrie, and Jade are sitting at the counter with a rumpled Ashton making his dinner. Harry pauses in lifting his banana to his lips, “What’s the matter Liam?”

“Is Louis here?” Liam repeats, raising a hand to his head to keep his brain inside his skin.

“No,” Harry sits back, “he went home last night to spend the day with his family.”

“Shit,” Liam kicks the island.

Jade’s face softens, “Oh, did you get into a fight?”

“No,” Liam swallows, “No, it’s fine. Everything is fine.”

“Sure mate?” Ashton asks, walking over, “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine,” Liam puts his hand out, stopping Ashton from walking any closer, “Just hung over.”

“Wait,” Ashton grabs a glass and fills it at the tap, “Here. Drink it and go back to sleep. Good use of your day.” He tacks on a small smile but all Liam can offer is a slight head nod in return.

Liam does what Ashton suggests. He drinks the water and sleep until late morning. The first thing he does is call Louis’ cell. He calls four times, each disconnecting after a few rings. He gets the message.

*****

Louis has been missing since the other night.

Missing is not the right word. Liam knows exactly where he is, right now he’s on flower duty over on the west side of the spa. At any point today, Liam could have walked out to the property, found Louis, and forced him into polite conversation. Louis wouldn’t have been able to get out of it and Liam could have gauged the situation. Liam’s fear, and the only thing preventing him from going, is that Louis wouldn’t care about social protocol and spit in his face. Liam’s not sure he could handle that in the middle of the day and then have to go back to work.

Liam rests his head in his hands. He’s on phone and paycheck duty after getting the deposit done. He’s stuck at the little desk with the main line telephone and his box of paychecks at the side office door. He’d tried playing solitaire but he can’t think.

It was a stupid slip of the tongue, Liam’s blood was almost entirely whiskey at that point. Besides, they’re friends. Friends say they love each other and it doesn’t mean anything. Liam tells Harry all the time that he loves him, does Harry freak out? No, and they’re not even having really great sex. Louis is overreacting.

That’s at least what Liam’s been telling himself for the last two days. Liam couldn’t sleep last night.

Jesy and Perrie are working on the agenda and placards for the family reunion that’s coming next week and taking over a third of the cabins, chatting as always.

“That new guy who works in Rosie’s is kind of cute, isn’t he? You could go for him?” Jesy is suggesting to Perrie.

Perrie scrunches her nose up, “No, he’s the one Jade said was in the long distance thing with the girl in France.”

Jesy’s jaw drops, “Him? No! Liam, is it true?”

“Hm?” Liam raises his head to join their conversation. When they see his face they both coo.

“Oh love, it’ll be ok,” Jesy says, “He’ll come running back with his tail between his legs, just you watch.” Liam had told them the story this morning when Liam’s eyes had been ringed with purple and his smile was lost. Liam had hardly put up a fight to their prodding, wanting others to comfort him.  

“Yeah Li,” Perrie agrees, “You’re a catch. There’s something wrong with him if he thinks what you said was a bad thing.”

“I’m tired,” Liam retorts, “That’s all.”

Liam is about to go on and tell them why it was, in fact, a bad thing when the bell of the employee door sounds. Louis walks in. Liam only glances at him before turning back to Jesy and Perrie, their faces gone from sympathy to disdain.

“Speak of the devil,” Perrie says, flipping her hair back and tuning to her work. Liam takes a moment to panic, not wanting Louis to know he was talking about him. He doesn’t want to make anything worse.

There’s dirt caked on the knees of Louis’s jeans and he doesn’t look at Liam, directs his response at Jesy, “I’m here for my paycheck.”

Jesy turns seemingly innocent eyes at Louis, “I’m a little busy right now.”

“Christ,” Louis says, scrubbing at his eyes with his palm, “Pez?”

“Sorry Lou,” she says without a hint of apology, “Liam can help you.”

Liam swallows and turns to his big box of paychecks, rifling through the Ts. He can feel Louis looking at his hands, glaring as his fingers take their time searching. He wants Louis near for a little bit longer, sue him.

“That’s not very polite, Lou,” Jesy says.

“What?” Louis spits.

“You can’t expect him to help you if you don’t speak to him,” Jesy says, a sharp edge to her words. Liam’s fingers still, having found Louis’ check but wanting to see how this plays out.

“What do you want me to say Jes?” Louis’ fists are balled at his side.

Jesy leans back in her chair. Liam wants to warn her, tell her she’s playing with fire, but she soldiers on, “You could start by telling him your name.”

Liam watches as Louis reigns in his frustration, “I’m not telling him my fucking name.” Louis’s hands tighten at his sides and his voice lowers, fighting for control, “He knows my name. Says it like a damned prayer.” Liam flushes. Liam holds out the paycheck to Louis who, in a less vindictive tone, mutters, “Thanks.”

“It was a mistake,” rushes from Liam’s mouth. He has to say it even though it doesn’t feel right. Louis freezes there, seeming to be waiting for more but Liam has nothing else to give.

Heels click on the hall from the inner office which can only mean one thing. Liam looks up to see Jay, hands on her hips, walk into the side office. She looks at Louis but addresses Liam, “Liam, you should take your break now.”

“But I already-,” Liam is cut off.

Jay turns toward him, expression softening, “Take a break.”

Liam doesn’t need to be told twice. He stands and waits for Louis to finish having a silent conversation with his mother. They apparently come to a conclusion. Louis rips open the side door and speeds away towards the woods behind the lodge. Liam follows. Liam spends a large chunk of time following Louis.

Louis leads them deep into the woods. Liam struggles to follow as Louis seamlessly weaves through the trees and plants, birds startling in the trees around them.

Louis stops when they’re far enough from the main lodge that they can’t be seen or heard. Liam stumbles over a root when Louis turns. Louis advances on Liam, forcing Liam to lean back against a trunk.

“I’m not like them,” Louis breathes. The anger is gone but the intensity still remains, “I’m not one of your summer sluts who pine for you after you go. I’m not going to cry about how much I miss you after you leave and I’m not going to pretend like there’s something after this summer, ok?” Liam is kept back against the tree with the force of Louis’ gaze, “Ok?”

“Ok,” Liam agrees.

“Good,” Louis takes a step back, jaw clenched “Don’t do that again. Don’t make this something it’s not. It’s just sex.” With that, Louis walks away. He walks further into the brambles and trees. He disappears and Liam leans heavy back against the tree, catching his breath.

AUGUST

“So who’s going to pick him up?” Liam asks.

“He’s coming on Monday, so Niall or-” Perrie is the other person who has Mondays off. Harry backtracks, “Niall it is then.”

“Sweet, who’s car am I borrowing?” Niall looks over his shoulder and the back of the couch.

“Mine,” Liam pulls himself up onto the counter in the kitchen, “Harry’s will cost you a week’s pay in gas.”

“Or you could take one of the ground’s cars, Nialler,” Louis gets up from the couch and heads for the garage, “Anyone want a beer?”

“Me,” Niall holds up his hand, “I’ll take your car, Liam. Wouldn’t want fancy pants Zayn to hold up his nose at the dirt in the back seat.” He laughs at his own joke.

The girls all left work early for a spa day, comped by Simon, and they won’t be back for awhile. Ashton is at work so the four of them ordered out and are watching a game. No one has particularly strong feelings for either teams so they’ve mostly been making jokes and talking about Zayn’s visit next week.

“Grab one of mine for me Lou,” Liam calls out. Louis flips him off. Liam smiles.

“Did you get the key, Liam?” Harry asks.

“Yeah, Lisa says it’s fine but she does want him to pay a week’s worth of rent.”

“You get to tell him that.” Harry’s sitting at the breakfast bar while Liam eats a bowl of ice cream.

“One frou frou beer for Payno,” Louis passes Liam a beer and pulls himself onto the counter next to him, “I can hold your ice cream while you open that.”

“Nice try,” Liam sets the ice cream down on his other side to twist off the cap on the beer. Louis slides off the counter, grabs the ice cream and sits next to Harry at the counter, “Tommo!”

“Finder’s keepers, Payno,” Louis sniggers around a mouthful of ice cream. Liam sighs and drinks his beer.  

Niall flicks the TV off and gets up, heading for the last barstool, “What time did he say he was coming in?”

“Four, I think,” Liam answers.

“We should do something for him when he gets back,” Harry lays his head on the counter, “show him we still love him and stuff.”

“Speak for yourself,” Louis leans back in his chair, eating Liam’s ice cream. Liam pouts. He wants it back.

“Oh shut it Lou, you’re buzzin he’s coming back,” Niall shoots back.

“I think a little party would be nice,” Liam interrupts, trying to bring them back to the conversation.

“We could get streamers,” Harry mutters into the table. Louis raises his eyebrows and mouths, what? at Liam. Liam laughs and pulls a gallon of ice cream out of the freezer. He eats straight from the container and Harry makes a list of all the things they need to get by Monday.

******

The bell over the door rings as someone steps into the office. Liam’s busy working on rewriting official employee policy. He doesn’t look up until he hear’s Leigh-Anne squeal.

“Hello everyone,” Zayn says as he steps up to Jesy’s desk. Jesy’s up and out of it, falling into his arms, within moments.

“Look what the cat dragged in,” she laughs with her arms around Zayn. Liam takes a breath and everything feels whole again. They’re a family, all of them together. Everyone felt the absence but no one realized how large the gap was until he came back to fill it.

Liam stands and waits his turn for hugs. After Jesy, it’s Leigh-Anne, then Jade. When Jade has let go, Liam steps up.

“Liam,” Zayn’s grin pulls across his cheeks and Liam steps into his arms, holding Zayn close.

“Hey Zayn,” Liam pulls back and grips his shoulders, taking a look at him. He has a few more tattoos peaking out of his collar and the top of his hair is pink but those eyes are just as Liam remembered them, “how was the flight?”

“S’good,” Zayn shrugs, “Not too long.”

“Zayn,” Liam turns and it’s Jay standing a few feet away. She takes the last few steps and Zayn drops the few inches into the hug, “How’re you dear?”

“Glad to be back,” Zayn smiles at her too. Liam should’ve realized. Never once had he thought about Zayn’s absence affecting Jay. It’s clear watching them talk that she’s missed him nearly as much as Louis.

“That’s good. You’re mother and sisters? How’re they?” Jay asks as the girls and Liam glyde back to their chairs. Liam tries to work but he indulges in eavesdropping.

“You probably talk to them more than I do,” Zayn answers with a touch of guilt.

“Impossible,” Jay pats his cheek, “Come by the house for dinner this week. Bring Louis. That boy hasn’t been home in weeks.”

“Will do, Mrs.T,” Zayn smiles as she walks back to her office. He turns to see the rest of them at their desks. He shakes his head, “Should have known you wouldn’t stop working for me.”

“It’s the first week of August,” Leigh-Anne is doing a mailing and she bumps him on her way to the outgoing mail bin, “Not a good choice if you wanted a slow week.”

“I didn’t forget,” Zayn sits on the corner of Liam’s desk, “It was the only week I could get off.”

“I forgot, we’ve got a model with us,” Jesy leans back in her chair, “What’s that like?”

Zayn shrugs, “Nice. A lot less work than cleaning the trash cans.” That makes everyone laugh to some degree. A high pitched giggle, of all things, springs from Liam’s throat before he can catch it. That causes a train reaction with Zayn snorting at him.

“I’m going to head back to the house,” Zayn gets up and heads for the door, “but I’ll see you guys later.” They all wave as he closes the door.

*****

They’re all sitting out by the bonfire when Louis gets back. He walks through the trail in the back and they watch as he approaches. The fire crackles in front of them.

“You’re back late, Tommo,” Liam calls when Louis is still beyond the treeline. Zayn is relaxed next to him, but his eyes are firmly on Louis. Jesy and Jade, the only others in the circle, are watching with shallow breaths, expecting fireworks.

“Sixteen year old girl got into her parents’ mini bar and vomited on one of the paths. I couldn’t decide which of the boys to punish so I did it,” Louis throws his polo off and approaches the fire in his undershirt. He stands on the other side of the fire from Liam and Zayn. Zayn grins at him.

“Shoulda called me,” Zayn breathes out the smoke from his cigarette, “I would’ve helped.”

Louis smirks, “And ask the glamourous model to get on his knees? I couldn’t have dirtied you up, not with your face being your source of income now a days.”

Zayn snorts, “Hasn’t stopped you in the past.”

Louis rounds the circle, stops at the cooler, and grabs two beers. Liam is sitting on the edge of his seat, braced to drag Louis away if he needs to.

Louis drops onto the grass in between Zayn and Jesy’s chair. He passes Zayn a beer, and taps them together, “Cheers mate.”

“You drink beer now Louis?” Zayn pops the tab on his own can.

“Things change, Zayney. We all change,” Louis says it looking into Zayn’s face and Zayn grins back, but in the way he grins at Louis. Liam can’t describe it. It’s one of the reasons he hesitated for so long initiating a friendship with either of them. The smiles they share build a wall around them. It keeps their secrets and their stories between them so that no one else can get involved. Before, it made Liam jealous. Now, he relaxes back into his chair and enjoys how bright their eyes look with the light from the fire hitting the planes of their face.

“Did I miss the party?” Louis asks and Liam drops his face into his palm.

“Hmm?” Zayn pulls his eyebrows up.

“You’re such an idiot Lou,” Jesy sighs.

“Can’t do much about it now girls. Come on,” Liam stands up and the rest of the group follows suit, Zayn looking bemused.

“Are we going to a party?” Zayn asks Louis. The two of them lock together, meeting each other’s stride quickly.  

“Not the type you’re thinking of,” Louis answers.

Liam spins around when he gets to the porch, “We were distracting you so they could set up.” Jade and Jesy run in, pouting at Louis, to warn the others.

Zayn looks at Louis, cigarette burning between his lips, “Did you ruin my surprise party again?”

“In my defense,” Louis grabs the cigarette from between Zayn’s lip and takes a drag, “This time it wasn’t on purpose.”

Zayn tips his head back and laughs. Louis smirks next to him, holding the cigarette like a pro. Liam’s seen him smoke from a distance but never up close. There’s something both repulsive and appealing about it that Liam tries not to read to hard into. “What do you mean, Tommo?”

Instead of Louis, Zayn looks at Liam, “My mum planned a surprise party for me when I was eight-”

“Ten,” Louis corrects, “you were ten. We bought you those awful balloons.”

“Oh yeah, yeah,” Zayn nods his head, “so Louis asks me the week before what I want-”

“Are you guys coming?” Niall yells out from the sliding door. Zayn forgets the story.

“Yep,” Louis runs up the steps and follows Niall into the room. Liam can now see that Harry did not go light on the streamers. The walls and tables are draped. Every type of balloon, ranging from Happy Birthday to It’s a Boy! are hitting the ceiling, the strings hanging down like a forest in front of the doorway.

“You had to have missed us a little,” Liam says to Zayn right before they plunge into the fray.

“More than a little,” Zayn mutters.

“Welcome back!” Harry shouts when Zayn steps into the room.

Niall, with a shit-eating grin across his face, pounces on Zayn and gets a pink, Barbie, paper birthday hat on his head. “We bought it special so it would match your hair.” Zayn pouts and Niall bends over when he laughs.

“Where’s the food?” Louis looks around the kitchen, “I was told there’d be food.”

*****

“So then,” Louis holds back a chuckle as he tells the story of Ashton’s prank on his bandmates, “Calum walks in five minutes after Ashton and, you should have seen it Zayn. I’ve never seen him this serious.”

“It was hilarious,” Liam adds. Zayn’s lips are quirked slightly up but Louis hasn’t reached the punchline.

“He walks into the kitchen, unplugs the microwave from the wall,” Louis is grinning and using his hands to tell the story, “looks right at Ashton and says ‘you get this back when you deserve it.” Liam cracks up at the memory.

“The microwave?” Zayn asks in disbelief.

“Just tucked it under his arm and walked out of the house.”

They’re sitting on the back porch steps with the last of the guacamole and chips from Zayn’s party. Everyone else has called it quits around midnight, but the three of them were still wide awake. Louis’ on the bottom step looking up at where Zayn and Liam are perched on the top one, splitting a beer.

Zayn nods his head, “I can see it.”

“I’m still not entirely sure what Ash did,” Liam muses.

“You got the microwave back?”

“Oh yes,” Louis grins, “Niall had to go get it.”

That makes Zayn laugh. Liam is helpless to join in. It’s good telling the stories to someone who wasn’t there, but who knows all the characters. Liam’s sisters don’t get it. He calls them and tells them the stories of his days and they always seem to miss the good part.

“What else has happened?” Zayn grabs another chip from the bowl, “Liam, you got a girl this summer?”

Liam shakes his head, “No-”

“Payno’s gone stag this year,” Louis answers for him. Liam turns to Louis, hoping only the confusion he’s feeling and not the hurt is showing on his face, “He’s a heartbreaker.”

Zayn turns to Liam and swings an arm around his shoulders, jostling him, “Alright, Liam. Good for you.”

“I guess,” Liam watches Louis but Louis won’t meet his eye.

“Don’t sound so sad,” Zayn pats his shoulder before removing his arm, “Being single is great.”

“Exactly,” Louis points at Zayn, agreeing, “that’s what I’ve been trying to tell him all summer.”

“Anything else? No other surprising couples?” Zayn asks again, this time his smile falters.

“No,” Liam shakes his head and meets Zayn’s eyes, “Perrie’s not dating anyone.” Zayn visibly relaxes.

“She has been on a few dates though,” Louis adds with a tip of his head.

Zayn nods, “Bit hypocritical of me.” He traces a tattoo on his forearm, “Still nice to know.”

Light bleeds out through the sliding doors. It barely catches on the tips of Zayn’s hair, leaving the rest of him in long shadows. Liam sits closer to Zayn, limbs covered in a layer of sweat from the humidity.

“How’s modeling going?” Liam asks.

“S’good,” Zayn leans back onto the deck and his arms glow in the stolen light from the house. Liam moves to follow suit, propping himself up next to Zayn, “It’s basically looking at a camera for a few hours at a time.”

“Have you met anyone famous?”

Zayn shakes his head but grins, “Not big enough for that Liam.”

“You could be,” Liam encourages, “You’re really good at it.” Zayn had brought out his portfolio earlier. The girls had pointed out the lines Zayn made with his body, the way the clothes fell against his skin. Liam had sat, listening to it all, in shock that the person on the page was his friend.

“I,” Liam and Zayn both flick their eyes toward Louis. He’s pulling himself up to stand in the darkness of the bottom step, “am going to bed.”

“Good idea,” Liam sits up too, grabbing the stray beer bottle at his feet.

“Don’t come in on my account,” Louis skirts the two of them, heading quickly inside, “See you in the morning boys.” Liam watches him through the glass and streamers. Louis marches to the stairwell, hands in fists at his side. His tense back looks tighter through the silver threads of the balloons hanging between Liam and Louis. Louis doesn’t look back once as he takes the steps up to his room.

“Weird,” Liam say offhand.

“I’m surprised he cracked first,” Zayn grins, drawing Liam’s attention back to him, “and that you stayed up the longest.”

Liam laughs, “You missed out this summer. I was corrupted.”

Zayn stand too, offering his hand to Liam, “Too bad. I would’ve liked to see it.”

Liam grabs the few bowls they brought out and lets Zayn help him up, “It was a fun time.”

Zayn shakes his head but never stops smiling at Liam, “Good night Liam.”

“Night Zayn.” Liam walks back into the house through the ribbon jungle, leaving Zayn on the back porch. He sees the flick from Zayn’s lighter as he lights up. Liam looks toward the stairs before throwing the bowls in the sink and heading for his own room.

*****

The second night Zayn is in the house, there’s a knock on Liam’s bedroom door. It’s late and he’s about to climb into bed. When he twists the knob, it’s Louis standing on the other side.

“Payno,” Louis steps into the room. He’s comfortable in Liam’s space and he throws himself onto the bed. He leans back into the pillows and Liam can’t push him out. Not when he’s like this. “Do you want to take a trip with Zayn and I on Thursday?”

“Where are you going?” Liam crosses the room and curls into the bed next to Louis. It’s intimate, their faces close and bodies pressed tight.

“Not telling you,” Louis grins, mischief hangs in the corners off his eyes.

“Sounds like trouble then,” Liam turns onto his stomach. “You, Zayn and a mystery location.”

“Hit the nail on the head,” Louis drapes closer. There’s a sharpness and joy along the creases in his face that Liam loves. Liam has tried to be a shitty replacement for Louis’ partner in crime all summer. Seeing Louis now has showed Liam he did an even worse job than he realized.

“Sure you want me to come?” Liam asks. He revels in the heat of Louis’ body next to him.

“Yeah,” Louis starts pressing kisses along the back of Liam’s neck, hands moving down Liam’s body.

Liam grunts, “Stop,” into the crook of his arm.

“Hm?” Louis nips at Liam’s spine, “What was that?” Liam turns onto his back, and dislodges Louis.

“I said not tonight,” Liam fights to keep his eyes open. Some nights a bed feels like heaven, “I’m exhausted.”

Louis sits up at that and rights himself next to Liam, “Oh.”

“Sorry Lou,” Liam pats Louis’ thigh and yawns, “Tomorrow, definitely.”

Louis stays in the bed and Liam thinks, for a moment, that Louis is going to stay. It’s not the first time one of them has vetoed a hook up, nor would it be the first time they shared a bed after. It’d be nice to wake up next to Louis again. Liam could savor it this time.

“Is it because of Zayn?” Louis asks.

Liam blinks his eyes, “I guess?”

“So you do want to sleep with him,” Louis voice turns sharp. Liam jolts back into the pillows.

“What?” Liam sits up to look at Louis, “No, I’m tired because of him. The visit. We were up until three last night.”

“So would you sleep with him?” Louis doesn’t let up on his questioning.

“Why are you asking?”

“Well,” Louis doesn’t meet Liam’s eye, “I wanted to know if we needed a code. You and Zayn washing dishes,” he holds a hand up to motion an entirely different activity, “means I should get lost.”

“Stop,” Liam lies back down in bed, “That’s not going to happen.”

“But do you want it to Payno?” Louis goads. He leans over Liam on the bed, “Want to have your shot?”

“Lou, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Liam pulls a blanket up to his hips, “I’m going to bed. You can stay or go but I need to sleep.”

Liam closes his eyes and burrows into a pillow. Louis doesn’t move for a moment. When he does shift, he climbs over Liam. The footsteps pause on their way out the door when the light switch is flicked off.

*****

“Anyone home?” Liam gets out of work on Wednesday an hour early as a thank you from Lisa. Jade and Zayn should be around somewhere. No one’s on the bottom level of the house so Liam looks out onto the back porch. Still no one.

On a whim, Liam walks to the shed in the back. Zayn used to sit out there to smoke when he wanted to be alone. Liam rounds the corner to see Zayn propped up against the siding with a cigarette in hand.

“You’re out early,” Zayn comments, snubbing the end of the cigarette on the rock and standing.

“Lisa let me go,” Liam smiles, “what are you doing?”

“Waiting for someone to get back.”

“Jade not here?”

Zayn shakes his head and leads the way back to the house, “She had to run into town.”

“So what do you want to do before everyone gets home?” Liam asks.

Zayn shrugs, “Chill?”

Liam nods, “Ok.”

*****

They set up a fire in the pit to combat the colder day.

“What are we doing tomorrow?” Liam asks in the lawn chair he’s claimed this summer.

“Louis didn’t tell you?” Zayn quirks an eyebrow.

“No, said it was a surprise.”

Zayn narrows his eyes at Liam, “You guys got pretty close this summer.”

Liam shrugs, “Yeah,” He tries not to look attached, “Just did what you told me to.”

Zayn cocks his head at Liam, “Did what?”

“You told me to watch out for him.”

“I told everyone to do that.”

“Oh,” Liam looks into the fire, “still.”

Zayn leans over and scritches Liam’s neck, “You did the best job at it.”

The girls get back first, followed by Harry and then Niall. They all walk past with a wave, promise to come out later, before heading inside.

“They bored of me already?” Zayn asks.

“You remember how it is,” Liam assures, “you just want to sit after a long day.”

“I was joking Liam,” Zayn raises his eyebrows at Liam, amused.

“What are we joking about?’ Louis shocks Liam, suddenly behind his chair.

“Christ Lou!” Liam nearly falls out of his chair. Both Zayn and Louis laugh before Louis takes one of the other chairs across from them.

“You bored of me yet?” Zayn asks Louis.

“Course not,” Louis smirks, “People pay money to see that face. I’m enjoying it for free while I can.”

“Good point,” Liam acknowledges.

Louis sits down next to Liam’s chair, “So, what are we talking about?”

“Not much,” Liam leans back so Zayn and Louis can talk over him.

“Am I interrupting something?” Louis tenses, ready to get up.

Liam is quick to correct him, “No! No, nothing like that.”

“Like what?” Zayn asks, chin in his hand.

“Nothing,” Liam insists.

“I told Payno that if you guys wanted to 'wash dishes' together, I’d make myself scarce,” Louis tells Zayn, straight faced.

“You did?” Zayn widens his eyes and purses his lips.

“I try not to be a cockblock to my friends,” Louis’ jaw clenches.

Liam bursts, “Lou, what the hell?”

“What?” Louis shrugs, acting innocent. Liam sees the tension in his shoulders, “Just trying to help out.”

Liam drops his face into his hands. Zayn and Louis talk over him, “You want me and Liam to have sex.”

“Don’t really care, but I don’t want to be around to watch it happen,” Liam tries not to feel the stab to his gut that he feels when Louis speaks. He knew, Louis’s been saying it all summer. Hearing him say it to another person though, knowing that Louis doesn’t care much for Liam past their friendship, it hurts.

“I don’t want to have sex with you,” Liam raises his head and looks Zayn in the eye, “Louis got it in his head and won’t listen to me.”

“You never denied it,” Louis points out.

“Why would I want to sleep with Zayn? Why would I do that?” the air has grown colder against Liam’s neck. Liam is staring at Louis, hands raised, palms up, begging for an answer, for recognition of the feelings that Louis doesn’t want to think he has. Louis purses his lips, a ghost of doubt on his face.

“What’s going on with you two?” Zayn asks. It cuts off the charge between Louis and Liam and both are left speechless at Zayn’s direct question.

“Nothing,” Louis breathes.

“You keep saying that, but it doesn’t look like nothing,” Zayn leans forward in his seat, looking at them both in turn.

“Apparently,” Liam’s voice comes out rough and ragged, “nothing is going on between us.”

“True,” Louis nods once, standing up to go, “fat lot of nothing. Two friends just looking out for each other. Nothing else.”

Liam cracks. He’d been so good in the last month. He hadn’t tried to force Louis into something serious. He hadn’t said the words again, even though he’s feels them all the time. But now he’s tired. It’s been a fight for weeks with his feelings, and now he’s knocked out.

“Shut up Lou,” Liam sneers, “Zayn gets it, you don’t care about me at all.”

“Liam-” Louis starts, reaching out to grab Liam’s wrist.

“What?” Liam’s voice shrinks, “What do you have to say to me Lou?”

Zayn draws back at that. His eyes trace the space between them, gaze lingering on where Louis’ hand had darted to catch Liam’s and pulled back right before making contact. Zayn’s eyes widen, “You two are sleeping together.”

“Move over Sherlock,” Louis’ voice is acid, “Zayn Malik is in town. He’s got deductive reasoning skills out the ass.”

“What the hell Lou?” Zayn sits forward, joining in on the anger, “Don’t you have something to say to Liam?”

“No, I don’t think I do,” Louis starts walking to the house. Liam is speechless, watching Louis walk away from him.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Liam turns back at Zayn’s voice, concerned look on his face, “That’s not something you could’ve mentioned before I came?”

“Didn’t seem important,” Liam grunts.

“Oh yeah? That definitely looked not important,” Zayn points at the house, “I was wondering why he was so happy.”

Liam tightens his fingers into fists, “What, you were expecting him to be miserable without you? Because his life revolves around you? None of the rest of us could ever compete with how happy you make him?”

Zayn’s face goes sharp, “What, no. Liam? What’s going on?”

Liam feels something sink in him. He swallows, looking into the fire because he can’t meet Zayn’s eyes when he speaks, “I’m in love with him.” He says it like the fact that it is, the truth Liam’s known for weeks. Liam runs a hand over his face as he continues, “But it’s just sex to him.”

Liam shows his hand, he hasn’t said it to anyone but Louis, and Zayn snorts. Zayn snorts and says, “No, it’s not.”

Liam glares at Zayn, “And how would you know Zayn? You’ve known for how long? Two minutes?”

Zayn flinches at the words but continues, “I know because he’s had a crush on you since your first summer.”

“Excuse me?” Liam couldn’t have heard that right.

Zayn leans forward like he’s breaking bad news to Liam, “Crush isn’t the right word, but he’s always liked you Liam,” Zayn digs through his pocket for his cigarettes to light a fresh one, “Used to come back from seeing his mom and talk about how he wanted to mess up the new reservations kid. Wanted to ruffle your feathers. Said you’d look good with his come on your face, dumb kid shit like that.” 

“He said that five summers ago?” Liam asks.

Zayn nods, “I’m surprised you guys got to the point of sleeping together. He never wanted to talk to you. You freaked him out. Last year, when he and El finally ended, I tried to get him to make a move but he was convinced you were straight. Dude had it bad.”

Liam’s hardly breathing in his chair, “You probably shouldn’t be telling me this.”

Zayn flicks ash off the tip of the cigarette. The fire lies low in the ashes, “I’m telling you this because if you think it’s just sex, or if he’s telling you it’s just sex, then it’s a lie. And I care about you both too much to watch you hurt each other.”

Liam lets that sit. It doesn't make sense.  

Louis had been clear from the beginning, one summer. He never wanted Liam past that. Liam had been under the impression he never wanted anything before that either. Louis' reluctance to be more than two bodies together doesn't fit with that scenario. Louis etched his way onto every piece of Liam’s home, his body, but said he didn't want that responsibility. How could some one who's supposedly had a crush on Liam for years do that? 

Liam meets Zayn’s eyes. Zayn takes a drag. Liam stands, “Do you mind?”

Zayn shakes his head, “Go get your boy.”

Liam marches up the hill. Self-doubt that Liam has never felt on this side of the resort gate surges forward in his gut. Liam yanks open the screen door and marches up the stairs to Louis’ room, knowing he’s got to be behind the now locked door.

Liam knocks, voice soft and masking the truth, “Lou? Can I come in?”

“Go away Liam,” Louis calls through the door.

“Come on Tommo,” Liam’s palms sweat as he tries the knob again, in case it magically opens.

“Fuck off,” Louis’ voice is muffled now.

“Louis,” Liam bangs on the door, “Open the door.”

“Oh no,” Jade says down stairs, “Another lover’s spat.”

“Jesus,” Perrie this time, “I hardly survived the last one.”

“Louis!” Liam demands and this time Louis opens the door.

“What?” he asks, put out, but Liam is on him. He’s got Louis shirt threaded between his fingers and Louis pushed to the wall next to the door. Louis holding onto Liam’s forearms, drawing him in closer. It's a nice change. Liam refuses to be pushed away by Louis any more.

 

“Zayn said you’ve wanted me for years. Is that true?” Liam feels a part of himself breaking. The careful restrain he normally shows is pealing away with Louis inches from his face and pain seeping out in his words, “Say something Lou, what are we doing here?”

Louis swallows, face settling into a mask, “We’re fucking, Payno. That’s it. If you want to go fuck Zayn, you don’t have to run it by me first.”

“Can you fucking stop?” Liam asks, he pushes away from Louis, “I’m not going to sleep with Zayn.”

“Why not? It’s your chance to go for it,” Louis spits.

Liam looks at the ceiling, “Jesus christ Louis, I’m in love with you. Why the fuck would I want to sleep with anyone besides you?” Liam catches Louis’ eyes and it scares him. There’s a confusion, pain, and disbelief there that Liam doesn't like seeing on Louis’ face.  

“Don’t say that,” Louis mumbles, finally closing the door standing ajar next to him.

“I’ll say what I want,” Liam stands his ground, “My questions is why you don’t want me,” Liam advances, “Isn’t this what you wanted, dirty up the goody two shoes a little bit, fuck with him. Make it so when you say jump I ask how high? Because that’s where I am Lou. That’s what you got.”

Louis’ eyes are on Liam, taking it all in. Liam is wrung through. Everything he's felt this summer is on the table. Louis looks at it all. 

“Liam,” Louis takes a step toward him, “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Liam vibrates, “What? What wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Louis looks over Liam’s shoulder, pulling an answer together.

“I just,” Louis rolls his shoulders, swallows, “Everyone loved you. You were this sweet kid who hardly ever stopped smiling and made all the guests wet when they looked at you,” Louis sighs and Liam’s heart slows it’s beating, “so damn cute. I wanted you, I’m not going to lie,” Louis looks up at him, hand raking through his hair, “So when I got the chance to have you, I took it. This” Louis motions between them, “wasn’t supposed to get complicated. It never seemed hard for you to leave the others at the end of the summer. I thought I’d get my summer with Liam Payne, mess you up a bit, and we’d move on. You always move on.” Louis sticks Liam with a mild glare at that, like it’s his fault that this isn’t going to end like all of Liam’s other relationships.

Liam’s mouth is dry. It’s not his fault he feels the way he does, “I’m not going to apologize. I don’t know why Lou, I don’t. The thought of losing you,” Liam swallows, “thinking about it hurts in a way it never did with them. I’m not going to apologize for wanting more with you.”

When Liam looks up, Louis is only a few feet away, “You’re leaving in thirty days, Liam.”

“I’ll be back.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do-”

“How?” Louis voice is sharp. He sits on the corner of his desk with his arms crossed, accusing Liam of something he wouldn't do, “You’ll get your fancy degree and some giant company will sweep you off your feet. You’ll leave this town like everyone else. Everyone gets out, Liam, Zayn got out, and if they get out, you should too.” Louis’ righteous fury falls away with a sigh of regret, “You’ll make something out of yourself.”

Liam tilts his head, surprised. Louis doesn’t know. Liam didn’t realize. Louis thinks he’s not coming back. Liam lets out a relieved laugh. He runs a hand through the close cropped hair on his head. Louis’ eyes turn harsh as he watches the tension leave Liam’s shoulders.

“Liam, don’t-”

“I thought you knew,” Liam drops his hand and grins, “Simon’s making me get the dumb degree because I’m taking over for Lisa when she retires. One more year of school and I’ll be here year round.”

Louis jerks, body tightening, “What?”

Liam shrugs, “I could’ve swore you knew, Jay knows. I hate not being here, during the school year, this place means everything to me. I was always going to end up resort trash, from that very first day.”

Louis processes the words. Liam sees the moment when he gets it, Louis eyes widening. His hands drop to his knees and the lines of tension on his face fall away, “Christ Payno, I fucked this up.”

Liam shakes his head, “No you didn’t.”

Louis laughs, exasperated, quick, “I’ve been fighting with myself all summer, trying to keep some sort of distance because I knew you leaving would fuck me up,” Louis steps forward, a few feet from Liam, “I get to keep you? Fuck, Payno.” Louis nods once, grin taking over his cheeks, “I’m going to be good to you.”

“I know. You are,” Liam whispers.

“I’m sorry,” Louis says, hand clasping in front of him, “For what it’s worth now.”

“I’m sorry for not telling you sooner,” Liam offers.

“No,” Louis shakes his head, “This one’s on me. You can apologie at our next fight.” Louis holds his arms out, “come on.”

Liam smiles. He feels his eyes squint and his cheeks burn as he walks into Louis’ arms. He gets his hands around Louis’ waist and squeezes a laugh out of Louis.

*****

Zayn leaves Sunday night. Louis takes him to the airport.

Everyone huddles in the living room when they get out of work. Zayn’s dressed in dark jeans and leather, turning back into something that doesn’t belong in the resort.

Zayn walks down the line of them, pausing and hugging each person in turn. Jade tears up and Harry pretends he doesn’t. Niall laughs because he knows they’ll see him again soon.

Liam pulls Zayn close at his turn, “Thanks for coming.”

“Of course,” Zayn squeezes the back of Liam’s neck, “I’ll be back soon.”

“You better follow through on that,” Liam is about to pull away but Zayn keeps him close to whisper in his ear.

“I’m happy for you two.” Zayn pulls away but keeps a hand on his neck, “I really am.”

Liam smiles, “Thanks man. I’ll miss you.”

Zayn scritches the back of Liam’s neck, “Not as much as I’ll miss you, Liam.”

Zayn drops his arm and moves onto Perrie. They all turn their backs to let them have this good bye to themselves.

Liam nods at Louis when he grabs his keys. Louis smiles and waves good bye as he heads out the door with Zayn.

It’s not sad. Zayn steps up to the door with his bags in hands and waves at them, “Have a good rest of the season,” and then he’s gone. But it’s not sad. Liam breathes out and tucks Perrie under his arm.

“Anyone up for a movie?” Harry asks in the absence of sound.

Leigh-Anne flops back into the couch, “Let’s watch something funny.”

“Anyone want anything while I’m in the kitchen?” Niall asks on his way to the kitchen.

Perrie wraps her arms around Liam’s waist, “It was good to see him again.”

Liam nods with her head tucked under his neck, “Yeah, it was.”

 

September

 

“I’ve got the pizza!” Harry shouts, kicking the door open with his boot, “Made by hand by yours truly.”

“And I’ve got Ashton!” Niall drags Ashton in by the wrist.

Ashton laughs, “I’ve got 15 minutes and then I’ve got to head back so let’s get this party started!”

Liam grins, popping the tops off two new beers for Niall and Harry. Perrie and Jesy are listening to Jade tell a story about a guest and Leigh-Anne and Louis are laughing on the couch. Ashton plops down in between them and picks up the conversation while Harry and Niall start organizing the five pizza boxes on the coffee table.

Liam’s ribs ache like he got socked in the gut. He’s leaving tomorrow. It hits hard for the first time. This careful, wonderful group of people will be out of his life tomorrow when he drives out the gates for the last time this season. Louis’ laugh fills the room and Liam grips the edge of the counter, takes a breath, and carries a pile of paper plates in one hand, beers outstretched toward Niall and Harry in the other.

“Here ya go boys,” Liam says. Niall slaps Liam’s back in thanks as he takes a Corona from Liam’s outstretched hand.

Harry mocks, “What, nothing fancy for your last night?”

Louis punches Harry in the thigh, “No one else can stomach that crap. Don’t joke about shit beer.”

“Everyone,” Harry holds the beer up and grabs everyone’s attention, “the reason for this gathering,” Harry begins his speech and Liam has to catch his laughter when he sees Louis roll his eyes. Louis smirks back but lets Harry speak, “is that tonight is our last night, all of us under one roof. Liam leaves us tomorrow,” Harry continues his theatrics, “thus marking the end of an era. Would anyone like to say a few words?”

“And say them quick so I can eat something before I have to go back to work,” Ashton jokes and Leigh-Anne pinches him.

“Well,” Niall starts, “I had a great summer. Thanks for that everyone. This is the second summer we’ve all been together but it won’t be the last and I’m looking forward to next year.”

“After we do a long eight months with none of you,” Harry quips.

Jade breaks the quiet chuckles, “I’m glad I know you all. You make things a little more fun.”

“Nothing’s ever boring,” Perrie adds.

“I’ve got something to say.” Everyone startles when Louis holds up a hand. Liam’s heart skips a beat, curious to what Louis has to say.

Louis looks at each of them in the eye before putting down his beer, “I uh,” he wrings his hands together once, a brief glimpse of vulnerability, “I wasn't happy at the beginning of this summer and I thought it was going to suck.” He flicks his hair out of his eyes before he continues, a dramatic pause so characteristic of Louis that Liam wants to make a joke but doesn’t dare. “It didn’t, because of you lot. So thanks. This summer could’ve been awful,” Louis turns his face to look at Liam, “but it was really fucking incredible.”

Liam smiles and raises his beer, “Cheers to that.” Everyone whoops and glasses clink around the room for the next minute. Liam ends up hugging everyone right then, a big sappy moment of love between people who fit together in unlikely ways.

Ashton takes a plate of pizza back to the lodge and Liam grabs his seat between Louis and Leigh-Anne, Niall sitting on the arm of the couch and laughing at every other word when Louis’ tells a story. Slowly people start to go, Jade to meet with the boy she’s been seeing, Harry to shower off the kitchen grease that builds up over the day. As the quiet of night starts to settle in, Louis and Liam are left alone on the couch.

Louis’ head is on Liam’s thigh with his legs extended down the length of the couch. Liam’s feet are propped up on the coffee table with the empty pizza boxes and beer bottles. Liam has his fourth beer in hand and Louis steals the occasional swig, having finished his half an hour ago. They’re both too lazy to get up and get fresh ones.

“You know,” Louis starts, shifting his head on Liam’s lap, “I never drank beer before this summer. My uncle had me try some when I was a kid and I thought it was terrible. And when I started drinking, it was too slow,” Louis fidgets on the couch, setting the scene as he tells the story, “If I wanted to get drunk, I got drunk. Vodka is cheaper and easier than getting drunk off beer, so that’s what I did. I never drank to have a drink, there always had to be a purpose,” Louis grimaces, Liam is too enthralled by the way his lips move to interrupt his story, “But now,” Louis sighs, not meeting Liam's eyes, “Now I like beer. I like sitting with you at the end of day. There’s no intent,” he sounds shocked by it, “there’s nothing to numb. It’s just nice, sitting with you and having a beer, talking about the day. It’s relaxing. I’m going to miss that.” I’m going to miss you the trembling fingers resting on Louis’ stomach say.   

Liam reaches forward and entwines his fingers with Louis’, “I’ll bring you some Christmas themed stuff when I come back. They make pumpkin beer you’d hate.”

“Sounds awful,” Louis grins, “Can’t wait.”

DECEMBER

 

Liam’s never been to the resort in winter. His winter break is when he travels, visits his family. It’s never occurred to him to head to the resort over his semester break. He never had anything waiting there that couldn’t wait until summer time.

Louis had texted him the code for the gate earlier this morning. They hadn’t talked as much as they wanted over the past four months, but they got through it. That counts for something in Liam’s book.

He drives through the main gate and up through to the main lodge. It’s beautiful. The trees all have a light dusting of snow and there’s a peace set into the earth that isn’t here in the summer. The resort pulses with life during the season, between the animals in the trees, the rush of the water on the lake, or the thrum of the people laughing in every free space.

Now, the quiet seeps into Liam. It’s the first time Tom hasn’t had to let him into the resort. The side roads that lead to all the employee housing are snowed in, the main road the only one plowed. Liam catches the sight of snowmobile tracks leading in all directions on the side of the road. His radio station is playing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and he thinks this year he will.

Liam takes the drive slow, not use to the slippery curves, but then the main lodge comes into view. He parks right in front. He’s glad he wore work boots instead of his sneakers when he steps into a foot of fresh snow. The path back to the side door of the office is shoveled out.

Liam hums as he takes the familiar path and keys in the code, opens the door. He’s met with a stiff heat and more christmas music.

“We were wondering when you’d show up,” Lisa is sitting at Perrie's desk, grinning at him. She pushes the chair back and heads over to him, pulling him into a hug, “How you been, Liam?”

“Good, glad to be back,” He lets himself enjoy it.

She pulls back to look at him, shutting the door more soundly behind him, “How’s school?”

He shrugs, “School. I’m passing.”

“Well, that’s good to hear. Can’t have you failing on the company dime,” she nudges his shoulder and he laughs.

“It’s weird actually,” he starts, “they use all these case studies that don’t actually-”

“Hello there.”

Liam snaps his head toward the voice. Louis stops his path from the back office, waits patiently against the wall, waiting for Liam’s full attention.

Liam almost starts vibrating with all the feelings that grew numb with distance. They flow up, a powerful swell, being this close to Louis again, “Hello to you too.”

Louis tilts his head slightly to the side, a questioning incline, “Just so we’re on the same page, you still in love with me?”

Liam’s answer is ripped from his lips by force, “Yes.”

Louis smiles at that, looking like Liam’s own personal sun. Liam’s never going to be able to escape orbit when the center is so bright. Louis turns to Lisa, “I think I’m going to clock myself out for the day.”

Lisa shakes her head out of expectation rather than disappointment, “You do what you want Lou. God knows I won’t be able to stop you.”

“Glad that’s settled,” Louis doesn’t touch Liam when he passes by him to the coat rack next to the door. Liam’s hands are shoved into his pockets, eyes following Louis’s every motion, “Come along Payno.” Louis holds the door open for him and Liam can do nothing but follow.

Louis beelines for Liam’s car, Liam trailing behind. Liam doesn’t say anything until Louis has almost reached the passenger door. He stops on the trail, regains control of himself for the moment, “Louis?”

“Yeah?” Louis tosses over his shoulder.

Liam can’t hold it in as a full bodied, relieved laugh takes over his system. He says through it all, “No kiss hello? No ‘I missed you’”

Louis turns with a smirk. His hair’s longer, in need of a cut, and his fringe hangs over his eyes, “Here’s the thing Payno. Once all that romantic nonsense starts, it’s not going to end,” He crosses his arms over his body, practically an invitation for Liam to take a step towards him, “So, I’m going to wait until we’re safely tucked away somewhere with a bed and lube. If we start now, I’m going to defile you in view of everyone and I’m a too possessive of you to let that happen. Now, let’s get going so we can get started and then you’re not going to be allowed to leave my bed for days.” He ends his little speech with a triumphant smile and confident set of his shoulders.

Liam takes another step, “Days?”

Louis nods, “Days,” His voice lowers a fraction, turning into the voice Liam hears in all of his dreams, “I’m going to tie you up to the bed posts so you can’t leave while I’m at work.”

“I could be into that,” Liam takes another step, inches from Louis now.

“I’m sure you will be,” Louis leans back against the car, “You trying to ruin my plans? Because if you get any closer I won’t be able to control my actions.”

Liam tips his body weight forward, falling onto his forearms on the car on either side of Louis, “Anyone ever tell you to shut up when I’m not around Tommo?”

Louis laughs, quick and bright, “Fuck you too Payno,” And with that, Louis’ arm drags Liam down by his neck and Liam is flush with his favorite person, Louis’ other hand on his jaw to push him into a deep kiss that anyone from inside the lodge could see. The only thing going through Liam’s head is a steady thrum of home home home.