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Louis stands outside the door to Liam's flat for five minutes without knocking. He stands there stupid in the early autumn cold, scuffing his shoes, trying to come up with something good to say. He thinks back on the endless advice he's been given on the subject of girlfriends and breaking up, all of it shit, just trying to come up with one tiny piece of good advice so he doesn't have to walk in to Liam's flat and stand there silently, disarmed and helpless and a fuck up of a friend. There's nothing Louis hates more than feeling useless, especially for someone like Liam, but he really can't think of anything worth a goddamn right now.

Ten minutes tick by and Louis is getting twitchy and cold, his fists balled up in the pockets of his brown leather RAF surplus jacket, his feet frozen in his Vans, and really starting to hate how much of an idiot he feels right now. It's just that it's fucking Liam, that broad stone wall of a kid who somehow has kept them all standing, who seemed unshakeable, unbeatable. If it was anyone else's break-up, Louis would know exactly what to do, the exact balance of fondness and foolishness, but he's just lost with Liam. How do you fix someone you swore could never be broken? How do you help someone who spends all his time helping everyone else? And, fuck, most of all Louis just wants so badly to see Liam, to give him rubbish advice, to give him no advice, just to fucking see him right now even if Louis has got nothing to give.

Fuck it. Louis knocks on the door. He knocks louder, and longer. He texts Liam, twice even (Liam hi I'm here?) and his phone stays silent. He knocks next, but there's still no reply.

Louis isn't prone to worrying, but he goes for his last resort. He digs out his keychain and flips to the spare key Liam gave each of them all back when he bought the place, ostensibly for safety reasons. Louis made fun of him at the time, and sure, the key was for emergencies, but Louis always half-figured that it was also just a show of good faith, or maybe a quiet little hope that they'd one day use it to just drop by and see him as a surprise. Louis kind of hates himself for using it for the first time now.

Opening the door, Louis takes a tentative step past the threshold and says: "Liam?"

After a ten second pause, Louis finally hears: "Louis?"

"It's me, man," Louis says, locking the door behind him and kicking off his shoes, padding barefoot down the hallway. "I got your text."

"I'm in here," Liam says from the living room. He's sitting on his couch, still dressed the way he was this morning for their radio interview – a nice button-up and jeans Louis swears he irons – and he's staring blankly at a Top Gear re-run at low volume. Liam flashes an automatic smile as Louis walks in, but it never reaches his eyes. For a moment the smile holds, and then it doesn't.

Louis has been to the flat Liam shared with Danielle a few times. It was always a really nice place to visit, somehow always making feel Louis feel cosier, well-loved, better-thought-of. Now, though, the flat seems scooped out and torn apart, halved in the actual sense of the term. Half-empty, half-alive. Louis looks around the apartment, and he can feel this bitter taste rise in the back of his throat. Bookshelves empty when they ought to be full, coffee tables bare when they ought to be weighed down with magazines, closets half-full of Liam's dress shirts and jumpers when they ought to be stuffed with dresses and high-heeled shoes. This is only half a house; the worst half, the surviving half.

"Oh, shit," Louis says, can't even help saying it. It's like the husk of a cocoon left over from a butterfly. "Fuck, it's true." Louis hates himself for saying that, he just maybe hoped it was all some kind of bad joke. A break-up never even seemed like a possibility before; Danielle and Liam were the real thing, the true love, going to be the first of the band to get married. Fuck, Liam had even talked about four best men and picking out a ring, that same dopey smile on his face and words like forever. They were such a reliable constant in the life of the band, Liam and Danielle fitting together as obvious as blue skies and sunshine. Louis actually has to stop himself from asking again if it's for real. "Liam, you okay?" He hates himself for asking that too. "Hey," Louis says, finally, sitting heavily on the couch beside Liam.

"Hi," Liam offers simply. And then, very slowly Liam slides lower on the couch and rests his head on Louis' shoulder. Out of nowhere, a hitched breath catches suddenly in Louis' chest as hard and sharp as a thunderclap, a holy-fucking-shit moment as it finally sinks in that they really broke up.

"Payner," Louis says, bumping his nose against the top of Liam's head.

"Tommo," Liam replies softly, completing their usual call and response routine.

Louis looks at the wreckage. Simple things, like a closet missing a few shirts, a kitchen missing key pots and pans, a living room missing Red Dwarf DVDs and Planet Earth and Tarantino films, the things Danielle loved. Louis hates looking at it and he can't even begin to imagine what it must be like for Liam.

"Okay," Louis says calmly, patting Liam's knee. "Let's go, man."

"What?" Liam asks, sounding so immovable it almost hurts, like a kid being asked to tear away from his favourite stuffed bear.

Louis surveys the room again, and it makes him shiver. Structures strange and weak, places tiny and empty, all of it singing Danielle in a minor key. It's like a Jenga tower badly leaning, or the ruins of a once-great empire; it's a miserable fucking flat full of good memories turning from wine to vinegar. Liam stares at it all so blankly. Danielle is gone, and it's like Liam doesn't yet know how very gone she is, like he's just waiting for the Game Over to flash in front of his eyes so he knows when to properly give up.

"Liam," Louis says authoritatively. "Take my hand."

Liam extends his right hand automatically, and Louis takes it. The grip is solid, and Louis almost laughs that even now Liam is being obedient, not fighting or crying or lashing out, just letting Louis drag him by the hand like they're about to go do some new mischief. "Lou?"

"We're done here," Louis says calmly, squeezing Liam's offered hand. "You – you're going to – gonna come live with me. You should. I need you to."

Liam frowns, but he keeps hold of Louis' hand. "I can't. This is our – I can't."

"It's not for you, rockstar," Louis says. "I'm fucking tired of living on my own. Come on. I need someone to do the washing up and laundry and stuff." It sounds weak even to Louis' own ears, but being sad and sincere for too long will probably just upset Liam more. "Come ruin my flat, man."

Liam smiles at the corner of his mouth, and Louis watches as it fades back to nothing. "I don't have any –"

"So I'll drop by tomorrow and get you some clothes. You can borrow some of mine in the mean time. Come on," he says, standing and tugging Liam's hand a bit until he's standing too.

Liam looks at Louis. His eyes aren't red-rimmed or swimming with tears. He isn't frowning, either. He looks plain, and he looks exhausted, and he looks absolutely defeated. Louis actually has to chew on his bottom lip to stop from making a noise, that same wild fist clenching his chest making him feel like an idiot again. There's a version of Liam that appears when he's sad or in pain or ill, a version of Liam that just soldiers on through it all and who won't let himself get taken care of, who insists it's nothing worth mentioning and gets on with life. Louis knows, even now, that getting Liam back to his flat is going to be pretty futile, but the offer feels like the right thing to do at the very least.

"Okay," Liam says, and it's then that Louis knows something has gone very, very wrong. Louis can't even remember the last time Liam accepted anyone's help at all, never mind so easily.

Liam's lower lip quivers for a moment and he looks at Louis with a wince, an expression like a kicked puppy, and then he just falls in Louis' arms like his strings have been cut. Louis grabs him and holds him and feels the whole weight of Liam crash into him, this strong unbreakable man suddenly sick and broken and boyish. Louis holds him for a while, burying his face in Liam's shoulder, smelling the mix of his cologne and, fuck, just the wish of Danielle's perfume almost totally faded from his clothes. Louis might not have anything valuable to impart and he might not know how to fix a single damn thing, but he is seriously fucking thankful that he's got strong arms, strong enough at least to keep Liam standing.

"It'll be fun," Louis says quietly against his neck. "We can order take away and play videogames and fuck about for a few days. I'll get Harry to bring us groceries, we won't even need to leave the house." He holds Liam for a minute, two. "Come on, Liam."

Liam sniffs as he rights himself again, a little woozily. He's still not crying but Liam takes a few deep breaths like he's trying to step back from the edge of that cliff. Setting his shoulders a bit straighter, his posture righting itself, Liam clears his face of expression and nods. "Okay. Yeah."

Louis gives him a small smile, and cuffs him gently on the chin. "Good. You can start with the dishes."

Liam chuckles, and it sounds real even if it doesn't crinkle at his eyes. Fuck, Louis never realised how much he loved that little squint until it stopped. And maybe, just then, Louis sets himself a little mission to get that crinkle, to get that laugh back, and to see how many times he can do it too.

"I wash, you dry?" Liam asks.

Louis grins properly then. "Deal."

*

The drive back to Louis' place is quiet, Liam leaning his head against the passenger window of the Porsche and watching London roll by. At the red lights, Louis looks over at him, pats Liam's knee twice before leaving his hand there like a bridge between them.

Liam follows Louis inside his flat automatically, as bleary and exhausted as a child shuffling into his parents' bedroom after a nightmare.

"Before you even argue," Louis says, kicking his door closed and locking it, throwing his coat onto the floor of the hall closet, "you're sleeping in my bed, I'll take the couch."

Liam's shoulders slump. "That would make me feel worse," Liam says. "I'm not putting you out. I can't put you out."

Louis sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Mate –"

"Couch," Liam says again, and he sounds so sharply determined that Louis feels himself relent. "I'm really fine with just the couch. I'll feel worse if you make me take your bed too. You're already being too nice and – yeah, the couch, please."

Louis nods tightly. He can't tell if it's frustrating or depressing to see Liam try to clench his sadness up like an aluminium foil ball, willing it to be as small as possible like he's afraid of it getting in the way of anyone else. When Louis gets upset he throws it at everyone, like sending out an alarm call that he needs love and attention immediately or he will begin to go into nuclear meltdown. He doesn't know how to deal with an upset like this, so quiet and withdrawn like a star collapsing in on itself. Nothing better to do, Louis just squeezes the back of Liam's neck and pulls him in for another hug, smaller and simpler this time.

"You know, you're lucky," Louis says against his shoulder. "No one gets to see me this sincere and stupid. You're pretty fucking lucky, Liam. All these hugs, all these concerned faces I'm making at you like a proper best friend. Look at me being so great."

"Lou," Liam says. "You get like this, like, once a month."

Louis pauses. "Yes, but normally I'm the one demanding hugs."

"I haven't demanded," Liam says.

Louis pauses again. "Well, sometimes I need a fucking hug, okay?"

Liam laughs, trailing off again in a way that's starting to poke a bruise in Louis' chest. "I guess I'll do that for you then."

"Good," Louis says. "Good, you better." He lets go of Liam and nods quickly, a determined nod. "I'll go get some stuff, for you, for the couch. Go make us some tea or something, okay?"

Louis piles his couch high with pillows and blankets, nipping into his bedroom to fetch Liam a fresh towel and a pair of clean jogging bottoms and an old purple Jack Wills hoodie Harry left here sometime last month. When he swings round to the kitchen Liam is just sitting there, perched on a stool and staring at the refrigerator covered with photos of Louis' family and the boys and friends from back home.

"All set," Louis says. He feels so weird right now, all helpful and normal and not even cracking the obvious jokes that come to him, just being the kind of guy someone can lean on. Jesus, is this what being Liam feels like all the time? Acting like a good human being and a gift to the world is so fucking exhausting. Liam is an actual candidate for sainthood if this is what he goes through daily just to be the one people can rely on. He wants to joke about it with Liam, but just then Liam looks at Louis like he's never done before, completely ruined, and the laughter drains out of Louis.

"Thanks," Liam says, standing automatically and following Louis to the couch.

"You know where everything is, right?" Louis says as Liam nods that he does. "I guess this is goodnight, then?"

Liam nods, looking down at the couch, then back up to Louis. "Louis, can you be mean to me for a second?"

Louis blinks. "I – what?"

Liam takes a deep breath and nods again. "Yeah. If you – if you don’t make fun of me in the next thirty seconds I'm going to start feeling like the world is really actually falling apart and I just. Can you just be Louis for a second and have a go at me?"

"You have a giant nose and your eyebrows are like caterpillars," Louis says automatically, the hint of a smile. "You have no idea how to prank anyone and you cannot cook a meal to save your life."

Liam gives a huffy laugh but he smiles. "I love you, Tommo."

"Love you too," Louis says patting Liam's shoulder. "Go to bed. Tomorrow we'll have a lie in and watch something, I don't know. I'll make you some eggy bread or summat."

"You sound like me," Liam says, a slow smile creeping to his lips.

"You know, I was just thinking that," Louis says. "Being nice is fucking tiring, man. I don't know why you do it."

"Can't help it," Liam says, shrugging. "Something about you lot brings it out."

"Your life must be fucking miserable," Louis says. Liam gives a hollow kind of laugh and Louis can't help but wince. Right, stepped into that one proper. "Sorry, that was –"

"S'all right. Just, thanks," Liam interrupts, sitting down on the couch. "For all this. Really. You didn't need to – thanks."

Louis gives a it's nothing shake of his right shoulder. "I'll make fun of you more tomorrow, I promise. We can hurl water balloons at pedestrians and shoot elastic bands at roosting pigeons. We can build a pillow fort and wage a war with France."

"Looking forward to it," Liam says, and there, just for a second, the usual energy creeps back in his voice. He even kind of winks, just the fluttered ghost of something a little cheeky in the corner of Liam's eye. It's a very small victory, but it's something at least.

Before Louis gets to his bedroom door, he looks over his shoulder one last time and says: "You make really weird noises when you burp and we all make fun of you when you double-knot your laces."

"You have the smelliest feet in the world," Liam replies, almost sounding normal.

"Night, Liam."

"G'night, Lou."

*

Somewhere in the middle of the night, half-past two in glaring red clockradio numbers, Louis wakes up to the noise of his bedroom door squeaking open. He rolls over in bed automatically, lifting the blanket to leave a gap next to him.

Liam doesn't say anything. He just closes the door behind him, shuffles to the bed, and slides into the place Louis' opened for him. When Liam gets in and nestles down into their shared pillow, Louis throws the blanket back over them both. It's not that Louis knew this was going to happen – though he thought about offering – it just feels like it ought to. Louis manages to slide an arm under Liam's neck and hold him a little bit, an invitation to come closer. Liam accepts it easily, turning towards Louis and nuzzling against his ribs, curling himself into a ball, one last sniffle before his breathing drops low and slow and regular.

*

The sound of a rainstorm battering against his bedroom window wakes Louis up, dull grey morning light shining in long bars at the top and bottom of his drawn curtains. Thunder rumbles through the flat like a distant earthquake. Louis is alone in his bed, but he expected that. Liam isn't the kind of guy who would want to get caught vulnerable, no doubt all part of his policy of balling up any kind of pain into calcified pebbles that rattle in his chest. It would be frustrating if it didn't make Louis so sad for him.

Louis doesn't bother getting changed, tartan pyjama bottoms and no shirt, just slouches his way into the living room, scratching his hip and yawning.

"Morning," Liam says, sitting cross-legged on the couch with a blanket huddled around his shoulders and a mug of tea in his hands, watching BBC News at a barely audible whisper. He looks up at Louis and it's amazing how quickly his whole expression changes, his slack, clenched frown giving way suddenly to a smile and something like relief.

"Time'sit?"

Liam glances at his watch, a hulking silver coin almost the width of his whole wrist. "Nine. I made tea, you just need to boil the water again."

"So you – put a tea bag in a mug for me?"

Liam laughs. Still no squint, but it sounds much warmer than last night. "Yes?"

"You are a saint, really," Louis drawls. He busies himself in the kitchen, boiling the kettle and putting a pan on the stove for eggs. "What do you want?"

"Just toast," Liam says.

"I'm shit," Louis says, "but I'm not that shit. I can make you an egg."

"Toast is fine, Louis," Liam says.

Louis makes an egg anyway, because he likes being right. He fries two slices of bread in butter and tops each one with an egg done sunny side up, makes his own tea, and pours out two cold glasses of milk. The rain is a background hiss of white noise, interrupted only by the apocalyptic techno rave of the BBC News theme song and the exclamation marks of thunder outside. Putting it all on a tray, Louis carries breakfast into the living room, thinking to himself how swell a job he's doing at being a good friend thank you very much.

"Look at you," Liam says as Louis slides the tray down on the coffee table in front of him. "I'm impressed."

"Deserve some kind of award, really," Louis says.

"Victoria Cross for valour in the kitchen," Liam says.

"An Order of the Garter for the egg alone, surely," Louis says. It's funny how quickly he latches onto the banter, loving the sound of Liam's voice when he fires back, all normal again and fond and even a bit of that unknowing cockiness Liam gets sometimes when he's feeling at ease. Louis knows he shouldn't be selfish right now but he never realised how much he'd miss that from Liam, even after only a day. There's just something about the way their friendship has grown to work in the past few months, something about Liam's presence that changes Louis' day, smoothes it out and warms it up, calms him down like the first cup of tea in the morning.

Liam smiles, and pats the spot beside him on the couch, pulling the blanket from his shoulders and throwing it around Louis as he sits down next to him. Liam's obviously not going to mention last night, but Louis knows this is some kind of quiet thank you. And Liam does eat the egg, so Louis was right after all.

"Zayn's been texting me all morning," Liam says. "Frantic, actually. He's back home and I think he was about to fly down until I told him I was kipping here. Harry sent me a sad frowny face and then a face I think is supposed to be a kiss. Niall even got Bieber to send me a text." Liam flips out his mobile and passes it to Louis.

"'Hey man sorry your sick hope you feel better,'" Louis reads out, can't help but smirk. "Well that's. Sweet."

Liam smiles. "Wires crossed, I guess."

"Well, I never thought that Bieber a scholar, I'll be honest," Louis says, nodding thoughtfully. "I've invited them all down, by the way. That's okay, right? You're cool with that?"

"Of course," Liam says and then sucks in his bottom lip for a moment. "Maybe, like, one at a time?"

"Right," Louis says. "Harry's coming over in a couple of days anyway, we can force him to cook dinner and do the hoovering and rub our feet."

"You don't mind me staying –"

"Shut the fuck up, love," Louis says smoothly. "Tomorrow you make breakfast, okay? We'll take turns, alternating days."

Liam breathes out a sigh then, his body going slack and soft like he somehow thought he might be forced to go back to his flat again. He looks over at Louis, and he smiles, and it's so sweet and small and thankful that Louis laughs and punches him stoutly in the shoulder, feeling his heart squeeze like a fist.

They spend the morning flipping between programmes, huddled up on the couch and under blankets, dozing off listening to the drone of the rainstorm while Marple investigates a murder in the west midlands. Every so often Louis will find himself looking at Liam, just watching him in a way he hopes isn't strange or smothering. It's not like Louis is deliberately looking for cracks in the foundation, but he's beginning to notice the precise times in the silence when Liam must be remembering Danielle. It's a wince like a flash of pain, like Liam's been slapped. His eyes go suddenly soft, teeth sinking roughly into his bottom lip, his cheeks pinking with some twist of shame. It lasts for just a moment, like getting a needle, and then he forces himself back to normal. His breathing comes quick then (pressed up against his side, Louis can feel the way his chest moves thin and tight,) like he missed a step and needs to catch up. After the fifth or sixth of these little bursts of buried panic, Louis just has to fucking reach out. It makes him feel so useless, just sitting and watching it happen over and over, so he actually does the idiotic first date move of yawning broadly and resting his arm on the back of the couch, sliding down to curl around Liam's shoulders.

"Louis," Liam says.

"Yeah?"

"Could you – stop staring at me? I'm not going to break down right now, I promise. I just – I'll tell you if it gets – if it gets really bad, okay?"

Louis clears his throat, looks back at the telly. "I was just trying to form a constellation with your freckles. The biggest dipper." It gets a weak kind of laugh."I just wish I could fucking do something for you," Louis adds under his breath, mostly to himself.

There's a moment of pause there as Liam looks at Louis, a flicker of fond curiosity and parting his lips like he wants to say something, tip of his tongue, but decides against it. Instead, Liam offers a smile, a real one, long-lost, and nestles down in the blankets, sliding low and loose until his head is in Louis' lap. He closes his eyes and his expression becomes smooth and safe. Louis runs a hand through Liam's hair, scritching his scalp the way he knows Liam loves best. Fuck, and just like that Louis finds that missing feeling again, Liam flooding into his life like the first beer of an evening, making everything mellow and right and calm.

*

The pizza arrives at half-ten at night. When Louis answers the door he's still dressed in this morning's ratty pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt that just barely passed the smell test. The delivery boy gives him a quick one, up and down, and Louis shoves a crumpled twenty quid note into the guy's hand before he gets the inevitable –

"Are you –?"

"Nope," Louis says, closing the door on him.

"Rude," Liam says, craning around on the couch to get a look down the hall.

"I just want this to be like," Louis pauses, dropping the pizza boxes on the coffee table. "This is like going to be our island, right? So we live here and see how long we can live without ever leaving the house. That's what we're going to do. Never leave the house and never see any strangers and maybe from time to time one of the boys will come in and bring us groceries and beer and stuff. We'll become, like, urban hermits. Urbits."

"Hermans," Liam adds.

"Herman's Hermits, hey," Louis says.

"Who?"

Louis frowns, falling down on the couch beside Liam. "Herman's Hermits. The band. Henry the Eighth, I am?"

Liam shrugs. "They new?"

"Christ, man, you are so young," Louis says, shaking his head as Liam's face scrunches up sweetly, sticking out his tongue.

"You have less than two years on me," Liam says in a deadpan.

"And yet I know so much more than you. Funny, that," Louis says, flipping open one of the boxes and tugging out a slice of plain cheese. He looks at it dubiously, one final protest about the topping choices. It was his greatest sacrifice so far in the name of Loving Liam, submitting himself to the tyranny of Liam's terrible choice in pizza toppings. "S'bread and cheese, this."

Liam actually looks smug, and it warms Louis as much as it ticks him off. "So what was that programme you said you wanted to show me?"

"Oh, fuck," Louis says, spitting out his mouthful of boiling cheese and the magma of tomato sauce. "No, no, yes, holy shit. Stan got me hooked onto this thing. Wait, let me get it," Louis says, jumping off the couch and digging in the cabinets under the television. "He got me DVDs of this thing he loves as thanks when I bought the football team for us. Game of Thrones, man. We watched it in like, three days, it's amazing."

"Is it that Lord of the Rings one?" Liam says around a mouthful of pizza.

"Yeah, kind of, but like, with boobs and blood and sex and stuff," Louis says, taking the first disc out and sliding it into the DVD tray. "I don't know why I didn't think of it before. It's wicked, oh man," Louis says, bouncing down next to Liam again. "You're going to love it. You're not going to know what hit you."

Liam has a mild smile on his face, his eyes following Louis' gestures with the air of someone listening to conspiracy theories about the Grassy Knoll or Area 51. "Okay, cool."

"Fuck you," Louis says, leaning up against Liam, finding a neat little nook under his arm, curled up around a plate full of rubbish pizza as the first episode starts with the hiss of HBO static. "I'm going to warn you right off, though," Louis says. "This is going to hurt."

Liam sucks in his bottom lip and gives a little nod. "All right, then."

It causes a little twinge in Louis' chest, like a piano string hit strangely. Louis really wishes he'd stop doing that, accidentally walking into traps he didn't know had been set; a mention of a vacation Liam went on with Danielle, a teenage couple breaking up on an episode of Coronation Street they flipped idly by, even just saying it's going to be painful. It's going to be painful, it is painful, it's going to keep being painful. That aching, sickly feeling of being a useless twat washes over Louis again, and he focuses his attention on the telly instead of the tiny lesson of hurt playing out in the corner of Liam's lips.

For the first few minutes Louis wonders for a moment if maybe they shouldn't watch it, isn't sure what Liam will react badly to or not, but by the time they hit the booming anthem of the title credits Liam has got this awed little smile on his face. He looks like a kid being read the first chapter of Harry Potter, or having their first go at Disney World. Liam digs in lower in the couch then, smelling of tomato sauce and clean lemony cologne and sweet tea, settling in next to Louis like he's planning on a long stay and Louis knows he's already won.

Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, Liam turns to look at Louis, his face lit up. "I want a direwolf puppy. I want us to get a direwolf. We could get a direwolf, right?"

Louis laughs, shakes his head. "Yeah, man. Definitely."

"Brit'd get along with them," Liam says without really thinking and, fuck. The dog he had with Danielle. Louis actually braces as the sting of it sets in Liam's cheek, that sharp slap of pain and the way it drains the light from Liam's face. At the very least Louis doesn't feel totally alone about accidentally hitting every Danielle-related land mine buried in the dirt of their conversations.

"We'll get a direwolf," Louis says with solemn decision. He takes another bite of bland pizza, chewing it thoughtfully. "Our very own direwolf."

Liam nods with the same air of mock-seriousness. "Good."

"Winter is coming," Louis says, nodding back at the TV, rubbing the back of Liam's neck.

"What?"

"Oh man, this is going to be fun," Louis says, and it almost sounds like a warning.

*

"Oh my God," Liam says, burying his head in his knees, tugging the hood of his sweatshirt on. "Come on, no. Why did they – they didn't have to kill the puppy," Liam says, his voice harsh and little. "She didn't even do anything."

Louis rubs Liam's back and it doesn't feel nearly as ridiculous as it ought to, consoling Liam about the death of an imaginary pet wolf. "I know, man."

"I hate those blonde ones. I really, really do not like them."

"Lannisters," Louis says.

"Lannisters," Liam spits out like an insult.

Louis tries really hard not to laugh. "You okay? We don't need to keep watching."

"Promise me they don't do any more mean things to the good guys," Liam says from the tent of his blankets.

Louis does laugh then. "Oh, Liam. Oh, fuck. Yeah, about that."

"Next episode," Liam says anyway, glancing at Louis, locking eyes with him. "Grab my hand when things are going to get really bad, okay?" Liam's face is framed by his purple hood, his eyes wide open and hazelnut brown, his pink bottom lip wet and plump from the way he's been rolling it between his teeth, the cafe-au-lait birthmark just visible between the cleft of the sweatshirt's zipper. There's a strange tightness to his frown, a huskiness to his voice that makes it obvious that Liam's not just talking about the programme when he asks that.

Louis queues the next episode, and he takes Liam's sweaty palm into his own, squeezing it a few times in a pulse like Morse code. The next episode pushes them past the line of midnight, the two of them huddled in the living room, a little island lit up by the silver moonlight of the television screen.

*

Three in the morning. The squeak of Louis' bedroom door. The gust of air as Louis flips open the corner of his blankets. The soft shuffle of feet on carpet. The sigh of the bed as Liam crawls in next to him. The smell of minty toothpaste on Liam's breath. The wet of his mouth pressing against Louis' shoulder. The careful and trembling touch of his fingertips resting on Louis' stomach. The icy shock of his feet as Louis tangles their legs together. How quickly Liam falls asleep once he's here.

*

Another rainy day in London. Another empty bed too, Liam's spot still warm from his sleep. It's only been two nights but it's starting to bother Louis in a way he knows isn't very reasonable or justified, but that doesn't stop it from bugging him anyway. As he brushes his teeth, Louis tries to figure out why it stings to not have Liam there in the morning but he just gets messy half-sentences tied in a knot like headphone wires shoved in a trouser pocket. Don't mind sharing the bed and what are you ashamed of and I'm trying to do something, anything to help but mostly it's a lot of fuck do I get lonely when I wake up without you.

Liam is on the living room couch, piled under blankets, lying on his side with his head on the armrest. Whatever cloud is hanging over London seems to be radiating out from this place, the dark center of the rainstorm wrapped in a cyclone of quilts and duvets with an expression as miserable and drawn out as the rough scrape of thunder. A sleepy face and tuft of hair in the eye of the hurricane. He's still wearing the same clothes Louis gave him two days ago, purple hoodie and red tartan bottoms, his hair now a mussed up nest of half-curls. It makes him look about fourteen.

"Hey," Louis says.

"Game of Thrones?" Liam asks, brightening ever so slightly when he sees Louis. That still catches Louis off guard every time, how just the act of locking eyes seems to spark a little kindling of warmth in the depths of Liam's mood.

Louis nods. "Lemme get some tea in me and we'll do it. All day, man. We've got eight hours to go."

As Louis makes them both a brew, Liam goes about fixing the living room. He moves blankets and pillows, huge snowdrifts of goose down and patchwork quilts, to make a little nest for them both to share. Liam closes all the windows, draws down the blinds and clothes them in heavy curtains, casting out the living world like a mourner throwing black velvet over every mirror in the house. He manages to whittle down the living room to just the two side tables and their circles of gold light. They can still hear the hiss of rain from outside but otherwise they have been marooned again on their island, like Louis promised, urban hermits and their artificial night at ten in the morning, two steaming mugs of tea and eight hours of swords and sex and dragons.

Before they start, Louis ducks into his bedroom and chooses something new for Liam to wear since he knows neither of them are going back to his flat any time soon. Sorting through his shirts, Louis wanders through the provenance of each one like a work of art: this white hoodie bought by Niall, stolen by Zayn, stolen by Louis; this black one, oh, actually one of Liam's own that Louis stole a couple of months ago; finally deciding on a red FCUK hoodie that has been owned exclusively by the Tomlinson estate since it was bought in 2011, rare for jumpers in this band.

"Oi," Louis says, throwing the hoodie and a pair of black tracksuit bottoms at him. "I'll queue up the episode."

Louis does so, fiddling at this DVD player, putting in the new disc. In the black mirror of his TV screen he can see the careful way Liam dresses. It's funny because backstage Liam will just rip off his clothes and strip down to his briefs without a flutter of an eyelash, but in private he gets half-shy, modest like he's trying not to be, his hunched back and quick motions to tug on the new clothes. Louis almost laughs at him, but there's something very sweet in the mechanics of how Liam dresses. Taking off his jumper (clasping the bottom hem and neatly stripping it off over his head; Louis notices with a twinge that it's how a lot of girls undress, how Danielle undressed, probably) and then folding it patiently into a neat square. Bottoms next, naked only for a moment with his back to Louis, replaced with the track bottoms, neatly snapping the elastic around his hips, tying a bow in the lace. Jumper last, finding the neck hole first and then pulling it on in one swift motion, shooting the cuffs and tugging it down the flat plane of his stomach. The kind of controlled, almost balletic actions of a well-organised life clashing oddly with his red-rimmed eyes, unwashed hair, sullen frown.

"You were watching," Liam says a little smugly, almost, sitting cross-legged in one half of the nest he dug out of the blankets.

"I'm only flesh and blood, aren't I?" Louis says, finally pushing the disc into the DVD player. "Pert little bum, hey."

Liam gives Louis a familiar warning look, the kind of fake-responsible expression he puts on when he secretly wants Louis to push the envelope.

"All right, where did we leave off?" Louis says.

"Everything's about to go wrong for everyone," Liam says, a determined little frown.

"That could be literally any episode."

They make a breakfast of the cold pizza left on the coffee table, cheese congealed like a pool of wax under a candle, crusts as hard as rock. Liam has this goofy smile as Louis hands him a slice, like somehow they're being naughty by eating pizza for breakfast which kind of speaks volumes about why Liam is so bad at pranking people.

"Yolo?" Liam says. "No, no," he corrects himself. "Live while we're young."

"It's a piece of pizza, James Dean, not cocaine," Louis says, and he really doesn't like how much fondness creeps into his voice when he's making fun of Liam. He's losing his touch.

By the time the credits start in over the burning orb of the sun, Liam is already humming along. He hits all the low strings, the dum-dum-duhduh-daah-dum of the driving melody with this ridiculously serious expression on his face, brow knitted and mouth round. Louis comes in quick with the counterpoint, the high strings with their repeating three notes flitting in around Liam. The both of them pound the drums out on their thighs like coxswain on a rowboat, Vikings going to war. A minute and a half of intense, serious humming later and the credits break and they're both somehow out of breath. Liam grins first, bumping his forehead against Louis' shoulder, and then they just collapse together, elbowing each other and tangling arms, knocking shoulders, huddling in their blankets and beginning their lazy odyssey.

*

"How's he doing?" is the first thing Harry says when Louis rings him in the afternoon, cloistered in his bedroom with the door closed. They've got three episodes of the programme still to go, but they decided on an hour long break for the consumption of food that isn't pizza, to make more tea, and – possibly most of all – to deal with dire circumstances facing Liam's favourite character. "Is he okay?"

"Yes," Louis says, pinching the bridge of his nose and lying back on his bed. "He's staying here for the time being. We've just been watching telly, drinking tea, keeping his mind off it. Yeah. Also, hello to you too, dickhead."

"Hey," Harry says, calmer then. "God, it's so weird. I never thought –"

"I know," Louis says. "I thought they were the, like, real deal."

"You know why she broke up with him?" Harry asks.

"No," Louis says, sighing out. "I didn't want to, you know, push him. He really was not expecting it, though. Like, at all. I don't even think they fought. I think she just – you know, reached her breaking point. With all the shit, the distance, the fans, the – all of it." Louis gives a sharp, humourless laugh. "Sometimes I think my family would break up with me for the same reason, if they could."

"That – that's actually so much worse," Harry says, something bitter creeping into his voice. "I mean, if she broke up with him because of that, you know Liam's going to be hating himself for not protecting her."

Louis groans. "I never even – fuck, man. Like he failed her or something. Fuck. That makes sense. He's not even like, angry or anything. He looks defeated. Like he – fuck."

Harry is quiet for a moment. "I'll come over tomorrow, like, midday?"

"Yeah, probably should," Louis says. "I've never seen him so, like. I almost wish he'd just cry and scream or do fucking something normal, but he just looks so – I don't know. Empty. Like if I wasn't around he'd just be staring at a blank wall in his flat until it fell down around him. I've never seen him so –" Louis pauses, licks his lips, thinks on it for a moment. He's had to be the calm and level one with Liam for the past couple of days, not that he minds, but he's taking this chance to get some of it off his chest. "I just really miss him, Harry. I miss our Liam. I miss what he used to be like with me. I just want that to come back. I – sound like a selfish dickhead, don't I?"

Harry murmurs a joking agreement from the other end of the line which kind of makes Louis laugh, but not in quite the right way. "It's good he's at yours, though," Harry says, sounding more serious. "You know how to make a home, Lou."

Louis laughs. "I haven't done laundry in four weeks."

"You know what I mean," Harry says patiently.

"I don't even have the heart to make fun of him," Louis says. He frowns. "Okay, well, not much."

"That's what'll do it," Harry says, his voice warming. "You just be yourself, act like a dick, it'll make him feel like everything's back to normal again. He'll be rolling and giggling like a puppy by the weekend."

"Oh, listen , when you come over could you bring, uh, hold on I wrote it down. Eggs, milk, some sugary rubbish cereal, wine, orange juice, and like, I don't know, a colossally stupid amount of sweets."

There's a pause form Harry's end. "Why?"

"We're doing this thing, see," Louis explains, "where we never go outside ever and never get forced to deal with the real world in any way, or, like, see any strangers or deal with anything more complicated than making breakfast. Right. Like, we're becoming vampires, cool?"

Another pause. "Yeah, okay, I'll get you some stuff."

"Sick," Louis says. "Thanks, man."

There's a knock at Louis' bedroom door then, and Liam pokes his head in. "Louis?"

"Yeah?" Louis answers, putting his mobile flat on his chest.

"You think you could – you thing we could get drunk tonight?" Liam asks fingers gripping the doorjamb whiteknuckled, small and shy like a kid asking their big brother to buy him a bottle of schnapps for a school party.

Louis blinks a few times, staring at Liam blankly. "Sure."

"Cool," Liam says, closing the door again.

"What was that?" Harry asks when Louis puts the mobile back to his ear.

"That was," Louis says quietly, "the sound of someone having a really, really shitty breakup."

*

Liam prepares for alcohol like they're about to have a séance, call up some Elder Gods to swallow London whole. He gets two glasses of water set up on the coffee table, takes his phone and wallet out of his pockets and puts them on the kitchen island with strict instructions he not be allowed to call anyone, even brushes his teeth for some reason. When he asks for a bucket in case he throws up, Louis finally has to laugh, pushing Liam down on the couch.

"Okay, Liam, you just. Relax, okay? We're just going to order a curry, watch the last three episodes, have some beers. You really. I mean, there's no need to call the fire brigade."

"I've seen you lot drunk," Liam says, giving a sweet little grimace. "It's messy."

"Just let it happen, man," Louis says, ruffling Liam's hair. "Set the next one up. I'll get some drinks."

Liam nods and swallows tightly like Louis just announced he was going to fetch the feral tigers. "Right. Okay."

"Liam?"

"Yeah?"

"Relax, man."

"Right."

Louis goes to the kitchen, freeing two Stella tallboys from their plastic ring. Louis stands there, oddly entranced by the cool blue light of the fridge illuminating everything like ghosts, and he wonders why Liam wants to get drunk. Okay, no, the why is pretty easy to figure out – it's the standard break-up thing to do, getting miserably drunk and yelling about your ex to a friend, have a good old cry – but since Liam asked for it, this lump of dread has started knotting itself in Louis' gut.

The whole time Liam has been here, Louis has been having weird moments of strangled grief, catching himself on the brink of tears out of nowhere like a slip-knot getting tugged loose. There's something about seeing Liam hurt that echoes in Louis' chest, like he's caught in the undertow of a sinking ship, these flashes of pain he's beginning to think aren't just sympathetic reactions to what Liam's going through. It's something else, a genuine dread that Liam's going to break down tonight, actually fall apart and Louis' going to fail him like Liam probably thinks he failed Danielle. Just the idea of it feels like a suckerpunch. Louis hasn't felt like this since his mum went through the divorce, when he less sad about the separation and more upset by the sound of his mum's voice, the shakiness in her hands and the red in her eyes until Louis actually started to cry just out of sheer helplessness, just out of wanting her to stop hurting.

Standing up and closing the fridge, beers in hand, Louis shakes his head like he's trying to rid water from his ears. He wants to make a promise to himself, a promise not to fail Liam, but he knows he's going to end up breaking it which somehow makes everything so much worse.

"I think I'm ready to drink alcohol," Liam calls from the living room.

Louis laughs then, rubbing his face with his free hand. Ah, well, a promise to get good and warm and drunk is all right for now.

*

They're five beers in by the time they hit the second last episode. Louis' starting to feel it, that creeping liquid warmth pooling in his belly like molten gold and getting pumped by his heart through the rest of his body. Liam says – for the fifth, sixth time – that, yeah, he thinks he's feeling it now, for sure.

"Try standing up," Louis says. "You'll know how drunk you are if you stand up."

Liam frowns thoughtfully. "No. Don't. Don't think I will do that, actually."

"How's it then?"

"I feel," Liam says, puffing out his cheeks and making his chimp face. "Like I'm full of helium and 'bout to blow away." He rubs his eyes then, focusing in on Louis. "I mean, it's kind of nice, it's kind of. Like. When you tighten the guitar strings the wrong way and they go all loose and limp."

"Yes, Liam, us normal people describe that feeling as relaxing," Louis says, trying not to be the smug, accustomed drinker and failing spectacularly.

"Chilling," Liam says, a soft smile. "Loads of chilling."

Beginners, Louis thinks to himself, bless. Everything about Liam – his swaying, his red cheeks, his starry-eyed wonder – reminds Louis of the times he'd get drunk at school, thinking you were well and smashed when really you were only a little tipsy, everything feeling so much bigger and grown up like whole Empires could be taken on alone.

"Another drink?" Louis asks.

"Then the next episode?" Liam asks, sprawling out in the place Louis vacates.

"Then the next episode," Louis says, taking the last two Stella out of the fridge. He makes a couple rum and cokes too, so they won't need to pause during the episode. Louis is thoughtful like that.

They watch the penultimate episode in rapt, drunken silence. Liam's mouth is open when he's not nervously chewing on his lip. They drink the beers and the rum and cokes very quickly. Louis is resting against Liam's side, can feel the shift of his heartbeat in the cage of his ribs, the hum of it coming faster as they get towards the end. Louis watches in a warm kind of silence, treading over the familiar ground of an episode he's seen before, focusing more on how Liam is reacting than the programme itself. He sips at his beer and enjoys every hitch in Liam's throat, every time he catches his breath or the little drunken whimpers he makes when the tension is coiled tighter.

It's only when they reach the last scene, Louis remembering it from his first marathon with Stan, that he realises what's about to happen; the execution, the death of Liam's favourite character. Louis completely forgot that happens now, but it's too late to stop the DVD. It's stupid, Louis knows it is incredibly stupid to worry about a television programme, but he's half-drunk and they're about to kill Liam's favourite and it's a fucking programme but he still reaches and grabs Liam's hand and holds it, lacing their fingers tightly and squeezing.

It's the signal. Liam knows what's going to happen before it does and Louis feels his whole body go tight in response to it. Sure enough, the sword is raised – Liam holds his breath, teethmarks white in the pink of his bottom lip – and the sword comes down, closing the episode with a flutter of birds and then silence.

They sit there for a while in the darkness, a strange sense of mourning falling over both of them. Holding some kind of memorial, a black vigil for the death of a fictional character. Fuck, they really must be kind of drunk. The silence feels right though, like a metaphor, like they're dealing with more than just the end of a character in a programme they've watched for two days. Liam slides lower so he's level with Louis, resting his head on Louis shoulder, their hands still linked together. Louis has this weird feeling like he should apologise, like he was the one wielding the executioner's sword. And, wow, he is properly sloshed if he's starting to feel actually upset about this. But, then again, when Liam sniffs slightly, Louis knows there's more to it than a programme and a fictional character, that there always kind of was.

There's a hitch in Liam's breath, more of a hiccup than a sob, and he clears his throat. "I never liked that fuckin' blond one," he says.

Louis chuckles slightly, but it feels wrong to press into the silence like that. "You swore."

"Thought it needed it," Liam says. "He's a – a – a proper dickhead."

"He is," Louis says. "I'm sorry about that." That sentence doesn't even sound ridiculous after this many beers. "I saw it coming the whole time, and I didn't even warn you."

"It's okay," Liam says.

"Do you want the next one or?"

"Can we just sit for a bit?"

Louis nods. "All right, man."

So they sit there, and it doesn't feel as silly as it should. Liam clings to Louis like the last survivors of a shipwreck, with a strong, almost numbing grip. He probably doesn't even know how tightly he's holding on, his eyes scrunched up in a way that looks like he's trying to push something out of his mind, a pathetic kind of drunk exorcism of bad thoughts. Louis' always maintained that the difference between a happy drunk and a sad one is the atmosphere of the party, and if this is the kind of party Louis is throwing these days he couldn't even blame Liam for breaking down right now. Fat lot of good those promises not to let him down are doing, fat lot of good Louis' friendship is doing to prop Liam up the one time he needs it.

"You look upset," Liam says after a moment, and Louis almost laughs. He didn't even RSVP for this pity party, but here he is anyway.

"No," Louis says. "I was just thinking. Never mind."

Liam's face is caught by the light, split down the middle as he looks over at Louis, like a moon halfway through its phases. "You know," he says, quieter now, taking a deep breath. "I was going to ask Danielle to marry me. I know, I know, we were too young, but, I don't know. I was going to do it in November. Bonfire night, I thought, with the fireworks and all that it would be nice. And I was going to make a joke like, I'll never forget because I proposed on November the fifth, remember, remember." He pauses, but it sounds like a kind of monologue and Louis doesn't interrupt. There is a tremor in his voice again, but this time it's actually the first note of a sob. "I was gonna have you and Zayn pick out rings with me. You both like that kind of thing, so I thought we'd kind of make a – make a day of it, see a film and get dinner together in London." There's another pause, his voice turning dreamlike and soft. "I was gonna have four best men, and I was gonna get you all to sing the first dance. You know what I wanted?"

"What?" Louis asks, his voice barely audible.

"At Last. The Etta James one, you know? Cause she always talked about how she really liked when the Obamas danced to it that one time, you remember that? I thought you guys harmonising on that would be. Yeah."

"We're no Beyoncé," Louis adds quietly. Liam doesn't laugh, but he kind of sighs a little, relaxes his grip on Louis' hand.

"I guess it's – better it happened before I asked," Liam says, his voice breaking up finally, like he was snapped out of his trance. "I would have looked – I would have looked like –"

"It's okay," Louis says, that dread in his chest pulsing then, a knotted black fist squeezing his heart reminding him that he's a useless fucking friend. "Liam." Louis looks over at him, the boy in half-shadow and half-gold, and brings his hand to cup the back of Liam's neck so they can press their foreheads together, like Louis is trying to leech away some of the pain, some of the rawness in Liam's voice. Being close, breathing the same air, trying to get Liam to properly hear him. "You would have looked like a beautiful fucking boyfriend, man. That's all. You're not an idiot. You just – you've got a lot of love. You've always had so much fucking love."

"Then why'd she go?" Liam says, his voice crumbling now, his shoulders hunching, his eyelashes wet.

"It's not because of you," Louis says, dull and clichéd and just trying to hold onto the tenuous calm of the moment, trying to keep Liam okay and failing.

"Who, then?"

Louis doesn't even have clichés left anymore. "I don't know, Liam. Not you, though. Something – I guess something just didn't fit. But it wasn't because of you."

"Louis," Liam says, his voice scraping low. "Louis, I just –"

Liam's sentence trails off as he nods toward Louis slightly, like gravity is pulling him closer. Tentatively tipping his head to one side, Liam leans in and kisses Louis. Softly at first, and then his mouth parts slightly around Louis' lips. A kiss, and then another one, slowly held, the slight intake of breath, Liam cocking his head to the side as their noses brush slightly. Louis holds the back of Liam's head, and he doesn't know how to – he doesn't kiss back, he really can't kiss him back because this kiss means about a thousand different things Louis can never know. But, fuck, no, just sitting there passively hurts too much and Louis gives in, he kisses Liam back because there's fuck all else that he can do right now but he can do this, he can kiss Liam and he can love him at least for this fucked up little moment. Louis kisses Liam back and it's so small, and such a fragile touch that Louis can feel the ache of it in his chest, like he's taking in some of the pain, like the kiss of life to a drowning man with the taste of seawater in Louis mouth.

The kiss ends on the breath of Liam's sigh, pulling apart until they're a few inches apart and the moment settles down on them like parachute silks, ballooning and falling slowly around their shoulders. Liam's eyes are closed, his shoulders are slack, and he has a look of fallen regret, the kind of hopeless resignation when the worst is coming and there's nothing that can stop it.

"I'm sorry," Liam says, his voice low and gravelly.

"It's okay," Louis says, not sure if he should touch him, not sure of fucking anything anymore.

"I'm really. That shouldn't. I shouldn't have put you in that situation and." Liam stops suddenly. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Liam," Louis says, rubbing the back of his head. The buzzing drunkenness of the evening is gone, leaving Louis cold and strangely sober and lonely. Lonely even though Liam's right here, lonely because it was actually okay, even if the kiss was for the wrong reasons, it really did feel okay. And now he's getting an apology for it. And it's Liam, it's Liam looking like everything is lost. And Louis feels fucking lonely.

"I was just – I'm so – all the damn time and – I shouldn't have." Liam gives up again. "I'm really sorry."

"I get it, I'm kind of –" Louis falters quietly. "It's okay." He waits, but it's kind of obvious Liam's not going to say anything more. "We'll leave the last episode for later, okay? Let's just go to bed."

Liam nods solemnly, and then slides low until he's lying down on the couch, turning so his back is to Louis and his face pressed into the cushions. Louis looks down at him and feels this shock like he missed a breath, this kind of sharp uptwist of pain like a knife put in cleanly between his floating ribs.

"Goodnight," Louis says, but Liam's already pretending to be asleep.

*

Louis doesn't sleep. He lies in bed, staring at the ceiling as the clock on his nighttable ticks over from three to four. His fists are balled up, and there's a leaden weight in his stomach that won't let him sleep, the slightly bitter hiccup of bile in his throat from the booze and quiet disaster of the night.

And then the door opens and Liam is standing in the doorframe with his blanket like Linus van Pelt.

"Louis?" Liam says, and it's the first time either of them have spoke during these fragile midnight visits.

"Yeah?"

"I'm really –" a soft crack in his voice stops Liam for a moment. "I'm really sorry. I'm really sorry for – but I need, just tonight, I wouldn't ask if it wasn't –"

"Is it bad?"

"Yeah," Liam manages to croak out.

Louis sweeps open a side of his duvet, and Liam slides into place. Louis throws the blanket back onto Liam and it settles over him as soft as Louis' sudden sigh of relief.

Louis gets his arms around Liam then, and Liam resists at first but then just let's him get drawn in. He tries to say a few more things, most of them starting with sorry, but Louis shushes him sharply. "You got a whole lot of fucking love inside of you," Louis says, resting his mouth on the crown of Liam's head, smelling his old shampoo and the slight musty boyish smell of two days without a shower. "And you don't know what to do with it right now. I get it, Liam. I really fucking get it, okay?"

"You're not –"

"Shut the fuck up, you giant wombat," Louis says, landing neatly between love and insult.

Liam manages a single sharp bite of laughter, edging towards a sob. But he calms after that, his arms still locked around Louis but going slack and tuckered out as he finally gives up apologising and just relaxes into Louis' body.

*

Louis wakes up in time, feeling the bed sag as Liam tries to sneak out.

"Where are you going?" Louis says, voice still rough from sleep.

Liam stands there, shock-still, turning to look at Louis. He looks exhausted, sunken-eyed and almost bruised with a lack of sleep, his sweet lower lip rosy and chewed nervously.

"If you don't have a good answer just come back, man," Louis says, lifting the duvet again. Morning light is seeping in from between the parting in the curtains, barely lighting up the room, but it's the first time they've ever had a proper look at each other like this.

Liam hesitates on the spot, and Louis knows why, the same trembling apologies from four in the morning. Liam is sober now though, and he's looking at Louis like he's not sure of anything anymore, like things are too fucked up to continue. The look of raw regret on his face stings Louis, hypodermic and sharp, and he almost wants to just shout that it was okay, the kiss wasn't a thing, not a damn thing, doesn't he get that yet? They are okay. "Don't have a good answer, but –"

"The Lord of Winterfell died, dude," Louis says, a hopeful upturn in the corner of his mouth. "We were all pretty fucked up about it."

It takes Liam a moment to process this, too early and probably a little hungover. And then he smiles, and Louis suddenly knows how that feels, to have another person's love light you up from the inside. "Okay," Liam says, and climbs back into bed.

*

The morning is as sticky and slow as spilled honey, dragging back in groans and sharp sips at tea. Louis made it through the ordeal without too much of a hangover, the cold slap of Liam's breakdown startling him out of drunkenness, but Liam's clearly suffering. He flops down on the couch when they decide to get up (together, for once), burying his head in the pillows and groaning.

"I think I'm ill," Liam says. "I'm really thirsty and I think I'm going to be sick and –"

"You're hungover, Liam," Louis says from the kitchen. It's Liam's turn to make breakfast, but that's clearly not going to happen.

"Hungover?"

"Your first hangover," Louis says. "Should I take a snap and put it in the album? Baby's first binge."

"I want – orange juice," Liam says, digging further under the pillows.

"No juice," Louis says.

Liam leans up on his palms so he can look over the back of the couch, pouting at Louis. "No juice?"

"Harry's bringing in supplies, don't worry," Louis says, buttering a few slices of toast. "Rations from the terrible outside world."

"I want some juice," Liam says again.

"Jesus," Louis says, putting the kettle on to boil. "Baby's first hungover whinge about juice."

"I heard that," Liam says.

"That's why I said it out loud," Louis says, trying to hide his smile.

*

Even though Louis knows Harry is coming over, the buzz of the doorbell startles him. Apart from the pizza man, they've been locked up here alone for three days and it's becoming much too easy to forget that a world exists out there, full of horrible people and weather and, like, things to do. Louis pads to the door, naked except for a pair of boxer shorts, and he opens it to the length the chain will allow.

"What's the password?" Louis says, his eye to the crack.

"What?" Harry says. From the gap Louis can see that his arms are full of grocery bags, weighing him down.

"Password. Friend or foe, stranger?"

"What?"

"Foe!"

"Uh – One Direction?"

"Nice try."

"Louis."

"Ooh, close."

"Louis is the light of the world and the greatest boy on earth?" Harry tries, his voice already bearing the strain of the groceries.

"And?"

"An annoying tosser who is making me stand here holding food I bought for him without even a thank you?"

Louis swings the door open. "Correct."

Louis makes a point of not helping Harry as he slugs the grocery bags in, dropping them on the kitchen counter. Louis stands there and he looks between where Harry is beginning to unpack the food (a baguette, some apples, a jug of milk, a pack of liquorice allsorts) and where Liam is nestled down on the couch, watching some cooking competition in a cocoon of blankets. Louis pads up behind Harry, patting him gently on the bum.

"I'll sort this out," Louis says, glancing obviously towards the sofa.

Harry pulls off his leather jacket, leaving it draped over one of the stools. How is he? he mouths silently.

Louis shrugs, beginning to search through the bags for orange juice. "Ask him," he says under his breath.

Harry nods and walks over to the couch. His walk is a little staggered and reticent, like he's not sure what to expect. Louis watches him closely, though he's not really sure for what. Liam and Harry have probably the most conventional relationship in the band, obviously fond but much more brotherly than sweet. They act like boys from back home used to, no obvious signs of affection, all their love just coming in through punching and teasing and mocking one another ceaselessly. A stranger might say they're not terribly close, but Louis knows it takes a lot for Liam to be playfully mean, that he has to be absolutely comfortable with someone before he'll let himself tease them or let himself get teased without it making him hurt and awkward. They're all brothers really, but Harry and Liam actually seem to believe it, their own little game of sibling rivalry and fighting translated as love. Louis has no idea how this is going to play out, or even how it should. This is new territory, hic sunt dracones.

"Hey, Harry," Liam says as Harry rounds the couch, towering over him.

"Hey, Liam," Harry says, his smile soft but like it's aching to go goofy, like Harry is resisting the desire to tease Liam.

"Any new tattoos, dude?" Liam asks.

"Like, six," Harry says, his hands shoved in the pockets of his skinny jeans, his t-shirt sleeves rolled up like a greaser from the 50s.

"Oh yeah?"

"Probably gonna get a new one tomorrow, too."

There's a long pause then. Louis can only see Harry, how his expression slips from that desire to mock into something softer, like he can see the wounds bleeding through the cotton of Liam's shirt, almost like he's surprised by how much he suddenly cares. It's an expression Louis' probably been wearing more often than he thinks.

"C'mere," Liam says, small and shy.

"Thought you'd never ask," Harry says, and then he jumps on Liam. Louis can just see the flurry of arms, legs, the blankets getting thrown around as Harry digs his way under to give Liam a proper hug. There's laughing, the hiccupping involuntary kind that Liam gets when he's being tickled, and the slight gravel of a growl in Harry's chest as he leans up – straddling Liam now, probably – and pounces, the sharp smack of a lovebite followed by Liam's aw shucks you guys groan he does when the dickhead wants to pretend like he doesn't absolutely love it.

Watching them tussle and fight like twelve-year-olds is just such a great relief, a flood of not-so-old memories when everything had its balance, when Liam was exactly who he was supposed to be, and older memories of when Liam finally found his place in the band and everything suddenly worked. Louis feels this big weight suddenly loosed from his chest, the ballast anchoring the airship of his heart suddenly thrown aside. Louis smiles to himself as he goes about unpacking the groceries, just like it used to be, just like it should be.

"Louis!" Liam yelps. "Tell him to stop. Tell him I'm hungover, please, God."

"Harry," Louis says, finding the orange juice at last and pouring three full glasses. "Liam says that he's feeling great and you should yell in his ear, he would like that an awful lot, please."

"Louis," Liam yells on a bright shock of laughter, and today could be any day really, everything in its right place.

*

Harry insists on making them dinner, scoffing when Liam suggests they order take away. He's very serious about it, bringing his own apron and all the ingredients he needs for his signature spag bol. It was Louis' favourite when they lived together, a weekly staple when they were at home, with a sauce made up of about a hundred different things – from cinnamon to fennel to anchovy paste – that somehow just works, he reassures Liam.

It's been three days now, and Louis and Liam really have perfected their whole little private island thing in that time. While Harry does his prep work on the onion and garlic ("Shut up, Louis, it's the onions, I'm not crying") Louis finds some candles, big chunky things like the pistons in a car's engine, that he arranges around the living room and kitchen. The curtains are drawn and sashed, and Harry is cooking by the single light of the stove's hood, Liam curled up on the couch like kitten on a lap watching How to Train Your Dragon, and everything feels kind of soft and blurred at the edges, the calm of a nice dream.

Louis stops in to see how dinner is going once he's set up their artificial starlight, a galaxy spread out in a circle around the room with the couch in the middle like they're sacrificing furniture to Satan. He gets in behind Harry, tucking his head on his shoulder and looking down at the thick, bubbling brick-red of his sauce.

"What if I just gobbed in there?" Louis says.

Harry pulls away from him, giving Louis a look that could cut clean through sheet metal. "Don't even joke," he whispers.

"Come on, we share drinks all the time, you've drunk more of my spit than some girls I've dated."

Harry raises one eyebrow and goes back to stirring. "He seems okay," Harry says, gesturing to Liam with a nod of his head.

"Yeah," Louis says, resting his chin on Harry's shoulder again. "It's you, mate. He hasn't been like this in days. I've not seem him this calm since he came to stay."

Harry stirs with a methodical rhythm. "Come on, you're doing a good job taking care of him," Harry says in a whisper.

Louis rests his head against Harry's. Louis wants to say it all then, wants to spill it all to Harry; how frustrated he's been with himself, those flashes of selfishness when he just wants Liam to be okay so he can have him back and things can be normal again, the daily fresh pain of not doing enough to make Liam feel better, the barbed sting of Liam's apology after the single warm minute of that kiss. "I don't know," Louis says instead.

"Come on, Lou. I know you are. I expected him to be a sobbing wreck. He acts like he's so – safe here, or something. He looks like he's thirteen and, like, cosy. You know what I mean." Harry says it all so matter-of-factly, like it's all very obvious if you take a look. "You always made me feel safe."

"Safe from what exactly?" Louis asks, snaking his arms around Harry's body in a go for the spoon, which Harry yanks out of his grasp. "All the supermodels who wanted to fuck you?"

Harry doesn't laugh. "From everything," he says simply. "Like things couldn't go that wrong if you were around."

Louis hesitates on that. "Generally things tend to only go wrong when I'm around. That's what I do, man."

"Not like that," Harry says patiently. "You know what I mean," he says again, like the last word of a debate.

"You're talking about me, aren't you?" Liam yells from the couch.

"Yeah," Louis replies. "We're figuring out what I should charge you for rent."

"I'm only paid in wine gums and pressed flowers," Liam yells back. "I've only got twelve jaffa cakes in the bank."

Harry looks at Louis then, this patient kind of smirk that says you see? Louis sighs then, licks his lips once, and then horks up a gob of spit in the back of his throat. Harry hits him squarely in the cheek with his wooden spoon, a nice circle of red tomato sauce blushing on Louis' cheek.

*

Harry leaves at midnight, only after making them a trifle for dessert too. Liam is nodding off on the couch, trying to pay attention to the debate Louis and Harry are having about Jennifer Lopez (europop era versus Jenny from the block era) but his head keeps lolling on Louis' shoulder, a bit of cream still on his nose from when Louis tried to shove his face into the trifle. Louis eventually gives Harry the signal when Liam gives his first soft little snore.

They amble to the front door, Liam rubbing his eyes with one hand and letting Harry guide him by the hand with the other.

"So, Niall's coming tomorrow, right?" Harry asks.

"Yeah, he's flying in tomorrow morning," Louis says.

"He's coming from Ireland?" Liam asks in a small voice.

"It's near the end of his trip home anyway," Louis adds quickly, though he can see that Liam's got a faint pink blush of shame. "He would be coming over regardless, he's just going to spend his first day here. He's really excited to see you."

Liam swallows and nods and looks out into the rain again. "Thanks for coming, man. Thanks for dinner," he says, turning to Harry now. Harry is pulling on his leather jacket, stepping into his unlaced leather boots. "I really – thanks, Harry."

"You're all right," Harry says then, a sincere smile. He grabs Liam in a tight hug, carding a hand through the hair at the back of Liam's head, rubbing a long swathe down his back. "Love you, man."

"Love you too," Liam mumbles.

"You too," Harry says, grabbing Louis in a shorter, but no less full-on hug.

"Love you, mate," Louis says, patting Harry's shoulder as they pull apart.

Harry leaves and a gust of autumn wind replaces him, a temporary worm hole being opened from their private island leading – just for a moment – to real world London. It smells of diesel and rain out there, fryer oil from the chippie round the block, the muddy whiff of the Thames that seeps into everything like cigarette smoke in a wool jumper. Liam gives Harry a little wave as he walks off to his car, shivering as that cold London smell curls in around them like a shepherd's crook, trying to pull them out into a world where puddles and noise and bad things happen. Louis closes the door solidly, cutting off the cold wind like snuffed candle. In the darkness of the moment, like they'd been staring out at an abyss rather than a city street, Liam looks at Louis and it's the most wrecked he's seen him in the last three days.

"What's wrong?" Louis asks, soft and urgent.

Liam shakes his head, and there are actual tears clinging to the bottom of his lashes. He leaves Louis, walking back to the couch where he burrows himself down again, silent and drawn in tight.

Louis sits next to him, just gently touching the hair at the back of Liam's neck.

Liam rolls over so his face isn't buried in the blankets, so he can look up at Louis when he speaks. He's not crying but his eyes have that blurred quality of tears, a smudge of wetness on his flushed cheeks like polished steel. "It's just. I really love how you and – you and Harry make me feel like everything's okay and all right, but then I'll," a pause, a deep swallow, "remember why, and everything will come back all at once, and it ruins everything you guys have done for me. I just want to enjoy it and. I'm trying so hard to be all normal because I love – I really love spending time like this with you guys, I want it so bad and I'm – I'm just totally ruining it. I just want to feel normal again and have a nice night with you lot and I'm trying so hard but I can't do it right, and trying to be happy is hurting so much, and I don't know what to do anymore."

The silence that follows is a hollow one, like the pain of an empty stomach. The candles around the room, half the size they were when the evening started, are gutting and twisting, moved by an imaginary change in the wind, a sudden drop in the temperature of their cosy cave. Louis sighs and rests his hand in the middle of Liam's chest, sliding up to cup his neck, Louis' thumb playing over the ridge of his collar bone.

"It'll get better eventually," Louis says. "You'll get back to that. There's plenty of time for us to chill together. Whole lifetimes' worth." It's beginning to feel like whenever something becomes too much Louis can only communicate in empty platitudes and the bad advice everyone else has given him about break ups. It's so fucking stupid because he feels it, all those real things in his chest, all the honest things he wants to tell Liam jumbling up incoherently in a mess of feeling he can't turn into words.

"I know," Liam says flatly.

Louis looks away for a moment, watching the flame of one of the candles dance about, and then he looks back at Liam. "Why did you apologize last night?"

There's a tension in the corner of Liam's eyes, like a wire pulled tight. "Because... I shouldn't have – because it was wrong to do that to – because." Liam stops talking, his voice constricting in his throat. "I hated doing that to you. I shouldn't take this out on you. I was so – I'm so lonely – and I love you so much, but not like that, like, so I shouldn't have –" he stops again, getting tangled in the noose of his sentence. "I don't wanna put all this on you, that's all. I didn't want to make it seem like. Using you, or like. Didn't want you to think you were. A stand-in."

"Did it make you feel less lonely?" Louis asks, hating how pathetic his voice sounds.

Liam frowns like he's wincing, closing his eyes. "Yeah," he says, and it sounds so much like an apology. "It – really did."

In the scooped out silence that follows and suddenly lost without the steadying foundation of Harry keeping things even and strong, Louis can feel Liam losing himself to it all again, letting the good of the night get trampled underfoot. Poisoned thoughts of Danielle throttle Liam's voice, rough up his words, reveal the amazing smallness of someone Louis thought was indestructible. Liam curls himself up as tight as possible, elbows and knees folded up like a closed umbrella, only his eyes burning red with tears looking out blearily from under his growing fringe of brown hair, begging Louis for something, something, the wet on his lashes pathetic and desperate. Louis' heart thuds against the cage of his chest as he tastes failure in the back of his throat like bile, looking at Liam's face and wanting to help, trying to figure out what little he could do. And so, n the clenched fist of the moment, with absolutely nothing left, Louis does the only thing he can think of and leans down and – wants to, needs to – kisses Liam.

There's a strange pause of recognition where Liam doesn't move, where he tenses up like he does when Louis is about to slap him. But then, slowly, Liam releases himself into the kiss. His muscles go slack, and his lips part a little. Liam inhales a little sharply through the nose then tilts his head ever so slightly, opening his mouth to Louis. Louis can taste the red wine Liam drank with dinner, and a kind of dessert sweetness in the hollows under his tongue. Liam leans up into the kiss, a soft little nuzzle that's so endearing Louis wants to punch him.

It ends with a smack, like a Hollywood blockbuster kiss, and opening his eyes the first thing Louis sees is a smile slowly fading from Liam's lips.

"All right, bedtime," Louis says simply, getting off the couch.

"Right," Liam says, his voice sounding smoothed out and softer, the hint of disaster mostly gone. "Night, Tommo."

"No, nuh-uh," Louis says, kneeing Liam's shoulder gently. "Get up. I'm tired of you waking me up at two in the morning to sneak into my bed. You're coming with me now or not at all. It's not stealing my bed if I'm in there too."

Liam considers this for a moment, and then nods. He doesn't look happy, but he doesn't look miserable either. He looks – and Louis really owes Harry a punch for this – well-loved, even safe. He looks like a kid who went through something shitty but isn't that worried about the next day, or the one after. He looks like someone who might get better, could get better, maybe. Louis grabs Liam's hand and pulls him up, leading him to the bedroom, Liam staying close by his side.

*

Louis wakes up early, probably just after dawn, to a numb left arm and the soft touch of Liam's breathing tickling his neck. They fell asleep back to back, but somewhere in the night they must have organized themselves into this origami, Liam curled up around Louis' side, his head resting on Louis' shoulder, his arm thrown loosely over Louis' stomach. Louis could probably wriggle his way out of the beartrap of Liam's body but he gives up on that idea early, just lays there and revels in the warmth of their huddle, in the metronomic steadiness of Liam's soft little snores.

Liam looks about thirteen when he's asleep, like that stupid kid with Bieber hair and a fedora Louis remembers watching on the X-Factor back in 2008. It was a weird sense of déjà-vu seeing Liam for the first time in Manchester, vaguely remembering him from that season two years back when he was cut at judges' houses. Louis was eighteen when he first properly met Liam at auditions, too busy with that feeling of this kid is going to fucking smash it to really remember anything else about him other than that strange squirm of jealousy and regret when Louis realised he didn't stand a chance. In the end, getting paired up with him always seemed like some kind of amazing black magic, so sure Louis was of his own failure and so certain he was of Liam's success. For that alone Louis has always felt oddly proud and fond of Liam, like Louis has somehow worked his way up to being his equal, like he earned Liam's friendship with dedication and gentle slaps and jokes at both their expense. Louis wasn't wrong about Liam and Harry being cut out for stardom. Even after two years it still feels like Louis somehow doesn't deserve it, that it was a spark of luck or some crazy mistake that he'd somehow be allowed to share their lives, that he'd somehow be allowed to lie in bed with the same soft, undone kid curled against him for comfort.

And Louis knows he's kind of being a selfish little shit about this whole situation – please, can't things just go back to how they were – but it doesn't actually feel so bad when Liam moves a little in sleep and he takes a fistful of Louis shirt and clings to him like gravity.

*

Niall gets in at three with his suitcase and a grin, all bed-head and pyjama bottoms and a ratty American flag tanktop. He offers a single cheery hello to Louis before he kicks off his shoes, leaves his bag by the front door, and runs down the hallway shouting Liam's name.

Liam, unsuspecting, is making tea in the kitchen and Niall does a running jump into his arms, clinging to him like a koala. Liam gives Louis an incredulous but crazily fond smile over Niall's shoulder while Niall keeps repeating I love you over and over against his neck. Louis shrugs and smiles, leaning against a pillar and thanking God for the rest of his band and how they can make almost anything into a shining beacon of joy, overcoming any sturm and drang with their pure fucking love.

"I love you too, Niall," Liam says, rubbing his back.

"I missed you so much," Niall says, finally letting go and climbing off of Liam but not before planting a loud and firm kiss on his cheek. "I'm going to bake you something, okay? Like bread or cookies or something, yeah."

"Okay," Liam says, cheeks flooding with colour.

"Hi, Niall," Louis says.

Niall turns, startled, like he forgot they weren't alone. He grins and he gives Louis a less aggressive hug but just as loud a kiss. "All right, then?"

"We're good," Louis says, taking his position in the backseat of this afternoon while Niall's attention wanders back to Liam. "Eating rubbish. Ignoring work. Pretending the world doesn't exist."

"Perfect," Niall says. "I want in on that."

Louis gives a magnanimous gesture, including the curtained windows and darkened room and pile of blankets on the couch and the kitchen now filling with take away wrappers and empty beer bottles. "Our kingdom is yours."

Niall gives him a goofy smile, a raised eyebrow. "Give me all your eggs, flour, milk, whatever guys, let's bake a fuckin' cake."

*

Liam and Niall do most of the baking while Louis sits cross-legged on the kitchen counter drinking Zinfandel from the bottle. He only interrupts their arguments about converting imperial and metric once to say he is the "committing original Zin," and Liam shoots him a look that is so perfectly balanced between love and hate that a breath of wind might push it one way or another.

It's amazing to watch Niall. It's always amazing to watch Niall just exist, but the way he is with Liam is so sweet it's almost diabetic. Niall has this way of focusing absolutely everything on one person, even when they're just chatting or messing about. It's like he totally locks on to you and you're the only thing in the world that matters to him right then, like nothing else exists. For the whole afternoon he orbits Liam like planet, laughing at most of what Liam says, poking and prodding and bumping up against him, focusing his love on Liam like a laser beam. As Liam stirs their batter, Niall clings to his side; when Liam offers him a whisk to lick Niall smacks another kiss on his cheek; when Liam is focused on breaking up the hard lumps of brown sugar, Niall uses spilled flour like make-up to paint a cat's nose and a smear of whiskers on his cheeks, just to get a laugh out of Liam.

Louis doesn't mind being left out of their typhoon, getting quietly tipsy on cheap Californian wine, because being with Niall is always like getting a chance to breathe. He offers a gap outside in the real world, where everything is just fucking fine for a few hours, where Louis can laugh and smile without a clutter of doubt stabbing into him like his heart is a pin cushion.

"Thanks for helping," Niall shoots at Louis without malice as he pushes the finished batter into the oven, wiping his floury hands on Liam's shirt.

"My gift is my song, and this one's for you," Louis says, sloshing the rest of the wine around in the bottle. "And I've got some cans of Harp in the fridge just for you, babe."

"Have I ever told you how much I love you?" Niall says.

"Like, daily, man," Louis says.

Niall grabs a can of lager out of the fridge but excuses himself to the toilet before cracking the top. There's actually a strange feeling of loss when Niall leaves the room, some calming kind of aura that has been ripped away, leaving Louis and Liam to just smile at each other from across the kitchen, a little fragile.

"You baked me a cake," Louis says, hopping off the counter.

"Yeah, man, German chocolate," Liam says. His clothes – well, Louis' clothes, a little too tight on him which is never a mistake on Liam, to be honest – are covered in the snow of flour and the soot of cocoa. He looks so unpolished then, brought down to his basic parts, standing in Louis' kitchen covered in cake ingredients and doped up on the hours of a really nice afternoon. Louis knows that at any time it's going to happen, Liam is going to remember it all over again and crack the surface of a good time, and Louis can't stand it, wants so badly to not let it break this time.

So it just kind of happens that Louis wanders over to Liam, puts the bottle of wine down on the counter next to him, and stands on his toes to kiss him. It's almost a nothing kiss, just a press of Louis' slightly parted mouth against Liam's dry lips, and it seems like it happens just because it can. "Thanks," Louis says, still very close to Liam's mouth. "I fucking love cake."

Liam looks slightly puzzled, but a lot delighted. He's starry-eyed as Louis pulls away a bit, but before the moment has a chance to die Liam touches his shoulder and pulls Louis in for another kiss, a little longer, a little sweeter. "You're welcome."

"Are you quite finished?" Louis says, almost a whisper, and Liam laughs and the corners of his eyes crinkle and Louis feels the sparrow of his heart fucking soar.

*

Niall leaves at three in the morning, a little tipsy on beer with his face flushed bright red and his pecks on the cheek coming more and more often. Liam and Louis see him out, back slapping and ruffling hair and another jumping hug into Liam's arms.

"Another time, real soon," Niall says, tugging at the collar of Liam's shirt. "We'll go out, get pissed, get you dancing, yeah?"

"Actually, yeah," Liam says. "I drink now. Louis got me drunk."

Niall lights up. "Fucking sick, perfect, next weekend, let's do it."

"Let's do it," Liam says, meeting Niall's high five.

"Love you, love you guys," Niall says, as casual as ever but somehow always sincere.

"Love you too," Liam says.

"Love you," Louis adds, ruffling Niall's hair again.

They stand there in the open door until Niall's taxi comes, and he gives a giddy wave goodbye as it drives away. Louis closes the door and Liam locks it. As Louis walks back to his bedroom, Liam follows him the whole way, just slipping in bed next to him and sighing out something that sounds like calm.

"Night," Louis says, oddly quiet.

"Night, Lou," Liam says, ducking forward to press a short and simple kiss at the corner of Louis' mouth.

*

The frozen pizza that was Louis' gracious contribution for the day is just about done cooking when Zayn arrives, standing on the doorstop soaking wet and more jittery than Louis' ever seen him before.

"You're wet," Louis says, stepping aside to let Zayn in.

"It's fucking raining, man," Zayn says. "I walked here from my flat." He shakes his head, spraying Louis like a dog. He looks like he hasn't slept in a few days, and he smells like muddy London and cigarette smoke. "How's he doing?" Zayn demands next, like someone asking a nurse in the casualty ward for news.

"He's all right, considering," Louis says, ducking into the hall closet and pulling out a towel, throwing it at Zayn. Zayn is done up in layers, bomber jacket over a hoodie over a t-shirt, and it's only when he gets down to his bottom layer that he's dry. "Kind of wrecked. Not at all our usual Liam."

Zayn frowns. "Fuck, I've been going mad but I didn't want to keep texting because then I'd just make him feel worse and –" Zayn catches himself, stops to focus himself. "He's not, like, a mess?"

"As much of a mess as I think Liam would let himself be," Louis says.

"Fuck," Zayn says again, "why him though, you know? I just keep thinking why's it got to happen to him?"

Louis shrugs, though it's something he's been asking himself a lot lately. To be honest, they all make for good boyfriends, but no one goes to the crazy lengths Liam does to make someone happy, no one puts more of an effort, no one invests more of himself in just making someone feel good. Obviously it's not Danielle's fault, something had to have been really wrong for her to leave, but it just feels like of them all Liam least deserves to feel this way. "Bad things, good people," Louis says, shrugging again.

"Where is he?"

"Curled up on the sofa," Louis says. "Your jeans are still soaking, dude."

And, right there and then, Zayn unbuckles his belt and peels his trousers off until he's down to his Batman boxer briefs. Louis gives him a wry little smile. "Right, man, thanks," Zayn says, patting Louis on the shoulder and walking into the living room.

"Hey, babe," Zayn says, looking down at Liam on the couch.

"Zayn," Liam says, a tired smile. "You're in your pants."

"It's raining. Come on," Zayn says, holding out a hand. Liam takes it obediently and Zayn tugs him off the couch. "We're going to go have a nap in Louis' giant bed."

"You fucking aren't," Louis says. "I just made lunch. I'm being so lovely and helpful and you're not blowing me off, you two."

"Enjoy that, then," Zayn says, leading Liam by the hand into the bedroom.

"You never appreciate me!" Louis shouts at them. Zayn smirks and gives Louis a jocular middle finger before slamming the door.

*

Louis drinks a few cans of beer, watches Arsenal lose spectacularly to Liverpool at home, and eats all of his goddamn pizza by himself. The rain picks up pace through the afternoon until it's a full-blown downpour, hammering on the roof like the sound of cavalry charging over a bridge. An hour passes and Louis' good nature is losing to his boredom. After another twenty minutes of watching Walcott fuck about the pitch, Louis gives up and goes to see if Liam and Zayn are awake yet.

Opening the door slowly, careful so it doesn't creak, Louis pokes his head into his bedroom. It's dark with the artificial night of the storm and the drawn curtains, but he can see Zayn and Liam together in bed, bare-chested and spooning. Zayn is still passed out, both his arms around Liam like a warning that to get to Liam you'll have to go through him too. Liam, however, is awake, his eyes half-lidded and his smile warm and slow. He looks up as Louis slips into the room, his smile immediately deepening, his cheeks going pink for being caught like this.

"Lou," Liam says, barely a whisper.

"I thought you hated spoons," Louis says, leaning against the doorframe and smirking.

"This one's okay," Liam says, his voice all small and tempered.

"You're not naked under there, are you?"

"Naw," Liam says. "Zayn's like a furnace, though."

"I saved you some pizza," Louis lies.

"Thanks, man," Liam says. "I'll wake him in a bit. I'm really comfy right now, though."

Louis stands there for a minute more, eyes locked with Liam, and all at once he really wants to say something, a lot of things, a whole novel worth of things packed into three very short words. The desire is as strong as it is sudden, but Louis stays silent, swallows the broken shape of the sentence down. He can't do that to Liam, not after this week of mixed signals and broken promises and kisses that come with apologies.

Everything is such a fucking mess right now, their two lives tangled up in the frayed ropes of something they haven't talked about, something that bleeds out in the margins between best friends and soft lips. They haven't talked about the late nights and the hands finding hands in the dark. They haven't talked about how the first shameful bruise of their drunken kiss has slowly and thoughtlessly become their casual routine of saying hello in the morning and goodnight when they coil up in bed together, their mouths a couple inches apart. They haven't talked about how Liam's fingers dip under the elastic of Louis' boxer shorts sometimes, just to rest against his side or the divots at the small of his back like Liam is claiming some naked part of Louis, pushing at those boundaries they don't talk about. They haven't talked about Danielle, or work, or how much Louis wants Liam to stay, stay here forever with their friendly little kisses as they build a life out of beer bottles and pizza boxes and clothes they don't wear. They haven't talked, and Louis really doesn't want to force Liam by using that three word sentence.

"Lou?"

"Yeah?"

"I love you," Liam says simply, and Louis breathes out a laugh.

"I love you too," Louis says, and even though it's got one too many words it does the job just fine.

*

In the end, Louis puts another pizza in the oven and gets the kettle on the hob in preparation. It's just starting to whistle when Zayn and Liam emerge from the bedroom, still topless and holding blankets around their shoulders like they've been interrupted fucking.

"Layabouts," Louis says.

"No, man," Zayn says, much calmer and relaxed than when he came in, "just loads of chilling."

Zayn, apparently satisfied that Liam is not in any immediate physical or emotional danger, gives Louis a proper hug hello, wrapping the blanket around them both. "Man, you really are a furnace," Louis says Louis puts his arms around Zayn's back.

"It's how I get people to take their clothes off, yeah?" Zayn says, throwing his blanket closed again, standing there like a Jedi in fleece. "Milk, no sugar," he adds as Louis goes back to the kettle.

"You know where the fridge is," Louis says, pouring the water into three mugs.

"Three sugars and milk please," Liam says.

"Coming up, man," Louis says.

"Ta."

Zayn frowns. "How come he gets –"

Louis smiles sweetly and extends a longbowman salute in his direction. Zayn laughs and gets the milk from the fridge and sugar from the pantry, and they make Liam's tea together.

*

It doesn't stop raining the whole day. Even at midnight it's coming down as hard as ever, the hiss of it like static in the air. Zayn finally managers to broker a temporary lifting of the barriers between their island and the city of London, and he goes outside to have a smoke. Liam follows him out, rubbing his eyes like he's stumbling out into a magical world of taxi cabs and takeaway curry and petty crime. They've been cloistered inside for five days now and Louis follows them outside with a feeling like the last survivors of an apocalypse crawling out of their bunker.

They sit on the stoop together, Zayn and Louis flanking Liam on each side. Zayn tugs out his pack of Marlboro Lights and taps out a cigarette, knocking it against his wrist to settle it. Liam gives Zayn the usual look of reserved disapproval, the same one he gives any time Zayn lights up in front of them. Zayn replies with a sheepish smile and knocks a lick of flame out of his Zippo, the tip of his cigarette flaring as he draws in the first breath.

"Not gonna wanna kiss you if you're all smoky," Liam says, his bottom lip pushed out, wet and candy pink.

Zayn laughs, and between draws he plants a hard kiss on Liam's cheek. "Tough."

The silence that follows is almost meditative. The rain has polished London to a black mirror, the neon green crosses of chemists and the orange of the streetlamps and bright red of 24-hour corner shops blurring like mixed paint on the palette of the streets. The reflection is broken as taxis drive by, slashing it in half as the rain patiently builds the mirror again. Louis edges towards Liam in this gap until their thighs are touching and their shoulders too, sharing this moment like they've shared every second since Liam arrived. It's becoming second nature now, Louis wanting to experience everything with Liam, half to make sure he's doing all right and half just to remember this time as less of a bloody bruise and more the as the ties that bind them closer and closer.

"You know how much I love you, right?" Zayn says to Liam, a little held back like he feels dumb saying it. Louis feels his chest tighten a little, knows exactly the strange and shattered place Zayn is coming from. "We all do. I don't want you to think you're, like, somehow letting us down or something." Zayn stops, frowns and shakes his head a little. "You're so good, man. You're so – there's no one like you."

Liam hugs his knees to his chest and looks down at the ground. "Thanks for coming over. I really. I missed you a lot, Zayn."

Zayn rubs the back of Liam's neck gently. "Louis' been taking good care of you, right?"

Liam glances over at Louis, his smile shy. "Yeah."

Louis gives him the ghost of a wink. "The Tomlinson Home for Wayward Boys."

"Things'll get better," Zayn says, smoke drifting between his lips on every syllable. "They have to. They will."

"There's an old joke about an optimist and a pessimist," Louis says, nudging his knee against Liam's. "The pessimist says everything is terrible, it can't possibly get worse than this and the optimist says oh yes it can."

Liam laughs, and he nuzzles his head against Louis' shoulder. "It's not so bad, here," Liam whispers.

"Sometimes you just need a big change, you know?" Zayn says, stomping out his cigarette. "Do something crazy, say fuck you to the world. Know what I mean? Something to, like, reclaim yourself. Go pierce your dick or something, man."

Liam snorts. "Nice try."

"Yeah, yeah," Zayn says, standing up and yawning. "One day I'll convince you to get something done with me." Zayn's expression suddenly softens then, momentarily brushing a hand against Liam's cheek. "Any time you need me, ring. Any time of day, or night, for whatever reason. Promise?"

"Promise," Liam says, standing up too.

It's less a hug, more Zayn catching Liam. It's full, a close one, engulfing each other and not letting go; Liam burying his head in Zayn's shoulder, Zayn squeezing his eyes closed. Louis watches them, his bare feet tapping on the cold stone porch, and he's immediately caught up in just loving his boys, loving them all so fucking hard. That despite the crazy schedules and endless teasing and paparazzi they have each other, through and through in a way that – even though Louis has been living it for two years – still surprises him. When things go bad, the five of them just seem to get stripped down to the foundations of everything, just that intense love that they laid like masonry back in the bungalow. They can have a laugh, they can be laddish, they can take the mick out of each other daily, but when it comes down to it there's a solid beating heart at the centre of everything, warm and full-blooded and privately theirs. And when they love each other, they love like there's nothing else in the fucking world.

Liam and Zayn break apart, but it's barely a moment before Zayn pulls Louis in for a hug too, furnace-warm and tight.

Liam and Louis sit there for a while, the two of them huddled up together and watching as Zayn walks into the rain and then – a laugh and a shout goodbye – starts running back to his flat.

It's funny playing host to each of the other three boys in turn, one by one, and watching them with Liam. They each give him something different, every one of them a chip in the mosaic that makes their band work. Harry cares for him, gives everything for him, would do anything for him; Niall is the bright rush of euphoria, the untroubled, the light in the break of the clouds; Zayn is the quiet and the peace, the soft and the intimate, the linked fingers and private smiles. Louis wonders where he fits into the picture, what he provides other than a place to stay and a few shitty jokes. It's the same feeling he got when the band was first together, what he had to offer besides a smirk and a flash of mischief, what could he possibly provide to four guys with voices like poured honey and matinee idol smiles. And then Liam turns to look at Louis and flashes him this grin, soft and shy and meant only for him, and Louis knows that even if he has fuck all idea what he provides, it's something Liam seems to want.

"I really love our boys," Liam says, his arms crossed over his knees, resting his chin on his forearms.

"I was just thinking that," Louis says, sighing and leaning against Liam.

"I'm really – really fucking lucky," Liam says, the curse sounding odd and sweet coming out of him. He turns to look at Louis properly then. "Really, really, really lucky."

Louis nods, a soft laugh. "Me too, Liam. Me fucking too."

Liam nods, and then takes the momentary pause to lean over and kiss Louis, fleeting and small and easier every time they do it. They stay close, heads bowed together, sharing the silence. A thousand screaming things should be waking up in Louis – that this is a dumb fucking mistake or that he's just fucking Liam up more, that he's a bad friend – but really all Louis can focus on is the soft hush of Liam's breath tickling his cheek. They kiss again like they need to kiss again, longer this time, Louis putting a hand round the back of Liam's head and carding his fingers through his hair. Soft and little becomes longer, wanting, the kind of kiss that happens when you're aching, when you need to be kissed. Liam unfolds a little, gets up closer to Louis, this soft little noise at the back of his throat, a hitch in his breath that Louis feels against his mouth. Louis blends into him, tilting his head to the side, tasting the sugar-sweet of Coca Cola in Liam's mouth, feeling the edge of his teeth as Louis flicks his tongue against them. Liam takes a fistful of Louis' shirt, holding him again like an anchor against the sea. Louis can feel the brush of stubble on Liam's jaw, the softness of Liam's bottom lip pressed against his own, the tension slowly releasing in Liam's shoulders. There's something a little sad in the kiss, but a strangely comforting kind of sad. A shared sadness.

Liam doesn't pull away after, rather he rests his head on Louis shoulder and they sit there together, looking out at the black mirror of London.

"You're not my plan B," Liam says after a while, his voice razor thin. "You're not my – my rebound. I don't want you to think you are. You're not an escape. You're not some guy. You're." Liam stops then, for a long time, this sharp hum of silence like a ringing in Louis' ears. Liam turns to look at Louis then, makes sure he's got his attention, locking eyes with a private smile. "You're my Louis."

"I am," Louis agrees, can't help but smile at that.

"I don't think anyone could help loving you," Liam says, his voice becoming louder, more real, more certain. "At least I – I really couldn't help loving you. I really like loving you. I've always really liked it."

"You're going to make me have a little weep here, Payner," Louis says, trying to sound jokey but failing, instead pressing a kiss against the side of Liam's head.

"Sorry," Liam says, his cheeks going hot. His smile is sharp and real and totally in focus.

"No, man, keep telling me how great you think I am, I like that bit," Louis adds, a little huff of a laugh though he really doesn't want to break this calm.

Liam is silent and buzzing after that, just resting on Louis' shoulder almost like he's basking in him, when something suddenly hits him. He straightens up quickly, a quizzical frown shifting to realisation. Liam turns to look at Louis, the beginnings of a rough smile in the corner of his mouth. "I've got an idea."

The look on Liam's face is a lot like the one Louis gets when he decides to pull down Niall's trousers or throw water balloons off of balconies. It looks odd on Liam, a little too wild and uncontrolled. "I'm not helping you rob a bank, man," Louis says, though he's pretty sure he would.

"No banks," Liam says, standing up now, holding out a hand to tug Louis up too, like he's suddenly been filled with fire. "But I'll need your help."

"All right," Louis says. "Is it illegal? I hope it's illegal."

"No, man, I –" Liam seems slightly bothered, a little rough and still kind of clinging to that sense of desperation that Louis tasted on his mouth. "I just. I need to do this. Right now, or I'm going to wimp out. But I really want to. It has to be now and I want you to help. Do you promise?"

"I promise," Louis says immediately, not sure if he should be worried or proud. Probably both.

"Come with me," Liam says, grabbing Louis' hand and leading him back inside.

*

Louis isn't sure what Liam intends, not even when Liam is tugging him into the bathroom and closing the door behind them.

"Do you have any clippers?" Liam asks. His voice is full and urgent, a kind of aggressive weight to it that Louis hasn't heard for the last week. He sounds like he's balancing between catastrophe and euphoria, like he absolutely needs to do this or he'll combust.

"Clippers?"

"Hair clippers," Liam says, and if Louis didn't get it from that, Liam runs his hands back through his hair.

"Holy shit, seriously?"

"Yeah, man," Liam says, still full of immediacy and almost giddy with disaster. "Like Zayn said, I need a big change. Gotta – reclaim something or whatever he said."

"Are you serious?"

Liam actually grabs Louis then, pinches his mouth into a pucker that he kisses loudly. He's almost bouncing off the walls, and Louis is stuck between encouraging this misadventure and being worried at the sudden shift. Well, he should be, mostly he just wants to help Liam tear down whatever walls he wants. "I'm serious. I need a change. I need a big change and I wanna do it right now, with you."

"But –" Louis stutters, though he's starting to smile. "But you're Aslan, no one shaves your mane."

"Would you do it?" Liam asks, biting his bottom lip though he can't stop grinning at Louis like a breath of life has been blown into him. Louis decides it's better than the slow downward spiral and better than getting drunk and apologizing for a kiss, and if Liam is going to lose control the least Louis can do is lose it with him.

"Yeah, all right," Louis says, cupping a hand around the back of Liam's neck to just touch the fluff of his hair. "Let's do it."

Liam kisses Louis fiercely, almost defiantly, like someone is trying to keep them down and Liam is refusing to be crushed. He's breathing like he's running a marathon, and in the few touches Louis has felt Liam is radiating heat like a bonfire. Louis knows exactly where Liam is coming with this, that glow of rebellion flooding his veins, he's just not used to being the responsible one between the two of them, thinking about consequences of their newest game. Their management team will kill them when Liam shows up for work with a buzz-cut, and who knows what the fans or the press will make of the sweet puppy in their band going a little punky and raw, but somehow that just seems to steel Liam's resolve and Louis kind of appreciates that. Let the fuckers think what they want, Louis decides, so long as it's the two of them ripping up the world together, so long as Liam kisses Louis on the mouth as they go supernova.

"I love you," Liam says, his eyes shot and his breath heaving and Louis has never felt so much heat and light in a word before.

"You know I've got you no matter what," Louis says, though he's starting to smirk, enjoying the hellfire path this night is going down.

"I know now," Liam says, almost frantic. Louis isn't sure if this mood Liam is in makes what he says more or less true, but he really doesn't care. "I always knew, but I really know now."

Louis has some clippers stashed in the cabinet under the sink. He had bought them as a joke a year ago; he was going to prank Harry by waking him up with the buzz of the shears and going for his precious curls, but he always forgot to pack them for tour. He digs them out from under toothpaste and half-empty bottles of cologne and shampoo and cracks them out of their plastic shell, plugging the cord into the wall.

"This is it," Louis says, holding up the shears, carding his hand loosely through Liam's hair. "No going back from this, bro."

Liam actually smirks, honest mischief in the corner of his mouth. He tugs off his jumper and throws it on the ground; warm skin spotted with freckles here and there, the slight fuzz of hair in the middle of his chest. He looks broad and tall again, none of the fragility of the last week, back to being that solid and handsome scrum-half kind of guy Louis remembers from playfights and tour bus naps and big hands wrapped around wrists when Louis goes to pinch his nipple. Liam flips over an empty wastebasket and uses it as a makeshift stool to give Louis a better angle at his hair. "Now or never," Liam says.

Louis squeezes Liam's bare shoulders once before he thumbs the clippers on. They buzz in his hand, the noise filling the room like wasps, and Liam sits a bit taller, his neck straighter. Louis keeps his gaze locked with Liam in the mirror as he brings the clippers closer to his head, looking for any glint of mistake or panic. Liam gives nothing away though, not even when Louis finally touches it to the front of his hair line, takes a deep breath, and draws it in a smooth backward motion.

Liam's hair wasn't that long to start with, or at least Louis thought, but shaving it down to a half-inch is shocking. Liam actually hiccups out a laugh, and it sounds much less certain than any of his grandstanding did. It's too late now though, so Louis draws the shears against his scalp again, and again, clearing clean pathways through Liam's short curls and dropping the locks of hair in a pool around their feet.

The tension in Liam's body is obvious. The threads in his throat have gone tight, stressed along his shoulders so that deep wells form near his collars. The muscles of his bare back flex and twitch like clockwork under his skin. Louis pauses for a moment, uses his free hand to rub the back of Liam's neck, thumb making comforting circles in his skin before he finishes the job. Liam is so lit up right now, almost like he's scared of what he's capable of, worried about the depth of his rebellion.

"Liam?" Louis asks over the buzz of the clippers.

"Keep going," Liam says, his hands visibly shaking now. They're too far along to go back now and Liam seems to know it, reaching back to squeeze Louis' hand once, his eyes closed and nodding slowly, egging himself on.

Louis goes back to his work, shaving the rest of Liam's hair into mousy brown clippings scattered on the floor. A few minutes later, cutting cleanly around the curve of Liam's ears and evening up the back of his neck, Louis shuts the clippers off and stands there with his hands on Liam's shoulders in the sudden echoing silence of the bathroom.

"Holy shit," Louis says. Looking at Liam in the mirror is incredible; he looks about five years older and tougher than Louis ever expected. If Louis didn't know pretty much every single thing about Liam he would actually be kind of intimidated by him. That puppy dog edge has mostly been scraped away by the clippers but Louis knows where to still find it, the sweetness of him still living in the pink fullness of his bottom lip and the warmth of his brown eyes. Tentatively, Louis touches Liam's buzzed hair, rubs it gently like a good luck totem. It tickles his hand, prickly and funny, and Louis falls in love with the feel of it.

"Oh my God," Liam says, frowning at his reflection like he doesn't recognize it.

"You look fucking incredible," Louis says. "Why the hell didn't you do this before?"

Liam laughs but it's a nervous chuckle. "I look so – I don't even know."

"You look amazing," Louis says, and he really does mean it. He loves how it makes the angles of Liam's cheeks sharp and sudden, how it makes his eyes more piercing, how it seems to magnify the definition of his biceps and the rounds of his broad shoulders, but mostly he loves the feel of it. Louis can't keep his hands off of Liam, touching the prickle of hair at the back of Liam's neck and drawing his tingling hands down over Liam's back, the warm skin of his shoulders, the loose flex of his arms. "It's definitely a change."

"Ha, yeah," Liam says. He seems burnt out now, exhausted from the energy of his need and the catharsis of the buzzcut and Louis' hands tracing the lines of muscle and bone. His body seem to shiver under Louis' fingers like he's been made oversensitive and electric, responding to everything much more intensely than ever before. Liam closes his eyes and leans into Louis then, the full length of his bare back against Louis' stomach and hips. "Louis?"

"Yeah, man?"

"I need – I need you – I need you to –" Liam struggles with it, like he doesn't even know what that need is. He's so shaken, almost trembling against Louis' body as goosepimples rattle down his arms. Louis is so aware that every touch seems to send Liam reeling, a shiver just at the slightest brush of fingertips. Louis has never seen anyone so keyed up as Liam is now, his whole body responding immediately to anything; the cold of the air or the brush of Louis' jeans against his spine or Louis' hands working at the architecture of bone at his collars. "I need you, I need you," Liam whispers now, his body hunched forward like he isn't sure what to do with himself, like he's about to cry or scream.

"Like – you need me?" Louis asks, not sure if he means what Louis thinks he might mean, fucking blown away if he does. "You need me, man?"

"Yeah," Liam breathes out, the strange broken code of his cracking voice going husky and raw, "I need it, right now. I just – need you to – need you so much, I don't know. I just do, f-fuck." Liam shakes his head and turns around on his makeshift stool to look at Louis properly. His hands hesitate for a moment but Liam gets his fingers linked in the belt loops at the front of Louis' jeans, tugs his hips forward a little, his thumbs touching the copper button of his flies. Liam's eyes are dark and lost, like he's fucked up on need and sudden change and Louis so close, the brush of cloth and skin rough between them. It takes a moment just for Louis to actually get a handle on it, what he's asking for, how totally raw Liam looks right now.

"You want me to?" Louis whispers, his fingertips making white circles in the skin of Liam's shoulders. "Cause I can. If you want me to, I could. I want to. God, you're so fucked up right now, do you even know that?"

"Please," Liam whispers.

Louis knows exactly what Liam wants, just from the tingling in his skin. It's in every part of Liam; the way his body responds to Louis, the way his mouth is flushed red, the gravelly depth in his voice. Louis doesn't even let himself think about it, his pulse already a deafening hammer in his temples, he just gets his hands under Liam's armpits and urges him to stand. Liam obeys immediately, lets Louis push him back so his arse is against the lip of the marble counter top, hopping up so he's sitting on the edge. "You – you really sure?" Louis asks once more, losing the last of his cool.

Liam nods, his lips trembling like he can't even form the words. He's sitting on the edge of the counter, bare-chested, hunched forward a little so his belt buckle cuts into his flat stomach, the ridges of his hips shadowed and leading down under the elastic hem of his boxer shorts. It's so fucked up seeing Liam like this, wanting like this, desperate for this kind of love. Even in the dirtiest dreams, the filthiest images Louis could come up with, he'd never actually pictured Liam as the kind of guy who would want to be fucked, want to be fucked so desperately he's almost pleading for it.

Even as Liam is helping Louis peel off his shirt, even as Liam's fingers fidget at the button of Louis' flies, tugging the zipper down, Louis can't help but wonder about what this even means. Kissing Liam was one thing, those soft corners they whittled out together, a slow burn in their lazy, strange friendship; this is something else, these are dark waters and thunderstorms and thoughts Louis has kept buried deep down. Louis wants it, damn, he wants it really bad but they've barely talked about the nights they spend curled up in each other, the brush of their lips going unspoken and unchallenged. Louis isn't even half-sure of who they are anymore, what he means to Liam these days, but before he can ask Liam answers him with a trembling, sudden kiss and a soft nip at his bottom lip.

"Just you," Liam murmurs.

"I'm right here," Louis says, letting Liam tug his jeans down. Louis is already hard, pressed up in his briefs, and Liam runs a hand down the length of him. Jesus fucking Christ. "Hold on, I've got something for – fuck, for – this," Louis says, his cock twitching at the feel of Liam's fingertips through the fabric.

While Louis digs under the cupboards again, Liam undoes his trousers and tugs them down his thighs, kicking them off. He sits there in his boxers – the line of his cock visible and pressing up against the cotton – while Louis successfully finds the stupid fucking Ann Summers sampler bag Harry jokingly bought for him a couple of months ago, massage oils and lube and ribbed condoms, thinking it would somehow be embarrassing. God bless the beautiful dickhead, Louis thinks as he grabs a bottle of lube and twists off the top.

Liam leans back on the bathroom counter so his back is against the mirror, the long plane of his body stretched out as Louis hooks his thumbs under the elastic of Liam's boxers. Together they wriggle them off, Liam lifting his arse off the marble and Louis sliding them down his pale thighs, Liam's cock bouncing up against his stomach. Louis has seen Liam naked more times than he can count, but never hard, never as built and boyish and rough as he is now. It's fucking intense, intense just because it's Liam here, naked on the counter and spreading his legs a bit to let Louis fuck him. Shaved head, pupils dark and huge, bottom lip trembling. Liam.

Louis slicks the fingers of his left hand with lube, rubs them together until it warms. Another flash of holy fuck what the fuck am I doing passes at the back of Louis' mind but the noise Liam makes is like thunder in his chest, keening and wanting and young, pushing away everything in Louis' head but the immediacy of touching Liam. With one hand around Liam's cock, jerking him off slowly, Louis gets his fingers up against Liam's arse, presses into him slowly, watching his face for any shift of expression, any hitch or pain.

"You're really tight," Louis murmurs, leaning up close to Liam so their bodies are in parallel, the warmth of Liam's skin glowing around him. "It might hurt."

"Do it," Liam whispers, getting shy now. "But could you – could you kiss me? While you do?"

"Yeah, course," Louis huffs out, almost on a laugh but afraid to break the crackling electricity arcing between them. "I'm gonna use two now, okay?"

Liam nods, edging his legs apart a bit more. The noise he makes is almost grateful when Louis kisses him, slowly this time, careful to tease out a bite on Liam's bottom lip, keep him coming for more. Louis kisses Liam like smoke and molasses, dragging out every second as slow as it can get, keeping Liam in his place while his fingers work into him. Liam arches his back a little, a groan muffled in their kiss as Louis goes one, two knuckles deep inside him.

"Yeah?" Louis asks against Liam's mouth.

"More," Liam says, nuzzling against Louis cheek. "I wanna – I wanna get lost."

Louis nods. "Okay," he murmurs, "tell me to stop if it hurts."

"Want it to hurt," Liam says, his voice sluggish like he doesn't even know what he's saying. "Want you."

Louis slicks up his fingers again, pushes inside Liam a bit faster now, stretching him out. Liam's whole chest flushes, from nipples to throat a rush of red blood that seems to vocalize in little hums of pleasure-pain, a moan as Louis tries a third finger and opens him up.

"I'm gonna fuck you now," Louis says, amazed how fucking good it sounds as he says it. Louis easily picks up on what Liam wants, that lofty feeling of loss, losing themselves together, and he just gives himself away to it. Louis can't stop kissing Liam, can't stop from touching him, his hard cock and his flat stomach and his shoulders and up to the fuzz of his newly-shorn hair. "Okay?"

"Please," Liam says, leaning forward to kiss Louis again. Liam says it like he's embarrassed, asks to be fucked like it's a secret he's pained to admit, like he's afraid of what it might mean that he wants to get fucked so badly.

"Relax, rockstar," Louis says, smoothing Liam's frown out with a kiss. "Just let go."

Louis tugs his briefs down quickly, his dick already so fucking hard just from fingering Liam. He slicks himself up with lube, edges towards the counter and presses his cock to Liam's arse, hunched over him as Liam's legs wrap around Louis' hips loosely. Slowly, Louis pushes in, Liam so fucking tight around him. Louis fucks into Liam inch by inch until Liam is taking him all and whimpering against Louis' mouth, his hands gripping Louis' shoulders so hard it hurts.

They find a rhythm together, the wet of Liam's tongue running along the sharp edges of Louis' teeth, arching his body up as Louis draws out and fucks into him again. God, it's filthy, the sheen of sweat on Liam's chest, his cock bouncing up against his stomach with every push Louis gives. Louis takes Liam's cock in his hand and starts to jerk him off to the same beat of his hips, sliding his palm up and over the head as he sheaths himself in Liam again, draws out an aching moan from his mouth.

"Does it hurt?" Louis asks, his voice getting more broken and stuttering.

"Yeah," Liam groans out. "But the – the good kind, I want – I want it."

"I love you," Louis says, six inches deep and feeling Liam's mouth mark its place on his throat. "Fuck, Liam, you don't even know."

"I know," Liam says, trembling and warm, a shivering smile. "I – I really know."

Louis fucks Liam faster now, pushing into Liam harder and tasting his groans in their kiss. Their bodies are almost flush together, Louis bent over Liam and Liam pressing up against him, keeping his legs tight around Louis and his arms around his shoulders. Louis keeps a hand around Liam's cock and he can tell that he's getting close, his thighs shivering and his pupils huge and his vice-grip on Louis getting tighter, fingernails cutting into his skin. The splay of Liam's body, how he's wrapped around Louis, how he's taking it all is totally obscene. When Louis gathers himself from the haze of sex long enough to look at him, to smile at Liam and lock eyes and fuck into him, he almost loses himself right then.

"Louis, I'm gonna –" Liam stutters. "Keep going, keep going." Those words, those words coming out in Liam's voice while he's getting fucked is maddening. Louis bites Liam's bottom lip and teases another groan out of him, fucks him faster.

Liam comes on a full-body shiver, his head arched back against the mirror and this breathy moan leaving his lips, the first time they've really pulled from the kiss since Louis first pushed inside him. All his muscles get pulled and drawn, seizing suddenly as Liam comes between their bodies, his legs squeezing around Louis' hips. Louis can feel Liam's come warm around his fist, can see it splashed up between their bodies, pearly wet on Liam's chest and throat.

Liam looks absolutely blown apart, his cheeks rosy and his smile crazy shy and small and lost in the hazy after-image of the fuck. Locking eyes with him, seeing how fucking soft and pleased and sated Liam is, Louis gives one last push and totally fucking loses it. He comes buried in Liam, every pulse making Louis shudder as he lets Liam hold their bodies together, Liam's come wet between their stomachs.

The afterglow crashes around Louis' shoulders. He doesn't move, still inside Liam, the two of them coming down from their highs together, bodies sweaty and dirty and slick together. Liam leans forward to kiss Louis, slow and fragile this time, just the sweet touch of lips and a humming murmur and then apart. The air seems to buzz in their silence, just the twinned gasps of their breathing and the flutter of a heart beat pounding in Louis' ears. The bathroom smells of their sex, rich and teenage and filthy, and Louis kind of wants to revel in it, in this mess they've made of each other and their lives. It's a good kind of mess, like vodka and late nights, like sixteen and stupid.

"Wait, wait," Liam says quietly as Louis stirs. "Stay – stay inside. Just. Yeah," he breathes out, his shyness coming back like a blush.

"You okay?" Louis asks, mouth against Liam's shoulder. "That was – yeah. Yeah."

"I'm good," Liam says dreamily. "Could you kiss me again?"

"I can, yeah," Louis says, leaning down and meeting Liam's lips, the flicker of tongue, the song of Liam's teeth sinking softly into Louis' bottom lip. They stay there, pressed together as the world comes back into focus and Louis can feel the ache in his thighs and the bruise of Liam's fingers on his skin, slowly finding himself again after getting totally lost. After a while of sharing the same gulped air, Louis pulls out of Liam slowly, planting a firm kiss on his lips like a quiet ending.

"You know," Liam says then, looking up at Louis and his eyes brighter now, more alert as he gathers himself again. "We never finished watching Game of Thrones."

"Yeah, we should finish tomorrow," Louis says. It's fucking ridiculous; the both of them dirty with come and sweat, the taste of each others' mouths, naked in a cramped bathroom and they're talking about this like it's nothing, like barely anything has changed in the last hour.

"I need a shower," Liam says. "You could use one too."

"Liam," Louis says, his voice blurring slightly. "Like, are we going to talk about –"

Liam shoots Louis a sweet little grin and cups a hand around the back of Louis' neck, pulling him in for the faintest of kisses. "I really needed that," Liam says quietly, almost like he's embarrassed to say it too loudly, keeping it between them. Louis knows Liam means more than a quick orgasm, a frantic fuck in the bathroom. "I really need you." He says it like it's so simple, like this was meant to happen. Louis thought that he had a thousand, a million things to talk about, but in the shadow of that sentence he realises that he really doesn't have much to say. Just the kiss, just the feel of Liam's hard body around him, just the bashful promise that this might keep happening. "Is that okay?"

Louis nods, and finds his old smirk again, slapping Liam's cheek gently. Even though they just fucked Louis gets that surge of familiarity, that reminder of who they were before this week of shining and shattering. Liam's smile when Louis tweaks one of his nipples is like sinking into your own bed after six months of touring.

Grabbing a towel from a peg on the back of the door, Louis throws it at Liam. They clean themselves off quickly, standing naked in the middle of Louis' bathroom, as slack and comfortable as any other day. "Okay, but I seriously will start charging you rent."

"Can I pay that back in favours?" Liam asks, raising one eyebrow.

"Holy shit," Louis says, "the fuck happened to you? Am I rubbing off on you?"

Liam laughs, his eyes squinting as he does. Louis positively shines at that. "It's the power of the hair," Liam says. "It's made me well hard, man. Proper hard bloke now. Get some pints and fook people up," he says, his voice dropping into a terrible Brummie accent.

"Should have done this weeks ago," Louis says, petting Liam's buzzcut again.

"Wanna get a tattoo with me?" Liam asks as he opens the shower door, turning on a hot spray.

"Oh my God," Louis says. "I've created a monster."

Liam flashes him a smirk and stands under the showerhead, extending a hand that Louis takes, following him in.

*

Louis wakes up second, but this time Liam is still there. Liam's smile when he sees Louis open his eyes is infectious, his soft little hi and the way he snuggles closer to Louis is something he never wants to forget. It's only the first day this has happened and Louis is already so comfortable in this space they've built together that it already feels like it's been happening for months, years.

"Hey," Louis says, giving Liam's bare stomach a poke. Louis slept naked but Liam had decided on a pair of boxer shorts, a blush of modesty Louis hasn't quite managed to fuck out of him. "Breakfast, dude?"

"Not right now," Liam says, finding a spot in the crook of Louis' arms, his mouth wet on Louis' ribs when he speaks. "I'm comfy."

Louis remembers what Harry said, about how he can build somewhere safe. It didn't really make sense at the time, but looking at Liam now – curled up tight, smiling this faultless smile that Louis hasn't seen for days, running his big hand slowly over Louis' stomach – he's beginning to understand. Louis still has no idea how this happened, why Liam is so easily disarmed by him and made somehow whole again, but Louis is starting to appreciate his latent talent for being the hug-giver, the joke dealer, the unfurled emotional umbrella for his boys. It's a question that's been hovering at the back of Louis' mind since the week they spent at the bungalow – what does Louis actually give to these guys that makes them want to keep him around – but it's slowly being answered in the way Harry loves Louis like he found his other half, the way Zayn flocks to Louis' side for chaos and brotherhood, the way Niall will call him when they spend more than two days apart just to catch up. And in the way Liam leans up to kiss him, his careful fingers trailing a line down Louis' chest, his smile deepening as he pulls away like the brush of Louis' lips is enough to light a fire inside him.

Louis' never been a huge believer in fate, but.

"So what do you wanna do today?" Louis says, giving Liam's bristly hair a rub.

"I wasn't kidding about that tattoo," Liam says. "You know the one Harry and Zayn gave each other? We could, like, we could do that too, I was thinking."

"You want me to tattoo you?" Louis asks.

"Yeah," Liam says simply. "A change, a big change, something to reclaim," he intones again, the magic words of shorn hair and getting fucked on a bathroom counter and falling asleep buried against Louis' side.

"We can do that," Louis says, another indulgent touch to Liam's hair. "I wanna mark you. You're going to end up with my initials on your arse."

Liam laughs and slides his hand further up Louis' chest, fingers playing gently along the ladder of his ribs, urging them close together. "Sounds good, Tommo."

"It'll have more meaning than most of Harry's tattoos at least," Louis says.

"You could see it every time you slap my ass," Liam adds, still stuttering and blushing at the idea, saying it in a rush like he can't quite believe.

"Who fucking knew you'd be so into me fucking you," Louis says casually, just to get that painfully shy grin out of Liam. "And after all that fucking time you spent trying to get me to stop pinching you."

"That's different," Liam says. "I still want you off my nipples, mate."

"By the way," Louis says, breaking the stillness, "there's no, like, honeymoon period here, man. I'm already too comfortable with you so I'm just gonna start farting in the bed from here on out, okay?"

Liam laughs, squinting as he does. "Of course you would, you dick."

"Hey, you still feeling it?" Louis asks, a laugh in the corner of his voice. "Can you even sit down?"

Liam blushes. "Shut up."

"Ha," Louis shouts, kissing the top of Liam's fuzzy-haired head.

Silence holds them for a little while, in the dark of the curtained room and a bed tangled with blankets and quilts around arms and legs. Liam's even breathing tickles Louis' bare chest. Time seems to run oddly, speeding up through an hour and slowing down against when Liam leans up to pull a kiss from Louis, lazy and familiar now, doing it just for the glorious reason that they can. Louis gets hungry but he doesn't move, just traces the lines of Liam's shoulders for the tenth, twentieth time.

This whole time Louis has been wanting things to go back to how they were, to get his old Liam back like the gut-clenching craving after kicking a caffeine habit. It's kind of obvious now that Louis failed, and failed spectacularly. The place Liam took up in Louis' life was all games and shadow boxing and whispered talks at three in the morning about love and life and light, a small and intense friendship that doesn't seem to fit anymore. Louis couldn't cram the whole of this into that little space anymore, the this of having a lie in with Liam while he traces the topography of Louis' body with his fingertips, listening to his huffy little sighs and the inner machinery of his lungs and heart, watching the shadowed curves of his hips digging deep under his low slung boxer shorts. From the very start, when Louis first met the restrained and silent bundle of a kid, Louis knew that there were a thousand different things about Liam he hadn't discovered yet, little treasures of hobbies and funny stories from back home and favourite musicians to be unwrapped together, but he never realised how big a space this kid could carve out in Louis' chest. Shaving his head, getting a tattoo, fucking him again, tonight if he's lucky. It's a whole new love between them, this going off the rails, and Louis wants to write down every kiss and dirty joke and law broken like he's mapping out an unexplored continent.

"Want me to cook you breakfast naked?" Louis asks after then, the first little inlet on their sea chart, a cove of Liam's squinting laugh and big, warm hands on Louis' stomach.

"I'd like that," Liam says, closing his eyes and hooking a knee up over Louis' legs.

"I love you," Louis says very simply, the little black spot of a newly born town on this freshly drawn map.

"Replay," Liam says.

"I love you."

"Replay."

"I love you."

"Replay."

"I love you."

"Replay."

End.