Liam has never been to the countryside before and he doesn't think much of it, frankly.
The air feels wrong. He's used to London, and lately London has been tense and crowded. There is no rumble of buses or cars or the underground, there is no shrieking of Liam's friends playing football or his sisters scolding him for reading the paper too much.
The air here smells distinctly of grass and also manure, and he can hear some wind and maybe a duck somewhere, and… nothing else. It's horrifying. And it doesn't even look like a proper village, it's just a country lane in the middle of nowhere, where he and four other boys have been dropped off with their bags and told to wait for people to come and get them. "Hard times, not enough volunteers, keep a stiff upper lip, lads," the teacher had said, and then driven off. This is probably what the end of the world looks like.
"Right," says Liam, to no one in particular, "I'm going back." Twenty minutes by car can't be more than an hour on foot, and Liam is fairly sure he knows which direction to go.
"Are you?" asks one of the other boys curiously. "Can we do that?"
"No," says a third. He's found a rock and in lieu of a football he's kicking it up and catching it on his instep over and over. His hair is sort of ridiculous and goes sideways over his face. Liam's mum would kill him if he let his hair get that long.
"Well, I am," says Liam. His mum and both of his sisters are still in London; he's worried sick about all of them. At least they can look after Mum while Dad is off in Belgium or wherever he is by now, but they need Liam; he tried to tell them that over and over while Mum was packing his bag.
"I'd like to go back," says the second boy. He's got dark hair and a very pretty face and Liam pretended not to see him crying when the train left London.
"I reckon London's about a hundred miles straight that way," says the one of them who's Irish. At least he's being vaguely helpful.
The last one of them is lying on the ground with his jumper pulled over his face to block out the sun. "You'll be eaten by a bear," he says, in a sleepy, serious drawl.
Liam sincerely hopes that all five of them are going to different houses because he suspects these boys will drive him mad eventually.
Abruptly the boy with the rock lets it fall to the ground. "We could have a race," he says.
"Where to?" Liam asks grumpily. There is nothing around them in any direction since they got dropped off at what is clearly not anyone's house; it's just a spot where a dirt lane gets a bit wider and then trails off through a field to a copse. It doesn't look like a town or a farm, it doesn't look like anything.
"Anywhere. Over there? I don't know; I'm bored."
"Hi bored, nice to meet you," says the boy on the ground. "I'm Harry."
"Ah, young Harold, a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I'm Louis, pronounced the French way. I'm very particular," says the one who is apparently called Louis. He flings his arms out and spins for a minute, trips over his own feet and sits down on the dirt instead.
"This is stupid," Liam grumbles.
"No, this is Harry," Louis says. He clearly thinks he's hilarious, and Liam has to stop himself rolling his eyes. "And you are…"
"I'm Niall and I'm starving," says the Irish one. "Can we eat those berries, d'you reckon?" He looks speculatively at the hedgerow.
"No," says Liam.
Louis looks up at him curiously, flicking his hair out of his eyes. "Are you a great expert on the wilderness?"
"Oh," says Liam. He didn't mean to sound quite so rude. "Well. No. But what if they're poisonous?"
"What if they're not?" says Niall.
Liam isn't hungry enough to find this a compelling argument. "I'm Liam," he says instead. "If no one shows up soon I'm walking back to the station and then I'm catching the next train home to London."
"Unless you get eaten by a bear," says Harry helpfully.
"Don't be ridiculous; there are no bears at train stations," Louis says. Harry giggles and pulls his jumper down off his face. His hair isn't any more sensible than Louis's, actually, and it's curly to boot.
"Have you got a name?" Niall asks the dark haired boy, who is holding his bag and looking miserable.
"Zayn," he says. "Can we go home, d'you think?"
Louis sighs wearily and flops backwards onto the grass. "No," he says. "I'm fairly certain they look out for kids who've been evacuated trying to sneak back. You can't be the first one to get here and decide you hate it and you want to go home. Loads of kids went home after the first round of evacuations and look what's happened. Sent off again."
"They sent you away for a reason," says Louis flatly. "London's dangerous. Your parents don't have to worry if you're here. If you go home you're only worrying them again. We've all got family there still, all right? We're all worried. Maybe the war'll end tomorrow and we can go home." Liam had thought Louis was the youngest of them, but maybe he isn't after all.
"Oi, look!" says Niall, pointing. There is a horse-drawn cart coming up the road. Harry and Louis sit up and everyone looks at the cart.
"That can't be for us," says Harry. "This must be a joke."
"We shouldn't all be going to the same place anyway," says Liam. He realizes suddenly that in a few minutes he might be all by himself, in a strange house, with strange adults, for weeks or maybe months. A tremendous wave of homesickness washes over him and he shoves it down ruthlessly. There is no room for self-pity in the war effort.
They're all quiet by the time the cart pulls up and stops in front of them. There's an older man driving it; he's bald and tall and rangy and he looks like a stern old grandfather type. "You lot from London?" he says, and some of them nod. The farmer – he must be, he's got patches on his sleeves and boots covered in mud – pushes his cap back and scratches his head. "I thought there were two of you?"
"Er," says Liam. "Which two?"
The farmer shrugs. "Dunno. They told me two boys from London who would help out on the farm."
Everyone looks at each other and there is a long silence. Liam doesn’t know anything about farms, but he could probably be helpful. He isn't sure about any of the others. It seems horribly forward to say, "Pick me," though, and leave someone else just standing on the road all day.
"Well," says the farmer after a thoughtful minute. "I don't suppose anyone else is coming round here today, since we're the only farm on this lane. So I suppose I'll have to take all of you and sort you out later."
"I thought they had planned out where everyone was going," says Harry.
"They haven't," Zayn says. Everyone looks at him and he shrinks just a little. "I saw a boy yellin' that his sister got put on a different train than him. And no one could tell him where that train was going."
All the boys go quiet and vaguely horrified. Liam tries to imagine losing track of his sisters for the rest of the war and feels like he might be ill.
"Never mind, don't worry about that," says Louis suddenly, brightly. "We're all here and we're fine and we'll just look after each other." He slings a friendly arm round Zayn and puts his chin on Zayn's shoulder. "My sisters are off with my mum somewhere in the north, but I'm sure they're fine. We'll just send off some letters and tell them where we are once we know where we are. Where are we?" He directs this toward the farmer.
"Johnson's farm, or you will be as soon as you put your bags on the cart and hop in," the farmer says. "I'm Mr. Johnson. My wife's not expecting five but I expect we can find some food somewhere."
"Thank god," says Niall loudly. He throws his bag up on the cart and climbs up after it. "Come on, then, lads; the sooner we go the sooner we eat."
Louis lets go of Zayn, who is blushing at the attention, and pulls Harry to his feet. Harry laughs cheerfully and climbs up after Niall. Zayn climbs up and then Louis, who pretends to fall and rolls about on the back of the cart, knocking Harry over in the process. Harry laughs and shoves him off and Niall offers Liam a hand up. Liam doesn't understand how they can all act like this is just a bit of a laugh and not the worst day of their lives.
"He can't keep five of us," Liam says, mostly to himself.
Louis drapes himself across Liam and Liam doesn't know what to do, so he goes stiff and uncomfortable. "He can do for a bit," Louis says. After a second he lets go of Liam with an apologetic little pat on the shoulder which makes Liam feel bad; he isn't trying to be rude, he's just not used to being mauled by strangers.
The cart jerks to a start and then trundles down the road and Liam has to stop himself shouting No, go back, I don't want to go. He promised his mum he'd be helpful and brave wherever he ended up. So he just bites his lip and doesn't look back as the wagon carries them further and further from home.
There is enough food for everyone, even when Niall seems determined to eat twice as much as everyone else, but there is only one bedroom. Mrs. Johnson apologetically offers them the attic, which has some boxes of old dusty books covered in cobwebs, a little square window looking out over the roof of the rest of the farm house, and an old mattress on the floor. The only way up is a rickety staircase and there isn't a light, just a half-melted candle on the windowsill.
"One of you could sleep up here," she says.
All the boys look at each other and Liam can see clear as day on their faces that they're thinking the same thing he is; the attic is terrifying and obviously haunted, and none of them want to be alone badly enough to sleep up there.
"Thanks," says Liam eventually, because apparently no one else is going to say anything. (Louis is pulling increasingly silly horrified faces to make Harry laugh. Zayn chokes down a giggle as well.) "I think the floor downstairs'll be fine for us."
"We've got the two beds, and I'll clean up the front parlor tomorrow. We can put curtains over the door and one of you can sleep on the sofa," says Mrs. Johnson. "We really weren't expecting five."
"I rang the evacuation board and they say loads of the houses that promised to take kids are already full, so there's a shortage of space." All the boys shuffle uncomfortably at this news. Liam tries to imagine himself volunteering to go somewhere else, but he's only just got his mind around the idea of staying here.
Mrs. Johnson wipes her hands off on her apron and puts her hands on her hips. "We can always use more help on the farm, can't we? And we've got room those other folks haven't got. We'll put some of you in the bedroom and one of you on the sofa downstairs and--"
"I can sleep on the floor!" Louis volunteers immediately. "And Harry'll take the sofa, won't you?"
"Why not?" says Harry with a shrug.
Liam is secretly relieved that he'll be sharing a room with Niall and Zayn; they aren't as weird as Harry and Louis. "Thanks a lot," Liam says earnestly. Mrs. Johnson smiles at him, obviously relieved that they aren't going to be troublesome, and then Louis smiles at Liam as if he's done something grand. Liam stares at his shoes.
This doesn't, however, fix the problem of there being only two beds in the proper bedroom. "Hmm," says Liam.
"I can share, I'm not fussed," says Niall, throwing himself onto one of the beds.
Liam tells himself that sacrifices are necessary during war time and anyway he's so tired he's not sure he'd care if he were sleeping standing up. There's enough room for both of them on the bed as long as Niall doesn't turn out to be the kind of person who flails in his sleep.
"I could sleep for a million hours," says Zayn, sitting down on the other bed. He looks sad again, homesick probably, and Liam wishes Louis were with them because Louis seems to have a talent for cheering people up by being ridiculous.
"It's a farm," says Liam. "We're probably supposed to be up at dawn." Zayn groans and buries his head under a pillow.
Niall looks thoughtful. "You reckon they're gonna have us milk cows?"
"I dunno," says Liam. He hasn't seen a cow, but it's a farm; farms have cows, don't they?
"'Cause I've never touched a girl's, er, bits," Niall says, "and I don't know that I want to start with cows."
For a minute Liam can't believe what he's just heard, and then Zayn starts laughing, shoulders shaking under the pillow, and then Liam starts laughing, too, because who are these ridiculous people and is he really stuck with them?
"You've probably got a better shot at pulling a cow than a girl, anyway," says Liam. Niall bursts out laughing and then hits Liam with a pillow. Liam hits him back. Niall shoves him a little and Liam lands on Zayn, who tries to look offended but he's laughing when he shoves both of them off his bed. And then somehow the three of them end up on the floor, hitting each other with pillows or whatever happens to be handy.
"Boys!" says Mrs. Johnson's voice down the hall and they all stop guiltily. Then Liam looks at Niall, who is wide-eyed with fake innocence, and that makes Liam start snickering again quietly, which makes Zayn laugh, too. They try to be quiet but they don't manage it very well; Niall's laugh is loud and he laughs with his entire body. Liam puts a pillow over Niall's face and pretends to try and smother him, and Niall does a decent impression of someone being smothered to death, flailing his limbs around. Zayn's laughing so hard it looks like he might cry before he hides his face against the bed.
"I thought we were the sensible ones," Liam says, trying to calm down, but he's got too much energy from traveling and meeting strangers and being away from his family, and it's all bubbled up into this silly laughing fit.
Eventually they crawl into bed and turn out the lights. Niall does turn out to be the kind of person who flails in his sleep, but he settles down when Liam throws an arm across his chest, and after that it's fine.
A little bit after dawn Louis and Harry sneak into the bedroom, for some definition of the word "sneak" that means "be incredibly loud and snicker about it." Liam pushes the blanket back to blink at them, not very awake and completely confused.
"Time to get up!" Louis shouts, and does a terrible impression of a rooster. Niall groans and rolls further under the blankets. Zayn doesn't appear to hear them at all. Liam is impressed with his ability to ignore things; a minute later Harry starts shaking Zayn's mattress and shouting, "Up! Up! Come on!" and Zayn still doesn't stir.
"The Johnsons told us to get you lot up," Louis says gleefully, dragging Niall out of bed by the ankle. Liam is awake enough to mostly fend off Louis's grabby hands and overly chummy hugs, but not quite awake enough to be coherent about it.
"Is Zayn dead?" Liam asks, hugging the blanket around his shoulders like a cape. It's been a warm, dry May so far, but this early in the morning the air has a chill and there are clouds hanging threateningly low over the farm.
"Are you dead?" Harry asks curiously, face inches from Zayn's face. Zayn doesn't respond to that, either, although he does wrinkle his nose.
"I'm hungry," Niall says loudly. "If I have to get up this early there had better be breakfast."
Louis grabs Zayn under the arms and hauls him, groaning in protest, out of bed. "There's food downstairs," Louis says, which is enough to get Niall going, and then Louis and Harry drag Zayn out of the room with them.
Liam trails along behind everyone, feeling a little bit lost. Zayn and Niall and Harry and Louis seem to think it's perfectly normal to jump on each other as they go down the stairs, half-dressed and ruffling Niall's hair. They tease Zayn until he grudgingly rubs the sleep out of his eyes and admits he's awake. Liam doesn't know when they all got so friendly. Maybe they've all gone and become best friends without telling Liam.
Breakfast is a rowdy affair and the Johnsons look a little surprised at the sheer volume of their guests. "This is amazing," says Niall, mouth full. "Butter and bacon!"
"It's a farm," says Louis. "They've got their own; we don't need coupons."
"Not for much longer, I don't suppose," says Mr. Johnson. "It'll be the last of the pigs soon, and the cows are quite old."
"I've heard they're rationing tea next," says Mrs. Johnson, and everyone sits in horrified silence for a moment.
"Did you hear," says Harry, "apparently the new rule is no more than five inches of bathwater? I don't mind. I never take a bath."
"We've got a pond full of ducks, if you want a bath," says Mr. Johnson, and Louis immediately gets an evil glint in his eyes.
"After you spend all morning out in the sun helping Mr. Johnson move the wood out of the barn you'll want a bath, you'll see," says Mrs. Johnson. "Our Corey always does."
"Where's he?" Louis asks.
The Johnsons exchange a glance. "He's in Belgium," says Mrs. Johnson. "He volunteered. He's a good boy."
"I volunteered," says Louis.
"You never did," says Zayn.
"Yes, I did, only they said I was too young and told me to go home."
"Well, you are," says Liam reasonably. Louis frowns at him.
Mr. Johnson pushes his chair away from the table. "You aren't too young to help me," he says. "Come on, you lot. There's work to do."
"Come on, Harry," says Louis. "Let's go and get our hands dirty."
To no one's surprise they are not very good farmhands. Mr. Johnson tries to show them how to collect eggs, but Louis scares the chickens, jumping around and flapping at them. Zayn won't go near the cow or the horses on the grounds that they might kick him and he'd die. Niall is cheerful about every single thing he's asked to do, but he's also the smallest of them. Harry is only apparently able to do hard work for a few minutes before he gets bored and wanders off, usually with Louis.
Liam wants to be helpful but he's not used to doing anything like this and after a few minutes his hands hurt and his back hurts and he's bored. Mr. Johnson's asked them to load cords of wood onto the wagon and bring it round to the barn down the lane, but the second he leaves them alone Zayn gets a splinter and Niall drops a bundle of logs on his foot, and even though the horse is at least a hundred years old, Harry can't persuade it to stop trying to wander off. The wagon nearly runs over Liam's foot and he scowls at everyone. (It nearly runs over Louis' foot and he hops up and down, howling with mock-pain. It's pretty funny. Liam laughs even though he thinks maybe Louis is making fun of him.)
It takes hours longer than it should. The sun has burnt off all the clouds and it's hot and miserable by the time they've finished. "Where's this pond, then?" Louis asks. The farm is mostly just big grassy fields with trees ringing the edges, and a one-lane dirt path for the horse and cart between the house, the barn they've just emptied, and the barn with the cows and the horse in it.
"You aren't really going to jump in?" Harry asks, horrified and fascinated.
"I will if I can find it," says Louis.
"It's got to be that way," says Zayn, pointing down the lane. Everyone looks at him. "Well, it's the only place we haven't been yet," he says, and that sounds reasonable.
Even though it means he's not being very amusing, Liam can't stop himself from asking, "What about the horse? We're supposed to take him to the other barn to drop off all the wood."
"The horse wants to go there anyway," says Harry. "He keeps trying to walk off without us. He knows the way better than we do." He drops the reigns for a minute and the horse begins calmly plodding down the lane toward the barn, which is around the corner and past the first row of trees.
Liam bites his lower lip. "But," he says. "But surely we should go with the horse and make sure he gets to the barn all right."
"You can," says Louis, already walking in the other direction. "I'm looking for the pond."
Liam reluctantly feels like he ought to be the voice of reason. "We're supposed to be helping," he says.
"We have helped," Harry argues, walking backwards so he can follow Louis and still look at Liam. "We've done loads of work."
"Well, we have, but--"
Niall looks from one of them to the other and then shrugs. "He didn't say we couldn't take a break. You comin'?" He tugs on Zayn's sleeve and Zayn bites his lip, but lets Niall pull him after Harry.
Liam is standing all by himself. He almost entirely certain he's right about what they should do, but he's acutely aware that he's also not being any fun. The horse is still plodding slowly toward the other barn. If Liam goes after him it'll be half an hour there and then however long it takes to find the pond and everyone else. The day has got really hot and sweat is trailing down Liam's back.
"I suppose the horse looks like he knows where he's going," Liam says slowly. His feet take a couple of steps in the direction everyone else is going without consulting him.
Harry cheers. "Last one there's a rotten egg," he says, and turns, running. He dashes past Louis, who shouts with indignation and runs after him. A minute later Niall and Zayn take off after them and Liam rolls his eyes, but he breaks into a run, too. By the time they get to the line of trees Liam's only behind Harry.
The pond is full of ducks and marsh grass and mud. "It looks cold," says Harry. Liam can't tell if Harry is implying he's more or less likely to jump in.
Louis takes his shoes off and rolls his trousers up and wades out a few steps. "It's freezing!" he says happily. "C'mon in. The mud is squelching between my toes."
Liam and Harry and Zayn share a dubious look. "How deep does it get?" Harry asks.
"Dunno. Come and find out!" says Louis.
This is enough incentive for Harry and Niall to start taking their shoes and socks off. Liam looks at Zayn, who laughs and shakes his head. "I'm all right here," he says, sitting down on the grass.
"We'll drag you in," warns Harry sternly, but then he gets distracted because Niall goes rushing into the water and trips over something, falling face-first into the muddy water. He comes up spluttering and flailing around, soaking Louis, who laughs so hard he falls in, too. Harry follows them and Louis grabs him by the arm, pulling him down in to the water.
They're all laughing and soaked and having a good time. Liam feels oddly uninvited to join in. They've known each other for exactly the same length of time, so it doesn't make sense that Louis and Harry have become such good friends. Liam is horribly aware that they should probably have stayed with the horse, and that Mr. Johnson might not want them wading through his pond and upsetting the ducks. On the other hand, everyone in the water seems to be having a tremendously good time.
Liam bites his lip and tries not to look like he's considering this too deeply; it's just messing about in a pond. "My mum'd kill me if I got in trouble," he says finally, and Zayn nods sympathetically. Liam sits down next to him, because if he's not in the water then at least he's not entirely alone.
Louis pulls Harry under the water for a minute, and then Harry turns around and seems to be trying his hardest to drown Louis in return. Niall has found some frogs that apparently bear close inspection.
"I'd kill for a cigarette," says Zayn, pulling his knees up so he can put his arms round them.
"Maybe Mr. Johnson has some," says Liam.
Zayn shrugs. "Maybe. I knew how to get them at home, but here…" He trails off. Liam nods; there's a little town where the train stopped, but if that's the only thing around then they're all going to go stir-crazy stuck on this farm.
"Maybe we can walk into town sometime soon," says Liam. "I'd like to get the paper."
"There's a wireless in the kitchen," Zayn offers.
Liam nods and doesn't explain that the paper will have lists of soldiers who've gone missing or been killed in action. Last Liam heard from his father he wasn't anywhere near the front, but… Liam needs to check anyway.
A duck wanders up the grass and quacks angrily at them. Zayn shifts just a little closer to Liam, and Liam tries not to laugh. "It's funny here," says Zayn eventually. "Like there's no war on at all."
Liam wishes he could forget about the war for a few minutes but it's always there at the back of his mind. How are his sisters and his mum doing in London? Have there been bombings? "I need to send a letter home," he says. "They'll want to know where we are and that we're being looked after." The mention of home makes Zayn look sad again and Liam wishes he could take it back.
"Oi!" someone shouts. "What do you lads think you're doing?"
All five of them freeze and then turn. There's a tough-looking fellow standing on the dirt road, shirt sleeves rolled up, pitchfork in hand. He could probably skewer them all with that thing, Liam thinks in mild hysteria.
"Hiya," says Harry. "We've all been evacuated from London, we're staying with the Johnsons."
The blocky man considers this for a second with a frown. "Well, what are you doin' in the pond?" he asks, because as strange as five boys wandering around the farm is, he clearly can't imagine any reason for anyone to go into the water.
"It's hot," Louis explains.
"Sorry," says Liam, standing up. "Should we not be, or…"
"Of course you shouldn't be in the pond, it's not for swimming," he says. "You'll be covered in leeches by now."
Harry and Niall scream and come running out of the water. "Get 'em off, get 'em off me," Niall demands, flailing wildly. Harry shakes himself off like a dog, dripping all over Zayn, who splutters and jumps to his feet to get out of the splash zone.
"The pond looked like it needed jumping in," Louis explains. Apparently he isn't scared of leeches.
"We're sorry," says Liam again. "We should probably get back to the farmhouse, shouldn't we?"
"You should," says the man. He steps towards them and Liam notices that he limps when he walks. "I didn't know there would be five of you."
"Some of us are extra," says Harry. He inspects Niall's legs for leeches and eventually gives him a reassuring pat on the back. Niall still looks a little ill.
Louis wades out of the pond. "I suppose we ought to get back to the house and see if there's other things we can help with."
"I suppose you should," says the man with the pitchfork. He looks slightly annoyed, but mostly baffled, as if he really can't imagine what they're all doing.
"D'you think we'll be in trouble?" Zayn whispers to Liam. Liam is absolutely sure of it, but he shrugs and follows everyone else back toward the house.
They get in trouble. Mr. Johnson shakes his head and looks disappointed, and Mrs. Johnson sighs a lot. There is a long lecture about responsibility and how easy it is to get hurt on a farm if you go running about like idiots. Liam feels like the worst person in the world. It's as if he's being scolded by the kindest grandparents on earth for carelessness. It hurts.
Louis doesn't seem especially bothered; he laughs and apologizes. Niall and Zayn manage to escape getting yelled at directly by looking mostly at the floor. Liam apologizes a lot and then goes upstairs to go and wash his face so he can feel bad about it in private.
Liam spends a minute looking out the window and telling himself not to cry; he hasn't disappointed his mother entirely. He can make up for it with loads of hard work from now on.
It takes him a moment to realize the sniffling noise he hears is Harry, who has followed him upstairs. He's sitting on the edge of the tub and rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. "You all right?" Liam asks.
"Fine, yeah," says Harry unconvincingly. His voice is thick with tears.
Liam doesn't know what to say. "It's going to be fine," he says. His voice sounds stiff in his own ears. Harry just shrugs and sniffles again, quietly, like he's hoping Liam won't hear it, so Liam doesn't say anything else.
Louis comes bounding in to the room. Liam wonders if he's ever done anything quietly in his entire life. "There you are, come on, we're going to help dig for victory, by which I mean plant carrots. I've never planted a carrot." He must see the tear streaks on Harry's face but he doesn't say anything, just grabs Harry by the hands and hauls him up. "Come on, I've bet Niall we can plant twice as many as he can. You won't make me a liar, will you?" Harry laughs reluctantly because Louis is pulling the most ridiculous sad face anyone has ever pulled. Louis drags Harry toward the door. "Come on, Hazza; don't make me cry."
Liam experiences a stab of jealousy that he isn't expecting. It takes him a moment to work out that he wishes he knew how to cheer Harry up like Louis does so effortlessly. Louis is all wrong about nearly everything all the time, as near as Liam can tell, and yet he's so cheerful and breezy and funny and ridiculous.
"You too, Liam," says Louis sternly.
Liam realizes he's been staring blankly into space. "What?"
"Come and help us dig for victory!" Louis says. He shoves Harry through the door, laughing, and then grabs Liam by the hand.
"Oh – But – I –" Liam says awkwardly, smiling out of reflex. Louis is so confusing. Liam feels a million different ways at once; resentful that Louis can cheer Harry up, jealous that Louis has paid such careful attention to Harry, annoyed that Louis thinks Liam needs dragging around, pleased to be included in Louis' silliness… Liam can't get a sensible sentence out because he can't work out what he'd like to say.
"You'll have to be on Zayn's team; I don't think he's ever got dirty on purpose," says Louis, and Liam laughs. Apparently that's all he can manage in response to Louis.
For a few days after that everything is fine. Liam was a scout; he knows how to work if he isn't distracted. And honestly, the Johnsons aren't asking them to do much that's especially hard. After the disaster of the first day someone always stays with them. Generally Mr. Johnson takes Niall and Liam to do actual work in the barns, and the fellow with the pitchfork who turns out to be called Paul takes the other boys to town to fetch and carry whatever Mrs. Johnson needs.
Zayn brings Liam back a newspaper and Liam is so ridiculously grateful that he gives Zayn a hug. Zayn laughs and shrugs and then Louis yells, "Me! It's my turn, isn't it?" and jumps on Zayn, who laughs and says something rude and tries to shove him off. Louis is hard to dislodge, though.
"Can I give you some names to look for?" Harry asks, when he sees which page Liam has flipped to.
"And my brother, and my friend Sean," Niall adds, when Harry's finished. Liam adds all the names to the growing list he keeps inside his head, the one he goes over and over every night while he's trying to fall asleep.
It's possible to crawl from their bedroom onto the ledge and up to the roof. Liam learns this when he wakes up in the middle of the night and sees Zayn slipping out the window. "Hey," Liam says, but Zayn doesn't hear him. Liam slides out from underneath Niall's arm and crawls over to the window, sticking his head out. "Where are you going?"
Zayn leans out over the roof, dangling slightly upside-down. "Just having a smoke," he says. "Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you." He glances down and wrinkles his nose. "Ugh. Didn't realize how high we were." He vanishes again.
Liam considers for a minute and then climbs out the window after him. It's dark and cold outside and there's a breeze. He's cold and his arms have come over all goosebumps. It's not hard climbing up to the roof, though. Zayn is sitting there with his cigarette and a book of matches he's been hoarding since they arrived. It's been hard to find matches since the beginning of the war. He's got his knees drawn up and his hair is a mess, which it never is, not even when he's just woken up.
"So," says Liam, sitting down beside him. "What're you doing up here? Gonna be one of Churchill's Jim Crows and spot a plane?"
Zayn huffs an almost-laugh and offers him a cigarette. Liam shakes his head. He doesn't drink and he doesn't smoke. Zayn shrugs and lights his cigarette and takes a long drag.
"Okay," says Liam, trying again. "Can't sleep?"
Zayn bites his lip. He looks away from Liam for a minute and when he looks back his eyes are glittering. "I've never been away from home before. I just… Don't laugh. I woke up because I missed my mum."
"Why would I laugh?" Liam asks. "I miss my mum so much I… I don't know. I miss her all the time."
Zayn blows out a lungful of smoke and they both watch it drift off into the darkness. There aren't many clouds and Liam has never seen the stars looking this bright in London. According to his paper and the wireless France has just surrendered to the Germans. He wonders if there are RAF planes flying overheard somewhere at the moment. He wonders if there are German planes heading across the Channel toward London.
"It's hard, being away," says Zayn finally. "Any time we're not busy I feel like I'm going to fall to pieces." He grimaces, embarrassed, and looks at his cigarette instead of Liam. "I'm not such a complete baby normally, I swear."
"I think we're all a bit homesick," says Liam. "I saw Harry crying the other day. It's just got to be like Louis said; we have to look out for each other. I expect loads of kids ended up on their own out in the countryside somewhere, doing god knows what. At least we've got each other."
Zayn nods. He's stopped crying. "I've only got sisters," he says. "Always thought it'd be fun, having a brother or two."
"I've only got sisters as well," Liam says. He considers the idea of brothers. It feels nice.
Zayn smiles at him. "You're really good to talk to," he says. Liam is immediately unaccountably embarrassed.
"Oi!" says Niall's voice from the window. "Have you two gone off for adventures without me?"
Zayn and Liam exchange a guilty glance and start laughing quietly. "We're up here," says Liam. "Hang on; we'll come down."
"Er," says Zayn, stubbing out the last of his cigarette. Liam scoots over toward the edge of the roof. "We're up pretty high, aren't we?"
"Not really," says Liam. "Thirty feet, maybe?" Zayn pulls a face and doesn't move. Liam waits. Zayn is still not moving. "Oh my god," says Liam. "You climbed up here, you idiot. Didn't you think about getting back down?"
"I didn't have to look down to go up!" Zayn protests. "It's really… far."
Liam sighs a great put-upon sigh and leans over the edge. "Zayn's an idiot," he says. "Can you give him a hand down?"
"I suppose," says Niall. "Next time you lads get up to something you’ve got to wake me up, though."
They spend a long time arguing with Zayn that it's not scary at all to swing himself down over the roof and into the window. Zayn's adamant insistence that he'd rather live the rest of his life on the roof is pretty funny, though. Niall eventually gets fed up with waiting, grabs Zayn's ankle, and yanks. Zayn doesn't quite plummet to his death, although Niall nearly kills himself laughing. Liam is amazed they don't wake up the whole house.
It's a good night.
Louis gets a letter from his family. Apparently his mum and sisters are all staying with a cousin somewhere near Leeds. Louis' little sisters have drawn pictures of the house and of themselves crying because they miss him.
Liam only knows this because he is shamelessly nosy and leans over Louis' shoulder. None of the rest of them have got anything by post yet, and Liam can almost pretend it's from his own family.
Louis reads the letter and doesn't say anything for a really long time. Harry is distracted chasing one of the ducks with Niall, and Zayn has snuck off to try and catch a nap under a tree. Louis is never this quiet; it's unnerving. "Good news, right?" Liam says finally, when he can't stand the silence anymore.
It's as if Louis has just woken up. "Yeah, of course," he says, blinking and shaking his head a little. He smiles at Liam and Liam realizes that he is still leaning over Louis' shoulder. "Glad they're away and safe."
"Are you going to go stay with them?" Liam asks. Since they all got to the Johnson's farm Louis has accidentally given Liam a black eye with his elbow, and startled him into spilling tea down the front of his trousers (and told everyone that Liam pissed himself whilst laughing uproariously). And yet Liam thinks maybe he'd miss Louis if he left.
"Nah," says Louis with a shrug. "There's not room. It's fine, though. They don't need someone else underfoot up there. Four little girls is enough."
"But—" Liam starts.
Louis shoves the letter into his pocket. "Do you think we can get the duck to run across Zayn's face while he's sleeping? That would be hilarious."
That would definitely be hilarious. "Without waking him up?" Liam asks, because it's clear Louis wants to change the subject. "I don't know. The duck is loud."
"Zayn could sleep through a blitz," Louis scoffs, and dashes off to steal the duck from Harry. Zayn is right, Liam decides. When they have free time to think they all fall to pieces, so it's a good thing Louis knows how to distract himself.
"Look at this!" Harry shouts. "Liam, come and look!"
Harry has been shirking his half of moving the hay bales around, and Liam is annoyed with him. It's hot and Harry's been mostly standing in the shade of the barn, pretending he was looking for something he dropped. Paul clearly knows exactly what Harry's doing, but for some reason he seems incapable of shouting at Harry the way he does at Liam and Louis.
"What?" Liam asks, wiping sweat off his forehead. He hopes Harry can see how hard he's frowning.
"You have to come here!" Harry shouts.
Liam isn't sure he's ever heard Harry sound quite so hysterical, so he jogs over. It's probably a stupid trick. "This had better be amazing," Liam grumbles.
"It is," says Harry. "Liam, look. Puppies!"
There is a brown dog they've seen wandering around the farm. Liam had assumed that it was a male dog who wanted to avoid the rowdy teenagers, and that it was fat from lying around the farm all day. Instead, apparently, it's a female dog, because those are three squirming little brown puppies with their eyes still tightly closed, making squeaky whining noises and pushing at her teats.
"Oh my god," says Liam. "They're so tiny!"
"D'you think we can touch them?" Harry asks.
Liam has no idea. "I dunno. Maybe? They're only barely born at all."
Harry runs a tentative finger down the back of one of the puppies. It whines and wriggles and the mother gives Harry a tired, grumpy look.
"Maybe we can keep them," says Harry hopefully.
Liam opens his mouth to point out that there are five boys and only three puppies, and that they aren't staying on the farm forever, and they don't know how to train puppies, and they probably won't be allowed to take them home to London. But Harry looks happier than he's looked in days, so Liam just shrugs. "Not until they're bigger," he says.
Harry jumps to his feet and shouts, "Paul! Paul! Look; Liam and I've found puppies!" He turns to Liam and adds, "Louis is going to be sick with jealousy." Liam doesn't mean to laugh at that, but he does anyway, and Harry grins at him.
"Since we found them, obviously, we get two of them," says Harry. Liam, sitting next to him, feels very smug at being included in this, because Louis is so obviously pouting at being left out.
"What're you gonna do with the third one, cut him into pieces?" Zayn asks. Niall hits him with one of the pillows from the couch. "I was joking," says Zayn, slightly resentful.
"We're going to award him to whoever wins," says Harry.
"Wins what?" Niall asks. Liam would like to know that, too.
"Wins the contest," says Harry breezily, as if he isn't making all of this up on the spot. "The usual sort of things. Jousting, pistols at dawn—"
"Throwing Harry into the duck pond," Louis interrupts.
Liam says, "Paul says they might not all survive." He doesn't mean to always be the one to tell everyone bad news, but, well, they ought to know.
Everyone groans. "Well, mine will," says Harry firmly. "I'm going to call him Champion."
"What if it's a girl puppy, then?" Niall asks.
"Champion is a perfect name for a girl puppy, too," says Harry immediately. "I'll teach her to bite anyone who bothers me, like you do." He says this to Louis, who immediately pounces on Harry, knocking him off the couch. They laugh and pretend to be trying to hit each other for a couple of minutes. Liam and Zayn and Niall have all got used to that sort of thing, though, and don’t pay it much attention.
"You're gonna break something," says Zayn eventually, because they've come perilously close to rolling into Mrs. Johnson's table and knocking her framed photos onto the floor. Mrs. Johnson has gone to visit a poorly neighbour for the day, and Mr. Johnson and Paul have gone into town. They left the boys with a few chores to do but they're already finished and everyone is bored. It's not particularly surprising Louis and Harry are on the brink of breaking things.
"I have an idea," says Louis abruptly, sitting up. He's still got one of his knees on Harry's chest. Liam pulls a face. "What?" says Louis. "You haven't even heard it yet!"
"I've heard enough," says Liam. "Last week Harry got stuck in that tree, and yesterday poor Mrs. Johnson—" The rest of what he was going to say is lost because Niall grabs him and puts his hands over Liam's mouth.
"Go ahead," says Niall. "I'm bored."
Louis doesn't have a good idea. He has a terrible idea, an idea involving sneaking bottles of port and sherry out of the cellar for a drinking contest because he heard Mr. Johnson saying that they've been down there for ages and no one is ever going to drink them. Liam would object strenuously – they are so obviously going to get in trouble for this – but he's a bit bored as well, and Louis gives him a stern look and says, "You aren't going to be dull again, Liam, are you?"
Liam is stung by this accusation. He's not dull. He just has a sense of consequences, which apparently Louis hasn't got at all. "That's not fair—" Liam starts.
Louis grins at him. "So you'll help me nick some bottles? Harry, go and get the wireless. We'll have a party."
"Brilliant," says Niall, and dashes off to the kitchen to see what he can scrounge.
Liam follows Louis down to the basement grumbling the whole way. "Oh stop it," says Louis.
"What if the Johnsons come back?" Liam asks. He thinks he is being perfectly reasonable.
Louis stops and turns on the step, putting his hand on Liam's arm. Liam never knows what to do when Louis does that. He wishes he were able to be silly about it, like Harry is, but by the time Liam works out what would have been silly, the moment has always passed. "Liam," says Louis, the most serious that Liam has ever seen him. "Have you ever been allowed to have any fun at all in your entire life?"
"I'm fun!" Liam protests. Louis raises his eyebrows. "I can be," Liam insists. "I just don't think being stupid and getting in trouble is fun."
"Then you've never done it properly," says Louis. "Relax." He gives Liam a little shove, not in a mean way, the teasing way he shoves Harry. Liam nearly falls backward onto the steps.
"Hey," says Liam, and pushes Louis back. Louis grins at him – damn it, Liam has fallen in to doing exactly what Louis wanted him to do – and pushes him again. Liam grabs Louis' arm and yanks and Louis falls on top of him and then somehow they're both trying to strangle each other on the steps.
"What are you doing?" Zayn shouts, opening the door.
"Teaching Liam who's boss!" shouts Louis happily. He's got his arm round Liam's neck and Liam isn't trying as hard as he might to shove him off.
"Get your knee out of my back," Liam says.
"Stop complaining about absolutely everything," Louis counters. "You worry more than anyone I've ever met."
"I do not," Liam says, but probably he does. He definitely worries more than any of the other boys do.
Louis leans down and gives Liam an unexpectedly loud kiss on the cheek. "I just want you to have fun," Louis says, and then he lets go of Liam's neck and runs down the rest of the steps.
Louis is the most confusing person Liam has ever, ever met. "I am having fun!" Liam says, following him.
"Well, stop having fun and get the drinks!" Zayn yells.
Louis and Liam both yell, "Shut up!" at him at the same time.
They end up in the attic with enormous dusty bottles of sherry and the wireless. The attic is still horrible and terrifying but it seems much less ominous with all five of them crowded in together. Louis tunes the wireless to a programme playing music and proceeds to dance around the attic whilst pouring everyone's sherry into cups Niall pilfered from the kitchen.
"None for me, thanks," says Liam.
The look Louis gives him is almost indescribably disappointed.
"I've only got one kidney," Liam explains. "They took the other one out when I was a kid. Look." He pulls up his shirt and shows them the scar as proof. Everyone crowds in curiously and makes fascinated noises. Niall pokes Liam in the stomach, which Liam should probably have expected.
"So you can't drink?" Louis asks.
"No, sorry," says Liam. He is lying. He can drink, but he never has, not really, and it made his insides feel achy and sore the one time he tried. Anyway, someone is clearly going to have to keep a level head because Liam is certain this is going to be a disaster.
"Very convenient, if you ask me," says Louis. He hands kitchen glasses of sherry to Harry and Niall and Zayn.
Harry tries his and nearly has a choking fit. "Eugh," he says, "That's vile!"
"The more you drink it, the better it'll taste," says Louis philosophically. "Cheers." Niall and Zayn echo him and everyone but Liam starts drinking.
It takes roughly two songs on the radio for everyone to start acting like complete idiots. Harry gets the hiccups, which makes Louis laugh, which makes Harry hiccup harder, which makes Niall laugh. Niall's face is already turning red, even though he insists up and down he's always had loads to drink at home. Harry pretends to be cross with Louis for laughing at him and crawls over to Zayn, who gets the slightly panicked look of someone who doesn't want to come between Harry and Louis when they're acting silly.
"I don't like you anymore," says Harry poutily. "I like Zayn best. I'm going to switch rooms." Harry is clinging to Zayn's neck and Zayn shrugs philosophically and has another drink.
"That's fine with me!" says Louis. "Because I've decided I like Liam best. We'll be best mates and have loads of fun without you, won't we, Liam?"
Liam gives Louis what he hopes is a very dubious look indeed.
Harry throws a pillow at Louis and Louis craws around behind Liam, trying to use him as a shield. Harry ends up chasing Louis around Liam and everyone ends up slightly trampled and out of breath and lying on the floor, although Louis is really lying more on top of Liam than anywhere else.
"I'm finished with you forever, Harry Styles," says Louis. He attempts to snuggle with Liam, who is entirely too sober for this.
"No, you aren't," says Harry confidently. "This sherry is absolutely disgusting, no wonder Mrs. Johnson wanted to give it away. Pour us some more."
Niall has to pour the second round because Louis is clinging like a slightly drunk monkey to Liam. Liam doesn't mind, exactly, but he wishes he knew whether Louis is doing it just to make Harry jealous or for some other reason. Only, Liam sort of thought Louis didn't like him much because he isn't fun like Harry, and this would seem to indicate otherwise. Why is Louis always so horribly confusing?
The second round hits everyone like a ton of bricks. Niall gets more red-faced and lies on his back on the floor, laughing at nothing in particular, and Harry tries to tell everyone a story about a girl he met in town the other day, but his "girl" voice is too silly and he keeps stumbling and flailing as he tries to prance around the attic. Louis is even more cheerful than usual, laughing at everyone and occasionally breaking into little wiggling movements he insists are dancing. They aren't. Harry and Louis attempt a waltz to the wrong sort of music on the wireless and fall over, nearly knocking the bookshelf down in the process. Zayn crawls over to Liam and puts his head on Liam's shoulder. "Sleepy," he mumbles. "And I don't want to get fallen over on."
Liam is starting to wonder how he is going to get everyone calmed down and sober before the Johnsons come home. He probably can't, he thinks, resigned.
"I feel terrible," Niall announces to no one, lurching to his feet. He leans out of the attic window and is sick. Harry and Louis laugh as if this is the funniest thing that has ever happened, breathless and red-faced.
"Oh my god," says Liam. He pushes Zayn off his shoulder – Zayn's eyes are closed, he appears to be well asleep – and goes over to Niall. "Come on; let's get you some water."
"Water is poison to an Irishman!" Niall hollers, and then trips over his own feet. He smells like old sherry and vomit. Liam puts his arm round Niall's shoulder anyway and starts walking him toward the stairs. "Everyone should have some water," he says. Harry and Louis laugh at him.
Niall is a loud drunk who likes to sing right in Liam's ear. Liam dumps him in bed – Liam will sleep on the floor tonight or something, he's not dealing with this – and then goes downstairs to fetch him some water. Niall argues for a little while about it and then forgets what he was arguing about, drinks the water, and falls asleep mid-word. Liam goes upstairs to make sure no one else has died in the meantime.
Harry and Louis are singing along loudly to the wireless, arms around each other, swaying back and forth. They have refilled their glasses and dislodged a small avalanche of books from the shelves.
"You're very loud," says Liam. Louis flings his arms round Liam's neck and gives him another kiss on the cheek. "Well," says Liam, because that is very odd. Then Harry elbows Louis out of the way so he can bite Liam affectionately on the neck. Liam stares at both of them for a moment, comes up with exactly nothing to say about that, and says instead, "I'm going to put Zayn to bed, I think."
"He can sleep up here!" says Louis. "Then you can have a bed all to yourself."
Liam is fairly sure when Zayn wakes up alone in the attic he'll have some sort of panic attack, but… well… that does sound nice.
"Here, we'll help," says Harry. He attempts to drag Zayn over to the mattress on the floor. He isn't coordinated enough, though, and ends up tipping himself over and falling on Zayn instead. Zayn opens one eye and mumbles, "Geroff."
"Help!" says Harry. "Help, I can't get up!" Liam leans down and drags Harry to his feet while Louis does a decent job of shoving Zayn toward the mattress. Zayn grumbles and falls asleep again almost immediately.
"Water," says Liam. Harry and Louis are clinging to each other, laughing, just barely keeping each other upright. "You should go down to the kitchen."
"We should go to the kitchen!" says Louis with a grand hand gesture that accidentally smacks Liam right in the stomach.
"Ow," says Liam. "Yes, you should go to the kitchen. Come on." He opens the door and waves them through. He's a little worried that they'll fall down the steps and break their necks, but there isn't any other way to get downstairs. "You'll have some water and you'll go and lie down and stop singing. Everyone will feel better in the morning."
"I feel better right now!" says Louis loudly, which doesn't make any sense.
"No, you don't," says Harry.
They are so loud. Liam follows them, wincing a little bit. How on earth can you get this tight this quickly? he wonders. They are hilarious, though. Louis bursts into "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" and Harry joins in on a really terrible harmony line, and Liam hums along with them because he's always liked singing.
Then they walk into the kitchen and Mrs. Johnson is there, and everyone falls quiet. "Boys," she says, half a question. Harry hiccups and Louis giggles guiltily.
"We're not drunk!" blurts Harry, and Louis lasts half a second and then bursts out laughing so hard that Harry has to hold him up. Harry starts laughing, too, and Mrs. Johnson gives Liam a disappointed look that makes him wish he were dead.
"Sorry," Liam offers lamely.
"Oh, Liam, I'm not cross with you," she says with a little sigh.
Harry accidentally pushes Louis, and Louis staggers into the china cabinet. Liam sees dishes start to fall in slow motion, Louis and Harry still laughing. There is an avalanche of teacups and saucers that shatter on the floor and Harry falls over, cutting his hand on a shard of dish. "Fuck," says Louis, "Sorry, we didn’t mean to," but he's still laughing because he's drunk and he can't help it.
Mrs. Johnson looks more angry than disappointed now. "Boys," she says again, crossly this time. "Liam, take them out of here while I still have some dishes left."
"Sorry," Liam says again, trying to pull Harry to his feet and Louis out of the room at the same time. "I'm really – We're really sorry."
Louis and Harry are trying to look sorry, but as soon as they get to the parlor where they've been sleeping they burst into laughter again. "Sorry, sorry," says Louis to Liam, when Liam doesn't laugh, too.
Liam has a wretched feeling in the pit of his stomach because they are all going to be in trouble. "It's all right," he lies, because he doesn't want Louis to pull his sad face. Even when it's false it makes Liam feel terrible.
"I'll tell them we were only having a laugh," says Louis, tumbling onto the couch. "Don't worry, Liam. It'll be fine."
Harry lies down on the floor and groans. "I'm so tired."
"I'm tired, too," says Louis. "I'm tired of being so beautiful all the time." They both start giggling again.
Liam throws his hands up, looking to the heavens for a moment. "I'll bring you some water," he says. No one hears him. Liam feels particularly unappreciated.
Liam goes back to the kitchen, where Mrs. Johnson is trying to sweep up some of the broken dishes. It really is a wreck. Liam decides he'll sneak upstairs and tidy up the attic before she can see what a mess that is, too. "They didn't mean it," Liam says. "Honestly."
"I have a son of my own," says Mrs. Johnson. She sounds quiet and sad, but Liam's fairly certain she's angry, too. "I know how boys get when they're left alone."
Liam fidgets guiltily. "They'll tidy it up as soon as they're sober," Liam offers.
Mrs. Johnson shakes her head. "It's so hard to get any dishes lately. There aren't any to be had in town. With seven people in the house I don't know what I'll do."
"We could glue some of them back together," Liam says, but most of the cups are shattered beyond any kind of repair.
She sighs. "We just weren't expecting five of you. You're all such nice boys, but… We're not young anymore, and maybe we haven't got the sort of energy we'd need to look after all of you." Liam must look stricken, because she adds, "Don't worry, Liam. We want you to stay."
Liam is trying to breathe, but something is broken between his mouth and his lungs. "I—" he says. "But—" The idea of the other boys leaving makes him inexplicably panicky and – for reasons Liam doesn't understand – homesick. "Let me help you tidy up," he says, because maybe he can make things better. Mrs. Johnson smiles at him and Liam somehow feels even worse.
Mr. Johnson comes home and wakes Louis and Harry up to shout at them for a while. No one can stay cross with Harry so Louis takes the brunt of it, and is sent off to do hard work on the farthest field on the farm with Paul for a few days. The other boys barely see him. Harry mopes guiltily the entire time.
When they finally do see Louis he is exactly the same as he ever was. "Hello, lads, bet you've missed me," he says cheerfully, slinging his arm around Niall's neck and giving him a peck on the cheek. Niall laughs and shoves him off.
Liam is the only one who isn't immediately glad to see Louis. Or at least, he's the only one who acts that way. "What?" says Louis, cajolingly. "Liam, you can't still be cross with me. I've done my time! I've sweated through my punishment. You got to sit in the house all day while I worked my fingers to the bone." Liam doesn't smile.
"He's cross with you because he missed you," says Harry teasingly. Liam saw Harry secretly crying when Louis came back, because Harry is ridiculous.
Louis' smile fades. "Come on, you aren't really cross with me," he says, grabbing Liam's hand. "I apologized to the Johnsons, and I'm sorry I got you in trouble as well, but—"
"Stop it, shut up," says Liam, annoyed and embarrassed. He pulls Louis a little way away from everyone else. (This doesn't discourage Harry's teasing, but Liam has got used to that.) "There's something else," he says quietly.
"Oooh," says Louis. "Is it gossip? I like gossip."
"You won't like this," says Liam. He's annoyed that Louis isn't taking him seriously, although Louis doesn't take anything seriously.
"I will if you tell me," says Louis, smiling sunnily.
"Stop it, what is wrong with you?" Liam asks, rolling his eyes.
Louis squints at him. "Is Harry right? Are you cross because you've missed me? I've missed you." He pretends to lean in as if he wants to kiss Liam, and Liam pushes him away, trying not to laugh. It's really difficult when Louis is so determined to be cute.
"I'm cross because the Johnsons don't think they can keep all five of us here if we're causing trouble," Liam says.
Louis stops fooling around. "What? Did they say so?"
"Mrs. Johnson did. And I don't want… It'd be really awful if… It would make Harry cry if you went to stay somewhere else. It'd really upset him." Louis nods seriously but Liam can't tell if he's messing Liam about or if he really understands. Liam tries: "Zayn laughs at you more than he laughs at anything, especially when he's homesick, and Niall thinks your jokes are brilliant, and Harry would be genuinely heartbroken, so you can't get in trouble again."
"All right, Liam," says Louis. "Don't get upset. I promise. I'll be good."
"I'm not upset," says Liam, but saying that, inexplicably, makes him feel upset.
Louis squeezes Liam's hand. "I'll be so good you could take me to tea with the King," he says. "Please stop worrying. You've already got your family and our families and the entire war to fret about. I promise to behave if you promise not to worry, all right?" Louis smiles, but it's a small, coaxing smile.
"I just don't want things to go wrong," says Liam helplessly.
"Well, it's not all down to you, is it?" Louis asks. "Come on, smile, will you? You look miserable."
"I'm not miserable," Liam says.
"Smile, then. Come on. Smile." Louis sticks his face right in Liam's face, apparently to demonstrate what a smile looks like, and it's so ridiculous that Liam laughs in spite of himself. Louis lights up with a real smile in response.
"I'm feeling very left out of all this!" Harry shouts. He turns to Zayn and the two of them begin pulling faces at each other. Liam assumes that's what he and Louis look like. He doesn't much care.
"Why don't all of you go into town today?" Mrs. Johnson says. "You've been working so hard, you deserve a day off."
"And obviously there are errands for us to run," says Harry, and she laughs and ruffles his hair. Liam has learnt that all mothers (and grandmothers, and young girls, and all women who have been to the farm) love Harry instantly no matter how cheeky he is.
They all have letters to post and Mrs. Johnson gives them a list of things to bring back, if they can find them. Liam suspects that the Johnsons just want a quiet day to themselves, but he doesn't say so, because the idea of getting to go into town and having a day all to themselves is so intoxicating.
Louis and Harry walk most of the way with their arms round each other, singing at the top of their lungs. The sun is shining and it's warm for June. There hasn't been much rain lately. Liam looks around at the hedgerows and trees and country lanes and tries to remember that the war is really going on somewhere just across the Channel, but he can't. Then his brain accidentally starts imagining Nazis overrunning the town and tanks and bombs blowing up the Johnsons and their sleepy little village, and Liam's heart pounds in his chest.
"Hey," says Niall. "What's going on with you?"
"Oh, sorry, nothing, I was just… Er, just a day dream," says Liam.
"Looked like a bad'un," says Niall. "Come on, wake up, there's girls!" He elbows Liam in the side and grins.
There's a group of girls in school uniforms coming down the lane the other way. They see the boys and stop, leaning over each other to giggle. "Hello, ladies!" Louis yells, waving. This sets off another round of giggles and whispering.
"Could you tell us which way the post office is?" Harry asks.
"But you know—" Zayn starts, and Liam steps on his foot.
"We're new, just up from London," Liam says loudly, right over Zayn, who looks both resentful and slightly confused. They haven't talked to girls in weeks and Liam had forgotten how cute they are.
The girls explode into giggles again for a minute. There is some frantic whispering, and then the one of them with dark hair steps forward boldly. "Why, it's right that way, and you must know that because you've got letters in your hands to post," she says.
"That was just luck," Louis lies easily. "We hoped if we walked this way we'd see signs of civilization eventually. And what a pretty civilization it is, too."
The dark-haired girl is blushing but she's still got her chin up and a little smirk on her face. "It's right around that corner up there and I'm sure even you can find it," she says. Her friends are still giggling like crazy.
"What if we get lost?" Harry asks. "You wouldn't want that on your conscience, would you? If we got lost and starved to death in the woods?"
"You couldn't possibly," she says. She's going to crack, Liam's sure. No one can withstand Louis and Harry's collective begging faces.
"Oh, they could," Liam assures her. "You wouldn't believe how much trouble they can get themselves into." She gives him a speculative look, but Liam isn't lying; Harry and Louis probably could get lost on their way to a town that's only got one road.
She looks over her shoulder at her friends, who are half nodding and half shaking their heads. There is some furious whispering back and forth in some kind of high-pitched girl language Liam has never learnt to decipher, not even with two sisters of his own.
"Ohhhhh," says Zayn belatedly. Niall shakes his head.
The dark-haired girl flips her hair and turns back to them. She's got her hands on her hips. "Right," she says, "We'll walk you there and show you around town, and you lot can buy us tea."
"Of course," says Harry. "We are perfect gentlemen, after all." Louis does a silly courtly bow and then Harry pretends to curtsey back at him and the girls can't stop giggling long enough to introduce themselves properly. There's an Anna and a Sarah and a Jane and a Lucy. Anna is the dark-haired bold girl, and Louis and Harry pretend to fight over which of them gets to escort her and end up each taking one of her arms. Two of the other girls shyly say hello to everyone but are clearly looking at Zayn the whole time. He blushes a little and they blush and it's quite disgustingly adorable. Niall immediately swoops in to try and steal one of the girls off Zayn.
The last girl, Jane, hangs back a bit, looking just a touch dubious, and Liam knows that feeling quite well. "They're harmless, really," he assures her.
"Anna's already got a boyfriend," she says disapprovingly, but then she shrugs. "It's such a small town, we never get strangers. I don't know what everyone will say when they see us with you."
"Tell them you took pity on us," Liam says, and she laughs. Up ahead of them Anna says something to Louis and Louis staggers back, hands over his heart, and pretends to swoon.
Jane giggles. "You're all quite strange."
Liam considers that for a moment. "Yes," he says, "but not in a bad way, I don't think."
Liam gets into quite an interesting conversation with Jane, sitting underneath a tree on a bench while the other boys charm the girls into shopping for them. It's another dry, warm day and the grass crackles a little bit underneath Liam's shoes. Jane knows quite a lot about what's going on in the war; she reads the paper every day. Liam only gets to see the paper every now and then.
"Germany's going to invade the Soviet Union," says Jane.
"They'd be mad to do that," Liam argues, but Germany's already torn through Austria and Greece, and no one on the continent has done anything about it. Jane knows loads of things that are going on, and Liam could happily lose himself for hours chatting to her and memorizing the minutia of what the papers say.
Louis clears his throat in a way that means he's probably done it before. Liam honestly hadn't realized Louis was even standing next to him. Louis is frowning, though, and his arms are crossed.
"We should probably head home soon," says Louis loudly. "Before it gets dark. I've pried Zayn off that other girl, and taken the beer away from Niall, so you're the last one to round up."
"You can't stay for a while?" Jane asks. "It isn't nearly dark yet."
"No," says Louis. "He can't."
"Er," says Liam. Louis is pulling rather insistently on his arm. "I suppose we ought to go. Pleasure meeting you."
"I'll see you around, I expect," says Jane. She waves. Liam would wave back but he's unexpectedly got Louis clinging to him and dragging him bodily down the street.
"We could have stayed," Liam says. "For a little while. It's really not dark yet."
"No," says Louis shortly. There's a funny tone in Louis' voice that Liam doesn't recognize. Louis seems to shake it off, and in his normal goofy voice says, "Did you know Zayn had never kissed a girl before? He has now. Have you kissed a girl?"
"Why are you in such a rush?" Liam asks. Jane was the first sensible conversation he's had in weeks. And he isn't eager to tell Louis how many girls he's kissed, which is only one, embarrassingly.
"I thought you'd like me being all responsible and heading home before it gets dark," Louis says, pretending to pout. "Is it loads of girls? Is that why you didn't answer?"
"Er," says Liam. "Is this you being responsible, or just really odd?" He's a bit confused about the whole thing, to be honest, and Louis hasn't let go of his neck yet. The other boys are standing on the street holding bags for Mrs. Johnson.
"Ah, you found him?" Harry asks. "Heya, Liam. Louis's been looking for you. Were you off snogging that girl?"
"I was having a very pleasant conversation," Liam says. They're all much too interested in his life.
Harry sighs loudly. "What on earth is wrong with you, Liam?"
Liam says, "Well, I'm not Zayn, am I?" It's easy to move the mocking to someone else. Everyone laughs and turns to Zayn, making kissing-faces at him.
"Shove off," says Zayn, blushing. "It wasn't – Louis was all over that other bird, weren't you?"
"I thought we had something special!" Harry complains. Louis flings himself at Harry, pretending to try and kiss him, and Harry giggles. They flap their hands at each other for a moment as if they're going to fight. Liam and Niall and Zayn have learnt to completely ignore this sort of thing, because if they intervene they are inevitably dragged into it.
Eventually Louis gets bored of bothering Harry. "You wouldn't leave us for a girl, would you, Liam?" Louis asks, pinching Liam's arm.
"What?" Liam asks. "Ow. Is that… Does that seem like a thing I'm likely to do?"
"No," says Louis contentedly, and Liam doesn’t understand anything that Louis says, ever.
They sing most of the way back – Niall is slightly drunk, still – and the evening settles into being cooler and darker as they get closer to the Johnson's. Liam is hit by an unexpected wave of homesickness, thinking about his father and where he might be tonight, what sort of other soldiers he's with, whether he's staying safe.
"Cheer up," says Zayn, unexpectedly putting his arm around Liam's waist. "You get so broody."
"I just miss my dad," says Liam.
Zayn sighs and leans against Liam's shoulder. "Me too. My dad, I mean. Not yours. I don't know yours. I'm sure he's nice."
Liam laughs. "He'd like you."
"Do you know what we should do?" Harry asks. Everyone looks at him. "We should go and check on the puppies."
"It's already getting dark outside," Liam objects.
"We'll get a candle, then," says Harry, "from the house. I want to see the puppies, I haven't seen Champion all week."
"You can't name a puppy you haven't got," Zayn objects, but Harry and Niall are already dashing off to the house to drop off the things they've picked up for Mrs. Johnson and bring back candles instead. Liam can't believe he's known these boys for six weeks. How could it possibly have been so long already?
"I want to see the puppies," Harry insists. He's got the candle, so they all follow him. Liam's tired, but not tired enough to go to bed and lie down, so he follows Harry out toward the barn, listening to Louis tease Zayn over finally getting a kiss, and Niall hiccup. Liam lags behind a little bit, enjoying the quiet evening and the sound of crickets underneath the boys being silly, and then Louis comes dashing back and grabs Liam's hand and pulls him along with everyone else. Liam tries not to notice Louis holding his hand.
Harry finds the puppies huddled in a corner of the barn, but not the mother dog. They walk through the barn and around the outside. It's properly dark out now, and a little bit cold. Louis's fingers are warm where they're tangled with Liam's. He can't see the ground anymore and Liam almost trips, except he's got Louis next to him. It's strange and comforting at the same time.
"Maybe the mummy dog has moved outside to enjoy the spring air," says Louis. "We'll walk around and look."
"We will?" Liam asks, but Louis is already pulling him out into the grass which is getting wet with dew, making his ankles damp.
Liam expects Louis to be crazy, bouncing around and doing handstands and running about screaming like he usually does. Louis is quiet, though. Liam can hear the other boys shouting and laughing inside the empty barn, but Louis seems content to just walk around in the grass. He seems to have forgot he's holding Liam's hand at all and Liam can't think of a way to pull his hand away without seeming rude.
"Do you ever," Louis says abruptly, "wish you could just have a couple of minutes of quiet? All by yourself?"
This strikes Liam as a very odd thing to say because Louis is breaking the silence by asking it, and because they aren't alone. "Yes," he says. "But… I mean. I've got used to you. All of you," he adds quickly. "Like having brothers."
"Brothers," Louis snorts. He pulls his hand away from Liam's. "You get tired of the noise, don't you? You seem like… You seem like sometimes all of us are a bit much."
"You are," Liam says, even though it feels like he's insulting Louis a bit. Louis is the cause of most of the chaos, after all. "I've got used to it," he repeats.
Louis's smile is small and a little sour. "I thought so. Right. I'm going to go and give Harry a punch."
"What for?" Liam asks, but Louis grins at him and runs into the barn without an answer.
Liam knows that Louis grabs everyone. Louis never pretends to be kissing Liam the way he does with Harry. Louis sat on Niall's lap for half an hour in town, and he snuck into Zayn's bed and woke him up with a kiss on the nose the other morning. And yet Liam feels very strange, as if the warmth from Louis' hand is still there, and the weight of Louis leaning against his side hasn't gone. It isn't anything special, the way Louis acts around Liam, except that Liam's never had anyone else act like that around him before and it makes his stomach feel strange sometimes. Like right now.
"Any luck?" Niall shouts, running over. He's got Zayn with him.
Liam thinks for a minute that Niall means some kind of luck with Louis, and that doesn't make any sense. Then he remembers the dogs. "Oh," he says. "No, haven't seen her. Brown dog late at night. Bit difficult."
"Harry won't let anyone else pet the puppies," says Zayn. "It's hard to see them, anyway; there's only the one candle. Anyway Harry's chasing Louis round the hay bales because of some kind of bet, and it seemed safer out here. Louis bit me yesterday."
"He's a funny one," Niall agrees.
"He is," Liam says. It seems like an opportune moment to ask Niall and Zayn about Louis. "Is it… Do you ever… When he gets all handsy do you ever…" Liam hasn't got a good end to that sentence so he stops.
Zayn looks oddly thoughtful. "It's just Louis being Louis, isn't he?" he says. "You can't blame him for that."
"I can," says Niall, but cheerfully. "I'm hungry, d'you think the Johnsons'd notice if I snuck some food?"
Clearly neither Niall nor Zayn are going to be any help with Liam's odd reaction to Louis tonight. Maybe it's just another symptom of Liam's homesickness and over-worrying. "You'll eat them out of house and home," says Liam, but mildly, because even Mrs. Johnson finds Niall's endless capacity to eat charming.
"I'm starved," Niall repeats. "Let's go in and get some food. It's cold out."
"Yeah," says Zayn, rubbing his arms, and Liam glances over his shoulder but whatever Louis and Harry are doing in the barn is still distracting them. Liam nods and follows them. Zayn shoves Niall a little and Niall, who is still tipsy, stumbles, laughing, and shoves Liam by mistake, and they walk back to the house shoving and goofing around.
They're walking back through the door when Zayn stops and says, "Do you smell that?"
"I smell you," says Niall, kicking at him.
"Smoke," says Zayn, ignoring him. "D'you think something's burning?"
"Maybe someone's having a campfire," says Niall. "It's not bonfire night, is it?"
"It's summer," says Liam, rolling his eyes.
"I really smell smoke," says Zayn. "D'you – Oh my god." Zayn's eyes go wide and he points over Liam's shoulder.
The barn is on fire.
"Oh shit," says Niall. "Where're Harry and Louis?"
There is a moment when Liam can't move at all. His legs are frozen and his heart has stopped and there's no air in his lungs. Niall and Zayn are both shouting. The silhouette of the barn across the field is large and black but there are orange flames licking their way up its side. Everything else is dark on the horizon except that.
If Liam just stands there for another second, Harry and Louis will come running out of the barn, laughing about how close that was, and then the barn will stop being on fire and everything will be fine.
Just one more second.
The window over Liam's head bangs open. "The barn!" shouts Paul, and then Mr. Johnson shouts, too.
Liam unfreezes all at once and starts running back toward the barn. He's never run this fast before. He forgets to breathe, which makes him stumble, and then Niall passes him and Liam takes a great gulping breath and runs even faster somehow. "Harry!" Zayn shouts, running behind them. "Louis!"
The door to the barn is on fire, is the problem; they can't get out. Liam skids to a stop just in front of it. "Are you in there?" he shouts. There's smoke everywhere, Niall's coughing. Liam undoes the top button of his collar so he can pull the cloth over his mouth a bit.
There's a shout inside. Liam is either relieved to hear them shouting or he's horrified to know they really are inside. There's quite a lot of flames and smoke. "There's got to be another way in," says Niall.
"There's an axe!" says Liam suddenly, remembering. "Round the back, I'll go and get it." He takes off running again.
The axe is big and heavy and Liam's got better at using it since they've been on the farm, but it feels unfamiliar in his hands when he swings it at the boards at the back of the barn. There isn't any logic to what he's doing, he just wants to cut a hole in the side of the wall so he can get in and drag Louis and Harry out. Liam's swings are wild and a little crazy; his heart is thumping in his ears and his hands are sweating so that it's hard to hold the axe.
"Got it, I've got it!" Niall shouts, darting underneath Liam's arm to grab the wooden barn siding. He grabs a board with both hands and starts wrenching it free, and then Zayn helps him, and there's a crack as the board comes loose. "Here!" Niall shouts. "Come out this way!"
"Harry's still looking for the fucking dog!" Louis shouts. The sound of the fire is getting louder, wood crackling and popping. Mr. Johnson and Paul are at the other side of the barn, Liam can hear them yelling.
"Harry!" Liam shouts. He can go into the barn and find Harry in the smoke somewhere, he's sure. Liam darts forwards but Zayn grabs his arm.
"You're not going in there," yells Zayn.
"But—" Liam says. Louis and Harry are in there. Zayn knows that.
"Not you, too," says Zayn.
"Don't you fucking dare," snaps Niall. He sticks his head into the hole, shouting for Louis and Harry in case they can't see him through the smoke.
Liam's pulse is so loud in his ears that he can't hear a thing, which is strange, because it also feels as if his heart has stopped beating entirely. His hands are numb and his head is buzzing, and Zayn's hands tight around his arm are the only things anchoring him to the earth. "Make them come out," says Liam desperately. "Niall, go and get them—"
"Here, they're here!" says Niall, reaching through the hole. He pulls out Harry, coughing and covered in soot. He's got two puppies in his arms, yowling and crying. Harry stumbles and falls to his knees. He's coughing like he can't breathe at all. Niall disappears for a moment and then reappears with his arm around Louis, holding another dog.
Liam's heart starts beating again.
"I couldn't—" Harry starts, but he's coughing too hard to get through his sentence. "They were crying, I—"
"Shut up," says Zayn fiercely. He lets go of Liam and goes over to Harry instead, and Niall and Louis stumble over and Liam is somehow there too, even though he can't remember moving. All five of them fall into a heap on the ground, arms round each other, coughing and eyes watering, trying to breathe.
Liam's got Harry half in his lap and Zayn's arm round his shoulder and Louis on his other side and Niall's elbow in his stomach. The fire is still crackling and he can hear the Johnsons and Paul yelling, but the only thing Liam's brain is telling him is that he can hear the other four boys breathing – coughing, choking, wheezing, but breathing -- and it's the most beautiful sound he's ever heard.
Mr. Johnson and Paul manage to put the fire out before the entire barn burns up, but it's a smoky, sodden mess and half the front is gone. In the morning all the neighbors come to see what the damage is and they bring food for the Johnsons and offers to help rebuild.
Liam hasn't slept a wink. All five of them are still covered in soot and Harry's cheeks are streaked where he was crying last night, but he's passed out on the couch with his head on Louis' lap, and Louis is fast asleep as well, head on Zayn's shoulder. Niall's on the floor, snoring. None of them wanted to go to their own rooms.
"Boys," says Mr. Johnson, and everyone stirs. Watery yellow light is spilling in through the window. There had been some shouting last night, but they've been waiting for the actual trouble. Last night had been mostly checking to make sure no one was dead. (Harry had cried straight through until the mummy dog turned up.) This morning Liam expects much worse. There is a ball of ice in Liam's stomach that won't go away. He promised his mum he'd be good, but he thinks it's rather more important that he look after these boys.
"What happened?" asks Paul. He looks exhausted, and his limp's got worse from running all over last night. He looks right at Louis and Harry. Anyone would.
Liam doesn't consciously decide to say anything, but he hears his voice speaking anyway. "I wanted to see the puppies."
Everyone looks at him.
"I got a candle because I wanted to see the puppies and I went out to the barn and I… I must have put it down too near the hay," says Liam.
The other boys are only barely awake, blinking at him in confusion. Mr. Johnson frowns at him, and so does Paul. Liam is absolutely certain this is the right thing to do, though. If someone has to leave he'd rather it was him. Harry can't cope without Louis. Liam can handle being on his own, but he can't say goodbye to anyone else. He's tired of people leaving him behind all the time.
"You burned down the barn?" Mr. Johnson asks. It's not really a question, though, and he's frowning as if he must have heard wrong.
"I'm sorry," says Liam, and it isn't hard to look sorry because he is. "It was an accident. I'm really… I'm really, really sorry."
Mr. Johnson and Paul exchange a look. Louis is frowning, too, and Harry sits up and starts to mumble, "Liam, don't—" until Louis puts his hand not very discreetly over Harry's mouth.
Mr. Johnson turns to Liam and says, "You know there'll be punishment, right? Something serious."
It's clearly a challenge; Mr. Johnson thinks Liam is lying. "Of course. I deserve it," says Liam. He feels miserable over the whole night anyway. They might have died.
"Whippings and rats in the cellar and bread and water—" Paul starts.
He's obviously exaggerating but Liam might be the only one awake enough to realize. "That's not fair," Niall starts. Zayn's only just dragging himself awake but he looks horrified, and Harry looks like he might cry again.
"Liam," says Louis quietly, half a question and half an apology.
"I don't mind," says Liam, and it's true.
Liam is banished to the attic, all by himself, for two weeks. The Johnsons are more disappointed about the barn than truly angry, and they certainly suspect Liam is lying and it was really Harry and Louis messing about. But Liam failed to crack under interrogation and has agreed to all the punishments that were supposed to make him confess. The Johnsons are particularly bad at scaring him because they simply aren't cruel people. And anyway once Liam has set his mind to something it's hard to make him change it. He could live in the attic on bread and water forever, as long as no one else has to leave.
The attic isn't so bad, honestly. There are books and a bed and it's a bit dim but he can sit by the window and read, and anyway it's the first time since they got to the farm that he's had more than thirty seconds of quiet. Now that he's seen the other lads drunk there, it's barely scary at all. Actually it's a bit comforting to know that Louis isn't about to sneak up behind him and make him spill tea all over himself for the first time in six weeks.
Only, if Liam's being honest, it's awfully boring. At least when he was running after Harry trying to stop him falling out of a tree and into the duck pond, or making sure Niall didn't eat all the food in the kitchen, or stopping Harry from daring Zayn to climb onto the roof, or trying to stop Louis wearing Mrs. Johnson's brassiere as a hat, he didn't have time to be homesick or miss his sisters, and now he's got hours and hours to read really dull old books and look out the window and wonder if everyone back in London is all right.
It's so quiet. Liam can hear Louis and Harry shrieking sometimes, when the wind is blowing in just the right direction. But otherwise it's just hours and hours and days of nothing, with occasional visits from the Johnsons or Paul. They give Liam terribly disappointed looks and Liam pretends not to notice, because it could have been so much worse. Liam just has to worry about not going mad from boredom.
The first rock hits the window with a little plink noise; the second one is larger and startles Liam into flinching away from the window. He hasn't been looking at his book so much as staring off into space for the last... really long time, apparently, so it takes him a moment to get his eyes to refocus on the roof outside. He hadn't realized the sun had started setting.
Louis is sitting there with a handful of pebbles and a cheeky grin.
Liam would think he's hallucinating, but Louis does enjoy climbing on things and breaking rules. "What are you doing?" Liam asks, but Louis just shrugs and then mimes opening the window. Liam shakes his head -- this is definitely not supposed to be allowed -- and Louis rolls his eyes and throws another, bigger rock.
He'll break the window if he keeps that up, Liam thinks grumpily. Well, actually he probably won't, but it's a good reason to open the window. "Go away," Liam hisses. "What if you fall off the roof and break your neck? What if someone hears you?"
Louis ignores this like he's ignored all of the completely sensible things Liam has said in the past six weeks. "How're you holding up? All right?" Louis says instead.
"You aren't supposed to be here," Liam says. He is horrified at how glad he is to see Louis, when he ought to be angry with him. This is technically all Louis and Harry's fault, especially the part where they could have died. Liam had planned to be angry about that for a long time. It turns out three days in solitary confinement is more than enough to make him crack.
"Well, I am here," said Louis unrepentantly. "You could sneak out, you know. The roof's nearly flat."
"No, it's not, there's that horrible gap where I'd break my neck, and I'm being punished," says Liam. He doesn't mean it as a rebuke but Louis winces and then Liam feels bad, even though it's partially his fault and so he ought to feel bad.
"We brought you biscuits," says Louis after a minute. "Shall I chuck them at you?"
"We?" Liam echoes. He hears Harry yell a faint, "Heya!" from somewhere further down the roof. "Well, that's... Um."
"Not very good biscuits, no sugar to be had, obviously, but there are some raisins. Better than nothing. Catch," says Louis, and throws a biscuit right at Liam's face. He catches it almost entirely out of instinct.
Liam says, "Thanks," and hopes it doesn't sound grudging or weird. He is working on his tendency to sound really stuffy around Louis. He doesn't mean it. Louis is just confusing.
"'Course," says Louis, shrugging again. "You really could sneak out, you know."
"No," says Liam. "We're all already in enough trouble. I'm just going to stay here and read and... And..." He flounders for something else he is going to do, but in the past three days he has learnt that there is literally nothing else to do in the attic room, unless he counts lying on his back on the floor and counting the beams in the roof. He's done that twice.
"Didn't really think so," says Louis. "That's all right. I've got a plan."
"No, your plans always get us in trouble," says Liam. He can't believe how much he has missed Louis being loud and stupid and obnoxious at him, but he has missed it desperately. It's like he lost a limb.
Possibly Louis doesn't hear this, or more likely he doesn't care, because he's started crawling across the roof. He effortlessly jumps the gap where he really ought to die, and climbs up underneath the ledge to Liam's window. "No," says Liam unconvincingly. "Stop that."
"Really?" Louis asks. His smile is bright but crooked, and there's a whisper of hesitancy there that Liam wouldn’t have noticed a few weeks ago. Louis leans on the window ledge and looks up at Liam. The breeze over the house ruffles Louis' hair and he nudges Liam's hand with his own. And Liam thinks…
Liam thinks a lot of things.
He can't say any of them, though, because he has missed Louis in ways he doesn't know how to articulate. So Liam switches to Louis' language and pretends to hit him. Louis laughs and ducks. "Oh god, please," says Liam. "Please come up."
Louis's smile goes brighter than Liam's ever seen it before, and he pushes himself up through the window and falls in a heap on the floor. Liam winces, sure the Johnsons must have heard that, but no one comes banging up the steps to see what the noise was.
"Hi," says Louis, picking himself up. "So, what can a fellow do for a good time around here?"
"Nothing," says Liam. "Absolutely nothing at all," and then Louis half-tackles, half-hugs him, arms tight around Liam's neck, and Liam can't even pretend to himself that this isn't the best moment he's had since they all got evacuated out of London.
Probably the Johnsons know that Niall and Zayn and Harry all sneak up over the next few nights. Zayn in particular isn't very quiet, because he keeps moaning about how he's going to fall to his death at any minute. Niall brings so much food with him he must have cleared out Mrs. Johnson's pantry. Harry smuggles a puppy up under his jumper, and when the poor little thing wakes up and starts barking Liam has a bit of a panic over what's going to happen when the Johnsons come upstairs to see what he's doing.
Only no one comes upstairs.
"We're not complete idiots," says Niall. "We did wait until Mrs. Johnson was out of the house. At least, she was earlier."
"Yes, but—" Liam says.
Louis knocks his shoulder against Liam's. "They're not going to check," he says quietly. "They're feeling awfully guilty about you."
"We ought to feel guilty," says Liam.
Louis is uncharacteristically quiet, sitting on the bed with his hands between his knees. "We've nearly rebuilt the barn," he says. "Just a couple more days and it'll be good as new, and I expect then they'll tell you never mind about all the punishment."
Liam's got a puppy on his lap and Zayn half-asleep on the attic floor and Harry and Niall arguing over a sandwich by the window. He can't imagine things could get much better than this, punishment or not. He doesn't like Louis being so quiet, though. Liam bumps Louis with his shoulder and then does it again when Louis doesn’t respond. "Everyone's fine, so it's all fine with me. Hey," says Liam. "Smile. Come on."
"I'm really sorry you got in trouble," says Louis.
"I'm not," says Liam. Louis looks skeptical. "I don't mind, honestly. This is all… I quite enjoy…" Liam waves a hand around helplessly. Harry tackles Niall in an effort to get half his sandwich and they land on Zayn, who groans, and that turns into a mostly-joking row that the Johnsons couldn't possibly miss hearing unless they are actively trying not to.
"I thought you'd enjoy the quiet," says Louis.
"It was awful," says Liam, pulling a face. He reaches over and squeezes Louis' hand. "Couldn't stand it."
Louis laughs. Liam really likes making him laugh. Louis is generally very confusing but Liam has worked out that he likes this, likes touching people for reassurance. It isn't something Liam has ever done with his friends before, but he can manage it if it makes Louis laugh. Louis beams at him and gives Liam a silly, sloppy kiss on the cheek.
Liam puts the puppy on the floor where it immediately becomes something else Harry and Niall are arguing over, mostly because it hides in Zayn's lap. "You're going to crush the puppy!" Zayn shouts.
"Yeah, Niall, stop!" Harry yells, grabbing at Niall's arm.
"If you touch my sandwich so help me I'll take your arm off!" Niall yells back, attempting to bite Harry.
Louis dives bodily between them, shoving Niall one way and Harry the other, and rolling on top of Zayn, who wails a protest about the poor dog. Harry pretends to bite Louis' ankle, and Louis shrieks and flails and almost kicks Niall in the face until Niall jumps on him, and there is a pile of boys rolling and kicking and shouting at each other.
"They can hear us," says Liam, laughing. He drags Zayn out from underneath everyone else because the puppy really doesn't deserve this, and Harry and Louis settle back into a fairly normal-for-them kiss-fight. Niall defensively shoves all the rest of his food into his mouth before anyone else can get it.
"Like having brothers, eh?" Louis asks from the floor. He's got Harry in a headlock and he's laughing at Liam. Liam shrugs and grins back at him because that is generally all he can manage with Louis.
"Not exactly," says Liam. "Better, maybe."