When Liam sets his suitcase down inside his parents foyer and feels a sharp pinch right in the space between his eyebrows, he puts it down the the stress of traveling. He's just off two flights: one to Wolverhampton and one from Australia immediately before that. He says hello to his mum and dad and then goes to his room to have a bit of a lie-down. When he wakes up two hours later, it's nearly dark and he can hear the low hum of a program from the living room and the dull ache behind his eyes has grown steadier. Liam reasons that it's after-effects of touring creeping up on him; he's still a little jet-lagged and lacking in proper nutrition. He washes his face in the bathroom and swallows down two aspirin with a palmful of water before going to the kitchen to rummage for a snack.
Liam has to work a little harder to tamp down his worry the next morning when he blinks his eyes open and the sun slanting through the window immediately sends a horrible jolt of pain straight to what feels like the center of his brain. He rolls onto his side and then out of bed. Liam heads into the kitchen, running a hand through his hair, and his stomach rolls at the smell of eggs cooking. His mom must see him go pale, because she says, "Liam," questioningly, and puts a cool hand to his forehead.
Liam says, "I'm alright mum," and pours himself a glass of juice from the fridge. He tries to eat the plate of scrambled eggs and toast that his mom puts in front of him, but it's hard when the smell makes him nauseous. Focusing on the conversation his parents are having is even more difficult; he keeps losing the thread when another pain shoots through his head and down his spine. Liam excuses himself from the table when he's finished his toast and thinks that maybe all he needs is some fresh air and vitamin D. He gingerly changes into a pair of basketball shorts and a t-shirt, and leaves through the front door, calling to his parents that he's going out for a bit.
Liam thinks it might be time to worry when he steps outside and the pavement of the driveway seems to ripple in front of him, the movement causing him to heave up his breakfast into the flower bed that his dad planted right outside the door. He realizes he must have fainted when, the next time he opens his eyes, he's lying on the couch in the semi-darkness with the shades drawn and he can hear his mum and dad talking in hushed tones in the dining room about whether or not they should bother the other boys and warn them about the bug Liam seems to have caught. Liam tries to sit up and another wave of pain spreads from his skull down his body and he pulls his knees to his chest to try and ride it out. He must make a noise because his parents both get quiet, and then Liam hears footsteps approach the sofa and his dad bends down into his line of sight.
"Liam, are you doing okay?" he asks, and Liam just shakes his head, wincing when this makes his brain feel like it's rolling loose around inside his skull and causes more nausea to spike its way from his belly to his throat.
His dad looks concerned, "Here, let's try. Let's get you to your room."
He hitches an arm under Liam's shoulders and asks, "Do you think you can walk?"
Liam forces himself to nod, because he is too old to be carried to his room, especially over something like a headache, and he swings his legs over the side of the couch, lifting his head cautiously and resisting the urge to double over when the act makes bile rush to his throat. He stands and, together, he and his dad hobble to his room.
Liam's too sick to feel embarrassed when his dad helps him into bed and tucks the blanket around his chest, laying a hand on his shoulder when he comes back to Liam's room with a glass of water and two tabs of paracetamol. Liam smiles at his dad, but he can tell how weak it is, and he swallows both the pills down.
He wakes up in the middle of the night from the force of a headache that has doubled down on him, and he is already sick of the way that even rolling over makes him feel like he's about to throw up. Liam's phone lights up on the bedside, buzzing faintly, and he thinks one of his parents must have brought it in from where he dropped it in the driveway earlier.
It's a text from Louis, mate do you feel as shit as i do now, think my heads bout to explode.
He types back a ya, the screen wavering in front of him, and then throws his arm over his face to block out the backlight of the phone screen as he waits for Louis to respond.
The phone vibrates a couple of minutes later, Louis saying, harrys sick too, and then, niall just txtd, says hes been thrown up since he got off the plane, and once more, have u talked to zayn. Liam texts back a no as his heart sinks.
He's been home all of a day and he has the suspicion he already has to head back to London.
- - - -
Liam doesn't think his parents entirely understand when he tries to explain that he needs to go back to London and he knows they're worried about letting him travel by himself, circumstances being what they are, but they drive him to the airport and let him go with minimal fuss. He hugs them both, kissing his mother on the cheek, and promises to call when he lands. Liam falls asleep on the plane, head pounding, and he wakes up still completely drained when they touch down at Heathrow.
There's a car waiting to deliver him to the block where all their flats are located, and Liam thinks he's imagining it when the pounding in his head starts dulling the closer they get to the edge of the city. When they pull up to the curb, Liam waves off the driver's offer to help him with his single suitcase and thanks him politely, before hurrying into the building. He gets into the elevator and presses the button for the twelfth floor without even thinking about it.
- - - -
Zayn looks pale and drawn when he opens the door to Harry and Louis' flat, and, when Liam pulls him into a hug, he smells like he's been chain-smoking since he got off the plane in London. Liam hardly notices because the second he drops his suitcase and gets a hand around the back of Zayn's neck and Zayn's arms come up around his waist, it's like cool water running up his spine, and he almost goes limp with how exhausted he is all of a sudden. Liam thinks Zayn must feel it too, because he's clinging to Liam fiercely like he actually can't let go.
- - - -
Niall's the last one to arrive: it's the wrong side of midnight when Liam hears a key slide into the lock and the front door snick quietly open and then closed. Niall steps into the living room still clutching his suitcase, his eyes red, and all the heads in the room turn to face him. Liam can almost physically see the relief crash over him, the same way it's hitting Liam himself now, and Niall's eyes close briefly, just time enough for the boys to scramble up and pile on him in a hug. Niall grabs onto their arms and Liam feels Louis face go into his neck and they are a big mess of limbs (he thinks that's Harry's leg trying to hook around the back of his knee) but it doesn't matter because Liam feels better and he can tell they all do too, even if he doesn't know yet why.
- - - -
Liam realizes it was a mistake for them to try sleeping in their own flats that night when his headache flares back up at nearly three in the morning, making him jolt upright and clutch at his forehead. He hears a tap at his door, almost light enough that he thinks he's imagined it, but it comes again a second later. Liam struggles out from under the blankets, fighting down the wave of nausea that almost seems to be second nature to him now, and flips on the hallway light before looking through the peephole. It's Niall, looking pale in the fluorescents and Liam's fishbowl view, and Liam opens the door immediately. Zayn's slouching against the wall opposite in his sweatpants and Liam's starting to think it can't be a coincidence the way his headache fades to a dull murmur when Niall touches his wrist.
- - - -
Liam imagines they must make quite a spectacle, banging on the door at half three in the morning, their arms piled high with blankets and pillows because they didn't trust Louis and Harry to have enough. When Harry pulls the door open, his hair's a mess and he's rubbing sleep out of his eyes, but he's also got this look like he understands.
"Come on, we're in Louis' room."
Harry gestures for them to follow him down the hall, and then stops.
"We should grab my mattress," he says thoughtfully, "I'm not sure we can all fit in Louis' bed."
"Liam, go," Harry waves in the general direction of Louis' room, and then jerks his head at Niall and Zayn, leads them to his room.
Louis looks up when Liam comes in, says, "hey, you can just put those on that chair," and then tells Liam to take the other corner of the mattress.
They've just finished pulling it off the bed and are trying to get it into the corner of the room when Harry, Zayn, and Niall come in, panting and pushing Harry's queen sized mattress through Louis' admittedly narrow door. Harry backs into Louis, almost surely on purpose, and Louis slaps him on the back of the head laughingly, before he and Liam help them butt Harry's mattress against the edge of Louis' and the wall. Louis spreads one of the bigger quilts out over the mattresses, purely out of routine, and then they haphazardly pile onto the beds, making a nest out of their blankets. Liam feels the tension drain out of him as Zayn tucks into his left side and Niall into his right, Harry pressed between Niall and Louis. Louis' arm is draped over Harry, his hand resting on Niall's hip, and Zayn's arm is wrapped around Liam's middle, halfway trapped under Niall. Liam spares a moment to consider that they're going to have to figure out what exactly is happening in the morning before he falls asleep.
- - - -
When Liam wakes up again the sun is nearly at the noon position, and Zayn's face is pushed into his neck, Niall drooling right into his shoulder where the collar of his t-shirt has slipped down. He thinks he should be upset but mostly he's glad that the headache is barely a whisper lurking in the back of his skull and he's not nauseous at all. Liam lays still for a minute, until Niall kicks him right in the knee while he tries to flop over on his other side, and then Liam is nudging Harry in the ribs with his knuckles and trying to shake his other arm out from where it's pinned underneath Zayn. Zayn just rolls away from Liam, curling onto his other side, but Harry yawns and pushes the back of his hand across his mouth, before sitting up and dimpling a smile at Liam. Liam smiles back up at him and then he pushes at Niall's shoulder and Harry turns away to nudge Louis awake.
- - - -
Once Louis, Zayn, and Niall are up (Zayn protesting until Harry had pulled the covers away from him and Louis had thrown himself bodily on top off Zayn, knocking all the air out of his lungs in a huff), Liam shepherds them all into the kitchen, handing off glasses of juice and pointedly sitting at the kitchen table.
"So," Liam says, and then pauses, because there's no not-crazy way to say, I think when I'm away from you guys I get violently, physically ill. He closes his mouth and then opens it, tries to start again, "I think. That we need to talk about," Liam attempts a gesture here, circling his hand half-heartedly, "whatever this is that's happening. And solve it. However that is."
Liam slumps back in his seat, takes a sip from his glass, and Harry pipes up, "Well, I mean, what exactly is happening? For me, once I got home I started getting really sick. I couldn't keep anything down and my head felt like it was about to split right in two."
Louis hums next to him, says, "That's what happened for me too. I remember that I texted you and then Liam about it."
Niall chimes in from beside Zayn, "Yeah, I got off the plane in Ireland, thought I'd pass out. My head hurt like nothing I'd felt before. I couldn't stop throwing up once I got home."
Zayn's got his eyes on Niall's face and he's nodding in agreement. They all look to Liam and he sighs, "Yeah, okay. That's what happened for me as well."
Liam rubs his hand across his eyes as he says, "And you all, we all felt better once we were together?" He looks up as he finishes, hopes it's not just him, and he sees Harry bite his lip and look to Louis, who says, "yeah, Liam, it's like, I felt better instantly." And then Harry nods, and Zayn and Niall both look at Liam as they nod too.
Liam takes a deep breath and rolls his head back, cracking his neck, before he says, "Okay, so what do we do about it?"
- - - -
They call their management. Management calls a doctor. The doctor tells them exactly what they had expected: "It's unusual. The only thing I can do is recommend that you all stay as close to each other as possible and hope the situation is temporary. You can attempt, perhaps, trying to create a larger distance between yourselves periodically, see if you can't acclimate your bodies to it, but other than that," he adjusts his glasses, "Any drug I could prescribe you for symptoms such as these would render you all practically catatonic." The doctor spreads his hands wide as if to say, see, there is nothing I can do, "I honestly wish there was more I could do to help."
Liam stands up and shakes the physician's hand as he makes to leave, but all the other boys remain seated, looking at the ground. The doctor lingers briefly and casts the boys one last pitying look as he exits the room.
Liam clears his throat and then claps his hands together once, loud in the still room, "Okay, so are we all moving into Louis and Harry's then? If so, we'll need to go shopping; there's hardly food enough for all of us in the fridge."
- - - -
They learn very quickly that it's all or nothing: if even one of them stays behind the symptoms come raging back, full-on immediately. Liam tries to leave to go grocery shopping with just Niall, thinking that two of them will be less noticeable and this way he can ensure that there's enough to definitively feed all of them. He assigns the others to the task of moving essentials from the other three boys' flats to Harry and Louis', until he and Niall step into the elevator at the end of the hall and Liam feels like he's smacked in the face with pain at the same time as Niall grabs onto his wrist. Liam punches the button to open the elevator door and pulls Niall down the hall by the hand, back to the flat. He feels the headache recede and when he pushes the door open and sees Harry, Louis, and Zayn all standing there, looking stricken, he states the obvious, "Okay, so that's not going to work."
Liam regroups and amends the plan. They attempt to make themselves as inconspicuous as a group of five boys who can't stray too far from each other can be: they all put on beanies and hoodies, which works well enough, as it's still early in the year and there's a chill in the air. Liam insists on making a comprehensive shopping list before they leave, because now that they are all going together, they need to be in and out as quickly as possible. Louis agrees immediately, overruling any objection the others might have, and they wrack their brains to think of everything they'll need for the foreseeable future. It takes nearly three-quarters of an hour but they finally mock up a list they all are at least grudgingly happy with, and that is enough for Liam. They make it to the grocery store and back without any major incidents, unless you count Harry knocking down a whole rack of frozen pizzas when he was trying to pull one out, which Liam chooses not to, because they'd managed to clear that up themselves without drawing attention from anyone besides the older couple filling their buggy with low calorie frozen meals. It's exhausting enough a trip that Liam almost feels too productive to start moving his, Niall, and Zayn's necessities to the flat.
Instead, he sighs and heaves himself off the couch, shouting down the hall that he, Niall, and Zayn are going to need to change their clothes and brush their teeth at some point.
- - - -
Harry and Louis', and now Niall and Liam and Zayn's, becomes almost unbearably dirty in a few days. Liam reckons it was only a matter of time, but he'd honestly wagered that it would take more time than this. Louis is messy naturally, and Harry pretends that he's clean but he's nearly as bad as Louis. Add three more boys into a flat meant for two and restrict them to that space, and everything devolves. Liam knows they are all a little fed up with the fact that they all have to spend their time off practically on top of each other, rather than with their families, but, he thinks, rather unkindly, that they'll just have to make do. Harry's room is a mess of dirty clothes tangled with clean and there are snack wrappers and trash all over the living room from the movie nights they keep having, desperate for anything to distract themselves.
When the rest of boys straggle in to the kitchen over the next half hour, Liam lets them get coffee or tea to wake up, then arms them with cleaning supplies and assigns them to a section of the flat. It's the first nice day in a little while, so once he sends Zayn off with a spray bottle of bleach and some gloves to clean the bathroom, Liam throws open the terrace doors and grabs a trash bag to clear up the living room.
The headache surges up again when they are all in different rooms, but not too horribly, more an unpleasant buzz than anything, and Liam is contented enough spending a good hour cleaning up without the distraction of the other boys. Liam's vacuuming when Harry finishes up in his room and flops down on the couch, shouting at Liam over the rumble of the vacuum that Liam is trying to sweep under his legs, "We are never letting it get that dirty again."
Liam finishes after Zayn, but before Niall and Louis, and when they've finally all filtered in and flopped on the couch, Louis coaxes Harry into making them some grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, which they all eat in front of the television, promptly making a mess of the area Liam just tidied. Squeezed in the middle of them all with the sun shining through the doors that are still flung open, Liam finds he can't be too mad.
- - - -
It's a good thing they are still mostly free, minus the small amount of press they have scheduled, because the distance their bodies will allow them to be apart does the opposite of what the doctor had hoped: it shrinks. They all get better at ignoring the pain, pushing it to the back of their minds and focusing on the task at hand, but it's gotten to the point that they have to be nearly constantly touching at least one of the others or the headaches will return. One of the morning's interviewers, a guy who can't be more than a couple years older than Louis, is sharp-eyed: he notices when Liam, seeing that Niall and Harry are flagging, Harry pinching at his temple and Niall paling, reaches over to wrap a hand around Niall's neck and leans in to tuck his nose behind Harry's ear as if he's just whispering something to him. The guy eyes them then says, not malicious but still invasive, "So Liam, you," he pauses and looks at Liam's hand on Niall's neck, "take care of these guys right? Like, you're the dad of the group."
Liam jerks his head up, a little too surprised, and Louis covers, barks out a loud laugh to pull the guy's attention to him, and he grits out a smile as he says, "That's Liam. Father of the year right here." Louis drapes his arm over Harry's shoulder, taps his foot against Zayn's and holds his smile and eye contact with the interviewer. The interviewer looks away first and he asks his next question (and first official one) as non-threateningly as possible. Liam shoots a grin at Louis as he bumps his knuckles into the base of Louis' neck.
- - - -
"Bit weird, innit."
Niall is curled up on the couch next to Liam so it's easy to hear him over the movie they're all watching, even though his voice is low. It's dark in the living room, the only light that of the flickering television, and Zayn is tucked into the other side of the couch, his knees to his chest and his ankle bumping up against Niall's. Louis' head is leaning against the curve of Liam's knee and Harry is slumped against Louis, his head pushed into Louis' shoulder. Liam hums an even note in response to Niall.
"I mean," Niall removes his hand from where it's tangled in Harry's hair and gestures, "All this."
Niall huffs a laugh, asks, "Do you think this is something that just happens to people?"
Liam can't tell if Niall's upset or if he's making an observation, it's too dark to see his eyes and his tone doesn't give anything away.
Zayn slants a look past Niall to Liam, "Yeah, and why us?"
Harry and Louis both tip their heads up and no one is paying attention to the movie anymore.
Liam smooths a hand over the top of Louis' head, bites his lip, "You guys," he pauses, "You aren't upset about this though, right? I mean, it's not. You're not. I can try to figure something else out." Liam starts when Harry catches his hand where it's tapping a rhythm against his thigh.
"Liam, mate, it's okay. We're going to be fine. You don't need to worry so much," Harry's voice is soothing and Liam feels reassured when the other boys nod at him, Zayn reaching behind Niall to curl a hand around the back of Liam's neck, Niall and Louis both patting his knee. He doesn't know what he would do to fix the situation, the doctor already said there wasn't anything that could be done, but it makes him feel better that everyone seems to be taking it in stride.
- - - -
Despite their talk, Liam knows the pressure of being around each other all the time is getting to them. Liam is feeling the itch of spending every second around the others digging its way under his skin; sometimes he just needs quiet and it's horribly impossible to get that when you are spending twenty-four hours out of the day with four other boys. It's all he can do to keep his irritation from flaring up, so he honestly doesn't know how they've made it this far without anyone throwing a fit, just getting rubbed raw by their constant togetherness and yelling and storming out. Still, when it actually happens, it takes Liam completely by surprise, because it's Zayn. He'd have guessed Harry or Louis before Zayn, even Niall. Liam can see the ways it's been affecting each of them pretty clearly: Louis and Harry are picking at each other, unable to escape for long enough to cool down because when they do the headache springs back up and that does nothing but make everything seem worse; Louis is snapping at everyone more, letting tiny things get under his skin and niggle there until he gets fed up; Harry shuts down in the middle of things when he gets mad, he just fakes a smile and then stops contributing to the flow of the conversation; Niall seems least affected, just because he lets things roll off his back more often than not, but even still he's less cheerful, finds things less genuinely funny than usual. So, yeah, compared to that, Liam had thought Zayn was doing fine.
He'd been quieter than was normal, and Liam had noticed but he'd assumed that Zayn was hurting more, that they hadn't been paying him enough attention and his headaches were coming back and he was just avoiding saying something. And Liam had tried to help, he stroked a hand bracingly down Zayn's spine whenever he passed him, sent Niall over to pull Zayn into a cuddle when he was sitting off by himself, suggested that Louis or Harry go tackle him when he was laying on the floor fiddling with his phone. Liam failed to see the way Zayn flinched away when he was touched, glowering in the direction of anyone who came near him and disappearing to smoke whenever he could, coming back reeking of tobacco like he thought it might keep the others away.
When Liam passes Zayn on his way to the kitchen and reaches out to grip his hip for a second, Zayn bats his hand away, hard, and snaps, low and mean, "I don't need you fucking touching me all the time okay." And Liam just gapes, as Zayn glares at him with this defiant edge, and Louis, with his sixth sense for any sort of tension, pops his head over the back of the sofa and says, "Everything all right in there?"
Zayn keeps scowling, crossing his arms over his chest, and, when Liam doesn't respond, Louis untangles himself from Harry and Niall and makes for the kitchen, approaching Zayn with a hand already out. Zayn jerks back when Louis gets too close, tells him outright, "I didn't mean just Liam. I don't need you to do it either."
Louis looks non-plussed, skates his eyes to Liam, who shoots a look over his shoulder to where Niall and Harry are huddled in the curve of the arch to the kitchen. They look equally confused and all this seems to enrage Zayn even more, because he raises his voice as much as he ever does, almost shouts, "I'm fucking tired of having hands on me all the time! I'd rather have the headache at this point! Just. Stop. Leave me alone."
He storms out as he says the last part, and logically, Liam knows one of them needs to go after him, before he gets too far and the pain overwhelms him, before it hits them all, but Liam also knows that isn't what Zayn wants. And he's having a really hard time figuring out the right thing to do here.
- - - -
Liam chickens out and sends Niall. Zayn has a hard time being mean to Niall on a normal day, his protective instincts kicking in, and Liam is praying that holds true right now. Liam puts it off for as long as he can, until things start moving whenever he does and he knows it must be getting to be too much for all of them. Niall staggers out the door, gripping the frame for a second to center himself, and then walks out into the hallway.
Liam looks over to where Harry and Louis are draped over one another in the corner, whispering at each other, and Harry meets his eyes, beckoning him over. Liam moves to them, slumping down with his head on Harry's belly, bites his thumbnail, and waits for Niall and Zayn to come back.
- - - -
They do. It takes nearly ten minutes, at which point Liam honestly feels like he might faint if he moves and the only thing grounding him is Louis' hand wrapped tight around his forearm. Louis sits up abruptly when the door opens, knocking Harry and then Liam forward like dominos, but it's worth it for the way the Liam's headache starts to disappear the second Zayn and Niall step inside, and his nausea goes away completely when he jumps up and they both wrap him in a hug. Zayn is hesitant, and a little sheepish, but Louis and Harry hug him the second Liam and Niall let go, and Louis laughs it off, ruffling a hand over Zayn's hair, saying, "I understand mate, we've all been cooped up together too long."
Liam smiles at Zayn as he helps Harry make dinner that night, and he doesn't force Zayn to make the first move to touch him, but he is a little more careful. Liam thinks that the way Zayn's smile seems more genuine now means he appreciates it.
- - - -
Liam wakes up on Wednesday of the following week and gently untangles himself from the pile of Niall and Zayn he is being smothered by to go to the bathroom. He uses the toilet and then washes his hands, splashes his face with water and tries to wipe away the crust that is around his eyes. Liam would suspect he was getting sick if his head wasn't so clear. He makes a move to dry his hands and then thinks that over again. Liam doesn't have a headache. He moves a hand in front of his face and it doesn't send the room spinning. He turns the light on the bathroom and it doesn't shoot pain like a steel spike into his brain. It's over, Liam thinks, a little dazedly. He catches himself by surprise, shouting excitedly and surely waking the boys who are asleep just in the other room but he doesn't care. Because it's over.
Liam runs into the other room, diving into the blanket nest where they boys are starting to rouse and shaking their shoulders, saying, again and again, "It's over! You guys, it's over!"
First they look irritated, and then confused, and Louis is the first one to get it, because his eyes light up and he goes, hushed, like he can't quite believe it, "Wait. Wait. Liam. It's over?"
And then the others catch on and they're all bouncing around and into each other until it devolves into a sloppy group hug, their arms tangled with each others and Liam just hangs on for a second until Harry bursts out, "Wait, we should test it!"
He and Niall immediately race for the front door, fumbling it open and falling out into the hallway, heading straight for the lifts. Liam and Louis leap up after them, while Zayn follows more slowly, and they watch as Harry takes one lift, Niall the other, Harry punching his button to head for the ground floor and Niall, by some sort of unspoken agreement, for the top floor. Liam watches the numbers at the top tick further away from each other, and revels in the pleasant lack of anything occupying his brain besides his own thoughts.
Zayn heads for his flat to grab fresh clothes, Liam can see him taking the stairs two at a time before the door swings closed, and Louis goes back into his own to take a shower and get changed.
Liam watches the numbers move back towards each other, Harry's elevator just a touch ahead of Niall's, and follows Louis in to make everybody some breakfast.
- - - -
Liam figures out that it's going to take them awhile to get back to sleeping alone when it's eleven at night and they all end up in Louis' room, snuggled up against each other under the blankets. Liam wonders if he should say something.
"Guys, I dont think," fingers smack somewhere in the region of Liam's mouth and he stops.
"Shhh," comes from Louis, Liam suspects, "We're trying to sleep."
The fingers grope up over Liam's face, perilously close to his eyeballs, and Liam grabs for the hand, lacing his fingers through the ones he's now sure are Louis'. He lets their hands fall, linked, so they're resting on Harry between them. Liam closes his eyes and thinks that he's glad this isn't something they'll have to try and solve in the morning.