When it finally happened, it was even worse than Liam had feared.
He'd been arguing against it from the beginning, under the guise that it would be too complicated to have a Jaeger controlled by five people at once. He could keep working with them on the ground, help them train together so that when they were actually in battle, it would all be fine.
That argument had been shot down in approximately five seconds, Niall saying, "But who's going to control the tail if you're not there. It's four arms plus the tail, it was built for us." Louis looked faintly mutinous, Zayn appeared pensive, and Harry was clearly two seconds away from crying at the very thought.
This was the problem with having a former movie star in your section of the PPDC; his emotions were always right on the surface, ready to be deployed.
(Harry insisted he never used his acting skills with them. "I left that behind when I joined up," he said quite seriously when he met them. It was true he was one of the first major stars to give up the security and safety of being famous to support the war effort directly, so Liam didn't like to doubt him. But he didn't know why someone like Harry would bother with him at all, so.)
The overall design of their Jaeger was another concern. It was one thing to have a three-armed robot designed for triplets to pilot together; it would be foolish not to use their inherent connection to command a complex Jaeger. That at least made sense. But Liam had no idea what General Cowell had seen in the five of them in training. They had seemed like a terrible combination to him, honestly. Liam didn't know why they were all going so easy on him, pulling out moves he always knew the counter for. He'd watched them spar with others, saw the way no one could handle the four of them, and it stung, a bit, that they didn't think he could take it from them. Liam couldn't look away from any of the four of them, their grace and beauty in complete contrast with his own workmanlike efforts, he was sure.
But he tried to get better, practicing each move over and over again. Only Harry and Niall would willingly do more drills with him after hours, and even then their successful methods of attack looked nothing like what Liam spent hours working on each night. Zayn was quietly brilliant, luring his opponent in on the offensive until he suddenly lashed out with a mesmerising counterattack that disarmed them before they knew what had happened. All of them made it look so easy, like they were born to do it, bodies shining with sweat. Even Louis had a style all his own, his movements so fluid Liam felt he could watch him forever.
It was a miracle Liam and Louis had never actually come to blows with each other in the early days of training, the other three constantly running interference between them. It had driven Liam insane, the way Louis would never seem to try at anything, constantly joking and goofing off, as if he didn't realise there was a war on and they were preparing to be in the front lines. But anyone who underestimated him would be shown the error of their ways, in the lightening strike and speed of his attack lying in wait for his opponent once they let their guard down. And he was vicious in defense of his own, as the pilots of another Jaeger discovered when they attempted to mock Harry for his past career.
The boot on Max's throat after Louis had disarmed him in a particularly humiliating fashion was possibly overkill, but Liam didn't judge him for it at all.
Still, even after they had learned to work together, Liam couldn't imagine that someone had actually found a way to create a Jaeger for all five of them. Surely three or possibly four of them would go out there together, and Liam could provide ground support.
Zayn had blinked at him slowly when he voiced this opinion. "But the whole point is to be together in the drift," he said.
"Not the whole point," Liam said, sneaking a look at the other lads, who all looked just as sceptical. "Just part of it."
"But what if you not being with us affects our combat readiness?" Louis asked, which was just not a fair thing to say at all. "Best not risk it," Louis continued, looking like he knew he'd already won.
"Not risk what?" Pentecost asked, and oh god, Liam hadn't even heard him come up behind them. He really was distracted.
"Liam thinks he might just stay on the ground," Niall said immediately, mouthing what? when Liam shot him a look of betrayal.
"What's this about, Payne," Pentecost said, turning to him.
"Nothing, sir, I just thought that perhaps the best asset I could be to the team would be outside the Jaeger, instead of—"
"And deprive them of your combat skill? Wouldn't dream of it. You'll be going out there tomorrow at 0800 hours," he said. "Georgia Rose was built for you five, and so there will be five of you up there." His face softened a bit. "I know a drift compatible team when I see one, Liam. You'll be fine."
Liam swallowed and nodded. That couldn't possibly be true, but apparently no one would believe him without seeing it for themselves.
The first moment when the five of them connected was overwhelming, an immediate sense of home and love and comfort flowing through his body. He felt, suddenly, like he had spent his entire life up to this moment unbearably and intrinsically alone, only he had never known it. Now he did, with four other voices and emotions and memories in his mind, and he was free like he'd never been before.
That euphoria lasted for a minute or two or maybe even longer—it was impossible to tell in the drift—the joy they all felt by moving in synergy intoxicating, each of them laughing out loud as they thought and acted as one. But then between one moment and the next they fell deeper with a jolt, like they had all missed a step on a staircase, and Liam knew they were going to see it all, see the humiliation and the shame and the bone-deep certainty that he was going to fail and let his family down, let the entire planet down, because he'd never be good enough. He wasn't good enough as a child, just the thought enough to drop him in the middle of the first time he got beat up on the way home from school, his efforts to hide his injuries from his family and his guilt sharp in his ribs.
It kept coming at him, the shame and fear that was just barely covered by his eventual strength and skill, like a clean plaster stretched over a wound full of decay and rot. He couldn't breathe, couldn't focus on controlling Georgia Rose at all. And then he blinked out of his own memory and into something completely unknown, a house burning in the distance and a small version of Zayn shivering in the street, holding two small girls to him and staring at the flames. There was no thought at all beyond getting Zayn out of there, pulling him back to the present, but they couldn't get there yet, first whipping through to Niall's home, the look on his father's face when both of his sons told him they were volunteering, the heartbreak and pride and fear warring with each other there, over to Louis not crying, never crying, when his dad left, left him and his mum and his sisters, and Louis didn't know why, what he had done wrong, what kind of a son he had needed to be to stop his dad from leaving.
Harry's fear was like a slap in the face, the certainty that the only reason he was here at all was his fame, his pretty face, and that they'd see the emptiness beneath soon enough. His uncertainty felt like an abyss Liam was terrified of falling into, of letting the others tumble in after him, and he didn't know how, didn't know what the fuck he was doing, but it was like reaching out with his mind, each thread of control so fragile he could almost hear them fraying, and wrapping around Harry and Louis and Niall and Zayn, weaving himself inside of each of them, letting them knit him up too. They were in sync again suddenly, their movements and thoughts and feelings flowing and easy, and Liam let the joy bubble up again for a moment, let himself feel it for one final second before everything would change again.
Because he could see now the damage they had done, a smoldering pile of rubble in the Shatterdome, and he only hoped it wasn't even worse than it looked. He couldn't believe he had followed the rabbit like that, had pulled all of them down with him, and this was the result. The idea that they might have harmed or even killed someone, that his weakness could have caused that, made him want to throw up, the bile sharp and bitter at the back of his throat. He heard Pentecost addressing them, telling them to undock and report to him, but as soon as they disconnected all he could say was, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," over and over again. Even out of the drift he was sure he could feel their disbelief and the judgment that would follow, so he ran off before they could stop him. He had been forced to show them the pathetic waste he truly was in the drift, but that didn't mean he should let himself cry in front of them now. He could be better than that, at least.
Liam thought he might feel better once he was back in the barracks by himself, just pacing back and forth in his tiny little room, fists clenched. But all he could do was try to tell himself that it would be okay, that he could learn how to be alone and not mind it again. He had spent the first two decades of his life alone, he could do it again. When there was a knock on the door, he shouted, "Go away!" as loud as he could, unable to see anyone. He was past caring.
Or at least he thought so until he heard Pentecost say, "I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that, Payne." As much as he had already ruined everything for himself, he didn't actually want to let Pentecost down. He took a chance on Liam in the first place, and he wouldn't repay him with insubordination now.
Taking a deep breath, he opened the door to him, about to apologise and explain that he didn't expect to be piloting Georgia Rose with the rest of the lads, he knew he had blown it, but he was ready to do whatever he needed to make sure they were combat ready. But his apology came up short when he saw the four of them standing behind Pentecost, staring up at Liam's face. There were tears in Zayn's eyes and snot already dripping from Harry's nose, and Louis and Niall just looked fiercely, uncharacteristically angry.
It was even worse than Liam had realised. He knew they wouldn't want anything to do with him after the drift, but he hadn't known they would be angry at him. Disappointment he'd expected, but this was much, much worse. He should have thought it through, and just told them, and dealt with it that way. "I'm so sorry—"
"Just shut up," Louis said, his voice cracking a bit. Liam did, dropping his outstretched hand down to his side, Louis's anger even worse than he'd known it could be. "How stupid can you be, really?"
"Louis," Zayn said, a warning there.
"No, I won't stop, since he obviously doesn't get it, doesn't know we'd be nowhere without him," Louis continued on.
Liam blinked back the sudden tears that filled his eyes. "Lou?"
"He's right," Niall said, clearing his throat. "We'd still be following the rabbit if you hadn't pulled us back."
"And then you just ran off," Louis said, sounding so broken that Liam couldn't choke back his tears any longer.
"Like we wouldn't come after you," Harry said softly, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. "Like that wasn't the first thing we'd do."
It was a start when Pentecost spoke, Liam's focus so intent on the four of them. "And now you've found him, and I think I'd better get Georgia Rose ready for your next training together. For all of you," he added, staring straight at Liam. "You understand me?"
Liam nodded, not trusting himself to speak, his hands clasped together in front of him to keep from shaking. He barely registered Pentecost leaving, the sound of his boots on the walkway matching the beating of his heart.
"I thought you'd—you'd all see who I really was, once we'd drifted, and not want me there anymore," Harry said suddenly.
"Me as well," Niall said, and Liam stared as Zayn raised his hand and Louis nodded.
"But. You're all amazing," Liam said finally. "How could any of you not know that?"
He startled, glancing down at where Louis had managed to slip his own hand into Liam's, fingers wet and a little clammy. "Same way you didn't, I guess," Louis said softly, squeezing a little. And for once, Liam thought it might all actually be okay.
That evening they all slept in a pile together on the floor of Liam's quarters for the first time, blankets and pillows and regulation hoodies providing the only cushion they needed beyond each other. Liam felt his body drifting into all of the others' just like his mind had done, so natural and instinctive it would have hurt to pull away. So he didn't.
After that night, each drift made it harder to ignore the truth of how they saw him, his greatest flaws shining out like they were something to be proud of, instead of something to hide. It was Zayn who nudged him in the second drift with a glimpse of how he saw Liam physically, the admiration and raw desire under the surface there, echoed by Louis and Harry and Niall in waves. The knowledge was so abrupt and undeniable that Liam suddenly knew they must all sense his own feelings just as clearly.
When they came out of the drift it was a struggle to keep his hands off them long enough to make it back to his quarters. It was a close call, but they managed to get the door closed and locked before Liam tugged Zayn in for a kiss, hands already shaky and grappling with his uniform.
That entire first time was a blur. All Liam knew was that he was surrounded by each of them even as he tried to hold them, hands and legs and mouth reaching out to touch them all. It could have been Louis's teeth sharp on his neck, or Harry's hands stroking his cock, or Niall's tongue flicking over his nipple, or Zayn's mouth still on his, that made him come. He couldn't separate out any one of them from the others. It was all of them, and he gave it back to each one, pressing his love into their bodies with every touch.
Lying there together afterward, sweat and come slick between their naked bodies, felt almost as intimate as being in the drift. It would hold them together each night until they could be there again, a stopgap solution for their need.
* * *
"Hey what does that lever do—"
"It's a laser. A laser. Pretty sure it's a laser. Manual said it's a laser."
There was a loud explosion. "Hey guys, that was a laser!"
After that particular drift, it was agreed that perhaps the controls should be reconfigured so only Zayn could operate that particular lever.
Despite the growing pains of blending their styles into one, every subsequent training whirled them closer together, Liam no longer sure where he stopped and each of the other four began. Everyone on earth had been living a life divided into a Before and an After since the first attack, but now Liam had a more important demarcation in his life. Before meant when he was alone and desperate without ever truly knowing why. And After was being home like he'd never imagined possible, hooked into Georgia Rose, so open and whole it was almost unbearable, the sweet pleasure and satisfaction so acute and sharp he felt like it would cut him down to the bone.
And then Niall would nudge him with his mind, Louis smiling inside him somehow, and he welcomed it, sending his love out in turn to Zayn and then Harry, completing the circuit.
He knew the truth at the centre of his world as clearly as he knew his own name: he would kill for each of these boys, and he would gladly die for them, too. One hundred and thirty-eight days since the last attack, according to the news reports. They would wait, and prepare, and they would be ready. All of them.