The night Louis slept with Liam, Louis was half-convinced that just for once, things were going to go his way. In the course of twenty-four hours, he had:
a) not fought with his mum once, which was a sobering reminder of the way things had been before Louis had taken up being terrible at everything and driving her up the wall as a career option;
b) got his fucking A levels, and not failed any part of them, whatever his fucking teachers might have thought about his future prospects;
c) got the grades he needed to get into his first fucking choice university;
d) watched Liam open his A level results and pass well enough that he was going too;
e) had a celebratory barbecue at Liam's mum and dad's, where he hadn't argued with anyone, or missed his step-dad like a giant, open sore of a wound;
f) gone out drinking with the whole of their sixth form and had a wicked fucking time;
g) kissed Liam on the playing field behind their school at 2am, sprawled out on the grass like the future was theirs for the taking;
h) kissed him again as they walked back to Liam's, sliding his hands into Liam's hair and pouring everything he'd been feeling for the last two years into his kiss;
i) had the best sex ever, laughing into each other's mouths as they desperately tried to keep quiet in Liam's bedroom with his mum and dad over the landing;
k) exchanged blow jobs as the sun started to come up;
l) fallen asleep wrapped up in each other's arms;
m) woken up with his cheek pillowed on Liam's shoulder, arm around his waist, and feeling happier than he could remember;
n) told Liam he was in love with him, and had been since they were fifteen;
o) seen Liam cry, and heard Liam tell him that it meant their whole friendship had been built on lies;
p) found himself on Liam's doorstep at eight in the morning, desperately trying not to cry, and failing;
q) lost his best friend;
r) come home to a screaming row with his mum for not telling her he wasn't coming home last night.
He'd been wrong about things going his way; he always was.
They'd gone to university, in the end, and when they'd got there, Liam continued to pretend Louis didn't exist, and that they didn't know each other. Every time Louis' finger hovered over the call button to phone home, he remembered the last row with his mum, the one where she'd cried, and exhaustedly blamed him for ruining his friendship with Liam.
He hadn't been able to stop his parents from getting a divorce, and he hadn't been able to fix things with Liam. He hadn't been able to get back any of the three part time jobs he'd lost over the last year, and he hadn't been able to erase that one stupid fucking day where he'd got caught shoplifting fucking Kit-Kats in an effort to be cooler than he was, ruining things with his mum.
Nothing turned out the way he planned it.
Three notable events, or series of events, from Louis' first seven weeks at university:
1) Despite repeated attempts in both his lectures and his hall, Louis didn't make friends. He'd never had any problems making friends before; this experience was new to him. He got quieter.
2) He didn't phone his mum, and his mum didn't phone him. They communicated by text message, every now and again, and Louis missed her so much it hurt, but he just—he couldn't. He couldn't. He'd let her down, and he'd messed things up, but it hurt. It hurt that she'd automatically assumed that he'd been the one to ruin things with Liam. It hurt that she seemed to think the stupid, awful, desperate day he'd shoplifted was indicative of a wider problem, and not one terrible series of life choices he'd regretted ever since. He hated that they weren't best friends any more. He hated that he didn't know how to fix things.
3) Liam never looked at him, not once, gaze sliding past Louis like he didn't exist whenever they passed each other in the street or Tesco or outside the lecture theatres. Like they hadn't been friends since Liam had turned up in year eight, fresh from being bullied into leaving his old school. Liam didn't look at him even when Louis got drunk in the Student Union and tried to push past him, just to see him react. Liam looked down at the floor whilst his friends snapped at Louis to watch where he was going. When Louis pushed him, and said, fucking look at me, Liam still didn't move. Louis was drunk, and he was broken hearted, and he still missed Liam every single fucking minute of every single fucking day. That didn't for one second excuse pushing him back against the wall and trying to start a fight. He'd got a fortnight's suspension from the Student Union after that, and he'd come away with the memory of Liam looking at him, hurt, like any of this was Louis' fault.
He stayed in halls by himself when reading week rolled around, spending way too long wanking off to internet porn and playing endless Miniclip games until three in the morning. He wrote his essays too, because he might as well stay on top of his uni work if he didn't have anything else to do.
He'd never thought university was going to be like this.
The guy in the Union bar was called Nick, and he got talking to Louis about the student radio station. He was trying to find people to get involved, but Louis was so desperate for actual human contact that he made Nick stay with him and chat instead. He went to the station for a couple of hours on Monday afternoon, put some CDs back in cases and tried not to press any of the buttons that said, don't press.
The second time he dropped into the radio station, one of Liam's friends was there too, tall and curly-haired and with his feet tangled with Nick's under the desk in the office. Nick waved over at Louis, but when his friend looked over his shoulder at Louis, his brow furrowed and he leaned over to whisper something to Nick that Louis knew had something to do with Louis getting suspended from the Union for fighting.
Suddenly Nick didn't look so friendly anymore.
He took Louis to one side at the end of the shift, and told him quite carefully that there was a strict no-violence policy here, and that any Union suspension also counted for Union-led activities like the radio station.
Louis tried not to cry. He dug his fingers into his wrists instead. "Liam was my best friend," he said, looking down at the ground, because he didn't want to lose this. He really didn't. "We got drunk on A level results day, and we, like, had sex. I told him I loved him and how happy I was, and that I'd been in love with him for ages, and he hasn't spoken to me since. He won't even look at me. I was drunk and I wanted him to look at me. He pretends we've never even met, and I was fucking drunk, and I missed him so much, and I just wanted him to say my name. I didn't—I'm not violent. I'm just an idiot. Please don't tell me to go."
Nick face softened a little at the edges. "All right," he said. "Let's go and get a coffee and talk about the ground rules. The first being, we don't fucking get into fights."
It wasn't friendship yet, but it was the first time anyone had even tried to be his friend since he'd tried—and failed—to make friends with the physicists on his corridor in fresher's week.
He was going to the shop for a packet of Tesco value curry noodles for lunch on Saturday, when someone called his name. He startled, looking round, and then he startled even more when he saw it was Liam's mum, and she was crossing the road to see him, Liam and his three musketeers standing on the steps to the Mexican restaurant and looking anxiously after her.
"Hi, Karen," he said as she got closer, and his heart ached as he tried to plaster on a smile. "How are you?"
He'd been hanging round at Liam's house since the first week Liam showed up at school. He'd got Liam's mum a mother's day card that year, and every year since.
"How are you, more's the question," she said, cupping his face in her hand. "You've lost weight, love."
"Uni, innit," he said, because he couldn't think of what else to say.
"Oh, love," she said. "Come on and give me a hug. You and that big lug of a son of mine not managed to patch up your differences yet?"
There was something that felt distinctly like a sob lodged in his throat. "Don't," he said, and to his horror he sounded choked up. "Really, don't."
He must have sounded semi-hysterical, because she gathered him up into a hug, and he didn't know what to do with his hands, and he was too busy trying not to cry to stop himself from hugging her back. He clung to her, unable to help himself, and he tried and tried not to cry. She just clucked at him and rubbed his back, not letting him pull away. He wanted his mum. He really wanted his mum.
"Sorry," he said, stepping back, trying not to look over the road to where Liam was standing with his friends, Liam looking down at the ground with his arms folded. "Sorry, sorry."
She just looked sad. "You and Liam are both sad," she said. "Are either of you enjoying university at all?"
"Liam looks like he's enjoying it," Louis said, before he could help himself.
"Well, you know Liam. He's very good at pretending, always has been. He's got training in the morning, why don't you come and have breakfast with me and Geoff? We're staying in a hotel until tomorrow afternoon. We've made a weekend of it. We'd love to have you, Louis. Why don't we see if we can help patch up this squabble between you and Liam, huh? Whatever it is that's got you two so upset has to be fixable."
"It can't," Louis said, shaking his head. "I know it's my fault. It's not fair on Liam if I come and meet you. I can't steal his mum and dad."
Karen just looked even sadder than before. "There's enough of us to go around, love. And Liam's convinced it's all his fault too. Are you sure you won't come?"
He shook his head. "I've got to go," he said, glancing over at Liam. He was watching them, this time, hands shoved in his pockets, shoulders hunched.
Louis didn't know how not to have Liam in his life. He didn't know how to do this.
He ended up running most of the way back to halls.
He phoned his mum, later. She answered on the third ring.
"Louis? Oh, thank god."
"Mum," he said, and he was crying before he'd finished saying her name.
Talking to his mum again made things a bit better. It felt like one of the jagged tears in his heart was being held together with something at least resembling hope. He'd said sorry over and over again until she was crying too, and telling him she loved him. Come home, she'd said, after apologising for letting things get this bad, come back for a weekend, at least. Your sisters have missed you almost as much as I have.
He'd made a non-committal sort of a noise, and told her he'd get back to her. He still hadn't, and it was Wednesday. He just—he hated failing, and he hated people knowing he'd failed, and there wasn't any way he could call university a success.
There wasn't any point in going back to hall for lunch on Wednesdays, as he only had an hour between lectures. He went to the Union instead, queuing up for a pint of tea and a plate of chips and gravy. He was just juggling his tray and his rucksack and his wallet in the queue to pay when Liam turned up next to him, and almost gave Louis a heart attack.
"Where did you spring from?" Louis asked, because Liam wasn't going anywhere, just standing right by the till and looking fierce. His jaw was all tight. It was never a good sign; Liam tended to wear that expression just before he exploded. Louis handed over his student card and waved his contactless credit card in the general direction of the chip and pin machine. His heart pounded. "I'm sorry about talking to your mum."
"You can talk to my mum whenever you want," Liam said, still looking fierce. "She said you didn't want to steal her."
Louis ducked his head. They were holding up the queue. He lifted his tray and tried to step sideways past Liam to go and get some cutlery from the counter.
"You should come and eat with me and my friends," Liam said, which was an odd kind of thing to say to someone you hadn't spoken to in three months.
Louis shook his head. "It's okay," he said. He felt shaky and weird and sad and alone all at the same time.
"No," Liam said. "Please."
"But—" Louis didn't want to say, but you chose not to be my friend, or I told you I loved you and you told me to get out.
"Please," Liam said, and then he ducked his gaze. "I miss you."
It wasn't enough. It couldn't be; but Louis wasn't prepared for this. "Fine," he said, because they really were blocking up the queuing area, and Louis could enjoy pissing people off a lot of the time, but not today.
Liam was sitting with his three friends in the corner. The curly-haired boy who hung around with Nick from the radio station was Harry, and the other two were Zayn and Niall. They looked bemused. Bewildered. Bothered.
Louis squared his shoulders and plastered on a smile. "All right, lads?" he said, dropping down onto the seat at the end. "Shit music, isn't it? Who the fuck thought hard trance was a good soundtrack to chips and tea?" He nicked a chip from Liam's plate even though he had his own, and dumped his teabag down onto the tray, splashing tea all over the table. He didn't bother to apologise.
Louis Tomlinson was a giant fucking arsehole sometimes, but he'd rather be that than someone to feel sorry for.
Liam didn't explain anything to them about why Louis was there, and if they knew the reason for them falling out then they were doing a good job of hiding it. Harry watched him through narrowed eyes, and Niall laughed a lot and talked almost as much as Louis did, and Zayn looked considering and looked at Liam a lot.
Liam didn't say anything, just ate his chips next to Louis, his jaw still tight.
They made their excuses after a while, and Louis knew that it was obvious that none of them wanted to be near him for another extra second, and he could cope with that. He could fucking cope with it.
"You coming?" Liam asked, standing by the edge of the table with his tray of dirty plates and mugs.
"Nah," Louis said, waving his fork over his plate. "Still eating. See you round, though. Nice meeting you lads."
He waited until he was sure they were out of the Union bar before he pushed his plate across the table, and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Louis jerked back like he'd been hit. Harry was standing by the end of the table, looking hesitant.
"I forgot my book," Harry said, pointing at the business economics textbook hidden behind the salt and pepper shakers. He hovered a little awkwardly, and didn't reach for his book. "Are you all right?"
Louis hoped his eyes weren't red. "What do you think," he said, tiredly. "It doesn't matter, it's fine. Here's your book."
Harry took it, but he didn't leave. He dropped down onto the seat opposite instead. "Liam's one of my best friends," he said, after a minute of not saying anything.
"He was my best friend," Louis said. "Nothing lasts forever." He started to gather his things together. He didn't feel like going to his lecture. Maybe he could just go back to his room and watch something on his laptop instead.
"He cried about you after his mum and dad left on Sunday."
"Whatever he's done," Harry said, "do you think you might one day forgive him?"
"It wasn't him," Louis said, softer than he meant to speak, "it was me. I shouldn't—it's not his fault he wasn't in love with me back, all right? You should tell him that. It's okay he didn't want me back."
He was done with lying, and he was done with this whole fucking nightmare. He wanted to go home and forget any of it had ever happened. Rewind back to results day and never touch Liam, not once, not even if it felt like everything that they'd ever done together had been building up to that one single moment where Louis had kissed him, and Liam had kissed back.
Harry didn't look as surprised as Louis thought he might have done. Louis sighed. He was done with all of this. The whole fucking lot.
"I'll see you around," Louis said, and he walked off, shoulders hunched up, and it felt like the end.
Liam turned up at his door at eight-thirty the following morning. Louis answered the door in the shorts he'd slept in, his shirt rucked up, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "What—"
Liam pushed inside Louis' room, cupped Louis' face in his hands, and kissed him.
Louis managed two seconds before he pushed him away. "What the fuck," he said, because it was the middle of the fucking night and Liam had said about ten words to him in three months. He wiped his mouth with his hand. "Did you just—"
"Harry said you thought I didn't want you," Liam said, and he was flushed pink and talking quickly and Louis could barely take any of that in.
"Chucking me out and never speaking to me again gave me that impression, yes," Louis said, trying to stop the frantic pounding of his heart. "Being a total and utter fucking bell end just gave me a clue you didn't exactly appreciate me telling you I loved you. Not even fucking looking at me was a tiny hint you didn't exactly want me telling you I was happy when I was with you." He tried to look fierce, which wasn't actually all that hard because he was furious, and hurting, and still so, so in love with his best friend. Ex-best friend. Whatever.
"I know," Liam said. "I know all of that. I was awful."
"Yes," Louis said. "I should never speak to you again. My mum hates you, by the way. She didn't, because she was so fucking sure it was all my fault, but I finally told her it wasn't. I told her about how we had sex, and it was perfect, and it was the best fucking day of my life, and then I told her what you said to me, and how you told me to get out, and she doesn't like you anymore." There was a perverse sense of satisfaction from seeing Liam's face fall. Liam, who was like a puppy who tended to forget how big he was. Liam, who Louis would genuinely have said was the best person he knew, up until the day he wasn't. "You broke my fucking heart," he said, "and now you've woken me the fuck up. Bell end."
Liam looked distraught. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm so, so sorry."
Louis had waited so very long to hear Liam say that, but it wasn't enough. It didn't really mean anything. "I was asleep," he said. "You woke me up."
"It wasn't that I didn't want you back," Liam said, after a very long moment. "I mean—that night. That night was amazing. Were you really in love—did you like me all that time?"
"Are we really doing this now?"
"I'll go if you want me to."
Louis sighed. "Yes, I was really in love with you," he said. "But it didn't mean that our entire friendship was a lie."
Liam went red. "I know that now."
"You should have known it then," Louis said. He wasn't an idiot. He knew about Liam's old school, and his old so-called friends. "I'm not those dickheads who bullied you. I'm not those fucking idiots who only pretended to be your friend. You should have known it then, Liam."
"I know," Liam said, and his voice caught. "I'm so, so sorry. I just got so caught up in the secrets. I hate secrets. I just thought—I thought you were lying to me too. I thought you'd been lying to me too. Like they did." He paused. "Did I ever tell you they used to call me gay all the time? Like, when were still at primary. They called me gay boy from when I was seven."
"But, like, how did they even know? I didn't even know, and they did. They did, and you did."
"I'm not them," Louis said. And he hadn't known. He'd just been in love.
"I know," Liam said. "I really know."
"You should go now," Louis said, softly.
It took Liam a long time to nod, and walk away.
Afterwards, Louis sat on the edge of his bed, and didn't go back to sleep.
Liam didn't go away after that. He was just—there. He was there at lunchtime in the Student Union on the days Louis went in for chips and cheese or chips and gravy and his pint glass of tea. He was in Tesco or in the library with Zayn or out in the quad playing Frisbee with Niall. He looked awkward and shy and terribly, terribly careful whenever he saw Louis, saying, hello, and how are you, and would you like to join us?
Louis was so shit at this. It still hurt. Sometimes he said no and sometimes he said yes, and both answers made Liam blush and be even more careful with him. It was driving him mad. He didn't want to be treated like something breakable, and having Liam treat him in this weird, cautious way was even worse than when he was ignoring him completely, because this way he didn't get to have him at all. He just got to watch Liam with his real friends in extreme close-up, and he got to know that he wasn't a part of it, at the same time. Frustration curled in his stomach, making him dig his fingers into his jeans and make some dickhead joke that no one wanted to hear.
He didn't know when it was he started to get angry, but by the time the last week of the autumn term rolled around, he was about ready to hit something. Even Nick had taken him to one side and asked him if was okay, because their daily bickering sessions over music and everything else had started to venture rather closer to actual arguments.
His last lecture of the term was on Tuesday, and he celebrated by going to the Student Union with some people from his tutorial group to get a start on the end of term drinking. He couldn't call any of them friends, but at least he had people to sit with in lectures sometimes, and to say hi to. By five in the evening he was drunk, and half of his group had left, but he'd discovered that one of the boys that had stayed, Ash, had a famous hairdresser dad whose shampoo got sold in Boots. It was the closest to fame he'd ever come, so when Ash bought him a snakebite and black and kept him talking at the bar, Louis made sure to lean in a little closer than he would normally. And when Ash responded by moving even nearer, Louis let himself smile, and nudged his elbow into Ash's.
When he turned around, Liam was standing by the snooker table in the middle of the bar, looking furious, Zayn behind him with a hand to his shoulder.
"Someone you know?" Ash asked.
"Used to," Louis said, and he ignored Liam to go and sit back down at the table with the others. Ash bumped his knee into Louis', but Louis didn't bump back.
The spark had gone out of the evening, and it was all Liam's fault.
It just got worse from there. Liam didn't come over, but every time Louis turned around, it was to find Liam staring at him, and anger was starting to snake across Louis' skin like a particularly itchy blanket. He didn't have friends, but he was on the cusp of potentially making some, and all he could think about was fucking Liam.
Ash went home around seven, curling his hand over Louis' shoulder in a we could have had fun kind of a gesture. Louis quivered, tense and angry, and once he was sure Ash was gone, he stormed over to where Liam was leaning against the wall with Zayn, nursing the best part of a pint of beer. He put it down on the table when he saw Louis coming over.
"What is your problem?" Louis asked, more drunk than he'd given himself credit for whilst still sitting down at the table two minutes ago. "You've got a face on you like a dog's arse, and you won't fucking stop staring at me."
"Told you it was creepy," Zayn said.
"Shut up," Louis snapped.
"Don't talk to Zayn like that," Liam said, equally sharply. He stood up.
"Jesus Christ," Louis said, pushing Liam away. "You are always, always fucking there, and I'm so tired of it. I'm so tired full stop, and all the time I have to watch you with your new fucking best friends, and now you won't stop staring at me. I could have kissed him tonight, you know, and it might have been nice, but instead, I'm just thinking about you, and I hate it. I hate it."
"I'll just be, um—" Zayn said.
Louis ignored him. "Well?"
Louis wanted to punch something. A wall. Something that wouldn't hit back. He settled for shoving Liam again. "What the fuck are you doing? God, this term has been the biggest pile of fucking shit. If I could just stop thinking about you for five fucking seconds. I could have kissed him, Liam. Like, maybe, anyway. I don't know. Why won't you leave me alone?"
"I can't," Liam said, and he sounded desperate, his fists clenched. He grabbed Louis' elbows, Louis' heart thumping. "I don't know how to fix things. I want you all the time, and I miss you, and I fucking love you—"
Louis kissed him. He grabbed Liam's hair and tugged him in close, and kissed him again, his teeth knocking into Liam's, groaning out a god against Liam's mouth as Liam kissed him back, shifting their positions so that Louis was backed up against the wall and Liam was holding him there, hands to his elbows.
"Please," Liam begged. "Please let me fix this. I'm going mad."
"Don't fucking stare at me, then. God, I've missed you." Louis kissed him again, and again, and Liam's grip on Louis' shirt started to loosen a little as Louis stopped holding on so tightly to Liam's hair. What the fuck was he doing? He didn't have a clue.
"I'm in love with you," Liam told him, and Louis just nodded, because he was drunk and there was a whirling noise in his head where his more rational self tended to live. "I have been the biggest dickhead, and you'd be totally justified in never speaking to me again, but I swear, I am going to make this up to you."
Louis didn't know if that was even possible, and he had no idea at all what he was going to feel like in the morning when the hangover kicked in, but he couldn't care about that right now. He just—"Liam, Liam, please."
"Come back to mine," Liam said, cheeks flushed. "Come back to mine with me right now."
This was a terrible, terrible idea, but Louis was so worn out. Exhausted, and drunk, and still in love.
"All right," he said, finally, and he let out a breath as Liam took his hand.
Louis was half-convinced that sleeping together again was the worst idea either of them had ever had.
It wasn't. He woke up with Liam's arm wrapped around his waist and Liam's mouth pressed to his shoulder. Louis rolled his eyes and kissed him awake. Liam wasn't the only one of them who could wake people up at arse o'clock in the morning.
"Hi," Liam said, and Louis' heart felt like it was being squeezed, waiting for Liam to throw him out again. Liam smiled sleepily instead, and stroked Louis' hair away from his forehead. "So, um, are you still up for trying to patch things up between us?"
It was fucking terrifying, trusting Liam again. He honestly didn't know if he could, even though he wanted to. He wanted to so much. He nudged his fingers into Liam's. "Yeah," he said, softly. "Let's try."
Liam nodded, and Louis looked up at the ceiling, at the faded glow-stars some long lost student had left behind when they'd moved out.
"They're nice," Liam said, noticing where he was looking. "I was thinking about getting more. Making a whole galaxy, or something."
Louis tucked his hand into Liam's. "Sounds good," he said, and kissed him again.