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When The Best Part of Me Was Always You

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               Liam’s not really sure what changed, that is, if anything has changed at all.  He stares at himself in the mirror in the tour bus’ crappy little bathroom and grimaces.  It’s just, he doesn’t really look like himself.  He still looks like Liam, of course (because that’s who he is), but at the same time, he doesn’t.  Really, it just confuses Liam a little, but no one else has really said anything to him, so he figures that maybe it’s not as noticeable to other people.
            Liam’s just about ready to confirm his suspicions when Zayn walks by and says, “Liam, mate, you look off today.  You should stay back with Louis.”  Liam’s about to ask why he needs to ‘stay back with Louis’ but then he catches a glimpse of the older boy where he’s sprawled out on the couch with a cold compress on his forehead and a bowl beside him, which Liam presumes is for vomit.
            “Erm, okay,” he says, because he is a little confused.  He saw Louis five minutes ago, right before he went into the bathroom, so he’s not really sure what happened because Louis was fine then and now he isn’t.  He watches his friends bound off the bus, Harry tackling Niall down the stairs, and Liam sinks into the closest chair.  The off feeling has lessened slightly, but he can feel it prickling in the back of his brain, like a fly buzzing in his ear.
            And then Louis sits up.
            It’s so abrupt that Liam jumps a little in his chair, but Louis doesn’t seem to notice.  He’s got this strange glint in his eyes that makes Liam wary, but before he can say anything, Louis has climbed into his lap and pressed his lips to Liam’s.
            Liam’s not going to lie, he’s gay, so kissing boys is something he’s always sort of been into, but this is Louis his band mate and yeah, okay, maybe he’s thought about snogging all his mates at least once, but it’s one thing to think it and another to actually act upon it.

But a snog is a snog and Liam’s not exactly going to let this moment pass him by so, tentatively, he kisses back.

(He’s not quite ready to admit that the buzzing in his ear, the prickling in his brain, fades as soon as he gives in to what Louis wants.  He sighs against Louis’ lips and feels the older boy do the same and as weird as it is, it also feels so, so right.)

“What are we doing?” Liam asks when he pulls away.  Louis’ hair is all ruffled from where Liam had apparently been threading his fingers through it (why doesn’t he remember that?) and his lips look deliciously swollen.  Liam doesn’t really want to hear the answer to his own question because he’s suddenly overcome with a very strong desire to kiss Louis senseless again.  He’s about to lean in again when Louis jumps off his lap, looking flustered and says, “No, you’re right, Li.  What are we doing?”  

“Um, to be fair, you’re the one that jumped me,” Liam points out and Louis’ mouth twists into something that can only be called a cross between a smile and a grimace.  “So, really, this is all you, mate.”

Louis sinks back down onto the couch and toes at the fallen ice compress.  When he looks back up at Liam, there’s this twist of panic in his eyes and he flops over sideways.

“Erm,” Liam begins, but Louis waves his hand dismissively.

“Let me have some time to think about it,” Louis says, and he sounds tired.  “Something … something weird is going on.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Liam throws back before standing up and ducking back into the bathroom.  This time, he looks even more different than last time.  His lips are red and bruised looking and his hair is all over the place.  But he’s also glowing.  He’s radiating happiness or something, like he’s the sun and it kind of frightens Liam.  So he sinks down onto the floor of the bathroom and just stays there.


+

            Liam and Louis alternate between spending time apart from each other and kissing on the couch.  Seriously.  And every single time, Liam goes and hides out in the bathroom and tries to ignore the absolute buzz that’s running through him.  Because it’s scary.  It’s a little more than scary, really.  It’s fucking frightening.
            The thing that maybe pisses Liam off the most though is how absolutely unfazed Louis is by everything.
            “I knew you liked me the best,” Louis says smugly after he pounces on Liam for the fourth time that day.  He presses his lips to Liam’s quickly and then says, “Who wouldn’t want to snog me?”
            “Right now?  Me,” Liam says, but it’s a bit pointless because he tugs Louis’ face back to his and nibbles on the older boy’s bottom lip a little.  It makes Louis moan and he’s about to trail a string of kisses down Liam’s neck when the door of the bus opens and they have about two seconds to pretend like they weren’t totally making out on the couch all afternoon.
            “Lads!” Zayn shouts, bounding up the stairs of the bus with Niall and Harry hot on his heels to where Liam and Louis are lounging on the couch with the television on and looking relatively normal, or at least that’s what Liam likes to think.
            “Zayn,” Louis addresses with a smirk and really, he shouldn’t do that.  Unless he wants Liam to maul him in front of their friends.  But that would be creepy, so yeah, he really shouldn’t smirk like that anymore.
            “You feeling better, Lou?” Harry asks, slumping down between Liam and Louis on the couch and Liam definitely doesn’t miss the slight whimper that rips its way from Louis’ throat.  A blush creeps up Louis’ neck but he says, “Yeah, a lot.  Wish I could’ve gone with you guys today, except, not really.  ‘Cause Liam and I had loads of fun.”
            Liam’s not really sure what to make of the comment so he just purses his lips together and rolls his eyes at Niall’s giggles and Zayn’s crazy eyebrows.
            “Whatever,” he finally says.  “You guys are just jealous that we had a better afternoon than you.”  And maybe, from the look on Harry’s face, they are a little.

+

            “Ugh, Louis, what are you doing?”
            Liam is woken up in the middle of the night to Louis crawling into his bunk on the bus.  His extremely small bunk that is not designed to hold more than one person at a time.
            “Something’s not right,” Louis says quietly, tucking himself into Liam.  Liam’s about to say something about how maybe they should get Louis checked out or something but Louis’s quietly saying, “It feels all wrong when you’re not around.”
            As weird and cheesy as it sounds to Liam’s ears, what Louis says makes sense.  His stomach has been twisting all evening, but now, with Louis spooned against him, it feels like his whole universe has suddenly realigned itself.
            And that’s maybe the first sign to Liam.

+

            They don’t ever talk about what they did on the bus that one day.
            Or at least, Liam doesn’t.
            Louis tries to bring it up the next day, after they’ve crawled carefully out of Liam’s bunk and gone to the little kitchenette to make some coffee.
            “Liam, I don’t really know what’s going on-”
            “It’s alright, Louis.  Really.  Just … leave it,” Liam says instead, and, for once, Louis listens to him.
            After that, Liam aches.  It’s a strange feeling, like someone took another person’s emotions and dumped them all on Liam’s shoulders, but he tries to ignore them and push on through the tour.  It’s a heavy burden, but he can carry it because if he had to, he’d carry the entire world for these boys.
            Especially Louis.
            ...or maybe not.
            Every time Liam gets a thought like that lodged in his head, he always tries to shake it out.  He’s not sure where his obsession with Louis came from, but now the other boy is always on his mind.  Constantly.
            “Maybe it’s a crush,” his sister Ruth tells him over the phone one day.

“Only, except it’s not,” Liam insists.  “I know what a crush feels like and it’s not this.”  He thinks he’s had this conversation with Ruth at least ten times since the day on the bus but they always seem to repeat the same words to each other all the time.  “Listen, I don’t really want to talk about it right now and I have to go anyway.  We’ve got a radio thing or something.”

“Sure, whatever,” Ruth says.  Liam knows she’s annoyed but he tells her he loves her and hangs up.

The feelings don’t stop.  Liam wakes up multiple times on tour feeling happy for no reason, mad enough to punch a hole in the wall, or so homesick he actually goes and retches in the toilet.  He’s sitting on the floor of the bathroom one morning, frustrated with these invasive thoughts and emotions when Louis barges in.

“Liam, mate!” he exclaims, trying hard to backpedal out of the cramped space.  “Sorry, didn’t know you were in here.”

Except, I kind of did, Liam hears, but Louis’ lips hadn’t moved, and, um, okay, that was weird.

“Except, you kind of did,” Liam says, because it’s the only thing he can think of saying.

What, is he a mind reader now?  There it is again.  Liam stares at Louis incredulously, but he’s pretty sure that the older boy hadn’t said anything, so Liam says, “And I’m not a mind reader.”

Louis opens his mouth to say something, immediately shuts it, and backs out of the bathroom, leaving Liam sitting on the floor.

He feels confused, and there’s the added layer of extra emotions on top, and Liam really just wants to lie down on the tiles and sleep, but he knows he has to be the bigger man and talk to Louis about everything that’s happened, so he pushes himself up and follows Louis out.


+

            “I think we should talk,” Liam says to Louis.  He’s poked his head through the curtain of Louis’ bunk and is looking at Louis with what he’s sure is an odd mixture of wariness and hope.
            “Yeah, um, alright,” Louis says.  He sits up carefully and hunches himself against the wall so that Liam can slip in and sit next to him.  It’s a bit uncomfortable, and Liam has to fold his legs oddly in front of himself, but he doesn’t really care.
            “So, um, hi,” Liam says.
            “Hi.”
            Liam’s a little stuck because he’s not really sure how he wants to start this whole conversation.  There’s also the fact that there’s only a curtain separating him and Louis from the rest of the bus and that anyone could be listening, so Liam says, “What’s up?”
            We had a snog on the bus and you want to talk about what’s up?  Liam hears and before he can process it properly he says, “Yep.”
            “I didn’t say anything,” Louis says, but he’s looking a little white.
            “Didn’t you?” Liam asks, confused.  “You said …” He trails off because he’s suddenly not sure if he wants to repeat it, but Louis just says, “No.  I didn’t say anything.”
            The atmosphere in the bunk drops just a little because Liam’s never actually had such a serious conversation with Louis before, but the whole thing is starting to freak him out just a bit.
            “You think you’re freaked out?” Louis asks sharply, and whoa, Liam was completely sure he hadn’t said that out loud.
            “What?” he asks dumbly.  “Are you a mind reader?  What the hell, Louis?”
            “I’m not a mind reader,” Louis insists, but there’s a trace of doubt in his voice and Liam climbs out of the bunk because he’s not really sure he can handle what he thinks might be going on.
            “Wait, Liam, wait!” Louis calls, clambering out after him and almost face planting in the hallway as a result.  But Liam doesn’t wait.  He scurries into the other room where Harry and Niall are playing Call of Duty and sinks down next them on the couch, resolutely ignoring Louis standing in the doorway looking at him.
            If Louis really is a mind reader though, Liam has to know.  So he thinks, Make me a tea with chocolate in it or else piss off, and tries to direct it in Louis’ direction.  And whether or not it’s purely coincidence or Louis actually got the message, he turns around and ducks back towards the bunks.  It makes Liam feel a little hollow inside, but he doesn’t care.  He just slumps against Harry’s side and hopes that no one else knows what’s going on inside his head (or Louis’, for that matter).

+

            When Liam goes to bed there’s a cup of tea with chocolate mixed in balanced carefully on his pillow.  Liam doesn’t want to think of what it means so he drinks it down in two gulps and goes to brush his teeth again.


+

           They play their mind games every once in a while to see if the other is listening and to see if the connection is still there.  Sometimes Liam will hear Louis ask for a chocolate bar on the other side of the bus and the next thing Liam knows, he’s buying Louis one the next time they go out.  Or sometimes Liam will wish for a back rub after a long rehearsal and Louis will pop up behind him and rub the kinks out of his neck.  They don’t try to talk about it very much, but yeah, okay, maybe it’s not such a bad thing, Liam thinks.

Until he hears Louis talking to his mum on the bus one day.

Liam doesn’t really mean to eavesdrop, honestly, but Louis' projecting his emotions around the bus like he’s got nothing better to do, though Liam’s sure it’s not intentional.  Not by the sounds of things at least.

Mum, I’ve known I’ve been bi for a long time, but this isn’t just a crush,” Liam hears Louis say.

Lou, have you talked to Liam about this?”

Liam jerks upright so quickly in his bunk that he hits his head on Niall’s bunk above his own.  The tinny sound of Louis’ mum is being broadcast straight into his head via Louis’s and Liam’s not exactly sure this is something he wants to hear now.  He’d give anything to able to get off the bus and run miles and miles away, but it’s not really an option.  So instead, Liam pops in his earbuds and turns on his iPod and hopes it’ll be enough to block out Louis’ conversation.

It’s not.

We’ve talked about some of it, kind of, I guess,” Louis says, “but there are … other things we need to sort out.”

Thousands of miles away, Louis’ mum sighs into the phone.  “Sometimes I think this would be so much better if you had just stayed home.  If you’d never gone out to the X-Factor.  You’d probably still be with Hannah and the house wouldn’t feel so empty-“

And I’d be missing out on everything.  I would never have met Zayn or Niall or Harry or Liam.  And Hannah and I’d have broken up eventually.”

I guess,” Louis’ mum says.  There’s a long, pregnant pause between them and Liam almost loses himself in his music before he hears Mrs. Tomlinson say, “You’d miss them all too much if I asked you to come home right now, wouldn’t you?”

Yes,” Louis breathes into the phone, and Liam lets out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

Especially Liam?”

Especially Liam,” Louis echoes back and then the phone call ends.

Liam flops back onto his bed and stares up at the pictures he’s taped to the underside of Niall’s bunk.  There are photos of his family and his friends and one of Danielle, whom he still keeps in touch with (or rather, who still keeps in touch with him even after he dumped her because he realized he was gay), and football teams.  He’s even got one of the boys from their X-Factor days, photos of Aiden and Matt and Rebecca and Cher.  The most recent edition, however, is one of Louis he tore out of a magazine, folded into a small square and tucked it into a corner where he can take it out and unfold it and just stare until his eyes make everything blurry and Liam can forget that this whole ordeal is going on.

Suddenly, the curtain on Liam’s bunk is jerked back with a start and Liam finds himself face to face with Louis.

“You were listening in,” Louis says.  He sounds annoyed, as if he can’t believe that Liam would invade his head like that.

            “You were kind of loud,” Liam points out.  There’s no point in really denying that he wasn’t listening.  He’s sure that Louis can just read his mind to find out anyway.
            Louis makes a face.  “Let’s just pretend that this never happened,” he decides.
            Liam rolls his eyes.  “Isn’t that what we’ve been doing the entire time?” he snaps back.  It’s a bit cold, and his heart flips when Louis’ face falls, but it’s not like it’s a lie or something.  They have been avoiding actually talking about their crazy mind meld thing, even if they still use it on a semi-regular basis.
            “Whatever,” Louis says finally, stepping back from Liam’s bunk.  “Next time I’m totally listening in on you when you call Ruth or Nicole because I know you always complain to them about all your angsty, teenage-girl problems.”
            “Fuck you,” Liam says, but he doesn’t really mean it.
            Not like the way that Louis takes it though.
            (And that’s the second sign.)


+

Playing concerts with the mind meld thing is both fun and incredibly annoying.  Liam feeds off of Louis’ bright and radiant energy and bounces around the stage with the others, encouraging the crowd.  He feels a million times more energized than before and he can’t believe he’d been doing concerts, that he ever went through The X-Factor, without feeling this kind of adrenaline rush.
            But he almost trips over his words twice because in the back of his mind he can hear Louis’ thoughts and random chatter and it makes Liam think harder about what he’s doing.  He’s sure that Harry notices, but he just plows on and pretends that nothing happened.
            It’s their last show of the UK tour anyway, so when they come bounding off the stage at the end of the night, there’s a tinge of sadness laced into their celebrations.  Liam remembers the feeling well, after ending their X-Factor tour, but this time, when he looks around him, he sees only the other boys.  There’s no Matt or Cher or Aiden.  There’s no Katie or Paije or Mary.  It’s just them.
            “Oh, cheer up, Liam,” Louis crows, slinging an arm around Liam, and it feels like Liam’s just been struck by lightning.  His entire body fires up again on adrenaline, but underneath it all, he feels every muscle relaxing, like Louis makes them less tense (which is almost an oxymoron because when has Louis ever made Liam unwind?  You’re a moron, he hears Louis say back, and he rolls his eyes).
            “Yeah,” Zayn adds.  “UK today, US tomorrow, eh?”
            “That’s Canada,” Harry points out, which makes Niall snicker and Zayn roll his eyes, and soon they’re all chattering again about world tours and what they’re going to do in the States and the upcoming Brit Awards and it’s almost too much for Liam.  So he pulls his friends into a hug, ignoring their giggling protests and says, “I love you guys.”
            “We love you too, Li,” Niall chimes back, and there’s a chorus of agreements from the others.  There’s a sense of discomfort from Louis though, and when Liam glances over at him, Louis just grins him an impossibly large grin and pretends that everything is alright.

+

            Except that it’s kind of not alright when Louis sneaks into Liam’s bunk that night on the bus and nearly gives Liam a heart attack.
            “Shh,” Louis whispers.  He presses a finger to his lips and then drapes his body over Liam’s, pressing them together in a way that feels incredibly delicious.
            “What’re you doing?” Liam mumbles, still groggy with sleep, though he’s starting to find his bearings a little.
            “Making it up as I go along,” Louis mumbles back, and kisses Liam on the mouth.
            It’s different than the first time, slower and more laid back.  Liam’s not really sure which one he prefers, and at this point, it doesn’t really matter to him.  What matters is that Louis is no longer ignoring him and the buzz in his veins that he sort of forgot about for a while is now completely gone.
            “Everything - feels - just -right -when - I’m - with - you,” Louis manages between kisses.
            I know, Liam thinks, because he can feel how content Louis is.
            “And no, we can’t talk about this now,” Louis whispers in his ear, and then bites it just because he can.  Liam lets out a strangled gasp that Louis gulps down when he presses his lips back against Liam’s.
            “Louis,” Liam sighs, because yeah, kissing Louis is really, really great, but he does want to sort out their whole mind meld thing before they go to the US.  If there’s an off switch, he definitely wants to find it before he has to spend eight hours on a plane with Louis.
            “I hate you,” Louis mutters, rolling off of Liam and snuggling into his side instead.  Liam knows Louis doesn’t mean it, but he bites the inside of his cheek anyway because it has the same sort of sting that radiates out of his heart.
            “You’re kind of pathetic,” Louis mumbles, nosing at Liam’s throat.
            “You love it,” Liam manages to choke out.  “And stop being so distracting.”
            “It’s what I do best.”
            Liam huffs.  He really wants to just curl up around Louis and go back to sleep, but he can’t.  If he doesn’t get this off his chest, he’s going to explode.
            “Ew.  Jeez, Liam.  If you were going to combust, you could’ve just told me.”
            “Don’t need to if you can just read my mind anyway,” Liam points out and there, that’s the first step into a conversation they’ve been avoiding for weeks.
            Louis hums and Liam feels it all the way in his toes.  It makes him sigh, a little more contently this time, and he says, “How long have you been able to read my mind?”
            The silence is so long between them that Liam ends up poking Louis in the side, in case he’s fallen asleep.  Which he hasn’t, Liam can tell in the back of his mind, but he has to check anyway.
            “Since the day I was sick on the bus,” Louis decides.  “Or a couple days afterwards.  I don’t know.  Around then.”
            And that’s exactly when Liam started feeling Louis in every minute of every day, and that’s just a little bit concerning to him.
            “Just relax,” Louis breathes.  Liam can tell how tired the older boy is getting, but he frowns and asks, “How come you’re so much better at reading my mind than I am at reading yours?”
            Louis laughs sleepily, burrowing deeper into Liam’s chest and mumbles, “You’ve always been an open book to me, Li.  It’s just that now, you’re so much easier to read.”
            Liam lets Louis nod off after that because he’s not really sure what else he wants to say.  He figures it’s a pretty good start to the conversation (though he never got around to finding an off switch, which still bugs him a bit considering he is apparently inept at keeping his thoughts to himself) and that maybe they’ll get around to figuring out exactly what happened and if it will ever go away.

+

            Their first real test is when they get back to London and return to their regular lives (or as regular as you can get being teenage heartthrobs).  Liam smiles weakly at Louis as they separate at management and all the way home in his cab, Liam’s gut twists horribly.
            By the time he stumbles into his apartment, he’s ready to vomit up his breakfast.  Everything looks a little disorienting and Liam wonders briefly if maybe somebody drugged him because he took one drag off of a marijuana joint when he was fourteen and he swore to never do that again because apparently, that was just one drag too many.
            You’re not high, Liam hears, and he almost jumps out of his skin because he seriously didn’t think that their bond thing stretched the two floors between his place and Louis’ and Harry’s.
            Can I be dead then? He asks as he trips his way into the bathroom and pukes into the toilet.  He grimaces as he flushes and can practically see Louis doing the same thing.  Holy Jesus.  If Liam started hallucinating he was going to go crazy.
            After the initial separation though, Liam starts to feel better.  The buzz in his veins is stronger than it’s been since the first night with the bond, but at least Liam doesn’t feel like he’s going to die of separation anxiety or something.
            He wanders around the flat for a bit simply because he can’t sit still.  He’s fidgety and restless and Liam’s pretty sure that he can account this all to Louis because Liam’s never this buzzed.
            “Jesus Christ, Liam.  I’m down the street, not across the universe,” Louis huffs when Liam calls him later that night.
            “Yeah, but I miss you,” Liam whines.  He’s grown increasingly distraught as the day has worn on and now he feels like he could run to China and back with all the energy coursing through him.
            “Awe, muffin,” Louis mumbles.  Liam can tell that underneath the cheesy words, Louis really means it.
            “When can you come over?” Liam asks, ignoring how needy he sounds.
            “When everyone else is suffering the same amount of separation anxiety as you are,” Louis replies and Liam groans in frustration.
            “It’ll never be the same,” he whispers, and even though it’s quiet, Liam knows Louis can feel every ounce of want inside of him.
            “Li...” Louis begins, but Liam cuts him off abruptly by saying, “I gotta go,” and then hanging up.

+

            Liam takes some sleep medication and passes out for fifteen hours.  When he wakes up the next morning it’s to the smell of bacon and the constant chatter he has come to associate with the boys.  He stumbles out of bed, pulls on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, and wanders out to the kitchen.
            In some ways, he feels surprised to see everyone there: Harry pushing the bacon around in the frying pan with Niall half asleep on his shoulder while Zayn pours orange juice and sets Liam’s table.
            “Good morning, sunshine,” Louis says as he casually drapes an arm around Liam’s shoulders, and Liam sighs because he feels ten times more awake and very, very content.  Louis hums, as if in agreement to Liam’s feelings, and steers him towards the kitchen.
            “What’re you guys all doing here?” Liam asks as he sinks into a chair at the breakfast bar.  Louis unlatches from him to retrieve Niall, who Harry is trying to support while pushing bacon onto a paper towel.
            “Louis said you’re incapable of living without us.  Co-dependent and all,” Zayn comments, sitting down on Liam’s left.  “Understandable, mate.  Why wouldn’t you want to live without me?”
            “You want me to answer that?” Liam asks with a grin, and it reminds him of their time in the X-Factor house and living together and not worrying about anything except staying in London for another week.  Now London is his home and he doesn’t live with the boys and he can read Louis’ mind.  Awesome.
            “Now, now, boys,” Louis chastises.  He drops Niall into a chair next to Zayn and sinks into the seat on Liam’s right.  “No fighting at the breakfast table or I’ll eat all your bacon.”
            And as Liam watches Louis and Zayn argue over bacon, he realizes that maybe it’s okay to live in London in a flat by himself with Louis’ mind always in his head.  If it means that he’s going to wake up some mornings with his four best friends creeping around in his kitchen and making him breakfast, that’s alright.
            Get used to it, Louis says to him, and winks.
            Liam’s not really sure what he wants to say back to that, so he steals a piece of Louis’ bacon and nudges him with his foot instead.
           
+

            “What’re you doing?” Liam asks a week later when Louis walks in his front door with a duffle bag over his shoulder.
            “Having a sleepover,” Louis replies.
            “Where’s Harry?”
            “Went to Niall’s with Zayn to have a Call of Duty marathon.”
            “Why wasn’t I invited?”
            “Because I invited myself over for a sleepover.”  Right.  Because that’s the most obvious reason in the world.
            “You know that you can’t really do that,” Liam points out.  He’s sprawled out on his couch watching Inception for the billionth time.
            “It’s not like you had plans,” Louis replies.  Liam wants to argue, but he knows there’s no point.
            “Well, you still could’ve mentioned it or something,” Liam grumbles, but he pulls his feet off one end of the couch so that Louis can sit down.
            “I did,” Louis replies.  “You just weren’t listening.”
            They spend the entire evening on the couch.  By the end of Inception, Louis is plastered to Liam’s side, commenting idly on how living in Liam’s brain is a bit like being in a dream within a dream.  They put Love, Actually in after that and Liam chatters into Louis’ ear about how one day he wants to be in a movie like this.  When Liam gets around to popping Ocean’s Eleven in, they’re curled into each other and Louis invades Liam’s head with his thoughts and feelings and everything that is so obviously his.  And now they’re Liam’s as well.
            “I love you,” Louis says absently when Liam turns the movie off at midnight.  It makes him freeze in the dark, his eyes wandering to where Louis is still sprawled on the couch.
            Liam shifts awkwardly.  He hadn’t really been expecting the conversation to come up at midnight of all times and his brain is addled so he says, “Where are you intending to sleep tonight?” He knows it sounds rough but he tries to convey the message that yeah, he does understand what Louis is saying to him and yeah, he feels the exact same way.
            “With you, I was hoping,” Louis says.  He pushes himself off the couch and slinks towards where Liam is still glued to the floor in front of his television.
            When Louis presses his lips to Liam’s, Liam can’t help but wonder if kissing Louis gets better every time it happens because this kiss is definitely much better than the last two.  Combined.  It’s full of passion and heat and love (so much love) and Liam just drowns in the feelings, tries to put the same emotions into his kisses and try to make Louis understand.  Understand that maybe it’s hard to talk about and it’s awkward and it’s just on this side of really, really crazy, but he maybe kind of loves him and it’s just taken this weird mind-melding experience for him to realize it.

+

            The first thing on Liam’s mind when he wakes up is that he slept with Louis last night.  Like, legitimately slept with him.  And he’s sort of maybe panicking just a little because yeah, it’s been established that they love each other, but it’s just sort of struck Liam that shit just got real.
            He throws himself out of bed and into the ensuite to wash his face and try to maybe get a hand on all his raging emotions before he wakes up Louis (he knows that he can because one night on tour Louis threw a pillow into his bunk because he was thinking too loudly.  It’s been said many times but Liam never knew the true meaning of the words until the mind-reading started).
            “I am Liam Payne,” he tells his reflection in the mirror.  His voice is hoarse and he doesn’t really want to think about why.  “I am Liam Payne and I just slept with one of my best friends.  I am Liam Payne and I just slept with Louis Tomlinson.”
            “And don’t you forget it,” Louis calls from the bedroom.  It makes Liam jump and he throws on a pair of boxers and sweatpants from his laundry basket before venturing out to greet Louis.
            Louis who is still in his bed.
            Louis who is still naked and in his bed.
            “You worry too much, Li,” Louis comments dryly, reaching out to tug Liam back into bed.  Liam resists by skirting around Louis’ dancing fingers and heading towards the door.  Coffee, he thinks, just to keep Louis out of his head.
            “One of us has to,” he comments before leaving to make coffee and let Louis find his clothes.

            When Louis finally comes sauntering into the kitchen, Liam has the coffee pot going and two slices of toast in the toaster.
            “So,” Louis says, sliding onto one of Liam’s bar stools, and Liam echoes, “So.”  The toaster dings and Liam fishes the plates out of the cupboard and the jam from the fridge so he won’t have to think about anything else.
            “So, are we a couple, then?” Louis asks, accepting the toast from Liam and biting into it dry.  Liam makes a face because really, who eats dry toast and apparently likes it the way Louis does?  Gross. (You’re gross, he hears Louis say and he rolls his eyes.)
            “If you want to be,” he says, instead of getting into a conversation about toast.
            Friends with benefits?  Louis suggests, and Liam’s thankful he’s not spewing toast crumbs everywhere.
            Could become messy, he replies.
            Do we tell the others?
            What?  That we’re totally in love with each other because of this stupid mind-meld thing?
            You think we’re only in love because we have to be?
            Oops, Liam thinks, and he doesn’t even know if Louis gets it.  “That’s not really what I meant, Lou.”
            “Sure,” Louis replies.  It sounds casual, nonchalant, but there are waves of embarrassment and shame rolling off of Louis.  It makes Liam feel sick and he pushes his toast away slightly.
            “Really, Louis, I didn’t mean it like that.”  Liam’s desperately grasping at straws, checking to see whether Louis’ mood has changed when suddenly, there’s nothing.  It’s a bit like being punched in the face with a brick, because one minute, Liam’s got the comfortable buzz of Louis’ thoughts in the back of his head and the next thing he knows, his head is throbbing and the world seems strangely quiet.
            “How did you do that?” he asks (okay, demands), but Louis is draining the last of his coffee and shoving his toast into his mouth.
            “Secret,” he mutters around the bread, dropping his dishes into the sink.  He slinks out of the room for a moment and when he’s back with his bag, Liam is still sitting at the breakfast bar, completely gobsmacked.
            “I’ll, just, um, see you later, Liam,” Louis says.  He’s gone before Liam can think of anything other than a quiet, “okay,” to say, and then the flat is really, and truly, silent.
            It takes Liam another ten minutes to get up and do something about what just happened (what did just happen?), and even then, it’s nothing more than trying to find his phone and then deciding whether or not to send a text message to Louis.  And if he did, what would he send?  He’d already apologized about what he said.  What more could he say?  I love you and I want you to come back so we can have wonderful sex in my bed again?
            Hah, I don’t think so, Liam thinks, and then instantly regrets it because there’s no Louis in his head to make a snide remark in reply.
            And if Liam guesses correctly, there might not be a Louis in his head for a long time.

+

Liam aches all over every single day when he doesn’t see Louis and even some of the days that he does because Louis’ still got his mind all locked up against Liam and there’s just no connection at all.  It makes Liam shiver and Niall asks if he’s got a fever or something the next time the five of them are hanging out.
            “’m fine, Nialler,” Liam reassures on their last day before heading to America for their tour with Big Time Rush.  “Just need to wear more sweaters or something.”
            Niall looks thoroughly unconvinced, but lets the subject drop anyway.  Liam’s thankful, but he doesn’t miss the way the Irish boy glances between him and Louis all night long or how he and Harry have whispered conversations in empty hallways when he thinks Liam’s not paying attention.
            Liam’s about to head home at eleven at night when Harry tugs him aside and says, “Sort your shit out with Louis.”
            “Piss off,” Liam replies, but he doesn’t really mean it.  Mostly he’s just tired and cranky and worried that maybe he can’t sort it out because every time he tries to tell Louis that he’s sorry, the words get stuck in his throat because he’s not really sure what else he can say to make things better.  He knows what Louis wants him to say, wants him to admit, but Liam just can’t really bring himself to do so.

+

            If Liam thought that eight hours on a plane with Louis in his head was going to be hard, he definitely thinks that eight hours on a plane without Louis in his head is excruciating.
            I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Liam chants in his head over and over and over again until Louis finally twists around in his seat and hisses, “Shut up, asshole,” which makes Zayn look at him funny because Liam wasn’t actually saying anything out loud.
            Make me, Liam thinks, and Louis just rolls his eyes and mutters, “Ugh.”
            Liam thinks that maybe that’s progress, the fact that Louis is still sort of tuning into him, but then Louis says, “Not a chance,” and Liam’s back at square one.

+

            “You’re bleeding angst all over the place, Li,” Harry says when he sits down beside Liam the next day in Liam’s shared room with Zayn.
            “Don’t sound so surprised.  You should be used to it by now,” Zayn chimes in from the bathroom.
            “Just do your hair,” Liam calls out.  “We have to meet out back in ten.”
            Harry sighs, this deep sound that reminds Liam that he’s just turned eighteen and he’s still younger than all of them but with maybe just a tad more wisdom and when did that happen?
            “What’s going on between you and Louis?” Harry asks quietly.  There’s an intense look in his eyes that makes Liam look away.  “Seriously, Li.  You guys have been acting weird for ages now.  This isn’t going to be a problem on stage, is it?”
            “When did you become Daddy Direction?” Liam asks out loud, but in his mind he says, Can I tell Harry?
            The minute Louis opens up the connection again, Liam feels it because it’s like being thrown into a hot tub after spending an eternity in Antarctica.
            Not in this lifetime, Louis sneers.  He shuts down the connection just as quickly as he opened it, and it makes Liam shiver.  Harry’s still looking at him strangely and Louis’ words are still echoing in his mind, and that’s maybe why Liam decides to tell Harry.
            “So, um, Louis and I can read each other’s minds,” he says.  He wanted it to come out sounding casual but it sounds a bit more like a question after it’s left his mouth.
            “Um,” Harry begins, but then promptly shuts up, waving Liam to continue.
            “I don’t really know how it happened or why or even what happened, but one day we were just minding our own business and then suddenly we were sort of … bound together.”
            “Like, mentally?” Liam can hear the only that Harry left off, so he shakes his head.
            “I don’t know, that’s the thing,” Liam says.  “That’s what got me into this mess in the first place.  I don’t know if it’s just mental or if it messes with feelings and stuff and …” he trails off because Harry’s looking at him like he just understood the entire conversation that Liam had had with Louis that day in his flat.
            “You guys are pathetic,” Harry mutters, flopping down onto the bed.
            “Fuck you,” Liam says, but he knows it’s true so he doesn’t say anything else.  “This isn’t my fault. Not completely, at least.”
            “No, you’re right,” Zayn says, coming out of the bathroom.  “Things aren’t going to get better until Louis stops ignoring you, but you’re still the one we’re going to grill about this.”
            “Why me?” Liam whines, standing up and dragging Harry to his feet.
            “Because you’re the responsible one in the relationship,” Harry says, opening the door and stepping into the hallway.  Liam sighs because the others know he hates the labels that people give them, but he knows this one fits, knows that Louis will never step up and take control of the issue himself.
            “Ugh,” Liam mutters.  “I wish I weren’t so responsible.”
            “For what it’s worth, Li,” Harry says, turning around at the corner so he can survey Liam.  “I don’t.”

+

            Two weeks and three days after Liam tells Harry and Zayn about his soul-bonding thing with Louis, Liam walks into their hotel room in France to find Louis making out with someone.
            Like, a completely random someone.  A someone that Liam has never seen in his life before and is pretty sure Louis had also never seen before that night.
            “Um,” Liam says, and Louis rolls out of the guy’s lap easily, as if Liam walking in on him making out with someone was a regular occurrence.
            “’Scuse me, Liam, but I’m kind of busy right now,” Louis says.  He’s got a smug look on his face and a defiant look in his eyes and that’s just the last straw for Liam.
            “No, you’re kind of not,” Liam says.  He glares at the guy, all long haired and tattooed and brooding and says, “Sorry, but we’re not allowed to have guests in the rooms.  You need to leave now.”
            The guy shrugs and stands, and as he slinks out of the room, Liam tries to ignore the very obvious bulge in the guy’s dark denim pants.
            As soon as the door shuts with an audible snap, Louis’ all up in Liam’s space, pressing him back against the wall.
            “What the hell?” he hisses, grabbing Liam’s shirt.  Liam growls in response because Louis’ control over the bond is breaking and little wisps of anger are leaking out of him.  Or maybe they belong to Liam.
            “You know the rules,” Liam says.  “You can’t bring people back to the rooms.”
            “Fuck you,” Louis replies and before Liam can get a hand on his brain-to-mouth filter, he says, “No, that’s my job.”
            The look in Louis’ eye is murderous as he lets go of Liam’s shirt with such quick movements, Liam could’ve sworn he’d been burned.
            “Aren’t you supposed to be making this better, not worse?” Louis sneers and Liam laughs because seriously?
            “This is a two-way street, Louis.  You could, you know, maybe put some effort into it as well.”
            “It’s not my fault,” is Louis’ retort, and Liam wants to pull his hair out because really, it kind of is.

It kind of is Louis’ fault for telling Liam he loved him.

It kind of is Louis’ fault for making Liam see stars all night long.

It kind of is Louis’ fault for blowing the whole situation out of the water.

But after all that, Liam knows deep down that it’s his fault for saying the words that got them into this mess anyway.


+

            The Brit Awards cannot come soon enough.
            Liam feels like maybe this has been the absolute worst time of his life.  Even worse than getting cut from The X-Factor back in 2008.  Everything aches all over and he’s never focused and all he can do is pick, pick, pick at the threads of the connection that Louis has shut down on him.

It does, however, give Liam plenty of time to actually think about all his feelings and attempt to straighten them out a bit.  The ache certainly doesn’t feel very good, but it leaves Liam’s head clear and there isn’t Louis’ mind in his to make him biased one way or another.

Except there’s still the memory of Louis telling him that he loved Liam, but Liam tries not to think about that too much.

What he does try to think about is whether or not he loves Louis back.  If he did before.  If he does now.  If maybe he can learn to love him a few years down the line.  If maybe he’s just fucked up their entire relationship, lovers or not, and the entire band is going to fall apart and it’s all Liam’s fault and he will cry about this when he’s eighty years old.

Liam takes a deep breath in and tries not to panic because really, that would be embarrassing to do on a plane thirty-seven thousand miles up in the air and still forty-five minutes away from England.  So he shoves his headphones on and tries to lose himself in all the soundtrack music that Ruth must have downloaded last time she saw Liam.

It definitely helps Liam drift off and not worry about, well, anything, but he recognizes the music from (500) Days Of Summer and he skips through the entire album because his life is looking strangely similar to that of Tom’s and that’s just way too depressing for Liam to even comprehend at this time.

Half an hour, two power naps, and half a book later, Harry passes Liam a note over the back of his seat.  Liam doesn’t need to read it to know it’s from Louis, but he glances at it anyway, his eyes tracing the familiar lines of Louis’ narrow handwriting.

Can you, like, not turn your brain off or something?  Is what the note says, and Liam rolls his eyes.

“Fuck off,” he tells Louis between the seats.  He forces it out in such a manner that it sounds like he’s joking, like he’s fixed everything between him and Louis and nothing is wrong at all.  He’s worried that maybe Louis won’t catch on, but he’s greeted with one of Louis’ million-watt smiles in return and it lets him know two things.

1. Louis is also playing along to the Liam-and-I-are-fine-and-there’s-nothing-wrong-with-us-and-nothing-to-worry-about Game and

2. Liam might actually love Louis in return.


+

            The thing about their bond is that the longer Louis keeps it closed, the easier it is to manage with.  Every day Liam wakes up and feels just a little bit better, like he’s not lost part of himself somewhere and doesn’t know how to get it back.  But it starts all over again every time Louis opens the darn thing back up, and Liam finds this out at the Brit Awards when Louis leaves the bond open for the entire evening.
            Liam thinks that maybe he should learn how to control this bond thing as well because seriously, it takes a lot of work to get used to having someone always in your head and then not there at all anymore and then have them barge back in rudely, without knocking.  It takes Liam a moment to realize that this is exactly how Louis is in real life, like doors and locks don’t mean anything to him, and that Liam’s head is just another boundary that he can cross.

You’re an asshole, Liam thinks as they sit at their table and chat pleasantly with everyone else around them.  The buzz between his ears is back and it makes listening to other people incredibly hard.

Takes one to know one, he gets in return and, oh, okay.

Touché, Liam thinks, and he looks up from his napkin fast enough to catch the slight smirk that plays across Louis’ lips.  Their eyes meet across the table and it’s like their gazes are electric because the whole room suddenly feels ten times more charged than it did ten seconds before.

Louis keeps up a running commentary in his head just for Liam.  He rambles about the food to how smashing Harry looks in his ridiculous bow tie and he occasionally mentions someone named Trevor, whom Liam doesn’t seem to know at all.  The whole thing drives him nuts, but he won’t admit it because it’ll mean that Louis’ won, and Liam is nothing if not determined, so he chats with Niall and Zayn and thinks of how fabulous they are and how they’re much better company than Louis is.  Than Louis will ever be.  Than Louis has ever been.

            And it’s maybe right there that it just hits Liam.  Like, right out of the blue, smashing into him with the power of a train: he’s done all that he can.  He’s tried apologizing to Louis, tried to explain himself, tried, tried, tried.  If Louis doesn’t want him back, if he doesn’t want to fix things, then that’s his problem now.  Liam’s not going to be a bitch to him about this anymore.  If he doesn’t want to be friends with Liam, fine, but Liam wants to be friends with Louis and wants everything to be alright.
            And that’s how he knows that the bond is closed again, only this time it’s him that’s done the closing.  Liam sees Louis wince across the table from him and shoot him a look, but Liam only shrugs back and continues his conversation with Niall about some video he watched on YouTube with five people playing a guitar at the same time.

+

            It feels weird being on the shutting out end, but it makes Liam sleep a little easier at night and it’s better for their plane ride back to the States (Liam will never understand how management drew up such a crazy schedule for them that still managed to include sleep).  The funny thing about it, though, is that Liam knows that Louis hasn’t shut his side down as well.  Every once in a while, Liam takes a moment to listen for any of Louis’ brain waves, and he catches them drifting through the air as if they’re caught in some wind that cannot be felt.
            “You’re thinking too loudly, Lou,” Liam tells him one day at breakfast when they’re in some state along the Atlantic coast.
            Louis blinks at him once, this look of surprise etched onto his face, before saying, “Fuck off.”  It comes out breezily, like it’s nothing, but there’s a flash of anger in Louis’ eyes and Liam can pick up snippets of curses that Louis is thinking and somehow, that makes the whole day just a little bit brighter.

+

            “So, you seem a lot happier,” Harry says two hours before their show in Toronto.  He’s wearing a hockey jersey for the Maple Leafs and Liam wonders who gave him the captain’s sweater.
            “Aren’t I always happy?” Liam asks, slipping on a basketball jersey.  He hasn’t been working out for nothing.
            Harry laughs and tugs at Niall’s sleeve as he walks by.  The blonde spins around and rests his chin on Harry’s shoulder, surveying Liam with big blue eyes.  Liam thinks they look like a couple, with their hockey jerseys, and that bugs him more than it should.
            “I’m always happy,” Liam states.  He smiles brightly at his friends, who just stare back with curious expressions painted on their faces.
            “No, you’re not,” Louis says.  He’s wearing a Raptors basketball jersey like Liam’s and Liam wonders quietly if they look like a couple too.  “I would know.”
            And okay, so Louis would know, but Louis’ also mad at Liam so he’d do anything to sabotage Liam’s efforts to sound like a normal human being instead of a repressed freak.
            The comment, however, makes Harry and Niall giggle, and soon enough, Liam is smiling too.  By the time Zayn finds them, all four of them are laughing and Liam’s forgotten for a moment that he and Louis are not on speaking terms.

+

            I think we need to talk.
            Now? Liam thinks as he rolls over and looks at the clock on the bedside table.  It reads 3:26 AM, which is far too early for Liam to have coherent thoughts in the morning.
            Exactly my point, Louis says, and it takes Liam a moment to realize that Louis must’ve been waiting up all night to catch Liam at a point of sleep where the walls he’s put up around his mind are gone.
            Ugh, is all Liam thinks in reply.  He rolls back onto his side and tries to get comfortable, but Louis is babbling random song lyrics into his head to keep him awake.  Fine, Liam grumbles.  What do you want to talk about?
            The singing stops and there’s a pause so long that Liam considers going back to sleep, but then Louis says, We owe it to the others to be civil around each other.  You know, be friends again and what not.
            Liam kind of wants to say, friends that had sex once and then broke into a million tiny, messy pieces, but refrains.  Instead he says, Yeah, that sounds good.
            It’s a lot harder to put up mental walls when he’s half asleep, but after a minute of trying, Liam’s eyes snap open.  He takes a minute to think about what he’s doing and realizes that Louis is pushing into his mind, preventing Liam from putting up the blocks.
            “What the hell?” he asks out loud and Zayn grumbles at him in his sleep on the other side of the room.
            Keep it open, Louis orders.
            Um, fuck you.
            It’ll be better.  Trust me, Louis says, and Liam has no choice but to agree because he’s been trusting Louis with a lot lately.

+

            Four weeks, one day, ten hours, and forty-six minutes after Liam leaves the bond open, three things happen almost simultaneously:
            1. Liam is told for the fortieth time in three weeks that he looks ten times happier than he normally looks
            2. Up All Night reaches number one on the Billboard charts in America and
            3. Louis pushes Liam up against the wall of their dressing room’s bathroom and kisses him senseless.
            Liam is definitely not going to complain about Louis kissing him because his whole body sighs into Louis’ touch and the buzz is completely gone again and he’s missed this a lot, but it’s also weird.  And maybe wrong.  But Liam doesn’t want to think of it that way.  Just weird.
            He pulls away first and looks at Louis.  Are you okay? He thinks, because Louis looks like he might be ready to kiss Liam again and Liam doesn’t really want to interrupt that by talking.
            Why wouldn’t I be? Louis asks, and yep, he’s kissing Liam again, pressing him back against the sink.
            Um, is all Liam thinks in response, but then pulls away again.  “You’re not drugged, are you?” he asks out loud, peering into Louis’ eyes to see if they’re bloodshot.  Louis takes a swipe at Liam’s head and frowns and thinks, what the hell?  It clearly wasn’t directed at Liam, but Liam rolls his eyes anyway because he still heard it.
            “Why do you ask?” Louis asks.  It’s casual sounding and Liam resists the urge to roll his eyes again (Harry once told him that if he rolled them too much they were just going to permanently be lolling around inside their sockets).
            “Um, because …” Liam’s not really sure what he wants to say after that.  Because they’re not friends anymore?  That’s not entirely true because he and Louis have put in a significant amount of effort to be friendly to each other over the past three weeks.  Because Louis said that he loved Liam and Liam didn’t believe him and got freaked out?  That’s a plausible answer, but not something Liam really wants to bring up so he says, “What about that guy?”
            “Which one?” Louis asks, and it makes Liam cringe.  He had been thinking of the one he’d caught with Louis on their bus, but Louis’ answer had just implied that there had been more.  Several more.
            “Um,” Liam says, and then decides that this conversation is just going absolutely nowhere and he’s going to escape and pretend it never happened.
            “Li,” Louis says tiredly, and it makes Liam turn from where he’s got his hand on the door knob and look at the older boy.  “If you can’t tell, this is me trying to apologize to you for being a dick.”
            “Um, isn’t that my job?” Liam asks, because last time he checked he wasn’t the one getting his feelings crushed.
            Louis shrugs.  “Didn’t you say it’s a two way street?  You already apologized.  Now it’s my turn.  I also just wanted to say that I don’t love you anymore.”
            And, whoa there.  Liam’s hand slips from the knob and Liam has to shove it into his pocket so that it doesn’t look awkward, clenched at his side.  “Oh,” he says in a small voice, and some part in the recesses of his brain start panicking because, not for the first time, Liam doesn’t know if that’s what he wants.
            “Then what were the kisses for?” Liam asks, surprised at how odd his voice sounds, a bit like he doesn’t trust himself to speak.
            Louis shrugs.  “I may not love you anymore, Li, but I do like you.”
            Liam slams the bathroom door shut in Louis’ face because it’s the only thing he can think of that doesn’t involve maybe crying a bit.

+

            (He does go to cry on Zayn’s shoulder like a teenage girl, though.  Zayn doesn’t really ask, and Liam’s grateful because he’s not sure he has a good reason anyway.  The only one he can think of is that he has finally decided that he really does love Louis after all, and that doesn’t seem like an answer that Zayn would be very sympathetic about.)
+

            The fact of the matter is, Liam does love Louis now even if Louis doesn’t love him back.  Maybe it took him a few months to realize this, but he does love him.
            The only problem now is that Liam can’t figure out if this is something he feels or the bond is telling him to feel.
            So when they stop in some small town out in the middle of nowhere for a booze run, Liam hops off their bus and joins the Big Time Rush guys and tries to get as far away from Louis as he can so that he can think about his dilemma in relative privacy.
            They end up at a liquor store forty kilometers away from the bus and it leaves Liam gasping like a fish, pain streaking across his abdomen as if he’d been shot.  The others look at him strangely but Liam waves them off by telling them he has a really bad stomach cramp and goes and sits on a box of coolers in the back of the store.
            Are you alright, Liam? Louis asks, and even in his head he sounds strained to Liam.  You’re not hurt, are you?
            Liam shuts the bond with a snap that makes him want to vomit.  He forces the bile back down his throat and it burns enough to clear his head.  He feels sick, suddenly, and feverish, but he pushes away the way his body reacts to cutting Louis off and focuses on the logical part of him.
            The part that will tell him truthfully whether or not he loves Louis Tomlinson.
            He’s known Louis for almost two years now and the farther Liam looks back, the harder it is to understand what he felt.  He’s certainly been jealous of Louis and Harry’s supposed romance, but is it because he wants to feel as closely to someone as they feel for each other?  Besides, Louis had a girlfriend when Liam first met him and she was lovely, and Liam’s pretty sure he wasn’t jealous of her.  Ugh.
            The phone buzzing in his pocket brings him back to earth.  Liam looks down at his call display and sees it’s from Harry.
            “Open the bond up again, you twat,” Harry says when Liam answers the phone.  Liam winces, the pounding headache hitting him at full force and he resists the urge to almost-vomit again.
            “W-why?”
            Harry sighs on the other end of the phone and Liam can faintly hear Niall shushing someone else on the other end.  “Louis is ridiculously sick and judging by the sound of you, you don’t sound much better.  Why the hell did you close it?”
            “Had to think,” Liam replies hoarsely.  He sees the others paying for their liquor at the counter and stands shakily.  “Needed my own head for a moment.”
            “Well, you didn’t have to be so brutal about it,” Harry replies.  “Are you done thinking now?”
            Liam shrugs and even though Harry can’t see him, he knows that Harry knows what he’s doing.  “I guess,” he says, following Big Time Rush out of the store.  “Yeah.  I’m done.”  He hangs up the phone and opens the connection again.  His fever is gone in an instant but the pain in his stomach returns.  Liam grimaces slightly and gets back into the cab, but the closer they get to Louis and the others, the better he begins to feel.

+
            “I think we should use our power for good, not evil,” Louis announces one day on the bus, plunking himself down next to Liam who is currently in a terrible Mario Kart battle with Zayn.
            “Um, don’t we do that already?” Liam asks and releases his ruthless red shell that knocks Princess Peach off the road.   Whoops.  Oh well, she was being annoying anyway.
            “Well, yeah, I guess,” Louis says thoughtfully.  “But, I mean, we should use it for super-secret spy missions.”
            Zayn laughs on Liam’s other side and Liam blows at his bangs that have fallen into his eyes.  Almost immediately, Louis reaches out and brushes them away.  It’s a weirdly intimate gesture that makes Liam shiver slightly and run over a banana peel on the race track.  “What did you have in mind?” Liam asks.
            “Well, I think we should use it to help out Harry and Niall.”
            Liam pauses the game, much to Zayn’s protests, and turns to face Louis properly.  “What about Harry and Niall?” he asks suspiciously, and he watches as Louis glances over his head at Zayn who says, “Wait, he doesn’t know?”
            Liam grumbles as Louis pokes through his head before saying, “No, he really doesn’t know.  Jeeze, Liam.  That’s insensitive, even for you.”
            “Fuck off,” Liam replies, but now he’s curious and Louis knows it.  There’s a smug look on Louis’ face that Liam very much wants to kiss off, but they haven’t done anything of the sort since that night in the bathroom two days before.
            “Our young Harold is completely, and I mean completely, infatuated with a certain little leprechaun.”
            Um, what?
            “Oh my God, he really didn’t know,” Zayn exclaims, his voice somewhere between glee and genuine surprise.  “You’ve been completely consumed in your own angst.  I didn’t even know that was possible.”
            “Okay, okay, so maybe I’m not very observant,” Liam starts, but the others laugh.
            “Liam, Harry is absolutely pining.  You’d have to be blind not to notice,” Zayn says, and  something inside of Liam burns.
            Had he really just been so consumed with his own problems that he hadn’t been paying attention to anything else that was happening in the band?  Liam racks his brain for the last conversation he had with Harry and to his horror, remembers vividly him complaining about how awful his life was.  If he had taken even two minutes to listen to anything Harry had to say, he might’ve known about his problems earlier.
            With a groan, Liam squeezes his eyes shut and slumps back against the couch.  The fans called him Daddy Direction because he was always looking out for the boys, and while he sometimes disliked the title, he didn’t mind making sure his friends were alright.  He’d definitely failed in his duties though, and somehow, this made tears prick at the corners of his eyes.
            Hey, it’s okay, Louis whispers in his mind.  It’s almost like a caress, or the feeling Liam gets when people hold his hand, and it keeps the tears at bay and eases Liam’s feelings of guilt.
            “Right,” Liam says a few minutes later.  Louis’ begun to card his fingers through Liam’s hair and it soothes him enough so that he can open in his eyes.  Zayn’s peering at him curiously and Liam wiggles his eyebrows in return.  “So, what’s our plan of action then, boys?  We can’t let Harry pine forever, but I don’t think he’d appreciate us meddling with his love life.”
            Zayn laughs, clearly relieved that he didn’t break Liam and says, “You guys are going to set them up.”
            “Easier said than done,” Liam points out, but Louis shushes him.
            “Zayn and I are going to work out the minor details.  We’ll let you know when we know more,” he says cheekily.  “You’re just a pawn in our master plan.”
            “Oh, um.”
            Louis laughs brightly, the same laugh that he reserves for Liam only.  “Don’t worry about it, Liam.  I’m sure you’ll appreciate putting your angsty thoughts into a drawer and getting your mind onto something else, eh?”  He leans over and presses his lips chastely to Liam’s before bouncing off of the couch and down the hallway.  A minute later, Zayn starts the game again and Liam watches as his Yoshi zooms around the track without really paying attention to it.
            “I now give you permission to say what I know you’re dying to say,” Zayn says and Liam immediately blurts out, “Ugh, what is my life?”  Zayn laughs as he crosses the finish line three-quarters of a lap before Liam does and then goes on to win the Mushroom Cup.

+

            They’re closing in on their last week of the American tour before Australia and New Zealand when Louis and Zayn finally corner Liam and drag him into the miniscule bathroom on the bus.  It’s a tight fit but Louis perches himself on the sink while Zayn sits on the toilet seat, leaving Liam to awkwardly stand next to the door.
            “We’re going to go on a double date,” Louis announces proudly.
            “Um,” Liam begins, but Louis shushes him so that Zayn can contribute as well.
            “Louis and I decided that the four of you are going to go on a date to wherever you like.  I’ll take the other boys out clubbing or something so we’ll be out of the way.”
            “Um.”
            “You and I will be able to monitor the mission and communicate without talking.  You’ll suggest seeing a movie after and they’ll agree but then I’ll try and drag you back to the bus for sexy times or whatever and they won’t want to come so they can go to the movies by themselves …”
            “Um.
            Liam’s not actually expecting the silence that follows his interruption, because now that Louis has stopped talking, Liam’s not exactly sure what to say.  He opens his mouth and shuts it quickly.  Finally, he blurts out, “Sexy times?”
            Zayn bursts into giggles and Louis shoots him an annoyed look.  “We don’t actually have to do the deed, Liam,” Louis says.  “It’s just what we need to tell Harry and Niall so that they’ll finish the date on their own.”
            And right.  That makes a lot of sense to Liam.  He certainly wouldn’t want to go back to the bus if he knew two of his band mates were doing it in the back room or something, but the thought still makes his stomach church slightly, though he doesn’t know whether it’s from nausea or anticipation.
            “Um, alright,” Liam says after another moment of careful consideration.  He wants to make it up to Harry for not noticing his own relationship problems earlier, but truthfully, Liam cannot see a good end for himself in this whole plan.  He can already sense the way his heart will crack down the middle when Louis drags him back to the bus and does nothing but play Mario Kart with him for the rest of the evening.
            “Great,” Louis trills from the sink.  “We initiate Operation Nude Leprechaun-“
            “Um.”
            “-tomorrow at four in the afternoon.  Let’s synchronize our watches, lads.  This is literally a do-or-die situation.”
            Liam can’t really help but laugh as Louis pushes past him out of the bathroom.  Operation Nude Leprechaun, really?  Liam thinks as he watches Louis pounce on Harry in the front room.
            Louis turns back to glance at Liam and says, I know you wouldn’t have thought of anything better so I saved you the trouble and named it myself.
            You’re so generous, Liam thinks as he grabs a book from his bunk to go read while the others wrestle around for the television remote.
            Don’t you know it, Louis replies.  He winks at Liam as he tussles Harry’s hair and Liam is suddenly glad of the book he’s holding so that nobody else can see his blush.

+

            Phase One, Louis thinks and Liam lifts his head casually to watch as Zayn announces that he and the boys from Big Time Rush are going to a club.
            “Can I come?” Harry asks eagerly, and Zayn shakes his head.
            “Nope,” he announces.  “We all know how chatty you get when you’re pissed and we’d like to actually hook up tonight, thanks.” (It was a bit of a poor excuse, but it was the only thing that the three of them could come up with that would prevent Harry from going to the club with them.  “He’s never going to buy that,” Zayn had said, but Louis had promised that it would work, and if it didn’t, he would do Zayn’s laundry for a week.)
            Harry pouts from his spot on the couch, but Liam sees the way his eyes fall on Niall across from him in an armchair.  “What about you, Nialler?” he asks.  “You going out with Zayn and the others?”
            Niall shakes his head in response and says, “I told Liam I’d help him sort out the back room.  It’s a right mess back there.” (Another part of the plan, Louis had purposefully rampaged through the game room so that Liam could convince Niall to stay behind and help out.  More bribery was involved.)
            “But I want to go out tonight,” Harry whines, and Liam hears Louis say, I told you so.
            Ugh, I hate it when you’re right, Liam mutters back, and Louis flashes him a smug grin.
            (“Harry’ll want to go out when he hears that Zayn’s going out as well.  When that happens, Li, suggest that the four of us can go out if he and Niall clean the room themselves.”
            “That’s not going to work.”
            “Yes it will.  Harry’s pining, remember?”
            “Ugh.”)
            “How about, we can all go out tonight if you help Niall clean the back room?” Liam asks, repeating the word that Louis feeds into his head.  Harry’s eyes go wide as he weighs the choices: clean up the back room or spend time with Niall.  Clean up the back room or get off the bus?  Clean up the back room or possibly spend alone time with Niall?
            “Fine,” Harry huffs, launching himself off the couch.  He grabs Niall’s wrist and hauls him to his feet and says, “C’mon, Ni.  I want to get going.”
            Niall laughs, this infectious giggle that makes Harry smile and Liam feels Louis sigh a little out of how familiar the scene is.
            That could have been us, Liam almost thinks, but then he ushers it into the back corners of his mind where he knows Louis can’t see it without looking, and goes back to pretending to read his book.

+

            Half an hour later, the back room is completely clean.
            “What’d you do, polish it with your spit?” Louis asks as he surveys the room crucially.  Even Liam is impressed; the room is spotless.
            “Nah, just put a bit of elbow grease into it,” Niall replies.  His face is warm and flushed and he loops an arm over Harry’s shoulders amiably.
            “Right, well, it’s done now,” Liam says, shuffling back into the hallway.  “Shall we get going then?”
            Harry hollers with joy and bounds after Liam, dragging Niall along by the wrist.  Louis laughs and says, Phase Two in Liam’s head, and Liam nods.  He’s getting so caught up in Harry’s interactions with Niall that he finds himself forgetting that this is a mission.
            Operation Nude Leprechaun, Louis reminds him, and Liam suppresses a groan.
            You’re impossible, he replies, exiting the bus.  The night air is chilly for March and Liam wishes he’d brought a sweater.
            “Here,” Louis says a moment later, closing the door to the bus behind him.  He tosses Liam the sweater he’d been wearing earlier and tugs his coat on over his own shoulders.
            “Thanks,” Liam mumbles.  The sweater smells like Louis and it seems to hold memories in it because Liam can practically feel the way someone had wrapped their arms around Louis’ waist and kissed him full on the mouth.  The memory makes him shiver and Louis looks at him guiltily.
            “So, where’re we going, lads?” Niall asks, tucking his hands into his sweatshirt pockets.
            “Um.”
            “There’s a diner just around the corner,” Louis announces.  He leads the way down the street and Liam sighs in relief because he hadn’t gotten around to thinking about where they might be going that night.
            You owe me, Payne.
            Whatever, Tommo.
            The diner is nearly empty at ten o’clock at night and the waitress seats them at a booth in the back corner of the restaurant, away from the windows as per request by Liam.
            “C’mere,” Louis orders, tugging Liam down into the booth next to him.  It leaves the second bench open for Niall and Harry to sit and Liam can’t keep the pleased look off his face.  Whether it’s from Louis’ touch or from how well Operation Nude Leprechaun is going, Liam’s not quite sure.
            “So,” Niall says.  He scans his menu carefully and then glances over at Harry’s, as if his will yield different options.
            “So,” Harry echoes back, and the two of them make brief eye contact before staring down Liam and Louis across the table.
            Um.
            “Is everything between you two … okay?” Harry asks, waving a hand in the air over the table top.
            “Sure, why not?” Louis replies automatically, but Liam can feel the way his mind bristles, as if preparing for battle.
            Calm down, Liam thinks and puts his hand on Louis’ knee.  It just about makes Louis jump out of his skin, but he flashes Liam a blazing smile and turns back to Harry and Niall.  “No, seriously,” he continues.  “Why wouldn’t we be?”
            Niall’s got an expression of bewilderment painted on his face, as if to say, Are you fucking kidding me?  Liam shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly as Harry continues.
            “You guys were messed up for ages!  And just when you’d get better things would go downhill again.  It was like being a roller coaster,” he exclaims.  “You could’ve ruined everything!”
            It’s not the first time that the thought has crossed Liam’s mind, about how his dynamics with Louis could be affecting the others as well, but it’s the first time he’s heard it from his band mates.  It pushes the air from his lungs and squeezes his chest painfully and this time, Louis places his hand on Liam’s knee to calm him.
            “We’re sorry,” Louis says, and Liam can feel the meaning behind it.  “We didn’t mean to, honest.”
            “It’s hard being in someone else’s head,” Liam adds.  “You see a lot of stuff you don’t want to see; feel a lot of things you don’t want to feel.”  He avoids Louis’ eye and glances across the table.  “You can’t always tell what’s real and what’s there because now you’re bound to someone.”
            When he’s finished, Liam feels like a weight has been lifted off of his shoulders, like he’s just spilled all his secrets and laid them out on the table in nice neat rows for the others to see.  He feels Louis remove his hand from his knee, but when he scoops up Liam’s hand instead, it makes Liam’s heart beat faster and happiness prickle at his skin.
            “All the good stuff happens to you guys,” Harry grumbles, burying himself behind his menu again.  A waitress stops by to take their drink orders and Liam says, “Um, no, it doesn’t.”
            “It’s true though,” Harry insists.  “First you get super powers and then you get the guy.  Where can I get some of this luck?”  The waitress comes back and drops off their teas, which Harry immediately snatches up off the table.
            “You can get the guy too, Haz,” Louis says softly.  Harry nearly chokes on his tea and Niall thumps him on the back, giving Louis a questioning look as he does so.
            “What’s that mean?” he asks, but Louis just shakes his head and orders a stack of pancakes from their patient waitress.
            The rest of the night continues as if the initial conversation had never happened, but Liam can feel the undercurrent of tension running through them.  It’s unusual and unnatural feeling and for the first time, Liam wonders if this is a such a good idea.  Not because he doesn’t want Harry to be happy, but because of how awkward things had become over just a couple short hours.  This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, in a band.  So, when did things get so complicated?
            “Ugh, what is my life?” Liam texts Zayn halfway through his hamburger.  He doesn’t expect a reply from him, but he feels better sending the message.
            “Can I have one of your chips, mate?” Louis asks, leaning over and snagging a deep fried potato off of Liam’s plate before Liam can reply.
            “What if I wanted that one?” Liam asks.
            “You didn’t,” Louis replies easily, and Liam groans.
            “You guys are maddening,” Niall comments as he pushes at the pasta on his plate.  “I don’t remember you guys being this mushy all the time.”
            “Is that what you like, Nialler?” Louis asks suddenly, grinning wildly.  “’Cause that can be arranged.”  He sets his taco down and grabs Liam’s face, kissing him sloppily on the cheek.
            “Ugh,” Liam groans, wiping at his face with his napkin, but he’s not going to deny how good it felt to have Louis’ lips on his skin again.  The buzzing in his veins that he barely notices anymore, pushes at Liam with an insistent flurry.  Take him, take him, it seems to say to Liam, and he has to gulp down half his water to take his mind off of it.
            “What shall we do after dinner?” Harry asks, tilting his head to the side.
            Check out Niall, Louis says, and Liam almost asks, “What?” before he realizes it was said in his head and not out loud.
            He swivels his head slightly to catch a glimpse of the blond staring at Harry as if a light bulb had gone off in his head.  A faint blush creeps on to Niall’s face and he turns sharply in time to catch Liam staring.  His eyes say, What are you doing? but his body language oozes relaxation, as if it’s completely content with the realization that it’s been set up on a date.
“Maybe a movie?” Louis suggests, picking at his pancakes again.  For the first time, Liam can sense how nervous Louis is, and it shocks him a little.  Louis is a ball of confidence, a master at boosting up his friends.  Liam wants to ask what’s bothering Louis, but he knows he won’t get a solid answer back anyway, so he squeezes Louis’s hand underneath the table and finishes his burger.
“Sure,” Harry says.  “We won’t get in trouble for staying out late?”
“Zayn went to a club,” Liam points out.  “I think if any of us get in trouble it’ll be him.”
Harry’s grin is wide and contagious and Liam feels Louis relax a little.  It’s going to work, Liam thinks, and he feels rather than sees Louis’s own smile.
They finish dinner quickly after that and the four of them are soon spilling back out onto the street, glowing in the hazy street lights and high on a night off.
“C’mon!” Harry whines, tugging on Niall and Louis’s wrists in an effort to drag them down the street. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon!”
“Slow down, Harry,” Liam says with a laugh.  He watches Louis tug his hand out of Harry’s and stop in the middle of the sidewalk.
“You know, Harry,” Louis begins.  “I’m actually feeling kind of … tired.  I don’t know.  I think I’ll just head back to the bus.”
Harry’s eyes fall and Liam hears himself saying, “I’ll go with you, Louis.  You know.  Get some rest and all.”  He thinks it comes out in a pretty unconvincing manner and catches Niall’s smirk.
“Sure, you guys,” the blonde says, gripping Harry’s hand properly in his and dragging him down the street.  “Haz and I’ll go catch a flick.  See you in a couple of hours?”
“You know it!” Louis chirps, winking at Harry who flushes a deep red in response.  “C’mon, Li-um.  Let’s go take a rest.”  The last three words come out low and husky and even though they’ll probably sit in the back room and play Mario Kart or something all night, Liam can’t help but feel his hopes rise slightly.
They walk back to the bus in silence, the only sound between them the low hum of their connection.  Liam wonders when it became so easy to manage, when they started to be able to filter each other’s thoughts enough so that only the important things got through.  It’s been a long time, Liam thinks, since the bond appeared, and he’s just sort of accepted the fact it was there.  It’s just part of his life now, and Liam thinks that that’s maybe the way it’s always going to be.
“Getting sentimental, are we?” Louis asks with a cheeky grin as they reach the bus.  Liam fishes out the key the driver gave them and unlocks the door for Louis, choosing not to answer the question.  He does smile though, and he feels a brief flash of happiness from Louis before they climb onto the bus and Liam locks the door again.

+

Sure enough, Liam and Louis end up in the back room with a game of Mario Kart on between them.  It’s nice and easy and pleasant, but when Liam gets beaten for the eighth time that night, Louis puts down his controller and turns to face him.
“Are you still miffed about my ‘sexy times’ comment, Liam?  Because Jesus Christ, it doesn’t have to be like that.  We’re just friends.”  That have a weird mind-meld connection thing between them.  That snog occasionally.  Friends that have had sex in Liam’s bed in his flat in London.
They’re just friends.
“I’m just,” Liam shrugs, not knowing how he wants to continue that sentence.  He’s not really miffed by the comment, but he’s starting to feel awkward in his own skin again, like he’s not sure what he should be doing.  It’s never like this with any of the boys, and theoretically, it should happen less with Louis, but it sort of feels like Liam’s maybe messed up the entire space-time continuum because he agreed to help with Operation Nude Leprechaun.
“Liam,” Louis says, concern laced into his voice.  He puts a hand on Liam’s shoulder and slowly, ever so slowly, shifts himself so that he is straddling Liam’s lap.  The weight is comfortable and foreign to Liam at the same time, but he sighs when Louis runs a hand across his cheek, brushing against the traces of stubble that are starting to appear.
Liam feels this tug in his gut, this wrenching feeling that he’s never felt before, and certainly not when Louis’s touching him in such an intimate way.  It’s different than the times that Liam’s tried to put physical distance between the two of them, different than when Liam shuts down the bond.  This is what panic must feel like in its truest form, because it clings to Liam like a second skin.
Liam glances up at Louis and sees the way his eyes are laced with pain.  They both can feel it, but Liam doesn’t know why.  He doesn’t know what it is or how to make it go away.
Maybe this is it, he thinks to himself, and only himself.  Maybe if I don’t do this now, I lose him.  I lose everything that we’ve built and broken in the past few months.  Maybe I lose everything.
So Liam steels up his nerves, digs his fingers into the sharp angles of Louis’s hips and says, “I love you,” the same time that Louis does.
The sharpness of the pain dissipates almost immediately, leaving just a low throb all over Liam’s body.  He shivers against it and feels Louis’s hands slip from his cheeks to around his neck.  
“You go first,” Louis whispers into his ear as he buries his face into Liam’s neck.  Liam thinks back to the time all those months ago when Louis lay draped across the couch in his living room, bathed in the glow from neighbouring buildings and looking vulnerable and so, so perfect.
“I,” he begins, but chickens out as soon as the word has left his mouth.  He tucks his head into the crook of Louis’s neck and they just sit there for a minute, absorbed in each other.
“That night in my apartment,” Liam begins after he thinks he can trust his voice again.  “The whole sharing a brain thing was so new and I didn’t know what I felt and I didn’t mean to make you feel bad but how could I be sure that it was you talking or weird feelings that suddenly came out of nowhere? The ones where you wanted to snog me all the time? Or how about the ones where you came over to my house and stayed the night? I just.  I don’t know.  I’m sorry.”
Louis laughs, this watery sounding noise that doesn’t sound like him at all.  “Trust you to overthink it, Liam,” he says, petting at Liam’s hair.  “But I understand.  I see where you’re coming from and I think I knew that the whole time.  I just didn’t want to believe it.  I wanted to believe that all the feelings I felt for you were real and were genuine, but when we just kept shutting each other out, it just sort of went away.  It lessened and hid itself in the back of my mind and that scared me, because what if you were right?  I didn’t want you to be right.”
Liam thinks that there’s maybe about ten million things he wants to say to Louis right now but can’t seem to put them into coherent thoughts.  He opens his mouth in an attempt to say something, but Louis says, “Wait, let me finish?” so Liam snaps his mouth shut again and dutifully listens to Louis.
“I think what the bond did was just enhance everything I already felt,” Louis says quietly, so quietly that Liam almost misses it.  “I think I felt all those things about you before, Li, I just never could admit it to myself.  And then this happens and all I want to do is snog you senseless and be with you all the time.  When we reopened the bond after Toronto, I think I reopened my feelings too.  Spending time with you, being with you, hearing your thoughts again.  It just all came back.  And I think that’s when I realized that it was real.  That I’d always loved you and all that sappy, sentimental stuff.”
It takes Liam a moment to realize that maybe this is where he’s supposed to start talking, to explain his thoughts and feelings too.  And even though he had wanted this, had tried to initiate this so many times in the past, now that it was here, he wasn’t sure he could do it.  He didn’t know what to say to Louis, what would make things better.  He was a singer, used to singing words that people had written down for him.  Now, however, he’s left to improvise.
“This might sound clichéd,” Liam says slowly, “but I don’t think I knew what I had until it was gone.  It sounds dumb because I never take this life for granted and all the opportunities we get and all our fans, but sometimes I think I let it get into my head that you boys are always going to be around, like we’re never going to have that one big catastrophic fight that sends us plummeting over the edge into the Land of No Return.”
“You’re so dramatic,” Louis says with a laugh.  It comes out shaky, but there’s still a touch of vibrancy that Liam appreciates.
“I just thought you were always going to be there,” Liam continues.  “I thought you’d always be my friend, and then always be in my head, and then … I don’t know what.  I just thought that you were always going to be mine.”  This time, it’s Liam’s turn to let out a shaky laugh, but Louis just smiles back at him, a genuine quirk of his lips that sends shivers up Liam’s spine.
“Liam, I’m always going to be yours,” Louis says finally, leaning close to Liam so that their foreheads touch.  “That is, if you’ll let me.”
“Of course,” Liam says without a second thought, and then he leans forward and presses his lips against Louis’s.
The buzz is gone as soon as their lips meet, but it’s different than all the other times.  This time, it has an air of finality to it, like it’s telling Liam, See you when you’re hungover! or something like that.  It’s then that Liam realizes that the bond is gone, or at least, the parts that let him access Louis so easily and search through his brain.  After so many months of living with Louis in his head, Liam knows that it will never happen again, not in such a plain and obvious way.  The thought makes Liam’s fingers tighten into Louis’s hips and he feels Louis’s fingers dig into his shoulders, and Liam knows that maybe, they’ll be alright.
(Something in the back of Liam’s mind also tells him that because the bond is gone, every feeling that Liam feels inside of himself is one hundred percent real.  Every part of him that yearns for Louis’s touch, for Louis’s lips, for Louis’s everything, is all Liam and not some supernatural, otherworldly power.
And that’s the third and final sign.)