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Butterfly Gun

Chapter Text

Prologue

1946

Harry stepped off the train and straight into the world’s largest puddle.

It was wide and shockingly deep; all grimy, oil-slick water that shimmered dully with the reflection of a grey sky. Disgusting. He hissed as it crept up his trousers and pooled in his left shoe, and again when thunder cackled overhead, mocking his misfortune.

Lovely. What an auspicious start.

Any other day, he would have had a laugh at his own expense, but there was no humour in the tense line of his mouth. He shook his foot off and moved out of the way, taking refuge by the stone walls of the station office and staring around the rain-splattered platform with a lump in his throat and a chill creeping down his neck.

Passengers were still funneling out of the train. They threw up umbrellas, obscuring their faces as they clicked over stone pavers. Nearby, the signpost had been reduced to a soggy and vaguely familiar streak of words on splintered wood. The familiarity sent ghosts flitting into Harry's mind: short legs and travelling cases and a lamp-lit platform at night. It was almost too much to handle, the way nostalgia reached up with spectral fingers and pulled him under.

For a moment, he let himself drown.

Then, he slid a hand into his pocket and extracted the slip of paper that had been a semi-permanent fixture there for six years. It was soft and yielding between his fingers, worn through in the centre from being folded in four. Harry pressed it into his fist and shut his eyes.

When he opened them, the world was still moving. There was rain seeping into his coat. The platform was emptying and he was in danger of being left there on his own without a plan of action.

Breathe, for god’s sake.

He drew in a ragged breath of air. It was thick with the smell of rain and steam engines, all earth and water and coal. Squaring his shoulders, he filtered it back out through his nose, and then he was off to cross the platform and catch the attention of a passing stranger. "Excuse me. Sorry, do you know where I might find a cab?”

The man turned, squinting from under a dark umbrella. "Won’t find a cab round here, lad. Where're you headed?"

"Tomlinson Farm? Just on the outskirts of—"

"Know the place, aye. Own the bicycle shop just down the road, ‘s matter of fact."

There was a spark in Harry’s veins. He took a closer look at the stranger’s deepset eyes and the gentle line of his mouth and… for the love of God, it was him. "Mr. Payne," he said, and it was more a dumbfounded expression of shock than anything.

The man startled. “Forgive me, do I know you?"

For a second, they hung in a hazy bubble of the past, staring at one another with identically searching gazes.

"Harry Styles," Harry finally said, offering a hand. "I think I used to know your son."

"Ah, mate of Liam’s, are you?” Mr. Payne’s face relaxed and he shook firmly. “Well there’s a good lad. From the infantry?”

The infantry. It stopped Harry in his tracks for a moment, the reality of the war getting tangled up in the childhood he left behind. So Liam enlisted, then. Harry wondered if—

No, he mustn’t get caught up in it.

(He did anyway. It was horribly unsettling.)

“Not the army, no,” he said, shaking his head. “Er, I was an evacuee, years ago. We went to school together.”

"The orphan boy.” Mr. Payne clicked his fingers. “Louis' little mate. I do remember you.”

Louis’ little mate. Each word was a stab to Harry’s chest. The blood that rushed out was bursting with euphoria and fear.

“Paying Johannah a visit, are we?” Mr. Payne carried on pleasantly.

Close enough, Harry thought as he managed a nod.

“Well then! I’ve got you sorted. Car’s just around the corner, as it happens. Must be fate’s doing, eh?”

Harry was losing it. His skin itched, he felt antsy, and most of him wanted to get back on the train and leave before this became any more real.

Mr. Payne mistook his hesitance for good manners. “You’ll catch your death going it by foot, lad. I’m headed up that direction either way.”

“Oh,” Harry finally managed to say, because, well, he had to say something. “Would you mind? That would be brilliant. Thank you.”

In the passenger seat of Mr. Payne’s truck, Harry pushed his sopping hair off of his forehead and gently returned the damp paper to his pocket. His fingers ran over the creases and swoops of ink, but for the first time in his life, they didn't bring a single ounce of comfort. His chest was like a balloon of nerves, and it was dangerously close to exploding.

The car shuddered to a start.

 


 

FIRST FALL

 


 

 Chapter One

1940

It was dusk when the train ground to a halt at Hartburgh Station, plumes of smoke billowing into the darkening country sky. Fields stretched for acres around the little wooden platform, all swept up in rolling hills and dotted with cottages and farm houses against the pink horizon. Compared to the orphanage and the spot it occupied on the sooty fabric of London, it was a whole new world.

"It's quiet," Harry marvelled as he followed his sister off of the train, one hand clutching the handle of his travelling case with tight knuckles.

"Thank you, Harry. Splendid observation," Gemma said with her signature dryness. "Have you got everything?"

Harry nodded absently. His eyes were still roving around the twilit countryside, and it wasn't exactly as though he had much to keep tabs on. He and Gemma had been sent away from Miss Middlemarsh's Home for Children with nothing but a single change of clothes, a hanky, and a small assortment of toiletries. Next to some of the children who'd been on the train, their shoulders criss-crossed with multiple bag straps over fine travelling suits, the two of them were a rather pitiable sight.

"Bloody ‘ell, Harry, you've gone and flipped your tag over again," Gemma said, crouching down to fix the little slip of paper against his chest. Styles, it said, in Miss Middlemarsh's unforgiving scrawl.

"Sorry," Harry mumbled. He seemed to have developed a habit of idly toying with it, because really, it was odd to have your surname affixed to the front of your jumper.

Gemma just shook her head. "C'mon then, stay close. Miss said someone would be here to meet us." She grabbed his hand, Harry falling naturally into step behind her as she pulled him along. Gemma had three years on his twelve, and she had always been a force to be reckoned with. Like a bullet, their teachers used to say—tearing ahead, always with a bang, always leaving a blazing trail behind her.

Harry, by contrast, was probably the least bullet-like child the orphanage had ever housed. His temperament was mild at the best of times; the only thing he was ever told off for was daydreaming during lessons, and even that tended to distress him. He didn't like conflict at all. Gemma seemed to thrive on it, but she was clever, and she had a knack for making people see things her way. It was a bit awe-inspiring, truth be told.

"Children this way, please! Children this way, follow me."

A man was beckoning to them, ghostly and silhouetted against the stone pillars with a lantern held up in front of his face. Only two others had alighted at the station—a young girl in a button-down coat and an older boy who had taken her under his wing—and they both looked swollen and puffy-faced, traces of tears still present on their cheeks. Harry felt sad that they were sad. He imagined that if he and Gemma had had a family to be taken away from, he might feel like crying, too.

"That's the lot of you?" the man asked. His face was tired and wrinkled under the unforgiving lantern light.

"That's all, guv," Gemma confirmed.

"Follow me, then."

He led them into a small stone office, where men and women were waiting on chairs and conversing by the light of an oil lamp. Behind the only desk in the room, there was a man with a sprawling mess of paperwork in front of him, his body language aggressively rigid as an elderly bloke pleaded with him.

"Come on, old chap, have a heart," the older man was saying. "Five of her own, she's got, twins just born, and a husband off at war! Who do you suppose is going to look after them?"

The attendant linked his hands and dropped them down onto the desk with a sigh. "I am sorry, Ernest."

"It's preposterous. Surely you can see that? Even if we had the space, children've got to eat, innit? I'm telling you, we can't afford it."

"It's out of my hands, I can assure you," he maintained. "Mrs. Breckenridge may be able to find a more suitable home given some notice, but for now I'm afraid you've no choice."

The man's shoulders drooped. His hands tightened around the brim of the hat that he was holding. "Yes. Very well, then."

There was a loud cough from the doorway as the man with the lantern announced his arrival. "Last lot of the day," he said, gesturing towards the four children. "Just shipped in from London."

All eyes in the room were suddenly upon them, and Harry cowered a little under the scrutiny. He took a few unconscious steps closer to Gemma.

The man behind the desk was the last to look over. "Ah, there they are now. Surnames?"

"Styles," Gemma offered when nobody else made a peep.

"Well, Ernest, what do you know," the attendant said after a quick scan of his papers. He waved a finger towards Harry and Gemma. "These two in the front are yours."

There was silence. Harry swallowed and looked up at his sister. Her lips were pinched, but she didn't meet his gaze; she was staring down the man, "Ernest", as he took a few cautionary steps towards them. He really was quite old, Harry realized, but with eyes of the lightest blue and barely a stoop to his posture.

"I see," the man said. His eyes swept over their name tags. "Styles, is it? What are your first names, then?"

"Harry, sir," Harry said dutifully.

"Gemma."

The man nodded. "You may call me Mr. Poulston."

And without another word, Mr. Poulston herded them down the station steps and towards an automobile that was just a shell in the evening light, all peeling paint and dust and darkness.

"Not brought much, have you?" he asked as he opened the rear door, eyes falling to inventory their belongings.

Gemma shrugged. "We travel light, me and Harry."

"Indeed, indeed. Right, in you get."

The ride was silent and bumpy, the headlights shining cones of light onto the pebbles of the road in front of them as they wound through the patchwork of tilled fields. The engine chugged like a snickering horse, and Harry watched the moon through the window with a funny feeling in his stomach. He couldn't shake Mr. Poulston's words.

So, this family didn't want them; that much wasn't exactly new. But Harry hated being a burden, even if it was the story of his life.

He glanced over at Gemma, whose profile was just a dark smudge against the evening landscape, and chewed his lip. Something was bubbling up inside him; he tried to fight it, but he couldn't stay silent any longer.

"We could go back to London," he spoke up over the noisy motor. "If you'd like." Predictably, Gemma's elbow found his side, and he received a sharp jab in the dark.

Mr. Poulston started, craning his neck to look back momentarily at Harry in alarm. "What are you talking about, boy?"

Harry rubbed at his ribs in chagrin. "If you can't keep us, I mean. It's no trouble. Honest."

"Good lord, no," Mr. Poulston said, loosening his shoulders as he drove. "Straight into an aerial raid, I think not. We'll make do."

And Harry felt a tiny, tiny bit better after that.

The car shuddered to a halt at the end of a laneway, next to a shabby home and a conglomeration of barns and fields. Golden light poured out of the windows, and Harry could just make out a silhouette moving around beyond the curtains. Suddenly, his stomach was alive with nerves.

"I expect you'll be hungry," Mr. Poulston said as they piled out, Harry and Gemma's eyes glued to the face of the building. "Johannah will have supper on the table by now, I should imagine."

Johannah, it turned out, was Mr. Poulston's daughter. She was pretty, with brown hair and a soft smile, but she most certainly did not have supper ready when Harry and Gemma stepped over the threshold. She was the very picture of discomposure, her hair falling out of its low knot and into her eyes as she raced about the kitchen.

"Ah, hello," she said, wiping her hands on a tea towel and smoothing down her skirt. On the hob, several pots were bubbling away.

"Gemma and Harry Styles," Mr. Poulston said, one hand on each of their shoulders. "Ours for now, though I've been assured accommodations are being arranged elsewhere."

"How do you do?" Harry asked, dipping his head.

"Polite little things, aren't they?" Johannah stifled a smile. "Lovely to meet you, Harry. And this beauty must be Gemma?"

"Yes, Miss," she said, raising an eyebrow.

Johannah checked out for a moment to pull the pots off of the hob. "Why don't I show you around, and then we'll all have something to eat?"

The house wasn't very large, but it was full of nooks and crannies and Harry's first thought was that it would be an incredible host for a game of hide-and-go-seek. It wasn't very well-kept either, he supposed, but there was something warm about the blankets strewn about, the crooked picture frames, the trinkets spilling out onto every surface: a homey touch that had never graced the cold, institutional walls of the orphanage in London.

"This is where we'll be eating most meals," Johannah said as they exited the kitchen. "This hallway leads to the toilet. I sleep down the end, and Granddad keeps his own room out in the loft. Upstairs is where you'll be sleeping. I'm afraid we don't have much room to spare, so you'll be sharing with the children. We'll get you settled in after supper..."

As they approached the very end of the downstairs corridor, voices became audible, spilling out on a wave of light from the farthest door. Harry craned his neck back as Johannah showed them the bathroom, and he could just make out the vague silhouette of a boy, leaning against the sofa, munching on an apple as he talked animatedly to a pair of young girls. The words became more discernible as they approached the room.

"Because, Lottie," the boy was saying. "I'll have to share my room with some smarmy city lad. It's rubbish ain’t it. What if he has a club foot?"

The girls giggled.

"Or worse, a lazy eye," the boy carried on with a dramatic flair. "The laziest eye in all the land! He may try to steal my good eye while I'm sleeping—"

"Louis!" Johannah scolded as she rounded into the room. "That's quite enough."

The boy spun around, cheeks hollowed out around a bite of apple, and his eyes went wide as he swallowed. He was perhaps a year or two older than Harry, with gold-auburn hair and eyelashes that were so long they caught the flickering light of the oil lamps. Even his posture had a sort of grace to it that wasn't common among boys. Something about him... shone, for lack of a better word. Harry was oddly mesmerized, until it dawned that he was likely this smarmy, lazy-eyed city lad.

Oh.

The apple hung limply by Louis' side as he swiped at his chin with his other hand, eyes still trained on Harry.

"Harry and Gemma, come all the way from London," Johannah said. "I should very much hope,"—a sharp look towards Louis—"that you lot will help them to feel at home here." She turned to Harry and Gemma and indicated the three children in turn. "Louis, Charlotte, Felicite."

Louis nodded haltingly as the younger girls offered shy waves. "Pleasure," Louis finally said, swiping his hand against the leg of his trousers and offering it to Gemma with a sunny grin that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

Harry stared at their hands with an odd feeling in his stomach that he couldn't quite place. It wasn't pleasant, which didn't make much sense. Perhaps it was a response to the apparent disregard Louis had for him, but Harry was filled with a sudden and immediate need to be liked by this boy and his golden glow.

And so he offered his hand with an earnest smile and a determinedly non-smarmy, "Nice to meet you."

Louis didn't say anything, just took another bite of his apple and shook briefly, and Harry was surprised at how rough and calloused his palm was; it was an unexpected contrast to the softness that was the rest of him.

When their eyes met, it stung a bit to see that Louis was no longer grinning.

In fact, Louis remained very quiet after their introductions. He and Harry spent most of supper sneaking looks at one another over their sausage and mash as Gemma told the girls sweeping tales about London and Johannah and Mr. Poulston had a hushed discussion down at the other end of the table. Harry wondered what he'd done to make himself so immediately dislikeable. He ate mindlessly, with a crease between his brows, and pondered what he might do to change this. His gaze kept drifting over, but on the odd occasion that their eyes connected, Louis would immediately divert his own gaze, and Harry would bite his lip in disquiet.

It carried on like this for most of the evening.

"Louis," Johannah said after dinner and the washing up were finished, over the infant cries that had begun pouring down the hallway. "Would you mind terribly getting everyone settled in for the night? The twins—"

"Sorted," Louis said, putting his tea towel down.

"What would I do without you," Johannah said fondly, pressing a kiss to the side of his head. "Goodnight, my loves," she added to the girls, kissing them soundly. "Any troubles please come and find me."

Five minutes later, after assurances from Gemma that she would get the girls ready for bed, Louis and Harry were making a silent beeline for the room at the very end of the upstairs hall. From what Harry could see in the dim throw of Louis' lantern, it was tiny; just a shoebox-sized space with a cot and a wardrobe, and what little floor there was had been swamped by several layers of blankets that Harry assumed were where he would be sleeping. A tabby cat was gazing with shining yellow eyes from atop the bed.

There was an odd sort of tension as they lingered in the doorway.

"Er, listen, I’m sorry for what I said earlier," Louis said, ducking his head as he set the lantern down on a chest of drawers. It edged his face in fizzling gold, frosting his eyelashes. "To my sisters, I mean. Maybe you didn’t even—well, in any case, I was just rambling."

Harry couldn’t read his mood or his motives at all, but it was an apology, and generally that was a good thing. “Oh, that’s alright. I promise I haven’t got a lazy eye or anything.”

"Obviously." Louis' face as the word left his mouth almost made it seem as though he hadn't meant to say it. He coughed. "I mean, it'd be fine if you did, too. I just—I always tell stupid stories to the girls, is all. So, you've really come all the way from London?"

"Yeah."

Louis flopped onto his bed on his stomach, reaching out to drag the cat over. There was a mewl, but he remained passive as Louis scratched his head. "Seen any air raids?" he asked, looking up with animation flickering into his eyes. "Me mate Liam says it makes the sky look as though it's raining fire. 'Course it's not as though he knows any better than the rest of us so he's likely just talking rubbish as usual."

"I haven't, no," Harry admitted, hating to let Louis down. He struggled internally with how he might redeem himself, but Louis was already moving on.

"S'pose that's a good thing. Don't your parents miss you?"

"Haven't got any parents."

Louis' hands stilled behind the cat's ears. "Oh. I'm sorry."

"S'okay." Harry shrugged, setting his travelling case down and dropping experimentally onto the blankets. They were a bit scratchy, but gave an impression of warmth. "It's always been just me and Gem. I don't remember them at all."

Louis pinched his lips to the side, eyes roving over Harry. "Well, I currently don't have a father, if it makes you feel any better."

"Where is he?" Harry asked.

"Egypt or summat. I hate this war."

"Yeah, me too."

"You know, I think I'll fancy having another lad around," Louis said contentedly. "Mum's just had twins and they're both girls. Can you believe my luck? Four younger sisters."

Harry leaned back so that his shoulders were up near his ears. "What about Mr. Poulston, though?"

"Granddad?" Louis snorted. "He doesn't count."

"Why not?"

"He's old. I dunno. Bit of a grumpypants."

"He seemed nice enough," Harry said, frowning.

"Well, I have to help him out loads on the farm. Always bleeding on about putting the feed away in the right container and all that. Dad never... anyway."

Harry let out a hum of understanding, watching as Louis' hand continued to trail lazily along the cat's back.

"So how old are you?" Louis asked, looking over with his fringe falling into his eyes.

"Twelve."

"Ah, ickle then. I'm fourteen."

"That's not that big a difference," Harry reasoned, frowning.

"Well I'm still older," Louis said cheerfully.

Harry shrugged. "Gemma's fifteen."

"Do you get on?"

"Brilliantly."

"That's good." Louis nodded. "Must be nice, just having one sister. I've got 'em coming out me ears."

There was another little stretch of silence, broken only by the faint buzz of the cat's throaty appreciation.

"Can I pat him?" Harry asked.

Louis looked surprised. "You can..." He hesitated. "He only likes me, though."

"What's his name?" Undeterred, Harry rose to his feet and padded over to sit beside Louis. The purring stopped as the bed shifted to his presence.

"Ted," Louis said, watching intently as Harry reached out to scratch behind the cat's ears. Ted batted out a paw in annoyance, and Harry immediately drew back.

Louis laughed. "Well, he didn't bite you. That's something. Here." He took Harry's hand in his own, slowly offering it for the cat to sniff. "Good boy," he said in a soft voice. "He's our friend, see, Harry's our friend."

Harry's mouth curved up, his cheeks dimpling as Louis' thumb brushed over his and the cat's breath fanned inquisitively against them.

The smile promptly disappeared when Ted lashed out with his teeth.

"Ow!" Harry said indignantly, cradling his hand against his chest.

"Oh piss it, he didn't get you did he?" Louis leaned over and grabbed his wrist to make sure. Harry shook his head no, staring over their clasped hands at Ted, who was licking at a tufty paw. His eyes were crusted over, one of his ears bent at the tip as he stared back in satisfaction.

"Don't take it personally," Louis said, letting Harry's hand go. His face was half shadow, all sharp angles against the blaze of the lantern. "He's always cross at everyone, and he's ancient."

"He's not cross with you, though," Harry pointed out. He watched with a faint tinge of jealousy as Louis began patting him again with ease.

"We just get on." Louis shrugged. "Anyway, we ought to wash up before bed. Do you have pyjamas?"

Harry nodded, turning to rummage in his bag, and by the time he looked up, Louis had already gone on ahead without him.

 

* * * * *

 

The next morning, Harry woke to an abandoned room, a dull pain in his back, and wisps of a dream that he couldn’t make sense of for the life of him. Louis' bed was empty and neatly made and the sun was just peeking up over the window frame, shining strips of yellow onto the scuffed wood.

Johannah and Gemma were in the kitchen when he trundled down in his slacks and plain shirt. The two were chatting amicably, Gemma helping to chop apples while Johannah kneaded something in a mixing bowl. Two infants in bassinets were perched on the other side of the bench, gently huffing out noises and shifting around as Felicite and Charlotte played with dolls on the floor next to them.

"Hello, sleepybum," Gemma said, looking up from her knife and cutting block.

"Good morning, Harry." Johannah smiled. "There's bread and jam on the table."

While Harry helped himself, carefully sawing into the dense loaf, he caught sight of Louis through the back window. He was pushing a wheelbarrow across the paddock, sleeves pushed up, cutting a haloed figure against the low morning sun. Harry stopped cutting and turned his head minutely to the right to follow Louis' path.

"Harvesting," Johannah said, catching him looking. "They've got to get the potatoes up before the frosts."

Harry looked away immediately. The effect was rather like a child caught stealing sweets. "Oh, that's—Could I help?"

"That's very kind of you to ask," Johannah said. "I don't see why not. But tomorrow, I should think. Give you a bit of time to settle in."

Harry nodded, ate his breakfast, and spent the rest of the morning reading to Felicite and Charlotte from their small collection of Beatrix Potter books. The girls clung to him and fawned over him, nuzzling into his sides and squabbling over who got to pick the next story. Gemma laughed, but Harry was secretly pleased to be held in such high regard by his charges.

Louis came inside just after noon, his hair plastered down to his forehead with sweat and his shirt streaked with dust and dirt. He toed off his boots by the back door and moved immediately to wash up, and Harry watched the process with interest from where he was sitting with the girls. Something prickled under his skin when Louis pulled his braces off of his shoulders and yanked the cotton shirt over his head, bunching it up and pinning it to his stomach with crossed arms as he headed for the stairs. Harry could only see his back—smooth, with a farmer's tan just visible on his neck and arms, his spine dipping into a faint line of shadow—but when Louis turned the corner he thought he caught a glimpse of something dark on the side of his hip.

It was an image that lingered oddly in Harry's mind as he was prodded by Charlotte and hastily began reading again, and he nearly dropped the book when Louis came galloping back down the stairs in a fresh shirt, asking: "What's for lunch, then?"

"Jam sarnies," Johannah said.

"Again?"

"There's leftover mash if you'd prefer."

Louis looked disappointed as he loaded up his plate with slabs of grainy bread. "Don't fancy it. Haven't we got any bacon?"

"No more until next week I'm afraid, my love."

"Ruddy rationing."

Harry, Gemma, and the girls joined him at the table for lunch, and even Ted slunk down from upstairs to settle himself in Louis' lap. Louis snuck him bits of bread in between his own ravenous bites.

"Louuuuu," Charlotte said at one point, throwing her arms around his neck from where she was perched on the seat next to his. Louis choked momentarily, eyes widening as he set down his sandwich and put an arm loosely around her back. Charlotte blinked up at him. "I want to help with the har—harv—with the potatoes."

Louis patted her head. "You're too little," he said. "'Sides, Mum needs you and Fizz in here."

"That's not true. We've only been reading."

"Reading?" Louis mocked outrage, dropping his arm from around her and letting his jaw hang. "Without me? Well this won't stand."

"'M sorry," Charlotte said, tucking back into her sandwich. "Harry's good though. He does all the voices n' everything, just like you." Felicite nodded in agreement, cheeks bulging as she tore off bits of crust with her fingers.

Harry stopped chewing as Louis turned to look at him. Seeking a distraction, he brushed his fringe across his forehead, and Louis' eyes stayed glued to his hair as it fell back down into his eyes.

Gemma, meanwhile, smiled wryly as she set down her glass of water. "Go on then, Harry. Give us a sample."

"Do Mrs. Tiggy-winkle!" Charlotte pleaded.

Harry's cheeks reddened. "Oh, alright. I guess it's sort of..." He cleared his throat and gave his squeakiest impression. "Oh, yes, if you please'm; my name is Mrs. Tiggy-winkle."

Louis was laughing. He was practically in tears. "That was awful," he said, though he looked delighted. "Tiggy-winkle's got a proper low voice. She's all prickly and old."

"No," Harry said in his own defense, frowning. "She's young. And she wears a bonnet and makes tea and things; she's lovely."

"But why've you given her a Welsh accent?"

"I dunno, I just wanted to." Harry spoke without much conviction, feeling a flush settle over his cheeks. “Sorry.”

"I'm just teasing, mate. Don't take it to heart." Louis' foot bumped his under the table, and he caught Harry's gaze with a small, secretive smile—just the faintest of curves to his lips. For whatever reason, Harry felt immediately in better spirits.

"Louis," Johannah said over her shoulder from where she stood at the sink, "I'd like you and Harry to please take those bicycles down the road for repairs after lunch."

"Today? But what about—"

"Granddad can manage on his own for a few hours. You know I worry about you being out there all day."

Louis tore off a piece of bread with his teeth. "I'sh fine," he said around his mouthful. "But yeah, alright."

By the time they'd finished eating and Louis had collected the bicycles in question from the shed, the sky was clouding over. Great stretches of grey hung over rolling pastures, and Harry was enthralled by the sheer vastness of it all. He and Louis started their trek down the dirt road in silence, just two figures clutching handlebars against their hips, silhouetted against the soft grey sky. The wheels bumped over pebbles and Louis kicked the little stones on ahead of them, watching them bounce away.

He launched one into Harry's ankle, just gently, and when Harry looked up he was smiling. Or, well, perhaps smirking was a better word for it.

"What?" Harry said.

Louis shrugged, mischief in his eyes. "Nothing." A few beats of silence passed.

"I've never ridden a bicycle," Harry said, a tentative effort at conversation.

"Never?" Louis looked incredulous.

"Well, they don't keep them at the orphanage."

"Oi, hop on, then." Louis patted the seat of the one he was wheeling. "This one's missing a brake lever but it's fine to ride."

"Won't I fall?"

"I'll hold you up. Go on."

Harry hesitated. He didn’t want to make an idiot of himself. “I dunno…”

“You afraid or summat? Just try.”

“I…” Harry pinched his lips. “Okay.” Swallowing, he propped his own bicycle up by the kickstand and moved to swing a leg over the seat as Louis held tight to the handlebars. As he settled to the curve of the leather and searched for the pedals with his feet, he wobbled a little.

Louis let out a small breath of laughter, pressing the back of his index finger against Harry’s wrist. The motion surprised Harry. He could feel his pulse racing at the point of contact. “Jesus, you’re quaking in your boots,” Louis said, looking amused. “You don’t have to do it if you’re that scared.”

“I’m not scared.” Harry frowned.

“Alright. Easy peasy, then," Louis said, stabilizing him with one hand as his other reached for Harry's abandoned bike. He nudged the kickstand up and began guiding them both down the road, his right hand between Harry's handlebars and his left lazily coaxing the other one along.

"Wait—" Harry said frantically, feet frozen against the pedals as the bike fishtailed slowly back and forth from the inertia.

Louis chuckled. "You're alright. Go on, use the pedals. I've got you."

Harry pushed tentatively, knuckles gripping the handlebars tight. Louis' wrist was straining with the effort of holding him up—he could see it in the faint quiver of tanned flesh and tendons—but he didn't say a thing, just smiled as Harry began to push himself along.

"See? Natural, int it," Louis said.

They carried on like this for the next several metres, and by the time they reached the fork in the road, Harry's fear was beginning to dissipate.

Louis flexed his wrist. "Want to try yourself?"

Harry wasn't sure he did. He nodded anyway.

“You know, you don’t have to do everything I say,” Louis said, raising a quizzical eyebrow. “If you don’t want to you can just say no.”

Harry felt very small all of a sudden. His breath whooshed out of him as he averted his eyes, letting his fringe swoop down and trying not to cringe under Louis’ scrutiny. Why did he feel so off-kilter around this boy? He wanted to do everything for him, just so desperately wanted to be liked. And underneath it all, there was an urge to explain that that wasn’t the way things worked for him. That growing up in an orphanage meant doing everything you were told without question. That even when you did everything perfectly, chances were you’d still be passed by in favour of someone younger; someone who didn’t have a sibling. Harry had given up on the adoption thing a long, long time ago.

In the end, he just smiled wanly and said, “No, I want to try.”

“Suit yourself.” Louis shrugged, letting go of the handlebars.

Harry wobbled forward in a panic. His heart leapt into his throat as he tipped to the side, foot coming down against the pebbly road.

"More speed," Louis advised, muted light glinting in his eyes and skirting around the faint, crooked curve of his lips. "But not too much. No brakes, remember."

It was an awful lot to think about, and being watched so intently was getting him all flustered, but Harry bit his lip in determination and tried again. This time, he made it a few metres before petering out.

He turned around with a face-splitting grin.

For a few seconds, Louis just examined him with a funny expression on his face as he leaned his wrists onto his handlebars. "Simmer down," he said, eventually letting out a quiet chuckle. "You've not exactly won the Olympics."

And that was that. The pebble kicking resumed, and things were quiet the rest of the way as the sky threatened rain above them. Their destination turned out to be a small, stooped bicycle shop on the edge of town, and they made it through the tinkling door just as water droplets began flicking against the windows.

"Louis!" A young boy, maybe around Harry's age, looked up from where he was tinkering with a set of handlebars. His cheek had a swipe of grease on it, his coveralls bearing the brunt of the dark stains. Otherwise, he was fresh-faced and gentle looking, with brown doe eyes and clean cropped hair. "Hello. How may I help you today?"

Louis snorted. "Cut the tosh, Liam, honestly. You do talk absolute rubbish sometimes."

"I'm meant to ask," Liam said, chagrined.

"Well you sound like a swot. It's only me, cripes." Louis helped himself to a beanbag that was sitting on a shelf and began tossing it into the air. "We've brought those two old bicycles over. Reckon your dad can take a look?"

Liam stood up and wiped his hands off. "I'll find him. Back in two shakes."

"Who's that?" Harry whispered as Liam hurried off down the adjoining hallway, yelling "Dad!".

Louis bounced the sack off of his knee and swiped it out of the air. "Liam Payne. Mate of mine, friend of the family, either way." He chucked it at Harry. "Think quick."

Alarmed, Harry bungled the catch. He bent to pick it up, cheeks reddening a bit while Louis laughed, and when he straightened, Louis was staring at him strangely.

"What?" Harry asked.

Louis shook his head. "Nothing. Just... your hair's gone all... ridiculous." Suddenly, his hands were swiping Harry's fringe aside, gently arranging the strands against his forehead, and for some reason, Harry was afraid to move. Louis was mostly shadow, all dark and sharp and immediate against the streaky watercolour of the windows. "There," he said, his voice rising a bit in pitch. He cleared his throat. "Can't have you walking around with your curls out of place."

"Er. Thanks," Harry breathed, feeling strangely like there were small birds flapping their wings in his chest.

"Come on then, bung it here."

Liam's father emerged to the two of them playing catch across the front of the shop, and Louis was quick to stop, expertly bumping the beanbag up with his foot to catch it with a smile. "Hello, guv," he said.

"Alright, Louis. You've brought the bicycles, then?"

"Outside."

Mr. Payne exited the shop for a moment, and then re-entered saying, "Aye. Shouldn't take much more than an hour. I'll do them now. Liam can keep you busy, I should imagine."

"I've gotten a new football for my birthday," Liam said, sounding very pleased. "Come on, we can have a kickabout."

"Excellent," Louis said, clapping both Liam and Harry on their backs and steering them outside, where rain was falling so gently it was almost mist. Yellow light cut through the parted clouds and turned the raindrops into flecks of gold dust. "You know," he added, stopping to stare thoughtfully at little house next door. "This'd be much better with four of us. Shall we call on Zayn?"

"Good idea," Liam enthused.

"He's a bit of a swot," Louis whispered to Harry as Liam strolled good-naturedly around the fenceline instead of hopping over it as might have been the obvious option. "But he's alright. Zayn's a laugh though, you'll like him. Want to try cycling again?"

Louis was already off to commandeer a shiny silver bicycle that was leaning against the wall of the shop, and Harry blinked, struggling to keep up with the rapidfire information. "Should we—I mean, will they mind?"

"'Course not. We won't hurt anything."

Harry realized then that he would probably jump off of a cliff if Louis told him to do it with the sun shining in his hair and his mouth pulled up into that cheeky grin, all aglow in the misty light like he was coated in stardust.

A bit of cycling, by that logic, seemed fairly harmless.

Louis took greater care this time, leaning over with one arm on the handlebar and one hand on the back of the seat, and Harry's skin prickled appealingly from the body heat that was radiating into him from the proximity. It was such an odd sensation that he actually shut his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them, Louis was right there, watching impishly through long, long eyelashes.

"Going to give you a vital piece of advice here, Curly. It does help if you can see where you're going."

Harry blushed. "Sun's a bit bright."

"Feet on the pedals, go on. I'll hold you up."

"Promise?" Harry hesitated.

Louis' smile was feline but soft. "Cross me heart, hope to die."

A moment later, Harry was peddling tentatively over the lawn with Louis jogging along beside him.

"What did I tell you? You're a natural," Louis said into his ear, and Harry's mouth hitched up into a grin. He was just about to respond when Louis added: "Carry on!" and let go of the bike.

"What're you—Louis, NO!"

For one terrifying moment, there was just a white blur of movement, of flying through space with nothing to hold onto and no control. And then, very quickly, Harry's feet hit the pedals and he managed to narrowly dodge an incumbent tree trunk. After a quick, bumpy venture over the grass, he found his balance and planted his feet onto the ground.

Louis was jogging towards him with a Cheshire cat smile stretched over his face. This time, there was nothing soft about it.

"You said you'd hold on!" Harry accused, hyperventilating. "You promised."

"I did hold on," Louis said. "...For a bit, anyway. You did fine."

"I looked stupid," Harry sulked, levering his thigh over the seat to remove himself from the bicycle on shaky legs.

"Oh, go on then. You're a ruddy charmer and you know it."

Harry was still breathing heavily, and stupidly enough, he felt tears welling from the shock.

Luckily, he was saved the humiliation when Liam's sudden reappearance startled him back to his senses. There was another boy walking beside him—a dark-haired waif with eyes that were so wide they were almost out of scale with the rest of his delicate features.

After a small lingering double take on Harry, Louis turned around. "Alright, Zayn!" he said brightly.

"Alright. Who's this?" Zayn said, looking at Harry.

"Harry," Louis said, putting a hand on Harry's forearm. The light pressure almost seemed to speak to him: Okay, yeah?

Harry drew in a deep breath and grinned hesitantly at Zayn.

"We've adopted him," Louis added, relinquishing his grip.

Zayn nodded earnestly. "Nice to meet you."

"Shall we have a kickabout, then?" Louis said, swiping the football from Liam and bumping it off of his knee.

"Can I be on your team?" was Liam's reply.

Louis laughed. "If you must. Alright with you lot?" He nodded towards Zayn and Harry.

Zayn shrugged, looking perfectly at ease, and Harry nodded.

"Excellent," Louis said. He dropped the ball and kicked into motion suddenly, dodging around a startled Harry. "And Tomlinson's got the breakaway, will he score? Can he handle the pressure...?"

He scored a perfect goal while the other boys twitched into delayed action behind him, and it was the start of a solid half-hour scrimmage. Louis, it turned out, was excellent at football. Harry had never felt more conscious of his gangly limbs as he did watching Louis swiftly maneuver the ball over the grass, a whirlwind of fancy footwork that breezed past his defensive attempts every time without fail. It didn't help, either, that Liam was athletic and competitive almost to a fault. He and Louis were just north of unbeatable.

"This is shameful," Louis said after scoring what must have been at least his fiftieth goal. His curl had shot just shy of Harry's reaching fingers, and Harry had wound up—not for the first time—sprawled out on the ground. He sighed, breath gusting out to tickle the grass against his cheek, and gave Zayn an apologetic shrug. His teammate, who was all sideways in his vision, standing horizontally against a vertical stretch of grass, looked amused but shrugged back as though to say "Doesn't matter".

Harry liked Zayn, he'd decided.

"What's that now, a hundred nil?" Liam said gleefully, sprinting over the field to wrestle Louis into a congratulatory headlock.

"Oi, geroff!" Louis choked, falling to the ground under Liam's weight. He wriggled away as best as he could and twisted Liam's arms behind his back.

"Stop, you're hurting him," Zayn said in mock-outrage, and then he was catapulting himself into the fray.

Harry rolled onto his front so that his chin was propped against ground, the grass blades like towering beanstalks in front of his eyes. From his low angle, he could almost imagine he was lying in a prickly green trench somewhere, hidden from view. He watched idly as an ant scaled a clover and fought to stay balanced on frantic, spindly legs.

And then a foot was stamping down, taking the ant and the clover with it, and a shadow swooped over Harry's head. He rolled over and stumbled to his feet just in time for Louis to extract himself from the tangle of roughhousing and fall sideways into him.

"Oof," Harry said, the wind leaving his chest as Louis' shoulder hit right in the centre of his breastbone. The power of it propelled them a few steps back in Harry's direction. For one breathless moment, Louis was right there, his nose nearly touching Harry's, his eyes so wide Harry could almost find patterns in the swirls of his irises.

And then Louis was twitching away.

"Sorry," he said immediately.

"No...worries," Harry trailed off in defeat when he realized Louis wasn't even listening; he'd already moved away to fetch the football from the ground.

It was beginning to seem as though Louis was actually two different people. One, soft and earnest, had spoken about his sisters by the glow of a lantern last night. The other was tense and distant and almost aggressively uninterested in being mates.

The second one was especially concerning, though, because he doubled as a loud and alluring jokester. Literally everyone seemed to be friends with this Louis, except for Harry.

"Alright lads, enough, you're just embarrassing yourselves now," the second Louis said loudly, dropping the football right into the squabble that was Liam and Zayn.

"Ouch!" Liam shot up immediately with a hand over his face. "Dat was by dose."

Zayn snorted, leaning onto his elbows. "You be careful of that nose, Louis. Can't have you disfiguring him."

"Why ever not?"

"Sophie Wells ain’t gonna want him anymore if his face is all smashed in."

"Anymore?" Louis peered down sceptically at both of them. “You certain that’s the right word?”

"She did kiss me the other day," Liam huffed. Then, he reconsidered. "Well, I kissed her. But it's the same thing in the end."

"Oooooooh," Louis goaded obnoxiously as he poked Liam's side. "Look at you."

"Well Zayn's one to talk." Liam rolled away, springing to his feet. "He's always staring at that Perrie Edwards. Got stars in his eyes all the time, he has."

"Shut it, Liam, you don't know a thing," Zayn said, though he was mumbling and speaking to the ground.

"I know more than you. I'm proper experienced now."

Louis and Zayn exchanged a look. "Right. Romance itself, that’s what you are," Louis deadpanned.

Liam rolled his eyes. "More than I can say for you. Never even kissed a girl, have you, Louis?"

"Would I be telling you all about it if I had, Liam? No, because I'm a gentleman. There's your answer." He bounced the ball off of Liam's face again.

"OW! For god's sake..."

Harry imagined, for one brief second, Louis kissing a girl—his lips brushing against hers, his eyelids fluttering closed. It was at once unsettling and flush-inducing. Actually, it was the possibly most thought he'd ever given to the act of kissing in his life.

He wasn't entirely sure this was how you were supposed to feel about it.

"What about you, Harry?" Louis glanced over, the football held between his hands. "Bit of romance back in London?"

Harry picked at his lip and shook his head. He hadn't much interest in girls. He liked speaking to them, liked the ribbons they wore in their hair and the flowery smell of the perfume that some of them wore, but he had no interest in kissing them. It would come with time, he supposed; he was only twelve.

"Too many to choose from then, is that it?" Louis added, raising his eyebrows.

"No," Harry replied, wondering how to explain. "Er, they don't like me much, I s’pose."

"With those curly locks? I find that hard to believe."

Harry couldn't tell if Louis was mocking him or not. He chewed on his index finger, pondering his response as Louis continued to watch him with intent.

And then suddenly, the clouds broke, and hard, fat droplets began to splatter down.

Liam sat up immediately. "Best get inside."

"Scared of a spot of rain, are we?" Louis teased.

Lighting flashed above them, followed by ominous rumbling.

"Don't be thick. Dad'll likely be done by now anyway."

"It's okay be scared, ickle Li-Li," Louis said, punching his ankle.

"Shove off, you. C'mon."

Louis jostled his shoulder and laughed, and the four of them headed inside, their skin glistening with raindrops as thunder crackled on the horizon.

 

* * * * *

 

By the time the bikes were repaired and the boys had said their goodbyes, the sky was like a tar spit. Rain bucketed down, making a crackling mess of the pebbly ground, and it seeped into Harry's shirt, plastering it to his skin as he struggled to manoeuvre his bicycle along the road.

Louis had suggested that they ride back to save time, and after a few test runs, Harry was managing alright, though the thought of braking still terrified him and his feet were slippery against the pedals as he struggled to keep pace. Mostly, his efforts consisted of a few metres of haphazard peddling coupled with long stretches of using his feet to kick along the ground.

When Louis turned off down a dirt trail instead of carrying on up the road, Harry stuttered to a halt in surprise, feet dragging on gravel.

"Oi, come on!" Louis shouted back at him, turning around with a massive grin on his face. He was balanced on the pedals, hovering above the seat, his hair slick on the back of his neck and his clothes saturated all the way through.

"Where are we going?" Harry yelled. A crack of thunder rattled the earth.

"Just hurry up, Curly, you'll find out!" Louis sat back down in the seat and raced ahead, channeling the electricity in the sky. He was alive, alight, like lightning, and Harry tried frantically to keep up.

The rain was so thick now that the road was sloshy under their wheels, spraying up everywhere as their tires cut through the constant stream. Harry thought that even if he found the courage to brake, it might not work, and that terrified him. His heart was pounding.

"This way," Louis shouted, easily changing course and heading into the grass.

Harry panicked, trying to follow, but his tire skidded on wet grass and slipped out to the side.

"Louis!" he called on instinct as his bike whipped out from under him. It almost seemed to happen in slow motion, the speed of the turn throwing him into the air, forcing him to twist around, and finally slamming him down hard on his elbow and hip. The sheer intensity knocked his breath out of his chest.

Up ahead, Louis caught sight of it all from where he'd turned his head at the sound of his name. He braked, skidding to a halt as water flew up from the saturated grass, and then he was flinging his bike aside and fighting his way back over to Harry, flecks of water pulling up under his shoes. "Harry!" he shouted. "Harry," he said again, frantically, as he dropped to his knees. His fringe was plastered to his face, his eyelashes sticking together in clumps. "Bugger, bugger, bugger. Shit. Are you alright?"

Harry vaguely registered the words in his shock. Mostly, he was just aware of his side digging into the ground and the rain pooling in his ear. With his breath still gone, he almost felt as though he was drowning.

"Harry. Harry, bloody hell," Louis said, sounding frantic and afraid. "Say something, would you?"

Harry sat up, wincing, and felt the graze all down his elbow. It stung from the rain. "Just. Just my elbow," he managed, willing himself not to cry. His lip trembled, so he bit it, and Louis' eyes dropped for a second. "It's fine."

Louis stuck his arms out, setting them on the sides of Harry's shoulders and squeezing gently. "That looked really horrible—cripes, I thought you’d—are you sure you're alright?" His half-sentences were staccato, his voice cracking on each syllable.

Harry nodded, but he couldn't hold back the tears. He sniffed and put the back of his hand to his eyes by instinct.

Louis inhaled heavily; it was audible over the rain as he tensed his jaw. Then, wordlessly, he leaned forward and… Oh. He was hugging him.

Harry’s shock only lasted for a second before he nudged his nose into the crook of Louis’ neck, breathing deeply as a crack of thunder cut through the slap of rain on earth. He could count on one hand the number of times in his life he’d been hugged by someone who wasn’t Gemma, and this… Well, this was new and lovely.

“Sorry,” Louis said, drawing back almost immediately. “My sisters. They want hugs when they’re hurt—”

Harry rubbed his tears away, laughing sharply at the absurdity of everything. “What are you sorry for?”

There was silence. Louis blinked at him through the wall of raindrops.

“Never mind, I suppose,” he finally said, after an impossibly long pause. Harry sort of wanted him to resume things, but Louis just rose to his knees and said sheepishly, “You right to carry on? If you fancy a walk up the hill, we’re almost there.”

"Yeah, go on then," Harry said, and Louis slotted his hands into Harry’s, pulling him to his feet.

When they reached the summit, Harry forgot all about his elbow. "Wow," was all he could say, because... wow.

"Highest point on the heath," Louis said, watching him carefully.

Harry was busy doing a furious panorama of their surroundings. The sky stretched out like a big canvas, rainclouds splattering drops of blue and purple onto the fabric of the horizon. Underneath, there was a perfect view of sweeping hills and plains, of cottages and barns and snaking roads all blurred together in watercolour.

For one small moment, Harry felt like it all belonged to him.

"I like to come here when it rains,” Louis added quietly. He was talking to the horizon, and when he finally looked over, he seemed tentative and unsure, as though he was suddenly questioning all of the enthusiasm that had led to this moment. “It’s a bit stupid, maybe. Sorry."

"No,” Harry shook his head furiously, because it was all just so wonderful and huge and unlike anything he’d ever experienced in London’s gritty urban core. “I think it's brilliant.”

"Yeah?” Louis wrapped his arms over each other, looking small and narrow-shouldered against the sky. “I saw lightning strike a tree once—over there—and it was mad. Just caught fire right in front of me eyes.”

“Really?” Harry could hardly fathom it.

“Mmm. Grandad says the trees up here are like lightning rods.”

Harry hadn’t a clue what those were, so he pitched the question with some hesitance.

Louis laughed. “Long bits of metal, I guess? We used to have one on the farm. Lightning always hits the highest point, see, so you whack one of ‘em up and your house is safe.”

Harry thought about it for a second, his brow creasing. “That’s not very fair.”

“How d’you mean?”

“Just… the poor lightning rod."

Louis barked out another laugh at that, hard and genuine, like Harry was some sort of odd delight he’d never seen before. Harry, meanwhile, suddenly took into consideration their height on the bare hilltop, and a frightening thought occurred to him. "We can’t get struck, can we?" he asked.

Still chortling, Louis hoisted himself up onto a rock formation. “Let us find out,” he said, throwing his arms up dramatically. Rain streamed down his neck, stuck his hair to his forehead, turned his white shirt transparent against his skin, and Harry thought that he had never seen anything quite so beautiful. "Go on, then!" Louis yelled to the sky. "Try it. I dare you."

A loud crack of thunder was his reply. The sound startled Harry into action.

"Louis," he said, scrambling forward and throwing an arm around his waist to drag him down. "Don't do that."

Louis looked startled, stumbling down to the grass and blinking water out of his eyes. "It can't get me," he said. "That's the beauty of it, ain’t it?"

Below, a car was making a solitary path along the bumpy road, its wheels sloshing up water. The horizon was dark and light at the same time. "What if it did?" Harry said.

"It won't."

"What if you're wrong?"

Louis took a breath, and the raindrops skirted around the quirk of his lips. "I'm not."

 

* * * * *

 

Johannah yanked open the door the moment Harry and Louis arrived at the top of the laneway, shouting at them and motioning frantically for them to come inside.

“Merciful heavens,” she exclaimed as they dripped all over the wooden floor. “In front of the fire with you, I’ll not have you catching cold… Lord knows that's the last thing we need. Go on, get that wet kit off.” She frogmarched them to the blazing hearth and then puttered back to the kitchen in what Harry was beginning to recognize as her perpetual state of disarray.

Good boy that he was, Harry shucked off his wet shirt and hunkered down in front of the fireplace, rubbing his hands together. The heat felt glorious on his clammy skin. Louis, for some strange reason, hadn’t moved. He was standing there with a hesitant pitch to his posture, and when Harry glanced up at him, he jolted.

“I’ll find us a blanket,” Louis said, turning and escaping down the hallway.

When he returned a minute later, he was wrapped in an afghan, his shoulders and chest bare underneath the coarse loops of wool. He dropped down next to Harry.

"C'mon," Louis said, holding out one arm to open the left side of the blanket up like a wing. "Warm."

Harry crawled in and Louis transferred one side of the blanket onto his shoulder, Harry reaching up to secure it so that they were both wrapped up like a giant glob of black pudding. They sat in silence as the fire crackled, yellow light catching their wet hair. Louis' skin was damp, his nose reflecting the flickering of the flames.

Outside, rain was still streaming down, thunder rumbling intermittently, and the sky hung dark and unyieldingly purple. Harry was happy to be inside, where everything was warm and golden and smelled of freshly baked bread. He could feel Louis' breath on his cheek, feel him shaking slightly.

Then, without warning, Louis gave a violent shudder that took both of them by surprise.

"Sorry," he said on a gust of faint embarrassment. "Colder than I let on, I s’pose."

On some instinct, Harry touched his hand to Louis' bicep. The skin was icy and damp, and his first instinct was to rub up and down in an effort to warm him up.

Louis, who had tensed on reflex, moved hesitantly into the touch, tugging the blanket tighter around his shoulders. "Thanks," he said, very quietly.

Harry nodded.

Ted poked his head around the corner then, and Louis leaned away to stick his hand out through the gap in the blanket, making a soft tch-ing noise and prompting the grumpy old tabby to come sauntering over. Harry wondered how the thing could make such an arthritic gait look so intimidating.

It was also vaguely upsetting that Louis continued to ignore his existence in favour of a cat.

"C'mon Teddy, great lump, you," Louis said, patting the mantel. Ted took his cue, curling up in front of the flames, and Louis seemed pleased, nudging under his chin and scratching behind his ears. Ted's chest began to rumble along with the crackling fire.

With Louis’ attention lost again, Harry just stared at the writhing flames until he had a halo of white burning behind his eyelids. He didn't notice Louis staring at his profile for quite some time.

"How's your elbow?"

Starting, Harry struggled to pull his arm out of the cocoon and twisted it all funny to get a good look. It was scabbing over already, an angry clash of blood and gravel and skin.

Louis sucked in a breath. "You should get mum to have a look."

"It's alright."

"No, it might get infected or something. Just to be safe."

They were so close, staring at each other so intensely that it felt weighty, almost, like a physical thing pressing on Harry’s chest. He liked it. And perhaps that was odd, but it was a comfort to note that Louis seemed just as fascinated as he did. The flames danced over the blue of his eyes like fire on ice.

“Louis.” Mr. Poulston’s voice was a clap of thunder. He was standing in the doorway, stuffing a hat onto his head as he spoke. “The chickens need feeding while I close up the barn. Up with you, quickly please.”

Louis seemed weirdly anxious for a second. He scooted away from Harry and hesitated, his hands tight on the afghan. “Alright, I’m coming,” he said. Then, he ducked his head and twisted out of the blanket, crossing his arms over his front.

The movement was undeniably conspicuous this time, and Harry wondered what on earth he was hiding. He looked up in puzzlement, but Louis was very determinedly avoiding his gaze as he hurried to the staircase.

In the doorway, Mr. Poulston shook his head, murmuring to himself, and turned to head out into the storm.