Harry figures it out first, which really shouldn’t have been such a surprise to Louis, the boy is almost freakishly perceptive at times, but still, it’s a bit embarrassing to have your own feelings pointed out to you. They’re sprawled across their couch watching youtube clips of old interviews on the laptop (because Harry likes to pick out every cringe worthy moment of their existence and then post unflattering comments just to watch the fangirls go rabid) when he turns to Louis, tilts his head and says:
“So, are you aware that you’re in love with Liam, then?”
Louis stares. For a minute he thinks that Harry might be having a breakdown of sorts and it would be best to treat him very gently. He sits up slowly and places a hand gently on Harry’s leg.
“You ok there, Hazzah? Should I get you some tea? Maybe call a doctor? It’s just, you seem to have gone a bit mental”
Harry shoves his foot in Louis’ face.
“Shut up, wanker. I am never wrong about these things. Never. And that is visual evidence right there, son.” He sits up and fiddles with the computer for a minute until Louis can hear their voices, tinny and slightly indistinct as they all talk over each other. There’s nothing unusual here. They’re vying for each others space, jostling and hanging off of each other with a familiarity that’s made something warm clench in Louis’ chest ever since that very first time, up on a stage being told they were in this together now, that the five of them together could be special, amazing, the five of them together could be anything. Still, there’s nothing really different about this particular interview.
Louis turns to Harry, arches a brow (and he knows it’s good, he’s practised it in the mirror enough times) but Harry just grins and motions back to the monitor.
As Louis watches, Liam is leaning into the interviewer, talking about how humbled and blessed the boys feel and he just radiates earnestness and sincerity and it’s so utterly charming. Louis-on-the-screen is grinning and Louis feels the corners of his mouth twitching up into a smile because really, Liam Payne is the human equivalent of puppies and rainbows and everything good and…oh.
Beside him Harry is laughing.
“Bugger.” Louis says and drops his face into his hands.
* * *
Dating a co-worker is a terrible idea; dating a co-worker who is also one of your best friends and who you spend 85% of your time with and who also happens to be your emotional touchstone is very likely a spectacularly bad idea because if things go wrong, well, there probably aren’t enough adjectives to describe how very, very bad that would be. Louis should step back. He should just push these feelings down and ignore them, for the sake of the band. It’s not like Liam likes him back. Louis can just imagine Liam’s reaction. He’d smile gently and thank him and let him down easily and then spend weeks being extra nice but not touching Louis at all and that extra niceness will just lead to so much awkwardness and that will carry over to the rest of the band and their performances will suffer and the next thing you know they’ll be a Where are They Now special on TMZ. He can see it all so clearly: Liam and Harry will be fine. They’ll have solo careers and compete on the charts, and Zayn will go back to school and get a law degree or a phd or something and probably save the world, and he’d end up on the west end doing a spectacularly campy version of The Boy From Oz, yah, he’d be fine. But Niall, Niall’d probably end up franchising a line of crappy restaurants and endorsing off brand products on late night infomercials. Louis can’t let that happen. For the good of Niall he should just forget about this whole thing.
Then Harry says, “I have a plan.”
* * *
Harry’s plan, as it turns out, pretty much consists of Louis kissing Liam. He refers to it, somewhat obviously, as Operation: Kissing Liam. His genius does not lie in words.
“Your genius does not lie in words,” Louis says.
“Do not make fun of the man with the plan. And fuck you, I am so good with words. That just rhymed, didn’t it?”
“I take it back. Clearly you’re a genius.”
Harry grins, wide and slightly manic.
“I am a genius. I am so much a genius you should be bowing down to my geniusness.”
“Why don’t you just tell me the plan, Einstien.’
“I don’t know. I’m not sure you can handle the pure awesomeness of this plan. I’m not sure you’re deserving of it.” Harry’s shriek as Louis tackles him onto the couch sounds suspiciously like one of Louis’ younger sisters and Louis spends a full two minutes poking Harry in tender places to reproduce the sound.
“You two all right then?” Louis jumps and Harry squeaks (Louis’ sure he hit a high C with that one) when Niall pokes his head into the room.
“Where’d you come from?” Harry blinks at Niall.
“What? Just now?”
“Pretty much.” Niall wanders into the room and wedges himself between Louis and Harry. “I knocked but…” he trails off.
“I guess we didn’t hear you.”
Niall snorts and leans back against the cushions, stretching his feet up onto the coffee table. “So what’s shakin’, bacon? What’s the haps? The sitch? What’s the 411?”
“Heathen.” Louis knocks Niall’s feet off the table.
“We’re trying to get Louis laid.”
“What? That’s not…” Louis sputters.
“Oh, is this about the Liam thing?” Niall gets up and wanders over to the kitchen, leaving Harry and Louis to sit, slack-jawed, on the couch as he rummages through the fridge, emerging triumphantly with an apple.
“What? It’s not like it’s not completely obvious. You only stare at him every time he opens his mouth. Zayn owes me a tenner, by the way.”
“Zayn, Paul, the roadies, Sheeran, El, Ann and Jay…”
“My mother knows?”
“I know you’re a delicate little princess and all but you’re also about as subtle as a Michael Bay movie. Everybody knows.”
“Everybody except for Liam.” Niall pulls out his phone and starts tapping away at it. “He is apparently the only person in England more oblivious than you.”
Niall’s phone beeps and he grins as he reads the message.
“Zayn’s on his way,” he says, then takes a bite from his apple.
“So tell me boys,” he says, mouth full of fruit, “what’s the plan?”
* * *
“Operation: Kissing Liam” doesn’t sound any more impressive after being worked on by three idiots than it did under the direction of one. Louis is pretty sure that no one should really be this invested in his love life other than himself and the person he intends to kiss, but there you are.
“Maybe we should lock them in a room together. That always works in the movies,” Niall is saying.
“Nah, there’s no emotional stakes there. It needs to be something really dramatic, like a car accident or a deathly illness or something. Then, when Liam hears Louis’ in the hospital, he’ll realise his feelings and come rushing to his bedside.”
“You want to hit me with a car?”
“You really need to stop reading your mother’s Mills and Boon’s, Hazzah,” Zayn shakes his head and Louis is so, so grateful for Zayne and his not completey-insane-crazy-pants-ways.
“What we should do is get Louis a crazed stalker. You know how protective Liam gets. And danger is like the best aphrodisiac.”
Louis is forced to re-evaluate his opinion or Zayn. Zayn is, in fact, crazier than the rest of them.
Louis is pretty sure he is completely screwed.
* * *
Eventually, the boys calm down. They order in pizza and sprawl out in front of the tv, deciding to let 80’s movies solve their problem for them; after all, if it was good enough for their parents it should be good enough for Louis. They’re trying to figure out where exactly Louis can get a boombox and trenchcoat when he’s decides he’s had enough.
“I’m going out for a bit.”
Harry looks up from where he’s sprawled across Niall and Zayn’s laps.
“You alright, Lou?”
“Yah. No. I’m fine. No worries. I just feel like a bit of a walk,” he says.
“You sure?” Harry’s voice is hinting at concern, and Niall and Zayn are looking at him with careful eyes and Louis is so, so lucky to have these people in his life he doesn’t even know what he’d do if he lost this. And there it is. That fear and doubt that sits so cold and heavy in his stomach. It’s a return to the certainty that this is a bad idea. His mouth twists up and he knows it must look a little pathetic but it’s the best he can do.
“I’m good,” he says as he turns to leave. He’s pretty sure no one believes him.
* * *
Louis loves London. The thing about London is you can pull on a hat and some sunglasses and no one will look twice at you. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is watching him and usually that’s ok because Louis does love an audience, but not all the time. London lets him turn off. Kind of like Liam. Liam has this quality, and it’s amazing really, almost like a super power. Liam can just sit there and just be and it’s a bit like coming up from underwater. It’s like, when Liam is next to him Louis can suddenly see and hear everything so clearly and he can breathe and it’s good. And it’s not that he doesn’t have that sort of thing with anyone else. He loves Niall and Zayn fiercely and Harry, well he loves Harry like he’s a part of his goddamn body and he doesn’t think that’s ever going to change no matter what. Liam, though. Liam. Louis doesn’t know how to quantify what he feels for Liam. He can’t say he’s in love. What does he know about “in love” other than that it hardly ever works out. He knows he wants to be near Liam, to hear his thoughts and opinions and sometimes just his voice, because really, Liam singing is just about the best thing and Liam singing when he thinks no one can hear him, old classics, his voice breaking when he tries to growl like Jagger or that one night when he thought everyone was asleep on the bus and he sang the entirety of Blackbird and the note at the end was flat and he laughed and Louis had to bury his face in his pillow because Liam…Liam.
Louis wants to bury his head in his pillow now. This shouldn’t have to be a choice. He shouldn’t have to choose between what he has and what he wants. And it’s really not fair because he didn’t even now he wanted it until today but now he can’t unwant it. Love sucks.
* * *
Louis finds himself at a park. It’s gotten late, the sun’s long gone but it’s one of those balmy kind of nights that Londoner’s love and there are still plenty of people around, couples mostly, because the world is like that and likes to kick Louis when he’s down. His phone buzzes and when he looks down there’s a message from Harry asking where he is. Louis texts him back, says he’s fine, he’s at the park down the street and he’ll be home in a bit.
The playground is empty and Louis sits down at a swing and drifts lazily back and forth. He tilts his head back and closes his eyes and imagines he can see the stars overhead. Once, at Harry’s step dad’s place, they’d all gone out in the field late at night and tried to find the constellations. It was complete rubbish because none of them actually knew any constellations and Niall stepped in a cow pie and Zayne somehow got burrs in his hair and Louis wrenched his ankle jumping off the fence, but he still remembers that big, open feeling, standing there with his head tipped back, Harry on one side and Liam on the other and feeling just all the possibilities.
You can’t see the stars in London, but they’re still there.
There’s a crunch of gravel to Louis’ left and when he opens his eyes it’s to see Liam, smiling softly and holding out an ice cream cone. It’s strawberry. Louis’ not even surprised.
“I thought you were hanging out with the family this week?” Louis says because if he doesn’t say something he’s probably going to just launch himself at Liam and damn the consequences.
“Zayn texted me. He didn’t use the word crisis but it was heavily implied.” Liam smiles but Louis can see it doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Oh.” Louis takes a lick of ice cream and carefully begins to plot his revenge. It will involve karaoke and the internet. Zayn should weep in fear.
“Yah, I’m ok. I guess I just had some things to figure out.”
“How’s that going for you?”
Louis smiles and he knows it’s sad and pathetic but what’s he going to say? I think I love you but I can’t have you even though I can’t think of any reasons why not right now because you’re sitting next to me and I can’t really think of anything other than what it would feel like to push you up against that tree over there and rub against you until we both come and ohgodohgod he must stop thinking about this before he does something he’s going to regret.
He must have made some kind of sound because Liam reaches out and covers his hand, slowing Louis’ swing to a standstill.
“It’s just…have you ever wanted something you didn’t know you wanted…I mean, you want it so much it kind of twists up inside you but if you get it, if you take it, it could change everything…like really everything and I mean, life is good but it could be incredible but then again it could just be a huge mess and you’d lose what you have now and what you have now is really great and I already said that but…” Liam is looking at Louis, wide eyed and a little confused and really, Louis can’t blame him.
Liam turns forward and pushes himself back, letting the momentum swing him lightly back and forth for a minute while Louis finishes his ice cream. When he’s done, Liam drags his toes against the ground, twisting to a stop.
“Here’s what I think,” he says, and he’s not looking at Louis at all, he’s facing forward, looking off into the middle distance like this is some kind of bad rom-com and Louis really wishes it was because then he’d know for sure that this would have a happy ending and the hero would get his kiss, or at least there’d be some kind of point other than slow emotional torture.
Liam’s talking and Louis forces himself to focus.
“Every good thing in my life I have because I took a chance. And I think it’s the same for you. We didn’t get here by playing things safe. You’re brave, Louis. You’re the bravest person I know. If you want something, if you think it’s going to make you happy, if it even has the smallest chance of bringing you joy, you should go for it.” Liam turns to look directly at Louis, and oh, there’s that earnestness that makes Louis’ heart stutter (and he can actually feel it thumpthumpthumping against his chest).
“You deserve this, Louis.”
Louis looks at Liam, at the way his hair is too shaggy and he needs a haircut and his eyebrows are kind of crinkling together and the patch of fuzz at the bottom of his jaw because he can’t shave evenly to save his life and Louis thinks 'fuck it'.
He puts his hand against Liam’s cheek and rubs his thumb slowly across the line of his jaw. He moves forward until he can feel Liam’s breath, hot against his lips, leans his forehead gently against Liam’s.
“I’m going to kiss you,” he says and his hands are steady and his voice is smooth and he’s not worried at all because Liam is leaning into him, Liam is pulling him closer and tilting his head and pretty much filling up his entire world right now and Louis knows that this could still end in disaster but Liam is absolutely worth it.